Fame School's Ambitious New Sound Simmers From Under the J Train
Just on the other side of the Williamsburg Bridge, under the rumble of the J train, on Sunday night, a musical movement is happening. It's called Fame School, and the Chocolate Sundays party at the Flat (308 Hooper Street, Brooklyn) is the pressure cooker for this new sound.
Inside the small club, the crowd jumps in unison, shaking dreads, throwing up middle fingers and gunshot motions at the camera following them with a spotlight. They yell the hook of the newest Fame School song with an energy that is palpable and contagious. They pull Fame School hats over their eyes, spilling champagne on Panty Raiders and No Deal T-shirts. It's like a family reunion after the parents have gone to bed and everyone is just glad to be getting together.
Recently signed to Fool's Gold Records, Fame School performed at the label's seven-year anniversary party at Webster Hall and the scene was like an early Wu-Tang concert, with nearly 75 people onstage, all rapping along and celebrating. This is the energy that Fame School brings, and when you feel it, you can't deny it.
Seeing the crowd at Webster Hall, it's hard to believe that Fame School started less than a year ago. Producer Slim and Telli the MC were in the studio joking, "Come see us if you want to get famous!" And it stuck. Telli, formerly one-half of the Brooklyn punk-rap group Ninja Sonik, has been in the business for nearly 10 years and knows something about standing out. He wears oversized black-frame glasses and a raccoon tail, hung from the back of his fitted jeans, combing the tuft of dyed hair under his Fame School hat. Slim, a tall, quiet man with long blond hair he wears under a Run-D.M.C.-like crown, has a fondness for full-length fur coats and a penchant for pimpish poses. While their appearance may be unorthodox, their sound strikes the right mix, with Telli's melodic hooks and street-ready lyrics spilling over Slim's high hats and bass-heavy beats for a big, professional sound. When the crowd gets extra wild to their songs, they stand back and watch like proud parents.
They came out of the gate fast last year, releasing videos and a clothing line almost immediately, but it became clear that their message wasn't yet refined. "It's like being an X-Men," Telli says one evening from the leather sofa in their midtown studio, between sips of purple Sprite. "If you don't have control of your superpower, it can get messy." Per the advice of longtime friend and now fellow Fool's Gold label-mate Nick Catchdubs, they pulled back.
They honed their message, releasing just snippets of songs on Instagram, branding everything with their signature crest -- a combination of roses, daggers, and an hourglass, representing the melodic, dangerous, and time-tested aspects of the group. They used social-media tricks like memes, Emojis, and "bumpers" -- those short fading logos you see at the end of a video -- to further the brand, and kept feeding the buzz each week at the weekly Chocolate Sundays party. Finally, they brought more family and friends under the umbrella of the company and, as Slim says, "things really fell into pocket." Manolo Rose, who grew up with Telli around the Marcy Projects, has a forceful delivery, a classic hip-hop timber, and an ear for grandeur. Loyal Duce, Manolo's cousin who, at just 21, is the wild young buck of the crew, has a smart and honed flow already.
Manolo is the hardest and most recognized name in the family. His latest song, "Run Ricky Run," is a brilliant cinematic nod to '90s gangster rap, referencing Boyz n the Hood, Juice, Harlem Nights, and Menace II Society all over a gunshot-riddled Slim-produced track less than three minutes long. It's aggressive and violent, but somehow comical and nostalgic at the same time. Manolo recognizes this dichotomy and, while he raps about violence and the drug game, his message cuts far deeper. His previous release, "All About the Money," is already an underground hit, picked up by Troy Ave and recently remixed by Ghostface and Raekwon.
"We are linking the underground world," Manolo says, sitting in the back of the club, pointing out the members -- the working parts of the larger machine. "With everyone moving together toward the same goal, we can't be ignored." With graphic designers, social-media coaches, enough hypemen to fill a jumbo jet, and longstanding friends like A-Trak and Theophilus London in their corner, Fame School have the pieces in place to take over their corner of the city.
But something intangible is at work as well. "It's all happening very organically," Telli says. "When the stars align around something, the universe assists you." Manolo recognizes it too, speaking with a cautious superstition. "It's creepy," he says. "I'm not a religious man, but there is something else giving this thing legs."
Fame School will drop their first single, "Money Machine," on Fool's Gold at the top of the year; new music from Manolo and Loyal is coming soon. Keep an ear out for this hungry new sound rumbling under the tracks of the J train. Once you hear it, who knows, you might want to register for Fame School, too.
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