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Going Left is a monthly column that highlights exceptional work from indie hip-hop acts. Read last month’s inaugural column here.
Hip-hop’s most adored works come from artists who turn their life experiences and perspectives into immersive environments. For rapper Fatboi Sharif and rapper-producer Lungs//LoneSword, their new project Cyber City Society is a frayed pasture of digital dystopia, where tumult looms around crumbling corners and “the PCP weather forecasted in a hazmat suit,” as Fatboi rapped on album closer “Adolescence.”
Fatboi’s abstract lyricism finds a symbiotic home with Lungs’ pitch-shifted, eerie loops over the course of six tracks. After the first song, the soundscape goes drumless, likely because the suspense of records like “Encrypted” and “Acird Rain” already had listeners’ heart pounding enough. Fatboi excels at reeling off jolting couplets that seem like nonsequitur observations at first, but collectively compile a portrait of a fictional world of tumult. Or is it mere fiction? Most good horrors and thrillers reflect real life elements that are exaggerated for effect. The two artists sought to use their hyperbole to offer commentary on paranoia, drug abuse, unemployment, and as Fatboi says, “society losing its feeling as a whole.”
Both artists tell Complex that the netherworld they created was a reaction to the chaos of life in 2020. Lungs says the first two beats he made, “Acid Rain” and “Monster Theme,” were expressions of the “hell of the initial quarantine.” He was living near Brooklyn’s Maimonides Medical Center, which was so overrun by COVID deaths that he “could see the body trucks” from his window. As Lungs reflects, “it went from that to fighting the cops” during worldwide uprisings after the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
Fatboi says it was initially difficult for him to get inspired during quarantine because he couldn’t be around people, and he was processing many of the same things that Lungs was. “The first year and a half [of quarantine] was, we all got to be scared of everything because of what’s going on in the world,” he says. “We can’t be around nobody. We can’t touch nobody.”
The two friends talked on the phone periodically, and finally reconnected in-person in April 2020. Lungs gave Fatboi those first two beats, then Fatboi walked alone through lower Manhattan with them as his score. That night set a tone for the project, and Fatboi would spend immense time absorbing Lungs’ beats before putting pen to page.
“I would play [the beats] for six, seven hours,” he says. “Sleep to them and just see different shapes, colors, sound effects and shit. Then I’d just go to his crib the next day: ‘Yo, I wrote some fire to this.’” Fatboi says he writes for nine hours a day on average, intent on “creating puzzles for the listeners.”
“A track like ‘Plastered,’ the lyrics go straightforward with the title, and you get it like, ‘All right, this title goes with this, he’s talking about this,’” Fatboi explains. “But ‘Adolescence’ or ‘Crescent Moon,’ it might be two or three different things that one bar might mean. The end of ‘Adolescence’ [is] ‘Dear God, mama tears, bring in the psychiatrist, look where I’m living at, I can’t stand it.’ You might take it as, if you see the video, ‘hospital insane asylum.’ I might mean it as, ‘Mom, take me out of this country, this spot that I live in and the city is a bunch of fucked up shit.’”
That cerebral approach helps Cyber City Society transcend a mere horrorcore designation. Fatboi’s lyricism isn’t about sophomoric shock value, and Lungs’ soundscape isn’t about darkness for the sake of darkness. Fatboi says they looked to albums like Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back, which masterfully reflected the zeitgeist and urgency of a time period. And they were also inspired by sci-fi films.
“The creation [process] was a lot of Chinese food, Popeye’s Chicken, and just watching a lot of movies,” Fatboi reflects. “He’d have some of the old black and white, sci-fi monster movies playing, and I’m like, ‘Yo, I want this shit to sound like this. This was dope, man.’”
Lung says the beatmaking process was straightforward throughout the album’s conception because of his chemistry with Fatboi. Lungs sought to extract just as much with his sample choices as Fatboi does from every bar.
“Sometimes you’ll see the potential of what this thing could be, in the sense of a tiny ass, weird ass loop sound,” he says. “Most people would just hear it and be like, ‘OK, this is a fucking annoying sound being looped over and over again. But for me, it’s an entire world in that loop. I’ll hear that and I’ll be like, ‘Bro, this is an entire soundscape. I’m seeing an entire fucking city.’”
Engineer (and artist-producer) Wavy Bagels added the reverb to Fatboi’s vocals and figuratively colored Cyber City’s soundscape. The previous Goin Left artist says his contributions were seamless, not just because of the time both men gave him to meticulously mix the project, but his years-long relationships with both.
“Cyber City Society has been the most experimental project I’ve mixed,” Wavy says. “Part of the engineering experience is knowing your personnel, knowing the people that you’re recording, and not just on a musical tip. Lungs, he likes a lot of historical context stuff. He’ll be making a beat and have Amazon Prime on it just running back a bunch of old movies—historical, ill stuff. And then knowing that, how that sonically sounds in my head, like an old ‘50s, ‘60s radio.
“And then with Sharif, he likes reverb,” he adds. “He likes his voice to be sounding like it’s in an empty space, and he loves the horror stuff. So I think about my grandma, rest her soul, she used to collect mad horror VHS cassettes when I was a kid. So it was a combination of a ‘50s radio, combined with a ‘90s TV, with a VHS player in it type shit.”
Those finishing touches helped cinch Cyber City Society, which Fatboi and Lungs plan to revisit with follow-up projects. They say their next work will feature Lungs rapping as well. But in the meantime, they’re also working on solo work. They’re staying busy, putting out Cyber City vinyl, and building more worlds.
“I think it’s a good time to make music,” Lungs says. “I also think it’s a bad time, too. It’s rough, but it’s a great time. There’s never been more ways. The saturation fucks you, but it’s so much harder to get boxed out than it was previously. You don’t need an analog recording studio. And now, you can just do whatever the fuck you want. There are so many untouched things that nobody has done, related to hip-hop, that motherfuckers can just do. [It’s about] trying to do shit that’s different in every level, with the merch, with the physicals, and just have thought, care, and intention put into everything.”
Read below for three other acts putting care and intention into their thrilling works:
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