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Not for nothing are Capone and Noreaga posed on the cover of 1997’s stellar The War Report in Timberland boots and fatigues: The brolic rhymes and murky sounds — all trunk-rattling bass and angular soul slabs — boldly announce that they got it out the mud. But they flex their street bona fides with cocksure ease, making every gully line feel buoyant and joyful and somehow palatable to both all-day corner standers and artsy types willing to blow a few bands on a deadstock Supreme tee. Their 1996 single “Stick You” is a robbing-season manifesto whose twinkling piano gives it a moody gangster-flick ambiance — it’s the aural equivalent to some loud-ass project kids acting up in a theater that only screens art films.
There’s a protean quality to CNN’s music. But they’re not the art school-friendly rappers with block-approved bangers that are seemingly tailor-made for music critics (their Queens contemporaries Mobb Deep are closer to that ideal, and the Clipse are precisely that). Their multidimensionality is evident in Noreaga’s humor, his quirkiness. When on “Stick You” he tells an opp he tied up to “stay there,” it’s like an uncomfortably humorous around-the-way riff on Snickers’ “not going anywhere for a while?” slogan. (It’s also laugh-out-loud funny when, in the next line, he for some reason calls a snitch, who might have cost him his life, a “Power Ranger,” as if violent betrayals were as harmless to him as an after-school kids show.) This offbeat quality makes CNN’s songs feel like aggressive but playful G-checks from a couple of rough-and-tumble dudes who might roof your new sneakers but buy you a slice afterward.
Though he’s not as present on the album (he got knocked for violating his parole while the group was doing promo), Capone is the soft-spoken straight man of the duo; his husky musings — expressive and even-tempered — play a calm counterpoint to Noreaga’s jovial thug theatrics. (His flow is taut and in-pocket, whereas Noreaga’s is loose and chaotic.) Capone’s verse on the sinister “Neva Die Alone” is a deft display of internal rhymes (“Back to business / Pump ’til the pack finished / Stack spinach / Mad bent, crash renters”) about the frenzied ennui of the daily hustle, wherein everything from the dice games to the scary-hours corner meetups gets depicted in granular detail.
Meanwhile, Noreaga’s free-associative word salad (wherein icepicks, Nazis, Saddam Hussein and WrestleMania all share the same psychic space with a stoic avowal to stack C.R.E.A.M.) gives “Neva Die Alone” an exquisite hood flourish, which boosts its intensity and — coupled with Capone’s raspy reveries — makes for a classic and serendipitous combo, like a cooked-on-a-radiator grilled cheese sandwich if the bread were, thoughtlessly, brioche.
Juice Crew Legend and CNN mentor Tragedy Khadafi, recalling the first time he heard Noreaga rhyme in a podcast interview with Drink Champs, said, “l couldn’t put him together right away in my mind. I couldn’t grasp it. You know what I’m sayin’. He was just wild. His shit was just all over the place. But it was raw. His voice sounds bugged to me. It’s so over there.”
“[Capone],” Tragedy continued, “is nice. But ’Pone has that Queensbridge vein in him. N.O.R.E. came from a place… it’s different. So it’s like, more or less, he the father of his style.”
It’s worth noting that Capone’s voice — like a cool straight razor scraping velvet — is one of the better ones in rap; he sounds like an old-world Sicilian mafioso who took time out of his hectic schedule just to kick it in the trenches and put you onto game.
Noreaga strikes you as the guy who goes out and busts heads, makes salat, gets brain in the whip, then brings it back to the ave to shoot the shit. He’s so jacked into his world that he can’t be bothered to sit still long enough to expertly describe it. So he carries it like a LeFrak City savant moonlighting as a scatter-brained live wire. His unhinged bars achieve an ironic, smart-dumb dichotomy that has undoubtedly stood the test of time.
Top-tier lyricism presupposes a kind of balance, a perfect symmetry, if you will. (The words you include are just as important as the ones you exclude). The narratives of our very best MCs may be jangled, even abstract. But they nearly always register, at the end of the day, as straightforward doses of reality. The War Report is a classic in large part because of its loopy obliqueness. It’s not oblique in the way of, say, Supreme Clientele or Madvillainy, where, disjointed verbiage aside, there’s always a crystalline lyrical blueprint somewhere at play. But these 20 songs convey passion and hunger in ways that feel anarchic, electric and alive.
Just looking at old ’90s episodes of Rap City, you’ll see scores of videos from crews, many of them Capone-N-Noreaga’s contemporaries, who were so doggedly of the moment that there was nothing unique or transcendent about them — just a rambling blur of primary-color Hilfiger gear and “Word to my mother, son!” ejaculations. Anyone looking at this today might consider them also-rans trying to hold onto the cool they once exuded.
Yet history is written by the winners; they may not have reaped the instant benefits of, say, a “Quotable of the Month” in The Source (like too many of those glorified weed carriers in the videos did by being over-the-top versions of whatever archetype was in vogue at that time, be it the lyrical-miracle MC or caricatured Thug Life stand-in). Had they come out a couple of years earlier, Capone-N-Noreaga may have been overlooked or even dismissed (for not being brooding, deadly serious existentialists like Mobb Deep, or God-level rhyme technicians like Nas). CNN are winners. Their stunning debut epitomizes a kind of warped humanism, which makes their sound immortal, unimpeachable — the most authentic shit ever.
It was the perfect storm in June 1997 when Capone-N-Noreaga blessed the culture with The War Report, which came through like the perfect pair of waterproof 40 Belows. East Coast rap at the beginning of Clinton’s second term was in the middle of a bittersweet transition. Bad Boy dominated the charts, with no fewer than four smash singles right around the time the world got hip to these grimy MCs from the borough made famous by Archie Bunker and Prince Akeem.
Though he’d showcased both his business acumen and impeccable ear — immortalized that spring on B.I.G.’s posthumous masterpiece, Life After Death — Puff Daddy set a climate-shifting precedent that left fans of hip-hop from the Big Apple divided: either fall in line with his flossy, shiny-suit antics or thug it out with MCs who made subterranean soundtracks for long-ass subway commutes. But when CNN dropped their bleak, triumphant single “T.O.N.Y.” at the top of 1997, it served as a multivalent gift: a gritty street single that cracked the mainstream, peaking at No. 16 on Billboard’s Hot Rap Singles chart. Suddenly, fatigues-rocking goons were potentially on the radar of the average Spice Girls fan.
Biggie himself wanted to sign at least one half of CNN. In a 2018 interview with New York’s Hot 97, Noreaga revealed that Biggie offered Capone a deal after hearing him freestyle in front of the station. It makes sense: Capone — on deep cut “Black Gangstas,” for instance — spits slick stanzas (“For Jake, I hold weight, plus gats in greater sizes / Bulletproof down to my Nike’s now who the livest”) that sometimes sound as though they may have been inspired by B.I.G.
As for Noreaga, well, he was arguably the hottest MC in the game in 1997. DMX was already well on his way to becoming a megastar; Jay was one album away from reemerging as a household name; and Jadakiss was busy trying to split the uneasy difference between gritty streets savior and pop-friendly mainstay. In the interim, Noreaga emerged as a ravenous upstart possessed with a beefy, hyperactive tone that took over the airwaves and effectively conquered the mixtape circuit.
The moment was long overdue. Before invading NY (and other parts of the globe) as purveyors of hardcore hip-hop, Victor “Noreaga” Santiago and Kiam “Capone” Holley first had to conquer the miserable confines of Green Haven prison, where, in 1992, they instantly bonded over their mutual love of basketball. Having discovered that they also both rhymed, Capone propositioned Noreaga, who’d come home from prison shortly after his future partner in rhyme, about making music full-time.
Capone had already been recording with hometown hero Tragedy Khadafi (formerly known, in the early ’90s, as Intelligent Hoodlum). Meanwhile, Noreaga still had one foot in the streets. “I used to be wildin’ in LeFrak and Trag used to always see me and he’d always try to take me to the studio and he be like, ‘Yo, fuck this street shit,’” Noreaga told The Source in 1997.
Once he decided to swap the G-packs for ADATs, Noreaga was fully on board. The duo completed their demo, which would land them a slot in The Source’s “Unsigned Hype” column in 1995. That soon led to a contract from Penalty Records, where they released their first single in 1996, the 12-inch “Illegal Life,” which also included “Stick You,” and the Marley Marl-produced answer record “L.A., L.A. (Kuwait Mix).” They were right on the cusp of crafting one of the legit landmark albums of the late ’90s.
Despite (unfair) comparisons to Prodigy and Havoc (Capone said on an episode of Drink Champs that he and Noreaga were regarded early on as “Mobb Deep rejects”), CNN were the real McCoy. They tapped into the youthful vibrancy of ’90s NYC while making inventive overtures to other parts of the world — an act locally, think globally mind state that resonated with listeners from all over (this, after all, is the same named-after-a-network clique who dubbed their section of the borough Iraq).
You didn’t have to be from Queens (or the Middle East, for that matter) to jive with the frenetic juvenilia of songs like “Driver’s Seat,” with its ecstatic rush of non-sequiturs, which somehow capture the directionless glee of everyday existence for people with underdeveloped prefrontal cortexes.
In a 2010 interview with Complex, Capone described the sessions for their classic single “Bloody Money,” which, in his telling, sound as though they were one blissful blur of youthful bravado. “We don’t even know how the album would have sounded if we was trying to be professional in the studio,” he said. “The studio was a straight zoo.” The violence in the song is overridden by its inimitable vigor — propelled by a catchy hook — evoking exuberant idle-time angst, which has long been a theme in popular music, from The Infamous’ “Trife Life” to the Ramones’ “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue.”
What also distinguishes The War Report as a first-rate rap album is its immaculate production. Next to the saccharine samples from popular ’70s hits, which captivated the mainstream in the late ’90s, the beats on CNN’s opus served as a glorious callback to NYC’s gritty roots. Nashiem Myrick’s mastery of the boards on the aforementioned “Driver’s Seat” — all loping bass and soul-puncturing moans — invokes Gotham’s peak digging-in-the-crates era. (Noreaga seems so in tune with the rugged Rotten Apple vibes, he name-checks the producer at the end of his verse, bragging, “Nashiem, he laced this beat on some East Coast shit.”) The filtered sample — buoyed by stutter-stepping snares — is as gloriously cruddy as the weathered signage on your favorite bodega.
The obscure Middle Eastern sample Havoc flips on “Illegal Life” is both a throwback to the days of soaking off vinyl labels in Bronx bathtubs and a forecast for rap’s globe-conquering impact. Noreaga’s breakdown of his first single’s fascinating origin story reads like a record collector’s wet dream. He told Complex in 2010, “I believe me and Trag was hanging out somewhere and we heard this record. It was an Arabic song. I think we were getting some heroes and the Arabic dude in the store was playing the record and dancing.”
“I think Trag actually found the record,” he continued, “I don’t remember how, but he did and we brought it to Havoc and the rest is history … But the people who actually made the record probably don’t know that we sampled it. They probably could indicate that there is some sounds on there but the way Havoc touched on it, he took that sample and made it his own.”
As much as we’ve already addressed the (arresting) lyricism on display here, it can’t be stressed enough how muscular Noreaga’s bars are on “T.O.N.Y.,” where he blesses us with one of the coldest lines in the canon: “Niggas tried to shit on me and make history.” It’s like a Gen X take on Twain’s “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated” assurance. The brashness of his minimalist couplets — a motley mix of threats, sneering sacrilege and Arabic incantations — is akin to an auditory snapshot of the scene in Juice where Pac’s character gets amped off James Cagney’s “Top of the world!” spiel in White Heat. If Noreaga’s the bad guy, you willingly want to root for him on “T.O.N.Y.”
And while everyone on “L.A., L.A. (Kuwait Mix)” eats, Capone’s verse is packed with more low-key gems than an all-night barber’s-chair monologue. He gives you a sobering analysis of the downsides to the illegal life (“What’s the use of heat, with no dough to flee the street / Caught a case with no trace, the end, you’re dead meat”), sporting a nimble flow that keeps you fully engaged. We all know, by now, the story of how Prodigy’s verse got pulled at the last minute, due to some actual beef brewing between him and Pac. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed to ensure that this buzzworthy response to Snoop and company’s “we crushed the buildings” salvo kept shit cordial. Capone’s cautionary tale makes this an urgent and respectable relic of rap history.
Keeping it more hood than a jammed-up token slot on a turnstile, Capone-N-Noreaga set a new paradigm for hard-core hip-hop. Mixing Rorschach-like brain farts with God-body terminology and sui generis slang, they took a page from the Wu manual and expanded on the enlightened hard-rock aesthetic, influencing everyone from Jay Electronica to Conway the Machine.
The War Report is a timeless collection of jubilant wild-out anthems and sobering correspondence from the front lines. Capone-N-Noreaga’s unlikely come-up is encapsulated in nearly every giddy banger. With zero compromises, they bogarted a scene that was tired of pretty-boy posing and R&B chicks over bullshit tracks. Those boots (that Capone and Noreaga rock on the album cover) were certainly made for stomping a mud hole in the rap game.
Will Dukes is a New York City-based journalist who has been documenting the culture for close to 20 years. His essays, features and reviews have appeared in such publications as Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Stereogum, Mic, The Village Voice, XXL and VIBE.