Less than music?
Consider this scenario: Young Dro, emboldened by the success of “Shoulder Lean” and “Rubberband Banks,” launches a campaign against T.I., publicly announcing that his former member had humiliated him one too many times and announcing Pimp $quad Click will have to go on without him. Ridiculous, right? That’s not quite what happened this weekend, but the impending shitstorm between Cam’ron and Jim Jones really isn’t all that different from that scenario. On Saturday afternoon, Miss Info blog-posted the results of a phone conversation she’d had with Jimmy, quoting Jimmy thusly: “Me and Cam’ron havent spoken to each other in a year… I kept quiet out of loyalty, I felt like if we cant be friends then at least we can do business together… But now I can’t be next to you… I’m through wit being in hot water because of you… We still the Diplomats. We worked too hard to achieve our own success and now we’re gonna do something new.” Jones will talk to Funkmaster Flex on Hot 97 later tonight about the split, and it’ll be interesting to hear what exactly pushed Jones to cut ties with the one guy in his crew who’s managed to sell any significant number of records. Jones may have come a long way since his days as the Fabio-looking dirtbag in the “Horse & Carriage” video, but he hasn’t come so far that he can expel the guy who leads the Diplomats and who remains the only reason he has a career in the first place. And, I mean, at least Dro can rap.
The Diplomats’ status as a rap group has always been a little weird, considering that only maybe two or three of their rappers are actually any good at putting words together. Dipset’s emerged as a dominant presence in NY rap mostly through all sorts of extracurricular reasons: their catchphrases, their visual aesthetic, their willingness to beef with pretty much every other rapper in the city. They’ve painstakingly created an image of themselves as a bunch of genial, unpredictable knuckleheads, and they’ve embarrassed themselves as often as not, but there’s something oddly admirable in the way they pursue their most ridiculous ideas (a rollerblading team?) until they either yield monetary rewards or spectacularly smash to pieces. Kids love them; in Brooklyn, I’ve seen the word “Dipset” written in wet concrete as often as I’ve seen, say, the word “fuck.” But the Diplomats have still failed to emerge as either a consistent commercial force or a disciplined, unified movement in the Wu-Tang mold. Part of the reason, certainly, is Cam’ron. He’s the group’s most gifted and visible rapper, and he’s the main reason anyone knows the group’s name, but he’s also one of the weirdest and most introverted rappers to build any sort of commercial profile in recent memory. When guys like 50 Cent go for maximum cross-demographic appeal by paring their lyrics down to their most discernible, relatable essences, Cam chases tangents, builds insular vocabularies, and generally lives within his own head. Nobody understands everything Cam says, and that probably includes Cam himself. I was talking to Ryan Dombal about this a couple of weeks ago, and he pointed out that Cam might’ve been a huge influence on the free-associative absurdism Lil Wayne has honed to a frighteningly sharp point on Da Drought 3 and that that influence might be why Wayne so continuously shouts out Dipset on that same mixtape. But that unfocused delirium is what made Cam a relatively unimpressive battle-rapper in his beefs with Jay-Z and 50 Cent; he doesn’t have the lazer-focused passion that he’d need if he wanted to score serious points against those guys. And those same qualities make him an unconvincing leader; you can’t expect him to make a good figurehead when he barely even seems bigger than himself.
Jones is the exact opposite. He has none of Cam’s livewire brilliance, but he’s funny and accessible, and his lyrics aren’t exactly hard to figure out. As of a few months ago, he also had a hit song and a catchphrase and a signature dance, which is apparently all you need to be taken seriously as a rap star in 2007. The talent differential between Cam and Jones is roughly the same as the one between Ludacris and Chingy, but that doesn’t seem to matter anymore for any number of depressing reasons. By all accounts, Jones is completely convinced of his own king status, which means he probably gets seriously annoyed whenever Cam goes and does some ridiculous shit like goofily advocating the stop-snitching stance on 60 Minutes or calling Hot 97 to yell at 50 Cent. If the Cam/50 beef proves anything, it’s this: the divide-and-conquer tactic works, at least as far as New York rap beef is concerned. On “Curtis,” Cam says that Young Buck is the hottest one in G-Unit; a few weeks later, 50 Cent’s on Hot 97 saying that he might have to kick Buck out of the crew. On “Funeral Music,” 50 says that Jones is in charge of Dipset; a few weeks later, Jones is calling Miss Info to say that he’s the boss of Dipset and that Cam is now out. (The fact that Cam owns all the Dipset trademarks doesn’t appear to bother Jimmy.) Still, it might not actually be the 60 Minutes interview or the ill-advised 50 beef that finally caused Jones to get fed up with Cam. It might be the recent rumor that rap nobody Tru Life slapped Cam outside some club and that Cam didn’t retaliate. And so rap moves ever closer to pro-wrestling; whenever a popular rapper allegedly shows any sign of public weakness, he’s suddenly persona non grata. If this crisis actually shows Jones to be the leader of the Diplomats, it’ll be a clear sign that the group prizes business over artistry. And I’m just naive enough to hope that’s not the case. Either way, though, it’s not like this mess will turn out well for either of them.
Sometime last year, I was sitting in a Koch conference room killing time and waiting to interview J.R. Writer. The only other guy in the room was a Dipset underling whose name I can’t remember, and he was watching a DVD mixtape report on the ongoing dispute between two rappers: Murda Mook, who I only know from this battle, and Frenchie, who I don’t know at all. Outside insular NY mixtape circles, these guys had basically no profile at all, and still they were wasting time shitting on each other. Cam and Jones are both famous, but neither one is a megastar, and it’s not like this impending beef is going to raise either of their profiles. Instead, it’s just the beginning of another sad chapter in the history of an NY rap scene that can’t keep its shit together.
Voice review: Jon Caramanica on Cam’ron’s Purple Haze