Who had the best rap album of the '90s? Ask your inner 11-year-old.
Yesterday, Complex posted our list of the 90 Greatest Albums of the '90s. The process of deciding what made the cut and what did not involved a Ouiji board, daily prayer, and months of behind-the-scenes Machiavellian (Makavelian?) political maneuvering. Enemies were blackmailed, friends were extorted, and minions manipulated. Payola papered over rivalries...at least, the ones that didn't end in bloodshed.
Eh, not really. Mostly, it involved discussion—meetings, google docs, emails, IMs, skype chats—compiling a master list and slowly whittling it down, making last-ditch efforts to save certain records, shrugging your shoulders at others, and trying to compress years of listening to and thinking about hip-hop into a series of long conversations. It's an impossible task; the 1990s were hip-hop's decade, stretching from its peak as an underground art to the beginnings of its commercial denouement.
Enemies were blackmailed, friends were extorted, and minions manipulated. Payola papered over rivalries...at least, the ones that didn't end in bloodshed.
It was also the era when hip-hop became a real national, commercial phenomenon. And it was also a period when most of the Complex staff went through various passionate phases of music fandom—childhood, junior high, high school, college, first kisses, first jobs. Those moments when music isn't a mere obsession, but becomes part of the texture of your life.
And as the Internet has made incredibly clear, we all want to make sure our taste and experience is validated. It's one of the reasons why we—and at this point, I mean everyone, not just the Complex staff—bother to argue about hip-hop online. We all have a subjective perspective, looking at hip-hop through the limited view of our own personal periscope, raising our voices in a cacophony of competing histories.
* * *
Over Christmas, I unearthed a cassette tape that I'd made when I was eleven years old, in fifth grade. At the time, my family didn't have much money. I was not a hard luck case, but we were on welfare, and I had a single mother. At that time, no hip-hop was free—except what was on the radio. And what I was drawn to on the radio interests me to this day. Because these were some of my earliest experiences with hip-hop as a cognizant fan—as one seeking out new music. These tapes offer a snapshot of what listening to hip-hop was like in 1994, the year Illmatic was released, as a kid growing up on Chicago radio—stations like B96, WGCI, 106 Jams, and WJPC Chicago. (The tape also includes lots of recordings of me, my brother, and our friends recording horrible fake commercials that could only possibly be funny to us.) It's not the kind of snapshot any "best albums" list could ever give you. But going through these songs, I wasn't disappointed; in fact, the whole experience was invigorating.
David Drake's 1994 Mixtape Tracklist
1. James Taylor "Your Smiling Face" (1977)
2. Grand Funk Railroad "The Locomotion" (1974)
3. 2Pac "Keep Your Head Up" (1993)
4. 2Pac "I Get Around" (1993) (Enters on Shock G's verse)
5. Ace of Bass "All That She Wants" (1993)
6. Wu-Tang Clan "C.R.E.A.M." (1994)
7. Fake Hooligans Restaurant commercial interlude
8. Domino "Sweet Potato Pie" (1994)
9. Da Brat "Funkdafied" (1994) (Starts halfway through the song.)
10. Fake non-alcoholic "Buscheweiser Beer" commercial interlude
11. Terrible fake radio DJ patter
12. Fake commercial for "Flip" brand chainsaws
13. Ahmad "Back In the Days (Dividends Remix)" (1994) (Remix of Ahmad's signature song blended with the "Funky Dividends" beat)
14. Fake news break. "Ronald Reagan thought he was a grasshopper."
15. Fake request for "Ghetto Jam" by Domino.
16. Fake commercial for Junior Monopoly board game.
17. Three or four seconds of De La Soul's "Me Myself and I" (1989) (Cut off immediately.)
18. Domino "Ghetto Jam" (1994)
19. Four Seconds of Gang Starr's "Code of the Streets" (1994) (Cut off immediately.)
20. A review of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. "PG-13. Good movie, funny. Good for the kids in some parts, bad for them in others."
21. The Artist Formerly Known As Prince and Nona Gaye "Love Sign" (1994)
22. Da Brat "Funkdafied" (1994) (From the beginning, this time.)
23. A few seconds of Queen Latifah's "U.N.I.T.Y." (1994) (Before Side A comes to a sudden end.)
1. Warren G f/ Nate Dogg "Regulate" (1994) (Partial recording.)
2. The Pharcyde "Passin Me By" (1993)
3. Da Brat "Fa All Y'All" (1994)
4. Warren G "This DJ" (1994)
5. Warren G f/ Nate Dogg "Regulate" (1994) (Full recording.)
6. Warren G "This DJ" (1994) (Again.)
7. Heavy D "Black Coffee" (1994)
One of the first things you notice—aside from my bizarre taste in non-rap, as an eleven year old—is that G-funk dominates. This reflects my memory of the era; a year or so earlier, I would watch The Chronic's videos cycle through on The Box—a call-in television network where you could request certain music videos—and became obsessed with the sound of G-funk. It was very melodic to my ear and it was everywhere, in Dre's work and in songs like "Funkdafied" and "Regulate" too.
There's been a lot of talk lately about the sway that "hipster publications" supposedly hold over the canon. The truth is that over the past five years or so, all publications (hipster or otherwise) have lost ground when it comes to authority in favor of individuals. Social media has completely destabilized the legitimacy of formerly-influential institutions. Chances are, if you read our list yesterday and didn't agree with certain choices, you felt emboldened to say so in the comments, or on Twitter, Tumblr, or Facebook. This applies to the Complex staff as well: check the diversity of tastes in our top ten ballots, published earlier today.
As much fun as it was to argue about, it becomes more and more apparent how differently we had all experienced the decade; some of us were already in the press, like senior editor Rob Kenner, who worked on stories about Biggie and Pac for Vibe when both rappers were alive. Others, like myself, were in junior high and high school, where hip-hop was social music—a way to define yourself. Some tastes, like those of sneaker writer Matt Welty, skewed more "backpacker," in the traditional sense—Freestyle Fellowship and Hieroglyphics were among his favorite artists. Music editor Damien Scott described his experience as being as much about pop music as it was hip hop; by the late '90s, the two were overlapping. We all had different values, different tastes and perspectives that shaped the way heard the music of this era.
And I can't say that our debates didn't cause some frustrations. (No, it's not that serious. But if it wasn't a little serious, it wouldn't be worth arguing about.) My junior high experience had been that no rappers—not Biggie, not Mobb Deep, certainly not Jay Z—were as big or important as 2Pac, Snoop Dogg, and Bone Thugs 'N' Harmony. Obviously, this has only slight bearing on who had the best albums. (My personal opinion is that Pac had the best of all, but it's also evident that Jay's debut was, true to legend, underrated at the time.)
Now that huge swaths of recorded history are at our fingertips, things are different—or so the thinking goes. It's what makes a project like "The 90 Best Rap Albums of the '90s" possible. How else can we compare such disparate experiences with music? A lot of folks might say technology makes our experiences of music less relevant. After all, now we can all be on the "same page"—don't you recognize how great Reasonable Doubt is? A person would have to be crazy not to. Every discussion ends up feeling like common sense arguing against common sense: sometimes, you easily convince someone of your point of view; a good argument could effectively push an album's ranking up or down several places. Other times, the winds just work against you.
How do you reach consensus? You don't. You reach a compromise.
There's a pervasive idea that now, because we can all hear Reasonable Doubt and know its greatness, that some truths about what albums are really the best are self-evident. That history is a settled question. If this applies to you, I beg you to reconsider your point of view. Or end up being this guy:
You can quibble with his point of view all day and think, "he's just got the timeline wrong... Illmatic came after Midnight Marauders." But how finely can you split that hair? That's the narcissism of small differences at work. This kind of thinking does a tremendous disservice to history and experience. That's why it's so worthy of parody. (Yes, that was a parody. You can tell when the narrator says "Rakeem.") The Internet has made hip-hop an abstracted culture, one detached from lived experience. Whether that's a good or bad thing is irrelevant; it's just reality, and unlikely to change any time soon. What is bad is the suggestion that this experience of hip-hop—the list-making and canon-building—is anything more than a fun exercise. This idea that we've got some kind of grand, objective perspective on the entire genre is misguided at best. There's an arrogance to the suggestion that being aware of the multitudes of styles and approaches can possibly give us a true, unified point of view.
* * *
During an interview I conducted a few years back, Bay Area rapper The Jacka told me that Illmatic hadn't been that significant to him and his friends at the time of its release—although they came around to it later on. A fan of Slick Rick and Big Daddy Kane, he told me his crew didn't really fuck with East Coast rap until the cleaner sound of The War Report. But Illmatic? "When I listen to it now, I see how people really did like it then, because it was ahead of its time. But at the time, I was just like, man this ain't slappin' hard enough for me. These niggas snares is louder than they drum kicks. But then when Snoop Dogg and everybody came out, it made these East Coast niggas step they beat game up."
By the logic of The Onion's hip-hop expert, The Jacka's point of view was "wrong." And my mixtape, while its an amusing curio, failed to capture the best music of my era. (Where's Nas?!) But what does that matter, ultimately?
And this isn't even necessarily about race, age, or authenticity. Although those issues aren't (ever) off the table, I'm speaking about something that applies across those lines: that all this access, all this experience of music, is still its own periscope; it's a limited perspective on a genre that is larger than your life.
My cassette wasn't canonical; at various points, I skipped songs that are certifiable classics because, for whatever reason, they didn't interest me at the time. My appreciation for music in general has broadened since that moment—access to more music means I'm not as likely to play Da Brat singles as I am Reasonable Doubt. But my taste then had a purity to it—something that is still reflected in my tastes today. There is something very real in the choices made by an eleven-year-old, and even now, making lists about rap albums brings out everybody's inner eleven-year-old. (That's why you've got to respect Dante Ross for saying Cypress Hill made the best album of the '90s, even though Complex ranked it as No. 15.)
Being a fan of hip-hop isn't about bowing before someone else's idea of "the classics"—although coming into contact with other people's ideas is one of the best ways to broaden your appreciation. The first step is to recognize that we are all looking through a subjective lens and to embrace that inner eleven-year-old. Remain in touch with the pieces of hip-hop that you first fell in love with. I wouldn't trade my copy of Illmatic for the world; but I wouldn't trade this tape, either.