An Interview With Fatboi Sharif

Dash Lewis speaks to the New Jersey rapper about his new album Decay with Steel Tipped Dove, working on multiple projects at the same time, going to sleep with beats on repeat and more.
By    August 16, 2023

Show your love of the game by subscribing to Passion of the Weiss on Patreon so that we can keep churning out interviews with legendary producers, feature the best emerging rap talent in the game, and gift you the only worthwhile playlists left in this streaming hellscape.

Dash Lewis feels like a new world is possible after recently witnessing a dude perform “Monster Mash” at karaoke.

When Fatboi Sharif answers the phone for our first conversation, I’m initially greeted with an intense blast of distortion. It’s unclear whether there’s a problem with the connection or the tiny speakers in my outdated iPhone have finally blown out, but it feels appropriately unnerving. Sharif is a singular voice in today’s hip-hop landscape, making bug-eyed rap music that often feels like the transcription of a nightmare. His work isn’t horrorcore — don’t ever call it horrorcore — but it can be incredibly disquieting. Sharif writes about the things that scare us most and delivers his verses with a devilish grin.

I’m calling the Rahway, New Jersey rapper to talk about Decay, his masterful new collaborative LP with producer Steel Tipped Dove. It’s his debut on Backwoodz Studioz, the label run by billy woods that’s become the current standard-bearer of underground rap. On recordings, Sharif cultivates a looming, spectral presence, manipulating the timbre of his voice and layering adlibs in a disconcertingly psychedelic manner. But over the phone on a pleasant July evening, he’s bubbly and gregarious, eager to dig into the details of his new project. “I’m super excited,” he tells me. “It’s something different that I’ve never done before. [It’s] probably my best work.”

As if conjured by an unknown force, Decay rose from the haze of a summer marred by upsetting reminders that our world is in the midst of a breakdown. In late June, smoke from Canadian wildfires drifted south and settled like a weighted blanket over parts of the United States. As the smoke dissipated in early July, a brutal heatwave sauntered up to take its place, both events bleak beacons portending how the rest of our summers will likely unfold. Decay is the only appropriate soundtrack, a shuddering, creaking monolith of exceptionally harrowing vibes that’s as chilling as it is captivating, as darkly satisfying as pressing a bruise.

Sharif doesn’t go as far as saying he wanted it to be a confrontational listen, but does slyly admit that he chose Dove’s most challenging beats. “[Dove] joked about it like ‘No one else will pick these besides you,’” Sharif says with a chuckle. “For me, the harder it may seem to write to, the more excited I get to prove the point [that] I’ll do something dope with [it].” More than any other record he’s made, Decay feels like a true culmination of Sharif’s influences. He first connected with grunge as a youth and though he’s a veritable encyclopedia of rap knowledge, he’s also a low-key connoisseur of harsh noise and drone. “I’m one of those people who believes that your influences never leave you,” he explains. “Going into the album, it wasn’t in my head to make something that sounds like [them], it just naturally fell into place.”

Steel Tipped Dove’s production across the album staggers, creaks, and groans, shot through with blistering distortion and rib cage-rattling sub-bass. There’s the burning piano of “Ash Wednesday;” the serrated guitar of “Prisoner of Jesus;” the clipped feedback drones of “Think Pieces;” the basement noise show screams throughout “Measuring Spoon Techniques.” Though individual elements can sound inflamed and raw, Decay is much less claustrophobic than some of Sharif’s previous projects like Preaching in Havana or Cyber City Society. It’s atmospheric and spacious, lush and thorny as an overgrown cemetery.

When writing these songs, Sharif would often play beats on repeat as he slept, allowing the sounds to creep into his dreams. “When we dream and take things into the subconscious, we manifest stuff,” he says. “So me playing [the beat] over and over tells me the direction through the dreams I have.” When he woke up, he’d try and capture what he’d seen in his sleep. There usually wasn’t a narrative to cling to, just a jumble of colors or shapes that prompted him to ask, “How can I bring the vision that I had to life?”

In most cases, it meant digging into his past in a different manner than before. Sharif’s writing has always been deeply informed by memory; he employs a kind of imagistic exquisite corpse approach, splicing film references and personal recollections together to capture feeling rather than create a narrative. Leaving things open to interpretation is one of his favorite parts of writing. “You never give up the whole puzzle,” he points out. A few sample bars from “Brandon Lee,” Decay’s first single, drive the point home: “Inner workings, mind boggled, parasite product/ moonlight spectacle, parade swamp monster.” The lyrics can be fairly cryptic, but the stories he tells are concrete. On “The 6th Floor,” Sharif descends from the top floor of a building (Heaven? Earth?) to the sixth floor (Hell?), describing the parade of “blood, sweat, and fears” he comes across. There are bedridden tenants wracked with withdrawals or cancerous growths, couples having mindless sex, and people drowning themselves in cheap beer, all of whom Sharif observes are “out here screaming don’t touch me.”

Sharif describes the process of writing Decay as “peeling back layers.” “I wanted to touch on things I’d never touched on in music, [like] how drug addiction and mental illness run in my family. [There’s a lot] of personal stories, me remembering conversations I had with my mother or certain family situations. Years later I can still remember exactly how [they] made me feel.” That’s the beauty of decay: it reveals what’s underneath. It can be frightening and intense, but oddly comforting in its inevitability. Here, Fatboi Sharif is less concerned with exorcising demons than exposing them, prodding at them, seeing how they tick.

Were you working on [Decay] at the same time as any other projects?

Fatboi Sharif: I was working on this at the same time as Preaching in Havana and Cyber City Society. I was just going to three different studios a day.

That’s wild. How do you differentiate? I know the production is different, but if you’re working on these three projects that are very distinct, how do you separate the writing thematically?

Fatboi Sharif: I have it so that I keep different creative vessels for [each]. So, I know like, “I’m going into [work on] Decay — the whole vibe and whole body of it is different. For that two hours, I’m going into that zone. When I switch over to the next studio, I say “Okay, zone switch. Now we entering this world.” So I kinda trained myself to do that early, whether working on different projects, different songs, features, all that type of stuff.

So changing the physical space that you’re in helps you differentiate between things sometimes.

Fatboi Sharif: Yeah, exactly. And sometimes even the mental space, just switching it. Because I’ll usually write three projects at a time, and I can write them at the same place. But it’s a different world like “Okay, this particular world might be quieter, it might be more personal, so I tap into the emotion for that. The next thing might be more playful, more lighthearted, so I’m like “Okay, let me get into that zone and write those feelings and emotions out.”

When you first started making Decay, what initially jumped out at you thematically?

Fatboi Sharif: Me and Dove connected the first weekend that the original Gandhi Loves Children came out, October 2020. I remember we dropped it and he messaged me on IG on some “Yo, Gandhi‘s dope.” I was familiar with him so I’m just like, “YO, appreciate the love. Big fan of your work too.” He was like, “Pull up at the studio, let’s vibe out and hear some stuff.” When I went there, we just hit it off from the gate. And it’s funny, probably two or three of the best songs that [steered] the whole project we made in the first session. I wanna say “Boogie Monster” was the first song we made. “Brandon Lee” was probably the second session. He had all of those beats already, kind of put to the side. Those are two of the most personal songs on the project in terms of what I’m talking about. That’s what I loved about his work sonically and what it was bringing out of me. It was some peel-the-skin-back layer music. On this one, I’m gonna jump all the way in, and touch on a bunch of different personal stuff and different personal issues.

What was the beat selection process like?

Fatboi Sharif: I always get excited about production when I hear it, I’m like, “What am I going to do with that? What can I do with that?” I’ve been doing music for almost 10 years, so at this point, I don’t get super jumping-out-of-my-shoes over a regular-ass boom-bap beat. Somebody else might be like, “Yo, there’s drums on it! It makes your head nod!” I’m like, “It’s cool, but it don’t make me want to write.” I’m not going to hear it and be inspired.

Another thing that follows you from interview to interview is that you’ll put on a beat when you go to sleep and let it repeat for a few hours. Can you describe what that does to your brain?

Fatboi Sharif: On the track “Scarhead,” another one of the earlier ones we made on the album, I remember it was so much space and so much stuff [I could] do on the beat, I might have had it for like a good month. And me playing over and over [in my sleep], I would dream about it. So for example in that song, I saw the color navy blue — little circles of navy blue like a penny or maybe like the bubbles you would see at the bottom of the shower. I seen them from far away and when you get closer to it, it’s like a purple light. Or maybe it’s like a purple filter that I was seeing through goggles. That’s usually what I see within a dream — shapes, colors, things of that nature.

Are you a fan of psychedelics at all?

Fatboi Sharif: I’m not against them…[Laughs].

Have you had any bad experiences with them?

Fatboi Sharif: No, I’m very pro-edible. So I love me a green edible that’ll make me slow down and be stuck for a while.

I’m curious about how you perceive how your own mind works. Maybe it doesn’t even matter to try and unlock anything new with a different kind of drug if you can put a beat on, go to sleep, and wake up and have an idea for a really cosmic kind of song. It’s really interesting to me.

Fatboi Sharif: I definitely would say that I have all of the wires and tools in my brain tweaked the way I need. That’s why I say I’m a huge fan of edibles. I like that they put on some nice, chill, vibe-out mode. I always say that our brain is the strongest weapon. I know certain people who’ve told me before, like, “I need to drink, maybe smoke. I need to take this, take that to get to that creative space.” They may get [there] slower if they don’t partake, but fortunately, I’ve never had that issue. I don’t drink or smoke or anything like that when I record. It’s sober mind going in, sober mind going out.

A lot of your songs are one through-composed verse — sometimes there will be repeated mantras within them, but Decay has some of your most prominent hooks.

Fatboi Sharif: A couple of people have told me that. I’m on my Drake shit. [Laughs]

Decay is the Fatboi Sharif pop album. [Laughs] When you sit down to write something, how do you know it’s done? How do you know exactly how to structure it?

Fatboi Sharif: I have a bunch of different ways to go about that. I always think that rap verses should be like conversations. So if I just called you like, “Yo Dash, I got in a fender bender coming home from work. Somebody cut in front of me, I gotta reschedule.” That conversation would be a little shorter than, “Yo Dash, I found out I have a kid in Japan. It’s crazy because I went out there and met this girl, we had a one-night stand and she hit me back 10 years later talking about, ‘I need you to send some money.’ I gotta hit you back later.” I’m sure once we spoke again, one convo would go longer than the next convo. [Laughs]

So I guess I look at the writing aspect like, if I’m doing something like “East Hollywood,” the beat is speaking to me. That may be a 16- or 24-bar straight verse — that might be all I feel like I need to get out; that conversation is done. Something like “Scarhead,” which is two verses, two full hooks, one of the longest songs on the album, I had more to say for that story. That story had different elements and different parts to it. So it always varies. Sometimes I might come into it with the aspect of like, “I’m gonna write this like a single type of song.” So “Brandon Lee,” I wrote it to be a single. I write the hook first on those types of songs. Then it’s just like, “Okay, I can speak the rest of this story to life.” Whether it’s two verses, three verses, it comes naturally together like that.

Your writing is really vivid — it often feels like you’re describing a photograph or a frame from a film. How much of your writing is you trying to capture images?

Fatboi Sharif: To me, with a true artist, you could hear what they say but you could also see what they say, you can also smell what they say. I take in certain art and notice the effect it has on me, [so] I like to have that effect on the person listening. For example, I would say on Decay, the best example of that would be “The Sixth Floor,” where it’s me describing walking through a building from the top floor to the sixth floor and I’m describing things I see on each floor. To me, like something like that wouldn’t have the same power if it wasn’t in super detail — what’s going on in the room, the color of the room, the vibe of the room. You gotta paint the picture a little more.

How does memory play into your writing on Decay and how does it play into your writing in general?

Fatboi Sharif: I would say it’s probably one of my most important parts of writing. I’ll always remember the first time I saw the Nine Inch Nails “Closer” video on MTV. I’ll always remember the first time I saw the movie City of God in the theater. That’s the main thing as a creator that we all go through. There’s something that always sticks in our heads. I gotta get that across in the writing so when the people hear it, they can connect with it on that end.

How much of your writing is open to interpretation?

Fatboi Sharif: To me, that’s one of the best parts of writing. The writer has a certain message he’s trying to get across and you as the listener you might hear any get a whole different meaning from it. To me, that’s interesting. [I like] having those convos with people when they’re like, “Who is this name?” And I’m like, “That’s from the movie, so and so.” And they might be like “Oh, I thought it from that because that was [this one scene].” Or it might be like, “Is this a movie character?” And I’m like “Hell nah, that’s my damn cousin that got killed.” The back and forth with that is always interesting to me as a writer.

How do you figure out the layering and harmonization of your vocals? Is that another conversation with the beat?

Fatboi Sharif: Yeah, conversation with the beat, but also just a conversation with my inside writer. I want the song to have more than one emotion to it. The overall beat is one layer of emotion. The sample is the second layer of emotion. The verse is a layer of emotion on top of that, but to me, there’s so much within the verse that people [can] overlook. So that’s why sometimes you’ll hear a song where I might do two or three different adlibs with two or three different voices. Because to me, those are two or three different stories being told in one world. I’ve probably been recording for about a good six, seven years, doing a bunch of different vocal tics and adlibs and stuff like that.

Is there a trial and error process with that?

Fatboi Sharif: Maybe a little. I might lay the verse and be like, “Okay, this should have three different vocal aspects: a singing one, a screaming one, a mumble one.” So I might do that and listen to it and think, “This sounds dope, but what if I took the middle screaming one out and left the mumble one but reversed it and put a filter on it? Let’s try that.” I might try that might be like “Oh, that’s perfect.” Or sometimes I might take all of the adlibs out. “This sounds perfect as just a straight verse.” So it varies, for sure.

Are you just constantly working all the time?

Fatboi Sharif: [Laughs] Very much so. I’m one of those people who believes you can never do too much creatively. They say brain cells grow every day, so there’s always a new story to write. There’s always a new flow I haven’t used yet. There’s always a new rhyme pattern I’ve never used. To me, it just comes with living, being around different people, being around different situations and just taking it all in.

We rely on your support to keep POW alive. Please take a second to donate on Patreon!