Angie Martinez swaps the mic for the pen in her new memoir called The Voice. The Brooklyn-by-way-of-Washington Heights native chronicles her journey from grade school hip-hop junkie to the oft-proclaimed “Voice of New York,” spanning a radio career of more than two decades as a personality on the city’s first hip-hop station, Hot 97.
Here, the full-time mom and on-air maven shares special anecdotes of her news-breaking interviews with Jay Z, R. Kelly, Chris Brown and the late West Coast rap legend Tupac Shakur. Martinez, who is now a staple at Hot’s competitor, Power 105.1, admits that though the writing process was difficult, it was also therapeutic and allowed her to document a piece of radio history.
“Honestly, I feel like radio stories are not well-documented,” she tells Billboard. “A lot of things happened in radio especially as I was coming up and I feel like for some reason, that history is not really documented well and so, I kind of felt obligated. That’s kind of where it started but then when you start writing and realize how therapeutic of a process it is, you kind of just go from there.”
Martinez also expanded on her ‘Pac interview, representing for women in hip-hop and motherhood.
What felt right about writing a memoir at this stage in your career?
Angie Martinez: I think you can’t write one too soon because you don’t have a full perspective of everything. Also, I’m really at a turning point. I’m getting ready to do other things in my life and my career. I [recently made a change] in my career — it was such a noisy time in both good and bad ways. People kept showing me so much love and were so invested in my career that it made me take a step back to kind of reflect on some things and just made me want to tell it.
Describe the mindset you were in while writing Chapter 5, where you detailed your interview with Tupac during the East Coast/West Coast rap war and only aired 12 minutes of the two-hour session.
That just poured out really quickly because I’ve often thought about it through my career and I’ve often reflected on it. I don’t know that I would have necessarily shared that story so it’s something that I decided to get out. I’m grateful for in a lot of ways because it was a turning point in my career. It forced me to make some decisions that kind of set me off on a path on what type of personality I wanted to be. It taught me a good lesson. I went with my gut. I didn’t know how it was going to work out. I was scared to air this interview and I didn’t want to be responsible for making it worse. And the truth is that I made that decision and I’m proud of that after all these years later. I think about the tragedy that happened to both [Tupac and Biggie] like, “What if I had put that out?” I would’ve forever wondered if I had contributed in any way to what happened, even though it may not have. Ultimately, it happened anyway but I know that I did what I could do to not contribute to it. That gave me strength. That helped me draw my line in terms of who I am as a personality.
Do you think that if you were put in that position in 2016, where everything gets posted on the Internet seemingly without a second thought, that you would have made a different decision?
Nope. I’d do it now. I feel like I have the opportunity to jump out the window now with certain things. Ultimately, I do my best to not subscribe to things that are unnecessarily negative, harmful or hurtful to somebody. Not intentionally anyway. Sometimes, telling your opinion may hurt somebody’s feelings but I did something [with the ‘Pac interview] that I know wasn’t going to cause something bad in the world to happen. You know what I mean?
You describe your long relationship with hip-hop and how you picked up lyrics instantly from artists like Grandmaster Flash to Run-D.M.C. Who are some artists today that still make you excited about hip-hop?
Cole, Kendrick [Lamar]. I like Chance The Rapper a lot. I know he’s so crossover and so many people have so many opinions about what he does and who he is but this [Kanye West’s] Life of Pablo album is phenomenal to me. Like I still listen to it all the time. I still very much feel connected to music.
You also praise Oprah as one of your idols. Have you ever considered having your own talk show?
Absolutely. I think now I’d be more ready than I’d ever been in my life just because I have such a full, more well-rounded perspective on things. Maybe it might not be in the traditional talk format. I don’t know what kind of format it would be but I definitely see television as something I want to do.
You recently ran a marathon, did a cookbook, had albums in the past and now, the memoir. What is the next achievement you’d like to cross off your bucket list?
It’s funny you say bucket list. I was just talking about bucket list with my mother yesterday. Marathons for sure on my bucket list. Some travel that I wanna do personally that’s on my bucket list, even though it’s not really career-driven. Television is on my bucket list. I want to go to Thailand — that’s on my bucket list. I want to speak Spanish fluently, that’s on my bucket list. [Laughs] I’ve done so many things that I feel like this world is one big opportunity.
You discuss your close relationships with Mary J. Blige and Q-Tip. Was there any story that didn’t make the cut?
Not really. When I started writing the rough draft of it, I definitely gave myself the freedom to just write. I was like, just write it and then if I need to, if something doesn’t feel good or it’s weighing on my heart, then I can always go back and edit later if I feel like I needed to. The truth is I wrote it and everything is honest. There was nothing I really took out. I mean sure there’s other things that happened but I would need a full book to tell every story, every lesson or everything that happened but it was nothing that I intentionally left out because of whatever reason. These are the stories that I kind of felt shared my thoughts overall and how I look at the world, lessons I’ve learned and philosophies in my career.
Hip-hop is often seen as an all-boys club. Given your lengthy career, did you ever feel like you had to represent for women while writing this memoir?
I don’t think so much so consciously like, “I have to represent for women!” I always try to do the right thing and whatever comes naturally to me. I do think as I’ve gotten older, I have been a little more understanding that [being a woman] does give me that unique perspective. Sometimes, when I’m doing an interview, my delivery or my take on a story may lean a little feminine depending on the story but it’s never intentional. Being a mother, being a woman and being a grown-up sometimes may give a different perspective to an interview that a lot of people may be doing at the same time.
You also spotlight your own mother as well as your own experiences with having a son. How did that drive the book-writing process?
I think it drives everything. I’m careful about what I put out in the world but I’m also very much interested in sharing what I’ve learned. I’m interested in doing my best to give somebody either some inspiration or to share some sort of insight I have on something. I think that comes from being a mother, from wanting to take care of people, wanting to care for people and doing the right thing. I think there’s something in that.
Read an exclusive excerpt from Angie Martinez’s memoir about flying to Los Angeles to interview Tupac below. My Voice: A Memoir By Angie Martinez will be released on May 17.
“When people ask me about the most pivotal moments in my career I often refer to this one; when I realized that how I use my voice and my platform carries a certain amount of responsibility. As intimidated as I was in the moment, I knew I was exactly where I was meant to be” — Angie Martinez
In walks Pac and the room immediately lights up. He’s laughing, giving his friends pounds and hugs. He gives me a big hug. “You good? I had my peoples go to this spot and get you some pizza.” The box says NY Pizza. “I wanted to make you feel comfortable,” he says. “I know people be saying bad shit about me. I’m a good guy.” Somebody lights a blunt. The room is starting to feel comfortable. I fumbled with the tape, hit record, and so it began.
Angie: I’m sitting with Tupac in his crib. We need to talk about the East Coast-West Coast thing. Aren’t you from New York?
Tupac: That’s where I was born, but that’s not where I learned how to make money. This is where I got laced. This is where I became a man.
I could see that he was far more articulate and calculated than I was, more seasoned.
Angie: Are you saying that you do not have a beef with New York?
Tupac: Nah, I have a beef with anybody in my way, anybody that feel like they could criticize me because they bought my album. That feel like just because they read an interview that they know who I am. I have a beef with them interfering with me getting my money. I got a beef with Wendy Williams saying I got raped in jail because that disrespected me, my family and what I represent. I got a beef with New York rappers just saying whatever they wanna say about where I’m from.
He finally came around to the main beef. And because I still didn’t fully understand, I asked exactly how his relationship with Biggie [Smalls] had gotten so bad.
Tupac: He acted like he didn’t know what happened when I got shot. Puffy‘s the one that really snapped me back to my senses. When this punk muthaf–a said, “Thug Life? You gon’ be a thug, you gotta be a thug forever, you can’t go in and out of it.” When a cream puff n–a like that tell me that, it’s time to ride.
Angie: What’s gonna come outta this?
Tupac: I want my respect. It’s not gonna be over till I drop my Nagasaki. They bombed Pearl Harbor. They shot me five times, okay. Until I get my Nagasaki, we can’t have peace.
Every time Pac came close to giving me something concrete that I could use to defuse the East Coast-West Coast beef, he’d back off and say something even more inflammatory. It was overwhelming. I was in no way able to challenge him the way I wish I could have. He was a performer — the way he delivered, the way he spoke. He was poetic.
Looking back, I feel that the weight of history wasn’t just felt by me, but that something inside Tupac had given him a sense of urgency. He clearly seemed to think it was important to go on the record and cover not just what I’d come for but other thoughts, including his hope to inspire other artists. After more than two hours, I reluctantly began to wrap up. I honestly felt like I could have talked to this guy forever.
People were literally waiting for me at the station when I showed after taking a flight from L.A. [Fellow DJ] Ed Lover came into the editing room, listening. Apparently, he heard enough to mention something to Puff, who then called [program director] Steve Smith and said, “If this airs, it’s going to make the situation worse. I’m going to have a real problem with the station.” Steve calls me out of editing. “I don’t know if we should be playing this. Puff doesn’t think –“
“Puff? What does he have to do with any of this?”
“He just thinks that more people could get hurt.”
“You’re not telling me I can’t play it, right?”
I could see where it would make a bad situation worse. That was never my intent. Airing it in full would have been the biggest interview in the country. Pre-social media, radio was the one place where you could experience what it was like to be there in the moment. But the material could also accelerate this crazy war that I had suddenly found myself on the front lines of.
I chose to stick by Pac with cuts that reflected his truth but that were also positive. And yes, I took the best of what he had said about there not being an East Coast-West Coast beef, that it was about one person dealing with another person. I struggled with the fine line between my journalistic duty to keep his meaning and not contributing to a dangerous situation as a human being who deeply cared about the culture. Everything had happened so fast. All these years later, the details remain incredibly vivid. I kept the plane tickets to L.A. and I was smoking Newports with Pac, so I held on to the box with four cigarettes left. I knew it was such an unusual moment that would stay with me forever. I’d come to a turning point. Before that interview, my job was just fun. I finally realized, Oh! This does matter! It can matter. It is mattering.
From MY VOICE: A Memoir by Angie Martinez, to be published on May 17th by Celebra, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Media Noche Productions, Inc.
A version of this article originally appeared in the May 14 issue of Billboard.