Artist To Watch: Fatboi Sharif

Artist To Watch: Fatboi Sharif

It is a rainy evening in Rahway, New Jersey, and Fatboi Sharif is trying to get me fucked up. “We’re getting you drunk at work, bro,” the local-hero rapper says with a devilish grin. He and I are backstage at his show in a parking garage that functions as a stage, drinking Christian Brothers Brandy. Dark liquor isn’t always my thing. The taste makes me shiver like I’m at the North Pole. I’m a lightweight, so I usually stick with a Modelo and a shot. Sharif isn’t a lightweight. He’s a burly man, with a smile and body as wide as Zion Williamson. He can take the visceral taste of dark liquor and then go out on stage with ease.

Sharif has a lot to smile about. I’m willing to get drunk with anybody, but especially Sharif, whose music fits somewhere between Cee-Lo of Goodie Mob and an episode of Twin Peaks. The deluxe version of his latest record Gandhi Loves Children has been out for a month now, and it’s opening eyes to the horror-themed rapper — including those of New York radio giant Peter Rosenberg, who has made Sharif a regular fixture of his Hot 97 broadcasts. Gandhi Loves Children is an album of 17 songs, but the runtime is 33 minutes. Not one song goes past the three-minute mark. One of the hardest things to do is to make an album quick and concise while still showing off all an artist’s eccentricities and complexities. With Gandhi Loves Children, Sharif and producer Roper Williams pulled it off.

Sharif doesn’t waste any time telling you what his record is about. The opening song, the “Sympathy for the Devil”-like “Tragic,” is a survey of national tragedies, from the Columbine shooting to the AIDS epidemic to Paul Walker dying on the highway. At one point, he impersonates the woman who murdered Selena Quintanilla: “Rest in peace Selena, I killed my friend.” If you’ve seen the movie, it’s a direct bite. Roper’s beat has a somber loop to it, like a funeral on another planet.

To call Sharif and Roper’s music horrorcore would be a mistake. Yes, Sharif tells tales of the ills in the world, but he’s not really trying to teach or shock you with its sinisterness. (In fairness: Sharif loves horror movies and discussed them at length after his show.) Instead, this is music with a narrative. It is alien rap with a Truman Show-like perspective on daily human life. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sharif hasn’t been able to perform a lot of these songs. His joy lies in the plays that the album is getting, but also the fact that he can finally perform in his home state and show them what he’s been cooking.

***

New Jersey has a community of people who feel they’ve been overlooked. As a New Yorker, this is objectively true. I’ve spent years making fun of Jersey — not only the fact that it isn’t New York, but the way the citizens attach themselves to being the underdog. I’ve little bro’d Jersey my entire life because that’s just my programming as a New Yorker. Even most of the professional teams who have stadiums in their state carry the name “New York.” There isn’t a them without us. We’re just forced to share some of our creativity with them.

On top of that, geographically, Jersey is overlooked as well. It is stuck between two major cities with their own lore, Philadelphia and New York. Both Philly and New York laugh at their neighbors. Jersey being a joke is the only thing they can agree on. This is doubly so in hip-hop, since New York created the damn genre and Philly rappers have long been accepted in the boom bap scene, from Black Thought to Beanie Sigel. But Jersey deserves to be taken seriously. The state has its own culture, and it isn’t just Bada Bing strip clubs and therapy sessions with Dr. Melfi. If you were to play a game of the three best musicians from a single state, Jersey would have a terrific trio. Bruce Springsteen, Ms. Lauryn Hill, and Whitney Houston isn’t too shabby — not to mention Redman, who is on the shortlist for the title of most underrated all-time great. The state’s tradition of excellence has only continued: Mach-Hommy is currently holding the title with best rapper alive for his work on the monumental Pray For Haiti. With Gandhi Loves Children, Fatboi Sharif is starting to add himself to that group of artists.

Sharif was born and raised in Rahway in a household without a musical background. A lot of rappers start off with a basis of soul or funk, the soundtrack to the era their parents fell in love in. Sharif had to go search for things himself. He liked grunge: “Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, White Zombie, all of that shit. From the visuals to the live performances, it was super captivating.” Sharif is able to take the aesthetics and angst from grunge while still keeping it as hip-hop as the corner. If Gabe ‘Nandez is POW Recordings’ New York traditionalist, the guy that raps behind Egyptian monuments, Sharif is their anime character, an outer space mind that has landed in New Jersey.

From grunge, he found his way to rap music via his Uncle Tim. (Later on, when Tim passed away at age 18, “I knew what time it was,” Sharif says. “Music got me through that.”) The legends he discovered gave him the battery to start rapping seriously, a bar to aspire to: “I realized that if I was going to write, it had to be on that level. I had to start taking it to the place that they did that.” He got into Ghostface, Eminem, and Pharoahe Monch. His cousin in South Carolina put him on to Southern rap. “I was influenced by 8Ball and MJG the same way I was influenced by Dead Prez,” Sharif says. He’s from the East Coast but has the same extraterrestrial mindset of a Goodie Mob or Outkast — the idea that the revolution is coming from a different planet, as opposed to rapping about what is happening on his block.

The Dungeon Family influence extends beyond that philosophy to his wild wig and minimal costume on the Gandhi Loves Children album art. But if he looks like an ATLien, Sharif is well aware of the home state he is putting on. “I’ve solidified myself there,” he says. “The show that I just had, most of the people there are from Jersey. It’s a real community.” At college, where he studied constitutional law — “Everyone should know their rights,” he says with a grin — he also built ties in the music community by hosting a radio show. At Kean University’s WKNJ-FM station, he showcased other rappers and participated in cyphers, which led him to meet producer Roper Williams through a mutual friend.

Sharif and Roper had been working on songs prior to the pandemic in 2019 but had to take a break. Eventually, they were able to finish it back up and release the deluxe edition of Gandhi Loves Children this summer, and now they’re back at it, working on new music together. “Roper is the greatest living producer I know, even when I first met him,” Sharif says. “He was gifted, way beyond his years. We read each other’s mind musically. He’ll make a beat and it was something that I was thinking about in my head. It is supernatural how we connect.”

***

As a performer, Sharif moves. In his Timbs and shorts, he goes through the audience like it’s the Oklahoma drill. He commands the crowd. “Tragic” bursts in the air with energy. The lyrics tumble down like dominos, one awful occurrence after the next, and the music feels that way too. Like Chris Farley on SNL, Sharif has such physicality and athleticism in his wide-body frame. The dark liquor has not hindered his ability to perform.

Sharif’s goal is never to show you how good he is at rapping. He doesn’t opt for rhyme schemes that bust your head, but rather songwriting that functions as a stream of consciousness, dotted with long monologues from classic horror screenplays and references to omnipresent gods. He’s a great technical emcee too, with a flair for the surreal. On “Arsenic,” he hits us with a couplet: “The chemist, curses candid/ Vision spoken/ Theater/ Masterpiece with vigil burning.” Like a Ghostface bar, that makes no sense and somehow makes all the sense in the world within the world that Sharif is in.

Sharif isn’t always a rapper who tells us how he feels about the world. Roper’s beats are reminiscent of the claustrophobic production preferred by Armand Hammer, but Sharif is less concerned with radical humanity than billy woods and Elucid’s dystopian duo. He’s telling spooky stories for the kids at the campfire, like Nas with the street earnestness traded out for the otherworldly. Sharif’s raps are an equivalent to taking an acid tab in the jungle. He seems relatively sane on this record, up until the primal screams of “Murder Them”; set against a news clip about an “officer-involved shooting,” it might remind people of one of Death Grips’ industrial backgrounds. Here at the show, though, Sharif still sounds like only he could sound, drunk off the Brandy, yelling about injustices with the cynicism of a person who knows that the investigations won’t lead to anything.

The guy is bringing people together. The crowd at the show I went to was most hype to see the native son that has ended up a mainstay on Hot 97. Sharif’s larger-than-life magnetism extends to offstage, too: He wants to talk to everyone, and he has opinions. (After this week’s Armand Hammer show at Central Park, we were arguing about Jay-Z and Eminem’s careers; Sharif likes The Blueprint 3 somehow. I thought only Chelsea residents did. He also likes Recovery. I thought only AA members did.) He tells me that he wishes we had gone to the strip club together: “It’s the best place to get to know someone.” It is hilarious wisdom like that makes Sharif one of my favorite underground rappers of this moment. He’s willing to connect with people within in person and through his music.

Horror movies have a tendency to become cult classics. All of the weird kids enjoy them to stand out for the normies. Horror fans often develop an exclusive relationship with the genre, using the themes of loneliness and feeling out of place in the world as something that is personal to them. Sharif’s music is an extension of that. While many people combine tragedy and comedy, Sharif pits tragedy and comedy against one another. It’s macabre made on Mars. The weird kids found another one: Fatboi Sharif, a rapper built like a nose tackle, with the voice that scares the deers on the highway.

Derek Balarezo

Gandhi Loves Children is out now on POW Recordings.

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