Hip Hop, Circa 1998 will serve as my repository for all of my hip hop-related pieces that I have written over the years. This not only includes my essays written for other sites, but also all of my yearly top hip hop lists (2007 – Present).
The year 1998 is not hip hop’s best year, but it reflects my odd affinity with the decline of hip hop’s second golden age (1993-1999). Hip hop was in serious transition—Notorious BIG’s and 2Pac’s deaths haunted rap and the genre was searching for its identity. Puff Daddy’s shiny suit rap pushed the artform into this weird cultural dystopia where materialism, “flossing” (the precursor to swag), and outright jacking of past hits dominated the mainstream. The next great lyricist who was murdering rappers on their own tracks before it became a thing—Canibus—dropped a dud of a debut album (Can-i-bus–I was right.). A Tribe Called Quest released their last album (ironically called The Love Movement) before breaking up. Wu Tang began their long descent. We had to endure No Limit as they legitimately ran the South (really paving the way for Cash Money Records to take their place and influence the East Coast like never before).
Yet, hip hop remained diverse. Lauryn Hill dropped that megaton bomb of a debut album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, placing her among the greats at the time. Outkast and Gangstarr released classic albums (Aquemini and Moment of Truth). Jay-Z’s star finally began to rise with his Vol. 2 Hard Knock Life album (which is really, really good in retrospect). Pete Rock dropped his beautiful solo debut, Soul Survivor. The mysterious DMX and the super lyrical Big Pun were refreshingly different and captivated the culture. The shiny suit phase provoked what I call the “pretentious” (really referring to the fans, not the artists) underground movement (which I was part) embodied in Rawkus Records. Mos Def and Talib Kweli produced one of my all-time favorite albums—Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star that served as the antithesis of dystopic mainstream. With all of the diversity and the rising backlash against shiny suit materialism and pop rap coming both in the forms of the socially-conscious Black Star and the consciously dark DMX, there was no telling which direction hip hop would go, and, at least at that moment, the uncertainty made thinking critically about hip hop more exciting.
That was the year when it seemed like everyone my age became critics. We debated about who was better—No Limit or Wu Tang (Wu Tang). We internalized The Source Magazine’s 5-mic rating system. We argued about album ratings in school. We began to talk about the “direction of” hip hop as a genre in ways we did or could not five years prior. And this is why I love the genre so much. Hip hop, like my other loves—history and politics—is all about argument. This is probably the most underrated, and maybe some may argue that it is the most overrated (“It’s just music—enjoy it!”), aspect of the genre. And even those who overrate the argument still cannot escape debate.
Hip hop now is also about building knowledge. Even some of the largest universities are recognizing this (see Harvard University’s hip hop archive). We used to build this knowledge in mostly informal social situations—in classrooms after we completed our work, in between class periods, at lunch, on the walk home, at parties and concerts, and during any given social interaction with other friends and fans. Unfortunately, not many of us took notes—we only have our memories of personal and collective musical experience. Now internet technology and social media has enabled hip hoppers to compile and store knowledge in digital space. Creating a place for my recollections and past, current, and future writings seems crucial. It is about contributing to that growing archive of information that I (yes, a book is on the future agenda) and others may be able to draw from later.
So, my purposes for Circa1998 is straightforward. It is a space for me to recount ‘90s hip hop and my experiences with the genre whenever I make time. Of course, I will also comment on contemporary hip hop, especially via lists. I will compose essays exploring hip hop’s connections to politics. The site will also function as an introductory site since I tend to field a lot of questions about the genre from my non-hip hopping peers (“What albums would you suggest?” What’s the historical context for ____?”). There will be reviews, etc., as well. I suggest subscribing or bookmarking the site because I will only be able to update when I have time since I will continue to write about politics and history (here and here). I’m also writing a dissertation at the moment…