We almost take it for granted now, but when historians look back on the past decade, it’s conceivable that rap’s most significant development was its abandonment of its New York City birthplace. You can hear the evolution embedded in the sound of the popular NYC artists of the last ten years. The modern-day Jay-Z and 50 Cent boast few scars of their New York City upbringing. Maino and Mims are geographically non-distinct. The Chicken Noodle Soup dance could’ve came from Atlanta. Of course, not everyone forgot their roots and the gritty subway rattle that accompanied them. The primary exception was The Diplomats, an ungainly moniker for a crew of sneering, swaggering uptown assholes, whose Harlem Renaissance produced New York’s most relevant and colorful music of the past 10 years–all while working within a regional tradition.
Killa Cam’s nimble flow and deft wordplay was instantly noticeable from the first Magnum P.I. sample of “357.” His debut, Confessions In Fire, remains one of finest examples of late 90s East Coast hip-hop. It takes a smart conceptual approach and blends it with strong populist sensibilities and a vicious sense of humor. It’s concept driven but fun, funny and full of addictive hooks. It’s follow-up, Sports, Drugs & Entertainment was Cam’s It Was Written, an album that hung in limbo and was largely dismissed on release by fans who wanted more of the cerebral eccentricity of Confessions, ignoring the savvy vision of the popular rap landscape that lay just around the corner.
Had Cam chosen to go full-on pop, he could’ve made for one hell of a commercial artist. Around the time Jay-Z got handjobs for showing the South love by inviting U.G.K. on a Timbaland track, Cam teamed up with a fledgling Atlanta radio DJ just beginning to gain momentum on the remix to his “What Means the World to You.” Also introduced on S.D.E. was a hype man/high school friend Joseph Guillermo Jones and a former child rapper brought on after his group won amateur night at the Apollo two weeks in a row. His name was LaRon Louis James, but he called himself Juelz Santana.
The trio called themselves the Diplomats and quickly established a clear aesthetic on their mixtapes, which were among the first and most influential in popularizing the concept of single artist street albums featuring all-new material. As I’ve said before, the halting flow Cam used during his Children of the Corn days dates to his mentor, Big L. His delivery has the clear finger prints of L’s tongue twisting battle raps all over it. Cam’s true innovation was freeing it from L’s craftsman’s logic, or from any logic at all. Peaople have rapped about rapping since rap’s inception, but Cam used hustling as a guise to fuck around with nonsensical word games and punchline experimentation, rooting it in larger than life charisma. He loved taking a sound and twisting and flipping it till your ear drums popped and you forget what you were talking about.
Like Ghost and Rae, his Harlem, his world is rendered in dense slanguage that often means little but sounds dope. Put it all together over the gorgeous Soul beats of in house Roc-A-Fella producers Kanye West, Just Blaze and The Heatmakerz and you got a unique, fresh perspective, one built on technical proficiency but thriving off bizarro experimentalism. Dipset took Cam’ron’s L interpretation and made it their own. Jim Jones may have lacked the lyrical dexterity of the rest of the gang, but he succeeds through a strong-willed stubbornness, infusing personality and humor with his ad-libs. Who needs punchlines when you can write anthemic hooks. The youngest and most prominent peripheral Diplomat, JR Writer was a demon strain, a mixtape-bred atom smasher, whose tongue twisting wordplay approached numbing levels of multi syllabic repetition, internal rhyme and clever punchelines.
The best pure rapper of the lot (Cam included) may have been Juelz. His style probably leaned the closest to Cam’s, but was shockingly candid and heart on sleeve. A freak rapper technically, he’s not a show-off like JR. Check out his mixtape, Back Like Cook Crack Vol. 3, where Green Lantern curates an excellent slate of beats and Santana rises to each occasion, aping but bringing his own spin to styles diverse as Big Daddy Kane, Warren G and Scarface. He has come further in the past decade as an MC than any other rapper, minus maybe Gucci Mane and his frequent collaborator, Lil Wayne. Yet focusing exclusively on the group’s product is missing the point. Without the cocksure cool, it would all be technical rap nerdery –a bizarre black Paul Barman-like creature. Fortunately, Cam is from Harlem.
Like children of the Wild Style generation or those gaudy dealers working 125th and Lexington in the late 80s, The Diplomats were weird in a way that was and always will be crucially and essentially Hip Hop: They owned their style, no explanation or apology and simply waited for us to catch up. Is Cam’s perma-smirk a sign that he’s in on the joke? Is this all some bizarre form of performance art? Is he really “No Homo!”ing us to death dressed head to toe in pink? You can’t draw a line where the rhymes end and the style begins because it’s the same property: an announcement of individuality, freedom to be yourself on record and in the street, a refutation of the Jay-Z’s and Jeezy’s of the world who carry themselves with self conscious cool and plan records like games of chess. They made rap fun again. The Diplomats official and unofficial body of work throughout this decade is filled with ugly things and surprising things and sometimes little wondrous things, spilling out constantly.
What the Dipset offered in opposition to their most obvious point of comparison, 50 Cent’s G-Unit, was a sense of genuine unity in their music. While the South Jamaica crew almost had an air of Empire, collecting commodities from all over the country and launching generic monster pop to fuel album sales, the Diplomats on this mixtape delivered their music on family driven CD-Rs and albums that sounded like mixtapes. Chopped verses and half finished songs, with a DJ from East River Projects who used to tag “Dez” shouting all over their best work. You come away with the impression that this is more than a business partnership, but a real bond between friends that carried over into the studio, a chemistry that’s palpable in their music.
G-Unit was a crew of genuine bad guys, evil dicks. The Dips were affable assholes. This made the split at their pinnacle all the more disheartening, but perhaps that closeness is what lay at its root in the first place. Gauging the impact of the Diplomats on rap is nearly impossible at this point, the baton has been passed in too many directions and diluted and tweaked by too many MCs. The New York Mixtape game was certainly forever changed. Without Dipset, Lil Wayne might still be churning out proficient East Coast fetishist but not really alive, thematic crack albums like The Carter.
But beyond any hard style, what the Diplomats really contributed was a philosophy. The encouragement of individualism, of artistic freedom and weird fun that has forever changed the direction hip hop is heading in. When a mixtape monster pulls us aside in the midst of a multi-syllabic torrent to observe tat a girl’s ass looks like an orchid, when a career is built and driven towards swag as a religion, when a teenager sets his rapegaze on the occult legacy of groups like Children of the Corn, when a young emo rapper in skintight designer jeans has the confidence to be emotionally open and vulnerable on the mic, Cameron Giles and his collective shadow will be looming. For me, that shadow resembles the ancient, iconic skyline he grew up 100 blocks away from. –Beame
ZIP: The Diplomats — Native Tongues (Left-Click)
01. Cam’ron- Speakin’ Tongues (ft. Vado)
02. The Diplomats- The Line Up
03. Hell Rell- Hell Rell Freestyle
04. Cam’ron- Hey Ma (remix) Intro
05. Cam’ron- Rocafella Get Money
06. The Diplomats- Maria Maria
07. Jim Jones- West Coast Freestyle
08. The Diplomats- First of the Month
09. Jim Jones- Questions
10. Cam’ron- Bigger Picture (Remix)
11. JR Writer- He’s a Ryda (ft. Cam’ron) (Live on Funkmaster Flex)
12. Jim Jones- This is Jim Jones (ft. Cam’ron)
13. Juelz Santana- Never Seen a Man Cry
14. Juelz Santana- U Oughtta Know (ft. Cam’ron)
15. The Diplomats- Dipset Anthem
16. Jim Jones- G’s Up (ft. Max B)
17. Juelz Santana- Birds Flyin High (ft. Lil Wayne)
18. JR Writer- You Make Me Say
19. Cam’ron- Harlem Streets
20. Jaheim- Fabolous (Diplomats Remix)
21. Juelz Santana- Squalie (ft. JR Writer)
22. Cam’ron- Weekend Girl
23. Juelz Santana- Let’s Go (ft. Cam’ron)