For Black Music Month, we're looking back 15, 25, 35 and 45 years ago to take stock of black music's most memorable and pivotal moments. For the first part of this series, we go back to 1997, when music videos ruled, neo-soul emerged and tragic deaths changed the game. Tell us what you loved most about black music 15 years ago in the comments below.
Captions by Akoto Ofori-Atta
If you called P. Diddy's Bad Boy Entertainment a massively influential cultural phenomenon 15 years ago, it might have been a gross understatement. In an ironic twist of fate, Diddy's label achieved massive success the same year that its shining star, the Notorious B.I.G., was gunned down on March 9. In 1997 Bad Boy's artists — 112, Lil' Kim, Faith Evans, Mase, Total, the Notorious B.I.G. and the Lox — were dominating several Billboard charts and bulldozing urban and pop radio. In no easy feat, three Diddy-produced songs climbed to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 within just six months. Biggie's posthumous video for his single "Mo Money Mo Problems," which featured Mase and Diddy flashing about in red, glistening ensembles, ushered in the "shiny suit" era, which became the working pseudonym for "soft rap" and commercial hip-hop. Diddy even had the übercool Jay-Z rocking Technicolored sports coats. Talk about influence.
Despite the release of unforgettable classics — Jay-Z's Reasonable Doubt, the Fugees' The Score and others — hip-hop history books will mostly remember 1995-1997 as the period of the East Coast-West Coast rivalry. The rappers at the center of the battle, Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., were both murdered. Biggie's death on March 9, 1997, shook hip-hop to its core. His passing and his artistry are significant for more reasons than we can count, but if Tupac's death six months earlier tempered the East-West rivalry's fire, then Biggie's death all but put it out and shed light on the shallowness of a feud that cast an unnecessary shadow over rap for nearly two years.
Fela Anikulapo Kuti was a prolific Nigerian singer-songwriter, composer, multi-instrumentalist, human rights activist and general musical bad ass. He pioneered Afrobeat, a popular genre of West African music that fused jazz, highlife, funk and chants with intense percussion. While he was known as much for his music as for his eccentric lifestyle and political views — he had 27 wives and was a staunch supporter of polygamy — it wasn't until after his death in 1997 that his musical legacy experienced a pop-culture revival that included countless samples of his music, a Swizz Beatz-Fela Kuti mashup and the Jay-Z- and Will Smith-backed Broadway play Fela!
In the early 1990s, Zhané, D'Angelo, Meshell Ndegeocello and Maxwell were establishing the subgenre that would eventually be dubbed neo-soul long before Erykah Badu arrived on the scene in 1997. But it was the release of her seminal debut album, Baduizm, that made neo-soul a marketable movement. "Neo-soul" as a phrase is problematic on its own and has been the cause of much controversy, with fans and artists, including Badu, rejecting the term. But if we were to crown a queen of the movement, she would be it. Baduizm, with its memorable tracks and seamless blend of soul, funk, hip-hop and poetry, won two Grammys and whet our palates for artists like Musiq SoulChild, Jill Scott and Anthony Hamilton, to name a few.
In the '90s, Busta Rhymes was known as much for his style — his costumes were crazy — as for his high-energy and rapid-fire lyrics. But "Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See," the lead single off his sophomore album, marked a memorable departure from his typically animated approach. You won't find Busta screaming on this insanely catchy Grammy-nominated track. The video, with its ode to the film Coming to America, was groundbreaking.
Music videos were a big deal (and had big budgets) in the 1990s. Hype Williams arguably sparked a renaissance in 1997 and may even have elevated music-video directors to celebrity status. He helmed several of the year's biggest clips, including Busta's "Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See," Biggie's "Mo Money Mo Problems" and Missy Elliott's "The Rain," in which she famously dances about while trapped in a trash-bag contraption. Williams' style — using a fish-eye lens to focus in on the subject and distorting the view around it — became a staple of hip-hop and R&B music-video production.
The world was introduced to childhood friends Timbaland and Missy Elliott's edgy R&B production style in 1996 with Ginuwine's "Pony" and Aaliyah's "If Your Girl Only Knew." By 1997 Timbaland had collaborated with Missy on her platinum-selling debut album, Supa Dupa Fly, and radio has not been the same since. The duo utilized hip-hop beats fused with electronica and offbeat, quirky sounds that became the radio and Billboard-chart standard in the late 1990s and into the 2000s. Their reign started in 1997, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a year since then that a Timbaland- or Missy-produced track didn't cause a stir.
In the mid-1990s, hip-hop producer J Dilla had several production credits under his belt, having churned out hits for A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and Busta Rhymes. He received even more attention when he co-produced (with his Ummah cohorts, Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad) Janet Jackson's Grammy-winning single "Got Till It's Gone" from her album The Velvet Rope. Despite the discrepancy over who really produced the song — Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis actually received the Grammy for the track — the consensus among music-industry insiders is that it's a J Dilla song through and through because his trademark production style is easily recognizable on it. J Dilla went on to become one of the most celebrated and prolific hip-hop producers of our time, leaving behind an indelible legacy and catalog before his death in 2006.
From the guttural bellowing to the call-and-response, gospel music's techniques have always been recognizable in black popular music. But in 1997 Franklin became the first of several contemporary Christian musicians to shun the idea that hip-hop had no place in gospel music, clearing the path for artists like Mary Mary and Tye Tribbett to continue the "mainstreaming" of contemporary Christian music in the new millennium. Franklin's "Stomp," featuring Cheryl "Salt" James from Salt-N-Pepa, was a massive radio hit, and the video was in heavy rotation on the very secular MTV. It peaked at No. 1 on the R&B/Hip-Hop Singles airplay chart and even made the Top 40. As the lead single from God's Property From Kirk Franklin's Nu Nation, "Stomp" helped the album win a Grammy in 1998.
Maxwell's 1997 MTV Unplugged performance featured this epic rendition of the Kate Bush classic "This Woman's Work." Maxwell, with his unforgettable falsetto, dazzled us with his talent and gave us a reason to continue listening to one of the decade's best breakout stars. He later completed a studio version of the cover on his third album, Now, which became his first No. 1 album on both the Billboard 200 album chart and Billboard's R&B/Hip-Hop album chart.
Blue-eyed soul staked its claim in 1997 with London-based acid-jazz band Jamiroquai. The video for their hit single "Virtual Insanity" features lead singer Jay Kay dancing in a bright white room riddled with strange special effects, including flying crows and bleeding couches. Although the song was catchy, it was really the video that made it memorable. The video was weird enough to be hailed at the 1997 MTV Music Video Awards, earning nods for best video, best special effects, best cinematography and breakthrough video.
After successful solo endeavors from several members, the Wu-Tang Clan followed up their first album with the wildly anticipated and well-received sophomore effort, Wu-Tang Forever. The double album, released in June 1997, marked the beginning of the end of ensemble rap, since few hip-hop groups have been able to replicate Wu's impact, influence or legacy. The album, which featured RZA's dramatic and sample-heavy production, wasn't exactly radio-friendly. However, it still debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts and was later nominated for a Grammy, losing out to Diddy's No Way Out for best hip-hop album. You might remember ODB's objection to their loss, which, by our estimation, beats any Kanye West award-show faux pas by a long shot.
Female MCs have always talked about sex. But up until 1997, when Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown were the most visible female lyricists, no one had really done it quite the way they did. Explicitly sexual lyrics were central to their brands, and whether or not folks found that subject matter problematic (or whether the two actually wrote their own rhymes), the Brooklyn, N.Y., rap divas' approach spawned several noteworthy singles, including Lil' Kim's "Crush on You" and Foxy's "I'll Be."