I was eight when 50 Cent's Get Rich or Die Trying came out and G-Unit's reign over hip-hop began. 50 and his cohorts—Young Buck, Lloyd Banks, and Tony Yayo—helped bring the streets back to hip-hop at a time when MCs like Ja Rule had resorted to crooning over R&B tracks to climb the pop charts. In the early to mid-2000s, my world was consumed by all things Guerilla Unit. I followed them as they released their double platinum group album—Beg for Mercy, a slew of classic solo mixtapes and albums, a practically unplayable video game, and a seminal clothing line with Marc Ecko.
But it's been more than a decade since 50 Cent was hip-hop's dictator and G-Unit served as his ruling party. In recent years, members of G-Unit have had run-ins with the law and have either faced middling record sales or released no new music of note at all. The group has also suffered its share of infighting, with 50 excommunicating Young Buck in 2008 and clowning founding G-Unit members Yayo and Banks in interviews as recent as spring of last year. In light of all the barbs tossed back and forth and the group's dwindling relevancy, it seemed like we'd never get another track like "Poppin' Them Thangs" or another chance to buy one of those weirdly-cut G-Unit tank tops.
However, the core group surprised everyone and reunited at Hot 97's Summer Jam concert last June. Since then, they've added a new member to the fold named Kidd Kidd. They released a mixtape in August titled The Beauty of Independence. And earlier this month they dropped The Beast Is G-Unit EP, which was gritty and hungry enough to conjure up memories of what made G-Unit indomitable back in 2003.
Considering we're in the midst of a full blown G-Unit a comeback, it seemed like the perfect time to hit up Young Buck, Lloyd Banks, and Tony Yayo for a chat. I met the G-Unit rappers at the New York Yankee Steakhouse in Midtown. In between eating extravagant steak and seafood and fans interrupting our meal to get pictures, we had an incredible conversation that explored their journey to and from the highest echelons of hip-hop and the trials and tribulations that came with it. Lloyd Banks and Tony Yayo were especially unguarded. They spoke with an openness that was cognizant of their former glory and their mortality. Here's what they had to say.
VICE: Yayo and Banks, you guys grew up together?
Tony Yayo: Yeah. It's no regular relationship. [Points at Banks] I knew him my whole life. Say this is my mother house [draws a map on the table], then this is Banks's house. I could see him go to the store. And 50 is right here. So it's like, I come outside, I see him every day. Banks was way younger than [me and 50], but I knew he could rap since 12.
Lloyd Banks: They used to see me rapping in front of the barbershop and on the corner. 50 performed at my first show. It was the first talent show that I had the heart to go do, me and a couple of my friends, at my junior high school. 50 closed out the show. I was 12, he was 19. He was with Jam Master Jay at the time. He had a few records with him.
I took a few things from that show to this day. Just how to do crowd participation and crowd control. Yayo ended up bringing me to 50 after he'd already seen me in the streets. After he introduced me, I was on a mixtape, two mixtapes, three mixtapes, then it was a million dollar deal [with G-Unit Records].
What were you all like as kids?
Yayo: We all was in the streets. But we all was doing different things. When I was hustling, [Banks] was playing ball with his friends cause he was so young. But music was our passion. We used to go to our friends' basement—nobody got nothing to do in the hood—and just hang out and listen to music. And that to me is where G-Unit started. That's when we started getting into freestyling. I remember hearing Banks first freestyle, I remember 50's first freestyle. I remember Fif's joint was, "The sale went stale / quarter-mill bail / Fresh out the jail / Shit is really real / Niggas is locked up man, I pray they don't tell / 20-man indictment / My lawyer got to fight this…"
Young Buck, what about you? Weren't you riding with Cash Money as a teenager?
Buck: Right. I was already in the streets man, when I was 13, 14. I was really in the streets getting money at that age. I met Baby and Wayne at around 14, 15.
They were really young then?
Wayne was real young. He was like 12. I used to pick up Wayne with Baby… When time went on and I became a part of Cash Money, I was supposed to be in school back in Nashville, Tennessee. But I left Nashville and went to go live in New Orleans. I would ride around New Orleans with Baby all day and get the game from him. And we'd go and drop Lil Wayne and Turk off at school.
As far as my childhood goes, it's no different than Banks and Yayo. We all come from the hood, we all come from nothing. So it's more of a situation like, different places, same thing. I had experiences in the independent music business at a very, very young age.
Because at the time I met Baby, I was already in the process of independently pushing my own music throughout the city. So at 14, 15, I was already paying $300 for a 1,000 CDs and selling them for $10 a piece. You do the math. I used to sell my dope and sell my CDs at the same time. I would put my phone number on the CD and have a separate phone for that. And then it got to the point where the phone that sold CDs started ringing more than the phone that sold dope. Then I knew what to do.
G-Unit came from a really strong street background. Street credibility isn't as important in hip-hop anymore. How do you feel about that?
Yayo: I feel like we came from a time when a lot of rappers was getting extorted. I remember we were doing the "In Da Club" video shoot and Suge Knight showed up, that's the first time I seen him. It was like, real stuff happening.
Yeah, stuff was real. It could pop off any minute. All the beef we'd been through, you know how it is. You had to be real careful. Banks was talking about that earlier. He was young when he got shot. It was the day before 9/11.
[Lloyd Banks was shot in 2001 outside of a club in South Jamaica, Queens in a situation he has since describes as a "random act of violence."]
Banks: I woke up in the hospital watching the buildings fall down. I thought I was watching Independence Day or some shit. I didn't know what it was until the commotion started happening. The second day I was in there, they were actually helicoptering victims to that hospital.
What it was like getting shot?
Banks: It's not like what you see in the movies. In the movie, you see someone get shot and die. I got shot and actually ran 25 blocks to the nearest hospital. If I would have stayed there or panicked, I don't know if I'd be talking to you today.
But I used to ask 50 questions like that, because [he] got shot nine times. He got bullet holes in his face. I used to ask him, "How did you stay calm? What did you do?" And he was like, "I was more mad that I couldn't fire back. I kept that in mind. Because I knew what we were about do was something epic. At that time, the first mixtape, 50 Cent Is the Future, had just come out. So that day I got hit, I was more mad. I ran to the hospital. I was like, fix me up, so I can get the fuck back on tour.
But I was lucky. Every artist doesn't come in the game with somebody that's 10 years older than them. And 50 was watching Jam Master Jay and other icons in the game to know what was right and how to do things.
50 told me I was gonna be a solo artist from our first few meetings. He was like, "Listen, you got at least five albums in you." He's telling me this when I was 19, just off the few verses he heard. We go to the next meeting, He's like, "Yo, this is my artist, Lloyd Banks." Once he introduced me like that, I was like, I am.
Buck: The success of G-Unit, all of it happened so fast. People tend to forget that we really got only two to three solo albums. I got Straight Outta Cashville and Buck the World. So like, in a sense, we all still haven't got our just due by far. We are still fresh artists, bro. Brand new artists. Platinum artists at that, because I'm gonna tell you about something about this thing. The game ain't built on numbers no more, and we know that. But the fact remains that there's yet to be another rap group in which every artist is platinum. Not even N.W.A has accomplished what we've accomplished out of this thing.
As far as me, now it's my time. It's been such a long time, a generation now, and some people get worse as time goes. Especially when you go through what I went through. I went through adversity at its highest. You understand? In my situation, the average individual would probably kill himself or jump off a bridge. I went to prison bitter, and made a decision in prison real quick to become better. That's not good for me, my kids, and nobody else. I got my GED in prison. So it's like for me, I used my prison time to go down a whole different lane. So stay tuned when it comes to Young Buck.
Did you guys think G-Unit would get as big as it did?
Yayo: I never saw it happen.
Banks: I did. To be completely honest. I was a loner, even my friends didn't know I was nice until I felt I was nice. They didn't hear the weak rap. I didn't waste my time with that shit. I feel like you just will it. The energy you put in it is what you get out of it.
What was it like when you guys were on top?
Yayo: I think it was a high you can never explain. I remember getting out of jail, having a jail suit, and then we did Summer Jam. That was one of my first times out, doing the biggest show. It's like, how do you even explain it? Eminem is on your first album. I'm on Rikers Island, Eminem is wearing a "Free Yayo" shirt. Everyone's saying "Free Yayo." It was crazy. And we went all around the world.
At the end of the day, look. The pictures could come and go, cars could come and go, the fans could come and go, but you can never take no traveling away from us. I been to Dubai. You know the really tall hotel there? We stayed in that. A girl need a passport to get in your room. We been to Amsterdam. I walked in the cell Nelson Mandela was in. We went to Robin's Island. Right, Banks? At the end of the day, I been to Mumbai, Gold Coast, Sydney, Brazil, Venezuela, Canary Islands. Canary Islands was ill for me because the sand was black because of the volcanoes. We been everywhere, man. And I had never left New York City up until that point.
You never left New York?
The first place out of New York I ever went was when 50 had the record "Rowdy, Rowdy." I don't know if you remember that record, but that's when he was in the Columbia system. 50 took me to Cancun. That was my first time ever leaving New York City. The day he got shot, he was supposed to do a record with Beyonce, "Thug's World."
What was it like when 50 got shot?
I'll be honest. When he got shot, I thought he was dead. Because when I ran to the block, all [I saw was] homicide out there. I thought he was dead. I didn't know. And then what's strange to me is when I went to the hospital, he didn't want me to see him. And I said, "Why didn't you want me to see you?" And he said, "Cause it might have changed how you would have thought about standing next to me."
He didn't want me to see him in a weak state. It was strange to me, cause I was like, "You my man." But he didn't want me to see him shot like that. Cause he was shot the fuck up. He was in bad condition.
You know what's crazy, with all that shit, how far we got in life, is still amazing to me, because you not supposed to make it this far. But I look at it as God's plan. All we been through? But it's not like you're down with a regular rapper. G-Unit is a whole other beast. We had issues from the go.
You guys had a lot of beef.
Yayo: Yeah. I feel like when you on top, you always going to be a target.
You think it's worth it?
Yeah, of course. You just get used to it. You're going to get attacked. You look at Iggy Azalea, she's got hot records out and it is what it is. G-Unit? Everybody got at us, and they said we was the bad guys.
We got our beefs all through the industry. Once you make a bed, you got to lay in it. But I don't think we started a lot of beefs.
Honestly, I think the beef took away from the hits that we had. "So Seductive," "In Da Club," "On Fire." The records we had with Dr. Dre, Eminem. The beef took away from them fucking hit records we put out. And everyone was like, "Oh they start beef to sell records?" And it's like, "No! We make fucking good records! And had fucking beef!"
What are your favorite rap albums?
Ready to Die, All Eyez On Me… You gonna make me pick between Illmatic, The Blueprint, and Get Rich Or Die Trying? Illmatic. Fuck it.
Banks: Life After Death, It Was Written, Infamous.
Buck: Number three would be The Last Meal by Snoop, two would be The Diary by Scarface, number one is Me Against the World.
What new artists do you guys really feel these days?
Yayo: There's a lot. You got Drake, you got Joey Badass.
Banks: It's crazy, because on every one of my projects, I work with a new artist. I worked with Schoolboy Q early on, I worked with Jay Rock, I got a few songs with Nipsey Hussle, I put A$AP Rocky on "Cold Corner 2." That's when my fans didn't really know who he was.
How did that work out with Rocky?
I listened to his joints. When I got to the third one, "Wassup," I picked up the phone and called him. I did for him what no one did for me. I just gave him a call from and gave him some knowledge. I just started talking to him about shows, experiences that I went through. When my first album came out, I got a call from [Fabolous]. And that was it. When I was shot, The Blueprint and Fab's album came out. Those were the two albums I had in the hospital. Songs like "Ain't No Love" are my soundtrack.
But with younger artists… even when I met Bobby Shmurda, he ran to me, like "Yo!" And that shit feels good, because that's a respect thing. I love that. That's what hip-hop is about. Because we was them at one point—19, 20, wildin' the fuck out.
Yayo: Yup. And we made it this far, thank the Lord.
Follow Zach on Twitter.