meta-scriptKiller Mike Says His New Album, 'Michael,' Is "Like A Prodigal Son Coming Home" | GRAMMY.com
Killer Mike Says His New Album, 'Michael,' Is "Like A Prodigal Son Coming Home"
Killer Mike

Photo: Jonathan Mannion

interview

Killer Mike Says His New Album, 'Michael,' Is "Like A Prodigal Son Coming Home"

'Michael,' Killer Mike's first solo album in more than a decade drops June 16. He spoke to GRAMMY.com about creating a portrait of the Southern rap cyphers, Sunday church services, and barbershop discourse that shaped who he is today.

GRAMMYs/Jun 15, 2023 - 06:39 pm

After more than 20 years in hip-hop — as one-half of the supergroup Run The Jewels and also as a solo artist — the Atlanta rapper Killer Mike is ready to make what he calls "a generational statement."

Born Michael Render, the activist rapper's statement comes in the form of his personal "origin story": a 14-song solo album called Michael. The album, Killer Mike’s sixth solo effort, drops June 16 and follows 2012’s R.A.P. Music In support of the new record, he's touring 19 U.S. cities through Aug. 5.

"I’m one of the best rappers on the face of the earth, and that is authentic. Go to the records. My verses have proved it," Render, 48, told GRAMMY.com. "I’m tired of sitting and waiting for people to say it for me. I’m not waiting, I’m doing it now. My run matters. I’m not gonna die with a woulda been coulda been eulogy."

Michael stands in contrast to the big, bombastic (and less personal) vibe of Run The Jewels, who have released four albums since forming in 2013. While Render's solo outings have always been a mix of bravado and personal, his latest is particularly deep and insightful, dealing  with the death of his mother, and his life growing up in the predominantly Black neighborhood Collier Heights, Atlanta. 

"There is a character behind Killer Mike that is a whole human being that I’ve always wanted people to meet and introduce so they can understand the nuance of why I am," Render said during an event at SXSW 2023. "It is about helping other human beings understand that I share an experience with you, that you can meet me at, that transcends color, that transcends class, that transcends geographic location, and I meet you right at your humanity."

On Michael, Render puts his guard down. He allows himself to grieve the death of his mother and apologize for selling drugs as a teenager. Throughout the autobiographical album, Render paints a portrait of the southern rap cyphers, Sunday church services, and barbershop discourse that shaped who he is today. 

"That Killer Mike character was invented when I was 9. I just wanted to be an MC, and Killer Mike was like me being a superhero," Render tells GRAMMY.com. "But when you hear me talking about my mother, I’m empty now. It’s not sad, but it’s about missing and wanting."

Render’s parents were teenagers when he was born, so he was raised in part by his grandparents in Collier Heights, Atlanta. Render credits the culture of his community with shaping who is today. 

"I didn’t grow up with insecurities about race, I grew up in a Black majority," he tells GRAMMY.com. "The closest I got to white people growing up was watching Bob Ross or 'The Wonder Years' on TV. But all my real heroes looked like me."

Render says he never felt inhibited by his Blackness, because Blackness was celebrated in Collier Heights. His community introduced him to Black intellectuals like James Baldwin and Langston Hughes, who also celebrated Blackness. It never occurred to Render to not pursue hip-hop or politics or activism — and he never doubted that he could be an artist or MC.

He first rapped on Atlanta-based hip-hop group Outkast’s 2000 album Stankonia, and launched a solo career soon after. In the 2000s, his songs landed on Billboard charts and the EA Sports "Madden NFL 2004" football video game. Render also did voice over work during the 2000s for Adult Swim and appeared in films like Idlewild and ATL. He guest-rapped on Outkast’s 2003 double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, which was nominated for six golden gramophones at the 2004 GRAMMYs and won three, including Album Of The Year.

Two very important relationships forged in the 2010s have done much to shape Render’s trajectory since: one with producer and rapper El-P (the other half of Run The Jewels), the other with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

El-P is essentially the yin to Killer Mike’s yang. El-P produced Render's previous solo records, and the two have been collaborating ever since; Killer Mike has called their relationship a "marriage made in heaven." Run The Jewels has toured with Rage Against The Machine and Lorde, opened for Jack White at Madison Square Garden, been nominated for a GRAMMY Award, and won NME’s Best International Band award in 2018. Rolling Stone called Run The Jewels "brash" and added, "If there were a GRAMMY for Most Creative Ways to Say 'We’re the Best,' these guys would win it, or take it by gunpoint."

Render’s political activism kicked into high gear in 2015, first with lectures at NYU and MIT on police brutality, for-profit jails, and racism in America. He made a last-minute — and ultimately unsuccessful — run for a Georgia state representative seat, and he forged an unlikely public friendship with then-presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders. Render told reporters that he and Sanders were "two angry radical guys, one 74 and white, one 40 and Black, finding common ground."  

Render took his politics and activism much further. He co-founded an online banking system for Black and Latinx communities alongside former Atlanta mayor and civil rights leader Andrew Young, and has written op-eds in response to the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the Baltimore uprisings in response to Freddie Gray’s death. On the 2019 Netflix show, "Trigger Warning," Render explored notions of land ownership, gangs, education, and consumerism. 

All of his experiences — as a child of the South, as a rapper, and as a political thinker — inform the new album.

"Remember when Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote 'Letter to My Son'? People got a glimpse into Blackhood that wasn’t about absentee fatherhood and other cliches," Render tells GRAMMY.com. "Similarly, my album, even if you haven’t lived my life, it gives you a chance to be a voyeur, and that’s important."

Michael takes its time to unfold; personal subject matter unfolds verse after verse, over laid-back tempos executive produced by No I.D. Somber music provides a bed for Render and guests — among them, Andre 3000, Young Thug, Future, Ty Dolla $ign, Blxst, Curren$y, and Mozzy —  to stretch out on. Slightly more aggressive, urgent-sounding songs like opening track "Down By Law" and "Talkin Dat SHIT!," which appears later in the album, are buffered by tunes that could uplift a church congregation. 

"It’s imperative that I get that out and introduce people to this buck-toothed kid who grew up with hip-hop, out of wedlock fatherhood," Render says. "This record is like a prodigal son coming home. It’s my generational statement. If August Wilson was writing a rap album, this would be his 'Fences.'"

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How 1994 Changed The Game For Hip-Hop
Notorious B.I.G. in Brooklyn, 1994

Photo: Clarence Davis/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

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How 1994 Changed The Game For Hip-Hop

With debuts from major artists including Biggie and Outkast, to the apex of boom bap, the dominance of multi-producer albums, and the arrival of the South as an epicenter of hip-hop, 1994 was one of the most important years in the culture's history.

GRAMMYs/Feb 13, 2024 - 05:22 pm

While significant attention was devoted to the celebration of hip-hop in 2023 — an acknowledgement of what is widely acknowledged as its 50th anniversary — another important anniversary in hip-hop is happening this year as well. Specifically, it’s been 30 years since 1994, when a new generation entered the music industry and set the genre on a course that in many ways continues until today.

There are many ways to look at 1994: lists of great albums (here’s a top 50 to get you started); a look back at what fans and tastemakers were actually listening to at the time; the best overlooked obscurities. But the best way to really understand why a single 365 three decades ago had such an impact is to narrow our focus to look at the important debut albums released that year. 

An artist’s or group’s debut is their entry into the wider musical conversation, their first full statement about who they are and where in the landscape they see themselves. The debuts released in 1994 — which include the Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready to Die, Nas' Illmatic and Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik from Outkast — were notable not only in their own right, but because of the insight they give us into wider trends in rap.

Read on for some of the ways that 1994's debut records demonstrated what was happening in rap at the time, and showed us the way forward. 

Hip-Hop Became More Than Just An East & West Coast Thing

The debut albums that moved rap music in 1994 were geographically varied, which was important for a music scene that was still, from a national perspective, largely tied to the media centers at the coasts. Yes, there were New York artists (Biggie and Nas most notably, as well as O.C., Jeru the Damaja, the Beatnuts, and Keith Murray). The West Coast G-funk domination, which began in late 1992 with Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, continued with Dre’s step brother Warren G

But the huge number of important debuts from other places around the country in 1994 showed that rap music had developed mature scenes in multiple cities — scenes that fans from around the country were starting to pay significant attention to.

To begin with, there was Houston. The Geto Boys were arguably the first artists from the city to gain national attention (and controversy) several years prior. By 1994, the city’s scene had expanded enough to allow a variety of notable debuts, of wildly different styles, to make their way into the marketplace.

Read more: A Guide To Texas Hip-Hop: Definitive Releases, Artists & Events

The Rap-A-Lot label that first brought the Geto Boys to the world’s attention branched out with Big Mike’s Somethin’ Serious and the Odd Squad’s Fadanuf Fa Erybody!! Both had bluesy, soulful sounds that were quickly becoming the label’s trademark — in no small part due to their main producers, N.O. Joe and Mike Dean. In addition, an entirely separate style centered around the slowed-down mixes of DJ Screw began to expand outside of the South Side with the debut release by Screwed Up Click member E.S.G.

There were also notable debut albums by artists and groups from Cleveland (Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Creepin on ah Come Up), Oakland (Saafir and Casual), and of course Atlanta — more about that last one later.

1994 Saw The Pinnacle Of Boom-Bap

Popularized by KRS-One’s 1993 album Return of the Boom Bap, the term "boom bap" started as an onomatopoeic way of referring to the sound of a standard rap drum pattern — the "boom" of a kick drum on the downbeat, followed by the "bap" of a snare on the backbeat. 

The style that would grow to be associated with that name (though it was not much-used at the time) was at its apex in 1994. A handful of primarily East Coast producers and groups were beginning a new sonic conversation, using innovations like filtered bass lines while competing to see who could flip the now standard sample sources in ever-more creative ways. 

Most of the producers at the height of this style — DJ Premier, Buckwild, RZA, Large Professor, Pete Rock and the Beatnuts, to name a few — worked on notable debuts that year. Premier produced all of Jeru the Damaja’s The Sun Rises in the East. Buckwild helmed nearly the entirety of O.C.’s debut Word…Life. RZA was responsible for Method Man’s Tical. The Beatnuts took care of their own full-length Street Level. Easy Mo Bee and Premier both played a part in Biggie’s Ready to Die. And then there was Illmatic, which featured a veritable who’s who of production elites: Premier, L.E.S., Large Professor, Pete Rock, and Q-Tip.

The work the producers did on these records was some of the best of their respective careers. Even now, putting on tracks like O.C.’s "Time’s Up" (Buckwild), Jeru’s "Come Clean" (Premier), Meth’s "Bring the Pain" (RZA), Biggie’s "The What" (Easy Mo Bee), or Nas’ "The World Is Yours" (Pete Rock) will get heads nodding.

Major Releases Balanced Street Sounds & Commercial Appeal

"Rap is not pop/If you call it that, then stop," spit Q-Tip on 1991’s "Check the Rhime." Two years later, De La Soul were adamant that "It might blow up, but it won’t go pop." In 1994, the division between rap and pop — under attack at least since Biz Markie made something for the radio back in the ‘80s — began to collapse entirely thanks to the team of the Notorious B.I.G. and his label head and producer Sean "Puffy" Combs. 

Biggie was the hardcore rhymer who wanted to impress his peers while spitting about "Party & Bulls—." Puff was the businessman who wanted his artist to sell millions and be on the radio. The result of their yin-and-yang was Ready to Die, an album that perfectly balanced these ambitions. 

This template — hardcore songs like "Machine Gun Funk" for the die-hards, sing-a-longs like "Juicy" for the newly curious — is one that Big’s good friend Jay-Z would employ while climbing to his current iconic status. 

Solo Stars Broke Out Of Crews

One major thing that happened in 1994 is that new artists were created not out of whole cloth, but out of existing rap crews. Warren G exploded into stardom with his debut Regulate… G Funk Era. He came out of the Death Row Records axis — he was Dre’s stepbrother, and had been in a group with a pre-fame Snoop Dogg. Across the country, Method Man sprang out of the Wu-Tang collective and within a year had his own hit single with "I’ll Be There For You/You’re All I Need To Get By." 

Anyone who listened to the Odd Squad’s album could tell that there was a group member bound for solo success: Devin the Dude. Keith Murray popped out of the Def Squad. Casual came out of the Bay Area’s Hieroglyphics. 

Read more: A Guide To Bay Area Hip-Hop: Definitive Releases, Artists & Subgenres From Northern California

This would be the model for years to come: Create a group of artists and attempt, one by one, to break them out as stars. You could see it in Roc-a-fella, Ruff Ryders, and countless other crews towards the end of the ‘90s and the beginning of the new millennium.

Multi-Producer Albums Began To Dominate

Illmatic was not the first rap album to feature multiple prominent producers. However, it quickly became the most influential. The album’s near-universal critical acclaim — it earned a perfect five-mic score in The Source — meant that its strategy of gathering all of the top production talent together for one album would quickly become the standard. 

Within less than a decade, the production credits on major rap albums would begin to look nearly identical: names like the Neptunes, Timbaland, Premier, Kanye West, and the Trackmasters would pop up on album after album. By the time Jay-Z said he’d get you "bling like the Neptunes sound," it became de rigueur to have a Neptunes beat on your album, and to fill out the rest of the tracklist with other big names (and perhaps a few lesser-known ones to save money).

The South Got Something To Say

If there’s one city that can safely be said to be the center of rap music for the past decade or so, it’s Atlanta. While the ATL has had rappers of note since Shy-D and Raheem the Dream, it was a group that debuted in 1994 that really set the stage for the city’s takeover.

Outkast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik was the work of two young, ambitious teenagers, along with the production collective Organized Noize. The group’s first video was directed by none other than Puffy. Biggie fell so in love with the city that he toyed with moving there

Outkast's debut album won Best New Artist and Best New Rap of the Year at the 1995 Source Awards, though the duo of André 3000 and Big Boi walked on stage to accept their award to a chorus of boos. The disrespect only pushed André to affirm the South's place on the rap map, famously telling the audience, "The South got something to say." 

Read more: A Guide To Southern Hip-Hop: Definitive Releases, Artists & Subgenres From The Dirty South

Outkast’s success meant that they kept on making innovative albums for several more years, as did other members of their Dungeon Family crew. This brought energy and attention to the city, as did the success of Jermain Dupri’s So So Def label. Then came the "snap" movement of the 2000s, and of course trap music, which had its roots in aughts-era Atlanta artists like T.I. and producers like Shawty Redd and DJ Toomp. 

But in the 2010s a new artist would make Atlanta explode, and he traced his lineage straight back to the Dungeon. Future is the first cousin of Organized Noize member Rico Wade, and was part of the so-called "second generation" of the Dungeon Family back when he went by "Meathead." His world-beating success over the past decade-plus has been a cornerstone in Atlanta’s rise to the top of the rap world. Young Thug, who has cited Future as an influence, has sparked a veritable ecosystem of sound-alikes and proteges, some of whom have themselves gone on to be major artists. 

Atlanta’s reign at the top of the rap world, some theorize, may finally be coming to an end, at least in part because of police pressure. But the city has had a decade-plus run as the de facto capital of rap, and that’s thanks in no small part to Outkast. 

Why 1998 Was Hip-Hop's Most Mature Year: From The Rise Of The Underground To Artist Masterworks

10 Acceptance Speeches That Made Us Laugh, Cry, & Smile At The 2024 GRAMMYs
Killer Mike accepts the GRAMMY for Best Rap Song for "Scientists & Engineers" at the 2024 GRAMMYs,

Photo: Amy Sussman/Getty Images

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10 Acceptance Speeches That Made Us Laugh, Cry, & Smile At The 2024 GRAMMYs

From Taylor Swift's record-shattering Album Of The Year win, to Killer Mike and boygenius category sweeps, these are the emotional GRAMMY winning moments that made up Music's Biggest Night.

GRAMMYs/Feb 6, 2024 - 11:22 pm

Glitz, glamor, and great performances from legendary musicians are only part of what make the GRAMMYs Music’s Biggest Night. It’s also an occasion to honor the music industry’s best and brightest, highlight their greatest achievements from the past year, and watch them soak up the glory. 

Some of the night’s biggest moments came when artists accepted their GRAMMY trophies, from Taylor Swift announcing her next album to teary-eyed moments from SZA and Best New Artist Victoria Monét. Here are a few of our favorite acceptance speeches from the 2024 GRAMMYs. 

Killer Mike Sweeps With Three GRAMMYs In A Row

Atlanta rapper Killer Mike had already given a moving speech upon winning Best Rap Performance for “Scientists & Engineers,” saying “I want to thank everyone who dares to believe that art can change the world.” But his third and final win, Best Rap Album for Michael, sent him into another dimension: “It’s a sweep! Atlanta, it’s a sweep!” 

Tyla Was Shocked To Win Best African Performance

Although her hit song “Water” has dominated the charts, even Tyla was caught off guard by her Best African Music Performance win – the first ever awarded in this category – exclaiming “What the heck?!” The South African star continued "This is crazy, I never thought I’d say I won a GRAMMY at 22 years old."

Boygenius Sweep The Rock Categories

Boygenius already had something to celebrate when Phoebe Bridgers won a GRAMMY for her collab with SZA. They went on to win three categories during the Premiere Ceremony – Best Rock Song, Best Rock Performance, and Best Rock Album – enabling each member of the trio to give a separate speech. “We were all delusional enough as kids to think this might happen someday,” Lucy Dacus said. 

Miley Cyrus Was A Class Act

Accepting the prize for Best Pop Solo Performance for “Flowers,” Miley Cyrus took to the stage to strike a pose with presenter Mariah Carey – “This M.C. is gonna stand by this M.C.” — before launching into a story about a boy who tries desperately to catch a butterfly, before nabbing one when they least expect it. “This song ‘Flowers’ is my butterfly,” she concluded. 

SZA Runs From Backstage To Accept Award

Changing backstage after her GRAMMYs performance, SZA was caught off guard when “Snooze” won Best R&B Song. She embraced friend and presenter Lizzo before giving an emotional, funny speech. “I can’t believe this is happening, and it feels very fake,” she said. “I love you, I’m not an attractive cryer, have a good evening.” 

Taylor Swift Announces New Album

When the pop mega-star took to the stage to accept her lucky 13th overall GRAMMY for Best Pop Vocal Album (Midnights), she decided to use the moment to give her fans the ultimate gift, announcing her 11th studio album, The Tortured Poets Department, will release on April 19. “I want to say thank you by telling you a secret that I've been keeping from you for the past two years,” she said. 

Billie Eilish Didn’t Know What To Say

After delivering a lovely performance of her Barbie movie ballad “What Was I Made For?,” Billie Eilish wasn’t exactly at a loss for words when the track won Song of the Year. The words that came out of her mouth were a bit less than rehearsed, however: “Whoa, whoops, yikes, whoa my goodness! Damn, that’s stupid guys!” she said. “I don’t even know what to say, I’m shocked out of my balls.” 

Victoria Monét Delivers Tearful, Eloquent Speech

Through tears of joy, Best New Artist winner Victoria Monét gave a speech worthy of an artist who spent years writing for others before striking out on her own. “This award was a 15-year pursuit,” she said, going on to compare herself to a plant growing in the soil of the music industry. “My roots have been growing underneath ground, unseen, for so long, and I feel like today I’m sprouting, finally above ground.” 

Miley Cyrus Makes An Even Wilder Record of the Year Speech

Cyrus returned to the stage twice after her first GRAMMY win, first to perform her award-winning song, and then once more to accept a second golden gramophone for Record of the Year. “This award is amazing, but I really hope it doesn’t change anything, because my life was beautiful yesterday,” she said. Then she ended the speech by saying “I don’t think I’ve forgotten anyone, but I might’ve forgotten underwear!”

Taylor Swift’s Record-Shattering Album of the Year

Lightning struck twice for Taylor Swift, as the evening ended with her taking home a record-breaking fourth GRAMMY for Album of the Year (Midnights), more than any other artist in GRAMMY history. Flanked by producer Jack Antonoff and friend and collaborator Lana Del Rey, she gave a speech that highlighted her passion for music-making, saying  “For me the award is the work. All I wanna do is keep being able to do this. I love it so much, it makes me so happy." As happy as Swift was, her fans probably left even happier. 

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The Recording Academy's Atlanta Chapter Celebrates Its GRAMMY Nominees With Music To Our Ears & Food For The Soul
Killer Mike performs during the Atlanta Chapter member and nominee celebration

Photo: Derek White/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

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The Recording Academy's Atlanta Chapter Celebrates Its GRAMMY Nominees With Music To Our Ears & Food For The Soul

The Recording Academy's Atlanta Chapter celebrated the wide range of talent from the region. Featuring performances by Killer Mike and Muni Long, its nominee celebration was "a prime example of what it means to be a part of a community."

GRAMMYs/Jan 29, 2024 - 04:46 pm

While Atlanta continues its reign as one of the hip-hop capitals of the world, its creative and music communities want the globe to understand that its music scene is more than just sections in the club with bottle service, beats and rhymes.

So for the Recording Academy's Atlanta Chapter Nominee Celebration at The Loft in midtown Atlanta on Jan. 25, the intimate live music venue showcased a range of talent. The soul-stirring performances stuck to attendees' ribs like the shrimp and chicken sausage etouffee that "New Soul Kitchen" host Jernard Wells was serving in the back.

It was on and poppin’ once Senior Executive Director Michele Caplinger and Atlanta Chapter President Henny Tha Bizness welcomed members and their guests. DJ Willy Wow!, whose Hip Hope For Kids! is nominated at the 2024 GRAMMYs for Best Children’s Album, was spinning tunes while Chapter Secretary Mara Davis warmed up the crowd as emcee. A wall featuring all of this year’s Atlanta-based nominees displayed ATL's diverse array of talent.

2024 GRAMMYs: Explore More & Meet The Nominees

Killer Mike hit the stage dressed in all-white denim with a wooden pulpit to spit a few scriptures from his three-time GRAMMY-nominated magnum opus, MICHAEL. Backed by the gospel harmonies of the five-member vocal ensemble Mighty Midnight Revival and Trackstar the DJ working the turntables, Mike encouraged the audience to put their phones away and just vibe to the music.

The majority of the audience complied. The rapper and businessman opened with "Motherless" while a headshot of his late mother, Denise, sat on an easel flanked with white flowers. He landed into "Shed Tears" and "NRich" before taking the crowd six miles west in his old school Chevy to his old stomping ground, Adamsville, for "Exit 9" and closing with his movement "Scientists and Engineers."

"Atlanta made the best hip-hop album of 2023," Mike told the crowd.

Muni Long appeared in a sheer gown that resembles a Ciroc bottle’s color schemes to deliver her tender R&B ballads "Made For Me" and "Hrs and Hrs" with a vocal delivery sweeter than the Sweet Cheats cookies shaped like a GRAMMY.

"This was amazing," said Long, who took home a golden gramophone for Best R&B Performance for "Hrs & Hrs" in 2023. "It’s always an honor to be recognized by your peers. I had no idea that that record was going to do what it did. I’m forever grateful and can hopefully do it again."

Muni Long performs in 2024

Muni Long ┃Derek White/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

Alt-pop artist Forrest Isn’t Dead came with melodic pop meshed with alternative rock that blurs between something out of CBGBs and The 40 Watt Club. The quartet turned up the amps and got the crowd on its feet with "Born or Made," "Here We Are," and "The Light."

"My happiness is to be able to get up on that stage, make the music, and try to help people through whatever they’re going through with the words that I share from my own life," Forrest Isn’t Dead frontman Forrest Kleindienst said.

Sibling foursome The BoykinZ threw some country twang, ‘50s girl group harmonies and 808 claps together to give hoedowns a trunk rattling makeover. The sisters threw on some pink, cowboy hats and studded denim costumes for a cool cover of TLC’s "Waterfalls" featuring "Mama" Jan Smith on guitar.

Rudy Currence posted up in black leather behind a Nord Stage 3 keyboard for some gospel-flavored soul: taking the audience back to his daddy’s Rock Hill, S.C. church as he covers Donny Hathaway’s "A Song For You" and Gnarls Barkley’s "Crazy."

Recording Academy Chair of the Board of Trustees Tammy Hurt considered the evening’s performances to be perfect precursor for the diverse musical acts that will hit the stages during GRAMMY Week.

"It’s great to be home and see these amazing artists from this city being celebrated," Hurt said. "Music brings us together, and events like tonight are a prime example of what it means to be a part of a community."

Several local and state representatives also pulled up to join in on the fun and recognize how important the music business is to Atlanta and the state of Georgia.

"We export music all around the world, so this is what we do," said State Senator Sonya Halpern. "Atlanta is a place where you can do music, be successful at it, and we want to help grow more people to be part of the industry and understand all of the opportunities."

"I’m a creative legislator, and you have to be in this day and age," said artist-turned-State Representative Inga Willis. "The pipelines are what are fueling the music industry as a whole. Atlanta music influences everything. We define sounds and genres while reshifting and recreating, and we’re the business."

The Atlanta Chapter’s executive team expressed confidence that each act and the vibe of the night left attendees pleased with an evening they will never forget.

"People don’t really understand how diverse the Atlanta community is," Tha Bizness said. "We have a strong hip-hop, R&B, country, bluegrass, rock and a great DJ scene all within an amazing community. When you bring all of that together, allow the drinks to flow, the food to be great, and the people should be energized, you’ll have an electrifying night."

2024 GRAMMY Nominations: See The Full Nominees List

The Atlanta Chapter's celebration was sponsored by Sean O'Keefe Enterprises, The MLC and City National Bank.

Why 1998 Was Hip-Hop's Most Mature Year: From The Rise Of The Underground To Artist Masterworks
André 3000 and Big Boi of Outkast in October 1998

Photo: Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

feature

Why 1998 Was Hip-Hop's Most Mature Year: From The Rise Of The Underground To Artist Masterworks

From the release of 'The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill' and 'Aquemini,' to the proliferation of underground rap and the rise of regionalism, 1998 was hip-hop's sweet spot.

GRAMMYs/Nov 20, 2023 - 03:02 pm

2023 has seen countless tributes to hip-hop, celebrating both its golden anniversary and the staying power of a genre that was vilified, underestimated, and branded a passing fad for decades. Nonetheless, while 50 is a major milestone, many believe hip-hop reached its peak decades ago.  

At the tail end of the golden age of hip-hop, the genre reached a new level of maturity. Twenty-five years ago, hip-hop music demonstrated a wide variety of production styles and a diversity of perspectives. Further proving that 1998 was a high watermark for hip-hop, several important and stylistically distinct albums by Jay-Z, Black Star, A Tribe Called Quest and Outkast were even released on the same day.

This diversity of expression resulted in multiple commercially successful, distinct subgenres and niche audiences. The culture moved beyond the bi-coastal hostility that had culminated in the tragic murders of Tupac and Biggie, and the South asserted itself in a big way. The year’s versatility was demonstrated through the emergence of an underground scene that was critical of mainstream hip-hop’s consumerist mentality, but nonetheless thrived alongside commercially successful albums by both new and established artists.  

Southern Hip-Hop Earns Respect 

By 1998 groups beyond the East and West Coasts had started to gain national visibility — a hallmark of hip-hop's growing maturity. 

While Outkast's Andre 3000 famously declared that  "The South got somethin’ to say" in1995, the group didn't earn widespread respect and recognition until three years later. Released in September 1998, Aquemini, garnered near-universal praise — earning Outkast a notoriously rare five mics in The Source — and is still considered to be one of hip-hop’s greatest albums. 

No other hip-hop group sounded like Outkast, and Southern flavor and slang pervaded the album (see the harmonica breakdown in "Rosa Parks"), but it was also the live instrumentation on tracks like "Liberation" and "SpottieOttieDopaliscious" that made the album so special. 

Fellow ATLiens Goodie MOB, a group in the Dungeon Family collective, also released an album in '98. Like Aquemini, their sophomore effort Still Standing was produced largely by Organized Noize and featured a similar production style. 

Outkast and Goodie MOB collaborated often in the 1990s: Aquemini’s "Liberation" only works because of the deeply soulful vocals of Goodie MOB’s Cee-Lo, and Still Standing’s "Black Ice" features one of Andre 3000’s most poetic and brilliant verses. While speaking to the many struggles of being young, Black and poor in the South, these two groups demonstrated how regional pride could be asserted in a more positive way, instead of spilling over into real-life violence; it was evidence of hip-hop’s maturity.

On the more commercial side, Atlanta rapper/producer Jermaine Dupri — who was already producing and writing songs for major R&B artists like Usher and Mariah Carey — released his debut album, resulting in one of the hits of the summer: the bouncy Jay-Z collaboration "Money Ain’t A Thang." New Orleans was also becoming an important locus of Southern hip-hop by 1998, with Master P’s No Limit Records releasing albums by Master P himself, Silkk the Shocker, C-Murder, Mystikal, and Snoop Dogg. Hits included "Make ‘Em Say Ugh" and "It Ain’t My Fault," both containing Mystikal’s distinctive high-pitched growling; his lightning-fast verse on the first song is truly something to behold. Also from Crescent City, Cash Money Records struck gold with Juvenile’s 400 Degreez and his booty-shaking anthem, "Back That Azz Up."

The Rise of Underground Hip-Hop

1998 was also the year "underground" hip-hop bubbled to the surface as a reaction to the genre’s crossover success. It was defined primarily by a critique of the presumed excessive consumerism of mainstream hip-hop, and a desire to return to the days when DJs, b-boys and graffiti artists were as important as rappers. 

Turntablism was strongly associated with this style, as were cyphers — gatherings where rappers, b-boys and beatboxers would form a circle and engage in freestyle battles. The emergence of underground hip-hop was another sign that the genre was maturing as a whole; artists were no longer as worried about the ghettoization by the music industry and some felt that it had strayed too far from its marginalized roots. 

The most significant underground hip-hop album of 1998 was Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star, created by a young duo of Brooklyn MCs. Interestingly, it was released on the same day in September as Aquemini, as well as two other major albums of the year: Jay-Z’s Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life and A Tribe Called Quest’s The Love Movement — which although not an essential listen in their discography, did produce a hit with "Find A Way." Four major albums released on the same day was a testament to how far hip-hop had come. 

In fact, the Black Star album was an explicit critique of the type of consumerist mentality and sexually explicit/boasting lyrics Jay-Z employed on Hard Knock Life. Songs like "Definition" display Mos Def and Talib Kweli’s exceptional lyrical dexterity and clever references, while  "Hater Players" draws a clear line in the sand between commercial hip-hop and the "real MCs." In the latter, Kweli raps: "We ain't havin’ that, reachin’ past the star status that you grabbin’ at/ My battle raps blast your ass back to your natural habitat."

Mos Def’s adaptation of Slick Rick’s "Children’s Story" is a clever screed about the lack of originality within mainstream hip-hop. "They jacked the beats, money came wit' ease, but son, he couldn't stop, it's like he had a disease. He jacked another and another, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder." The song was a not-so-veiled reference to the production technique utilized by Puff Daddy, relying heavily on well-known samples of soul and R&B songs.

Black Star also distinguished itself from much of commercial rap of the time by uplifting, instead of denigrating, women. "Brown Skin Lady" is an ode to Black women throughout the African diaspora, presenting a clear contrast to the frequent use of the b-word on Hard Knock Life, particularly on one of its biggest hits, "Can I Get A…" Nonetheless, like many "conscious" rappers — notably, Common, who makes a guest appearance on this album — Black Star reflects the almost-universal homophobia in hip-hop at the time, particularly in Mos Def’s verse on "Re-Definition." 

Despite Jay-Z’s distrust and demonization of women on Hard Knock Life — his third and most commercially successful record — no one can dispute his tremendous verbal prowess and flow, evident on tracks like "N— What, N— Who." And while he called out "gold diggers" in "Can I Get A…," he invited a female rapper (Amil) onto the song — leveling the playing field a bit. 

Production-wise, Jay-Z’s use of the "Annie" theme for the title song was one of the most inspired choices in the genre’s history. The slick production of the album guaranteed it would be a home run; in retrospect, it heralded the future of commercial hip-hop’s sound.  

Oher underground hip-hop artists were making big waves in 1998. Rawkus Records — which released the Black Star album — put out an important compilation, Lyricist Lounge, Volume 1, which featured performances by Mos Def, Talib Kweli, A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip, and the L.A.-based Jurassic 5, who also released their debut album that year. Other West Coast underground artists who released debut albums in 1998 included the Bay Area-based Hieroglyphics and Rasco, and the L.A.-based Aceyalone and People Under the Stairs. 

Debuts, Veterans And The Biggest Album Of The Year 

1998 also saw the release of important debut albums by commercial hip-hop artists like DMX, Big Pun and Black Eyed Peas. Big Pun’s "Still Not A Player" was one of the biggest hits of the year, with his lyricism reminiscent of Biggie

DMX had a particularly productive year, releasing two albums in 1998, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot and Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood. That year, it was impossible to escape the melodic hook and chorus of "Ruff Ryders’ Anthem" ("Stop! Drop! Shut ‘em down, open up shop") from the first DMX album. DMX also contributed a memorable verse on the Lox’s hit "Money, Power, Respect," off the group’s debut album, released by Puffy’s Bad Boy. 

Beyond the debut albums of 1998, a slew of established artists from various regions and representing myriad styles put out their third, fourth or fifth albums. East Coast artists with new albums included Beastie Boys, Method Man, Redman, Busta Rhymes, Queen Latifah, Gang Starr, Mc Lyte, and Public Enemy, who released a soundtrack album for Spike Lee’s He Got Game. On the West Coast, there were new albums by Cypress Hill, Ice Cube, and Digital Underground. 

Notwithstanding the success of so many diverse hip-hop artists, no album achieved greater heights than Lauryn Hill’s masterful solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. To start, it won Album Of The Year at the 1999 GRAMMYs, a feat never before accomplished for a hip-hop artist, as well as four other golden gramophones. Hill wrote, arranged and produced the album herself, reportedly turning down offers for production help from both her former Fugees bandmate Wyclef Jean and her label, which suggested bringing in Wu-Tang Clan’s mastermind, RZA.

The album was somewhere between R&B and hip-hop (and in fact was nominated and won in R&B instead of rap categories), and right off the bat, the album showcases Hill’s considerable skill as both a rapper and singer. The dancehall-inflected "Lost Ones" takes on an aggressive stance, with Hill rapping in Jamaican patois and invoking phrases of religious retribution, but it’s followed by a neo-soul breakup ballad, "Ex-Factor," featuring Hill’s signature throaty vocals.

The other major hits on the album besides "Ex-Factor" were "Doo Wop (That Thing)" and "Everything Is Everything," which cemented Hill as one of the best lyricists in hip-hop. Twenty-five years later, the whole album holds up beautifully and features some incredible invited guests.

Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the first hip-hop album to break the Album Of The Year barrier was released in 1998 — when the genre had reached what is arguably its creative apex. With the incredible stylistic and regional diversity of that year’s albums, hip-hop had succeeded beyond its founders’ wildest dreams. 

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