Most genres of music have a generally agreed-upon golden age, when creativity, experimentation, and talent set the standard for music from that genre going forward. With hip-hop, that era isn’t just generally agreed upon — it’s named.
While the exact beginning and end are nebulous, the Golden Age of Hip-Hop is generally considered to be between the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, and one year that undoubtedly demonstrates the significance of this era is 1993. An auspicious year for the genre, albums released in '93 furthered the conversation of what hip-hop was and could be.
Lyricism was at its peak during this period, and rappers found new ways to critique the establishment. Though oppression and discrimination were still very pervasive, rappers were more than just soldiers in the fight against it. Albums from '93 engaged in the genre's revolutionary spirit with a forthright expression of their lived experiences as Black people in America, as well as what was going on in their minds and hearts.
Productions in 1993 were also honoring the history of the genre by putting techniques like sampling and scratching in the forefront. One of the biggest songs of 1993 (and in rap history), Cypress Hill's "Insane in the Brain," applied a squealing and unmistakable sample of which avid listeners to this day are still trying to discern the source.
1993 saw debut albums from now-essential artists, including Mobb Deep, the Roots, Snoop Doggy Dogg, and Digable Planets. At the same time, young legends including Tribe Called Quest and 2pac released work that demonstrated how they were at the peak of their game. Today, these records help define the sound of the Golden Age of Hip-Hop.
The mainstream wanted hip-hop to be a fad; to fade away along with its message of fighting the power and freedom of self-expression. But that was not destined to be the case, and taking a look back 30 years, these albums are sure to explain why.
A Tribe Called Quest - Midnight Marauders
An unnamed female host explains the title of Tribe's third album with a disjointed, monotone:
"...In this case, we maraud for ears."
Following up 1991’s The Low End Theory was not going to be an easy task by any means, but somehow the trio of Q-Tip, Phife Dawg and Ali-Shaheed Muhammad managed to do so on this masterpiece LP. Released in November, Tribe constructed a record that captures the culture of rappers on the rise.
The lyrics are not as forceful as those from N.W.A. and Public Enemy. Instead of throwing salvos at the government, the inherent rebellion happens in the demonstration that a rap album didn’t just have to be social commentary. The standout "Electric Relaxation" depicts the oh-so-human experience of early courtship, while "Oh My God" reflects the general reaction from the listener when they hear how adept at the craft Tribe truly is.
Midnight Marauders is a look at the humanity behind rap and that’s what the fight for equality really is — the ability to be recognized as human. That "Award Tour" that Tribe is rapping about? It’s a statement that rap and the people who create it are here to stay: "Going each and every place with a mic in their hand."
Wu-Tang Clan - Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is not only the supergroup's first album, but it’s also their magnum opus — though not in the sense that they peaked. Wu-Tang were staking their claim in the world, and that stake has only grown larger over the last 30 years.
The combined forces of RZA, GZA, Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God, Masta Killa, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard (RIP) was a power that hip-hop (and really every genre of music) hadn’t seen before or since. Each MC brought a unique style and flow (to the point they have all recorded solo albums) to the record, shouting hooks like "Protect Ya Neck," and "Wu-Tang Clan Ain't Nuthing ta F' Wit."
But the most influential track off the record was undoubtedly "C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me)." With its silky piano-driven beat, the nine major MCs demonstrated that they could rap with as much finesse as they could power.
Snoop Dogg - DoggyStyle
Snoop Dogg has gone through several moniker changes (from Snoop Doggy Dogg, to Snoop Dogg, to Snoop Lion), featured in major films, and become an entrepreneur in the cannabis industry, leaving an indelible effect on culture with each evolution.
But none of that would be possible if he didn’t write "Gin & Juice," for his now classic debut album DoggyStyle. G-funk existed before Snoop came into the picture, but Snoop gave it that extra bounce — the kind that comes from a ‘64 Impala with fresh hydraulics. From '93 on, it would certainly be a doggy dog world.
Snoop and his close friend and collaborator, Dr. Dre, embodied the gangsta rap lifestyle in a literal fashion. The same year DoggyStyle was released, Snoop and his bodyguard were charged with murder when the bodyguard killed a rival gang member. They were both later acquitted of all charges in 1996.
Souls of Mischief - 93 'til Infinity
Stepping on the scene in September ‘93, Souls of Mischief were an arm of Hieroglyphics, an Oakland, California-based collective founded by Del Tha Funky Homosapien. On their debut record, the rapping quartet of Phesto, A-Plus, Opio, and Tajai took the West Coast sound to a more chill place, connecting to audiences through their love of jazz and getting real about their understanding of the world around them.
No song better represents this intention than the album's title track. Now a classic, "93 'til Infinity's" echoing horns and dreamy keys create a spacious, yet intriguing backdrop for the foursome to share stories of everyday activities: hanging out with friends, meeting girls, and going to the movies.
But that’s the point. Very few people can relate to murder charges; everyone can relate to chilling — including rappers like J.Cole, Freddie Gibbs, Joey Bada$$, who sampled the beat, and likely many more who recognize the mischievous power of chill.
2Pac - Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z.
The second album from Tupac Shakur demonstrates his staying power, consistency, and how he was going to change the course of rap forever.
The backronym "N.I.G.G.A.Z" means "Never Ignorant in Getting Goals Accomplished," and Shakur made his goals clear on this album: He was going to stand up for the principles of rap while still pushing the sound into new territory.
Though he was deep in the gritty lifestyle of gangsta rap — a lifestyle that would eventually take his life at the age of 25 — Shakur used his music and his growing platform to stand up for moral values like respecting women, an idea he explores with an entire stanza in "Keep Ya Head Up."
And in the spirit of these more humble and grounded lyrics, Shakur employs beats that are less flashy and more minimalistic, ensuring his words are heard and understood.
Mobb Deep - Juvenile Hell
Rap music is deeply ingrained into the struggles of Black Americans, and Mobb Deep went through struggles with this LP.
Just teenagers at the time, this debut album didn’t receive any chart placements upon release causing their label, 4th & B'way Records, to quickly drop them. Production from legends like DJ Premier and Large Professor didn’t help either. Yet in listening to the single "Peer Pressure," the sole track with DJ Premier on production, it’s understandable why Mobb Deep didn’t connect off the bat.
Though the lyrics of members Prodigy and Havoc were honest and relatable, their delivery set them apart. Their use of syncopation and unconventional rhyme placements created a groove that was less club-ready and more primed for in-depth listening.
Perhaps the idea of taking a chance on an act with a more intricate approach didn’t seem worth it at the time for a label, but Mobb Deep would prove them wrong by embracing that struggle.
Their second album, 1995’s The Infamous, is now rightfully lauded as one of the best rap albums in history.
The Roots - Organix
The Roots have never been typical: They hail from Philadelphia, not one of the cities traditionally prevalent in the history of rap. They perform with a band, a staunch departure from DJing which was the standard among the genre at the time.
Today, they’re pop culture staples with a residency on "The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon" and Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, is an Oscar and GRAMMY-winning director and author.
Yet the atypical nature that would take the Roots to the highest echelons of culture was first demonstrated on their debut album, Organix.
With the live approach, there was a looser and more collaborative feel between the beats built around Thompson’s drumming and the vocals primarily delivered by Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter. The resulting energy (which the group maintains to this day) is more akin to an instrumental jam, with the music and vocalists playing off one another.
This created tracks on Organix with longer run times like "Pass The Popcorn" which is over five minutes, "Grits" which is over six minutes, and the rap epic "The Session (Longest Posse Cut in History)" which is nearly 13 minutes. These longer raps feature a variety of artists, but Trotter is the core of this new format, demonstrating his surprising flow.
A little-known fact about the Roots is that Thompson has also served as an MC throughout the history of the group, and Organix contains a verse or two from the famous drummer.
Digable Planets - Reachin' (A New Refutation Of Time And Space)
The Golden Age of Hip-Hop saw the development of "jazz rap," a style that emphasized the already vital similarities between the genres by imbuing hip-hop beats with jazz instrumentation. Digable Planets’ debut album, Reachin' (A New Refutation Of Time And Space), pioneered the sound.
Beyond the smooth delivery from the three MCs, Digable Planets further emphasized the influence of jazz by sampling genre greats like Sonny Rollins and Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers. It’s clear where Digable Planets grabbed the bassline and horn break of "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)" within Art Blakey’s "Stretching," taking the first couple bars of longer improvisational sections and looping them into beats — a technique in line with all of the earliest hip-hop beats.
From the jump, Digable Planets had the courage to apply sampling and looping to the high-flying virtuosity of bebop.
KRS-One - Return of the Boom Bap
In 1993, KRS-One (also known as "Teacha") hit the airwaves and store shelves with his debut solo album, Return of the Boom Bap, and subsequently invited everyone who wanted to listen into a classroom about the realities of life.
Prior to going solo, KRS-One was a member of the hip-hop group Boogie Down Productions; fellow member DJ Scott La Rock was murdered in 1987. Such a tragic loss added a certain fire to the music of KRS-One, and from then on he has been committed to educating his listeners on what it means to be human.
On his debut, he launches this intention with an attack. "KRS-One Attacks" opens the album with the sampled words: "We will be here forever," and then proceeds into an instrumental basis point of boom-bap hip-hop production that sets the tone for the rest of the album.
One song that will certainly be around for decades to come is the record’s hit song "Sound of da Police," a scathing indictment of the culturing of policing in the U.S. over heavy kicks and crisp snares.
De La Soul - Buhloone Mindstate
De La Soul defined the Golden Age of Hip-Hop, putting out four albums in the celebrated period, including their September 1993 LP, Buhloone Mindstate. By 1993, De La Soul had demonstrated their ability to evolve as artists and engage with burgeoning styles like jazz rap.
Where on early hits like "Eye Know" De La Soul were rapping at high speeds and flexing samples like Steely Dan’s "Peg," Buhloone Mindstate’s standout, "Breakadawn," embraced the more relaxed approach to rap with light jazz instrumentation and a reserved tempo to give more space for their lyrics to truly resonate.
In the spirit of the Golden Age, the release also crosses literal and figurative borders. Figuratively in the sense that they cross musical borders by inviting jazz greats like Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley, and Pee Wee Ellis on songs like "I Am I Be" and "Patti Dooke." Literally in the sense that they invited Japanese rappers SCHA DARA PARR and Takagi Kan on to the record for the skit "Long Island Wildin'," which sees the two featured artists deliver impressive verses in their native tongue.
Though David Jude Jolicoeur’s (a.k.a.Trugoy the Dove) experimentation with sampling led to legal troubles that excluded De La Soul from streaming, that same experimentation is what inspired numerous other hip hop greats, including Yasiin Bey, Jurassic 5, Pharrell, and Tyler, the Creator.
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