In 1995, Tha Dogg Pound—comprised of Daz Dillinger and Kurupt—released a music video for their single “New York, New York” featuring Snoop Dogg. The song, which was initially meant to be a tribute to the birthplace of hip-hop culture, took a turn after three Death Row Records members were shot at while filming in New York. The final version of the video featured Snoop and Tha Dogg Pound kicking down skyscraper buildings in New York.
At the height of the East Coast-West Coast hip-hop rivalry, which was headlined by Death Row and Bad Boy Records, an appropriate response would be necessary. While Tupac and Biggie would fire shots at each other on records, it was a two rappers from Queensbridge, New York—Capone and Noreaga—who would inject themselves into the proceedings with an aptly named single called “L.A., L.A.”
With guest appearances from fellow Queensbridge mates Mobb Deep and Tragedy Khadafi, “L.A., L.A.” is one of the most quintessential New York street records of the ‘90s. And just so there was no subtlety to it being a response record, the music video featured members of Tha Dogg Pound being kidnapped, thrown into a trunk of the car, and thrown over a New York bridge.
“L.A., L.A.” was an incredible track, but it wasn’t just a blip from Capone-N-Noreaga. Instead, it was one of the many songs that made their 1997 album The War Report one of the best hip-hop debuts of all time. The fact that it was released two weeks after Puff Daddy’s “No Way Out” provided a perfect juxtaposition of choices for the average hip-hop fan. If you wanted to be part of the Shiny Suit era and immerse yourself in the merging of pop and hip-hop, Puffy was your gateway drug. But if you wanted a rugged, underground record, The War Report was the street classic you embraced.
Capone and Noreaga met while serving sentences at New York’s Greenhaven Prison in 1992. Recognizing there was a mutual interest in music, the two formed what would soon become one of the greatest rap duos of all time. In 1995, the pair appeared in The Source’s Unsigned Hype column — Capone was the authoritative voice on records, and a stronger rapper structurally, while Noreaga had an unorthodox, charismatic style that worked perfectly as the main voice on The War Report.
If albums like Ready to Die, Reasonable Doubt, Illmatic and Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) are considered classics, The War Report should rank in its rightful place beside them. A first person account of life in the projects and the struggle that takes place in the boroughs of New York, the album has enough soul to give it staying power. The album recording took place over several years; when a parole violation landed Capone back in jail, Noreaga had to see the album through to its completion on his own.
With the assist of his Queensbridge mates, Noreaga did just that, and because of the dynamics of how the album recording process came together, there are plenty of documentarial moments on the record—like jail phone calls with Capone—that helped define The War Report as the definitive East Coast street album. From the very first track after the intro, “Bloody Money,” the tone is set by Noreaga, who raps “Put the bogey out in your face, now your face laced like ash tray face,” over a sinister EZ Elpee beat. To this day, hearing the chorus, (“New York get the bloody money, dirty cash, live n—– who smoke weed, car seat stash, you monkeys walk, I’m hunchback, sneak quiet, talk about me, gossip, scared to death when I pop up”) still brings back memories of the first time I put this album into my Discman.
Tragedy Khadafi—an unofficial third member of the group—is featured on more than a handful of tracks on the album, and lends a lyrical power-up to the group. The production was a standout as well, with everyone from DJ Clark Kent, Buckwild, Lord Finesse and Marley Marl contributing. Most notably, the Hitmen—who were leading producers for Bad Boy Record—were responsible for two of the best tracks on the album: “Driver’s Seat” and “T.O.N.Y. (Top of New York).”
Ah. Yes. “T.O.N.Y.” A song that we have to talk about. A personal favourite and considered by many to be the definitive New York anthem of the time, “T.O.N.Y.” captured all of the best qualities of Capone and Noreaga, with Nore setting the tone and Capone coming in for the kill (“I did it for the cash your honor, traffickin’ across the Verrazano, coke and marijuana”) and with a worthy closing verse from Tragedy.
The chorus highlights the unique language that the duo pushed on records. Noreaga, inspired by Operation Desert Storm several years earlier, started to name neighborhoods after the Middle East. LeFrak City, a neighborhood in Queens, became Iraq. Queensbridge was Kuwait. This pitch-perfect song was arguably the blueprint for the type of song every street rapper in New York at the time would try to recreate for the next several years.
Despite the album often being hailed as an underground record, it also succeeded commercially, appearing on the U.S. Billboard 200 and peaking at fourth on Billboard’s Top R&B/ Hip-Hop albums list. The influence of The War Report can be seen and heard across plenty of East Coast albums that followed. Listen to groups like G-Unit, the Ruff Ryders and Dipset, and there are homages and inspirations from Capone and Noreaga. To put together a quintessential street record meant you met the expectations in The War Report.
Two decades after the album’s release, Noreaga summed up The War Report’s definitive sound for the culture website, Mass Appeal:
“It was the beginning of the shiny suit era. We wore our army fatigues and we were completely different from that. And for us to stand the test of time is great. I remember back then it was us and Bad Boy being played in the club. Nobody else. You had to fight to get those slots or on a playlist. You had Nas out. You had Mobb Deep and something like that. But for us to come out so hard during that shiny suit era and blow up, it was a blessing.”
Victor Santiago, Jr. a.k.a Noreaga or N.O.R.E
Two decades later, The War Report remains an all-time classic.