Settled behind the counter of his Burlington retail shop Steez, Kyle Thompson looks cool and contented. The man known as "Fattie B." is dressed simply in a dark T-shirt and oversized cotton pants, but the boyish gleam in his eyes belies his casual pose. At 6-foot-2 and 325 pounds, Thompson would be intimidating were it not for his humble friendliness. He's quick to smile and talks excitedly, slowing only to accentuate a point. He looks right at home in this second-floor boutique, which is filled with urban-styled clothing, music and his own artwork. One glance at the subject matter in his vivid, screen-printed graphics reveals a lot about Kyle Thompson: turntables, break dancers, vintage sneakers and other icons of rap-music history. "As soon as I heard hip-hop, man, I just knew. I got it," he says.
No kidding. For the past 15 years, Thompson has been elemental in the development of hip-hop and urban culture in the Green Mountain State. As an MC, producer, DJ, artist and businessman, the 30-year-old Vermont native has become a don of Burlington's downtown scene. His trio Eye Oh You holds down an immensely popular weekly gig at Red Square. And his self-produced Hop series of compilation discs showcases Vermont's burgeoning urban, hip-hop and dance-music community. Thompson "is real persistent with projects," states his band mate and friend A-Dog, a.k.a. Andy Williams. "He's into doing a lot of good for other people."
In his home town of Bristol, Thompson first discovered city styles and African-American music the way many other rural and suburban white kids did in the late '80s and early '90s: television. With no cable access at home, young Kyle would drive to friends' houses where he would stay up late, mesmerized by shows such as "Yo! MTV Raps."
"When I was growing up, especially in Vermont, being a rap fan was unheard of," Thompson says. "I'd listen on a boombox as loud as I could, trying to be the white rapper. I can specifically remember people giving me shit for listening."
Soon he was sucking up every hip-hop cut he could find from the likes of the Beastie Boys, Run-DMC, Erik B. & Rakim and others. "I remember driving to Coconuts one day and spending the last three dollars I had to my name on a Tone-Loc cassette single and driving home happy," Thompson says with a chuckle. "I had no money for gas, no money for food, but I had the single I wanted. That was all that mattered to me."
The evening of his first seventh-grade dance, the young b-boy had another epiphany. "I saw this kid deejaying and I was, like, Look at this kid controlling this whole atmosphere. I want that power.'" That summer, Kyle worked a flurry of odd jobs to earn the cash for a DJ set -- two turntables, a mixer and a microphone. Soon he was messing around in his basement, layering joke rhymes over instrumental records and giving them to friends.
In 1991, when Thompson was a freshman at Champlain College, he was rhyming at a Burlington house-party and was approached by a young keyboardist named Jeremy Skaller. "[Jeremy] said, Hey, man, I'm starting this band, you should come try out," Thompson says. The group became the acid-jazz/funk group Belizbeha. Before he knew it, Thompson's hip-hop hobby had turned into a full-time gig, crisscrossing the country and playing some 250 shows a year.
"Belizbeha was nuts," Thompson says with a laugh. "We traveled all over. We went around the country eight or nine times, went to Germany. I learned valuable, valuable things about people, other cultures and places that I would never have learned living here."
After six and a half years of spreading the funk, Belizbeha called it quits, but their mark on the Burlington music scene is legendary. During a time when grunge was ruling both the airwaves and local clubs, the dance-friendly Belizbeha was an exceptional bright spot. "The most important thing we did was to bring fun back to the scene," suggests Thompson. "Music was pretty dark right before we hit. We were just all about having a good time."
Still, success at home and a rabid following in many cities across the U.S. didn't mean Thompson was exactly a name-brand MC. "I remember the first few times I went to New York -- I was intimidated but also confident about what I could do," he says of his challenges as a white performer in the predominantly black world of hip-hop. "I'd hit the stage and look into the eyes of some of these brothers that were, like, Who the fuck do you think you are?' But that kind of fueled the fire in me to be, like, By the end of this show, motherfucker, you're going to be nodding your head and hanging out.' By the second song, they'd all be giving me high fives."
Back in Burlington, Thompson joined up with saxophonist Dave Grippo, whose Funk Band was playing every Monday night at Red Square. So did DJ A-Dog and MC Rico, but eventually the three hip-hoppers split, looking for a new challenge. They began performing as Eye Oh You, a tight trio that pits the two MCs' fluid rhymes against the swirling turntable groove of A-Dog's beats. "It's always really easy to work with Kyle," A-Dog says. "There is no stress. It's really hard to call it work."
"It's off the hook!" Thompson says about the group's Thursday night residency at Red Square. "People have a blast, we have a blast. It's good because hip-hop has such a negative connotation to it. People think it's rough and testosterone-filled, and there's violence involved and it's street and all this garbage, and it doesn't have to be. Hip-hop in the beginning was about getting the party going and I think that's what we do."
On stage, Thompson is a commanding presence. His deep, smooth voice bellows over the crowd as he shuffles around the stage. Occasion-ally, he settles himself on the side of the stage and rhymes sitting down, swaying in time with his fluid verses. "There are all kinds of MCs," A-Dog says. "[Thompson] has a really fun style. He's a real party MC."
Thompson put the party on tape, as it were, with his Hop compilation CDs. The first volume was released in 1996 and featured a cross-section of Burlington's urban-music artists. Out of 1000 discs pressed, only a few are left. Volumes three and four have sold out completely. The seventh installment, a fascinating journey through local downtempo sounds, recently hit the streets. The disc grooves seamlessly from the bubbling house of local DJ Morgan Page to the hazy psychedelia of The Cush. Thompson himself appears on tracks by The Kitchen Krew and Belizbeha.
After graduating Champlain College a year and a half ago, Thompson began pooling some of his considerable energy into Steez, which he opened February 1 with fellow beat-fiend Justin Boyea. Business has been good, he says, with more customers discovering the shop each week.
Recently, he signed a contract with poster giant Beyond the Wall, whose Burlington location sells more than 100 of Thompson's prints every month at six bucks a pop. The shop stocks 40 of his designs. Thompson is currently negotiating the number of prints that will receive national distribution. Back at Steez, he sells his original prints for upwards of $200. "Things are great," Thompson sums up with a smile.
Things weren't looking so good late last year, though, when Thompson found himself in the emergency room. He had been exercising and dieting in an attempt to reduce his weight, which had ballooned to 420 pounds. "I had recently lost 60 pounds and was feeling really good," Thompson explains, "and then one day I was so tired I couldn't walk down the stairs. I went to bed and slept for over 20 hours and woke up still feeling tired."
Finally, Thompson checked himself in to the hospital. His heart had swollen to twice its normal size and was racing at 180 to 190 beats per minute. "The doctor told me that my heart was literally about to explode," Thompson says quietly.
While recuperating, he had time to reflect on his life's path. "It made me realize many, many things," Thompson says. "I made a lot of phone calls from the hospital to people that I'd pissed off, letting them know that I'd take everything back in a second. This has woken me up for sure."
This summer, Thompson will undergo gastric-bypass surgery -- also known as stomach stapling -- to help him take off more weight. Everyone's asking if he'll keep the moniker "Fattie," Thompson says with a laugh. Musing about his futures, he shifts on his chair and lets his eyes wander over the brick walls of his store. "Life is really short," he says slowly, "and my mission isn't done."