People tend to use a myopic scope when they talk about cities that have run hip-hop since the genre’s birth. In the early 2000s, the claim to the throne had returned to New York City as Roc-A-Fella and G-Unit took over the industry. But the rule of the Roc was hardly NY-centric.
In 1998, a then-unsigned Beanie Sigel boarded a train to New York City with rap duo Philly’s Most Wanted. They were headed to a studio session with Jay-Z, who at the time was cutting a record with Too Short that would become “A Week Ago.” The way Beans remembers it, he was just along for the ride, but when PMW member Boo-Bonic started getting aggressive in the booth, Sigel upped the competitive ante. Jay and Dame noticed, and when Beans left the building that day, he was on Roc-A-Fella’s radar. Dame signed him soon after.
That same year, Beans shocked everyone with his guest appearance on Hov’s “Reservoir Dogs,” and in 2000 the Broad Street Bully released his debut album, The Truth. It came at a time when things were changing for Roc-A-Fella, as Jay was set to drop his fifth consecutive album in as many summers, and Memphis Bleek’s debut a year earlier did little to excite the public about Roc-A-Fella’s other artists. The label realized it needed to diversify its offerings; Jigga wouldn’t be around forever. Thus came The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, originally billed as a compilation but ultimately labeled a proper Jay-Z release. Really, Dynasty was a showcase for the likes of Beans and Bleek, although a verse from another Philly rapper named Freeway on “1-900-Hustler” would cement his position on the roster down the line.
The Truth, and Beanie’s 2001 follow-up The Reason, established Sigel as a hardcore MC and gave the Roc a rougher, middle-class edge. Dame, Jay and Biggs, astute as ever, must have realized that the inclusion of Philly rappers on Roc-A-Fella would help endear the label to the streets (the State Prop clothing line that drew inspiration from the criminal market helped later on as well), so while Jay’s celebrity profile began to balloon, the label pieced together State Property, a group of Philly rappers including Beans, Freeway, Peedi Crakk, Young Chris and Neef Buck (later known as Young Gunz), Oschino, and Omilio Sparks. In January ‘01, Jay invaded Hot 97 and officially introduced his stable of Philly artists to the world with a now-infamous freestyle session.
The commercial power of Philly rappers on Roc-A-Fella quickly became evident at the start of 2002, when Beans and Free released “Roc The Mic,” the highest-charting single for either artist at the time. At the same time, ROC films released the State Property movie, and with it the soundtrack that featured “Roc The Mic” as a lead single.
In a sense, it was a new dawn for the label, as Jay’s bloated Blueprint 2 later that year signaled the beginning of the end of Jay’s reign at the Roc. 20002 also saw the release of Cam’ron’s platinum-selling Come Home With Me, spurring the label to sign his group The Diplomats. Fueled by the success of the State Prop movie, ROC Films released Paid in Full starring Cam’ron in October of 2002, reeling in over $3 million at the box office. It came with a two-disc soundtrack, the second of which was a Dream Team mixtape heavily featuring State Property members.
Around the same time, rumors started to arise about the similarities between Jay’s new flow and the “whisper flow” that was Young Chris’s signature style. People cited lines from songs like “Hovi Baby,” “Diamonds Is Forever,” “Guns & Roses,” and other songs off BP2 as examples of Jay’s theft. It was a slippery accusation, but in 2010 Choke No Joke, a video director for Roc-A-Fella who did a long documentary about the label, alluded to Jay using Chris’s flow in the past. When XXL asked Chris about the rumors, he replied, “Steel sharpens steel. It’s family, we all in the family. We work off each other’s vibes […] So when I say steel sharpens steel, I just mean we all fed off each other.”
Then, in 2012, Young Guru did an interview with Complex where he let a little secret slip: Jay loved watching Philly rap battles on Youtube in his off-time. Suddenly, the influx of Philly rappers on Roc-A-Fella’s past roster made sense, and people felt vindicated about their theory that Jay jacked the whisper delivery. Two months after the Guru interview was published, Meek Mill signed to Roc Nation. It was also the same year Jay announced his Made In America festival in Philly. Coincidence? Doubt it.
At a time when Roc-A-Fella was riding high, Jay ushered in Philly’s best to ensure the label’s continued success and maybe learn a little from the youngsters in the meantime. More than 10 years later, Jay’s love affair with Philly rap is still alive.