Deep Purple: The Making of Cam’ron’s “Purple Haze”

Following up the hits of "Come Home With Me", Cam'ron made a commercial flop that won the hearts of mink wearers everywhere, Dean van Nguyen included.
By    December 9, 2014


You get shot at, Dean Van Nguyen does the shooting

Cam’ron looked every bit a 21st century hip-hop superstar. With his outrageously flashy fur coats, soft photogenic features, and support from his legion of Dipset soldiers (a crew being a must for any millennium rapper), the Harlem native seemed to fulfil all the criteria to perch himself right on top of the world, and that’s before you even examined his flow – a gripping but effortless drawl so laid back that gave the impression he might just fall off the throne if he tried sitting on it.

Plus, he was on Roc-A-Fella, whose senior executives qualified as rap royalty yet hadn’t added another rap luminary to the label since co-founder Jay Z’s almighty ascendancy. And by the time 2004 rolled around, Cam had some major hits under his belt in ‘Oh Boy’ and ‘Hey Ma’, which pushed Come Home With Me, his first album on the Roc and third overall, way into the mainstream.

The world, it seemed, was his. Just one final drive required. And yet, Cam’s follow up album Purple Haze plays like a half art piece, half in-joke. It’s the anti-Blueprint, and as far removed from 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin as a mainstream New York hip-hop was going to get in 2004. Sure, Cam could posture as well as any gangsta rapper, but his idiosyncratic sense of humour, absurdist lyrics and dreamlike imagery gave his music a decorative edge. Purple Haze, which celebrates its tenth birthday this month, is Cam’s best and most beloved album – the most fully realised statement of what makes him such a great artist. With his dues served and commercial hits obtained, the record was the 28-year-old at the peak of his powers, given the creative freedom to fully express himself with no creative barricades or label interference.

Purple Haze is actually one of the funniest rap records ever made to boot. You can be mindlessly playing it in the background, tune an ear to a single lyric and find yourself belly laughing, while his pallet of pop culture references veered from The Goonies to notorious serial killer Richard ‘The Iceman’ Kuklinski. By coupling surreal storytelling with lyrical dexterity, Cam was peerless in 2004. On ‘Soap Opera, for example, he raps wry tales of adolescents: “Lookin’ back on school/Arts and crafts/Fucked half the staff/Beat up half the class/I was like Dr Dre though, I have to laugh/Nigga with an attitude meet me after-math”.


Sometimes he would straight veer off into the ridiculous, putting together bars based more on sounds and syllables than real words and still make the whole totally engrossing. ‘Get ‘Em Girls’, for example, is a magnum opus of Cam’s nimble flow and wacky lyracism. “Ate, boom-boom, my ace boon coon/Shake, bake, skate, vroom vroom/7 to 8, zoom zoom, boom boom tune/’Fore I get life, that boom boom room/Wrecks ‘n Effects, zoom zoom in poon-poon/Since the movie Cocoon had my Uzi platoon,” he audaciously spits.

Elsewhere, the skit ‘I’m a Chicken Head’ finds Cam arguing with his girlfriend on what sound a duck makes. It’s the kind of surrealistic flamboyancy that’s sewn into the record from start to finish, and facilitating the humour is the rapper’s stoic seriousness on delivery. “Fuck Kerry and Bush, the last hope is me,” he asserts on ‘Family Ties’ poker faced. The would-be actor even calls out film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert in a kind of defensive acceptance that his movies wouldn’t be acknowledged by mainstream Hollywood (Ebert actually went on to give Camron’s Paid In Full movie a respectable two-and-a-half stars out of four in his Chicago Sun Times review).

Speaking to his collaborators, however, “funny”, “laid back” or any of their derivates aren’t the words that are used to describe Cam. Instead I more commonly hear ‘professional’ and ‘perfectionist’.


Purple Haze was the result of a lot of hours in the studio, but the record rode the crest of a wave. Following the release of Come Home With Me, Cam, adopting the “never leave a good man behind” attitude that saw G-Unit, D12 and bunch of other crews come through around that time, cut two Dipset albums: Diplomatic Immunity in 2003 and Diplomatic Immunity 2 in 2004. Purple Haze marked a continuation of that work, where the collective made as much music as they could with little thoughts of keeping things cohesive.

“There wasn’t really any direction, it was just a sound that we created,” says Gregory ‘Rsonist’ Green, who as part of production trio The Heatmakerz contributed 14 beats to the Diplomatic Immunity albums and two more to Purple Haze. “Cam, he was always in the studio. Him, Jim [Jones], Juelz [Santana], they were always in the studio. That’s why you heard such high volume of work coming out, whether it was a Diplomats mixtape, a Diplomatic album, a Cam album, a Jim album, a Juelz album, everybody was always working.”

Despite his incomparable sensibilities, Killa Cam’s background was not an unfamiliar hip-hop upbringing. Born and raised in Harlem, as a kid Cameron Giles ran with future Bad Boy Records star and comeback specialist Ma$e, as well as Dipset’s Jim Jones. Though a few years younger, he was friendly with his future boss and entrepreneur Dame Dash, who would later mentor Cam the businessman.

A promising basketball career was derailed by poor academic skills, and as a highschool dropout Cam hustled by selling drugs and rapping, most notably in the group Children of the Corn, alongside Ma$e, Big L, Herb McGruff and his cousin Bloodshed who, like Big L, wouldn’t live to see the turn of the millennium. “I didn’t graduate from high school but I ended up in college,” Cam told WorldStarHipHop in 2009.

As an artist, Cam’ron didn’t arrive fully formed. There are moments on his 1998 debut solo album Confessions of Fire (released on Epic) when his flow still feels like a work in progress. It’s a little less fluid than what we would become used to, his syllables snapping off the beat a little less crisply. Still, there’s some moments of great inventiveness. The witty ‘Death’ finds Cam rapping a back and forth with the Grim Reaper, while Charli Baltimore duet ‘Me and My Boo’ is a hip-hop rarity, with Cam asserting to friends that his relationship with a female is strictly plutonic.

Confessions of Fire and its more autobiographical follow up SDE sold well and Cam was whisked over to the Roc-A-Fella and Def Jam where the Just Blaze-produced ‘Oh Boy’ made him a star. Featuring a super high-pitched Rose Royce sample, clattering drum beat and Cam’s leisurely flow, the song was a highpoint hip-hop single of the early noughties and helped popularise the sped-up sample stylings that Purple Haze would fully mine two years later.

Despite the scattered nature of its creation, Purple Haze boasts a cohesive set of beats – lean cuts with plenty of chipmunk soul, tidy drum loops, very little bass and plenty of guitar in places. Yet Cam’ron widely tossed his net to pull in the instrumentals. Of the 24 tracks, only Skitzo can claim to have orchestrated more than two beats.

An ambitious young producer just in the door at Roc-A-Fella, Skitzo caught a break when Dipset member JR Writer mistook him for his friend DJ Hitz. Invited to go to the group’s offices to play some of his stuff, one particular beat caused friction as every Diplomat tried to claim it for themselves before Cam pulled rank.

“JR wanted the beat and I thought that was it, but then Jim wanted it too,” remembers Skitzo. “They started having conflict with the beat, and then Duke [DaGod] told me Cam wanted to see me. Cam asked me for the beat, and the rest was history.”

That dramatic instrumental eventually found its way onto Purple Haze as the exultant militant thumper ‘Get ‘Em Girls’ and heralded the beginning of a thus far decade-long collaborative relationship between MC and producer. Skitzo would go on to produce or co-produce 18 of 23 tracks on Cam’s 2009 album Crime Pays, and also provided beats on Purple Haze’s electronic axe-laden intro and rattling, percussion-heavy ‘Family Ties’. He confirms Cam’ron’s strategy of not working towards a necessarily interconnected set of instrumentals. “Everything was picked ‘cause he liked it,” he says.


Rsonist first met Cam’ron around 2001 through the rapper’s then manager Rene McLean, who now runs the record label RPM. Slipping McLean the Heatmakerz’ beats CD, Green ended up co-producing two joints on Come Home With Me, eventually working side-by-side with Cam and Dipset on the Diplomatic Immunity series and becoming regular fixtures in the studio with the tireless rappers. “It was like a three year period where we were just around each other at least four or five days a week, so if you can’t figure out what an artist likes by that point you shouldn’t be working with them,” he says

Stemming from these sessions, The Heatmakerz ended up with two tracks on Purple Haze: ‘More Gangsta Music’ and ‘Killa Cam’. The former is a high energy joint that, positioned as track 2, is charged with kicking the album into gear. According to Rsonist, the song was originally created for Juelz Santana and it is, for all intents and purposes, a Santana track, with the young MC providing the hook and opening two verses before Cam slides in for his guest spot. “It’s my year,” Juelz asserts on what would have been his marquee number. However, Cam again pulled rank to get ‘More Gangsta Music’ on Purple Haze.

Originally ‘More Gangsta Music’ was Juelz’s music and I guess Cam liked it, ended up putting a verse on it, and kept it for his album,” Rsonist says. “I remember how excited Juelz was. ‘More Gangsta Music’ was his record. When I gave it to him, he wrote that record that same day. It was supposed to be a single off his album and, next thing I know, it popped up on Purple Haze. But that’s the kind of family it was. It wasn’t one person’s record, if somebody else needed it or wanted it they could have the record.”

‘Killa Cam’, however, was undeniably produced for Cam’ron and Cam’ron alone. An album highpoint and ultimate showcase for his deft flow, the breezy beat gives Cam what feels like unlimited space to flood as he rides a vocal sample recorded specially for the track by Rsonist’s friend Steven Santiago, aka Opera Steve.

“He really does opera music,” says Rsonist with a chuckle. “He came over one day and, as I say, he’s a friend of mine so I just asked him to try something different because I wanted to make this record for Cam. He was singing a lot of ‘Killa Cam’ in almost like an opera way and I thought, ‘Let’s try something different’. I put like a little reggae feel on it and he sang that one line you’ve heard [sings] ‘Killa Cam, Killa Cam Cam’, and I was like, ‘That’s hot!’ I sampled him, played some music around it, gave it to Jim, and Jim gave it to Cam.”

Cam’ron was excited about the beat, getting into the booth to record the song just a day after he firt heard it. “We knocked it out and it was easy because its, y’know, Killa Cam,” says Rsonist.

Not content to just mine his team of producers for music, Cam’ron put his ear to the sounds of other regions. As he had done the previous year on The Diplomats’ first album Diplomatic Immunity when he jacked Master P’s ‘Bout It Bout It’ to create ‘Bout It Bout It Part III”, he carried on a habit of remaking regional street records that were hot outside of New York. Cam brazenly took on NWA’s ‘Dopeman’ on ‘The Dopeman’, bemoaning the LA streets that birthed the track by grumbling over an alleged insistent when he was robbed (“How I get robbed in Cali? I be with Cali thugs/Got mobbed in Cali, yeah, that Cali love”). Elsewhere, he takes on rapid-firing Chicago rapper Twista on his song ‘Adrenalin Rush’.

The original track was produced by The Legendary Traxster, who singlehandedly provided the beats for Twista’s 1997 album, also called Adrenalin Rush. Although he received credit for producing Cam’ron’s update, a legal battle with Twista at the time relating to the rapper’s extracurricular guest spots meant he wasn’t present during the recording sessions. Though he heard rumours of a collaboration, Traxster was surprised when Cam – who he heard was a big fan of his 1996 track ‘Po Pimp’, recorded with Do or Die – reached out to polish the record.

“By the time it got to me is when he started the process of finishing the album up,” says Traxster. “I produced the record so they came to me and I said, ‘Send the record over and I’ll fix it or whatever additional things I want to do to it’. Now, the funny thing about the record originally was they didn’t have a session or a multi-track to record to, so what they ended up doing was a record pressing of the song’s instrumental, loading it into pro-tools and recording to that recording of the vinyl version of the beat, which obviously causes a lot of problems because timing on vinyl fluxuates. Ultimately, what I had to do was take that pro-tools sessions and merge it with the original multi-track of ‘Adrelenine Rush’ and mix it all together to make it a record.”

The song also features verses from the original track’s MCs Twista and Yung Buk of the group Psychodrama, the latter of which needed to re-record his verse after the botched recording session. “Now I don’t really know why when they did the original session they didn’t just call me and get the original instrumental but I assume because what was going on between me and Twista and he didn’t necessarily want me to be a part of the situation at that time,” says Traxster. “So ultimately I got the multi-track and put the record together and turned it into Cam’ron for the album.”

Traxster and Twista would eventually settle their dispute and the producer has played a significant role on every Twista release since 2009. Despite the fractured nature of how Cam’s ‘Adrenaline Rush’ came together, Traxster is pleased with how the final product turned out.

“That song, to Chicago, is not only a classic but is a defining moment of what became the Chicago sound. So Cam’ron not really being from Chicago or being a part of that sound or style, it sounded a little odd to me at first but I was flattered that he appreciated it enough to want to be a part of it. It was a little weird to me to hear someone as accomplished as he was at the time doing one of our street songs, but at the same time I knew it was another opportunity for people hear the sound and that record, and it would send people back to original record.”

Staying in Chicago – and seeing that he was on Roc-A-Fella – Cam’ron also recruited Kanye West, who had helmed a couple of tracks on Come Home With Me and Diplomatic Immunity. By 2004 the ambitious ‘Ye was enjoying his new found celebrity after the release of debut album The College Dropout, and his and Cam’s ‘Down and Out’ was undoubtedly a College Dropout-era beat, twisting William Bell and Mavis Staples’s smokey soul classic ‘Strung Out’ into a hook-heavy hip-hop anthem. West even recruited Syleena Johnson, previously heard on the chorus of his single ‘All Falls Down’, to instil some extra brightness. “I thought it was amazing, I thought it was dope. I was too excited, I loved it. To this day I listen to it. It’s a great record,” says Johnson. “I worked with Kanye based on pure respect that I had for him for his talent, and the same thing with Cam’ron. When Kanye asked me to do it, basically I trusted Kanye, but I thought Cam’ron was a dope MC so I knew it was going to be a great record that I wanted to be a part of. I don’t know anybody who wouldn’t.”

‘Ye also loaned his voice for the hook, adding to a series of on-tape collaborators that included Nicole Wray, Mona Lisa, Jaheim and, of course, the entire Dipset crew. The star, however, is undoubtedly Cam. One of the album’s true classics ‘Get Down’ confirm his claims that his music portrays the street level ghetto hustle (“Pops gone/Shit tragical/Moms on mission/My house is where the addicts chill/I’m like a teacher/I need me a sabbatical/It’s not irrational/I grew up radical”). That track, plus the Hill Street Blues theme tune-pinching ‘Harlem Streets’ and triumphant big city dreams of the amorous ‘More Reasons’ keep Purple Haze a New York-centric piece.

The only real misstep, perhaps, is the single ‘Girls’, an abrasive electronic number that rides the Cindy Lauper’s ‘Just Wanna Have Fun’ vocal line until it’s forced into submission. ‘Girls’ was no ‘Oh Boy’, and without a Hollywood single, Purple Haze failed to match the commercial performance of its predecessor, going Gold and hitting number 20 on the Billboard charts. Despite unspectacular sales, the album was heavily championed by online publications like Stylus and Pitchfork, both of which were beginning to hit their peak of influence as alternative voices to the long-established print publications. Pitchfork would go on to name Purple Haze the ninth best album of 2005 and, later, the 114th best of the decade, with writer Sean Fennessey dubbing the LP “the album that launched a thousand rap blogs.”

Stifling the album’s sales upon release, however, was the fact it received little marketing from Roc-A-Fella, and Cam’s struggles with the label are an unfortunate subplot to his 2002-2004 run of creativity he enjoyed. Though he had an ally in Dame Dash (the duo’s appearance on the O’Reilly Factor, where Dame’s sensible defence of hip-hop’s negative effects on youth is counteracted by Cam’s teasing of Bill O’Reilly is a real pearler), Jay, for some reason, never took to him, and The Diplomats were not invited to take part in the 2003 Roc The Mic tour.

“The studio was kind of divided into groups,” remembers Rsonist. “You had Jay-Z, at that time you had State Property, then you had The Diplomats, then Memphis Bleak had his team around that time, so everybody was kinda, I don’t want to say divided, but everybody was on their own mission. I didn’t sense any bad blood or beef, it was just everybody was trying to handle their own business. So it was just more so everybody had tunnel vision.”


Following Purple Haze’s release, Cam appeared on long-running BET show Rap City to promote the record, and offered his interpretation on the rumours of a fall out with Jay: “It isn’t like me and Jay Z always vibed. I ain’t got no beef with Jay Z and I always wish him the best of luck in anything he does but it isn’t like me and him always clicked. There was a lot of stuff they did at Roc-A-Fella which they didn’t include The Diplomats on a bunch of different things from tours, I don’t expect to get included on a lot of stuff but when you’ve got Roc-A-Fella artists and you’re supposed to be on Roc-A-Fella and you don’t invite us, it’s just like whatever. With me, I’m off the label”.

Cam expanded on that in a 2013 interview with Power 105.1’s  The Breakfast Club: “When I got over there, they were already were established. Dame did a favour for me while I was in a bad deal with Sony and he did me a favour bringing me over there because that was my man since 10 or 11 years old. When I got there [I was] very polite because they already had their situation pretty much established. I’d see Jay at the studio and I’d be like, “Let’s do a song, let’s do this” and he’ll just look at me like …just like that and I’m like, ‘alright’, you know what I mean? And we just started heating up. He put himself on a couple records but I wasn’t feeling what he did so I took him off the song.”

That song was ‘Oh Boy’, with suggestions made that Cam was uncomfortable including the verse because it contained a dis to Jay’s then-nemesis Nas. Juelz Santana recalled the incident to in 2011:. “[At this point] we was wondering why he didn’t want to jump on records that he could’ve jumped on already. So ‘Oh Boy’ is already out of this world, gettin’ probably like 10,000 spins. So we walk up into the studio room, and we’re like, ‘What’s the surprise?’ and [Young] Guru pulls up ‘Oh Boy,’ with a Jay-Z verse. On top of the Jay-Z verse, he’s dissing Nas! Cam made [Guru] erase the verse…to the point where Cam told Guru, ‘You better erase that, I don’t ever want to hear that’.”

In any event, Cam was done with the Roc, and though his output of albums, EPs and mixtapes since have often been excellent and rarely less than credible, he’d never again hit the same heights as he did on Purple Haze.

That the album’s reputation grows year after year is no surprise. Cam’s lyricism is so dense and his rhyming style so intricate, it takes listen-after-listen to unravel its complexity. Each play through today reminds us of a time when a brattish and extrovert MC defied convention and held a legitimate claim to be the Best Rapper Alive, right before Lil Wayne made the title a thing.

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