Last week, we started the first of five posts celebrating 50 years of hip-hop. Rather than pander to the usual suspects that dominate the discussion, RapReviews is shining the spotlight on the pioneering talents that have helped shape hip-hop’s colorful, controversial, and constantly cutting-edge position as the most popular style of music in the world. This week, we move into the early 1990s to remind ourselves of ten artists that have been instrumental to hip-hop.
1. Rodney P
He’s not known as the Godfather of British Hip-Hop for nothing. As part of the rap group London Posse, Rodney P was a trailblazer for UK hip-hop at a time when many were either mimicking their American cousins or catering to a more casual audience with party rap. His music addressed social and political issues faced by Black communities in Britain, and the group’s debut “Gangster Chronicles” from 1990 is a classic of the genre, often combining the crew’s Caribbean influences as much as their New York ones. Rodney continued to release music throughout the 1990s, while also holding regular DJ slots on prominent radio stations such as KISS FM and BBC 1Xtra.
2. Mac Dre
Much like Rodney P, Mac Dre was highly influential in his region, in this case, the Bay Area. Throughout the 1990s, he played a crucial role in developing the hyphy sound (short for hyperactive) that continues to influence rappers like Drake (seriously). Rapping over prison phones before it became a trendy skit (“I’m n Motion” somehow works despite the awful recording quality), Dre’s criminal past inevitably culminated with him being shot in 2004, but he left a vast legacy, much like fellow Bay Area representative E-40, that is messy to navigate but frequently entertaining.
Coolio doesn’t get enough credit for how he transferred effortlessly from gangster rapper to mainstream entertainer. Probably because his record label Tommy Boy dropped him after only going Gold with his third LP, 1997’s “My Soul”, which shows you how big he was in 1995-1996. Most famous for his monster hit “Gangsta’s Paradise”, he’s just as synonymous with younger readers for his Space Jam material, and providing the theme to Nickelodeon’s sitcom Kenan & Kel. Originally emerging as part of west coast crew WC and the Maad Circle, he sadly passed away last year at age 59. To be as big a rap star as he was in the mid-90s when New York was wrestling hip-hop back from the West Coast, Coolio’s legacy should not go unnoticed.
4. Arrested Development
The early 1990s was dominated by gangsta rap, and when it wasn’t, rappers were often playing the role of a tough guy. Arrested Development, much like the Native Tongues clique, celebrated the conscious side of hip-hop, delivering socially and politically charged lyrics over production that featured live instrumentation. They are often overlooked (Billboard’s recent Top 50 rap groups list ignored them) despite releasing a quadruple platinum album with 1992’s “3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life Of…”, and it may well be that their later output never quite captured the public’s attention the same way smash hits “Mr. Wendal” and “Tennessee” did. Lead emcee Speech remains a constant, but the members rotated a lot over the years so the identity of Arrested Development has changed numerous times, and the sitcom of the same name probably became more synonymous in recent times. A shame, because they even dropped a dope album in 2021, with “For the FKN Love”.
5. Stereo MCs
Much is made of how hip-hop is now the dominant genre of music, and its impact on all genres, yet there was a time when all other genres were influencing hip-hop too. Stereo MCs, perhaps owing to their British roots, combined house, drum and bass, and 80s pop into a style that was very much hip-hop. This background in dance meant that despite being called MCs, they were never considered particularly lyrical in that regard, but let’s not forget that MC means Move the Crowd. Their breakout album “Connected” (1992) and the smash single of the same name certainly put them on the map, but crowd-interaction in songs like “Step It Up” managed to remain genuine before your “Macarena”s and “Crank That”s made it corny. It’s also worth noting that Stereo MCs were part of a bigger wave of British artists making their own impact on hip-hop, with the likes of Portishead, Massive Attack, and Tricky perhaps having more impact, but operating in a space beyond the standard beats and rhymes.
I liked how the Spice Girls had to share shelf space with Spice-1, a West Coast rapper renowned for creating some of the rawest rap of the 1990s (and that’s saying something!). His beats weren’t going to have radio stations clambering for his latest hit, but he offered up a darker, more menacing style of hip-hop that Eazy-E and N.W.A. had promptly moved away from after their second album dropped in 1991. That’s perhaps why he’s not the household name he could have been, but Spice-1 albums certainly have their merits, particularly his excellent 1992 self-titled debut. It’s easy to cite Tupac, Snoop Dogg, or even MC Eiht, as icons of West Coast gangsta rap, but few were as reliable, or as integral to the West’s 90s run as Spice-1. I’m sure Nicki Minaj gets her stutter-rap from Spice’s “Money Gone”…
7. DJ Screw
This is probably an obvious choice, considering Screw is often eulogized and heralded for his whole chopped-and-screwed approach to remixing beats. By slowing down the tempo of rap songs and remixing them with his signature chopping techniques, he created a distinct sound that defied conventions. Tracks like “June 27” and “Sippin’ on Some Syrup” showcased his ability to transform high-energy rap into a hypnotic, laid-back experience. At a time when the DJ was pushed aside in favor of the rapper, Screw elevated the art of DJing, paving the way for a new subgenre that would capture the imagination of both artists and listeners alike. Syrup-drenched, drug-addled styles still run through hip-hop, for better or worse, and much of that can be linked back to DJ Screw, who sadly passed away in 2000. Who else could make “Natural Born Killaz” sound even harder?
In 2023, ask anyone for the name of a controversial Detroit rapper whose name began with an E and ended with an M, and you’re unlikely to hear ‘Esham’. It’s unfortunate, but Esham helped establish horrorcore as a subgenre, often including taboo subjects at a time long before even the Gravediggaz popularized it. Emerging in 1989 with his debut, “Boomin’ Words From Hell”, it’s clear how he influenced subsequent acts like Insane Clown Posse and D12 with their warped, dark sense of humor. The whole underground wave of graphic violence at the turn of the millennium that the next generation of rap fans lapped up, from Necro to Vinnie Paz, owes a lot of gratitude to what Esham was doing a decade earlier. Even the big man, Eminem himself, acknowledged his influence on 1999’s “Still Don’t Give a Fuck”, even if Esham isn’t a fan of Em.
9. Digital Underground
You can complain about how hip-hop isn’t what it used to be, but it mainly revolves around lyrical skill, a lack of unique characters, or uninspired production. My biggest grievance that’s lacking from modern hip-hop is an inability to have fun. Biz Markie, Redman, Nice & Smooth, Slick Rick, Beastie Boys, Flavor Flav – rappers were not afraid to get goofy. Digital Underground were perhaps the icons of goofball rap, thanks to frontman Shock G ability to blend humor with social commentary, over some funky ass beats Erick Sermon would be proud of. We all know “Humpty Dance” and how Tupac Shakur started in Digital Underground, but the way they tackled issues like body image and contraception on “No Nose Job” and “Packet Man”, respectively, with their trademark humor, should be celebrated.
History is written by the winners, so Cage is likely to be thrown in with Canibus and the Outsidaz as a rapper Eminem once dissed, but it doesn’t paint an accurate picture. Cage’s alternative path through underground hip-hop saw him release a number of strong albums in the early 2000s. Along with Atmosphere, Aesop Rock, and El-P, Cage was at the forefront of rap music that started to tell impactful experiences surrounding mental illness and addiction, with production that wasn’t afraid to get experimental. 2005’s “Hell’s Winter” in particular, is a forgotten classic, but Cage’s role in crews such as The Weathermen (Aesop Rock, Tame One, Yak Ballz, El-P, Jakki Tha Motamouth, Camu Tao, Copywrite, Vast Aire, and Breeze Brewin), Leak Bros. (with Tame-One), Night Hawks (with Camu Tao), Smut Peddlers (with The High & Mighty) and the mighty Eastern Conference Records, which was part of the Rawkus Records-era boom, influenced a generation of alternative hip-hop artists.