Though he’s lived around the country, Fat Tony represents Houston, where hometown newspaper Houston Press named him Best Underground Hip-Hop three years in a row before his 2010 debut RABDARGAB. Since then, Tony’s music has run rampant across the sonic landscape, stopping off in cloud rap (a feature on A$AP Rocky’s debut mixtape LIVE.LOVE.A$AP), industrial (January’s Wake Up album with producer Taydex), country (2018’s 10,000 Hours), and beyond. All styles are united by Tony’s clever bars and warm voice.
Fat Tony has been releasing adventurous indie-rap ever since 2010, in addition to hosting duties for shows Thrift Haul and VICE Live. After over a decade of releasing music, Tony finds peers in fellow independent artists like R.A.P. Ferreira, Open Mike Eagle, and billy woods. “I can tell they spent time on their shit, and if I’m gonna be peers with anybody, I wanna be peers with people who look at themselves as artists, first and foremost,” he says.
Tony’s latest album, Exotica, is inspired by traditional musical storytellers like Bob Marley, Lou Reed, Biz Markie, and Slick Rick. Each song is a slice of short fiction delivered in easy-to-follow raps. Producer GLDNEYE (f.k.a. Tom Cruz) conceptualized each song with Tony before starting the beats. He also offered valuable criticism of Tony’s writing; a service Tony says many producers aren’t willing or able to provide. After recording demos in Brooklyn last fall, Tony and GLDNEYE recorded the entire album in Jamaica in December 2019.
Fat Tony called from his new home in Tucson in early October to talk about writing in character, meeting up with Bun B in Jamaica, and learning from his indie-rap peers.
How did the storytelling theme of this album come together?
This new album is my most thoughtfully produced, most meticulously crafted album I’ve ever done. Me and GLDNEYE spent a lot of time figuring out all the song concepts, being heavy-handed with which lyrics [and] musical choices we wanna use. We’ve been talking about wanting to make this album for the last three or four years now, but we weren’t living in the same place, and we didn’t have the budget we knew we needed for this type of project. Once we did, all these conversations we’d been having started coming back to us. There were many moments during the October  writing sessions where I’d get deja vu, like, “Damn, I remember talking about this with you two years ago in my mom’s kitchen.”
What was your process with GLDNEYE?
We would start with the story, the concept, every time. We would sit and talk about what kind of stories we wanted to tell. Like “Jeremy Bixby,” which is a story about finding a shirt in a thrift store, and leads into the tale of this kid who wanted to be a politician for vain reasons. His first time at it, when it doesn’t work out, he just becomes bitter and jaded. The conversation for that song started with shirts. There’s so many times I find a shirt from an old campaign or a company that’s out of business, and there’s nothing about them on the internet. It’s just blank, lost to time. We talked about if this character from this song was in this situation, how would they handle it? What would they be wearing?
On “Feeling Groovy,” the dad is lusting after this woman he sees, and it’s driving him crazy. I thought about him smoking a Black & Mild, and I thought about the type of dudes I would see smoking those growing up: middle-aged, hanging around the neighborhood, going to the corner store regularly. Picturing those characters helped me get into the mindset of what they would say. This guy would probably be like, ‘Fuck my kids, I need to go and do my thing!’
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I wanted to sound like the character, too. As I’m saying that, I’m feeling frenzied, I’m trying to sound panicked. Second verse, I’m trying to rap ahead of the beat. I’m tense, looking around the room, shit like that.
Tell me how you got a Bun B verse on the album.
He texted me because he saw me post about Jamaica on Instagram! He was staying in Montego Bay, which is on the other side of the country from us in Kingston. I was just thinking, “There’s no way I’m gonna be in the same foreign country as Bun while I’m making an album, and not pull up on him.” I rented an Airbnb in Montego Bay, me and GLDNEYE packed up studio equipment and drove out there for one night just to record him.
Bun was in Jamaica to celebrate his wife’s birthday. He was texting me the whole day like, “Yo, I might have time to dip out now. Oh, sorry, we’re going to get a massage. Oh, sorry, we’re getting dinner.” Finally, he’s like, “Yo, I’ve got 30 minutes.” He comes over, we’re watching that Netflix show about hip-hop, and he sits with us and starts talking about when he met Biggie and shit like that.
After a few minutes pass, we go to the studio room, and I tell him the role I would like him to play. I wanted his presence on the song to be, “I’m the OG giving you the wisdom to take with you.” Literally, on the first take, he fucking nailed it. We were shocked. We recorded a second take just for safety, he killed it too and then said, “Alright guys, I gotta go.” I offered him a ride, and he’s like, “Nah man, it’s too much traffic, I’ma just walk to my hotel.” Wow, look at this legend just walking into the night. He was wearing sandals, on vacation mode!
One thing me and GLDNEYE got from that experience is you can tell how many years [Bun B has] been an artist. His voice was perfect. His understanding of what the song needs was perfect. He was fully trained to do it, and that’s the kind of shit that can only come with years and years of experience.
Do you have any advice for other musicians that want to stay independent?
The number one thing you need is money, and it doesn’t have to be from one source. It can be from different things. If you’re making money off music, if you have a job, if you can partner with a record label, that’s a source. It takes funding from all these areas to make an album and promote it properly, and for you to live a good life, be able to make music, and not struggle.
First things first, get your money up and try to have multiple revenue streams, especially if you’re an independent artist. I’d also recommend being thoughtful about the work you make. Don’t get in the habit of churning out songs and albums just to keep up with this content demand. You can put a million things out there that are so-so, and it won’t do much for you, but if you double down and make something that feels thorough and complete, I guarantee you’ll get a bigger reaction from people.
Do you discuss business with other artists? I picture a rap chamber of commerce, businesses learning from each other.
That’s the way underground music functions, and it has functioned like that from the very beginning. It’s a loose network of artists and bands who don’t sound the same and aren’t from the same place, but we have this shared purpose of trying to make great art first and foremost and stay in control of our business as much as possible, and not get fucked over and be as much of ourselves as possible.