“Houston is One of the Most Important Musical Cities In The World”: An Interview with Fat Tony

Will Schube talks with Fat Tony about Devin the Dude, the justice system, and going on tour.
By    September 27, 2017

tony

Fat Tony is a Houston loyalist, but he’s lived all over the world. He’s immersed in H-Town rap but has spent extensive time in Los Angeles and New York. Yet it was during his time in Mexico’s capital that he finally got around to finishing Macgregor Park, his newest LP and an ode to the childhood playground he frequented in his Third Ward neighborhood.

Two years prior, Tony—who goes by Anthony Obi, a shortened version of his birth name—moved back to Houston to reconnect with his childhood and all the people that made the Third Ward such a nurturing, inspiring place to grow as an artist and person. He started Macgregor Park, then stopped, then started again. In Mexico, galvanized by the city’s embrace of his hometown sound, he finally got around to finishing it.

Macgregor Park is the official followup to Tony’s critically acclaimed Smart Ass Black Boy, which was released back in 2013. His new LP is slick and polished—it clocks in at eight tracks spread across 30 minutes—a refined statement from a Houston artist both defined by his city and constantly shifting his sound to reflect the culture’s changing landscape. We talk over the phone to the Third Ward’s legacy in producing artists, UGK being the greatest rap duo ever, and sneaking onto the swing set in Macgregor Park to write some bars. —Will Schube


Are you out in Houston these days?


Fat Tony: I’m in LA. I moved here last year on Christmas day, actually. I lived in LA way back in 2012. I recorded Smart Ass Black Boy here. After that, I moved around a bunch. I moved to Brooklyn, then my hometown Houston, then last year I moved to Mexico City for a little bit while I was producing a monthly hip-hop party called Function. Now, I’m back in LA.


Are you restless or is all of this movement a matter of circumstance?


Fat Tony: Both, actually. I usually move around when there’s an opportunity that I think will be fulfilling. I moved to LA because of a record deal. I was here for six months with the label paying for my living while I made two albums. I got bored of LA. I didn’t like the vibe out here very much. It was slow and leisurely. I moved to New York, which I had been frequenting my entire career, really. I had been playing shows there since 2008. My main music partner, my producer Tom Cruz, lived out there at the time.

After I lived in Brooklyn for a year, I got disillusioned with the music scene there. I thought it was getting really stagnant, where at one point it was really forward thinking. Das Racist and A$AP Rocky were out there. At one point, I felt everybody slowing down and it just didn’t feel as creatively fulfilling as it did before.


Then you headed back to Houston?


Fat Tony: Yeah I went home because I wanted to hang around my hometown and my girlfriend at the time. I just wanted to be around people who weren’t just artists. I wanted to hang with some regular folks. When I was down there, I started making the songs for Macgregor Park. That was 2014. I would start, pause again, start again…I never got in a groove. But last year, when I got to Mexico, I had an awakening when it came to making music. I first went out there in 2015 to play in Mexico City. It was a ton of fun, I had never been to Mexico before. It blew my mind that Mexico City was so huge. It felt like New York to me, lots of energy.

I ended up getting booked at the top of last year to play there again, and I started to notice that hip-hop wasn’t as popular in Mexico City as I thought it would be. I thought it would be like the US or Canada where rap is the dominant art form when it comes to new music. I had the idea of exposing Mexico City to more hip-hop. I wanted to do it the right way, not in a cliche way. I wanted to show how broad rap could be. I brought in friends from the West Coast, the East Coast, the Midwest, and the South. Being out there, in a different country with a different culture, and having these people gravitate to the music I’ve loved my whole life, inspired me to go back and finish this album.


Do you think you needed that time away from Houston to finish this record about Houston?


Fat Tony: Absolutely. Even though the album is a big ode to Houston, it’s hard to fully see something for what it is when you’re in it. I like to step away and examine all of my experiences and feelings about a place before I can make music about it. Taking those two years starting in 2014 to move home and enjoy Houston was great. Going to Mexico last year gave me a chance to look back on my last couple years in Houston, and even my whole childhood and adolescence. Leaving made me think about all of those times and how Houston played an integral part in it. With my neighborhood, the Third Ward being the backdrop for it, and places like Macgregor Park, which is where I’ve been hanging my entire life. It’s always been the meeting spot for me.


Why did you feel like now was the right time to revisit those childhood experiences?


Fat Tony: The past informed where I’m at now. People who’ve followed me the whole time know this story, but for people that haven’t, I want to catch them up to speed about my experiences, my humor, and my sound. This sound, rather than featuring just one producer, I wanted to work with all of the producers I’ve encountered in the past few years.


You name drop UGK on “Swervin’,” the album’s first track. How influential was the Houston rap scene on your sound growing up?


Fat Tony: I think Houston is one of the most important musical cities in the entire world, especially for rap music. We’ve contributed so much to the sound, look, and style of hip-hop, from DJ Screw, to how everybody wants double cups, to putting organs in the beat like Pimp C. We’ve laid the foundation for lots of stuff. It’s hard to escape that influence, whether you grew up there or not.

Now, me growing up there, I was really influenced by a record that Paul Wall and Chamillionaire did called Get Ya Mind Correct. They put it out before they had their major radio songs, and it is some fire-ass rhyming. The beats are hella good, too. It appealed to my friends and I who wanted to rap. Those two were coming up with really, really clever stuff. It was more than just catchy. It was the first time in my life where I listened to a rap album and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s what a spitter is.’ That came out when I was in the 8th grade. I was about to go to high school, which is a big transition in somebody’s life.

Devin the Dude is probably my favorite Houston rapper because I love his storytelling elements. A lot of people think his music is just about weed and girls, but I think there’s a lot more to it. He just talks about what it’s like to be a person, to go through everyday stuff that’s personal and sad. I think he’s a really well-rounded artist that can live with you for a long time. I also love UGK because they’re the best rap group of all time. They also have a similar thing going. Maybe that’s the sound of Texas music. Like, linking Devin the Dude, UGK, Scarface, Z-Ro—they’re all well-rounded in how they show multiple parts of their feelings. They all have songs about death, joy, making money, losing money, regret, despair, and partying. They’re not one-dimensional.

With my shit, I’m always trying to show different sides in my music and even on Twitter and Instagram. I want my whole being to represent a lot of different vibes. I think a lot of folks can relate to that. We’re more complex than marketing and branding companies try to tell us we are. I want to represent it all.


Do you think part of this record is paying homage to the Houston artists you grew up listening to?


Fat Tony: In the sense that I named the album Macgregor Park. That was my ultimate statement in paying homage to Houston rappers. I read this book by Maco Faniel called Hip Hop in Houston. I found out that the very first Houston record ever released was called Mac Gregor Park by The L.A. Rapper. I felt that by naming my record Macgregor Park, it was the ultimate way to bring it full circle. And, I just love representing my neighborhood more than anything. I love Houston, but I feel closer to being from the Third Ward than the greater Houston area.


“Ride Home” starts with you being pulled over. It initially sounds like a protest against cops and how fucked up the relationship between police and communities of color has become, but you turn the track into a self-examination regarding your choices. Why did you decide to use that lens to talk about your own choices and vices?


Fat Tony: I want to represent the whole picture. A lot of cops are crooks and fucked up. I think that our justice system is completely over. I don’t think we can depend on it at all anymore. But, I want it to be known that there are cops who can sympathize with our cause. There are tons of fucked up cops, but there are a few good ones. It just so happens that in this song, I met a good cop one night. I actually have had this happen to me. I’ve had cops pull me over, detain me unnecessarily, and search my car illegally. But I’ve also had cops pull up and give me a warning when I’ve been in the wrong.

But I can’t stress enough how damaged the justice system is and how fucked up our police are. That is something that can’t be glossed over or overlooked, especially now. Folks are literally getting murdered daily by police officers. Every chance I get, I’m trying to scream that.


With the situation in America, it’s interesting that you wanted to make a relatively carefree and nostalgic album. Did this album serve as a relief, to think about other things?


Fat Tony: It’s never off my mind, but there are other things on my mind, too. What’s happening in this country—all the racist, prejudiced, hateful shit going on—is not going away. It’s nothing to be glossed over, but it’s not the only thing I’m going to be focused on with my art.


You’re about to hit the road. What’s your favorite part of going on tour?


Fat Tony: I just love playing every night. Being a performer is my absolute favorite part of making music. I love it more than interviews or being in the studio. Playing live is when you get the most of me. I’m excited I get the chance to do it every night. It helps me figure out my shit, my moods, my emotions, and my confidence. It all plays a part in what I think are the best parts of me. Being able to experience that every night for a few weeks is a fucking blessing.


What are some of your fondest childhood memories from Macgregor Park?


Fat Tony: I loved the swing set. Even to this day I’ll sneak in and hop on the swing set when I have some time and no one’s looking. I used to get on the swing set and get into a meditative zone where I’d daydream and think of songs. When I was in high school I’d still pull up to Macgregor Park and hop on there, figure out some lyrics or a verse, then go back home and record it with my friends. That is something about Macgregor Park I’ll always remember.


The Third Ward is one of the most iconic neighborhoods in Houston. What is it about your home that represents Houston as a whole?


Fat Tony: The Third Ward is special because there are so many artists here. We present the culture to the world. We have rappers, but also singers like Beyoncé, visual artists like Robert Hodge, filmmakers, and dancers. We have everything! It’s also one of the oldest neighborhoods in Houston. I think there’s a bit of that DNA that can’t leave us.


What do you hope people understand or picture about Macgregor Park and the Third Ward after hearing your album?


Fat Tony: I want people to understand that Macgregor Park is an extremely important part of Houston. It’s just as important as the Astrodome or any other monument we’ve ever been known for. I want people to know that this history is right here in my neighborhood, the Third Ward. I’m gonna represent where I come from until I’m gone. I’m never gonna look back at any parts of my life, good or bad, and shy away from them. I think it’s important to be cognizant of where you’ve been in every aspect of whatever you’re doing.