"I think that, especially after the year that we've had...people need an album like this to remind them of what they have and be thankful."
At the tender age of 15, Anthony Lawson Jude Ifeanyichukwu Obiawunaotu began his musical journey by promoting, booking, and creating shows. From his sophomore to senior year, he dedicated his time to learning about the industry, a plethora of music genres, and even tapped into the world of thrifted clothing. Artistically known as Fat Tony, the Third Ward, Houston-native dropped Exotica on Friday, a Carpark Records-released album created alongside producer and right-hand GLDNEYE, as well as engineer Abijah Livingston. The 32-year-old draws cross-cultural influences and futuristic fusions, as the project illustrates a cohesive journey with Tejano, reggae, and African pop touches, resulting from recording in Jamaica and Brooklyn.
The storytelling found in country music played a significant role in the creation process. It focused on what Fat Tony considers the truer means of storytelling, wherever that is through song or fiction. From UGK legend Bun-B’s feature on the intro track “What Wake You Up,” to on each track onward, there is a careful intention and experimentation at play. Tony talked to Our House about the impact of his Texan-experience on the birth of Exotica.
Jenn: I want to take it back to your early years. Do you remember your first music memory?
Tony: I remember watching tv, and they were playing old clips of the band Nirvana. After Kurt Cobain died, I feel like, for the last five years of the nineties, they would have some kind of special about Nirvana on MTV every weekend. I remember seeing them play, and at the end of their performance, they started smashing their instruments, smashing the drum set. I had never seen that before; I was like, yo, I want to do that. So, I asked my grandmother for a drum set; that was my first time getting an instrument. I also remember being a little kid and watching Prince's video for When Doves Cry, and he's like crawling out the bathtub, and it's such a trippy video. I've always loved music, especially rap music because I grew up in Houston, a city with a rich history of rap music. People like Devin The Dude, Scarface, DJ Screw, Lil' Keke and Big Moe all these people are from where I'm from. So I had a sense of pride that rap wasn't just something that I experienced on the radio or TV. These artists I was looking up to, they're from the same neighborhoods or same areas as me.
Jenn: That's amazing! And in terms of your musical formation, what was your youth like growing up in Houston?
Tony: There are many parts of Houston, the Westside to Eastside. I grew up mostly on the Southside and the Northside; the Southside mainly consists of neighborhoods like Third Ward, South part, Sunnyside, Yellowstone. These are all areas that are right next door to each other. I grew up going between all these areas, hanging out with family and friends, or going to school. These are the same areas that I would hear about when I would listen to Houston rap music. As I listened to it, I'm hearing a mention of all these neighborhoods that I know about that informed me that where I'm from in Houston is a really important place for Houston music. And not just in rap music, but as I read deeper, I learned about all these blues clubs and all these jazz artists that also come from those neighborhoods. I'm interested in punk music too. I learned about 80s punk bands, like Minor Threat and Bad Brains. I remember learning about Minor Threat and saw that they were 17 or 18 when they started their record label. They booked their tours. They were DIY before I knew what that term meant. They directly inspired me to want to put on my shows, learn how to record myself, try to learn all the things that I wanted to do in music, and figure it out on my own before I go to somebody else for help.
Photos by Aileen Son
Jenn: It's so crazy because you were only 15 when you put on your first show. Many don’t have that mentality at 15.
Tony: I was always really serious about making music, even in middle school. I remember sitting my friends down one day and was like, "Yo, you're going to be the rapper, you're going to manage us, and I'm going to be the producer." That was the kind of attitude I had about music since I was a kid.
Jenn: Let's talk about Exotica. I really love the beat selection. Walk me through the creation process of the project.
Tony: "Gambling Man" was the first song that I worked on in that session where I was in the groove, and the song was just flowing out of us. Keep in mind, we [Tony and GLDNEYE] haven't been in the studio in like maybe five years, and we hadn't made a full project face -to -face together in eight years. That first day or two, I'm just kind of like warming up and getting back into the flow. When "Gambling Man" hit, it's just like everything flowed from the imagery to what the theme was going, to what the beat was, to what the verses were. It just felt so easy and so natural. That is still the song that is nearest and dearest to my heart right now, as far as the writing process. My favorite songs on the album change all the time; recently, it's been "Intimate" and "Je Ne Sais Quoi."
Jenn: On “Je ne s..” there’s an accordion, what influenced you to implement that instrument?
Tony: I love Selena, and I love Tejano. I have a lot of respect for cumbia. The accordion is an instrument that combines different parts of Texas from the Mexican side of Texas to some of the European immigrants who came to Texas. Before GLDNEYE worked on this album, I kept bringing up the accordion. He was like, "dude, stop; bring it up." ... When we were finally mixing the album, he presented the latest track, and it had that accordion that I love. The whole song "Je Ne Sais Quoi'' is built around that accordion.
Jenn: Your father is from Nigeria. Any of his influences incorporated in this project?
Tony: I would say my dad's most present influence in this project is the fact that my dad loves country. When I was a kid, I remember asking him, “Why you like country music so much?” And he was like, "because country music tells real stories about real people." As I've gotten into country for the past five years, mainly classic country music, I saw what he was talking about. The music's storytelling aspect inspired me, mostly because I felt like I talked about myself a lot in my last two albums. I wanted to challenge myself as a writer to tell great stories through fiction. I honestly found that I could display more of myself and my world view through these characters. That's the vibe of the whole album. Like only on the very first song do I refer to myself... Life experiences lead me to write a song like "New Beginnings," about a person who would try to fix all these problems, buy a new car, try to get a job, make some new friends, and a new girlfriend, and a new apartment. You know, this is a guy who always tries to take the superficial way out, which he's been told is the way to make himself happy. In some ways, you could view that song as a statement on capitalism.
Jenn: Everyone experiences art differently. But what do you hope listeners feel or walk out with when they finish listening to the project?
Tony: I hope people feel a lot of gratitude for their lives and appreciate what they have. "What Wake You Up" and "Back In The Saddle," both of those are about people being grateful for what they have, not comparing their lives to someone else, and being true to their vision of what they want their lives to be. I think that, especially after the year that we've had, when things have been so hard, and there's been so much suffering, people need an album like this to remind them of what they have and be thankful. How can they find it within themselves to push through any difficult situation, whether it's the pandemic or this coming election? Life has been so hard for all of us globally this year. I couldn't be happier that this album is coming out now, because I think now that we've seen all this, this is when we can turn to music with a message like this and appreciate it. I'm hoping that people feel that, and that this is something that can resonate with them for years to come.
Meet the Family
Jennifer Mota is a Dominican-American Multimedia Creative and Journalist who focuses on topics relating to music, fashion, and Black Latinx identity.
Her expertise in the Latin urbano scene, specifically the Dominican dembow scene, scored her a monthly column in Remezcla entitled “Si Tu Quiere Dembow” where she reports on the genre’s past and present. As a Multimedia freelancer, she’s worked in the internet industry as a producer, journalist, and marketing strategist. She has written for VIBE, Pitchfork, and Tidal; while her on-camera catalog includes platforms like Yahoo’s Live Build Series, The Fader, and Noise Colectivo.
Connect with her here.