By Abdullah "T Kid" Saeed
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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.
But though 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 due 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, what's everybody so mad at the South for? "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." He evokes the cynical title of Nas's last album: "Hip-Hop Is Dead? No, it's not. Step your game up. Make some hits."
Though Joe says he's been courted by both the Clinton and Obama campaigns ("They need that Latino support. I love 'em both, man"), he feels slighted by the cool-kid New York rappers, particularly 50 Cent, with whom he's engaged in a long-running dis feud. (Internet rumor mill MediaTakeOut.com recently published rumors that rapper Papoose had punched Fat Joe in the face. As evidence, they posted a picture of Joe with a black eye, although they later admitted that the picture was doctored by someone in 50's camp. Joe denies he was roughed up.) But if discussing 50 wearies him, he delights in spinning Lil Wayne yarns, recalling the time Weezy showed up to the "Make It Rain" remix video with smoke 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. R. Kelly, weird. Big Pun, weird. Eminem, weird."
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's figured out how to stay comfortably in the black, 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 bigger share of each CD's proceeds—he says $7 apiece. Since he's now largely responsible for his own marketing and recording expenses, he splurged on a full-cover 2006 Daily News ad to promote his last album, Me, Myself & I, but pulled the plug on "Party All the Time," a song he recorded and was considering for Elephant. (Who knew Eddie Murphy samples were so pricey?)
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," only moved about 400,000 copies—he says he makes more money now than he ever did on a major, 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."
One such decision may have been staying here at the fairly gauche Sheraton Universal, where teenage skateboarders jockey for position with valets near the front door. "When I come to L.A. for these events, I don't want to be in a hotel where people are looking for the artist, where there's a million artists and everybody knows where you stand," Joe says. "I like to go where it's just us, where we're comfortable. None of the bells and whistles."