Fat Joe’s debut album “Represent” is a personal favourite of mine. Not just a favourite album from 1993. Not just a favourite album from the 90s overall. But a personal favourite of all-time.
“Represent” may not have been considered the most polished or ground-breaking album when it dropped, but there was something about the raw Bronx attitude of a 22-year-old Joey Crack combined with the thunderous beats of some of the East Coast’s finest producers that ensured the project remained stuck in my Walkman headphones for months after its July 27th release date twenty-five years ago.
Introduced to the Hip-Hop world at large via D.I.T.C.’s Diamond D, who produced a Fat Joe promo for DJ Red Alert’s Kiss FM radio show in 1991 before offering the Rotten Apple rhymer some mic time on his classic 1992 album “Stunts, Blunts & Hip Hop”, the graffiti-writing rapper was clearly starting to build a buzz for himself during the early-90s, with his street reputation appearing to precede him.
Yet it wouldn’t be until the spring of 1993 that Joe would make his official solo splash into the rap game with the release of the brilliant “Flow Joe” single on Relativity Records, a heavy-duty slice of horn-laced BX boom-bap flavour crafted by the aforementioned Diamond, featuring NY turntable legend Rob Swift on the cut, a catchy-yet-hardcore hook and the subtle-as-a-sledgehammer rhymes of a hungry Fat Joe who clearly felt he had something to prove as he sought to hold it down for Latino lyricists (“Everybody knows Fat Joe’s in town, ‘Nuff respect for the Boogie-Down, I’m livin’ in the Bronx on an ave called Trinity, My name rings bells within the vicinity…”).
This single immediately grabbed my attention when I first heard it on Tim Westwood’s Capital Rap Show over here in the UK. Already a big Diggin’ In The Crates fan thanks to prior releases from Lord Finesse, Showbiz & AG and, of course, Diamond D, I was wide open at the thought of a full-length Fat Joe project, not least because after hearing that initial single, any subsequent album felt like it promised to be an uncompromising dose of gritty New York rap music.
Hip-Hop in 1993 was in a state of flux. Times were changing. Fat Joe’s “Represent” landed right in the middle of a year that was seeing new sounds and voices from the West Coast beginning to dominate, whilst the East Coast was starting to lose its vice-like grip on the culture.
The impact of Dr. Dre’s classic “The Chronic”, released at the very end of 1992, was casting a synth-heavy G-Funk shadow across Planet Rock. Anticipation for Snoop’s debut album “Doggystyle” (released late in ’93) was steadily building. Ice Cube remained one of the culture’s most controversial voices. MC Eiht’s “Streiht Up Menace” from the “Menace II Society” soundtrack was one of the most popular singles of the year Stateside. Cypress Hill were selling huge amounts of records. 2Pac was beginning to gain notoriety.
Meanwhile, some veteran New York giants were either splitting-up, faltering or rebuilding. EPMD had proven that business was personal by announcing the group’s break-up. Public Enemy had lost some momentum following the release of their 1992 album “Greatest Misses”. LL Cool J had received mixed reviews for his”14 Shots To The Dome” project, released in March 1993. Whilst Big Daddy Kane’s “Looks Like A Job For…” (released in May) found the Brooklyn legend having to regain the trust of many fans who’d balked at the overt R&B influences of 1991’s “Prince Of Darkness”.
The full impact of Nas and Biggie was still yet to be felt in 1993, with the future icons still each only having a single and some guest appearances under their respective belts. Neither “Illmatic” or “Ready To Die” would be released until the following year, with both artists then being credited with bringing the Hip-Hop crown back home to New York in 1994.
Many people, however, quite rightly point to late 1993 album releases from A Tribe Called Quest, Black Moon and Wu-Tang Clan as all having played a major part in drawing attention back to the traditional New York sound.
I, however, would go one step further and say that, in the summer of that same year, knowingly or not, Fat Joe was already doing his best to ensure New York remained on top of the game.
To say I was amped for the release of “Represent” would be an understatement. Whilst the first half of 1993 had definitely seen some strong album releases from a selection of East Coast artists (Onyx, Lords Of The Underground, Akinyele, Masta Ace Incorporated, Trends Of Culture etc), I had a different level of excitement in relation to Fat Joe’s debut. Partly because of his Diggin’ In The Crates affiliation and partly because the overall power of that “Flow Joe” single really had me hooked.
In the pre-Internet Hip-Hop world, you didn’t always know the definitive release date of an album, you just knew it was coming based on ads you would see in magazines like The Source. That was the case with Fat Joe’s “Represent”.
I can distinctly remember going on a family holiday at the time the release of “Represent” was looming. At almost eighteen-years-old, I hadn’t been on holiday with my parents for a few years. My sister had been diagnosed with cancer mid-1992, and twelve months into her treatment the future was looking a little uncertain, so my mother had decided it would be a good idea to go on a holiday that year in-case it was the last opportunity we had (thankfully it wasn’t and my sister is still alive and well today).
Before we left I gave my cousin fifteen pounds (the average price of an import CD in the UK at that time) and strict instructions to look out for “Represent” dropping whilst I was away. He worked in Luton, then home to the brilliant Soul Sense Records, so I was confident that if the album came out he’d be able to get it.
My girlfriend at the time also came on that family holiday with us and I can recall laying on a beach listening to a Westwood radio tape with “Flow Joe” on it and repeatedly telling her how high my hopes were for “Represent” and how disappointed I was going to be if my cousin hadn’t succeeded in his mission by the time we got home.
Any music lover who has ever bought physical product will tell you about the eagerness involved in tearing the wrapping off of a new purchase. But when it’s an album you’ve been anticipating for a period of time, that eagerness is heightened. When I returned from holiday and got my hands on my CD copy of “Represent”, I needed to hear it immediately.
I remember looking at that cover shot of Fat Joe standing on a darkened Bronx street-corner and thinking how rugged it looked (I hadn’t yet seen the “Flow Joe” video), then flipping the case over and seeing the picture of the In Memory Of…mural dedicated to Joe’s late friend Anthony Crespo aka Tony Montana. Then I ran down the tracklist which was followed by these words – Produced By Diamond D. Additional Production By Lord Finesse, The Beatnuts, Showbiz and Chilly Dee.
I had no idea who Chilly Dee was, but I remember thinking that if his production work was sitting next to beats provided by dudes who were already considered living legends then he must be up-to-par.
I plugged in my headphones and hit ‘Play’ on the CD.
The segue from the short “Scarface”-sampling intro “A Word To Da Wise” into the beginning of the moody and atmospheric Lord Finesse-crafted “Livin’ Fat” remains one of the greatest album openings ever, with the Funkyman’s work behind the boards on that particular cut standing as unquestionable proof as to why he should forever be considered one of Hip-Hop’s greatest producers.
With the echoing horns, heavy bass and pounding drums of “Livin’ Fat” capturing the ominous energy of a late-night encounter in a Bronx project building hallway, the track offered the perfect opportunity for Fat Joe to make his intentions clear, shouting out his affiliation with the late Chris Lighty (“I can’t get played ‘cos I roll with Baby Chris…”), detailing his expectations of “Represent” reaching Gold status (at least), and offering some very direct info on his day-to-day routine (“I be rippin’ the mic, Clockin’ dough, Stickin’ the hoes, After every single show, y’know?!”)
Joe’s claims on “Livin’ Fat” of being “One of the best to grab the mic…” may have seemed unfounded to many in 1993, but in reality who was going to argue with someone who by their own admission used to bully their way onto the mic at block parties and was able to remain in control of said microphone because people were scared to tell him his lyrical skills just weren’t as impressive as those of others.
“Bad Bad Man” was another immediate standout from the album, with Joe giving props to Gang Starr, threatening to hand-out physical beatdowns and “checking out stunts in the Polo Grounds” over an ill Diamond D-dissected loop from Yvonne Fair’s 1975 track “Let Your Hair Down”.
In more recent times, Fat Joe has mentioned that he is unable to listen to “Represent”. In 2010 he told HipHopDX.Com, “I can’t listen to my first album. It’s like brutal to me…Lyrically, I’ve grown so much over the years.”
Yet, if the rapper had any doubts about his rhyming abilities in 1993, he definitely didn’t let it show, placing himself on tracks alongside emcees with deservedly formidable reputations and defiantly holding his own, resulting in “Represent” containing three of my favourite 90s posse cuts.
The Tenor Saw-sampling “Watch The Sound” found Diamond D and Grand Puba delivering politically-incorrect punchlines over speaker-rattling jeep beats, whilst amidst dialogue snippets from the Matty Rich-directed film “Straight Out Of Brooklyn” and the sound of loud gunfire, Fat Joe called on the tough-guy terminology of lyrical architect Kool G Rap and the Flavor Unit’s Apache for the Hip-Hop adrenaline rush that was “You Must Be Out Of Your F**kin’ Mind” (with Joe verbally date-stamping the track with his infamous line “I’m sick and tired of muthaf**kers trying to sound like Das EFX!”).
The greatest posse cut on “Represent”, however, has to be the Chilly Dee-produced “Another Wild N****r From The Bronx”. Based around the same Bobbi Humphrey “Blacks And Blues” sample made popular by K.M.D.’s 1991 track “Plumskinzz”, Fat Joe was joined by homeboys Gismo, Kieth Kieth and NY legend King Sun for an absolute juggernaut of a track, with all involved (Kieth Kieth in particular – or should that be Keith Keith?) delivering some potent New York straight talk.
The Beatnuts supplied Joe with a swaggering head-nodder in the form of the autobiographical “The S**t Is Real” (a track which would gain further traction when released as a single in ’94 complete with a DJ Premier remix), whilst the huge drums of the Showbiz-produced “I Got This In A Smash” inspired the Bronx representative to show some uncharacteristic vulnerability as he described the moment he found out about the murder of his friend Tony Montana (“Ahhh s**t, Another brother hit, This time it’s Tone, Life is a f**kin’ bitch, It really hurts when the s**t hits home, Early in the morning, They’re callin’ me on the phone, Tellin’ me my man caught eight to the chest, Nah this couldn’t be, Tone always wore a vest…Man, I’m gonna miss him, I love him to death, Charlie’s in jail and I’m the only brother left…”).
The juvenile humour of “Shorty Gotta Fat Ass” and the lively “Get On Up” offered moments of light-hearted respite from Joe’s relentless, hardcore attack. Yet the closing “I’m A Hit That” left me scratching my head at the time. Obviously aimed at the ladies, this Showbiz-produced track featured Fat Joe adopting a playful, Heavy D-style flow which seemed out of place within the overall context of the album. To end the project with a track that almost seemed like an afterthought seemed like a strange decision.
In the September 1993 issue of The Source, “Represent” was given a three-and-a-half-mic review. I believed then (as I do now) that the album deserved four-mics (which would have elevated it to ‘Slammin’ – Definite Satisfaction’ status). The overall response to the project from Da Ghetto Communicator was positive. But obviously the magazine’s mighty Mind Squad weren’t all as enthusiastic about Fat Joe when it came time for the group vote to take place which determined the mic-rating the album would receive.
“Represent” would reach a peak position of 46 on Billboard’s Top R&B / Hip-Hop Albums chart.
Fast-forward to the winter of 1993, almost six months after “Represent” dropped, and I can clearly remember still rocking the album in my headphones on freezing cold mornings as I walked to my local bus station en route to university lectures.
When I say I kept “Represent” on heavy rotation long after its initial release, I really do mean heavy rotation.
Whilst “Represent” may not have had a particularly influential impact on the culture, to me, it was, and still is, a rough diamond of an album that had undeniable character, with Fat Joe’s sense of purpose and determination to succeed remaining tangible throughout.
This was raw, uncut New York Hip-Hop at its best – no frills, no apologies, no sell-out.
As the saying goes, hindsight is a wonderful thing, but looking at the intimidating figure on the cover of “Represent” back in 1993, it’s safe to say few people would have singled Fat Joe Da Gangsta out as being an artist destined for a lengthy career involving mainstream success.
Yet in the years following the release of “Represent”, Fat Joe’s career would indeed go from strength-to-strength, albeit with mixed musical results, as the Bronx rapper navigated his way from his boom-bap beginnings, through the Puffy-dominated late-90s jiggy-era, and on to the radio-friendly R&B trends of the early-2000s and beyond (in-between all of this Joe would of course introduce the incredible Big Pun to the world via his Terror Squad crew).
A quarter-of-a-century after his debut album dropped, Fat Joe remains a larger-than-life figure both inside and outside of Hip-Hop. And if his Coca Vision interviews are anything to go by, Joe’s passion for the culture definitely doesn’t appear to have been worn-down by the politics and drama of the music industry.
So, Fat Joe, if you ever find yourself stumbling across this write-up whilst online, let me take this opportunity to personally thank you for dropping a classic debut album which has given me hours of listening pleasure over the years.
As the man himself said on “Another Wild N****r From The Bronx” – “My rhymes are homicidal, I take your title, I’m Joe Da Fat Gangsta, Far from Billy Idol!”