October 25, 2002. I was a 15-year-old sophomore at Northeast High in Philly, wearing my biggest throwback jersey and New Era fitted hat and cutting school. Most of the kids in my school were cutting on that special Friday because Paid In Full was premiering in theaters. In that one hour and thirty seven minutes, I was enlightened about the rise and fall of Mekhi Phifer, Wood Harris, and Cam’ron as Mitch, Ace, and Rico respectively, three Harlem drug dealers whose street tales would go on to shape an entire generation like Scarface and The Godfather did before them. The film prompted me to find out about the real life story of Azie “AZ” Faison, Alpo Martinez, and Rich Porter, whose crimes back in the 1980s were the stuff of street legend.
But this day was important for another reason. Long before we had torrent sites and download pages, we had the local mixtape man, and that morning, he sold me a bootleg copy of what I consider the last great movie soundtrack of my generation.
In the late 1990s-early aughts, Jay-Z transcended from popular Brooklyn rapper to top-tier artist and entrepreneur. Alongside the living embodiment of braggadocio in Damon “Dame” Dash and the highly-respected Kareem “Biggs” Burke, he built Roc-A-Fella Records, which became more than just a self-sustaining entity to host his rap career. The trio seemed to strike gold in the City of Brotherly Love after finding the wave of artists to carry the label to the next level: Beanie Sigel and State Property, Freeway, the Young Gunz in Chris and Neef, Oschino, Sparks, and Peedi Crakk.
The label had a cult following in Philadelphia. It was the first time we saw people we knew and related to on music’s biggest stage, and following the release of the film State Property earlier that year, anything the Roc did had the city’s full support.
We flooded the theaters to see Paid In Full, but it was the soundtrack many of us had in our Walkman CD players and cars—Dame Dash Presents Paid In Full/Dream Team—that resonated on another level entirely.
The project was a double-disc compilation, the first part featuring the music that shaped the scene and culture of 1980s Uptown New York, and the second consisting of songs from Roc-A-Fella artists, mixtape-style. While many may have dismissed the first disc, the songs set the stage for Paid In Full and allowed you to fully understand why dudes loved the game and the hustle, why you needed the Gold BBS rims on the droptop, and why you had to hit “the stage” every weekend. “I Got It Made” by Special Ed, “The Show” by Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick, and the title track “Paid In Full” by Eric.B and Rakim introduced me to a lifestyle and energy of an era from before I was born.
The second half was something I was all too familiar with. Mixtapes ran rap music back then, and the Dream Team portion of the soundtrack and its sequencing was everything rap culture embodied in 2002. Posse cuts like “Champions” and “Roc Army” featuring pretty much every rapper on Roc-A-Fella’s roster set the tone, while the introduction of then-newly signed Cam’ron and The Diplomats had them shine on “I’m Ready” and “I Am Dame Dash.” State Property made sure they were represented with tracks like “Home Of Philly,” “One For Peedi Crakk,” and “On & Poppin’.” And we can’t forget the legendary performance that is “Alright” by Allen Anthony.
Paid In Full has given the culture so much in the last 15 years, and continues to influence the masses. Cam’ron’s performance as Rico is the stuff of legend, as we all know we never want to be a “Kermit The Frog Face A** Ni**a.” Apparently, people “get shot every day,” and Keisha and Mitch taught us that it doesn’t matter if you’re boring if she’s boring, too. But it’s the soundtrack that captures not one, but two moments in time, taking us to the 1980s streets and early 2000s of hip-hop. No soundtrack since has done quite so much.