Check the fine print on your next music story about the guy who struggled hard, maintained his vision and focus, and finally succeeded. There between the lines is a disclaimer: Your results may vary. For every guy you hear about, there are dozens of equally talented ones you don't — and never will. That was the situation facing 35-year-old Columbia, S.C.-based rapper Fat Rat da Czar. He hadn't yet made it, but he wasn't ready to quit. The only question was, what next?
"Music had always kind of kept me from straying too far from home base, but I needed to make some decisions, because music is a privilege," Fat Rat says from the Boom Room in Columbia, the legendary Jam Room Studio's sister studio where he's been working for the past year. "A lot of musicians feel because they have a gift or a talent, that it's a promise, but it's not. It's a privilege."
Fat Rat, a.k.a. Darius Johnson, has been pursuing a hip-hop career since before the turn of the century when he and some buddies started Streetside. They were anomalies in the Capital City who were into golden age groups like Run-DMC, Doug E. Fresh, and Eric B & Rakim. "People thought we were from New York," Fat Rat laughs. "The [Columbia] sound of the '90s was Miami bass, so a lot of music from Miami and Atlanta was switching this way, but we grew up on old-fashioned. It was an original hip-hop crew."
Streetside also decided to put out their own records. "We got the bright idea from Master P that we should press them up ourselves, which worked wonderfully," Fat Rat says.
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They sold albums out of a trunk at shows and helped drive the Columbia scene. They even drew some major label interest. But by 2005, Streetside had run its course. Fat Rat, however, wasn't ready to surrender. In 2008 he got back in the game with his first solo album, Da Cold War.
Yet he knew it had to be about more than just the music. He wanted to give back. He wanted to offer his help to the next generation and contribute to making Columbia a welcome place for hip-hop. When he was with Streetside, there was no one in that famously hot city who could show them the way.
"There wasn't a hip-hop guy there at a recording studio in town that could say, 'OK, I see what you're trying to do. I've been doing this for 25 years, let me help you out.' There wasn't that guy, so we were breaking new ground back then with really no direction. We probably wasted tens of thousands of dollars just trying to do it independent and not really knowing," he says. Today, Fat Rat is the mentor he never had. "I get a kick out of it. I love it that the young guys come in here and they rejuvenate me."
And he's not ready to give up the ghost just yet. He's still pushing and grinding — even more so now that he lost his day job of nine years cutting metal pipes for watercraft. He's put some of that time toward completing the final chapter in Da Cold War trilogy. The new album comes out Election Day, Nov. 6. (He's even recorded a clever political ad-style promo.)
In the three years since his last release, Fat Rat claims to have cut over 115 tracks, cherry picking the best for the new album. He gave listeners a taste of what's to come four months ago when he released the Inglourious Basterd mixtape. It showcases the breadth of his vision from the minimalist low-riding "Call Your Bluff" to the soulful, De La Soul-flavored "Round Da Way Girl" and the infectious "Be Strong," a striking track featuring fellow Cola Town rapper Ben G that recalls Gnarls Barkley. "I didn't realize we had done something people considered a little different. I never gave it two thoughts," says Johnson about the track he recorded with Ben G. "He's young. I'm older. He's white. I'm black. It was just a great song and it inspired me."
He says that the mixtape cleared out all the fun songs and that we should prepare for a more serious side on Da Cold War III. Between losing his job and watching his father and stepfather battle cancer, Fat Rat has been forced to do a lot of growing.
"It allowed me to take two steps backwards and say I can either start preparing for stuff like this to happen or I can keep skip-to-the-loo-ing like it ain't going to happen and have it blindside me," he says. "I'm not as invincible as I used to think I was. Things that seemed so important at 25 really just aren't very important at all at 35. Relationships mean a lot more. Spending time with my mother and my son mean a lot more than a hot rod."
Fat Rat knows that he doesn't have the same audience he did when Streetside was around. And while he doesn't record the kind of braggadocio-heavy tracks favored by young rappers, he doesn't mind guesting on theirs. "There's always a new young hot shot, and I love that spirit. Some of the older guys, they don't appreciate that spirit. I love it. The older guys, when they see that cockiness, they just say 'Ehhhh.' They forget 10 years go that was them," he says. "These young guys are coming. You can't stop it, so enjoy and embrace it."
But that's no excuse to stop busting his ass. "There's no bench in life," he says. "You have to play the whole time."