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House of '98

How artists emerged in the late ’90s to challenge the gangsta narrative in hip-hop

After years of ‘bubbling under,’ some rap acts, including Jay-Z, Master P and Outkast, broke through in spectacular fashion

As 1998 lurched to life, hip-hop’s future was clouded in uncertainty and much of the promise of the ’90s lay shattered in pieces. N.W.A./Ruthless Records founder Eric “Eazy-E” Wright was dead. So were two other ’90s musical giants, rappers Tupac Shakur and Christopher “The Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace.

Beefs. Feuds. Diss tracks. This is what the rap music scene had descended to by the mid-’90s.

Hip-hop started out in the late 1970s as a symbol of African American expression and empowerment, spawning independent, black-owned record labels, including Sugar Hill, Def Jam, Death Row, Bad Boy, Luke, Rap-A-Lot and more.

But the emergence of gangsta rap in the late ’80s changed everything, for better and worse. Initially, the music was hard to dismiss because melodramatic revenge fantasies like N.W.A.’s “F— tha Police” were peppered with brutally elucidating insights into urban life. N.W.A’s triumphant chart performance served as a metaphor for black culture at the outset of the ’90s. Almost everywhere you looked, the products of African American culture were being fervently adopted and mimicked. Nowhere was this more evident than in 1992 when presidential hopeful Bill Clinton solidified support among minorities and young adults with a blackified saxophone performance on The Arsenio Hall Show.

Then, gangsta ideology took a dangerous turn. Increasingly influenced by the drug trade and the relentlessness of a growth-oriented American economy, hip-hop began embracing a “keep-it-real” ideology where money and hustling were exalted over all else, even human life. Seemingly overnight, rap became almost solely about “gettin’ paid,” with many artists approaching music as the recorded equivalent of Hollywood shoot ‘em ups — works that cared less about detailing the inner-city experience, and more about celebrating violence and black market capitalism.

Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. were caught in the crossfire of this madness, but their deaths just may have helped transform rap into the cultural juggernaut it is today. Like Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix and their other pop forebears, Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. were celebrated as martyrs, rappers who brought unique perspective and sensitivity to gangsta rap.

Later artists surfaced to challenge the mercenary and counterproductive gangsta narrative. Ironically, one of the acts leading the conscious rap charge was the Boston-based duo known as Gang Starr. The group’s 1998 album Moment of Truth featured meditations on God, unity, black empowerment and the pursuit of knowledge. Accompanied by producer/arranger DJ Premier, rapper Keith “Guru” Elam spit rhymes so perfectly articulated, listeners could discern every syllable of his anti-materialist lyrics:

“No pager, no celly, no drop-top Benz-y/I came to bring your phony hip-hop to an ending …”

Certified gold for sales over 500,000 units, Moment of Truth helped set the agenda for rap in 1998. But it was triple-threat singer/songwriter/rapper Lauryn Hill who would reap the most critical plaudits that year. Radio listeners were familiar with Hill from her Grammy-winning work as a member of Fugees, the pioneering conscious rap trio from New York. Yet nothing could have prepared fans for Hill’s solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. It was common knowledge that the woman could sing and rap, but most of us had no idea she was also a songwriting genius. She fused rap-inflected rhythms with life-affirming lyrics, and topped the whole thing off with caressing soul/Caribbean melodies that recalled Bob Marley. Her artistry was evidenced on the track “Superstar,” where she courageously denounced the murderous gangsta ethos:

“Yo hip-hop, started out in the heart/Yo, now everybody tryin’ to chart … Music is supposed to inspire/How come we ain’t gettin’ no higher?”

Lauryn Hill at the 1998 Billboard Music Awards.

Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Today, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is considered by many to be the gold standard of neo-soul recordings, consistently ranked on lists of essential albums compiled by Rolling Stone, Vibe, Spin, The Source and more. Having earned five Grammy Awards and sold more than 8 million copies, the album received the ultimate honor in 2015 when the Library of Congress inducted it into its prestigious registry of recordings meriting preservation.

Had it been released any other time, Hill’s album probably would have been the undisputed achievement of the year, but her magnum opus was matched by Aquemini, the third studio album by Atlanta-based group Outkast. Showcasing the songs of singers/composers/rappers “Andre 3000” Benjamin and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton, Aquemini struck a warm balance between automated beats and old-school, real-time instrumentation. Lyrically, the album celebrated the totality of the African American experience, including the more dubious elements. Nowhere was this more evident than on “Return of the G,” Outkast’s sarcastic takedown of the stereotypical, self-centered gangsta:

“Return of the gangsta/thanks to them n—as that got them kids that got enough to buy an ounce but not enough to bounce them kids to the zoo, or to the park/So they grow up in the dark, never seeing the light.”

Peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, Aquemini sold more than 2 million copies in the U.S., proving that post-’80s hip-hop didn’t have to traffic in hooliganism to win fans, a point underscored by another member of rap’s class of ’98, Will Smith. The rapper-turned-matinee idol took a different approach to bucking the gangsta trend, issuing a series of singles that posed the rhetorical question: Does anybody remember fun?

Outkast’s album cover for Aquemini.

Courtesy Sony Music

Smith answered that question with “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” arguably the party-igniting single of ’98. Featuring profanity-free rhymes and a springy melody sampled from Sister Sledge’s 1979 hit “He’s The Greatest Dancer,” the track would spend three weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100. Striking while the iron was hot, Smith followed up with “Just the Two of Us,” an ode to his new wife Jada Pinkett Smith that sampled the 1981 Grover Washington Jr. and Bill Withers hit of the same title. The actor finished ’98 with “Miami,” a top 20 rump shaker that took up where “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” left off, capping the best year of Smith’s recording career.

For his part, singer/songwriter R. Kelly promoted himself as the sexy, hip-thrusting successor to Marvin Gaye and Teddy Pendergrass. Kelly’s album R. juxtaposed song stories of folk tale straightforwardness with an over-the-top eroticism that sometimes descended into unintentional hilarity. As he demonstrated on his 1996 hit “I Believe I Can Fly,” R. Kelly could write and perform soaring motivational ballads with the best of them. His 1998 single, “I’m Your Angel,” found him duetting with easy-listening chanteuse Celine Dion. The track crested the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, earning a Grammy nomination for best pop collaboration with vocals. On the strength of that track, R. moved 8 million copies on its way to becoming the best-selling album of R. Kelly’s controversial career.

While these hit-makers appealed to black consumers put off by hardcore hip-hop, they remained outliers swimming against the colossal G-rap tide. Undaunted by the cautionary tales of Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G, artists such as Percy “Master P” Miller were more than happy to fill the void left by hip-hop’s dearly departed bad boys. Master P’s 1998 album MP da Last Don — released on his privately-owned No Limit Records — showcased 20 tracks larded with between-song vignettes and cliched gangsta jams. Despite lukewarm reviews, the album’s chart-topping sales performance helped shine a spotlight on Master P’s next-level entrepreneurship. Not only was No Limit Records spawning new acts such as Silkk the Shocker, C-Murder, Mia X and Mystikal, it had also persuaded Snoop Dogg to defect from Death Row Records in a deal that sent shock waves through the industry.

Master P wasn’t the only hip-hop hustler shaking up the industry. With the release of his highly anticipated third studio album, Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life, Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter and his Roc-A-Fella Records started gaining on impresarios such as Puff Daddy and Suge Knight. The album’s titular hit ingeniously employed a sample from the 1977 Broadway musical soundtrack, Annie, helping to make Vol. 2… the bestselling recording in the Jay-Z oeuvre. The album’s lyrics reconciled blues-style braggadocio reminiscent of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, with ruminations about death, including numerous shout-outs to the recently deceased The Notorious B.I.G.

But the album that most imaginatively upheld gangsta traditions was the major-label recording debut by DMX, the New York rapper born Earl Simmons. His barking vocal style, rapid-fire flow and sinister beats were unlike anything that had come before in hip-hop, complemented by an ambitious artistry that saw him release two albums in 1998 — the epically titled It’s Dark and Hell is Hot and the powerful sophomore release, Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood. DMX’s gangland rhymes were occasionally leavened by convincing pleas for sympathy:

“Look thru my eyes, see what I see/Do as I do, be what I be/Walk in my shoes, hurt your feet/Then know why I do dirt in the street …”

The impressive thing about DMX was how his gothic beats and unhinged vocals made black life sound like a horror movie, lending his music a fascinating ambiguity. Was he extolling inner-city criminality, or condemning it? As 1998 came to a close, listeners were left to ponder the answer.

Master P and Hill faded from prominence almost as quickly as they emerged. Indeed, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill remains the singer’s only studio album. Likewise, after exploding into the mainstream with their acclaimed 2003 album, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, Outkast nabbed the 2004 Grammy for best rap album, then disappeared from sight. The duo has yet to release a follow-up studio recording. Personal demons and a series of run-ins with authorities would ultimately derail DMX’s career in the 2000s.

But no story from the class of ’98 is more sickening and gut-wrenching than that of R. Kelly. The singer/songwriter who Billboard magazine named the most successful R&B artist in history, is currently incarcerated at an Illinois prison, awaiting trial on 18 federal counts, including child pornography, kidnapping and forced labor.

Finally, there’s 1998’s undisputed valedictorian, Jay-Z. After releasing a spate of platinum-certified albums in the 2000s, the rapper founded the successful Rocawear apparel line and the Roc Nation entertainment agency. In 2008, he married R&B cinderella Beyoncé Knowles. With a combined net worth just under $1.5 billion, the couple now looms as American royalty.

Jay-Z’s success is symbolic of hip-hop in general, which officially muscled out rock for pop chart supremacy in 2017. Just as in 1998, today’s rap scene is split between conscious artists such as Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper, chart-topping capitalists such as Drake and Future, and rough-riding bad boys, including Migos and Playboi Carti. But as evidenced by the recent murders of rappers XXXTentacion and Nipsey Hussle, senseless death still haunts black pop.

It’s complicated.

Bruce Britt is an award-winning writer and essayist. He lives in Los Angeles with his three dogs and his Fender Stratocaster guitars.