DETROIT—The last time he was on tour, every show, every single one, he says, was sold out.
The crowd was eclectic, and it was mostly college-aged European kids with back packs tossed over their shoulders, swaying side to side, throwing their hands in the air, shouting out nearly every lyric he delivered, all in thick French or German accents.
That’s what life is like for 34-year-old Detroit rapper Phat Kat, born Ronnie Watts, who gets that kind of love whenever he crosses the pond—usually for six weeks or so at a time—to give his audience what he does so well on wax and in person.
Phat Kat is one of the best Detroit rappers that most Detroiters have never heard of.
But with a new album out, Carte Blanche, Phat Kat is hoping to re-introduce himself to his hometown and remind folks why listeners consider him to be the best local hip-hop artist not on a major label.
So far, his album is generating pretty good buzz. He’s being written about in international magazines. And even before being released, it’s ranked No. 36 on CMJ’s hip-hop chart and No. 52 on it s Hip-Hop Select Albums Chart. CMJ publishes college and noncommercial radio airplay charts, intertwining major selling commercial artists like Nas with indie artists like Phat Kat, who originally is from Detroit’s east side.
Phat Kat is in an exclusive fraternity of sorts with other Detroit rappers who struggle to become huge commercial hits in their hometowns, but are in high demand in foreign lands. With a big following in Europe, a new album and a new label—Look Records in San Francisco—Phat Kat is ready to go after the stateside audience. He kicks off a month-long tour in the States starting in San Francisco this week. It’s the first extensive U.S. tour the rapper has done.
“We’re going to sell more units in Phat Kat albums in the U.S. overall than we’re going to do with any other country,” says Dave Paul, who works in marketing for the label.
“We’re pushing a lot in Detroit as far as the release—we are doing a date there for the tour and we’re doing a lot of retail co-ops like listening stations in mom-and-pop stores and price in positioning, so it’s at a lower price.
“He’s the easiest artist to work with. He’s very involved and he wants to understand the business. He already understands a lot about the business. A lot of artists, they just sort of turn in the album and they think their part is done, when that’s really where it begins.”
Phat Kat was one of the first rappers in Detroit to score a national label deal with his group 1st Down in 1995. The group was signed to Payday Records, which was Jay-Z and Jeru the Damaja’s label at the time.
“That came about with a run-in I had with Gang Starr at a record store on Harper,” Phat Kat says. “They were actually doing an in-store for their ... album and I just happened to be in the store and the owner put me on the spot, saying `Oh, did he tell you that he raps?’ They asked me if I had something to listen to, I happened to have a tape on me, I put it in and the rest was history.”
Before the label folded, the group released a 12-inch single, “A Day Wit the Homiez.”
Since then life hasn’t been too shabby for the man who is considered to be one of the godfathers of the Detroit hip-hop scene. He’s in good company with guys like late producer and emcee James (Jay Dee) Yancey, with whom he often collaborated.
Phat Kat describes his music as original hip-hop and says he’s a student of guys like politically inspired, hold-no-punches rapper KRS-One.
In the mid-‘90s, rappers Proof and Jay Dee were at the forefront of trying to organize and rally a Detroit hip-hop scene.
It was the beginning of a small fraternity of rappers, producers and managers, and if you were even thinking about being in the business, you knew one of these guys, including D12, Phat Kat, Slum Village, DJ House Shoes and DJ Dez. Fashion designer Maurice Malone’s Hip Hop Shop was ground zero for Detroit hip-hop.
Proof and Jay Dee (also known as J Dilla) collaborated creatively and rose quickly to become the go-to guys on the hip-hop scene. Dilla came back to the shop with a record deal for production work for national artists. Proof was taking meetings in New York, trying to drum up support for Detroit hip-hop.
“The music I make is like raw; it’s hip-hop at it s finest,” Phat Kat says. “I’m a reflection of hip-hop. I’m giving my interpretation as far as being a Detroiter. The music is for the everyday blue -collar, hardworking person. It’s no bling in my music. It’s just raw elements of hip-hop: emceeing, DJ’ing and raw beats.”
Phat Kat is excited about giving the U.S. market a go, but says it’ll be a challenge. “In a night in Europe you can make from three to five thousand dollars,” Phat Kat says. “In a night in Detroit they barely don’t want to give you 500 bucks. “
Guys like Phat Kat head for Europe or Japan three or four times a year—and they stay three weeks or a month at a time. Sometimes they’re going more frequently than that, other times it’s a lighter year and they’re being flown in for a one-night or a one-week gig. Hip-hop is a full-time gig for all of these entertainers and that’s where they make most of their money. Phat Kat goes back in September for 20 dates, performing with a live band he works with overseas.
Whatever people are taking from Detroit hip-hop is working; it’s now Phat Kat’s turn to translate that transcontinental success back at home.
“Whenever I’m in Europe I always take the Detroit culture with me and try to leave it and let them feed off of it,” Phat Kat says. “It’s sticking over there. You see a lot of Olde English D hats over there. You see a lot of Detroit. I’m always going to be a Detroiter at heart. But I feel like for what I do, it’s more lucrative to spread the word around the world. Detroit is just a little speck on the planet. I’m going to always be here, so that ain’t going nowhere; I just want to spread this whole movement around the globe. I want it to be global.”
DETROIT HIP-HOP ARTISTS WHO DO WELL OVERSEAS
DJ Dez: He’s worked with Slum Village, Lloyd Banks, Truth Hurts, Erykah Badu and Jurassic 5 and is heading to Japan in June to DJ a week’s worth of solo club dates.
Slum Village: Former members include James (Jay Dee) Yancey and Baatin. The rap group, now a duo, has been a longtime favorite on the underground scene, and has had national success but hasn’t reached household-name status. 2005 proved to be a big year for them; they signed on to be pitchmen for the 2006 Chevrolet Impala and 2006 HHR.
Ta’Raach: The producer and DJ is best known for working with other Detroit standouts, including Jay Dee, Dwele, and techno guru Carl Craig.
Big Tone: The founder of Wasted Youth, he’s worked with many of Detroit’s producers and rappers.
Black Milk: He’s one of the city’s rising producers who also raps. He produced tracks for Slum Village’s “Trinity” album and worked on Lloyd Banks’ new album with Detroiters Nick Speed, DJ Dez and Young R.J. In March, the 23-year-old released his major label debut, “Popular Demand,” on the Fat Beats/Song BMG imprint.
Guilty Simpson: He inked a deal with Stones Throw Records, an L.A.-based label that also recorded music by Jay Dee. People are calling him one of the next great Detroit rappers.