Rapper Fat Joe opens up about mental health, his childhood in the South Bronx and his new memoir

Rapper Fat Joe opens up about mental health, his childhood in the South Bronx and his new memoir

Before platinum records, Grammy nominations and accolades, Fat Joe was Joseph Antonio Cartagena of the Bronx. In his new memoir, “The Book of Jose,” he details the toll of his upbringing, mental health, and rapping career.

He described his childhood to CBS News as beautiful, saying, “We had nothing. We had no money. We grew up on welfare. We grew up on the projects but we didn’t know what we were missing.”

Born in New York’s South Bronx to Puerto Rican and Cuban parents, Cartagena said he struggled to fit in as an overweight child with blond hair and green eyes. He remembers being beaten “every day” growing up.

In an excerpt from the “Book of José”, Cartagena explained the impact of his reality on him.

“I sat in my room with festering hatred,” he wrote. “My heart went black. I didn’t care about anyone anymore. I wanted to inflict as much violence and fear as possible on everyone who stood in my way. It didn’t matter if they were good or bad.”

He recalls patrolling neighborhoods in the 1980s, which included stealing and intimidating community members.

“When I pray to God at night or give back to the community, I don’t know if I can make up for the pain I’ve inflicted on the community,” Cartagena said.

But nonetheless, the rapper said he “was a wonderful kid” who might have become a doctor, a lawyer or a pastor had he grown up in different circumstances.

“I came with a pure heart, with a good heart,” he said. “It was the streets and the environment that made me into this person.”

By the early 1990s, Cartagena’s skills with the mic were beginning to shine through and he began spending more time in the recording studio with his 1993 debut hit, “Flow Joe.” He said he had “changed [his] completely his life to enter the world of music”, based on the first advice he received at the time from rapper LL Cool J.

“I was like, ‘Yo, how do you get that?’ He said: “It’s easy. I do the same as you. I just rap to women and do commercial hits and you just rap to gangsters on the street,” Cartagena said of meeting LL Cool J. “It sparked an idea in my brain that was like, ‘Oh , we have to change the game.’ And that’s when I first discovered Big Pun.”

Christopher Rios, also known as Big Pun, was one of the biggest names in hip-hop in the late 1990s. He and Cartagena were part of the Terror Squad, teaming up for a number of hits on display panels. But in February 2000, Rios suffered a fatal heart attack at age 28.

Cartagana said he then fell into a deep depression, which he struggled with for years.

“I knew I was in trouble. Like big trouble,” he said. “…I kept reliving that and reliving that and reliving that and reliving that and I was just in such a dark place.”

He said he overcame his grief through therapy and would later score a string of Billboard hits.

Now, at 52, Cartagana has reflected on his rap career, saying it’s “a dangerous job”.

“It’s a very catch-22 situation,” he said.

Quoting rapper 21 Savage, Cartegana asked, “What are you doing? You grew up in this community. You get rich out of nowhere. They supported you. try to be careful of them because some of them will do the wrong thing.”

For Cartegana, he still operates in the South Bronx to this day, running one of New York’s top sneaker stores while providing a learning center for local kids. He described the store as “a safe haven for members of the community”.

“Don’t believe people who tell you you’re worthless, that you can’t become anything,” he said. “We need to be there for each other and let these young kings, and queens, know that they are precious.”

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