It's Grammy weekend, and Fat Joe, the self-described "Susan Lucci of the Grammys," is boycotting the festivities. He's in L.A., but he's not going to the Staples Center's main event this year, because he's sick of losing out to the "booji backpackers," those conscious rappers who, he says, run a hip-hop "secret mafia."
"I have no problem with them," adds the Bronx-bred veteran MC, born Joseph Antonio Cartagena in 1970. "I actually love their music. The problem is, as far as record sales, they have a very small following. But fans of the backpack music have graduated to becoming the CEOs of BET, MTV, and VH1 — and the people who actually get the final vote at the Grammys." (Sure enough, his nominated duet with Lil Wayne, "Make It Rain," falls to Common and Kanye West's collaboration, "Southside.")
Sitting in the back of the Sheraton Universal Hotel lobby, the charismatic, dough-faced Puerto Rican makes his case as a hip-hop populist. It's believable. For one thing, at the moment, he and his large crew are surrounded by fanny-packing parents and hyperactive kids who've spent the day on the "Revenge of the Mummy" ride, and he's nonetheless frequently recognized. A cloth napkin tucked into his oversize white T-shirt, he talks between bites of a giant shrimp salad and swallows of a startlingly bright-red beverage.
"How many artists continually make hit records over time?" he asks. "People don't give me credit, though I deserve it, because I'm damn near a phenom."
But even a phenom needs to plug himself, especially when he's got a new album, The Elephant in the Room. The "room" is hip-hop and the "elephant" is Joe, of course, and the disc continues his unapologetic reign of gangsta-rap terror. Featuring beats from regular collaborators Cool & Dre, DJ Khaled, DJ Premier, and Scott Storch, the disc is heavy on hooks and light on introspection. Its female-friendly, spin-garnering track with J. Holliday, "I Won't Tell," is overshadowed by a blitzkrieg of masculine bravado and pounding, anthemic beats, more medieval (on your ass) era than golden era. ("300 Brolic" features a refrain by an associate named Opera Steve; in a YouTube video you have to see to believe, Steve sings Italian while waiting for his food at a Sbarro restaurant.)
"I make gangsta rap music," Joe declares often. But although on record he randomly yells out "Coca!" or "Crack!" when the mood strikes him, in real life he's no gangster. Happily married, with homes in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, and Miami Beach, he doesn't pretend that his tales of assassinating government informants or stacking bricks on triple beams come from his own life. After all, the only powder he carries is Crystal Light (that red beverage), and his nickname, Joey Crack, comes not from the rock but from an old graffiti moniker based on the unfortunate view afforded by his low-slung pants.
Joe barely drinks booze and says he's smoked pot only once in his life: "I ran out the house butt-naked. It was crazy, and I never wanted to do it again." But that doesn't mean he doesn't party in his own way — say, at Diddy's Miami pad on New Year's Eve. "He was in the middle of the whole shit, throwing shit at me — like fruit — and chasing me with champagne," Joe remembers. "He had ambassadors in his house, dignitaries. The prime minister of Turks and Caicos was looking at me, like, 'Who let these ghetto motherfuckers in here?'"
But Fat Joe has fashioned an increasingly mainstream sound since his first album, Represent, 15 years ago, all the while maintaining a stable of respected underground collaborators. His early albums featured enduring, ground-level affirmations like the Diamond D-produced 1993 hit "Flow Joe" and "The Shit Is Real (DJ Premier Remix)" in 1995. In the mid-Nineties, he founded the crew Terror Squad and recruited fellow Bronx native Big Punisher, which led to the dense, gritty sound of albums like Don Cartagena, as well as accusations that Big Pun and others were ghostwriting for him. Pun's star eclipsed Joe's with his multplatinum 1998 debut, Capital Punishment. But although Pun died of a heart attack two years later, Joe went on to become more prolific than ever, releasing albums with both Terror Squad and the indelible Diggin' in the Crates Crew, plus a slew of solo records.
In recent years, his flow, never considered as compelling as that of collaborators like Pun or Big L, has become more simple, the beats he raps over more mainstream. By 2005, with All or Nothing, Joe was relying almost exclusively on superproducers (Swizz Beatz, Just Blaze, Timbaland) and had largely moved away from Bronx tales to more generic visions of gangster glory.
While there have been grumblings from associates like rapper Remy Ma (who parted ways with Terror Squad after her debut album), the Joe franchise has never really sputtered, and his career has taken on new vitality in recent years owing to his association with a Southern clique that includes Lil Wayne, T-Pain, Rick Ross, Flo Rida, and Birdman, and has coalesced around DJ Khaled's two albums. "I started working with artists that show each other unity and camaraderie, people that cheer each other on and try to help each other," Joe says. "It's the weirdest thing I ever seen. Some people get mad at me for that, but don't get mad because we got each other's back. Rick Ross, his album [Trilla] drops the same day as mine, and I don't feel one inch of competition."
As Joe puts it on his Grammy-losing hit: Why is everybody so mad at the South? "You think Aretha Franklin wouldn't perform with Stevie Wonder 'cause he's from the South?" he demands. "To not like someone because they're from L.A. or they're from Atlanta is, like, the stupidest thing I ever heard. New York hip-hop has been pretty stale for a minute, and they are just getting real mad and frustrated."
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Discussing all of that might weary him, but he delights in spinning Lil Wayne yarns, recalling the time Weezy showed up to the "Make It Rain" remix video with smoke literally coming out of his ears. Joe chalks up Wayne's eccentricities to runaway intelligence. "The most incredible geniuses are pretty weird, and he's a genius, man."
If Wayne's strength is his effortless flow or Zeitgeist-capturing weirdness, Joe's is his financial savvy, and The Elephant in the Room is the closest thing you'll find to sure-bet profitability in hip-hop this year. Over soaring, big-name beats, he raps about drug distribution and high-life living, with a track called "My Conscience" featuring KRS-One thrown in for good measure. It won't sell millions, but Joe has figured out how to stay comfortably in the red regardless. He keeps a close eye on the Joey Crack, Inc. balance sheets, and will quickly rattle off album sales, ringtone sales, and chart positions when prompted.
After being dropped by Atlantic Records in 2006, he went "independent," putting out his albums through Terror Squad Entertainment and securing distribution through Imperial Records, a subset of EMI. He now owns his masters, no longer gets a big recoupable advance, and earns a larger share of each CD's proceeds — he says seven dollars apiece.
And so, even though a Joe album doesn't usually sell much more or less than a few hundred thousand units — even 2004's Terror Squad release True Story, which spawned the monster hit "Lean Back," moved only about 400,000 copies — he says he makes more money now than he ever did on a major label. (Though he did have to sell his private jet a few years back.) "Joe's a real, real, real smart guy," says the forever-emphatic DJ Khaled. "He's seen the best and he's seen the worst in his life. When you see that, you learn a lot. A lot of rappers are broke after their third or fourth album, but Joe always makes good decisions."