Most rappers boast about how much they’re getting paid, but Harlem hip-hop collective the Diplomats would rather brag about what they’re paying for. The nine-member crew—Juelz Santana, Cam’ron, Jim Jones, Jr. Writer, Hell Rell, Duke Da God, 40 Cal, Jha Jha, and Freekey Zekey—churn out their own videos, mix tapes, and solo albums at a frenetic pace. While this outpouring has yet to make the Diplomats a household name à la 50 Cent, it’s creating such a buzz in the industry that some members have scored deals with Def Jam (Juelz) and Warner Music (Cam’ron), among others.
To build an audience, the Diplomats put out homemade mix tapes—unofficial sampler albums—and sell them on the street, the Internet, and in mom-and-pop stores. This is common in hip-hop, but most acts do it merely to promote upcoming major-label releases. For the Diplomats, it’s become big business in its own right. Their tapes often sell an extraordinary 20,000 copies each.
Juelz, whose debut for Def Jam comes out this fall, is one of hip-hop’s most charismatic rhymers, alternating between Ali-like boasting of his own greatness and novelistic narratives about the drug trade. Being with Def Jam hasn’t changed his approach. For his new album, he recorded nearly 160 songs and shot five videos (paid for out of his own pocket). “I’m not going to mess with big producers,” he vows. “I’m going to stick with the hungry dudes, because that’s what my sound is—hungry. I don’t ever want to sound comfortable.”