Drawing on a cigarette just outside The Boom Room, the still relatively new hip-hop production annex of Columbia's notable Jam Room Recording Studio, titanic emcee Fat Rat Da Czar beams as he recounts this story.
He'd assembled a few of the brightest young emcees he'd worked with at The Boom Room, where Fat Rat works as the in-house engineer and a de facto mentor to Columbia's hip-hop scene at large. They'd been bandying about the idea of doing some collaborating, but it was mostly idle chatter. Finally, Chadd Downing, one of the emcees Fat Rat brought to the room, had heard enough.
"We were all just talking," Fat Rat says between puffs, "and Chadd was saying, 'Why we keep fucking talking about it, man? Anybody got any beats in this motherfucker?'" he laughs. "That sounds like me 10 years ago."
So Fat Rat found a beat and threw it on. None of the emcees had any rhymes ready. But in a little more than an hour, they'd made "New Success," the first cut from NewSC — the debut mixtape from the New Success Culture collective.
"I threw the beat on, and boom," Fat Rat says, cracking his thick fingers in a heavy snap, "New Success."
New Success Culture runs seven deep. Downing, Ran Bruce, Cole Connor, Heazy Boi, LaLisa the General, Perfect G, and Preemo Heem comprise the Columbia-based collective. The Boom Room is the group's epicenter, and Fat Rat is the collective's glue. Each of the emcees had worked on his or her own records at The Boom Room with Fat Rat at the controls.
"I'm sure at some point, they passed each other and didn't think anything about the other person," Fat Rat says. "Like, 'Oh, you're the next guy. Well, Fat's already had me today, so I guess you're the other guy. You're the 4:30.'"
Fat Rat assembled the group, but New Success Culture's name and mission came from Ran Bruce.
"Ran was saying 'New Success' on his records," Fat Rat says. "It was just an ad-lib. He was saying, 'NewSC, NewSC.' I thought he was saying U-S-C." (Ran Bruce attends USC Upstate.) "I was like, dang, he's really put in a plug for his college, man."
When Fat Rat saw Bruce using #NewSC as a hashtag on social media, he picked it up, too. ("And I'm not a trendy guy," Fat Rat jokes.) Connor started picking up on it also. Soon he and Bruce were hanging out and working together, sewing the first seeds of the NewSC collaboration.
But New Success Culture has little to do with South Carolina, Bruce says. That its initials happen to contain the Palmetto State's postal abbreviation is a happy coincidence.
"It had to be universal," Bruce says. "I felt the phrase ... had to be more than [limited to] South Carolina. That means if you're a kid out of California, or New York, or you're not even in the U.S., and you're young and if you feel like you're doing something innovative in music or sports — not even rapping — you are part of the new success culture where you're from. We started it here, and we're the new success culture here. And we're going to spread our ideologies to wherever we go."
Indeed, the group has a wide range of ideologies, styles, and personalities. Bruce, for instance, is quiet and calculated, while Downing is bold and boisterous. The tongue-twisters of the young Connor contrast with the gruff bark of the older Heazy Boi. But each member of the collective, Bruce asserts, is vitally important to the group's broader milieu.
"I think that's what the New Success Culture is," Connor says. "This is a team. This is teamwork. Everyone's bringing their own individual flavor. We're coming at you with our lives, bringing our own flavors."
Styles mesh, but don't overlap; personalities intermingle, but don't inform. Bars are distributed equally on the NewSC mixtape's posse cuts, like "New Success," the wavy "Vibe," and the rambunctious "Celebration." Tracked in a day with no beats or rhymes planned beforehand, the posse cuts brim like cyphers, each emcee pushing his or her comrades to up their game.
"For me, I was competitive the whole time," Connor says. "I started hearing somebody in [the booth], and I was like, 'Shit, I gotta figure out what I'm doing right now.' It's that real competitive spirit that made it exactly like a cypher."
"I think we all feed off each other," Downing adds. "Because everybody wants to be the best. I don't think if anybody just wanted to be OK or just decent that Fat would have them in his circle. He took his time picking us. He could have just been like, 'Eh, I don't really like your music, bro. Take it easy.'"
"Just because you have talent doesn't mean shit," Downing continues. "There's plenty of people with endless talent who haven't made it anywhere."
Fat Rat's a perfect example of that. Back in the '90s, his group Streetside was a celebrated commodity that drew some major-label interest, but ultimately fizzled. The group went down with it. But his hustle, both with Streetside and as a solo artist, has made inroads for Columbia hip-hop acts to share their sounds outside of the city.
Now, Fat Rat is pushing 40, and most of the emcees he's working with are almost half his age. (He's 16 years older than Ran Bruce, for example.) He's largely hung up his solo career — his track on NewSC, the growling "O.G.," is his first release in two years — to focus on his work at The Boom Room. But his work goes beyond helping new artists with their sound. He advises his proteges on how to build their talents into a career, giving out tips on marketing and booking. Fat Rat wants to make sure that today's up-and-comers don't squander the opportunities available to them.
And the New Success Culture is up to the challenge of forging their own path, too.
"Everything we got was simply off his reputation," Bruce says. "That's why we've been able to get at these venues. And I'm thankful, man. We're able to walk through his path, but we're able to build our own path."