FEATURE: Juelz Santana, What’s Really Good? Pt.1
A rap crew is hip-hop’s best display of strength in numbers. A group of friends from the hood pool talents and energy and work toward one common goal: to make a mark through music and make everyone rich.
So it was with Harlem’s Diplomats. Sharing the work of writing, recording, video making, marketing, publicity, weed carrying, and back-of-the-trunk distribution, co-CEOs Cam’ron and Jim Jones, president Freekey Zekey and vice president Juelz Santana churned out authentic New York street rap on the regular for years. Working through major-label deals, the independent Koch Records and the black-market mixtape circuit, they sold millions of records.
It started in the late ’90s. A former member of Harlem’s legendary teen group Children of the Korn, Cam’ron was the face, and the voice, of the operation—establishing himself as a solo artist while Jim played capo, the man behind the man, handling the business, and Zekey provided hype-man humor. A teenage Juelz joined in 1998, after being introduced to Cam through a cousin.
Over the next eight years, the Dipset grinded hard. Cam dropped two albums on Epic, before signing to Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records and blowing up with the summer 2002 hits “Oh Boy” and “Hey Ma.” The success paved the way for an official Diplomats label deal with the Def Jam–distributed Roc, two group albums and two from Juelz (the latter, 2005’s million-selling What the Game’s Been Missing!, cemented the youngster’s star status), and a mass movement of Dipset affiliate artists (Hell Rell, J.R. Writer, Purple City, etc.).
Transitioning into an artist’s role himself, Jim debuted his raps on mixtapes, before signing with Koch Records in 2004, dropping two albums and creating his own crew, Byrd Gang. He also got a gig as director of A&R for Warner Music Group. Zeke, meanwhile, was convicted of drug charges and locked up in North Carolina in 2003. By the time he got out, three years later, an internal rift had developed in Dipset.
It’s unclear exactly when problems between Jim and Cam began. Unconfirmed industry rumors had bubbled for some time, but it wasn’t until February 2007, after Cam’ron got into an on-air phone skirmish with 50 Cent, on Hot 97, that the public learned. As a mixtape-track-and-videos beef touched off between Cam and G-Unit’s 50, Jim and Juelz remained notably absent. Jim would soon tell missinfo.tv that the crew was “putting Cam’ron on punishment,” and he joined 50 onstage during a concert at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom.
Following the 50 debacle, Cam went underground—where he’s been pretty much ever since, save a fan’s occasional camera-phone picture. Strangely, Juelz has also spent much of the past three years, once again, missing. Material from the ballyhooed collaboration with Lil Wayne, I Can’t Feel My Face, has dribbled out as sporadic mixtape fare, rather than the major-label full-length that was promised so long ago. The disappearance, it seems, had something to do with Juelz’s recording rights, which Cam’ron held under Diplomats Records, until selling the contract to Def Jam this past August for a reported $2 million. (Cam’ron declined to comment on this article.) Free to work again, Juelz has been focusing on the promotion of his own group of Dipset affiliates, Skull Gang.
Jim, on the other hand, has only grown in stature. Building off his 2006 smash “We Fly High” and his juice as an executive, he’s assumed undisputed leadership of the crew. Currently enjoying a radio hit, in “Pop Champagne” (which also features Juelz), he’s putting finishing touches on his first major-label release, Pray IV Reign, due this month via Columbia Records. Zeke, too, is prepping a new album, his second for Koch, while also pushing a subsquad, 730 Dips.
XXL recently caught up with Jim, Juelz and Zeke to talk about the question lots of people have been wondering for a long time: What’s up with the Diplomats?
Cozy and carpeted, Santana’s World studio, in Bergenfield, New Jersey, is a comfortable spot to chill on a rainy night in December. Couching out with his Skull Gang cronies after a day of promoting their new album release, A Tribute to Bad Santa (distributed through Koch and starring comedian Mike Epps), 26-year-old LaRon James, better known as Juelz Santana, leans back and fields questions.
XXL: So you really haven’t had the chance to blow up yet, right?
Juelz Santana: Yeah, gimme a high five! [Laughs, high fives]
XXL: The lane hasn’t opened for you yet.
Juelz: Me and [Def Jam/Universal boss] L.A. Reid—yesterday, two days ago—was just talking. I don’t wanna quote him. I’ll quote myself: A lot of the artists that’s up there, they kinda reached their peaking level. Juelz, as hot as I been, as long as I been here, I’m still young, I’m still fresh.
XXL: How did Cam’ron owning your contract affect you?
Juelz: It was a bad deal. He owned so much of my shit and everything, he just, practically, owned more than what I owned, and it got to a point where I just wanted to get the situation right. I didn’t want nothing back. And it’s like he wasn’t trying to get it right. He wasn’t trying to give me what I felt like I was owed. It’s like he directed us. We put the building together, brick by brick. All he was doing was directing us, and when we got to the top of the building, he don’t even wanna share the sandwiches. It’s lunchtime now. He wanna give us pieces of a sandwich, and he got one big hero, and we getting pieces. Like, “Come on now. The building is built. You gotta respect us on another type of level.” And as far as clearances… I was running in that same lane Wayne was running in. But I couldn’t… Nike, I did that commercial—that got pulled. I’m still damn near in some shit with them. Just wild shit he didn’t clear. I was on over half of those remixes that Wayne was asked to be on. Not that they asked Wayne before me, or they asked me before Wayne, but, you know, me and Wayne had the whole I Can’t Feel My Face.
XXL: What happened to the Diplomats? Is it just the three of you? Does it exist?
Yeah. It’s, like, Cam is still Diplomats. We was all put in a situation where Cam told us we had roles that we never really had. We had invisible roles. And it got to a point where we was like, Damn… To be honest, Jim was never the capo, like, on paperwork. I was never the [vice] president. Cam owned everything.-Vanessa Satten
For more of the What's Really Good Interview make sure to pick up XXL’s March issue on newsstands now.