Hip-hop has produced some incredible groups. Run-DMC were rap's first true superstars, N.W.A. ushered gangsta rap to the forefront and the nine-member Wu-Tang Clan revolutionized the business when each member signed their own solo deals. Then OutKast came along and stretched creative boundaries like never before.
Geto Boys, EPMD, A Tribe Called Quest, 2 Live Crew, Beastie Boys, Public Enemy and UGK have all made indelible marks, but there was one group that could have very well trumped them all: Murder Inc., featuring Jay Z, Ja Rule and DMX.
In the late-1990s, after the tragic deaths of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., when many fans were unsure about the where rap music was headed, three rap juggernauts recording separately for the same label were united by one man.
Producer Irv Gotti first gathered Jay, Rule and DMX on Mic Geronimo's 1995 track "Time to Build." At the time Geronimo was the star, and neither Hov, X nor Rule had released their respective solo debuts. Gotti would eventually work to get all three artists solo deals with Def Jam (through Roc-A-Fella, Ruff Ryders and Gotti's own Murder Inc. label).
It was an exciting time for rap music, and Gotti had three of the game's biggest names in close proximity.
Jay had proved his worth selling more than 5 million copies of his 1998 Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life LP. In the same year, DMX dropped two multiplatinum chart-topping albums: It's Dark and Hell Is Hot and Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood. Rule would officially arrive a year later with his multiplatinum debut, Venni Vetti Vecci.
The trio recorded together, appeared in one another's videos and even hit the road together on Jay's Hard Knock Life Tour. Then, in 1999, the trio appeared together on the cover of XXL Magazine, with a cover line that read: "Introducing Ja Rule, Jay-Z, DMX as Murder Inc."
The loose collaborations between the trio were enough to drive rap fans into a frenzy. Jay and X linked on "Blackout" and "Money, Cash, Hoes," while Hov and Rule appeared on "Can I Get a ..." and "Kill 'Em All." X and Ja linked on Mic Geronimo's "Usual Suspects" and "Grand Finale" from the "Belly" soundtrack.
As a group, though, Murder Inc. only released two songs. Granted, "Mudergram" and "It's Murda" weren't big hits -- they were barely even singles. But for hip-hop fans who revel in rap's grimy underground, the pair of tracks remain street classics and a reminder of what could have been. And now comes word from Ja Rule, who told MTV News that there may be at least one more unreleased track in the vault.
We can only imagine what Jay, Rule and X could have accomplished as a unit. Considering each rapper's penchant for crafting inescapable rap anthems as soloists, there's no question Murder Inc. could have captivated mainstream audiences too.
But eventually, the idea of "Murder Inc. the group" faded away; both Ja Rule and Irv Gotti point to Jay and DMX's rocky relationship as the reason.
In 1994, before either rapper was famous, Hov and X participated in a tense face-off in a Bronx, New York, pool hall. “X hated Jay because it was the one battle that he said it wasn’t absolutely sure in everyone’s mind that he won,” Irv told MTV News back in 2011.
Rule gives a similar account. “We couldn’t get X and Jay in the same room, from long ago, their storied battle on the pool table, guns out [and] all of that,” Ja told MTV News on Thursday night after he performed at the Def Jam 30th anniversary concert at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.
“We tried to deliver that album. It was a situation where egos all just played a part in its demise,” he said.
The what-if game is always tricky. The truth is there's no way of knowing what type of legacy the Murder Inc. group would have had and I certainly don't mean to slight any of the other great hip-hop collectives. But if you take three of the the biggest rappers of their generation and put them together at the height of their careers -- the possibilities are limitless.
"What do you think is gonna happen with three of the illest n---as together?" Jay asks at the top of "Murdergram."
Sadly, hip-hop fans will never know.