Hip hop these days can feel like listening to one big anti-climax. It has a lot of potential but fails to live up to the golden age hip hop of the 1990s at every turn. Even if you’re a hip hop fan that disagrees but still you love your old school, then you’re in for an absolute treat with this article.
Whether you’re optimistic about rap’s future or just stuck in the nineties, there’s no denying that hip hop has come a long way from its humble, simplistic origins. It’s gone from being an isolated force in music during the 1970s, pioneered and enjoyed almost exclusively by African-American youths residing in New York to a truly international movement in popular music sustained by millions of listeners around the globe. Whilst hip hop was mostly restricted to the United States during the 1970s and 1980s, by the 1990s this unique and ground-breaking genre would ultimately take the music world by storm and change the sound of mainstream music dramatically.
Non-American variations of hip hop emerged, such as Britain’s own grime movement, but non-English language rap music also became prominent in other countries as they developed their own native hip hop scenes. Hip hop changed the conceptions of what a vocalist really is, as the vocalists in these songs were very rarely singers but, of course, rappers. Prominent bands in the 2000s, such as The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Rage Against the Machine and The Streets even took influence from hip hop and fused rock and rap to create sounds that were even more unique than hip hop itself at the time.
However, even though hip hop is still very popular and prominent in music today, the point is that the hip hop of today without a doubt fails to live up to the hip hop of the 1990s. As such, I’ve compiled a list of 10 major hip hop anthems that really show off the genre at its finest. However, all of these songs are from the hip hop’s golden age in the 1990s. Simply put, these songs are classics. And so, in no particular order…
‘Protect Ya Neck’ – Wu-Tang Clan
Hard-core hip hop group and East Coast legends Wu-Tang Clan made hip hop history with their critically acclaimed debut album ‘Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’. This single from the album is one of the group’s most performed and well-known songs, characterised by some heavy, aggressive but also eerie production from RZA and some phenomenal verses from Inspectah Deck, Raekwon, Method Man, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Ghostface Killah, RZA and GZA. Any old school playlist would be incomplete without this hip hop anthem, although the group’s other hits such as ‘Method Man’ and ‘C.R.E.A.M.’ give this track a run for its money.
‘93 till Infinity’ – Souls of Mischief
An infectious and highly catchy track and the namesake of Souls of Mischief’s 1993 debut album. A powerful but mellow beat complements some fierce rapping from the group’s entourage of MCs. Although the group’s debut was met with positive feedback, it failed to be as successful as other West Coast albums of the time. This lead to Souls of Mischief and their lead single being considered as one-hit-wonders of the hip hop world, although any true fan of old-school hip hop would find the album, its slick production and the distinctive rapping featured to be a gem in its own right.
‘Insane In The Brain’ – Cypress Hill
Arguably Cypress Hill’s signature song and a mainstream hip hop hit. The group boasts a truly unique sound to other rap groups, bolstered by the distinctive production of DJ Muggs and the nasally and instantly-recognisable vocals of lead rapper B-Real. This is a song certainly suited for parties and clubs and definitely not for sitting back and chilling. ‘Insane In The Brain’ (released as part of the group’s critically-acclaimed ‘Black Sunday’ album) found unlikely chart success and brought the Latino trio to the mainstream.
‘Life’s A Bitch’ – Nas
East Coast hip hop is usually hard-hitting and aggressive. Hip hop legend Nas proved that the genre can not only be undoubtedly smooth but can also possess powerful and insightful lyrics with social or even political themes. The song features a verse from rapper AZ, followed by Nas’ verse. It is very hard to decide which verse really comes out on top here. The song displays a contradictory but also creative combination of a slow smooth jazz-based beat that backs fast, complex and dense verses performed by AZ and Nas. Several themes are dealt with in this song, varying from personal themes such as Nas’ gratitude for having survived to his 20s, considering his upbringing and lifestyle, to wider-influencing themes such as the relationship between money and power.
‘Juicy’ – The Notorious B.I.G.
East Coast icon The Notorious B.I.G. dropped his landmark single ‘Juicy’ in 1994. The song is a rags-to-riches chronicle in which the “born sinner who used to eat sardines for dinner” tells the story of his early years in crime and poverty, his musical ambitions and his rise to the top as a rap superstar with the lavish lifestyle to match. Although ‘Juicy’ was originally made for the masses with the intention of connecting Biggie with a mainstream audience, it has gone down as one of the most recognisable rap songs in existence and truly one of the greatest.
‘Above The Clouds’ – Gang Starr
Hip hop duo Gang Starr (comprised of rapper Guru and producer DJ Premier) were a respected and long-standing force in the genre, releasing a string of hip hop classics during their existence. ‘Above The Clouds’ is a unique but ear-catching song that blends tranquil and oriental-influenced beats with Guru’s thoughtful lyrics and complex word-play as well as an incredible verse from Wu-Tang Clan member Inspectah Deck. Although possibly not one of the most well-known songs in hip hop, ‘Above The Clouds’ deserves far more praise than it managed to achieve when it was initially released.
‘No Vaseline’ – Ice Cube
Arguably the most famous diss track ever made, ‘No Vaseline’ has become one of Ice Cube’s most popular and memorable songs. The song is aimed towards Ice Cube’s former bandmates in N.W.A. (and even the group’s manager at-the-time) and is a series of brutal but well-performed insults that truly tear his former crew to shreds. The chief rapper and lyricist of N.W.A., Ice Cube made the strongest case possible that he was the true rap talent in the group with this well-known track. Ice Cube also displayed some funky but impressive production with ‘No Vaseline’ that really stays true to the West Coast sound.
‘Got Your Money’ – Ol’ Dirty Bastard
Released in 1999, this song by the late rapper and Wu-Tang Clan member Ol Dirty Bastard (or ODB) found surprising chart success, blends rap with elements of R&B and is a definite floor-stomper. As ODB explains through rap his feelings that women only pay attention to him due to his wealth and celebrity status (“you want to look pretty though, in my video”), a recognisable and very R&B hook by singer Kelis features several times and arguably steals the show.
‘My Name Is’ – Eminem
Produced by Dr. Dre and released in 1999, this hit single by Eminem earned the rapper his first Grammy Award for Best Solo Rap Performance in 2000. ‘My Name Is’ is a good example of the comedic hip hop that Eminem is well-known for. The track’s music video is quite eye-catching and helps to give ‘My Name Is’ even more humour to its character. Lyrically, ‘My Name Is’ is a brutally honest but explosive introduction for Eminem to the mainstream and to this day, one of his most popular and enduring tracks.
‘Put It On’ – Big L
The late rapper Big L released his debut album in 1995 at the impressive age of 20 but was shot dead in 1999. Big L’s debut, ‘Lifestylez of da Poor & Dangerous’, was dark, heavy-hitting and unashamedly gangsta. ‘Put It On’ was the album’s lead single and is noticeably lighter in tone than the other tracks on the album and its catchy-hook is quite recognisable to old school hip hop fans. ‘Put It On’ is another way of saying ‘do your thing’ and the song has gone down as a rap classic.
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