Before the platinum hit records, Grammy Award nomination and acclaim, Fat Joe was Joseph Antonio Cartagena from the Bronx. In his new memoir, “The Book of Jose,” he details the toll of his upbringing, mental health and becoming a rapper.
He described his childhood to CBS News as beautiful, saying, “We didn’t have nothing. We didn’t have no money. We grew up on welfare. We grew up in the projects but we didn’t know what we were missing.”
Born in New York City’s South Bronx to Puerto Rican and Cuban parents, Cartegena said he struggled to fit in as an overweight kid with blonde hair and green eyes. He recalled getting beat up “every single day” while growing up.
In an excerpt from “The Book of Jose,” Cartegena explained how his reality impacted him.
“I sat in my bedroom with hatred festering,” he wrote. “My heart turned black. I no longer cared about anybody. I wanted to inflict as much violence and fear as I could on anyone who stood in my path. It didn’t matter whether they were good or bad.”
He recalled patrolling neighborhoods in the 1980s, which included robbing and intimidating community members.
“When I pray at night to God or I give back to the community, I don’t know if I can make up for the pain I gave to the community,” Cartegena said.
But nonetheless, the rapper said he “was a great kid” who would have perhaps become a doctor, lawyer or pastor had he grown up under different circumstances.
“I came with a pure heart, with a good heart,” he said. “It was the streets and the environment that changed me into that person.”
By the early 1990s, Cartegena’s skill with the mic was starting to break through and he began spending more time in the recording studio with his first hit in 1993, “Flow Joe.” He said he had “changed [his] life completely to get in the music business,” drawing on early advice he received at the time from rapper LL Cool J.
“I was like, ‘Yo, how you get this?’ He said, ‘That’s easy. I do the same thing you do. I just rap to the women and make commercial hits and you just rap to the gangsters on the street,” Cartegena said of an encounter with LL Cool J. “That sparked an idea in my brain that was like, ‘Oh, we gotta switch the game up.’ And around that time is where I first discovered Big Pun.”
Christopher Rios, also known as Big Pun, was one of the biggest names in hip-hop in the late 1990s. He and Cartegena were part of the Terror Squad, teaming up for a number of billboard smash hits. But in February of 2000, Rios suffered a fatal heart attack at 28-years-old.
Cartegana said he then fell into a deep depression, which he wrestled with for years.
“I knew I was in trouble. Like big trouble,” he said. “…I kept reliving this and reliving this and reliving this and reliving this and I was just in such a dark place.”
He said he worked through his grief through therapy and would later go on to register a string of Billboard hits.
Now, at 52, Cartegana reflected on his career in rap, saying that it is “a dangerous occupation.”
“It’s a very catch-22 situation,” he said.
Citing rapper 21 Savage, Cartegana asked “What do you do? You grew up in this community. You become rich out of nowhere. They supported you. Do you leave the hood and have the whole hood hate you forever? Or do you stay and try to look out for them because some of them are going to do the wrong thing.”
For Cartegana, he still operates in the South Bronx to this day, running one of New York’s top sneaker shops while providing a learning center for local kids. He described the store as “a safe haven for people in the community.”
“Don’t believe people telling you that you’re worthless, that you can’t become something,” he said. “We gotta be there for each other and let these young kings know, and queens know, that they’re valuable.”