1998 was something else.

Hip Hop was fresh off of the East Coast vs. West Coast war, which as we know ended with casualties on both sides.  While the genre as a whole suffered, those specific regions just weren’t the same. I’d be willing to bet all the money this contributed to what was to become the longest run of dominance Hip Hop has ever seen. I’m talking about the South. There was a time when, on a mainstream level, Southern Hip Hop wasn’t too distinguishable from the then dominant West Coast sound, for example. Then as Hip Hop got left wide open for anybody to snatch the crown, this region previously bubbling in the background exploded full force into the foreground with a style, a sound, and a language that reverberates all the way to today.

Let’s talk about Juvenile. Let’s talk about Cash Money.

Let’s talk about 1998. I say that year was something else because in a handful of ways it set the stage for what we see today.  Jay-Z officially began his winning streak securing his first bonafide hit Hard Knock Life, which propelled both him and the idea of a rapper owning themselves to the mainstream. Lauryn Hill injected Hip Hop sensibilities into an R&B/Soul album that perhaps helped make the genre more palatable to the Grammy audience. Outkast jumped full force into the idea of genre bending. DMX brought back an element of ruggedness and a don’t-give-a-fuck attitude that Hip Hop requires. Mos Def and Talib Kweli helped anchor that with the idea that rappers don’t have to subscribe to the gangster narrative the media was painting; domino effecting us to the current climate where that whole notion got obliterated. Then there was Juvie.

I simply don’t have enough time to give 400 Degreez its just due. First, it’s imperative someone stress the importance and cultural significance of “bling” rap. Hip Hop will always receive flack for any image that doesn’t line up with American respectability politics, even if its coming from a real place. Before value was seen in it and it was commodified, so-called “gangster rap” came from a real place, real environments, and real events. It was an artistic choice to grab America by its collar and force it to pay attention. Just the same, rap having to do with flash and materialism comes from a very real place. New Orleans is likely to come up in conversations having to do with its deep musical history, its language, and eclectic cultural melting pot. Just the same it is likely to come up in conversations having to do murder rates and poverty. The independent label Juvenile served as the first front-running act for, Cash Money, houses artists repping the Magnolia Projects; which was likely to come up in conversations having to do with the latter. And no matter which way you cut it, the Cash Money story is one to do with a huddle of geniuses with a unified plan that was met with immense success. And with that success came celebration.

Juvie would paint a vivid picture about where he was from and the mind state he was once in by saying:

“My nine is gonna die with me
Pick up the supply with me
Be up in the ride with me
Do a homicide with me, who, me”

And coupled with that, he was just as likely to talk about the success story that followed by saying something like:

“It ain’t no secret I’mma stunter, like Evel Knievel
Jumpin out Lex’s and Hummer’s, showin off for my people

That idea shouldn’t be slept on. Hip Hop is often criticized for being too shiny, too object-oriented, and too much about excess and that trend really took off in 1998, becoming as much a fixture in Hip Hop as anything else. And if you’re someone raised in an environment that inspired stories of drug dealing, homicide, and not knowing if you’ll make it to the next day, why wouldn’t you talk about your success? And Cash Money ushered that in with a specific flavor that was so foreign, so new, and so separate from what was, up until then, deemed the hardest of conventions within the genre. The song “Ha” alone is genius in its conversational delivery, its use of dialect directly tied to Louisiana, and last but definitely not least its production drawn from the New Orlean’s Bounce scene; a prime example of that deep musical lineage attached to the city.

Let’s talk about Mannie Fresh. The man carried the whole label on his back, producing whole albums for every one of its acts from Birdman, to B.G., to Turk, and a young, future game-changer, Lil Wayne. Today, each city within the South has its own distinct sound, but New Orleans was one of the first out the gate to establish theirs in the national eye. These days you can’t throw a rock without hitting a Southern act or an artist influenced by the South.

And let’s not forget who helped break that door down.

Happy 19th birthday, 400 Degreez!


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