The Diplomats have finally, formally, reunited, with plans to consummate their return with a new album due this week. New music is beside the point, though. That’s not to belittle their output so far, which has seen them revisit familiar territory with the Heatmakerz on “Sauce Boyz,” while toying with modern sounds on the Murda Beatz-produced “On God.” But the real thrill in seeing Jim Jones (who seems to be running point on all of this), Juelz Santana, Cam’ron, and Freekey Zeekey together again is maximized in...simply seeing them together again.
As old neighborhood friends, these four have a rapport that effortlessly transcends most “labelmates” or “rap groups,” which is why we’re in the midst of their fourth or fifth reunion to begin with. Their post-peak years have been a fluctuating series of raw malcontent and brotherly hatchet burying that only family could inflict and survive. It also means that their shared history with each other will ultimately transcend any current issue, and their history as one of New York’s—and rap’s—most important crews will transcend whatever music they put out now. They have a show at the Apollo on Black Friday, which they could have easily sold out on the strength of their classics, without the added sauce of a new project.
All of that is to say, just watching these four interact again now is greater than hearing them interact on wax. That was on full display Monday night during what was magnificently billed as the Gentrification Tour. A handful of journalists and rap media adjacent figures, yours truly included, were gathered on a double decker bus for a ride through Harlem—a hood audio/visual experience where everyone could hear the new album Diplomatic Ties. But more importantly, we could all hear Jim, Zeek, Juelz, and Cam self mythologize their come-ups, pay respects to Harlem landmarks (both public and personal), and comment on how deeply the neighborhoods were beginning to change.
The event began in earnest on 110th at the infamous Bloodshed mural, where Jim, Juelz, and Zeek were waiting at Hajji's with chopped cheeses, Ciroc to wash it down, and vape pens for dessert. Two minutes after we left, Jim yelled at no one in particular that two neighborhood dudes who were trying to hop on the bus had to beat it because tonight was “about business.” Any notion of this being a boring, paint-by-numbers gimmick listening session was abandoned shortly thereafter though, when our first stop was a project building Jim referred to as 5H, which Juelz happily recounted as the prime spot for running trains.
Driving through each Dip’s respective corner of Harlem and hearing them wax poetic about stash houses while Zeek ad-libbed something along the lines of, "Mayorrr!" or “If you know you know and if you don’t know eat a dick” from the back of the bus was so next level it, honestly, overshadowed the new music.
The new album is solid. There is enough of Heatmakerz to keep the Dips in their comfort zone, Jones' flow sounds as in shape as he keeps physically, and the sole rap guests are the only other veteran rap group you’d want to hear them trade bars with in 2018. But nothing stood a chance at resonating quite as much as riding through Harlem listening to “Harlem,” the hard-hitting album cut from Jim’s sophomore effort, where he shouts out the same blocks and hoods we were cruising with him now.
The driver and the group’s handlers seemed to be following a rough route mapped out by Jim, but for the most part he was play-calling it based on traffic and availability. It was as disorganized as it was impressive. For every standard landmark like the Apollo or the cemetery where the “Emotionless” video was filmed, there would be a truly unique highlight like a hospital Jim flagged as the one everyone would go to for a, um, street injury. One of their longtime boys, Black, reaffirmed that when he yelled, “I went there when I got cut!”
The ride also included real-time discovery of old spots that had long fallen to the very theme of the tour: gentrification. You’ve never seen dudes so in awe at the sight of a CVS in New York until you’ve driven through New Harlem with the Diplomats. Jim isn’t as down on gentrification as one might think. “The hood needs coffee, too,” he shrugged, passing by a new Starbucks. “It’s a great thing for Harlem because it is building up the landscape. It’s been the ghetto for all the years I’ve known it. Right now there’s a lot of pretty buildings. The only thing wrong with that is, they’re pushing our people out and not giving them any jobs. Besides that, I ain’t mad at the facelift.”
Jim randomly breaking down the etymology of slang like “guap” and its Harlem origins gave the sense that this tour is something they might seriously consider expanding and legitimizing. He probably doesn’t remember, but I’m almost sure he mentioned a rough idea of this tour to me in the Complex offices back in 2017; his excitement at finally pulling it off was palpable.
Still, a lot of the magic was clearly unscripted and would feel forced if there was ever an attempt at recreation. You simply can’t stage Cam’ron being ambivalent about meeting us at Hajji’s, then having us come to him at his old project—a spot he seemed like he’d be posted at on any Monday—and disembarking to listen to a new song right there in the parking lot.
For the remainder of the tour, near the halfway point of the eight-song album, Cam joined the bus. But instead of holding court on the upper deck with the rest, he took a spot in the lower back corner, listening to Jim and Juelz’s stories as astutely as the rest of us. Timeless tales of real niggas doing real things.