Tomorrow morning, on Christmas Day, rap fans can wake up and download Fabolous' The Young OG Project. "When you get to a certain age, Christmas is for your kids," says the Brooklyn MC. "Other than that, you're just sitting at home, eating, watching some football. Now this album can become the gift you give yourself."
The LP, which is Fab's sixth overall and first in five years, is his homage to the rap scene of the 1990s. "It's kind of like a vanity project," he says, explaining that the tracks emerged from the ongoing sessions for his still-unreleased Loso's Way 2. "I kept getting these beats that were inspired by Nineties records, so I just busted some raps on top of 'em. I felt like I'm a good person to represent that, because I've been around since the late Nineties, and I'm still putting out music, 15 years later."
Every song on The Young OG Project features an allusion to a classic hit from that era, whether it's a flip of the sample on Nas' "Oochie Wally" (technically released in 2000) or a hook built around a quote from Jay Z's "Jigga What, Jigga Who." "The Nineties, to me, is the golden era of hip-hop – it's when I fell in love with it," Fabolous says. "There was everything from gangster rap, to backpack rap, to flashy, flossy rap, to dance rap, to pop rap, to female MC rap. There were so many lanes and styles, and that's one of the things that helped it flourish."
Adds Fabolous, "Nobody wanted to sound like anybody else. I remember when Ghostface made the accusation that Biggie's album cover was reminiscent of Nas'. He was upset about it. And it wasn't even his album! That was the attitude at that time. Later on, in the 2000s, you started seeing a little bit of the originality slip, where everybody was seeing what was successful and just trying to do that."
When the decade began in 1990, Fabolous was 13 years old, living in Bedford-Stuyvesant's Brevoort Houses projects and just starting to write his own rhymes for fun. "I wasn't even trying to be a rapper," he admits. "It was just a hobby to me."
At the time, he says, "My neighborhood was pretty rough, but we didn't know anything more, so we lived in it and accepted it." He shakes his head, remembering. "Those neighborhoods are not kid-friendly. My mom tried as much as she could to keep me out of the streets. But it's only so much your mom can do in an environment that's pulling you in. You fall victim to peer pressure – the things that go on in the streets are the cool things. You might not be a killer, but you might be carrying a gun because people on the streets rob people. I was a smart kid, and I tried not to put myself in a position that could change my life. But there's a lot of people who were probably just as smart as me and got put in that position. There's no crystal ball. You're just living and trying to survive."
In the midst of that everyday struggle, music was an escape. "Hip-hop brought bright spots in that, you know what I'm saying?" Fab says. "Hip-hop was the thing that brought happiness into the hood. You'd sit outside, chop it up with your friends, listen to music, talk about music. There were barbershop talks about 'Who's the best, Biggie, Jay Z or Nas.'" He laughs. "What's funny about that line is, truthfully, I don't even think Jay Z was on that level at that time. He just put himself up there. He made that the conversation."
By his late teens, Fabolous had developed a quick-witted, punchline-heavy style, but he still didn't see rap as a career. "I just loved to write," he says. That changed in 1998, when New York's powerful DJ Clue invited Fab onto his popular Hot 97 radio show. "I came back to school the next day, and some girl was telling me, 'There was this kid on the radio last night, and he was dope, man. He was saying stuff that I had never heard before, and his flow was crazy.' I was like, 'Yo, that was me!' She was like, 'Get the fuck out of here. No way.' I had to say the rap back to her. I always remember that moment." He smiles. "She was the first person that let me know, 'You might have something here.'"