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Cultural Capital

The Testimony of Fatboi Sharif

At a recent show in NYC, the Rahway rapper welcomed an audience to his world.

Fatboi Sharif performs at Public Records. (Hell Gate)

In a light blue hospital gown and shrieking under a blood-red spotlight, New Jersey rapper Fatboi Sharif announced to the crowd at Public Records in Gowanus on a recent Friday that "the spirit of God is in the building."

"The spirit of pleasure and pain and all the bullshit happening in the world," he exhorted, "is in the building right now."

The lights were pointed away from the stage and into the front of the audience floor, and Sharif wandered from the light to submerge himself into the shadows around the crowd and back again. The audience circled him like a corona, watching. He faced the stage. He told his DJ to tell us what to do, and where to point our hands (up). 

Fatboi Sharif is a performer in a hip-hop landscape where stage performance has been made almost obsolete, replaced by social media presentation. Hip-hop shows, at least the ones I've been to in recent years, are recitals in reverse, the audience yelling the lyrics in a performance of familiarity. The rapper is not so much a performer as a conductor, an energetic focal point for the room, present mostly to realize the promise of the performer's Instagram.

Not Sharif. After the show, he told me he follows a higher mandate at his shows, that live performance "is the next level of connecting with your audience. People hear your music, your MP3s, but they want to get tapped into the next side of it."

As a teenager in Rahway in the late 2000s, Sharif would write raps while watching old videos of grunge and punk bands—Bad Brains performing at CBGBs, Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails at Woodstock '94. "I look at it as just the power of the voice," he said. "A lot of my performance influences aren't even music. I'd look at Malcolm X doing a speech, and I'd love the power they'd have just by saying a word."

This is not to say Sharif doesn't have the persona of his hip-hop contemporaries—his antics just don't end online, they bleed into the performance practice until it's laced with an ambient, low-stakes psychedelia. 

Sharif's style is Ghostfacey and surreal. He produces, but often puts out joint releases with other artists where they vacation in each others' vibes and synthesize new, collaborative sounds. Most recently, Sharif has been collaborating with fellow Jersey rapper-producer Roper Williams, producing beats for themselves and each other, in the process creating a dusty world of spills and thrills, deep sub-bass, and voices that creak like strings. Their most recent release, "Planet Unfaithful," came out this January, a follow-up to 2021's full-length "Gandhi Loves Children."

On stage, his DJ, the fellow Rahway rapper and producer Kohai, sneered, "He 'bout to rap," and dropped an especially scuzzy beat. And Sharif was off, staring up into the red lights, raspily promising that he was "with a Smith and Wesson at the Smithsonian," and laying hands on the audience like a preacher. (In an Instagram DM, he told me he's not religious.)

After his set, Sharif was shaking everybody in the room's hand like a presidential candidate, still in the hospital gown, looking like a ghost, an orb of ball lightning in the middle of the room. He does the "hospital gown thing," he told me later, only on "special nights"; it brought to mind Kurt Cobain, who once famously played in a hospital gown

Afterwards, we were talking about the energy he summoned in that room, the phantasmagoria. "What are you making the people feel? That's what I love when I'm at a show," he told me. "I'm seeing people moshing, I'm seeing people crying, even people passing out, out of joy and excitement. To me, that's real artistry. That's what we should aim for."

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