Here’s a list that’s sure to meet some vehement disagreement. Allow me to outline these two key factors that have influenced the following selection:
1) I haven’t heard every hip hop album from the 1990s.
2) This is based on nothing more than personal taste. My personal taste extends towards the sample-based, ‘conscious’ hip hop and Native Tongues side of things.
So… TO THE LIST!
A relatively slept on gem from Posdnous and Co. This album dropped in 1993 and was the 3rd full length album from De La Soul. Sadly, it was also the last album produced for them by Prince Paul (the legend). In an age when ‘albums’ have become little more than collections of singles, it’s well worth anyone’s while to listen through this masterwork from start to end and see just how a proper album is put together.
Featuring appearances from Dres (The Black Sheep), Guru, Shortie No Mass and some Japanese emcees who I don’t know but who sound pretty cool, this album is a big fat slab of jazzy-funky-hip-hoppy insight into a time when real emcees were real people.
2. Illmatic – Nas
Let’s be honest. The discography of Nasir Jones is pretty disappointing. His first two albums were good. Everything from that point on has been of limited interest. Thankfully, not only were his first two albums good – they were in fact very, very good. And, for my money, the better of the two was Illmatic.
Released in 1994, Illmatic oozes gritty, streetwise charm. Usually, that’s not the sort of thing that floats my boat but there are two factors that set Illmatic apart from the flood of other albums that you find in this branch of hip hop: firstly, the beats are amazing; secondly, Nas really has a way with words on this album.
Production duties are fulfilled by some of the best producers of all time – Pete Rock, Large Professor, Premier, even Q-tip has a crack.
As for the rapping, there are a few guests but Nas really owns this album. His flow alternates from complex and multisyllabic to straight-forward and aggressive. Every single line is tight and on point. It really is a masterclass in emceeing. Brilliant.
3. Uptown Saturday Night – Camp Lo
Apart from this album, I’ve only ever heard two other tracks from Camp Lo. One was a track they did with DJ Honda, the other was a track called ‘Limelighters’ that they did with Aesop Rock. Limelighters was surprisingly good given the odd combination of styles. A look at their Wiki page will show that they have been productive ever since but nowhere near as successful.
Released in 1997 and carrying very heavy blaxploitation themes, I often wonder if the Camp Lo guys painted themselves into a corner with this effort. Emcees Sonny Cheeba and Geechi Suede channel their namesakes and delve into the world of Foxy Brown, Truck Turner and Shaft.
In short, this is just a really enjoyable album.
4. Niggamortis/Six Feet Deep – Gravediggaz
Another killer album under the influence of Prince Paul (this time adopting the alter-ego of The Undertaker).
This one is from 1994 and was much loved at the time – giving birth (or at least credibility) to the new ‘horrorcore rap’ phenomena. It deals with pretty dark themes yet it is anything but bleak. Prince Paul’s beats give the album more of a cartoon sinister quality than a depressive angst (something that was lost when he didn’t return to the decks for their second release). The RZA (of Wutang fame), Frukwan and Poetic (R.I.P) take on rapping duties. Frukwan and Poetic really shine whilst RZA’s performance is servicable but not outstanding.
Interestingly, the album carried two different names depending on the region in which it was released (due to differences in censorship laws). Later albums editions all seem to carry the name Six Feet Deep.
5. Overcast! – Atmosphere
A lot less commercial than the preceding albums, Atmosphere’s debut release (1997) took the underground by storm. The sparse production throughout gives space for emcee Slug to paint vivid pictures. And believe me, this guy can really write and flow. Intense, humourous, confounding and ultimately fascinating.
The standout track of the album is a simple affair called ‘Scapegoat’. Featuring little more than a simple drum program, a series of four piano notes and some rapping it overflows with contempt for the spoiled masses of middle-class America. Just beautiful.
So, that’s my list – the 1990’s had SO many good albums that I could probably do a Top 1000 and, tomorrow my Top 5 could be entirely different.
What are your Top 5?