Photos by Jason Frank Rothen
Up until a year ago, Fat Joe was known as one of the hardest rappers in hip-hop. Even zealots like M.O.P. refer to him as the mayor of New York. His affiliations define street credibility. As a former graf writer, he’s an honorary member of the Bronx’s legendary TATS Cru (it should be noted that his nickname and tag, Crack, was given to him not because of his drug-peddling habits but because of his large ass). As a member of D.I.T.C., he’s rapped over some of the finest production East Coast hip hop has ever known (courtesy of Show, Lord Finesse, and Buckwild, of course). He’s shared the mic with the late great Big L and he discovered the late great Big Pun. He also heads his own crew of goons, the Terror Squad.
Then, something unexpected happened. Fat Joe, who was never known for his poppy penmanship or mass-marketable image, had a huge crossover hit. “What’s Love” played everywhere from MTV to my cousin’s bar mitzvah (at the request of about a dozen nine-year-olds). Despite the fame, Fat Joe remains the personification of the borough where hip hop began: the Boogie Down Bronx.
Here are his top five spots. We’re in bold. He’s in quotes.
Jimmy’s Bronx Café
281 West Fordham Road
The place is almost empty when we arrive. It looks like a spot my grandparents would like to hang at. Classy in a 1983, Florida-retirement-community kind of way. They’re blasting mambo. Minutes after Joe’s sublimely hot wife drops us off, Terror Squad members Raul, Ultimate, and Charlie Rock LD (fresh out of jail) show up. Fat Joe gives them the look of death.
“That’s my crew. I never told them that I was here, which means that they physically threatened somebody to tell them where I was. So I’m giving them the funny look. When I want you to be here, be here. Don’t just find out where I’m at and be like, ‘Fuck it, I’m going too.’ Anyways, Jimmy’s is the hangout. Best Spanish food in town, lots of beautiful young ladies walking through. This place has done more for celebrities coming to the Bronx than any other. Just look at the wall — they have everyone from J-Lo to Puff to the President to Fidel Castro to Derek Jeter eating here on any given night. Jimmy’s has been the most legendary thing in the Bronx since, like, [old-school nightclub] the Fever. I don’t see no other reason for anybody to come hang out in the Bronx aside from Jimmy’s. And then there’s the nightclub in the back. Every rapper from Ja Rule to Eminem to Big Pun has blessed that stage.”
As we’re leaving, Macho adds that Pun’s favorite Jimmy’s dish was pork chops.
Big Pun Mural
163rd Street and Westchester Avenue
As we drive towards the Pun wall, we roll past Fat Joe promotional murals, all done by the TATS Cru. One of them, on the Cross Bronx Expressway, fills one whole side of a building. Joe is on the phone with TATS frontman Bio, trying to get the walls ready for his new record.
“I can’t go out bombing no more, man. I’d probably get sued out my ass for doing that now. It’s a much different time and I’m a little bit more mature. My life is more based around being a businessman and an artist, so I don’t play too many days in the corners of the Bronx. Of course, TATS is still family, one million percent. They do advertising for us, every album, graffiti-style. Instead of spending money on corporate billboards, we can hire our friends who do just as good of a job.
The Pun mural is on 163rd Street and Westchester Avenue—far from a nice neighborhood. His wife cremated him, so this is the place we come to when we want to talk to him or feel close to him. We chose that spot because it was in the middle of the South Bronx—even the people on the train can see it. Every year we change the wall, we come up with Pun doing a new pose, just to refresh everybody’s memory and celebrate his life.”
P.S. 146 Elementary School
968 Cauldwell Avenue
The schoolyard is practically empty. One little girl walks by and asks Joe, “What are you doing here?” as she stares in disbelief. He shouts back, “That’s my block!” while walking toward the “Rest In Peace Tony Montana” mural that graced the cover of his first album.
“That’s my brother right there, Tony Montana. He was the don of the neighborhood and he got murdered in 1992. In the Bronx, very often when something happens to somebody that was really loved in the neighborhood you see a lot of ‘In Memory’ walls for them. That’s where we got the idea of doing the Pun piece. Tone was definitely a don; I’ve been shouting him out since ‘Flow Joe.’ So this is my elementary school here on 146th. Best school I ever been to, and I definitely got good grades. They named me Crack in junior high school, up the block. Right here I was just a nice guy. I remember they used to have little Olympics where you race niggas and all that. I used to wait all year for them shits. I always came in last, but that was the most fun day of the year.”
Fat Joe’s Childhood Home
Forrest Houses, 1000 Trinity Avenue
As we pull up in front of the building, a car stops and some dude wearing inside-out jogging pants and carrying a dish of pasta steps out yelling, “Yo, I was just riding around minding my business when I got the news that you was right there taking a photo shoot!” Then he realizes that he locked his keys in his car with the engine running in the middle of the street. Minutes later, Joe’s father steps out of the woodwork with a coat hanger and he and Macho start working on homeboy’s car, trying to jimmy the door. Soon enough, kids start pouring out of the project building, including Joe’s oldest son, Joey.
“This was my building—this is the foundation. My parents still live here. I tried to get them to move out, buy them a house, but they don’t want to move. They’ve been here forever; they know everybody. They play bingo with all their friends. I try to come back here at least once a week. I got a big family, and growing up, I was always around them, always with my moms and stuff like that. It was tough because of the peer pressure. It seems like the only thing they respect is gangstas around here. So it was very hard for a kid who was trying to do his thing in school and be a straight-A student. In the South Bronx, not too many people got money and the most unfortunate ones get picked on and embarrassed. I can look at all these blocks and tell you a story about every one, like, some crazy shit that happened. I lived in the Bronx until two years ago. I got too big to live here, cuz it’s like, you know, people just knock on your door. You can’t have no privacy. Living in Jersey felt weird at first, but it’s comfortable. It’s quiet.”
East Fordham Road
Fat Joe rides around the crowded streets with all the windows open. Everybody recognizes him. I feel like I’m rolling in the Popemobile at this point. At every stop, schoolgirls run around the car and scream.
“We’re in the biggest shopping district in the Bronx right now. It’s funny, man, with all the people. It’s like one world, but we live in so many different worlds. Like, we listen to Hot 97, Power 105, mixtapes. Then some white people are straight listening to Z100 all day, not knowing one thing about hip hop—and we probably don’t know one thing about their artists. Spanish people are listening to the Spanish station, Arabs are listening to, like, some Arab shit. New York is the only place on earth where the neighborhoods are so diverse. Like, look at the bus stop: you got blacks, Spanish, then you got your white people over there. This is the only place where everybody really gets along and just fits in. New York is truly the mecca. Like, when you look at the news and you see Jews and Palestinians killing each other, you would have never guessed that by living in New York. Cuz don’t nobody blow up synagogues in New York, don’t nobody blow up mosques. We never knew until they blew up the Twin Towers. That’s when people started getting educated and knowing that, wow, these people have been doing this for years.”
Fat Joe’s fifth album, Loyalty, is out now.