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Rapper Fat Joe on his new memoir 'The Book of José'

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

In hip-hop, authenticity is currency. If people think you're fake, that could kill your career. Legendary rapper Fat Joe has never had that problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEAN BACK")

FAT JOE: (Rapping) Don't dance, we just pull up our pants and do the rockaway. Now lean back, lean back, lean back, lean back. Come on. I said...

RASCOE: With a career spanning decades, Joe has been able to parlay his street credibility into massive hits that jealous ones still envy. Now Fat Joe is telling his life story in a new memoir, "The Book Of Jose." His given name is Joseph Cartagena, and he joins us now from New Jersey. Welcome to the program.

FAT JOE: Hey, thank you for having me.

RASCOE: So, like, in the book, you describe in detail growing up in the Forest Houses projects in the Bronx. You know, you described coming up through the crack epidemic in the '80s. It was rough. Can you talk about, like, what it was like growing up there?

FAT JOE: Man, it was beautiful at the beginning, and then drugs just came into our neighborhood. And so the way crack started, it was a high-end drug. So they would be in the clubs, and they would sprinkle the crack in the weed. They would call it woolas (ph). So they got hooked on that crack. I seen guys who used to be the flyest (ph) guys in the world, and three weeks later they be looking homeless.

RASCOE: I'm reading about you growing up, and you said you got bullied and beat up a lot growing up.

FAT JOE: It's sad. Man, they would jump me every day for no reason. There was no reason - horrible. Just imagine going to school every single day, and the girls in the typing class would be, Joey, they're waiting for you to beat you up.

RASCOE: But then it switched - right? - 'cause you went from being bullied to - yeah.

FAT JOE: What happened to me was the bullies came up on me one day. I had a best friend named Leonard. My moms would feed him every day. When it's lunch time, she would buy him a hero, quart of water, give us quarters to play the game. One day the bullies catch me, and they ask him, yo, why you with this guy? He says, well, you know, Joey's my best friend. They said, if you don't beat him up with us, we're going to beat you up every day. And in an instant, he just started beating me up with them.

That was one of the darkest days of my life. So traumatic - I cried. And I kept saying, anybody ever look at me, anybody ever talk to me, I'm going to give it to them. And it's sad. Because of the environment, I turned into the worst bully in the world. And I did some horrible things to good and bad people that I'm not proud of.

RASCOE: I mean, you talk about the regret because it's like, what do you feel like - 'cause like you said, you bullied people - good people and bad people.

FAT JOE: You know, I regret a lot growing up. And so I pray all the time. And so I give back to my community all the time, whether it's the Muslim brothers and sisters in the Bronx that died in the fire - we raised 2 million. Puerto Rico hurricane - we sent a million pounds of food, women's hygienes, medicine. I mean, I try. I - you know, I'm just preparing for the day I meet the man upstairs. And I'll be like, God, I know I was terrible, but, look, I turned it around.

RASCOE: Let's get to the music. In your late teens, you decide to get out of the drug game, devote yourself to rap. You started off with the Diggin' in the Crates Crew, including Lord Finesse, Diamond D, legendary Big L. Like, what made you think, I can make it rapping?

FAT JOE: Well, I always loved hip-hop. I was born in hip-hop since a baby. My brother - I looked up to him. He was a crate boy. So now we got computers. We got everything. Back in the days, DJs used to mix with vinyl. The three founding fathers - I mean, could you imagine, like, Alexander Graham Bell? You know, the pioneers, the fathers of hip-hop is Grandmaster Flash, Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa. My brother was a crate boy for Grandmaster Flash and...

RASCOE: So the crate boy is the one that holds the...

FAT JOE: So he'd take a milk crate, and it's filled with vinyl. So he had the honor of being the crate boy for Grandmaster Flash. So once they became successful, I said, oh, no, this the way out.

RASCOE: I got to talk to you about Big Pun. Obviously, he's a huge figure in rap - literally and figuratively. You were pivotal in his career, and y'all were also best of friends. Like, he died of a heart attack at 28. Like, do you have a favorite memory of Big Pun?

FAT JOE: Big Pun, man. His birthday just passed recently, and I put up a collage of pictures on Instagram. First thing I did was tell my wife, look at these pictures. He just had so much enjoyment. You know, Pun grew up in the Bronx, so he knew all the legendary stories of Joey Crack, Terror Squad. From the day I met him, he poured his heart out to me. He said, you going to be my big brother? You mean those Terror Squad guys are now mine? I can tell them what to do? And I was like, yes. That's all he needed to hear. He was like, let's go. And I can see it in all the pictures. You know, he was way better than me. He was one of the greatest of all time. But still, he had that little - yeah, I got Joey with me. Crazy.

RASCOE: I got to ask you, you know, you've been criticized a lot about the N-word. You talk a little bit about that in the book, about - you're not Black. You're Puerto Rican. Now, in the book, you say you're trying to use it a lot less. You grew up using that word. Like, where are you on that now? Are you taking it out of your vocabulary? Where are you on that?

FAT JOE: No, I'm not taking it out of my - I can't...

RASCOE: OK.

FAT JOE: ...OK? I just can't.

RASCOE: OK.

FAT JOE: Even if I tried, I can't. I try to say it so much less now, but moments when I'm not thinking and I'm in my house, I say it to my son, I say it to my daughter. And so, you know, when I use the N-word - how about this? If I use the N-word on any song - say "Lean Back" or whatever song - if I had to do a clean word for the radio, it would say brother instead of the N-word. Me - this, that, my brothers don't care. My brothers don't - so we always said it as a term of endearment.

RASCOE: Yeah. You've had these huge hits in the music world. Now you're releasing this book. I understand you're trying to break into Hollywood. Like, are you done making new music? What's next for Fat Joe? Like, what's the future for Fat Joe?

FAT JOE: No, I caught the bug recently. But I think I'm done making music.

RASCOE: Really? No more?

FAT JOE: Yeah, we got - I mean, I'll perform forever but we got four TV shows this year ready. I'm just trying to elevate to the next level. I want to get in. I want to diversify the whole portfolio in another way. You know, I got sneaker stores. I've got different investments coming through. You know, I'm trying to be a big boy financially.

RASCOE: And that is Fat Joe. He has a new memoir out - "The Book Of Jose." "The Book Of Jose" - yesterday's price is not today's price (laughter).

FAT JOE: It is not today's price (laughter).

RASCOE: That is my mantra in life. Thank you so much for joining us.

FAT JOE: Thank you so much. I appreciate you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUNSHINE (THE LIGHT)")

FAT JOE: (Rapping) She want that old thing back. Pretty young thing want that OG crack. Straight savage when I got my Fenty on. Do the D'USSE with a touch of DeLeon. She got a man, and he stuck in the Feds. Said he going to kill me 'cause she up in my bed. We wear chains that excite the narcs. Only G7s when the flights depart. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.