Graphic: @popephoenix for Okayplayer
Behind the Beat: How Heatmakerz & the Diplomats Reenergized “Gangsta Music” on “Dipset Anthem”
With “Dipset Anthem”, the Diplomats created an immortal song. For our latest Behind the Beat, Rsonist (of The Heatmakerz) tells Thomas Hobbs why we’re still listening to that “gangsta music” 20 years later.
A chest-clearing “ohhhh” combines with chopped-up stabs of bass guitar that have been re-sequenced to hit like air horns at a rowdy dancehall party in Kingston. The rush of ticking hi-hats and earthquake-triggering bassline suddenly take over, the sound slapping you in the face and ringing out the side of your right ear. “Hand on my handles, listening to gangsta music, ay” are bars repeated by scrappy newcomer Juelz Santana on a thrilling hook, delivered with the confidence of someone aware they’ve just unleashed nihilistic earworms that will continue to blaze out of car stereos in New York City for the next 20 years.
In the opening bars of a star-making verse that honors The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Niggas Bleed,” a camo bandana-clad Juelz raps careful instructions to his comrades on how to flip white powder for profit. Each of his “ayyy” ad-libs seems cockier than the last, resurrecting the chemically induced, unhinged spirit of Tony Montana. His lieutenant Cam’ron, meanwhile, channels the shit-talking energy of Blaxploitation-era pimp Dolemite, as he throws lyrical grenades at rap groupies who go home and kiss their husbands (“that shit is disgusting”).
The descriptions above will almost certainly spark nostalgia among gangsta rap fans, with the “Dipset Anthem” offering an iconic 2003 superhero theme for Harlem’s The Diplomats: a crew consisting of Cam’ron, Juelz Santana, Jim Jones, and Freekey Zekey. It helped their debut album (Diplomatic Immunity) reach gold status, uplifting the hustlers in Harlem at a time when the Big Apple felt, in truth, a little deflated post-9/11. Although “Dipset Anthem” didn’t chart, it never stopped playing on Hot 97, solidifying itself as a classic in the streets and marking the arrival of a new superpower in East Coast rap.
The origins of the “Dipset Anthem” beat
Yet astonishingly, according to the song’s producer, Rsonist (real name Gregory Green), it’s a miracle the “Dipset Anthem” ever made it out at all. “I was literally just about to throw ‘Dipset Anthem’ away when my cousin walked in the studio… he said I would be crazy to get rid of it,” recalled the musician and nucleus behind influential Bronx-raised production duo The Heatmakerz. “I actually made that beat back in 2001... and because it was my fifth beat of the day, my ears were fried and I guess I didn’t know what sounded good anymore. I thought it was trash.”
The song was also moments away from missing out on the final track listing for Diplomatic Immunity, handed in to irritated parent label Def Jam just minutes before the shut off deadline. Perhaps the only reason the request was approved at all was due to the excitement of Cam’ron, who lovingly referred to the “Dipset Anthem” beat as “that Bob Marley shit” and had generated goodwill among the boardroom suits after delivering a platinum plaque with 2002’s Come Home With Me. “I don’t think the people at the top fully saw the potential of The Diplomats or the ‘Dipset Anthem’,” Rsonist said. “This was something that was going to transcend generations but I remember we had to fight to get this music out there.”
Pushing hip-hop fashion to new heights
These quotes are a powerful reminder that not all the rap songs we see today as ubiquitous, era-defining moments were initially tipped for greatness, and many pioneering artists had to fight against criticism from gatekeepers.“Can you imagine how the traditional rappers looked at The Diplomats and what the fuck they were doing?” Rsonist said, referring to the Harlem group’s audacious love of rocking pink furs at a time when white tees and Timberland boots were still the standard attire for so many street rappers.
“People said we were ruining the game with all that pink shit, and that the Dipset beats with the chipmunk soul samples weren’t shit you could dance to. But we were creating feelings, not music. We were showing the drug dealers that they could still walk down a righteous path. I think that’s the reason we’re still talking about their music 20 years later.”
Rsonist’s Jamaican roots
To understand how Rsonist reached a career peak with “Dipset Anthem” and The Diplomats smashed through the glass ceiling with the assistance of his beats (11 of which made up Diplomatic Immunity), it’s important to trace this underrated producer’s rise. Born in Mandeville, Jamaica, some of Rsonist’s earliest memories are hearing reggae covers of American soul staples on the radio. His family emigrated to America — making the Bronx their new home — when Rsonist was just four, where their accents were accepted as the norm, making assimilation fairly easy. “It was only when I came to America that I realized all the songs I heard as a child were actually covers of African American singers; that’s when the fusion between reggae and soul truly came together in my sound. A lot of the people on my block in the Bronx were on America’s Most Wanted, so making music kept me safe and out of trouble.”
One of the reggae covers that made a particular impression on Rsonist was “One In a Million” by Sanchez, a recreation of Sly and the Family Stone founder Larry Graham’s top 10 single. It’s a gentle ode to puppy love as Sanchez sings in a delicate and soft tone, trying to sweet talk a girl into going on a date. He ultimately persuades her to say yes via references to “a chance of a lifetime” and his total command of such an infectiously jaunty groove.
Digging up the “Dipset Anthem” sample
However, the first five seconds of "One In a Million" contain a murderous edge at odds with everything that follows, as a machine-gun fire kick drum, a pained howl of a vocal, and reggae-enthused bass combine to create a haunting atmosphere. Rsonist knew he had discovered something special. Having recently been kicked out ofHoward University, he said flipping “One In a Million” into the “Dipset Anthem” on the MPC in his bedroom was a formative moment. “When I heard those first few notes of [“One In A Million”], I just knew something was about to go off,” he said.
“That intro was so nasty and I knew I could create something great if I could find a way to keep that same energy going for another three minutes. I took the beginning piece and chopped it up, triggering it in different ways so that particular vibe never ended.”
Soon after finishing the beat, Rsonist was inspired to team up with childhood friend Thrilla (Sean Thomas) and officially launch production duo The Heatmakerz. The pair placed an early beat with underground wordsmith Canibus (“The C-Quel”), before making the final cut for Cam’ron’s Roc-a-Fella debut, Come Home With Me. It actually took a while for Killa Cam to figure out who they were. “Cam didn’t even know we produced “Boy Boy” because there was another guy at Roc-A-Fella who was lying and taking credit for all our production,” Rsonist said. “When we met Cam and I told him it was us, he really started fucking with our sound.”
Subsequently, the first beat the Heatmakerz created in direct company of The Diplomats was “I’m Ready,” which flipped an optimistic Barbara Mason song about being ready to settle down into a pensively sad hood therapy session, inspiring Jim Jones to talk bravely about how losing his father pushed him into dropping out of school and selling drugs. It was quickly followed by “Who I Am,” which flipped the harrowing, wounded masculine vocals of The O’Jay’s stunning original so they were androgynous. Triggered by this nostalgic sound, Juelz Santana showed his softer side and admitted on wax to crying in front of his mother. “I remember this chick told me “Who Am I” was the only song that helped her get over [her] mother’s death,” beamed Rsonist with pride. “Our songs with the Diplomats had a habit of doing that for people.”
An obvious chemistry had formed between The Heatmakerz and The Diplomats, something defined by the former’s ability to flip soul samples that forced the latter to open up and show the human beings behind the bravado. “When I used to sample with turntables, you got a distinctive sound you didn’t get with an MPC or computer,” Rsonist said. “There is a secret layer to these soul records and when you pitch them down, you find paranoia or sadness that was completely hidden before. My job was to find it all. I used to put things on 45 and either slow the vocal right down or speed it all the way up. Having a pitch wheel just adds a different feel; it created a feeling you didn’t get anywhere else.”
This “feeling” forced The Diplomats to open up like they were sitting in a psychiatrist’s chaise longue chair, with Cam’ron revealing beautiful memories of his late grandmother Lydia, and even his son using a potty for the first time on the song “I Love You”, another Heatmakerz-produced gem. But although The Diplomats were feeling more and more like family to Rsonist, he said Roc-A-Fella records was a segregated place, filled with intense rivalries. “There was a lot of smoke in those Diplomat Immunity sessions, but everyone had their own blunts,” he said.
“Roc-A-Fella was just this really competitive space at the time, particularly at Baseline Studios. This was in the midst of Kanye West blowing up and Just Blaze too, and we were just these new guys coming in. There were definitely some sideways comments made here and there [from the other producers] towards me, but I think that’s because our work was turning heads.”
Rsonist also picked up on a rivalry between JAY-Z and his new signee Cam’ron. The pair were at odds with one another, despite being label mates, with Roc-a-Fella CEO Dame Dash caught somewhere in the middle. One day Rsonist left some Heatmakerz’ beats behind for engineer Young Guru, who showed them to an impressed Jay-Z. Yet after finding out the tape was produced by “Cam’s guys,” Jay-Z cruelly told Guru to erase the song he had just completed. “I understood why,” revealed Rsonist, sounding a little dejected, “those guys just didn’t like each other. But it’s a shame, because Hov apparently went crazy over my track!”
Photo credit: Instagram
A new day for NYC rap
Although Rsonist and The Heatmakers were building a soulful heart for the Diplomatic Immunity album, the project lacked an obvious aggressive single to galvanize the underdogs in the inner city. Rsonist remembered the Sanchez-sampling beat he had made a few years prior. “The key with the ‘Dipset Anthem’ beat was achieving total aggression. If you heard the beat in the gym, I wanted it to inspire you to push an extra 100 pounds. The bass was like an elephant stomping. I took a love song and turned it into a gangster record; you have to hear sounds differently to approach music like that. Cam’s way of saying he liked it was calling it that ‘reggae shit.’” I didn’t correct him.”
This aggression translated perfectly to the citizens of New York City, with the producer first learning the “Dipset Anthem” had triggered locals when it played at the Diplomatic Immunity release party, prompting riots on the dancefloor and causing the building to shake. “The next day Funkmaster Flex played it on Hot 97 and was like: ‘This is one of those songs you’re going to need to move into the fast lane for.’ I thought, ‘holy shit. My life really has changed.’” Hilariously, the producer missed the Dipset Anthem music video because it was “too cold,” a decision he regrets to this day.
With Big L gone and Ma$e wearing a clerical collar, Cam’ron has the “come try me” attitude of a lieutenant posing on the turret of a tank on “Dipset Anthem.” He knew the single would restore pride for Harlem’s ailing gangsta rap scene, the buzzy nonchalance of his bars (“this on my wrists is nothing”) designed to perk up a rap community in desperate need of an adrenaline shot. Although problematic, the fact his crew referred to themselves as the Dipset Taliban was because they also felt like enemies of the state; a guerilla force in rap that needed to shake up a hostile industry. “No one can deliver a verse like Cam,” agreed Rsonist, who also produced iconic Cam'ron songs like “Killa Cam” and “I.B.S”. “It is like someone having a conversation that just happens to rhyme.
“Cam always sounded like Dolemite to me. But it wasn’t just Harlem, but New York City, period, who felt a real sense of pride when ‘Dipset Anthem’ dropped. This wasn’t your typical commercial record supposed to be played on the radio, but cos’ it was so lethal in the streets, the masses had no choice but to pay attention.”
The “Dipset Anthem” helped solidify The Diplomats as a serious force in New York rap, launching successful solo careers for Jim Jones and Juelz Santana while adding another medal to Cam’ron’s cabinet. In the years that followed The Heatmakerz also found an unlikely receptive audience in the South, leading to knockout collaborations with Lil Wayne (“Tha Mobb”) and Ludacris (“Meet The Dealer”). “Our sound had a southern bounce. When Jim Jones introduced me to Takeoff, he actually told me the Migos used to sit in the crib, writing to our beats.”
Yet while the Heatmakerz might have cemented themselves as a marquee name in the rap game, they didn’t necessarily reach the same heights of some of their production peers. According to Rsonist, this was partly driven by the decision to remain loyally connected to the Diplomats, and not over-saturate their sound by giving it away to too many outsiders. It is something he said worked out great in the long run. “Cam and Jim told me they wanted to keep The Heatmakerz in-house and not spread the sound around too much,” he said.
A legacy beyond music
“At the time I might have felt a type of way, because I was ready to make more money, but over the years it made a lot more sense: the thinner you spread out your sound, the less valuable it is. I believe the Dip Set-Heatmakerz soul rap sound still holds so much value today because it was never spread around 15-20 different artists. In the end, Cam and Jimmy were right.”
In 2007, Thrilla left The Heatmakerz and the music world to pursue a career in real estate. In the years since, Rsonist has been the driving force of The Heatmakerz, producing underrated hood anthems for artists, including Smoke DZA, Fred The Godson, and Jones, with the same ear for a tortured soul sample. Looking forward, Rsonist’s big dream is to start scoring movies. “I feel like my best beat is still ahead of me,” claimed the producer, who is now in his 40s. “I feel anxious when I don’t have things to work on. That’s my kryptonite. Right now, I’m more in love with making music than I’ve ever been. A lot of the new guys are in love with The Heatmakerz’ sound.”
When he made the “Dipset Anthem” Rsonist didn’t even consider himself to be a full producer yet. It makes reflecting on that era, when he was still learning his craft, a little difficult. However, he is more than happy to be defined by “Dipset Anthem,” because it perfectly captures his two sides as a musician and carries a sentiment that uplifts the people. “'Dipset Anthem' is the perfect definition of who I am as a producer. It’s half-hip-hop, half-reggae, and it is this big, communal record. I guess [with that song] we were selling the people supreme confidence. That’s a powerful thing. It doesn’t really die.”
Graphic: @popephoenix for Okayplayer
Thomas Hobbs is a freelance culture and music journalist from the UK. His work has appeared in the Guardian, VICE, Financial Times, Dazed, Pitchfork, New Statesman, Little White Lies, The i and Time Out. You can find him on Twitter: @thobbsjourno