The Fat Boys Were Important
Krush Groove is a ridiculous movie. Somehow, Def Jam Recordings co-founders Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin talked Warner Bros. into making a movie about the beginning of the label, and they did it before Def Jam had ever released an album. Rubin played himself. Blair Underwood, a man who looks and acts absolutely nothing like Russell Simmons, played the film’s version of Simmons. The movie, a notorious flop, was supposed to be a vehicle for Run-DMC, Simmons’ brother’s group, and for the artists under the Def Jam umbrella. (Early label stars like the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J make cameos.) But if you actually watch Krush Groove, the group that leaves the deepest impression might be the Fat Boys.
Krush Groove director Michael Schultz thought so, anyway. Schultz — who’d previously directed Cooley High, Car Wash, and the Bee Gees’ ill-fated Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie — loved the Fat Boys. The trio were originally cast in Krush Groove as comic relief, partly at the insistence of their overbearing and ambitious manager Charlie Stettler, but Schultz kept putting more and more of them in the movie. By the time Schultz finished Krush Groove, the Fat Boys, just as much as Run-DMC, were the heroes of the film.
Shortly thereafter, Schultz helped the Fat Boys land a movie deal, and he directed them in the 1987 slapstick vehicle Disorderlies. In that one, the three Fat Boys are comically inept hospital orderlies. An aging millionaire’s scheming nephew hires them to take care of his uncle, thinking they’ll help usher him to an early grave. Instead, they teach him how to have fun. Disorderlies is probably a terrible movie, but when I was nine or 10, I loved it.
I knew that the Fat Boys were a rap group, but that wasn’t how I experienced them. I knew of them as a comedy troupe — three big fun-loving oafs who would show up on my TV screen, eat a whole lot of pizza, and make some snobby people very upset. Their whole routine in Disorderlies was only a couple of steps removed from vaudeville, but maybe that’s what it took to sell a rap group to America in the ’80s. Around the time Disorderlies came out, the Fat Boys were easily one of the biggest, most visible rap groups in the world. In a time when rap’s commercial dominance was all but assured, the Fat Boys made a space for themselves. They were deeply silly, and that silliness made them famous.
Last week, Prince Markie Dee died of unreported causes on the day before his 53rd birthday. That leaves Kool Rock-Ski as the only surviving Fat Boy. Buffy, the group’s resident human beatbox and most recognizable star, died of a heart attack in 1995, when he was just 28. In recent years, middle-aged rappers have been dying of natural causes at alarming rates, which says sad things about the kind of stress that goes into rap stardom and its aftermath. It also says things about people of color in America — the way the country treats some people as second-class citizens, and the way that this can affect people’s life expectancies. With the Fat Boys, obesity was part of the gimmick, and that definitely didn’t help Buffy. The Fat Boys never found the beloved rap-elder status that many of their peers currently enjoy, and their Hollywood fame was short-lived. But in the history of rap, the Fat Boys played a very real role.
The Fat Boys weren’t always a comedy act. In 1983, the promoter Charlie Stettler put together a hip-hop talent contest at Radio City Music Hall. Stettler, who’d come to New York from Switzerland as a teenager, had worked as a porn actor and a mob functionary. He was a hustler. After encountering early hip-hop in clubs, Stettler had the idea to find sponsors for his talent show, and he convinced Coca-Cola to kick in $150,000 for the event. In his indispensable book The Big Payback, Dan Charnas writes that Stettler’s showcase was “the very first corporate sponsorship deal in hip-hop history.” At Radio City, the Disco 3, a trio of teenagers from Brooklyn’s East New York neighborhood, won the talent contest. Stettler became the Disco 3’s manager, and he got them signed to Sutra Records, the Mafia-controlled label run by Morris Levy.
As Charnas writes, the Disco 3’s first single bricked, and Stettler lost his temper with the group after they ran up a big room-service bill one night, calling them “a bunch of fat boys.” That gave Stettler the idea to change the group’s name and their image. He marketed them with promotional stunts: A Pepsi-sponsored “guess the Fat Boys’ weight” giveaway contest, a press release that erroneously claimed that the Fat Boys might open the Jackson’s Victory tour. The members of the group played along. In videos, they wore too-tight clothes and shoveled slices of pizza into their mouths. Buffy beatboxed while smearing ice cream all over his face. This whole routine worked. The Fat Boys’ self-titled debut came out just two months after Run-DMC’s first album. Just like Run-DMC’s LP, Fat Boys went gold.
Shameless marketing was definitely part of the Fat Boys’ whole act, but so was rapping. They were good at it. Prince Markie Dee and Kool Rock-Ski had huge, commanding voices, and their all-shouting style was pretty close to what Run-DMC were doing at the time. Buffy was able to use his beatboxing as a cool performance element, and his presence helped them stand out. “Stick ‘Em” is just a good circa-’84 rap song, and its “brrrr stick ’em, hah ha-ha stick ’em” bit is still part of rap’s vernacular. Kurtis Blow produced the Fat Boys’ first two albums, both of which went gold, and he knew how to add little blurts of melody and to give plenty of empty space for the rappers’ voices to echo around.
In the summer of 1984, Russell Simmons and Charlie Stettler put together the Fresh Fest, the first-ever major rap tour. On that tour, and on the following year’s Fresh Fest II, the Fat Boys joined Run-DMC, Kurtis Blow, and Whodini. Russell Simmons didn’t like the Fat Boys and didn’t want them on his tour, but he needed Stettler’s business connections to make it work. Stettler came through, convincing Swatch, the Swiss watch company, to sponsor the tour. Later in 1984, Swatch put the Fat Boys in a TV commercial. That ad probably helped lead to Krush Groove, Disorderlies, and everything else that made the Fat Boys a constant TV presence in the late ’80s.
Early rap thrived on big, cartoonish personalities, and the Fat Boys’ whole gimmick really wasn’t all that different from what their Krush Groove castmates the Beastie Boys were putting out there. (The Beasties were white, not fat, and they had beer, not pizza. Otherwise, it’s pretty much the same deal.) But the Fat Boys also had a certain level of shamelessness. That’s what set them apart and what led to their biggest hit. In 1987, the same year that Disorderlies came out, Stettler pushed the Fat Boys to do their own version of “Walk This Way,” the massively successful Run-DMC/Aerosmith team-up. The Fat Boys got together with the aging Beach Boys, still a year away from their “Kokomo” comeback, and made the utterly blatant nostalgia cash-in “Wipeout.”
It didn’t matter that the original “Wipeout” hadn’t even been a Beach Boys song. The single made it to #12 on the pop charts, and it pushed the Fat Boys album Crushin’ to platinum status. A year later, the Fat Boys again went after that updated-oldie novelty, making a new version of “The Twist” with Chubby Checker and taking it to #16. This was an outright cornball move, and while it worked out in the short term, it pretty much torpedoed any credibility that the Fat Boys might’ve had. In 1987, Eric B. & Rakim opened their debut album Paid In Full with a song called “I Ain’t No Joke” that might as well have been aimed at the Fat Boys. Rap was moving away from performative goofiness. The Fat Boys were heading right for it.
After “The Twist,” the Fat Boys released “Are You Ready For Freddy,” the theme song for the movie A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. That one had Robert Englund rapping in character as Freddy Krueger: “You know it takes just a moment for me to make you mine/ In the movies, I thrill, but on the mic, I rhyme!” The single came out around the same time as DJ Jazzy Jeff And The Fresh Prince’s “A Nightmare On My Street,” a story-song that sampled the Nightmare On Elm Street score and had the duo’s beatbox Ready Rock C doing an Englund impression. Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince had the better song, but the Fat Boys had the one that was in the actual film. Years later, Will Smith was the biggest movie star in the world, and the Fat Boys were a literal punchline. (Chris Rock in 1992’s Boomerang: “First the Fat Boys break up, now this!”)
The Fat Boys did break up. Prince Markie Dee left the group in the early ’90s, going solo and becoming a writer and producer for Uptown Records. Markie’s 1993 single “Swing My Way (Typical Reasons)” made it to #64 on the pop charts, and he co-wrote and co-produced Mary J. Blige’s 1992 breakout hit “Real Love,” an absolutely perfect song. Later on, Markie remixed Mariah Carey and Destiny’s Child and became a radio host. He also did a few Fat Boys reunions with Kool Rock-Ski over the years. He was always around.
Now that rap is the dominant form of pop music on the planet, it’s hard to even conceive of an era when a rap group would’ve needed to be as broad and silly as the Fat Boys to get over. The Fat Boys made it into the ’80s mainstream through mercenary hucksterism, buffoonish comedy, and flagrant hit-chasing. Rappers don’t have to do that stuff anymore. But if a group like the Fat Boys hadn’t been willing to go all-out for attention like that, then maybe rap wouldn’t be the cultural force that it is today.
1. Drakeo The Ruler – “Long Live The Greatest”
Drakeo sounds emotionally torn up on this, his salute to his late collaborator Ketchy The Great. As sad as he is, though, he can’t stop flexing on people.
2. J.I.D – “Skegee”
With socially conscious, historically minded rap music, the trick is always to avoid sounding preachy. On this one, J.I.D sidesteps all those concerns with pure effortless float. He’s precise and thoughtful, but he sounds like he’s lighter than air. “Skegee” is a song about a great historical evil, and yet it’s still fun to listen to. I don’t know how anyone can pull off something like that, but J.I.D did it.
3. Bfb Da Packman – “Honey Pack (Remix)” (Feat. Lil Yachty & DDG)
Packman is the closest thing we have to a present-day Fat Boys, and his lyrics are a sign of how self-deprecating humor has evolved: “Young crack baby, put me in a jar and rock me up/ Rod Wave won’t let me buy a feature/ Damn, am I hot enough?” I may have actually spit out whatever I was drinking at Yachty’s “giving out medium-sized rich dick” line.
4. BabyTron & TrDee – “Scam Fiesta”
BabyTron has been enjoyably ridiculous on everything for a while now. On this one, TrDee has come even more enjoyably ridiculous. Also, they’ve apparently taken the word “ShittyBoyz” out of their names. They’re ready for the big-time now.
5. Young Dolph & Key Glock – “Case Closed”
Imagine hearing a beat with this many weird little details and responding with the kind of graceful, unflappable confidence that Dolph and Key Glock bring to this. What must that be like?