- Luke Awtry
- Fattie B.
Kyle Thompson knew he was in trouble when the cardiologist walked into his hospital room at the University of Vermont Medical Center last Christmas. "I could tell this was the head guy, the doctor not to fuck with," Thompson recalled almost a year later, sitting outside a deli in downtown Burlington.
Thompson, 52, is better known to local audiences as the rapper and DJ Fattie Bumbalattie — or, more familiarly, Fattie B. In the 1990s, he was the front man of the world-touring acid jazz and hip-hop act Belizbeha, one of the most successful Burlington bands of that era. Later, with fellow rapper Konflik and the late DJ A_Dog, he cofounded Eye Oh You, a local hip-hop trio that paved the way for a generation of local rappers and DJs. As an entrepreneur, he spent many years running the downtown hip-hop fashion boutique Steez. And, for more than two decades, Fattie B served as the grand master behind the decks at Retronome, the popular weekly throwback dance party at Club Metronome in Burlington.
The portly nickname Fattie B, which the Bristol native adopted when he started rapping in 1991 at Champlain College, isn't facetious — Thompson is a large man, in just about every sense. Witness the title of his borderline NC-17-rated 2015 autobiography: I Was a 400-Pound '80s DJ: My Memoirs Through Music. As that book reveals, Thompson comes by the sobriquet honestly. He has done some hard living, and, as he will tell you, he "has seen some shit."
Thompson shed some pounds after a gastric bypass surgery in 2004, but at six foot two, he still filled out the lawn chair outside the deli as he rubbed a hand along the graying stubble on his chin. His eyes were hidden behind a thick pair of sunglasses, but the emotion in his deep voice was raw and unmistakable as he remembered the doctor's words.
"He looked me square in the eyes and asked if I was trying to kill myself," Thompson said. "Said I was as good as doing that, the way I was living. He told me I was going to take myself out of the picture if I didn't change. He was pissed at me."
Thompson might not have been trying to kill himself, but he was hardly trying to save himself, either. Past warnings — including his family history of heart disease — had gone unheeded, and the combination of regularly drinking to excess and failing to manage diet and stress was slowly killing him.
While he couldn't have known on that Christmas Day that his heart was functioning at a mere 38 percent, Thompson knew something was very wrong with his body, he recalled, and that he should go to the hospital. But he opted instead to drive to his sister's house in Brandon for a family holiday.
"It's kind of messed up to say, but I was pretty sure it was my last Christmas, and I wanted to spend it with my sister instead of, you know, dying alone in a hospital," he admitted, his voice breaking.
- Luke Awtry
- Belizbeha at the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival, 2018
Thompson's father had died the year before, and his mother in 2013. She had suffered multiple heart attacks before her passing, and he worried that he had inherited her heart problems. His marriage had recently collapsed. Even his dog had died.
Thompson made it to his sister's that day but could barely maintain a façade of health in front of his family. Back home, he couldn't make it to his bedroom, collapsing on the stairs and sleeping there for the rest of the night. In the morning, he managed to get himself to the hospital, where he was eventually diagnosed with congestive heart failure.
As the cardiologist administered his tough love, nurses prepared Thompson to have a stent inserted into his heart through his wrist. There was talk of open-heart surgery.
"I was depressed and blaming everybody and everything other than myself," Thompson recalled.
He cursed his luck as he lay in his hospital bed, doomscrolling on his phone and posting about his heart problems on social media. Near midnight, a message popped up. As he read it, something deep inside Thompson changed. He felt that strangest of feelings in the darkest time of his life: hope.
Three years earlier, at a Belizbeha reunion show on the Burlington waterfront, Thompson had taken a picture with some fans and their young son, Reese Payea. He'd kept in touch with the family ever since.
- Luke Awtry
- Reese Payea
The message came from Reese's mother, Jada, who'd seen Thompson's post. She informed him that Reese was going through his own health problems and was a cardiac patient at Boston Children's Hospital. Reese wanted Thompson to know that the rapper was on his mind and he wasn't alone.
Floored by the notion that a 13-year-old boy had his welfare in mind while staring down a serious procedure, Thompson felt equal parts elation and shame.
"[Reese] didn't choose what was happening to him, but I knew I'd created my own mess," Thompson said. "I was feeling sorry for myself, and this kid was reaching out to me to say keep my head up? It lit me up, man."
In that moment, he decided he would do no more moping, no more talking about bad luck and, most importantly, no more wasting of time.
"I'm lucky if I have 30 years left," Thompson said. "I need to be here and be healthy. So I made a list of all the things I was going to do as soon as I got out of the hospital. And first on that list was make this record."
The record in question is GUMBO, a sprawling, 25-track album featuring a who's who of the Burlington music scene, past and present. Out of the hospital — where open-heart surgery turned out to be unnecessary — Thompson wrote and produced the record in less than six months. He had considerable help from a talented crew of friends such as soul and blues act Dwight + Nicole, Trey Anastasio Band member Jennifer Hartswick, and recording engineer Urian Hackney (Rough Francis, the Armed).
- Luke Awtry
- Rivan C.
Like its creator, GUMBO is supersize, featuring producers and musicians spanning the breadth of Thompson's three-decade career. They range from his old Belizbeha bandmates to members of local hip-hop stalwarts such as the Aztext and Lynguistic Civilians to up-and-comers such as local rapper Rivan C. to young Reese himself.
As he confronted mortality, Thompson felt the need to cement his legacy as Vermont hip-hop's elder statesperson and create a document that could outlast him. The result is a record that is both a career summation and a call to action to unite a music scene. GUMBO is a throwback to the Good Citizen compilations of the 1990s and Thompson's own Hop series — star-studded collections of local talent that might not have come together without one person's relentless passion.
GUMBO isn't just a massively ambitious record. In many ways, it is also the story of Thompson's life and the connections among generations of Vermont musicians.
"The tracks tell the tale," Thompson said, gesticulating while he talked, ever the MC. "You can listen through, and they'll tell you."
- Luke Awtry
- Craig Mitchell
Featuring Craig Mitchell, Shauna Anderson, Toyosi Babalola, Mister Burns, Joe Capps, Urian Hackney and Dave Grippo
After a brief intro track, GUMBO kicks into gear with "Ooh Ooh," a neon-lit party anthem featuring Thompson's longtime friend and collaborator Craig Mitchell. A local legend in his own right, Mitchell has a career as a DJ and singer that has run parallel to Thompson's since the two met in 1994 at the now-defunct Burlington club Prohibitions.
"I knew who Kyle was," Mitchell said by phone, recalling that first meeting. "You have to remember, Belizbeha was putting Burlington on the map before Phish was. Those cats were touring in Italy and South America."
Thompson and Mitchell hit it off immediately. Their friendship has endured for almost 30 years, through multiple eras of the Burlington music scene. When Thompson was released from the hospital last year, Mitchell was one of the first people he contacted about his album idea.
"I could tell he was pretty excited about it," said Mitchell, who currently fronts the Prince tribute act Purple. "He was talking about making this record that would combine all the local beat makers and producers with his friends in the live music scene — the way it used to be in this town, when it didn't matter what genre you played."
The idea struck a chord in Mitchell — who, like Thompson, felt that Burlington had lost the sense of community and collaboration that defined it in the late 1980s and '90s.
- Luke Awtry
- Shauna Anderson
In 1989, Mitchell deejayed at Club Metronome two nights a week, one of which overlapped with Phish's residency downstairs at Nectar's. He recalled how people moved back and forth between the two clubs, from the soon-to-be-massive jam band to his DJ set.
"All these people would show up — hippies, drag queens, frat boys, you name it," he said. "It was all one party, no matter the genre. It was so great — and, frankly, those days need to come back."
Thompson brings the party on "Ooh Ooh," a disco-funk heater that shows off a silky hook from Mitchell, pairing it with a Dave Grippo sax track and Thompson's trademark bobbing-and-weaving baritone flow.
Thompson honed those skills rocking the mic with Belizbeha, who in their 1990s heyday were a powerhouse of funk, jazz and hip-hop. The seven-piece band, formed after Thompson met keyboardist Jeremy Skaller at a house party, averaged 200 annual gigs at its apex, including playing the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta.
Mitchell is well acquainted with Thompson's flow. But GUMBO gave him a new respect for his friend's skills as a DJ and producer.
"I knew Kyle was talented, but honestly, I didn't know he had an ear like that to make an album like this," Mitchell said. "He's really combining his skills as an MC and his time as a DJ, moving a crowd and matching tracks to create flow. He has it all now."
Mitchell told his old friend so when Thompson held a private listening party for GUMBO.
"Coming from Craig, that just meant everything," Thompson said. "We've been there for each other through the years, the good and the bad times."
"Good Heart Money"
Featuring Bob Wagner, Reese Payea, Matt Scott and SkySplitterInk
- Luke Awtry
- Bob Wagner
Reese Payea was 18 months old when doctors discovered he had a congenital heart defect and 7 years old when he learned he'd eventually need surgical intervention.
"We're now getting to the point where it's a little more intense," his mother, Jada, said. "Which has been tough, particularly during COVID, when there were a lot of restrictions in place for him that his peers didn't necessarily have."
Much of Reese's experience at Milton Middle School has been defined by those restrictions.
"When you're going through that, you end up feeling like you're in this space that's totally alone," Reese said. "Sometimes, people need reminders that they're not."
That loneliness was on Reese's mind when his mother told him about Thompson's struggles. As he asked her to pass along his message to the stricken MC, he had no idea that it would light a fire under Thompson.
"I think Reese was shocked by it all, honestly," Jada confided. "He definitely didn't expect that sort of reaction from Kyle and the whole album."
In his conversations with Reese and Jada, Thompson discovered that Reese had been learning to play the drums. Earlier this year, he called the two up and asked them to meet him at an address in Burlington's South End, saying only that he had a surprise for Reese.
When the Payeas arrived, they found Thompson and Hackney waiting outside Hackney's recording studio, the Box. Nonplussed, Reese asked Thompson what they were all doing there.
"I looked at him and said, 'Yo, we're going to record your drums today on Urian's kit and use your beat to make a song on this album,'" Thompson recalled. "And his mind was blown!"
Reese felt some trepidation about doing his first studio recording flanked by two older musicians — until Hackney stepped in.
"Urian is just so damn good, man," Thompson said of Hackney. "He could tell Reese was a little intimidated, so he crouched down to talk to him, face-to-face, and said not to worry about making mistakes. That the studio is about experimenting until you get something, so just have fun. And it totally worked."
"I get lost in my own world when I'm playing the drums," said Reese, who'd taken lessons at Soli Music, formerly the Contois School of Music. "It was really cool to be there and work out that beat."
After the session, Thompson and Hackney looped Reese's beat. Now they just had to figure out how to build a song on it. The answer was in a studio next door: Bob Wagner, who plays guitar for local soul diva Kat Wright.
Wagner and Thompson, friends for 15 years, had never had the opportunity to work together musically before.
"The fact that Kyle had this beat and wanted me to write a song about [his] and Reese's experience just blew me away," Wagner said by phone. He had a synthesizer groove and a lyric ready to go: "good heart money."
While backpacking through India in his twenties, Wagner met a "street guru-type guy," he recalled. "He was a bit of a grifter, but he also told me some wild shit that really resonated with me," he said. "And he had this phrase, 'good heart money,' about this notion of using money purely for good in the world, as opposed to a thing you should hoard. I hung on to that concept."
Wagner composed a track that Thompson described as "B.B. King and Steely Dan having a baby" around Reese's beat. Thompson's verses recount the story of Reese's message to him in the hospital and what it meant to him.
"I like how the song sounds like this feel-good tune, but there's this darker aspect to it, too," Reese said. "There's this backstory throughout the album that's there if you know to listen for it."
"A New Day"
Featuring Nicole Nelson, Wombaticus Rex, ILLu, Urian Hackney and Rico James
"Look Where You've Been"
Featuring Dwight Ritcher, Daniel Bernard Roumain and Urian Hackney
- Luke Awtry
- Dwight Ritcher and Nicole Nelson
High on Thompson's wish list of collaborators for the album was Nicole Nelson, the singer and bassist of soul trio Dwight + Nicole. He'd long admired her powerful voice and knew she would be perfect for a beat he had ready.
"They were crazy busy, though, like so many of the artists I was reaching out to," Thompson noted.
Indeed, Nelson and her partner, Dwight Ritcher, were preparing to leave the country to record in Norway when she got the track from Thompson.
Though she was on the road, "I think I had my part ready almost immediately," Nelson recounted by phone from the couple's home in South Burlington. "There's so much spirit behind the music, and I could instantly feel that and connect to it."
Once she was in a studio, Nelson laid down a vocal performance for the ages, singing a hook that is equal parts Nina Simone and James Bond movie theme. "A New Day" is a life-affirming, carpe diem anthem featuring a verse from Wombaticus Rex, aka Justin Boland, who helms the encyclopedic Vermont Hip Hop website. (Boland is also a regular Seven Days contributor.)
"Life is short, death is real, nothing to hold back," Boland raps. "Continuing traditions, we do it with pride / I'm halfway to my grave, it's been a beautiful ride."
"I think Fattie's real legacy will be as an evangelist for the scene," Boland wrote in an email. "Somewhere between P.T. Barnum and Russell Simmons."
In Boland's view, this record that embodies Thompson's desire for a more cohesive Burlington music scene comes along at the perfect time. "Fattie's approach is full circle," he wrote, "and a great fit for the new wave [of Vermont hip-hop] coming up, because that's a much more supportive, cooperative scene."
Ritcher got into the spirit as well, after hearing the track Nelson recorded for GUMBO and learning the story that inspired the record.
- Luke Awtry
- Urian Hackney
"Dwight had this song kicking around since he was 19," Thompson revealed. "He was dating a girl who had a serious drug addiction, and he wanted to write her a song, but he never got to show her."
The lyrics to "Look Where You've Been" spent years in Ritcher's notebook, but he never felt the time was right to use them — until now. He and Thompson met Hackney at the Box and recorded the powerful, heartbreaking ballad. It's the only track on the album without a beat.
"It was so emotional. By the end, Dwight was crying. I was crying. Urian was crying," Thompson said of the tune, which features Ritcher's hushed, reverb-laden voice over an acoustic guitar.
With tracks from Nelson and Ritcher in the bag, Thompson began to see how the record as a whole might unfold. Maybe he really could pull off the giant, collaborative album he envisioned.
"This is the time for music like Kyle's," Nelson said. "We need to bridge the party energy with serious thought. We need both things. And we need someone like him to bring it all together."
"Kiss the Trees"
Featuring Scarecrow Beats, Jennifer Hartswick, Dwight Seon, Urian Hackney and Matt Scott
- Luke Awtry
- Jennifer Hartswick
As he gathered his musician friends, such as Wagner and Dwight + Nicole, Thompson also reached out to the best hip-hop producers and beat makers he knew. These included old friends such as Pro Knows Music and Learic, both of celebrated local mid-2000s hip-hop duo the Aztext, and producer ILLu, aka Luke Gauthier, of Equal Eyes Records. Thompson also contacted producers he had admired but never worked with, such as Matt Scott and Zach Crawford, aka SkySplitterInk.
"I keep telling people that this project was just fated," Thompson said. "We'd start connecting producers and musicians, and all these connections would appear."
"Kiss the Trees" is a sultry R&B slow jam that boasts a hypnotically sanguine hook sung by Hartswick, followed by one of her trademark soulful trumpet solos. Scott, who produces for hip-hop project Jade Relics, said he had to laugh when he started work on the mix for the track.
"I grew up in the Northeast Kingdom, and Jenn's mom was my chorus teacher," Scott said of Hartswick. "Jenn actually took me to see the Grippo Funk Band in the late '90s when Fattie was rapping, so the full-circle nature is just crazy."
Those connections were even more poignant for Gauthier, who coproduced many of the tracks on the record. The South Burlington native grew up idolizing Thompson and his whole generation of Burlington hip-hop luminaries, such as the rapper Konflik and DJ A_Dog.
Eye Oh You, the trio that Thompson formed with those two musicians, was born from the now locally legendary residency that saxophonist Grippo held down at Burlington's Red Square. Eye Oh You would eventually have their own residency at the club and inspire the generation of hip-hop talent that emerged in the 2000s, including the Loyalists, the Aztext and the VT Union.
Boland emphasized the power of that inspiration. "Fattie would be the first to admit that, for all of Belizbeha's runaway success, most of that happened outside of Vermont," he wrote. "In terms of Burlington's rap scene today, Eye Oh You was far more influential."
That influence was a powerful force in Gauthier's youth. "I used to go into Fattie's shop on Church Street, Steez, and buy posters and T-shirts," he remembered. "I never really thought I'd end up being able to work with him. Like, working on a track, and Mister Burns and Dave Grippo and Craig Mitchell pop up? I was just blown away."
Grippo's appearance on "Ooh Ooh," which Gauthier worked on, was especially surreal for the producer because the saxophonist had been his middle school music teacher.
Perhaps those moments of connection shouldn't be surprising. After all, a star of Fattie B's gravity is bound to pull others into his orbit.
"I saw firsthand the Fattie effect," Gauthier said. "He is the perfect guy to bring all this together. I mean, he's a star, and everything seems attracted to him, like he's a lightning bolt of energy. He's super talented and can do all this stuff himself, but he chooses to branch out and interact, bringing out the best of everyone."
"Late 1 Night (in Burlington)"
Featuring Pro Knows Music, DJ Kanga, Shauna Anderson, ILLu and SkySplitterInk
- Luke Awtry
- DJ Kanga
While Thompson raps throughout GUMBO, he views his role in the project as curating the music, assembling the talent and letting the chemistry unfold.
"I look at the record like Guru's Jazzmatazz," Thompson said, referencing the 1993 record, which featured a smorgasbord of contributors. "When he put that record out, he was the host, not the star. That's the vibe I want."
No track on GUMBO captures that feeling better than "Late 1 Night (in Burlington)," a song written by Pro Knows Music, aka Brian McVey. The track is an ode to what Thompson and his friends view as the golden days of the city, when live music seemed to spill from every club out onto the street.
"That was before all the club owners figured out they could hire DJs instead of bands and save money," Thompson pointed out. "Which I benefited from initially, but in the long run it took something from the scene, something we need to get back."
The scene that he and PRO paint in "Late 1 Night (in Burlington)" is that of a rolling party, where each club promises a different artist and a different vibe for the listener to experience. They hop from Bangkok Bistro to Red Square to Finnigan's Pub to Rí Rá in the first verse alone, over a sample from indie rock band Khruangbin. The track serves as a treasure map of a bygone era when downtown Burlington teemed with live music.
It's a party track with a deeper meaning, something Thompson strives for these days. Back in his Belizbeha era, one of his own bandmates criticized him for the lack of emotional depth in his rhymes. He was accused of coasting on braggadocio instead of accessing something more substantial.
"At the time, that offended me," Thompson said. "But after some time, I saw the truth in it. I wished I had opened myself up as an MC more then, though you got to remember that it wasn't exactly cool for a rapper to do that back in the '90s. But I remember saying to myself, If I ever make my own music again, I'm going to open up my heart and put it on tape. And that's exactly what I've done here."
"Call Mister Martin"
Featuring Matt Murray, Pro Knows Music, ILLu, Matt Scott and Tha Truth
- Luke Awtry
- Fattie B.
A week or so after Thompson sat outside that downtown deli, telling the story of GUMBO and his health scare, he found himself back in the emergency room.
Though he had been feeling well lately, he woke up after a nap short of breath, with his heart rate bouncing from 89 beats per minute to 160 and back to 110, all within a single minute.
After having almost let himself die last year before going to the hospital, Thompson wasn't taking any chances. He immediately checked himself into a place he'd hoped never to see again. By the time he got home the next day, he found himself on even more heart medication and essentially grounded after months of hard work and building momentum.
"I'm keeping my head up as best I can," he said by phone from his New North End home.
"I'm frustrated with my health right now," he went on. "The heart meds have my head all fucked up, too. The mornings are rough. But I'm going to be OK." He added, "It can't all be party tracks, you know."
That statement also applies to the otherwise aggressively positive GUMBO, which dips into the darker side on "Call Mister Martin." Over a looped acoustic guitar figure, Thompson reflects on the deaths of so many loved ones, channeling the losses of his parents and his dear friend A_Dog into somber, almost world-weary verses.
"Truth be told, all these losses leave a hole in my soul," Thompson raps on the track. "Simply to get the chance to say, 'I love you' again / So sick of aching from this taking of my friends."
In pain from losing his parents, his marriage, even his dog, Thompson turns the light on himself in the second verse.
"Overheating, over-drinking, almost overdid it / Doctor told me bluntly, 'Boy, you almost bit it,'" he raps. "Refuse to let it fly by, go over my head / Because the job of resurrectors is to wake up the dead."
Speaking about Thompson's ongoing health struggles, Mitchell can't hide his concern for his friend.
"He's not doing well," Mitchell confided. "And it's really hard to watch it all when he's not doing well."
Mitchell sometimes worries that his old friend sees GUMBO as a final act.
"He's produced something that is truly incredible," Mitchell said. "And if it is his swan song, good for him, truly — it's an amazing record. But I really, really hope it's not."
Thompson understands why Mitchell and other friends are concerned. He doesn't have the best track record of taking care of himself.
But his attitude remains positive. "If I'm going to go out, I want to go out knowing that I've done everything I wanted to do," Thompson said. "I wake up every day choosing to feel hopeful now. The fact that I owe that to an innocent message from a brave, wise teenager is just wild."
Thompson had planned a massive release show for GUMBO in late November. But, after a conversation with his doctors, who suggested a few weeks of rest, he moved the date to February 11.
"People don't realize how short our time is," Thompson asserted. "We can't waste it while we're here. I hope when people listen to this record, they'll understand that and see where I'm coming from."
With the record finished and released into the world, Thompson isn't jumping into another project just yet. GUMBO is an album full of samples, snippets of music from other songs that could violate copyright law if it were a major-label release. By using those samples, Thompson is taking a legal risk, but he doesn't seem overly concerned. In the unlikely event that any of the samples send lawyers his way, he's confident the record would fall under the fair use doctrine as a mixtape release. While that defense doesn't have an encouraging legal track record, a more important factor might be that he isn't profiting from GUMBO: All proceeds go to the Boston Children's Hospital.
"It's been 30 years since I was in Belizbeha," Thompson said with a note of surprise in his tone. "And that went by in the blink of an eye. I'm going to ride it out with this heart of mine and keep giving to the scene until it's my time to go."