The Top Ten of 1994: Twenty Years Ago
The rain is falling outside, and the Internets is busting out the seams with the year-end best of lists for 2014. However, let us glide back to the past, when we cared little for politics and more for music that spoke to us. Twenty years ago I was thirteen years old, fresh off the flight from Israel, and green around the ears when it came to the spoonful of American pop culture. I heard the music before, but in Israel seeing the cover to 2 Live Crew’s seminal “As Nasty As they Wanna Be” still made me feel a world, shit a universe removed from the pulse. Then we moved to the United States, to the lovely pastures of New Haven, Connecticut. After that the indoctrination began, and I was hellbent on hearing all the new music coming from the greatest artists in the world, American musicians. So, it is a pleasure for me to take you all by the hand and leap-frog back to the year 1994, as I focus on the later part of the year, go back to my two blog posts about the record releases of 1994. Here’s the top ten, and it’s all in chronological order so no real favorites to outdo the last entry.
The mid-1990’s saw an explosion in the popularity of techno, house, trance, and anything industrial and in-between. One the best is the group Prodigy, and this was before their critically acclaimed release Fat of the Land, which had the hit “Firestarter” and “Smack My Bitch Up.” This album came out before and was, along with most of the music and instrumentation, the work of the genius named Liam Howlett. The major theme of the album is a call for protest in part due to the government crackdown on the rave scene in England, as well as its corrupt bloated state in 1994. One of the best songs to exemplify this is “Their Law,”
Interestingly, as the past informs the present, the song is an anti-police chant, which is personified by the sampled chorus saying “Fuck em and their law.” That was the idea at the time, but in recent interviews Howlett plays down the political rhetoric. Howlett has a keen ear for detail by using samples from the most bizarre and outlandish recordings of days past. I remember hearing the album, which was played by a close friend in my early high school days. However, what really struck me was the video for their song “Voodoo People” on the late night techno show on MTV called Amp.
The video is rather eerie with members of the group running away from this Papa Legba specter. What struck me instantaneously was the opening guitar riffs to this track. They are the same, either sampled or re-played by a guitar player, of the opening riffs of the song “Very Ape” by Nirvana. We can hear the musical connection, but it resonated and remains a great rack to this day. The album also shows the talent of the music maker without the use of overt perverse of gross overtures. These overtures were overused on the next album, which might have propelled them to stardom, but hurt their core purist fan base.
The Gravediggaz first album, as I wrote in a past blog post, is one of the best rap albums of all time. How can you go wrong with the production of a genius like Prince Paul? How can you go wrong with two seasoned veterans from the classic rap outfit Stetsasonic, and two rookies? The album carries an amazing theme of death and horror, which was created parallel to the reality of life in the streets. These themes converge into Prince Paul’s mental plain, and is then interpreted by the three MC’s, Fuitkwan, Too Poetic, and the RZA. Also, like the Ramones, and other rap pseudonyms they all used aliases that worked well with the world of death. The Undertaker, the Gatekeeper, The Rzarector, and the Grim Reaper formed what the press junkie jumped to label as horror-core. Because of that the album didn’t get the attention it deserved and was released nearly two years after its completion. The album has some amazing hits that, as I wrote about Prodigy, speak volumes on the issues of race and how the narrative of race relations has barely changed in the year 2014.
In the video for their song “Nowhere to Run” they show how black males literally cannot run from their past. The Gravediggaz are the menace as well, using the horror slant, but the worst is the ghosts of the past where the black man running through the urban landscape is transformed back as a slave running from the white menace.
Prince Paul, for those of you who don’t know, produced many rap artists including De La Soul. On their albums he expanded the concept of a rap album, making it far more experimental by using unused samples from obscure recordings. He also has a talent for making an operatic narrative with a story, images, and a great sense of drama. This was perfectly captured in the track for “Diary of a Madman.”
The video gives it little justice as it cuts the opening court room frenzy, where the drama is winding up until the first verse is uttered. Along with the Gravediggaz are two Staten Island rappers who will become known later through the Wu-Tang world, known as Shabazz the Disciple and Killah Priest. We have to keep it in mind that this was before the Wu, or for that matter before work began on 36 Chambers. Most importantly, and is further detailed in a great Oral History at Hiphopsite:
is that this is where you can hear the faint echoes of the Wu-Tang production, due to the fact that the RZA learned a lot from Prince Paul. So big ups to the man, the myth, the Prince….Paul.
I should also mention that the media’s labeling of this sub-genre of rap music as horrorcore so the release of another album in the same year by a group calling themselves the Flatlinerz. The album titled U.S.A. (Under Satan’s Authority) was controversial and of course was released through the mega house of rap, Def Jam in the same year. It was a lackluster attempt, but some of their videos were hardly played due to religious sensitivities. Just check out the video for “Satanic Verses,”
It’s some morbidly dark stuff and it didn’t last long as they were dropped a year after the release.
Another banger that I mostly remember thanks to my older brother’s playing it non-stop, is the Queens duo known as Organized Confusion and their second album titled Stress: The Extinction Agenda. Their self-titled debut album was a solid foray into battle rhymes. Group members Prince Po and Pharaoh Monch cut right through the ether with a knife by using razor-sharp and super fast rhyme schemes. Unlike their first album they relied on the production of the then unknown duo of Buckwild and Rockwilder, who are responsible for some classic beats. The album is much darker, as we can see with the title and the album cover art, done by the late Matt Reid AKA Matt Doo of Dooable Arts. The range of stress varies, but it all explodes from the very beginning right after the intro with the first song, “Stress.”
This is another one of those classic rap albums that is littered throughout all the underground rapper’s iPod track listings. Also, besides the stress there are very poignant themes strung throughout the album using the nostalgia of past church ventures, “Black Sunday,” to the more politically inclined “Let’s Organize.” This is a personal best for me, my older brother, and the rest of you Hip-Hop heads who remember the sheer energy of rap music, circa 1994.
I’ve read a great thought piece about the 20 year anniversary of this album, thanks to the Hip-Hop historian and curator DJ Pizzo;
Portishead, another British outfit of electronic and Hip-Hop lovers who came out with a seminal debut album. The band, and their work, was labeled Trip-Hop due to its influences coming from Hip-Hop and the electronic scene in the UK, and in this case Bristol specifically. The album is awash with the sounds of pain, anguish and desperation. If you read the track listing you realize that they were focusing on the darker side of life. The album spawned two powerful singles, along with the EP that brought up the great single “Numb.”
The video blends the images of the innocence of children with a hopeless singer calling for those days of fun and joy. Another perfect example of the Portishead sound is the song, and the video, for “Glory Box.”
It’s a beautiful slow song where the chanteuse is flailing around as the band plays on, while the drones on the dance floor keep moving, and for what reason no one knows. The most popular song on the album is “Sour Times.”
Just watching the beauty as the story unfolds encapsulates the feel of my generation, Gen X.
The same month as Portishead’s album dropped another debut came out by another UK outfit, or English. Oasis has been seen as both the saviors of English rock while others saw them as a 1990’s shameless rip-off of the Beatles. Also, when we think of Oasis we think of the first hit you all heard by the name of “Wonderwall.” However, that was a little later, as the main songs on this album were rougher and far more original. This album, along with Blur’s album Parklife were an English rebuttal to the growing popularity of grunge music, and its nihilistic attitudes, in the United States. It is very important to note that they were signed to the independent record label Creation Records. The company rose to stardom on the backs of groups like Jesus and the Mary Chain and Primal Scream. Now they had reached the top of the mountain with the success of Oasis. This is all chronicled in the great documentary about the label called Upside Down: The Creation Records Story;
The early hits like “Supersonic,”
are great examples of the growing Brit-pop scene in England personified by their stardom and other groups like Blur. We take it for granted but the scene grew greatly with the sounds of Brit-pop or the techno scene. This album re-opened the world’s ears to British guitars that were silenced for many reasons. The band broke out certain groups including Blur, and it’s leader Damon Albarn’s work as well as the current crop of Brits like Coldplay.
In the summer of 1993 I attended the local New Haven JCC (Jewish Community Center) summer camp. I met plenty of putzes, including one of my best friends to this very day — Big Ups Sars Lips!, as well as many new sounds and music released. That summer one of the kids gave me the cassette single, yup we had them sold as singles with a nice cardboard like cover, of The Notorious BIG’s single for “Juicy.” The song was an instant classic, but I wasn’t such a fan of his second single “Big Poppa” as well as the mushy R&B tinged “One More Chance.” This all changed when he dropped his full length album Ready to Die in September of 1994. The album was an instant classic, and was the genesis of the myth of the king of New York City known as Biggie Smalls. From the very start of the album you hear a series of famous black songs as the backdrop to his life. It glides from Curtis Mayfield, to Audio Two to the most recent Snoop Dogg. It then breaks into “Things Done Changed,” which is a poignant indictment of the state of rap music, and the poverty-stricken black community circa 1994.
This is revolutionary as it’s a time capsule depicting the changing themes of rap music. Gone were the days of fashion, bragging rights, and other superficial topics that were predominant in rap music in the 1980s. By the end of the 1980’s and into the decade of the 1990’s the tone became much darker as Biggie, along with other greats like Nas, Tupac, Mobb Deep, the Wu-Tang Clan, Dr. Dre and his collective community on The Chronic, lamented that the situation was far crueller as the older generation is being dogged, both psychologically and physically by the younger anarchic and apathetic youths in the ghettos of America. The album was laced with the smooth tunes I mentioned above, but it also cut like a knife with sobering discussion such as on Suicide on his last song on the album titled “suicidal Thoughts,”
There is also an amazing back and forth, with himself, on the song “Gimme The Loot” where he’s speaks about jacking in the most sinister ways possible. The track is full of energy as he sneers out his frustrations by hitting up anyone possible, and not caring if she’s pregnant, which caused the record to censor the line to this very day!
And of course the paranoia creeping in his veins once he became famous, fearing armed intruders. He raps about what he’ll do to these intruders in his great song “Warning,” which has a great companion video as well.
His singles were heard all over New Haven CT, as that was my stomping ground in 1994, but the album would be heard throughout the state for the next year. It was part of the soundtrack to our youth, and unfortunately it will be encapsulated close to his obituary, which was only written three years later, RIP BIG!
I was never a big REM fan per se, but I remember rocking to “Losing my Religion,” which was a huge hit in Israel. However, again I was never that big into their music, but more into one or two songs from each album. This would change with the release of their ninth album in 1994 titled Monster. Unlike their previous two albums, 1991’s Out of Time and 1992’s Automatic for the People, this one was louder and full of distorted guitars, feedback, and lyrics for the downtrodden. The first time I heard anything from this album was on MTV with the video for their first single, which is also the opening track to the album, titled “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”
Being what most critics called a “rock” album, there were plenty of examples of the bombastic playing with the penetrating lyrics by Michael Stipe. Other songs like the second track titled “Crushed with Eyeliner” kept the theme, along with a guest from the great band Sonic Youth, thanks Thurston Moore!
The album had to be put on hold for a number of reasons, but one of the main reasons was the deaths of two close friends of the band, Kurt Cobain and River Phoenix. The band wrote the song “Let Me In” in tribute to Kurt,
and the dedicated the album to River, whose sister Rain sang background vocals on the song “Bang and Blame.”
which was insanely popular, and remains to be a recognizable REM song. The album was great upon release, and being their ninth they keep it going until very recently.
I was a huge Wu-Tang fan from the very first time I heard the Wu’s first album. Then in November of 1994 the first Wu member to drop his solo was the most charismatic of them all, the Method Man. When my older brother bought his copy and brought it home I couldn’t stop staring at the mysterious cover. It looked like the side profile of Meth’s face, and then another full face picture of him on the bottom exhaling plumes of smoke. The best part was the sheer ingenuity in how they flipped over the “W,” which stood for the Wu-Tang Clan, to an “M” for the solo insignia of the Method Man. So, after my investigation I had to listen to it from start to finish. I won’t lie when I admit that I listened to this album over and over to the point where I memorized every lyric, and was familiar with every beat and sample. This saga begins with the sounds of the Tubulour Bells!!!
And then he delves right into the track that sounds so raw, uncut, unvarnished, un-anything you might expect from a tightly produced and cleaned up sound. No my friends, you were getting a swipe of dirt thrown at your face for good measure. The RZA, who produced the album, made sure to give it that flavor while allowing Meth to stretch out his talents and performance skills. The gruffness of the album is visually embodied in the video to the track “Bring the Pain.”
This is a video with Meth and his posse rolling around in a beat up public bus, while spitting these non-sensical rhymes. This is the type of crew you see in your nightmares, and Meth sporting the white eye lens makes it all the more creepier. I should also mention the fact that Meth later bragged that he wanted the video shoot to be extra hardcore. In order to convey that message I made sure to smoke some dust before the shoot.
Not only is it full of dirt, it’s also full of introspection and love in the guise of the track titled “All I Need,” which was far more basic than it’s remixed version we all know well, that also won him a Grammy.
He also spotlights his lyrical prowess with a real Wu-Tang spitting showdown. On the track “Meth Vs. Chef” Meth and fellow clan member Raekwon the Chef lyrically joust for that number one spot. Interestingly enough Meth gets the upper hand as you can hear Raekwon slip up in the part of his execution.
Of course my personal favorite was the track titled “Mr. Sandman.”
I love it because of the strength of every MC on this posse cut. The RZA, Inspectah Deck, Streetlife, Carlton Fisk, and Blue Raspberry pad the song while Meth peppers his words on the track, all on the back of three samples, most prominently being “Mr.” Sandman” by the Chordettes. The fluidity of the song, like the album itself, kept my mind working by cognitively devouring every morsel until the very end with a remix to one of the best songs on the Wu-Tang’s debut album.
The entire album is flawless from back to front, and unfortunately he hasn’t surpassed it with anything he’s released in the past twenty years. Too bad, but today I am still an M.E.T.H.O.D. Man!!!
I’ve always been a big fan of Nirvana, and I was turned on the moment I first heard “Lithium,” which was a single off their second album Nevermind. After their fourth album’s release there were rumours about the self-destructive behavior of Kurt Cobain, along with the fear of the imminent demise of the band. The last recorded treasure we have of the band is their recorded performance for MTV’s Unplugged series. Although it was recorded in 1993 the album itself wasn’t released until November of 1994. The set up and the sings all conveyed the beauty of Kurt’s songwriting as well as Dave and Krist’s masterful playing. This was also the first time I, and most people, saw Curt Kirkwood who fronted the group the Meat Puppets. He joined them playing songs he wrote ten songs into the performance. They performed great acoustic versions of “Plateau,” “Oh, Me,” and my personal favorite which outdid the original version, “Lake of Fire.”
They also veered away from the played out singles that made them immense save for one version of “Come as you Are.”
They chose to play lesser-known songs like “About a Girl” from their first album and cover versions of songs by the Vaselines, Meat Puppets as noted above, David Bowie in such a memorable performance of his song “The Man Who Sold the World,”
breathing new air into the lungs of this nearly thirty year old song. They also covered a Leadbelly song that was left for the bitter end of the performance.
He breathes a new life of pain and suffering into this plea, beckoning his girl to explain, “where did you sleep last night.” Hearing Kurt sing makes us feel the desolation and pain of the wait, and the torture of knowing that you are not that girl’s main man. Many music critics, and pop culture mavens, have dissected this last scene as Kurt’s last gasp of life. This album was not released until after his death sealing his legacy with one last posthumous kiss. RIP Kurt Cobain.
I’m an avid Beatles fan, and have been connected to their tunes since I was in my mother’s womb. I could feel the vibrations of Rubber Soul, experience the range of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, and wipe my tears away while listening to their last masterpiece Abbey Road. My parents are great music lovers and had quite an expansive collection playing while we were growing up. However, my mother made sure to make it plain that she always hated “white music,” except for the Beatles. To this day their catalogue remains pulsating through my veins, and like heroin I’m always ready for that instant shot of satisfaction. I like the bluesiness of the Rolling Stones, the noise of the Who, but to me the masters, and the group that everyone imitates to this very day, including Nirvana.
1994 marked twenty-four years since they broke up, but it was a monumental year for the fab four. The year saw the release of the monumental documentary on the Beatles, The Beatles Anthology, with hours of interviews, images, music, and information that wet my appetite. They also released this time capsule of performances from the BBC spanning radio shows from 1963 to 1965. The interviews are telling, and the song selection is very important to both Beatles fans and music history lovers in general. The songs are a mixture of never before released performances of songs from their early repertoire. The selections vary, but most are R&B songs that directly influenced them, and all the English kids hearing this music in the 1950’s. This is a perfect example of American culture being exported to the U.K., explored by the locals, and then reinterpreted and brought back to the United States, which was suffering from a creative glut and a series of waspish teen idol/idle putzes.
And so we move on to the next year, so keep you eyes open for my best of 1995!!!
Originally published at djewhiphopman.wordpress.com.