“Class of nine-eight, my fellow graduates / Well-known savages”
– Nature, “Fire”
A seismic shift occurred in hip-hop in 1998.
The previous two years had seen the murder of two of the game’s biggest stars, the collapse of the genre’s biggest (and scariest) record label, the dominance of shiny suits, the biggest producer leaving a label he co-founded and rebuilding his empire from scratch, a self-made man in New Orleans with a record label full of outlandish album covers making noise nationwide, and the man who was once the best rapper alive falling off hard.
Into the void stepped a new class of young guns, all near the start of their careers, many still waiting to release an album. Long before XXL announced a freshman cover every year, there were a few years in which it developed organically, most notably 1986 and 1994. The Class of ’98 was supposed to be next. And, compared to the bicoastal beef and all of the shots fired – both literal and figurative – over the previous few years, it was refreshing to see a group of hungry cats that were competitive but still got along. They seemed to all be cool with one another, collaborating time and time again, even turning a simple roundtable interview into a classic cypher. This was the group that would kick off another great era and carry the game into the next millennium.
Only it didn’t happen.
A variety of factors – death, drugs, bad career decisions, petty beefs and, worst of all, flat out bad music – hampered or ruined careers of the collection of new jacks.
Let’s take a look at just a few of them
Big Punisher – The Sean Taylor of hip-hop, Pun had already made a name for himself and shown the world what he could do, but his best years were probably still ahead of him. He made hit songs, but he was also a gifted lyricist with a breathless flow and his ability to create classics for both the streets and the radio made him an instant star. His first album, Capital Punishment, is stellar (though a little long) and was the first platinum plaque for a Hispanic rapper. His sophomore LP, Yeeeah Baby, was released two months after his death and shows an artist that was improving, further harnessing his raw talents. As with all artists that pass too soon, it would have been interesting to see what else Pun would have given us in his career.
DMX – Dark Man X waited years for his opportunity, watching as his high school classmates became stars, so when it arrived he took full advantage, releasing two full-length albums in 1998 alone, both of which reached number one on the Billboard 200 and sold nine million copies combined. He was an instant superstar – “Who’s better: Jay-Z or DMX?” was an actual argument I engaged in back then – and although the Murder Inc. supergroup of he, Jay & Ja Rule never materialized, X would have three more #1 albums in the next five years. But by 2003 drugs, legal issues, and an inability to alter his sound precipitated his downfall. These days, he’s known more for doing weird things than for his music.
Canibus – The year’s top prospect, Canibus had blitzed through 1997, shredding guest appearances to such a degree that fans were looking at him to bring lyricism back to hip-hop. Despite his wizardry with words and incredible metaphors, Canibus could not put together a full song, let alone a full album and his debut, Can-I-Bus, became one of the biggest duds in history. He tried to have a do-over with his follow-up 2000 B.C. (Before Can-I-Bus), but even that project was uneven and although he’s put out more than a dozen albums, his time has come and gone.
Kurupt – By 1998, Kurupt had been featured on three multiplatinum classics (The Chronic, Doggystyle, and All Eyez on Me) and had his own double platinum album as part of Tha Dogg Pound (Dogg Food), but his solo debut didn’t come until ’98. A double album with one disc for the West coast, the other for the East, it was a disappointment. The following year, he would go back to his DPG roots on the gold-certified Tha Streetz iz a Mutha (including the vicious “Callin’ Out Names”) and while he’s still a lyrical animal, his impact and popularity have waned. Still, he gets admiration and respect from the younger generation of L.A. artists, most notably Game and Kendrick Lamar.
Silkk the Shocker – Possibly the person in hip-hop that benefited the most from nepotism, Silkk the Shocker parlayed being Master P’s brother into a Source cover and two platinum albums. Impressive for one of the worst artists in history.
Nature – It looked as if Nature had the perfect setup. He was the protégé of Nas, popping up on Clue tapes, kicking off N.O.R.E.’s “Banned from T.V.,” and working with Trackmasters and Dr. Dre as the rookie on the all-star team of The Firm. His debut, For All Seasons, was a respectable project, but it came out in 2000, long after his buzz had fizzled, so it did not meet sales expectations, an outcome that Nature blamed on Nas. He subsequently went independent and, aside from a few guest features, hasn’t made much noise in the mainstream.
Noreaga – Known more for his attitude and charisma than for lyrics and flows, Noreaga made a name for himself first as part of the duo Capone-N-Noreaga on their hard edged debut, The War Report, before going solo with a gold project that featured Kool G. Rap, Nas, and Busta Rhymes with backdrops by Swizz Beatz, Trackmasters, and an up-and-coming production duo called The Neptunes. It looked like he was going to be a star. But he became distracted after the death of his father and failed to return to form, eventually becoming a reggaeton artist for a time.
The LOX – The trio of Jadakiss, Styles P and Sheek Louch have already had several professional lives. They began as part of Bad Boy’s roster of young guns, rhyming with Mase and The Notorious B.I.G., helping to write Puff Daddy’s debut No Way Out, and wearing seemingly every color of shiny suit in a variety of videos. Their debut, Money, Power & Respect disappointed both on the charts and in the streets and they began a movement to get them off Bad Boy called “Let the LOX Go.” They were granted their wish and went to Ruff Ryders, dropping the so-called “proper” LOX album, We Are the Streets, in 2000. Since then, they have formed D-Block, been a fixture on the mixtape scene – including feuds with Roc-A-Fella and G-Unit – and each member has released several solo LPs to varying success, but have yet to unveil another official studio project.
Cam’Ron – Originally a member of the collective Children of the Corn (with fellow Harlemites Mase, Big L, McGruff, and others), Cam’Ron nearly signed with B.I.G. before signing with Lance “Un” Rivera. His first two albums were decent, but it wasn’t until he joined childhood friend Damon Dash – and rap rival Jay-Z – at Roc-A-Fella Records that he found success in the form of his only platinum solo album. His biggest impact came with his group – for a short time, Cam and his Diplomats were the hottest rap crew in New York City. Internal beef, label politics, subpar albums, and a three-year sabbatical to take care of his ailing mother all derailed Cam’s momentum.
Mos Def & Talib Kweli – The heroes of the underground/backpack/Lyricist Lounge faction, Mos and Talib released their debut, Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star, on Rawkus Records to critical acclaim. The following year, Mos released his first solo effort, Black on Both Sides, but has since focused on experimentation in music when he wasn’t acting while Talib voluntarily left the major label system and has been a prolific independent artist. Since then, the two have enjoyed both success and setbacks as solo artists and although they’ve recorded and performed together, they’ve yet to release a follow-up.
Cappadonna – The closest Wu-affiliate, Cappadonna was featured on Raekwon’s “Ice Cream,” stole the show on Ghostface’s “Winter Warz” and was all over Wu-Tang Forever, including being featured on the group’s epic single, “Triumph.” His solo debut, The Pillage, debuted at #3 on the Billboard 200 and was certified gold. However, his luck turned and Cappa eventually was reduced to driving a cab and claimed he had not been properly paid by RZA. He has released nearly ten solo albums and has since been named a full-fledged member of the Clan, but has yet to match his original success.
Lord Tariq & Peter Gunz – Two hip-hop veterans that were most often employed as ghostwriters, Tariq and Gunz weren’t really known until early 1998 when their single, “Déjà Vu (Uptown Baby)” became a massive hit, reaching the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100 and ultimately going platinum. However, it took six months for their LP, Make it Reign, to finally hit shelves and, when it did, it lacked the magic of the single despite the presence of great producers and guest artists. The duo broke up shortly thereafter and have struggled to regain their popularity (excluding Gunz’s appearance on Love & Hip Hop and his son Cory’s fledgling career).
Ladies and gentlemen, the hip-hop class of 1998!
Christopher Pierznik is the author of eight books, all of which can be purchased in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, and many more. He has been quoted on Buzzfeed and Deadspin. Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.