When listing the most pivotal and popular artists in the history of gangsta rap, many of the names mentioned will have ties to New York or California: N.W.A., The Notorious B.I.G., 2Pac, Kool G Rap, Ice-T, and others. Artists from Philadelphia – the home of rap legend Schoolly D, who many credit with helping pioneer and popularize the sub-genre – were often an afterthought in these conversations, particularly during the ’90s, when the city’s dearth of rap talent on the national stage paled in comparison to that of other major markets across the country. Following the success of the hit singles “P.S.K.” and “Gucci Time,” Schoolly D’s style would shift towards sociopolitical rap during the late ’80s and by the turn of the decade, was considered past his prime. Cool C and Steady B had a hot streak during the ’80s, but faded into obscurity shortly before being convicted for their roles in the murder of a Philadelphia Police officer during a botched bank robbery. And for all of their commercial success and groundbreaking accomplishments, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince were often maligned for their lack of street cred, both on wax and off, and released their last album as a unit in 1993. Sure, The Roots, Jamal, Bahamadia and others made noise during the mid ’90s, but lacked the mainstream appeal or staying power to truly put the city on their back, leaving the City of Brotherly Love without a rap artist with the lyrical chops, credibility and platform to possibly be mentioned alongside those aforementioned names for the better part of the ’90s.
This would change during the late ’90s when a crop of new talent emerged out of Philadelphia, the most touted prospect being Beanie Sigel, an artist who embodied the gritty aesthetic and culture of the city, all the while possessing skills comparable to the most lauded wordsmiths of all-time. Born and raised in Philly, Sigel, the product of a broken home, took to the streets at an early age, dropping out of school and quickly building a reputation as a brute hustler and stick-up kid. Charged with aggravated assault as early as age 13, Sigel had numerous run-ins with the law, most notably in 1994, when he, along with a neighbor, were accused of shooting an off-duty police officer during a physical altercation. However, those charges were ultimately dropped, leaving Sigel a free man and adding to his legend in his South Philly stomping grounds. That close call did little to deter Sigel from continuing his criminal lifestyle, as he became even more entrenched in the streets in the subsequent years. But in 1998, Sigel – a longtime fan of acts like EPMD, Kool G Rap and Big Daddy Kane who had developed a gift for rhyming himself – stumbled upon the opportunity of a lifetime after linking with a local Philly rapper named Murder Mil, who inspired him to take his craft a bit more seriously. “It was just something I knew how to do,” Sigel recalls. “I met a cat named Murder Mil and he actually made me want to start writing, we actually battled and I felt, at that time, that he had got over on me. He won that battle and I ain’t like that.”
From there, Sigel and Murda Mil sparked a partnership, taking on various rappers on the local battle circuit, most notably Philly’s Most Wanted, one of the hottest duos in the city who were on the cusp of signing a major label record deal at the time. Trading off bars over Destiny Child’s “No, No No (Remix)” instrumental, Murda Mil and Sigel fared favorably against their counterparts, with Sigel stealing the show with an onslaught of couplets. The performance caught Philly’s Most Wanted member Boo-Bonic’s attention, who convinced his management team to allow Sigel to accompany Philly’s Most Wanted to a meeting with Roc-A-Fella Records in New York City. Sigel, still skeptical of taking a full dive into the music world, was initially reluctant to take the trip, even considering attending an illegal dogfight instead. “I had a few rhymes that I had ’cause where I was from, what we was doing, that rap thing was out the window,” he explains. “That was something I had to do on my own time. We was doing what we was doing so it wasn’t cool to be a rapper. We was clowning people who was trying to rap at that time, we was getting money. We was dressing like rappers and we had things that the rappers had.” However, he ultimately decided to take Boo-Bonic and his manager, Sadiq, up on their offer, making the trek up I-95 to Manhattan for a night that would forever change the trajectory of his life.
By 1998, Jay-Z, Damon Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke had taken Roc-A-Fella Records from an independent label into a potential industry powerhouse, with a distribution deal with Def Jam, along with Jay-Z’s platinum-certified sophomore album, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, positioning the Roc as the next seismic movement on the east coast. While commercially successful, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 received mixed reviews for its glossy production and contrived radio-friendly singles, leaving many pondering whether Jay-Z had let the Cristal and Moet go to his head, to the point he’d lost touch with his roots as a battle-tested lyrical wizard. In spite of housing Hov’s protege, Memphis Bleek, and R&B acts Rell and Christión, Roc-A-Fella had yet to become the army it is now known as, with the label’s brain trust still in search of a prize prospect to add to the roster. Keying in on Philadelphia as a breeding ground to poach new talent from, the Roc heavily considered Philly’s Most Wanted as the free-agent acquisitions that would help take the label over the top. But, as fate would have it, their interest would shift towards a relative unknown named Beanie Sigel, who remembers his first encounter with Roc-A-Fella fondly. “Jay was actually working on, I believe, the Hard Knock Life [album],” Beans shares. “‘Cause he was doing a song with Too Short, ‘It Was All Good Just A Week Ago.’ I remember Too Short being in the studio with Jay. So we in the lobby of the studio and Dame Dash was out there talking, he had Philly’s Most Wanted with some other cats that was in there that was rapping. And Dame sparked up a little confrontation about Philly rappers and New York rappers and, ‘I hope they this, that and the third.'”
Dash’s thinly-veiled slights and jabs at the away team resulted in an impromptu cipher, with Philly’s Most Wanted and other Roc-A-Fella hopefuls going toe-to-toe with one another while Beans played the back. However, when one rapper began to get a bit too animated for Sigel’s liking, he inserted himself into the fray, putting forth a showing that left the indefatigable Dash at a rare loss for words. “He was getting too aggressive so I started rapping,” Beans says of his decision to step up to the plate. “So when I started rapping, Dame was like, ‘See, I told you.’ He thought I was from New York, and I had to correct him. ‘Man, I’m from Philly.’ So he was like, ‘Yo, you from Philly?’ So he went and got “Biggs,” Kareem [Burke], he brought him out like, ‘Yo, you gotta hear this kid.’ He was like, ‘Yo, spit that rap,’ and I wouldn’t rap no more. I’m like, ‘Nah, I ain’t here for that.’ I wound up rapping for him, they start flipping out. They went in the joint and pulled Jay out the booth like, ‘No, you gotta come out now.'” Slaughtering the “A Week Ago” instrumental for nearly 20 minutes, Sigel’s extended rhyme spill was so impressive that Jay-Z, Dash and Burke quickly brokered a record deal with The Broad Street Bully in the subsequent weeks, making him the first bonafide rap free agent to be inducted as a member of the Roc-A-Fella family.
From there, it didn’t take long for Sigel to make an impression on the rap world, making his debut on Philly rap band The Roots’ 1998 single “Adrenaline,” which saw the neophyte anchoring the track with an epic stanza to close the proceedings. Next on the docket was a string of buzzworthy showings to close out the year, including appearances on “Reservoir Dogs,” a stacked posse cut from Jay-Zs Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life album featuring The LOX and Sauce Money, and “Crew Love,” a cut from the Belly soundtrack featuring Jay-Z and Memphis Bleek. However, 1999 would see Sigel truly put his name in contention for rap’s Rookie of the Year, earning over a dozen credits alongside the likes of Foxy Brown (“4-5-6”), Blackstreet (“I Got What You On”), Puff Daddy (“Journey Through the Life”), Eve (“Philly Philly”), Sisqó (“Unleash the Dragon”), and The Notorious B.I.G., Black Rob, Ice Cube (“If I Should Die Before I Wake”). He also provided reinforcement alongside his Roc-A-Fella labelmates, joining Jay-Z and Memphis Bleek on “More Money, More Cash, More Hoes (Remix),” Jay-Z, Memphis Bleek and Amil on “For My Thugs,” as well as a pair of appearances on Vol. 3…. Life & Times of S. Carter, the most prominent being “Do It Again (Put Ya Hands Up).” Released as the lead single, the Rockwilder produced cut peaked at No. 9 on the Hot Rap Singles chart and thrust Sigel into the spotlight, with many fans clamoring for the firebrand’s debut solo studio album.
Released on February 29, 2000, The Truth was the first Roc-A-Fella release of the new millennium and looked to position Sigel as the next street orator to place his imprint on the rap game. With comparisons to the likes of The Notorious B.I.G. putting even more pressure on Sigel, the first single from The Truth was as much of an opportunity to make a statement to affirm the hype behind his name as it was to gain traction on radio and the Billboard charts, which the album’s title track accomplished on both fronts. Produced by Kanye West, who earned his first credit on a Roc-A-Fella project via this record, “The Truth” instantly grabbed listeners’ attention upon its release in early 2000, many of whom were captivated by the scorching instrumental, which samples “Chicago” by Graham Nash. But the true crux of the track was Sigel’s imposing presence, with the newcomer brazenly warning “I hope you got an extra mic and a fireproof booth/’Cause you know I’m known to melt a wire or two” on the opening bars, making it clear that the lyrical exploits were going to be aplenty. Reaching No. 23 on the Hot Rap Singles chart, “The Truth” presented Sigel as the last of a dying breed, an artist with the street credentials and skills to become the next legendary emcee to emerge out of the east coast.
Setting the tone with that introductory number, the Philly rep teams up with Memphis Bleek on “Who Want What,” building on the innate chemistry the pair displayed on previous collaborative efforts like “My Hood to Your Hood,” from Bleek’s own 1999 solo debut, Coming of Age. According to Just Blaze, who produced the track, the song was his first placement within the Roc-A-Fella camp and was one of the more beloved selections from the album. “I had the beat already done and gave it to Hip Hop (aka Kyambo Joshua), who was the A&R for Rocafella at the time,” Blaze remembers. “They heard the record and they just went in, did it, and mixed it. I didn’t know as many people liked that record as they did until I was out one night and I heard it [playing out of] five cars driving past.” Volleying four-bar couplets before passing off the mic to one another, Bleek and Beans put forth a war-ready salvo, announcing themselves as the future of the label, with Bleek snarling, “You bout ta witness a dynasty like no other/Who flow like Bleek, think, no other/Who rhyme like Sigel, dog, no other/It’s Roc-a-Fella twins desert eagle no other,” as Sigel assumes the role of enforcer while assuring Jay-Z that they’re more than qualified to carry the torch. Speaking of Sigel’s over boss, Hov appears on three songs on The Truth, the first being the Bink!-produced standout “Raw & Uncut,” which captures Sigel comparing their synergy to that of Micheal Jordan and Scottie Pippen. “Playa,” an uptempo anthem for the clubs, also includes a feature from Jay-Z, who joins former Roc first lady Amil and Sigel as the trio holds court over jittery production by T-Mix.
In addition to contributions from Roc-A-Fella’s core nucleus, The Truth also includes a guest spot from fellow Philly native Eve, who tackles the hook on the uplifting, feel-good single “Remember Them Days,” but perhaps the most enduring meeting of the minds on the album comes via “Mac And Brad,” which pairs the Broad Street Bully with southern rap legend Scarface. Produced by J5, this offering finds the kindred spirits and purveyors of the morbid broadcasting their cruel intentions, sans a hook, planting the seed for future collaborations between Scarface and the Roc, as well as a long-rumored joint-album that failed to materialize. While Sigel’s various costars turn in admirable performances, The Truth‘s most brilliant moments come when its host flies solo, with highlights like the Buckwild-produced “What a Thug About” confirming his ability to thrive on his own strength without the added reinforcements. On “What Your Life Like,” Mac paints a visceral picture of life behind the wall that has been hailed as one of the more authentic and jarring descriptions of prison to ever be laid on wax, before voicing his undying allegiance to his most trusted comrades on “Ride 4 My,” a Bink!-produced number powered by a sample lifted from the Conan the Barbarian soundtrack. However, the apex of Sigel’s mastery behind the mic is displayed on “Die,” an intense composition that finds him pondering the various ways he could come face-to-face with his demise. Rhyming “When you live by the sword, you die by the sword/I’ll probably die in the vocal booth spittin’ out raw/Die on stage, rippin’ down tours/Die from AIDS, trickin’ out-a-town whores,” Sigel puts the trappings of fame with the realities of his checkered past and illicit lifestyle into context, resulting in a sobering tune that finds its author closing the proceedings out on an evocative note.
Debuting at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 with 155,000 copies sold in its first week, The Truth was considered a commercial and critical success, with a number of critics praising Beanie Sigel’s performance throughout the album and the realism of his lyrical content. In addition to Sigel’s own singles, The Truth was also bolstered by “Anything,” a solo selection by Jay-Z tacked on the end of the album. The song, which peaked at No. 9 on the Hot Rap Singles chart, features a sample of Lionel Bart’s “I’ll Do Anything,” was a blatant attempt at recapturing the magic of his breakout 1998 single “Hard Knock Life,” which Hov admitted himself in an interview years later. Reaching gold certification, The Truth not only solidified Beanie Sigel as a rising star in rap, but gave Roc-A-Fella as a viable movement with a talented stable beyond its leader that was fully capable of holding down the fort. Later that same year, Sigel was prominently featured on Jay-Z fifth studio album, The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, further entrenching him as one of the premier spitters out of the east coast and the most respected rapper out of the streets of Philly. He would also go on to become the leader and frontman of State Property, a crew of Philadelphia rappers that helped rejuvenate and revive interest in the cities rap scene on a national scale. In a career that includes multiple classic bodies of work, The Truth remains the moment that the rap world got introduced to The Broad Street Bully, whose only intent was to put on for his hometown. “That’s just me being able to let my home know that I knew how to rap,” he says of his mindstate while recording his debut. “They ain’t know who I was ’cause I wasn’t out on the scene like that, so when I did The Truth, I always knew how to rap. It was just a collection of little raps I would play with when I was in the mix.”