This week, Billboard is publishing a series of lists and articles celebrating the music of 20 years ago. Our 2002 Week continues here with the shared memories of Murder Inc. kingpins Irv Gotti and Ja Rule about five enormous hits the latter scored in 2002, a year-long crossover run rivaled by few rappers in the decades since.
“You know what’s funny? A lot of you Murder Inc. fans — those appreciative of our music — are coming out of the woodworks now. It’s cool now to love Murder Inc,” chuckles Irv Gotti, during an hour-long phone conversation with Billboard.
Before being outpaced by 50 Cent and Eminem in 2003-2004, Irv Gotti’s hip-hop conglomerate Murder Inc was an indomitable force, headlined by Ja Rule, Ashanti, and Lloyd. The formula was simple: stymie the competition with undeniable radio hits. After doling out Jennifer Lopez’s Billboard Hot 100-topper “I’m Real (Remix)” and Fat Joe’s “What’s Luv” in 2001, Gotti and Ja Rule leaned on their melodic sound more when they nabbed a rising singer/songwriter in Ashanti to help complete their mainstream heist. At the turn of the year, Ja Rule and Ashanti began their terror as the consummate 1-2 punch in music with “Always on Time,” “Down 4 U,” and “Mesmerize,” all becoming major 2002 Hot 100 hits.
“Clive Davis said to me one time during the drama and beefs, ‘What you and Ja are making, those records are gonna last forever,” remembers Gotti. “He compared Murder Inc. to the modern-day Motown. He said, ‘You guys make Black music. You’re not crossing making white music.” “Always on Time” is a Black f—-g record. Y’all s–t is gonna play forever.'”
Billboard revisits Murder Inc’s epic 2002 run with Irv Gotti and Ja Rule as they break down some of their biggest hits from that year.
Ja Rule feat. Ashanti, “Always on Time” (Hot 100 Peak: No. 1)
Ja Rule: We were kicking around different ideas for that record.
Irv Gotti: That record was a beat crafted by 7 [Aurelius]. I believe he passed it on to Ja.
Ja Rule: Nah Gotti, let me tell you what he did. 7 had this CD and he threw it in the garbage, Gotti. I was like, “Yo, what the f–k are you doing?” He was like, “I ain’t f–k with them s–ts.” I took them s–ts out the garbage and I took it home and wrote three or four records to songs on there. Two of them came to be hits, with one being “Always On Time” and the other being [Mary J. Blige’s] “Rainy Dayz.” I had a studio in my crib.
Irv Gotti: When 7 played the beat, I liked it, but I didn’t give that Gotti reaction that said it was crazy. The reaction after Ja put the verse on it though — after Ja did what he did, I was like, “Oh s–t.” After that, I believe me and Ja talked about putting Ashanti on it.
Ja Rule: We thought about putting other people on it at first, but I was like, “Baby sis [Ashanti] is here and we could do it with her.” She had did one record at that point, which I think was the Big Pun [“How We Roll”] joint, but she didn’t have any visibility on the record. That was a good moment.
Jennifer Lopez feat. Ja Rule & Cadillac Tah, “Ain’t It Funny” (Murder Remix) (Hot 100 Peak: No. 1)
Irv Gotti: In all honesty, for me, I was just f–king with Diddy. We was f—king with Diddy, and everyone knows he’s in this big relationship. I’m like, “We gon’ use Craig Mack and chef that s–t up.” Then Rule made it immortal with “It… must… be the ass!” That may be the greatest opening in remix history.
Ja Rule: As I’m constructing the record… me and Jennifer have had conversations about her situation in another relationship at the time. She was just saying how he wanted to get her back. So when the record came about, it was the hook, and “Ain’t It Funny” was really dope. It resonated with her in a different way, and she really loved the hook.
We did the record and I did the bridge, and it was like a release for Jennifer too, on that record. For me, as a songwriter, that’s what it’s all about. To get into the artist’s psyche and be able to say what they want to say but don’t write.
The funniest part about the record is when I did the “It must be the ass,” it was such a monumental moment, because I took Craig’s whole piece right there. The second verse with Cadillac Tah, I told Caddy, “Now you come in like this, how they came in.” Remember how B.I.G. came in on the Craig Mack [“Flava In Ya Ear”] remix? Cadillac didn’t bite on that and he wanted to do his own thing. I think that would’ve made a whole difference on that record and for Cadillac too. It would’ve been a perfect fit. People don’t realize the nuances in a record that people don’t realize they need until they hear it.
Billboard: Now, looking back on it, I didn’t even peep the Craig reference on that.
Irv Gotti: So now 20 years later, you’re like, “Oh s–t. That’s right!”
Ja Rule: I really jacked his whole flow right there.
Irv Gotti: The video, I wanted her to do the Diddy! Doing the shoulder bop like Diddy with the Kango on. She said, “Gotti, no!” That s–t would’ve been scorching.
They say Diddy [was] staying at the Four Seasons. I know I gotta play the record for him to clear the sample. I pull up on him, he’s like, “What up, Gotti?” He’s already feeling a type of way. I put on the CD, and as soon as he hears that, he’s giving me the side-eye. Then he hears Rule’s s–t, he’s like looking at me hot. He’s giving the crunch face. When it got to the hook, that n—a said, “You motherf–ker” and stormed out to his car. I’m like, “Look! It’s your sample.” Get paid for the sample and make the money, n—a. I think he charged half a million to clear the sample.
If I’m speaking honestly — I’m not good enough to vocally produce J. Lo. That’s not my forte. So what he did, was have J. Lo sing the whole record 20 or 30 times, and he’d use Ashanti like a lot of records. People have background vocalists on the record, even though J. Lo is the lead. It’s common. Ashanti, she wanted “I’m Real” so bad. I was like, “I already made the deal with Tommy [Mottola].” What Corey did was lay J. Lo’s vocals, but the background is all Ashanti.
Ja Rule: Let me just say my job in this situation is done.
Ja Rule feat. Ashanti, “Mesmerize” (Hot 100 Peak: No. 2)
Billboard: With “Mesmerize,” I thought you guys were trying to re-do Grease.
Ja Rule: Absolutely was.
Irv Gotti: I’ma be honest with you, the only n—a that really truly seen it was Lance ‘Un’ Rivera. He’s like, ‘Gotti’s in Grease’. Just like when I did Goodfellas with Ashanti, I thought the marriage between the films was perfect.
Ja Rule: Well I should’ve did Goodfellas and she should’ve did Grease. Nah, f–k that. N—as was mad at me.
Irv Gotti: When n—as watch that video today, they give it up.
Ja Rule: We were talking about earlier how I do shows now and people don’t remember the time and songs they were hating on, like “Wonderful” and “Mesmerize.” “Mesmerize” was a big record, but n—as were hating on me. You would never know that.
Irv Gotti: It went No. 1. [Ed. Note: It reached No. 2 on the Hot 100.] Everything was huge with it.
Ja Rule: I was in my hotel one day on the road and that record came on like some old s–t. [The Stylistics] record came on, “Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart).”
Irv Gotti: During that time, Rule was making those hooks. What was so dope about it was the male and female response. The girls were singing Ashanti’s s–t while the dude’s sang Ja’s s–t. It was a real duet he was making with these hooks. That hook is enormous. He would tell me the hooks and I’d be sitting there shaking like, “This is another one!” It wasn’t a delayed reaction. Only “Always On Time,” I wasn’t in love with it [at first].
Ja Rule, Ashanti, Vita & Charli Baltimore, “Down 4 U” (Hot 100 Peak: No. 6)
Irv Gotti: Those are timeless records. You know what I love, my sister Angie works for NBC. The lead anchor female made Angie call me because she saw the Murder Inc. doc and made sure she told me her high school years were Murder f—-ing Inc. This is great feeling music.
Ja Rule: It was perfect timing. Our music came at a time when it was a lot of house parties going on. Those school jams and s–t were real big. College and all that, we were hitting the party scene. It was moments for them. They remember those moments with those records playing at those parties. They were able to play those same records from middle school to college.
Irv Gotti: The only other label I could say that delivered that kind of music was Bad Boy.
Ja Rule feat. Bobby Brown, “Thug Lovin’” (Billboard Hot 100 Peak: No. 42)
Irv Gotti: Remember in “Down For You,” you see Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston in the video. Bob and Whitney used to run around with Murder Inc. all the time. Bob was family.
Ja Rule: I love Bob, man. I watch a lot of TV and this time, I was watching this movie Bob is in, [1996’s] A Thin Line Between Love And Hate. I’m watching that and Stevie Wonder comes on, I love Stevie. That Stevie joint came on.
Irv Gotti: Did we clear that?
Ja Rule: Yes, we did. Then Bob is in the movie and I’m like, “Oh s–t, that’s who should sing that s–t.” Then I got him.
Irv Gotti: That n—a sold like 10 million. He was like, Michael Jackson heavy. My mom loved Bob, and that n—a was a true superstar. I personally felt we getting a superstar like Michael Jackson [on the record], so I loved the whole Bob feature. And he was actually our n—a. There was a connection there that was real. Think about “My Prerogative” Bob — he was the biggest n—a in the game.
Ja Rule: Bob is legendary and that too is one of those records that people hated on when it came on and now it shows n—s love that f—-g record. Some of my closest n—-s say that’s their favorite record of mine.
Irv Gotti: That’s definitely one of my favorites.