Last week my daughter turned four-years-old, and to celebrate I took the day off and took her to that wonder of wonders, LegoLand, because her life is essentially a Charles Dickens novel of deprivation and poverty. While I was there, trying to navigate around the one kid who definitely threw up in the Kid Power Towers and waiting in life to ride the Coastersaurus, I vowed to focus on her and not check my phone every seven minutes. That meant no email and no Twitter, although I did keep checking my texts because I'm not Amish.
So when I saw a text from my brother pop up, I assumed it was of the "Happy birthday to Paloma" variety, but instead all it read was, "Is Fat Joe dead?"
A quick word on my brother. I threw my high school graduation cap into the air and was on a flight to California before it landed, but my brother is a Boston lifer. We're talking a man who's on a first name basis with the ticket scalpers on Lansdowne and will most likely die of a heart attack on the T as an old man (or the floating monorail that is the T of the future). Also, unlike me, he has a completely average relationship with hip-hop. He knows some dope underground stuff, mostly so he can name some dope underground stuff if the topic comes up at a bar, but he's not that into it. The majority of his hip-hop news comes through general pop culture osmosis, so when he asked me if Fat Joe was dead it was completely and equally possible that A) Fat Joe was indeed dead or B) Fat Joe wasn't dead and he just read something dumb on Facebook.
Which left me in a strange position. My first thought was, "No fucking way, Fat Joe's not dead." But I quickly realized that assumption was based on...Fat Joe being immortal? People die, why couldn't Fat Joe be dead? Well, fuck then. As a hip-hop connoisseur I felt like I had to know if Fat Joe was indeed still breathing, but as a father I had vowed to not work at all during my daughter's birthday. The fatherly vow won out, I didn't hit that browser button on my phone, and I spent the rest of my time in LegoLand with half my brain making sure my daughter didn't drown at the Soak N Sail and the other half wondering what I would write about Fat Joe if it turned out he had indeed passed on to that great strip club in the sky.
Of course, it turned out that Fat Joe was, indeed, very much not dead. In fact, he was alive enough to be laying out his own plans for the Knicks. But in those few hours where I kind of, maybe, thought Fat Joe was possibly deceased, I had already gotten so deep into trying to figure out my rap relationship to Joseph Antonio Cartagena that it seemed like a shame to let it all go to waste just because he happened to not be dead. So, instead of waiting for him to actually stop breathing, let's take a moment to think about Fat Joe while he's still with us.
It would do a lot for my rap nerd credentials if I could claim that I was listening to Fat Joe since the "Deep Cover" days, or even better well before, because make no mistake, Joe is absolutely an OG; he dropped his first album, "Represent", in 1993, a full three years before Jay came out with "Reasonable Doubt". But the truth is that Joe came onto my radar around the same time as the rest of America. In other words, the early 2000s, and then in force once his mainstream period really took off and "Lean Back" became the biggest hit of his career.
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"Lean Back", along with its smash hit succesor "Make It Rain", cemented Joe's place in my mind. He was a relatively mainstream rapper who also happened to do awesome "MTV Cribs" episode when he licked a shoe and introduced the phrase "Blanco y blanco" to my lexicon. Not much to see here, move on.
It'd be another couple years until started working over at the mothership full time and listening to new Fat Joe albums literally became my job. That's when I really learned about his true hip-hop credentials - there aren't many guys alive who can tell stories about helping Biggie and Big Pun come up - and started to take him seriously as an emcee. Of course, it also helped that around the same time he seemed to start really making his case as a Hall of Fame emcee by re-focusing on harder, darker material. But even then, armed with a new found appreciation for Joe, I'll admit that I didn't take him as seriously as I perhaps should have. Repeated vows to dig into his back catalog faded into the Realm of Unrealized Good Intentions, and my relationship with Fat Joe became mostly of the "oh shit, he lost some weight, good for him" / "oh shit, he's in prison for tax evasion, that sucks" variety.
But now, finally, inspired by that one time when I assumed he probably wasn't dead but might be dead, I think it's time I actually put the time into thinking about Fat Joe's legacy. I'll be listening to his entire discography, starting with "Represent", and I'm gonna need DJBooth Nation to weigh in and help me sort this all out. Is Joe under-rated? Properly rated? If he were to actually pass away tomorrow, what would we say about the man? Because if we have praise for the man, let's praise him today, before it's too late.
Viva El Don Cartagena.
[Nathan S. is the managing editor of The DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. He also occasionally talks in podcast form and appears on RevoltTV. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.]