Melle Mel and Chaka Khan felt it coming. Ron G was a pioneer. P. Diddy claims to have invented it. Jay-Z and R. Kelly took it to blockbuster status. But when it comes to blending hardcore hip-hop with catchy R&B melodies, no one does it better than the soft-spoken MC from Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, known as Fabolous.
On this brisk spring evening in New York, the 31-year-old rapper is situated in the lounge of Times Square’s KMA Studios, taking a break from putting the finishing touches on his fifth album (his second with hip-hop powerhouse Def Jam), Loso’s Way. Sunk into a, yes, plush black leather couch (must be some kind of contractual studio obligation), watching the fifth game of the NBA Western Conference finals, between the L.A. Lakers and the Denver Nuggets, Fab leans forward and addresses Kobe Bryant as if the Lakers guard can hear him through the high-definition television set. “It’s dagger time,” he says as the fourth quarter is beginning.
Kobe, of course, is L.A.’s go-to guy at crunch time. But Fab knows something about pressure situations and rising to the occasion himself. Reminiscing on his early days in the rap game, the baby-faced MC leans back and tells a story. “When I came in, I came in rapping on the mixtapes, and people just talked about my talent,” he begins.
To say that he came in on “the mixtapes” is something of an understatement. More accurately, in the late 1990s, Fabolous came in on the only mixtapes that mattered—the ones crafted by the legendary DJ Clue. Fab—then better known as John Jackson—was still attending high school in 1998, when he met Clue at New York’s famed Hot 97 radio station, thanks to the persistence of his managers, Web and Cheo. Immediately upon meeting the rookie, Clue threw Fab to the wolves, urging him to participate in a friendly on-air back-and-forth with C-N-N’s Noreaga, who, at the time, was riding high on the success of the highly revered The War Report (with partner Capone) and his own self-titled solo album. “Now I’m sitting there, and I’m just trying to gather thoughts, like, What the fuck am I gonna spit?” says Fab. “I didn’t even think I was going there to rap. I thought I was going there to meet Clue.” Suddenly Clue dropped the beat to The Lox’s single “Money, Power & Respect,” and the rest is hip-hop history. To this day, Fabolous remembers his verse word for word and counts those particular bars as his personal favorites. Today, after some urging, he jumps to his feet and gives a throwback performance, pacing back and forth, kicking each line emphatically: “Just in case y’all was lost/I’m the face in The Source, long Cuban, white ice placed in the cross.”
Clue took him under his wing, and soon Fab found fame on the burgeoning mixtape circuit, which led to a deal with Elektra Records. Early 2001, he got a chance to test his street chops in more of a pop setting, when his Elektra label mate, Baltimore R&B singer Lil’ Mo, chose him to lay a verse on her “Superwoman (Pt. II).”
“I remember coming in the game and having nothing but my mixtape material to go off of,” says Fab. “Mo stepped in and was like, ‘I wanna use that kid Fab on my “Superwoman” joint.’ Her record label was like, ‘You just did a joint with Jay-Z, Ja Rule, Missy Elliot. Why are you getting some mixtape kid?’” He smiles at the memory. “She was pretty much like, ‘This nigga is dope, and this nigga is gonna be the next nigga.’”
Mo was right. Smooth-flowing Fab proved himself capable of fitting the same witty lyricism he employed on his mixtape freestyles into a more song-oriented, radio-friendly format. Next up was a low-key remix for Brooklyn crooner Jimmy Cozier’s single “She’s All I Got.” When he spit “If you heard what the eff I did/You would’ve left my house on fire like Left Eye did,” Fab again struck a perfect balance, catching the ears of both hardcore hip-hop dudes and R&B-loving honeys.
According to Fab’s guestimation, he has appeared on close to 200 R&B remixes to date, both official and unofficial releases. “I jump on certain shit, and then they call me like, ‘Yo, we wanna make it official,’” he says. “I really lost count a long time ago, because certain shit just come to me… At one point, niggas was coming to me with two songs a day.” Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey, Brandy, Jennifer Lopez, B2K, Amerie—the list goes on. Words Rob Markman
For more of the Go-To Guy interview, make sure to pick up XXL‘s August issue on newsstands now.