This story is excerpted from Ben Westhoff’s new book Original Gangstas: The Untold Story of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur, and the Birth of West Coast Rap (Hachette Books).
Following the murder of Biggie Smalls in March, 1997 – just six months after the killing of his arch rival Tupac Shakur – there was probably no more terrifying profession in America than high‑profile hip‑hop artist. Rap’s two biggest superstars were gone, and East Coast-West Coast animosities were at an all-time high. Rumors abounded that rappers including Ice Cube and Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs could be hit next. A bicoastal supergroup called the Firm, featuring both New York and Los Angeles stars like Nas and Dr. Dre, decided to record their debut album in neutral Miami, because no one wanted to go to the other’s neck of the woods.
The tension was so high that many people began to wonder if hip-hop itself could survive.
Into this void stepped an unlikely savior, Louis Farrakhan. Owing to his history of anti‑Semitic remarks, Farrakhan gets little respect in the mainstream media. The Nation of Islam leader has long maintained admiration throughout the hip-hop community, however. When gangsta rap went mainstream in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, national leaders, black and white alike, publicly condemned the music. But Farrakhan spoke out on its behalf, offering hospitality and counsel to embattled stars.
And shortly after Biggie’s death Farrakhan conceived his most ambitious undertaking yet: He sent out peace treaty invitations to everybody in rap who hated each other. And he invited them to his house.
After a few preliminary regional meetings to set the stage, the players arrived in Chicago on April 3, 1997, for talks at Farrakhan’s extravagant home in Hyde Park, called “the Palace.” The former residence of deceased Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, it’s not far from the Nation’s headquarters, called Mosque Maryam, a grand complex topped by the star and crescent symbol, which was purchased in the eighties with a multimillion‑dollar loan from Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
The invited rappers were told to take off their shoes; common practice for Muslim homes. (Those in need were provided socks.) They also met at the Salaam Restaurant, a Nation of Islam–run eatery in Auburn Gresham, which adheres to Muslim dietary restrictions.
The assembled included representatives of the East, West, Midwest, and South, of the old school and the new school. The summit addressed hip‑hop beefs including the lingering animosity between Death Row Records and Ruthless Records, fueled by a conflict between their founders Suge Knight and Eazy-E – despite the fact that the former was in prison, and the latter had died from AIDS in 1995. Ruthless group Bone Thugs‑N‑Harmony had thrown shots on record at Death Row group Tha Dogg Pound, who retorted by calling them “Hoes‑N‑Harmony.” Dogg Pound member Kurupt rapped: It’s easy to find MCs to execute. Taunted by Death Row members at a club, Bone Thugs‑N‑Harmony member Bizzy Bone said they nearly came to blows. But tempers were dampened in Chicago. “Kurupt came at me, he was like, ‘That was some bullshit,’” Bizzy said, adding that they went on to become tight: “These niggas is my best friend right now.”
“If the minister wasn’t there and it was held somewhere else, someone might have gotten put down,” said Kurupt.
Today, Ice Cube isn’t remembered as a main instigator in the East Coast-West Coast beef, but the South Central rapper had a lot of New Yorkers mad at him at the time. Many were upset about his recent album with his group Westside Connection, called Bow Down. On the track “All the Critics in New York” Cube rapped: I hope blood ain’t got to spill / I kill.
Cube arrived to the summit on a chartered jet from a movie set, and soon came face to face with Bronx rapper Fat Joe. “When I heard you were gonna be here, I got in my car and drove fifteen hours just to see the whites of your eyes,” Joe reportedly told Cube. “I wanted to see you face‑to‑face and ask you why you did what you did.”
Cube, flanked by his Westside Connection colleagues Mack 10 and WC, asserted that New York media didn’t show L.A. rappers proper respect, and that its artists tarred West Coast gangsta rap as a bastardization of true hip-hop (ignoring the fact that New York artists like Wu‑Tang Clan and Fat Joe himself made hard‑edged rhymes). Cube admitted stirring up some controversy on purpose—after all, battling is an essential part of hip-hop. He and Joe hashed things out, with Cube ultimately admitting that, considering the current volatility, perhaps it was time to tamp things down a bit.
It wasn’t Cube’s only beef. He also faced hometown hero Common, whom he insulted on Bow Down track “Hoo‑ Bangin’ (WSCG Style)”: I’m bombin’ on Common Sense / Chicago is mine, nigga hit the fence. But they reconciled as well; Cube stood up and gave him a hug. “It was a great thing,” Cube told me recently, adding that, as a measure of how far they’ve come, Common starred in the latest version of Cube’s Barbershop franchise. Common credited an atmosphere where they could speak one-on-one, without yes-men and hangers‑on in their ears “talking crazy.”
At his summit, Farrakhan sought to put the hip-hop acrimony in historical perspective. He handed out copies of the so-called Willie Lynch letter, a guide purportedly written by an eponymous white slave owner in the early eighteenth century, advocating pitting slaves against each other as a method to control them.
Though its historical efficacy is in great doubt, the document served as an effective metaphor for the state of the rap industry, where black artists’ beefs with each other were driving sales in the largely white-controlled music and publishing industries. Hip‑hop magazines in particular were accused of perpetuating coastal beef, including Vibe, which published a 1995 issue with Biggie and Puffy on the cover, alongside the headline “East vs. West.” Vibe’s president Keith Clinkscale admitted to not giving proper consideration to community concerns, although, in his defense, their journalism was first rate. (Combs couldn’t be in Chicago for the meeting, but pledged his support.)
Willie D, from Houston group Geto Boys, condemned the mainstream media’s ongoing, breathless critique of his art form. Famed activist Kwame Ture also spoke to the group—a heroic effort, considering he had prostate cancer and would die a year later. He talked on J. Edgar Hoover’s attempts to infiltrate and disrupt black activist groups, and suggested the same tactics were still at work.
Other rap notables present at the summit included Chuck D, Goodie Mob’s CeeLo Green, Too $hort (who did some soul‑searching about his lyrics), and Harlem beatboxing legend Doug E. Fresh, who lamented the state of a genre whose initial goal was to spread unity and good times. Another crucial organizer of the event was Def Jam cofounder Russell Simmons, who discussed leading a bicoastal concert tour. Both he and Farrakhan went on to host subsequent truce meetings, and Simmons founded the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, which works with the rap industry to effect social change. Also instrumental in the treaty was Death Row rapper Snoop Dogg, who had just been acquitted in a murder trial. He stood behind Farrakhan at the press conference that concluded the summit.
“The East and the West have come together, and they have agreed that as of this day, all of the insults that have been heaped on one by the other will cease, and each have forgiven each other,” Farrakhan announced.
Though the meetings didn’t generate much mainstream coverage, that wasn’t the main point. The point was to extinguish hip-hop violence. Considering its marked decline since then, the event was an unqualified success.
“The proof is in the history,” said Kurupt.
See also Playboy’s previous excerpt from Original Gangstas on the last weeks of rapper Eazy-E.