Internal Editor Aditi Misra spoke with rapper Farrell Garcon, CC’21, about how his childhood inspired his songwriting, the Haitian influences in music, and what we can expect from the talented artist in the future.
In an effort to continue highlighting prominent members of Columbia’s hip-hop community, Bwog had the opportunity to chat with rapper Farrell Garcon about his latest project titled Exit 11. Drawing inspiration from both his hometown and Haitian identiy, the album features raw stories from his childhood which he reflected deeply upon during the pandemic. As Garcon powerfully states in the interview, “the purpose of this album is to share these stories, to identify, to feel, to laugh with this album, to cry with this album, to feel however [the listener] feels.” And that’s exactly what Exit 11 accomplishes.
The full transcript of the interview can be read below.
Bwog: How did you first get into music?
Fat Westbrook: I got into music when I was very young through my father. Both my parents are from the island of Haiti so when I think of music, my mind goes first and foremost to things like Kompa which is the traditional music present there. He played a lot of Kompa artists, he played a lot of reggae, too, a lot of Caribbean music. He really appreciated music to the point where he was putting me and my sister in piano lessons and violin lessons. He wanted me to get the basics of the instrumentation. In high school, I was looking up YouTube tutorials and figuring out how to play my favorite songs. When you look at music in that way you see patterns. When it goes into my own music creation, I look at those patterns and I developed my own system for how I play. The journey with music is evolutionary. It went from playing the piano to my dad introducing me to DJing and I was DJing parties in high school. And I was like, okay, we’re done with that. The next stage is some rapping. My junior year, I started to rap from freestyles off the bus. It kind of developed into this thing now; so an album later, damn, I didn’t think I would make it this far. It’s crazy to see, for me personally, how far I’ve come from where I’ve started.
So when you have these instrumentals like in “Put it Smooth,” are those all you? Do you collaborate with other producers?
When it comes to my piano playing and some of the instrumentals, I still wanted to have my own personal influence on there. I feel like as an artist, there can be that dissociation between the music that I make and the process that goes behind it because I’m not making these beats. These are producers. I have to go with what I’m presented with, I don’t change any of the beat structure for the beats that are present on the album. That’s how it is, and I just write along to it. For a song like “Put it Smooth,” I really enjoyed that song because that’s all me. Even the production is on me, it’s an mp3 file recorded on my phone. That’s how I intended to do it because where other cuts on the table may seem more professional, the more rugged parts, that’s all me. It’s all-encompassing, so it’s really cool.
I know in “What Happened to Your Hair?” featuring Grant Cammock, your voices blend so well together, it’s a very well-constructed piece. When it comes to collaborating with people, how do you go through that process?
I think a lot of it is just what comes about in a practice room. I’ve always had this idea for a song about hair and my relationship with it, but I realized for a song like that I can’t necessarily sing it. So I just presented this to him and you see he bodied it. I love the timbre on his voice, which is something that worked out well. It’s just a little suggestion that you make in a practice session, and we had a lot of those jam sessions, too.We were meeting continually just because we both shared that love of music-making. Even in like that confined space. It was just the two of us, we both respected each other’s music, he loves to sing I love to play piano, and you see how it just works out.
Especially with that song, and just generally in Exit 11, the lyrics are so beautiful and we can tell that there’s such deep meaning to it. So, firstly, whenever you’re creating these songs, do you hear a beat and then you think of the story that goes along with it? Or do you have a story, and then you find a beat that matches the vibe?
I think it’s a little bit of both. When I listen to a beat I’ll have a freestyle or free-flowing idea. Usually when I listen to a beat, I get a phrase in my mind and that phrase sticks with me. For the example of “Don’t Rush Now,” that’s a song that I’m really personally proud of because of the way that it worked out. Payton [Johnson, CC’21] said, “Pick any beat on my SoundCloud. I’ll send it to you along with the stems.” I was listening to the beat called “The Player Select.” I don’t know why but I got a phrase that kind of stuck with me, the idea of “Don’t Rush Now.” From there, I’m able to piece it back together and say okay, this is how I’m feeling in my life. This really resonates with me, the idea of not rushing, taking the time to express how you feel, especially during quarantine and the things that were going on in June with George Floyd and all that. It was a combination of feelings, and then I’m kind of just humming this idea of “Don’t Rush Now.” Song building for me is very archaic. There’s never a plan to it. There’s never a script to it. And that’s probably the best part about it, is that it’s something new every time.
I’d love to hear a bit more about what has inspired your songwriting in the past, what changed with the pandemic and with all the events from May and June, and how all of that impacted your work.
Past experiences are key. If there’s a good song it comes from a good experience. When I was thinking about my past, the first three years being away from home, I was really trying to find myself. But the pandemic was interesting, because now I was placed back home. It was a homecoming in a sense, but it was also isolating, really thinking about what you went through because the music that I had before, it was a very romanticized version. I still think it is in a sense, but I was like, yes, after these experiences, I came out okay. But I think it’s the idea that it’s okay if you’re still dealing with what you went through. The idea of not knowing what’s going to happen next, the idea of being criminalized for your hair from your own family, being considered the black sheep. It’s interesting because the pandemic forced me to spend time with those elements that I had just gotten away from, the idea of being back home with your parents, looking at your community every day and saying, “What is going on? Why are these things happening?” And really just being involved and present in there. I think that’s something I took for granted when I was younger, and that’s something that the pandemic gave me—that space to say, “Go back and really spend time with the things that made you who you are.”
Looking at all of these places that you’re connected to—New York City, Haiti—how does that show up in your music?
One thing that I’m really happy for is that I’m not from the city, but I’m from this bubble in the middle of rural Rockland County. I’m close enough to where I was able to draw from different experiences, but New York City isn’t my sound. For a song with inspiration from the city, I can point to the song “For the Weekend.” I rap in Creole so you hear the Haiti influence there. In one of my other songs, I’m talking about spending time on 168th Street in Manhattan. You see this blend of African, Caribbean, and African-American culture, culminating into this one long avenue. It’s introduced me to sounds like jazz, traditional sounds more, more blues, R&B. Spending time in the city, I’ve already been exposed to so much music and now you’re asking me to take those, and put it back into my own music. That’s like giving candy to a baby, it’s too easy.
You mentioned in “For the Weekend” you rap in Creole, and, especially in that one, the language switch was so seamless with the flow. On the intro track “1999,” there was also an argument—was that in Creole as well?
Where did that come from? Is that a sample? And if so, how do you pick what samples you want to use in your music?
The use of Creole is interesting because the way that initial argument was structured I was just like, I need to have the most abrasive, loud, ear-catching argument, put it on recording, and then put it into a song. That was probably the first idea for how I wanted to start it because it puts the listener in an interesting position. When I rap in Creole, odds are you unless you speak the language, you don’t know what I’m saying and that’s significant because I wanted the listener to understand how I felt growing up, listening to people argue, and not knowing what’s happening. But it’s also powerful for me because now I have to go and do that work. I now speak Creole which I learned in college my sophomore year so I wanted to communicate that. When I choose samples, I’m thinking, how would the listener kind of react to this? That intro song is mad hectic, you have the 1999 sample and the arguing is all like, “What’s going on?” But that’s representative of the childhood.
The transition from the intro to “Exit 11” is seamless. You had this idea of what you wanted the intro to sound like, and it sounds like in the production, you really weaved it in with that specific order. So, how do you generally decide the order of your songs? Do you think about it in a chronological way or do you wait until you’ve written a few songs and then piece it together?
For this project, in particular, it was two ideas at work. One was tonality and the other pacing. How fast do we want to go? How slow do we want to go? It was able to be a parabolic arc. You have the soft start, then by the time you get to “Mark’s Message” and “For The Weekend” and “Caren’s Brother,” you have this high point of “I’m really feeling it.” Then it’s down, so it’s parabolic in terms of mood, but also, it’s the idea of growth from my perspective. The idea of leaving home and being reflective, and then going through those experiences when I was younger—things like the relationship with my hair, going on family vacations, being called Caren’s brother, that was all when I was younger. Then you get into the more adult feelings of relationships, depression, acceptance, in those later stages. That parabolic arc, it’s a coming of age.
What does this project mean to you?
If I had to say, one, I think it would just be the idea that I’m here. I’m here and I exist kind of piece. This is me, this is where I’m from, this is who I am. I feel like there’s a lot of commonality in the stories that are told in this piece. I know, my feelings aren’t the only ones being felt at this particular time. There’s a commonality in these stories. I’m sure at least one person can identify with one of those songs, whether it be an identity issue or anything for that matter. I think the purpose of this album is to share these stories, to identify, to feel, to laugh with this album, to cry with this album, to feel however they feel. The album does do a lot for me. It’s very empowering for me. I get to say, look, I have a piece of music that perfectly encapsulates my experience, my hometown. It really does feel amazing.
How long were you working on this project?
The research for that started my freshman year, and going through certain beats, seeing what works, what doesn’t, some of the bars. Some of the lyrics that are on that album are three years old, so you compare that to the lyrics that I wrote last week. I’m pulling in from different directions and for me, it feels timeless. This is a body of work I’ve spent three years on.
In your process of creating Exit 11 how have you grown both personally, and through your music?
I think it’s a lot of accepting the mistakes I’ve made. It’s helped me grow. When you look back, making an album where it forces you to look at yourself, and the mistakes you’ve made, especially, you go from thinking it was cringe to, “Man, I’m happy.” I failed, I messed up but now I’ve taken this experience and I can apply this back to myself and move forward. If anything, it made me more mature. It made me more confident in myself, especially like, man, if you saw me my freshman year, thank goodness. I was just a wreck of anxiety. I just know that these feelings that I’ve had, I just know that they’re not specific to me only. And that’s why I think it makes it powerful. To me, I’m not the only one who’s messed up.
Is there a song on that project that you would say speaks to you the most where you think, “This is me in a track”?
I definitely say “Caren’s Brother.” Shout out Tommy Eldredge, he was the one who produced it. The reason why I feel like it’s me is that I’m looking at myself through the lens of being my sister’s younger brother. I know, it’s a weird thing to think of but it’s a brag song about me being proud that I’m Caren’s brother, my sister, but it’s also about me. The story behind it was that my sister went off to college and her being my older sister, anything that she wanted to do, I wanted to do. She watches anime. I watched that. She has glasses, I wanted glasses. Now I see this person gone off to college and now, of course, I want to go to college. She was at City College in New York, I’m at Columbia. I come down to City College all the time. And when I go to City College, I’m not Farrell anymore. I’m Caren’s brother. It’s cool, because they have all these good things to say about me. They’re like, “Yeah, she talks about you all the time, and how cool you are, how you do music.” That’s a really interesting idea—I’m talking about myself, but from the perspective of others, that was forged through what my sister was saying about her younger brother. I really appreciate that song and it’s just a lot of fun. I didn’t have to think too much about it.
Is there a song that felt really difficult to write where you had to do a lot of research in your background?
I definitely say “Exit 11” because there’s no chorus on there. Most of it is just my rapping, and it was a long song to write too because that was one of the first ones that I had written. I know I mentioned pulling bars from three years ago, the opening lines—“suburban houses opioid crisis by the ounces”— that was from freshman year. Then you get into lines later, “moment of silence for Cory, that was my cousin a little bigger,” that happened in 2019 when my cousin lost his battle to depression. It was really challenging for me to write “Exit 11” because I’m trying to synthesize a timeline of events as I’m going through it. It’s the past, but it’s also the present. A lot of those experiences were still evolving. When I was writing the song. It’s like, dang, I feel like I’m in a good space now but this thing happened in my life. How do I fit that in there?
Do you ever get writer’s block? How do you get over that?
If I’m having writer’s block, I’ll go watch an old film. I’ve been watching a lot of mob movies lately and the music that I’ve been writing, I’ve been kind of taking a lot of inspiration from them. Even how things are executed in the movie, stylistic choices that the director makes, it’s not just a plot.
It’s cool to see how movies inspire you and get you moving with your writing. Who or what are your creative inspirations and how have they influenced your music?
I’m not really a movie buff, but I have been getting up there with some of the 90s movies from, Black filmmakers in the early 2000s. Where I’ve been living, I’ve experienced 90s culture, 90s, television, 90s movies, and I see the things that were going on at that time. It’s not really something that I use for writing in terms of subject material, but it’s more like inspiration as they were people who lived before us who were making art. I only associate with the art that is present today, because that’s all I know but there are people who’ve been making art from the 90s, 80s, 70s. It’s really inspiring looking at especially Black art from a historical standpoint, it definitely serves as a source of inspiration.
How would you describe your music style?
I would say extroverted, unapologetic. I’m not afraid to say what I have to say on a certain track. Especially compared to music today, it does sound a lot different. Not from the perspective of “Yeah, I’m like this deep guy that makes deep music,” but it’s identifiable.
What can we expect from you in the future?
I’m working on an EP with Cedric St. Louis. He’s a performer and a friend of mine who has performed at Columbia a few times as well. We’re working on a five-song EP that’s going to release this summer. That’s going to be a lot of fun, because contradictory to Exit 11 this is just good energy. So expect that for sure. I’m definitely working on some merchandise.
Are there any other interesting stories behind your songs?
The original idea for “For The Weekend,” was supposed to have a whole guest verse. The guest wasn’t able to get to a recording studio and so I was like, oh, man, I’m not gonna have a guest verse for the song. I scheduled maybe eight hours in the music studio, I was just like, we’re gonna get this done today and whatever comes out of it, that’s what comes out of it. So he fell through on me, like a week before. We’re doing finals and my finals ended on the 22nd, so I had the 23rd and the 24th. I didn’t even start writing until I got into the studio that day. So the verse after the first chorus was all written within maybe a two-hour period. I’m particularly impressed with it because I was like, “Damn, I didn’t think I could do that.” I had bars on there from three years ago and I expected myself to write a song that’s gonna be a part of me forever, like two hours is this amount of pressure, but it worked out.
Where did the name Fat Westbrook come from?
I’ve had a lot of nicknames in my life. When I was playing basketball at my high school I never played on the basketball team or anything. You see pictures of me, I’m a big dude. I’m not like the most athletic dude but on the basketball court, my friends were joking, calling me Fat Westbrook because one they said I looked like Russell Westbrook, which I don’t think that’s true but to me, it was the idea of being like silently athletic. The idea of “Okay, he can still jump, shoot, play basketball.” Going into the like the rap scene, I was thinking, well, Russell Westbrook was my favorite player growing up, I loved his explosiveness. Even his fashion style, how he leads himself and how he conducts himself on the court. He’s a leader. He’s a lot of the feelings that I wanted to cultivate when I rapped— I wanted to be that explosive, dude, I wanted to have that different flair. He was different. I added the word fat in front of it, because I wanted to appeal to the 90s feel. You have rappers like Fat Joe, Big L, they they had these really big and small personalities that went with it. I took the fat from Fat Joe and put it to my name and I said, okay, but Fat Westbrook. That’s what it was growing up. That’s what they call me. It made it more justifiable. So, I think a lot of people are like Fat Westbrook? What kind of name is that? But hey, at least it made you think about it a little bit. It’s different.
Is this anything else you’d like to add?
That’s really it. Making music is a lot of fun. I like to do it. My name is Fat Westbrook. Yes, ma’am.
This interview was edited for clarity.
Image via Fat Westbrook