Rap. Hip-hop. I’ve always loved it. I’ve been into it on some level since I can remember. Unfortunately, I kind of grew up in an area (ie: a small town) that frowned on listening to music that didn’t involve some kind of guitar or someone “playing real instruments.” If you were into country, rock ‘n’ roll, heavy metal, and so-on, you were safe. But if you liked rap/hip-hop, or anything different, well watch out because you were about to be on the receiving end of some grade A redneck bullying. Stupid, isn’t it? Sadly, I imagine that a lot of people can identify with this scenario.
It wasn’t until I got into high school and college that I noticed that it was becoming more socially acceptable to be into different kinds of music. My high school covered a huge area and kids went there from several small and larger towns, so the diversity was much more than that of my elementary school. Sure, there was still a bit of a social divide (different cliques or groups) that still, on some level, defined themselves by what genre of music they listened to. There were still people who would try to give you shit for listening to music from a genre that they didn’t like. But there were also a lot of people who transcended these dumb and superficial high school barriers. I’m proud to say that I was one of them.
In high school, I could hang out with virtually any social group and get along with them, and I honestly think I owe it to listening to and appreciating hip-hop. Growing up in a small area that pigeonholed people based on such superficial reasons, hip-hop was a refreshing outlet, even if I got made fun of for it. It was an escape to something different, something new, something exciting. All of this made me really appreciate that different isn’t bad. Different music. Different people. Different experiences. It all gelled for me and I like to think that an early interest in this genre of music helped me to develop into the person that I am today. Most importantly, I feel that it’s presence in my life stopped me from falling into that same small town mentality at an early age that would’ve caused me to become one of those very people who would judge someone based on something so superficial.
Even though I had listened to rap since the 80s, most of my fondest memories of the genre comes from the 90s. With that being said, I’d like to list off (in no particular order) my top five hip-hop acts of the 1990’s! For some, a top five list of the best rappers in the 1990’s may just be a list of the five biggest names of that era.. but for me, this isn’t about name recognition, or number of records sold. For me, it’s about the impression that these acts made on me, personally, with their beats, writing and overall skill with lyrics.
Warren G had already been performing with 213 and collaborating on tracks with his stepbrother Dr. Dre, so many were already familiar with his work. But 1994’s release of Regulate… G Funk Era saw Warren really come to the forefront of the rap scene at the time. The album went triple platinum and sold more than 4 million copies worldwide. Needless to say, it was a smash hit. What really spoke to me, with Warren, was his laid back style and skill with writing and his work in sampling. He made it all come together and the result was glorious. I also loved that Warren wasn’t over the top with his posturing. It was still there, but it wasn’t a constant inundation of “gangsta” style rap. I feel like there is not one weak track on this album, and it’s one that I can listen to from start to finish without reaching for that ‘skip’ button.
If I was going to put this list in any sort of actual order, the Digable Planets would be at the very top. Easily one of my all-time favourite hip-hop acts, period. Fuck, where do I start? All three members of this formidable group were so skilled at spitting rhymes, it was just mesmerizing to watch. Their first album, Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space), was certified gold and had attained a level of crossover appeal (that means white people liked it, and yes that includes me) that many acts of the time hadn’t seen. The followup, however, entitled Blowout Comb, was easily my favourite. This second album saw the Planets take a more political stance in their rhymes that may have cost them their white college student fan base, but personally I loved it and I loved them for taking that chance and staying true to who they are. These were messages that needed to be communicated and stories that had to be told. Those that stuck with the Planets were treated to a revolutionary album that was stacked memorable and iconic tracks.
A TRIBE CALLED QUEST
A Tribe Called Quest put out three classic albums in the span of 4 years in the early 1990’s: People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders. Much like the Digable Planets, above, Tribe was sometimes labelled as “alt-rap” because they were huge with white college students. I didn’t necessarily see this as a bad thing. Tribe was already rapping about less “heavy” subject matter, so it was always going to be more accessible. The music was still great and the skill was still on display.
Nas’ debut album Illmatic was an instant classic. If you ever needed to own one hip-hop album from the 90’s, or from any era, this would be it. What else could I really say about this album that hasn’t already been said? Nas really took rap to a new level with his unprecedented poet-musician style of lyricism and delivery.
MC Lyte broke into the scene in the late 80s, but it was her 1993 album Ain’t No Other (which went gold) that really pushed her into the spotlight. Ruffneck was the huge single from this album and was the track that would make Lyte the first ever female solo rapper to be nominated for a Grammy award. When you talk about the 90s and rap in general, you can’t ignore a strong female emcee like Lyte. She is still active today, but her early work in the 90s has left an indelible mark on the hip hop scene and has heavily influenced those who came after her.