This article originally appeared on Noisey US.
Old Rap Shit is a column dedicated to unearthing the bizarre corners only found in the weird and wild history of hip-hop.
2002 was a crazy year for rap. Pirating was starting to become a big thing, but the digital era had yet to truly take hold and rap was still in its commercial peak. CDs were still flying off shelves, and rap albums were still going diamond. The only dudes moving units? Em, Pimp Juice, and Us (err Jay-Z). While that was a hot line from Jigga, that statement wasn't entirely true, because the artist who literally controlled radio for the bulk of 2002 was none other than Jeffrey Atkins – known to the masses as Ja Rule.
Hits? You may recall he had a couple that year: "Always on Time," "Down 4 U," "What's Luv," "Ain't It Funny," "Rainy Dayz," "Down Ass Chick," "Thug Lovin." Even 2001 releases such as "Livin It Up" and "I'm Real" carried over into the new year and continued to burn up airwaves.
Hell, there was even a Boondocks comic strip that accurately depicted what radio sounded like in 2002.
Murder Inc. was red hot. Even their fresh-faced new recruit, Ashanti, was shattering Billboard records. They were the forced to be reckoned with when it came to radio, 106 & Park, and TRL.
Label head and chief producer Irv Gotti had the formula. Murder Inc. had the machine. And Ja Rule was the golden boy. They seemingly couldn't be stopped. They modelled themselves as the new Death Row Records – a rap label that could equally appeal to the streets and the pop charts – without compromising their hardcore exterior. Ja likened himself to the late, great Tupac Shakur (even remaking Pac's powerful "Pain" in 2001). So it came as no surprise that Irv and Ja became chummy with the Suge Knight after he was released from prison in 2001, after a five-year bid. Murder Inc. was also closely aligned with Queens street legend, Kenneth "Supreme" McGriff, who at one time headed up the street organisation the Supreme Team, and whose name rang out from the block to the boardrooms.
Murder Inc. was on top of the world. They had the credibility, the cosigns and the chart dominance to match. But in the shadows, 50 Cent was watching – and plotting his comeback. Rising from the ashes of his industry blackballing and near-fatal shooting.
At the same time, NYC titans Nas and Jay-Z were embroiled in their own very public feud. Nas dropped his scathing Jay-Z diss "Ether" at tail end of 2001, and was coasting into 2002 with reignited respect from the industry. Jay-Z had God's Son up against the ropes after "Takeover," but Nas unloaded a classic album with Stillmatic and delivered a number of strong blows to the God MC on "Ether." In 2017, it varies from fan to fan on who won the legendary battle, but at the time many were giving the nod to Nas.
Crew love was the motto in 2002. It was all about your label, which many artists repped like it was a team or a gang. You showed your allegiance with your emblazoned logo chain, hand gestures, and in many instances a clothing line. Roc-A-Fella, Murder Inc., Ruff Ryders, Cash Money, Bad Boy, No Limit, Terror Squad, Dipset, Aftermath, Shady – you get the idea. There was power in numbers, and in that era people were team players.
But Nas mostly stood alone.
Yes, he had the Bravehearts, the Queensbridge connection, and the Ill Will Records label, but he wasn't as crew heavy as most of his counterparts, especially in NYC. He was seemingly battling the entire Roc by himself: from Jay and Bleek to the entirety of State Property and Dipset – it was an all out war on Nas. Adding fuel to the fire was his now-legendary June 2002 rant on Power 105 where Nas went on a verbal assault on a host of characters (Cam'ron, N.O.R.E., Nelly) after being dropped from Hot 97's famed Summer Jam when the station caught wind he was going to stage a mock lynching of Jay-Z on stage. (Here's a link to the extremely disturbing video.)
Nas's 2002 rant on Power 105:
Nas was fighting this war largely by himself, but that all changed in July of 2002 when rumours began to trickle out that Nas was joining Gotti and Rule over at Murder Inc. It was an intriguing, shocking, and head scratching moment. This was also initially surprising because month's prior, Nas had openly dissed Def Jam (Murder Inc.'s distributor) and their business practices. Not to mention, Rule and Gotti had a longstanding friendship with Nas's archenemy, Jay-Z. After all, Ja got his big break on a Jay-Z track. So what the fuck was going on?
Gotti told MTV News in July of 2002: "I had talks with him. Me and him really got to kicking it, he's a good dude. I was in Miami, Atlanta, we did the last leg of the tour with him. He's gonna be on Sony, but it will be like Ill Will/ Murder Inc./ Sony. But I will definitely be affiliated and I'll definitely be a part of [his projects], me and my brother Ja Rule."
This could've been taken as a good rumor or hot air from Gotti, but less than a month later MTV shocked the world with the headline: "Nas Kills the Speculation: It's Murder!" Was the lone wolf of the rap game, Nas, really aligning with Murder Inc.? Gotti likened it to Pac joining Death Row.
On August 29, 2002, Nas performed alongside Murder Inc. at the MTV Video Music Awards at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Ja Rule and Ashanti performed their top 10 hit, "Down 4 U," while Nas gave us an inspired performance of "One Mic." At the end of their respective sets, they appeared in unison to preview their new collaboration "The Pledge (Remix)," where Nas told the crowd: "2003, Nas and Murder Inc., y'all," before throwing up the Murder Inc. sign and proclaiming "It's going down in 2003 baby. It's Murder, Ill Will!"
Keep in mind, while all this is happening, 50 Cent was watching and gaining momentum. His self-released mixtapes, 50 Cent Is the Future and Guess Who's Back, were burning up the streets. A fire was quietly blazing as things were getting complicated in NYC. Jay, Ja, and Gotti had a long history – even briefly forming the Murder Inc. supergroup in 1999 alongside DMX, who Ja was also beefing with at the time. NYC was seemingly at war. Rumours swirled that Murder Inc. and Roc-A-Fella were now embattled, stemming from Jay-Z pulling out of a planned Triple Threat Tour, featuring acts from the Murder Inc, Bad Boy and Roc-A-Fella families.
Jay instead chose to headline the Sprite Liquid Mix Tour, which also included N.E.R.D., Talib Kweli, 311, and Nappy Roots. In an October 2002 Murder Inc. cover story of The Source, Ja further elaborated on the tiff with Jigga while chilling with Diddy:
Chilling with P. Diddy and discussing the missed opportunity, Ja two-wayed Jay to ask, "Why the backpack nlggas and not me, your nigga?" Ja found Hova's answer to be disturbing. "[Jay-Z] said, 'I'ma tell you this one time, 'cause I feel I fucked up, but don't ever ask me my personal business again,"' Ja recounts in amazement.
Ouch. This Source interview is probably the most telling of the crumbled Nas/Murder Inc. partnership, and offers a ton of insight into what was happening between these camps at the time. This interview exists only in print and on one single remaining Murder Inc. fan site, which thankfully transcribed it for us to revel in 15 years later.
Around the time this interview dropped, "The Pledge" video featuring Nas, Ja Rule, and Ashanti impacted and was added into heavy rotation on all stations. It featured Nas gleefully throwing up the Murder Inc. M sign and the Bravehearts clad in Murder Inc. shirts, and the Murder Inc. family donning Ill Will Records tees. The video showed solidarity between the two camps, and even included a mock press conference welcoming Nas into the fold. It seemed to be a done deal. The video was powerful and chock full of striking imagery. This was all the proof we needed. This was going to be rap's next big powerhouse.
It was regal. It was exciting. It was a game changer. And then nothing happened.
But, as stated earlier, don't forget about what was going on with 50 Cent. After announcing his signing to Shady/Aftermath in a joint venture between Eminem and Dr. Dre, 50 Cent hysteria hit a fever pitch. And by fall of 2002, 50's now-classic mixtape run had reshaped the entire rap game. Part of 50's strategy was taking down Ja Rule and Murder Inc. by any means, and he was largely successful in doing this. The Inc was at odds with 50 Cent, Eminem, Jay-Z, DMX, Snoop Dogg – and later the Feds – and Nas likely saw the affiliation as too risky. Nas had enough beef on his plate, and likely didn't want to take on any extra weight.
Nas's sixth album God's Son dropped on December 13, 2002 – just two months after The Source interview – and included no Murder Inc. logo, no mention of the label, and no hints as to what happened. It seemed that as soon as the partnership was announced it went away, never to be heard of again. Swept under the proverbial rug.
A few months later and well into the 50 vs. Ja feud, Irv and Ja covered XXL Magazine and were dubbed "2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted." In the interview when asked about the Nas deal, Gotti chalked it up to Nas flat out disappearing, and didn't elaborate much further:
I don't want this to come across like any Nas hate. That's my brother, I got love for him. But I'ma say this: He cried out when he did that thing with Hot 97. He cried out for help and for people to support him. He cried out for being a part of a family. He cried out for it openly, like, "Yeah, Yo – Murder Inc. This is as big as 'Pac joining Tha Row!" All the conversations we had. And then he just… I don't know. I don't know what happened. I don't know. He just disappeared. We did "The Pledge" joint, and that was it. He just disappeared. It was almost like he got what he got from it, and then just disappeared. He's a strange guy, but I guess he's happy with who he is.
It's now part of hip-hop lore. A dream team that never happened. A strange moment in time that, if executed, could've changed the course of hip-hop forever. Recently, during a great and in-depth Rap Radar interview with Bdot and Elliott Wilson, Irv disclosed some additional info on why the Nas/Murder Inc. deal fizzled. Which basically boils down to Nas thinking they were crazy. Gotti was ready to die over it, and Nas wasn't. Makes sense to me.