While every generation claims that the era of music they grew up listening to is the best, there is an objective argument to be made that certain decades definitely had better music than others, either as a whole or in terms of specific types of music. For example, the late 60’s through the mid-to-late 70’s was easily the best period for rock music thanks to bands like The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zepplin and others. The 80’s were pretty rough for rock music, but it was responsible for the birth of the most popular music of today, rap/hip-hop. While 80’s hip-hop was relatively basic and sort of lame, it did end up evolving into the best era for hip-hop music ever, which occurred in the early-to-mid 90’s. From Dr. Dre to Tupac on the West Coast to The Notorious BIG, Nas and groups like the Wu-Tang Clan, there are countless classic hip-hop albums from that period. So, let’s take a look at why 90’s hip-hop is the best!
10. It Had a Message
You’d think that with the number of movements going on right now (#MeToo, Black Lives Matter) that the top rappers in the game would be focusing a lot more on social issues instead of releasing songs like “Hotling Bling”. As this entire list will show, though, modern-day rappers are basically integrated with corporations and because of that they really don’t want to rub anyone the wrong way and interrupt the flow of money they receive from sponsorships and concert promoters. The music industry isn’t what it was even in the 90’s and so it is understandable that musicians can’t rely on the sale of their albums the way that rappers did in the 90’s, a lot of which was driven by controversy that helped their albums seem cool to kids in the suburbs (not to mention the people that were buying them just to stomp on/burn them during protests). Regardless, a lot of the top artists in the game in the 90’s had a message and considering movements like Black Lives Matter, it’s pretty amazing and sad that rappers like Tupac and Ice T were getting admonished in the 90’s for things that are only now being openly discussed in white society. Because of the lack of support, it really made it even more impressive that rappers were willing to talk about things like that as they not only fell on mostly deaf ears, but they also created a backlash that was unprecedented at the time (see entry #9). There are and have been rappers that focus(ed) on social issues since, but a lot of those rappers aren’t mainstream or hyper popular and there aren’t really any rappers that are mainstream and popular that are releasing singles like Tupac’s ‘Brenda’s Got a Baby’ or ‘Keep Your Head Up’ (or his first posthumous single, ‘Changes’). The main thing wasn’t just that 90’s rappers released those songs as singles, but that they made classic songs that were actually really great to listen to as well. It took a certain balance that seems to be off these days.
9. It Had Real Consequences
As is also explained in the third entry on this list, rappers/emcees were anti-establishment back in the 90’s as opposed to being fully integrated into the few corporations left that produce and release music these days. While there are so rappers that have forged their own path, ie Chance the Rapper or Atmosphere/the Rhymesayers guys up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the truth is that rappers are a lot more mainstream than they were back in the day (case in point, Snoop Dogg hosting a game show and Ice T playing a police officer on television). That rebellion in the 90’s took guts as there were real consequences behind the actions those rappers took as both politicians on both sides of the political spectrum were targeting rap as an, especially dangerous cancer for the youth. Between Republican Dan Quayle and people on the left like Al Gore’s ex-wife Tipper, Hillary Clinton and Al Gore’s Vice Presidential nominee in Joe Lieberman, rap was basically public enemy number one in the 90’s. That lead to consequences like the FBI following rappers like Tupac Shakur and the Notorious BIG, to the point that they were trailing both when they were murdered (yet somehow didn’t intervene or provide any useful information to the police that were investigating those deaths). Shakur’s FBI file is available online and is really, really long, especially for a musician (most famous people have an FBI file, mostly because of the death threats they receive). Because of that, again, it took real guts to release music that continued to focus on the topics that people were up in arms about and it actually gave some rappers topics to discuss on their albums (Tupac’s ‘Wonder Why They Call You B****’ is a great example), especially considering rappers like Shakur were sued when people did things while “under the influence of” his music (he was sued after someone who had his tape in the tape deck of their car killed a police officer, for example). Those consequences made their music feel even more relevant and genuine and that’s something that just doesn’t exist anymore.
8. The Albums were … Albums
Some of the greatest rock albums of all-time feel like one long adventure, as the songs seem to blend together even if you’re not on LSD. The Dark Side of the Moon, for example, never really has any downtime between songs, which is why it syncs up with The Wizard of Oz so well. The reason for that is because really after The Beatles transitioned from a pop group to a rock group and started actually focusing on albums as a whole as opposed to albums as a way to sell singles (with filler in between), musicians started focusing on albums that way as well. The same thing goes for hip hop albums, as they started out really just doing the same thing, pushing singles and not really having an overall concept for their albums. That changed in the 90’s, though, or at least it reached it’s peak in the 90’s, with hip-hop albums not only having a lot less filler (or at least, intentional filler) but also having concepts. Wu-Tang’s 36 Chambers is a great example of this, as is Notorious BIG’s Ready to Die and Tupac/Makaveli’s Don Killuminati: The Seven Day Theory. The latter of which, The Seven Day Theory, is a lot like The Dark Side of the Moon in that if you listen from beginning to end there’s really no gap between songs (and there are things you’ll miss if you skip ahead). To be fair, though, the realities of the music business are completely different than they were back during the mid-90’s, as artists have to focus on the amount of streams their song can generate and because of that albums as a whole aren’t as important as they used to be as people no longer have to buy entire albums to access songs they like, so you have to take that into account. So, that explains the “why” a bit more, but it doesn’t change the fact that albums were better as a whole in the 90’s.
7. They Told Stories
While the heyday of story-telling rap was really the 80’s, with most early raps being stories (or hype songs… “Let me clear my throat”), like most things hip hop the 90’s not only improved on storytelling but also basically perfected it. It may be blasphemy to not give Slick Rick credit for being the best storyteller in the game, especially considering that his classic album The Art of Story Telling was released in the 90’s, one of the main difference between what 80’s and 90’s rappers were doing in terms of storytelling is/was the content of those stories. While it did become a cop out for a lot of rappers to talk about whatever they wanted while saying “I’m just talking about what I see!”, the truth is that a lot of the GOAT rappers were in fact, discussing the bleak realities of living in the inner-city in the era of crack cocaine. Just look at Notorious BIG’s first album, Ready to Die, that really shows not only what his life was like as a crack dealer but also the pressure he felt as a young father whose mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Tupac Shakur, who was known as a walking contradiction because of the difference between his story telling songs and his party songs (the former of which was really pro-woman with songs like Keep Your Head Up or Brenda’s Got a Baby, the latter of which talked about sleeping around with women, like I Get Around, for example), also did a great job of projecting the mindset of a young black man whose mother was addicted to crack and who had multiple negative run ins with objectively bad police (as he sued the Oakland Police Department for brutality and won). Today’s rappers really only discuss like five things (women, money, drugs, parties, guns) and while 90’s rappers also covered those topics, they had a much more diverse range and that’s another reason why it was the best era.
6. The Competition was REAL
Today’s hip-hop today as compared to 90’s hip-hop can best be compared to the NBA today versus the NBA of the 90’s (or Michael Jordan’s NBA). Outside of people like 50 Cent, who uses beef to stay as close to relevant as he can, most rappers today aren’t really competing with one another as much as they’re copying and/or collaborating with one another. Like the theory/justification for capitalism, competition is actually a good thing because it breeds innovation and change. So, while there are obvious downsides to that competition as well (see the East Coast/West Coast “War”), when you had people like Tupac and Biggie competing against not only one another but other rappers like Nas, especially, you’ll see just how helpful competition can be when it comes to the rap game. That extends to the production side, as well, as producers in the 90’s never rested on their laurels but rather kept improving their output as to not become stale or fall behind what was a fast moving/changing game. Today’s hip-hop doesn’t seem to have that and because of that, instead of attempting to carve out one’s own niche people are happy to simply sound like one another in terms of how they rap and also the beats they rap over. After both Tupac and Biggie died people no longer had the two best emcees of all-time to compare themselves to and because of that some rappers fell off, with Nas being the best example. Nas is a great example beyond that, as well, as when he suddenly had to compete against someone again he came back with such a vengeance that he created a new verb (getting “Ethered”). Hip-hop needs more of that, but it’s understandable why people moved away from that as both Tupac and Biggie died because of their intense competition and people like 50 Cent really just made “beef” into a cheap way to get attention before an album was ready to drop.
5. It was Innovative
Hip-hop, more than any other form of music (perhaps outside of early rock and roll) is a consistently changing art form. The type and sound of what’s popular, even now, changes from year to year and because of that rappers have the same job security of anyone working in the White House these days. The difference between hip-hop today and hip hop from the 90’s is that today’s hip-hop really just jumps from trend to trend, from krunk to sing-songy rap (think Ja Rule, and then try not to shudder), to the high pitched chorus’ of Kanye West’s beats, whereas 90’s rap seemed to change based on a natural evolution that comes from competition and creativity. Compare Dr. Dre’s production on NWA’s first album to what he did with Death Row and you’ll see a natural evolution that is a lot like what the Beatles were doing in the late 60’s. Today’s hip-hop seems to jump really from city to city thanks to the advent of the internet and how easy it is for anyone to create and disseminate their music and because of that rappers and producers tend to copy whatever type of sound is popular that month as opposed to focusing on their craft and improving on what they started with. There are obvious exceptions to that, like Kendrick Lamar, but you only have to look at his mentor to see why he’s able to really ignore the flavor of the month stuff and focus on his craft. A perfect example of this is looking at how every rapper sounded after both Drake and Future and then compare that to the 90’s, where every rapper had their own distinctive sound that didn’t sound like anyone else (Tupac’s line from Hit ‘Em Up “Now it’s all about Versace, you copy my style…”, notwithstanding…).
4. There Were Groups
During the late 90’s and early aughts, the typical evolution/game plan of a rapper’s career was to drop a debut album, wait for that to blow up, start one’s own record label and then release an album with whatever group they put together with friends from their childhood/neighborhood. Examples of that are nearly endless, with Nelly and the St. Lunatics, 50 Cent and G-Unit, Eminem and D-12 being prime examples of that. Before that, though, there were actual groups that started out as groups and then, depending on the success of their album(s), they might have a solo album every couple of years (while they were still part of the original group). The best example of that is The Wu-Tang Clan, which debuted with one of the best albums (hip-hop or otherwise) of all-time with 36 Chambers. After that album blew up there were and still are albums from group members like Method Man, RZA, Ghostface Killa, Old Dirty Bastard and GZA, whose Only Built 4 Cuban Linx album is one of the best albums of all-time, as well. There was NWA (which technically was formed/in it’s prime in the late 80’s), Mobb Deep, Thug Life, Junior Mafia, Live Squad, The Outlawz, Cyprus Hill, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and many more. Another difference besides how these groups were formed (although, to be fair, Junior Mafia and The Outlawz were formed a lot like D-12 or G-Unit) as compared to the groups from the 00’s is the fact that these groups actually produced amazing albums. Most of the more modern group’s albums had a lot of filler, with songs that you really only listened to in order to hear the star of the group like Eminem or Nelly (to a much lesser extent), whereas groups like Wu-Tang really had no weak members and no filler songs. If you don’t believe me, compare Mobb Deep’s The Infamous or Hell on Earth to the St. Lunatics’ album(s). Checkmate.
3. Rebellion vs. the Institution
Today’s hip-hop has been described as corporate hip-hop, because most of the biggest rappers/emcees are really all about making money and while they may rap about things like drugs and women, often in a profane way, they’re really not focusing on things like social issues or taking on the establishment as they’ve basically become the establishment. The best example of this is the fact that former President Barack Obama had Jay-Z at the White House on numerous occasions and while Eazy E did visit the White House as well, it wasn’t done as a casual invite but rather as a way to discuss the effect of “Gangster Rap” on the youth. That’s because the first Bush White House had made an issue out of rap music, namely rap music that targeted the police. Rappers like Ice-T, whose song “Cop Killer” (which was, to be fair, actually a rock song with his band Body Count) started a national debate about free speech as it applied to music. Bush’s Vice President was Dan Quayle, who discussed Tupac Shakur on national television, which may or may not have been the reason that the FBI was actually investigating Tupac and other rappers like the Notorious BIG. Beyond that, there were actual “Hip Hop Cops” in cities like New York, that investigated the rappers connection to the gun and drug trade as well as their connection to organized crime. Beyond that, you had groups like NWA and especially Public Enemy, that rapped about real issues. Tupac Shakur, for example, had multiple songs removed from his earlier albums (namely Thug Life: Volume 1) because of the fervor over his music and that all lead to Warner Brothers dropping Interscope Records after people protested outside of their headquarters. Considering how profitable Interscope became, I’m sure they regret that move now.
One of the main differences between 90’s hip-hop and today’s rap is really the fact that a lot of the producers back then were as famous as the rappers/emcees they were working with. While that did extend into the early 2000’s with people like Scott Storch, there aren’t really a ton of producers out there today that were on that level. People like Dr. Dre, DJ Premier, Daz Dillinger, DJ Quik, DJ Muggs, Johnny J, Timbaland, Q-Tip, RZA, Pete Rock and J Dilla produced some of the best music really ever. That’s because they took immense risks and were really experimenting with music in ways that producers these days really don’t, as they were at the point in the evolution of the genre where they were being rewarded by experimentation because they cared more about the craft than they did how well a certain song performed on the charts or radio. While there are some famous producers today, the competition between producers has seemingly vanished and instead of producers pushing one another to get better they’re basically just copying one another whenever a certain sound or style becomes popular (think about how many Trap beats and producers there are and how lazy the producers behind those beats must be, comparatively). Sure, there were producers who, like those making Trap beats, were in the same genre but they didn’t simply use the same exact drums and basic layout as one another, instead they pushed one another to try new things and create things that people had never heard before. Because of that, 90’s hip-hop still sounds amazing and while it may remind you of a certain era, it doesn’t sound as dated as the production from the 00’s and 10’s, with things like Krunk music that sound a lot like 2007… In a bad way.
1. It had the GOATs
While the aforementioned entries on this list were important (especially the producers and beats entries), the main reason that 90’s hip-hop is the best really boils down to the fact that the emcees that were around back then were just straight up amazing. If you go to any rap video on YouTube and check the comments you’ll eventually run into a comment (or 500) that states that whichever rapper whose video you’re watching/listening to “wouldn’t exist if Tupac/Biggie was still alive” and while that’s probably a mix between hyperbole and wishful thinking, those people have a point. The death of both Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls left a void in the rap game that was filled by rappers like Jay-Z and DMX (and Puff Daddy, briefly) and that changed the trajectory of the entire genre. Imagine the Beatles dying in a plane crash in 1964, before they’d reached their prime/late 20’s. That’s what happened with Shakur and Smalls, who were 25 and 24 respectively when they were gunned down. Despite their young age, the two produced what is considered the best hip-hop music that the world has ever seen! Their music was so good that they were considered leaps and bounds ahead of people like Nas, whose Illmatic album is one most every Top 10 hip-hop albums lists. Then you have Snoop Dogg(y Dogg) in his prime, Dr. Dre’s the Chronic and G-Funk style and amazing groups The Wu-Tang Clan’s 36 Chambers and Mobb Deep. The talent was so amazing and the classics were being released month after month, that’s something that’ll never happen again and that’s really the reason why 90’s hip-hop is the best.