Height of the Golden Age of Hip Hop (1991–1993)

1991 proved to be a big year for hip hop with cultural value and significance. Surely the commercial success of MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice the year before got A&R types excited to break the next cash cow, and the fans of rap music were prepared to reap the reward.

On “Live at the Barbeque” from Main Source’s Breaking Atoms (1991), we were introduced to (then Nasty) Nas’ first feature verse. What does he do? He bodies it. “Slamming emcees on cement/because verbally I’m iller than an AIDS patient”. Akinyele also delivered a feature verse on the track, and Large Professor (vocals) and Pete Rock (associate producer) were also attached to the project. “Looking at the Front Door” Hit #1 on the Billboard Hot Rap Singles chart in 1990 and was included on the album in its release in July 1991. “A Friendly Game of Baseball” was included on the Boyz N The Hood soundtrack in 1991. Both K-Cut and Large Professor of Main Source went on to produce tracks for many heavy hitters: Pun and Fu-Schnickens for K-Cut, Eric B. & Rakim, Nas, Pete Rock and CL Smooth, Busta Rhymes, Mobb Deep and more for Large Professor.

Pete Rock & CL Smooth debuted with an EP in 1991 followed by the LP Mecca and the Soul Brother in 1992 which included the classic “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” dedicated to Trouble T Roy who was a dancer for Heavy D. The LP charted as high as #42 on the Billboard 200, but Pete Rock & CL Smooth never enjoyed much in the way of commercial success. Their next LP, The Main Ingredient, was released in 1994 and was the end of the duo’s output.

Cover art for Naughty by Nature’s debut LP.

Commercial success did not, however, miss Naughty by Nature out of East Orange, New Jersey. On their debut (under this new name) eponymous LP, Treach, Vin Rock, and DJ Kay Gee used the call-and-response hit “O.P.P.” to cash in. They followed that formula up with “Hip Hop Hooray” on 19 Naughty III, but the self-titled album bore them another hit first, “Ghetto Bastard”, and the group went platinum.

Further to the subject of rap Grammy awards previously explored in this series, Naughty by Nature won Best Rap Album for Poverty’s Paradise in 1996, the first time the award was offered in the Rap Album category. It should be noted that Skee-Lo (he of “I Wish” fame) was also nominated, but Naughty took home the award over stellar efforts from 2Pac and Ol’ Dirty Bastard.

There being no reasonable argument to the contrary, the Geto Boys released one of the greatest rap songs of all time in 1991 with “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” from We Can’t Be Stopped. It took less than six months for the album to go platinum, as it was certified by RIAA in early 1992. Scarface managed to enjoy the most success outside of the Geto Boys. Real name Brad Jordan, Scarface is known not only for being an incredibly talented emcee, but for candidly discussing his own mental health struggles in interviews and in his lyrics.

The Geto Boys helped to break the Houston and Southern hip hop scene nationwide. Unfortunately, label troubles with Rap-A-Lot records managed to keep Scarface, Bushwick Bill and Willie D from enjoying the true financial success they deserved for their contribution to hip hop. A 2015 attempt to revitalize their career and release an album via Kickstarter failed to meet its funding goal.

From whence the commercialism of Hammer and Vanilla Ice was followed by Naughty By Nature speaking candidly about poverty and the Geto Boys speaking about mental health, violence and more, thus came the Afro-centric Brand Nubian. In 1993, “Punks Jump Up to Get Beat Down” charted but murmurs of homophobia followed some of Sadat X’s lyrics, and later versions of the song had the offending lyrics omitted. Brand Nubian were part of an ‘alternative’ hip hop scene, not enjoying the ubiquity of the commercial rappers, but members of the group have been instrumental in the growth of hip hop for decades. Brand Nubian also contributed to the soundtrack of Menace II Society, a 1993 Hughes brothers film which complemented the earlier-mentioned Boyz N The Hood.

It is also worth mentioning Souls of Mischief, who in September 1993 released the album ’93 Til Infinity, along with the single of the same name. As the search for hip hop’s next big thing moved further and further west like the gold rush, A&R touched on Oakland and the hip hop collective of Hieroglyphics.

The watershed moment for rap music in popular culture was arguably the release of Dr. Dre’s solo debut, The Chronic, in 1992. The shock value of N.W.A having more or less faded, members releasing solo albums (Ice Cube had two under his belt prior to 1992), Dr. Dre was primed to introduce the world to the, definitively West Coast, G-Funk sound. Some credit him with creating G-Funk, while others say he made it famous but did not invent it.

G-Funk was heavier on bass than a lot of hip hop before it, and used samples in unaltered form. Dr. Dre’s first solo hit with the G-Funk sound was not from The Chronic, but from the film soundtrack for Deep Cover. The eponymous track for the film also introduced the world to Snoop Doggy Dogg.

Able to make the most of the burgeoning West Coast hip hop mainstream success, Ice Cube (also formerly of N.W.A along with Dr. Dre) released the third single from his album Predator on February 23, 1993. “It Was A Good Day” is not only recognized as one of the best songs ever in hip hop, but one of the best songs of the 1990s overall.

Cover art for Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).

Not willing to be outdone, the East Coast responded to the interest in G-Funk and West Coast hip hop when Wu-Tang Clan released its debut album in November, 1993. Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was markedly different from the sound Dre and the rest of the West were capitalizing on. Where Dre preferred funk samples (if not outright coopting of Parliament and Funkadelic), RZA utilized soul samples and haunting pianos to lay the foundation for the incredibly different styles of the members of the Clan collective, such as Ghostface Killah’s free-associative rhyming and Raekwon’s street rhymes as well as Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s schizophrenic bars and behaviors. One needs only look to the 1998 Grammy Awards when ODB rushed the stage as Shawn Colvin received her Song of the Year award and famously proclaimed “Wu-Tang is for the children” to see the polarizing antics of the late emcee.

The Source magazine, November, 1992.

Perhaps it was the laughability of the Grammys’ attempt to acknowledge hip hop as a relevant contributor to the culture of music as a whole, but The Source saw fit to create its own awards show beginning in 1994. The Source Awards have not been televised since the early aughts, and enjoy a bit of infamy as coastal feuds, label wars, and personal beefs have come to a head at the awards year after year. BET may have sensed the downfall of The Source Awards, as it began to produce its own awards show in 2001.

2Pac was amazingly talented at telling emotional stories in bombastic rhymes, keeping up the ‘gangsta’ while also being poignant. His 1993 release Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. stands as his vehicle for bursting onto the scene at a time when West Coast hip hop was full of buzz. It was 2Pac who — perhaps inadvertantly — made it a Source Awards staple to create some drama when he mic checked Q-Tip at the ’94 Awards. Pac claimed the incident was unintentional, but the years that followed always resulted in some beef igniting at the annual hip hop family reunion that was the Source Awards.

Returning to the point of beginning, having acknowledged this three-year window of hip hop’s commercial breakthrough and becoming a cultural tour de force, it is worth remembering that A Tribe Called Quest released The Low End Theory in 1991.

For many reasons, Low End Theory is a standard of the era. For many, this was their introduction to the insanely fast flow of Busta Rhymes (who appeared on “Scenario”) and stands as a classic album that has stood the test of time.

The end of the Golden Age is a subject of much debate. This writer will argue that the Golden Age ended with the full mainstreaming of hip hop around 1993 or 1994. From this point forward, star producers and even songwriters became a big part of the business of rap music. Future pieces will explore themes and subgenres of hip hop and rap, such as the posse cut and the diss track.

This piece picks up where the author left off, covering 1988–1990 in hip hop. Follow the writer on Twitter @anygiventues. I’d love your support to help me keep researching and writing: Show how much you loved this particular piece or maybe you want to support on a sustaining basis and get some perks?