Three years without a new album? Sparse guest appearances in the interim? In this hip-hop climate, a lot of artists would be irrelevant by now. Juelz Santana hasn't been silent in the time since he released his second LP, What the Game's Been Missing. The mayor of "Santana's Town" has been embroiled in behind-the-scenes contractual turmoil with his onetime mentor Cam'ron.
Now that he recently got out of his legal obligation to Cam's Diplomat Records, the 23-year-old is signed directly to Def Jam. Cam actually broke the news to New York radio personality Miss Info, saying he'd sold Juelz's contract over to the label for a handsome price.
"I was upset about the part of me being 'sold for $2 million,' " Santana told MTV News, standing in front of his New Jersey studio on Thursday. "At times like this, nobody is trying to 'sell' me. I could have come out and said, 'Oh, yeah, Cam got bought out.' But I didn't go that route. They just gotta watch me move. We gonna make it hot."
Over the past few years, Juelz has tried to make guest appearances on some of his peers' songs, but he said Cam wouldn't clear the collaborations. In some cases, such as a Nike commercial and Chris Brown's "Run It!," the head of the Dipset sued the people Santana worked with for compensation.
Juelz said "tons" of his work on other artists' songs never saw the light of day. "I'm just gonna say a lot of big records. ... I was on a good portion of those records, or asked to be on a good portion of those records that [Lil] Wayne was on — along with him, not like they asked me before they asked him, or vice versa. I know I was on a good portion of those records, 'cause the I Can't Feel My Face thing. We were pushing that hard. People wanted to get both of us. I couldn't go as far as the clearances. I could do my verse, then it got to the point where I couldn't go there with people, because I didn't want them to think that it was me being the bad guy not clearing stuff. I didn't want that on my name. So, I would let people know, 'I can't really. ... If you wanna just put it out on the mixtapes, we could do that all day. The fans definitely missed out on a lot of Juelz due to my contract."
Despite the business gripes, Santana still speaks fondly of Cam and yells "Dipset for life" consistently.
"I have no hard feelings towards Cam," he explained. "I tell people I couldn't do business with him. But I will say he gave me the biggest chance I needed. I'm a dude from the 'hood, so the chance he gave me is a chance I needed to never turn back. I'm good. My artistry, my talent, my career was never built on controversy. So I would never come out and say a whole bunch of things that could be said. All I can say is, I'm sorry he can't be here to be a part of what's about to happen, because we're about to tear 'em up."
Santana is referring to his new crew of artists, the Skull Gang, which he said stands for "Street Kids United by Loyalty and Loot, Goons and N---as Getting It." The crew, which includes MCs from Harlem, Virginia and Queens, will be heavily featured on Santana's next LP Born to Lose, Built to Win (The Rise of the Skull Gang).
"Everybody could get a whiff of the future," he said.
"The good thing about [my time with Cam]," he continued, "I got a chance to learn a lot and be around Cam and Jim and watch us, the Diplomats, one of the greatest movements and still one of the greatest movements doing this thing today. I know the ins and outs of what it takes to build a powerful movement. I know the things that got us to the points where we needed to be. Then I know some of the things that was holding us back. I get to work around the things I need to work around. Jim has Byrd Gang, I have the Skull Gang, and Freekey Zekey has 730."
While talking about his first camp, Juelz reiterates that the Dipset are still intact; they're just not sure what's going on with Cam'ron. The communication is obviously not there, but Santana welcomes another family album.
"It's no hard feelings, and now that I'm out of my situation, I don't mind putting a Diplomat album together. All I gotta do is tell my lawyer to handle the business the right way, and the music gets taken care of. I love making music. We all love making music. Me, Jim, Zeke — we all down to do the Diplomat album. You gotta ask Cam what's up about the Diplomat album when you get him front of this same camera.
"At first people kinda looked at us like, 'Damn, what's going on?' " he added. "They looking at us like we're disloyal. But as the time went by, it's kinda like, what we gonna do, just die out because the dude that was supposed to be the boss and the head of the table decided to disappear? That means we would have vanished along with that. We from Harlem, baby. We hustlers. We're gonna stay afloat. We're not even floating right now; we're surfing. We not even surfing; I'm the ocean."
Before his official release in 2009, Santana is putting out a Skull Gang mixtape to be followed by his solo street CD, The Regan Era.
"I had to let everybody know in the Def Jam building that it was no rush to hand in a single, because now I'm a businessman," he said. "There's nobody to go to when things ain't right but me. I had to find out a lot of things I didn't have to find out before. I could let other people handle things for me. I had to let the building know [the business] is where my mind is. There's a lot more people depending on me. I can't just be out here as an artist."