When Dipset ruled our summers by pumping out a flood of mixtapes and albums like a well-oiled machine, Juelz Santana was working his ass off to keep up with the group’s demanding leader.
“We were doing a lot. Cam was working the shit out of us, man. We would finish a whole mixtape in a day,” Santana told REVOLT. “That’s one thing about us — Cam was really militant. He was making sure we were in the studio, and we were not bullshitting in the studio.”
In this installment of “Studio Sessions,” one of Dipset’s longest-lasting members discusses unreleased collaborations with Lil Durk and Migos, how he ended up on Cam’ron and JAY-Z’s “Welcome to New York City” song, and his new label, I Can’t Feel My Face.
You’ve been in the game since you were a teenager. What do you remember about your first recording session?
My first studio session was before I got with Cam and everybody. It was something in the neighborhood. There’s always somebody in the hood that got a little studio setup. When I started rapping, I went to my man’s house, where he had the booth in his bathroom. The mic stand was inside the shower. We were using the shower curtain as the sound blocker.
What do you remember about your first time in the studio with Cam’ron?
My first session in the studio with Cam was actually okay. When I first met Cam, my cousin wanted me to rap for him. Cam was really busy ‘cause he was blowing up. My cousin was already telling Cam about me, and the opportunity fell in his lap when he was driving Cam around, and Cam fell asleep in the car. He was close to my neighborhood, so he called me downstairs and let me rap for Cam. I rapped for Cam, and I didn’t know if he liked my shit because he was sleeping in the car, and he didn’t really give me too much feedback. A week passed, and my man told me he liked the shit but other than that, I didn’t know anything else. He called me a week later, like, “Yo, come down to the studio.” So, this is now my first session with Cam.
I go downtown and Jim is getting his head braided by some girl. Zeek is in there crazy drunk. The studio was flooded with people. They were recording for S.D.E. When I got down there, Cam was really hype this time. He was like, “Yeah, this the nigga I was telling you all about.” Then he said, “Fuck that, just spit for these niggas.” So I just start going, going, going, going, going. After I did, niggas started fucking with me. Jim started fucking with me instantly, but he was playing his little gangster role. He was like, “Yeah, shorty’s tough. I gotta feel this nigga out, though, and see who the fuck he is.” Zeek just loved it. Zeek was like I was his new best friend. That’s still how it is ‘til this day.
As for the rest, I knew the raps were good, and I blew their mind with the rhymes, but I guess I was a new nigga coming in. I don’t think guys like Stan Spit were feeling me. I guess he thought I was coming for a spot — which I guess I did. But, my intentions were just coming to solidify my spot. I ain’t come in to take nobody’s spot. I just came to solidify my spot by any means necessary. Actually, that night I was on two records on that S.D.E. album— “All The Chickens” and “Double Up.”
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What did you have to get better at recording-wise?
I was a bit seasoned in recording when I met Cam because I was doing it with my niggas in the hood for about two or three years. I was still forming and working on everything, like my flow and my cadence. I was still coming out of my shell as Juelz Santana and who I was. I was still just a work in progress all around the board.
Your ad-libs are some of the most memorable parts of your rap career. I think of you when I hear, “Aye!” Where did those come from?
I don’t know. I think it was just something cool. Ad-libs were always something that had been in the game. I ain’t going to say I was looking for one, but I was looking for one (laughs). I’m not a big ad-lib person, so I just wanted one or two that could solidify me. Jim was always known for his ad-libs. Jim would say anything, like “Balling!” Jim was the ad-lib king. Now he’s more of a rapper rapper. “Aye” just stuck with me. And like everything else, niggas just took my shit, ran with it, flipped it, and remixed it. They all came after your boy. They all watched me and copied.
Before your debut album, From Me to U, Dipset was known for pumping out volumes of mixtapes. That was the real mixtape era.
We made that era. We made the era of artists doing their own mixtapes.
So, how often were you in the studio during that era to pump out all of that music? How many songs do you think you all were doing per day?
We were doing a lot. Cam was working the shit out of us, man. We would finish a whole mixtape in a day. That’s one thing about us — Cam was really militant. He was making sure we were in the studio, and we were not bullshitting in the studio. I appreciate Cam for that. That helped us out in a lot of ways.
One of the most iconic moments you were a part of was “Dipset Anthem,” which many have said should replace the national anthem. How did you come up with those bars that still stick with us today?
I wrote that while being stuck in a basement in Chicago because I wasn’t writing rhymes; I was slacking. We were on tour, I wasn’t writing any rhymes and Cam kept asking me, “Yo, let me hear something.” For three days, I ain’t give him nothing new. So, we did a show in Chicago, and I’m about to go to the after-party with them until Cam asked me again, “Yo, spit something for me.” I told him, “I ain’t got it” and he said, “When you get it, then you can come to the party.” So, I went down to the basement and made “Dipset Anthem.” When they got back from the club that night, it was done. It took me about three hours.
That might’ve been one of your most memorable appearances, but “Dipset (Santana’s Town)” was the first solo single from your debut album. There’s a lot of pressure around those sort of songs. How did you make it?
I was finishing up my album and when you finish up an album, you make sure you have singles. We weren’t sure if we were single-ready. Self made the beat. Cam and I were just in the studio working on different shit at the time, and we came up with that. It was a good night in the studio. That was one of the last songs I made for my album. A lot of people’s singles are usually the last records they do for their albums.
Before you created your second album, What the Game’s Been Missing!, you made your own studio, right?
Yeah, I got my own studio before I made my second album. I got my own studio early in the game. I just figured it was a business move for me. I always wanted my own studio. The way I record is very different. I got put on to how much money we were spending in these studios and the fact that I could actually bill it back. It’s our money anyway, so it’s not like you’re doing anything wrong. Instead of using their studio, I’m using my studio, and I’m charging for it. A lot of artists still like going to the studio. I asked one artist, “Why do you still book these studios, bro? Why not save that money?” That money’s a part of your budget that will go “missing” anyway.
You said that you got your studio because you record a certain way. How do you record? How unique is it?
I record like a puzzle, man. It’ll be bars scattered all over the place, and then I will put them together at the end. When I start recording, I feel like a person who doesn’t know me and how I record may be like, “What the fuck are you doing right now?”
One of my favorite records of yours is “The Second Coming.” It was featured in the Nike commercial. What did you receive to work with Nike on that? It sent chills up my spine.
Those chills were the whole idea of the record. So I’m glad it did that for you. That was my intention because when I was brought the opportunity to do the record, the idea they gave me was they wanted this to be powerful. They wanted it to be strong but, at the same time, emotional. They also wanted something that people would look at like a theme song. So Nike reached out to me. Even though I got paid one of the biggest checks I’ve ever got paid for it, I would’ve done it for free because it was Nike. I would’ve done it for free because I was being young and not knowing the business.
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What do you need in the studio to make your best music?
That I Can’t Feel My Face strain.
To that point, has anyone ever out-smoked you in the studio?
I can’t say they have, sir. I would say Snoop gave me the best run. At the time, he did out-smoke me. But at this time, I was young. I wasn’t that seasoned when I first met Snoop. This was early in my career. It was so early that I was still actually smoking chocolate weed. That’s how you know how long ago it was.
Since you mentioned “I Can’t Feel My Face” and have a label named after it, do you remember the first time you and Lil Wayne linked up in the studio?
You already know how it was. You got “I Can’t Feel My Face” from it. That was the chemistry right there. That’s why we even started doing the project. It was because the chemistry was crazy. We did about four records on the first night.
You both are fierce lyricists. Was there any competition?
The competition was we’re both artists. So, what’s understood doesn’t need to be said. It was Wayne, so I had to go in. I think that should always be the approach.
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I’m going to take it all the way back to that era. One of my favorite songs between you two was “Favorite Things.” Who was the kid singing in the chorus?
That’s my nephew Ja. He’s the first artist on my label, I Can’t Feel My Face. He’s also the one that was on the song “S.a.n.t.a.n.a.” going “Santana, Santana, Santana. Y’all got a problem.” That’s him on that record. That’s him in the “Santana” video when he didn’t have any teeth in his mouth. He was the one in my “There It Go (The Whistle Song)” video when I gave the whistle to the little boy. He’s also on the intro of the What the Game’s Been Missing album. So, he’s been an active Dipset member for his entire life since he was born.
The crazy thing is he’s rapping now and is fire. He’s not on the label because he’s my nephew. He’s on the label because that boy got heat, especially for what the new generation is doing right now. It’s not drill, though. It’s not drill, but he can do drill. I don’t know what to call it, but he’s super dope. Be on the lookout for him. I named the label I Can’t Feel My Face because I ask people, “What do you get when you hear ‘I Can’t Feel My Face’?” Fire, right? That’s the thinking behind that.
Why did you start your own label?
It’s time. It’s been time. I got a newfound energy right now, and I ain’t even start putting out the music the way I’m about to start putting it out. It’s about to get really crazy. I’ve been independent so of course I will be signed to my own label. It just makes sense. And I got artists that I genuinely believe in and want to help.
You came home in 2020 from a 19-month prison sentence. What was that first session like back home?
It was beautiful. It was actually in my house when I came home because I was still on house arrest. It was like riding a bike, bro. The energy was good, and I had a lot to get off my chest. I had a bunch of books full of rhymes, so it felt good.
Were you writing in jail?
Yeah, you have to. It’s inevitable. Unless you have a brain like a computer, and you can remember 400 rhymes you wrote while in jail. You get spoiled being in the studio because we could lay it down as we write it, so you don’t really have to pick up a pen. The booth is your pen. You could go in, write five bars, come out the booth, chill, smoke a blunt, and then go in and lay another five bars.
What’s one of the wildest studio sessions you’ve had with the rest of Dipset?
Studio sessions with us early on got out of hand — drunk nights and shit. We’re lucky we ain’t go to jail. Shit got so out of hand, I still can’t speak on it.
You’ve been in this game for over 20 years and recorded hundreds of records. What are some collaborations that have yet to come out?
Too many songs that haven’t come out. That’s my actual problem. I’m never not recording or not working. I just always get caught up in things that stagnate me, man. So, I gotta stop being that person. I got a song with [Lil] Durk. A Boogie and I just did a nice record together. I got something with Tory Lanez. I got something with the Migos, all three of them. I also got a record with Joyner Lucas. That was a record he wanted me to get on, but I’m trying to get him to give me the record. We’ll see how it works out.
Arguably, the most memorable song you were a part of was JAY-Z and Cam’ron’s “Welcome to New York City” collaboration. How did you end up on that?
I was actually supposed to be on the actual record. Cam always did that, man. I could say that Cam always tried to give me a good look on whatever song he was doing with somebody else. If Cam got a Mariah Carey record they want him to do a feature on, and I was in the studio with Cam, he would be like, “Juelz, put a verse on there.” That was one of his marketing schemes. He would have me put a verse on it. If they used it, they used it. If they didn’t, they didn’t. After all that time, we were on Roc-A-Fella, he and Jay were finally doing a record together.
We walked into the studio, and Just Blaze had the beat playing. JAY came into the studio and started doing his mumbling to himself (laughs). Next thing you know, three minutes later, this nigga got his rhymes. Then Cam came right after JAY came out of the booth. I was like, “What the fuck? No way possible they were coming up with rhymes that fast.” They wrote. I’m a student and know the game, so they probably had previous rhymes that went to that song.
So, I’m over there like, “This is JAY-Z. I gotta kill.” I was like, “Yo, I need a bit more time.” So, Cam kept asking, “Are you ready?” I was like, “Nah, bro.” So, he said, “Let me hear what you got.” So I rapped, “It’s the home of 9/11, the place of the lost towers. We still banging; We never lost power.” I was about to get into it more, but that’s when the sample came in with “Welcome to New York City.” I was like, “Oh, that’s hard.” I see niggas going crazy over there when I said it. That’s how it became the hook. They went in and laid another verse each. I was just happy I was on there.