By Jacob Ezra
New Jersey’s Fatboi Sharif is an innovator on all fronts- lyrically, sonically, and just as far as his overall creative process. His output makes for an anti-dote to all things drab and monotonous, packed with vivid imagery and color coming at you at light-speed atop ever-shifting soundscapes. Just when you think his flow has settled into a certain pattern, he switches it in a heartbeat- or, just when you think you’ve figured out what makes him tick production-wise, he’ll bring in an instrumental even more obscure than the last. Many of the beats he chooses are uniquely suited to him, and it’s often difficult to imagine anyone else tackling them. Overall, he is concerned with crafting an entire package that engages and pushes the boundaries, with music, videos, and live shows that are meant to be directly experienced rather than simply listened to or observed. We sat down with Sharif to talk about his origins in New Jersey, journey as an artist, EP Cyber City Society with LoneSword, and more.
Sharif grew up in New Jersey in a household in which he was constantly exposed to music. “I would say it was like a melting pot of sound and soul. My uncle would be in one room, he was big into 70s soul and 80s R&B and he’d have New Edition and Prince playing. Then, my grandmother and grandfather would be in another room, and they’d have more music from the 50s and 60s. Then you had my parents who were big into hip-hop. They put me onto Queen Latifah, Public Enemy, and A Tribe Called Quest”.
The eclectic nature of Sharif’s sound was not only molded by the diverse music he heard in his household, but also by an early love for genres entirely outside hip-hop. “I was a huge grunge rock fan, and a heavy metal kid. I was big on music from White Zombie, to Primus and Metallica. That was also a big influence as far as how I saw the type of music I wanted to make visually. Yeah, so one big melting pot of sound and soul, as I love to call it”.
Despite constantly being around music since a young age, Sharif actually developed a love for writing poetry before later transitioning into songwriting. “I started writing poetry in the 3rd grade, but around 4th or 5th grade I tried writing my first raps. From that point I realized I wanted to make songs”. From the beginning, he was interested in approaching music in his own unique way, “once I started writing, I wanted to craft my skill, and get it to be the point where it couldn’t be compared to nothing else”.
When listening to Sharif’s music, his lyricism immediately stands out as immaculately crafted, with encyclopedic references covering a dazzling breadth of topics. To hear that he began with poetry ties threads together interestingly, as across his journey as an artist he has always put much thought and care into his writing process. “How I look at my writing is, I want every lyric to mean something. I want every aspect of the writing to have meaning. As much as I’m a lyricist, I wanna be looked at as one of the greatest overall writers”.
He also has an equally idiosyncratic process of creating his lyrics, “I like to take beats home and fall asleep to them for a good few weeks. I leave them on repeat for like 8 or 9 hours when I’m sleeping, and within that, I’ll see different colors, sounds, and shapes. And I think about how can I let the listeners know what this beat meant to me”. It’s an intriguingly visual and intuitive exercise that could only produce such distinctive and surreal lyrics as Sharif’s.
Across projects like the cerebral Gandhi Loves Children and the progressive Cyber City Society, the production feels personally tailored to Sharif, with beats so obscure that many rappers would have trouble approaching them in the first place. He says that this is all intentional, “I want the beats to challenge me. I like production where I hear it and think, “oh, how am I gonna write to this? This don’t even seem rap-able””. Providing himself even more of a challenge atop the already knotted, layered instrumentals, he refuses to settle into one pocket as far as rhyme schemes and cadence. “I don’t like to use the same flows. I don’t wanna use it if I hear it and I can tell that I’ve done it before”.
Sharif is mindful about providing an experience for fans that goes beyond just music, as he pairs his output with visuals and live performances that are as creative and character-rich as the songs themselves. “I come up with all the ideas for the videos from scratch, like for “Tragic” and “Adolescence”, to take the track to the next level. And even the performances, I always wanna do something to make it a whole experience for the listener”.
“Adolescence” is a standout track from his recent EP Cyber City Society with LoneSword, which finds him delivering vividly descriptive lyrics atop a futuristic backdrop from LoneSword made consisting only of city sounds. “”Adolescence” started as a poem I wrote sometime last year, but it was only maybe the first 4 lines in the song. I was looking back at it like, I wanna add on to this. I ended up writing a long ass part to it, but I didn’t even want that much production behind it. I just wanted it to be like, I’m standing atop a city like Gotham City, giving my final speech”. Sharif and LoneSword put out an evocative visual to accompany the track as well, capturing its chilling mood of solitude and imagery of urban decay. “I had the idea of having the camera follow me, and then LoneSword told me I should be in the video in a hospital gown. We ended up centring it around the hospital, and walking blocks alone in the city”.
On the conception of their EP Cyber City Society, Sharif says, “I had heard some music from LoneSword that was dope, so I reached out to him, and we linked up to work on the project. The first beats he sent me gave me a super city feel, like on some Blade Runner type shit. So I wanted to draw from that inspiration, but put in elements of what’s going on in the real world. From the paranoia with covid, to the drug addiction going on, to people being depressed and not leaving their homes. We wanted to give a time capsule of what’s happening now”.
Sharif has also been working on a breadth of collaborations, appearing on billy woods‘ recent opus Aethiopes, where he delivers a mind-bending verse at the end of the track “Haarlem”. He also contributed heavily to DRIVEBY and Roper Williams underrated new album Armored Mewtwo Has No Friends. “On that record, I was thinking it would be dope if I just came in and out, like how they used to do producer projects back in the day. Kinda like a narration”. He has some more collaborative work in the pipeline as well, “everybody stay on the lookout. Me and Roper definitely cooking up more, and I’m also working on stuff with DRIVEBY, Noface, Steel Tipped Dove, Blockhead, and some others”.
Sitting down with Fatboi Sharif, one immediately notices his deep dedication to his craft, as he leaves no stone unturned when it comes to his experimental creative process. As he continues to rise in hip-hop’s underground, quickly becoming one of its most refreshing voices, it is clear that he is building a holistic package of music, visuals, and performance that operates largely as its own artistic universe. Overall, one can only be excited for what may come next from him, as he continues to expand his already eclectic, personality-rich sound and style.