Psychology

Rapper Fat Joe talks about mental health, growing up in the South Bronx and new memoirs

Before the platinum hit records, Grammy Award nomination and acclaim, Fat Joe was Joseph Antonio Cartagena from the Bronx. In his new memoir, “The Book of Jose,” he details the toll of his upbringing, mental health, and becoming a rapper.

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

Born in New York City’s South Bronx to Puerto Rican and Cuban parents, Cartegena said he struggled to fit in as an overweight kid with blonde hair and green eyes. He recalled being beaten up “every day” during his childhood.

In an excerpt from “The Book of Jose,” Cartagena explained how his reality affected him.

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

He recalled patrolling neighborhoods in the 1980s, which included robbing and intimidating members of the community.

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

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

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

By the early 1990s, Cartagena’s prowess with the microphone began to show through and he began spending more time in the recording studio with his first hit in 1993, “Flow Joe”. He said he had “changed [his] live fully to get into the music business,” based on early advice he received from rapper LL Cool J at the time.

“I was like ‘Yo, how do you get this?’ He said, “That’s easy. I do the same thing you do. I just rap to the women and make commercial hits and you just rap to the gangsters on the street,” Cartagena said of meeting LL Cool J. an idea in my head that was like, ‘Oh, we have to change the game.’ And around that time 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 Cartegena were part of the Terror Squad and teamed up for some big billboard hits. But in February 2000, Rios suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 28.

Caregana said he fell into a deep depression afterward, which he struggled with for years.

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

He said he worked through his grief through therapy and would later go on to record a string of Billboard hits.

Now, at the age of 52, Caregana reflected on his career in rap, saying it’s “a dangerous business.”

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

Referring to rapper 21 Savage, Cartegana asked, “What do you do? You grew up in this community. You get rich out of nowhere. They supported you. Do you leave the neighborhood and let the whole neighborhood hate you forever? Or do you stay and try to watch them, because some of them are going to do the wrong thing.”

For Cartegana, he is still active to this day in the South Bronx, where he runs one of New York’s top sneaker stores while also providing a learning center for local children. He described the store as “a safe haven for people in the community.”

“Don’t believe people tell you that 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 they are valuable.”

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