Hip Hop Turns 50: Essential Hip Hop Vinyl Records of the 1990s
The 1990s were a transformative time for music. The glitz and glam of the '80s waned, as grittier music with more of an edge began to take hold. In the world of rock music, the heavily made up hair bands were gone, taking their hair spray with them, in favor of stripped-down grunge and all its flannels.
As for hip hop, the disco infused party beats were on their way out, as well. Gangsta rap had become more popular towards the end of the decade, with politics and social issues having more of a presence. Additionally, despite originating in the Bronx, a contingent of West Coast rappers took the genre by storm, leading to an East vs West feud that would dominate the '90s. In our last post, we went through some of the best hip-hop records of the '80s. As we continue to celebrate the 50th anniversary of hip hop, we want to take a look at some of the essential hip hop records of the 1990s.
There is perhaps no better example of the '80s vs '90s generational divide than Wu-Tang Clan. As West Coast hip hop gained in popularity, many considered Los Angeles to be the cultural center of the genre by the time the '90s rolled around. Wu-Tang Clan arrived to reclaim that title for the East Coast, and with force. Enter the Wu-Tang was something entirely new. It had elements of gangsta rap, with hardcore beats and socially conscious lyrics, but balanced it with humor and smaller-scale production, with group leader RZA opting to make little use of samples. Enter the Wu-Tang is a classic, providing a blueprint for virtually every hip hop record that followed.
On the West Coast, N.W.A had dissolved and its members were going solo. Ice Cube was the first former member to drop a solo album, but Dr. Dre's The Chronic is the record that kickstarted West Coast rap as we know it. Dre used gangsta rap as the foundation, but also included elements of funk and soul music. The lyrics were less political and more personal, introducing the concept of diss tracks and focusing on flow. The record also helped to launch the career of other L.A. stars like Snoop Dogg, Warren G, and Nate Dogg.
Fun fact; one of Lauryn Hill's earliest stage experiences involved getting booed at the Apollo Theater's amateur night at age 12. Safe to say, those audience members probably want those boos back. Hill went on to form Fugees with Wyclef Jean, establishing a funky brand of creole hip-hop that led her to her first and only solo album. Miseducation is not a conventional hip hop album, but so much more. It blends elements of hip hop with soul, R&B, and reggae while maintaining hip-hop sensibilities. It went on to become the first hip hop record to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year, a massive win for a still-marginalized genre.
With hip-hop experiencing a stylistic shift, Ice-T decided to remind us that he was the O.G. One of the original gangsta rappers, Ice-T carried that attitude into the '90s, delivering a quintessential gangsta rap record that remains arguably the best in his discography, with Ice delivering scathing critiques of police and American society. Ice-T also used this record to launch his heavy metal side project, Body Count, as the group appears on several songs, including the title track.
A Tribe Called Quest took the mantle of the preeminent group in alternative hip hop and ran with it. Their breakthrough record, The Low End Theory was dripping with jazz influence, and Midnight Marauders only saw them further establish themselves. Midnight Marauders is essentially a jazz/hip hop fusion record, sampling classic jazz tracks, as well as funk and soul, combining that with their signature lyrical wit and storytelling prowess. The record sought to focus on Black empowerment through positive lyrics and affirmations, making them stand out among their peers.
When you think of West Coast hip hop, you think of Tupac Shakur. Shakur had already seen tremendous success, but All Eyez on Me is considered his finest release, eschewing the socially conscious themes of his previous albums in favor of deeply personal music. 2Pac raps about his upbringing and "Thug Life," which saw him get rich, famous, and admired. The record is a "who's who" of rap, featuring collaborations with Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Method Man, among many others. Unfortunately, we all know how 2Pac's story ends, murdered in a drive-by shooting just a few months after All Eyez on Me's release.
If you ask someone what the first thing they think of when it comes to East vs West coast rap, their answer will probably include 2Pac and Biggie, his New York counterpart. Notorious B.I.G. or Biggie Smalls, was just 22 when he dropped Ready to Die, his debut record. Biggie approaches his music with a booming voice and lyrical flow well beyond his years, telling the story of his upbringing and gang life and how it shaped him. Biggie's lyrics contained a sort of dark humor that made him easily identifiable. Sadly, this would be the only album Biggie released during his lifetime. Like 2Pac, Biggie was killed in a drive-by shooting, right before the release of his second record.
While all of Wu-Tang's members have released solo albums, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... remains arguably the best. Raekwon's approach to the music falls in line perfectly with Wu-Tang's dramatic spirit, styling the album much like a film, complete with guest stars. Raekwon leans into the chaotic nature of the music and lyrics, telling stories of street exploits and reminding audiences who they're messing with. Raekwon even made sure the original cassette tape was entirely purple to distinguish himself from anything else on the market.
East Coast this, West Coast that; how about the South? As the East vs West feud was dying down in the late '90s, OutKast seized on the opportunity to make a name for Southern rap. Where many hip hop duos presented themselves as a cohesive package, Outkast played up their differences. André 3000 presents himself as an eccentric in the mold of George Clinton or Sun Ra, where Big Boi brings a traditional rap discipline to the project. Aquemini can best be described as progressive rap, taking elements of funk and jazz and combining it with the dirty South style, with lyrical themes about outer space and science fiction.
Let's get a little opinionated on this one; Illmatic is the Holy Grail of hip hop. Along with Wu-Tang, Nas played a tremendous role in New York reclaiming its position as the center of the hip hop world, providing an unfiltered look at his life in the city. His flow is immaculate, with unique rhyme structures that felt like poetry. His lyrics were both blunt and highly metaphorical, seeking to shirk the developing materialism in hip hop in favor of showing audiences what life in the projects was really like. Nas blended hard bop jazz elements into the samples in such a subtle way that it informed the music without turning it into a jazz-rap record. Illmatic was a turning point in hip hop, and remains one of the most influential albums in music history at-large.