When it comes to rap discussions there are personal opinions and there are factual statements that people will often mistake for personal opinions. When I say that September 29th, 1998 was rap music’s last great release date that is not an opinion. It is a fact.
On September 29th, 1998 I was working at Tower Records on the video floor involved in preparing the store for the release date. I worked a register on the music floor during the midnight sale. The Boston Tower Records, located at the corner of Mass. Ave and Newbury St., prepared for the last Tuesday of September for over two weeks. They went as far as to devise a plan to pull the cash drawers at 30 to 45-minute intervals and count them while the midnight sale was still going to speed up the closing process.
Extra space was made in the hip-hop section for the new releases. Just in case, there’d be extra boxes of JAY-Z’s Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life, A Tribe Called Quest’s The Love Movement and OutKast’s Aquemini available if the bins went bare. (Several Tower employees got $100 advances on their next paychecks from the store’s key supervisor to pay for their own midnight sale purchases that night.)
An informal line began to form outside at about 10:45 PM. Eventually, they just queued up without even having been told to by the staff. There was a line of customers down the block on Newbury St. by midnight. Everyone came out: middle-aged adults, college students, teenagers, kids with their parents, casual fans, diehards and backpackers alike all showed up to buy CD’s and participate in this organic event we didn’t publicize. It was almost as if each person who lined up that night had come out to vote.
We’d already decided a half hour into the midnight sale that we’d be playing all five of the albums the next day in the store (clean versions, mind you). After 45 minutes the crowd thinned out enough, so we could finally close the store. Now it was time to swap out the last two drawers of the night to sell to all of the Tower employees.
Employees that weren’t even working that day showed up to cop their albums. The top sellers, in order, were: Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life, The Love Movement, Aquemini, Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star and Brand Nubian’s Foundation. That was also the order we played them in the store the next day.
The reaction to Black Star, in particular, was interesting: It was probably the first time — after the separation between the mainstream rap industry and the indie rap industry — that I saw underground rap fans come out in force and rally behind an album. I feel as though those fans bought at least three of the five available projects that night, on average. It was all hip-hop September 29th, and there were no wrong choices. We’ll never experience a day like that again. I bought every single CD that dropped that night, and I still own them to this day.
The players involved were on the cusp of superstardom. JAY-Z, whose Roc-A-Fella empire’s trajectory would enter the stratosphere off the back of this album. A Tribe Called Quest, one of rap’s most beloved and respected groups, were calling it quits, which brought out a wide cross-section of fans. OutKast, the group who proclaimed “The South’s got something to say,” became one of the biggest groups in rap, amassing a diverse fanbase over their first two albums and with their hit lead single “Rosa Parks.” Brand Nubian reunited with its original members for the first time since their classic 1990 debut LP, One for All. The last piece of the puzzle was the long-awaited album from the underground’s favorite duo: Mos Def and Talib Kweli, collectively known as Black Star. At the time they were regarded as the “last hope” to save rap from its overly commercial leanings.
September 29th, 1998 came just before sites like Amazon.com would have its first ever holiday sales season, cutting significantly into the profits of brick & mortar music stores like Tower Records. It also came before P2P sites like Napster and sites like mp3.com would result in more CD-R’s being sold than actual CD’s just 8 months later. (To further put things into perspective, only 5% of all American homes possessed DVD players in October 1998.) And finally, September 29th, 1998 occurred before the Internet and Napster could really negatively affect physical album sales.
Also keep in mind that in 1998, rap was the top-selling genre of music and retailers were well aware of this fact so they pulled out all the stops in terms of marketing. We have holdovers from the first Golden Era releasing records the same day as new “hot” rappers. Many were in line to buy all five albums because they recognized the significance of this event and they all waited for the day rap finally ruled the sales charts. It will never be like this again in a curated playlist and streams driven era.
Every big music release date since has been synthesized or strategically formulated in hopes of getting an apathetic fanbase excited (example: the Kanye West vs. 50 Cent sales battle on September 11th, 2007) or artists just dogpiling on a release date (like on June 18th, 2013, with Kanye West’s Yezus and J. Cole’s Born Sinner.)
In some cases it worked out in the short term, but there will never be another purely organic release date that draws in rap fans of all types into stores to buy CDs. Especially albums that represented what these particular five did: The beginning of a dynasty; a swan song; the ascension of new legends; the voice of the underground screaming to be heard; and a reunion of one of rap’s most influential groups. I’ll never forget the genuine level of anticipation, eagerness and excitement exuded by the fans that came out that night. It saddens me this generation won’t experience anything like this for themselves.
This story was originally published in 1998.
Dart Adams is Boston-based creative who has written for NPR and Producers I Know. Follow his latest and greatest @Dart_Adams on Twitter.
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