I might not write much about hip-hop on a regular basis, but I do listen to my fair share of the stuff. Call it a function of being born-and-raised in The South, being a teenager in the ‘90s as second-wave hip-hop rose to prominence in pop culture, or spending my adulthood in Houston, TX – one of the focal points for the direction of contemporary hip-hop. Whatever the cause might be, the effect is that I like hip-hop a lot, and just like in good pop music, I’m constantly searching for a good hook, a beat that I feel in the middle of my chest, and a lyrical flow that gets my ears and brain tingling.
Thus, I count it my privilege to have been exposed to the music of Fat Tony almost from the moment he burst onto the Houston, TX underground scene. And like your typical Generation-Y / Millennial kid, he finds inspiration from a wide variety of sources; specifically, he touts his love for UGK and Too Short, while piling equal affection up the Ramones and The Smiths. After rocking Houston for over 5 years, he recently decamped to Los Angeles to hone his craft, and his first project to emerge from the West Coast is the excellent Double Dragon mixtape, co-created with longtime friend and compatriot Tom Cruz. Built upon a bed of samples and sound effects culled directly from the classic ‘80s video game of the same name, this record bubbles, oozes, and radiates streetwise style that’s supplemented by a heady portion or nerdy pop culture references.
In terms of more well-known sonic touchpoints, fans of ASAP Rocky, Curren$y, Yelawolf, Lupe Fiasco, and Frank Ocean will find much to love with this album. Tony and Tom evince a strong hustle and flow, but instead of aping some sort of overblown Odd Future “swag,” the duo prefer to display their energy and confidence with class and aplomb. To put it another way, the typical braggadocio you expect from hip-hop is balanced out by lyrics that are profound and confessional in their impact. For nearly every reference about hooking up with girls, there’s one decrying the nature of “the game” and wanting to find something more than a clichéd “hard” lifestyle.
Also, I’ve always been a fan of how Fat Tony talks up and honors his upbringing, specifically when he namedrops stuff like Osh-Kosh, Bugle Boy, and Toughskins – as in, as opposed to slamming the lesser commercial products he was forced to wear as a kid, he mentions them as a way to pay homage to them. He also pays his respects to Houston, TX, giving special attention to his Third Ward neighborhood, in the same way that Snoop talks about the LBC and Jay-Z regularly mentions Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn.
I would be remiss to talk about the influence that Tom Cruz has on the record. He raps on a solid 40% of Double Dragon, but his greatest touch comes from the beefy production quality. To clarify, the tracks most certainly are not over-produced and steroid-bulky; instead, they resemble an Olympic long sprinter like Michael Johnson – lean, muscular, and designed to defeat all comers. Cruz makes principled use of the video game samples; akin to a good chef, he selects only the choicest pieces, complements them with a spectacular bevy of snare hits and kick drum thumps, and the arranges the plate with supple dexterity and taste.
Am I a biased homer for my city? Of course I am; hell, most music critics and sports journalists have been for decades, and we expect them to be. So, when I declare that Double Dragon might be one of the top 15 hip-hop records of 2012, I’ll admit to some hyperbole and Houston-centric hype, but I still think that rap fans of all stripes, from New York and Chicago through Atlanta and across to Los Angeles, will love this record. Take a gander at cuts like “Denim Guinness Boys,” “Young Girl (featuring 10ille),” “Bad Habits (featuring Bun B and Nick Diamond),” “Porch Sittin’,” “I’m Worried,” “Double Up (featuring Main Attrakionz),” and the title track to hear exactly why Fat Tony and Tom Cruz should be blowing up the blogosphere and message boards (hip-hop and otherwise) in the very near future.