If any MC is responsible for bringing mainstream attention to hip-hop’s Latino community — Puerto Rican rap, reggaeton — it’s Fat Joe. Born in the South Bronx as Joseph Antonio Cartagena, Fat Joe da Gangsta was making and releasing demonstrative, rough-edged rap by 1993’s Represent that spoke of his environment. Yes, that meant hard-won street victories, violent losses, and the braggadocio that came with it, but Joe’s flow was always filled with pride in family and Puerto Rican heritage. Fat Joe has remained steadily famous for the last three decades. He had a smash hit, as Terror Squad, with “Lean Back”; this summer, he lorded over the stage at the 10th annual Roots Picnic with the festival curators backing him up; and he aided the comeback of once-jailed female rapper Remy Ma when they released the chart-topping 2017 album Plata o Plomo. He has a new solo album due this fall. On Thursday, he’ll hang on the beach in Atlantic City with buds in the Ruff Ryders crew: DMX, Ja Rule, Ashanti, and the Lox. We found the new Miami native hanging in New Jersey, visiting his aunt.
You were a smash at June’s Roots Picnic. How did you hook up with them, Mobb Deep, and Scott Storch?
Mobb Deep and Prodigy, who isn’t here anymore, remember that. The Roots throw this picnic all the time, and I respect them as artists. They did so much for hip-hop. I really enjoyed that event. Any chance to do something with Black Thought is amazing.
You have been the most vocal supporter of Remy Ma since she’s come back. What does she mean to you?
She’s my sister. I love her. I admire her overcoming her obstacles. She’s always positive. Coming back from prison — starting from the bottom again — she did it, and won female rapper of the year [at 2017’s BET Awards], which is historic.
Look at Plata o Plomo or your forthcoming album. How has your brand of storytelling changed? You’ve remained consistent in talking about hard street culture, but family and heritage is never far from your mind, and you seem interested in tackling the future.
I don’t know, man. I’ve been in the rap game for over 20 years. Like with everything else, you got to elevate. The message must change. As I grow and see the world, it gives me more info, more to talk about. Beyond that, that the things I talk about can put a smile on somebody’s face — bring some sort of joy to people’s lives — is still pretty amazing.
You’re a smart entrepreneur. As one businessman to another, what would you say to Ja Rule (part of the beleaguered Fyre Festival) about putting your name on something, about trust?
It’s a hard situation because he was good friends with the guy who put Fyre together. That family comes from big money, so you wouldn’t think that it would end up as it did. Had it been successful, Ja Rule would be considered a genius. But these are the risks you take as an entrepreneur. It’s unfortunate for the audiences and the guys behind it.
You have new music coming, but dates are so secret. What can you say?
My new song, “So Excited,” drops this weekend, with the video the week after. It’s off my new solo album, which is coming soon. Plus, we have a new Remy single coming two weeks after that. We’re rolling. People are anticipating that it will go far.
What were the first songs you loved?
It wasn’t hip-hop: “One in a Million” by Larry Graham. I would drive around with my dad and we would sing [he does, top of his lungs] “One in a million, youuuuuuuuuuuu.” Still my favorite, that and “Give Me the Night” by George Benson. Forever, I’ll get goose-bumps hearing them. I go to this restaurant where I live, and the chef-owner knows they’re my favorite songs, so as soon as I walk in, there they’re playing. Hip-hop though – my favorite jam is Biz Markie’s “The Vapors.”
You and Philly and Jersey go back a long way. Any good stories?
Oh, my god, when I lived in Jersey, I would drive down to Philly’s Broad Street once a week as therapy, because Philly reminds me of an old-school New York. New York lost its culture in many ways. Philly kept it going. Everybody’s mother raps in Philly. The kids know the lyrics to the songs, but so do the moms. It’s a real MC town. Plus, this one time, I’m at the Puerto Rican parade in Germantown with a friend, and I made a pit stop at this corner bodega. I stop, get a water, paid for it — no lie — 10 Mississippi later, there were thousands of people around the store, hanging from their fire escapes. It was like the movie Bird when Charlie Parker wades through Harlem. I had to fight to get to my car, and that’s the only time that’s ever happened to me in my life. I’ll never forget that. I never felt so much love.