Cover Stories

Missy Elliott, Ken Griffey Jr., Erykah Badu, Michael Jordan and more: 10 amazing magazine covers from 1998

Behind the wild scenes — two pistols, a fuschia camisole and a president — with the photographers, editors and subjects

In 1998, magazines still mattered. That summer, hip-hop became the dominant youth movement. Michael Jordan was king of basketball. The White House was engulfed in scandal. Mariah Carey, after a troubled marriage, was free. Magazines pulled out all the stops.

Building magazines was a meticulous and collaborative effort involving editors, writers, photographers, designers, advertising departments and, of course, the subjects themselves: musical artists, actors, athletes, models and political animals. Before the internet ruled everything, magazines dictated culture as much as they covered it.

Ebony and Essence were contending with fast-growing hip-hop magazines. These so-called “urban” books challenged legacy affinity mags and mainstream publications for readers, advertising dollars and talent. At its peak, The Source, America’s longest-running rap imprint (launched in 1988), sold close to half a million copies per month, and XXL, which was launched in 1997, beat those numbers by 2005. Established men’s magazines such as GQ and Playboy found themselves in a crowded and competitive field that included lifestyle pubs Men’s Fitness, Men’s Journal and Maxim.

VIBE, founded by Quincy Jones in 1993, ambitiously mixed hip-hop, fashion, film and politics and at its height had a circulation of nearly 700,000. It was America’s second most read music-based book after rock warhorse Rolling Stone (1.2 million in circulation at its height, and with a robust twice-monthly schedule). By 1998, Rolling Stone was pressed by the winds of culture to finally place luminaries such as Sean “Puffy” Combs, The Fugees and Will Smith on its covers.

Here are the stories behind 10 of the most impactful magazine covers of 1998. It was a hot summer. Who’d we forget? Let’s turn the page.

Mariah Carey (Trace Magazine, June) Photographer: Nicolas Hidiroglou

Carey’s Trace moment was beneficial to both parties. For the small, noisy, U.K.-based urban culture and fashion magazine, Carey — who, in June 1998 was the highest-selling female recording artist of the decade — was its biggest get yet. And for Carey, who was often accused of being too crossover and too smooth, Trace was a seat at the indie cool kids’ table.

Carey, fresh off a divorce from Sony Music head Tommy Mottola, was free. After all, when you strike a pinup girl pose with a wink, a fuschia camisole and platform sandals while frolicking in a beautician’s chair, you are a princess-in-a-tower no longer. “I go ’round consciously trying to maintain in a world that’s a little bit crazy,” the singer/songwriter said of her evolving sound. It was taking Carey away from her big-ballad lane of hits such as “Vision of Love,” “Hero” and the Boyz II Men duet “One Sweet Day.” “I love the fact that now I’m able to do what I want … I just wanna get it exposed to as many people as I can. And even if 99.9 percent of people who hear ‘The Roof’ don’t know that it’s [Mobb Deep’s] ‘Shook Ones (Part II),’ it is.”

Master P (The Source, July) Photographer: Davis Factor

As editor-in-chief of The Source during hip-hop’s most celebrated, tragic and ostentatious ’90s run, Selwyn Seyfu Hinds has seen a lot. But the screenwriter and author of the 2004 memoir Gunshots in My Cook-Up: Bits and Bites from a Hip-Hop Caribbean Life was not ready for 28-year-old No Limit Records rap mogul Percy “Master P” Miller. “When we were shooting P for the cover … he had this big a– bodyguard wearing overalls with no T-shirt [who] had a Glock pistol in his pocket.” Hinds laughed, still shaking his head in bewilderment. “I was looking at Master P like, Can this dude go somewhere else? It was bananas.”

Maybe Master P had a fear of cameras. Or maybe the brash label head and rapper, who survived New Orleans’ notorious Calliope Projects and built his No Limit Enterprises into a $110 million monster (he’s worth $250 million today), was just that serious. Miller’s helmet and military uniform getup was conceived by Hinds, Source art director Dave Curcurito and photographer Davis Factor, the great-grandson of cosmetics pioneer Max Factor.

“Of course the idea for the cover naturally suggested itself because of the No Limit soldier mantra he was on,” says Hinds. “Master P sold very well for us. That was the second consecutive year he was on the cover.” Hinds remembers him as the ultimate hustler. “That’s the real legacy of Master P,” he says. “He was all about black folks becoming successful behind the scenes. That’s something I really took away from that shoot.”

Erykah Badu (Ebony, July) Photographer: Vandell Cobb

By mid-1998, Dallas’ own Erykah Badu was about as huge as you could get. She’d just scored back-to-back multiplatinum albums: 1997’s acclaimed Baduizm and the follow-up Live, which gave the world “Tyrone.” Badu was often cited as the yin to D’Angelo’s yang: brilliant architects behind a back-to-basics Neo Soul movement. Out of the 14 major award nominations Badu received in ’98, she scored a remarkable eight wins, including two American Music Awards, a pair of Grammys and three Soul Train Music Awards.

Even with such accolades, a sold-out tour and comparisons to immortals like Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone and Chaka Khan, Badu’s most noteworthy achievement to the folks down home just may have been landing the July cover of a magazine that launched in 1945.

“Being in Ebony was monumental to not just me, but to my friends and family in Dallas,” says Badu. “I grew up looking at Ebony just to read the ‘Strictly For Laughs’ section. So to see myself on the cover … I mean, most of the public saw me as an adult woman, but I still saw myself as [that] same little girl who loved looking through Ebony.”

During the throwback days, if you were to visit an average black American household, Ebony was as likely to be there as plastic furniture covers and the giant wooden spoons and forks hanging on the wall. Legendary Ebony lensman Vandell Cobb, who captured the singer in her glorious signature ’90s head wrap, had photographed such towering figures as Cicely Tyson, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jackson, Prince and Aretha Franklin. The usually elusive Badu was an open book, even discussing the recent birth of her son Seven Sirius and her relationship with her son’s father, Outkast’s Andre 3000.

Badu, now 47, has since released four studio albums and two mixtapes. She chuckles at the memory of one a-star-is-born moment with Three Stacks. “I remember being in Five Points in Atlanta, Georgia, walking down the street, holding hands with Andre,” says Badu, who, when she isn’t being the coolest oddball parent in the galaxy or working on new music, is touring like a madwoman and taking care of her grandmother. “We passed by a newsstand and saw me on the cover of Ebony, and we were like, ‘There go me.’ (laughs) It was exciting, because that was about the only time you would actually get to see us on such a platform [back then]. That meant a lot to me.”

Missy Elliott (Bust, Summer/Fall Issue) Photographer: Michael Lavine

Missy Elliott is not an alien. But one would have been forgiven for believing that she was the dopest extraterrestrial that ever beamed down. Missy’s earliest stand-alone cover, for Bust in the summer of ’98, didn’t shy away from the Virginia genius’ futuristic chic. Red-tinted finger waves, oversized neon pink sunglasses, an almost transparent golf glove that gave the trippy illusion that you were staring at the hand of Doctor Strange. Baggy camel slacks brought the entire look down to earth.

As noted in her Bust profile, Missy Elliott was aiming for profundity. Involved in every facet of the creative process — as an emcee, singer, arranger, producer, songwriter, director, studio engineer and label owner — she pushed a powerful feminist message. “I’ve built a friendship with a lot of the female artists,” she said, pointing to her sisterhood with Mary J. Blige, Lil’ Kim, Da Brat and others. “For females, doing music is like having a conversation, like how we sit on the phone with friends and talk — it’s easier for two girls to hang out than it is for a whole bunch of guys. I don’t know, it’s just the bond.”

Throughout a 20-plus-year career in which Missy Elliott has amassed nearly 30 million albums, five Grammys, a scene-stealing Super Bowl halftime show appearance and a lasting impact on every girl who dared to take control of her own destiny, Missy is still defying how hip-hop and rhythm and blues should look and sound. MTV, give the lady the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award already. Like, right now.

Chris Rock (Vanity Fair, August) Photographer: Annie Leibovitz

For David Kamp, it was supposed to be an easy gig. The author was assigned a Vanity Fair cover profile about Chris Rock, who, within a two-year span, had jumped from word-of-mouth cult favorite to an arena-packing superstar set to sit for the legendary Annie Leibovitz. Kamp found his subject, who in 2018 can still command $20 million from Netflix for three stand-up specials, to be a complex study.

“He knew that his life had changed profoundly,” Kamp recalls of his Los Angeles interview with Rock on the set of Lethal Weapon 4. “His Bring The Pain special was the pivot point for him. He was a cultural phenomenon, but he was still self-deprecating.” Rock won two Emmys for the 1996 HBO stand-up triumph (his incendiary N—as vs. Black People routine was as genius as anything Richard Pryor had ever unleashed). And he had his own award-winning HBO late night talk show, which ran for five seasons. Vanity Fair’s cover line said it all: “To Be Young, Gifted and the Funniest Man in America.”

Yet, when the issue hit newsstands, Rock found himself embroiled in controversy. The eyebrow-raising cover featured the Brooklyn, New York, native dressed as a clown. With white paint on his lips and eyes and white gloves on his hands, it was uncomfortably close to blackface. A Washington Post op-ed from Donna Britt did not mince words. ‘What was Rock’s and photographer Annie Leibovitz’s intent?” she wrote. “An in-your-face parody of the minstrel shows that demeaned blacks, to underscore that today’s most respected comic is a black man?”

Years later, during an October 2006 interview with NPR, Leibovitz offered up a tepid explanation. “I want to show [comedians’] intelligence and comedy in a visual way, and Chris Rock pushes buttons,” she said. “I don’t feel like I’m getting anyone to do anything. I feel like we are collaborating.”

As for Rock? “I can’t speak what was going through his mind in doing those photos,” Kamp says. “But it’s clear that he got to where he is today by toppling sacred cows.”

Method Man (Blaze, August) Photographer: Marc BaptisteIllustrator: Matt Mahurin

During the summer of ’98, the hip-hop magazine wars were in full swing with the rise of XXL, which the previous year had debuted with a double issue featuring Jay-Z and Master P. That salvo was aimed directly at the two industry leaders in the urban imprint biz: The Source and VIBE. But if the fight over A-list covers and ad pages was already cutthroat, the August introduction of Blaze took the battle to surreal levels.

A lot was riding on the success of one of the biggest magazine launches of that era, which featured not one but two starkly different covers of the Wu-Tang Clan’s Method Man. One was a traditional portrait of Method Man, and the other was a photo illustration of Method Man ripping the flesh from the side of his face, revealing a Terminator-like cyborg.

It was freaky for sure. And with stories featuring the ’hood-praised likes of DMX, Snoop Dogg, Fat Joe, Onyx, E-40 and Lil’ Kim, Blaze was issuing a direct challenge not only to The Source and XXL but to street-fueled page-turners such as Murder Dog and Stress magazine. Jesse Washington was the lead editor of Blaze (and currently a senior writer at The Undefeated), and he wrote an editorial stating that Fugees frontman Wyclef Jean pulled a gun on him.

Things got even worse. “I am a journalist,” says Washington. “I’m here to tell people what happened and why, so if Wyclef is going to come at me and have his gun out, I’m going to write about it. It wasn’t like Wyclef was going to shoot me. I never felt in any danger.”

By 2000, Blaze, the bold rap book that shook the industry, closed — a victim of a saturated magazine market and perhaps inflated expectations. But the point was made: Hip-hop magazines were now getting the same kind of financial backing as rock-based mags. “It was a big challenge and it was competitive,” says Washington, looking back. “There were tons of incredible magazines out there, so the question became, ‘How can Blaze be different and special and beat everybody else?’ It’s hip-hop, man. We were just trying to win.”

Michael Jordan (SLAM, August) Photographer: NBA

Tony Gervino and his SLAM magazine staff were in a panic. Michael Jordan’s future was up in the air. He’d sunk the most iconic game-winner in NBA history on June 14, 1998, against the Utah Jazz. It gave Jordan and his Chicago Bulls their third consecutive championship. Pro basketball’s greatest player, brand and global ambassador seemingly had nothing left to prove.

“Everyone in the office was terrified at the prospect of his retirement,” says Gervino. Jordan, the current majority owner of the Charlotte Hornets, was so huge that his last six-game championship run averaged nearly 30 million television viewers. Michael Jordan was NBA basketball.

He was also SLAM’s biggest seller. Gervino says that after Jordan came out of retirement in ’95, SLAM sold 25 percent more copies than with any other player gracing the cover. So it was a no-brainer that Jordan would anchor its August 1998 issue. But after the frenzy surrounding “The Shot,” talk of getting Jordan to sit for a photo shoot was going nowhere. The NBA provided the magazine with a few official but unused images — one in particular of Jordan sitting, in his classic white and red-trimmed Bulls uniform, holding a basketball.

Meanwhile, then-SLAM editor Scoop Jackson was tasked with landing an interview with the elusive Jordan. No problem. “We were blessed to have Scoop in Chicago,” says Gervino of the Chicago-based SportsCenter analyst whose strong ties with Jordan allowed for so much vulnerability from the typically guarded No. 23. Jackson got Jordan to ponder the kinds of questions that we all grapple with: Can I still do it? Do I want to still do it? And what’s the next chapter of my life?

Lauryn Hill (VIBE, August) Photographer: Enrique Badulescu

The whispers were deafening: Hip-hop supergroup the Fugees, the Haitian/African-American trio whose 1996 cover of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” helped propel their sophomore The Score to 10 million copies sold, were breaking up. And all one needed as proof that the gossip was true was the sight of a solo Lauryn Hill living her best life on the August cover of VIBE. “We put Lauryn’s music on really loud, and I asked her to stick her tongue out and make silly faces at me,” says photographer Enrique Badulescu. “I don’t want people to think my subjects are too serious or uptight. I love those pictures.”

If The Score made Wyclef Jean, Pras Michel and Hill international stars, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill elevated the East Orange, New Jersey, product to rarefied heights. When the Feb. 8, 1999, issue of Time celebrated hip-hop’s 20th anniversary, Hill was chosen, at 23, to be on the cover. She joined the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Toni Morrison and Bill T. Jones as the only one of five black entertainers to headline the historic imprint in the ’90s.

Miseducation swept the Grammys with five wins, including the prestigious Album of the Year, the first time for a hip-hop based act. But before her coronation as the Queen of the New School, Hill was apprehensive at the thought of going at it alone without her Fugees brethren. “There was always a lot of energy for me to do something solo, but to me, it was a little bit negative,” she told VIBE. “It was flattering, but it was like, ‘Cross them cats; get rid of them.’ But that’s not me. I’m not a jump-ship type of person.”

Nineteen million records later, Hill’s influence, despite a string of legal issues and a penchant for showing up late to gigs, has proven to be durable. Artists from Kanye West (“All Falls Down”) and Drake (“Nice For What”) to Cardi B (“Be Careful”) and A$AP Rocky (“Purity”) have mined her work. “She’s like any other human who has gone through ups and downs,” Badulescu says. “Life goes very quickly. But she’s still standing.”

Ken Griffey Jr. (ESPN The Magazine, August 24) Photographer: Davis Factor

This is your daily reminder that although Ken Griffey Jr. is in the Hall of Fame, he remains baseball’s most grossly underrated superstar. Yes, such a statement may seem laughable given that the Hall of Famer put up sick numbers during his 22 seasons — mostly as a Seattle Mariner. He topped off at 630 home runs, 2,781 hits, 1,836 RBIs, 10 Golden Gloves and a 1997 American League MVP. But there’s a gut-wrenching punch line. The ultimate five-tool, forever young player nicknamed “The Kid” often found himself overshadowed by his peers for having the audacity to play the game clean.

The Aug. 24 issue of ESPN The Magazine captured the 1998 slugfest just as things were heating up. “Stick It … Junior bashes: Lazy Players, The Yankees, Home Run Mania and ESPN” was the cover line. And Griffey, the what-me-worry franchise superstar, was pointing a bat directly at the camera. The sweet swinging, backward-hat-rocking Griffey was perfectly cast to break Roger Maris’ 1961 single-season home run record of 61.

Entering the All-Star break, four players had 30 home runs for the first time in MLB history: Mark McGwire (37), Griffey (35), Sammy Sosa (33) and Greg Vaughn (30). Griffey, especially, seemed to be on a magical roll, as the leading All-Star Game vote-getter beat out future Hall of Famer Jim Thome to win the Home Run Derby, knocking out 19 dingers. But even before the ’98 season began, Griffey and McGwire were already pegged to leapfrog Maris’ historic number, with McGwire finishing with 58, barely edging Griffey’s 56 during the previous year. By July 31, it had become a three-man race featuring McGwire (45), Sosa (42) and Griffey (41).

By Aug. 31, Griffey, at 47 homers, had fallen dangerously behind McGwire and Sosa, both tied for 55. Maris’ record was broken on Sept. 8 as McGwire launched his 62nd of the season against Sosa and his Chicago Cubs. McGwire would end the season crushing one of baseball’s most hallowed marks, racking up 70 home runs. There were hugs, smiles and apple pie all around. There was also brazen cheating, as reports later surfaced that McGwire and Sosa, among others, had been juicing. And Griffey, seventh all-time on the home run list, even with the Hall of Fame induction, still seems a little short on accolades.

Bill Clinton (Time, August 24) Photographer: Nigel Parry

Nigel Parry only had a few minutes to pull off the shot. The idea was to make the still youthful and cool President William Jefferson Clinton look presidential. The former governor of Arkansas had beaten George H.W. Bush in the 1992 election, and his 1996 thrashing of Sen. Bob Dole was largely seen as a Dikembe Mutombo finger-wag to the Republican Party.

“That was a very interesting moment,” Parry says. “I had only a few minutes in the White House. At that point when I photographed the portrait, which I had originally captured for The New York Times Magazine, we didn’t know he was in a massive amount of scandal. I told President Clinton to look skyward to the heavens in a sort of heroic way, and then I said, ‘Now look my way, but keep your head where it is.’ And just by the sideway glance he gave, it was almost like he knew something I didn’t know.”

Scandal was about to engulf the White House. For months, rumblings of the president’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky had been gaining traction. There was also the Paula Jones sexual harassment imbroglio. Time needed to capture a president in political turmoil. Parry has photographed every president since 1994, including Donald Trump. “Trump wants to scare you into liking him,” says Parry. “Whereas Clinton just wants you to love him.” Parry had the perfect image, which had been initially rejected by The New York Times Magazine.

“I was in England when I saw the cover and I was, as we say, pleased as punch,” says Parry. “It was a very poignant moment. And here’s the strange thing. That Christmas, my agent sent the photo to the White House to be signed by Bill Clinton. I have that actual photo with the president’s autograph (Laughs). I think he appreciated that I sort of caught him in that moment.”

Keith "Murph" Murphy is a senior editor at VIBE Magazine and frequent contributor at Billboard, AOL, and CBS Local. The veteran journalist has appeared on CNN, FOX News and A&E Biography and is also the author of the men’s lifestyle book "Manifest XO."