When Supreme collaborated with Capone-N-Noreaga recently, a lot of people who spend the best part of the ’90s in kindergarten started wondering aloud, "who are they, though?" The hip-hop duo consists of Capone and N.O.R.E. (formerly Noreaga), who teamed up together in 1995 and hail from Queens, New York.
As the largest borough in New York, Queens’ veritable heritage in hip hop history is essential. Considering its past, the southwestern district seems to be an incubator for rap ingenuity. From Kool G Rap to Nasty Nas to Mobb Deep’s Havoc and Prodigy, each respective legacy has been paved in the streets of what is still the most ethnically diverse urban area in the world.
Two legacies in particular, those of rappers Capone and N.O.R.E., are especially vital. Having originally appeared in The Source Magazine’s Unsigned Hype column in October 1995, the pair were responsible for reinvigorating East Coast’s underground gangsta rap community. The release of their seminal 1996 debut, The War Report, on Penalty Entertainment (formerly Penalty Recordings) received critical and commercial acclaim despite its arresting lyrical themes concentrated on the duo’s real life experiences with drug and gang violence.
Two decades later and a convoluted slew of releases later, Capone-N-Noreaga celebrated The War Report’s twentieth anniversary with an exclusive collaboration with Supreme for their FW16 seasonal delivery. In light of this, it only seems fitting to reacquaint ourselves with Capone-N-Noreaga’s ancestry and how one of hip-hop’s most lauded partnerships came to be.
The Rap Duo Met While Serving Time in Prison
Back in 1992, Victor ‘Noreaga’ Santiago met Kiam ‘Capone’ Holley in New York’s Greenhaven Prison, serving time for unrelated attempted murder cases. They were both from Queens and established equal grounds for their love of basketball. Holley had already secured his Capone alias as a local DJ years earlier, but it was the pair’s time in prison where Santiago acquired his own rap moniker.
“I read a book up North (prison) and they used to call me Noreaga here and there,” N.O.R.E. explains in an interview with Kronick Magazine. “That book was so large that people in my house [cell block] thought I wasn't gonna read it. So after I read it, my peoples tested me on it and said I was the name of the book.” Noreaga, a name inspired by his readings on Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, was the title Holley would introduce his future partner as in social circles.
Yet, despite their instant kinship in lockup, it wasn’t until years later that the C.N.N. institution was founded. Holley had made his parole, leaving Santiago to complete his sentence alone. Neither knew the other could rap during their time inside.
They Are Both Associated With the Five-Percent Nation
Originally founded by Clarence Smith in Harlem, New York in 1964, The Five Percent Nation (also referred to as the Nation of Gods and Earths) was a derivative of activist Malcolm X’s Islamic teachings. The cultural movement explores the concept that black people are the original founders of planet earth and are therefore the fathers (Gods) and mothers (Earths) of civilization.
Over the years, the organization has influenced the likes of Jay-Z, Jay Electronica, Wu-Tang Clan, Big Daddy Kane, Common and Nas. The Five Percenters are also innovators behind early hip-hop slang including "'sup G'," "word is bond," "droppin' science" and "represent." On 1997’s The War Room, Capone’s multiple references to the Five-Percent Nation and street-savvy wordplay aided in cementing the group’s notoriety in New York’s underground hip-hop community.
Capone Was Habitually Incarcerated Before an Album Was Finished
Despite forging a lucrative career as the undisputed saviors of East Coast rap, Capone regularly found himself returning to jail. In 1996, before The War Report dropped, Capone was imprisoned for a parole violation, leaving Noreaga to complete the record with the assistance of Mobb Deep and Tragedy Khadafi.
Upon his release, the duo reconvened to work on their followup record, The Reunion. Capone remained present throughout the production stage, yet he was sent to prison once again for violating a probation sentence on gun possession just before the record was set to be released. Arguably, both stints in confinement weakened Capone’N’Noreaga’s commercial appeal, but strengthened the pair’s street credibility.
Tommy Boy Owns the Rights to the Capone-N-Noreaga Brand
Following the release of 2000’s The Reunion, Capone and Noreaga became disillusioned by their move to Tommy Boy Records (now Tommy Boy Entertainment). The record received mixed reviews, partially due to the hip hop’s cultural shift away from ’90s boom bap, and partially due to Capone’s imprisonment.
In 2001, the group made the decision to divorce from Tommy Boy and marry to Def Jam Recordings. However, from this fallout with Tommy Boy, the pair lost all rights to the Capone-N-Noreaga name. Their former label claimed that by breaking their contract early, the duo still owed Tommy Boy more Capone-N-Noreaga recordings. Consequently, the group abbreviated their name to C.N.N. and Noreaga from then on has been billed as N.O.R.E., which is an acronym for ‘Niggaz On (the) Run Eatin’.
Tragedy Khadafi Is an Unofficial Third Member
Tragedy Khadafi has never been officially instated as a permanent member of Capone-N-Noreaga. And, until listening to Mobb Deep’s "Shook Ones" for the first time, the rapper and producer dogmatically shunned the idea of hip-hop emcees uniting as a group. But almost every Capone-N-Noreaga fan appreciates that The War Report would not be as critically acclaimed today if not for Tragedy’s contribution.
Not only does he share production credits alongside the likes of Marley Marl, DJ Clark Kent and Buckwild, but Tragedy’s lyrical flow is featured on over half of The War Report’s twenty track running time. In fact, due to his untimely incarceration, Tragedy (formerly known as Intelligent Hoodlum) makes more appearances on the record than that of Capone. The threesome remain close collaborators to this day.
'The War Report' Killed Off "Mafioso Rap"
With connotations to the Five-Percent Nation, references to militant gang violence and candid retellings of the pair’s illegal pastimes, The War Report is reputedly credited as a defining hardcore hip-hop record that contributed in reviving East Coast’s gangsta rap aesthetic and dismantled the ever-increasing commerciality of mafioso rap.
Succeeding Kool G Rap’s mafioso inspired 4,5,6 record in 1995 and amidst the pinnacle of Puff Daddy’s Bad Boy Entertainment flirtations with the mainstream between 1996 and 1997, the sub-genre was becoming significantly characterless and lacked any footing in reality.
It was Capone and Noreaga, however, that reinstalled hip-hop’s affiliation with inner-city struggles. As a document, The War Report is an unashamedly barbaric narration of working class life in Queens and legitimizes the group’s scandalous criminal behavior. It was a much desired return to an underground sound that permitted acts such as DMX, 50 Cent and Jadakiss to profit from in the mainstream market years later.
The Group Further Fueled the Rivalry Between East and West Coast Rap Crews
The rivalry between East Coast and West Coast rap artists has been heavily documented over the past two decades. At the feud’s peak, conflicts between labels such as Death Row and Bad Boy Entertainment seized media headlines almost on a daily basis.
Capone and N.O.R.E.’s contribution to the controversy was a direct retaliation to Snoop Dogg and Tha Dogg Pound’s single, "New York, New York." Snoop’s diss track was a calculated satire of East Coast’s waning credibility in the hip-hop scene, instrumentally mocking a Notorious B.I.G.’s beat used on a St. Ides TV ad.
Capone-N-Noreaga responded to Tha Dogg Pound’s single with their own rendition, "L.A. L.A.," featuring Tragedy Khadafi and Mobb Deep. The video for the single shows the rappers assumedly kidnapping members of Tha Dogg Pound, forcing them in to the trunk of a car before teeing them up and throwing them off a New York bridge.
Altercations between the coasts continued throughout the ’90s and in to the early 2000s with Capone and N.O.R.E. on the frontline.
The Pair Are Deceptively Prolific in Output
While the success of The War Report frequently eclipses their subsequent creative output, Capone and Noreaga have both collectively and individually released over twenty records. As Capone-N-Noreaga, they have produced five studio albums and two mixtapes with last year’s long-player, Lessons, which was the first album to be released on Penalty Records since their 1997 debut.
Capone’s solo efforts include 2005’s Pain, Time and Glory and his track, "I Need Speed," was featured on Need For Speed Underground 2 back in 2004. N.O.R.E.’s success as a solo artist has seen him chart on the Billboard Hot 100 with Neptunes produced track Superthug and his biggest release to date, 2002’s "Nothin'." He boasts six studio albums, five mixtapes and has founded his own label imprint, Militainment Business.
N.O.R.E. May Have "Retired" to Help Build His Good Belt Gang Project
N.O.R.E.’s personal contribution to hip-hop is particularly comprehensive. However, following the mixed reaction by fans that he would be changing his name to P.A.P.I. (an acronym for Power Always Proves Intelligence) in 2013, Santiago informed MTV that his next album, Melvyn Flynt II: Da Final Hustle would be his final album in order to focus solely on his chief executive role at Militainment.
Three years have passed, and the record is yet to surface with only a post from Santiago’s Twitter account stating "New and last album in July!!!" followed by "Melvyn 2? or N.O.R.E. 2?" to go by as evidence of its existence. Regardless, N.O.R.E. continues to work closely with emcees including Yung Reallie, Vado, City Boy Dee and Money Ming whom are all involved with his ongoing group project, Good Belt Gang.
Their mixtape, Resource Room, was released in February 2014 to critical acclaim and featured spots from notable hip-hop magnates such as Busta Rhymes and Action Bronson. “Good Belt Gang is where my heart is at,” N.O.R.E. told Penalty Entertainment, “I’m happy to be able to help birth the careers of some very dope and creative artists and I’m super hyped to be doing it along with Penalty.”
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