Chief Keef recently posted a Mt. Rushmore Of Hip-Hop on his Instagram. The photo positioned himself, Kanye West, Lil Wayne, and Drake as the four most influential artists in hip-hop. The polarizing post may have rankled hip-hop traditionalists who grew up with Jay-Z, Nas, Tupac, and other golden era stalwarts, but there’s a generation of young millennials and Generation Z-ers who look up to Kanye, Drake, and Wayne, as the artistic pillars of their hip-hop experience. Keef’s reclusiveness has impeded his access to the household-name stature of the previous artists, but the underground king has inspired a flourishing scene of so-called “mumble rappers.”
Observing his post made me realize that segmenting the decades starting in 1978 is actually a perfect — if numerically awkward — way to annex eras of hip-hop history. 1988, 1998, and 2008 all serve as notable demarcations of hip-hop history.
Each of those years brought significant events that were culminations of trends that had, in most cases, been building in previous years. The musical projects, music business developments, and overall cultural occurrences of each of those years helped steer the next decade of hip-hop, and they all occurred right before the turn of a decade.
Let’s go way back to 1988. Hip-hop was in its infancy and was still seen as a fad by most so-called musical purists. By the mid-80’s, many artists had begun to break up the monotony of flashy, braggadocious rap that deified the DJ and touted their own supremacy. The emphatic, one-bar-at-a-time flow of like Sugar Hill Gang and Kurtis Blow was being shown up as obsolete by the rapid-fire flows of artists like Rakim, who eschewed simplistic rhyme structures for assonant masterpieces.
Rappers like KRS-One, Kool G Rap, and Big Daddy Kane advanced the craft of MCing to a supreme art. They inspired then-aspirants like Nas, Jay-Z, Biggie and Big Pun, who later out-rhymed and out-slicked the competition with their rhymes. Albums like Rakim’s Follow The Leader and Kane’s Long Live the Kane exhibited hip-hop’s intriguing artistic potential — and their nationwide impact also demonstrated that hip-hop wasn’t just a New York thing.
Though West Coast trailblazers like King Tee and Ice T deserve their credit as West Coast pioneers, it was NWA’s incendiary Straight Outta Compton that spread like wildfire and set a cultural standard for West Coast hip-hop. If Ice-T’s work was the birth of gangsta rap, Straight Outta Compton was the subgenre’s first sprint. From the moment Dr. Dre spit, “you are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge,” to open the album, the listener was taken on a ride through the gang-riddled Compton streets, which the audience quickly learned were just as treacherous — if not worse — than their own hometowns. Cube, Eazy, and Dre rapped first-person, hyperbolic, narratives of LA gang culture that vicariously thrilled young, suburban listeners and formed the basis of all gangsta rap to come.
The project wasn’t just about shooting down busters, however. With songs like “Straight Outta Compton” and “F*ck The Police,” NWA vocalized the fury people across Black America felt when realizing the previously-glamorous crack era was becoming a full-on epidemic, and abusive cops were using the so-called “War On Drugs” as an excuse to treat the communities they patrolled like it was 1888 instead of 1988.
NWA railed against the police system and showed that “street knowledge” meant they understood the racial dynamics of the relationship between Black and Brown people and police. So did Chuck D and the rest of Public Enemy, who lambasted cops and every other cog of white supremacy on It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold It Back, a vaunted album which is regarded as the gold standard for social commentary in hip-hop.
The Long Island-based group were rebels with a righteous cause on the militant 1988 album, making still-relevant lines like “who gives a f*ck about a goddamn Grammy?” cultural mantras long before social media. Over frenetic, reverberating production, Chuck D censured cultural appropriation, the perils of drug use, mindless media, and the extermination of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, topics which serve as the quintessence of so much of the so-called “conscious rap” today.
Chuck D’s fearless, unabashedly pro-Black lyrics didn’t tell the entire tale of It Takes A Nation Of Millions…, however. The rambunctious production of the Bomb Squad paralleled Dr. Dre’s in its layers and attention to detail. The Bomb Squad deftly stitched together Clyde Stubblefield drum breaks and myriad chopped loops, forming a sonic framework for many albums to follow, including A Tribe Called Quest’s classic Midnight Marauders album.
The music from ‘88 resonated heavily with artists like Tupac and Biggie particularly. Pac pulled from Public Enemy’s wisdom and NWA’s fury. Big pulled from Slick Rick’s storytelling virtuoso and Big Daddy Kane’s dexterous suave. They have two of the most revered catalogs of all time. Even if Lil Xan isn’t feeling Pac’s music in 2018, he’s mostly in the minority. By 1998 though, the hip-hop world was reeling from their untimely deaths. They died as adversaries in a contrived coastal beef — which was further stimulated by hip-hop’s ascension from a fringe music genre into a core piece of American popular culture.
One of the key moments of that East-West beef was the 1995 Source Awards. The event is known as a coronation for Biggie as King Of New York — and Suge Knight’s divisive flame-fanning, but one of the more unheralded moments is Andre 3000 of Outkast’s solemn, “the south got something to say” proclamation after winning an award for New Artist Of The Year.
Hip-hop consumers weren’t trying to hear the “third coast” as much as the East or West at that time. By 1998 though, everyone was all ears. That year saw Outkast drop their incredible Aquemini record which helped vault the Atlanta duo to superstardom. Two New Orleans-based labels also began making noise. In 1997, then-independent label Cash Money Records negotiated a one-of-a-kind distribution deal with Universal Records, which helped their flashy brand of New-Orleans-bounce-influenced-rap reach universal recognition.
Juvenile vaulted to rap stardom off the strength of his “Ha” and “Back That Azz Up” smashes, which laid way to The Hot Boys’ platinum Guerilla Warfare album. Across town, Master P’s No Limit Records was staying true to their name, with a seemingly limitless array of releases throughout 1998. The label released a whopping 23 projects that year, which was basically a project almost every other week. The relentless release schedule was the introduction of a market-flooding tactic that other acts soon picked up on. Today, Southern acts like Gucci Mane, Future and Migos are direct descendants of No Limit’s copious creation.
In 1998, many artists and record labels may have been befuddled by the Southern hustle. Soon enough, they’d be abiding by its stipulations. 1998 wasn’t just about the South though, as a new crop of New York MCs popped up who would shape the city’s hip-hop scene in their own unique fashion. Cam’ron, DMX, Big Pun, N.O.R.E., and Canibus, in particular, were crowned by The Source as the future of hip-hop — and all made their mark in varying degrees. Ditto, Mos Def. An infusion of new blood like that at once hadn’t been seen since the early ‘90s. Are they the original XXL freshman class?
Mos Def partnered with Talib Kweli to release Black Star, a soulful, lyrically dense album that helped revitalize the underground hip-hop scene. A humorous Questlove anecdote exemplified Mos Def’s one-time position as the kryptonite to the capitalistic leanings of Diddy, Cash Money, and the then-burgeoning Rocafella Records. Though his rap career may not have achieved its full potential, Black Star — in conjunction with work like Lauryn Hill’s landmark The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill — were integral works to a then-burgeoning neo-soul movement that thrives in the sonic DNA of artists like Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, SZA, and hoards of underground acts.
In hindsight, maybe a cathartic, candid album like Miseducation… collectively cleansed the rap game’s adversarial palette. 1998 was perhaps the most transitional year ever for hip-hop. Pac died in 1996 and Biggie died in 1997. Nas has said that their consecutive deaths set a dreadful atmosphere in which it felt like the sky was falling for hip-hop. The show went on though, however, hindered.
Jay-Z stepped into the breach left behind by Biggie and took the King Of New York title with His Life And Times Of Sean Carter: Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life album. With hits like, “Hard Knock Life” and “Jigga What, Jigga Who,” Jigga man became one of the biggest stars in music. The 5x platinum album — and his knack for setting cultural trends — made corporate America take notice. He’d sell many millions more in the next 10 years, even while “retired” for three of them.
By 2008, his Rocafella diamond wasn’t just a hand gesture, but insignia of a hip-hop empire. Even if after he had split from Rocafella co-founders Dame Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke, Jay was at the top of the pyramid. Jay didn’t release a solo project in 2008, but two of his greatest (indirect) creations were the bookends of one of the most effectual years in hip-hop history.
In 2008, Lil Wayne and Kanye West released two projects that could be argued — and have been — as their creative opuses.
Lil Wayne’s Carter III was the crowning achievement of his expansion from wobble-dee-wobbler to punchline king. During his mixtape run, Wayne had begun to stake his claim as a possible heir to Jay’s perceived throne. His almost-signing to Rocafella in 2004 hinted at it. His fervor to outdo Jay on his beats furthered the discussion. The commercial success of the multi-platinum Carter III solidified it. Ultimately, Jay-Z’s decision to verbally acknowledge his heir on “Mr. Carter” made it a cultural mandate — Wayne had achieved the self-fulfilling prophecy of becoming “the best rapper alive.”
In 2008, another striking event occurred — Kanye West, the guy who fused the best of Black Star and The Blueprint to exhibit the mass appeal of traditionalist hip-hop, put out a full album of singing. T-Pain had popularized the Roger Troutman-influenced, alien-channeling Autotune vocal technique in the mid-‘00s. Autotune had previously been used solely as a tool to subtly smooth out vocalists, but T-Pain cranked the configurations up and ingeniously transitioned it from a plugin to an instrument in itself.
Kanye, who had just had a tough breakup and tragically lost his mother, decided to use autotune to convey his pain to the world. Kanye has said that people wanted him to drop the risky project under a pseudonym to frame it as a “side project,” but he was having none of it. 808s and Heartbreak was released on November 24th, 2008. Songs like “Say You Will” and “Heartless” were polarizing. Some fans regard it as a classic which showed the musicality of hip-hop, but other detractors barely acknowledge it as hip-hop. A brief aside, does that sound like a circumstance you’ve heard recently?
It’s telling that T-Pain, who dropped Thr33 Ringz in 2008, worked heavily with both Wayne and Kanye — and that those two ultimately worked together on each other’s 2008 projects. Though Kanye referred to Wayne’s lyrical supremacy on songs like the “Lollipop” remix, fans paralleled the dynamic to basketball’s then-red-hot LeBron or Kobe debate.
Both artists worked from different angles to push hip-hop forward. Artists soon arose that exemplified the middle ground of their influences, specifically a fledgling Toronto rapper who was working on a mixtape that he had literally poured all his money into. His name was Drake, and the project was So Far Gone. Though the project wasn’t actually released until February of 2009, it’s obvious that songs like “Lollipop’s” croaky melodies and “Streetlights’” harmonious pensiveness had influenced he and producer 40’s sound.
It’s even more obvious that almost every hip-hop artist that’s hit the top 100 in the past decade was influenced in some fashion by either Drake, Kanye or Wayne. Just three years after their landmark albums came Chief Keef, whose slurry, melodic flows over 808s influenced Lil Uzi Vert, Future, Travis Scott, and an entire scene of dreaded, underground trap and bounce rappers who ideate themselves as Rockstars.
We’re seeing more artists step past mere visual parallels to rockers into fully incorporating the elements of punk and alternative rock. There have been moments like Wayne’s Rebirth album and Jay-Z’s collaborations with Linkin Park, but those projects felt like exploratory departures from their primary sound.
From the controversial Tekashi, whose energetic Day 69 culled from the New York punk scene he grew up in, to Lil Uzi Vert’s reimagining of Hot Topic rock as trap bangers, multitudes of young artists fully embracing rock music at the core of their vocal craftsmanship. Lil Peep died before mastering the intriguing alt-rock/trap fusion he attempted on projects like Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 1. Will 2018 be a year where a rock-influenced hip-hop album goes on to be regarded as a classic and inspire future artists? The game could use some more hip-hop bands anyway.
It feels like 40 years into hip-hop, there’s little sonic road that hasn’t been tread. There are still new advances being made in terms of the way music is released, however. The near symbiotic relationship between major labels and major brands — plus the streaming game — have resulted in a range of innovative album rollouts in recent years, such as Jay-Z’s 4:44 being released on Sprint phones. 2018 may be the year a heavyweight like Beyonce, Kanye, Drake or Chance The Rapper connects with a forward-thinking tech brand to release their next album in a manner which could become the new standard.
Lyor Cohen recently surmised that we’re entering a “golden age” of the music industry. It’s worth wondering how hip-hop’s newfound status as the biggest genre in the world will affect the game. Will hip-hop’s post-regionalism continue its natural progression into one big international scene? Will projects from artists like Skepta and Drake help further bridge that ocean-wide gap? Will Cardi B’s debut album do numbers and cement the social-media-star-to-superstar path as a valid one for future artists? Will “female rapper” or “femcee” be a term of the past by 2028 based on women artists selling heavyweight numbers?
On the first day of Spring 2018, there are many questions to be answered about this year. One thing that’s readily apparent, however, is that it will take a lot for this year’s impact to live up to 10 years ago. Or 20. Or 30.