Fat Tony moves swiftly, and mostly on foot. On a late summer afternoon in the tranquil east Los Angeles neighborhood of Los Feliz, the Houston rapper born Anthony Lawson Jude Ifeanyichukwu Obiawunaotu or Anthony Lawson Obi is lingering outside of a vegan restaurant before returning to the bright, airy bungalow he shares with his girlfriend.
“I just love being able to walk everywhere,” he says, opening the gate that surrounds the idyllic home. “Cars don’t mean much to me. I'd buy one if I had children and needed to lug them around somewhere, but I’m happier walking everywhere I go.” Tony, 30, has recently settled down from a nomadic period. There were stretches in Brooklyn, Houston, and Mexico City, where he became a lynchpin in the city’s rap scene with a series of parties that brought major American artists to the capital. That stretch was capped by the release of his fourth LP MacGregor Park, named after a corner of his native Third Ward and representing the deepest mining yet of Tony’s psyche.
His latest album, 10,000 Hours, was written and recorded in Los Angeles; produced in large part by childhood friend HevIn, the record is intensely personal and musically propulsive, with moments verging on straight-up dance music. There's incisive reckonings with whisper networks and sexual misconduct (“Rumors”), pointed subversions of regional stereotypes (“Texas”), and an updated version of the song “Charles” –– which was previously on Urban Hall of Fame, Tony’s album with producer Kyle Mabson as Charge It To The Game –– about Tony’s younger brother, who is autistic and has never spoken to his family.
In person, Tony reflects the same duality as his music: he’s thoughtful and considered as well as open, present, and enthusiastic. He talks eagerly about music he’s currently listening to, from Detroit rapper and producer Quelle Chris to formative artists from his childhood like E-40, UGK, and especially Prince. Tony has the late artist’s logo and name tattooed on his left arm, as well as what he describes as a bedroom “shrine” comprised of memorabilia and rare magazine covers. The front sitting area of Tony’s home is littered with back issues of publications like SPIN and The Source, as well as a copy of a local Venice magazine from 1991 with Boyz N the Hood on the cover. There's also a bookshelf that amalgamates Tony’s taste with his girlfriend’s: biographies of Texans Pimp C and Scarface, Lil B's Takin’ Over: By Imposing the Positive! My Personal Rap to You, Ling Ma's Severance.
Tony gives a lot of thought to how he can inject his beliefs and principles into his music without resorting to diatribe or street preaching. “Real people have real opinions — they state them and they move on,” he says. “A good conversation is when you get to touch on a bunch of different topics and it just flows. That’s how I want my music to be.”
Tell me about the making of 10,000 Hours.
The foundation of this record started when I moved back here at the end of 2016. I was living with HevIn, who's been living here for a few years. Every time I’d come visit, I’d stay with him and tell him, "If you ever get a room open in your house, I’d consider moving back here and living with you." He came to Houston for this festival where we both played, and when it ended he was like, "I’m gonna leave in a couple days — do you wanna come?" I packed up my stuff, kinda spur of the moment. I didn’t tell a ton of people that I was moving, I just saw the opportunity and took it, which is how I move — just going with my gut and not letting it slip away.
Did you start working on these songs right away?
Yes. He’s been a musician as long as I’ve known him. I grew up being friends with his little sister, and we were really into punk music — we’d hang out, go to shows, and cover Ramones songs. He was her cool older brother who was the real musician, and every time we'd jam at her house he’d be like, "You need to hurry up and get out the way because me and my friends are gonna come play some real music." Living with him, we just started making songs for fun while I was working on MacGregor Park and Charge It To The Game. Some of the songs were jokey, some were serious. We were able to craft some music that was really honest, and it was great to make music with no direction.
I didn’t think we were gonna make an album, but after a year we were like, "Yo, we kinda have something here." We picked the best songs along with a few other songs I made with other producers like my long-time producer Golden Eye, Nate Donmoyer, and Charles Moon. We found that a lot of these songs had similar themes and sounds. After we decided to make an album, we recorded the last batch of songs that make the core of what the album’s about.
When people think of Houston rap, I think their minds go to the production and Screw, but not to the character of the songwriters, lots of whom have intensely regular, everyman personas. To me, you’re very much in the lineage of someone like Devin the Dude.
Hero. Devin the Dude is the first major artist that I opened up for. This dude paid me like $300, and I was like, Woah. This is a shit-ton of money. Yo, I’m about to get a nice sack of weed and a whole lot of fast food with this. He was one of the first rappers I met who was humble, welcoming, open, and cool in the sense that he spoke to me. I was like, You’re a legend, what’re you doing humbling yourself down to speak to me? He was just a regular guy.
A lot of your music subverts expectations or assumptions people make about Houston, especially ”Texas.”
There’s a big world out there, and it’s hard to reach everybody. I’m always gonna be a new artist to someone, even in Houston. There are times I go back to Houston and people are like, "I never heard of you." I’m an underground artist. I’m not on the radio, I’m not backed by people with a ton of money. Most of my exposure has been through my own grind and dedication, and my own loud mouth. It’s my duty to always have something in my records like a greeting. If you’ve never heard of me before, there’s at least one song on here that can define who I am. “Texas” does that really well on this album. I talk about the industry, politics, and the history of Texas culture — from Selena to Juneteenth to the trail riders.
"Rumors” has a verse about online rumors you suffered through in high school.
It's totally true, and I talked about it not because it’s something I’m stuck on but because it was a moment in my life early on where I first experienced being trolled. Getting to see what it’s like having a bunch of people diss you — especially people who don’t know you well — was really funny for me. I remember the night the website went up, my friend called me and was like, "Yo, did you see this thing about you? It’s crazy." I remember thinking, Ah man, I’m gonna be the biggest loser, no one’s gonna like me.
But funnily enough, it lowkey kinda made me popular. I started meeting people. It got my name out a little bit, and it just so happened it was right around the time that I was trying to be a rapper amongst my school, passing out CDs and getting people to really know me for that. A gift and a curse, you know?
The song is also about an acquaintance being accused of sexual misconduct.
I’ve had several friends who have been called out for their misconduct. Some of them aren’t even friends — just artists I’ve worked with. I collaborate constantly, and some of my collaborators have been called out, publicly and privately — mostly privately. I felt the need to address that. There are a lot of layers to this. A lot of guys are being taught the wrong things when it comes to dealing with women, what it means to date, what sex is really about, and how to behave yourself — especially artists and entertainers who are told that sex can be a sign of success or that "it goes along with the job." A lot of guys think they can take advantage of or mistreat people — it isn’t even just about assault, it’s [also] ghosting people, misogyny, a lot of stuff that’s normalized if you’re an artist.
It really fucks with me. I have a lot of women friends. I’m dating a woman. I’ve had a lot of women tell me they’ve been hurt –– even before this #MeToo thing happened. This isn’t nothing new. I’ve known so many scumbags in my day. Even stuff that I’ve done to hurt women — I’ve definitely been a jerk before. But what I’m talking about in this song is straight-up assault. I did some music in the last couple of years with this guy that I didn’t know really well. I had a close friend of mine tell me that he assaulted her and I just had to sever ties with him. I had to tell him, "Dude, I’m not trying to put you on blast or anything but not only have you done this, but you did this to a good friend of mine, and I just can’t rock with you anymore."
You also get at the layers of hearing more nebulous rumors about people you know.
I’m supportive, too. There are friends of mine have who have been called out who are making a true effort to rehabilitate themselves, apologize, and make up for the terrible stuff they’ve done. I can at least stand back and support that, even if I don’t wanna be in their lives constantly. But in the case of the guy that I’m talking about in this song, when I spoke to him about it, he just straight-up denied it. He wanted to be like, "Yo who told you that, I think I know who you’re talking about, just tell me, is it this person?" It’s like, dude, just be straight up with me. I didn’t come here to argue with you or to get in a fight about it. Somebody that I trust told me that you did this to them. I believe them. I’m giving you the floor to be honest about it — it’s not anybody else’s business, this is purely between us.
I was honestly offended that they didn’t fess up to it. I can see how it’s hard, but just keep it real, man. Anything you do in the dark is gonna come to the light. If you’ve hurt somebody and you get called out for it, just own up to it. Even if you don’t get called out for it — own up to it.
Did it make you wary about collaborating with people you don’t know as well?
Totally. I really try to trust my gut when I’m meeting someone, [but] I don’t do that all the time. A lot of times I’m on the go and just trying to work with as many people as possible. But after that happened, I decided to reel it back. That’s why, on this album, most of my collaborators are just my good friends. I wanted to keep it in a small circle, and that’s how I wanna do music moving forward.
The older I get, the more I feel like it’s about remaining as true to yourself as possible and part of that is in the people you associate with. I wanna be really mindful about every move I make. Even on “Texas" — it was so important to me to have an anti-gun stance, because that’s something I want as part of my legacy. When I saw what happened at Santa Fe, I thought to myself, It’d be really fucked up if I put out this album as a Houstonian at this time and didn’t even mention gun violence.
On this album, you have a new version of “Charles,” the song about your brother who is non-verbal. What made you revisit it?
I wrote an essay for the Talkhouse that gave me a better understanding of what I thought of family, and me and my brother’s relationship. I wanted to revisit that same theme musically. I thought that I did a really fine job of making a song about him with my group Charge It To The Game, but I felt like I could put those same words in a different context and have them hit in a more effective way. I wanted to make that song feel more straightforward — this is me speaking clearly about how I feel about my brother, and I thought that it was something people should know about me.
I want people to understand that this is a big part of my dynamic and how I view the world. It’s something I think I’ll always be working through. How I feel about my brother and our communication has always been something that kinda bothered me. I really felt like I missed a connection with him because we weren’t able to speak the way that most people do. But I knew we had a way of communicating that was just ours, through body language and just my gut. When I started to write that essay, all these feelings came about, and it just felt much clearer to me. It opened up a dialogue with my mom about my brother, and it’s something that I think I’ll be working through for the rest of my life.
One passage from the essay that resonated with me was how foreign sibling relationships on TV and in movies seemed. My brother’s speech development was delayed, and it definitely complicated our relationship as kids.
It’s complicated, but it’s positive. It made me really happy to revisit it. Talking about my brother with my parents is a different conversation than what I would say in that essay or my song. I don’t have friends who have shared that same experience. I have no one to relate to. I felt like a lot of these thoughts I had about my brother and our relationship were things I could only keep to myself, but this is the first time I’ve been able to get it out in a way that felt really positive. He doesn't get the recognition he deserves for being a great person because he’s not in the public eye — he doesn’t speak, he doesn’t hold a job, and he lives with my parents, you know? He’s sweet, lovable, and charming in his own way, and I want something out there that can honor that.
In that essay, you also talk about how, as a child, you really valued privacy and alone time, and that you consumed a lot of media in a sort of isolated setting. What qualities drew you to art as a kid? What would make you connect with a specific artist or work of art?
I was always into artists that said something I'd never heard before, or used language in a way I'd never heard before. The E-40 song that blew me away by him was “Flashin,” from Element of Surprise. He says some shit on the song that I feel like no one has ever said before. It’s not the idea he’s putting across, it’s the way that he’s saying it. UGK, Devin the Dude, all these artists I love say things that I’ve never heard somebody else say. They’ve literally put words together that I’ve never heard or read in my entire life. I’m a sucker for a good melody, too. That’s why as a teenager I was so into pop-punk — the melodies are pushed to the front, and they’re really obvious.
I’ve seen you play a number of times in a handful of different cities. You’re really good at connecting with crowds, including ones where people aren’t familiar with you. What’s your history with being on stage?
From day one, being a performer was my favorite part of doing music. When I was in eighth grade, I was walking to my seventh-period history class. I had a Walkman with me at all times and for the first time ever, I heard Cam’ron and Juelz Santana's “Oh Boy.” I stopped outside of that history class to let the song finish and I was blown away. The beat was great, the melody was super catchy, they were really funny, they had some great bars. I walked into class and sat down with my three friends, and we all talked about wanting to be a rap group. I sat down and was like, "You’re gonna rap, you’re gonna rap, you’re gonna manage us, and I’m gonna be the producer. I’m gonna come back in a few days with some beats."
Now, I’m… not a producer, so I got home and was like, How do I get some beats? I found out about Soundclick.com. I didn’t have a CD burner, so I took a Fisher Price tape recorder and held the mic up to my computer speakers and recorded some beats I liked, dubbed them to a tape, took them to school, and was like, "Come to my house later, we’ll listen to these and write some songs to them." Me and my friend Keith had a group called Dangerous by Dezign, and the crew was going to be called Simply Throwed Entertainment. I wanted to be a producer-slash-rapper, but I got more into rapping because I didn’t have the equipment to produce and didn’t know where to start. If I'd known how to make beats at that point, I probably would have tried to learn more about it, but I just fell in love with writing.
In tenth grade, we were going to play a talent show and do songs over Mobb Deep's “Win Or Lose” and a T.I. beat — I wanna say it was “Bring 'Em Out.” We were practicing for weeks. I remember being at home and rapping in my mirror to the beat, getting words down. I was feeling really good. The day of the show, my friend brought me a new fitted hat and it was too big, I couldn’t wear it. We were on stage and our DJ equipment started fucking up, the beats were skipping. My two friends who were also rapping were mad, and I knew in that instant that I had to save the show. I started to do a freestyle and I shouted out all the graduating classes, and that became the bulk of our performance because our music didn’t work. The crowd liked it because I was playing to the crowd. I felt kinda shy before that — I wasn’t the kind of person who was super vocal or wanted to be in the spotlight, I valued being behind the scenes more. [But] from that moment on I was like, Yo I love performing.