Fatboi Sharif and his DJ Boogaveli are in the middle of a soundcheck for Sharif’s set at the Brooklyn venue Elsewhere’s 15th-anniversary show. Boogaveli blasts Wayne Wonder and Surpriz’s “Enemies” from his DJ deck — I thought he was playing the song to test the venue’s speakers, but they would close Sharif’s performance with the festive 2010 track later that night. Midway through the soundcheck, Sharif resolves that he’ll walk offstage into the crowd during the third song. He jokes about taking his shirt off during his set: “Small niggas think they the only ones who can take off their shirt. Fuck that…fuck small niggas.”
Perhaps that was his m.o. with the cover of his 2020 breakout album Gandhi Loves Children, where he stands in the woods wearing just a weathered wig, sunglasses, and boxers alongside GLC producer (and close collaborator) Roper Williams, who dons a Ronald Reagan Mask and a dickies suit. No sonic expectations can be gleaned from the cover, but it compelled something out of most viewers.
There are plenty of rappers who fans claim “no one else is rapping like,” but the dignification is actually true of Sharif, who recently released Phantasm with indie stalwart producer Steel Tipped Dove on the mighty Backwoodz Studios. His punctilious, every-word-counts lyricism makes your head hurt in a good way, like GZA’s Liquid Swords, Ghostface Killah’s Supreme Clientele, and RZA’s Gravediggas work all congealed in a thrilling sonic stew. Sharif could easily hide behind his enigmatic catalog, lurking as a mysterious figure in the tri-state underground. But he’s generally the life of a party, and usually shirtless like in the “Phantasm” video, where he rhymes in the snow throughout the Mike Petrow-directed visual.
When I ask Sharif what he attributes his confidence to during our mid-afternoon feast at Brooklyn’s Mi Sabor Cafe, he credits his upbringing, where self-acceptance was paramount.
“[My family] always preached being confident,” he says over a hearty helping of rice and black beans. “It’s only one of you in the world, so you got to fully embrace it. And that [factors into] a lot of things with the rest of me. Growing up, I felt different than other people with how I looked at stuff and expressed myself. In this world, they make it seem like it’s a bad thing, especially when you’re growing up. But to me, A Beautiful Mind is a real thing where people embrace ‘I don’t think like this guy, I don’t see stuff like this guy. But I’m special too.’”
Sharif grew up in Rahway, New Jersey, where he bounced between living with his mother, grandmother, and uncle. The first piece of writing he remembers is a poem he wrote about the holocaust for school, which he described as a “breaking down what I learned from [the teachers]” exercise. He continued to write poetry before expanding into writing raps when he was 10, with his pen serving as a cathartic outlet. “It was easier to say certain things and let certain feelings out [as a writer]. [For instance] me and my mother’s relationship…we was always cool, always loved each other, but we didn’t have the best relationship. And it’s certain things with her that in the music I can say before I say it over the phone.” He listened to rappers like Ghostface Killah and Pharoahe Monch, but he was also a fan of grunge staples like Nirvana, Alice In Chains, and Soundgarden.
He got into theater during the back half of his high school years at the behest of a couple of teachers. While he forgets the name of his most memorable play, he remembers being cast as Marvin, a butler who dies onstage. “You know how they do the black guy, man. They made me the butler, and they killed me,” he jokes. But he still made the most of the moment: “I remember the adrenaline I got from the crowd and the energy [of having to “die” onstage]. I was just like, ‘Yeah, that’s dope. That’s something I want to do forever in some form or fashion.’”
That’s why he’s so thoughtful about his live show. In the Elsewhere greenroom before his performance, New Jersey rapper 89th The Brainchild and rapper/producer DJ Kohai, the other half of their four-man Strangers Live radio show, are in the room while Boogaveli and Sharif pick songs for the set. The two have a simple formula: When Sharif considers one of Boogaveli’s suggestions, he raps a bit of the track and then OKs it. When he’s not feeling it, he quickly scraps it. Boogaveli suggests a particular song, and Sharif retorts, “hell no, this is a fuckin’ party.” You can tell this is a routine that they have down to a science.
Boogaveli tells me during soundcheck that he met Sharif while they were both working at a movie theater as cleaners. He says Sharif “got away with not doing work” because he was so jovial that no one complained about him. Toward the tail-end of Boogaveli’s story, Sharif walks back into the concert room and stamps the two-year tenure as a “terrible era” where he would sometimes do shows in New York and head to overnight shifts in Jersey on the same night.
By the late 2010s, Sharif was immersed in the Jersey underground scene, doing ciphers, performing at shows, and collaborating with artists to build his buzz as a solo artist after leaving Strange Colors and Age of Extinction, two Jersey-based crews that have since disbanded. He was also cohosting the Strangers With Hip-Hop radio show at Keane University. It was there where he first crossed paths with producer Roper Williams, leading to the release of Gandhi Loves Children in October 2020 (with the more ballyhooed deluxe edition dropping in July 2021). The breakout project cemented Roper’s reputation for warping soul loops into confounding canvasses for Sharif’s dense poetics. The duo doubled up this January with the release of Planet Unfaithful.
Sharif says his creative process consists of sleeping with beats and dreaming in sounds, shapes, colors, and messaging that informs his writing process. “The creation of a song from production to writing is just a message from God,” he says. Though his elongated baritone, surrealist lyrics, and penchant for noxious beats happen to radiate a spooky vibe at times, he’s open about hating the “horrorcore” label and isn’t much of a fan of “weird” either.
When asked what “weird” means to him, he says, “I look at it more [like] experimentation. I’m like, ‘We giving people sounds they might not be used to.’ Just being a black man, that’s what we’ve been doing from the beginning. They literally did experiments on us. We can never be weird. We always set the table, and we always expand the sound. Even if you going out of hip-hop, [from] Last Poets to Sun Ra to Alice Coltrane, to the Free Jazz Movement, a lot of people looked at [them] a certain way, but it didn’t get appreciated until years down the line. When people bring words like [‘weird’] up, you might just be uneducated on what you’re experiencing right now, but you’ll get it sooner or later.”
Producer Steel Tipped Dove says he loved Gandhi Loves Children and DM’d Sharif praising the project the weekend of its release. The two struck up a conversation and agreed to collaborate, starting what became Decay over the worst of the COVID pandemic in 2020, a period when Sharif was also crafting Cyber City Society with rapper/producer LoneSword (released in March 2022) and Preaching In Havana with producer Noface (released in October 2022). “I was just going,” he recalls of his busy quarantine. “I would go to Dove’s spot and then go to LoneSword’s spot and then go to Noface’s spot.”
Listening to Sharif on the 17-track Decay feels like walking through a haunted house comprised of endless foyers, with a different jarring painting behind each door. You’re not sure what’s happening, but the interpretation isn’t the point of the experience. Bars like “Cloned reptilians murder at 1600 -Sunrise thesis/ The apartheid seamstress/ Hawkeye, float over sky, fungi fetus” from “East Hollywood” are a glove fit for Dove’s disparate canvas of experimental, foreboding beats. The Brooklyn producer says that “meticulous” is the best word to describe Sharif’s lyricism: “He has an extremely detailed vision in his head that I think he is very successful at executing through his lyrics on top of the weird production that he chooses.” The effect was intensified on Phantasm, with Dove putting reverb and other filters on Sharif’s vocals to deeper enmesh listeners into tracks like “Dimethyltryptamine,” where it sounds like he’s ad-libbing from another dimension.
Sharif says he enjoys his music “being compared to certain films or certain pieces of art, where this is a full world that you got to enter.” He adds, “[my music will] take you somewhere even if you just listening to it in a certain time of the day or a certain weather, you might have a different opinion of it versus other times.”
There are still “one and a half” more Sharif projects to be released from the COVID period, including a “shorter project.” But he’s still creating. Right now, he’s focused on “constant elevation” as a writer and has currently been writing a song for two months. “Right now, it’s up to 10 bars and a chorus,” he says. “It’s a story-based concept song. So, every line of it, I want it to hit a certain way. And I’m putting it [on] a conceptual project. I want that song to be the gear piece for everything else. So that’s been taking a minute.”
No matter how much notoriety he gains, Sharif says he doesn’t envision trying to make his style more accessible, noting, “I’m going to write what’s true to me. And certain people might understand it in the first listening. Other people might not get it to the 56th.”