The Darkness

05/19/2011

By late-1997, the “Shiny Suit Era” was at its absolute peak. A monster had been created, which extended to an overflow of glossy videos and ’80s samples. While I personally enjoyed a good deal of the music that came out of it , some of it was flat-out unfukkinecessary. Regardless, it was the thing of the moment, and the whole world was on it. In the middle of this craze, there was an upcoming artist who was the complete opposite of everything that era represented. As a matter of fact, he seemed like he would’ve fit more into the era that preceded it, when things were a lot more grimy and a lot less polished and mainstream-aimed. His name was DMX, and in spite of what was dominating the charts, ’98 was about to be his year.

Ironically (or maybe not), X’s buzz started building through his appearances on albums by people who were actively jumping into the Shiny Suit Era. In the midst of Ma$e‘s extra glossy-flossy Harlem World, X was stealing the show on “24 Hours To Live”. As The Lox were trying their best to fit into the Bad Boy team with their Money, Power, Respect album, X shut it down on the title track. While LL Cool J was Puff Daddy-in’ it up with the Phenomenon album, there was still “4-3-2-1”, which X appeared on and killed. On top of that, he closed out ’97 with his own single “Get At Me Dog”, which hit hard and fast into the new year.

And from there, it was probably the greatest pre-album buildup ever. It seemed like every other week, he was making a guest appearance on some shit. From DJ Clue tapes, to remixes by Ice Cube and Mic Geronimo, to a currently obscure-as-fuck song by two female MCs named Duo, DMX was unavoidable. By May 19, 1998, X could do no wrong, and that was the level of anticipation he had as It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot hit the stores.

That album was the must-have of the time. Just about everybody I knew had it by the end of that week, and of course I did. I was STILL just getting over “Get At Me Dog” (and its video, which was the perfect introduction for him being the anti-shiny suit), so I was definitely ready to hear what else he had on deck. As expected, he brought the same aggression he’d become known for by then. His lyrics were violent, dark, and at times even comical to a degree, while the in-house production (mostly done by Grease) were both timely and different for its time.

Speaking of the production, It’s Dark was also the album that kicked off the long-running career of Swizz Beatz. He only actually did one track, but that one happened to be “Ruff Ryders Anthem”, which ended up being arguably the album’s biggest song. After that blew up, Swizz spent the second half of ’98 the same way X spent the first half- with his name popping up in some of everybody’s album credits. It was also that song which established the Ruff Ryders label as a brand and sound that would expand and remain relevant for the next couple of years.

As I said earlier, X surely brought the aggression and violence, but there was another angle to his music that I didn’t really expect. On top of all the chaos, he also rhymed about struggle- not just “trying to make ends meet” struggle, but being internally conflicted between living right and doing wrong. There was also a religious angle, most emphasized by his prayer towards the end of the album. While it didn’t dominate the content of It’s Dark, it did seem to flesh it out, especially in the era where who an artist was as an individual became just as important as what an artist said. It also turned out to be very true-to-life, as evidenced by the downfalls in both X’s life and career in the years since It’s Dark.

There’s a friend of mine who in retrospect said, “I can’t believe I used to listen to a nigga who barked on his records”. That is kinda funny when you think about it- I don’t know that if an artist came out nowadays making animal noises of any sort, I could even attempt to take that shit seriously. But it also says a lot about how strong DMX was as an artist at his peak in ’98. Outside of all the growling and barking (and I’m positive I heard him yelp and wimper a few times too), he had a voice that came along at just the right time. For that reason among others, It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot was one of the best and highest-selling albums of ’98, and one that brought the street element back into the forefront.

“Ruff Ryders Anthem”

“Get At Me Dog”

“Damien”

“Stop Being Greedy”

“Niggaz Done Started Something” (feat. The LOX and Ma$e) 

-D!


Belly of the Beast

11/05/2010

I don’t think Hype Williams likes Belly. Yeah, he wrote it, he directed it, but everyone’s favorite ’90s video director doesn’t seem too happy with the finished product. I watched the DVD with commentary before going in on this entry, and homie has a gripe every two minutes about how much better the movie would have been if not for the amount of compromise he had to make. Honestly, I can’t say I blame him. I’m still deciding myself whether or not Belly‘s hood classic status is because it was good, or because it sucks but stars a few rap niggas we had love for at the time.

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The ’90s Loved The ’80s: #FAIL

10/07/2010

I gotta say… sampling got a lil’ out of control in the late-’90s. Not that sampling is a bad thing, but many artists/producers thought they could get away with damn near anything if it was a hit the first time around. Previous hits being recycled to make new ones became a huge trend, but it wasn’t for everybody. In a few cases, them shits shoulda never even been cleared. Take for instance, these five situations here. I don’t know about y’all, but in my humble opinion, any one of these would make a great case for why strict sampling laws should be enforced. Wow.

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It’s The Hard Knock Life.

05/03/2010

Any of y’all ever seen Backstage? That documentary on the goings-on behind the scenes of the Hard Knock Life Tour? It wasn’t quite a must-have, but if you’ve ever wanted to see Dame Dash shit on DJ Clue‘s multi-directional haircut game, that’s the DVD for you. I was watchin’ it a couple nights ago, and it reminded me of how hyped I was to see that concert when it came here on Friday, March 26, 1999. My brother went and got both of our tickets a couple weeks prior, I had my new Phat Farm shirt on, and I was ready to go that afternoon.

But there was only one problem: I didn’t get to see the shit.

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DANJ! Presents Winter Six: 1999 (Makin’ Moves Y’all)

03/12/2010

At the dead end of ’98, I moved back into Baltimore City, after spending about seven months out in the ‘burbs at my brother’s place. Within the first two weeks, I’d had a drunk pass out in front of my door and almost got caught in the crossfire of some nigga tryna shoot it out with the cops. Yeah, it was good to be back.

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DANJ! Presents Winter Six: 1998 (Year Of The Dog)

03/05/2010

Aight, so as we near the end of the Winter Six series, we keep it movin’ with the year of 1998. Follow my lead on a jour-r-ney…

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Read The Label: Def Jam

10/08/2009

DEF JAMSpeaks for itself.

This month, there’s a lot going on in tribute to Def Jam, hip-hop’s longest-running and greatest record label of all time, and rightfully so. Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin‘s lil’ independent label that had trouble even getting a distribution deal has ended up becoming quite the empire over these last 25 years, which deserves all the respect in the world.

I remember when they had a 10th Anniversary CD set come out in ’95, which was an impressive collection in itself. I used to wonder how major it would be if they were to make it to 25 like Motown did, and damn if they haven’t done it. I always pictured that in this event, there’d be a big show in its honor, and would be just as big for my generation as the Motown25 show was for the oldheads back when I was a kid. As it turns out, we’re just getting a two-hour show on VH1, but I ain’t bitchin’. In addition to the Hip-Hop Honors show that’ll be airing on the 13th, there’s a new issue of XXL that’ll be covering Def Jam’s history as well.

def jam xxl

BUT… one thing that a lot of people can’t help but notice about both of these is the absence of some of Def Jam’s main stars. Take a look at the XXL cover, for example. You would commonly hear there’s a “Def Jam 25” cover and expect to see LL Cool J, Jay-Z, Public Enemy, DMX, Beastie Boys… even Ludacris and Ja Rule for that matter, right? No dis to those who are on the cover, but I don’t think anyone thinks “Def Jam” and instantly pictures Juelz Santana and Warren G. This is like if Motown had a cover back in the day, and there was no Diana Ross or Smokey Robinson, but The Commodores were on it like a muh’fukka. I’m sure they tried to get some of the more notable figures to be on it, but C’mon Son!

Russell & Rubin

Ah well, TV shows and magazines aside, Def Jam is still here after all these years. That’s a serious feat, because there’s a lot of labels that were just as strong and bigger than Def Jam that aren’t around anymore. This decade has eaten up and consolidated damn near all of ’em- you seen a new artist on Arista or Elektra lately? Even in comparison to other hip-hop labels that held weight at one point- where they at? No Limit? Gone. Tommy Boy? Gone. Cold Chillin’? Loooong gone. Bad Boy? Technically still around, but let’s not kid ourselves. Death Row? Living off nostalgia more than the site you’re on right now.

RockTheBells

Def Jam was, at more than one point in time, THE place to be. It was like an automatic stamp of legitimacy- if a new artist had that logo on the back of their record/tape/CD, even if you’d never heard the record, there was an interest in hearing it. I once read an Alkaholiks interview where their DJ E-Swift said that back in the ’80s, he would see a record in the store and buy it just off the strength of it being from Def Jam. Only a few can claim that kind of influence, and Def Jam did it during the ’80s and early ’90s through the work of LL, The Beasties, P.E., Slick Rick, EPMD, Redman, Onyx, and more.

flatlinerz

Now of course, every at-bat wasn’t a homerun. Even at their height, Russ n’nem had a lil’ trouble getting some artists over. But it really started happening around the mid-’90s, as Bad Boy and Death Row were now at the top of the line. For every Method Man or Warren G album that scored, there were twice as many that bricked. Some were by new artists like Russell’s nephew and his friends The Flatlinerz, who had the DJ staff believing that some shit called U.S.A. (Under Satan’s Authority) was gonna pop off. Others were things like solo albums by Pete Nice and MC Serch, which proved that the 3rd Bass group was far more an asset than its individual members. By ’95, even Public Enemy were doing their part to make Def Jam the label that used to be the shit.

RAP TOUR

That continued on for a couple more years, with every Foxy Brown being matched by a Jayo Felony. It was nothing that hadn’t happened before- even Motown reached a point where nobody was checkin’ for the Temptations‘ new shit. But then… unlike 95% of the other labels that fall off, Def Jam came back. A Jay-Z album here, a DMX album there… next thing you knew, everything coming out of that building was a hit. Whether it was through skillful promotion, quality of the music, or street team members buying the albums back, DJ was once again in power. I’m almost convinced that by the end of the ’90s, they coulda put out a new Afros album and the shit woulda sold.

Def Jam 25

They’ve done just about the same during the 2000’s with Kanye, Jeezy, Luda, Ja, and even some R&B/pop acts like NeYo and Rihanna. They’ve had their share of bricks too, but nowhere near that ’93-’96 type of fuckery. Much like Motown was when they had their big celebration, Def Jam is still very much alive. The logo still means something, and that’s impressive in a time where not many of ’em do.

As it stands in 2009, even with its original founders practicing Yoga and Buddhism not being at the helm anymore, Chuck D said it best- they can’t disable the power of the label.

-D!