Darius Johnson’s music career began with a vote.
Darius and Mookie, a neighborhood friend and the coiner of Darius’ stage name “FatRat,” led the Devious Suspex. They recorded their first song, “Mental,” in their families’ garages, and then hand-delivered the tape to a local radio station.
One Friday night, FatRat and Mookie’s song was played during “Slam It or Jam It.” The DJ would play a new song, and listeners would call in and vote on whether the song was, essentially, a hit or a bust. “Mental” passed the “jam” test with flying colors.
[You can read about the next twenty years of FatRat’s inspirational music career in his new book, Da Cold Warrior.]
Since that first Friday night, FatRat’s music career has been possible because of the support of his community. Today, his work is focused on providing that support for the next generation.
It began in 2011, when a local business turned away FatRat from performing because it believed hip-hop was “misogynistic” and “violent.” Rather than boycott the venue, or fight back, FatRat wanted to find a way to help more people understand the culture of hip-hop.
“The word ‘family’ popped up, and that was foreign to a lot of people,” says FatRat. “Hip-Hop and family. But it wasn’t to us. We knew that a lot of people were at an age where they wanted their kids to hear what we listened to back then.”
The result was the World Famous Hip-Hop Family Day, a festival focused on inclusion, education, and celebration.
According to the festival’s website, “The goal of Columbia Hip-Hop Family Day is to ensure that hip-hop, represented properly, can be a medium through which the community can come together, all ages and races, for a day of peace, love, unity and having fun.”
“It’s a dance type of hip-hop right now [in 2017], so they’re all about that, and the haircuts,” says FatRat. “It’s very reminiscent of the late 80’s. With us, we’re just trying to bring more of a family element. We wanted to bring the party back. And we wanted to do it in a place that was accessible to everybody.”
Hip-Hop Family Day takes place at the intersection of Main and Laurel Streets right in downtown. It focuses on the music FatRat likes to call “oldies but goodies, clean family fun.” It also includes dance crews, visual artists, crafts, food, fashion, and a whole lot more. The festival made its grand debut in 2013.
“I was praying that 1,000 people would come out,” says FatRat. “Pretty much all night I prayed on that. 4,000 people ended up coming out. And I knew that hip-hop in this city would live forever after that.”
Last year, over 12,000 people came out to Hip Hop Family Day. This year’s event surpassed those numbers yet again.
“My proudest moment every year is to walk on stage and see thousands of people, generations of people even more so,” says FatRat. “To see kids dancing and having a good time. I’m happy to know we’ve dropped some positivity on the community with that.”
Hip-Hop Family Day is really gaining traction, not only locally but within the larger hip-hop community as a whole; this year’s festival was headlined by Kid ‘N’ Play, who topped the Billboard charts in the late 80s and early 90s.
These big names are huge for Hip-Hop Family Day’s notoriety. But equally as important for FatRat and other organizers is a commitment to supporting Columbia’s artists.
“We try to lift the local talent to the biggest stage, to give them the opportunity to perform in front of thousands of people,” says FatRat. “Because if our expectation is that they’re going to be able to go into the industry worldwide and tour, they need to be able to do that here.”
When not working on Hip-Hop Family Day, FatRat works in his studio, “The Boom Room,” as a direct mentor to Columbia’s young artists.
“Some of the young rappers will say, ‘Oh yea, FatRat started me out,’” he says. “I take pride in seeing them make their way, and knowing that I helped them out.”
For example, FatRat explains to his mentees that drawing attention to one’s work today is not unlike the way he built a buzz around his music twenty years ago.
“Back in those days, we pressed records and essentially sold them out of the trunk,” says FatRat. “We had a strategy to be at so many gas stations and convenience stores and car washes every weekend. It’s no different, it’s just the Internet now. We have to make sure we’re in the public’s eye, which may take advertising dollars, or it may take navigating social media a little differently. This is a business where you have to make yourself extremely available. The Internet does allow you to do it from the convenience of your home, but you still have to work.”
However, success for an artist is about so much more than the music now, with the creation of streaming services and the dilution in the monetary value of a song itself.
“Now, the music is kind of free, and you have to be able to sell a good show, and be able to sell merchandise, and you have to be able to attach your brand and yourself to other things that are moving upward to stay relevant,” says FatRat.
He also encourages young artists to make every moment count: to promote their brand to every person they talk to. In his early days, FatRat would DJ and record, then offer to compose filler music for the producers he worked with.
“At Indie Ground [a music entrepreneurship event created by Kevin Felder, also known as Christian rapper Big Redd], I was telling the artists that sometimes it’s not about what the disc jockey can do for you, it may be about what you can do for them,” says FatRat. “Can I give you something you can’t get anywhere else?”
“That was a way to reel them in, to let them know my level of skill and talent,” he says. “And it would also build a relationship. They would see me out later and say, ‘That’s the guy who did my intro,’ or ‘hey can you do another one,’ or ‘hey that intro was so good, here’s someone who wants you to do one for them.’ Ultimately, those relationships are what get you going.”
And, most importantly to FatRat, he stresses staying true to family.
“If you find you have somehow ostracized your family, or you’ve gotten away from the people who care the most about you, I think that is a recipe for disaster,” he says. “I’m still with the same guys I started with. I didn’t lose any friends along the way. My mom is ecstatic about the things I’m doing. These are all great gages to know I’m moving the right way.”
“You can’t do it by yourself,” says FatRat. “It takes a lot of awesome people. How you treat people determines whether or not they’re going to stick with you in the low times.”
“I tell young people all the time, my personal belief is that there are only 2 ways for you to be a boss,” he says. “You have to be elected by a group of your peers, or you have to be positioned by your predecessor. I was elected by a group of my peers, which let me know that they trusted me to seek out the best route for where we were going.”
So where is Columbia going? FatRat believes the Capital City has the potential to be a music community.
“The pieces are coming together,” he says. “It takes great studios. It takes great music venues, and we’re blessed to have a new mid-size like the Music Farm. If you want to build a crowd and a buzz, you have to have a place where people can fit in there. With the Music Farm, 1,200 people can pack in there, you can actually have a local artist bring the noise.”
“For years, Columbia was known as a very finicky crowd,” he says. “And so a promoter would oftentimes pass up venues in Columbia, for fear that he would lose money. And I notice by the frequency and variety of shows that are coming to all our venues, from CLA to the Township to Music Farm, things are vibrant, things are happening in this city.”
“That tells me that we’re moving in the right direction. Music Farm wouldn’t plant here if we weren’t. And I’m looking every weekend at that marquee at The Township; it’s like a who’s who. Earth Wind & Fire one day, Migos the next. It’s crazy.”
With world-famous talent coming to perform in Columbia, the next step is to produce world-famous talent coming out of Columbia. For FatRat, this begins with the citizens of the community.
“I just encourage consumers, when those opportunities present themselves to give our artists an honest ear, if you hear something you like, be proud that it’s coming from the home town,” he says. “And do your best to support those artists, because it really doesn’t take a lot. It’s not about getting rich for most artists, it’s about keeping it going until they get the break they’re looking for.”
“And the two-way side of that street is, artists need to do their part,” says FatRat. “Stay sharp on your art, push as hard as you can to push the envelope, use your voice to make good statements, and that will draw the consumer and the artist a little closer together.”
“Columbia should feel very proud, because we’re going to get a big star out of here very soon,” he says.
“All the gasoline has been laid. Somebody’s going to drop the match, and Famously Hot will live up to its name.”
Photos by Larry Frazier/ The Foto Bros. LLC. Check them out!