1998: The year New York City crowned new rap kings
With a number of monstrous debuts, and veterans making the leap from critical acclaim to commercial success, there has yet to be another moment in history that holds more weight.
Rap fans residing in New York City have long had a fascination with crowning their homegrown crop of talent as cultural kings, a coveted distinction that has been vied for by a multitude of emcees over the years. However, attaining that billing has only been accomplished by a handful of New Yorkers, making the bragging right of being a former King of New York (or having been in contention for the title at one point) a highlight in a New York rap artist’s career. When analyzing the history of New York City rap and the lineage of its kings, there are a few key calendar years that stand out as having a lasting impact on the sound and direction of hip-hop in the five boroughs and beyond. 1988 (which included albums from Big Daddy Kane, Rakim, Slick Rick, and KRS-One) and 1994 (which marked debuts by The Notorious B.I.G., Nas, Method Man) are often cited as two of the most iconic years for New York City hip-hop, but 1998 is a year that has been remembered as one of the most exciting.
At the time, hip-hop was still recovering from the murders of Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G., two tragedies that rocked the community and cast a dark cloud over the culture, serving as a wake-up call from artists on both coasts to bury the hatchet and focus on camaraderie, brotherhood and getting back to making good music. In New York City, The Notorious B.I.G.’s absence loomed large, with many questioning which of the remaining heavyweights out of the five boroughs had the music, skill and appeal to pick up where he left off and don the crown as the new King of New York.
The rap world didn’t have to wait long to be introduced to one of the artists leading the charge, as Yonkers native and Ruff Ryder DMX unleashed his debut album, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, in May 1998, a body of work that turned X into an international superstar and a rap savior in one fell swoop. Coming off the heels of a string of high-profile guest appearances alongside the likes of JAY-Z, Ma$e, The L.O.X. and other Big Apple reps, singles like “Get At Me Dog,” “Stop Being Greedy” and “Ruff Ryders Anthem” proved DMX was more than a glorified co-star and had the goods to be the main event. But when It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, effectively ending the Shiny Suit Era with a gritty undertone that resonated with the core of the streets, it was even more clear that a potential king with the ability to captivate the city had arrived.
In a year that boasted a number of monstrous debuts, few loomed larger than Capital Punishment, Bronx rhymer Big Pun’s first full-length project and one that would become a cultural event for the Latin community, which had yet to produce a solo mainstream rap star. Coming in the game under the tutelage of fellow Bronx native and Latin rhymer Fat Joe, big things were expected from Big Pun, whose skills a number of critics and fans had compared to that of The Notorious B.I.G., putting even more fuel on the fire surrounding the talented heavyweight. While his lyrical aptitude had already been tested via standout performances alongside some of New York’s most respected vets, it was unclear whether Big Pun could produce the type of hit records that catapult a rapper to stardom. While his debut solo single “I’m Not A Player” was a buzzworthy record and a Top 10 rap hit, it would be the follow-up “Still Not A Player,” which paired Pun with R&B singer Joe, that put the Terror Squad rep over the top. Peaking at No. 24 on the Billboard Hot 100, “Still Not A Player,” along with additional fan favorites like “Twinz (Deep Cover 98)” and the Noreaga-featured hit “You Came Up,” pushed Capital Punishment past the million-copies-sold mark, making him the first solo Latin rapper to have an album certified platinum.
Speaking of Noreaga, the LeFrak, Queens native also enjoyed a breakout year of his own in 1998, releasing one of the biggest rap hits of the year and becoming one of the more unlikely stars of his class. As one half of rap duo Capone-N-Noreaga, Nore released The War Report in 1997, an album that earned instant classic status and positioned the two felons as the next big rap act out of Queens. However, Capone’s incarceration due to a parole violation put C-N-N’s sophomore album on hold, leading Nore to carry the flag himself in light of his partner’s absence. Inking a solo deal with Tommy Boy Records, Noreaga put forth his debut album, N.O.R.E., in July 1998, right in time for the heat of the summer season. Led by the monstrous single “Superthug,” which topped the rap charts and helped put the production duo Neptunes on the map, N.O.R.E. peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200, was eventually certified platinum and is recognized as one of the most explosive rap projects of the year.
In addition to boasting a prized rookie class, 1998 also saw a number of veterans out of the Big Apple making the leap from critical acclaim to commercial success, with JAY-Z being the most notable out of this crop. Having made his debut two years prior with Reasonable Doubt, the Brooklyn native had yet to reach the same level of notoriety and fame enjoyed by his close friend and former collaborator The Notorious B.I.G., who had held the mantle of King of New York during his short, but iconic career. After attempting to broaden his sound on his sophomore album, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, but failing to gain much traction while alienating his core fanbase with what many perceived to be cookie-cutter singles, Hov returned to the drawing back and redeemed himself with Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life, the album that would mint him as a star and finally get him over the hump. Bolstered by the runaway smash hit “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem),” as well as the Rush Hour soundtrack cut “Can I Get A…,” Vol. 2… became JAY-Z’s first album to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, selling over 350,000 copies in its first week, one of the biggest opening sales weeks a New York rap artist had enjoyed to date. Ultimately selling over five million copies, Vol. 2… remains JAY-Z’s most successful album to date and was the genesis of Jigga’s evolution into a boss in his own right.
Riding high off the momentum of his protege Big Pun’s own massive success, Fat Joe had all eyes on him when it was time to unveil his third studio album, Don Cartagena, a release that showcased the Bronx native’s continued growth and evolution as lyricist. Led by the Puff Daddy-assisted title track, as well as the bruising posse cut “John Blaze,” Don Cartagena yielded Fat Joe his first gold plaque and served as a precursor to his eventual star turn on his 2001 offering Jealous Ones Still Envy, making Don Cartagena a pivotal moment in Joey Crack’s career.
Another rapper that dropped their third solo album in 1998 was Busta Rhymes, who ended the year off on a high note with his E.L.E. (Extinction Level Event): The Final World Front album, an ambitious effort that picked up where the Brooklyn firebrand left off on his previous effort, 1997’s When Disaster Strikes, and continued to push the envelope, musically and visually. Teaming up with director Hype Williams for the music videos for the singles “Gimme Some More” and the Janet Jackson smash duet “What’s It Gonna Be,” Busta Rhymes’ knack for cinematic visuals, intricate flows and unbridled energy onstage and on wax made him one of the more exciting characters in all of rap, and E.L.E. one of the premier albums of the year.
Soloists may have made the most noise in 1998, but there was also strength in numbers as well, which was made evident by releases from groups like The Lox, Black Star, A Tribe Called Quest and Brand Nubian. While A Tribe Called Quest (The Love Movement) and Gang Starr (Moment of Truth) were on the back-end of their respective careers, Bad Boy signees The LOX (Money, Power, Respect) and indie stalwarts Black Star made their presence felt in a big way, with Jadakiss, Styles P., Mos Def and Talib Kweli all adding their name to the list of emcees that were primed to make a run at the throne in the near future.
New York City rap thrived throughout 1998, but the year would be closed out in grand fashion with the arrival of Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, the follow-up to DMX’s aforementioned multi-platinum debut It’s Dark and the second album released from the Ruff Ryder within the same calendar year. Released on December 22, 1998, Flesh of My Flesh was the most highly anticipated rap album of the year, debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 100 with over 670,000 units shipped in its opening week, making DMX the first rap artist to release two No. 1 albums while alive in under a year. Flesh of My Flesh ultimately was certified triple-platinum, extended DMX’s reign into 1999 and served as a historic moment for hip-hop, which proved it was alive and well and ready to be carried by a new crop of superstars.
Rap music and the culture surrounding it has continued to flourish over the past 20 years and produced a plethora of artists from all regions, coasts and beyond that would continue to push hip-hop forward, but when New York City rap comes to mind, there has yet to be another moment in time that holds more weight historically than 1998. Being the King of Rap is a treasured honor, but there’s just something special about coming out of New York City and seizing the throne from all comers and taking the culture to another level, which is what all of the aforementioned artists contributed to.
While rap fans and critics may disagree on who was the actual King of New York during that era, what we do know is that regardless of who you feel was the rightful owner of the crown, 1998 will surely go down as one of the most regal years for New York City rap and was instrumental to adding its royal lineage.
The 1998 ‘King of New York’ Power Rankings:
10 | Blackstar
9 | A Tribe Called Quest
8 | Gang Starr
7 | Fat Joe
6 | The LOX
5 | Busta Rhymes
4 | Noreaga
3 | Big Pun
2 | JAY-Z
1 | DMX
More by Preezy Brown: