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All roads on SoundCloud lead to DJ Phat. For the last half decade, the tastemaker from New Jersey has hosted countless songs by some of the platform’s most talented rap acts on his page. Virtually everyone in the current buzzing wave of Plugg and Plugg-adjacent rappers including Tony Shhnow, 10kdunkin, YTB and Surf Gang has released music as a DJ Phat Exclusive at some point or another. Even artists from the 2015-16 boom like Playboi Carti, UnoTheActivist and Warhol.ss owe a piece of their success to DJ Phat’s early mixes and DJ sets. Tapping in with the quietly influential Jersey rap collective 2oo4 in the early 2010s, Phat gained unprecedented access to their world and their ears. 2oo4 introduced him to a teenager from Dallas they were cool with named Tay-K; the original upload of “The Race” lives on DJ Phat’s page to this day.
As he’s grown his audience, DJ Phat has cultivated a healthy feedback loop. He keeps his unmatched ear to the internet and to the streets, putting artists on through his hosting services, DJ mixes and Gangsta Grillz-esque Block Is Hot compilation tapes, and unhyped artists seek him out for a co-sign or repost as a trusted voice of the underground.
The very meaning of “underground” is changing, though. Where it was once a low-stakes space that existed perpetually for artists to experiment freely, the underground is now all potential energy, a vector pointing towards a record deal or big co-sign. Labels are swiping up artists at lightning speed. Nearly everyone on DJ Phat’s 2020 compilation tape Block Is Hot Vol. 3 was or is now signed.
“To me, I don’t even look at it as underground,” Phat told me when I asked what he thinks of being labeled that way. However he chooses to define his work, he continues to do it like no other. “Tastemaking” in its most elemental form is a service for listeners–“Let me put you on to X and Y”–but the best tastemakers–DJ Clue, DJ Kay Slay, A$AP Yams, DJ Phat–take it a step further. Like good storytellers, they narrativize swaths of music, bringing artists from different scenes and regions together in interesting new ways and sometimes making the artists themselves aware of aesthetic connections they might not have noticed. It’s no coincidence that after Phat grouped DMV rappers like Lil Dude, Xanman and Goonew with Queens’ Dee Aura, FLEE, and Shawny Binladen on Block Is Hot Vol.3, artists and fans started to think of these two regions as part of the same wave.
Numbers only tell part of the story of a music scene. The only way you can really understand the scale and impact of regional movements is by talking to people and traveling around. So like any great DJ/A&R/dot-connector, Phat is outside. The first time I Facetimed him in early March, he was in the back of a car somewhere in Ohio. We chatted for 10 minutes before he abruptly hung up. After that, it was impossible to schedule another time for a month. I found out he’d arrived in L.A. and was working around the clock on music and business with his artist Zelly Ocho. When we could finally get on the phone again, Phat had no recollection of our previous call. All he remembered was that he was high out of his mind and no longer associates with the person he was driving with. We then had a conversation about the state of the underground, his career highlights, and carving out a path in music on his own terms.
Mano Sundaresan: At this point, if you were to tell a stranger what you do for a living, what would you tell them?
DJ Phat: I would tell them that I just have a good music platform and I also do management. Or I’ll really keep it short and say I’m an A&R. Shit like that, for real.
In our last call, you mentioned briefly how Yams was an inspiration.
I always liked music. I’m an introvert, that’s how I always was. I don’t depend on nobody, I’m always myself. I’m me. I ain’t have friends back then and I always just depended on music. That’s it. So music was always there for me. Listening to music back in the day, learning new things–it was just what I fucked with. I would spend days, nights, just by myself in my room researching music, documentaries, fashion, just trying to get a whole understanding of the culture. And watching A$AP come up, I definitely seen that Yams was a big part of their marketing. I could see that he had a hand in how their music went, how they presented it. He had his little record label and group called Blackout Boyz. He had Aston Matthews, Joey Fatts. He was helping artists just like me. And before I was even doing the DJing shit, everything that he was doing, like throwing links up and really co-signing, I fucked with. The shit he put me onto plays a role in what I listen to and taking this path into the underground.
Did the New Jersey you grew up in have a rap scene you gravitated to?
Yeah it kinda did, lowkey. Jersey’s just different. The people I linked up with, I just so happened to link up with at the right time and it was 2oo4. They were the first people to introduce me to the culture that Jersey was, and they had a store opening, like Round Two before Round Two opened up. They always had shows and they was bringing out everybody. There was a show, Bari was there and Bloody Osiris, everybody. We brought Carti, Uno before he was poppin’, all the young niggas. The song that blew up, “WHAT” by Uno and Carti, I had DJed it three months before it even dropped. I had that bitch just sitting on my laptop.
How did you get tapped in so fast?
Really just through 2oo4, they were plugged in, they just had a lot going at the time. Plugging me in with DJing for them really helped early days. People always fucked with me every time I did a DJ set. I really don’t play what the normal DJ will play. I’m playing shit that I really listen to. I’m not trying to playing you what you’re gonna hear on the radio. I want you to vibe out with me and what I listen to.
And when did you link with 2oo4?
That was right after high school. I was in college and then I said, I don’t wanna go no more. It just wasn’t for me. I remember the teacher in one of my classes was just like, you really don’t need to be in college to make it. So I was like, why is the teacher telling me this shit? I don’t wanna come back anymore. I was working for a little while and I just decided to make a mix on SoundCloud and people were just gravitating to it. It was called I Wish I Was At SXSW. And then a year right after that I was at SXSW. So that shit was real fast. That shit was fast as fuck.
You manifested it.
I wished, and then boom, dream came true. And that shit was raw. But yeah [2oo4 was] just plugged in, they just knew a lot of people that knew people. They brought Carti to Jersey for his first time, Pollari, Uno’s first time. The reason why [Carti] met A$AP is through the people that I know in Jersey, so it’s a lot of lowkey stuff that goes on in Jersey that a lot of people don’t really know about.
Tell me about how you hosted “The Race” by Tay-K
That was also just being with 2oo4. They had put me on to Tay-K. We were at a show one day in Newark and [Big] Ouee said, “Play this song!” And he played one of his first songs, “Sly Cooper.” And him and my friend Richard2oo4 was just in that bitch and I’m like, yeah that song was fire. Then we was on Twitter and and Ouee [told Tay-K], “Yeah, fuck with my DJ.” And Tay-K was like, yeah fuck it. I was making clothes at the time, and [Tay-K] was like, “Yeah we gon’ make clothes,” this, that and the third. They was just fucking with us off rip. And then we happened to go to SXSW, and I met Tay-K. He just always fucked with 2oo4, they had a strong friendship. I was always willing to drop his songs. Almost every song he dropped after those two songs, I think starting with “Megaman,” I have all those songs with my tags on them on my old computer. They were supposed to have tags. But he was just dropping shit, he didn’t really care about a DJ tag to be real. And that was ok, he was just a young rapper trying to make his way. And when we finally did put the tags and drop it the way we was supposed to drop it, it did what it did.
Besides SXSW, did you meet him in person any other times?
Yeah I met him a couple times. Every time I went to Texas prior to when he got locked up, we’d always link. He came to Jersey a couple times and we stayed together. My old manager was his manager at the time so that’s how we really kept close.
What did you see in Tay-K back then?
Just a young kid that is really trying to get it. He ain’t really have much. He was just trying to make his path for real. He was just trying to make his way. He liked to rap. And at a young age he was excelling at it and he seemed talented at it, and I feel like he just wanted to be noticed at the end of the day, whichever way he could, really prove himself. And he did it, and it happened.
Another thing I wanted to ask you about was your Block Is Hot mixtape series. One thing I noticed on your 2020 tape is you bring together DMV artists and Queens, NYC artists. Is that something you do intentionally? Do you notice these connections between the sounds of different scenes? Or is it just music you fuck with?
It’s really just music I fuck with. Like, I ain’t even have no intentions of that. Even when Pitchfork wrote about it, they noticed how it was a bunch of Queens artists, they went in depth with how the tape was flowing, and it’s really just songs that the artists send me and I honestly just fuck with. Or some of the songs, I was in the stu’ and I sent a beat. Either/or. So that was just off the dome. That was a freestyle.
Around the same time you dropped that tape, Lil Dude and Shawny Binladen started made music on their own together. Do you feel like you play a role in bringing together artists from different parts of the country?
Yeah I really do, and I see it. [An] example now is just being with Zelly [Ocho], a whole bunch of artists I fuck with, they really fuck with Zelly. I’m with Duwap Kaine right now, he’s out in LA. I’m his DJ, and we’re just longtime friends. Earlier today he was playing our recent song that we dropped, me and Zelly “IDGAF,” he was just playing it. I’m like, Duwap you really fuck with that? He’s like yeah. And that’s cool–who would’ve ever thought? It’s just a blessing, everyone really fucks with Zelly at the moment.
You’re always tapped in with what’s next. The artists on that last tape, they’re all doing numbers, I’m sure Drake knows about a few of them. For the next tape, who are you thinking about putting on?
I can’t even say, I have to make it a surprise. Imma be real different. The only person I can say that I wanna get on my tape–imma probably get on that tape too–that’s really different and hot right now is Bear1boss. He’s got my co-sign. Hardest new artist right now.
Where’s he from?
Atlanta. Cole Bennett recently tweeted that you can’t find good music on SoundCloud anymore and he said it was an era, but he needs to take that back because the era is still going on, you can always find new music and it just so happened that the other day, I found Bear1boss on SoundCloud and he is one of the hardest young niggas out. He is supposedly signed to Ian Connor and Uzi. And right now his numbers are really low so it’s a SoundCloud thing, he’s bout to be poppin’.
Do you think SoundCloud is ever really gonna die?
Unless they come out with a better free platform, no. [Cole] also pointed out Spotify, iTunes playlists, but not everybody has Spotify or iTunes. I don’t know, I don’t feel like it’s ever gonna go. There’s music that artists put on SoundCloud that they don’t put on these other platforms at all. That’s just how I feel, I don’t think SoundCloud will ever go.
Looking back on when you dropped out of college, what would that version of you think about where you’re at right now?
Damn…old Phat wouldn’t even believe this shit. I was just living a regular life, for real. I never thought it would go this far, and it happened real fast. It always amazes me. I appreciate it, I’m very humble about it and I’m very blessed. And I thank God that I was able to make my own platform and excel very fast, and excel through time. And it won’t ever stop, because there’s so much more I could do and I am doing.
What’s something that people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
I don’t know if the people know, but I do a lot of executive producing. For example, with Zelly, I sit down with him and we really go through tracks. He’ll punch in two times and be like, Phat what you think? Keep it or not? Is the beat wrong? Should I say this? That’s what I like to do with artists, and that’s why me and Zelly have great chemistry because we can both sit down and do that and he listens and he takes into consideration everybody’s input, and he works very hard and fast and I appreciate that.
Anything else you wanna tell me?
I’m working on just trying to help Zelly the best I can as a manager, friend and DJ, and I really wanna work on having a label after. He’s the first person that proves that I’m label-worthy, and my ear is where it’s supposed to be, and you can trust what I put out.