We’ve seen the movies and read the comics about our favorite superheroes going through the process of aging. They don’t run as fast or jump as high anymore. They take a little longer to recover, and make mistakes that they wouldn’t have made in their prime. But they figure out new ways to stay effective. Now, we are seeing our favorite rap superheroes age in real time. Since rap is a relatively new genre, we’re just now getting used to seeing a generation of artists mature to middle age as they adapt to the times and expand their empires to other ventures. Cam’ron is one of those artists.
Cam has been around longer than the average fan realizes. In the early ’90s, he rapped alongside the likes of Big L, who convinced him to take the craft seriously. Biggie helped get him signed. Throughout his long career, he’s always been a charismatic personality who rapped at a very high level. In 2019, Cam is comfortable enough with his legacy not to really care about it all. “I think that’s more for people to decide, and everybody with a phone has an opinion now,” he says. “If you got a smartphone, you got an opinion.”
It’s a rainy November day, and I’m navigating North Jersey streets, looking for the address of Cam’s mother’s crib. I spot an Audi R8 that happens to be painted in his signature Killa Pink in a driveway. When I walk into the home, the living room is draped in a dark red, and the famous Dipset eagle with two guns is sewn into heavy red curtains. The mood is set.
I’m here 15 years after Purple Haze hit the streets. It’s the album that many casual Cam’ron fans started with, which arrived during the Pink Cam era, the period that made him an undeniable star. The Diplomats were the hottest thing in rap, he and Dame were making Bill O’Reilly mad (giving us a meme for the ages), and the pink Range Rover had become an iconic symbol of Americana. Cam was already a rap darling to kids in the streets, and this period is when he started to cross over to mainstream audiences. The oversized New Era fitteds, big leathers, and bandanas and wave caps of the time were all influenced by Dipset.
Cam showed up to a Baby Phat show at New York Fashion Week in 2002 stepping out of the pink Range, in pink fur, while talking on a pink Nextel chirp. Killa Cam, the superhero, had arrived. By the time Purple Haze dropped in December of 2004, Dipset’s legacy was already etched in stone, and they continued to influence the rap landscape with their music, their fashion, and their lingo. Cam added to his aura in 2005 when, in D.C. promoting his album Killa Season, he was shot in both arms during an attempted carjacking of his 2006 Lamborghini, and drove himself to the hospital. “I got shot three times and my album comes out Nov. 22,” he told reporters, as he was leaving the hospital. And while still in a sling, he addressed the incident in the video for “Get Em Daddy (Remix).” Like I’ve been trying to say: a superhero.
Now, 14 years after that incident and 15 after the original Purple Haze, Cam is set to release Purple Haze 2. He hasn’t released an official solo studio album since 2009’s Crime Pays, but has dropped mixtapes sporadically in between. He’s 43 years old now, fully content with his legacy, and more concerned with other ventures than any obligation to put out music. When I ask him why he doesn’t take acting more seriously and follow the path of someone like Will Smith or LL Cool J, given that he was so good in his role as Rico in Paid in Full, he mentions that he’s really into producing movies these days—a new film called Is It a Crime is currently in post-production.
But right now, as we’re closing out 2019, he’s in the mood to release music. While Purple Haze 2 will be out on December 20, he also hints at the arrival of The Program 2, and says he might finally release his long-fabled album with A-Trak. Killa Cam is back in action, durag cape flapping in the wind, ready to fly back down to Earth and give us bars again.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
What made you want to make a sequel to Purple Haze?
The studio's in the house, so even when I’m not working, I’m working. A lot of times, I tell myself I’m not going to fuck with music no more, but then I end up fucking with music, even if it doesn't come out. It’s the 15-year anniversary of Purple Haze this year. So I was like, damn, I have so many dope songs, and I’m still working—why not do a Part 2 around the anniversary of Part 1? People are always asking me for music, so I thought it was time to put some music back out.
Are you working with some of the same producers as you did on Purple Haze?
You know, it’s crazy. After I announced it, a lot of producers who I forgot actually did production on that album have been reaching out to me through email or Instagram. They’re like, “Yo, I did this track.” I'm like, oh, shit, I forgot who actually did this. No disrespect to them. But [I’ll work with] whoever’s fire. It can be a man right there. Whoever has hot beats, that’s who I pick. I’m not really big on names or status. It’s about what’s hot. It’s about what you’re doing right now.
Do you care about where your legacy stands?
Not really. If I had to tell you about it, I could, but I think that's more for people to decide. Everybody with a phone got an opinion now. If you got a smartphone, you got an opinion. For instance, in sports, you can be the self-proclaimed best, but if your numbers aren’t matching up to you being the best, then you’re not the best. So I think it’s more for people to decide, because if you ask anybody how they feel about their legacy, any confident dude is going to be like, “I’m that nigga. I did this, I did that.” I can sit there and tell you 200 different things that I did, but how did it have an effect on people? I think I did a great job. Even now, announcing Purple Haze 2, people are reaching out to me, but it’s more just that I want to do it. I could put out music three or four times a year, but if I’m not in a good space or I don’t feel comfortable about putting the music out, I’m not going to do it.
Do you ever get nervous about remaining relevant?
I’m 40-something years old. Everybody gets their turn. What you’ve got to realize is, for me to still be doing this at this age is pretty cool. I’ve done Madison Square Garden. There’s nothing musically that I haven’t done. So for me to even still be doing this shit is pretty dope. I don’t let that bother me, because it isn’t like I’m starving or I need money. I think people worry about that when they’re fucked up and broke. I’m just in a good space, and for me to even still be coming out and making music is dope. Everybody gets their time. You got maybe JAY-Z and Kanye that can be at the top, top, top, who have been doing it this long. Nas, too. But Nas doesn't put out music as much as they do. Nas plays the background. Snoop Dogg, too, I would say. But you could count on two hands how many people from that era people can still relate to.
“I’m always doing something, no matter what. I’ve got ten cleaning companies. Just because it's not entertainment-related, doesn’t mean there’s not money being made.”
When you first came out, rap wasn’t like how it is now. Rap has become the new pop, basically. Did you expect to see that or were you surprised?
This happens every generation, man. You’ve got to think, before me, you had Big Daddy Kane. He was running around with Madonna and everybody considered him a sellout for running around with Madonna. Now Drake kisses Madonna and it’s cool. Everything takes a little bit of time to get to where it needs to go. Every time, people aren’t ready to see certain things. But it evolved to be cool after a while.
There’s a lot of chatter on social media now about how rap lyrics from past eras wouldn’t fly now. Do you think about that?
Yeah, I do. 100 percent. I listen to some shit I said, and I’m like, “Damn, I hope they don’t bring that up on me.” There was an era where you could get away with certain shit that you can’t get away with right now. It’s funny. Somebody sent me some shit that I said, and I’m like, damn, if I said that today, I’d get crucified. So I know exactly what you’re talking about. Yeah, I do pay attention to that.
Besides Purple Haze, you have other projects on the way, too, right?
Yeah. I put out a project about two years ago called The Program. So we were going to do The Program 2—and we’re still going to do that—but they were trying to put The Program 2 first, then Purple Haze 2 six weeks later. I said, “Let's just stay focused on Purple Haze 2.” And then, at the top of the year sometime, we’ll put out The Program 2. But you don’t want to rush and put out a bunch of projects, and it’s all over the place. So I said, “More people are familiar with the Purple Haze brand than The Program brand, so let’s focus on Purple Haze 2, then we’ll worry about the next project next year.”
Do you see The Program as a mixtape or an album? Or does it even matter to you anymore?
To me, it’s all the same shit. It gets streamed. You download the shit and it comes in. I mean, there’s no real big difference between mixtapes and albums. It’s all the same shit to me. I’ll say, “The Program’s coming out,” and some people will be like, “Oh, it’s a mixtape.” It just depends on who you’re talking to. I’m older, so certain people may take my mixtapes different from the albums. The younger generation, they may say it’s all the same shit. And realistically, it’s all getting streamed, so it’s all the same revenue.
I remember back when you were selling mixtapes at DipShack in Paterson. You guys had a vision for where the mixtape game was heading back then. Can you talk about that period?
Basically, we were the first artists that did mixtapes, period. I realized at that particular time, we were on so many different mixtapes, with Kay Slay or Big Mike or even DJ Clue. And growing up, I used to listen to SNS and Doo Wop, and there were a lot of mixtapes coming out. But it was always the DJs’ mixtapes; it was never the artists’ mixtapes. I remember being like, “Damn, we’re on, like, 10 different mixtapes. Why don’t we just do our own and put it out?” And that’s what we did. We took advantage of having access to the studio, because we didn’t always have access to the studio. When we started recording there, we never left. If the studio was available, we were in there. We were just making a bunch of music.
There was money in that shit. My thing is, I’m always going to have my income coming in. But it was more to make sure people around me had income coming in, too, so they don’t have to say, “I need money, I need money, I need money.” When it came to the mixtape circuit, I never really made money off it, but it was more so people around me could have money.
I remember Dame actually getting mad at me at one point. Not real mad, but he was like, “Yo, Cam, you’re wasting money for free music. We’re trying to release an album.” I’m like, “I’m trying to get exposure.” Because in the beginning, they didn’t want to give Juelz a deal or Jim a deal. They didn’t understand the vision. So the mixtapes being pumped out through the streets made people understand that Jim was a celebrity and Juelz was going to be a superstar, without waiting for a label to do it.
When you made the first Purple Haze, that was a weird time for you, right? You were on your way out of Roc-A-Fella, but you were also at the peak of your career.
Right. But I didn’t really have a problem during that time. Everything was pretty good. The Diplomats album went platinum. Juelz’s album was already out. I was doing a lot of stuff in Chicago and Ohio at that particular time. Leaving Roc-A-Fella, it wasn’t really my fault. It wasn’t like I was leaving. They was dissolving.
Everything was pretty smooth, as I remember. Roc-A-Fella was breaking up, but I had a deal waiting for me already at Warner Brothers when I signed with Joey I.E. and Todd Moscowitz, because Lyor [Cohen], Kevin Liles, and Julie Greenwald all went over to Warner. They gave Todd and Joey I.E. a label, and it was a pretty smooth transaction for me. As soon as Roc-A-Fella broke up, L.A. Reid stepped in, and he wanted me to stay at Def Jam. I was more comfortable working with Lyor and Julie and Kevin, because I worked with them through Roc-A-Fella. You know, they ran Def Jam.
I appreciate L.A. Reid for letting me out of the contract, because I was still obligated to Def Jam. But he understood it and let me out. Probably a week after I got out of the deal, I went to Warner. Maybe the album got pushed back, but I don't really remember having a bad transition.
What did you learn from the Roc-A-Fella era? There were a lot of ups and downs, right?
To be honest, I didn’t have no problem at Roc-A-Fella. I mean, me and JAY-Z might have bumped heads, but I didn’t have any downs at Roc-A-Fella. Everything was positive. I left Epic Records after being jerked around, got to Roc-A-Fella, went platinum, put my team on, got Juelz and the Diplomats a deal. The Diplomats project went gold. Juelz sold about 340,000.
It was a real smooth time at Roc-A-Fella, because Dame was there, and me and Dame had a relationship. I knew Dame since I was 11 years old, and he had my back on a lot of things. If things weren’t going right and I didn’t know anything, I had somebody who genuinely fucked with me and could teach me, like, “Oh, Cam, we don’t do that this way. You can do it this way.” And this is when they were at their height, so being at Roc-A-Fella was just a blessing. Leaving Epic Records in a shitty situation and coming over there with somebody I grew up with, on top of the music business? I can't really say I had no bad time at Roc-A-Fella.
You learned a lot about the business there, right?
Absolutely. But I already learned [about the business] when I got jerked around. So when we got to Roc-A-Fella, we turned into monsters, because we knew what wasn’t being done at Epic. So when we got to Roc-A-Fella, we had to figure out who was running radio over here, who was running promotion, and all that. Let’s walk downstairs to Def Jam and see who does their radio and their marketing and make sure we get the right type of promotion that we didn’t get at Epic. It was a great experience, because I was around people who were trying to teach me anything that I didn’t know, as opposed to trying to rob me.
You’re independent now. Would you ever try to get a major deal again?
Since I left Epic Records, I’ve never had a regular deal. Every deal was a joint venture. I don’t ever mind splitting money. I won’t ever be signed to anybody. I’ll do joint venture or distribution deals. So I wouldn’t be against it, because I still do business with people like that. But as far as being signed with somebody, nah.
I remember, God bless the dead, Mac Miller used to come over all the time before he passed away, here and at my other crib in Fort Lee. He used to spend the night in my crib and all type of shit. He was like, “Cam, I’m never going to get no regular deal. If I do a deal, it’s got to be for 30 million or better. They got to give me the Michael Jackson [deal.]” That’s what he used to tell me. And he’s like, “It don't make sense. I’m going on tour, getting 40, 50, 60 thousand a show, 60 dates, and I’m making 80 percent off my music now. Why would I sign to a label?” And I was like, this is a smart young man. We used to have these conversations all the time. Like I said, everybody has a different situation.
Everybody’s eating off of merch and tour money now. You kind of started with shit, too, with the shower curtains and everything.
Yeah, everything. It was recently reported that JAY-Z is worth a billion dollars, and if you look at where the money’s coming from, it’s from liquor [and all these other ventures]. Music branches you off to do other things. If you’re a hustler, you hustle and do other things. Even Nas has equity in Ring. Nobody from our culture has a billion dollars just off of music. Even Kanye, he’s got sneakers. So at the end of the day, nobody’s going to have a billion dollars off of just music. You have to figure out the next thing.
The streams aren’t really paying the rent, right?
They could. Streams could. Let me tell you something. When I put The Program out, I was really just saying: Let me figure the digital thing out, because I don’t really give a fuck, so let me put it out and see how it goes. Then I made a lot of money, and I was like, “Oh, shit, this is kind of crazy.” I’m not saying I didn’t care about the project—I thought the project was really dope—but this was the first time that I was paying attention to how digital sales work, doing the due diligence, and learning how the stream revenue comes in. That album made a decent amount of money with no promotion. So I’m like, let me put some elbow grease on whatever the next project is. So, yeah, they could definitely pay your bills.
So when you were at Epic, you were trying to make Diplomats happen and it just wasn’t going your way?
Absolutely. I always looked at movements, and the Diplomats wasn’t nothing that I haven’t seen before, whether it’s Cash Money and No Limit or Ruff Ryders or even Native Tongues and A Tribe Called Quest. I always saw their movements were popular, and used to get in conversations like, “Who is your favorite on Cash Money?” or “Who is your favorite on No Limit?” If people are causing these debates inside the one crew, it’s all good, because it’s still under Master P, whether you like Soulja Slim or you like Mia X or whoever you like.
But I couldn’t get my movement together if my own shit wasn’t together. I’ve been watching the Wu-Tang shit on Hulu for the last seven or eight weeks, and it’s really dope, because you just see what RZA went through in the beginning, and how they wanted to put out music, at that particular time, that they thought was going to sell as opposed to what you really want to do.
You have to realize, I signed with Biggie’s right-hand man, like, five months after Biggie died. So I had to take a lot of, “Yo, Big would’ve done it like this and Big would’ve done it like that.” I’m like, Big is Big, bro, and a legend, of course, but I had to make my own legacy. And I had to eat a lot of that making Confessions of Fire, because I’m with people who were Biggie’s best friends, and he had just died less than a year ago.
When you look back on that album, do you fuck with it? Or do you hate it?
No, I don’t hate nothing I did. But it wasn’t a hundred percent of what Cam wanted to do. I would say it’s 50/50. Me and Un made the album together, as opposed to S.D.E., which was when I got to do my own thing by myself. The department at Epic at that time didn’t know too much about rap, so it wasn’t like they were over my neck, telling me what kind of songs to make. So on S.D.E., I got to do it on my own. My personal favorite is Purple Haze, though, because I was just in a great space all around the board. Everybody knew Diplomats and what I was trying to do. But sometimes I do shows and people will be like, “Yo, you didn’t do nothing from S.D.E. You’ve got to do this.” And I keep that in mind. The people love S.D.E. Some people love Come Home With Me. It’s really out of those three albums that a lot of people debate [is the best]: whether it’s S.D.E., Come Home With Me, or Purple Haze.
“To be honest, I didn’t have no problem at Roc-A-Fella. I mean, me and JAY-Z might have bumped heads, but I didn’t have any downs at Roc-A-Fella. Everything was positive.”
I remember, in the height of your career, it felt like you were focused on being the King of New York. Why do you think that title doesn’t matter as much anymore?
New York is the Mecca of rap. And when rap first came out, everybody wanted to get play in New York. People cared about what New York thought. So now, the rest of the world caught up. It’s sort of like the NBA. Even with basketball, there’s so many people from overseas that come to the NBA. And with FIBA, we didn't even fucking make it to the championships because the rest of the world is catching up. Especially with the internet and social media, you have so many people not being exiled from things they have been exiled from before. I was in the rural part of a state a couple months ago, doing a show, and everybody had Supreme on. I’m like, yo, they would never have Supreme on [in the past]. With the internet and Amazon, you can keep up with the rest of the world. It isn’t like New York is the shit anymore. I’m not saying we ain’t the shit, but the rest of the world will have to wait to see what New York is doing to do what they need to do, as well.
You mentioned spending time with Mac Miller earlier. How do you feel about the current generation of rappers? Who are some guys that you respect or like listening to?
To be honest, I like music in general. Sometimes there’s songs and I don’t even know who the artist is. I love music. I’m always listening to music. Every generation before is going to try and hate on the next generation, and that’s just not me. People will be like, “What is that rap mumbo jumbo you're listening to?” Then you got people like, “Oh, that ain’t even real hip-hop they’re doing no more. What happened to the breakbeats?” Every generation is hating.
You know what it is? When you’re in your teenage years and your 20s and early 30s, those are some of the best youthful years of your life. So, if you like music, a lot of songs during that 15, 16, 17 time span mean a lot to you. When you hear something else, and the next teenage kid is listening to it, you’ll hate on it. And they’ll be like, “Yo, what the fuck was you listening to when you was 17?” Somebody was hating on you, too. And that’s just not me. I like to let niggas listen to what they want to listen to, whether I want to listen to it or not. You can’t sit there and be mad at what somebody else is listening to, because that’s what they like to listen to.
Are you planning to get into acting more seriously?
Me and one of my partners for the last five years executive produced three or four different movies, whether I was in them or not. That deal was over with, that we had with Netflix, so I’m actually in the process right now of mixing and editing a new movie that I’ve shot. It’s called Is It a Crime. That’s what I’ve been doing, whether I expose it or not, because I’m just about the check. I don’t really have to be in it. But yeah, I’ll have a new movie coming out probably this time next year. I’m not sure where I’m going to distribute it yet, because I have different offers on the table, but for the last three or four years, I’ve been doing business at Netflix.
This movie that I just shot, I’m really stepping out of my element. It’s not action. Like, I’m not jumping around. There’s a really dope twist in the movie, but it’s not Cam’ron acting like Cam’ron. Because a lot of people say that about any part that I’ve done in a movie, like, “Cam, you’re getting away with just acting like yourself.” So, this movie, I kind of stepped out of my element.
Are you helping with the directing, editing, and overseeing of your movies? Or are you just, like, the money man?
I do everything. Nobody helps me fund these movies. So if I put in 500,000 or whatever, I’m going to be on top of everything, because I don’t have funding from nobody. I could get funding, but the less people that put money up, the less people you have to deal with. Doing a movie is not an overnight process, so if you get investors, sometimes they don’t have the patience for their return. I’d rather put up all the money. That way, I don’t have to answer questions like, “What's going on with the movie, when is it going to be done?” That rushes the creative process. I fully fund all my movies by myself. I pay everybody by myself. So, therefore, when the money comes in, it’s all my money.
Are we going to see a Dipset origin story like the Wu-Tang shit?
We’re working on it. It’s hard to get everybody on the same page. Zeke lives in North Carolina, Jim be in Miami, Juelz is in jail right now. So to get everybody on the same page is kind of hard. To be honest, you’d probably see a Cam’ron documentary before a Dipset documentary. I’m not saying that in a bad way; it’s just about getting everybody together. We all love each other, but just trying to get in the same room for more than three days has been hard to come by. But I’m going to always tell my story.
You’ve got realize, I went to school with Mase. Me and Big L lived on the same block. Herb McGruff is around. Those are things that surrounded my life. There’s also a lot of stuff that isn’t always music-related with my relationships with people. Basketball is another part of my life, where I played with Stephon Marbury and Skip to My Lou and all these different people. People need to know that not everything about Cam is music, and realize what made me into the man that I am today.
Complex did a cover with you and A-Trak in 2014. What ever happened to that collab project?
We just did a deal with Empire, actually, to put that album out. He was trying to get it out last month. I was just filming and didn't have time to do it, so we’ll probably put that out, depending on his schedule. He was really waiting on me. It’s kind of my fault about that, but the music’s been done, so hopefully we can get that out the top of next year, depending on his schedule.
You and Kanye always had great chemistry, and the music you’ve made together is great. Have you guys ever tried to work together again?
I don’t really see Kanye. I don’t bump into Kanye. Dame speaks to him sometimes. But Kanye is Kanye. You've got to really think about, who else does Kanye really work with at the end of the day? And me, too, for that matter.
You would never reach out, though?
Anybody I know that know Kanye got to talk to him through an email. I’m like, I don’t have time for that. I fuck with Kanye—don’t get me wrong. I don’t have a problem with him. He’s cool, and if some work came my way and it made sense to do it, then I wouldn’t mind working with him. But I’m not reaching out to somebody I only got to email. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s cool reaching out through emails, but, I mean, nobody has a phone no more on this nigga? Everybody got to reach out through an email?
The B-Sides concert this year was a big moment. Was that important to you, being able to perform with JAY-Z and kind of squash everything?
I think it was a dope moment, but to be honest, it really wasn’t that big of a deal on how it went about. I’m not saying the moment wasn’t a big deal, but Jim called and said that he wanted me to come to the concert. Juan called me, and said Hov wanted to speak to me. So me and him talked for two minutes, just saying how much we respected each other and talked about the show. We did the show, then the next day we text each other, and that was pretty much it. But I think it was cool to let people know that we’re not still thinking about bullshit from 10 or 15 years ago. I think that was really dope, and I got nothing but respect for hustlers. And Hov’s a hustler. If nobody got hurt or slapped or shot, then you can get over shit. Words are just words, and there never really was any real physical shit, as far as me and him was concerned. So it was a pretty cool moment.
Before we finish, I wanted to mention your mother's Instagram. Do you give her the green light to post whatever? Or does she ask permission? Because she be unearthing a lot of shit.
Sometimes I’ll say it’s too much, because she likes to argue. I’m like, “Yo, you can’t be arguing with everybody.” She posts her own captions, her own pictures, and she follows other content. The only thing I have a problem with is her arguing with people over nonsense. But everything as far as her posting her captions, she does that herself. I’ll get wind of her sometimes arguing with somebody over nothing. Somebody will post a date and she’ll be like, “You don’t know what you’re talking about; he’s not going to be there.” And I’ll be like, “Mom, I actually am going to be there. You don’t know what you're talking about.” And she’ll be like, “I didn't know.” And I’ll be like, “Yeah, because you can’t be G-checking everybody on IG.”
Looking forward in the next five or 10 years, what are your plans?
There’s a lot of stuff that goes on that isn’t necessarily entertainment. Because I’m Cam’ron, people want to know, “What is he doing? He’s not doing this and not doing that.” I’m always doing something, no matter what. I’ve got 10 cleaning companies. Just because it’s not entertainment-related doesn’t mean there’s not money being made. Everything is not going to be music-related, but I’m always going to be working. As far as entertainment is concerned, hopefully we’ll figure out exactly where I’m going to do this distribution deal, and I’ll be doing three to four movies a year, whether I’m in them or not.