The 1990s was a turbulent decade in hip-hop. Not only did it see the horrific East Coast versus West Coast battle between Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur, but it also saw the dissipation of many beloved 1980s groups. However, where the was negative, there was also positive, and, for its worth, the ’90s saw a wealth of talent break into the mainstream.
When we’re looking back at hip hop in the 1990s, for the most part, we’re looking at two feuding record labels, Death Row Records on the West Coast and Badboy Entertainment on the East Coast. Both companies had their stars, with 2pac signed to Death Row and Biggie Smalls to Bad Boy. Respectively, these two artists, with their affiliates, i.e. Snoop Dogg, Dr Dre, Lil Kim and Diddy, were ruling the rap charts and selling unfathomable amounts of records with their feud fuelling sales.
But there was talent beyond the feud. In New York, crews like the Wu-Tang Clan, Mobb Deep and The Lox were gaining notoriety, while in Oakland, The Click Crew was producing notable rappers like E-40. Many cities across America were blossoming in the ’90s. In fact, some were just getting on the map despite the genre having been around for a little over a decade. For example, Trick Daddy Dollars and Trina were having great success with their song ‘Naan’ doing very well in Miami. Eminem was rising, and Nas had already made big waves in the genre. Even the Houston crew Geto Boys had a foot-in.
However, as far as record sales go, it was about Tupac and Biggie Smalls. These two artists were the kingpins of hip-hop in the mid-’90s, and although acts like Nas and Jay-Z were pretty big, they were nowhere near Shakur or Wallace. However, after the pair were murdered, there was a crown up for grabs, and 1998 saw a race to the top in hip-hop, and there were several rappers eager and ready to snatch it.
The late 1990s leading up to the turn of the millennium, saw several household names solidify themselves in the culture. Artists such as Jay-Z, Eminem, Lauryn Hill and DMX were the centre of attention during this period. Bronx rapper Big Pun was also rising up the ranks of rap quite quickly, so competition was undoubtedly fierce. Many considered Nas washed up at this point, and both Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg were in the process of reinvention as the Death Row roster began to dissipate.
In 1998, some new acts appeared, such as Cash Money’s first breakout star, Juvenile, while already-established names, such as A Tribe Called Quest, were still maintaining their ’90s momentum with new exciting projects. However, three acts had America hooked following Biggie’s death, and although Diddy has since said that it was Jay-Z who replaced Biggie, it actually (according to facts) wasn’t. Jay-Z wasn’t even among the top three best-selling hip-hop artists of 1998. Here are the acts that indeed ran hip-hop following Biggie’s death.
The third best-selling act of 1998 was the Atlanta duo Outkast. Comprised of Andre 3000 and Big Boi, the lyrically outlandish pair came together to create magic with their third album Aquemini. The alternative hip-hop album was released to critical acclaim and debuted at number two on the Billboard 200. The album sold over a million units in the US and was certified platinum in November 1998, only two months after its release. Furthermore, it was then certified double platinum the following year.
The second-best-selling act of 1998 was DMX, who released It’s Dark, and Hell Is Hot that year. Boasting the legendary ‘Ruff Ryders Anthem’, the album debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 chart and sold 251,000 copies in its first week. It is certified four times platinum.
To conclude, the best-selling act of 1998 was Lauryn Hill, who released her debut solo album, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, in August of that year. Recorded primarily at Tuff Gong studios in Kingston, Jamaica. The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill was highly political and addressed all kinds of issues that were plaguing the African-American community. From vanity, European beauty standards, alcoholism, excessive promiscuity and effective prostitution to issues surrounding gun possession, negligence of paternal duties, sexual exploitation and the domestic abuse of women. The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill certainly touched on some sensitive issues.
The album debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 chart and sold over 422,000 copies in its first week. Hill thereby broke the record for the highest first-week sales ever by a female artist. The project won five Grammy Awards. Having sold over 20 million units as of 2023, it is one of the best-selling albums of all time It is certified Diamond in the US.
So Lauryn Hill, in fact, took the crown of hip-hop after the death of Biggie Smalls. However, that album would be her first and last. From there, it is debatable, but for 1999, most would probably say Eminem. Take a listen to Hill’s lead single ‘Doo Wop (That Thing)’ in the video below.