Photo by Claire Marie Vogel
By E.S. Sparks
Above the roar of the FSG X Resound Block Party, Anthony Lawson Jude Ifeanyichukwu Obiawunaotu, better known as Fat Tony, and I sit huddled over my phone in the FSG Records’ office—a loft not exactly built for recording audio during a raucous party. Throughout our conversation, you can hear the background din of bands starting, people hollering and general good times being had. But Fat Tony stays focused on the matters at hand.
Speaking directly into the microphone on my phone, he answers my questions in a persistent stream of thoughts on writing, giving one’s own cultural context and upbringing their due, performing, the importance of alone time, and alternately, connection. He is open and generous with his words, and often falls into a pattern of anaphora; repeating phrases imbue them with a sense of conviction or insistence. A continuous beat to drown out all the noise and keep us on track.
Mid-soliloquy (or spirited confession?), Fat Tony tells me that the nerdiest thing about him right now is his obsession with DJing, something he calls a “dad interest" for “old heads” such as himself to geek out on. I interrupt to tease him that yeah, DJing to a packed crowd—which he’ll later do to close out the event—sure sounds like a snoozefest (and pointedly remind him that, ahem, we’re the same age). But hey, I bet that kind of unbridled enthusiasm keeps us young, right?
“I have a lot of that. I’m enthusiastic about a lot of shit. If I fall in love with something—an artist, a paragraph, whatever—I’m going to scream about it.”
He doesn’t have to. Onstage and off, Fat Tony has our attention. The artist wears many hats, keeps Houston on his sleeve, and in about three hours will rap seamlessly while rocking a small dog from the crowd—(named Chiquis, presumably a fan)—on his arm. “Chiquis on the beat,” he rhymes into the mic before launching into a verse. The crowd screams.
Photo by Samantha Tellez / @samanthazellet
How did you first become acquainted with FSG?
I met [owner and co-founder] Justin Weems maybe a decade ago. We probably met at Hotel Vegas, which is a venue I used to play all the time here in Austin, Texas. We just hit it off and he told me he owned a merch company. He was the first person I ever partnered with to do my merch fulfillment. Prior to that I did it all myself. I’d find a place to screen print, get my shirts, and I’d mail it out from my house, and if I had too many orders my mom would help me. But Justin and the good people at FSG were the first people to handle all my shipping and also offer me some of my best t-shirt designs.
Where are you based now?
Right now I live in Arizona. But I’m from Houston. I’m living there because my partner is going to school there. We moved there from Brooklyn in 2020. We lived in New York for a while, and I lived in Los Angeles for many years before that. So yeah, it’s kind of difficult to place me because I moved around so much, but I think if there’s anywhere to put it in your mind of where I’m at, spiritually, it’s always Houston, Texas.
We have a few things in common. We’re the same age, we both grew up in arts-driven cities in Texas, we’ve both lived all over the place. We both studied communication in college… and I believe we’ve both started zines?
Like you, I took some journalism classes. We’re probably coming from a similar place of trying to be writers and trying to lift other folks’ voices and in a way lift our own. Like you, I have a zine. Found Me is a zine me and friend Matthew [Ramirez] do. Matthew is a great journalist [and] critic from Houston, based in Houston still. Me and him went to college together at the University of St. Thomas. The Idea Fund is a Houston grant that we’ve been lucky to receive twice. They funded the first issue, and with the latest grant they’re helping us fund issue two and three. We’re about to print issue two and put it out, and we’re really excited because it’s been five years since we put out our first issue.
Making a zine was something I never thought that I would do, but my whole life I’ve been obsessed with magazines. Music magazines, video game magazines, just show business magazines period—whether it’s about television, film, visual art, whatever. And it’s really fun to get to do one where I interview people and show the world the people that I admire. In the next issue, I have a long-form interview with B L A C K I E who’s a noise rap artist from Houston. One of my oldest friends in music, one of the first people that I met as a musician that I really respected and just connected with in a big, genuine way. And I’m getting to tell his whole story in this next issue. We’re going through every record he’s ever put out and he’s breaking down what he was going through during that time, what instruments he used, where he was when he made the music. I’m just super happy and proud of it.
You’ve said in the past that the best way to get to know someone is to travel with them. What have you learned about yourself from traveling and putting yourself in different contexts?
I’ve learned that I need to have some alone time. It’s really vital to me being a good, normal, happy person. That’s probably the number one thing, especially when I’m traveling for a long period of time. I sit in my car sometimes and just listen to music or just zone out and think. Or I go to my hotel and write in my journal, or I go to a park and stare off and people watch. Something that lets my mind process all of my experiences, because when I don’t give myself time for that, I think I get a bit screwy.
How do you balance representing Houston, your home, with this clear desire to go outward and see the world?
I bring Houston everywhere that I go. Every time that I hit any other city in the world, there’s a good chance I’m going to be playing some Houston rap music before my set. There’s a good chance that I’m going to be playing it when I DJ. I mean me simply being a rapper, an artist, a person from Houston means that I bring Houston with me everywhere I go naturally.
But outside of that, I try to push the issue because I think that Houston rap music–especially the music that I grew up on, the era that I grew up being inspired by–is so innovative and so important and I don’t want it to be forgotten. Let’s say ‘95 through 2006, from first grade all the way up to finishing high school. During that period, we had SO MANY monumental moments and records happen in rap music specifically. So I feel really lucky to have been alive during that period that was so fruitful with different styles, different variations, different flavors. Houston rap music from that era is so weird if you compare it to other music from other regions. The things that we were doing, the things that we were saying, the way that we were phrasing things, the type of production that we’d use was just so specific to us and such a trademark to us that I always want to honor that era because I know that things change. Music eras can only last for so long, any creative period can only last for so long. You're bound to run out of ideas or just be naturally ready to move on. So I just always want to pay homage to the music that I grew up on, the music that I love, the music that inspired me, the music that saved my life.
On the flipside of that, how do you keep something so familiar to you fresh in your mind and your heart?
All this classic-era Houston music that I’m always ranting about, praising— I listen to it on my leisure. It ain’t just for show: I actually like this shit. And when I just sit and engage with the music I’m reminded of who I am and what I want to carry throughout the world. I just think that it’s easy to lose yourself and it’s easy to forget the art that inspired you to create in the first place the further you distance yourself from being a fan. I’ve always felt like above anything, I’m a fan. I’m a consumer. I’m someone who just loves music and wants to expose myself to it as often as possible for as long as possible. Even as an artist, I take time to get into the music that I grew up loving, and I still seek new music too. New art that inspires me. There’s the Monaleo song [“Beating Down Yo Block”] where she sampled “Knocking Pictures Off Da Wall” by YungStar, a song that came out in ‘99 which was a big deal to me when I was in sixth grade, just like a big song that I loved that I heard on the radio, saw on TV. That’s one of those Houston rap classics that my generation and the previous [one] really herald as one of their best songs. And to see a young artist love the song so much that she samples it, spits over it, kills it, it becomes a big hit for her—that’s the type of shit that just reminds me that that era of Houston music ain’t over. It still has value. There are still people that need to know about YungStar and Z-Ro and Trae and Devin The Dude and [DJ] Screw and all the music that happened when I was a kid that changed my life.
Photo by Tamara Lichtenstein / @tamaralich
In your lyrics you’ve name-checked [regional grocery store] H-E-B. You reference specific street names, parking lots, and local parks. In what way do those specific details add up to the bigger picture?
I think it all adds up because I’m just telling stories of real life, you know what I mean? And I don’t mean that in a corny way where everything I say is auto-biographical because some of it is and some of it isn’t. But I like the idea of the storyteller who just tells it like it is, who just tells you the facts of what happened in a person’s life and leaves it for you to seek the meaning, seek the message. When I think of songs of mine like “Gambling Man,” where I’m not passing a judgment onto the character Johnny about what he does or doesn’t do, or the type of life that he leads. I’m just telling you what his life is like, hoping that you can see the humanity in it and just enjoy the story and have your own takeaways. It’s just a way for me to try to connect with other people out there.
That’s why I make music. That’s why I’m a DJ, that’s why I throw parties. Because I want to connect with other human beings, and if we can connect on any one of these wavelengths, whether it’s a certain emotion I often have, or a certain type of music I like, or a certain food or a city or a park or region—if we can find a way to connect through that from something that I created then I’m satisfied. I’m more than satisfied. I am grateful, because honestly, I didn’t have shit before I did music. I never traveled before [making] music, I never left Texas. I didn’t come from a family that did any vacations. I never got on an airplane until I paid for it as an 18-year-old to travel from Houston to Atlanta for the purpose of music. So I’m always going to honor music and be grateful towards it.
Coming from a journalistic writing perspective, the more direct and straightforward the better. I’d say the mark of a great writer is restraint, but it usually takes a long time to get to that point. Is that something that you’ve been conscious of or is that just your natural voice?
No, it is something that I’m conscious of because I’m always trying to be a better writer. And I do agree with you that getting to the point faster is when writing is most effective. When you can just wrap it all up and really get to the point, that leaves the reader or the listener wanting to sit back in a chair and actually think, Wait a minute, let me take this all in. That’s what I’m always aiming for.
And I think it’s so easy to be mid, it’s so easy to be regular and phone it in and just say tropes that you know will resonate with people but won’t make them think deeper. It takes real work to be a great writer. Mostly it takes living experience—you have to actually go out there and experience the world. Take in other media too; read fiction and non-fiction, watch great movies, listen to great songs, albums, take in other great works of art. And also live your motherfucking life. And [then] create space for you to think about both, to think about your own lived experiences and think about the things that you’ve been intaking. From books to trips to the museum to movies to whatever. Think about all that media that you have been consuming and all that life that you’ve been living and find a message in it that you want to express in your next piece of work.
Speaking of movies and other mediums, I did see a clip [from VICE Live] of you and acclaimed director Spike Jonze. If you were to choose a director that you feel best complements what you do, who would that be?
Man, I’d have to choose F. Gary Gray because he directed Friday and Straight Outta Compton. I actually did an audition for Ice Cube’s role in Straight Outta Compton but it was at a point in my life where as an actor I feel like I wasn’t really ready. But when I did the audition I heard the F. Gary Gray specifically sought me out to have me come and read and I really respected him for that. But yo, shout out to Spike Jonze too! Don’t think that I’m shitting on Spike Jonze because I hollered at my brother F. Gary Gray to come and direct the Fat Tony biopic. Spike Jonze is ill, ill, ill! And I’d love for him to be the DP. [Laughs.]
So with some genres of music, maybe hip-hop and rap included, there is a certain self-seriousness that comes along with the image, perhaps to further some point or meaningful theme. You’re funny though. Do you make a deliberate choice to bring levity to your work, or do you just happen to be funny?
Yes I do, but that’s only because of how I was raised. When I got into hip-hop back in the 2000s as a performer, that’s back when underground rap and indie rap and backpack rap had more of a social presence in music and a lot of people in those spaces were very self-serious. Some to the point of being aggressive. Some to the point of being bullheaded, kind of reminding you of a jock that you would hear about negatively in a teen movie or punk song. So I felt like me being a little bit flippant and a little bit silly or just showing that I could have fun was a way to push back against [an] attitude that I felt was very masculine and aggressive and just not cool.
You’ve said your favorite thing about being an artist is performing. How does DJing compare to performing your own music on stage? I imagine you have to be more intuitive with DJing to read people.
That is true. It is about reading the room, reading the people, trying to really sense what they need and what you have in your toolbox that can fuel them. If it’s looking like the crowd needs some energy, what’s an energetic song that you can play that might really hype them up. For some crowds it might be Lil Jon’s “Get Low.” For some crowds it might be GloRilla’s “F.N.F.” For some crowds it might be Le Tigre’s “Deceptacon.” For some crowds it might be a Selena song. You never know, but if you’re well-versed in music then you have a better chance of reading the room.
And also not just being well-versed in music but being able to put your personal taste aside and not just playing for yourself but playing for the room. Me personally—I love both. Sometimes I love being a DJ more, sometimes I love performing my own music more. But the older I get, I really get more attracted to being a DJ because that allows me to play with a fuller palette. I can play my music and others’ music, and when I think about hip-hop, rap music—this thing that I love and has changed my life, ten-fold—I think about how in the beginning the DJ was the center, the focus, the star. Part of me when I DJ feel[s] like I’m really fulfilling my destiny as an artist because I feel like rap music is for me. Even though I love all types of music. I love punk music; punk music got me into the music game. It really inspired me to start doing my own thing, punk and hardcore. But rap music is my language. All music that is derived from the DJ or the beatmaker or the producer—that’s the music that I feel most at home with.
Watch out for Fat Tony in the Tori Amos tee
In the video for “MacGregor Park,” there’s a nod to your Catholic upbringing. In “Swervin’,” you’re wearing a shirt, right? That says—
[Laughs.] “Recovering Christian.”
Is religion a practice for you or is it a preoccupation?
I grew up Catholic. My mom is American, my dad is Nigerian. And I grew up in Third Ward, a predominantly Black neighborhood that is a beautiful and historic place. But my African father—and I want to put that in there, because I think him being an immigrant has a big part in this—he wanted us to go to this church in this white neighborhood, this middle and upper-class neighborhood. In my predominantly Black neighborhood and schools—they were mixed—but I didn’t encounter anybody that was racist or prejudiced or outwardly a bigot. But at my white church I did, and I would complain about this a lot to my parents, and a part of me really associates growing up Catholic with this shitty church that I went to with mean people in it. Where anyone that was non-white was on the outside and the minority in any room, whether it was a catechism class or in Mass or whatever. Also, because I grew up Catholic I grew up with a bunch of shame and guilt, and went to confession all the time. So, I’m just kind of not rocking with the Catholic Church for me as a person, but I don’t judge my dad or anyone else who is Catholic or Christian or any religion. Organized religion based on how I was raised is just not for me. And I was wearing that shirt because it’s a sick Tori Amos shirt that I got in the Procell shop in Manhattan, but I still wear that shirt because I identify with that message of growing up where the spiritual world [was] something hostile in your life, which isn’t the way I think it should be. I think if people are entering any type of spirituality, whether it’s religion or whatever, it should come from a pure place, from a place that you feel safe and comfortable at.
What about Austin keeps you coming back?
There’s always young people here who are hungry for new music and fun. Austin’s one city that I play probably more than any other city in the world, and it’s been that way since I started playing music more than ten years ago. There’s a certain vibe here. People welcome me as if I am of this place; I can go to Austin and people will welcome me like it’s my hometown because in a way it is, because we’re all Texan. Even if you’re a transplant and you’re not a native Texan, if you decide to stay you fall in love with this place. You just get that bug of wanting to go and support more Texas things. Texa[n] artists, businesses, restaurants, beers. I think Austin has always looked at Fat Tony as a Texas staple and that’s why I’m always getting called to come back here and perform. It isn’t just my own doing—people in Austin book me more than anywhere else. And if you’re booking, I’m coming.
As an ambassador for Houston, for Texas, are there any misconceptions you’d like to clear up about what other people in this country might think about what’s coming out of Texas?
Oh man. It’s hard to understand Texas if you’re not here because Texas is SO diverse. There are as many far-right people here as there are far-left people as there are middle-of-the-road people. As there are people from every nationality that you can think of, every walk of life, every lifestyle, every faith. It’s all here in Texas. It’s big enough to be its own damn country; it’s just its own thing. So I think anyone willing to judge Texas and look at Texas as a cheap joke, it’s their loss, if they’re not also coupling that with some investigation, some curiosity, some trips out here. And if you come to Texas, don’t just come to Austin. That’s not the whole of [it]. You at least have to hit the other major cities: Houston, Dallas, El Paso, San Antonio. You got to hit those spots to really get the vibe of Texas. But you know me—I’m a bit biased. If you really want to learn about Texas, take your ass to H-Town.