Maybe it’s because I’m an 80s baby and I grew up on hip hop in the 90s with the likes of Tupac, Biggie, Jay-Z, Nas, Scarface, Devin da Dude, OutKast, Wu Tang, 3-6, and more… Maybe it’s because as I grew up in the 90s Hip-Hop had become mainstream—and controversial. Maybe it’s just the nostalgia of looking back on my childhood that influences my opinions about the culture, but it is with merit when Hip-Hop fans constantly refer back to the 90s with reverence and awe when comparing eras.
Of course we know the 70s and 80s saw Hip-Hop’s infancy from DJ and MC, dance and battle groups, call and response from the likes of Kool Herc and GrandMaster Flash to the story telling and gangsta rappers such as Slick Rick and NWA. By the 90s, the new generation of producers, DJs, and rappers had perfected beat making, lyricism, and story telling, HipHop had found its sound and was solidified though marginalized in mainstream culture, artists realized they could get paid. It seem like the 90’s, artist were at their hungriest.
Hip Hop spread like the California fires in the streets of America. Albums like Illmatic, Doggy Style, Southernplayalistic, 2Pacalypse Now, Ready to Die and The Diary took over the airwaves and underground scene. By 1996, after fighting for years against censorship and vitriol to be recognized on the highest levels among other musical genres, it gained its own category “Best Rap Album” in the Grammy’s presented to Naughty By Nature for their classic Poverty Paradise.
Hip Hop was on another level in the 90s. Great talent ranged all across the map from East to West, North to South, and Mid-West. Men, women, and even kids—teenagers, were making great music. Some of the greatest Hip Hop albums like The Mis-Education of Lauryn Hill garnered commercial success and achievements while underground works such as Devin the Dude’s, The Dude, were becoming critically acclaimed in the magazines and the streets. The styles varied from region to region but the quality stayed on par and each area had their strengths. The North/East as it focused on MCing and Competitive battling, mastering the punch line and metaphor and lyrical storytelling. The Mid-West with its rapid fire, fast spitting, harmonic style that came to an apex with Eminem. The South with its laidback beats, southern slang, strip club music, and descriptive story telling widely ranged depending on the State. The West Coast bringing its raw reality of gangbanging and pimpin, while flowing to a melodic funkadelic or Zapp sample that made it a “Gangsta Party.” Not to mention all of the female MCs that came from these areas that had flow and something to say; Lil Kim, MIssy Elliot, Queen Latifah, Foxy Brown, Mia X, Gangsta Boo and La Chat, just to name a few. It’s named the Golden-Age for a reason!!
Nothing happens without controversy. By the turn of the century with Hip-Hop’s success, it’s commercial takeover was inevitable, eventually leading to the best albums and the best artists being overlooked due to commercial popularity. The most marketable songs became the most popular songs, no matter how rudimentary the skills. This era is often called “the ringtone era” marked with cliche rhymes, metaphors, and skill; lack of new great rappers coming from NY; and a over saturation of Down South Crunk music, this eras strengths came in its production rather than its lyrical skills. At this time, the OGs like Lil Wayne, Jay Z, Nas, Scarface, Eminem, 3 6 Mafia, and Hot Boys and others from the previous decade held down the fort, with only a handful of new rappers and groups who would last beyond a one hit wonder.
Then in 2006, Nas drops Hip-Hop is Dead. The question—now statement, was on every Hip Hop heads mind and in everyone’s debate. New rappers and groups like Kanye West, Clipse, Jeezy, TI, and Rick Ross were too far in between and the airwaves were saturated with the likes of G-Unit and Lil Jon. Instead of the likes of Goodie Mob and Too Short, we were getting UNK and Solja Boy. DJs played what got them paid and rappers soon follow—or lead, and the hip hop went from a genre of self expression to a vehicle of selling bottles in the club, promoting brands, frivolous spending, and throwing money on strippers. A friend of mine agreed with, Nas—Hip Hop is Dead.
But me, I thought it was in more of a coma. Good music was still dropping, but not on a mass scale and only by a handful of new artist and OGs who dropped an album before 2000. Shoot, I took a hiatus for a while after about 2009, and went on a binge of Rock and Roll and Alternative music for a good five years—only listening to Hip Hop when I needed that fix of some Scarface or UGK; or when some new rappers catch my ear—like Drake or Cudi. My friends were adamant that it was dead as a door nail and had no hope.
Fast Forward to Now!! This shit right here, ninja!! This shit right here….!! Is fire!!! It’s like Hip Hop went through its celebration “let me stunt on these hoes, I got money,” phase, to a “I got money, now let me focus on my craft” type of phase.
A lot of it can be attributed to new technology. The Internet, social media, and the affordability of studio software and equipment making it easier than ever for a great artist with little resources to make a big impact. But just like in the 90’s these 2010s have seen surge of great talent from all over the United States. We have TDE and Kendrick and OddFuture in the West, Travis Scott and Maxo Kream and Megan Thee Stallion in Texas, Griselda and ASAP in the North, You got EarthGang and Young Thug in ATL, J Cole from NC, Big KRIT from MS, Dolph from TN, and I can go on and on and on to Joyner Lucas to Shy Glizzey—even Jaden Smith has a lil flow. Women are bringing the flow too with Rapsody, Tierra Whack, Janelle Monae, Lizzo, BIA and others dropping skill. And what’s even better, is that the 2010s still have the OGs from the previous decades like Drake, Cudi, Ye, Ross, Wayne, and Lupe from the 2000s and Jay-Z, Nas, Scarface, Black Thought and others from the 90s that were dropping BANGAZ!!!
Granted, there is still a great saturation of commercialized rappers like the Post Malones and the Amigos of the world. Haha. Granted they still dominate the airwaves with the same ol’ club bangaz that moves the market. Cool. The good thing about that is, many artist have learned to cater to the market without compromising their quality or talent. Drake is a prime example of this and Cardi B’s debut album was a commercial success and it was still able to maintain quality Hip Hop that the streets could bang.
I am anxious to see what the 2020’s have in store. As new producers and rappers continue to experiment with new sounds and new styles, I can only hope the quality will be maintained. Who will lead this new generation? We’ll soon see.