September 29, 1998 Defined Hip-Hop for Millennials
The cover photo of this article is an interesting XXL cover. If you were around during this time, it was a pressure tensed and significant point in history. Various notable hip hop artists were dying. Coastal wars were hot, as fans and artists from both the west and east had a bickering back and forth struggle to claim top dog in hip hop. With the deaths of Tupac and Biggie, this all came to a halt and olive branches were extended. Inspired by the "Great Day In Harlem" photo piece from 1958, it was a collection of hip hop artists from around the country to stand in Harlem just like the photo from decades earlier that had the great Jazz musicians of it's time.
How fitting that almost 20 years later, this date has a pretty big impact for hip-hop. There are four albums that dropped that has influenced an entire generation of hip hop listeners and the impact for each album has been felt for two decades.
The first highlight release from this date comes from one of hip hop's biggest "what if" duos. The only official album drop from these Mos Def and Talib Kweli, it comes from a time in which there was a distinct divide between what was deemed "real hip hop" and "commercial hip hop". Black Star was overshadowed by the other albums that were dropped, but these two have definitely made their mark with the underground crowd. Rich with lyrical content and b boy break beats, if you favored this type of rap, you couldn't escape this.
My experience with Mos and Talib actually doesn't begin until the following year when Mos dropped his Black On Both Sides debut on Rawkus Records. I, like any other teenager, began their coming of age journey in middle school. With music, I gravitated to anything that just sounded dope to me, whether it was Xzibit, Do or Die, or Nas. Rawkus played a significant impact on my hip hop upbringing and I have Mighty Mos to thank for that. It was then I went back to listen to Black Star and I was not disappointed in what I heard. The sultry "K.O.S. (Knowledge of Self)" had Talib speaking about being unapologetically black and for you to be aware and proud of that. The skit before "Brown Skin Lady" is hilarious and then the beat hits you and you got no choice to nod your head to it.
Mos Def during this time period was what I call the perfect emcee: the lyrics, flow, content, voice, presence, versatility. On just talent alone, I can not name 10 rappers better than him all time. "The new moon rode high and crowded the metropolis/shining, like who on top of this?" is one of the best opening lines to a song on "Respiration". He has a couple of all time rap verses on this album: Thieves In The Night, Astronomy (8th Light), and the aforementioned Respiration. It's even said that "Children's Story" was a subliminal diss to Puffy by Mos. Imagine dissing Diddy with an impeccable Slick Rick cadence and using his most famous song to do it. That's Mos.
We deserve at least another album from these two as a duo.
Outkast has always been an interesting point of discussion to me. I didn't realize Outkast was disliked so much by many until the internet. I'm here to tell you that not only a lot of the criticism is bogus as fuck, but fans need to be grateful that a group like Kast exists within hip hop. Not too many have been at the forefront, pushing the culture forward and keeping their artistic integrity better than Big Boi and Andre Benjamin (or 3000 for the newer generation).
For the record, yes this album deserved the 5 mics it got from The Source magazine. Don't let people try to rewrite history on that like I've been saying about their entire career. Production value from this deserves that esteemed rating by its own merit. It's eclectic, psychedelic, funky, jazzy. Whatever verb you want to use to describe when you heard your parents pump Parliament to clean the house on a Sunday morning growing up that was Aquemini. To me, its one of the best produced albums the genre has seen. This is the first rap album as far as I can remember that had live instrumentation in it.
The dope part about Aquemini is that the rapping that was showcased back up the musicianship. Let me put this out there: Big Boi is a rap giant. I always thought his grounded, playa type bars was the perfect compliment to Andre's out of this world lyricism. "West Savannah" captures a certain vibe that I don't think Andre could get and thats why Boi is needed for this group dynamic to work: "Niggas in the south wear gold teeth and gold chains, been doing it for years so these niggas don't change".
On the side of Andre, I always thought it was dope on "Return Of The G" to clap back at all the criticism that was following him after their debut that had nothing to do with the music. Both of his verses on "Da Art of Storytelling" is great. Andre is an example of rap that's appreciated by me since I write. The entire "where's his quotables" criticsm many of his ilk get by the punchline community is tired and trash. Dre, like Scarface, Tupac, and Kendrick give you the entire painting and not just the broad strokes. When these kind of rappers do in fact give you precious quotes to put on your Facebook post, it goes over your entire head: "sin, all depends on what you believing in/faith is what you make it, that's the hardest shit since MC Ren."
If Aquemini was for the mainstream audience to see hip hop can be musical like other genres, Hard Knock Life was for the streets. This is Jay's most important album. We have to remember fans slept on Reasonable Doubt initially. Then when In My Lifetime Vol. 1 drops, it had very mixed reviews. Jay was chasing pop acceptance and he failed for the most part on this one. That's why he said "I gave you prophecy on my first joint and you all lamed out/didn't really appreciate it till the second one came out" on the title track. Imagine if Jay doesn't drop this album or it wasn't met with the success it has. Hip hop looks pretty different in 2017.
Here Jay figured it all out. My entry point to his music funny enough was the previous album so I already had this idea that Hard Knock Life is going to be shiny suits again: wrong. You got me, Sean. He was able to return back to what the streets wanted from him while still making hits for radio. And boy, did he knock it out the park with those hits: "Can I Get A", "Nigga What Nigga Who", "Hard Knock Life". He gave us the songs to play in the hood: "Ride or Die", "A Week Ago", "Reservoir Dogs", "It's Like That". The formula he's followed for the rest of his career was birthed here: break a few up and coming producers and have the established ones that everyone was familiar with. All of this and you would think he would slack on the lyrics. Nope. He found the perfect zen throughout the 14 tracks. He even gave us an underrated story telling joint with "Coming Of Age (Da Sequel)"
Jay-Z had a thunderous comeback that would officially start his run as the greatest rapper of all time. The most interesting stat about this album isn't even the 5 million plus he's sold. Get this: it is the only multi platinum rap album that doesn't have a R&B feature. Think about that. This is probably the most "hip hop" album to have that much success.
Now for the real reason I'm writing this blog post. The one Tribe album everyone and they mama hates; except me. Hear me out.
Growing up around older cats, I was aware of Tribe and their well known songs. Matter fact, one of their songs was the theme music for The Wayans Bros show (an underrated black sitcom). However, the music didn't truly hit me until I saw that uneventful Source cover with the headline "Break Up! A Tribe Called Quest Disbands". It was then I had my first hip hop breakup moment. I was thinking "why are these guys not friends anymore?" It was then I made it a point to get their last album (at the time, at least).
So on this date, I went with a friend and his older sister after school to Tower Records. My step brother already told me he was going to cop Aquemini later that week. Crossed that off the list. Cool. So now I'm trying to decide between Hard Knock Life and Love Movement. If I didn't explain myself earlier and only told you I chose A Tribe Called Quest over the hottest rapper at the time and the eventual GOAT's album at release date, you would cancel my hip hop credibility out. You probably do still. Check this out though. The friend's sister actually ended up chipping in to help me cop the Jay album as well as Tribe's. I had about $25 on hand and she was kind enough to help me out and so now I have two rap CDs. I win.
The album's lead single "Find A Way" was what drew me in initially. Those drums are legendary to me and slap so hard still to this day. "4 Moms" is one of my favorite instrumentals. "Busta's Lament", "Da Booty", and many other songs resonated with me more than most around my age. It wasn't until many years later I realized the common denominator between the songs I listed: it was produced by J. Dilla. When I say many years, I mean literally the year before Dilla's death. I went back and found out how many songs he produced that I absolutely loved. So when you see that shirt "Dilla Saved My Life", that is actually me. Dilla, Q-Tip, and the entire Soulquarians movement from the late 90s/early 00s is responsible for a lot of my hip hop sensibilities. A movement that included Black Star. Yes, that Black Star.
Speaking of Q-Tip, he is one of my favorite hip hop people in existence. This album was the beginning of that influence for me. I had no choice but to go back and listen to Tribe's discography and fall in love with it. I also realized he's one of the most underrated producers of all time. Pharrell and Kanye come from Tip's rap family tree, two very huge influencers on this generation of hip hop. If this album doesn't drop, I know for a fact I'm a completely different person.
This is a date to remember if you are someone born in the 80's. Everyone reading this I guarantee you bought at least one of these albums on that day. I won't say we will never have a day like this again, but it's been 19 years now. So far, nothing compares to that fateful day on September 1998.