In Hanif Abdurraqib’s A Little Devil In America — a vivid treatise on the impact of Black performance in America’s cultural history — there’s a pretty fascinating excerpt on how the Diplomats inverted classic American symbolism throughout Diplomatic Immunity. In the chapter on “magical negroes” (an outdated trope in and of itself), Abdurraqib recalls a time when white suburbia and college frat boys across the country embraced Cam’ron, Juelz Santana, Jim Jones, and Freekey Zekey for draping themselves in red, white, and blue. They rapped along to the record’s many combative lyrics equating street violence to the War On Terror. They bought into the Harlem crew’s apparent zest for patriotism, from their stars and stripes bandanas to their Great Seal of United States-inspired insignia: a bald eagle toting two Glocks. The same crowd who cheered on Dubya’s invasion of Iraq ironically saw themselves in a group of bon vivant troublemakers who repeatedly name-checked the Taliban and bragged about making “9/11 music.”
In many ways, though, it can be argued that Diplomatic Immunity was Dipset’s way of illustrating resilience in the face of cataclysmic devastation. Juelz would survey the wreckage of Ground Zero and invite listeners to “follow [him] through the debris of these towers,” but would later lament the effect the tragedy had on the drug trade (“I’m mad the coke price went up/ And this crack won’t sell”) on the booming “Gangsta.” Given that Diplomatic Immunity was their defiant response to American media’s post-9/11 narrative, it’s easy to say that the joke’s on the pro-war fanatics who never bothered to look beyond the refashioned imagery. But it really was just Dipset being Dipset, whose envelope-pushing irreverence during a tumultuous period was emblematic of the group and the record as a whole.
Released 20 years ago this Saturday, Diplomatic Immunity was truly a product of its time: Equal parts chaotic and celebratory, it was less a double-disc LP and more a compilation of the best bits off Diplomats Vol. 1 to 3. A mammoth mixtape-of-sorts spanning 27 tracks, Diplomatic Immunity’s messiness calls back to an era when the Diplomats redefined rap bootleg culture. 50 Cent and G-Unit got the plaudits for their mixtape hustle in the early 2000s, but Dipset broke new ground by popularizing the artist-driven street tape. Beginning with Vol. 1 (which predated June 2002’s 50 Cent Is The Future by a few months), their formula saw them combine industry freestyles with all-new material, and even got them dominating the airwaves with every radio station playing “Oh Boy” on repeat. With Dipset’s methods becoming the blueprint, mixtape culture was forever changed.
Diplomatic Immunity was the culmination of the Harlem posse’s mission to once again make NYC the epicenter of rap. Released a couple of years after Cam signed to Roc-A-Fella and earned a platinum plaque for ’02’s Come Home With Me, the ostentatious record was an bombastic showcase for Killa, Juelz, Jones, and Zekey to spray semi-auto raps about what’s really good in their stomping grounds. In Cam’s case, he evolved from being a mere disciple of Big L to dismissing standard rhyme staples and delivering his own brand of slanguage. Dipset’s de facto leader was a swaggering thesaurus who captivated and confused us in equal measure; he’d serve up a buffet of word salad (“Let’s get lost in Camby/ I got lobster in Boston, Austin/ Floss in, of course, Miami”), make references familiar (“Wax on, wax off/ Put our wax on, take that wack off”) and obscure (“I’m a genius, Papadopilis/ Never lenient”), and even dabble in French (“Jim Jones c’est ce bon, Santana magnifique”). His deadpan hustle rap is nonsensical but dope at the same time, a technique he’d perfect two years later on 2005’s Purple Haze. I can’t help but trace Lil Wayne’s dizzying wordplay, Action Bronson’s absurdist wit, and Roc Marciano’s pimp tapestries back to Cameron Giles’ way with words.
While Cam stole the show on Diplomatic Immunity, the rest of the clique embraced the spotlight he bestowed upon them. Chief ad-libber and Ed Hardy aficionado Jim Jones didn’t have the skillset of his brothers-in-bars, but he infuses a sense of authentic vulnerability whenever he goes off on the remnants of Reaganomics (“I’m an insomniaddict, up all night/ Pops and moms was an addict, shit”). The then-incarcerated Hell Rell turns up to freestyle a cappella over the Clinton Correctional Facility phones, longing to raise havoc with his Ruger whilst comparing Biggie’s affinity for Coogi with his penchant for profiting off drug money. More than anyone though, Juelz seized the opportunity to ride shotgun with Killa and validate the hype that accompanied his rapid ascent. Santana spat with a ne’er-do-well bravado that fitted his upstart status back then, while also displaying a thoughtfulness that belied his then-adolescence. Despite an odd reverence for Osama Bin Laden and Mohamed Atta, he prays for the victims of 9/11 with a sincerity that’s amplified by the Heatmakerz’ soulful production. The record was Juelz’s coronation, a just reward for penning the timeless “Dipset Anthem” as a way to prove himself to his elders.
Diplomatic Immunity also owes its immortality to Rsonist and Thrilla of the Heatmakerz, the duo who put in the most work behind the boards. While the origins of “chipmunk soul” will forever be debated about on various subreddits and Twitter threads, the pair are one of the first to be credited with accelerating its popularity. O. V. Wright’s sped-up wails over “DJ Enuff Freestyle” and the jauntiness of the Moments throughout the Freeway-assisted “My Love” represent just a taste of early-2000s Roc, blending with towering basslines and tight hi-hats to triumphant effect. Fellow in-house Roc producer Just Blaze also gets in on the act with his tinkering of Major Harris crooning “I Really Mean It,” concocting an imperious backdrop for Cam and Jones to have a ball with. The Heatmakerz didn’t just play with gorgeous soul samples either — “Dipset Anthem” begins with raucous horns sourced from reggae artist Sanchez’s “One In A Million” that looped around the iconic party-starter. It’s crazy to think that Rsonist was close to binning the beat altogether in a fit of frustration.
Looking back, the Diplomats’ impact stretched beyond rap. I grew up in Greater London, separated from NYC by the Atlantic, yet the number of heads that rocked a combination of Avirex leather jackets, Lot 29 hoodies, and Evisu jeans grew exponentially in tandem with Dipset’s rise. Sales of fitted New Era caps and Air Force Ones with the pink swoosh rose with each Cam’ron or Juelz Santana video on MTV Base, further solidifying the rise of Harlem chic in our neck of the woods. Back in high school, my friends and I would eagerly discuss that time they visited London with (the now-disgraced) Tim Westwood in tow, and wondering if the newly-signed S.A.S. were gonna be the final bridge between UK and US rap. We would even rewatch their legendary turn on BET’s Rap City and enjoy debates over whether it was the greatest-ever appearance on the show (spoiler alert: it was — Cam casually counting stacks for over four minutes was the deciding factor). While their contemporaries in G-Unit also got a heavy amount of spins in our CD players, we appreciated the Dips for being the fashionably affable opposites to 50 and his motley crew of villains. Cam, Juelz, Jim, Zekey, and Rell were the braggadocious class clowns we gravitated towards whenever we needed to have fun, and we loved them for it.
With the unease surrounding the early years of the turbulent 2000s, Diplomatic Immunity was necessary escapism. Those recklessly charming anti-heroes on top of the East Coast rap food chain encouraged us to look beyond nightly news obsessions of “-isms” and throw our two arms up, touchdown. Subsequent years following the record’s release would see the Dips break up (to our discontent), then reunite (to our delight), then get slaughtered on a Verzuz battle against lyrically superior opposition (to our amusement). Then again, Juelz always insisted that the Diplomats were always “a movement, a union, more than what you people call ‘music'” — a mantra which I and millions of others are more than happy to acknowledge.