Phat Kat won't rap that radio stuff



May 24, 2007|By RASHOD D. OLLISON

Phat Kat feels my pain. We agree that it's time for the hip-hop game to change.

"Man, I'm a rapper. This is what I do, but I can't stand listening to hip-hop these days," he says. "Too much stupid [stuff] on the radio, trying to be the real thing. It's not, man."

No doubt.

On his new album, Carte Blanche, the East Detroit rapper makes no concessions to the self-aggrandizing, blackfaced-blinged-out inanity passing as hip-hop these days. Which means you won't hear this record on commercial radio, and Phat Kat (real name: Ronnie Watts) isn't fazed.

Since the release of his 2004 debut, The Undeniable, he has been an international underground sensation, filling venues in Paris, London and Japan.

"In Europe and overseas, people are more receptive to real music, real hip-hop," says Kat, 34. "Here, it's more watered-down. But folks [are] getting tired of that."

With Carte Blanche, released this month by the San Francisco-based indie Look Records, the gruff-voiced rapper is gradually generating buzz here in the United States. National college and noncommercial radio have warmed to the stark beats and hard-hitting rhymes blazing on the album. Kat is also supporting the new CD with a national tour, his first. It stops at Sonar on Monday night.

Now with all the talk about the need for an artistic change in mainstream hip-hop, the time is ripe for reinvigorated approaches. Although Carte Blanche isn't groundbreaking, its believable swagger, upfront reflectiveness and no-frills production are refreshing. The arrangements, courtesy of the late J Dilla, Nick Speed and Black Milk, are emblematic of the rawer hip-hop sound emanating from Detroit. Unfortunately, the sound isn't appreciated at home.

"You're not gonna hear folks like [soulful Detroit rap unit] Slum Village or me in Detroit," says the rapper, who last week was chilling in his hometown. "We're not into the payola, man. Plus, the music we're doing [doesn't] fit into the same [stuff] you hear on [commercial] rap radio every 10, 15 minutes. You come to Detroit and listen to the radio here, and you think you're in Atlanta or somewhere. It's that same Southern rap [stuff] you hear everywhere."

On Carte Blanche, he's critical of his hometown's lack of support, but he's also fiercely proud of his roots, all of which is conveyed on standout tracks such as "Nasty Ain't It?" and "My Old Label." Kat's straightforward style on the mike matches the stripped-down, sometimes darkly arranged productions.

Regardless of what he's rapping about -- surviving the ups and downs of hip-hop ("Survival Kits") or seducing fine honeys around the world ("Lovely") -- Kat is always unpretentious, clever, consistent.

"This is a redemptive record," he says. "The first album, I didn't have control, really. The difference is that I have control of my destiny, which is important to any artist."

Despite his lack of recognition in the United States and the fact that hip-hop is on artistic life support these days, Kat can't see himself doing anything else. He's been hooked on rapping since the eighth grade, which was when he first saw Whodini's video for "Freaks Come Out at Night."

"I was bitten by the bug, man. I knew that's what I wanted to do," he says, a smile in his voice.

In 1995, with his group 1st Down, Kat scored a national recording deal with Payday Records, a label overseen at the time by Jay-Z. But the company folded shortly after releasing the group's single "A Day Wit the Homiez." Then the group broke up.

Afterward, Kat hooked up with producer James "J Dilla" Yancey, one of the best beatmakers to come out of Detroit. In 2000, the rapper landed a deal with Virgin Records in the United Kingdom. But he was unceremoniously dropped before his debut could hit the streets.

He took his master tapes to Barak Records, which, in 2004, released The Undeniable. The record made more noise overseas than in the United States, establishing a market for Kat. He tours overseas now about three or four times a year.

But he's optimistic about a warmer reception for his music in the States. "There's time for a change. People want to hear a real album," he says. "Hopefully, it can be a breath of fresh air. I'm about good music, period. I don't think too many people would have a problem with that if they could hear it."

No doubt.

See Phat Kat with Slum Village at Sonar Lounge, 407 E. Saratoga St., Monday night at 9 p.m. Tickets are $15 and are available through Ticketmaster at 410-547-SEAT or

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