FEATURE: Fred the Godson Is the Chubby Workhorse on the Tip of New York’s Tongue

Photographer Talia Herman
May 23, 2011

To say that no other rapper was, is or will be like Notorious BIG is obvious. But it’s like saying no tree is as beautiful as an oak, or that film is better than digital. Biggie is a legend because he was so versatile, and what made him great was a combination of his many talents, god-given or otherwise. While it’s impossible to claim anyone as the next Big, we can look at the facets of his greatness and see them reflected in a handful of new rappers. Fred the Godson, a large New York street rapper, shares a similar backstory to Big, toiling in a craft that today may no longer be relevant. Danny Brown, Detroit’s son, is a product of his hometown, just as Big forever wore Brooklyn like a badge. Brick Squad Monopoly is Waka Flocka Flame’s Junior MAFIA, an amalgam of differently talented hooligans whose groupthink is more crucial than their individual capabilities. And Angel Haze, a young internet brat, has Biggie’s preternatural skill, but it’s questionable if she’ll harness it. Clearly there will never be another Biggie, but to thrive, hip-hop needs artists like these to keep rapping like there could be.

Fred the Godson carries three inhalers with him at all times. “One that I take throughout the day, one that I take to prevent an asthma attack from coming, and one I take when it does come,” he says, casually splayed out in black sweatpants in the lounge of his tucked-away Bronx studio, Blok Work. “I could be having an asthma attack right now and you wouldn’t even know it.” It’s a lazy rainy night and the game is on the big screen. The sparkling T.B.M. chain (“Talkin’ Bout Money”) that normally sways around the Godson’s neck is nowhere to be found. Tonight, the only money he’s talking about is the $100 he has on the Knicks.

In early March, Fred hit the packed stage at Manhattan’s Santos Party House to perform his signature song “Too Fat” as part of a Biggie tribute. “It was a honor,” he says. “Lil’ Cease embraced me, told me the similarities with Big.” The truth is, Frederick Thomas’ raspy voice sounds very little like Christopher Wallace’s. His witty style is more Big L than Biggie. But his weight makes the comparison unavoidable and, like Big, Fred has learned how to turn his real-life struggles into comedy and character. On “Too Fat,” a chick asks, What’s up, Fred? and he casually replies Ehhh, just my bank account and my blood pressure!

Fred grew up a scrappy South Bronx kid with a streak of bad luck, forced to move to a shelter with his five siblings after a fire took their childhood apartment. In addition to asthma, Fred has always suffered from nephritis, a serious auto-immune kidney disease that landed him in the hospital every month, often for a week at a time. “If my condition was as bad as it was then, there’s no way I’d be able to rap,” he says. Years later, Fred’s childhood pediatrician, Dr. Tarshish, was the one who gave him his name. Upon hearing his unaccountable flow, she could only conclude that he must be “God’s son.” A hip-hop miracle.

The first punch line Fred ever heard, on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Electric Relaxtion,” is still on the tip of his tongue: Bust off on your couch, now you got Seamen’s furniture. He geeks out remembering Phife Dawg’s ejaculatory entendré, a perverted childhood favorite. Fred clearly loves word play, considers it his calling card. “People wait for it,” he says, and Fred knows how to keep the audience coming back for more. In the video for “King Kong,” after spitting Coke white like 90210/ Why compare? It’s like nine Os to one O, Fred actually stops the track, says, “Think about it,” pauses, and smiles before resuming the song. In another video, he literally winks at the camera.

Raw metaphors about guns and drugs aren’t groundbreaking, but Fred seems dedicated to recapturing the magic of the gritty street-level music that inspired him. His education began in the mid-’90s, when his father worked as a security guard at the Tunnel, New York’s famed hardcore rap super-club. Dad brought home some crucial records (notably Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt), and eventually granted his son VIP access to hip-hop heaven. “I was 16 years old in the Tunnel,” he remembers. “I’d come through with all my friends and the line was wrapped around the block.”

In some ways, Fred seems frozen in this golden era, a cornrow-clad Encino Man. While his peers from the new generation of rappers monitor the blogs and get in Twitter squabbles, Fred is focused on a singular goal: running New York radio. Ever since DJ Enuff started playing “Get ’em Fred” last year, he’s had a number of songs regularly blasted on the New York airwaves, especially Hot 97. “I’m moving the way the South is moving,” he says. “I was visiting my mother in Jacksonville, Florida, and there are so many artists from there that’s getting so much radio play, but they aren’t signed. That never happens with New York.” Back home, Fred tries to breathe easy, steadfast in his belief that the city’s embrace is only one perfect punch line away.

FEATURE: Fred the Godson Is the Chubby Workhorse on the Tip of New York’s Tongue