Apostle of Hustle

Fat Tony has seen the light.

"It's about money, it's about hoes and it's about being respected and being really cool and really, really fly," says the 21-year-old rapper born Anthony Obi. "That is it. That's what rapping is about."

This isn't exactly a groundbreaking revelation, but it's a common obstacle for up-and-coming rappers struggling to find their own voice and style.

"A lot of times people get into the hip-hop thing and focus too much on what is real hip-hop and what is fake, and what is commercial and what is underground," Tony says.

"As I got older and I rapped more and I got better, I realized all that is complete bullshit — none of that matters," he adds. "All that matters is getting this money, being fly and making good music. That's what it was when that shit started, and that's what it will be when it ends."

Fat Tony's answer, then, is to surrender to the vices...but focus on the music.

"Once I got into the real shit of rap I discovered, 'Okay, this is what I need to tap into myself to really bring out my true character,'" he says.

Thus was born the Fat Tony who didn't give a fuck about shit.

"I went from being myself and wanting to appease a mass group of people to being myself and wanting to appease a mass group of people without giving a fuck or giving in or wording things differently to fit somebody's ear," he says.

On "Home," the only single thus far released from Obi's forthcoming full-length, RABDARGAB, he raps about a night of bar-hopping through his preferred hot spots Mango's and the Mink. These places might be unfamiliar to fans who have seen Obi sharing the stage with bigwigs like Devin the Dude, but Obi makes it known he goes for the "right" reasons.

Money: "Got an occupation making hot shit blazing."

Hoes: "I am at Mango's hanging with some dang hoes."

Respect: "Nigga back up, you fucking my mack up."

Being cool: "Looking muy guapo, stunting in my mustard-colored poncho."

But Obi simply uses these as talking points. "Home" isn't about being fly in da club, it's about an identity crisis. Obi is surrounded by familiarity, but still stands outside of it. He describes those Mango's hoes as "23 but act 16 years old." He's an outsider wondering if he should be participating in the life around him, or if he already is — or if he already is, if it's believable.

"On the daily basis I am raiding spaces that belong to racists," he raps. "Making funny faces in places I have no place in."

Obi's music all comes back to struggle to accept the hip-hop trinity of money, hoes and clothes, where such claims catch up with his barely legal experience (which is not a slight). "Home" and other RABDARGAB songs depict the youthful battle to admit that being bad isn't necessarily wrong, and being good isn't always preferable.

"He is an art-tist" says Shaka Girvan, the producer responsible for most of the beats on RABDARGAB. "An artist [is someone] who can see the world through their eyes and then show it back to you and you want to look."

Girvan is a self-admitted hater of ­project-seeking MCs. This is why it was surprising for the Atlanta producer, known to hip-hop heads for his work in Supreeme, to give Obi a ring after receiving his demo (along with countless others) while on tour.

"In my scene, in Atlanta, all these young kids, and some older ones too, wanted to work with me, and I haven't worked with nobody because I didn't think anybody was worth working with," he says. "With me and Tony — you ever see The Fox and the Hound? Sometimes it just clicks like that."

It clicked, but took awhile to stick. Girvan and Obi have been working on the album since 2007. The pair fleshed out tracks together in Atlanta and Houston, where Girvan's family lives a block over from Obi's mother's house — where he still lives — in the Third Ward.

"Frenchy's is responsible for about two inches of my growth — I've chilled on Scott; I've done it all," laughs the producer.

However, the pair found they worked best apart.

"It allows him to be at home and do what he has to do without me being behind his back, and it allows me to be over here doing what I do without the artist being on my back," says Girvan. "I hate when I'm making a track and the artist is in the room like, 'Could you raise that, what is that called, the tambourine?'

"But really the influence is, I hear what he's saying," Girvan adds. "He hears what I'm doing and I hear what he's doing."

Whatever they were hearing, it comes together in a way that shows a focus lacking in Obi's past. His earlier songs were impressive and definitely crowd-pleasing, but seem scatterbrained when held up next to the mixes on RABDARGAB, which draw upon multiple genres.

Girvan plays on Obi's preference for diverse mixes, but slows them down to accentuate the rapper's organic delivery. Obi's lyrical phrases are strung together as he inhales; every breath is packed with words that must be delivered before the last ounce of air leaves his lungs.

Fans will (finally) be able to hear RABDARGAB in its entirety in...wait for it...

"I want to put the album out around my birthday [March 24]," Tony says. "But I want to put it out a week before SXSW, so I have something to bring."

Whatever potential fans he misses there, he's hoping to catch via the album's namesake. RABDARGAB is an acronym for a former HISD initiative to get ­elementary-school students to read, as in "Read a book. Do a report. Get a buck."

"There's going to be a special few people that are my age especially and from Houston that went to public school, watched cartoons, that know what it is and will probably like me anyway and they'll buy the album," Tony hopes.

Obi admits even educational references can be turned into hip-hop intentions.

"It's goes back to h-u-s-t-l-e, a hustle."

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Dusti Rhodes
Contact: Dusti Rhodes