Within a couple of weeks of moving to New York, I’d seen Juelz Santana twice without even trying, and both times he drove little kids to screaming. I’d never paid much mind to Juelz, but he’s working hard in this city, and this is his city. One of the things that makes rap the most fascinating music in the world is its regionalism, the way someone like the Three-6 Mafia can be absolutely huge in one city and then be virtually unknown everywhere else. Whereas someone like 50 Cent is a global pop star who happens to come from New York, Juelz and the Diplomats are a regional rap group whose region is New York. They’ve got the specifically defined aesthetic and mythical local connections and impenetrable slang of a regional rap group, and they grind out mixtapes at the same insane rate. They’re also one of the few New York groups to work with regional groups from other places. Jadakiss might show up on a Lil Jon album from time to time, but the Diplomats are on more Southern mixtapes and albums than any other New York artist. Juelz has done tracks with Lil Wayne and Paul Wall and Young Jeezy, and he lists the non-New York rappers Tupac and Scarface as his main influences. He might not be my favorite rapper, but I like a lot of what he’s doing.
I did this interview over the phone yesterday afternoon. Phone interviews rarely tell you much of anything about the artist in question, but I should emphasize that Juelz had a rare conviction in his voice throughout the interview. He really does believe that he’s the voice of young people today.
I just moved up to New York a few weeks ago, and the first weekend I was here, I saw the show you played in the park on the Lower East Side. You played for like 20 minutes, and then you probably spent longer signing autographs for kids who were going apeshit over you.
I get real motivated when I be out and I do a performance. I may say to myself that I’m going to go straight to the car, but then I get in that mode because I know what it’s like to be a fan, to just look up to somebody like that. People think stars are so hard to reach and so hard to touch. When I’m out, especially in the hood—that was the hood, that area, the Lower East Side—I got to give that love back. I feel like I’m amongst the same kids I grew up with on the block.
I didn’t realize that you were such a big deal to these kids up here.
To be honest with you, that was real life out there. It gets eighty times bigger than that. I represent them. I’m the voicebox of the youth right now, today’s average teenager becoming a man, the same shit he’s going through, the hustle, the struggle, the situations you get put through to go through life. People struggle everywhere. People are poor everywhere. People deal with pain and hurt and shit everywhere, so that’s what I get across. And the youth is a big part of that because that’s what I speak from.
It was interesting to me the extent to which you get love in New York specifically. It almost seems to me like the Diplomats in New York are like Three-6 Mafia in Memphis or E-40 in the Bay Area.
If you cut Dipset from New York right now in the situation that it’s in, the way New York is going right now, what would you have? That would impeach the only hope we have left right now. Not to say that we’re the only hope, but there’s a lot of niggas right now that ain’t keeping it as real, ain’t doing the type of shit we be doing and representing the way we be representing. If they want New York to be where it needs to be, then niggas need to work hard. In the South, niggas is working hard to be put in the situation that they be put in. So how can you be mad at anybody or be mad that people from the South is popping or be mad that niggas from Houston is popping? Regardless of what they be doing, that doesn’t stop any one man from doing his thing. I notice that a lot; New York niggas seem mad at South niggas because they popping, and that is crazy to me. First and foremost, we had it for so long. Feel me?
Yeah, rappers up here seem like they feel like they shouldn’t have to work as hard.
Yeah, the thing is, they working harder and they coming with real music that people can relate to. Niggas is chasing a certain success or a certain level of respect that is not bigger than New York. You gotta expose the people to your shit. Right now, a lot of people don’t be doing that.
You’ve been known to work with a lot of Southern artists, like Paul Wall and Lil Wayne. What led you to work with people who are from outside what might be your comfort zone?
I just fuck with real niggas. If I see a nigga putting in that work and that effort, and I feel like he believes in himself and he’s just coming across like that to me, then I fuck with him. It’s bigger than music. I don’t care if they happen to be popular. If you hear me fuck with a nigga, it’s because I genuinely respect him. I respect they shit, especially niggas like Lil Wayne or somebody of that caliber.
I saw you on 106 & Park this weekend, and you said that your two main influences as a rapper were Tupac and Scarface. Why them?
The realness they brought. Tupac and Scarface were two of the realest dudes ever to do hip-hop. Tupac managed to cross over and be one of the most successful. Even Scarface is very successful. But these are two of the most grimiest niggas. They music, they taught you all about Houston. Scarface, Geto Boys, you knew all about Houston before you ever went to Texas. You knew about the Fifth Ward. They told you about it. That’s what you gotta do, you gotta make people come where you at, be where you from. A lot of people ain’t doing that no more.
Do you feel like you’re doing that for New York?
It’s not like I’m specifically setting out to do it for New York; I’m doing it to make myself comfortable. I’m doing what’s real to me, what comes to my heart. I feel like a lot of people in New York, that’s what they’re not doing. They not doing what comes to they heart and what they really want to do. They doing a bunch of shit that they think is right, that’s going to be accessible to other people.
The Diplomats have been known to have problems in the past with Mase, and he just signed to G-Unit. What do you think about that?
I don’t even think about that. When it comes to that dude, I look at it like, yo man, he’s doing a lot of stuff to his self. That’s in God’s hands. He’s playing with a higher power; it’s not even for me to judge him. I’ll leave that up to God, to do anything when it comes to that man. I don’t even think nobody should say nothing or comment about him; his actions speak for themselves. What kind of man are you? That’s my only words. What kind of man are you? Quote that.
I was covering the Scream Tour at Madison Square Garden, and I was really surprised to see you come out at that. What was that like?
That reaction was real crazy. That was the biggest thing ever for me, to come out at Madison Square Garden. I dreamt about that, something I always thought was real far-fetched. I still had a lot to accomplish just to get there, and to go out there and get the type of love I did, it let me know that I was definitely on the right path. I just need to keep people interested and keep people enjoying everything I do, and eventually I’ll get to the level where I need to be. Not want to be, because I don’t want to be nowhere. I feel like it’s destined for me to be there. Some niggas are made to have money; some niggas are made to not. I’m made to start shit, man.