The hits. The videos. The MONEY. The late 1990s were an interesting time in Hip-Hop, to say the least, and what would become popularly known as "The Shiny Suit Era" became one of the most polarizing periods in the genre's history.
It's been 25 years since the so-called "Shiny Suit Era" dominated 1997/early 1998. On the heels of glossy videos by Sean "Puffy" Combs and a host of others, rap's push onto the mainstream landscape was cemented. Hip-Hop had been climbing the pop culture ladder for more than a decade; Run-D.M.C. broke through big in the mid-1980s and shows like Yo! MTV Raps and Rap City put rap music squarely in middle American living rooms. The mid-1990s rise of Death Row Records and Bad Boy Entertainment only furthered rap's reach and upped it's visibility, but the unexpected aftermath of overhyped "East Coast vs. West Coast" media coverage was more eyes on rap and rappers than ever before. We look back at those glitzy days when rap videos were suddenly multimillion dollar epics and album sales were through the roof.
OUT OF TRAGEDY
The murder of the Notorious B.I.G. in March 1997 would loom large over Hip-Hop that year. Biggie's death was a morbid bookend following the killing of Tupac Shakur in September 1996, and those twin tragedies recalibrated much of rap's mainstream landscape. In the shadow of Biggie's uber-successful posthumous sophomore album Life After Death, Sean "Puffy" Combs and his Bad Boy Entertainment label would become a powerhouse. No brand became more associated with "shiny suit"-ism than Bad Boy, as Puff's emergence as an artist in his own right, and hit albums by Ma$e and The LOX only galvanized a new push for sheen and style in rap videos and on rap records.
THE "GOLDEN AGE" GIVES WAY TO THE "PLATINUM AGE"
By 1997, the shifts that began circa 1993 (as Death Row Records rose to the forefront) came into full bloom. And for so many artists who'd defined Hip-Hop's ascension up to that point, the changing times meant changing fortunes for their established careers. From Rakim to Salt-N-Pepa, a number of stars from Hip-Hop's "Golden Age" were now giving way to a new crop of rap artists who were more mainstream visible than ever before. And the numbers showed it: in 1997, more rap albums were reaching the platinum mark than in any other year prior.
Golden Age greats delivered some of their last big commercial moments in 1997. KRS-One's I Got Next included the smash "Step Into A World," and would be his final gold-selling album to date. The aforementioned Salt-N-Pepa had undergone tremendous changes in their career; they'd jumped from longtime label Next Plateau to London Records, and their international distributor, Red Ant Records, filed for bankruptcy just days after the release of their fifth album, Brand New. It resulted in little promotion for the project, although Brand New still managed to go gold that year. The project was also the group's first and only album without superproducer Hurby "Luv Bug" Azor. It remains Salt-N-Pepa's final album to date.
Long Islanders EPMD reunited in 1997 for their comeback album, the appropriately-named Back In Business. Parrish Smith and Erick Sermon would score major hits with singles "Richter Scale" and "Da Joint," re-establishing the duo as a force in East Coast Hip-Hop--now armed with a more mainstream sound than their classic material. Back In Business would kickstart EPMD's second act, but it was also their final gold album to date. Fellow Long Island legend Rakim also returned in 1997, with his first solo album The 18th Letter. The album was his first release since Eric B. & Rakim's final album, 1992's Don't Sweat The Technique, and it was a gold-seller, as well. But like EPMD, it would be Ra's most recent ablum to reach that mark. And after five albums with his backing group The Boyz, Heavy D also released his first official solo album in 1997, with Waterbed Hev serving as his final gold album and spawning hit singles like "Big Daddy" and "Keep It Comin.'"
The year seemed to signal that a new generation of artists, and a new audience, had emerged as rap music stormed the mainstream. Jay-Z, Puff Daddy, Missy Elliott, Wyclef Jean and others were now dominating the charts, and would be the names to carry Hip-Hop into the new millennium. But the vets were still bringing heat, even during changing times.
THE LADIES ARE IN THE HOUSE
By 1997, women in Hip-Hop had seen steady strides for several years: Queen Latifah became the first solo female artist to have a gold-selling album with 1993's Black Reign; just six months later, Da Brat's Funkdafied made the Chicago emcee the first solo female rapper to have a platinum album. Around the same time, Salt-N-Pepa's Very Necessary topped the five million mark.
Those successes set the table for a major late 1990s surge of women who would completely debunk the idea that female rappers couldn't sell records. That sentiment had long been held as true, even after Salt-N-Pepa's platinum-selling 1987 debut album, Hot, Cool & Vicious. For most of the late 1980s/early 1990s, even major names like Latifah and MC Lyte hadn't seen the kind of consistent commercial successes their male counterpoints had enjoyed. But the tide had begun to turn after Latifah's Black Reign, and a new wave would completely obliterate the idea that female emcees couldn't move units.
In late 1996, the twin releases of Lil Kim's Hard Core and Foxy Brown's Ill Na Na set a new standard for platinum-selling success; and Missy Elliott's Supa Dupa Fly joined the million-seller club in 1997. Alongside the Fugees (who put rapper/singer Lauryn Hill's undeniable star power center stage), these women were also at the forefront of rap's late 1990s mainstreaming and helped define the era.
I think it's easy to dismiss the 'Shiny Suit Era' as an embarrassing fad—a la other trends like wearing the Bugs Bunny T-shirts, pagers, and ringtones. But that is short-sighted. Personally, I loved how grandiose it all was. It was like a Michael Bay movie became the 5th element of Hip-Hop. And there's nothing wrong with a good old fashioned popcorn flick."
- Alec Banks, ROCK THE BELLS
FROM THE ASHES OF DEATH ROW
Death Row's emergence circa 1992/1993 had recalibrated rap's mainstream landscape, with its most immediate impact being felt as the West Coast suddenly was dominating the charts at that particular time. Four years later, the iconic label was in a proverbial tailspin--despite the fact that it seemed as though the entire industry had shifted to mimic the Death Row approach. Death Row's ace was superproducer Dr. Dre, and Dre's production polish put Death Row stars like Snoop Doggy Dogg and Tha Dogg Pound squarely on mainstream radio. That was significant: previously "street" rappers hadn't been expected to chart or crossover with the same frequency as their poppier counterparts.
However, once Death Row cracked the code, the rest of the 1990s saw Hip-Hop embrace the idea of "gangsta" rap crossing over. Suddenly, even the grimiest of emcees would release slick singles with singalong hooks. But with the murder of 2Pac in 1996, and the defection of Dr. Dre just months prior, Death Row Records was on serious life support by 1997. Labelhead Suge Knight would be sent to prison in 1998, and Snoop, Death Row's biggest star, would depart the flailing label for Master P's upstart No Limit Records that same year.
THE SOUTH RISES ON THE CHARTS
Snoop landing on No Limit was a major move for the rapper and a major statement about the power of Master P's NOLA-based record label. The Southern Hip-Hop movement had been building for years; going back to the 1980s when entrepreneurs like James Prince and Luther Campbell were launching labels in Houston and Miami. By the late 1990s, major distributors were starting to recognize the power of the scene, as labels like No Limit Records, Cash Money Records, Suave House Records and more had built large followings across the South with little-to-no mainstream airplay.
In 1995, P's No Limit Records inked a deal with Priority Records for major distribution, and his Ice Cream Man album became a platinum-seller. It set the table for the label to make a major push into 1997; as No Limit released T.R.U.'s Tru 2 Da Game and P's solo smash Ghetto D. Both albums would push past the million sales mark, and landed No Limit squarely on mainstream platforms like Rap City and Yo! MTV Raps. Cash Money Records would soon ink it's own multimillion dollar deal with Universal, and soon, the South seemed to supplant the West as Hip-Hop's "other" coast. It set the stage for southern Hip-Hop to take over mainstream music in the 2000s, and solidified the region as a hotbed for up-and-coming rap artists.
Looking back, the 'Shiny Suit Era' just feels like a natural reaction to the heaviness Hip-Hop was feeling, musically and culturally, with the deaths of Pac and Big being the final breaking point. It's not surprising some folks wanted to dance and smile and wear very shiny outfits to show how they were embracing a lighter side of life. For me personally, though, 97-98 were some of my favorite years in rap music; we got Scarface's THE UNTOUCHABLE, OutKast's AQUEMINI, Goodie Mob's STILL STANDING, and good albums from folks like Black Star, Redman, ATCQ, and Pete Rock. Even the so-called "Shiny Suit" music was pretty grounded in retrospect, at least in comparison to the bling and snap eras that came up next."
- Jacinta Howard, ROCK THE BELLS
"COMMERCIAL" VS "UNDERGROUND"
The late 1990s saw the sharpening of a divide that had been growing within Hip-Hop circles for years. The argument of "commercial" music versus "underground" music became very loud during the days when Puffy, Ma$e and Bad Boy music videos dominated pop culture. As the slickness of hits like "Mo' Money, Mo' Problems" and "Can't Nobody Hold Me Down" became omnipresent on the charts, a wave of artists bucked the trend towards pop samples and catchy hooks.
Rawkus Records artists like Company Flow released albums like Funcrusher Plus, cementing themselves as homebase for a certain kind of lo-fi, stripped down sound that hearkened back to the previous era.
I—like many—didn't appreciate the 'Shiny Suit Era' originally. I felt that it was more flashiness than substance. The videos became predictable and the usage of the samples I felt was unimaginative and lacked creativity based on what I knew could be done with a sample. I will say that those records worked well in club and party environments, they were hits and provided an alternative to some of the gangsta rap that existed at the same time."
- JayQuan, ROCK THE BELLS
Jay-Z would score his first platinum-selling album in 1997. In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 would give the Brooklyn rap star the commercial heft he'd craved, but it came with a wave of criticism from those who felt the album leaned too heavily into Sean Combs-esque jigginess. To be certain, the music video for "Sunshine" would become one of the most notorious examples of "Shiny Suit"-ism, and Puff's executive-producer tag was felt all over the slickly-produced album's tracks, but over time, the album has outlived the trappings of the era. Even though Jay himself has stated that the project was hamstrung by its "shiny" affectations.
THE SHINY SUIT ERA
The criticism was rampant. The hits were ubiquitous. The era remains one of Hip-Hop's most polarizing, but it also set the table for the rap takeover of the mainstream. That led to a variety of things that look good and bad today: the South's mainstreaming would become a cornerstone of rap music post Y2K; and the commercial fortunes of rap chart-toppers would see major dividends in the early '00s before downloading and streaming would recalibrate everything.
By the fall of 1998, the overall "shininess" would give way to something a big more balanced. While the commercial polish remained, projects by DMX, OutKast, Lauryn Hill and Jay-Z (after his jiggy turn) would be major sellers for the Hip-Hop industry in 1998, and they showed that blockbuster sales didn't have to mean vacuous lyrics or overly colorful music videos. The Shiny Suit Era was brief, but it reverberated even as the look subsided.
The way that commercial success would become a talking point for artists and fans can be traced back to the Shiny Suit Era. The contempt and the stereotypes of the era have waned with time, and fans who aren't old enough to remember 1997 and 1998 can listen to the music and enjoy the throwback vids on YouTube without the baggage of the battle lines that were drawn back then. 25 years later, there's no reason to still be mad. Can't stop, won't stop. Indeed.