See The Full Historic Conversation & Cypher Between Mos Def, Big Pun, Canibus & DMX (Video)
Twenty years ago, Hip-Hop was in crosswinds. Microphones were grabbed by emerging voices from across the landscape, geographically, stylistically, and regarding content. As the genre collected itself following the sudden and tragic killings of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, it wanted new sounds, messages, and conversations.
No one could have predicted the significance when DMX, Mos Def (nka Yasiin Bey), Big Pun, Canibus, Mic Geronimo, Fugees affiliate John Forté, and author/journalist Touré sat together for a cypher and nearly hour-long chat on December 18, 1997. One year later, X had not one—but two #1 albums, Pun’s Capital Punishment debut marked the first Latin solo MC to go platinum, Mos Def dazzled the masses as one-half of Black Star, and Canibus dropped his own gold-certified debut. Over drinks in Match Café, the future looked bright.
As the 55-minute video gets underway, Mos Def shares that his father taught him that “ego” stands for “easing God out,” and symbolically means and that life is a fight against one’s self. The table weighs in on the role of ego in their world, as they see it—as compared to sports and other industries. The groups discusses paying dues to build a rep and a career. At 10:00, they analyze “what makes a great MC,” sophomore album slumps and strides, and each rapper’s favorite word (with explanation). The choices span from heartfelt to metaphoric to scientific. In Mos’ he slides in an “ancient mating call” in talking about “Yo!” (Pun’s favorite word). He would use that description in his “Respiration” verse too, which had not yet been released.
DMX, who was arguably in the best position at the time, asks the men if each can kick a lil’ 16 “from the heart” around the 20:00 mark. He’ll get his wish, but later. At 24:00, Canibus, rocking a Lost Boyz’ Love, Peace & Nappiness promotional tee, breaks down the very fresh LL Cool J beef. DMX details what he saw at the “4, 3, 2, 1” studio session: a focused Canibus. Canibus picks up, stating that he respected “all” of his collaborators on that song. DMX, who was a Def Jam label-mate of LL’s in 1997, apparently points out that LL came into the game taking out an O.G. (Kool Moe Dee, who began in the ’70s with The Treacherous Three). Thereby, LL should not be surprised that a hungry artist tried to best him. “Live by the metaphor, die by the metaphor,” says Canibus. Pun and Mos Def seemingly side with Canibus. Mighty Mos says he was not feeling L’s approach at all. As Canibus tells his story, the first Hit Factory Studios meeting between LL and Canibus found both MCs telling each other they wanted to trade places. Canibus explains the controversial tattoo conversation too, presenting a different side than what LL told Drink Champs more than 20 years later. Rather than tell LL Cool J he was getting a mic tattoo, Canibus says he asked permission, stressing that he did not want to bite as much as salute. He says that LL then requested (un-credited) Canibus ad-libs on “Another Dollar” from the same Phenomenon album. A month later, LL Cool J and Violator Management suddenly invited the Refugee Camp All-Stars/Lost Boyz affiliate to actually rap on the album. Canibus says he collected his rhyme notebooks and got in the car service.
According to Canibus, no artists were there when he arrived. Redman, Method Man, Canibus, DMX, then LL Cool J was the order that the MC understood of the song. Canibus claims his original recording began, “Yo Method Man, where the gods at? / Yo Redman, where the Squad at? / Yo L, is that a mic on your arm? Let me borrow that.” In the video, he explains how all three shouts were terms of endearment. According to the account, 48 hours later, LL Cool J accused the MC of playing him, via a phone conversation. He told LL—reportedly verbatim: “Yes, I’m an arrogant ni**a and I get busy when it’s time to get busy, but I’m not stupid! I’m not gonna get on another ni**a’s record and [diss him].” He offered to re-record his verse. LL said he’d do the same.
Mos Def and Canibus get side-tracked, but by 36:30 it’s back on. As Canibus describes re-recording his guest feature, Pun admits he and Fat Joe debated if Canibus was still dissing L in the album version. Canibus admits he regrets not listening to L’s new recording, to see where the MC/actor had taken it. He would hear on a DJ Clue tape, that L had not changed his verse—and put the young MC in the cross-hairs. “Give me a fair one!” touts the rapper. Touré asks what Canibus would say to LL today. “No words,” he says. X equates that to true drama. “You know when there’s beef…there’s no words.” Notably, Mos Def plays with the “What’s beef?” question—something that would later appear in his song lyrics. The rest of the table weighs in. Big Pun brings it back, saying that New York City sees the LL Cool J vs. Canibus situation differently than the rest of the world may.
At 43:00, the cypher begins—as the filming goes from black-and-white to color. Mos Def begins, using elements of his “Re:Definition” verse. After some chatter, DMX goes next. John Forté follows before Mic G goes off the top, weaving in his company. Big Pun kicks much of his “Dream Shatterer” verse, acapella—and the table gives an animated listen. Irv Gotti (tied to Mic G and X) looks on and reacts with a smile too. Cleaning up, Canibus rocks his “Second Round K.O.” scathing reply to LL verse—showing the passion involved in the discussion before. As the table reacts, Canibus kills the applause at one point to maintain focus and continue. The table “oohs” when it all ends, knowing that it’s on.
Years later, Canibus and Mos Def would work together on “Blak Is Blak” (by The Mau Maus). This Spike Lee-orchestrated group included MC Serch, Charli Baltimore, Ganu Grills, and Mums.