The Contently Interview: Fat Joe on Building a Brand and Marketing Rap

Rappers have an easy relationship with the marketing side of the entertainment industry. Rapping is all about promotion, positioning, and scouting your competitors. Racing to release and market an amazing new product before your competitor may not be as cool as dropping a hot track days before your rival, but the process is pretty much the same.

Most of our current crop of popular rappers are marketing savants: Think Kanye’s mastery of earned media, Drake’s social networking nous, or Young Thug’s promotional instincts. But that hasn’t always been the case.

In the early ’90s, when a young emcee from the Bronx named Joseph Cartagena came on the scene, rap was decidedly anti-corporate. Most rappers from that era are long past relevance, swept away by an industry where marketing skills are as important as lyrical chops. But Cartagena, who’s better known by the name Fat Joe, is still making hits and cashing checks. Last year, he won BET’s award for Track of the Year, dropped a new album with his protege Remy Ma, and is in the process of launching or running a variety of businesses that are almost too numerous to keep track of.

We recently caught up with Fat Joe at one of his most recent ventures: a sneaker store in upper Manhattan.

Tell me about your businesses. You’re a rapper, but you also have a label and a sneaker store.

I’ve been an entrepreneur since I was 14. I’ve always been into owning my own business, working for myself, being a small business owner. I’m venturing off into different things. My passion is sneakers, so it was a natural transition to open a sneaker store which I’m really, really proud about. We got the label, which is doing great. I’m signing a bunch of new young artists. And I have a new endeavor: wine and spirits.

The truth is we spend most of our time performing in the club, so it’s a natural transition.

As a rapper, you’re kind of a natural storyteller. How does that help you in your business career?

I’ve always aspired to never lay down. I’ve has some setbacks in my life where unfortunate things have happened, and most people would give up. I’ve been a millionaire and lost all my money. You watch some of these Wall Street guys, they jump off the roof when that happens. I just never looked down. I always said, “I’ll get it again. I’ve got to get back up,” and that’s attributed to where I come from. We can’t lay down. We’ve got to keep fighting and always aspire to be more.

What I want is to really be known as one of the greatest businessmen in the game.

Someone would look at my career and say, “Man this guy is a hell of a rapper. He’s done it all.” I’m still hungry. I don’t got what I want yet. What I want is to really, really, really, really be known as one of the greatest businessmen in the game.

Who in the entertainment industry do you really respect for their branding and the marketing right now?

Of course, the king of the industry is Jay-Z. The guy’s worth half-a-billion; his wife is worth a half-a-billion. They helped a bunch of people rise.

The same list of cronies. Puff Daddy, what’s he’s done with the whole Bad Boy legacy. 50 Cent, what he did with Vitamin Water and continues to do with the TV show Power and a bunch of movies. The guy is a brilliant business man.

Notice what they all have in common. They all grew up dirt poor. They all were taught, “Give up. You’ll never make it. You’ll never become nothing. You’ll never get out the projects.” They all rise to the occasion. That’s why I look toward the community all the time and try to inspire these young kids so much. We never know who the next Warren Buffet is.

What about when you think about your own personal brand: how has that changed from the ’90s to now?

Well, I’ve changed. I’m a family man. I’m way more mature.

Is that reflected you think in how you present yourself and your business?

Of course. Everybody knows it. The streets know it. The streets know that Fat Joe thinks different. He’s not walking around with a 20-person entourage. He says, “I just rolled up with my entourage—my wife and my daughter.”

In business, I take a more mature approach than I would’ve before. Before I was a daredevil, reckless, moving fast, didn’t believe nothing could fail. Now we just try to dot all our Is and cross all our Ts.

When you have a new record out, what are the things that you do from a marketing standpoint to make sure that it sells?

The problem is that music is almost like politics. Somebody has to go vote. Somebody got to press that button and buy that song. It can’t be forced on nobody. It’s got to be of your own free will. We’re dependent on the people so much.

It’s not like, “Alright, I’m putting out coffee this morning. I know there are 1,000 workers taking this train. They need coffee or you need a roll with butter.” This is something someone has to go out their way to purchase.

Now with streaming—some people say streaming gets your music out there more and everything, but at the same time you get paid less and less. Also, streaming is destroying the iTunes business where people actually purchase your records. Why would I purchase your record when I could pay $9.99 and have the greatest hits of The Beatles, Elvis, Michael Jackson, Fat Joe, and whoever else, and listen to it as many times as I want. It’s hampering the actual downloads. It’s all a gift and a curse.

Do you know when you make a song that it’s going be a hit?

I don’t know. When I made “All the Way Up,” I knew it was a hit. But I made other songs that I knew was a hit that didn’t become a hit. All you can do is pray and promote the hell out of something, and hope that the people embrace it.

What brands do you like working with? How do you decide whether a corporate brand is someone you want to work with?

I wouldn’t do nothing I wouldn’t feel true to. At the end of the day I’m about making money, but there’s certain checks I won’t take. For instance some headphone company tried to get me to endorse them a week or two ago and gave me a big check. I had to turn the check down. I know that’s something that’s been done. It’s diluted. It’s a business that ain’t really going to work.

At the end of the day I’m about making money, but there’s certain checks I won’t take.

I like to do business with people that can actually say, “I got successful from this business. I made money with Joe. I invested in Joe and flipped my investment.”

You’ve had a lot more commercial success than many of the artists you came up with. What do you attribute that too?

I just always wanted to be a big, big superstar and just make big, big hits. You know, D.I.T.C. [Fat Joe’s rap collective], they about the culture, they about the underground, they about the boom-bap, and 85 percent of me is that… but the 15 percent is saying, “I want to make the money.”

If I could just do underground music and be as successful financially as I am, making big hits, I would do it all day.

How are you still doing this in your 40s?

I know when we was little kids, we used to be like, “You 40 and rapping, you whack.” Now I’m like, yo, I’m 40—the only way I pay bills is rapping. I got to keep rapping.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Image by Pascal Perich

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