Long before Fat Joe became hip-hop’s Tony Robbins with motivational anthem “All the Way Up,” he was well-versed in the art of the banger. The veteran rapper’s catalog is full of modern party classics (see “What’s Luv?” and “Lean Back”) — but with “Up,” featuring Remy Ma and French Montana, Fat Joe has his highest-charting single in almost a decade, cruising at No. 31 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 9 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs list. And at 45 years old — about two decades wiser than most hitmaking MCs — the Bronx native born Joe Cartagena has no plans of stopping now. The CEO of his own label Terror Squad Entertainment, Joe is releasing a joint album with Ma called Plata o Plomo (“silver or lead” in Spanish) later this summer that features Ty Dolla Sign, Kent Jones and an unnamed “living R&B legend.”
But smart collaborations are just one of Fat Joe’s secrets to not aging out of hip-hop.
Lean On The Team
For both “All the Way Up” and 2004’s “Lean Back,” Joe called on fellow Bronx native Ma. But the former Terror Squad members have hit their share of speed bumps on their way up the charts. In 2005, a still-unexplained beef divided the two. Then, Ma served six years in prison on a 2008 assault conviction.
But before her release in 2014, the pair managed to patch things up. Today, Joe is back to gloating about his protegee’s talents. “She’s going for best rapper of the year, male or female, on this album,” he says. “It’s just the chemistry I pull out of her. I’m like [basketball coach] Bobby Knight — he got the best out of his players.”
Do Your Research
Before he heads to the studio, Fat Joe hits the dance floor. “I went to a club in Memphis and just studied the room,” he says of the inspiration for 2007’s “Make It Rain,” featuring Lil Wayne. “I kept watching this one girl dancing by the speaker. In the studio, we got the drums to match the way she was moving.” But a song’s message, he adds, is key. “The formula for a hit is saying what people want to hear,” says Joe, adding that “All the Way Up” is for when “people want to feel triumph, like they’re the boss.” The rapper is still surprised, though, by the track’s reach. “We made it to be hot in the club — who knew it would turn out to be inspirational?”
Contemporary New York hip-hop may have its detractors, but Joe still keeps things local — even tapping Brooklyn’s Jay Z for the official “All the Way Up” remix.
“I’m sure when Heavy D — rest in peace — Public Enemy and LL Cool J heard our era’s rap they were like, ‘This shit is wack,’ ” he says. “People feel like if it isn’t boom-bap, it isn’t real New York — but it’s a different time. You have to evolve.”
Don’t Get Hung Up On Age
“We’re pioneering the new mind-set, because every artist — even me before I turned 40 years old — used to be like, ‘If you’re 40 and you rap, get the hell out,’ ” he says of becoming one of hip-hop’s elder statesmen. “I see the importance of it for hip-hop’s culture: Now, your favorite rapper might try to make a comeback.” Even 25 years in, though, some parts of the business never change. “I don’t get high on drugs,” he says. “But getting a hit record like ‘All the Way Up’ and hearing somebody drive by playing it is like smoking crack. It’s euphoria to me — there’s no better feeling in the world.”
This article originally appeared in the July 2 issue of Billboard.