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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.

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Kodak Black performs onstage during the 4th Annual TIDAL X: Brooklyn at Barclays Center of Brooklyn on October 23, 2018 in New York City.
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Kodak Black Under Fire For Comments About Young M.A.

The always controversial Kodak Black is under fire on Monday (March 18) for comments that are being described as sexual harassment, sexist and homophobic.

"It feel good to know that somebody love you out there. I know more people love me than hate me. And I do more good than I do bad. I do a lot of stuff, but I do more good than I do bad," he said on Instagram Live, from the seat of a car. He then stated, "How you a girl but don't want your p***y penetrated? How? ... Don't be mad at me because I want you, baby. Don't be mad at me cuz I want you."

It all started from his February release "Pimpin Ain't Eazy,"  where Kodak references Young M.A. in the chorus and the second verse. On the chorus, he rapped, "I be pullin' out straps on these f**k ni**as, I go Young M.A. on these dumb bi**hes. Like a dyke man, you ni**ass can't f**k with me." And in the second verse: ""I'm f**kin' Young M.A, long as she got a coochie. Say she got the strap and the toolie, say she put the crack in her booty."

Young M.A., who is openly gay, responded to fans' questions on Sunday (March 17) on her own IG Live about how she felt about the lyric.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

TSR STAFF: Tanya P.! @tanyaxpayne _________________________ #YoungMA responds to #KodakBlack after he included her in some NSFW lyrics on his song ‘Pimpin’ Ain’t Eazy.’ ____________________________ In the song, Kodak raps: “I don’t even see the confusion, I’m f****ing #YoungMa, as long as she got a coochie.” ___________________________ Needless to say Young MA wasn’t feeling the line, and said she might even pull up on him in Arizona. Both coincidentally have a show out there so we’ll see if this gets squashed or not 👀👀 (SWIPE)

A post shared by The Shade Room (@theshaderoom) on Mar 17, 2019 at 11:07am PDT

"Y'all keep talking about this Kodak situation. Y'all ni**as is weird, bro. ... Come on, obviously the n—a is weird, bro. Obviously, he on some sh*t, bro," she said. She and Kodak were both scheduled to perform at the Pot of Gold music festival in Arizona on Saturday. "I'll holla at him, if I get a chance to see him. Y'all do this internet sh*t too much, bro. I don't like the internet sh*t, bro. I don't like this internet sh*t. I deal with my issues in person."

Kodak Black then posted his response on Monday. The rapper has been charged with sexual assault, and is facing a possible 30 years in prison.

Kodak Black, a known rapist, sexually harrassing Young MA, a Black queer woman, reminds us of the following:

*Black women are still disposable.

*Black LGBTQ remain under attack.

*Hip Hop remains sexist and homophobic.

*People are still buying/supporting known sexual abusers.

— Ernest Owens (@MrErnestOwens) March 18, 2019

Kodak Black publicly harassing Young MA for sex as if he wasn’t charged with felony first degreee criminal sexual conduct and doesn’t have an upcoming rape trial he should be worried about https://t.co/RPTkxUFeiK

— Ivie Ani (@ivieani) March 18, 2019

it’s very very very very strange that kodak black, a man facing a r*pe charge, is harassing young ma for sex and the internet finds it funny. this place just gets weirder.

— Lauren Chanel Allen (@MichelleHux) March 18, 2019

Young MA is a lesbian. Plain and simple. What Kodak Black is doing is harassment. The responses are interesting because it shows how little many of you respect women who identify as Lesbian or women full stop for that matter.

— Richie Brave 🧼 (@RichieBrave) March 18, 2019

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Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Live Nation

DMX Delivers Powerful Sermon At Kanye West's Sunday Service

DMX commits to delivering the good word with his recent poignant prayer at Kanye West's latest "Sunday Service." His touching reflection was captured and shared on social media this past weekend.

“Father God thank you for making me righteous and acceptance through the blood of Jesus because of that I am blessed and highly favored by you,” the 48-year-old rapper preached. “I am the object of your affection, your favor surrounds me as a shield. And the first thing people come in contact with is my favorite shield. Thank you that I have favor with you and man today. All day long people go out of their way to help me.”

“Doors that were once closed are now open for me. I receive preferential treatment. I have special privileges,” he continued. “I am God’s favorite child…I have supernatural increases and promotion. Like the restoration of everything the devil has stolen from me. This is the day, time, and moment for me to experience the free grace of God.”

 

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The Free Favor of God 🙏

A post shared by DMX (@dmx) on Mar 17, 2019 at 4:44pm PDT

Since DMX was released from prison in January for tax evasion, the New York native has wasted no time getting back in the music scene and voicing his opinions. Never one to hold back his tongue, during his first interview since being a free man on Real 92.3, he expressed his distaste for this generation's latest crop of rappers, which heavily glorify drug usage.

"They're all promoting drug use," DMX said. "If that’s what you want to do, that's your business, but you ain't gotta promote it like it's cool and make it cool."

Nonetheless, if you're a fan of DMX's classic music, you're in for a treat as he's currently on tour to promote his legendary 1998 It's Dark And Hell Is Hot album. He's scheduled to perform in 32 cities throughout the course of two months.

In the meantime, get inspired and watch more of DMX speak the holy word below.

Morning prayer by DMX #SundayService pic.twitter.com/AGpMgUyF9U

— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) March 17, 2019

 

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Sunday Service @divinebars @1shotdealz Ye

A post shared by DMX (@dmx) on Mar 17, 2019 at 1:00pm PDT

Her favorite part of the week is dancing during Sunday Service pic.twitter.com/yhiDhBqBY5

— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) March 17, 2019

Power pic.twitter.com/7X9rXwkdOW

— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) March 17, 2019

Lift Yourself pic.twitter.com/VLFclhXpRO

— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) March 17, 2019

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R&B Singer Andre "Mr. Rhythm" Williams Passes Away At 82

R&B singer and producer Andre Williams, who was best known as Mr. Rhythm, has passed away, Pravda Records confirms . The entertainer reportedly passed away on Sunday (Mar. 17) at the age of 82.

"It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of legendary artist Andre Williams," the Chicago-based label wrote in a statement on Facebook. "He died this after in Chicago at the age of 82. He touched our lives and the lives of countless others. We love you Dre."

William's manager, Kenn Goodman, told Billboard that the singer lost his battle to colon cancer while staying in hospice care. "He was diagnosed two weeks ago with colon cancer that spread to his lungs and brain," Goodman said. "After that his body started shutting down pretty quickly. But [he] was committed to trying to sing and record again."

Born Zephire "Andre" Williams, he moved from Alabama to Detroit as a teen in the early 1950s to launch his  music career. He gained local attention after winning the first place prize at the Warfield Theatre's amateur night show eight weeks in a row.

Williams then signed to Fortune Records and took over as the lead vocalist of the group, The Five Dollars. The group was later renamed Andre Williams and the Don Juans and released the top-10 charting single "Bacon Fat."

He would later go on to produce and record tracks including "The Stroke," "Humpin' Bumpin' & Thumpin'," the Five Dutones' "Shake a Tail Feather" and other Fortune Records singles like "Jail Bait" and "The Greasy Chicken."

In his later years, Williams continued to make music. He toured through Europe in 2001, 2005, and 2006, as well as produced a handful of indie compilation albums and group records. Williams was inducted into the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame in 2012.

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