dmx-1990s-billboard-1548-1527891503
REX/Shutterstock

Why 1998 Was the Greatest Year of My Hip-Hop Lifetime

For Billboard's 1998 Week, VIBE's Editor-in-Chief Datwon Thomas remembers what an amazing time 1998 was for hip-hop, with his own memories from his early days as an Associate Editor at the pivotal XXL Magazine.

For Billboard's 1998 Week, VIBE's Editor-in-Chief Datwon Thomas remembers what an amazing time 1998 was for hip-hop, with his own memories from his early days as an Associate Editor at the pivotal XXL Magazine.

The best year of the golden eras of hip-hop are often debated. Was it 1986, with the genre’s birthplace of New York in total dominance? Is 1994 the one, when the East and West coasts coexisted on the charts with quality tracks? Maybe it was 1996 when the South came to the table with some commercial heat? Those are all viable options, but I’d say the buck stops at 1998. That was the culture shift year when all of the styles from different regions of the United States put in work to lift the then 20-something year old music category to the mainstream market to stay.

When I think of 1998, I automatically go to the tense times we had just overcome in the culture. It was the first full year we were without the superstars of the previous five years of growth in Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G (both killed, in 1996 and 1997, respectively). Their murders hit a hard reset in the timeline of B.T. and A.B. (Before Tupac and After Biggie). Thus, 1998 became the clean slate for the music that was slowly taking a rightful seat at the mainstream’s biggest table. Emerging from the grimy grips of the previous year’s dark battles and street-hop edge, we had flossy torch bearers in Diddy’s (known as Puff Daddy back then) Bad Boy Entertainment, a ghetto fab, du-rag-and-mink-wearing Jay-Z of the mighty Roc-A-Fella Records and the definition of hood rich-turned-wealthy in the deep south's Master P and his No Limit Records.

With hip-hop plotting its course for world dominance, R&B still had a stranglehold on urban music, especially on the radio. The singular Aaliayh dropped the sultry “Are You That Somebody,” stars Brandy and Monica teamed up for the world-stopping “The Boy Is Mine” duet, and Destiny’s Child (featuring a 16-year-old Beyoncé!) blasted on the scene loudly whispering, “No, No, No.” Yet, beyond the fanfare of how much the lane had opened for hip-hop, 1998 provided a level playing field where a street-hop artist like Queens, NY’s Mic Geronimo could switch from a rugged sounding “Shit’s Real” in 1994, to the glossy glare of uptempo grooves like his highest-charting single to date, “Nothing Move But The Money.” The jiggy-fied bright lights and shiny suits, paired with sexy female dancers, defined the time as one where reinvention to the pop-friendly side of the music could get you more looks.

However, what makes 1998 great is that the hip-hop nation was still in a tug of war with itself. For every flossy and bossy Jay-Z success story, you had a growling and gutter Yonkers, NY-reppin’ DMX (who famously dropped two Billboard No. 1 albums in the same year -- with his first two albums) to match him up with. The balance of types of hype were all around. The climate would go from Onyx screaming on "React" to ATL’s Outkast flipping lines on “Rosa Parks” in a click of the remote, from the cable call-in request channel The Box to BET’s daily music video show Rap City.

The battles to figure out what was happening in the face of changing times didn’t just stop at the music’s output. The surrounding elements that influenced the art form was switching up as well. My first-hand experience of becoming a full-time music editor for the hip-hop monthly magazine XXL offered me a national view of where things were headed. My travels in 1998 took me to Atlanta for the first time, as I soaked in the southern fried funk of the annual “Freaknik” festival, where thousands of HBCU students from all over the country partied wherever there was open space.

I’m talking all through the famous shopping center of Lenox Mall, while any highway that had pavement had women riding out the windows in scandalous-sized bikinis (with no beach in sight). And of course, the hottest dance spots of the time, like Club 112. Memphis, Tennessee's Three 6 Mafia’s “Tear Da Club Up” ruled the speakers everywhere. Rappers mingled with fans freely. Minimal security, no social media and plenty of drinks kept the fun flowing. Oh, a couple of beat downs were handed out in the venues that would play “Tear Da Club Up.” I was a witness to this.

What I also saw in ‘98 was how crazy people would go when gathered together at popular NY club The Tunnel, which sat famously on the West Side Highway side of New York. You couldn’t go to the notoriously badass function that took place on Sunday nights if you were faint of heart. Meanwhile, you weren’t a top-tier rapper if you didn’t perform at the perpetually packed venue. Check out The Hip-Hop Nucleus: A Documentary on the Legendary Tunnel Nightclub of NYC on Itunes: It’s an excellent resource to give you the guts and glory of the storied events that went down, which included 50 Cent, Jay-Z, The LOX, Ruff Ryders, Snoop and Dr. Dre and LL Cool J.

Speaking of LL... man, his time in 1998 was insane. LL Cool J, then a seasoned vet of the verses and Canibus, the young hungry microphone mangler, had what was the biggest rap battle in ages. I had the pleasure of getting my first magazine cover story (XXL’s August 1998 issue) with the buzzworthy rookie rhyme wrecker in Canibus and boy, was it a turbulent time. (Let’s just say he and I didn’t see eye to eye for some of the story, among other things). Between “2nd Round K.O.” by ‘Bus and LL’s “The Ripper Strikes Back” the battle seemed like it wouldn’t stop, with career-ending bars of fury being tossed around like Planet Fitness kettlebells. Time and tales of what could have been of Canibus and Uncle L’s titan tussle leaves legend on who won bar for bar. Do your Googles on the lyrical fistfight, but like Tupac said, “I’ll let you tell it.”

Where we are in the game today, 20 years later, wouldn’t be half as important if not for the mixtape climate that DJ Clue, Kay Slay, Big Mike, Ron G, Doo Wop and so many others created, which spawned the likes of Cam’ron and Dipset, Noreaga, Big Pun (already a star but still frequenting the underground circuit), Mobb Deep and so many others. This was a time when NY was as unified as it was divided. Crew love was damn near blood-bound, and the clique-ish groups in the five boroughs pumped out classic singles, like “Banned From TV” by N.O.R.E. and the never-ending flow of freestyles that now live on YouTube, but back then you could only hear if you could get your hand on one of the street heat compact discs.

Labels were flush with money flowing from overpriced CDs and vinyl pressings. Def Jam, Loud Records, Rawkus, Tommy Boy and others won big with releases that produced modern day classics. That September 29 alone, there was a special release day that boasted Black Star’s Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star debut, Brand Nubian’s reunion project Foundation, Jay-Z’s mainstream breakthrough with Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life No Limit Records’ Mean Green compilation, Outkast’s third magnum opus Aquemini and The Love Movement, the announced swan song album for A Tribe Called Quest…#WhatATimeToBeAlive. This is all after Lauryn Hill dropped her genre shifting Miseducation of Lauryn Hill debut solo album a few weeks earlier. A mega-competitive climate for great artists to be inspired by, and collab with for the future.

What really stands out for me in 1998 is one of the most memorable moments in my career and life with our XXL  “The Greatest Day In Hip-Hop” cover shoot. As a new magazine, just over a year old, our skeleton edit staff (with help from brother and sister publication staffs in Slam and Honey) and much-respected publicist, the late Leslie Smalls, set out to have the largest gathering of Hip-Hop acts ever. Over 270 rappers from all over the world converged on Harlem, NY on 126th street to recreate Esquire Magazine's iconic “A Great Day In Harlem” photo by Art Kane, where the legends of Jazz’s 1958 movement all smiled for history’s sake. To be a part of this monumental moment that hasn’t been duplicated in size and status since, where the likes of Rakim, Slick Rick, Mac 10, Fat Joe, Onyx, The Roots, Shaq, 3rd Bass, Goodie Mob, Scarface... so many stars of the moment and yesteryear arrived in full.

The mighty photography/filmmaker magic man of LIFE Magazine, Gordon Parks, took the rare shot under the pressure of impatient rap generals and industry elite. I happened to call Harlem resident and rap minister Big L on his cell in enough time for him to make the picture. Unfortunately, because President Clinton was in town, traffic was insane and the likes of Cormega and the reigning Queen of Hip-Hop, Lauryn Hill (who pulled up just as the huge group disbursed, visibly upset) just missed the shot.

I often wonder in this Insta-everything social media age if anything like those times will happen again. When you see how the long-standing tradition of beefs and battles like LL and Canibus are still going on today with Pusha T and Drake, how Big Pun’s surprising Latino mainstream success foreshadowed Cardi B’s white hot stardom, where DMX’s total domination with tough-as-nails death blows have given way to the current devil-may-care attitude of these “Lil” everybodys and the irreverent talk and talent of Kanye West... I sit back and think, what will happen with the culture in the next 20 years? So much has changed since 1998, yet so much has stayed the same. Like JAY-Z and Beyoncé still ruling the world. From my viewpoint, they’ll still be our Hip-Hop Royal Family in 2038.

From the Web

More on Vibe

Noam Galai

Aretha Franklin's Niece Discovers Handwritten Wills Under Couch Cushions

Aretha Franklin's niece, Sabrina Owens, was sorting through her aunt's personal belongings when she discovered three handwritten wills scattered throughout her Oakland County, Michigan home, The Associated Press reports. It was originally believed that Franklin didn't leave a will behind.

Owens reportedly found one of the wills, which was written in 2010, under couch cushions. The other two, written in 2014, she came across in a locked cabinet. All three of the wills were filed in a probate court in Oakland County.

In the documents, Franklin requested that her son, Kecalf Franklin, be the personal representative of her estate, although he previously handed the reigns over to Owens. The 2014 document details which assets should go to which relative.

A statement from Owens said, "she remains neutral and wishes that all parties involved make wise choices on behalf of their mother, her rich legacy, the family and the Aretha Franklin estate."

It's been nearly one year since Aretha Franklin passed away in Aug. 2018. The legendary musician was 76 years old at the time of her death.

A hearing to confirm the validity of the wills is scheduled for June 12.

Continue Reading
Lachlan Cunnigham

Former Boxer Sues Jay-Z's Roc Nation Over Severe Brain Damage

Jay-Z and Roc Nation Sports are reportedly being sued by former boxer, Daniel Franco, for the severe brain damage he suffered as a result of being pressured into competing in three fights within 79 days, TMZ reports.

Franco reportedly inked a deal with the sports division of the multifaceted company in 2015. It wasn't until 2017 that Franco ran into some medical issues. The athlete claims he came down with the flu before a big match and was unable to train for three weeks as a result. Franco said he told Roc Nation that he needed to postpone or cancel the match, but the label allegedly pressured him into keeping his schedule.

Unfortunately, Franco lost in the third round. He should have taken time off to recover from his loss, but Roc Nation reportedly booked him to fight another match only 50 days later. The company then booked a third fight a month after.

As a result, Franco said he suffered two skull fractures and a brain bleed before he even stepped into the ring for his third fight. Despite his unsatisfactory bill of health, he fought in the third match, lost, and suffered more brain damage in the process.

Franco said he was later diagnosed with a brain hemorrhage and briefly fell into a coma. Doctors were forced to remove a piece of his skull to relieve pressure from the bleed.

Franco awoke from his coma two weeks later, but he claims he still has severe neurological and cognitive issues and is required to wear a helmet at all times. Franco claims Roc Nation is liable because the company never took the proper steps to make sure he was medically fit to fight.

Continue Reading
Patrick Fallon-Pool/Getty Images

Grand Jury Indicts Eric Holder For Murder Of Nipsey Hussle

Eric Holder has been in indicted for fatally shooting Nipsey Hussle and injuring two others, the Los Angeles District attorney announced in a news release Tuesday (May 21).

A grand jury indicted the 29-year-old suspect on one count of murder, two counts of attempted murder and assault with a firearm, and a single count of possession of a firearm by a felon. Holder was indicted on May 9, but the document were made public Tuesday.

Holder pleaded not guilty to the charges. He stands accused of killing Hussle in front of his Marathon Clothing store in South Los Angeles on March 31. The 33-year-old rapper and father of two was shot six times before being pronounced dead at a local hospital.

After the shooting, Holder fled the scene but was arrested in nearby Bellflower, Calif., two days later. He is currently being held on $6.53 million bail. According to TMZ, Holder allegedly pistol whipped a man one hour before Hussle was gunned down.

Last week, Holder’s defense attorney, Christopher Darden, stepped down after receiving death threats.

“I cannot understand why in 2019 some people would deny a black man his 6th Amendment right to counsel of his choice,” Darden wrote on Facebook. “Or why defending such a man should invite threats not only against me but against my children too.”

If convicted, Holder faces life in prison. He is scheduled to return to court for a pretrial hearing on June 18.

Continue Reading

Top Stories