2014 is, and has been, a year of landmark anniversaries for some of the best Hip-Hop albums ever made. Two decades on from the apex of Hip-Hop’s so called ‘Golden Age’, there are countless albums being reissued, remastered an repackaged for our retrospective enjoyment, with many of them arguably amongst the genre’s finest full length efforts. A year characterised by eclecticism, thought provoking lyrics and innovation, 1994 saw career defining releases, impressive debuts and unique side projects released in spades.
A recently published, highly controversial (and primary Hip-Hop focused) list of 2014’s best albums of the year served to highlight the disparity between present and past. Now is not the time to start dissecting the state of Hip-Hop but its safe to say that the music of today holds up rather unfavourably to the classics of 20 years ago. Nonetheless, we’re not haters over here so we felt it would be more productive for us to spiel on some of our favourite releases from one of Hip-Hop’s finest years. Read on and then start revisiting your own favorites…
Outkast – ‘Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik’ (LaFace Records)
Reflecting on OutKast’s debut album, which celebrated it’s 20th anniversary last April without the added context of their fluctuating career path to follow is an interesting one. One of the most seminal Hip-Hop duos of all time, André “3000” Benjamin & Antwan “Big Boi” Patton are the character actors of Rap. Channeling multiple personas, oozing suave and sophistication their diverse sound palette has incorporated everything from Funk, Soul, Rock, Spoken-word and electronic beats over the years.
But before all of this they were just two baby-faced teenagers from East Point, Atlanta, Georgia. The premise of ‘Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik’ is straight up G-Funk from the Deep South. Foundations for Southern Rap had already been laid by the likes of the Geto Boys but the emergence of this seminal record in 94’ brought the finger lickin’ culture and Southern drawl of Georgia to the world. This record which laid the foundations for one of the most fruitful pairings in modern music, transcends the test of time and sounds fresher than anything being put out today…
The Notorious BIG – Ready To Die (Bad Boy)
Credited as one of the best Hip Hop debuts of all time, ‘Ready To Die’ depicted Biggie as a rapper holistically, with bellicose tracks such as ‘Things Done Changed’, the commercially accessible and nostalgic ‘Juicy’ and frank, candid cut such as ‘Suicidal Thoughts’. Production work comes from some of Hip Hop’s most respected producers, including DJ Premier and Lord Finesse. Most notably, production credits are awarded to the underrated and overlooked Easy Mo Bee, who prior to working on ‘Ready To Die’ collaborated with Big Daddy Kane and Wu Tang Clan. Mo Bee also went on to work with 2pac on ‘Me Against The Word’, and produced the only official track featuring both 2pac and Biggie, ‘Runnin From tha Police’.
The quadruple platinum album was the only LP to be released during Biggie’s lifetime. His second album ‘Life After Death’ was released days after the rapper’s murder. Commercial notoriety was achieved through singles such as ‘Big Poppa’, where an Isley Brothers sample acted as a catalyst for a smoother composed flow from the rapper. ‘Gimmie The Loot’ is a definite highlight. As the title suggests, a robbery is delineated culminating in a shootout with the police. Biggie adopts a conversational approach throughout the track, deploying a higher-pitched tone to represent a naive counterpart. A convincing performance that resulted in listeners questioning whether it was Biggie or a featured rapper. The minimal sample-based bass heavy beat facilitates the concept perfectly.
Alongside creative lyrical content and conceptual tracks such as ‘Warning’, Biggie donned the ability to manipulate genuine experiences and present them in filmic form. Upon the album’s release the rapper was praised for his storytelling ability and accessible flow. Speaking in frank but intelligent ways created alluring and digestible lyrics. It was Biggie’s mic presence, confidence, narrative and all round adeptness that set him apart. Receiving great critical acclaim upon release, the album still holds its place firmly in not on one of the best Hip Hop albums of 1994, but one of the best Hip Hop albums of all time. Oh and by the way, Biggie is actually receiving oral sex at the end of ‘Respect’, as confirmed by P.Diddy in this interview.
Nas – ‘Illmatic’ (Columbia)
An album of such impeccable quality that it has often threatened to dwarf the legacy of the artist that created it, ‘Illmatic’ inarguably deserves its place at the forefront of the pantheon of classic Hip-Hop albums-and will most likely continue to do so in perpetuity. Two decades on from its release, it doesn’t feel hyperbolic whatsoever to hold it up against debut releases within contemporary music as a whole and place it alongside other peerless masterpieces from various genres.
A supple ten tracker that features just one guest appearance (from AZ), ‘Illmatic’ is an exercise in singular focus that sidesteps many of the ills that often disqualify other Hip-Hop albums from classic status. Setting the scene with the album’s one and only ‘skit’, Nas transports us to the Queensbridge projects, going on to paint a picture of his neighborhood and its’ inhabitants that is vivid and absorbing – utilising a vocabulary that transcended the register of his peers and delivered in the smoothest flow heard since Rakim. Whether its the Cocaine induced paranoia of ‘N.Y State Of Mind’’s criminal tales, ‘One Love’’s lament to a friend locked up or ‘Memory Lane’’s summer time reminiscence, Nas elevates Hip-Hop to previously unexplored lyrical heights. With faultless production from DJ Premier, Q-Tip, Pete Rock and Large Professor, the album consists of emotive instrumental backdrops that compliment the lyrical content subtly and effectively. ‘Perfect’ is too subjective a term to ever bestow on any one release with authority – although it can be said with confidence that nothing from Nas or any other rapper is likely to surpass ‘Illmatic’.
Gravediggaz – ‘6 Foot Deep’ (Gee Records)
The idea of ‘Horrorcore’, as it was coined by critics, was a psychotic twist on Gangstar Rap. Groups such as The Flatlinerz and Half Pit Half Dead and others fused satanic verse with haunting beats to great effect. But no one did it better than Gravediggaz.
In 1992 a group consisting of RZA, Poetic and Frukwan was hand picked by Prince Paul to work on a concept album that resulted in the seminal ‘6 Feet Deep’. Paul decided to reach out and form the group as a backlash against the music industry and disrespectful executives – after their initial period in the limelight De La Soul’s ‘De La Soul Is Dead’ was, at the time, considered a flop, with many industry figures under the impression that the trio had already lost their. How wrong they were. Upon first meeting they immediately set to work on ‘The House That Hatred Built’ and Gravediggaz were born. After recording enough material to put together a cassette demo, Paul began to shop Gravediggaz to Tommy Boy, Def Jam, Jive and any other labels he had a relationship with, all of which bluntly declined the proposition. This was all pre-Wu Tang. One year later they got a call from Jon Baker, owner of now defunct British Hip-Hop label Gee records, looking to sign the group, 6 months later ‘6 Feet Deep’ was finished and released in 1994.
Grisly, paranoid, and obsessed with death (both imposing and experiencing it), the debut from evil supergroup Gravediggaz lands somewhere in the middle between the depressed and bizarre world of the self appointed Undertaker aka Prince Paul and the RZA’s dingy and haunted Staten Island. If you can stomach the horror of it’s contents there is no end to the fun. From the nauseous high of ‘Defective Trip (Trippin’), to the recklessly harmful ‘1-800 Suicide’ and the recurring nightmare of ‘Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide’, this record is disgustingly good. Outside of America, the album was called ‘Niggamortis’, highlighting the wicked balance of mortality and murderous wordplay on display. A soundtrack to many a teenage year that will never lose its potency.
Gangstarr – ‘Hard To Earn’ (Chrysalis)
Gangstarr’s third album was a noticeable departure from it’s predecessors ‘Step In The Arena’ (1991) and ‘Daily Operation’ (1992). While those two classics were loved for their astute lyrics and jazzy beats, ‘Hard to Earn’ seems much more immediate, even angry, particularly within the lyrical content. The opening moments of the album see Guru earnestly deliver, “Yo, all you kids want to get on and shit / Just remember this / This shit ain’t easy / If you ain’t got it, you ain’t got it, motherfucker” setting the tone for much of the record. He seems pretty irate throughout a lot of the album, understandably frustrated by the Rap industry that surrounds him, but I’ve always preferred Guru when teaching lessons and delivering social commentaries of the tough streets around him. Guru highlights feature on tracks such as ‘Code of the Streets’ and ‘Tonz ‘O’ Gunz’ which see the late MC spray venomous rounds of the truth like no other.
On ‘Hard To Earn’ DJ Premier re-writes his own production manual, showcasing 58 mins of pure MPC60 fire. He cooks up such weighty beats, laced with Jazz as thick as the swamps in his native Texas. This is Premo at the top his game, there isn’t a weak musical moment on this album- interludes included. His use of other rappers one liners (‘Suckas Need Bodyguards’ features Rob Base’ line ‘I’m not a sucka so I don’t need a bodyguard’, whilst on ‘A Long Way To Go’, Phife-Dawg’s ‘Now here’s a funky introduction’ is scratched over the top with Primo’s tradmark cuts) pull the whole thing together and nods admirably to their peers, acknowledging their influences and recycling them in an inventive way. DJ Premier, simply one of greatest Hip-Hop producers of all time.
Gangstarr didn’t return until four years later when they dropped ‘Moment of Truth’, a measured comeback album that reaffirmed their status as one of Hip-Hop’s greatest pairings.