In 1989, The D.O.C. woke up hip-hop with ‘No One Can Do It Better’ This album and his later work set the stage for careers of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and others

It’s become one of those albums that “real heads” use to test your knowledge, the kind of classic release that garners almost universal acclaim that’s only amplified by the fact that so many still sleep on its greatness.

No One Can Do It Better, the West Coast landmark that cemented Ruthless Records as hip-hop’s first West Coast powerhouse label, was released in the summer of 1989. “Boyz n the Hood” was the spark, N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton announced Ruthless to the mainstream and Eazy Duz It proved it was no fluke. But No One Can Do It Better showed that the machine was truly rolling, a hit album from the label’s secret weapon — a young rhymer out of Texas who had little in common with the Comptonites he’d found himself writing for.

Tracy Curry becomes The D.O.C.

Tracy Curry was born in Houston, but after moving to Dallas, a teenage Curry joined the Fila Fresh Crew in 1986 with Fresh K and Dr. Rock. The group made the jump to Compton, California, a year later, where an affiliation with the World Class Wreckin’ Cru connected them to fledgling producer Dr. Dre. He was on the cusp of forming a group with local hustler Eazy-E and a creative collective that included young rhymers Ice Cube and MC Ren, along with Dr. Dre’s friends DJ Yella and Arabian Prince. After 1987’s indie compilation N.W.A. and The Posse launched the group and Ruthless Records signed a distribution deal with Priority Records, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E & Co. set to work on N.W.A’s proper debut album. Young Tray Curry, aka The D.O.C. (a nod to N.W.A’s acronym-themed moniker), rose to the fore as a writer for the creative core of Ruthless Records, penning rhymes for the project and Eazy-E’s debut solo album, Eazy Duz It.

Dr. Dre’s eye for talent would lead to superstardom for Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg and Eminem, and The D.O.C. is a major part of that lineage. He was the 18-year-old phenom penning Dr. Dre’s verses and providing N.W.A with much of its voice. He was largely Ice Cube’s verbal foil, as the two writers gave Dr. Dre and Eazy-E much of their musical personas.

But in the summer of 1989, The D.O.C. finally got the spotlight, and he was more than ready. “It’s Funky Enough,” … Better’s most indelible single, announced Curry as the next big thing from Ruthless. Over a sample of Foster Sylvers’ “Misdemeanor,” The D.O.C. kicks a fierce patois-inspired performance, the kind of instant classic single that makes a career. He showcased his lyricism on standout “The D.O.C. and The Doctor,” and Marvin Gaye-sampling “The Formula” was smooth enough for radio. But “It’s Funky Enough” was the anthem.

“They used to call me ‘One Take Willie,’ ” The D.O.C. recalled to HipHopDX in 2011. “We started that. Kurupt is the only other m—–f—- to do that. … I had begged Dre to make that beat. It took me about three f—–‘ months of begging him to make that beat before he finally made it. And those lyrics were actually meant for another song, but I didn’t have no words for that beat yet. So when I went in, I was just gonna lay something so he could finish adding the instrumental s— into the track. And when the beat came on, it just sounded Jamaican. So that’s the character that came out. And I just spit that s—.”

Now 30 years later, No One Can Do It Better sounds like the bridge between famed producer Dr. Dre’s Straight Outta Compton sound — a more groove-driven spin on Bomb Squad-ish sonic textures — and the slow-rolling G-Funk he would make famous in the early 1990s. As such, it remains one of the more important releases in Dr. Dre’s history, in West Coast music and in hip-hop overall. The D.O.C. had strong East Coast influences, from Rakim to The Fresh Prince, and his emphasis on skill made him arguably Ruthless’ most accomplished rhymer — even more so than early Ice Cube.

A life-changing auto accident

But fans know what happened next: After leaving a party in November 1989, an inebriated D.O.C. veered off Ventura Highway and crashed into a divider. His body was flung from the vehicle and into a tree. He suffered severe facial lacerations and throat damage that cost him his vocal cords. The rapper would survive, but nothing was the same after his throat surgery — his famous voice was gone. At 21, one of the hottest rappers in the game had to face the prospect that his career was over. And his friend Dr. Dre told him to let it go.

“He said, ‘They think you’re the king right now. You should go out like that,’ ” The D.O.C. told Sway In The Morning in 2017. “I just couldn’t accept that, you know? It just wasn’t in my DNA. I couldn’t do it.”

After the accident, The D.O.C. would remain a fixture in Dr. Dre’s orbit and seminal in the shaping of ’90s hip-hop. His ghostwriting would feature prominently on N.W.A’s controversial N—-z4Life in 1991, and The D.O.C. wrote Dr. Dre’s first solo single, the soundtrack single “Deep Cover,” which introduced the world to a 19-year-old kid from Long Beach, California, named Snoop Doggy Dogg.

Along with the new star, The D.O.C. co-wrote the classic “Nuthin’ But A G Thang,” released in fall 1992 as the monster first single from Dr. Dre’s highly anticipated solo debut. It was The D.O.C. who encouraged Dr. Dre to break away from Eazy-E and Ruthless Records, and it was The D.O.C. who introduced Dr. Dre and Suge Knight, who would launch the infamous Death Row Records in 1992.

The D.O.C.’s career would founder — 1996’s Helter Skelter and 2003’s Deuce went largely unnoticed — but his legacy as a ghostwriter put him at the heart of West Coast hip-hop’s most classic period. He would work with Dr. Dre again on his comeback hit 2001 in 1999, which means The D.O.C. was in the booth for virtually every classic Dr. Dre recorded for the better part of 13 years. He is inextricable from Dr. Dre’s legacy. But everything that he lost, an acrimonious split from Death Row and his admittedly complicated relationship with Dr. Dre has made for dark moments.

From left to right, top row: Members of N.W.A Dr. Dre, Laylaw from Above The Law, The D.O.C., and in the front row: Ice Cube, Eazy-E, MC Ren and DJ Yella pose for a photo before their performance during the Straight Outta Compton tour at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1989.

Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

“It’s been a real struggle,” he told Kyle Kramer in a 2015 VICE interview. “And I’m sure that I tried to commit suicide a whole bunch of times. Lots of drugs and alcohol, and not being able to do the one thing that you really love doing. It was a real struggle. But through all of it, I never turned my back on anybody. I never said anything ill of anybody. I love and have respect and admiration for everybody in my past.”

The linchpins of West Coast hip-hop are well-documented. Dr. Dre is the master producer. Ice Cube is the angry superstar. 2Pac is the mythologized martyr. And Snoop is the icon. But we should always remember the glue for so many legacies was a guy who came from Texas. A guy who in the summer of 1989 seemed like he was going to rule the world. He dared to name his debut No One Can Do It Better, and for a few months, he was absolutely right.

The 20 greatest hip-hop tours of all time Our ranking, inspired by all the great rap acts on the road this summer, is 100% correct

Look around and it might feel like we’re in a golden age of rap tours.

Rhyme greats De La Soul recently finished a European tour billed The Gods of Rap with the legendary Public Enemy, Wu-Tang Clan and Gang Starr’s DJ Premier. And the summer concert season is set to feature even more high-profile hip-hop shows.

West Coast giant Snoop Dogg is headlining the Masters of Ceremony tour with such heavyweights as 50 Cent, DMX, Ludacris and The Lox. Lil Wayne is doing a string of solo gigs and will launch a 38-city tour with pop punk heroes blink-182 starting June 27. Stoner rap fave Wiz Khalifa will headline a 29-city trek on July 9. The reunited Wu-Tang Clan continue their well-received 36 Chambers 25th Anniversary Celebration Tour, and Cardi B will be barnstorming through the beginning of August.

With all this rap talent on the road, The Undefeated decided to take a crack at ranking the 20 greatest hip-hop tours of all time.

Our list was compiled using several rules: First and foremost, the headliners for every tour must be from the hip-hop/rap genre. That means huge record-breaking, co-headlining live runs such as Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s On the Run II Tour were not included, given Queen Bey’s rhythm and blues/pop leanings. We also took into account the cultural and historical impact of each tour. Several artists, ranging from Run-DMC and Salt-N-Pepa to MC Hammer and Nicki Minaj, were included because they broke new ground, beyond how much their tours grossed. For years, hip-hop has battled the perception that it doesn’t translate well to live performance. This list challenges such myopic ideas.

With only 20 spots, some of rap’s most storied live gigs had to be left off the list. Many were casualties of overlap, such as Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys’ memorable 1987 Together Forever Tour and the Sizzling Summer Tour ’90, which featured Public Enemy, Heavy D & the Boyz, Kid ’n Play, Digital Underground and Queen Latifah. The 12-date Lyricist Lounge Tour, a 1998 showcase that featured Big Punisher, The Roots, De La Soul, Black Star, Common, Black Moon’s Buckshot and Fat Joe, also just missed the cut.

You may notice that Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. are missing from the list. But this was no momentary lapse of sanity. ’Pac’s and Biggie’s brief runs took place when rap shows were beginning to become a rarity, leaving most of their memorable stage moments to one-off shows. Dirty South royalty Outkast’s strongest live outing, when Big Boi and Andre 3000 reunited in 2014, was not included because it was less of a tour and more of a savvy festival run.

There are other honorable mentions: Def Jam Survival of the Illest Tour (1998), which featured DMX, the Def Squad, Foxy Brown, Onyx and Cormega; the Ruff Ryders/Cash Money Tour (2000); Anger Management 3 Tour with Eminem and 50 Cent (2005); J. Cole’s Dollar & A Dream Tour (2013); and Drake’s Aubrey & The Three Migos LIVE! tour (2018).

With that said, on with the show!

20. Pinkprint Tour (2015)

Nicki Minaj, featuring Meek Mill, Rae Sremmurd, Tinashe and Dej Loaf

The most lucrative hip-hop trek headlined by a woman also served as the coronation of Nicki Minaj as hip-hop’s newest queen. What made The Pinkprint Tour such a gloriously over-the-top affair was its seamless balance of dramatic Broadway-like theater, silly high jinks and a flex of artistic ferocity. One moment Minaj was in a black lace dress covering her eyes while mourning the loss of a turbulent union during “The Crying Game.” The next, she was backing up her memorable appearance on Kanye West’s “Monster” as the most wig-snatching guest verse of that decade. And the Barbz went wild.

Gross: $22 million from 38 shows

Kendrick Lamar performs during the Festival d’ete de Quebec on Friday, July 7, 2017, in Quebec City, Canada.

Amy Harris/Invision/AP

19. The Damn. Tour (2017-18)

Kendrick Lamar, featuring Travis Scott, DRAM and YG

When you have dropped two of the most critically lauded albums of your era in Good Kid, M.A.A.D City (2012) and To Pimp a Butterfly (2015), there’s already an embarrassment of riches to pull from for any live setting. But Kendrick Lamar understood that to live up to his bold “greatest rapper alive” proclamation he also needed populist anthems to turn on the masses. The Damn. album and world tour presented just that, as he led his followers each night in an elevating rap-along. It kicked off with a martial arts film, a cheeky nod to Lamar’s Kung Fu Kenny alter ego, before launching into the chest-beating “DNA.”

Gross: More than $62.7 million from 62 shows

Drake and Future performing on stage during The Summer Sixteen Tour at AmericanAirlines Arena on Aug. 30, 2016 in Miami.

Getty Images

18. Summer Sixteen Tour (2016)

Drake and Future

This mammoth, co-headlining tour was a no-brainer: Drake, the hit-making heartthrob, Canada’s clap-back native son and part-time goofy Toronto Raptors superfan. And Future, the self-anointed Atlanta Trap King, gleeful nihilist and producer, whose slapping, codeine-addled bars made him a controversial figure on and off record. The magic of this yin/yang pairing shined brightest when they teamed up to perform such tracks as “Jumpman” and “Big Rings” off their industry-shaking 2015 mixtape What a Time to Be Alive. When the smoke settled, Drake and Future walked away with the highest-earning hip-hop tour of all time.

Gross: $84.3 million from 54 shows

From left to right, Sandra ‘Pepa’ Denton, DJ Spinderella and Cheryl ‘Salt’ James perform on stage.

17. Salt-N-Pepa Tour (1988)

Featuring Keith Sweat, Heavy D & the Boyz, EU, Johnny Kemp, Full Force, Kid ’n Play and Rob Base

It may seem preposterous in this outspoken, girl-power age of Cardi B, Lizzo, Megan Thee Stallion, Kash Doll, Young M.A, Tierra Whack and City Girls, but back in the early ’80s, the thought of a “female” rhyme group anchoring a massive tour seemed out of reach. That was before the 1986 debut of Salt-N-Pepa, the pioneering group who’s racked up a plethora of groundbreaking moments and sold more than 15 million albums. The first female rap act to go platinum (Hot, Cool & Vicious) and score a Top 20 hit on the Billboard 200 (“Push It”), Salt-N-Pepa led a diverse, arena-hopping showcase that gave the middle finger to any misogynistic notions. And Salt, Pepa and DJ Spinderella continue to be road warriors. They’re currently on New Kids on the Block’s arena-packing Mixtape Tour.

Encore: Opening-act standouts Heavy D & the Boyz would co-headline their own tour the following year off the platinum success of their 1989 masterpiece Big Tyme.

16. Glow in the Dark Tour (2008)

Kanye West, featuring Rihanna, N.E.R.D, Nas, Lupe Fiasco and Santigold

Yes, Kanye West has had more ambitious showings (2013-14’s button-pushing Yeezus Tour) and more aesthetically adventurous gigs (the 2016 Saint Pablo Tour featured a floating stage, which hovered above the audience). But never has the Chicago-born visionary sounded so hungry, focused and optimistic than he did on his first big solo excursion, the Glow in the Dark Tour.

Before the Kardashian reality-show level freak-outs and MAGA hat obsessing, West was just a kid who wanted to share his spacey sci-fi dreamscape with the public, complete with a talking computerized spaceship named Jane. Even the rotating opening acts — topped off by the coolest pop star on the planet, Rihanna — were ridiculously talented.

Gross: $30.8 million from 49 shows

15. I Am Music Tour (2008-09)

Lil Wayne, featuring T-Pain and Keyshia Cole

Between 2002 and 2007, Young Money general Lil Wayne was hip-hop’s hardest-working force of nature, releasing an astounding 16 mixtapes. Then Weezy broke from the pack with the massively successful I Am Music Tour. The bulk of Lil Wayne’s 90-minute set was propelled by his career-defining 2008 album Tha Carter III, which by the show’s second leg had already sold 2 million copies. By the time T-Pain joined the New Orleans spitter for a playful battle of the featured acts, Lil Wayne’s takeover was complete.

Gross: $42 million from 78 shows

MC Hammer, performing on stage in 1990, had a large entourage for his Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em Tour.

Getty Images

14. Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em Tour (1990-91)

MC Hammer, featuring En Vogue and Vanilla Ice

With 15 background dancers, 12 singers, seven musicians, two DJs, eight security men, three valets and a private Boeing 727 plane, MC Hammer’s world tour was eye-popping. Rap fans had never seen anything of the magnitude of the Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em stadium gigs, which recalled Parliament-Funkadelic’s army-size traveling heyday in the 1970s.

Each night the Oakland, California, dancing machine, born Stanley Burrell, left pools of sweat onstage as if he was the second coming of James Brown. If the sight of more than 30 folks onstage doing the Running Man, with MC Hammer breaking into his signature typewriter dance during “U Can’t Touch This,” didn’t make you get up, you should have checked your pulse.

Gross: $26.3 million from 138 shows

13. Things Fall Apart! Tour (1999)

The Roots

Each gig was a revelation. This was no surprise given that Philadelphia hip-hop collective The Roots, formed by longtime friends drummer Questlove and lead lyricist Black Thought, had a reputation for being unpredictable. Still, it’s ironic that a group known for being the ultimate road warriors — they were known for touring 45 weeks a year before becoming the house band on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in 2014 — is represented on this list by one of their shortest tours.

But the brilliant Things Fall Apart club and hall sprint, which took place throughout March 1999, proved to be an epic blitz fueled by the band’s most commercially lauded material to date, Questlove’s steady percussive heart and the inhuman breath control of Black Thought.

Encore: Neo soul diva Jill Scott, who co-wrote The Roots’ breakout single “You Got Me,” gave fans an early taste of her artistry as she joined the band onstage for some serious vocal workouts.

12. House of Blues’ Smokin’ Grooves Tour (1996)

The Fugees, Cypress Hill, A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes, Ziggy Marley and Spearhead

While gangsta rap was topping the charts, the hip-hop industry faced a bleak situation on the touring front. Concert promoters were scared to book “urban” acts in large venues. Enter the House of Blues’ Kevin Morrow and Cara Lewis, the booking agent who achieved mythic status when she received a shout-out on Eric B. & Rakim’s 1987 anthem “Paid in Full.” The pair envisioned a Lollapalooza-like tour heavy on hip-hop and good vibes. The first ’96 incarnation came out of the gate with Haitian-American rap trio The Fugees, multiplatinum weed ambassadors Cypress Hill, A Tribe Called Quest and Busta Rhymes.

Encore: The series, which has also featured Outkast, The Roots, Lauryn Hill, Gang Starr, The Pharcyde, Foxy Brown and Public Enemy, is credited with opening the door for a return to more straight-ahead hip-hop tours led by Jay-Z, DMX and Dr. Dre.

Kanye West (left) and Jay-Z (right) perform in concert during the Watch The Throne Tour, Sunday, Nov. 6, 2011, in East Rutherford, N.J.

AP Photo

11. Watch the Throne Tour (2011-12)

Jay-Z and Kanye West

In better times, Jay-Z and Kanye West exhibited lofty friendship goals we could all aspire to, with their bromance popping on the platinum album Watch the Throne. Before their much-publicized fallout, Jay-Z and West took their act on the road for the mother of all double-bill spectacles.

Two of hip-hop’s greatest traded classics such as the ominous “Where I’m From” (Jay-Z) and soaring “Jesus Walks” (West) from separate stages on opposite sides of the venue. Those lucky enough to catch the tour can still recall the dream tag team launching into their encore of “N—as in Paris” amid roars from thousands of revelers.

Gross: $75.6 million from 63 shows

10. The Miseducation Tour (1999)

Lauryn Hill, featuring Outkast

In 1998, Lauryn Hill wasn’t just the best woman emcee or the best emcee alive and kicking. The former standout Fugees member was briefly the voice of her generation as she rode the multiplatinum, multi-Grammy success of her solo debut The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. By February 1999, it was time to take the show on the road. Hill and her 10-piece band went beyond the hype, especially when they tore through a blistering take of the heartbreaking “Ex-Factor.”

Encore: Outkast (Atlantans Andre 3000 and Big Boi) rocked the house backed by some conspicuous props, including two front grilles of a Cadillac and a throwback Ford truck, kicked off their own headlining Stanklove theater tour in early 2001.

9. No Way Out Tour (1997-98)

Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, Lil’ Kim, Ma$e, Busta Rhymes, Foxy Brown, 112, The Lox, Usher, Kid Capri, Lil’ Cease and Jay-Z

The Los Angeles Times headline spoke volumes: “Combs to Headline Rare Rap Tour.” Combs, of course, is Sean “Diddy” Combs, the music, fashion, television and liquor mogul who Forbes estimates now has a net worth of $820 million. But back then, the hustler formerly known as Puff Daddy was struggling to keep his Bad Boy Records afloat after the March 9, 1997, murder of Brooklyn, New York, rhyme king The Notorious B.I.G.

But out of unspeakable tragedy rose Combs’ chart-dominating No Way Out album and an emotional all-star tour. Despite suggestions that large-scale rap shows were too much of a financial gamble, Puffy rallied the Bad Boy troops and a few close friends and proved the naysayers wrong. The No Way Out Tour was both a cathartic exercise and a joyous celebration of life. “It’s All About the Benjamins” shook the foundation of every building as Combs, The Lox and a show-stealing Lil’ Kim made monetary excess look regal. And the heartfelt Biggie tribute “I’ll Be Missing You,” which was performed live at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards, had audiences in tears.

Gross: $16 million

Rap stars, from left, Redman, foreground, DMX, Method Man and Jay-Z join host DJ Clue, background left, in a photo session on Jan. 26, 1999, in New York, after announcing their 40-city Hard Knock Life Tour beginning Feb. 27, in Charlotte, N.C.

AP Photo/Kathy Willens

8. Hard Knock Life Tour (1999)

Jay-Z, featuring DMX, Redman and Method Man

Jay-Z stands now as hip-hop’s most bankable live draw. In 2017, the newly minted billionaire’s 4:44 Live Nation production pulled in $44.7 million, becoming America’s all-time highest-grossing solo rap jaunt. It’s a long way from the days of Jay-Z lumbering through performances in a bulletproof vest when he was last off the bench on Puff Daddy’s No Way Out Tour.

Surely the seeds of Jay-Z’s evolution as a concert staple were first planted on his Hard Knock Life Tour, which was documented in the 2000 film Backstage. This was a confident, full-throated Shawn Carter, and he would need every ounce of charisma, with Ruff Ryders lead dog DMX enrapturing fans as if he were a Baptist preacher at a tent revival and the duo of Redman and Method Man rapping and swinging over crowds from ropes attached to moving cranes. What a gig.

Gross: $18 million

Flavor Flav (left) and Chuck D (right) of the rap group Public Enemy perform onstage in New York in August 1988.

Getty Images

7. Bring the Noise Tour (1988)

Public Enemy and Ice-T, featuring Eazy-E & N.W.A. and EPMD

There has always been a controlled chaos to a Public Enemy live show. Lead orator Chuck D jolted the crowd with a ferocity over the intricate, combustible production of the Bomb Squad while clock-rocking Flavor Flav, the prototypical hype man, jumped and zigzagged across the stage.

DJ Terminator X cut records like a cyborg and never smiled. And Professor Griff and the S1Ws exuded an intimidating, paramilitary presence. Armed with their 1988 watershed black nationalist work, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, an album many music historians consider to be the pinnacle hip-hop statement, Public Enemy spearheaded arguably the most exciting rap tour ever conceived.

Encore: Along for the wild ride was the godfather of West Coast rap, Ice-T, who was putting on the rest of the country to Los Angeles’ violent Crips and Bloods gang wars with the too-real “Colors.” N.W.A. was just about to set the world on fire with their opus Straight Outta Compton. Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, MC Ren and DJ Yella unleashed a profanity-laced declaration of street knowledge that was instantly slapped with parental advisory stickers. And Erick and Parrish were making dollars with their rough and raw EPMD joint Strictly Business.

6. Nitro World Tour (1989-90)

LL Cool J, featuring Public Enemy, Eazy E & N.W.A., Big Daddy Kane, Too $hort, EPMD, Slick Rick, De La Soul and Special Ed

In early ’85, LL Cool J was a 16-year-old rhyme fanatic living in his grandparents’ Queens, New York, home. Three years later, the kid who became Def Jam Records’ signature artist with his iconic B-boy manifesto Radio was the most successful solo emcee on the planet with more than 4 million albums sold and counting. LL Cool J was also headlining some of the hottest events of rap’s golden era. And he was at his cockiest love-me-or-hate-me peak during the Nitro Tour.

But not even LL Cool J was ready for the monster that was N.W.A. The self-proclaimed World’s Most Dangerous Group completely hijacked the spotlight when N.W.A. was warned by officials not to perform their controversial track “F— the Police” at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena. A minute into the song, cops stormed the stage and shut down Eazy-E and crew’s volatile set, a wild scene that was later re-created in the 2015 N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton.

Encore: A few months before the Detroit gig, N.W.A. was booed during a Run-DMC show at New York’s Apollo Theater. “We all had watched Showtime at the Apollo, so we all knew if it went bad what was gonna happen,” Ice Cube explained on the Complex story series What Had Happened Was … “We hit the stage, and as soon as they saw the Jheri curls, all you heard was ‘Boo!’ I mean, before we even got a line out, they was booin’. I guess they just wasn’t feeling the Jheri curls.”

Rappers Christopher “Kid” Reid and Christopher “Play” Nolan of Kid ‘n Play perform onstage during “The World’s Greatest Rap Show Ever” on Jan. 3, 1992 at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Getty Images

5. The World’s Greatest Rap Show Ever (1991-92)

Public Enemy, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Geto Boys, Kid ’n Play, Naughty by Nature, A Tribe Called Quest, Leaders of the New School and Oaktown’s 3.5.7.

Props to the promoter who put together this awesome collection of hip-hop firepower for a tour that at least aimed to live up to its tagline. What stands out the most was the early acknowledgment of rap’s reach beyond the East and West coasts. The significance of including Houston’s Geto Boys, for instance, cannot be overstated.

Scarface, Willie D and Bushwick Bill carried the flag for Southern hip-hop, winning over skeptical concertgoers with their raw dissection of ’hood paranoia, “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” which had become a favorite on Yo! MTV Raps. Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince proved they could still rock the house with PG-rated material. (It helped that Will Smith had just begun the first season of NBC’s The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.) Queen Latifah busted through the testosterone with the empowering “Ladies First.” And Naughty by Nature frequently knocked out the most crowd-pleasing set of the night with their promiscuous anthem “O.P.P.”

Encore: The World’s Greatest Rap Show Ever made its Jan. 3, 1992, stop at New York’s Madison Square Garden less than a week after nine people were fatally crushed at a hip-hop charity basketball game at City College of New York. Before Public Enemy’s powerful message of black self-determination, Heavy D, an organizer of the doomed event, made a plea for unity. Fans were certainly listening. The gig was a resounding, peaceful triumph.

LL Cool J performs at the Genesis Center in Gary, Indiana in December 1987.

Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

4. Def Jam Tour (1987)

LL Cool J, Whodini, Eric B. & Rakim, Doug E. Fresh and the Get Fresh Crew, and Public Enemy

From 1986 to 1992, New York’s Def Jam Records was the premier hip-hop label. Its roster of artists, which included Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys, EPMD and Slick Rick, was unparalleled in range and cultural dominance. So when it came time for partners Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin to spread the Def Jam gospel on its first international tour, the imprint’s biggest star, LL Cool J, was chosen to lead the way. And he didn’t disappoint.

James Todd Smith strutted out of a giant neon boombox sporting a Kangol hat, dookie rope gold chain and Adidas jacket. Of course, that jacket would soon be thrown to the floor as a shirtless Ladies Love Cool James tore through his ’85 single “Rock the Bells” as if it were the last song he would get to perform.

For many overseas, their first taste of American rap also included DJ Eric B. & Rakim, who were killing the streets with their 1987 masterpiece Paid In Full. Almost overnight in Germany, France, Norway and the Netherlands, hip-hop became the new religion.

Encore: This was the first proper world tour for Public Enemy, who had just dropped their 12-inch single “Rebel Without a Pause.” Although they were the opening act, Chuck D and his posse stole the show, establishing their standing as global behemoths. The now-legendary show at London’s Hammersmith Odeon can be heard throughout It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.

The Up In Smoke Tour in 2000 was a dream team bill, headed by producer Dr. Dre and featuring Eminem, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg and more.

Photo by Ken Hively/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

3. Up In Smoke (2000)

Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Eminem, Tha Dogg Pound, Warren G and Nate Dogg, and Xzibit

As over-the-top, profane spectacles go, the Up In Smoke Tour has few rivals. Detroit’s Eminem stormed the stage wearing a red jumpsuit with “County Jail” stitched on the back. Ice Cube, before being joined by his Westside Connection cohorts, Mack 10 and WC, emerged from a cryogenic chamber. Hennessy-sipping and weed-toking Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg rode out in a hydraulically juiced lowrider. There was a 15-foot talking skull!

The multimillion-dollar stage design put the concert industry on notice that not only could rap shows attain the lavish production values of the best rock shows, they could surpass them. It was also an emphatic statement that the largely West Coast rap dignitaries knew how to throw a party. And there still isn’t another hip-hop song that matches the first 20 seconds of Dre’s “Next Episode” in concert.

Gross: $22.2 million from 44 shows

2. Raising Hell Tour (1986)

Run-DMC, featuring LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys and Whodini

There’s a reason Run-DMC is hailed as the greatest live hip-hop act of its era. They understood that less is always more. Because of their stripped-down beats and rhymes, the group amplified the genius of every aspect of their concert presentation up to 11. Jam Master Jay’s scratching was more thunderous than the other DJs on the 1s and 2s. Run’s pay-me stage presence commanded respect. And D had the throat-grabbing voice of God. They wore Godfather hats, black jeans and shoelace-less Adidas sneakers. The Hollis, Queens, crew was the personification of cool.

LL Cool J was just 18 during the Raising Hell Tour, but he was coming after Run-DMC’s crown every night. The hotel-wrecking Beastie Boys co-piloted rap’s bum-rush into Middle America, scaring parents wherever they landed. And Whodini brilliantly straddled the line between electro funkateers and around-the-way dudes representing BK to the fullest.

As “Walk This Way,” Run-DMC’s genre-shifting Aerosmith collaboration, exploded on the pop charts, vaulting the Raising Hell album to 3 million copies sold (the first hip-hop album to go triple platinum), ticket sales followed. The 45-city tour affirmed hip-hop’s cultural takeover.

Encore: The image of Joseph Simmons commanding 20,000-plus fans to hold up their sneakers during a performance of “My Adidas” at a New York show is still a surreal sight.

1. Fresh Fest (1984)

Kurtis Blow, Run-DMC, Whodini, The Fat Boys, Newcleus & the Dynamic Breakers, New York City Breakers, Turbo and Ozone

Ricky Walker had an idea: The concert promoter wanted to put together the first national rap music and break-dancing tour. In 1984, hip-hop had moved on from its underground beginnings in the Bronx. Run-DMC had just dropped their self-titled debut, and their “Rock Box” became the first rap video to received play on MTV. Breakin’, the first break dancing movie to hit the big screen, pulled in nearly $40 million at the box office on a minuscule $1.2 million budget. Walker saw the future.

He called New York impresario Simmons to tap some of his Rush Productions talent, which included heartthrob Brooklyn trio Whodini, rap’s first solo superstar Kurtis Blow, the comedic Fat Boys and, of course, the hottest hip-hop act in the country, Run-DMC. But when it came time to promote the first show, billed as the Swatch Watch NYC Fresh Fest Festival, in Greensboro, North Carolina, Walker was laughed out of the room by a radio ad man.

Rap was still viewed by many record industry power brokers as a passing fad. In a 1985 interview with Billboard magazine, Walker recalled the salesperson pleading with him. “You’re a friend of mine,” he said. “Can’t I talk you out of doing this show?”

Walker’s instincts, however, proved to be dead-on. Fresh Fest moved 7,500 tickets in four hours. The tour, which also featured some of the best street dancers on the planet, such as Breakin’ stars Boogaloo Shrimp and Shabba Doo, as well as the synth funk-rap group Newcleus, not only did brisk business at mid-level venues but also sold out 20,000-seat arenas in Chicago and Philadelphia. Like the pioneering rock ‘n’ roll shows of the ’50s conceived by Cleveland radio DJ Alan Freed, the Fresh Fest proved that rap could be a serious and profitable art form. The rest is hip-hop history.

Gross: $3.5 million

Jay-Z’s billionaire status adds up to a lot more than what’s in his bank account Like Madam C.J. Walker and John H. Johnson before him, Jay-Z’s rise to business mogul is testament to the power of the black dollar

Jay-Z gathered his thoughts as he sat behind a desk at Roc-A-Fella Records’ headquarters in New York. In a rarely seen 1997 interview, the Brooklyn MC gave a striking answer to a question about what percentage of rappers he believed would still be viable artists a decade later.

“A rapper’s life is like three albums … unless you gon’ endure during the times,” Jay-Z said. “That’s a special case. It’s like 3 to 5% of artists who have a successful career. Crazy, right?”

Jay-Z’s rise to become hip-hop’s first billionaire is important beyond the fact of it.

Jay-Z, at the time, was only a few years removed from drug-dealing as a self-described “Marcy Projects hallway loiterer.” A product of post-civil rights movement America (I arrived on the day Fred Hampton died, he’d later rhyme) who came of age during the war on drugs, Jay-Z by 1997 was an independent businessman with a critically acclaimed rap debut in 1996’s Reasonable Doubt. But it’s likely that not even the notoriously confident Jay-Z saw this coming: Two decades after that interview, Jay-Z is hip-hop’s first billionaire.

On Monday, Forbes released a review of the Brooklyn MC’s financial portfolio that concluded Jay-Z’s empire had surpassed the 10-figure plateau. His fortune is spread across a variety of endeavors, including real estate, liquor, music, the streaming platform TIDAL, entertainment company Roc Nation, his art collection and more. The confirmation is both unsurprising — along with Diddy and Dr. Dre, he has long been near the apex of hip-hop’s top earners — and awe-inspiring.

“Here we had this hip-hop industry that everybody sort of wanted to dismiss and thought that it would go away,” said Angel Rich, author of History of the Black Dollar. “It has now turned into the fabric of American society. It’s weaved into every portion of business. We have [another] symbol of that success and what it means in Jay-Z becoming a billionaire.”

At the start of the 20th century, Madam C.J. Walker made a fortune through black hair. In the middle of the century, John H. Johnson became a mogul with lifestyle publications such as Ebony and Jet. And at the end of the century came the start of Jay-Z’s financial success rooted in black music. All cultivated in America. All tapped into the core of America’s spine, black culture, which has alternately been ignored, chastised and co-opted. All understood the power of the black dollar. These foremothers and forefathers of black wealth in white America were prophytes in The Blueprint MC’s real-life blueprint.

John H. Johnson was the successful head of Johnson Publications Inc., a multimillion-dollar corporation, with publications that included Ebony and Jet.

Bettmann / Contributor

Jay-Z’s original (legal) revenue stream puts the moment in perspective. In a career notable for lyrics as literature and congressional honors, one of Jay-Z’s most recognizable lines is his declaration on Kanye West’s “Diamonds (Remix)”: I’m not a businessman/ I’m a business, man. The potency is rivaled only by its accuracy. The accumulation of wealth has been a constant narrative in his career. “You know n—as die for equal pay right? You know when I work I ain’t your slave right?he rhymed in 2015. “You know I ain’t shucking and jiving and high-fiving/ You know this ain’t back in the days right?”

On 2017’s stellar 4:44, he referenced the history of black wealth and abandonment in “The Story of O.J.” and concluded with the poignant “Legacy.” With daughter Blue Ivy’s innocent inquiry, “Daddy, what’s a will?” Shawn Carter, the patriarch, launches into his explanation while sampling Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free.”

Take those monies and spread ‘cross families/ My sisters, Hattie and Lou, the nephews, cousins and TT/ Eric, the rest to B for whatever she wants to do/ She might start an institute, she might put poor kids through school.

Jay-Z then turned to his oldest daughter’s future: My stake in Roc Nation should go to you/ Leave a piece for your siblings to give to their children too.

Success has led to both praise and criticism as well as detailed examinations of his practice of both capitalism and philanthropy. Jay-Z’s financial rise occurred as the income gap between the robustly rich and all other classes has steadily increased over the past 30 years. The word “billionaire” is increasingly viewed as a piece of derogatory lexicon in some circles — even by actual billionaires. But Jay-Z’s black path to entrepreneur and billionaire status distinguishes it from most of his fellow moguls and emphasizes his kinship with his predecessors Walker and Johnson.

Madam C.J. Walker (Sarah Breedlove) was the first female self-made millionaire in the world. She is shown here posing for a portrait, circa 1914.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

For the better part of the decade, Jay-Z, now 49, has taken on the most socially conscious role of his career. And his monetary boasts have evolved. He’ll never apologize for how he amassed his fortune — he never entered the business to stay a starving artist. I ain’t got a billion streams, got a billion dollars, he said on Meek Mill’s “What’s Free. The 10-figure threshold is a topic of discussion in the Carter household too. We gon’ reach a billi first, he hypothesized on “Family Feud,” also found on 4:44. Generational wealth is a decades-long theme in Jay-Z’s arsenal, dating to 1996’s “Feelin’ It”: If every n—a in your clique is rich, you clique is rugged/ Nobody will fall ’cause everyone will be each other’s crutches.

This largesse has been displayed on a variety of fronts: Paying a considerable chunk of Meek Mill’s legal fees and Lil Wayne’s back taxes. Securing legal representation for 21 Savage’s deportation proceedings. Getting Jabari Talbot’s case dropped; the 11-year-old had refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and was subsequently arrested. Covering the cost of college tuition, with Beyoncé, for 11 high school seniors through $100,000 scholarships during the domestic leg of their On The Run II Tour.

A man who doesn’t take care of his family can’t be rich, Jay-Z lamented on “Feud,” paraphrasing The Godfather. That notion gets reinforced in “Legacy.” Generational wealth, that’s the key, he noted. My parents ain’t have s—, so that shift started with me. Given where he started, reaching a billion dollars is an objectively resounding accomplishment and testament to his business acumen. But “Legacy” hits differently given who is touched by Jay-Z’s message and the fruits of his labor. TIDAL, the champagne, D’USSE, I’d like to see/ A nice peace-fund ideas from people who look like we/ We gon’ start a society within a society/ That’s major, just like the Negro League.

Jay-Z (left) and Nipsey Hussle (right) are shown here at the PUMA x Nipsey Hussle 2019 Grammy Nomination Party at the Peppermint Club in Los Angeles on Jan. 16.

Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for PUMA

Jay-Z’s rise to become hip-hop’s first billionaire is important beyond the fact of it. His story is also the story of the black dollar in America. How it was used to build this country, and how it was manipulated — and worse, destroyed — because of the power and independence it carries.

Looking at Jay-Z today, it’s hard not to think about the young MC who sat in Roc-A-Fella’s offices discussing his plans in an industry often described as cutthroat and soul-draining. A billion dollars isn’t immune to lost friendships along the way — or evidence that he made the right decision every time.

“The genius thing that we did was we didn’t give up,” Jay-Z said years ago.

Some of hip-hop’s most promising thought leaders were murdered on the cusp of their fiscal, creative and business primes. The deaths of B.I.G., Tupac Shakur (his frequent yet spiritual partners in rap’s mythical “greatest of all time” debate) and just recently Nipsey Hussle, with whom Jay-Z shared a particularly close brotherhood that expanded far beyond music, is hauntingly painful.

He is the destiny their fate denied them. That’s why the moment matters far more than the actual figure in Jay-Z’s checking account. A billion-dollar industry that began in the boroughs of New York has been monetized, criticized and immortalized the world over. And now that industry has a billionaire of its own.

Will Smith, a pioneering black nerd, helped raise and change rap music Smith’s music career reveals an artist who believed in an Afrocentric American dream based on ambition, hustle and black pride

It was 2017, and Will Smith’s career seemed to have come full circle.

That’s when a sneak peek video surfaced featuring the world-famous entertainer performing a hip-hop version of the theme from Aladdin, a Disney musical, which opens in movie theaters Friday, featuring Smith in the role of the genie. For fans, the tune conjured memories of Smith’s career-launching hit “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble,” which sampled the theme from I Dream of Jeannie, a 1960s sitcom about a genie.

The coincidence was eerily appropriate. With four Grammys, six American Music Awards, four NAACP Image Awards and two Oscar nominations, Smith’s career has seemed like a magic carpet ride, almost as if a wizard granted his wish of becoming one of history’s most successful entertainers. But while his big-screen achievements have been exhaustively examined, Smith’s musical accomplishments have received shorter critical shrift. From PTA-approved hits such as “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and “A Nightmare on My Street” to party-starting jams such as “Summertime” and “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” Smith’s songs are so cursedly simple that some might argue they’re undeserving of serious critical scrutiny. We’re here to argue otherwise.

Smith’s career has seemed like a magic carpet ride, almost as if a wizard granted his wish of becoming one of history’s most successful entertainers.

Take, for example, the aforementioned Aladdin rap. Like most songs from Smith’s canon, the tune is a bouncy urban jam with lyrics of nursery rhyme simplicity.

“One fine day the bazaar was at peace, when the guards started running through the Agrabah streets

They were lookin’ for a lad and a beast, ’cause they was nabbin’ some yeast

The thickest of thieves in the Wild, Wild East …”

Notice how Smith sets up a story, stoking your desire to learn more. From his very first 1980s hits, he has repeatedly woven fablelike narratives into his songs, a creative device that makes listeners hang onto his every word. In this regard, he has just as much in common with legendary country and western songwriters such as Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton as with his rapping peers.

Next, note how the line “a lad and” is a subliminal reference to the title Aladdin, while the phrase “Wild, Wild East” alludes to Smith’s 1999 hit “Wild Wild West.” Rap music is a narcissistic genre in which artists’ skills are largely judged by the ingenuity of their boasts. In the Aladdin song, Smith triumphantly toots his own horn while never once name-checking himself, which makes him appear both humble and confident. That’s the kind of skill that helped the Philadelphia native nab the first best rap song Grammy Award in 1989.

The Aladdin promo music video harks back to Smith’s 1990s heyday, when he triumphantly sampled old rhythm and blues and TV theme song tunes packed with sentimental value (Aladdin samples Alan Menken’s theme from the 1992 animated version of the Middle Eastern folk tale). Smith’s rap also marks a return to the days when his songs were movie promotions, and it’s tempting to view his lucrative music career as a byproduct of his movie fame: safe-as-milk family entertainment concealed beneath a fashionable urban disguise. Indeed, Smith’s gentlemanly, glad-handing public image contrasts sharply with prevailing rap iconography, which has become so hard-nosed that most rappers wouldn’t be caught dead smiling in their promotional photos.

But a closer inspection of Smith’s music career reveals an artist who gambled on a personal belief in an Afrocentric American dream, one based on ambition, hustle, black pride and monogamy. His decidedly nerdy worldview has drawn its share of hilarious ridicule and attacks from peers, but in hindsight his ’90s hits now seem almost heroic in their contrarian niceness. What follows is an examination of Smith’s music career, an exploration that reveals how he remained true to his principles at the risk of being labeled a corporate sellout … and in the process became one of the best-selling hip-hop artists of all time.

The Plain Brown Rapper

It was 1988, and Smith was bombing.

Better known by his alias “The Fresh Prince,” Smith and musical partner DJ Jazzy Jeff were onstage at the Greek Theatre in Hollywood, California, opening for the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy. At the time, Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff (real name Jeff Townes) were savoring the success of “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” the breakthrough single from their multimillion-selling album He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper. They were 19-year-old millionaires, the darlings of radio and MTV. So why were they being jeered on a Los Angeles stage?

Despite their critics, DJ Jazzy Jeff (left) and The Fresh Prince (right) were the darlings of radio and MTV in 1988, savoring the success of their hit song “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The reason was simple — Smith and Townes’ set was a disaster. This writer attended that night, and I recall being agog at Smith’s attempts to transform his performance into an interactive experience, appealing for audience participation as he emulated childhood games. Had smartphone cameras and YouTube existed back then, Smith and Townes might have become instant laughingstocks. Compared with the Beastie Boys’ beer-swilling rowdyism and Public Enemy’s fist-thrusting black militancy, Smith and Townes’ slapstick performance was embarrassingly naive and out of touch.

Other rappers might have taken the hostile crowd response as a cue to change course toward an edgier sound. But not Smith and Townes. They seemed creatively beholden to the early days of hip-hop, when the scene was dominated by boogie-down jams such as “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” and “Big Mouth.” As hip-hop legend William “Flavor Flav” Drayton told MTV in 1999: “I remember rap music. We used to party and dance off of it.”

But the dancing came to an abrupt halt in 1988. It was the final year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, an eight-year term that saw black communities devastated by a federal escalation of the war on drugs. Nationwide, African American neighborhoods had watched in dismay as a blighting influx of crack cocaine gripped the areas where they lived. In mostly black South Central Los Angeles, police were using military-grade weaponry to confront young black suspects, while East Coast neighborhoods such as Roosevelt, New York, went from middle-class prosperity to abject desolation. “Mostly every household had somebody that was strung out,” said Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee. “Even my brother had a brief moment being addicted, so it resonated very close to me.”

As if in response to Reagan’s hard-line conservatism, hip-hop got deadly serious. Hard-core rap subgenres that had been gestating underground suddenly began garnering widespread radio and consumer attention. Whether it was the political hip-hop of Public Enemy, the desperado “gangsta rap” of N.W.A. and Ice-T or the Afrocentric “conscious rap” of Gang Starr and the Jungle Brothers, 1988 marked a paradigm shift. Just as the Beatles proved rock music could make broader sociopolitical statements, rap’s Class of ’88 seized on hip-hop’s thematic potential, sowing the seeds of a musical revolution.

Into this chaotic musical fray entered Smith. His initial recordings helped transform rap into a lucrative crossover genre, yet he was already at risk of becoming a has-been. In 1989, he and Townes issued yet another collection of teen-targeted novelty tunes entitled And in This Corner …. The album and its spinoff singles flopped. “It was a tragedy,” Smith recalled in 2018. “[The album] went, like, double-plastic.”

The LP’s failure sent Smith into a downward spiral. Like many nouveau riche overnight successes, he had blown through his fortune while neglecting to pay his taxes, and now the IRS was knocking. “Being famous and broke is a s—– combination,” he would later say, “because you’re still famous and people recognize you, but they recognize you while you’re sitting next to them on the bus.”

Then, fate intervened. Hoping to keep his career afloat, Smith began appearing on The Arsenio Hall Show, a new late-night talk show that was an instant hit with the MTV generation. Backstage during one of his appearances, Smith was introduced to Benny Medina, who along with entertainment legend Quincy Jones was developing a sitcom about his childhood experience growing up with a wealthy Hollywood family. Smith aced his audition, and within months of its 1990 premiere, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was the top-rated sitcom of the year.

In one fell swoop, Smith was rescued from near irrelevance, and he would make the best of his second chance. Cautiously embarking on a movie career, he earned all-important Hollywood cred by starring in acclaimed, low-budget art house films such as Six Degrees of Separation and Where the Day Takes You. He was craftily starting with modest projects, methodically inching his way up the Hollywood ladder, demonstrating the shrewdness that would make him a megastar.

Triumph of the Will

It had been years since the sales disappointment of And in This Corner…, but now it was 1991 and Smith was appearing on a talk show touting the imminent release of his first single of the new decade. “May 20, we’ll be premiering our video,” he earnestly told Byron Allen. “We’ve been away for a while, and we’re coming at you spankin’ new.”

Will Smith (left) and Benny Medina (right) attend the premiere of Disney’s Aladdin at El Capitan Theatre on May 21 in Los Angeles. A chance meeting with Medina helped launch The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which changed the trajectory of Smith’s career.

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The music video Smith alluded to was “Summertime,” a mellow head-bobber that deviated from the madcap mold of previous Fresh Prince/Jazzy Jeff tunes. Featuring a “slightly transformed” sample of Kool & The Gang’s seductive ’70s jam “Summer Madness,” Smith’s retooled version perfectly captured the soulful essence of a midsummer day in the ’hood.

“The temperature’s about 88
Hop in the water plug just for old time’s sake
Break to ya’ crib, change your clothes once more
Cause you’re invited to a barbecue that’s starting at 4
Sitting with your friends cause y’all reminisce
About the days growing up and the first person you kiss
And as I think back makes me wonder how
The smell from a grill could spark up nostalgia …”

Call it a comeback. “Summertime” dramatically reversed Smith’s flagging musical fortunes, selling more than 1 million copies and nabbing the Grammy for best rap performance by a duo or group. But for Smith, the single’s importance went beyond accolades and peer honors. “Summertime” seemed to establish a template for the rapper’s subsequent singles. He would eventually part ways with Townes, embarking on a solo career in which he would apply his rhymes to samples of R&B radio favorites from the post-Motown era, including tracks by Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder, Sister Sledge, Roy Ayers Ubiquity and others.

His music evinced a sense of elegance and upward social mobility. While he wasn’t above sampling the occasional gutbucket stomp, his biggest singles were assembled mostly from R&B songs produced north of the Mason-Dixon Line, lavish funk hits that lent his music the upscale appeal of a Versace collection. Perhaps the best example of this was “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” the gold-certified hit from Smith’s high-stakes 1997 solo debut album, Big Willie Style. The tune sampled “He’s the Greatest Dancer,” the disco classic that name-checks elite clothing brands such as Halston, Gucci and Fiorucci.

Smith’s musical choices couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. He was launching his solo career in the late ’90s, a period of tremendous economic growth and conspicuous consumption. To underscore the notion that he was a musical status symbol, he crammed Big Willie Style with broadly appealing, expensive-sounding samples. “Men in Black” appropriated Patrice Rushen’s luxurious ’80s shuffle “Forget Me Nots,” while subsequent singles “Miami” and “Just the Two of Us” borrowed from The Whispers’ “And The Beat Goes On” and Bill Withers’ satiny 1981 ballad “Just the Two of Us.” Yet, while his tony, aspirational music matched your Cartier ensemble, Smith’s songs were still down-home enough to be played at the neighborhood block party.

His music may have conveyed sophistication, but his lyrics were pure, old-fashioned hip-hop egomania. Big Willie Style found Smith boasting constantly about his boffo film career while flipping off his detractors (“Player haters been hatin’ all my playin’ for years / Now they seein’ they worst fears as I bathe in cheers”). Yet despite all his Tarzanlike chest-thumping, Smith was careful to promote himself as hip-hop’s resident straight arrow. Where his gangsta rap rivals were dismissing women as “b—-es” and worse, the females in Smith’s songs were “ladies” and “hot mamis.” He trumpeted the joys of fatherhood and celebrated his romance with soon-to-be wife Jada Pinkett (“Finally found a person, worthy of all / Instead of pushin’ me down, you want to cushion my fall / Your eyes could make the sun rise, all the birds sing / Seal it with a kiss, bind it with a ring”).

While his tony, aspirational music matched your Cartier ensemble, Smith’s songs were still down-home enough to be played at the neighborhood block party.

This reconciliation of bravado and gee-whiz humility is classic Smith, and he would be rewarded handsomely for his bluster. Boosted by its status as the theme song from the Smith movie of the same name, “Men in Black” topped singles charts throughout Europe and Australia, capturing the 1998 Grammy Award for best rap solo performance. By the time its initial sales run was through, Big Willie Style had moved 9 million copies, making it one of the best-selling hip-hop albums of all time. In the midst of gangsta rap’s blood-splattered heyday, Smith was topping the charts with obscenity-free songs about clubbing, chivalry … and himself.

Seizing on the momentum of his blockbuster performances in movies such as Independence Day and Bad Boys, Smith released his second solo album in 1999. Willennium spawned the debut single “Wild Wild West,” another movie tie-in featuring a sample of Stevie Wonder’s percolating single “I Wish.” The follow-up single “Will 2K” was built from The Clash’s 1983 funky post-punk classic “Rock the Casbah,” while “Freakin’ It” bummed its beat from Diana Ross’ ritzy disco classic “Love Hangover.” Though not quite the sales bulldozer its predecessor was, Willennium nonetheless penetrated Billboard‘s Top 5 and sold more than 5 million copies.

It doesn’t take an Einstein to see that Smith was trading on musical nostalgia to make his songs broadly appealing, but was that so bad? He had already proved with his movie career that he was a shameless, crowd-pleasing capitalist, so why would his music goals be any different? Black songwriters such as Rushen, Nile Rodgers and Kool & The Gang certainly weren’t complaining about Smith’s sentimental hip-hop — his samples were plumping their bank accounts. He was so good at tapping prime funk hits that an associate of mine described him as an “archivist,” a man who heedfully selects stylish baby boomer jams, then gently contemporizes them for posterity (and lucrative Gen X consumption). Asked about Smith and others sampling his songs, Kool & The Gang’s Robert Bell said, “We feel honored! People are listening to our music.”

Will Smith (left) and Tommy Lee Jones (right) in a scene from the film Men in Black in 1997. Smith’s single “Men in Black” captured the 1998 Grammy Award for best rap solo performance.

Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

But while millions were buying into Smith’s retrograde rap, others were calling him out. It was rumored that he didn’t write his own songs, although Smith’s collaborators attested to his lyric writing/composing skills. Others attributed his musical fame to his soaring movie career, while others criticized him for trafficking in “nonstop pop-rap clichés.” Worst of all, hip-hop purists viewed him as the grievous poster child for corporate rap, exhuming crossover R&B classics to stroke MTV and Top 40 radio programmers. “Just because a song was fun when I was a kid doesn’t mean the guy who made it isn’t a bit of a crossover clown and has made some of the most embarrassing singles of all time,” wrote one contributor on an online forum.

Comments like these would dog Smith throughout his heyday, making him one of rap’s most controversial artists, and you’d still be hard-pressed to find a hip-hop artist who drives purists crazier. Rap music had always prided itself on salting wounds, whether through its automated, minimalist sound, its uncompromising political stances or its embrace of outlaw stereotypes. But then along came Smith with his “nice, clean rap,” and some folks became unglued.

He was resented for not buying into the myth that black hooliganism is somehow authentic (or “real,” to use the parlance of the ’hood). Smith had chosen to become a symbol of the black middle class, a millions-strong group of gainfully employed, law-abiding African Americans who paid their taxes, maybe attended church on given Sundays, and preferred Calvin Klein and FUBU to gangbanger bandannas. His sampling of opulent funk was a subtle shout-out to a black bourgeoisie the media largely ignored. “It’s real important to have balance of the imagery,” Smith told Billboard magazine in 2005. “Yes, there are people who fire guns in the street, but there’s also doctors who go to work in those areas to feed their children.”

But Smith’s critics were raising even broader questions about crossover and hip-hop’s plagiaristic roots. Why was it a crime for Smith to tap the sentimental value of old funk and pop tunes? After all, The Sugarhill Gang established the cannibalistic rules for hip-hop in 1979 when they executed a verbatim lift of Chic’s “Good Times” for their tune “Rapper’s Delight,” the first rap tune of any consequence. Moreover, amid current debates about cultural appropriation, were rap acts such as Smith, Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy conducting artistic larceny when they sampled white rock bands such as The Clash, Aerosmith and Slayer? Or were these and other rappers simply flipping the bird at segregationist radio programmers who persisted in compartmentalizing white and black music? Whatever the case, it seemed Smith was being held to a harder standard than many of his peers.

His detractors didn’t seem to take into account that sampling is a statement. During hip-hop’s hypercompetitive golden age, the best rap acts used samples partly as a way to align themselves with certain musicians, philosophies and movements. When Dr. Dre heavily sampled Parliament-Funkadelic on his 1991 magnum opus The Chronic, he was establishing an attitudinal connection between his own laid-back jams and George Clinton’s weed-scented stoner funk. Similarly, Smith’s appropriation of post-Motown R&B seemed like a rational choice, an honest reflection of his middle-class upbringing.

The son of a refrigeration engineer and a school administrator, Willard Carroll Smith II was a Baptist who attended a West Philly Catholic middle school. By all accounts, his was a grassroots upbringing that had little, if anything, to do with hoodlums and black militancy. He was 12 years old when his devoutly Christian grandmother discovered a book of his rhymes, many of them peppered with vulgarities. “Dear Will,” she wrote inside the notebook, “truly intelligent people don’t have to use words like this to express themselves. Please show the world that you’re as smart as we think you are.”

That scribbled rebuke changed Smith. “She made me realize that I wasn’t creating only for me,” he said in 2016. “The things I created were going to have an effect on her and were going to have an effect on everyone who came into contact with my artistry.”

Smith took his grandmom’s advice, and if one examines his music, one will discover a positivist philosophy encapsulated by the title track of his 2002 album Born to Reign:

“I believe in God, I believe in destiny

Not destiny in the sense of all of our actions being predetermined

But destiny in the sense of … our ability to choose who we are, and who we are supposed to be …”

He had molded himself into a massively popular polymath entertainer, a man so sure of his rapping dominance that he flamboyantly christened the 2000s the “Willennium.” His hip-hop future seemed bright and unstoppable.

Then he faded from the music scene.

The smartest dude

In 2005, after a three-year absence, Smith returned to the recording fold with an album entitled Lost and Found. Its cover featured Smith at the make-believe intersection of “West Philly” and “Hollywood” streets, an image that suggested he was at a musical crossroads. That notion was underscored by new songs in which he ditched his vintage funk samples for original beats. Although it spawned the Top 10 single “Switch,” the album ultimately sold 500,000 units, not even close to the performance of his multimillion-selling 1990s CDs.

Though he hasn’t released an album in nearly 15 years, Smith hasn’t vanished into obscurity. To the contrary, he’s leveraging his fame to become a digital influencer. He recently used his Instagram account (30 million followers and counting) to hawk branded merchandise, including a sold-out limited run of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air accessories. More than 5 million subscribers visit his YouTube channel to keep up with him and his family. Smith’s songs are still played across the broad spectrum of African American life: at the club, at parties, at backyard barbecues and family get-togethers. Get a real gangsta liquored up enough and he might confess that Smith jams like “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” and “Miami” are on his personal mixtape.

Smith is 50 now, and as he enters the elder statesman period of his career, his legacy seems more wide-ranging than many would imagine. He exists as a genre unto himself, a rapper whose austere lyrics and uncomplicated samples are unique in hip-hop. Although he’s never confessed to such, he was a pioneering black nerd well before the empowering phrase “blerd” was even coined. He played a role in unseating rock ’n’ roll as the favored music of youth worldwide, then helped raise rap music’s international stature by becoming a multimedia megastar.

He recently made a surprise guest appearance at Coachella, arguably the world’s most popular and lucrative music and arts festival. Popping onstage during his son Jaden’s performance, the old man reportedly stole the show, lending credence to his lifelong theory that nice guys finish first. “I’m trying to present … a more sound approach to survival,” he said in 2005. “It’s a more long-term approach based on intellect and skills that can’t be taken away from you.

“The smartest dude survives the best.”

HBO’s new ‘Native Son’ still can’t figure out Bigger Thomas Latest adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel excises some of the crucial violence against a black woman

Nobody knows what to do with Bigger Thomas.

The lead character of Richard Wright’s seminal 1940 novel, Native Son, is one of the most frustrating in American literature. The latest evidence is a new film adaptation written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by visual artist Rashid Johnson in his feature film debut. It airs at 10 p.m. Saturday on HBO.

The Bigger Wright left us on the page is a 20-year-old black man who lives in a one-room Chicago tenement with his brother, sister and mother in 1939. In Wright’s opening scene, Bigger wakes up in the family’s freezing apartment and pounds a giant rat to death with an iron skillet. Bigger is bitterly aware of the limitations his race and class have predetermined for him, and so are his friends. They have nothing, and so they rob other black folks of their tiny bit of something. Bigger seems doomed to a small, miserable life until he gets a job across town as a chauffeur for a wealthy white family, the Daltons. The Daltons don’t consider themselves racists, but they benefit handsomely from the structural circumstances that have placed a boot upon Bigger’s neck.

What follows is tragic: A panicked Bigger accidentally kills the Dalton heiress, Mary, whose kindness and uninformed, if well-intentioned, habitual racial line-stepping do more to endanger Bigger than help him. After a night out with her boyfriend, Jan, Mary drunkenly invites Bigger, who’s driven her home, to her bedroom. Bigger assents, hoping to simply settle Mary in her room before stealing off to his own in the back of the house. Instead, he smothers her to death out of fear they’ll be discovered and he’ll be fired. Afterward, Bigger shoves Mary’s body into the mansion’s furnace.

When reporters discover bones and jewelry among the furnace’s ashes, Bigger flees. He explains to his girlfriend, Bessie, how he ended up killing Mary, then rapes and kills Bessie too, disposing of her body down an air shaft. When he’s finally caught, Bigger is bound for the executioner’s chair.

Needless to say, this is not a character who inspires sympathy. The HBO movie is the third attempt to bring Bigger to life on film. (In 1941, Orson Welles produced and directed the story as a play.) Wright actually starred as Bigger in a 1951 version of Native Son filmed in Argentina by the Belgian director Pierre Chenal. A 1986 version, with Victor Love as Bigger, had a big-name Hollywood cast, including Matt Dillon, Elizabeth McGovern, Geraldine Page and Oprah Winfrey.

Each of them has had to struggle with hard questions about Wright’s central character: How much of Bigger’s awfulness can be attributed to a country that twisted him into a murderer and how much of his evil is individual? Is cruelty from those denied dignity inevitable or a choice? Is Bigger a person or a literary device manufactured to inspire horror?

Nearly 80 years after Native Son was first published, we’re still searching for answers.


Ashton Sanders, as Bigger Thomas in HBO’s Native Son, stands in front of “The Bean,” a landmark public sculpture in downtown Chicago.

Chris Herr/HBO

This latest film adaptation, produced by A24 (the company behind Moonlight, Lady Bird and First Reformed) has the distinction of being the brainchild of a student of James Baldwin — Parks studied creative writing under Baldwin at Mount Holyoke College.

Baldwin famously seethed at Wright’s interpretation of black life and dismissed Native Son as a “protest novel” full of one-dimensional stereotypes, and he likened Bigger to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom.

“Bigger is Uncle Tom’s descendant, flesh of his flesh, so exactly opposite a portrait that, when the books are placed together, it seems the contemporary Negro novelist and the dead New England woman are locked together in a deadly, timeless battle; the one uttering merciless exhortations, the other shouting curses,” Baldwin wrote in the essay Everybody’s Protest Novel. And yet Baldwin softened his stance toward Wright and Native Son after Wright’s death in 1960. Wrote Baldwin in Alas, Poor Richard:

Shortly after we learned of Richard Wright’s death, a Negro woman who was rereading Native Son told me that it meant more to her now than it had when she had first read it. This, she said, was because the specific social climate which had produced it, or with which it was identified, seemed archaic now, was fading from our memories. Now, there was only the book itself to deal with, for it could no longer be read, as it had been in 1940, as a militant racial manifesto. Today’s racial manifestoes were being written very differently, and in many languages; what mattered about the book now was how accurately or deeply the life of Chicago’s South Side had been conveyed.

The ambivalence Bigger inspires in Baldwin and others has come to be one of his defining characteristics. In 1986, Temple University professor David Bradley, writing an introduction for a new edition of the novel, shared his roller coaster of emotions about Native Son, which fluctuated with each new reading.

Is Bigger a person or a literary device manufactured to inspire horror? Nearly 80 years after Native Son was first published, we’re still searching for answers.

Both the 1986 film and the new one struggle with the monstrousness of Bigger’s actions — and both decided to dull them. Neither one includes Bigger’s rape and murder of Bessie. It’s the biggest omission from both versions, and especially notable in this latest adaptation, given how much Parks and Johnson elected to change.

They removed Bigger from the South Side of 1939 and dropped him into modern-day Chicago, simultaneously eradicating the bleakness of Bigger’s life as Wright fashioned it. Bigger no longer shares a one-room apartment with his mother, sister and brother but rather a multiroom unit with space for a dining table where the family gathers regularly. His mother, Trudy (Sanaa Lathan), is an ambitious paralegal eyeing law school, not a desperate washerwoman consigned to abject poverty. Trudy has a romantic partner, a do-gooder lawyer named Marty (David Alan Grier). The Thomas household is warm and structured, and there isn’t nearly as much pressure on Bigger to get a job to prevent his family from being turned out on the street.

Bigger, too, has undergone renovation. Played by Ashton Sanders (best known for portraying high school-age Chiron in Moonlight), this modern Bigger sports green hair, black fingernail polish, and an assortment of black coats and jackets customized with graffiti and patches. He’s an Afropunk and an anarchist who prefers the sounds of Bad Brains, Minor Threat and Death, as opposed to, say, Chief Keef. Sanders is tall and lanky, and he mostly plays Bigger as a quiet kid who folds into himself but who can be goaded into violent outbursts. His girlfriend, Bessie (KiKi Layne), has been transformed from a figure of pitiable, gin-soaked scorn into a sober and sensible hairdresser.

From the book to the screen, Wright’s white characters remain the most static. Mrs. Dalton is always blind, and Mr. Dalton is always the dutiful limousine liberal who sees himself as doing what he can to help the downtrodden Negroes on the other side of town. Mary Dalton (Margaret Qualley) and her boyfriend, Jan Erlone (Nick Robinson), remain a couple of rebellious anti-capitalists (here, they’re Occupy Wall Street sympathizers) thumbing their noses at Mr. Dalton’s money and privilege while simultaneously enjoying it.


Ashton Sanders and KiKi Layne in Native Son.

Thomas Hank Willis/HBO

The urge to use a new adaptation of Native Son as a corrective to the perceived faults of Wright’s original work is understandable, especially when its setting, Chicago, is repeatedly slandered as a cesspool of black cultural pathologies. Its murder rate trails that of several other cities, and yet it’s seen as an avatar for gun violence and a favorite example of those looking to deploy the whataboutism of “black-on-black” crime. Chicago is the home of Emmett Till and Laquan McDonald, and somehow also the place that produced Barack Obama and Harold Washington. Victims of white supremacy and heroes who manage to dodge it are much easier to hold in one’s head. But where do we place Bigger?

If we take him as Wright wrote him, perhaps the only appropriate place is exile. Maybe that’s why the resulting Bigger imagined by Parks and Johnson is far more sympathetic than Wright’s original rendering. For instance, Johnson neglects to show Bigger decapitating Mary once he realizes her body is too big to fully fit in the furnace. And in this modern version, Bigger never makes it to jail, much less a trial. He’s gunned down by Chicago police officers the moment they find him.

Parks and Johnson gesture at Bigger’s violence toward Bessie — he begins to strangle her but doesn’t go through with the deed. Bigger’s sexual violence, though, is completely eliminated. When I spoke to Johnson recently at HBO’s offices in New York, he told me that he thought of Bessie’s survival as the truest outcome for this retelling.

“We can’t murder and rape Bessie.”

“Between 1939 and today, stories around violence towards women and the way that we interpret them has changed dramatically,” Johnson said. “I was raised by a black woman who’s an academic and a feminist. I am not capable of telling stories where a woman is treated violently in the respect that Bigger treats Bessie in the book. That’s not something that I’m interested in.

“I think it neuters the other aspects of the story that are quite complicated around both race, class, etc. I think that it does a damage to the story and its contemporary telling, that story cannot survive. So we’d originally written it with the murder of Bessie and the rape of Bessie and the story, and I read that version in the script because we tried to keep as much in as possible in our early stages of interpreting it. And I called Suzan-Lori Parks very early in the morning and I said, ‘There’s something that is very challenging for me,’ and she said, ‘We can’t murder and rape Bessie.’ ”

Yet black and Native American women today experience the highest rates of death as a result of intimate partner violence, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Wright’s Native Son, in part, is a tale of black masculinity, disfigured by white supremacy and run amok. It is a horror story, in the way that Toni Morrison’s Beloved can be seen as horror too.

In 2015, when Straight Outta Compton was released, hip-hop journalist Dee Barnes wrote about the violence she experienced at the hands of Dr. Dre. “There is a direct connection between the oppression of black men and the violence perpetrated by black men against black women,” she wrote. “It is a cycle of victimization and reenactment of violence that is rooted in racism and perpetuated by patriarchy.”

It’s impossible to separate the murder and rape of Bessie from any discussion about how race and class have victimized Bigger. The same factors contribute to Bigger’s abuse of Bessie, although they do not excuse it. We can see a contemporary example of this dynamic in Erik Killmonger, the villain of Black Panther. Like Bigger, Killmonger is meant to engender sympathy, for the United States turned him into what he is: a psychopathic human instrument of death seeking revenge and power. And yet, for all his wokeness regarding imperialist theft, Killmonger has little regard for women. He does not hesitate to kill them, and he certainly doesn’t have any remorse about it.

When we turn away from black misogyny, as Parks and Johnson do, and as filmmaker F. Gary Gray did in Straight Outta Compton, we do a disservice to black women’s lived reality — the stories preserved on-screen tell an incomplete truth.

This new Native Son from Parks and Johnson doesn’t answer many of the questions Wright presents. Rather, it leaves us with even more questions: How can a film adaptation work if it excises one of the most horrifying scenes in its source material? And can Native Son truly capture the worst effects of America’s subjugation of black people if it turns away from the mortal injuries that befall black women as a result of it?

Is the Death Row music from ‘Above the Rim’ the last great hip-hop soundtrack? Even bigger than the film — and from Warren G to The Lady of Rage to Tupac — this West Coast project still rules 25 years later

It’s early 1994. Robin Allen, the bruising emcee first introduced to millions as The Lady of Rage on Dr. Dre’s 1992 opus The Chronic, had been asked by Dre if she had anything in her arsenal for a new joint he was working on.

Rage was the second rapper signed to Death Row Records, which during the height of its ’90s run grossed an estimated $100 million per year. After the multiplatinum success of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s stunning 1993 Doggystyle, The Lady of Rage had next. And unbeknownst to her, the mashing, funk-injected “Afro Puffs” was set to be included on the soundtrack for a basketball drama called Above the Rim.

Because after the self-proclaimed “lyrical murderer” had knocked out her bars at the famed Can-Am Recording Studio in sleepy Tarzana, California, Rage wasn’t impressed with the playback. In fact, she hated the song.

“I didn’t think ‘Afro Puffs’ should be my first solo track because I didn’t believe it was lyrical enough,” Allen says more than two decades later. “I thought those rhymes were just child’s play.”


This was the high-flying age of black cinema, first reignited in the mid-’80s by future Academy Award-winning director Spike Lee with his 1986 debut She’s Gotta Have It. What followed was an “urban film” explosion exemplified by the surprise success of New Jack City (1991). The Wesley Snipes/Ice-T drug drama was a hit with audiences, pulling in nearly $50 million at the box office. And when record label executives saw its eclectic soundtrack — featuring the likes of Color Me Badd (“I Wanna Sex You Up”), Guy (“New Jack City”), 2 Live Crew (“In the Dust”) and the aforementioned Ice-T (“New Jack Hustler (Nino’s Theme)”) — reach double platinum status, executives scrambled to repeat its success.

“I thought those rhymes were just child’s play.” —The Lady of Rage

Having a chart-topping soundtrack soon became as important as scoring a box-office hit. Musical accompaniments to Boyz n the Hood (1991) and Juice (1992) went gold. The soundtrack for the Eddie Murphy romantic comedy Boomerang (1992) hit triple platinum. There was also the gold soundtrack to Poetic Justice (1993) and the platinum one for Menace II Society (1993). The soundtrack for multimillion-selling, Babyface-produced Waiting to Exhale (1995) remains a classic, as does the platinum one for The Nutty Professor (1996), the double platinum one for Soul Food (1997) and the platinum Bulworth (1998).

So, despite her protests, The Lady of Rage became a vital part of the success of one of that era’s most celebrated soundtracks. “I even begged Suge to take me off Above the Rim,” Allen recalls. “One day I was riding in the car with my manager at the time and I said, ‘I’m sure glad Suge dropped ‘Afro Puffs’ from the soundtrack.’ And she’s like, ‘Girl, Suge didn’t take that song off the album.’ I lost it. I had no idea how big the Above the Rim soundtrack would become. But Suge knew.”

Of course, Suge is Marion “Suge” Knight, the infamous co-founder and CEO of Death Row who today sits inside a California state prison cell. He was sentenced last October to 28 years for voluntary manslaughter. In recent years, the 53-year-old’s fearsome reputation has taken a hit. But back in ’94, Knight was fast becoming the most intimidating man in the music industry: a rap boogeyman known for imposing violent will on friends and foes alike. Few people said no to Suge Knight.

Yet, the former Compton, California, football standout was also an ambitious businessman who negotiated the ownership of his label’s master recordings as part of its partnership with Interscope, a rarity in the music business. Knight saw Above the Rim as a chance for Death Row to step outside of its gangsta rap confines. The bet paid off.

“The album was more successful than the movie.” — Brian Alexander Morgan

Released 25 years ago on March 22, 1994, the Above the Rim soundtrack sold more than 2 million copies and topped the R&B Albums chart for 10 consecutive weeks. It peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, the pop album chart, raising the profile of Death Row as a major industry player.

It’s true that the cultural impact of the black star-powered movie soundtrack started way before the ’90s. There’s Isaac Hayes’ monumental Shaft (1971), Curtis Mayfield’s riveting Superfly (1972) and the Aretha Franklin/Mayfield gem Sparkle (1976). Prince’s Oscar-winning, bar-raising Purple Rain and Whitney Houston’s 18-times platinum global smash The Bodyguard are revered icons of the form. But Above the Rim flipped the proverbial script. “The album was more successful than the movie,” Brian Alexander Morgan says with a laugh. He’s the principal songwriter and one of the producers of SWV’s infectious “Anything” remix featuring Staten Island, New York, hip-hop heroes the Wu-Tang Clan, one of several great songs on the Above the Rim soundtrack.

On the set of Above the Rim in Harlem, Tupac Shakur was a larger-than-life presence.

Photo by Mark Peterson/Corbis via Getty Images

And it’s true. While Above the Rim today stands as a cult classic, the film — written by Barry Michael Cooper and starring Duane Martin, Leon, Tupac Shakur, Bernie Mac and Marlon Wayans — stalled out in theaters at little over $16 million. But the Above the Rim soundtrack succeeded in part because of its very oddness: a hard-core West Coast rap label handling the music for a movie set in Harlem USA. But somehow it all worked.

The Lady of Rage’s “Afro Puffs” song, the one she fought Knight over, became the biggest hit of the underrated emcee’s career during the summer of ’94, reaching No. 5 on Billboard’s Hot Rap Singles chart. And the rhyme empress was joined by her seemingly unstoppable Death Row label mates.

Snoop Dogg, Tha Dogg Pound’s Daz Dillinger and ’hood-certified crooner Nate Dogg showed out on the ride-out track “Big Pimpin’.” No-nonsense songstress Jewell — who had previously contributed soulful vocals to Dr. Dre’s “Let Me Ride” and Snoop’s “Who Am I (What’s My Name)” — was featured on two standout tracks, including the sensual Aaron Hall duet “Gonna Give It to Ya.”

Washington, D.C.’s Majic 102.3 Radio One host and former BET personality Madelyne Woods joined Death Row in the winter of ’94 as a production coordinator for the Above the Rim soundtrack — at times doubling as an executive assistant for Knight. She still marvels at the vocal prowess of Jewell Caples.

“There was nothing fake about Jewell,” says Woods, forever immortalized by A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife on their 1993 “Electric Relaxation” (“But hon, you got the goods, like Madelyne Woods …”). “She made it very clear what she thought about you. And the talent that woman had … Jewell could blow the doors off of anybody in the industry today with her rich tone and delivery. That’s what was so amazing about Death Row. The stable was so deep with talent.”

Suge Knight saw Above the Rim as a chance for Death Row to step outside of its gangsta rap confines.

Photo by Ken Hively/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Deep is an understatement. Daz’s in-the-zone Dogg Pound partner Kurupt delivers the most potent verse on the sinister “Dogg Pound 4 Life”: “Before I even step m—–f—–s hit the deck / I gets wreck with a tech so cash in like checks, fool.” Even now Kurupt’s face beams when he speaks of those wild but productive Above the Rim studio sessions.

“The key to ‘Dogg Pound 4 Life’ is that was the reality for us,” says Kurupt, who is revered as one of the most devastating West Coast lyricists to pick up a mic. “We were really Dogg Pound for life: me, Daz, Snoop and Nate Dogg. I wanted to prove that … I was the greatest. And I really believed that, because we had the best team. That’s what you hear on Above the Rim. We had Rage, who would come to the studio before anybody because she wanted to be the first one on the mic. We had Snoop, who was a monster. We had Dr. Dre, who was a genius. And we had Suge making s— happen.”

And of course there was the larger-than-life presence of the enigmatic Tupac Shakur, the brilliant, scene-stealing star of Above the Rim who was quickly becoming known as much for his Thug Life-propelled street anthems as he was for his high-profile run-ins with the law. When you hear the heartfelt ode to the dead homies “Pour Out a Little Liquor” and his bonus soundtrack cuts — “Loyal to the Game,” featuring Treach and Riddler, and the haunting “Pain” — you are listening to an uncompromising artist just a few verses away from becoming a pop culture antihero.

But at its heart, the story of Above the Rim is one of brazen musical curveballs. And the biggest one of them all was Warren G and Nate Dogg’s million-plus-selling “Regulate,” that era’s most unlikely pop triumph.

Everything about “Regulate” is blissfully absurd. From the blue-eyed soul easy-listening sample of Michael McDonald’s 1982 hit “I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near)” to its fairy-tale opening: “It was a clear black night, a clear white moon.” That segues into a harrowing back-and-forth tale between Warren G and Nate Dogg about surviving a violent carjacking.

“Suge didn’t ride around listening to a lot of gangsta rap.” — Madelyne Woods

But “Regulate” almost missed the cut. Although Warren G — who came up in Long Beach, California, with Snoop and Nate as a member of the group 213 — made solid contributions to both The Chronic and Doggystyle, he was still a man without a country, so to speak. Warren G was looking for a record deal, but Knight was slow to recognize.

Meanwhile, Russell Simmons’ Def Jam Records, which was in a slump, desperately wanted in on the West Coast rap takeover. Chris Lighty signed Warren G to his Violator Records, which was distributed by Def Jam, and the rest is history. “Regulate” was chosen as Above the Rim’s first official single and was unleashed on the public in the summer of ’94. The monster track zoomed to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles, a massive anchor for the soundtrack and an MTV staple.

But it wasn’t just Warren G’s come-up that had the industry buzzing. Death Row, the imprint known for behind-the-scenes beatdowns and the hardest gangsta rap around, had proved it could compile a savvy soundtrack dominated by the sounds of rhythm and blues. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the perfectionist Dr. Dre, today a near-billionaire music mogul and revered hip-hop visionary, had carte blanche over all selected tracks on Above the Rim.

“The sound had to be just right for Dre,” says veteran video game, music and film sound mixer Phil Brewster, a former assistant recording engineer at Death Row. “He’d come in the studio, listen to a mix and go, ‘Oh, no. F— that.’ And he would take all the faders and bring them down and start EQ-ing even when the track wasn’t playing. Within 10 to 15 minutes, Dr. Dre had the best mix. It was incredible to see.”

But the throwback attitude of such Above the Rim cuts as “Old Time’s Sake,” “Part Time Lover, “Hoochies Need Love Too, and Al B. Sure’s “I’m Still In Love With You” carry the DNA of Suge Knight. “This was a fantasy album for Suge,” says Woods. “If you were in the car with him, during the whole ride there would be nothing but old soul and R&B like Teddy Pendergrass, the Isley Brothers, Sam Cooke and New Birth played. Suge didn’t ride around listening to a lot of gangsta rap.”

Decades later, the towering shadow of Above the Rim still hovers over all modern soundtracks (such as Kendrick Lamar’s vital 2018 Oscar-nominated project for Black Panther) that have the audacity to risk it all. For Kurupt, who in recent years has moved into the commercial cannabis business, Above the Rim will always be in heavy rotation.

“You can find a lot of greatness and genius on the streets,” he says. “Death Row was giving outlets to people who had no other way in life, but they had talent, and Above the Rim was another outlet for us. Suge and Dre wanted us to make a soundtrack that was equivalent to a classic album. That’s why we are still talking about it all these years later.”

On the 25th anniversary of  Snoop Dogg’s ‘Doggystyle’ — a look back at his life and times  A hip-hop prodigy, in a pop culture maelstrom — on trial for murder

Big Boy is a connector. “You need to speak to Dogg?” That’s what the Los Angeles-based syndicated radio personality asks when the topic of 1993’s Doggystyle comes up. “I mean I can help you … I’m with him right now.”

Before you even get a chance to respond, he’s already calling Snoop, born Calvin Broadus Jr., to the phone. “Aight bet,” Snoop Dogg says in the background. “Gimme a second!” It’s the week before Snoop’s long deserved victory lap around the City of Angels. This conversation was a week before the Hollywood Walk of Fame honor — Snoop got his star — that featured a massive crowd of fans, family and friends such as Dr. Dre. Pharrell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jimmy Kimmel and more. A week before a weeklong celebration for the quarter-century anniversary of his first album that solidified Death Row as cultural tour de force.

“I want to thank me for believing in me,” he’ll say at his Walk of Fame ceremony. “I want to thank me for trying to do more right than wrong. I want to thank me for just being me at all times. Snoop Dogg, you a bad m—–f—–.” A unique kind of humility, indeed, but from a man who paid the cost to be his own boss — a well-deserved moment of indulgence.

Snoop carries himself like a man well aware of his resume, but he’s not vain about it. There are the 16 solo albums, five collaborative albums, four soundtracks, and singles that span five presidential administrations. There are the 53 million albums sold worldwide. Thanks to Tupac Shakur, who persuaded Snoop to pursue it, Snoop’s acting career includes more than 50 roles in movies and television.

“We can create this picture of him as always being Snoop the rapper without considering Calvin the person.”

As for his entrepreneurship career in the marijuana industry — appropriate doesn’t even begin to describe that venture. Snoop Dogg, for all intents and purposes, is the greatest success story in rap history. In a manner similar to Jay-Z, he is the American dream. Snoop survived rap’s bloodiest era, and now, approaching 50, he’s a living legend. A living legend who nearly lost it all before it truly began.

Doggystyle (Death Row/Interscope), is Snoop Dogg’s debut album — it turns 25 years old Friday. After a jaw-dropping appearance on the title single of the 1992 soundtrack to Deep Cover, Snoop’s avant-garde first album functions as a coming-of-age project that landed between the 1992 Los Angeles riots and the 1994-95 O.J. Simpson trial. Snoop’s first album also coincided with murder trial in which he was a defendant.

Broadus, at the age of 24, was acquitted in February 1996 (along with bodyguard McKinley “Malik” Lee), of first- and second-degree murder charges in the shooting death of a gang member Philip Woldemariam at a Los Angeles-area park. As the jury was deadlocked on remaining voluntary manslaughter charges, a mistrial was declared. MTV broadcast the reading of the verdict, after which Snoop Dogg rolled off in a Rolls-Royce with a driver. Snoop and Lee had maintained that the victim had been perceived as a mortal threat. The case nearly derailed one of the most unique and impactful careers in American music history.


At this point, Snoop Dogg, 47, has been famous longer than he hasn’t. The pop culture personality has done everything from smoke herb on White House grounds (according to Snoop), to becoming besties with Martha Stewart. Their Martha & Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party was described in 2017 as “the cultural exchange America needs.” Over two seasons guests included Seth Rogen, RuPaul, Rick Ross, and Kelis, and more. And as the meme goes: One Of These Is a Convicted Felon. With each year, Snoop’s guardianship of hip-hop becomes more and more massive. And in a genre that has lost its brightest stars for heartbreaking and sometimes violent reasons, Snoop’s presence is a gift. And he’s quite cognizant of how differently his life could’ve gone.

Snoop’s standout feature on Anderson .Paak’s new “Anywhere” features Snoop reminiscing on the days before fame. I didn’t have a dollar, but a n—a had a dream / Whippin’ over the stove and a n—a gotta eat / Threw my raps in the garbage, f— being an emcee, he raps. Thank the Lord for Nate Dogg and thank God for Warren G / Funny how time flies when you’re high as me.

“I think about … the fun that I had. The age … I was at,” he says now. He was 22 when Doggystyle hit the streets. “Just being innocent, and honest. Not really hoping for success. I wasn’t even wishing for success.” He pauses. Almost as if the past 30 years of his life are playing in fast-forward. “I was just hoping to be on.”

In the fall and winter of 1993, Janet Jackson was the biggest pop star in the world. President Bill Clinton was nearing the end of his first year in office. Police began investigating Michael Jackson for child abuse. Allen Iverson was sentenced to five years in prison. Tupac Shakur was charged with shooting two off-duty police officers in Atlanta in October, and sexual assault a month later. Whitney Houston was on The Bodyguard World Tour. Jurassic Park was king of the box office while Menace II Society was film royalty of the ‘hood. Michael Jordan’s retirement coincided with the onset of the Shaq and Penny era in Orlando, Florida.

For Jemele Hill, then a freshman at Michigan State University, hip-hop was not only blowing up the Billboard charts but was the foundation of local party scenes. The impending arrival of Snoop Dogg’s debut was the axis around which hip-hop revolved. He was featured on the 1993 cover of VIBE’s first official issue, the look a culmination of a two-year meteoric rise. Snoop’s 1991 appearance on “Deep Cover” from the soundtrack of the same name, was a fire starter. His appearance a year later on Dr. Dre’s genre-shifting The Chronic caused some to dub Doggystyle, in the moment, “the most anticipated rap album of all time.”

“For months, that was the album — when everybody got together, in the dorm room or kicking it in somebody’s crib — that we were listening to. [It’s a reminder of] the lightness that hip-hop could bring into your life.”

The album sold more than 800,000 copies in its first week, making it, at the time, the fastest-selling rap debut. Black kids loved him. White kids wanted to be him. A heavy dose of Dr. Dre’s production and Snoop’s syrupy smooth flow proved, once again, to be an undeniable supernova — even as rap sheets ran concurrent with rap hits. This was gangsta rap, but with a new vibe. Snoop, long affiliated with the Crips, talked that street talk. He was authentic, yet relatable.

“ ‘Doggy Dogg World’ was a moment in time. A star-studded event dripping in black charisma.” — Snoop Dogg

Los Angeles in particular, devoured the album. Compton, Inglewood, Watts, and of course Long Beach — where ’64 Impalas bounced, where people gathered, Snoop was the soundtrack. “The anticipation in L.A. ran high and it was real,” says Big Boy. “Everywhere you went, there was something coming out of somebody’s speakers from [that album]. When we just saw ‘What’s My Name’ and Dogg on top of the VIP in Long Beach — that was our moment.”

He brought listeners live and direct to his home ‘hoods of Long Beach that gave him the ammunition for songs like “Tha Shiznit” and “Serial Killa.” “What Snoop provides the rap world in that cadence, delivery and flow seems to have had a very lasting influence,” says University of Virginia professor of hip-hop A.D. Carson. “But because no one has been able to duplicate it, he still occupies that same space [to this day].” Chart-topping singles such as “Gin & Juice” and “What’s My Name” and the video were MTV darlings.

Twenty-five years later, Doggystyle, to Snoop, remains defined by two records, “Lodi Dodi,” a homage to Slick Rick, and “Doggy Dogg World” featuring his favorite 1970s group, The Dramatics.

The blaxploitation era and the superheroes it birthed are a part of Snoop’s DNA. “To be able to have a session with The Dramatics,” he says, still in awe a quarter century later, “and then to be able to incorporate them into the movement [Death Row] was on — that, to me, is a look that says, OK. The visual for ‘Doggy Dogg World’ was a moment in time. A star-studded event dripping in black charisma.”

The video included features from Fred Williamson, Pam Grier, Antonio Fargas, and Rudy Ray Moore, Fred Berry, and Ron O’Neal. Snoop’s close friend and longtime collaborator Ricky Harris, who died in 2016, was also in the video. “This,” Snoop boasted last year, “was like my Harlem Nights.

As for “Lodi Dodi”? Snoop idolizes Slick Rick. It’s an homage, and is quick to point out that the song is first example of a rapper remaking a song and not being labeled a “biter.” “[Rick] was somebody I really, really looked up to. It’s like Kobe [Bryant] and [Michael] Jordan,” he says. “When you’re able to play against him, and he gives you a few pointers, and you end up becoming just as good as him.”


Doggystyle ended a historic year in music with 1.2 million copies sold in its first two weeks on the shelves. By December, he was outselling the rest of the top five albums in the country combined.

“Ain’t nobody bigger than me but Michael Jackson,” Snoop said shortly after the album’s release. But criticism of gangsta rap, was prevalent, even before Snoop’s debut, rightfully centered on its depiction of women. And Doggystyle was features more than 60 references to “b—–s” and the cover drew the ire of critics nationwide. By the fall and winter of 1993, Snoop was accused of the “beastializing [of] women.”

“It’s sickening to see that any African-American, male or female, would hold the human dignity of African-American women in the form that is presented [in the album cover],” said C. Delores Tucker, a frequent opponent of hip-hop. “We are now looking to the distributors, financiers and producers of [Doggystyle] …We are going to use the powers we have to withhold our dollars where our dignity is not respected.”

Rap, Snoop in particular found, an ally in U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters. “While I find some of the language offensive and hard on the ears, I didn’t first hear the words whore and b—- from Snoop,” she said in 1994. “It’s part of the culture. These songs merely mimic and exaggerate what the artists have learned about who we are [as a society]. And while it is unacceptable to refer to any person in derogatory terms, I believe rappers are being used as scapegoats here.”

“We are going to use the powers we have to withhold our dollars where our dignity is not respected.” — C. Delores Tucker

As critics sought to paint him as the new king of misogyny, Snoop went on the defense. “It’s not personal at all,” he lamented in ’93. “When women come up to me and they see me on the street and say, ‘How you doin’, Snoop Dogg? How you doin’, baby?’ I don’t say, ‘Hey, b—-. How you doing?’ I don’t come at them like that.”

Doggystyle is the linchpin for issues that still rage on. Misogyny is very real. For Hill, it’s a complex issue. “Most women have always had a love-hate relationship with hip-hop,” says Hill, who says that Dr. Dre’s 1992 “B—-es Ain’t S—” is among her favorite songs. “We’re not ignorant to what some of these lyrics have meant.” It’s a case by case basis for Hill, who remembers the very real discussions about Doggystyle that were happening while women and men were partying to it every day. “I don’t take it personally, though there is a part of me that does wish they could be better in this area. But I’ve also heard many [rappers] explain that they rap this because they are talking about personal experiences.”

Yet even more than the moral critique about the album, it was Snoop’s real life that drove the conversation. The first-degree murder charge was the case that they gave him. Woldemariam, a reputed gang member had reportedly threatened Snoop before at a video shoot and had also been in an argument with Snoop and Lee earlier on the day of the shooting. Gang ties were reported to be at the center of the dispute. With a warrant out for his arrest, Snoop still joined George Clinton and Dr. Dre in presenting the best R&B video award at the 1993 MTV VMAs.

Snoop Dogg/Calvin Broadus reacts to not-guilty verdict in Los Angeles Superior Court on Feb. 21, 1993. Judge Paul Flynn declared a mistrial on his involuntary manslaughter charges after the jury was found deadlocked, but the jury did clear the rapper of an accessory after-the-fact conspiracy charge. Broadus was acquitted of first- and second-degree murder charges.

MIKE NELSON/AFP/Getty Images

He turned himself in shortly after. The case slowed Snoop’s victory lap, while it concurrently create mass hysteria for its release. Gangbanging was a way life in Southern California. Snoop was a child of this reality. Newsweek’s contentious cover, which featured Snoop tattooed with the question “When is rap 2 violent?” may have well been part of the project’s official rollout.

As Snoop’s celebrity transformed him from Dr. Dre’s understudy to bona fide megastar, he faced life in prison. Death Row Records was living up to its name. Those closest to Snoop even saw how the situation took its toll on him. “During that time, everybody was down with everything that was going on,” Warren G says via phone. “But we just stayed down with him. Ride or die.”

With rap’s crown came repeated attacks. “It’s truly a sad statement about our society that an alleged murderer can end up serving as a role model for our kids,” said Bob DeMoss, youth culture specialist for the Colorado Springs, Colorado-based Christian media watchdog group Focus on the Family.

Snoop was stressed. “Black people are sayin’, ‘F— it, you’ve got this much power. You could be tryin’ to say: ‘Don’t do drugs, and, hey, stop this,’ ” Snoop said in 1994. “But Martin Luther King tried that s—. It didn’t work.”

And as the trial came to an end, the prosecution tired of the defense painting the victim Woldemariam as a crazed gangbanger who was the aggressor in his own slaying. The defense claimed the prosecution used Snoop’s celebrity as its motivation more than his actual involvement. Details emerged supporting Snoop’s self-defense claim when one of victim’s friends admitted to hiding Woldemariam’s gun after the shooting. Even after he was acquitted, drama still followed him. He and newly signed Death Row labelmate Shakur’s “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted” once again turned drama into unimaginable success. But by March 1996, Dr. Dre had left the label. Six months later Shakur was murdered in Las Vegas. And Knight, in less than a year, was back in prison on a probation violation for his role in a fight the night Shakur was shot.

“While I find some of the language offensive and hard on the ears, I didn’t first hear the words whore and b—- from Snoop.” — Maxine Waters

What little room Snoop had to truly celebrate Doggystyle was depleted. Staying alive was more important for Snoop, who purchased a bulletproof van following the murder of Biggie Smalls. “The way that we can mythologize him — we can create this picture of him as always being Snoop the rapper without considering Calvin the person,” says Carson. “I can’t imagine that [part of his life] being anything other than a nightmare for him. It’s something … heavy to sort through.”

With Doggystyle in the rearview mirror, Death Row’s very public and tragic downfall and his own career at a professional crossroads, Snoop’s next moves set in motion a new arc. “He was a totally changed person,” says Warren G. “It was a reality check that this stuff can be taken away at any given moment, so you gotta get yourself together … That’s when he started to grow and morph into … a man. He realized none of this stuff is worth [losing] your family [over].”

“That’s the American dream …Well, ain’t it?” — “Bathtub

There is no career like Snoop Dogg’s. American gangster to American icon, if you’re looking for a tagline. He’s been a Rastafarian, a pimp, the quarterback of his own stage play and chart-topping gospel artist. He’s Grandpa Snoop and Uncle Snoop to an entire generation who grew up on Uncle Phil. “There’s nothing everyman about the way he lived his life and the way he came up,” Hill says with a laugh, “but yet he is the dude in rap you wanna go get a beer with. But I guess in his case … get high with.”

It’s true. It’s not a stretch to say that Snoop has played a tangential role in America’s slow, but gradual acceptance of marijuana. On TV, he’s everything from dedicated youth football coach to LeBron James’ big homie. He’s persuaded an entire country to “Smile” on Lil Duval’s huge hit while directing his political aggression toward President Donald Trump via song and, in a patented Snoop way, “grassroots activism.”

Even “gangsta s—” evolves. Making music for Long Beach. Making music that reflected the lifestyles, good and bad, that he grew up in. Monday’s Hollywood Walk of Fame immortalized him in a long overdue ceremony. But for Snoop, a tour de force who has seemingly accomplished — and survived — everything, hip-hop has to offer, it’s not about what he missed. It’s about the celebration he never truly got to enjoy in his early 20s. Until now. “I was too busy trying to enjoy my life and trying to make sure I was going to be free [to enjoy Doggstyle],” Snoop says. You can almost hear the grin spread across his face. “So maybe I’ll enjoy it this year on its 25th.”

LeBron James’ official DJ talks LBJ’s influence on music, the Midwest and more Steph Floss is the unofficial mayor of Cleveland

Cleveland native DJ Steph Floss texts me Wednesday morning that he’s outside my downtown hotel. Steph is a voice of the city, a longtime resident mixshow DJ on Z 107.9 who holds the dual distinction of being the official DJ of both his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers and the team’s biggest star, LeBron James. His portfolio includes having spun at events for Jay-Z, Barack Obama, NIKE, Beats by Dre and a who’s who of A-list clientele with residences in cities all across the United States and into Canada. And from 2009-14, he was named Ohio’s Best Club DJ.

It’s hours before the Cavs’ heartbreaking Game 3 loss. A defeat that makes Friday night’s Game 4, a potential closeout game for the Golden State Warriors, all the more sobering. No one knows what to expect this offseason with James’ future with the Cavaliers — not even Floss, one of James’ closest friends. Or if he does, he’s not breaking his poker face.

Floss agreed to show me around his city for the day. It’s game day, so the first stop might just be the most important: the barbershop. En route to Supreme Barber and Salon in Cleveland Heights, Floss opens up about his love of travel. Perspective, he says, is key to developing a true appreciation for the world around you. He’s traveled the world for work, DJ’ing at clubs and stadiums around the world, and for pleasure. The opportunity is a testament to both his own work ethic and the blessings in his life.

“‘Bron’s authenticity comes from the fact he really knows and loves music. It’s not fake.”

It’s been 15 years since his life as a DJ began on the campus of The Ohio State University on a marketing and operations scholarship. But music and the joy of entertaining crowds are seeds that had been planted far earlier. He credits the movie Juice, both for the late Tupac Shakur’s presence and, in particular, Omar Epps’ role as Q. “He was a young, fly dude. He’s DJ’ing. He got the nice little older babe,” Floss laughs while looking for parking. “He commanding the crowd. He’s cool and he’s out here. I’m like man, you know, I love music as well. Maybe that’s something I could do, but my mother would never buy me the equipment. She was like, ‘You not ’bout to have all that and be loud up in my house!’ ”

We pause that conversation and head into the barbershop. As is the case for most black men, it’s a safe space for Floss. He knows everyone. Everyone knows him. Demaris cuts his hair. Swiss lines me up. The conversations range from the upcoming Cleveland Browns season and the uncanny but fitting buzz in the city about the team and his overhaul of talent this offseason. Then there’s a completely random and hilarious homage to former New York Knicks and Houston Rockets head coach and current NBA commentator Jeff Van Gundy. “Jeff wanted all the smoke!” said a patron while discussing Van Gundy’s willingness to throw himself into NBA brawls.

After about an hour, Floss and I leave. The conversation picks back up where we really dive into his come up, how the Cleveland Cavaliers came calling and his kinship with LeBron James.

So how did this Steph Floss story ultimately begin? Where do the roots begin?

When I was in high school, a group of friends of mine, we used to throw parties. We were like 15 years old throwing parties and making good money. We would call ourselves all kinds of stuff, like Platinum Plus. But, you know, we had other people that was part of the collective as well. I wasn’t DJing at the time, but we used to throw the craziest little high school parties. (Floss attended Benedictine High School.) We’d have thousands of people there. It was insane. Me and Rich [Paul, founder of Klutch Sports and LeBron James’ agent], went to the same high school together. That’s how we met each other.

“One of the first times I’ve ever DJ’d in the Q was a Cavs playoff game. It was like an Eastern Conference finals game. It was some wild game! I held it down.”

I love school. I still love learning and I still love education. When I was in school, I was out here. I was in the nightlife and kicking it and partying. Hanging out and having fun. But I was also really into my books as well. Once I went to Ohio State, I said I have this scholarship and I don’t really wanna mess this scholarship so I’m gonna focus on my studies. But I needed to make some money.

I don’t have to pay for school, but I wanna make some money. And I don’t want to work a ‘job’ because I don’t want that to take away from my classes and sleep. I said, you know what? I always wanted to DJ. We had been throwing parties. So I’m just finally teaching myself how to DJ. I get the [equipment] and get busy. I’ve been wanting to DJ since I was like 8 years old.

Floss used money from the refund checks he received while at OSU to buy equipment. For Floss it was all about believing the part so others would too. The easiest way to do that? Release a mixtape. While on summer vacation after his freshman year, Floss built a makeshift studio in his mom’s basement. He set it up like a karaoke bar. The mic hung from the pipes in the ceiling and, as one would expect, the sound quality left much to be desired. “It was one of the best mixtapes I’ve ever done,” he says with a smile.

It was the closest Floss felt, at the time, to being like the DJ Clues, DJ Absoluts and the Funkmaster Flexes of the world, all of whom he cited as inspirations. But his first big moment came on campus after that summer. After his showing at a cookout at OSU’s Hale Black Cultural Center, the ladies of Delta Sigma asked him to DJ their big campus party known as the “Icebreaker.”

“They were like, ‘How much do you charge?’ I was like, ‘Uh, $150?’ ” says Floss. He didn’t know how much to charge because prior to them he had never been paid. “The first party I ever DJ’d was the biggest party at Ohio State. I think I did a decent job despite my equipment kept cutting off because it was overheating. I had my dudes with me. I had them fanning the amp while I’m DJ’ing for the rest of the night. I eventually got everything rolling, and the rest is kinda history.”

We’re pulling up at Beachwood Mall, an upscale shopping center in suburban Cleveland, when we transition to life after Ohio State.

How did the Cavs and LeBron come into the picture?

I was still living in Columbus. I would travel back and forth [to Cleveland] because we had a nightclub called The View that started popping up here. That was one of the dopest nightclubs ever. We had a crew called 8081 that we started doing the parties under. My guy Kelton, my guy Smallz, Meel, Mo, myself, Rich. They hit me up like we got this party Sunday night that we’re about to start doing. I would travel back and forth from Columbus to Cleveland and do the party. The first couple of nights it wasn’t making no money, but I saw something in it and I liked being home. I stuck with it. It ended up being one of the best decisions that I’ve made. Everybody that started off, right now we’re all brothers. Only thing that could make us closer is blood.

So I was doing that party and at the time my guy Mick Boogie was DJ’ing for the Cavs. I was part of his DJ crew, the League Crew. Mick didn’t talk on the mic, but I would talk on the mic when I was DJ’ing so I could host as well. Mick knew that, and he asked me to come host a party for him because his host was MIA or something. I was like, ‘Cool, yeah, I’ll come do that.’ I hosted the party and I kept doing it. As a result, me and Mick got closer and closer and I became part of the League Crew. It was me, Mick, Terry Urban and DJ Fresh.

Mick would do the Cavs games, so some games he’d just take me with him. I just noticed how he would be DJ’ing the games. The kinda music he’d be playing early in the games as opposed to late in the games as opposed to pregame.

It got to a point where these are Cavs games and they’re popping. I was basically coming to these games for free. What I started doing is I started getting to the games early to solidify I’m gonna get there and I would hook Mick’s equipment up. He’d come in and basically just be able to plug and play. I was very familiar with everything. Then Mick decided he wanted to move to New York. During this time, my relationship with ‘Bron became stronger and stronger. The whole crew, really. All of our relationships became stronger. Around this time, we had went to the Finals in 2007. At that point, we had all been around each other for some time. It’s crazy. Mick decided he wanted to move to N.Y. during the playoffs. He was outta there because he had a gig in N.Y. The Cavs needed a DJ for one of the playoff games, and Mick was just like, ‘Can you do it?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah I can do it!’

One of the first times I’ve ever DJ’d in the Q was a Cavs playoff game. It was like an Eastern Conference finals game. It was some wild game! I held it down. It’s crazy because I was never nervous or anything like that. The time came for the new season, and it made the most sense [to hire me]. It was a real process to interview and all that.

Obviously, you’re working with the Cavs. LeBron’s LeBron. But how did you all grow to become so close?

Aight, so I met ‘Bron via Rich, but of course if you’re from northeastern Ohio you knew who LeBron James was. But we also had other mutual friends, and I remember they came down [to OSU]. ‘Bron was real cool with Maurice Clarett at the time, and that was my guy at Ohio State. Him and ‘Bron were seen as the next two superstar athlete friends that were gonna [dominate the NFL and NBA]. We met via all of these different channels and became cool. Then everybody just started advancing in their careers.

A lot of times people think since ‘Bron is like my brother, they think he’d be like, ‘That’s my guy, he’s gonna be DJ’ing.’ Nah, it didn’t work like that. ‘Bron is my guy, but I worked my way into it. I don’t get it anywhere near as much now, but at first it was like, ‘You just got that because of ‘Bron.’ I’m like, actually, I was going to Quicken Loans Arena setting up equipment early just to make sure I was in the arena so I could watch the game.

You’ve been doing this for 10 seasons?

This is how I count my years. Well, I was here for two years with ‘Bron. Then ‘Bron was gone four years and I was still here. Now he’s been back four years. So that’s 10. Then I sit back and think like, ‘Wow, that’s crazy. It’s been 10 years.’ It’s been a roller coaster. Some super highs and some lows, but we still here and it’s been beautiful.

It’s in and out in Beachwood for Floss. We’re roughly six hours away from tipoff, and he still has to run by his office downtown at Spaces and Co., drop off some used clothes at the Goodwill, get a run in (he’s an avid runner) and grab a bite to eat. But you can’t have a name like ‘Floss’ and not be fresh. He runs into Next, a trendy apparel store with a hilarious sales expert named Trice who, as she dubs it, is “serving looks” all day.

After shopping and talking for nearly an hour, Steph ultimately decided on a deep pink champion hoodie and orange Carrots T-shirt. Trice jokes about pulling up the game tonight and Steph’s after-party at Lago, which overlooks Lake Erie. As we make our way back to Steph’s car, the topic of LeBron comes up. As with James, a notoriously caring person for those he considers his closest friends, Floss speaks highly of the four-time MVP.

He’s achieved success without LeBron. He’s made a name for himself without LeBron. But make no mistake about it, Floss’ appreciation for James’ friendship and the opportunities he’s helped make happen just through remaining true to each other is limitless.

“‘Bron’s put everyone in his crew to be successful without him,” Floss says while throwing his recently purchased items in the trunk. “That’s the best thing about him.”

Is it fair to call you “LeBron James’ official DJ?”

It was at a point when ‘Bron was in Miami. We’d go down to Miami and ‘Bron would be like, ‘You know how crazy it is that you’re the Cavs’ official DJ and my official DJ still?’ We would be joking and laughing about it, but as I’ve gotten older with nightclubs and everything [putting that] on publications and flyers — it’s in my bio and all of that stuff — they’ll send me over a flyer and it’ll be like ‘DJ Steph Floss—official DJ of LeBron James.’ I tell them you gotta take that man’s name off. You gotta put “Cleveland Cavaliers” because that man is the biggest entity in sports. Flat out. A lot of people try to finesse. Regardless how good I am or whatever, people are gonna try to finesse more people to the club or finesse a LeBron James situation at their event via that tagline.

You’re gonna try to make other people believe ‘Bron is coming out when he is not coming out. I’m the one that’s spinning! There’s been times where I popped up in a city and the Cavs have had a game and I had a gig. ‘Bron didn’t even know, and he’ll hit me up like, ‘What spot you at tonight?’ He’ll be like, ‘Cool, I’ll fall through.’ Or he might be like, ‘I’ma just chill.’ The club owner and the promoter’s mentality for a lot of spots are trying to capitalize and put some butts in the seats.

It gives people a false hope that everywhere you are LeBron is gonna be there.

That’s not fair to you. That’s not fair to him. That’s not fair to me. I’m not giving you that false hope! Like I said, in my younger years, yeah you can put that on there. That’s cool. But now I’m like nah, you gotta pay for that. You gots to pay for that!

What makes it so unique about LeBron that he’s so effortlessly entrenched in hip-hop culture?

The fact he’s from northeastern Ohio, as we all are, we’ve always had to pull from different coasts and different eras from music. I honestly think, and no disrespect to anybody else, Midwest DJs, and especially Cleveland DJs, are some of the best in the country. It’s because we’ve never really had a run for real. We’ve had Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, but it’s a lot of areas with DJs who’ve had runs. Like Atlanta. They’ve had a crazy run, so their DJs could just play all Atlanta music during the set and they’ll be fine. West Coast, always have a run! New York had a run! Chicago, they’re Midwest, but Chicago had a run. Texas, they’ve had runs. New Orleans too! But we always had to know music from everywhere! If you hear a set from me or another Cleveland DJ, you’re gonna be like, ‘Yo, how do they know this?’ It’s because we have to. We couldn’t rely on just playing Bone all night! Or Ray Cash. You just can’t rely on playing our artists’ music because we never had a run of that magnitude.

Like with ‘Bron, we grew up listening to a lot of West Coast music. Especially those guys in Akron. They had ties with The Bay area, like E-40, Yukmouth, Too Short and people like that. Around here, man, we listen to a lot of West Coast music growing up. I was like the biggest Spice 1 and MC Eiht fan. We used to love that. We also have a huge connection with Texas with our music and their music. Their culture is kinda like us, and we’re kinda like them with the old-school cars and a lot of slang. Then, of course, we’re not far from the East Coast. You’d love the Biggies, the Jay-Zs. I grew up loving Mobb Deep. You would’ve thought I was from Queensbridge: Mobb Deep, Nas, AZ. I listened to everything!

So ‘Bron’s authenticity comes from the fact he really knows and loves music. It’s not fake. It’s not like I’m just gonna put this song on my IG because this is what’s poppin’. This is what I like. You may like it or you may not, but this is what I’m listening to and this is what I think is poppin’. I think the artists understand that. He really knows his music.

His IG stories are basically the new listening sessions.

It’s an A&R-type situation! You’d be surprised how many people have asked me, ‘Can you get big homie this joint?’ I’m like, ‘That’s awkward, man!’ (laughs) Like I understand it, but it’s like I’ll tell him to listen to it and if he likes it he does what he does with it. It’s been times I’ve told LeBron such and such sent me the album early and I’ll send it over to you. He’ll listen to it and he actually liked the album, but he didn’t put anything up on his story. You can’t use him though. I’m letting you know the man liked the album. It is what it is. That’s what is authentic about him. And he has a good ear.

After a quick bite and a few more errands, we part ways until it’s time to link back up at Quicken Loans Arena for Game 3. As if the crowd needs any more reason for creating a raucous environment, Steph runs through a litany of high-energy hits: Ayo & Teo’s “Rolex,” Jeezy’s “Win,” Diddy’s “Victory,” Lil’ Reese, Rick Ross and Drake’s “Us (Remix)” and the modern-day holy grail of hip-hop motivational sermons in Meek Mill’s “Dreams & Nightmares (Intro).”

Unfortunately, all the energy in the world, yet another LeBron triple-double and a breakout performance from Rodney Hood wasn’t enough, as Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors inched one step closer to defeating the Cavs for the third time in the past four seasons. With the game ending closer to midnight, Steph lamented the moments missed in the game that could’ve turned Friday night’s Game 4 into a potentially series-tying contest. The night might have been over closer to midnight when the game ended. But for Floss, his night is only halfway done. He’s leaving work to go back to work for an after-party about a mile away.

It’s a grind he’s dedicated his life to since the days of poor-quality mixtapes at Ohio State. Just like LeBron, in his 15th season as well, Floss doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon.

Actor Keith Powers: ‘I don’t think Dre or Cube even know that was my cousin’ Powers enjoyed playing Ronnie DeVoe in ‘The New Edition Story’, but tapped into the verdict of his cousin Rodney King in ‘Straight Outta Compton’

When actor Keith Powers’ starred in the 2015 film Straight Outta Compton as Dr. Dre’s younger brother Tyree Crayton, he used the Rodney King verdict as a prominent backdrop. Channeling the anguish he and many felt of lack of consequences of the four cops filmed beating King, the part was more than a notion for Powers. The 25-year-old is cousin to the late, King — the police brutality victim who inspired the 1992 L.A. Riots. The part hit close to home.

“I don’t think Dre or Cube even know that was my cousin,” said Powers to The Undefeated. “To this day, it’s something powerfully connected to me and forever impacts me.”

Powers, also known for playing Ronnie DeVoe in BET’s miniseries biopic The New Edition Story, now stars in the Freeform drama Famous in Love from author Rebecca Serle and Pretty Little Liars showrunner I. Marlene King, which airs on Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET.

The fictional show follows a group of actors and the ups and downs they endure in Hollywood where loyalty, trust, jealousy, fear and love are all tested. Powers’ character, Jordan Wilder, is the young superstar that everyone wants to meet and be… but lies from his past are catching up to him fast.

Acting was not the Power’s first claim brush with fame. When pursuing scholarships to play college football, he was getting recruited by JE Model agency in San Francisco, which later led to him signing with the esteemed agency, Wilhelmina. As a model, he’s walked the runway for Calvin Klein during Milan Fashion Week in 2014 and he is featured in GQ editorials and campaigns for brands like Guess.

Building on that momentum, Powers quickly found his way into acting where his film credits grew to include House Party: Tonight’s The Night, MTV’s Faking It, AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead and Netflix’s Reality High to name a few.

The oldest of four shared how the most challenging part about acting is how it’s not always based on whether you’re good or not, but how the network is casting to sell tickets or get more viewers. The Sacramento native still practices and prepares but recognizes that he has to keep faith and “trust the process” as NBA player Joel Embiid would say.

Powers’ favorite athlete period is Muhammad Ali, his basketball fandom is for Lebron James, but not necessarily the Cavaliers, and he once met NBA player Nick Young backstage at a fashion show earlier in his career.


Describe yourself during basketball season?

I’m yelling but I have moments where I’m really quiet because I’m stressed out. But I’m usually more stressed during football games when I’m watching my [San Francisco] 49ers.

If you could be any athlete, dead or alive, who would you be?

That’s tough, but I’d say Muhammad Ali. He’s a hero. I love what he stood for and the confidence he possessed. Ali was so vocal in sports and politics. I was also thinking of two others—LeBron James and Michael Jordan—but who doesn’t want to be them? LeBron is my favorite athlete but it doesn’t mean I like the Cavs. If the Cavs lose and LeBron’s stats are good, I’m happy.

Who is your favorite superhero?

This may sound strange [and he’s not really a superhero] but The Joker. There’s something unique about how he thinks. He’s so messed up in the head but also so intelligent and understands the reasons why he became a villain. The Joker is the epitome of not trying to impress people.

What is your favorite album and why?

KOD by J. Cole. It’s an album that speaks to this generation and was needed. My favorite track is “FRIENDS.” He’s keeping it real with his friends and telling them that they don’t need to do drugs to deal with their problems, and that there’s better ways to deal with them.

Have you ever been star struck?

When I walked the Calvin Klein runway for Milan Fashion Week I got to meet a lot of celebrities backstage like Future and Swaggy P [Nick Young]. What was kind of cool about meeting [Young] was that he knew who I was from watching this [basketball comedy] show series I used to be on called “Sin City Saints.”

What would you tell your fifteen year old self?

Keep faith and “trust the process” as Joel Embiid would say. I’ve gone out for jobs that I didn’t get and I remember being sad and frustrated, but when I look back now, it all had to happen that way in order for my path to clear up for certain successes. Life is never going to work out the way you think but you have to keep faith that it will all work out. I’ve seen a lot of actors quit because it didn’t happen at the pace they wanted. They could be superstars now but quit too soon. I don’t want that to happen to me so I just keep going on this marathon.

What was your first major purchase?

Last April I bought a house in LA.

Craziest lie you ever told?

I have a couple but I do remember one when I was in second grade. We had a project about where we are from and for some reason I said that I was born in Chicago. I got in a lot of trouble for it, and I still don’t know what made me lie about that.

Aux Cord Chronicles XIV: When R&B hosts hip-hop From Total and Biggie, Mya and Jay-Z to Rihanna and Drake, 54 of the best R&B songs with hip-hop features

Two things: One, last month I helped launch a rhythm and blues club with two friends, Ashley and Marcus, in Washington, D.C. A monthly meeting that essentially serves as nostalgic listening sessions for classic ’90s R&B (Jodeci’s Diary of a Mad Band in February and Aaliyah’s One In a Million in March), the events have already hit a nerve in need of soothing. And two, this R&B rabbit hole I’ve been in is the exact reason for the return of our Aux Cord Chronicles. The rules for this one? Simple. R&B songs with a hip-hop feature — not the other way around. For example, no Method Man and Mary J. Blige “You’re All I Need” or Big K.R.I.T. and Lloyd’s “1999” because Blige and Lloyd are the featured artists. Get it? Got it? Gucci. Pull up on us on social media and let us know your favorites. Let’s stop wasting time and get to the money …

Mary J. Blige feat. Grand Puba — “What’s The 411?” (1992)

An OG R&B/rap classic, co-produced by the man then known as Puffy, that any list of this sort is incomplete without.

SWV feat. Wu-Tang clan — “Anything (Remix)” (1994)

Let the record show, “Anything” was already one of the coldest bounces of any R&B song in history. Add in Method Man’s legendary opening bars? Kaboom, guess who stepped in the room/ Tical, hailing from the Shaolin Isle / It be me the killer bee, on the M-I-C/ With the S-S-double-double-U to the V-V, and it was a wrap.

Brandy feat. MC Lyte, Yo-Yo, Queen Latifah — “I Wanna Be Down (Remix)” (1994)

Of the Sylvia Rhone-created remix, Brandy said in 2012 that the record remains one of the most surreal moments of her career. It helped make for a close friendship with all three MCs too. “The hip-hop remix to ‘I Wanna Be Down’ meant the world to me,” she’s said. “I’m fresh out of the box and these superstars are part of my first single. They’re my mentors and I look up to them.”

Total feat. The Notorious B.I.G. — “Can’t You See” (1995)

Gimmie all the chickenheads from Pasadena to Medina … not much more needs to be said. A classic ’90s cut in every sense of the word.

Jodeci feat. Ghostface killah & Raekwon — “Freek’n You (Mr. Dalvin Remix)” (1995)

Women wanted to be with them. Men wanted to be them. It’s no secret Jodeci was the first real R&B presence with hip-hop’s stamp of approval — long before Ghost and Rae helped give a classic a makeover.

Mariah Carey feat. ODB — “Fantasy (Bad Boy Remix)” (1995)

First off, R.I.P. Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Secondly, Mariah, like Mary J. Blige, has a ton of classics with this formula. ODB brought so much energy and one-of-a-kind swag on this, it’s crazy.

Blackstreet feat. Dr. Dre & Queen Pen — “No Diggity” (1996)

The rare Dr. Dre feature did not go to waste here. And shout-out to Ted Riley for using the Lil’ Teddy doll in the video — paying homage to Penny Hardaway’s Lil’ Penny. Pop culture synergy at its finest!

Gina Thompson feat. Missy Elliott — “The things that You Do (Remix)” (1996)

Thompson doesn’t get the credit she deserves for the incredible hook on this. Vintage ’90s and with the Missy feature, a year before Supa Dupa Fly dropped? Flawless.

Dru Hill feat. Jermaine Dupri and Da Brat — “In My Bed (So So Def Remix)” (1996)

Bless J.D. and Da Brat for bringing some edge to a ballad that originally had Uncle Sam “I Don’t Ever Wanna See You Again”-type vibes. Aight, maybe not that sad.

112 feat. The Notorious B.I.G. & Ma$e — “Only You” (1996)

Another classic Bad Boy remix. One of the great travesties, aside from the fact Biggie’s been gone for 21 years, is the fact we’ll never know how many more R&B songs he would’ve destroyed. His flow and voice made him a natural on any song, but especially records like these.

Case feat. Foxy Brown & Mary J. Blige — “Touch Me, Tease Me” (1996)

This song’s been getting people in trouble for 20+ years now. And I can’t see that changing anytime soon. Good trouble, that is.

D’Angelo feat. AZ — “Lady (Remix)” (1996)

One of those records that made women feel sexy and men feel cool even trying to croon along to the original and this remix. Shoutout to Erykah Badu, Faith Evans (and her daughter) and Joi in the video too.

Mary J. Blige feat. Lil Kim — “I Can Love You” (1997)

It doesn’t get mentioned nearly as much as it should in either woman’s catalog, but it should. This song was a vibe even before people started calling everything “a vibe.”

Janet Jackson feat. Q-Tip — “Got ’Til It’s Gone” (1997)

“ ‘Got ’Til It’s Gone’ is about a great lesson learned — appreciate what you have while you have it,” Jackson told Jet in 1997. “In my life, I try to take nothing for granted, even if I don’t always succeed.”

Mariah Carey feat. The L.O.X. & Ma$e — “Honey (Remix)” (1997)

In fact / This is why I act like that / I ain’t dropped one single / And I made this money back … Mimi’s 12th No. 1 hit. And one of the biggest hits Bad Boy Records ever worked on.

Destiny’s Child feat. Wyclef Jean — “No, No, No (Pt. 2)” (1998)

A great “did you know?”: The first time Kelly Rowland heard this song on the radio she, Beyoncé, LeToya Luckett and LaTavia Roberson were riding to pick up Solange from school. None of them could believe what was happening. “We started running around the courtyard at Solange’s school and she hops out of the school and is like, ‘Why are y’all embarrassing me?’ ” Rowland said.

Aaliyah feat. Timbaland — “Are You That Somebody?” (1998)

The late Static Major wrote this and “Try Again” for Aaliyah. She wasn’t a huge fan of either. Thankfully, she listened to those around her, as both became huge hits. Unfortunately, neither Major nor Aaliyah is here anymore to see the song’s legacy evolve.

Mya feat. Silkk The Shocker — “Movin’ On” (1998)

So how old do you feel now that this Mya song is 20 years old?

Mariah Carey feat. JAY-Z — “Heartbreaker” (1999)

She wanna shop with JAY, play box with JAY/ She wanna pillow fight in the middle of the night / She wanna drive my Benz with five of her friends / She wanna creep past the block spying again / She wanna roll with JAY, chase skeeos away / She wanna fight with lame chicks, blow my day / She wanna inspect the rest, kick me to the curb / If she find one strand of hair longer than hers. Jay-Z was in his bag something crazy on this.

Jagged Edge feat. Rev. Run — “Let’s Get Married (Remix)” (2000)

Played at black wedding receptions from 2000 until infinity. Jermaine Dupri is a wizard, and it’s dope to see him getting the due his career and catalog rightfully command.

Mya feat. JAY-Z — “the best of Me” (2000)

The Jadakiss version was great. But if I can be completely candid, the Jay version is one of my favorite songs of all time. And while Have an affair, act like an adult for once eventually turned into life imitating art for Jigga, I still proudly recite both verses verbatim — sober or inebriated. Long live the video and the birth of jersey dresses that soon followed.

Jagged Edge feat. Nelly — “Where The Party At?” (2001)

Day parties, rooftops and pool parties are on the horizon. Because that’s exactly what this song sounds like, even 17 years later.

Erykah Badu feat. Common — “Love of My Life” (2002)

Badu and Common were talking about hip-hop, but if you and your better half have always connected over music, it’s the most romantic song ever.

Kelly Rowland & Nelly — “Dilemma” (2002)

Thought you were going to catch me slipping, huh? Nelly and Kelly’s monster hit record was also featured on the singer’s solo debut Simply Deep. One thing we’ve never figured out, though? Why Kelly was texting Nelly on Microsoft Excel and caught an attitude when he didn’t text back.

Beyoncé feat. Jay-Z — “Crazy In Love” (2003)

Crazy to believe Beyoncé’s solo international hit is already 15. Even crazier to see how this marriage has directly impacted pop culture in the years since. Even crazier than that? They’re about to embark on their second world tour together.

Destiny’s Child feat. T.I. & Lil Wayne — “Soldier” (2004)

How much has changed since this song dropped? The “chicken head” was like 372 dance crazes ago. Tip and Weezy went on to become two of the biggest (and at times most controversial) stars of the 2000s. And they’re not yet considered old heads. And Beyoncé’s We like them boys up top from the B.K., a not-so-subtle homage to she and Jay’s still new relationship, was considered big news.

Bobby Valentino feat. Lil Wayne — “Tell Me” (2005)

If you were in college when this song was poppin’, you already know it was big business. The legend of Lil Wayne, still then in the early stages of his iconic 2004-09 run, was blossoming before our very eyes. Wayne owned everything. This song included.

Chris Brown feat. Lil Wayne — “Gimme That” (2005)

You thought it was a joke when I said Wayne’s run was magical? He jumped on any and everything, and more often than not it turned into a hit. Case in point, this early Chris Brown chart-topper.

Ne-Yo feat. Peedi Peedi — “Stay” (2005)

Back when we all thought Peedi had next. Thirteen years later, it’s still impossible to not sing along with this hook. That joint still goes.

The-Dream feat. Young Jeezy — “I Luv Your Girl” (2007)

The-Dream, like other names on this list, could have his own separate list. He’s one of the most important artists since the turn of the century. But Jeezy’s Type of n— leave his skully on while he serving ya was a standout line then. And it still is now.

T-Pain feat. Yung Joc — “Buy U A Drank” (2007)

Again, this is another one of those “if you were in college when this dropped,” then there’s absolutely no way you can have anything bad to ever say about this song.

Lloyd feat. Lil Wayne — “You” (2007)

Lloyd is a great artist who could have and probably should have been even bigger than what he was. Also, 2007 Lil Wayne was just unreal. “Girls Around The World” was the follow-up hit between these two a year later. They had a run.

Mario feat. Lil Wayne — “Crying Out For Me (Remix)” (2008)*

This makes the cut for the vivid, eccentric story only prime Weezy could have gotten away with.

Usher feat. Beyoncé & Lil Wayne — “Love In This Club (Part 2)” (2008)

The original was fire. But this second installment blew it out the water. Keep in mind Usher, a superstar in his own right, landed 2008 Bey and 2008 Wayne. Unreal. Also, congrats to Wayne for being the first artist in Aux Cord Chronicles history to three-peat.

Beyoncé feat. Kanye West — “Ego (Remix)” (2009)

“Ego” was already a huge record, but Kanye’s remix took both of them all the way to a Grammy nomination.

Alicia Keys feat. Drake — “Un-thinkable (Remix)” (2009)

The time’s 2009 and Aubrey’s still the new kid on the block. This kind of introspective and introverted emotional feature became the calling card for the next decade of Drizzy’s time on rap’s Mount Olympus.

Keri Hilson feat. Kanye West & Ne-Yo — “Knock You Down” (2009)

Or as it’s become known in the years since: the song on which Kanye first professed his love to Kim Kardashian.

The-Dream feat. Fabolous, Juelz Santana, Rick Ross & Ludacris — “Rockin’ That Thang (Remix)” (2009)

I remember when this song hit all the blogs. Anything with Dream was a hit. Ross, too. Time flies.

Ciara feat. Ludacris — “Ride” (2010)

While I could’ve easily gone with their 2004 hit “Oh,” this has always been my favorite of the two. The video might have had a small part to do with that.

Miguel feat. J. Cole — “All I Want Is You” (2010)

Miguel’s breakout hit and Cole’s first huge feature has aged quite well.

Chris Brown feat. Busta Rhymes & Lil Wayne — “Look At Me Now” (2011)

Technically, it’s a record with no singing, which partially violates the rules. But given it is by an R&B singer, I’m letting it rock if for no other reason than it was one of the more fun records to party to seven summers ago.

The Weeknd feat. Drake — “The Zone” (2011)

Before The Weeknd became the international pop star we see today, his mysterious vibe produced songs like this on the regular — dark, romantic, maniacal and yearning all at once. Also, Drake absolutely rips this to shreds.

Kelly Rowland feat. Lil Wayne — “Motivation” (2011)

Fun fact: The NBA played a part in making this record happen. Rowland ran into Weezy at a Miami Heat game and told him about the record. The rest, as they say, is history.

Rihanna feat. Future — “Love Song” (2012)

It’s sad that these two haven’t recorded (or at least released) more music together. Because this collaboration, found on 2012’s Unapologetic, proved the two had more than enough chemistry to craft hits.

Ty Dolla Sign feat. B.o.B. — “Paranoid” (2014)

If someone tells you they’ve never sung along with this hook, they’re either lying or that’s honestly so heartbreaking for them.

Beyoncé feat. Jay-Z — “Drunk In Love” (2014)

Quite literally, an ode from man and wife celebrating their sex lives. A massive song that became one of the biggest of the year too. The last mega hit between The Carters before the Lemonade and 4:44 era. Now that things are back on the up and up, do they have another future No. 1 in them?

Jeremih feat. YG — “Don’t Tell ’Em” (2014)

Late Nights is still a criminally underrated album. And how this song, which peaked at No. 6 on Billboard, never got a video is beyond me. And by a video, I mean one with YG.

DeJ Loaf feat. Lil Wayne — “Me U & Hennessy” (2014)

R&B Weezy at his most explicit.

Anderson .Paak feat. The Game & Sonyae Elise — “Room In Here” (2016)

.Paak is a rapper and singer, and on this song he’s the latter to me. This cut on the modern-day classic Malibu has always been an underrated jam in A.P.’s eclectic catalog. A very strong guest feature from Game resides here too.

Rihanna feat. Drake — “Work” (2016)

One of these days Rih and Drake will release the joint project they were destined to: AubRih. Until then, they’ve got bangers on their mantle with 2010’s “What’s My Name?” 2012’s “Take Care” and 2016’s “Too Good.” The best song of their bunch? This one featuring a Billboard assassin’s pot luck of undeniability in island vibes, an infectious hook and incredibly strong guest feature. A tailor-made cut for parties of all sorts, this song helped both own the summer of 2016.

Miguel feat. Travis Scott — “Sky Walker” (2017)

These two were bound to craft a banger at some point together. Evident by this song’s inclusion here, they did just that with one of the waviest singles of the past year.

SZA feat. Kendrick Lamar — “Doves In The Wind” (2017)

A vibe and a half, if we’re keeping it a buck. The whole premise of the song is SZA and Kendrick addressing the role of sex in a relationship — in particular, what SZA proclaimed a “[dedication] to vaginas.” In fact, between the two, the word “p—y” is used 48 times. Twenty-eight by SZA, in case you were keeping count.

Kali Uchis feat. Tyler the Creator and Bootsy Collins — “After The Storm” (2018)

“I have a huge level of respect for people who actually work hard and are survivors,” Uchis said of the song’s inspiration. “When you’re in a good place or when you’re the unicorn that was able to get out of the circumstances, that doesn’t happen for a lot of people because of the way the system is built.” Ain’t that the truth.

Bruno Mars feat. Cardi B — “Finesse (Remix)” (2018)

Bruno’s been at the center of a complex cultural appropriation debate that, to say the least, has folks very much divided. Regardless, there’s no denying that Mars and Cardi B, headed out on tour together, have a bona fide smash that will go down as one of the better singles of 2018 — with a mean In Living Color homage in the video.