Earlier this month, the Grammys celebrated hip hop’s 50th anniversary with a performance that crammed all that history into a tight 15 minutes. The Recording Academy bequeathed the lofty task of putting said tribute together to Questlove, drummer extraordinaire and band leader of The Roots, DJ, best-selling author, Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker, music historian—the list continues. (I am a big fan.) I loved reading about his perspective and process behind uniting legends, friends, and current hitmakers on stage in this New York Times article, “How Questlove Pulled Off the Grammys’ Crowd-Pleasing Hip-Hop Tribute.” After I read it, I watched the entire performance on YouTube. Even though I knew the featured acts at that point, I grinned the entire time, danced with my laptop, and felt excited to see who picked up the mic next. I rewatched it several times, rewinding it back to the artists I was most hyped to see on stage again. My favorites out of the all-star roster were all concentrated mid-set of the performance, from Queen Latifah to the LOX—artists who hit their prime around the time I first heard hip hop on the radio in the mid-90s as a kid, through those who helped shape my music taste during my formative years of high school.
After rewatching it, I kept thinking about other MCs I would have liked to see on that stage, as well as the other important figures who impacted the history of hip hop. Who else shaped its visual culture of fashion, music videos, and album covers? It’s wild to me that hip hop is 50 years old and yet it’s forever young, forever conducting the pulse of the present, forever launching us into the future.
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I think the “golden age” of anything is a relative, subjective concept. I wouldn’t dare bestow that title to any art movement or time period, but I do have a very soft spot for the Y2K, shiny suit-era hip hop, which I (as well as the NYT) noted as missing from the Grammys tribute roster. That time in music is super nostalgic for me. It was when I first started watching MTV, eyes glued to the choreography, fashion, and new, experimental CGI effects of music videos. While that feels ages ago, I’m reminded so much of Y2K aesthetics today, remixed into Gen Z culture. It makes sense, fashion returns in 20-year cycles, but there was an undercurrent of anxiety as we approached the new millennium that also feels consistent—and perhaps more overt, with today’s youth. Hidden behind all the glitter, bucket hats, and inflatable furniture, the future felt a little ominous then. I can’t help but think that those anxieties of the future—climate change, AI taking over, etc., feel closer and more real today. How did the future look like to us 20 years ago—and how does it match up now?
Track 24 is about the future as a flow state between hope and anxiety. Hype Williams presents…desert dystopia or chrome spaceship? Beam me up, Janet!
In 1999, the hype around Y2K and the *~Millennium~* permeated every part of news, media, art, and pop culture. Our imagined future served as the greatest muse for content, largely as a reaction to the anxieties around technology. A slew of movies about artificial intelligence hit theaters, capturing the full range of optimism to pessimism: Bicentennial Man, (aka Robo-Robin Williams with heart), I, Robot (sus robots), to The Matrix (totally effed by robots). This swirl of hope and anxiety towards the future informed the aesthetics of the Y2K era, which spanned from the mid-90s to the early 00s.
Now 20+ years later, I’m very aware that we’re currently trapped in a regurgitated state of nostalgia. What popular TV show and movie from the last 20 years hasn’t experienced a reboot or some kind of sequel/prequel treatment? Technology dooms and saves us, but in more extreme ways. Our collective anxiety spirals like a fractal. And yet, AND YET! There is hope. Maybe? Hmm.
Let’s back this up with some theory. In 2000, sociologist Zymunt Bauman published a book entitled Liquid Modernity. In it, he describes our collective uncertainty and anxiety about the future as a result of our inability to keep up with the speed of changing technology. He theorizes that in the 80s and 90s, we experienced a shift from “solid modernity,” a more fixed and secure structured society reliant on “heavy capitalism,” to “liquid modernity,” a fluid state of constant change, movement, and decentralization.
If you watched MTV during this time, you would have seen the visual manifestation of this philosophy in many music videos.
This concept of liquid and fluidity became stylized in Y2K-era hip hop music videos, especially in the slick futuristic worlds of Hype Williams. The perfect storm of CGI advancements and bloated music industry budgets allowed Hype to create one of the most iconic (and expensive) videos of this time: “What’s it Gonna Be?” by Busta Rhymes featuring Janet Jackson. While the wet visual-to-lyrical correlation in this video is rather on the nose, Hype’s signature style often featured these liquid and reflective moving surfaces. As the song begins, Busta emerges from a pool of chrome juice and morphs into different figures as he moves through space. (Does anyone else remember Nickelodeon’s The Secret World of Alex Mack?) Similarly Janet’s metallic dominatrix gown flows seamlessly from her body into her surrounding space. By the end, they fulfill the chorus of the song, “me on you and you and me” and climax into silver goo. As hip hop grew more mainstream during this time, hip hop videos depicting the future shifted its emphasis from regional phenomena into a global force. It projected a prophetic message in its permanence and how it would shape and dominate the music industry and culture for years to come.
Hype Williams cultivated a mysterious, futuristic style with specific techniques: his use of the fisheye lens paired with reflective, infinite tunnel-like sets manipulated space and vantage points between foreground and background figures, as if they were peering out from a spaceship window. See these examples from shiny suit pioneers Diddy (then Puff Daddy) and Mase from the “Mo Money Mo Problems” video.
Black and white film and strong light sources heightened the intensity of his subjects. Fashion and styling also played a key role in enhancing the outlandish contexts he created, especially when collaborating with Missy Elliott. In the music video for “She’s a Bitch,” Missy emerges from a black ocean, with ominous clouds above. It’s Waterworld meets bondage-mermaid meets space cow-being. The idea of gender also feels very fluid here. Missy rocks a bald head while styled in androgynous leather and latex. Her makeup is not exactly feminine, but exaggerated to the point of drag. Lighting and reflective aspects of her clothes aid in obscuring body shape. What makes this particular video still feel futuristic and relevant nearly a quarter century later is its ambiguity in identity, its confluence of fluidity.
As a counterpoint to this slick, intense aesthetic, another Y2K trend presented a rosier future set in Asia. Janet Jackson transports us again to the future, but this time to an alternate Tokyo. Mariah Carey and several other artists do this as well. By incorporating anime inspiration, using Chinese or Japanese characters as emphatic text overlay, and nodding to a certain Japanese appreciation for cuteness, these videos were a colorful contrast to these moody, monochromatic worlds, and in some aspects, created a more hopeful projection. They also remixed multiculturalism and presented technology that enhanced life in strange and delightful ways. The future presented itself as a non-threatening hologram—if it’s just a dream, it’s not real, so it can’t hurt you.
As a kid, I loved seeing anything and anyone Japanese/Asian/multicultural on TV, but representation like that felt limited back then. (I see you Keanu.) Outside of my own home, so much of how I experienced Japanese culture was through the reflections of white people and mainstream media, which weren’t always ill-intentioned, but often felt reductive and perpetuated stereotypes. So when I first saw Janet Jackson’s video for “Doesn’t Really Matter” (and the accompanying episode of MTV’s Making the Video) in 2000—I paid attention. The story of the video is simple: Janet wakes up from a disco nap in her cool, completely automated apartment complete with her pet robot puppy. (Sony released Aibo, a robotic dog in 1999 that could recognize its owner and do tricks.) She leaves and goes out to the club with friends in a glowing, futuristic Tokyo driving a shiny Acura. In the episode of Making the Video, she describes the set, “It has the feeling of being in an apartment in Tokyo, where every inch of your space is so important and used well.” (She just gets it.) She also delivers what does best—classic choreo, a dance break where she’s wired on a moving platform, a slow verse, a key change, and many close-ups of her warm, charismatic smile.
This isn’t the first time we see Janet draw futuristic inspiration from Asia. In 1993, her video for “If” was set in a futuristic Chinese city and night club. In an MTV Jams special, Janet describes the concept for the video:
"You're in China, in a club in the future - but not space or anything like that. You're in a club of Asian people, it's very hot, and you're the only foreigners here. There are monitors everywhere in the club, and it's kind of like teleconferencing where you'll have us dancing on stage and people may be watching us on a certain monitor, and if you're looking at that monitor at the same time someone's watching us, we can actually communicate…”
In a 2022 video with Allure, “Janet Jackson Breaks Down Her Most Iconic Music Videos,” she adds, “This is was before we had teleconferencing or FaceTime, and I love this video because it shows that very thing happening.” Janet is an oracle.
We also see this influence in the video for “Scream,” (1995) where Janet and Michael Jackson blow off some steam in a spaceship. “Scream” also pulls influences from anime and Buddhist imagery. In that same interview for Allure, Janet explains how her styling team decided to pattern her hair and smokey eye makeup from anime inspiration, adding “I love anything Japanese.” (Love you too, Janet!) While it stylistically feels more in line with Hype Williams’ aesthetic, (the video was directed by Mark Romanek) it showed a future where technology served and entertained humans, rather than controlling them. The video projects a future of excess, Janet and Michael destroy objects and seem bored by the endless options for recreation.
By 2000, I was already a big fan of Janet Jackson at that point, but the “Doesn’t Really Matter” video meant something to me. If you spent all of grade school with classmates making fake barf noises at the (very delicious) bentos your mom made you for lunch everyday, maybe you, like me, would also cling to positive cultural representations in the media. (Seaweed: trendy now, gag-worthy in the cafeterias of 90s suburbia. Also, thank you Mom, you are the best.) This video meant as much to me as a teenager as that Big Bird in Japan Sesame Street special meant to me as a kid. In both cases, it felt rare and special to have my favorite characters and artists experience Japanese culture and reflect it back to me in thoughtful ways that showed appreciation and understanding. They not only made me feel seen, but also, they highlighted a kind of magic inspired by Japanese folklore, technology, and aesthetics I always admired in my own culture, that others would be exposed to as well.
The Making the Video episode for “Doesn’t Really Matter” showed the collaboration between Janet and Joseph Kahn, a Korean American director behind some of the most iconic videos of the 90s, 00s, and today. He also directed another of my favorite examples of this kind of cultural remix-meets-Y2K-future, the video for Mariah Carey’s “Boy (I Need You)” featuring Cam’ron in 2002.
There’s a good chance you’re more familiar with the songs Mariah samples here, Cam’ron’s “Oh Boy,” featuring Juelz Santana, and the original sample, “I’m Going Down” by Rose Royce, which was covered and popularized by Mary J. Blige in the 90s. Cam’ron’s video for “Oh Boy” is a huge shout-out to Harlem, as he and Juelz drive past iconic neighborhood establishments in a Lamborghini. In that same year, Mariah Carey released this video for “Boy (I Need You)” but set it in a version of Tokyo that feels both dated and futuristic. The nuance here is spot on, as Japan still heavily relies on fax machines, but also, recently developed a lickable screen you can taste. According to Mariah, “It’s Speed Racer meets Hello Kitty meets me and Cam’ron.”
I appreciate how both of these videos draw from the same sonic inspiration but visually diverge in their depictions of urban environments. If you listen to the beat, it sounds kind of cute, right? There’s something about the repetitive “Boy!” callouts and the bell sounds that make it feel a little sweet. This song, placed in the context of Harlem, makes it feel playfully cocky. It’s the celebratory vibe of Dipset, childhood friends who hit it big together, back to honor their roots. But the sample really stays true to its original R&B flavor when Mariah remixes it. She matches its cuteness with the kawaii culture of Japan. She packs as many references as possible, from Japanese hair ornaments to Godzilla to conveyor-belt sushi into the video. Played-out tropes or not, Japanese fans ate Mariah up. Charmbracelet, which featured this song as a single, charted Top 10 in Japan’s album sales upon its release. Mariah was huge in Japan in the 90s through the aughts, obviously for her talent and hits, but also because of the efforts made to appeal to her fanbase there.
Videos like these reinvented cultural spaces that felt imaginative and pointed to new means of appreciating my own culture. While these worlds weren’t without some clichés, they expanded to include more possibilities within cultural intersections. However idealized with green screens and production teams, seeing this kind of future made me feel hopeful, that the fluidity of the future also extended to different cultures sharing in inspiration, appreciation, and artistic expression.
So what does the future look like to us now? *crickets* If the choice is between hope and anxiety, of course I want focus on the optimistic outlook. But given the past few years and with each news headline, I feel more estranged from it.
Rewatching the Grammys hip hop tribute again while writing this, I find myself suspending my cynicism around the future. When Grandmaster Flash first graced the Grammys stage performing, “The Message,” a song he put out (with the Furious Five) in 1982, I recognized the beat from when Ice Cube sampled it in “Check Yo Self” in 1993, and later when Puff Daddy and Mase incorporated it for “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” in 1997. My brain also connected this same sound to Coi Leray’s current hit “Players,” putting the sample once again on the charts and all over TikTok, handing down the sonic association to a younger group of listeners. I love running through the lists of songs birthed by the same beats, taken on by different artists, each time adding new stories through their lyrics.
I like to think of the future in some way, as inspired by what brought us joy in the past, remixed and reimagined to share with other generations and cultures—a thread that connects us together. I can hear the same synths play in house parties and car stereos in the 80s, 90s, early 00s, and now in 2023, sparking the same “turn up the volume!” excitement when the first few bars hit. It’s like a recipe handed down, tweaked through years of tasting, experimenting, and incorporating new techniques and talent. We think of heirlooms as old, static artifacts, but they are always intended to exist in the future, to offer inspiration through craft, to flow through generations. I find a lot of hope and meaning through art, but especially in art forms like hip hop, that inherently treasure the innovations and joy of its predecessors and continually honor them through evolution.
Thanks for reading.
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LOVED THIS. I reference the Secret World of Alex Mack at least once a year in new and surprising contexts, thrilled to see it here too ❤️🔥