The South Bronx in New York City has sealed its place in history as the birthplace of hip-hop, where black and Latino youths created something out of nothing. But while the Latino community gets props for certain elements of hip-hop culture—including graffiti, DJing and breakdancing—it hasn't gotten as much love for rapping. In the ’90s, Fat Joe and Big Pun changed that.
Not only did South Bronx native Fat Joe, who is the subject of Wednesday night’s Unsung on TV One, help give a face to Latino rappers, but he also helped put forward other talented lyricists, including Remy Ma and other members of the Terror Squad, including Cuban Link, Triple Seis and the late, great Big Pun.
One thing that Fat Joe has that many hip-hop stars from the ’90s don’t is unquestionable longevity. If you ask millennials about Fat Joe, they’ll say he’s “all the way up.” If you ask someone from the hip-hop generation, he or she will say, “What's love got to, got to do with it?”
And he's still going strong after 10 studio albums. His new album, Plata o Plomo (“Silver or Lead,” which means “Take the bribe or lose your life”), is a collaborative album with Remy Ma that’s due out Feb. 10.
The Unsung episode features commentary by rapper-producer Diamond D, DJ Khaled, 50 Cent and Ralph McDaniels, among others, and features footage of Big Pun, whom Fat Joe met in a bodega. Big Pun rapped for him on the spot and they formed an instant brotherhood.
Fat Joe talked to The Root about hip-hop, family and music ahead of his episode of Unsung.
The Root: Hip-hop began in the Bronx, and Latinos get love for breakdancing and graffiti but not as much for rap. I think you and Big Pun changed that, and I think the Unsung episode reflects that.
Fat Joe: The DJs are very important internally, but they don’t get glorified as much as the rappers, and Latinos played an intricate part with the breakdancing and the DJs, but the rappers are the ones that get most of the shine. There were Latinos in the rap game—Cypress Hill and a couple of others. If you look at history, at the first time hip-hop was invented, there was a Latino right there. How they got erased, I don’t know how that all came about. It's crazy because everybody was there together. More and more with these documentaries, there is more information to prove we were there.
FJ: They saved my life. Diamond D grew up in the same projects with me on Trinity Avenue in the Bronx, and we used to write graffiti together. Then one day I took a turn for the worse, and he was still doing the music thing, and one day he got up on me and was like, “Yo, Joe, man, instead of you doing all this crazy stuff out here, why don’t you write it down and do it in the music?” I was rapping, but he was like, “Take it serious.” He was like, “Let’s go in the studio and make some music.” We cut some demos and one of them was “Flow Joe,” which was my first single.
I went to the Apollo Theater on Amateur Night and I came in first place, and Red Alert approached me like, “Listen, I think you're a superstar. if you have any music, I'll play it.” Red Alert was the god of rap. I listened to his show for, like, a month or two before he finally played it, and I jumped to the sky. I couldn't believe it! I put my speaker in the window and yelled out to the whole block, “They playing my music!”
Chris Lighty came up to me in the street and said, “Look, I think you can be a superstar, so I want to sign you.” And I signed a contract right in the middle of the street.
I would not be here if it wasn’t for Chris Lighty. Because of me getting that opportunity, I gave so many other people opportunities—like, a generation of hip-hop that wouldn’t be around if it wasn’t for Chris Lighty being in my life. When he passed away, I looked at my kids, I looked at my wife, I looked at my house and it hit me hard—like, this man saved my life. Like, I would have been dead. I would probably … have never even had these kids. He's that monumental of a figure in my life and in my career.
TR: How have you maintained your longevity? You're an artist that I can say, “Fat Joe,” and my kids know you from today—not just from me playing your records from back in the day.
FJ: I never lose touch. If you let me tell it, I'll tell you I never got my just due and my respect for being one of the greats in hip-hop, and because of that, the fire never burned out. There's more and more of a need for me to succeed or take the legacy a step further, and that’s what it is. I stay around the young boys in the studio; I want to learn from them, and at the same time I have a lot to offer them.
TR: What did Big Pun teach you?
FJ: I learned so much. Pun was truly a genius. I am more of a hustler. There's a kid that’s a natural LeBron James, and there's another kid that’s pretty good, but he won't leave the gym. He found a way to make himself better. Pun was just a natural-born genius with music, and he basically taught me so many tricks on how to make better music, even though I was the one that discovered him.
He was so far advanced than me; he taught me a lot. We pray for him every day. My kids worship him like he’s a god. My daughter is 10 years old and she knows all of Big Pun's lyrics. That’s in their DNA—every Remy Ma rhyme, every Big Pun rhyme. That’s where we come from. Very sad that he was gone so soon.