By Ryan Bukowiecki (@ryanbski)
To be 14 years old and into Hip-Hop is a powerful thing, maybe one of the most powerful forces there is low key.
Depending on when you were 14 your love of Hip-Hop may have been the cause of you ending any and every text message or social media post with a Drake lyric you’ve deemed as the most rock solid philosophy you’ve ever heard and ever will hear. Or, it may have been the cause for you to bomb every empty wall within a six block radius with the phrases “Paid In Full” or “Criminal Minded, you been blinded…”
Regardless of what era you entered into the “music speaks to my soul” phase, its likely it happened in those heady days when you were transitioning into high school, learning more about the world around you and learning how much bigger it was than you may have known prior.
What made Hip-Hop so irresistible to so many of us entrenched into specific hood environments — specifically laid out square sections or intimidating high rise experiments where the only difference for most was just how far they would fall into the societal traps laid out for them just beyond their building lobbies — was the keep it real aesthetic as held so dear to the artists in the first 30 years of the culture on wax in particular (1979-2009).
In griots who in most cases were only 5-10 years older than me I got to find out so much of what life had in store for me, what places I’d like to visit in the days ahead, who to embrace and avoid when I get to those places, how to value life itself and how to enjoy the ride along the way. The Ghetto CNN was still a thing then and we benefited week after week, back then on each Tuesday as new transmissions came to our attention, collected in plastic containers that may have well been crystal to us given the jewels that we knew were being contained in them.
I turned 14 in 1998 and through that year learned what a “Juvenile” really was (in New Orleans anyway), claimed I didn’t want “to be a player no more” even though I had yet to start, shouted “Uptown Baby!” as if I had came up in Soundview Projects all my life and simply reveled in the star turns made by the likes of DMX and Lauryn Hill.
It was an amazing year to continue a coming of age with a culture that was doing pretty much the same thing. The heartbreak and tension of losing Tupac and Biggie in the previous two years was fading away at this point, leaving more of the strength and resolve within the leaders of the rap game to not bring itself to that kind of near-Armageddon again. There was too much money to be made, too many more mountains to climb and folks in the game knew how little help would be offered from the society around them.
Ten years before Obama spoke of being the change we wanted to see in the world, Hip-Hop was already on that in one of the most important years of its progression and the release date of September 29th was the greatest example of how past, present and future could meld in expression and produce something long-lasting, critical and progressive.
9/29 is mostly remembered for the five major albums released on that day. Tracks from those five albums are included in the playlist above, which I could only embed here on YouTube proper (I’d recommend listening to it on the YouTube Music app though).
Shea Serrano and Donnie Kwak did a fine job on The Ringer encapsulating the significance of these releases all coming out on the same day and placing 9/29/98 against other days that featured multiple great rap releases, proving just how above the fray this day exists. To that end I’ll just offer a quick summation of each album from my point of view:
Brand Nubian, Foundation — The only of these five albums I’ve never owned and/or listened to in full. I’ll probably change the latter at some point, but I’m not in a rush. Got a lot of love and respect for Brand Nubian though (I remember seeing them live at the African Fest at Washington Park several years ago and being very impressed).
In my earlier years with Hip-Hop they were certainly a group to be reckoned with but this was a reunion album that happened after a couple albums where the group missed de-facto leader Grand Puba after he struck out on a solo career. It was great that Puba got back with Sadat X and Lord Jamar and made one more album to speak to their legacy but I’d recommend listening to “One For All,” the group’s debut, or Puba or X’s best solo stuff before “Foundation.”
A Tribe Called Quest, The Love Movement — Will try to be economical here because there’s a lot I could go into. This exists as a “break-up” album, the opposite of Brand Nubian’s necessary revival. If you unfortunately don’t know Tribe’s story, check out their award-winning documentary and go from there, you’ll certainly want to.
In the moment this release was all about “Find A Way,” the first and really only single release from this album, which we didn’t know at the time was a final hurling of output from a group of life-long friends who were sick of being around each other even after establishing itself as one of the greatest of modern music groups.
You couldn’t tell it from the music of “The Love Movement,” though. The music was springy, mischievous and ever-hypnotic even if it didn’t have much of the bass and heft of Tribe’s previous four efforts. 20 years later I’m definitely on the side of “The Love Movement” being underrated, most Hip-Hop groups would be fine with this album being their greatest and its only the fifth (excuse me, sixth, depending on how one feels about “Beats, Rhymes and Life”) best from this one.
Yes, the Tribe’s reunion effort, blessed from above by Phife Dawg in 2016, edges out “The Love Movement” too, but mostly because you knew the love in “We Got it From Here…” existed more in the music than in the title and it was borne from a hard-earned alliance that needed to come apart at some point, thus making 9/29/98 a day for Tribe fanatics that gained in significance over time and seems less like a tragedy every time you play “The Love Movement” again.
Jay-Z, Vol. 2, Hard Knock Life — Once a man can make the hood bump Annie unabashedly the world is suddenly at his feet. That’s what Jay did by the end of the summer of ’98 and its the reason why “Hard Knock Life” is by a country mile the most successful album on this list, selling over five million copies in the US, most of that coming before the millennium kicked off.
This was the album that made Jay the de-facto King of New York, it got him on David Letterman for the first time and it made him an MTV mainstay. Jay deserved all of it too because “Hard Knock Life” is the worst track on Vol. 2 by a country mile (well not really, it takes a couple tracks to pick up, until Jay and Jaz-O bring the Originators bit back), the rest of it was filled with alternating grit and flash and hungry-ass rapping on top of exquisite production (if you not stomping someone out with Timbs on while listening to “Reservoir Dogs” you will be by the end of the track).
Black Star, Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star — So utilitarian and revolutionary was this album, from its actual-factual title and wood-paneled design to its repeated calls for more education, more pride, more whatever we ain’t seeing from Puffy all the damn time.
Mos and Kweli weren’t haters, they decried the “Hater Players” themselves on this album, they were just real dudes from Flatbush, Brooklyn and real creative dudes who knew the values of the Golden Age of Hip-Hop (or the first Golden Age for you flexible types) had to continue to be upheld — skills came first, Black pride should always be upheld and music only has to be music to be significant, not a vehicle to sell oneself or one’s culture.
No album from 9/29/98 has had a more direct connection to its fans as this one has. Some sort of sequel or follow up has been begged for pretty much for the entirety of the 20 years since. Kweli and Mos have steady teased us, especially in this anniversary year, but nothing concrete has come together yet. They still rock together, like they did at the Taste of Chicago in July, and that’s enough.
To hear the two spit and sing from this album is as much of a time warp as any of the performances of these albums could provide, back to a time when the ideals for brothas and sisters were clearer, the objectives more reachable and the pleasures easier to identify.
OutKast, Aquemini — And last, but certainly not least…
‘Kast was a pretty big deal entering this release date, it left 9/29/98 an even bigger deal and kept rising and expanding as a deal until they took home Album of the Year from the Grammys some six years later for “Speakerboxx/The Love Below.” But when “Rosa Parks” dropped there was still the air of danger about them to everyone but us who rocked with Dre and Big Boi since their ode to playas celebrating the holiday season dropped in ’94.
Rosa Parks herself (or her handlers) felt it necessary to sue ‘Kast for using her name in a less than observant fashion, but what ‘Kast may have lacked in earnestness in the first “Aquemini” single they had in spades in clever word-play and accessible funk that would have made anyone else proud to be associated by name with that track.
Rosa Parks was no stranger to taking on something bigger than her but in the case of OutKast and its pop culture momentum she was taking on something more righteous than the Montgomery public system and Alabama’s entrenchment of Jim Crow, she was essentially taking on her grand-babies and even if the grand-babies may be a little headstrong and insensitive at times, it is time exactly that they got on their side.
Big Boi and Dre made use of time in the best way on “Aquemini,” speeding things up when needed, completely slowing things down when that was needed. They threw everything at us to let us know that their union was not failing even as they took on the world — including comedic skits, George Clinton monologues, Raekwon’s darts, extended cries by a baby, four year old songs left on the cutting room floor, horns and more horns, Hollywood Courts, guitar solos and Big Rube’s endless wisdom.
To be 14 and to listen to an album like “Aquemini” is to have your entire perspective on life altered to some degree. I mostly listened to it alone in my room, huddled over myself wishing I could somehow fold into myself and explore what was there so I would better know how I related to everything that was around me.
Short of such metaphysical exploits I indeed had the music of this album, the most significant one to come from this day in my opinion, and really not just mine — it received 5 Mics off top, it sold just about as much as Jay and it essentially made Dre and Big into the Beatles of rap, conductors of a magical mystery machine that was only just scratching the surface of how deep it can go and how much influence it could excavate from its plundering, influence that would better all of us and truly change us.
The video below tells the story of another significant Hip-Hop event that happened on 9/29/98, an event which is not getting its due as adding to the significance of this day.
The magazine “XXL” was in the middle of its campaign to try and overtake “The Source” as the official rap magazine of record by the fall of ’98. It can be argued that its effort to photograph a grand cross section of artists from across the country to pay homage to another famous photograph which did the same for jazz artists some 40 years earlier was a great step forward in doing so.
Former XXL-staffer Michael A. Gonzales wrote about the day itself and how it came about here if you’d like an appropriate level of context here, but even if you don’t you can just look at it and get the picture. This was Hip-Hop standing together as it never could before then and never would in the time since.
Sure, people from all sides show love to each other now but imagine corralling all the top artists of today and convincing them to be a part of a mass shot where there’s only a slight chance they may be seen, you’re more likely to end up with 200 versions of the photo blown up and pixilated to hell, the better to tag you and your crew with on IG.
Anyway, much like the album releases on 9/29/98, “A Great Day In Hip-Hop” not only paid homage to the past, it boosted up itself in the present while acknowledging that a future that’s best for all of us starts with a unified front and no frontin’ allowed.
Ryan Bukowiecki covers the Chicago Bears and professional football for WARR