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Rough Guide to '90s Hip hop

Frank Gavurin

Watch any ‘90s hip hop music video on YouTube, and you will inevitably find dozens of comments to the following effect:

  • Hip hop died in the ‘90s (4K likes)

  • No cars, no guns, no bragging, just pure bars (8k likes)

  • Mumble rappers should listen to this and then ditch their autotune (3k likes)

These notions are, of course, vaguely ridiculous. There was plenty of mediocre hip hop in the ‘90s, and there are plenty of talented rappers making music today. But it must be said, the ‘90s were a time of intensely productive and inventive hip hop output; A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders and Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang were released on the very same day in 1993! This is a rough guide to the decade’s alternative rap, which, to generalise, tended towards jazzy samples, socially activist lyrics, and a generally lighter and more self-deprecating demeanour than gangsta rap, in whose shadow it has often found itself.


The Chase Part II – A Tribe Called Quest

Like many a white boy, ATCQ was my route into hip hop – their jazzy, mellifluous sound made them hard to dislike. Their rap was often socially conscious and activist, taking on issues such as date rape and the use of the N-word in the black community. They were also central members of Native Tongues, a loose, Afrocentric collective which put out upbeat, jazz-influenced hip hop in the ‘80s and ‘90s. As often as not, though, it was simply good music about being young and famous, or indeed about nothing in particular. 'The Chase Part II' sees Phife Dawg and Q-Tip engaging in playful bragging with effortless chemistry over a laid-back sample lifted from an obscure Steve Arrington track.

They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.) – Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth

This song is held together by one of my favourite samples in hip hop history, a beautifully sad saxophone lick taken from 'Today' by Tom Scott and the California Dreamers. (Incidentally, the California Dreamers were also sampled, this time alongside Gábor Szabó, in People Under the Stairs’ excellent 'San Francisco Nights'.) 'They Reminisce Over You' was written following the death of the artists’ friend Trouble T Roy in a freak accident at a concert in 1990. C.L. Smooth uses the track to pay tribute to his friend and reminisce more generally about his childhood. While he notes the challenges he and his family faced – an absent father, an alcoholic grandfather, a teenage mother – there’s no anger either at these or the loss of his friend, only a fuzzy nostalgia and wistfulness which proves remarkably moving.

For Corners – Digable Planets

Digable Planets may not be the best known of hip hop acts, but their music is emblematic of the fusion of jazz and hip hop that artists such as Gang Starr and ATCQ had been experimenting with since the late ‘80s. Their extremely laid-back style, however, belies their radical political message – their music is full of references to Marx, the Black Panthers and the Five Percent Nation. They released two LPs, Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) in 1993, and Blowout Comb the following year, the title of the former being a reference to Jose Luis Borges’ A New Refutation of Time, giving an indication of their bohemian and intellectual proclivities. This seven-minute track, which concludes Blowout Comb, sees them at perhaps their smoothest.

Live and Let Live – Souls of Mischief

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The title track from 93 ‘Til Infinity (no prizes for this one’s year of release), though superb, sadly tends to overshadow the other gems in this exceptional album, including this one. Lyrically and in terms of rhyme complexity, Souls of Mischief were far ahead of most of their early ‘90s competitors. Like many other alternative rap acts, they drew much of their musical inspiration from jazz – this song features a wonderful solo from trumpeter Bill Ortiz, who claims he was brought in to replace a sample which was too expensive for the East Oakland group to clear. Sadly, I haven’t managed to track down the original song (please let me know if you do!). Despite their affinity with Native Tongues-aligned groups such as The Pharcyde, their sound has something more of a menacing edge, without entering into theatrical braggadocio territory.

Breakadawn – De La Soul

De La Soul’s 1989 debut 3 Feet High and Rising catapulted them to a stardom that they never quite suited due to their sheer eccentricity – for instance, one of the group’s two main rappers goes by Trugoy, an anagram of yogurt, apparently one of his favourite

foods. Initially all peace signs and Afrocentricity, they largely ditched their hippy image following their debut album and were capable of more serious and darker work such as Stakes Is High, released in 1996. They never lost their playful side, however, or the weirdness of their stream-of-consciousness rapping. Producer Prince Paul’s sample of Michael Jackson’s 'I Can’t Help It' gives this song an infectiously bouncy feel.

Resurrection – Common

Alternative hip hop in the ‘90s was dominated by the East Coast, though acts like Blackalicious and the aforementioned Souls of Mischief gave it a Californian presence. Common (formerly Common Sense) put Chicago on the map. His sophomore album, Resurrection (1994), also includes 'I Used to Love H.E.R.', a broadside against gangsta rap which led to a dispute with Ice Cube, culminating in the diss track 'Westside Slaughterhouse', and Common’s response 'The Bitch In Yoo' – neither of which covered their writers in glory. Aside from this feud, however, Common’s musical talent is exceptional. Here, he raps over a sample of Ahmad Jamal’s terrific cover of 'Dolphin Dance'. His confident, intricate flow speaks to a youthful optimism and swagger which, in fairness, was well earned – not many could write an album this good, especially at the tender age of 22.

Uknowhowwedo – Bahamadia

Representing Philadelphia, also the home of The Roots, rapper Bahamadia got her break in the early ‘90s when she came to the attention of Gang Starr’s Guru. Her debut LP Kollage arrived in 1996, and though it failed to achieve huge commercial success, was a critically acclaimed and greatly respected effort. Her flow is supremely smooth, at times vaguely reminiscent of Nas’ associate AZ, and is well-matched by the selection of jazzy samples, handled largely by Gang Starr and The Beatminerz. Other standout tracks from this album are '3 Tha Hard Way' and the dreamy 'Spontaneity'.

Mathematics – Mos Def

Mos Def was one of the leading figures of the late ‘90s resurgence of conscious hip hop, alongside the likes of Common, The Roots, Erykah Badu and Talib Kweli, with whom Mos wrote the excellent Black Star album. It’s hard to say which is better out of this album and his first solo work, Black On Both Sides (1999). Perhaps the strongest track on either LP, however, is 'Mathematics', an astonishingly forceful and wide-ranging denunciation of American racial capitalism, spanning from the crack epidemic to mass incarceration and the surveillance state. Much of what he raps about remains just as relevant today as it was at the turn of the century. This really is one of the most lyrically rich songs written, and it bears repeated listening. A brilliant song from a brilliant rapper.

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