Revisiting The Fat Boys’ Iconic Debut Album 30 Years Later
Whenever folks start talking about the dope talent of rap’s first “Golden Age,” The Fat Boys are often written out of the history. Granted, the trio of big Brooklyn boys, who went by the monikers Prince Markie Dee (Mark Morales), Kool Rock-Ski (Damon Wimbley) and the show-stealing Buff, a.k.a. The Human Beat Box (Darren Robinson), weren’t as radical as Run-DMC or LL Cool J, but, as heard on their self-titled debut album, they also still had plenty of talent.
Released 30 years ago today on May 29, 1984, and reissued by Traffic Entertainment in 2012, the whopper of an album once held much weight in the industry, staying on the charts for weeks and becoming one of the first rap albums to go gold. A few years before being relegated to the “hip-hop novelty” section of our collective memories, the trio hailing from Brooklyn's Schenck Avenue—where as boys they played football together—had once taken themselves a little bit more seriously than the clown-princes they later became.
While today the idea of the rap trio may be seen as passé, back then it was cool to be a hip-hop harmonizer and trade rhymes with your crew. The 2012 reissue of Fat Boys gave younger rap aficionados the chance to evaluate the skills of those overweight b-boys-turned-worldwide-icons, who once possessed mad skills before sinking into self-parody.
Prior to poundage becoming part of their rapping routine as they stuffed themselves with pizza and ice cream in the films Krush Groove (1985) and Disorderlies (1987), the Fat Boys were originally proud ambassadors of classic New York City rap. "We wanted to be up there with the Treacherous Three and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five," Prince Markie Dee told the documentary series Unsung in 2011. “We wanted to be nice.” Their debut single, “Fat Boys,” proved to world that they were three times as nice.
Like many rap acts of that era, the Fat Boys had paid their dues on stage at the infamous Disco Fever as well as other hole-in-the-wall New York venues. Yet while Prince Markie Dee and Kool Rock-Ski could handle their own on the mic, it was the biggest member, The Human Beat Box, that the audience went crazy over, as b-boys from coast to coast went hoarse trying to emulate Buff’s dynamic vocal prowess.
Making the music with his mouth, the big boy of rap once explained to Keyboard Magazine, “My family didn’t have much money. I wanted DJ equipment like the other kids, but I couldn’t get it. So, I just started playing the beat with my mouth. It just came naturally.” As a Roctober critic wrote in 2002, “The (Fat Boys’) record becomes sublime when that inhuman beat box mixes with its human counterpart.” For those that needed more, the amazing track “Human Beat Box” was the best two minutes-plus of fun to come out on wax in 1984.
Like their first single, the entire Fat Boys album was produced by old-school legend Kurtis Blow, who played their chauffeur in that first video. “Working with the Fat Boys was amazing,” Blow told Traffic Entertainment reissue producer Noah Uman in 2012. “You had raw talent, which was incredible... We were tripping out, I was going crazy. The record took off so well, nationally, these guys became an overnight sensation. It shocked everybody; it was just awesome to see it go down. What a great time in my life.”
Living in New York City during those days, I remember when b-boys blasted Fat Boys tracks from their JVC boom boxes. In my Harlem hood, every radio bumped those two tracks as much as Run-DMC’s popular “It’s Like That.” Indeed, back in those days there was no shame being down with their music, as brothers recited the words to catchy songs like “Stick’Em” and “Fat Boys” while nodding their domes.
“That first Fat Boys album was the illest thing on the street,” remembers Queens native Mark Skillz, co-author of So You Wanna Be A Rapper: The Trials, Tribulations And Triumphs Of Spyder D. “The way they used echo, the hard drums and wild basslines captured the energy of being a young cat in the streets of the city. On the title track, Davy DMX played some ill grooves, the kind that hasn’t been heard in hip-hop in a minute.” In addition, jazz pianist Don Blackman (Roy Ayers, P-Funk) and bassist/pioneering hip-hop producer Larry Smith (Whodini, Run-DMC) also played on the album.
The Fat Boys were managed by Charlie Stettler, a Swiss native who discovered the teenagers at a rap contest held at New York’s famed Radio City Music Hall in 1983 and was determined to make them into household names. In a 2009 interview with XXL, rapper Prince Markie Dee explained, "'Stick Em' was the song we used to win the contest. It was really just a freestyle with Buff beatboxing, 'Brrrrt stick em ha-ha-ha stick em.'" The song later became one of the group’s standouts on the record and in their live shows.
“The funny thing was, we were kids growing up in Brooklyn. And originally all our raps were heavily hood-influenced. We’d talk about our hood and brag about ourselves," Markie Dee said. "'Stick 'em' was something people in Brooklyn used to say back in the day when you were gonna stick somebody up, going to rob somebody. Like, we’re gonna go stick these kids, or whatever the case may be. And we changed it into 'Brrrt Stick 'Em' like we gonna rob [other MCs]. That was the first thing that we recorded with Kurtis Blow.”
Reminiscing about “back in the day” with Mark Skillz, we both agree that “Jail House Rap,” which was co-written by Disco Fever owner Sal Abbatiello (what he contributed, I ain’t sure exactly), was our shit. “The piano on that song is just sick,” Skillz says. “That was also the era of the big beat sound, and those drums just punched you in the chest. That sound was just so big.”
Unfortunately for the boys, Charlie Stettler (who literally plays the devil in the “Jail House” video) had a little B.T. Barnum in his blood, which was a gift and a curse for the Brooklyn natives, who released six albums in five years. “Stettler had a very different management style than someone like Russell Simmons,” says filmmaker Lisa Cortes. A former manager at the Simmons’ run Rush Productions in the mid-1980s, she worked closely with Rakim and Public Enemy. “Whereas Russell was more into letting the talent define themselves, Stettler worked hard to commercialize the Fat Boys.”
Although Stettler made them the most popular hip-hop act on the planet—making a cameo on Miami Vice, starring in the terrible Disorderlies flick and raking in loot with endorsement deals with Swatch and Sbarro’s—the three crossover stars had lost their b-boy cred, and their music was dead in the streets that mattered. While today the Fat Boys might be seen as expert branders, back in the day they were just labeled sellouts.
After making Disorderlies in 1987 and dropping their last disc as a trio, On And On, two years later, the Fat Boys dissolved their partnership with Charlie Stettler and returned to the streets of New York. Prince Markie Dee soon left the group and became a top producer, crafting tracks for Mary J. Blige and Destiny’s Child. In 1995, Buff died from a heart attack in his Queens home. At the age of 28 years old, he supposedly weighed over 400 pounds.
Though they may be best remembered today for Jay Z name-checking them on the first line of "Heart Of The City," the Fat Boys embody a legacy that shouldn't be forgotten. And while the Fat Boys paved the way for blubbery vocalists Rick Ross and Action Bronson to do their thang, their debut can be heard today as both a game-changer and, for dudes like me and Mark Skillz, a life-changer as well. —Michael Gonzales