Hip Hop Pit Stop: DC’s Fat Rodney And Fat Trel

In his continuing exploration of local rap scenes, hip hop head Noz finds the underbelly of Chocolate City. Through the stories of two Fat rappers, he finds how the town finally accepted hip hop through go-go.

Hip hop’s tentacles spread quickly after birth. The Bronx fad had revealed itself to be a quiet big bang in the 80s, and by end of the decade most American cities with significant black populations had adopted hip hop as the dominant youth music. There were a few holdouts though, the most visible being Chocolate City itself, the nation’s capital.

DC didn’t need hip hop. The city had its own existent local party style in the conga driven post-funk of Go-Go. Unlike so many regional scenes that followed – Miami bass, Los Angeles electro, New Orleans bounce – Go-Go was directly contemporaneous to hip hop but initially evolved wholly separate of its influence. The two styles shared some similarities – both chant driven and built around call and response – but their differences were more pronounced to the city’s residents. For many years hip hop was considered, in local parlance, bamma. Uncultured, uncool, some New York shit. Slowly though, even the go-gos began to adapt to hip hop’s charms. Or at least adopt some of them. In the late 80s the go-go vocalists – ‘talkers’, as they were called – began opening the stage to hip hop inspired guest rappers, one of which was an uptown MC by the name of Rodney Martin.

He was better known as Fat Rodney, though he was closer to chubby than obese, and he lived up to the name in rhymes and presence. Words just rolled off his tongue, even as he shouted them. It was an effect that made the young rapper feel something like a more aggressive Doug E Fresh. Alongside legendary bands like Junkyard Band and Rare Essence at hotspots like Black Hole and Cherry’s, Rodney would jump on stage, plod through a quick 16 or two and effectively steal the show. He even had a regular routine when he performed with Essence, emerging to chants of “What you gonna do, Fat Rodney?” as they hit their Caribbean-infused fan favourite “Lock It”. Much like old school hip hop, go-go recordings primarily travelled by way of hand-to-hand dubs of live PA recordings. [1] As such Rodney’s stage shows are surprisingly well documented between 1988-89. The raps might seem dated by today’s standards – the pace of go-go forced a slower, more deliberate flow than what New York was developing at the time – but his budding stardom is often evident from the crowd response alone.


Perhaps the best tangible document of Rodney’s dominance is the tape of his Rare Essence-backed 1988 battle with DC Scorpio at the Southeast venue Marty’s Chapter III. Scorpio was a go-go fixture as well, but he was also a signed artist whose “Stone Cold Hustler” had become a minor hit throughout the Northeast, making him the closest thing to an actual rap star that the city had produced at this point. He used this relative success as his sole defence to Rodney’s assault on his sweatsuit – apparently bought from the local discount clothing chain Morton’s. There’s a point where Scorpio almost breaks down, breaking cadence and repeatedly shouting “I’m getting paid!” to which Rodney responds, “Oh you’re getting paid/what you selling lemonade?” (Scorpio would later explain that the battle was planned, a marketing ploy. The two rappers were friends in real life.)

There was a heavy subtext to this exchange. Scorpio may have had the record bins, but Rodney had the streets. Because he was in them, allegedly [2] hustling at a high level and connected to Harlem drug kingpin Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez. In fact, Rodney may have been one of the earliest instances of a rapper whose street fame was equal to his rap fame. [3] [4] This lifestyle – or at least the sheer chaos of crack-era DC – caught up to Rodney quickly. On June 16, 1989, he was gunned down leaving a party at the Crystal Skate rink. He was just 21 years-old. The case remains unsolved. [5]

Shortly after his death, Rodney’s first and only studio recording was released. Released under the name Rappin’ Rodney [6], “Bustin’ Out” was a slinky go-go tinged interpolation of the Rick James record of the same name. The liners pegged it as the would-be title track from his never-recorded first album. The track finds a more restrained Rodney, indulging in a sort of sing-song flow, like something a character from a Slick Rick record might’ve broken into. [7] It didn’t exactly become a hit, probably because it didn’t hit exactly. Like so many straight-ahead go-go recordings of the era, it mostly fails in its inability to translate the precise and long form energy of the live performances.

Still, even without a significant studio recording, Rodney’s legacy stands strong. In Sidney Thomas’s DC hip hop book Diamonds In The Raw, “Bustin’ Out” producer Chucky Thompson describes him as, “[Notorious] BIG before there was a BIG.” This is a fairly common sentiment amongst those who remember that era of DC music, but Thompson is probably a better informed source than most – he would later man the boards for the actual Biggie’s Ready To Die as part of Bad Boy’s Hitmen team.

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In the years that followed Rodney’s death, the stigma against hip hop in DC diminished. By the mid-90s, most national rap stars and hits were embraced by the District like anywhere else. Hip hop hasn’t necessarily superseded go-go, which maintains a significant foothold in the local live scene, but it sits quite comfortably next to it. The local rap scene, on the other hand, still struggles to find national acclaim. Small scenes formed and dissolved, disparate acts signed major deals but none really bubbled beyond a niche.

A few years ago a rapper named Wale emerged as an early blog darling/major label signee with a schizophrenic catalog that spanned go-go homages to Lady Gaga collaborations and back again. After a six year crawl from a Mark Ronson cosign to a Rick Ross cosign he finally began to resemble a national rap star, and now when he comes home he is treated like one. He’s more visible than any artist in the history of DC rap and it’s impossible to discuss the scene without mentioning him. Consider this paragraph that concession.

The most exciting DC rapper of today, however, is still in DC. And he too is Fat. Fat Trel, a perpetually shirtless 21 year-old Northeast resident is a particularly adaptable spitter, as comfortable on stage at go-gos as he is at the most backpacky of uptown open mics. He cut his teeth at the latter and therefore is one of the few street rappers his age who actually knows how to rap on stage. As a writer, he’s accomplished in the fields of both purely utilitarian Lex Luger-inspired (and occasionally produced) fight rap and more introspective street narratives in the Scarface lineage. He’s the type of rapper for whom bombast can be implied with a whisper but who can also explode, multiplying the explosive energy of a Waka Flocka type by the elastic wordplay of a Young Dro or Gucci Mane, creating a sort of man-possessed-by-syllables effect.

Trel’s recently released Nightmare On E Street mixtape was poised to be his breakout effort before he split with his then-manager and the manager claimed custody of the Pro Tools files. Trel went back to the lab and re-recorded much of the project from scratch, but seemed to be overextending in poppier directions. Thus the tape follows in the grand sad tradition of DC talent not really knowing how to accurately convey itself in a studio. But one thing’s for certain – he knows how to rap. And he’s adored for the skill, in a city that would’ve once ignored it, or even outright mocked him for it.

[1] Unlike hip hop, go-go still moves this way today.

[2] It’s always allegedly with these matters, as much of the history lives on – and is twisted, of course – through word of mouth urban legend and poorly edited interviews with hood magazines.

[3] When I interviewed Oakland rap legend Too Short a few years, ago he offered this explanation of the dynamic between rappers and dealers in those early days of the genre: “Rappers used to be in the club in the general area. The motherfuckers who sat behind the rope with the champagne bottles was the drug kingpins, the dangerous motherfuckers that ran shit for real. When a rapper or somebody else got to come to the VIP it’s because the gangsters invited you over.”

[4] A few years later, high ranking Alpo affiliate – and eventual defector – Azie made his own move from the dope game towards rapping with his group Mobstyle.

[5] Though Alpo was notorious for having murdered his own partner Rich Porter (as retold in the 2002 film Paid In Full, in which Alpo is portrayed by rapper Cam’ron) he maintains that he wasn’t involved in Rodney’s death. In an interview with FEDS Magazine (poorly edited, naturally), he was asked “They said you killed Fat Rodney. Did you?” To which he responded, “No, although I came close to killing him. He started switching my coke and I started to get complaints.”

[6] Not to be confused with the cringeworthy joke-hop 12" of the same name by comedian Rodney Dangerfield, who was also fat.

[7] If the used record bins of DC are to be believed – and crates never lie – the smoothed out, slow flow of the talkers left the city with a strange predisposition for British rappers and rappers who wished they were British. Slick Rick and his brother from another mother and continent Dana Dane still line the dollar bins.

By Noz on June 18, 2012

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