Rapping in the late 90s

The journey down Memory Lane (Sittin’ In Da Park) began with Nas and his Illmatic album. I had just moved a CD wallet containing some of my oldest CD’s from my room to my car and felt like listening to rap music. Illmatic begat DJ Clue’s Backstage Mixtape begat Ruff Ryders Ryde or Die Volume II begat Silkk the Shocker’s Charge It To Da Game, which got me thinking back to a time passed.

In 1997 to at least 2000, many commercial hip-hop/rap artists weren’t defined by the lyrics he spit or even the thumping beats in the background. A rapper was defined by one’s crew. One’s label. One’s association with someone better and more well-known than him or her.

It went like this. A talented artist, a Nas or a Jay-Z, released a couple of successful albums. He made enough money to buy the island of Cyprus. He released a clothing line. Then he decided to share the wealth amongst his friends, giving them a platform to rap while dreaming the friends could attain similar accolades but actually and smartly knowing they sucked but it didn’t matter because people would pay $14 for an album by a nobody and think it was decent because they were affiliated with said famous, successful rapper.

I was anointed into this rap community with Puff Daddy splashing the holy Cristal on my forehead. It was the same way every white millennial from suburbia experienced the dive into rap. His album No Way Out dropped in 1997, when I was in fifth grade. Puff Daddy, who actually went by Sean “Puffy” Combs for about seventeen minutes that year, had groundbreaking hits then, notably “Mo Money, Mo Problems” (actually on B.I.G.’s album) and “I’ll Be Missing You.” “Mo Money, Mo Problems” rocked and still does, but he was parroting off the fame of his late friend the Notorious B.I.G.

Biggie was the center of Bad Boy, the originator. He had the talent. He made the money. He lent cache to anyone with a microphone who drew near. Because of him, Bad Boy exploded. Artists like Lil’ Cease and Puff Daddy, as a rapper, became household names to hip-hop heads because they hung around with and recorded with Biggie.

And there was nothing terribly wrong with the Bad Boy clique, as far as music goes*. The Lox was a talented group, Mase a talented rapper pre his born-again Christian phase and Lil’ Kim was at least tolerable as a featured artist. The problem came because others across the country replicated the formula.

*The opinion that opposing rap alliances Bad Boy (east coast) and Deathrow (west coast) contributed to the deaths of Biggie and 2Pac is valid, if not irrefutable, but not the point of this blog post. I am simply here to discuss how much rap music sucked because of these amalgamations of non-talented musicians who just had good connections.

As Bad Boy reached its apex and then plummeted, other groups around the country took off. There were the Ruff Ryders. DMX, maybe the first rapper to be charged with both sodomy and animal cruelty, was the originator, his song “Ruff Ryders Anthem” announcing their arrival.

Besides DMX, there was Eve, a good musician and then people with names like Drag-On, Young Wun and Jin. Drag-On is such a terrible, forgettable rapper that you can’t even find his second-most famous song, “Groundhog Day,” on YouTube.

Other East Coast groups included the Flipmode Squad, headed by Busta Rhymes, Roc-A-Fella with Jay-Z and a short-lived effort by Nas’ Ill Will Records. Those mistakes brought us artists like Spliff Star and the Bravehearts and gut-wrenching songs like “Oochie Wallie.” But the worst offenders came from the South. The worst offenders included No Limit Records.

Other crews had a talented musician at the center; No Limit had Master P. He became famous because he uttered “ugh” every four seconds in his songs. He made two movies, “I Got The Hook Up” and “Foolish,” that no one, to this day, has ever seen. He played an exhibition basketball game for the Charlotte Hornets. He was not talented.

No Limit Records never aspired for artistic greatness, nor did it pretend to. The word business is commonly thrown out to describe the rap game, and no crew approached music as a business more than No Limit. Master P wanted the rappers from his legion, as he termed them soldiers, to release 20-song albums at a near-weekly basis. Wikipedia tells me that in 1998, 23 No Limit albums came out, a number that included a CD titled My Balls and My Word by a rapper named Young Bleed.

There was no thought put into any of it. Each album was the same. They contained forgettable odes about drug dealing and ghetto stereotypes and the requisite “fallen homies” and “crew shout-out” songs that featured seven artists. Nepotism got you signed. Master P’s brothers, Silkk and C-Murder, were on the label. The majority of the artists, like Mr. Serv-On, hailed from P’s hometown of New Orleans. None of them were good. None of them. Yet Fiend’s album reached No. 8 in the entire country, and rappers like Serv-On and Big Ed and the Gambino Family had albums in the top 20. Silkk the Shocker had an album go No. 1.

The commercial success led to No Limit’s greatest sin, spawning the Southside’s other mistake, Cash Money Records. Like No Limit, it differed from some of the other rap crews. It had talent at the center, in Juvenile and a young Lil’ Wayne, but usually crews were started by rich, established stars. No one had any money for Cash Money records. As you could imagine, this became a problem, considering the sole gimmick of Cash Money was to describe how much money they had even though they didn’t have any.

Every single song was about Bentleys and Rolexes. A song like “Rich N*****” would have a verse that would then turn into the chorus for the song “Loud Pipes.” It was cut and paste, and borrow the sweet cars and platinum chains that were in the music videos. Thankfully a few years ago, Cash Money handed everything over to Lil’ Wayne so the label actually survives today and resembles little of the genre-ruining entity it was years ago.

Back then, rap had changed. The music at its origins was largely about MC battles. One person rapped to the same beat as another, and a crowd decided who was better. Individual talent won out. If someone grew up on the same street as DMX, it didn’t matter. You were exposed if you didn’t have the necessary skill. But in the late 90s that was no longer the case.

The rap industry resembled the real world in that who you knew mattered as much as what you could do. The talented didn’t necessarily catch the breaks. Sure, some did, but far too many got in through connections. Memphis Bleek was from Marcy, so Jay-Z gave him a spot on Roc-A-Fella and the opportunity to release two terrible albums, maybe more.

That was the late 90s and the early aughts for hip-hop. Excess and undeserved opportunity. Fortunately the Internet came along and gutted the music industry. Commercially successful rappers don’t make near as much as they used to, and the cliques full of wannabes dissolved years ago because stars can’t afford to offer alms to their friends. All that’s left are the Drag-On and Silkk the Shocker albums tucked into a CD wallet in the front seat of my car, albums I still listen to and still question why.

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