Why the Fat Boys still matter.
Reprinted courtesy Charlie Stettler.
In 1990, the Fat Boys sued Miller Brewing Company for, among other things, unlawful use of the “Hugga-Hugga.” Lite Beer had appropriated this beat-boxing sound—invented inside the mouth of Darren “Buff Love” Robinson—for a 1987 TV ad featuring a weirdly caramelized Joe Piscopo looking like he’d swallowed an inflatable exercise ball. In the pursuant legal brief, the Hugga-Hugga would be cited alongside the Fat Boys’ signature “Brrr,” the alveolar trill of a tongue that sounds conversant in bank alarm. The suit also referenced Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, Inc., Garbage Pail Kids vs. Cabbage Patch Kids, Pussycat Cinema, Superman, and Crazy Eddie—a Brooklyn-based stereo chain that did its part in enabling the Hugga-Hugga to be heard throughout the Tri-State area. The judge ruled in favor of the Fat Boys.
More mocked than understood, the noises at stake in that lawsuit can be heard in all their thunder and glory on “Stick ‘Em,” a track from the Fat Boys first album, revived this month by Traffic Entertainment. The CD reissue comes in a pizza box, a triumph of packaging that could hold a 6-inch mini (thin crust). Pictured on back of the brown cardboard is Buff Love, anchovy-sized in prison stripes, preparing to take a bite out of the Unicode recycling arrows. It’s a tribute of sorts to the Human Beat Box, who died of cardiac arrest in December of 1995.
When the pizza box arrived, I spent most of the day opening and closing it, as if making sure the thing actually worked. I wanted to tell everyone about it, just to say the words “Fat Boys pizza box.” It made me nostalgic for brilliant marketing strategies from hip-hop’s past. It made me want to say things like “Alkaholiks barf bag.” “Three Times Dope knee-pads.” “Ice Cube Lethal Injection hypodermic ballpoint pen.”
The pizza box is a fitting tribute. Buff, Prince Markie Dee (Mark Morales), and Kool Rock Ski (Damon Wimbley) were hip-hop’s first brand, jumping out of helicopters in Swatch commercials and demolishing buffets in movies. (A spit-bucket was retained for the famous Sbarro buffet scene in Krush-Groove—no pizza was actually digested during filming; appetites may have been lost.) Size, the exaggerated framing device of that brand, suited the hyperbole of the Fat Boys career: They earned $5.7 million as teenagers but lost it all by adulthood. Morales prolonged his career by taking up New Jack Swing and writing “Real Love” for Mary J. Blige a year after Robinson stood trial for corrupting the morals of a minor in a videotaping scandal. Wimbley turned to fitness, with ambitions of developing his own protein shake and releasing a workout video with Biggie’s small fry associate Lil’ Cease. He would later joke that the Fat Boys could be reunited as The Ex-Fat Grown Men.
The Fat Boys’ mentor—and the owner of the brand name—is a Swiss-born promoter named Charlie Stettler. In 1982, Afrika Bambaataa, a DJ of esteemed heft and taste, turned on Midday with Bill Boggs and saw a man in a gorilla suit promoting a cassette that contained recordings of garbage trucks. The gorilla, Stettler, had sold over 200,000 tapes of “noise for homesick city dwellers,” released through his label-management company Tin Pan Apple. The following year, he put on a talent show at Radio City Music Hall, and the Fat Boys—then rapping as Disco 3—were the unexpected walk-on champs. Stettler took the group to a yodel-off in his native Switzerland, figuring, as he put it, “If you can get those assholes”— he meant the Swiss yodeling fans—“to nod their heads and smile, then you might have something.” Farmers on a mountain north of Zurich witnessed Buffy doing a beat-box version of “My Country Tis of Thee.” And though they arrived in Europe as the Disco 3, the group flew back to New York as the Fat Boys, after raiding the hotel kitchen and, so the legend goes, sticking their manager with a 375-franc tab, as well as a multi-million-dollar idea.
Stettler got Swatch to sponsor 1984’s Fresh Festival Tour and convinced Russell Simmons to add the Fat Boys to a line-up that included Run-DMC, Whodini, and Newcleus, all of them performing among green lasers and pastel Swiss time-pieces in front of a Keith Haring backdrop. (Having attended Fresh Fest I in Charlotte, N.C., I am grateful to the grave for Stettler’s gorilla-suit hustle.) During the ensuing media blitz, Stettler advised the Fat Boys to yell “Brrr! Stick Em!” if they were unsure how to answer a question. The trademark became a drill.