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As Tony Yayo and Young Buck ramp up for the March 3 release of G-Unit’s latest EP, The Beast Is G-Unit, one word seems to keep popping up. Humility. Interviewers are thanked. Yayo has taken to saying, “Humility is the new gangsta,” and says it’s a dream fans are still asking to take selfies with him. The original G-Unit roster has seen Young Buck leave and return, while Kidd Kidd has permanently replaced Game. So while it’s tempting to turn the rollout of G-Unit 3.0 into some type of redemption story that makes for a catchy headline, the talk of the group being undone by their collective hubris isn’t exactly true. The crew, led by the man the New York Times once called “Hip-Hop’s Necessary Nuisance,” has generally been professional, cordial, and respectful. Although, those who found themselves on the receiving end of diss records, knife pokes, and beat downs might object to such a statement.
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So, if a 2014 reunion—followed by the release of two new projects within seven months— isn’t a redemption tale, what explains the renewed interest in all things G-Unit? What caused such a backlash in the first place?
“I think with the Unit, we were so outspoken and didn’t give a fuck when we came into the game, they felt like the beef overshadowed the music,” Yayo says. “We had a lot of issues. You know how you hear, ‘Detroit vs. Everybody’ and ‘New York vs. Everybody?’ It was fuckin’ G-unit against everybody, and that’s how I always felt.”
For all of hip-hop’s anti-authoritarianism, G-Unit’s rise exposed a surprisingly conservative faction within the culture. 50 Cent joked about robbing revered emcees. He and his Queens cohorts hopped on other artist’s instrumentals, transforming confectionery R&B hits into lewd cuts about fellatio. The marketing muscle of Interscope pushed Young Buck past 260,000 in first week sales of his debut, Straight Outta Cashville, on his way to a platinum plaque. Yayo and Lloyd Banks also enjoyed solo commercial success.
So what was G-Unit doing that was so offensive to hip-hop’s sensibilities? Granted, 50 Cent had no patience for political correctness, but he didn’t exactly draw the blueprint for manufactured controversy. A decade before 50 arrived at Aftermath, the label’s architect, Dr. Dre, saw himself on the receiving end of diss records like Luke’s “Cowards In Compton” and Tim Dog’s “Fuck Compton.”
Two of the main charges leveled by hip-hop’s self-proclaimed intelligentsia were that G-Unit lacked reverence for their respected forefathers, and they didn’t offer any material of substance to balance their gaudy materialism. 50’s interpretation of the 48 Laws Of Power meant Fat Joe, Nas, Jadakiss, and anyone who sided with Ja Rule was a target. He would later admit as much, but there’s no Geneva Code in rap beef. If you were Tony Yayo or Lloyd Banks, who both knew 50 Cent prior to his Columbia Records, pre-shooting days, where would your loyalties lie? The same logic applied to Young Buck, who 50 helped become a millionaire after befriending the Nashville native in the wake of botched deals with Cash Money Records and Juvenile’s UTP imprint. In terms of G-Unit’s respect for the generations of classic hip-hop that birthed them, the perception didn’t match the reality.
“I can listen to Illmatic or “The Purple Tape,” and it brings me back to a time when I was younger,” Yayo says. “It’s classic hip-hop. Right now, I’m on my ‘90s joints. I had Illmatic in my car since last year. That was the shit I was listening to all day.”
G-Unit employed their own brand of trickle-down economics, providing jobs to people of color in their communities and beyond. Yet, for outside critics, the focus remained on sales projections and beef. Without a signature, “socially conscious” song, the articulated anger of rhyming, “Fuck the police / They killed Sean Bell” fell on deaf ears.
“One of my good friends I went to high school with, Monty; he was close with Sean Bell,” Yayo explains. “When Sean Bell got killed, that really hit home. When police are killing our young, black brothers in the street, of course we have to be the ones to talk about it.”
It begs the question: how much of the last eight years was a humbling of G-Unit, or were they just susceptible to the same societal conditions as their listeners?
The cratering of the major label record industry and 2009’s economic downturn put an end to a lot of flossing. Meanwhile, special task forces were being created to profile rappers. Millionaire rappers could be profiled just like listeners, and they weren’t immune to financial trouble either. In the midst of some misunderstandings within the group, Young Buck found himself the target of an IRS raid for tax debts, a bankruptcy filing, and a weapons possession charge.
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“I used my time in prison to regroup and get myself together,” Young Buck says of his 14-month stint in Yazoo City Federal Prison. “The fans keep me going, and honestly just being counted out. The hate. It’s like fuel to the fire. To know that you’re better than what some people project you as or try to make you out to be, it’s always motivation to be able to do what you’re doing better.”
Time and perspective can change a lot. After various group members lashed out at each other—with 50 Cent’s comparison of the Unit to spoiled milk arguably being the most egregious—one fact remained.
“As you get older, you look at it differently like, ‘God blessed us,’” Yayo says. “You get a little more humble. We can take care of our families and friends. We’ve got houses and cars. I would never call material things blessings, but the people whose lives we changed.”
In June 2014, 50 Cent and G-Unit reunited at Hot 97’s Summer Jam seemingly without missing a beat. They reconnected, and hunkered down in 50’s Conn. mansion, where they knocked out dozens of songs in a matter of weeks. The result was their August 2014 EP, The Beauty Of Independence. What would’ve once been a free mixtape, was now packaged for iTunes, and still bowed with a Top 20 Billboard debut. Their personal ideologies evolved with time, and they upgraded their hustle for the digital age.
“I think the system of records and how they’re being played now has changed as well,” Buck offers. “It used to be a system of putting the record out and going to radio. I think a lot of records are being dictated by the club.”
While there will be no formulaic records like an “In Da Club” sequel, things seem to have come full circle. Seemingly pointless beefs with the likes of Jadakiss and Fat Joe were squashed. Respectively hearing Yayo and Buck beam about Illmatic and getting love from Bun B makes it pretty clear they respect the cultural foundation laid before they arrived—regardless of the SoundScan numbers. Commentary about what’s going on in the streets fulfills part of a larger goal.
“When you see Sean Bell getting shot, or Mike Brown getting shot in the head, it’s like, ‘Man, when does it stop?’” Yayo says. “I have a 16-year-old kid, and I can just imagine if he was still in the hood. Would he be a victim, too? We’re the OGs, so we have to pave the way for other artists and other dudes in the street. This is getting people out of streets and feeding families. That’s one thing about hip-hop. Yeah, I love music, but music feeds a lot of families and takes care of a lot of people. So it’s about the marathon and still being here.”