The favored contender for New York City's 2016 summer anthem is "Panda," the first hit by 19-year-old Brooklyn rapper Desiigner. Surprisingly, his principal competition comes from Fat Joe and Remy Ma, veterans who joined forces on "All the Way Up." Though their song is conscious of NYC's rap history, it's connecting to listeners in the present, and Joe finds himself on the airwaves once again – more than two decades after his debut.
It's difficult to maintain hit-making relevance in any genre, but this is especially true in hip-hop, which continues to morph rapidly. Joe put out his first album before Desiigner was born, and he is aware that it's unusual for a 46-year-old rapper to be in his position. "We've been able to accomplish some shit nobody's been able to," he tells Rolling Stone during an interview at his management company's office in midtown Manhattan. "That's why you haven't been hearing your favorite rappers on the radio. It's like some real diabolical shit – you take elements of that original hip-hop, but make it so that young kids today can feel like it's the shit they're vibing with."
Joe's partner Remy faces even more of an uphill battle: She was released from prison in August 2014 after serving more than six years for shooting an associate. Before that, she was a member of Joe's Terror Squad crew – and appeared on "Lean Back," a Number One crossover hit with Joe – but the two had a falling out. "I could never forgive Remy," Joe told XXL in 2011. "She really hurt my feelings."
The stage was set for "All the Way Up" when Remy resolved to reconnect with Joe while still behind bars. She explains the reasoning behind the decision in a separate phone conversation. "I'm not the person that I was when I went into prison," she says. "Why should I carry the same beefs? Joe is somebody I really admire and consider family." After she got out, Joe invited her to join him during a live performance, and the enthusiastic response from the crowd encouraged the two to consider venturing into the studio.
In search of beats for the project, Joe turned to longtime collaborators Cool and Dre. The two producers have worked with Joe since 2001's "King of New York"; they also contributed to Remy's lone solo LP, There's Something About Remy. It didn't take long for Joe to form an attachment to the instrumental for "All the Way Up." "Once I heard it, I knew," he avows. "Oh, my God! This is outta here."
The beat reminded Joe of his legacy, but with a modern twist. "I liked that the impact is immediate," he says, snapping his fingers to emphasize the point. "It demanded attention from jump. All my main hits – 'Lean Back,' 'Make It Rain' – they all have the same element: in your face, you're gonna fucking like this shit." But next to "that traditional hip-hop," "All the Way Up" also contained what Joe describes as "that new bounce."
"All the Way Up" is anchored by a simple horn squiggle and a thunderous programmed beat. Horns are rare on rap radio these days, and that appealed to Cool and Dre. "It's a distinctive sound," Cool tells RS. "It breaks through. The horns brought you to that Nineties hip-hop era," he continues, before singing the distinctive brass line from Pete Rock and CL Smooth's 1992 classic "T.R.O.Y." "But the drum programming brought you to the club in 2016."
Though Joe was enthralled by the beat, his collaborators weren't yet convinced. Remy remembers Joe calling her excitedly in the middle of the night to hum the beat – "Joe gets all these great epiphanies at four o'clock in the morning" – but suggests she played it cool. "I have to act like I'm not really excited," she explains. "He knows every adjective known to mankind; he even makes some up as he goes that just sound really good. He'll be like, 'Oh, my god, Remy, think of the most amazing day of your life! This is a kazillion times better than that.' You have to be very flat-line with him." (Though Remy may have kept her excitement to herself, she still agreed to put off her honeymoon with the rapper Papoose to start recording.)
Meanwhile, Cool and Dre didn't want Joe to jinx anything. "We loved the record, we thought it was dope," Dre says. "But when you start referring back to records like 'Lean Back,' that's when me and Cool are like, 'Pump the brakes a little bit.' We don't want to put so much expectation on something."
The addition of French Montana, who raps a brusque bridge, represented the final piece to the cross-generational puzzle. Joe and Remy both hail from the Bronx, and they wanted to enlist a younger rapper from the borough to contribute to "All the Way Up." "Let's get the new king of the Bronx," Joe says.
Thanks to its Nineties feel and the presence of three Bronx rappers, "All the Way Up" quickly earned praise from those who long for the days when New York City played a large part in determining the course of hip-hop. But Joe doesn't want the city's fate in his hands. "Please don't put that on our back!" he exclaims. "We're not trying to save New York. That shit ain't got nothin' to do with us – we made a hot song.
"Everything has to evolve," he continues. "Music has to go somewhere. That's what keeps it fresh. I don't know one fucking thing that 'Panda' says, but I love 'Panda.'"
He tries to rap a bit of Desiigner's hit, but lapses into gibberish after the now-famous first line: "I got broads in Atlanta." "That shit's hot," Joe decides. "'Panda.' That motherfucker got one." He does – but he's not the only one.