New artists jump up every day in the rap game, but often, they disappear just as quickly. It's an understood fact that few people have the ability to stay on top and build a career, hit after hit, even as rap changes and evolves. Born in the South Bronx, Fat Joe is an exception to the rule, not just as one of the few Latinos to forge a legacy in hip-hop but also as a performer who can write in a variety of styles. He and his band, Terror Squad, now boast the No. 1 song in the country, the bubbling club hit "Lean Back."
Joe launched his career in a big way, penning "Flow Joe," which he rode to the top of the rap charts in 1993. One of the most successful, post-N.W.A hardcore rap acts, Joe nonetheless kept love a part of the equation, whether teaming with Ashanti on the hit "What's Luv?" or working with R&B crooners R. Kelly and Ginuwine on hot tracks such as "We Thuggin' " and "Crush Tonight," respectively.
So it's not surprising that one of Fat Joe's first musical interests was disco, long before hip-hop came into his life. "I remember being a little kid watching my mother and my aunt doing The Hustle. The Bee Gees were heavy in the hood. And then, Saturday Night Fever," Joe, 33, recalls, breaking into the refrain of "Stayin' Alive."
"That was big; then, hip-hop came up -- SugarHill Gang, Grandmaster Flash, the Rapping Duke. I was listening to all that, and I was, 'Wow.' Then, I saw guys I could relate to doing the music coming from the Bronx," Joe continues. "I was maybe 12 years old, and my mom -- I got a Puerto Rican mother and Cuban father -- they didn't even understand hip-hop like that. Like, 'Man, you ain't gonna be no rapper.' I was staying up all night writing rhymes so I could battle guys in the lunchroom, things like that."
The rapper says "Flow Joe" saved his life by giving him the confidence and focus to push on. Those were golden days, the early '90s, and he misses them. "I liked the more unified days, like of De la Soul, when it was all fun, and people worked together and all got along," he explains, lamenting the current state of affairs in the rap industry. "At the end of the day, are kids trying to kill your man Bruce Springsteen? Are rockers trying to kill each other? Is Patti LaBelle trying to fight with Chaka Khan? What kind of shit is this, man?"
While Joe himself has penned numerous gangsta odes, he regrets that people are unable to separate reality from fiction when it comes to the idea of keeping it real. It's fine to sing about pimping and beatdowns, he suggests, but it doesn't mean you have to be a crack dealer to have something real to sing about.
"It's important to tell real stories about what goes on in your community, but it ain't important to write 'real' stuff. This is entertainment. It's like we're Steven Spielberg writing movies. It's like you're reading a book. When you hear music, it's just got a beat to it, but you're telling stories, taking people to different places," Joe explains. "Everybody says, 'Keep it real.' We keep it real by paying our bills and feeding our family, you know? Keeping it real to me is actually about the community."
One way he expresses that is by giving back to the community, opening a barbershop and a clothing store in his old neighborhood and speaking to kids about his experiences on the street. Before the VMAs, Joe is heading down to Puerto Rico for a Fat Joe weekend that features a basketball camp for kids and a big concert.
"I know that I'm fortunate. People where I grew up in the South Bronx, a lot of them never leave the Four Corners," he says. "I'm beyond fortunate, and I can never forget where I come from, and what it's taken for me to get here. So I have to, in turn, go back and try to help some young kids have some pride, some self-esteem in themselves. Maybe they can one day believe they can do it, and then they can help somebody else."
Of course, he has encountered some bumps along the way, the greatest being the death of Big Punisher, who was one of his best friends and a member of Terror Squad. When Big Pun died in 2000 of a heart attack, Joe was disconsolate.
"I went through depression for two years, like, 'What could I have done?' I missed him. Because although I brung him in the game, he was like a mentor to me. I was lost -- I didn't realize I was lost, but I was lost," he says, recalling one of the toughest moments in his life. "Every year, we celebrate Pun's death, and we change the graffiti wall. And every year, we change it in memory of him. We were out there two years after, and two ordinary dudes are walking by and said, 'Can you believe it's been two years?' And when he said, 'two years,' it just echoed in my brain, like, 'two years, two years, two years.' I just woke up that day, and was like, 'You know what? I have to live my life. I can't keep walking around sad with my head down. I gotta move on.' "
Move on he did, first with the Ashanti duet and then, with his somewhat disappointing 2002 album, Loyalty, which failed to match the multiplatinum success of 2001's Jealous Ones Still Envy. But Joe's new album with the Terror Squad, True Story, re-establishes him as a major player, due largely to "Lean Back," a track that got its start in Miami.
"Miami is now the place where you break records, because people come here to party and they're having a nice time. You're in the club and you're dancing with four or five chicks, and a record comes on that you never heard. And the girls know it and they love it, and you go back to your town and play it," Joe says. "New York's not like that no more. That's why New York is here."
He has joined artists such as Lauryn Hill, Timbaland, Usher and P. Diddy in making his home in South Florida. By Joe's account, he spends about half the year here, and he expects the building of his new house in the Fort Lauderdale area to be completed in the next couple of months.
Meanwhile, expect Joe to do what he always has: work with talented musicians and write songs from a number of perspectives. "I write all kinds of songs. I don't allow myself to get caught up in -- what's that game, Wonderama? -- where they put that snake in the can and it'll pop out. I won't allow myself to be bottled in. I want to wake up in the morning and make a politically conscious song. I want to wake up in the morning and write a gangsta-rap/hustler song. I want to write a song about girls. I want to write a love song, a dedicated song to my wife," he says. "I [also] love to work with other artists so at the end of the day, in 15 years from now when I look back at the catalog, I want to be, 'Damn, I worked with this person, that person.' "
Yet for all his success and fame, Joe remains a humble person. He says he's one of the few people he knows in the business who's remained grounded. Hell, he still gets nervous before shows -- "whether there's three people or 30,000" -- so he's going to feel twice as jumpy when he's called to perform "Lean Back" at Sunday's Video Music Awards.
"VMAs are a big deal, that I'm actually getting to perform. It hasn't really touched me like that yet, like I haven't really thought about it like that," he says. "I guess that night, when I walk that carpet, I'm going to realize, like, 'Wow.' Shoot, I'm probably gonna do an Eminem in 8 Mile and start vomiting backstage." How's that for keeping it real?Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times