AIN’T MY VAULT: What You Gonna Do, Fat Rodney?
Rare Essence f/ Fat Rodney – “Lock It Freestyle“
from Live @ Black Hole 12/02/88 (PA Tape, 1988)
Every city has it’s underground rap legends, those unsung heroes who never broke nationally but are forever embedded deep into their city’s consciousness. Two decades before Wale became the city’s national rap poster boy, “Fat” Rodney Tyrone Martin was one of Washington DC’s eminent emcees locally. In just over a year of hopping on go-go stages throughout the city Fat Rodney’s tongue twisting style and charismatic performances earned him a rep as one of the city’s best freestylers. But that would be as far as Fat Rodney would go. On June 11th, 1989 he was tragically shot and killed outside of the Crystal Skate rink in Prince George’s County, MD. He was only 21 years old.
While his peers – DC Scorpio, Vinnie D, Stinky Dink, etc – would drop actual records to local and even some national acclaim, Rodney’s legacy remains limited to just a handful of freestyles on live PA recordings. (According to the Washington Post obituary, he had released or was about to record a song called “Busting Out”, but I’ve never actually seen or heard of a copy in my 8 years of looking for records and tapes in DC.) Well, that and an incredibly strong word of mouth. To hear old heads tell it, Rappin’ Rodney truly was the king of the go-go. If only for a brief period of time.
It’s been twenty years, to the day, since Rodney’s murder, and it seems like as good a time as any to put up this conversation with go-go legend and frequent Rodney collaborator Andre “Whiteboy” Johnson of Rare Essence. The interview was originally conducted May 30th, 2008 for a Fat Rodney feature that was intended for the DC issue of Stop Smiling magazine. That article had to be scrapped due to time constraints and my inability to track down anyone in Rodney’s family. (I’d still love to do something more in depth. If you were close to Rodney please feel free to drop me an email or leave a comment below.)
Noz: How did you guys first encounter Rodney?
Whiteboy: Rodney used to come and see the group play all the time, he was a regular patron.
How did he transition into performing?
Most go-go groups around here, especially back then, the way the we’d set up, we’d perform three or four nights a week and a lot of times the same people would come all three or four nights, so Rodney used to hang out with us a lot back then. And the more you come the more we get to know you and that’s when he told us “I do some rapping.” And then a couple of other guys from the neighborhood told us as well that he could freestyle rap. He would do a lot right off the top of his head, whatever he’s looking at he could rap about. So we would get him up there every now and then and he was already a big favorite in the neighborhood. He was already popular, but the fact that he was getting up there on stage and doing his rap thing and shouting people out, that just made him hugely popular here. He got a huge crowd response. From day one. He was rapping about stuff that was going on inside of the party and people that were inside of the party. He would incorporate some of their names into what he was doing. Everybody went crazy for him.
Were you surprised that he came out so talented at a young age?
We were pleasantly surprised when we first heard him rap. But all his friends used to tell us “man get Rodney up there, Rodney can rap.” I guess he was rapping in the neighborhood or rapping to them when they hang out together. When we first heard him he didn’t have anything prepared, he just started rapping off the top of his head, that is what was most impressive about him. It didn’t take him long, we would tell him “Rodney come on up and let’s do something.” He’d come right up there immediately and just start.
How frequently would he perform with you?
A lot of times it was two or three times a week. It got to the point that every night that he came out it was expected for him to get up there. People would ask Rodney “what time are you gonna get up there?” And he would say “whenever they call me up.” And of course we had to call him up [laughs]. Because there were people requesting him! “Bring Rodney up here!” We liked him too, we enjoyed his raps and his whole persona, his whole personality.
What do you remember about him personally?
Rodney was real cool. He was a very nice guy, always joking, always laughing. We used to call him our twenty minute rap star because any time we needed to fill twenty or thirty minutes in the set we could always depend on Rodney to come up there and do a couple of different raps over a couple of different beats.
Do you have any specific memories of hanging out with him?
We were playing at the Capital Center, it had to be about 12 or 15,000 people there and, of course, we had to bring up our twenty minute rap star. We had a song called “Lock It” in the early 90s and we had [our] verses, but Rodney would come up and do his own rap to “Lock It”. He came up and he did one particular rap and he did maybe about 16 bars and then he started actually locking it, there was a dance that went along with the song. All 15,000 people went crazy up in there. It was beautiful. People already knew him, but people that didn’t know him, they had to fall in love with him right there. That is the fondest memory that I had of him.
It’s interesting because his name always comes up when people around here talk about him but there’s so little information about him out there.
Yeah it is. I mean he wasn’t actually trying to be a rapper. I know he had talked about doing a record here and there. But Rodney, he just liked to come out and have fun, he liked to come out and be at the party.
I had read that he was going to put out a record, but it never materialized.
Yeah he had talked to us about that several times, but I got the sense that he was gonna get to it whenever he got it to it. It wasn’t a huge priority that he’d go into the studio and record an album. He was asking us “would y’all do the record with me?” and we were like “yeah, of course, what kind of question is that?” We told him whenever he was ready. The thing is, he operated on his time [laughs]. You couldn’t make him do anything. We told him, whenever you ready you just let us know and we’ll be there.
What do you think were the circumstances that lead to his murder?
I really don’t know much about that. I don’t know how it would happen because everybody was hugely popular. Of course, no matter how popular, somebody gonna be jealous of you. I don’t understand how, I don’t understand why, I know it was just a very sad thing. He brought a lot of joy to a lot of people. Now I didn’t hear about anything that he was into that might not have been in his best interest. Of course I wasn’t with him 24 hours a day, but whenever he came out to the party or I ran into him on the street he was always having a good time and people were always glad to see him. It’s very unfortunate.
How did the loss affect the go-go community?
We’ve lost a huge talent and part of being popular is your persona. When he walked into the room he lit the room up. There are a couple of other guys who had done it before, but I don’t think anybody [did] it to the extent that Rodney had done it. As so as he walked through the door, everybody was yelling his chant. “What you gonna do, Fat Rodney?!” So we lost a huge talent. And we lost a good friend because Rodney sat around with us for hours, just joking and talking and everything. DC lost a huge talent. Rodney was a great guy, personally. And he was a real good rapper, very observant. The fact that he’s rapping and he spots some girl in the crowd with a red shirt on, he’ll incorporate her into the rap. Spot the guy with the blue jacket on, he brings him into it. All of that is what made Rodney the legend that he is. It’s the reason you calling me now to even talk about him. All of that there helped to form Fat Rodney.