I was afraid of the old Fat Joe. As a young journalist in New York City in the early 1990s, I’d often see him at clubs and intimate rap shows and I knew that when the chubby Latino man with the uncompromising screwface scowl popped up in the spot with his green army jacket, blue jeans and brown Timberland boots, that trouble was around the corner. He always seemed on guard and ready to bring the ruckus—the muthafuckin’ ruckus. Anybody seen the exit door?
I knew he was from the Boogie Down Bronx and was connected with the well-respected Diggin In The Crates crew (Lord Finesse, Diamond D, Showbiz & AG, Big L and O.C.) but at first glance I thought he was all about muscle, not the music—I only saw an enforcer. That quickly changed when I heard Joe’s 1993 debut single, “Flow Joe.” Although he didn’t have the smoothest flow or sharpest delivery, his captivating charisma and passion for hip-hop cut through.
I’ve cheered for Fat Joe many more times during the past three decades. Witnessing him introduce the world to the rap sensation Big Pun, and then, after Pun’s tragic passing, develop himself into a true mega rap star in the 2000s. A certified platinum artist behind two of hip-hop biggest and most respected anthems: Terror Squad’s 2004 “Lean Back” and, twelve years later, his other mega collaboration with Remy Ma, “All The Way Up.” The latter song was so infectious it helped Joe make amends with fellow New York MC rival Jay-Z after many years of tension.
Since 2017, Fat Joe has been managed by Jay-Z’s Roc Nation and he’s carved out a lucrative life outside of music that, even years after witnessing his successful reinvention from tough guy to music star, still feels surprising. Joe always knew how to make a record for radio—see: “What’s Luv?”—but there was always an element of street grittiness that make seeing him guest host Wendy Williams’ talk show or making happy chat with Drew Barrymore feel a little jarring. He has a full slate of upcoming creative projects—several TV endeavors, a potential one-man show produced by Dave Chappelle—anchored by the release of his new memoir, The Book of Jose. With co-writer Shaheem Reid (an MTV News alum as well as the leader of Busta Rhymes’ Conglomerate management team), Joe vividly paints a picture of his volatile upbringing, tremendous music career highs and lows, and he delivers a strong read. No surprise there: He’s always been one of hip-hop’s greatest storytellers.
After a morning visit to Jada Pinkett-Smith’s Red Table Talk, Joe met me for a seafood lunch at the rooftop of the Beverly Hills Waldorf Astoria on a beautiful LA Saturday afternoon: Pretty cool for a coupla New York City project kids. Big success on his own terms has brought a radiant joy, compassion and a smile to his face. Yesterday’s Fat Joe is not today’s Fat Joe. He’s better.
GQ: I wanna take it all the way back. On your 2001 single, “My Lifestyle,” you rapped, My life is legendary. If I wrote it all down in the book/ It’d be very scary.
Fat Joe: Did you read the book?
I read the book.
Is it very scary?
My biggest takeaway is that you get really personal, and very detailed about your upbringing, your struggles, and your family. Was that part of the challenge of creating The Book of José?
The biggest challenge was having people believe me, because my life is so unbelievable. It was total transparency. If you thought you knew Fat Joe as a rapper, when you get the book, you’ll really know about his father, his mother, his son, you know about everything. The reason for the Fat Joe show on Instagram, and the reason for the book, is I’d been seeing some documentaries about hip hop, and the facts were all wrong. It was people that you and I know and respect that were putting them out, and they were changing narratives. So I didn’t want to pass away and have some corny muthafucka write the Fat Joe book. Nobody’s going to be able to tell you my story like me.
In the book you share a lot about Big Pun, who died in 2000. You discuss his energy, how he immediately brought you into his world.
The thing with Pun is, he never had a big brother, and I never had a little brother. I was brought up so tough. My heart was black. I came from selling drugs, and doing all that. I didn’t trust nobody. I was going up against animals. So when I met Pun for the first time, he was telling me his life story. I was just like, Yo, why is this guy telling me all his fuckin’ business? That’s not what we do. But he just wanted to belong. He was a real dude, and he just wanted a crew.
In the book, you detail seeing Pun being administered CPR by paramedics. The year before that, you and Cam’ron saw New York rapper Big L lifeless on the street after being shot in Harlem. How do you get through moments when you literally see lives lost?
I’ve dealt with a lot of death. I grew up with 40 guys, and 35 of them got killed. That shit is draining, bro. And so when you talk about Big Pun … that was devastating. It destroyed my world. I don’t even know how to explain it to you. So here we are, we brothers, we’re flying high, we get rich together. We made it! [It’s 1998], he’s going platinum with Capital Punishment. First Latino double-platinum rap album.
His first great success is your biggest success, at the same damn time.
Yeah—I discovered him, so in that sense. I was the Puff Daddy, he was the Biggie. And to just have that all just go away at such a young age, I didn’t know how to deal. So that’s when I went into depression. Now Big L’s another thing, a lot of these kings, Biggie, Big L. A lot of these guys got murdered for stuff they didn’t really have to get murdered over. They didn’t deserve it. Not that anybody deserves it, but these guys are sweet guys. Those guys were beautiful guys.
Back to Big L. Your support system, at least in hip hop, was the Diggin’ in the Crates Crew that you were both members of. The book includes stuff about you trying to make it in music while still dealing in the streets.
First of all, I loved being a drug dealer. Sad to say, right? I loved the power that came with it. The money came with it. I’ve been a wild kid my whole life. I woke up every day for violence. That was my thing. Waking up to get it poppin’. Never a dull day.
The only positive thing happening was that kids I grew up with—Showbiz, Diamond D, Lord Finesse—they all started blowing up in music. So I finally saw a way out. I had to see Lord Finesse get a record deal. I had to see Diamond D shoot a video. This is possible. I can do this. Nothing was given to me: I went to Showtime at the Apollo. Imagine, I went to Amateur Night to get discovered, even though I grew up with the Diggin’ in the Crates Crew. But that just lets you know my DNA, and my determination to be successful.
“Lean Back” exploded in 2004. Multi-platinum. The dance took over the summer. The remix extended everything even further. Lil Jon was hot as fish grease and you added his touch. You brought Mase back to hip hop, and even Eminem jumped on the record. When you make a record that successful, what comes with that?
Nothing but beautiful things. You’re making all kinds of money. You’re Number 1 in the world. Your dick can’t be no bigger. You’re walking out, every car’s playing your song. You’re on fire. Your crew feels good. Your wife is walking big. Number One—it’s a different type of drug, a different type of high. I tell young artists all the time, I’d rather be a one-hit wonder than to be a no-hit nothing. There’s nothing like having an anthem so impactful that Bruce Willis is leaning back. Now, the bad part that comes with that is, you’re as good as your last hit. I came back with “Make It Rain,” which went platinum. But it wasn’t “Lean Back.” And even years later, when I came with “All the Way Up” in 2016, it still wasn’t the phenomenon of “Lean Back.”
I’m still amazed by “All The Way Up.” You’d been in a Miami federal detention center for four months on tax charges. You had to rebuild everything.
“All The Way Up” saved my life. I went to jail. They took all my money. Imagine being rich for fifteen years, flying private, staying in fancy hotels, having whatever you want. And one day you look at your account, and your shit is near zero, and you gotta go to jail. And you’re 40 years old. But I turned it around. “All the Way Up” just felt different. Remy Ma had been incarcerated for six years [2008-2014], and then we get together and come back from nothing?! We never told you we had nothing. We never looked down on ourselves. We knew we had one chance and, man, God blessed us. I remember we were here in LA, backstage at the BET Awards. Remy looked fly. I looked fly. We grabbed hands and we squeezed each other’s hands. At that moment, it was like vindication. She looks at me and ‘I’m like, “You believe this shit? We got a No. 1 record again. Fucking makin’ money.” Samuel Jackson in the crowd rocking.
You’ve been nominated for six Grammys, and you’ve said you were disappointed that the year of “All the Way Up,” the Grammy went to Chance The Rapper for “No Problem” featuring Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz.
I should have won the Grammy for Best Rap Performance 2017. Chance is a cool guy. But the Grammy should have come my way. “All the Way Up” was bigger. Not only that, if people understood the culture, Remy and I were like Robin Hood and Cinderella. They could have done the ‘hood a favor and given “All the Way Up,” the fuckin’ Grammy. You understand? They gave it to Chance the Rapper—and for what? I’m not going to be disrespectful, but they gave it to him for a record I don’t even know no more. This is my point. I don’t even know what he beat us with. Do you understand? Same thing happened to us with “Lean Back.” We lost Best Rap Performance By A Duo Or Group in 2005 to, what’s these guys? What’s the guy with the girl, Fergie?
Black Eyed Peas with “Let’s Get It Started”?
Come on, bro. I don’t know what song. How does it beat “Lean Back”? And “All the Way Up”? We came out of jail. We made it. It’s a miracle. It was their responsibility to say, You know what? Let’s give the underdogs the Grammys.
How crazy it is to have a long-running rivalry with Jay-Z, and then you go to Roc Nation, they manage you under the leadership of Desiree Perez? That’s been a great move for you across the board.
I always loved Jay. He always loved me, and we let ignorance get between us mostly on my part. I say that in the book: when keeping it real goes wrong. I’ve wasted a lot of time—because it’s a beautiful thing to hit Jay-Z and he hits you back. And vice-versa. And he’s been an amazing partner to me, especially in helping me do philanthropy. The only time I ask Jay for something is so that we can team up and give back to the people. He’s there one million percent, every single time. “Yo, what we doing? Yo, the fire victims in the Bronx. Yo, going to Puerto Rico with it. Yo, tell me where Joe, let’s go.” It’s funny because the main business I actually do with Jay-Z is the business of giving back to people. Two kids from Apartment 5E: he’s from the projects in Brooklyn, I’m from the projects in the Bronx. We are constantly trying to give back to our people, inspire our people. That’s a beautiful thing.
I remember how excited you were getting Jay on the “All The Way Up” remix, and I didn’t even know that you were seriously considering adding Drake on there too.
Drake called me three times, FaceTime. He knew it was a hit. He called me, Yo, send the track. Send the track. And I wanted to put Drake on there. Drake is one of my favorite artists of all time. One of the greatest artists of all time, lyrically, melody. I love everything about Drake. His persona, his attitude, everything about him.
I always say Drake runs around town like he’s the top guy in the game.
He is, though. Who else got 15 years in, putting out No. 1 one after No. 1, after No. 1, after No. 1? I fuck with Drake, know what I’m saying? I don’t know if I’ve told him that, but I wouldn’t lie to you. Anybody brings up his name, I’m going to tell the truth. He’s the best.
But it wasn’t right to put him on that record at that moment?
No. It was right to put him on the song at that moment. But with all the history between me and Jay-Z, I just felt like for the real fans that know Fat Joe, we had to let that fly. Get that moment with Joe cracking, and Jay and Remy, and it came out phenomenal. It just meant too much to me, emotionally just to do the song with Jay, and with Remy. Because Jay is Remy’s favorite artist. Remy looks up to Jay-Z, but had never been able to work with him—because of Fat Joe.
And even in a book, you still didn’t speak about what happened between you and Jay-Z at the legendary Rucker Park basketball tournament in 2003 [Joe and Jay both coached competitive teams in the legendary streetball court who were primed to faceoff until a schedule change forced Jay to forfeit, allowing Joe to claim and boast victory].
No, even in the book, I don’t speak about it. I will, though. In this one-man show, I’m thinking about doing it. I got to talk about the Rucker in the one man show and break down my perspective of it.
Have you guys had that private conversation? Have you guys ever talked about it?
He’s mad. He’s still mad. Don’t let them (Jay and OG Juan Perez) lie to you bro. We officially put out the remix. They started like, “Yo, we would’ve beat you.” I’m telling you. I said, “Yo, we’re friends. We’re dear friends. We’re friends now, let’s just enjoy life.” “Nah, we would’ve this and this and this.” And I’m just like, “Yo, these guys are still tight.” They still tight. And it’s like… It’s the competitiveness.
Did you have a record with a Jay-Z guest verse that was gonna come out? A missile, but then it got derailed. Where he was gonna address some controversy with the NFL stuff back in 2019?
He was talking about the NFL stuff. He had just signed that big deal with that NFL, so he wanted to let it go. He gave it to me. Yeah. But I guess his people were like, “Yo bro, you just did a deal with them. How are you going to go in like that?” And look how successful the Emmys honor this year, they ain’t missed yet. Yeah. They’ve been doing the biggest Super Bowl. That was legendary with Dre last year. And I know Rihanna’s going to be legendary this year. So, we don’t like to stop no money or burn no bridges.
So do you have a copy that you listen to at home?
I got a copy here. I don’t listen to it but I got it. Dre got it. Let me put it clear. Dre of Cool & Dre got it. I don’t have it.
To honor the wishes of your former manager, Chris Lighty, after his passing, you also resolved conflict with another rival, 50 Cent. I didn’t know that conflict had a Michael Jordan connection.
Yeah I was going to do a sneaker collaboration with Jordan. The first rapper ever and I was meeting with him, flying to LA, flying to Vegas, Bahamas. We had them showing us designs for the sneaker. It was going to say “Puerto Rico” on the inside of the shoe. And we did that MTV Awards where I dissed 50 and he dissed me. And then MJ was like, “Yo brother, I ain’t into controversy and all that. I got big respect for you. Nothing but love, but you have to handle that.” If I wasn’t putting out these hits, this beef would’ve really, really broke me. Because it’s like I also had a deal with Reebok that they was trying to give me, and then turned around and people was like, “Yo, we ain’t fuck with Reebok, if you fuck with Joe.” You had to pick a side.
You have no problem closing deals these days. I can’t keep up with all your business. Can you break it down?
I have an animation show called The Movers with Susan Sarandon, on Fox. I have a show on Starz which is the Fat Joe Big Big Show, an evolution of the IG Show on Starz, with Puff and LeBron. And then I got The Book of Jose, the Showtime show with Kenya Barris, and Terrero brothers, Uly and Jessy Terrero based on this book. And I have a one-man show, which is not a comedy, and Dave Chappelle is going to host, introduce me, stuff like that. And another, I can’t tell you yet because we ain’t signed the paper yet. It’s a big one, too. It’s a done deal. And we’re working on other shows, so I’m doing TV shit.
I know you’re sorta retired from rap right now but I hope you still can find time for the music too. I enjoyed that “Flow Joe 2022” freestyle you sent Funkmaster Flex. What’d you say about the “Bs”?
I said I got a bad case of the Bs: Balenciagas, Botega, bad bitches, beaches in The Bahamas. Come on. That should be enough to calm everybody down. Be like, “Damn bro, this guy what, 52?” Let’s calm down, because he’s still ignorant. They smell a gun to see if it’s been fired. I don’t know when I’m going to stop making music. I feel like you get what you want. If you’re asking for Fat Joe, then that’s what you get. You studied my career for 27 years. That’s what you’re going to get. I’m never going to lay off who I am.
This conversation was edited for clarity and length.