Fast talking at the end of the world: 15 thoughts on hip-hop's 1998 middle age

Busta-Rhymes.jpg

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Just last week, one of the topics on EW Radio was the number of genre-defining hip-hop albums hitting their twentieth anniversaries this year.

Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggystyle, Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders, and Salt-N-Pepa’s Very Necessary all just wrapped their second decade. Those all represent different corners of the rap universe, and they all point to a crucial moment when hip-hop became such an overwhelming presence that mainstream culture had no choice but to move in its direction, rather than the other way around. The success of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, which dropped in late ’92, started the trend, and it reached its apotheosis with the one-two punch of Notorious B.I.G.’s 1994 debut Ready to Die and Tupac’s 1995 crossover smash Me Against the World.

Plenty of rap records had found their way to the upper echelon of the charts, though they were primarily pandering or novelty tracks (in ’92, both Kriss Kross’ “Jump” and Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” became Hot 100 chart toppers). The albums from ’93 were purer hip-hop, and they were crafted by fantastically charismatic characters who were singular in their delivery and presentation. The success of Doggystyle was particularly jaw-dropping—listening to that album 20 years on, it still packs an incredible impact both as a unique piece of pop music and as a remarkably dirty statement of purpose.

Those albums are unimpeachable classics, and by design there’s not a whole lot more to add to that conversation. So let’s fast-forward five years to the albums from late ’98 that are now turning 15 years old. They represent a strange middle age for hip-hop, as its dominance on the pop chart began to be taken for granted and just about everybody began to lose their way.

There are plenty of notable big-ticket rap records from 1998’s fourth quarter, and none of them are classics. It could even be argued that not a single one of them is any good. But they do represent a culture in transition, and it’s a fascinating look at where hip-hop was and how it managed to get to the place it is now. So on the 15th anniversary of Busta Rhymes’ E.L.E. (Extinction Level Event): The Final World Front, Method Man’s Tical 2000: Judgment Day, Mystikal’s Ghetto Fabulous, Ice Cube’s War & Peace Volume 1: The War Disc, RZA’s Bobby Digital In Stereo, DMX’s Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, Juvenile’s 400 Degreez, and Redman’s Doc’s Da Name 2000, here are 15 thoughts on the 15th anniversary of a weird time for hip-hop.

1. Everybody totally thought Y2K was going to be a real thing
For anybody too young or too unborn to remember Y2K, it seems utterly ridiculous. But at the end of the last century, there was a near-panic that computers that had only been programmed to recognize two digit years would suddenly think it was 1900 and ruin the world economy the second the year 2000 arrived. In retrospect, it was a silly thing to worry about—unless you were a rapper, in which case it represented genuine danger. Maybe it was because the gangsters could no longer accurately rap about the street now that they were rich, or maybe it was just too much weed smoke, but both Busta Rhymes and Method Man built their albums around remarkably similar end-of-days narratives, and there was a definite sense of doom running through DMX’s Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood. You’ll notice that both Method Man and Redman dropped “2000” into the title of their albums, an extension of a label-wide makeover for Def Jam, which was known for a time in the late ’90s as Def Jam 2000.

2. Producers were already eclipsing the MCs
Despite the name-recognition of cats like Jam Master Jay, the Bomb Squad, and Dr. Dre, the MC has tended to eclipse the DJ in hip-hop culture (even Dre didn’t gain his superstar-level ubiquity until he stepped up to the microphone full time on his solo album). But by ’98, the producer was just beginning to gain top-line status, with the magazine-cover rises of Timbaland, the Neptunes, and a Chicago kid named Kanye West just around the corner, and the success of a handful of the late-year releases were almost entirely thanks to the dudes twiddling the knobs.

DMX had a natural unhinged charisma, but Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood lives and dies by Swizz Beatz’s claustrophobic, bombastic backing tracks. Juvenile’s 400 Degreez represented the ascendence of Cash Money in-house producer Mannie Fresh, who helped bring New Orleans bounce into the mainstream. And RZA’s Bobby Digital In Stereo is pretty terrible every time the Wu-Tang leader opens his mouth, but tracks like “NYC Everything” and “Holocaust (Silkworm)” trip as hard as his work with the Clan.

3. Nu Metal was poisoning the well
Korn scored its great pop crossover in the summer of ’98 with their third album Follow the Leader, officially ushering in nu-metal’s brief but all-encompassing reign on rock radio. Fusing together rap music and Faith No More-esque funk-metal in the dumbest ways possible, it should have been a sign that rock guys just didn’t understand hip-hop. But that was not the case—rather than back away slowly out of sheer embarrassment, many rappers invited the aggro guitar slingers along for the ride in a show of problematic solidarity. Though Korn only officially appears on one song on Ice Cube’s War & Peace Volume 1: The War Disc, their minor-key angst infects the entirety of the proceedings. Marilyn Manson—who did not rap but did rise alongside the nu-metal rhymers—shows up for a creepy cameo on DMX’s Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, and Ozzy Osbourne, of all people, drops in for a cameo on Busta Rhymes’ “This Means War,” which is essentially a lazy “Iron Man” mash-up. Looking at that lineup, it’s pretty clear that not only didn’t the rock kids understand hip-hop, but the rappers also didn’t really get metal.

4. The posses were awesome, except when they weren’t
Even though he utterly dominated every corner of the music world in 1997, Sean Combs was mostly absent throughout ’98. (He was still Puff Daddy then.) But Combs’ Bad Boy Records set a precedent throughout the mid ’90s that even the lowliest of sidemen could have their own careers, and what better way to introduce those wannabes than on high-profile albums by established artists?

The rub was that the posses in ’98 were mostly great, though that had to have been by accident: DMX’s extended Ruff Ryders crew was pretty incredible, featuring breakout stars like Eve and Swizz Beatz and useful utility infielders the LOX and Drag-On. Busta Rhymes’ Flipmode Squad, featured on both E.L.E. and their own album The Imperial, was always a little underrated, with both Rampage and Rah Digga serving as uncrowned superstars. And like all No Limit releases, Mystikal’s Ghetto Fabulous was mostly an all-hands-on-deck mixtape for the entirety of the roster, which had both its ups (Mia X, Snoop Dogg, Fiend) and downs (Master P, Silkk the Shocker, C-Muder, Guillotine). While Method Man and Ice Cube had both come from larger groups, they used their ’98 solo albums to try to launch proteges—Mr. Short Khop for Cube, Streetlife for Meth—who were forgettable at best and embarrassing for the brand at worst.

5. Skits were still in full effect
Hip-hop skits are thankfully scarcer in 2013, but in ’98 it was apparently federal law that every rap album had to have several skit tracks. Combs is probably to blame for this, as we were still in the midst of a series of skits starring producer Deric “D-Dot” Angelettie (in his guise as “The Madd Rapper”) that spread across multiple albums by different artists. Because everything Combs touched turned to platinum, other rappers fell in line. Most every hip-hop skit from this era is terrible and unfunny, save for the dialogue bits on Bobby Digital In Stereo, and that’s somewhat unfair considering that album plays out like one long skit and feels like a dry run for RZA’s film work years later (and in fact RZA did in fact shoot a bunch of footage for Bobby Digital movie that was never finished or released).

6. Everybody was pretty rich, especially DMX
How huge a commercial force was hip-hop in 1998? Look no further than DMX, whose December release Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood was his second of the year (his debut, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, came out in May). Dark ultimately sold five million copies, including a 250,000 debut week, which put him at no. 1 on the Billboard charts. Flesh kicked it way up, selling an astonishing 675,000 units in its opening week. Sure, tracks like “Ruff Ryders Anthem” were hits, but Flesh might be one of the most dark, brutal rap albums to ever top the charts. That’s how big a star that dude was. Everybody else was doing just fine, too: Method Man moved 411,000 copies of Tical 2000 in its first week (it went platinum a month later), and upstart Juvenile’s 400 Degreez ended up selling four million copies thanks to the power of singles “Ha” and “Back That Azz Up.”

7. That Ice Cube album is genuinely terrible
Even if it didn’t have the Korn collaboration, Cube’s War & Peace Volume 1: The War Disc is easily the nadir of his recording career. It was a shame, too, because he had taken five years off from music to focus on film work, acting in Higher Learning, Friday, Dangerous Ground and Anaconda and directing the underrated strip-club melodrama The Players Club. Cube did manage to swerve out of it by War & Peace‘s inevitable 2000 sequel, though he didn’t really find his footing again as a rapper until 2006’s Laugh Now, Cry Later.

8. Method Man didn’t fare much better
There was also a seemingly interminable delay between Method Man’s 1994 solo debut Tical and its 1998 sequel. In fact, several of the skits on Tical 2000: Judgment Day are devoted to the fact that the Wu-Tang Clan’s first breakout star had taken so long to finish the record. By the time the album was released, it was critically embraced simply because it existed, but it has aged very poorly since.

That’s true of a lot of these albums, but there’s a layer of flop sweat on Method Man’s album that hadn’t been seen or heard on previous Wu-Tang releases. Was it because this was the first Wu solo release that wasn’t produced primarily by the RZA? Or was it because it was simply overlong and featured a bevy of misguided collaborations like the Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes-assisted “Cradle Rock”? Probably a little of both.

9. The South’s arrival was imminent
While the mainstream hip-hop community was still reeling from the fallout of the East Coast-West Coast sniping from earlier in the decade, the South was quietly assembling an army. The end-of-year releases by Juvenile and Mystikal represented great transitional peaks for New Orleans’ two great labels (Cash Money and No Limit, respectively), in that they nudged gently into a more pop-centric sound without sacrificing any of the griminess that made them underground sensations in the first place. Juvenile’s “Ha” is an amazing song that still sounds super-weird 15 years on, and the fact that it was a commercial hit makes it even weirder. Mystikal wouldn’t find mainstream success until 2000’s double-dip “Shake Ya Ass” and “Danger (Been So Long),” but you can hear his breakout forming in tracks like “That’s The N—-.” It was a great year for Southern hip-hop overall, as early ’98 releases included OutKast’s Aquemini, Goodie Mob’s Still Standing, Master P’s MP Da Last Don, and 8Ball’s Lost.

10. Let’s talk about Busta Rhymes for a minute
Here’s the thing about E.L.E.: It’s too long, features too much filler, and isn’t as consistently hard-hitting or lyrically interesting as Rhymes’ posse the Flipmode Squad’s album The Imperial, which came out earlier in ’98. But there are certainly elements of E.L.E. that only Busta could pull off. For example, this album’s first single was “Gimme Some More,” a track built around Bernard Herrmann’s most famous snatch of score from Psycho.

When the single was released, Busta gave an interview to MTV about how absurd it was that he was rapping as fast as he was on a single. It seems like a strange thing to get hung up on, but he’s right: Busta spits “Gimme Some More” impossibly fast, and without tracks like that to soften us up, perhaps Eminem’s rapid-fire delivery (which is faster than you remember it) doesn’t get as immediately embraced when The Slim Shady LP drops a few months into 1999.

11. Let’s also talk about the video for “Gimme Some More”
That Busta video for “Gimme Some More” is crazy and wonderful. It features a ton of late-’90s video tropes, including entirely too much fisheye lens, those ultra-saturated Hype Williams primary colors, and a remarkable knack for literal imagery (stuff like showing cars when talking about cars is obvious, but it gets goofy when Busta mentions Sidney Poitier in the song and then flashes a headshot of Poitier in the video).

Busta appears in a bunch of different guises in the clip, including as a Western gunslinger (perhaps predicting Insane Clown Posse’s Big Money Rustlas) and a jacked-up boxer (definitely predicting his own bodybuilder-esque physique he developed at the turn of the century. Then Flipmode Squad shows up to bounce while wearing zoot suits. Then Busta dresses as a traffic cop seemingly just to deliver the phrase “Arrest you,” then he gets tied to train tracks to spit out “full steam.” It sounds like the ramblings of a mental patient, and that might have been the point. It was also undoubtedly pretty expensive, which is why they literally don’t make them like this anymore.

12. Janet Jackson is on both the Busta and Method Man albums
There’s no real story here, but it’s too odd not to point out that Janet Jackson does guest vocals on Busta Rhymes’ “What’s It Gonna Be?!” and drops in on Tical 2000: Judgment Day to leave Method Man a voicemail.

13. Seriously, these are the last thoughts about Busta Rhymes
E.L.E. takes its title and its cover image from the film Deep Impact, a movie forever known as the asteroid film from ’98 that wasn’t Armageddon. Also, I once asked Busta (semi-jokingly) if he was disappointed that the world didn’t actually end in the year 2000 after he spent all that time predicting it, and he told me that the world in fact did end, and his explanation had something to do with AIDS and the Patriot Act.

Finally, Busta has been teasing that he is working on a sequel to E.L.E., due some time in 2014 on Cash Money Records, the label currently run by Lil Wayne. When the first E.L.E. came out, Weezy was still a year away from dropping his solo debut Tha Block Is Hot.

14. Redman might be Andy Kaufman
Not literally, of course, though that would be kind of amazing. Redman’s Doc’s Da Name 2000 is arguably his best album, as it balances the heavier spit of his previous two solo albums with the goofballery that landed him a major movie and a network sitcom. In fact, Doc’s Da Name 2000 feels like a goof on the entirety of hip-hop, as though Redman was actually doing everything as a complicated sociological experiment or an elaborate long con at Method Man’s expense. Either way, it remains definitively funny and sounds way smarter 15 years later than it did in ’98. And “I’ll Bee Dat” might be the hardest bit of hilarity outside of ODB.

15. 2013 could have used more of ’98
Hip-hop is ultimately objectively better today than it was 15 years ago, though this year could have used a little bit more of that era’s unhinged hedonism. The best hip-hop albums of the year from Drake, Kanye West, Earl Sweatshirt, and Pusha T are all gloomy affairs, and while they are executed remarkably well, I found myself gravitating more toward the good-time ignorance of albums like Big Sean’s Hall of Fame, French Montana’s Excuse My French, and Juicy J’s Stay Trippy. Maybe there’s more we can learn from the ’98 versions of Busta Rhymes, Method Man, Juvenile, and Ice Cube than we thought.

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