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Coming of age in metropolitan New York, I was indoctrinated with the narrow understanding that New York mattered the absolute most. It was a goddamn double proper noun, the center of each and every universe, the solipsistic stage for life as I knew it. All the space beyond Henry Hudson’s colonial tracing was relegated to irredeemable wackness. New Jersey, one of those nearby places with the torturous distinction of not being New York, was an early and constant punchline. At summer camp, I heard jokes about Jersey being the “armpit of America.” My father, with some real discernible level of seriousness, would tell me to pinch my nose when we drove through Newark or the Meadowlands. New Jersey was where I smelled weed and saw boobs for the first time, where the spirits of Snooki and Joe Budden congregate over alcoholic energy drinks in mob money casinos. The Big Skeezy.
Now, I’m totally rethinking all of that, mostly because it is a dumb and classist generalization. But I’m also reappraising because Fatboi Sharif invited me to peep the premier strip clubs south of I-195, and I feel like I’m cosmically slippin’ if I don’t listen to Fatboi Sharif. Flights to Jersey are relatively affordable, “Cheerleaders New Jersey” is creeping up on a four-star Google rating, and Fatboi Sharif is one of the greatest American writers of this lifetime. The Garden State Gargoyle, perched atop the tragic and decrepit arc of history. He shuttles his listener through the Atlanta child murders, Paul Walker speeding on the highway and Yolanda Saldívar with the .38 revolver — all in the first two minutes of Gandhi Loves Children, Sharif’s breakout project with producer Roper Williams. It’s an adventurous and wholly disarming journey through the mescaline-stained madness, of which there is quite a lot these days. “Malcolm X and Jeffrey Dahmer the same person,” he says on “I’m Buggin.” Are any of us in a position to dispute this?
The form-shifting, time-bending wordsmith is, as expected, a proud scholar of hip-hop pedagogy. Honestly, it’s hard to imagine Sharif not knowing the complete history of anything. The tapestry unraveled in Gandhi Loves Children pays subtle tribute to luminaries all across the culture. He references Pun and the Beatnuts on the hook of “Fly Pelican.” He quarterbacks narratives like a rerocked Kool Keith, but spits it through the perverted attention span of DOOM off whippits. A Prince Paul disciple with bars that would make the Gravediggaz squeamish. A technically brilliant rapper, perpetually seeking the challenge over obtuse-ass production.
Sharif and I talked a few times over the phone — he’s the kinda dude that calls rather than texts — and we chopped it up for more than an hour in this main conversation about Gandhi Loves Children. Next time, when Sharif has another album out and more converts to satiate, we’ll tap in over chicken wings and beer at Camden’s finest erotic bar. Until then, I’ll keep the Garden State Gargoyle in heavy rotation. – Steven Louis
What’s good Sharif? How was your studio session last night?
Fatboi Sharif: Chillin chillin man, it was good. I’m actually still in the studio right now.
What are you working on?
Fatboi Sharif: A lil project that I want to drop around early fall. Maybe October? This is the first mixing session for it right now.
What’s the vision? Where in the multiverse are you sourcing from on this next project?
Fatboi Sharif: This is just another push of creativity. It’s another world that I’m creating from scratch. The listener is definitely going to get more out of this one. I’m loving it so far, even the rough tracks are sounding crazy.
What does your writing process look like?
Fatboi Sharif: I’m gonna give you a gem that a lot of people don’t know. When I get production, I’ll go to sleep to the beats. For like, a month and a half, two months, on repeat. I let the beat get inside me and my subconsciousness. When I’m dreaming, I’m thinking of different flows, different ideas and scenery. So once I settle on a flow and a concept, it’s kinda easy from there. The rapping part is the easiest part, it’s the beat that’s the challenge you know? It’ll just come three bars here, four bars there, a hook and then a song. Kinda scrapped together, bits and pieces to form one beautiful picture.
Where do you go when you’re dreaming?
Fatboi Sharif: A lot of times it’s early childhood situations. Sometimes it’s revisiting dead relatives or loved ones. And sometimes it’s blurred visions, it might just be colors or a person with no face. And I think, how can I wake up from this and bring it with me? How can I describe this, as close as possible, to the point that the listener can feel right there.
Take me back, man, what did that early childhood look like?
Fatboi Sharif: There was a lot of shit that went down that I can laugh about, but there’s some real bad shit I try not to think about. But all of it shaped me into who I am today. I was surrounded by music. Like, my uncle would be blasting Curtis Mayfield and the 70s stuff, then my mother would play Tupac and Geto Boys. Me, I was into poetry. I was doing poetry in like, third grade.
How did you realize you had that talent?
Fatboi Sharif: It was literally a class assignment. We had to write a poem about the Holocaust. I wrote one and everyone loved it, it was kinda nice. I already knew hip-hop, and at that time, my biggest musical inspiration was 90s grunge rock and heavy metal. Really into that stuff as a little kid, and to this day still.
Your first career rap was about the Holocaust. Bro…what? You were obviously destined for this.
Fatboi Sharif: [Laughing] Bro it was literally six bars, written down in an old book that I found last year. I can’t remember the first four bars right now, but the last two were “Adolf Hitler was a mean fellow / now I know the meaning of the word GHETTO.”
You damn near can bring that back in a new song.
Fatboi Sharif: I might have to bring that back. You’re about to hear that on the next project.
Back to the rock and metal, was that something you found on your own?
Fatboi Sharif: It’s funny you say that. I was the only person in my family into that type of music. I was born in North New Jersey, and a lot of people in the neighborhood started to know me as the heavy metal guy. Folks would say, “what the fuck is this white whiny shit, turn that shit off bro.” Hell no! The visuals, the lyrics to that shit were crazy. Years later, a lot of that became popular in the urban community and the hood. People were embracing it, but I was like that from the beginning! Good music is always gonna be good music.
What do you carry with you from that music into your music, in terms of rhythm or aesthetic or anything?
Fatboi Sharif: I would say, like, the showmanship. For me, I never wanted to be the artist that just walked around when performing on stage. The fuck is that? To me, true art and musicianship is about the experience you create within your music. That’s what stuck to me. If I’mma do this, I want to create an experience you hear about before you even see it. Like, what the fuck was that shit we saw last night? Almost like a movie clip. When I was young I also loved movies, Stanley Kubrick and those guys. What can you do with the mind creatively? Some stuff has to make sense right away, and some stuff has to make sense later. I fell in love with that type of creativity.
What were you reading back then? I bet you were an avid reader.
Fatboi Sharif: Back then, the regular kid stuff. Goosebumps, Harry Potter. But one book that was big for me was Live from Death Row, the Mumia Abu-Jamal story. Another was Native Son. Super huge for me. I would read a lot and catch all types of emotions.
It’s 2021 and that man still isn’t out, free Mumia!
Fatboi Sharif: Hell yeah. Now, let’s see, a few other books that really influenced me: Behold a Pale Horse by Milton William Cooper; American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis; Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver; Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam by Nick Turse; Rage by Richard Bachman [Stephen King] and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philp K. Dick.
Tell me more about Gandhi Loves Children. Some of these lines really take a while to set in. Do you have a favorite song or a special moment hidden in there?
Fatboi Sharif: First, I gotta start with me and Roper’s relationship. About six years ago, me and a close friend of mine were at the same job, this radio show in Jersey on 90.3. So I used to do these online cyphers, where we’d have emcees come through and spit and all that. And my friend told me he knew a group, like a group of six, and told em to pull up. Roper was doing beats for this group at the time, and the two of us just hit it off right away. He started inviting me to their studio sessions, so I’d come through, chill and absorb these beats. We were both looking to make moves in music already. But yeah, that chemistry is like five years in the making. And about a year ago, we finally locked in to do this album. We came to the table wanting to do something that nobody had done before, from the lyrics to the beats to the concepts. The overall experience. And we definitely think we accomplished that. Shoutout to everyone supporting Gandhi Loves Children, it’s super appreciated.
Does Roper make you rise to the occasion? Some of these beats are really hard to rap over. Do you intentionally pursue that challenge?
Fatboi Sharif: That’s one of the best things about our relationship. He knows that he can give me beats he can’t give anyone else. We definitely keep the door open on creativity between the two of us. Back to what I was saying before, I’ll live with a beat of his for weeks, then go to the studio and bang it all out. And that shit’s beautiful. Nothing is off limits, beat-wise and topic-wise. Let’s do it.
What inspires you right now? What have you been tapping into recently, either making you mad or getting you motivated?
Fatboi Sharif: This past year has been ridiculous, from COVID to the financial situation to everything else. It’s a big ball of feeling upset and confused. The people and forces controlling all this shit, we can’t see it, so people acting like they don’t exist. In terms of just me, I want to stay as creative as possible. There are so many things that I haven’t done yet as an artist. The next two projects, I’m excited to see the reactions. It’s a whole different chamber of thought that’s getting tapped into.
Those same forces controlling all this shit have no interest in you putting out weird and creative art, of course. It’s been such a radicalizing and edifying year, I think that’s why folks have connected with your music. The surreal is all around us, irony is dead, everything is funny and unfunny at the same time. Embrace the chaos, essentially.
Fatboi Sharif: I feel you. And I’mma say this, I’ve always hated the way folks use words like “weird” or “crazy.” To me, it’s just thoughts and observation. Just because it’s different from the 20 emcees that everyone listens to, we have to put a label on it? I hate that. Why can’t it just be dope creativity? You’re not gonna go up to Wes Craven and say, “your idea about a flying car is so weird.” Nah, you’re going to say how much you loved the experience he brought you.
Can you educate me on any of the big New Jersey misconceptions?
Fatboi Sharif: There’s a lot I wanna give you on that, but I’mma say some amazing things about Jersey. Bro, you gotta come out here one day and I’ll show you around. The thing I love is that its individuality is really celebrated, you know? The way people from Jersey talk and move and conduct themselves. And there’s a big food culture here. Some of the wildest creatives you’d ever get to know. On the East Coast, we got overlooked from New York to Philly, but we’re bringing just as much musically. Oh, and shoutout to all the strip clubs and diners in Essex County. That’s where the hell I gotta take you.
We’re going to make it happen. That’s the follow up piece for the next album.
Fatboi Sharif: Oh, no doubt.
For all the knowledge you have, is there anything going on right now that confuses you?
Fatboi Sharif: To tell you the truth, I don’t really understand the hysteria going on in the world. We went from the pandemic, where everyone was scared to just see people, to the police protests and the financial terror, unemployment and everything. Now everyone is going back outside.
How have you been coping with things?
Fatboi Sharif: Honestly, I’m just living my life to the fullest. I’ve had this conversation with my people. I have a life and a career to maintain. I have to maneuver through the specific situations I have to maneuver through. I try to stay true to myself, because at the end of the day, what’s gonna happen is gonna happen. You can stay in your house as long as you want, you don’t know who or what is on that other side of that door. I’ve been focusing on living good and maneuvering right. It’s been a whirlwind of chaos and confusion these past two years.
So much death around these past two years, too, both with the literal toll of the pandemic and with the constant visuals of Black death by the hands of the State. I’ve certainly been thinking more about death with everything going on. Has your understanding of or your relationship with death changed at all?
Fatboi Sharif: Not really, to be honest. The trap is that feeling of paranoia, and if I get stuck there, I lose everything. I lose my spirit, my sense of humor, everything. So what I’m doing is being optimistic without being stupid. There are a million tough situations right now, but fear will ruin you. Fear will literally take off years of your life.