With depressing predictability, many recent retrospectives on 1991 have focused squarely on guitar-led music, with rap music largely cast to one side. Sure, 1988 may still be the purist’s choice (yielding milestones by Public Enemy, N.W.A, Ultramagnetic MCs and more), and 1994 expanded the possibilities of the genre with albums like ‘Illmatic’, ‘Ready To Die’, and ‘Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik’. But it was 1991 in which hip-hop arguably made its biggest artistic strides.
Major stars such as Public Enemy, Ice Cube, Ice-T and N.W.A were still dominant, but newer acts including Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, Black Sheep, DJ Quik and Organized Konfusion were leading a fresh charge. Sterling work by Oakland’s Del The Funky Homosapien, Houston’s Geto Boys and London’s Hijack also offered a regional slant, while musically the increasingly-formulaic James Brown loops of the late ‘80s were being replaced by more complex and convention-breaking production techniques.
1991 also saw the first creative sparks of a handful artists who’d later dramatically reshape hip-hop in their own image. Ice Cube may have garnered critical acclaim for his big screen debut Boyz N The Hood, but it was 2Pac – who wrapped filming on Juice that year – who’d have the greater impact, his mesmerising turn as the teenage Harlem outlaw Bishop proving eerily prescient of his later real life dramas. A young Nas stole the show on Main Source’s ‘Live At The BBQ’, while Busta Rhymes did the same on A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Scenario’. The initial seeds of the Wu-Tang revolution were also sown in the Nine-One when The Genius (GZA) and Prince Rakeem (RZA) were both ditched by their respective labels following career false starts, forcing them back to their Staten Island stomping ground and plot their now-fabled industry take-down.
So with the genre very much in a transitional phase, here are seven of the best hip-hop albums from a year that was stacked high with landmark long-players….
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N.W.A – ‘EFIL4ZAGGIN’
‘EFIL4ZAGGIN’ was 55-and-a-half minutes of everything that crotchety conservative America loathed about rap music in 1991. In the UK, copies of the album were memorably seized by police under the Obscene Publications Act. But its legacy runs much deeper than a handful of sensationalist headlines about violent and misogynistic content and the group’s bitter spat with exiled member Ice Cube.
MC Ren stepped into the role of lead rapper and rhyme writer in emphatic style, lighting things up with a series of fearsome raps - a point omitted from 2015’s Straight Outta Compton biopic.
The apocalyptic ‘Approach To Danger’ fashioned Lalo Schifrin’s Dirty Harry score into a heart-stopping shoot-‘em-up that was a colder, darker flipside to their earlier bawdier material. And, perhaps most notably, ‘Alwayz Into Somethin’’ saw Dr Dre sketch out the blueprint for what would become his era-defining G-Funk sound.
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A Tribe Called Quest – ‘Low End Theory’
Rightly crowned a classic on its arrival (bagging the coveted 5 Mic rating in rap mag The Source), Tribe’s sophomore set built on the hazy ambience of their debut with a dustier, denser bass-heavy sound. Songs like ‘Excursions’, ‘Jazz (We’ve Got)’ and ‘Vibes And Stuff’ imbued the offhand cool of jazz label Blue Note with a ‘90s b-boy swagger - Art Blakey rocking a pair of Jordans, if you will. Elsewhere, the Busta Rhymes-featuring posse cut ‘Scenario’ remains almost unmatched in terms of pure energy. Thematically, Q-Tip’s “rap is not pop, if you call it that we’ll stop” declaration, Phife Dawg’s “strictly hardcore tracks, not a New Jack Swing” manifesto, and that endlessly-referenced “Industry Rule #4080” line succinctly captured ‘90s hip-hop’s new mindset.
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De La Soul – ‘De La Soul Is Dead’
Few doubt the album’s brilliance now, but upon ‘De La Soul Is Dead’s release the reaction was much more divided. Those who’d initially fallen for the group’s playful ‘60s pop samples and taken a rather-too-literal interpretation of their D.A.I.S.Y. (Da Inna Sound Y’all) Age vibe were left baffled when the daffodils and DayGlo of their debut made way for rap battles set in fast food joints, a heartbreaking tale of child abuse set during the festive season, and the self-explanatory ‘My Brother’s A Basehead’.
But sharper listeners who joined the dots knew the deal. Beyond the breezy ‘A Roller Skating Jam Named Saturdays’, the quirky humour was still there - De La just had new targets: the showbiz world, commercial radio and even rap itself.
Sure, Arsenio dissed them but, in the end, the crowd kept clapping. With this album, De La Soul may have become hip-hop’s most misunderstood group. But they also became one of its best.
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Cypress Hill – ‘Cypress Hill’
Cypress Hill reached the upper echelons of hip-hop in the early ‘90s propelled by a potent blend of gangsta rap’s more tongue-in-cheek elements, an abundance of strong marijuana, and multi-ethnic influences from their South East L.A. environs (B-Real, Sen Dog and DJ Muggs are of Mexican-Cuban, Afro-Cuban, and Italian-American heritage, respectively). Tracks like ‘How I Could Just Kill A Man’, ‘Hand On The Pump’ and ‘Stoned Is The Way Of The Walk’ typified Muggs’ scuzzy, disorientating funk, providing the perfect backdrop for B-Real’s nasal vocal style, which lifted from Wildstyle’s shotgun-toting emcee Rammelzee (whose 1983 classic ‘Beat Bop’ was similarly nonconformist.)
Sporadically dropping rhymes in Spanish, Cypress Hill were the first Latino rappers to go platinum and who, at their peak, loomed larger over the post-N.W.A, pre-Wu-Tang landscape than anyone else.
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Main Source – ‘Breaking Atoms’
‘Breaking Atoms’ is remembered mostly for ‘Live At The BBQ’, its penultimate track in which a 17-year-old Nas drops a mind-blowing debut verse which began his illustrious career. Yet Main Source always boasted a wealth of sonic riches far beyond that now-almost-mythical guest spot. Large Professor, the group’s lead rapper/producer, crafted heavyweight jazz and funk-infused backdrops that reflected a rapidly-evolving east coast sound with crate-digging culture at its core.
‘Looking At The Front Door’ offered a pitch-perfect depiction of a relationship slowly falling apart, the attendant bickering and jealousy laid out over a deceptively jaunty loop of Donald Byrd’s sublime ‘Think Twice’. And things got political on ‘Just A Friendly Game Of Baseball’, a grim satire which replayed police brutality towards the black community as America’s pastime. It was an astute and angry indictment of corrupt law enforcement which, in light of current events, remains bleakly relevant today.
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Gang Starr – ‘Step In The Arena’
Gang Starr’s first album ‘No More Mr Nice Guy’ dropped in ’89, but it was on the follow-up LP that the pairing of rapper Guru and producer DJ Premier really flourished. ‘Who’s Gonna Take The Weight?’ blended Nation Of Islam philosophies with battle rap braggadocio, while the street corner dispatches of ‘Just To Get A Rap’ and girlfriend trouble of ‘Lovesick’ underpinned the album’s expansive approach. The rousing ‘Check The Technique’ reflects Gang Starr’s seductive sound best though: Premier weaved the stately strings from Marlena Shaw’s ‘California Soul’ into a head-cracking beat as Guru compared his rhyme style to neurosurgery.
Guru sadly passed away in 2010, but Gang Starr’s legacy survives: Primo’s pounding boom-bap beats, scratched choruses and obscure jazz loops proved an enduring influence on underground hip-hop, while Netflix’s new series Luke Cage borrows the group’s song titles for each of its 13 episodes.
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KMD – ‘Mr Hood’
“Let’s enter this jewellery shop.” So begins one of hip-hop’s perennially underrated masterpieces, in which the Kausin’ Much Damage crew of brothers Zev Love X and Subroc, and their best friend Onyx The Birthstone Kid, challenged authority and combated racism with agile, symbolism-heavy rhymes. The ebullient beats were interspersed with snippets from Sesame Street and language learning tapes, only adding to the album’s quietly seditious charm.
KMD as a functioning unit ended when Subroc was fatally struck by a car on the Long Island Expressway in 1993, and their controversial follow-up ‘Black Bastards’ was dumped by label Elektra in ‘94. But with the restlessly inventive lead rapper Zev Love X surreptitiously reinventing himself as the enigmatic subterranean subversive MF Doom – dropping a string of classics over the next decade - consider ‘Mr Hood’ the brilliant opening act in the remarkable story of one of rap’s true colossal talents.
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Words: Hugh Leask (@HughSnoozeULose)