1999: The Year Hip-Hop Sprang a Leak
This originally appeared on The Passion of Christopher Pierznik
In 1999, as the world was prepping for Y2K, another, less heralded innovation in the world of computers was about to change the music business: “Napster launched in 1999, and over the next three years tens of millions of music fans eagerly (and by today’s standards, incredibly slowly) downloaded oft-mistagged, low-bitrate mp3 versions of new music to their hard drives, and shared what they’d ripped themselves with software like the WinAmp player.”
The industry would never be the same.
The illegal copying and sharing of music wasn’t new, of course. Back in 1969, bootlegs from three legendary rock artists were released within a few months of one another. In July came Great White Wonder, a bootleg of Bob Dylan demos and outtakes; September brought The Beatles’ Kum Back, an early mix of Let It Be; and a Rolling Stones concert from November became Live’r Than You’ll Ever Be, one of the first recordings of a live show.
Over the years, as technology improved, bootlegs appeared on cassettes and CDs, some even making their way to independent record shops. 2Pac, who was known to confront vendors that illegally sold his albums, addressed it on the track “Guess Who’s Back” off 1993’s Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z.: “Everybody’s got a mic now, it’s like a hobby/But more like a job ’cause bootleggers tryin’ to rob me!”
Before the Internet, the bootlegging of hip-hop albums had been contained to specific locations, most especially inner cities, far from the suburbs where kids frequented malls and paid upwards of $20 for an album. You couldn’t get a DJ Clue tape at The Wall or Sam Goody.
But by 1999, all of that changed: “Before Napster, a leaked album had caused only localized damage. Now it was a catastrophe. Universal rolled out its albums with heavy promotion and expensive marketing blitzes: videos, radio spots, television campaigns, and appearances on late-night TV. The availability of pre-release music on the Internet interfered with this schedule, upsetting months of work by publicity teams and leaving the artists feeling betrayed.”
Technology was exploding and everyone was scrambling just to keep up.
The music industry, petrified that the eggs laid by its golden goose were being swiped from under them (and rightfully so), initially went into damage control. Instead of adapting its approach and trying to get in front of this new world of technology, it doubled down on its existing business practices, hoping that the problem could be contained and, ultimately, overcome.
The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) sued Napster. Metallic sued Napster. Dr. Dre sued Napster. For its part, Napster not only fought back, but also sponsored tours featuring Limp Bizkit and Cypress Hill.
But those were the exceptions. Most artists and labels believed that if enough of the album that was for sale were different from the version that leaked, it would force people to still go to the store and buy the updated version, thus negating the impact that Napster and other sites had.
But this approach was misguided for a few reasons. First, it overstated just how many individuals were involved on the various file sharing sites. Most people were still not part of the P2P sharing community, so they would still have bought those albums anyway. Also, a large portion of people that were on Napster still wanted physical copies of albums, with the proper track orders and gapless playback, actual discs to play and booklets with linear notes to look at and read. Finally, it ignored the fact that those people on Napster and other sites were big music fans that were now being exposed to artists with which they may not have previously been familiar:
“Many Napster users say that having access to so much new music encourages them to buy more CD’s.”
That would ultimately change, of course, but the shift from physical to digital was a gradual one that occurred over years, not overnight. And the industry would eventually catch up and incorporate the ‘net as a major part of its strategy, but it would be years before that happened. In 1999, when all of this was new and no one really knew how to react, the decision was made to change three prominent hip-hop albums at the last moment before they were pressed and shipped.
And all three were weaker as a result.
After two classics, Mobb Deep’s Murda Muzik was the group’s mostly highly anticipated project. Over a million units were planning on being shipped to stores, but an advanced copy leaked and, as a result, Loud Records completely changed the album, rearranging the song order, tacking on an additional five songs, and removing several tracks from the original advance copy. It was still a very strong effort and remains the group’s most successful, but could’ve been even better with those cuts that had been left off.
Fresh off a quintuple platinum album that made him a superstar a spawned a very successful tour, Jay-Z’s Vol. 3…Life and Times of S. Carter was expected to be another multiplatinum success and was going to be released the final week of 1999 so that it could be the first number one album of the new millennium. But for over a month before its release, the album was readily available, both online and in physical form. The bootlegging was so widespread, and Jay was so angry about it, that he was arrested for stabbing Lance “Un” Rivera, a friend of his and a producer on the album, whom he believed was the cause of the leak, at the Kit Kat Klub during Q-Tip’s record release party. He was placed on three years probation and indirectly admitted to committing the crime in his 2010 book Decoded.
While the international version of Vol. 3 remained the same, Jay changed a few pieces of the North American releae. He removed the Missy and Twista featured “Is That Yo Bitch,” as well as his attempt at repeating the success of “Hard Knock Life,” the Oliver Twist sampled “Anything.” A version of the former popped up on Memphis Bleek’s The Understanding while the latter was tacked on as a bonus track to Beanie Sigel’s debut, The Truth. The intro and outro of the album are each one verse from “Hova Song,” a track Jay split up. A third verse that had been planned as an interlude in the center of the disc was also removed. Instead, he included the Dr. Dre featured (but not produced) “Watch Me” and “There’s Been a Murder,” two decent songs, but ones that sound out of place next to the other tracks.
For Nas, who was once anointed “the next Rakim,” the leaking of his album was an especially devastating blow, one that nearly ruined his career. After the underground greatness of Illmatic and the commercial success of It Was Written, Nas had intended his third album, I Am…The Autobiography, to be an ambitious, sprawling double disc — the first following him from birth to suicide, the second chronicling his return to Earth as a Jesus-like prophet.
This version of the album received rave reviews, including four-and-a-half mics from The Source, but about half of the album leaked online and Nas or Columbia Records (or both) decided to scrap the double album idea, remove numerous songs, record a few new ones, including the Puff Daddy-featured “Hate Me Now,” and release I Am… as a single disc that understandably sounds schizophrenic and contradictory.
And the second disc? Well, Nas can’t blame the suits at Columbia for Nastradamus:
“When it was time to release the second half of the disc, which was now called Nastradamus, he went against Columbia’s wishes to release the previously leaked material which was supposed to have been on the second disc to I Am…The Autobiography. For whatever reason, Nas decided to scrap those songs entirely and re-record a whole new album in less than seven months. This was a big mistake as it was critically panned and is widely considered as his worst album.”
Many of the remaining unreleased songs would wind up on the heralded compilation The Lost Tapes and over the past decade-and-a-half fans have cobbled together their own versions of the original double album (I’m actually listening to mine as I type this) while at the same time wondering what could have been.
Three eagerly anticipated albums from three platinum-selling acts that were changed at the last moment as a response to online piracy.
1999 was a long time ago.
These days, when an album does not leak, it is such a rare occurrence that it becomes the subject of a story in Billboard. And labels have also adapted, first in realizing that they had been fighting the wrong fight all along while also introducing 360 deals in an effort to offset the loss of revenues from albums:
“The 360 deal was born as a result of sinking record sales. We all know the story: in 2000 the annual revenue from album sales was almost $800 million; by 2009, it was barely half of that. Record labels, in the face of growing piracy, scrambled to compensate for the money they were losing. ‘Labels were looking at gold and platinum albums 10 years ago,’ says Dru Ha, the head of Duck Down Records, an independent staple in the rap community. ‘Today they’re looking at 250k, but still spending the same expenses.’ The 360 deal was an attempt at closing that gap for the labels.”
At the same time, touring revenue has gone up, so now while many artists expect that their music will be copied and shared online, they also hope that it will introduce them to more fans that will then come out to their shows.
For some, it is something else entirely.
Kanye West’s latest album, The Life of Pablo, is available only on an exclusive service (TIDAL) and it probably isn’t even finished yet, but it is still easily available for illegal downloading, but not for actual retail purchase, even by respected hip-hop journalists.
In an ironic twist, Jay-Z begins Vol. 3 by mentioning the way music was purchased and consumed at the time: “Yeah, I know you just ripped the packaging off your CD; if you like me, you reading the credits right now.”
It wouldn’t be long before most fans obtained their music without any packaging at all.
Christopher Pierznik is the author of eight books, all of which can be purchased in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, and many more. He has been quoted on Buzzfeed and Deadspin. You can find him at ChristopherPierznik.com or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.