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It's Grammys 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 that he says run a hip-hop "secret mafia."
"I have no problem with them," adds the Bronx-bred 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.") Things have gotten so bad that even Joe's Bronx-residing nephew is a Lupe Fiasco fanatic: "He said, 'Lupe's album's a classic, man! You need to get it. It's not about killing people like you like—it's not on that tip. But don't worry, you're going to like it.' "
Sitting in the back of the Sheraton Universal Hotel lobby, the charismatic, dough-faced, veteran Puerto Rican MC 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 oversized 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, and so while in town, he guests on E! talk show Chelsea Lately (Chelsea says she'd like to cuddle with him), hangs out at Ne-Yo's Grammy party, and otherwise promotes his new album, The Elephant in the Room, any way he can. The "room" is hip-hop and the "elephant" is Joe, of course, and the disc continues his unapologetic reign of gangster-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) 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.)
"I make gangsta-rap music," Joe declares often. But though, on record, he frequently 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 (i.e., the startlingly bright-red beverage), and his nickname, Joey Crack, comes not from the rock, but from an old graffiti nickname based on the unfortunate visibility afforded by his low-slung pants.
"Most of my music is entertainment, stuff I've never done in my life," he says. "I put it on records, and it just sounds crazy. I love making provocative, disrespectful music. And that's what the people want to hear."
Joe barely drinks booze and says he's only smoked pot 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?' "
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. In the mid-'90s, 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, not to mention accusations that Pun and others were ghostwriting for him. Pun's star eclipsed Joe's with his multi-platinum 1998 debut, Capital Punishment, but, though 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, not to mention 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's All or Nothing, he 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.