1997 was quite a year for me, and quite a year for you if you were born between the later part of the 1970’s and earlier part of the 1980’s. For me it was yet another change, personified in another move, mind you both my brother’s and I moved to New Haven, Connecticut, from Tel Aviv, Israel only five years earlier. This was quite the transition for my younger brother and I, but mostly for me who had just ended his sophomore year of High School and turned the ripe bold age of 16. I had soaked in the New Haven life, first attending the local neighborhood middle school, which was predominantly African-American and Latino. Being white, Jewish, and Israeli lumped me into the basic food groups being, “he’s a white boy,” “He’s a Jew Boy,” and “Where yo from, and where’s your camel?” However, by the beginning of high school, I attended the newly moved and renovated hippy commune school in downtown New Haven called High School in the Community, or HSC as we all called it. Being downtown, as well as downtown New Haven being the focal point where all the local high school students transferred bus services, there was a shit load of mixing matching, scrapping, fighting, and plenty of chilling, smoking and listening to rap music. However, by then it wasn’t only rap music, but rather a new burst of confluence between the musical cultures. I heard a lot of different things, but one thing I realized more and more, and is my central thesis to a moment in time for Hip-Hop culture, is that 1997 was the breaking point where rap exploded to the stratosphere cementing it not only as a valid and commoditized culture, but as American Culture, writ large. That was also the year where, somewhat like rock and Roll’s grandiose moment in the decade of the 1970s (a la Fellini’s Satyricon) – looking at you Emerson, Lake and Palmer, E.L.O., etc. etc. It seemed as if the sole image plastered across the walls was the money-making machine wearing fancy suits, fancy cars, jewelry galore that would make Diamond Jim blush, grand mansions, and anything else under the sky. That is why this was also where the underground, back packer, unsigned, independent, and there are many people who keep labeling and re-labeling these artists, movement that grew to exponential proportions. For every Bad Boy, Def Jam (and mind you it was an independent label in the 1980’s, and was given homage by the classic and now defunct independent Def Jux label, or Definitive Jux to the chagrin of Russell Rush!), we had Rawkus Records and Stones Throw Records, which churned out some amazing classics.
I always believed that 1997 was the year of the shift, the pivot, the change in styles, as well as the diversity of content in the music and production. The shift was pushed by the overt extravagance and bloated aspect that some believed rap music had become by 1997. The bloated aspect can be traced and personified by one man, love or hate him and Nelson George makes this case in his classic book Hip Hop America, Sean “Puffy” Combs. This all came to me after many trips to the bathroom, where I do plenty of my reading, reading the great and greatly opinionated book by Shea Serrano titled, The Rap Year Book: The Most Important Rap Song from Every Year Since 1979, Discussed, Debated, and Deconstructed. This is a great read, and like an old foggy once we reach the mid-2000’s I’m scratching my head like grandpa Moshe asking why? or who the fuck is this? 1997 was the year that saw the release of Puffy’s debut album No Way Out.
In the book Mr. Serrano points out that Bad Boy released a string of albums that sold a shit load of copies beginning with B.I.G’s debut album and up to Puffy’s debut release. In the Ego Trip’s Book of Rap Lists they list the top 40 singles of 1997, where we see Puffy’s name on at least 10, which is a quarter of the list. He was also the face of Bad Boy, remember what Suge said at the 1994 Source awards of a producer being, “All up in the videos,” nonetheless his face and presence was everywhere. Mr. Serrano further exclaims that this year saw “The Dominance of Puffy,” where the Billboard charts was full of Puffy related songs.
At that time I was a hardcore purist of rap music, including the resurgence of the DJ culture through such great compilations such as Bomb Records’s the Return of the DJ series, the first dropped in 1995, the Axiom label mix of DJ/Trip-Hop/Electronic comp Altered Beats – Assassin knowledges Of the Remanipulated, released in 1996, and my personal favorite (that you could get for free with a subscription to the underrated Urb Magazine, and unfortunate for me they were out so I settled for Company Flow’s Funcrusher Plus, not bad!) OM Records Deep Concentration, released in early 1998. Me, and many other white fans of Hip-Hop culture, predominantly began to explore the diverse and burgeoning underground hip-hop scene. This is not to say that race was a line of demarcation, but many of the indie and underground artists had a large white fan base while the more successful artists, like Puffy, captivated both audiences. Still, there was plenty of African-American artists and fans, who remain productive and relevant to this very day.
1997 also saw the release of a string of independent songs from independent labels by new artists who did not fit into the exploding success that rap’s image became. This was the year that saw the release of Mos Def’s “Universal Magnetic” and Reflection Eternal’s (group consisting of Talib Kweli and DJ Hi-Tek, along with Mos Def and Mr. Man from the Bush Babees) “Fortified Live,” both on the newly formed Rawkus Record label. We also got more of Mos Def, as well as Tash and Q-Tip, on the smoothed out funk single “The Body Rock,” which interestingly enough had a B-Side “Manifest” by none other than Talib Kweli. This was also the first single off the great Rawkus compilation that launched its status as the mouthpiece for the indie movement, the Lyricist Lounge. This was followed by a tour, I attended the Philly string where De La in their Stakes is High era hosted while KRS-One hosted the event with intermittent underground and somewhat known rappers and rap groups. This was not a new thing as the Lyricist Lunge hosted open mic nights throughout New York City in the 1990’s, but this was a re-configuration of that. That night was also very memorable because I got to speak to a fresh MC from Detroit who was about to drop something big, or so he told me. Lo and behold Eminem is now a legend, but back then he was part of this indie world, just check out his superb track on the Soundbombing 2 compilation, “Any Man,” nuff said.
As I wrote earlier, 1997 was the year I stopped reading The Source magazine, I felt like every issue was full of the Made Men ads and boring filler, so I switched to Urb magazine. This was a great read where you can have an article on DJ Shadow, DJ Wally & Swingset, Kid Koala, right next to a profile on the many faces of Kool Keith, or on the methods of Mumbles and how he produced the amazing 2nd album by Aceyalone, A Book of Human Language, and on and on and on. My boy Paul got his subscription first so I used to read his copies. However, this all changed when in 1997 my mother remarried removing me and my younger brother from the city of New Haven to the green, suburban and boring pastures of Guilford, Connecticut. This was that picture of the red barn, farmer’s market, town green, and all the rest that you see in films about New England, scary. I needed a steady stream of culture so Urb was on the menu. When I received the subscription originally I wanted the Altered Beats compilation, but I ended up getting the debut album by a group called Company Flow. When I first saw the CD cover I loved the alien art with all the bizarre colors captivating beings from outer space. I then opened it to see the three members, a rainbow coalition of sorts. El-P, Big Juss and Mr. Len gave us this amazing time capsule of what a Run-DMC album would sound like in the avant-garde, post industrialist, post apocalyptic world. The beats were hard and dirty, and the flows just kept going and going where the structure was completely destroyed for a new sound. This sound, including what came out of that in the guise of the Def Jux label – with artists like Aesop Rock, El-P, Mr. Lif, RJD2, and Cannibal Ox – was Hip-Hop’s natural progression. If there was no Puffy, as well as the many other artists at this point getting into a formula such as Nas until Jay Z re-awoke the beast, there would be no Def Jux nor the influence of someone like El-P who has evolved to great heights recently with the Run the Jewels projects.
1997 was the year that bucked the formula. That was the year where we saw what would become a new branch of experimental Hip-Hop, that arguably is the norm in this decade. This year saw the release of 3 masterfully DJ’d compilations ushering the new school while giving praise to the “authentic” acts who were not making money like their peers in the mainstream. These are in no specific order, The World Famous Beat Junkies Vol. 1 cut masterfully by DJ Babu and hosted by the charismatic DJ J. Rocc, the first installment of Rawkus Records’ Soundbombing, the first being cut nicely by DJ Spinna, and the third being Beats & Lyrics by DJ E.Q. Each had their own special spice, the first being a mixture of the new (Camp Lo, J-Live, Company Flow, Black Attack, East Flatbush Projects) and old (veterans like Kool Keith, and the Native Tongue collective), the second being an introduction to the new stable of artists from Rawkus records (L-fudge, RA the Rugged Man, and Blackstar), and the third is a spatter of some of the masters of the West Coast, especially the Hieroglyphics crew (who would go on to drop their amazing debut Third Eye Vision in 1998).
There were also plenty of releases that year that expanded our ears to other parts of the United States such as the duo of Slug and Spawn, known as Atmosphere, hailing from Minnesota, dropped their tight debut album Overcast. From the Bronx came Camp Lo taking us back on a cool journey where everyday is 1976, especially the fashion sense, with the Marvin Gaye nod down to the cover art titled Uptown Saturday Night. Detroit gave us the great Slum Village and their insanely hard-to-find yet so rewarding when found album Fan-tas-tic, RIP J. Dilla. From Cincinnati, Ohio came the crew called Mood, but what really resonated was their album Doom. This is the first time I ever heard of Reflection Eternal, and by extension Talib Kweli, as well as J. Rawls and the Lone Catalysts Crew.
The West Coast was also churning out the experimental on the strength of DJ Shadow’s 1996 classic debut release, Entroducing….MC’s and other artists he worked with were called the Solesides Crew and out of that came the groups Blackalicious and The Latyrx. The Latyrx, consisting of Lyrics Born and Lateef the Truthspeaker, had a track on the Deep Concentration compilation, and they fully fleshed their spoken word, sometimes rapping, sometimes singing, sometimes both, style on their debut album simply titled The Album. This is also the year I first heard the duo from Philly calling themselves Jedi Mind Tricks. I first heard a taste of Canadian rap through the group Rascalz and their debut Cash Crop, which pushed a single that used the same sample from DMX’s big hot of the day “Get at me Dog.” This was a launchpad into the depths of the underground, and solidified the fact that Hip-Hop culture has become so popular that I bet every single state has a scene both in the urban areas as well as in the suburban areas. I dare you to prove me wrong!.
Yes, I have to admit that there were plenty of artists who dropped great stuff who were considered mainstream such as the Wu-Tan Clan’s Wu-Tang Forever, Biggie’s Life After Death, Wyclef’s The Carnival, Missy’s Supa Dupa Fly, Jay-Z’s In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, Busta’s When Disaster Strikes, O.C.’s Jewelz and Cru’s Da Dirty 30, and the return of the veterans with Kool Keith’s Sex Style (fresh off the Dr. Octagon persona), Rakim’s The 18th Letter (His first non Eric B. having solo, which was very good and insanely overlooked), and KRS-One’s third solo effort I Got Next. I was a huge fan to that point, and I still think majority of that album is strong until you get to the very last song. The song is a remix to the great single “Step Into a World (Rapture’s Delight),” and guess who both produced and performed alongside the blast master? The man who called himself Hip-Hop!!! and One of the leading MC’s who opined the commercialism of rap at that point??? fucking Puffy!!! It’s over and shit ain’t safe no more. I’m just naming a few as the list of releases is long, and grievances is longer. However, if you look at that list we should be honest enough to say that the first half of albums were over done, bloated and overloaded with material that should have been kept on the cutting room floor. The last half on the list are personal favorites, but they also suffer at times from an uneven amount of songs that stifle the cohesiveness of the entire work of art. Many of these rappers who began in the indie circuit remain there as elder statesmen and political activists like Talib Kweli. Some have expanded into cinema, but remained politically active, like Mos Def. And with El-P you have someone who has crafted a niche and constantly pushing the boundaries of Hip-Hop. The following years saw the further expansion into the underground as well as in the mainstream. The nature of Hip-Hop changed dramatically in the last two decades, but if you want to pinpoint a year, it was 1997. In the end this is just an assessment, but that was the year of the split both for better and for worse.