With its humble beginnings in clubs and on the streets, rap reached its creative and musical apogee in the 90s. Artists like Big Daddy Kane, KRS-One, Eric B and Rakim, and the astute MC Search paved the way for an incredible group of stars, who flourished during a time when production and lyricism in rap were at all-time highs. From the West Coast to East Coast to down South, rap was, in the 90s, an influential medium of entertainment in that it allowed artists to showcase their creativity and disseminate their political views in fun, digestible packages. Especially given the prevalence of rap in poor, disenfranchised communities, rap became a way in which artists could express their contempt for institutionalized discrimination and manifold social ills, which had not been adequately covered by the mainstream media. As Marshall McLuhan asserts, “the medium is the message,” and 90s rap corroborates this assertion.
With an increasingly popular platform to voice their social views, however, rappers in the 90s engendered backlash from mainstream America, despite the fact that mainstream music audiences were attracted to rap. The film CB4 (1993) dramatizes this paradox, as the fervent critic of the rap group from the film discovers that his son is a fan of the group. But this agon between rappers (and fans of the genre) and their opponents proves that successful rappers in the 90s reached larger audiences than ever before. Rap, in other words, became a force to be reckoned with.
As most fans of rap already know, there is a good deal of diversity within this musical genre. As a result, geographic distinctions have been used to organize the genre into West-Coast, East-Coast, and Southern rap. Though still prevalent amongst certain fans, these kinds of distinctions have largely been eschewed. But in the 90s, rap feuds—most notably between Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac—made these distinctions significant. Indeed, the East-Coast ethos of rap was supposed to be wholly different from the West-Coast ethos, despite certain stylistic similarities. In any case, in the 90s, the amount of quality rap that came out of the “West Coast” or the “South” did not match the amount of quality rap that came out of the “East Coast.”
And because of these rigid distinctions in the 90s, this list looks at ten of the most influential East-Coast rap albums from the 90s. Without these albums, there would, arguably, not be artists like Kanye West and Blu and Exile, artists who have been significantly influenced by their antecedents. Though different in execution, these following albums are similar in that they are glutted with tracks that combine excellent lyricism and immaculate production. Let us know your favourite East-Coast rap albums from the 90s. Enjoy…
10 The Score (1996)—Fugees
When The Score was released in 1996, it became an instant crossover success, eventually climbing to the number 1 spot atop the Billboard 200. In 2003, Rolling Stone included this album in its list, “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” The group, which consisted of Wyclef Jean, Lauryn Hill, and Pras, largely handles the production of the album, which features several hit singles. The album balances intelligent, thoughtful lyrics with memorably playful lines. Wyclef Jean and Lauryn Hill counterpoise each other’s verses on several songs, and Lauryn Hill shines luminously throughout. Her verse from “Ready or Not” is trenchant and shocking, yet not crass; with her performances on this album, she became one of the most beloved female MCs and paved the way for future females in the genre. In light of Lauryn Hill’s recent legal troubles, this album should remind fans of her former glory.
9 Liquid Swords (1995)—GZA
Liquid Swords is the first of three albums on this list related to the Wu-Tang Clan, and it is arguably the best. After the hip-hop super group released Enter the Wu-Tang, the members began to pursue solo projects, but with the same collaborative mentality. Aside from GZA, this album features all of the usual suspects from the Wu-Tang Clan, and all the members bring their own unique deliveries and sensibilities to the table. As a result, the album never flags, and quality tracks pervade it. The formidable RZA handles the majority of the production, and listeners can tell: the beats are powerful and haunting. Although each fan has his or her favourite track, some of the highlights from this album include “Liquid Swords,” “4th Chamber,” “Shadowboxin’,” and “Investigative Reports.” Throughout the album, GZA has a slick and commanding flow that accentuates his lyrically dense verses. This album continues to entertain and inspire rap fans, and music writers continue to eulogize it.
8 Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (1995)—Raekwon
The first thing one notices about Only Built 4 Cuban Linx is its indelible cover, in which Raekwon is posing with Ghostface Killah, who hovers portentously behind him and thrusts his two hands-turned-guns into the foreground. Like Liquid Swords, this album features a host of Wu-Tang members, and each member bolsters the album with his own style. The album features other notable East-Coast rappers like Nas, whose verse from “Verbal Intercourse” is one of the album’s strongest. Highlights from this album include “Criminology,” “Incarcerated Scarfaces,” “Guillotine Swordz,” “Ice Cream,” and “Wu-Gambinos.” As with much of the early Wu-Tang stuff, RZA produces most of the beats. The beats on this album are raw and pulsating, giving the MCs good beats to ride throughout. The tracks on this album continue to be some of the most listened to from the entire Wu-Tang oeuvre.
7 The Low End Theory (1991)—A Tribe Called Quest
Celebrities, fans, and critics continue to extol A Tribe Called Quest’s second album, Low End Theory, for its groundbreaking blend of hip hop, jazz, and strong lyricism. Several tracks from this album are indisputable classics amongst hip hop fans—namely, “Buggin’ Out,” “Check the Rhime,” “Jazz (We’ve Got),” and “Scenario.” Indeed, Rolling Stone included this album on its list, “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” Throughout the album, Phife Dawg’s sonorous flow contrasts brilliantly with Q-Tip’s piquant flow, and their verses are both playful and thoughtful. Busta Rhymes, who in 1991 was a member of the rap collective, Leaders of the New School, makes an unforgettable appearance on “Scenario,” the album’s most energizing track.
6 Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star (1998)—Black Star
Mos Def and Talib Kweli’s collaborative album, Black Star, is the quintessence of an album that combines poignant social analysis with excellent sound and production. The two artists grew up in before-gentrification-and-ubiquitous-baby-strollers Brooklyn, and they bring their unique histories and sensibilities to the table in this album. Hi-Tek, one of the finest producers in the industry, handles the majority of the production, while Pete Rock and 88-Keys both pitch in with a track each. The highlights from this album include “Definition,” “Brown Skin Lady,” “Respiration,” and “Thieves in the Night.” Throughout the album, Talib Kweli’s lightly smooth flow contrasts nicely with Mos Def’s deeper flow. Mos Def, in particular, dazzles listeners with pert lyricism during his verses and tender voice during his singing sections. Songs like “Respiration” balance smart lyrics with an unobtrusive beat. This album is a bona-fide classic and, due to the timing of its release, marks the beginning of the end of the greatest decade for rap music.
5 Moment of Truth (1998)—Gang Starr
What do you get when you cross one of rap music’s greatest poets with one of its greatest producers? Well, you get Moment of Truth, a timeless classic that marks the apogee of Gang Starr’s success and creativity. DJ Premier’s beats from this album could have been packaged and sold separately and would have still been praised by fans of the genre. That is not to say, however, that Guru’s verses are not up to par; on the contrary, Guru delivers some of his finest verses on this album. Highlights from this album include “Work,” “Above the Clouds,” The Rep Grows Bigga,” “What I’m Here 4,” and “Betrayal”—the last being accentuated by Scarface’s haunting verse about a talented basketball player who gets gunned down. However, “Moment of Truth” is the album’s finest song, as Guru’s verses are prophet-like and, despite his religious beliefs, are universal in their appeal. Songs from this album continually crop up in film and television, which attests to the album’s impact and timelessness.
4 The Infamous (1995)—Mobb Deep
With their second studio album, The Infamous, Mobb Deep reached the acme of their success and creative output. Mobb Deep, which consisted of Havoc and Prodigy, handles a good deal of the album’s production, which is raw, yet haunting and offers the perfect bedrock for the MCs’ verses. Upon the album’s release, Rolling Stone called it “nihilistic,” a perfect term to describe the songs’ unabashedly violent themes. Highlights from this album include “Survival of the Fittest,” “Eye For a Eye (Your Beef is Mines),” “Temperature’s Rising,” and “Shock Ones Pt II”—the last of which is an unforgettable track that combines an ominous beat with caustic lyrics. Given the album’s themes, it remains shocking to think that Havoc and Prodigy were only 19-20 when this album was released, a fact that Prodigy points to in “Shook Ones Pt II”: “I’m only 19 but my mind is old.” Rap neophytes should not miss this album.
3 Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993)—Wu-Tang Clan
Enter the Wu-Tang propelled the sundry members of this rap collective into the stratosphere of success in the industry. Since the album’s release, no group of rappers has impacted the industry like this group has. In 2003, Rolling Stone, including this album on its list, “500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” asserted that “East-Coast hip hop made a return in 1993” with this album. The indomitable RZA produces the album, which includes hits like “Bring Da Ruckus,” “Shame on a Nigga,” “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’,” “Protect Ya Neck,” “Method Man,” and—the one that everyone seems to know—“C.R.E.A.M.” The battle-rap style of this album keeps things from getting dry, and the MCs all showcase their unique flows and talents. “C.R.E.A.M.”—which stands for: Cash Rules Everything Around Me—has become a sort of mantra in the industry, so there is no denying this album’s influence.
2 Ready to Die (1994)—Notorious B.I.G.
Perhaps the most gifted storyteller and freestyler in the industry’s history, Notorious B.I.G. released Ready to Die in 1994 to massive critical acclaim. Rolling Stone included this album on its list, “500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” as classic tracks pervade this album—namely, “Things Done Changed,” Gimme the Loot,” “Machine Gun Funk,” “Warning,” “Ready to Die,” “Juicy,” “Everyday Struggle,” ‘Big Poppa,” and “Unbelievable.” A motley of great producers handle this album’s productions, and the beats are varied and afford Biggie the perfect canvas on which to paint. As one track flows from another, listeners can sense Biggie’s bi-polarity as both an endearing storyteller and gangster rapper. While “Gimme the Loot” is a gangster-rap classic, “Juicy” is a song about growth, maturity, and perseverance. The album is fresh to death—no pun intended—and fans of the genre will cherish it for years to come.
1 Illmatic (1994)—Nas
There is one axiom to this list: Illmatic, irrespective of time and place, is the greatest rap album of all time. It would be pointless to name the album’s best tracks because, from start to finish, there are no throwaways on this album. At the tender age of 21, Nas released the most stunning collection of tracks the industry has ever seen. From Large Professor to DJ Premier to Pete Rock, the production on this album is impeccable. What the album does well is balance its hardcore elements with a quality of being easy to listen to—that is, it’s not as mellow as A Tribe Called Quest’s offerings and not as virulent as the contemporaneous gangster-rap offerings. Nas is still putting out quality music, but this album will always be his magnum opus.