In the past few days, an image has been showing up on my Twitter feed again and again: a poster of Roc Weekend 2004. The poster shows the entire roster of Roc-A-Fella records, just before Roc-A-Fella Records shattered into a million pieces. And that roster is a head-spinning thing. This was that Icarus moment, when the Roc seemed like it would rule forever, when it could just sign any damn rapper: Kanye West! Oschino & Sparks! DJ Clue! Peedi Crack, with his name misspelled! Ol’ Dirty Bastard, when he was calling himself Dirt McGirt! M.O.P.! Samantha Ronson! It’s happened over and over in rap history: A dominant crew expands too fast, and in the process, it fractures. It’s G-Unit signing Mobb Deep and the aforementioned M.O.P. It’s Bad Boy signing Fuzzbubble. It’s Cash Money signing Limp Bizkit. And it’s the Diplomats, who were once part of that Roc roster and who played a role in its end, doing whatever they were doing in the late ’00s.
Other than a few Roc-era Cam singles, the Diplomats were never a huge commercial presence. But especially if you were in New York (or on the internet), they were still a presence: larger-than-life street-rap absurdists who radiated danger and silliness in equal measures. I moved to New York in 2005, right around the time the crew was at its peak. The first weekend I was in town, I saw Juelz Santana play a 15-minute set in a Lower East Side park, and then I saw him signing autographs for the kids in the adjoining housing projects for at least 45 minutes. I heard thousands of teenage girls going nuts when Bobby Valentino brought Juelz onstage to do “Dipset Anthem” at the Madison Square Garden stop of the Scream Tour. I saw Cam’ron launch simultaneous beefs with Jay-Z and 50 Cent. I paid real American money to watch Killa Season, Cam’s unwatchable directorial debut, in an actual movie theater. And when I saw the Diplomats close out the 2006 Hot 97 Summer Jam, there were literally hundreds of people onstage — nearly as many as there were in the rapidly leaving audience at that point. This was not sustainable.
While it was going, though, the Dipset saga was chaotic and unpredictable and fun. There was only one Diplomat who was an honest-to-god great rapper — Cam’ron, a hall-of-famer if rap had a hall of fame — but there were plenty who could be great on a moment-to-moment basis. On the Diplomats mixtapes, all of which were must-listen at the time when you actually had to leave your house to buy a mixtape — you never knew when you’d get a head-spinning 15-minute JR Writer freestyle, recorded lo-fi in a studio where everyone else was freaking out. And the crew’s extended glory spread to everyone. My friends and I would get excited every time we’d see, say, an SUV with a wrap-around Purple City Byrdgang decal, or when we got to argue over which S.A.S. member was better.
It was sad to see the crew go its different ways, the principal members throwing shots at one another. But it’s almost as sad, in a very different way, to see the Diplomats reunion becoming just one more act on rap’s nostalgia circuit. Cam’ron, Juelz Santana, Jim Jones, and Freekey Zekey are back together, and it’s probably a lot of fun to go see them and to rap along with “I Really Mean It.” And there are good moments on Diplomatic Ties, the reunion album that they released last week. Cam’ron spends his first verse on the album, for instance, going after Kanye West: “He told me he was bipolar / I looked and said ‘bipolar?’ / Don’t be ridiculous, he wan’t in the mix with us / Bricks from Hamilton Terrace, he didn’t take the risk with us.” They bring back the old practice of rapping over Heatmakerz beats with unclearable ’80s-rock samples. (This time, it’s Queen’s “Who Wants To Live Forever?”) Old affiliate Un Casa shows up to breathe fire on the outro. And there’s a warm familiarity to the whole thing, which is nice. We want to see these guys doing well.
But the album also shows the limits of rap nostalgia at work. There’s an uncomfortable tension to the album, like the members of the group can’t decide whether they want to recapture their old lane or whether they want to fight for present-day relevance. So they rap over sped-up sample beats from the Heatmakerz, and they also collaborate with B-list Canadians like Tory Lanez and Belly. Juelz Santana sounds haggard, the defiant bark in his younger voice all but gone. Cam sounds casually brilliant but also distracted. (Jim Jones’ megaton charisma and great rap voice blessedly remain mostly intact.) More to the point, it’s a low-key and predictable affair for a group that used to run on the fuel of chaos and excitement. It’s just not the same group.
But there is a new record that recaptures some of that old feeling. Former Dipset affiliates JR Writer, 40 Cal, and Hell Rell, evidently furious at being left out of the reunion, came together to release an EP called The Upstage, putting it out on the same day as Diplomatic Ties. It’s not a record about that exclusion, though there is plenty of shit-talk. Here, for instance, is JR Writer on a song called “No Reunions”: “I’m wondering, but I see what you doing / All my niggas still here, we don’t need no reunions.”
Mostly, The Upstage is just an endless parade of punchlines, some slick and some not. It’s not revolutionary, and there’s nothing on The Upstage that could compete with the best stuff on the classic Diplomats tapes. But it’s still great hearing these long-neglected voices over cheaply triumphal beats, like the slimline-CD-case mixtape era never ended. Unlike the core Diplomats members, these guys have something at stake. They’re determined not to be forgotten or to fade into the background, and they effectively sell the idea that they’re not going away just because their existence is now inconvenient to someone else’s victory lap. And so The Upstage lives up to its title. It’s the Dipset reunion that we didn’t know we needed.
1. Malibu Ken: “Acid King”
Aesop Rock was always great, but apparently what he really needed to do was rap over sinister sci-fi synths instead of, like, drums.
2. Meek Mill: “Oodles O’Noodles Babies”
“Killed my little cousin, I’m like dammit, man / Had to see the footage on the camera, man / On the pavement with his brains out / With the white sheet, he was laid out / Wanted to ask ‘Ye: Is this a choice?’ / It was like this when I came out.” Damn.
3. Black Thought: “Soundtrack To Confusion”
Everything on the Black Thought/Salaam Remi EP Streams Of Thought Vol. 2 is worth hearing, but this right here is about as good as it gets: “The breadwinner, the dead center, the headspinner / I heard life was a bitch, I went to bed with her.”
4. Benny The Butcher: “Broken Bottles”
Benny has made about a million impressive guest appearances on Westside Gunn and Conway tracks. On his own, he’s still plenty dangerous.
5. Derez De’Shon: “Whaddup Doe” (Feat. Mozzy)
Foundational Atlanta trap producer London On Da Track does a Bay Area bassline, and poof, just like that, the Bay Area’s hardest rapper shows up on it. Everyone should be trying to get Mozzy guest appearances, if only to keep them honest.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
Lady Gaga flirting with Chief Keef on Thanksgiving (2013) pic.twitter.com/4afzl1mdCE
— Gaga Doing Things (@LGDoingThings) November 22, 2018