In 1998, Jay-Z had finally accomplished his mission. With “Hard Knock Life,” he’d blown up on the pop charts, taking his Roc-A-Fella business venture into the big leagues and escaping street life for good. Nevertheless, he couldn’t help but feel he’d lost something on the way. He’d donned the shiny suit and mugged into the camera like Ma$e. He’d slowed his flow and sampled a Broadway musical. These compromises nagged at him, and as he sought ways to balance his karmic ledger, the exploding Philadelphia rap scene called to him.
Across North and South Philly neighborhoods, two dozen or so rappers were defining a fierce local style: halting but high-velocity, herky-jerk but smooth, slick but hard. They didn’t race in front of the beat or ride the snare—they dug in and found a pocket, punching hard alongside the track’s low end. They were influenced by New York rappers like Ma$e and the Lox, but they added their own pugnacious spin: Their signature trick was to circle around the same syllable, often the same word, from line to line, like they were softening up a boxer with jabs—“Cats thinking I’m sweet, I ain’t been killin’ in a while/I heard a lot of cats rhyme, I ain’t feel one in a while,” taunted a rapper named Spade on a 1999 song called “I Love Being a Gangsta.” And then, just when you thought they were sputtering, they would switch every word in the rhyme scheme, delivering a clean uppercut. It was a fitting style for a town where it was often said that everyone either boxed, rapped, or both.
If you asked a hardcore Philly rap fan who the avatars of that style were around ’97, they would have pointed to Major Figgas. Formed by first cousins Gillie da Kid and Wallo along with a local named Bump J (unrelated to the Chicago rapper of the same name), they eventually expanded to seven members, including Dutch, Spade, and future Clipse affiliate Ab-Liva. Major Figgas shut down the local Power 99 station with every new freestyle. They were the spirit of the city, heavily favored to finally put Philly on the board.
So when Jay-Z swooped into Philadelphia, he came looking for Major Figgas, haunting neighborhoods and studios. They were, to him, a symbol of all he’d leveraged away. But Jay didn’t leave Philadelphia with Major Figgas. Instead, he signed a roughneck kid, someone nobody had ever heard of before, who had never recorded a demo in his life.
Dwight Grant was not one of the people jostling at the forefront of Philly’s exploding rap scene. He was not a member of Major Figgas. He wasn’t in Philly’s Most Wanted, the group being groomed by Pharrell as Philly’s answer to the Clipse. As far as anyone knew, Dwight Grant was working all-night shifts at a crack spot near the corner of 21st and Sigel Street, writing raps alone while listening to Ron G tapes.
Since being a rapper carried zero status in his neighborhood, he kept his creative pursuits under the radar, battling neighborhood friends and practicing his freestyles over full album tracks with the bass turned up to drown out the other rappers’ vocals. He went by the name “Beanie Sigel”; the name was simultaneously a reference to the nickname his grandmother gave him (“Beanie”), the street he lived on (Sigel Street), and a tip of the hat to the famous gangster Bugsy Siegel.
So when Boo Bonic, one half of Philly’s Most Wanted, offered to let Beanie tag along for his next meeting in New York, Beanie shrugged. He did, after all, have a dog fight to bet on that day. Besides, he was more of a Biggie fan and Jay was his little brother’s favorite rapper. He didn’t even want to go, but when he stepped outside his place that day, he found Mr. Man—the other half of Philly’s Most Wanted—waiting for him. Dismayed, he got in the car.
Jay first noticed Beanie hanging around in back at Baseline. He was recording the Vol 2...Hard Knock Life album track “A Week Ago” with Too $hort. Everyone else in the room was exultant, drunk on proximity to power, but Beanie was fidgeting, looking wary and unimpressed. After the rappers had freestyled, someone encouraged Beanie to go up.
”He kicked about a five-minute rhyme straight, no breaths, nothing,” Jay marveled later on the Hard Knock Life Tour documentary, remembering the first time he heard Beanie rap. He leaned over to the man who called himself Beanie’s “manager” at the time: “Promise me you’ll let me have him.”
But even more importantly, it was clear Beanie had something that maybe no one else in his scene had—a vision. There was a sternness to him, a weight to his presence that went beyond his burly frame. He had a Biggie flow, with Scarface gravitas. Sigel was everything Jay-Z was looking for at that time. Immediately, Jay added Beanie to the Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life posse cut “Reservoir Dogs.” Within a week, Beanie Sigel—an outsider with no demo tape, no local following, and no aspirations as a rapper—became the heir presumptive to the Roc.
After that, Jay seemed to bring Beanie with him wherever he went. Almost immediately, you could hear hints of Beanie’s hard-bitten style surface in Jay’s raps: “Chill with the crew/Real with the crew/4 million sold, look, still with the crew,” he spat on “More Money, More Cash, More Hoes.” And Jay brought Beanie along for the Hard Knock Life Tour, where he came out and freestyled a capella to 18,000 people who might have mistaken him for Jay’s bodyguard. It was Beanie’s first tour.
For Beanie, the disorientation was total. “My life changed overnight, dog,” he said to a camera in 2000 with the dazed look of someone whose life was flashing before his eyes. In a way, it was: When he was in elementary school, he briefly formed a “rap group” called Crash Crew with a friend named Tariq Trotter. Now that his former classmate went by the name Black Thought, Beanie wound up scoring a scene-stealing verse on the best Roots album of all time, Things Fall Apart, all because Big Pun double-parked. All rappers bragged about coming from nothing, but perhaps no one had come so far, so quickly, and from so little as Beanie Sigel. His swift come-up instantly became a cornerstone of his legend: “Met Jay, dropped on an album in a week/Without Unsigned Hype or Battle of the Beats,” he boasted.
An experience like that would make anyone a believer, and Beanie Sigel was Roc-A-Fella’s first true convert. Quickly, he brought as many Philly rappers into the Roc-A-Fella stable as he could: He and Freeway had made a pact when they met at a battle one night to help the other, so Free came first, quickly followed by more: Oschino, Omillio Sparks, the Young Gunz duo of Young Chris and Neef Buck. Suddenly, Roc-A-Fella had its very own version of Major Figgas, called State Property, under its own roof. Jay may have been the mind behind the Roc, but Beanie rapidly established himself as its heart and soul. Whereas before it had been some combination of vanity label and tax shelter, in Beanie’s eyes it was Motown in the ’60s, Philadelphia International in the ’70s.
Appropriately, his albums would help define a house sound for the emergent label that drew heavily on plush soul samples, relics from previous eras of Black American excellence. Beanie started combing through beat CDs to build what would become his debut album, The Truth. From the beginning, he had a special ear for darkness, drama, and grit. The production credits for the first three tracks belong to Kanye West, Just Blaze, and Bink!, respectively—each producer’s first placement on a Roc-A-Fella album. If you had to pick the three pillars for the next half-decade of East Coast rap, it would be difficult to come up with a more definitive list.
But none of that would’ve mattered, none of it would have gelled, if it weren’t for Beanie’s vision and tenacity. By the time he rescued the chopped organ loop of Graham Nash’s “Chicago” from one of Kanye’s beat CDs, multiple rappers had passed on it. But Beanie heard something in it—a spirit of struggle, a hint of desperation—and he breathed fire into it. Over what became “The Truth,” Sigel rapped in lines that neatly matched the structure of a logic proof with the hypnotic repetition of a sermon. “You got to see what I’ve seen, look where I’ve looked/To touch what I’ve reached, to take what I took/You’ve got to go where I’ve gone, walk where I’ve walked/To get where I’m at, to speak what I talk,” he said, sounding completely unburdened by the need to prove any of it.
This composure is rare in any artist—for a brand-new rapper who’s just signed a major label deal, it’s unheard of. He didn’t sound young, hungry, or eager. He sounded calm, somehow certain of our attention, almost patient. This preternatural self-assurance must have been how Beanie Sigel managed to entice Houston legend Scarface, not a rapper known for generosity with his guest spots, to not only appear next to a rookie but to share equal billing. On “Mack and Brad,” Face and Beans go back and forth, the legend and the upstart engaging in a friendly competition reminiscent of Biggie and Method Man on Ready to Die’s “The What.”
The only weak moments on The Truth are the ones where you can hear Beanie Sigel being marketed. “Mac Man” flips tinny Pac-Man sound effects while Beanie strings together a series of lame video-game puns (”I stay going to war with the Latin King Koopa”). You can imagine why somebody thought the track was a good idea—if Beanie had ghost-written it for Bleek, Jay’s hype man might have finally scored a modest hit—but it’s all wrong for Beanie. “Playa” is a rewrite of “Can I Get A…”, with Jay’s then-protégé Amil. Beanie finessed the verses, but the song drowned under a brain-dead chorus that made no sense for anyone involved.
Worst of all was “Anything,” a Jay-Z solo track without Beans that got tacked onto the end of The Truth. It was a bald attempt at Xerox-ing the success of “Hard Knock Life,” right down to the annoying sample of a chirpy kid from a musical on the hook—in this case, Oliver! And it was an early example of what Hova’s complicated version of “artist support” looked like. The inclusion of “Anything” on The Truth was both a dramatic endorsement from the boss and an implicit admission that he didn’t think Beanie Sigel could succeed without his direct intervention.
On one level, of course, Jay was correct: Beanie Sigel was not an easy artist to mass-market. His lyrics were maybe the most violent of anyone on the Roc-A-Fella roster, but he never granted his listeners the luxury of action-movie escapism, lingering with unsettling specificity on the bodily consequences of gunplay like someone processing real-time trauma. In one song, he promised to give one rival “flashbacks to that cold-ass table and them holes I gave you.” On another, he offered another potential challenger a chilling warning: “You’ll never put shorts on.”
Likewise, there had been hundreds of rap songs about prison before The Truth’s “What Ya Life Like,” but only Beanie saw fit to mention “hearing grown men moan at night” or invoking a “push rod toilet sword.” Over a foreboding film-score orchestral loop, Beanie shouted the hook, “My life is real! Everything signed and sealed!” like someone terrified over what they’d lived and seen. To call it “harrowing” would be to miss the point: It was a gauntlet-throw, a dare to other rappers to dig as deeply and go as dark as he did.
A guy like this could never notch a true radio hit. Yes, he could rap the words “champagne” and “VIP,” but they usually turned to ash in his mouth. When it was time for Beanie’s verse on a club record, you never felt that he shared his comrades’ flossy sense of good fortune for a second. If he showed up “all high in VIP,” he sounded like he always did: bruised, angry, wary, watchful. Everyone else was here for a good time; Beanie was here for a bad one.
In the parlance of A&Rs and record executives, Beanie Sigel only made album tracks. These were the songs that cost money, not the ones that generated it. But they were also the sorts of songs that won lifelong converts instead of curious fans, and Beanie made some of the most powerful album tracks in rap history. When he met with label heads Dame Dash and Lyor Cohen to discuss promotion for The Truth, Beanie argued passionately that the first single should be a song called “Die,” a representative stretch of which goes: “Die cause I hesitated to spray that man/Die cause I hesitated to pay that man/Die cause my man passed me an empty tool/Die cause I panicked, I couldn’t keep my cool...Die cuz a nigga was trying to get a name/Or die cause it was just my time to feel the flames.”
Cohen, perhaps not seeing the Hot 97 opportunities unfurling before him, berated Beanie in a typically aggressive CEO fashion. “I’m not telling you to be MC Hammer,” Beanie recalled Cohen saying. “Shit, I don’t know if you can even spell hammer.” Ignorant of Cohen’s position at the company and unaccustomed to being spoken to in this manner, Beanie Sigel pulled out a gun in a Def Jam conference room.
Stories like the Lyor confrontation did nothing to endear him to the higher-ups, and The Truth wound up selling around 155,000 copies in its first week—respectable numbers that would nevertheless render Beanie Sigel little more than a tax write-off in the era of platinum first-week sales. “Beans, I ain’t tryin to change you, just give you some game/To transition from the streets to the fame,” Jay-Z rapped on “Blueprint (Momma Loves Me).” It was classic Jay, mingling infuriating condescension with genuine concern. Jay and Beanie were temperamental opposites, destined to clash—cold versus hot blood, calculation versus bluster, indirection versus full-frontal assault. But they shared one thing in common: Both began as street kids who were ambivalent about having a rap career while secretly yearning to be the best.
Their influence on one another was mutual and profound. Listen to how Jay-Z circles syllables and switches emphases on 2000’s “Squeeze First”—a top-flight Jay solo track, as imperious and masterful as he’s ever sounded: You can nearly close your eyes and hear Beanie Sigel’s voice in his place. Others certainly did: When Nas levied a series of kill shots at Jay-Z on 2001’s “Ether,” he knew how to hit him where it hurt. “Compared to Beans, you wack,” he taunted.
For Beanie, Jay-Z was the man who made dreams come true. The Philly scene he arose from mostly imploded in his wake, at least as far as national press was concerned. Major Figgas never signed a major label deal, and Philly’s Most Wanted only eked out two albums. The brutal winnowing process of a regional scene down to a few national mascots was over. Somehow, Beanie Sigel had stayed standing. As dark as things got for Beans—he would go on to serve non-consecutive prison sentences for federal weapons charges and tax evasion—he always knew he had survived where others hadn’t been so lucky. Young Chris’ cousin was killed by a member of Major Figgas, and the beef between State Property and Major Figgas claimed the life of another promising Philly up-and-comer, Lil Rucie, whose body was rumored to have been found dead in a burned-out car.
Beanie Sigel, by contrast, got to be a hero. Meek Mill would go on to cite him as the artist who made him “love rap,” and his influence lives on wherever a tough-talking rapper decides to get dark. In 2021, Sigel appeared on N.O.R.E.’s Drink Champs, reflecting on the brutal ups and downs of a career that had left him alive, but undeniably scarred. “I’m the perfect example of when keeping it real goes wrong,” he said, his voice a permanent whisper after post-car accident surgery removed a piece of his lung. “But to me, it was real.”