Darius Johnson — better known as longstanding local emcee Fat Rat da Czar — knew a year ago that a local rapper would play a main stage at this weekend’s St. Pat’s in Five Points. It’s not that the hip-hop scene leader had inside information, nor did he have some inexplicable premonition. No, Fat Rat knew it when he stood in the crowd watching his friend Ben G performing on an unofficial stage at last year’s festival, riling a crowd of at least 2,000, doing so at a party camped within Five Points’ cordoned off grounds, meaning attendees had to pay for tickets even though his set was free.
On Saturday, Fat Rat and Ben G will perform back-to-back on an official festival stage, the first time that any homegrown hip-hop act has been invited. And while Arrested Development broke down the genre barrier from out-of-town last year, including these two Columbia-reared talents is still a big deal.
“He just really exemplifies everything I feel an independent artist should be about in terms of really getting out there and making things happen,” Johnson says of Ben G’s St. Pat’s success and his work ethic in general. “We don’t talk as much as we used to. We used to talk a lot more, but it’s always so good when we do talk because he’s in a good place, and he’s in a happy place.”
They don’t talk much these days because Ben G, aka Ben Hiott, recently moved to Atlanta. He’s making good on his boisterous, party-starting style, as well as his savvy for marketing, working and recording for respected rapper Waka Flocka Flame. In addition to finishing up a new mixtape, Waka’s is helping to build up the fledgling EDM offshoot of Waka’s Brick Squad Monopoly imprint. He’s benefiting from skills he learned in Columbia — in part by hanging around mentors like Fat Rat — but he left town to continue his ascent, in large part because opportunities like this St. Pat’s set are so hard to capture.
“Me and Fat, we had to earn that spot,” Hiott offers. “They didn’t have like a hip-hop stage where they put lesser known people on it. They put me and Fat Rat on that stage for a reason. They expect us to do numbers. That’s really what it all boils down to is the business. So I don’t think it’s going to help other hip-hop artists. It might help motivate them. But really, you’ve got to get out there and do your own work.”
But while opportunities like this will continue to go to established artists, the fact that St. Pat’s is booking hip-hop acts at all is a testament to the city’s resilient scene. Fat Rat’s been hustling here since the ‘90s, spending most of the last two years focusing on his engineering work at the Boom Room, a hip-hop-focused recording studio operated by Rosewood’s legendary Jam Room.
But his work goes beyond helping new artists with their sound. He advises his proteges on how to build their talents into a career, giving out tips on marketing and how to get shows. Columbia’s a more receptive market than it was when he started out, and he wants to make sure that today’s up-and-comers don’t squander the opportunity.
“We were trying to break down doors back then, just trying to get people to hear us out,” Fat Rat explains. “But now that there’s a crowd for it, and all you have to do is put your best foot forward making good music. If the young guys will have me here, then I will be here. They give me a little flak. They just give me some grey hair, but as long as they’ll have me here, I’ll be here.”