He was largely out of sight, but never out of mind. The past couple years have sometimes felt like a hip-hop Where’s Waldo? for CAM’RON’S fans. But now that Dipset dissension is public discussion, the Harlem crew’s founder comes back to give his side of things.

Interview Vanessa Satten
Photography Ben Baker

Where is he? What’s he doing? What’s with that kiddie-size pool? Mystery has dominated the past two years in the career of Harlem MC Cam’ron Giles. The random fan cell-phone shot notwithstanding, since May 2007, one of the flashiest, most flamboyant stars hip-hop has ever known has kept himself uncharacteristically out of the public eye.

But on this January afternoon at Industria Superstudio in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, the swaggering rapper is hard to miss. In his gleaming diamonds and an electric blue bubble coat, he’s dressed to impress. Today is the first professional photo shoot he’s done in he doesn’t know how long.

Cam, 33, got his start in hip-hop as a member—along with fellow future luminaries Ma$e and Big L—of the Uptown outfi t Children of the Corn in the mid-’90s. He signed a solo deal with Sony/Epic in 1997 and started a rap crew, the Diplomats, with his closest childhood friend, Jim Jones, their man Freekey Zekey and the teenage Juelz Santana. After two moderately successful solo albums, an unhappy Cam escaped to Roc-A-Fella Records—the Def Jam subsidiary co-founded by his old Children of the Corn manager, Dame Dash. In 2002, Cam ascended to offi cial rap stardom with the Come Home With Me album, which sold over a million copies and introduced the rest of his squad to hip-hop heads everywhere.

Over the next few years, the Diplomats would drop two official group albums (one on Def Jam, one through the independent Koch Records) and a slew of mixtapes, amassing an army of second-tier members and affiliates and firmly establishing themselves as a major hip-hop crew. After Dame split from partner Jay-Z in 2004, Cam and the Diplomats brand left Roc-A-Fella—Cam signing solo with Asylum/Warner. Juelz, though, who was signed to Def Jam through Diplomats, stayed put, releasing his own millionselling breakout album, What the Game’s Been Missing!, the following year.

In 2006, rumors began to swirl that things weren’t kosher between Dipset’s two dominant personalities. Jim had been the yin to Cam’s yang, the best friend, handling biz behind the scenes for years. But with Jim focusing on his own rap career—gearing up to release a third solo album on Koch—the two, once inseparable, were rarely seen together. Cam appeared in the video for Jim’s smash single “We Fly High” late in the year, but talk persisted.

In February 2007, Cam got into a heated on-air discussion with 50 Cent about Koch Records and the comparative sales success of Jim’s hit Hustler’s P.O.M.E. and recent releases from 50’s G-Unit Records. During the resulting Internet beef, while Cam and 50 traded diss songs and videos, Jim and Juelz remained conspicuously on the sidelines. In May, Cam posted a Web video of himself standing next to a small pool with palm trees in the background, warning 50 and fans that it was going to be a “hot summer.”

But Cam disappeared after that. And over the next few months, Jim began to publicly acknowledge the rift within Dipset. Jim went so far as to appear on BET with 50, and he and Juelz joined G-Unit onstage at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom. Remaining out of sight—and silent, save the sporadic rap track leaked online, a mixtape, Public Enemy #1 and a DVD video trailer, “Here’s Cam’ron (You Little Yentas)”—Cam left the industry, fans and friends guessing as to his whereabouts.

This leaves Dipset under the auspices of Jim, who has become the team’s sole leader and biggest star—scoring a 50-50 solo deal with Sony’s venerable Columbia Records. Lately, in fact, Dame has gotten heavy into the Jim Jones business, working closely on projects like an Off Broadway play and a documentary, This Is Jim Jones, about the rapper’s life.

In last month’s XXL, the cover story featured interviews with Diplomats Jim, Juelz and Zeke discussing the status of the crew. Zeke seemed caught in the middle and insisted Cam would come back to the fold. And while Jim took pains to take his share of the blame for the breakup, both he and Juelz alleged that Cam had been less than fair with Dipset proceeds. And Juelz, who’d been strangely quiet himself since What the Game’s Been Missing!, claimed Cam had essentially frozen his career—blocking him from releasing collaborative material with other artists—through the original Diplomats contract Cam held and only this past summer sold to Def Jam for a reported $2 million.

Today, the enigmatic Dipset founder is here to give his side of the story. As he puffs on a Black & Mild in the backseat of his boy’s Jeep, heading home to New Jersey for the evening, Cam’ron wants to clear the air.