Fat Joe: The Road Less Traveled

Fat Joe: The Road Less Traveled

Written by Mya Abraham

Published January 22, 2019

Fall down once? Blame ignorance. Fall down twice? Shame on yourself. Fall down three times? Start over.

In the summer of 1973,

in a community room in The Bronx, New York, hip-hop was born at a party being thrown by DJ Kool Herc. As the wave grew stronger due to success stories pouring in from the borough—Slick Rick, Grandmaster Flash, KRS-One—fans were drawn in like a moth to a flame. Cut to the early nineties, when rap was arguably at its prime, and there you’d find Fat Joe: a star that emerged from behind the shadows of his iconic Diggin’ in the Crates counterparts, who is now yet another Bronx luminary, and one of many who Luc Belaire is raising a glass to.

In the gruesome streets of the South Bronx, Fat Joe, born Joseph Cartagena, blossomed into the success he is today, due to his surroundings, crew and innate talent. The Puerto Rican and Cuban phenom developed a love for hustling and hip-hop, but not without his fair shares of heartbreaking struggles, and tests that ultimately shaped him. The “motherland of hip-hop” was his backyard, literally. Growing up, he remembered seeing Melle Mel, Grandmaster Flash, Mr. Ness and Rodney-C in his neighborhood. This equates to today’s young fans bumping into Drake or Jay-Z. But this wasn’t a jaw-dropping newsflash; it was real life— Joe’s life. “These were the kings of hip-hop and I would watch them play basketball when I was a little kid,” he recalled. As the youngest of his siblings, he looked up to his one of his older brothers who laid out the blueprint for his rap roots. Despite it sounding like an excuse, there “weren’t many outlets,” where he grew up and Joe temporarily chose the wrong route. Fast money quickly became a reoccurring theme in his life, in spite of it being lucrative for the time-being.

So, imagine this, I’m one of the most respected guys in the Bronx as a real street dude, and I’m going to Amateur Night at the Apollo…

For Fat Joe, a time that will live in infamy is his time on one of New York’s most ruthless stages. “So, imagine this, I’m one of the most respected guys in the Bronx as a real street dude, and I’m going to Amateur Night at the Apollo…” This is how the story starts. Luckily for him, Joe won the contest four weeks straight, thanks to his confidence and determination.  “When I walked into Amateur Night, it was 100 groups and I immediately looked at everybody and said ‘I don’t know what they doin’ here. I’m gonna win.’” Coming off that high, he met highly-proclaimed DJ Red Alert, who was the No. 1 DJ in the country at the time, and he asked Joe to give him a demo, intended for radio play. His success appeared to be another overnight story, but this was far from his reality. As a faithful listener, an eager Joe listened to the only hip-hop stream available: a Friday night, two-hour special from DJ Red Alert and Mr. Magic.

Fast-forward two months, and his moment finally arrived. He had the flu, but propped his speaker in the window of his Bronx project apartment and everyone began dancing as his song blared through the radio. Even now, with all his accolades, Fat Joe will never take radio play for granted. He’s credited a lot of his early success to Ralph McDaniels of Video Music Box, but also felt some disdain from those who once knew him as a “gangsta.” Joe recalled, “I’m not tryna glorify it but the drug dealer that you seen in the club forever in Mercedes-Benz with jewelry on, poppin’ champagne, how could this guy be a f**king rapper now and the sh*t is No. 1?!”

The demo for “Flow Joe” became his first single and led to a deal with the late Chris Lighty. “We put it out through Relativity [Records] and it went No. 1 in the country , and the rest is history from there,” he states. Early on, Joe was blessed with advice from his idol, KRS-One, which allowed him to segue from a street mentality into a more beneficial one. “KRS-One always rapped about Black consciousness, positivity,” he began. As the current King of the Bronx, Joe was on the rise, but was confused when men who’d approach KRS peacefully were the same men ready to attack him. Simply put, KRS stated, “I preach unity and positivity. They don't look at me as a threat, but you, my friend, are Fat Joe, the gangsta.” Those words were the kick he needed to straighten out.

The streets continued

to prove to him just how dangerous life would be if he remained on his initial trajectory. His best friend “ever in life,” Anthony Cresswell, formally known as Tony Montana, died at the hands of the streets in 1992. Upon his death, Joe felt the urge to prove himself, to level up to Tony’s reputation. His crew though––which consisted of Lord Finesse, Big L, Showbiz and AG, Diamond D, O.C., and Buckwild––taught him to use his harsh reality as impetus for his bars. When yet another close friend, Big Pun, passed away due to cardiac arrest in 2000, those around felt he should throw in the towel, but Tony’s death had prepared Fat Joe to handle this accordingly. He released his fourth LP, Jealous Ones Still Envy, which went on to sell 1.9 million copies and is certified platinum–– his greatest work to date.

Lord Finesse, one of the hottest rappers in New York at the time, and the closest person he had to a mentor, pushed Fat Joe to believe in himself.  “Like ‘yo I’m a hustler. I’m a real dude. I could rap about all the real stuff’s that’s going on out here. I could make it,’” he remembers thinking. His ultimate influence to do better was escaping the projects. A reoccurring dream of being chased by an “animated project building” pushed him to never go back. He was also raised with an immigrant’s mentality, and had constant doubt from his parents ringing in his ear. “I used to be writing raps on the table and they’d be like ‘ah you never gonna make it. You never––why are you doing that? That’s not realistic.’”

His parents’ flak or restrictions could’ve been because of his three older brothers, but Joe felt lucky to have learned from them. Had he not been driven, he feels his parents would still be in the projects. “There’s just no way around it,” he says. Unfortunately, Joe doesn’t get to enjoy the spoils of his job anymore. Making music? “That’s me smoking crack-cocaine; That’s what turns me on,” he reflected. However, his family being afforded luxuries he wasn’t able to grow up with satisfies him. “I’m constantly working for my family… They live on the water. They live an expensive lifestyle. They drive Bentley’s. They go to private schools. It’s really for them. It’s really not for me.”

Joe, soon realized, that his highs didn’t equate to longevity, and without proper structure and alignment, his rising realm would soon crumble. His producer, Scott Storch’s drug addiction was a heartbreaking example of that. His hustler’s instinct trained him to be ready to adapt, regardless of success. “I went to the studio for like f**king 90 days in a row trying keep him clean myself,” he recalled of the tumultuous time, “I was tryna clean him ‘cause I knew like ‘yo, this is the end of hit-mania for Fat Joe.”

I’m not tryna glorify it, but the drug dealer that you seen in the club forever in Mercedes-Benz with jewelry on, poppin’ champagne, how could this guy be a f**king rapper now and the sh*t is No. 1?!

Growing up, Joe always knew he wanted to be a businessman, not a business, man like his counterpart, Jay-Z, and this is where he admittedly fell flat on his ass on more than one occasion. “When you’re self-made, nobody really gives you nothing and you come from nothing and I used to say it all the time.” Shamefully, Joe admitted that the most money he ever lost, as in millions annually, was due to his obsession to fly private. He was making it rain, as if the G4 was a New York yellow taxicab.

For roughly three years, he’d pay-per-flight and it was a justifiable purchase. It’d be about $70 thousand, so if he made $200 grand, the scales were balanced. Things caught up to Joe when he ran up a tab and received a bill for almost $600,000 at the end of one month. Naturally, he eventually discovered the joys of first-class. Another massive financial deficit he found himself in was betting it all too soon. He had a forthcoming album with a $1.5 million marketing budget. A normal breakdown is as follows: $250,000 video shoot, $250,000 on marketing and promotion and divide the rest among three single releases. Fat Joe, however, blew the budget on the first single, which tanked. The worst part? “I had good music on the album that maybe I could come back with, but the budget was gone,” he stated. “I wish somebody I really respected would’ve explained to me the importance of budgeting that money right.”

His lower class upbringing left him easily smitten with the idea of easy money. Being a millionaire made him feel unstoppable–– at least until his bank account dropped to zero on multiple occasions. That eye-opening cycle caused to him to look at Jay-Z and Diddy in an effort to figure out what not to do. Joe recalls chuckling at an incredibly thin gold chain Diddy rocked, and Jay-Z’s jaw dropping over one of Joe’s medallions. “Now you look at these motherf**kers [who are] billionaires, and I say, 'What the f**k I been doing, man?'”

Musing, Joe realized they had a structured business plan, an endgame, in mind from the beginning, and were the masters of deception. Hov created timeless albums, is still touring, and became a music business mogul with Roc-A-Fella, expanding into several lanes, which has evolved into Roc Nation. Diddy launched Bad Boy Records in 1993, and after a rapid decline at the start of the 2000’s, he needed a shift. The mogul began cultivating the Sean John empire in 1998. Eventually, Diddy went back into the music industry through Making The Band and a resurgence of Bad Boy. Fat Joe admired Diddy’s ability to feed into the champagne lifestyle while simultaneously building his various brands, and he isn’t jealous in the slightest. The “Lean Back” star just uses it as inspiration.

Now you look at these motherf**kers [who are] billionaires, and I say, 'What the f**k I been doing, man?'

His premature lack of support

and deep-seated desire for mentorship birthed his legendary hip-hop collective, Terror Squad. Though admittedly being swindled by people he considered family, Joe focused strictly on separating business and personal emotions, but strongly believes this rising generation of rappers could benefit from having an OG to pour that knowledge into them. “To this day, I have respect for the pioneers, the people who paved the way. That’s the difference with this generation.” He referenced his interview from his podcast, Coca Vision with Bronx wild-child, Tekashi 6ix9ine and noticed he’s smart, but would rather feed into a gimmick. “I tried to tell him all the ways I f**ked up money, millions of dollars, relationships, just giving him every f**king pitfall you could give him so he could [snap out it],” he stated. But unfortunately, that method hasn’t worked out the way he hoped; 6ix9ine is currently behind bars, facing life in prison. Terror Squad, on the other hand, shaped current-day staples like Remy Ma and the illustrious DJ Khaled. “[That’s] my little brother,” Joe said of Khaled. “He started with me, so I put him in the game and I taught him. He’s Fat Joe on steroids. While I was mentoring him, I was putting the fire in his chest, letting him know that anybody who goes against you, anybody that’s tryna bring you down, any enemy? You use that as fuel to succeed because the best form of revenge is success. It’s just it.”

Joe’s bumpy trek to success allowed fellow Latino rappers like Bad Bunny, Cardi B, or other “trap-reggaeton” artists, as he stated, to enter the game and make history. For him, it’s still humbling and no worries, Fat Joe isn’t retiring his mic anytime soon. “I’m sorry for people who don’t like Fat Joe because this has been over a 20-year run.” Jealous ones will always envy, right?