The latest excerpt from our Black Music Month celebration of hip-hop ponders the evolution of rap in the new millennium. Care to swap files with us?

Hip-Hop x File Swap

As the turn of the millennium approached, rappers, doomsday believers and everyday people alike were shook. The Year 2000 problem—a computer-coding glitch (dubbed Y2K) that many feared would cause the collapse of information systems around the world—threatened to trigger widespread chaos once the clock struck midnight on Jan. 1, 2000. Of course, those concerns proved unwarranted, as the new year went off without a hitch—those vital financial and governmental records were not bugged by the Y2K bug. But hip-hop had already been dealing with a separate technological predicament of its own, one that persisted well into the new century.

While bootlegging had long been a nuisance for hip-hop artists, 1999 saw the explosion of peer-to-peer sharing via the Internet, primarily via the music-swapping software called Napster. The program allowed users around the world to transfer mp3 files illegally, causing a catastrophe for record labels and artists looking to protect their profits. But the rampant piracy also had at least one fortuitous effect: It helped sounds from elsewhere—from everywhere—to spread without reliance on radio or TV. This played a key role in hip-hop’s democratization, slowly swaying the influence of hubs like Los Angeles and New York City and leveling the playing field for other cities, all while presenting a buffet of influences for a future generation of music-makers to ingest.

The transformation of hip-hop by technology in the new millennium was the real digital tidal wave.

There’s a reason the music of Harlem’s own A$AP Rocky often recalls the nimble flows of Cleveland’s Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, while his tracks nod to chopped-and-screwed aesthetics birthed in Houston. It’s the same foundation for Drake—a former child actor from Toronto—becoming one of the biggest megastars hip-hop has ever seen. Likewise for Fayetteville, North Carolina, rapper J. Cole, who, before making it big, met some of his closest collaborators while geeking out over rhymes by Canibus on message boards. It all starts with the Internet.

Mic Check: Middle America

Yet a decade before that generation of artists rose to prominence, back in 2000, the wheels were already turning on that shift, especially in the Midwest. Dr. Dre had plucked a protégé straight outta Detroit two years prior, and this great white hope proved to be the real deal. After years of cutting his teeth in the underground and battle circuit, Marshall Mathers, known to the world as Eminem, made his major-label debut on the N.W.A/Chronic legend’s Aftermath Entertainment in 1998 with The Slim Shady LP. The album, which features tracks like “My Name Is” and “Guilty Conscience,” marked the arrival of one of hip-hop’s most polarizing figures to date.

Eminem was quick to silence early skepticism of his skills or comparisons to white rap predecessors like Vanilla Ice and Marky Mark (aka Mark Wahlberg). His vivid, multisyllabic rhymes—which poked at parents and pop stars alike—quickly set him apart, as did his confrontational and sometimes outright misogynistic music videos. In May 2000, under Dre’s guidance, Em dropped his definitive work, The Marshall Mathers LP, which features “Stan,” a sobering account of a deranged fan driven to the edge by unrequited love for his idol. The RIAA-certified diamond project joined a short list of albums (including sets by the likes of The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur) to sell more than 10 million copies. His burgeoning legend was sealed by his starring role in 8 Mile, a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age film about an aspiring battle rapper, whose soundtrack contained the hip-hop anthem “Lose Yourself.”

That same year, fewer than 600 miles away, another superstar began to stake his claim in hip-hop. With a melodic flow and Midwestern twang, Nelly emerged from St. Louis to become one of rap’s biggest breakouts. The catchy-yet-street jingle “Country Grammar,” which interpolated a children’s rhyme, set things off. The 2000 album of the same name heralded the arrival of this former major-league-baseball prospect, who scored with singles like “E.I.” and “Ride With Me.” Other STL artists like Chingy, J-Kwon and Nelly’s St. Lunatics crew followed in his footsteps, as he continued to expand his sound, experimenting with traditional R&B crossover fare (“Dilemma” with Kelly Rowland) and even country (the Tim McGraw-featured “Over and Over” and Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” remix).

One thing shared by Nelly, Ludacris, Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg and numerous other rappers of the era: They collaborated (and scored their first #1s) with influential production duo The Neptunes. Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo shaped the sound of the aughts with synths, live instruments and distorted percussion arrangements, guiding rappers to the top of the pop charts. Beyond sound, Pharrell’s outside-the-box taste set the tone for a new generation of alternative fashion and lifestyle, as black youth embraced skateboard culture like Pharrell did for his 2003 cover shoot for The Source.

The Hova-Throw

But while artists on America’s fringes planted their flags in hip-hop, New York City remained the mecca—and its alpha MCs quickly found themselves in competition. Following the 1997 murder of The Notorious B.I.G., then believed by many to be the king of the Big Apple, multiple contenders vied for the throne. Puff Daddy carried the torch for his late protégé, alongside signees to his Bad Boy Entertainment family like Mase and The Lox. Fat Joe and Big Pun repped for Latino hip-hoppers with their own Terror Squad set. Busta Rhymes continued to create high-energy anthems, while Ja Rule put on for the streets and the ladies. Meanwhile, DMX made history by becoming the first rapper to drop two #1 debuts on the album chart within the same calendar year (his first set, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, and sophomore effort Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood).

But it was Biggie’s friend and peer Jay-Z who most consistently stood out from the crowd. Jay’s debut full-length, Reasonable Doubt (1996), and Biggie’s sophomore album, Life After Death (1997), both feature collaborations between the two rap icons and set the stage for the passing of the torch that took place in 1998 with Jay’s critically acclaimed, 5 million-selling third album, Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life. That album, which includes the Annie-sampling “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” as well as “Can I Get A...,” helped to set him apart from the pack; the music that followed from both Jay and his developing label, Roc-a-Fella Records, only tightened his grip.

By the turn of the millennium, Jay-Z found himself embroiled in a cold war with Queens rivals Mobb Deep and Nas. Years of subliminal and overt disses came to a head in 2001 at hometown radio giant Hot 97’s high-profile Summer Jam concert. There, the Brooklyn lyricist premiered the first half of his staggering diss track, “Takeover,” which namechecks Nas and takes aim at Prodigy of Mobb Deep. “When I was pushing weight/Back in ’88/You was a ballerina/I got the pictures, I seen ya,” Jay rapped before taking a dramatic pause, as jumbotrons at Long Island’s Nassau Coliseum displayed a childhood photo of a young boy in dancer garb, with the caption “Prodigy of Mobb Deep in 1988.” It was meant to be an emasculating shot at the credibility of one of rap’s most respected street rhymers, and it served an opening salvo in one of hip-hop’s most legendary square-offs.

Prior to that public shot by Jay-Z, Nas was approaching a crossroads in his career. His 1994 instant classic Illmatic was a watershed moment—a flawless marriage of raw, vivid lyrics over beats by some of the best producers of the era. Instantly, folks began comparing the Queensbridge street poet to the god MC, Rakim. Nas remained that street-certified wordsmith, even as his music at times aspired to mainstream success on It Was Written, with tracks like “Street Dreams” and “If I Ruled the World” featuring Lauryn Hill. Yet bootlegging derailed subsequent albums I Am... and Nastradamus, resulting in weaker, watered-down versions of the intended releases. His impending battle with Jay-Z would unexpectedly provide a creative spark.

Nas and Jay-Z spent the latter half of 2001 trading shots in the form of freestyles and full songs. Jay-Z’s masterful The Blueprint includes a full version of “Takeover,” with a fresh verse focused on dismantling Nas. The rapper responded with “Ether,” a diss so searing that its title entered the cultural lexicon for a particularly harsh putdown. It was a classic battle of two street-hardened MCs whose careers had taken different shapes: Jay a certified mainstream force and Nas the eternally respected ghetto griot. They’d continue beefing on wax until October 2005, when they united onstage in concert to officially declare a ceasefire. (Shortly afterward, Nas signed with Def Jam, where Jay-Z served as president and CEO of the label.)

While Nas and Jay-Z jousted for the New York crown, other artists rose up the ranks. The Lox’s Jadakiss, Styles P and Sheek Louch—who also collided with Hov and other Roc-a-Fella artists on wax around the same time Nas did—left Bad Boy for Ruff Ryders Entertainment (home to DMX). They embarked on solo careers of their own, starting with the former’s 2001 album, Kiss Tha Game Goodbye. Brooklyn’s own Fabolous became a poster child for punchline rap, rising from the mixtape circuit to crossover phenom. Elsewhere, elite Harlem lyricist Cam’ron signed with Roc-a-Fella in 2001, establishing a label home for his Diplomats crew. The following year, Cam and his rhyme cohorts Juelz Santana, Jim Jones and Freekey Zekey built their buzz via idiosyncratic flows, ostentatious fashion and a series of self-released mixtapes, a formula that a future NYC legend would perfect and ride to the top.

Read Future Shook in its entirety here.

John Kennedy is a writer and editor who has spent the last 15 years covering music, Hollywood and men’s lifestyle for print and online media. He’s penned cover stories on Kendrick Lamar, Migos, Drake, J. Cole and Ed Sheeran, and has written for publications like Genius, Vulture, Complex, Billboard and XXL. Queens made him, but he calls Brooklyn home. John currently serves as Senior Editor at LEVEL, a Medium-backed publication for black and brown men focused on race, culture, identity, sex and how to become the best version of oneself. Find him on all socials at @youngJFK.


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