On December 2, 2020, Chicago rapper G Herbo and a bevy of his associates were indicted on 14 federal charges, ranging from wire fraud to identity theft.
With fans unclear on the status of Herbo’s apprehension, the hashtag #freeherbo trended on Twitter; Herbo later took to social media to confirm that he was released on an unsecured bond. Two weeks later, Herbo addressed his fans’ concerns through a new track and corresponding video, pointedly titled “Statement.”
Clocking in at 2 minutes and 42 seconds, the drill phenom’s video defies standard norms for handling federal charges, with Herbo rapping “But anyway, said enough of that, let’s talk about this paper/Let’s talk about them jets, yeah, let’s talk about Jamaica/ Ask about me, I ain’t never been a fraud, I went hard/From the start, in my city I’m a god, motherfucker.”
The track is enveloped in bombastic and unrepentant production, courtesy of Southside and Hollywood Cole, augmented by a sample of the distinctive “chipmunk soul” melody of “I Really Mean It” by The Diplomats, a career-defining track for the Harlem crew, with the opening notes of Major Harris’ “I Got Over Love” flipped by super-producer Just Blaze to braggadocious new heights.
It’s hard to understate how monumental of a track “I Really Mean It” is to those who call Harlem home; the hit single is so beloved that a childhood friend of mine and his wife entered the reception of their wedding triumphantly rapping the lyrics, “y’all niggas dreamed it, I’ve seen it/Body warm, heart anemic (I really mean it).” Released in 2003 on the Diplomatic Immunity, album, the trio of Cam’ron, Jim Jones, and Juelz Santana (with additional contributions from Freekey Zeekey, Hell Rell, Max B, and other affiliates) made their mark in the music scene after being introduced as the Dipset on Cam’ron’s third album, Come Home With Me. Unrestrained and unrepentant, they bared their teeth on tracks such as “Dipset Anthem” and “Bout It Bout It... Part III,” pairing it with flamboyant fashion and lifestyles.
Perennially invigorated by their larger-than-life Harlem swagger, their chosen approach to public visibility felt innately familiar and homegrown; the squad may be ready to run up on you as a unit at a moment’s notice, but they would make sure to look fresh while doing so, from the bandanas down to their chains emblazoned with their iconic emblem—reconstructing the Great Seal of the United States into an eagle with red, white and blue plumage, gripping a pistol in each foot and a scroll in its beak with the words HARLEM WORLD scrawled across it (which would later inspire rapper Future’s Freebandz logo). Their motif emphasized doubling down on the ghetto fabulous aesthetic, not just in the sartorial sense, but in their music as well. They weren’t just from Harlem; they were Harlem.
When The Diplomats are discussed nationally, it becomes easy to minimize their impact in the hip-hop industry to a few big hits over soul samples, iconic skits, and flashy pink outfits. A closer look at their reign, however, showcases just how significant their imprint was and remains. While 50 Cent’s G-Unit is frequently lauded for their mixtape run, it was actually Cam’ron & Co. who broke the existing mold of DJ-produced mixtapes first with The Diplomats Vol. 1, releasing niche classics such as “Oh Boy” and “Come Home With Me” alongside freestyles to popular instrumentals such as “Takeover.”
The Diplomats’ ostentatious behavior was often amplified to absurdist heights, punctuated by moments like the legendary Rap City Basement Freestyle where Cameron Giles chose to deliver his verse while counting the cartoonishly large wad of cash that was in his hand. Cam’ron would take the same antics to the media, startling audiences with his caricature persona, a precursor to the attention-grabbing antics of rapper Soulja Boy. Irreverent conversations like his confrontation with Bill O’Reilly—where he hysterically declared ‘I got dirt on you, dawgie’’—would become hip-hop legend. A few years later, he would be interviewed by Anderson Cooper, where he controversially explained his no snitching campaign—intending to showcase the danger of calling the police on violent offenders in your own neighborhood—calmy stating “If I knew the serial killer was living next to me, I wouldn’t call and tell nobody on them, but I’d probably move...but I’m not putting the signs up, ‘The serial killer’s in 4E.’”
Media agitprop aside, their unrefined approach to entertainment served them well; in an era where G-Unit reigned supreme nationally, with fans throughout Queens, Brooklyn, and the world donning bulletproof vests and camouflage, the Dipset established a presence as a flashy alternative, with Cam’ron influencing men to purchase sport jackets and tops in the patented “Killa Pink” and Juelz’s American flag bandana inspiring subversive patriotic iconography (buttressed through music such as the “Dipset Anthem” and a later tour called Pledge of Allegiance) throughout Harlem in the early aughts. They would later be fundamental in transforming the Supreme brand into the billion-dollar behemoth that it is, modeling their popular eponymous white tees in 2006.
As they became international, they never shied away from their hometown roots, frequently being seen out and about on Lenox Avenue. This assumed comfort occasionally worked to their detriment; a simmering beef with Junior M.A.F.I.A. boiled over at an EBC (Entertainer’s Basketball Classic) game at the famed Rucker Park—just down the block from my childhood home of Ralph J. Rangel Houses, commonly referred to as Colonial or Nine Block by locals—a skirmish partially influenced by tensions with former Harlem World-affiliate and basketball teammate, Ma$e, and revelations that Lil Cease’s verse on “Crush on You” was ghostwritten by Giles himself.
The group’s comically artful sense of self-awareness would lend itself to some of the most entertaining beefs in New York hip-hop history. There was the back and forth with Nas which resulted in a brutal freestyle over “Hate Me Now” and numerous follow-ups; during a trip to Washington, D.C. ,for Howard University’s Homecoming, Cam’ron was shot in both arms during an attempted carjacking and proceeded to drive himself to the hospital in his blue Lamborghini Gallardo. Conflicts with then-President and CEO of Def Jam, Jay-Z, led to a diss track that kicks off with a hyperbolic rant befitting the musical palate of Cam’ron—“You talkin’ ‘bout you a ‘80s baby, you 37 years old. You was born in 1968. And I open the Daily News; how’s the king of New York rockin’ sandals with jeans? Open toe sandals with chancletas with jeans on”—using Beyonce’s Destiny’s Child-era vocals from their feature on Cam’ron’s S.D.E. track, “Do It Again” as a smug coda to the excoriating affair.
A priceless incident where Cam’ron called into Angie Martinez on Hot 97 during an interview with 50 Cent to address bones of contention between the two artists led to the endlessly comical “Curtis.” After a fallout with producer Max B, who claimed his talents as a producer and writer were being exploited and under-compensated, Biggaveli and Jim Jones engaged in an extensive back and forth, with French Montana stoking the fire. Since then, friction has dissipated with Nas, French, and Jay-Z, with the latter inviting Cam’ron to Webster Hall for his B-Sides concert to perform the duet “Welcome to New York City”; Max B, who was initially sentenced to 75 years for armed robbery, kidnapping, aggravated assault, and felony murder, has yet to resolve his issues with Jones. The group would also go through their own internal conflicts over the years, with loyal fans awaiting a reunion album that, after several fits and starts, has yet to be released.
The Diplomats thrived on being unblushingly controversial and divisive, an approach which helped propel them to fame as a grassroots movement, but not without its own bumps in the road. Despite Cam’ron popularizing his affinity for pink during New York Fashion Week in 2002, the crew made pains to assert their masculinity via lamentable methods, popularizing and defending their liberal use of the homophobic phrases “Pause” and “No Homo,” amongst others.
Cam’ron has been known to use his social media presence to create ephemeral controversy, from some of his more startling Instagram skits with ex-fiancée Juju to vividly detailing his sexual affairs, occasionally with video evidence; his recent beefs with Faizon Love and Meg the Stallion’s “hotties” were rooted in homophobic and transphobic bigotry. Cam’ron’s achilles heel has always been his penchant for theatrics and juvenile behavior, letting his immaturity belie his firm grasp of the music business and the entertainment industry as a whole. Interviews like his recent appearance on N.O.R.E.’s Drink Champs, where Giles opted to stay sober, reflect his capability to surpass his immature persona at his discretion, to the frustration of fans who have wanted him to evolve alongside current trends and social expectations. True to form, however, he made sure not to leave the set before promoting his version of men’s enhancement pills commonly found in bodegas, aptly named Pink Horsepower.
Dipset’s impact on hip-hop wasn’t confined to music and fashion; their reach extended into the big screen, with Cam’ron starring in Paid In Full—playing a fictionalized version of infamous Harlem kingpin, Alpo Martinez, who Giles knew—while the whole crew made an appearance in Dame Dash’s State Property 2. Giles self-funded and released a haphazard film companion to his album Killa Season 10 years before Beyonce would make the world stop with Lemonade . Their footprint extended into reality-television: the leviathan franchise of Love & Hip-Hop, helmed by Mona Scott-Young, was anchored by the presence of Dipset, their girlfriends, and affiliates, quickly gaining viral popularity for scenes such as Jim Jones’ fiancé Chrissy Lampkin attempting to stomp out Juelz Santana’s now-wife Kimbella Vanderhee over a girl-code violation; breakout franchise star Yandy Smith was introduced to the series as Jones’ assistant.
While not necessarily recognized as such, the Diplomats were fundamental in shifting the pulse of hip-hop, matching consumption with dysfunction in sensational and often entertaining ways. Their reverence in Harlem, and in overall New York, has persisted since their early-aughts heyday, so much so that the New York Knicks kicked off a Cinderella season of basketball by featuring the trio rapping a freestyle in MSG for a KITH streetwear collaboration. The au courant collective for Harlem’s young millennials, A$AP Mob, could not form without Dipset charting a path to communal and individual success: Jones proceeded to have cult hits of his own such as “We Fly High”, “Crunk Muzik”, and the Vampire Life series, and presently has a critically lauded collaborative relationship with producer Harry Fraud; Juelz’ sophomore album, What The Game’s Been Missing!” and lead single “There It Go (The Whistle Song)“ (a staple of high school step teams across the city) both went gold, and his collaboration on Chris Brown’s debut single, “Run It!” topped the charts for five straight weeks; Freekey Zekey, newly sober, has various business ventures in the Carolinas. A 2017 concert at Hammerstein Ballroom cemented this impact, the venue filled to the brim with fans eager to see the old and new guard come together, my younger brother and I being chief among them.
“All my niggas who held it down the last half a decade
My nigga Gruff, Bad 140th, 139th
Black Tone, White Tone, 142nd Rell Street
And 141st, Tito, My Jamaicans, My Belizeans
3333, Polo Grounds, St.Nick, Colonial, Drew
Lincoln, Taft, Forster, Johnson, Jeff Wagner
Wilson, East River, The 9, 145th St. Nick, 145th Broadway
Lukas, Taliban, 135th, 118th, Manhattan
134th and 8th, Powerful what’s really popping
Sarge hold your head,
Freekey Zekey hold your head
The ol’ B.B.O., 151st Amsterdam holla at your boy
A.K. Jackie Rob, All my niggas in Harlem
Get your hustle on
Keep your muscles strong
I know about the blocks you hustle on”
- Cam’Ron, Juelz, UnKasa, “Take ‘Em to Church”
To listen to and appreciate The Diplomats is to harken back to a time where the strip of Frederick Douglass Boulevard from 125th Street to 116th Street, now peppered with venues like Harlem Tavern and Lido, was not the safest place to be after dark, with signage outside of Harlem’s Magic Johnson Theater indicating “no weapons allowed.” It requires you to appreciate their style of guerilla marketing, from the Smack DVDs to creating a space for themselves as a collective within Roc-A-Fella. Perhaps most importantly, it comes with a deep enjoyment of their content, both low and highbrow, from the ridiculously raunchy “Suck It Or Not” to the slapstick rhyme construction in “Get ‘Em Girls” (“I get the boosters boosting/I get computers ‘putting”), with the amorphous construction of their lyrical word associations indirectly leading to the creation of the media giant Genius. Their reunion album may still be pending, upended by various encounters with the ever-looming presence of law enforcement, but to Harlem, Dipset is forever.