1992: REDMAN


CREDENTIALS: Whut? Thee Album, “Headbanger”

Ready to rock rough rhymes, renegade rapper Redman ripped when it was rhyme time. And it was with addictive alliteration like that, on EPMD’s foreboding 1990 classic “Hardcore,” that the always frowny-faced Newark MC spectacularly announced his arrival on the scene. However, even before his first recorded appearance, reigning kings like Biz Markie took the young MC around to parties to show off his gift of gab, immortalized in this Queens nightclub recording.

Two years later, the then 22-year-old Reggie Noble released his debut LP, Whut? Thee Album, and made it clear there was much more to Redman than repetitive wordplay, punchlines, and skull hats. The album, with its loose narrative structure, aggressive funk tracks, vicious battle raps, and hilarious stories, gave listeners a uniquely rugged ride through the Bricks.

As a lyricist Red built on the lineage of Slick Rick’s narrative styles and the split personality concept introduced on “Mona Lisa,” combined with the multi-syllabic word flipping of Kool G Rap. But he also added a monstrous grit, courtesy of dirty Jerz, that was entirely new. He was precise, and even delicate at times, as he bluntedly, and bluntly, stomped a mudhole in that ass. In many ways Red was a pivotal MC, bridging the gap between the rhyming innovation of ’87 and ’88, and rap’s emerging hardcore, gangsta aesthetic. He demonstrated that elite lyricists could be complicated and complex, and ruff, rugged, and raw, too.

Echoes of his style can be clearly heard in the work of everyone from Wu-Tang a year later, to Eminem at the turn of the century, to Danny Brown today. Red remains a remarkable talent, but in the year of the Phillie blunt, hip-hop turned on his dime. And everyone pressed rewind, but not because he hadn’t blown their mind.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Treach, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Q-Tip
A fair argument could be made for Treach as the dominant MC of 1992. Naughty by Nature was at the top of the charts, and everything from the East Orange MC’s iggity-biggity, Big Daddy Kane-inspired tongue flipping to his bike lock accessories and hockey jerseys were being bitten East to West. But the aforementioned fads faded fast and with it Treach’s claim.

Meanwhile, off the April release of “Deep Cover” and the December release of The Chronic, Long Beach newcomer Snoop Doggy Dogg was making it clear that the West had something to say. And that they were going to say it with cooler-than-a-cucumber style. But Snoop was not quite ready to assume the mantle. He barely made eye contact during interviews, despite rap fans’ unquenchable thirst for his flow.

Q-Tip had come into his own in the final months of 1991, with the release of The Low End Theory. Thanks to his excellent rapping and in-demand production he had vaulted himself quietly into the center of hip-hop, appearing in ’92 on posse cuts and producing for everyone from Apache to the Fu-Shnickens. With A Tribe Called Quest he also dropped the much sweated “Scenario” remix and “Hot Sex” on the Boomerang soundtrack. —Noah Callahan-Bever

1993: SNOOP DOGGY DOGG

CREDENTIALS: The Chronic, Doggystyle

Kool Moe Dee revolutionized the art of MCing from skibbity-bee-bop party rhymes to the battle raps upon which Run’s House was built. And there, in the future reverend’s place of worship, a generation of rappers prayed at the altar of wordplay. That is until Snoop Doggy Dogg came through and crushed the building.

Quite out of the blue, at a time when East Coast rappers were committing alphabetic slaughter via infinite iggity-biggities and manic multi-syllable matching, an unassuming 21-year-old Long Beach native turned the paradigm on its head, putting rhythm and melody over content and complexity. Snoop cruised over beats with soft intonation and self-assured ease.

His simple, almost old school-esque rhymes were instantly memorable (“One, two, three and to the four, Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dr. Dre is at the door…”), and his ability to fluidly navigate negative space provided a much appreciated relief from the frenzied spitting that was in vogue on the East Coast. Fans could not get enough of it.

Riding his numerous appearances on Dr. Dre’s The Chronic—which had been released in December 1992—through damn near three quarters of the following year, as single after single topped the charts, the appetite for Snoop’s flow was unending. The thirst was real. The release of his much anticipated debut, Doggystyle, broke new artist first week sales records—to the tune of 800K—that would not be matched for a decade (until a future Dr. Dre protege, 50 Cent, would outdo him).

Musically even more polished, and more pop than The Chronic, Doggystyle was a cultural watershed. But Snoop’s lyrics remained uncompromising, and the album propelled gangsta rap further into the mainstream consciousness than it ever had been. Songs like “Gin & Juice” and “What’s My Name” juxtaposed supple melodies with meandering G talk, while records like “Pump Pump” and “For My Niggaz & Bitches” barreled through listeners’ ears, with Snoop, even uptempo, still in nonchalant repose. The total package was easy listening, until you wrapped your mind around what exactly the gang-banging Crip was saying.

That blueprint would influence both carbon copy artists like Da Brat and Domino and even subtly affect the music of the Notorious B.I.G. and Jay Z (the future East Coast titans, who had rapped like Mr. Funkee of LOTUG and the Fu-Schnickens, respectively, noticeably decompressed their flows, letting words and lines breathe, in the wake of Doggystyle), among other East Coast artists. But in 1993, as his album cover crudely (but awesomely) illustrated, no one could catch the Dogg.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Method Man, Treach, Q-Tip
Riding the lesson of Snoop’s ascent that how you say things can trump what you’re saying, Method Man, Wu-Tang’s first breakout star, employed melody to an equally addictive result. While every member of the Clan impressed on “Protect Ya Neck,” it was Meth’s hummable flows on the track’s b-side, “Method Man,” that propelled the ensemble onto the radio and off the shelves. However, like Snoop on The Chronic, Meth had to share the spotlight on 36 Chambers, piquing interest but holding him back from the throne.

In the first half of 1993, Treach and Naughty would position themselves as the uniters of hip-hop with the gimmicky anthem “Hip Hop Hooray” (which admittedly had awesomely all-star cameos in the video), but in the Death Row era Treach’s vision of gangsta became quickly dated.

Q-Tip continued to be a major musical force in ’93, remaining relevant even as tastes changed with ATCQ’s perfect movement, Midnight Marauders. That said, as the scene put increasing value on tough talk and gangster posturing, Tip’s brand of everyman rap slid slowly to the fringe. —Noah Callahan-Bever

1994: NAS


CREDENTIALS: Illmatic

Nas, Nas, Nas was not the king of disco, despite what the “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” remix would have you believe. But he was a king, the king of rap. In 1994, at the age of 19, Nasty Nasir Jones would ascend the throne with the April release of Illmatic, his debut LP. A raw talent, one of the first to make a name on guest appearances, Nas’ shocking, borderline horrorcore (before horrorcore existed) raps of the early ’90s created an enormous buzz for the Queensbridge MC.

But those wicked raps only scratched the surface of what was to come. Dense yet melodic, wrought yet nonchalant, the rhymes on Illmatic represented the confluence of the last seven years of rap innovation. He was a child of ’88. From Rakim’s aloof thoughtfulness to Kane’s multi-syllabic juggling to Kool G Rap’s corner-drug-dealing realism to the educated militancy of Chuck D, even the gripping narrative skills of Slick Rick—Nas had it all. And he had it all quietly. Nothing about Illmatic was labored.

Brief but effective, the LP showcased this range efficiently, with nary a heavy-handed or telegraphed moment. Songs like “N.Y. State of Mind” and “Life’s a Bitch” demonstrated his ability to string the almost rambling moments of his internal monologue into ornate tapestries of reflection. On other tracks, like “Memory Lane” and “One Love,” he explored more linear storytelling but with a degree of nuance and subtext that had not been achieved in hip-hop previously. And he married both on songs like “One Time 4 Your Mind” and “Represent,” slipping effortlessly from first-person narrative to meandering thoughts.

Having said all of that, though, one cannot discount the importance of The Source on Nas’ ascendancy. A handful of other albums had earned the distinction of 5 Mics previously, but at a time when the magazine was still growing. Illmatic’s anointment as a “classic” came as the mag reached maturity as an editorial product and ubiquity as a publication.

As a result, like when Lil Wayne declared himself better than Jay Z, that perfect rating (especially in the face of, say, The Chronic receiving only 4.5 Mics) sparked a national debate around Nas’ excellence. But as time passed, and the album’s layers were pulled apart, absorbed, and appreciated, the young king’s legitimacy was cemented. Accolades aside, in 1994, if you wielded a mic, Nas was indeed the musician, inflicting composition.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: The Notorious B.I.G., Scarface, Redman
It would be a lie to say that by the end of 1994, Biggie’s meteoric success didn’t take a lot of the wind out of Nas’ sails. And sales. But Big’s burn was a slow one that didn’t reach a fever pitch until Q4. He rode into ’94 on a string of guest spots with the likes of Mary J. Blige and Supercat, but things changed during that summer.

With Nas conspicuously quiet on the radio, Big filled the void with jam after jam (“Flava in Ya Ear” remix followed by “Unbelievable” followed by “Juicy” followed by “Da B Side” with Da Brat). Still, when Ready to Die dropped, despite its unimpeachable quality and ability to connect far beyond Illmatic’s Tri-state acclaim, it did not catapult Big, lyrically, to the front of the pack. But it did position him to jockey for the top spot the following year.

1994 was a huge year for Scarface because The Diary proved not only his staying power, but also his ability to transition from the uptempo East Coast-ish production of the early ’90s to the slow, whiny G-Funk era. And that he could do it gracefully, telling the same kinds of dark stories (see: “Hand on the Dead Body,” “Jesse James”) as in the Geto Boys’ glory days.

Also slowing things down, and daring to tread on the dark side, was Redman, who stomped ruggedly through 1994 making it abundantly clear that his blunted funk still made sense in a post-Chronic, post-36 Chambers world. —Noah Callahan-Bever

1995: THE NOTORIOUS B.I.G.

CREDENTIALS: 1994’s Ready to Die, DJ Clue? Presents Bad Boy Vol. 1, Junior Mafia’s Conspiracy, “One More Chance (Remix)” and “Who Shot Ya?,” and Total’s “Can’t You See”

When KRS-One dropped his ’95 fan favorite, “Rappers R N Dainja,” neither he, nor the rappers mentioned, nor the even fans knew exactly how right he was. Rappers were in danger. But not from Kris’ bars—the times, they were a changin’. And they were changing because of the Notorious B.I.G. (and Puff Daddy). Big had received universal adulation for his debut, which dropped in the fall of ’94, and as the year began he rode in high off the stream of hits that the LP would yield. But, for all its refinement, Ready to Die was still was very much a product of hip-hop’s silver age. It was in the following year, 1995, that Biggie remixed and refined his sound. He took the humor and lyrical precision of East Coast rapping, but, no doubt inspired by Snoop and Dre on the West, he let his raps breathe. As a result his lyrical threats hung in the air longer, his jokes hit harder, and generally his turns of phrase became even that much more memorable (and recitable). Add to that the thematic element of aspiration, and Big had drafted the blueprint for hip-hop’s burgeoning Platinum Era.

The one-two knockout of the silky smooth Debarge sampled “One More Chance” / “Stay With Me (Remix)” backed with the menacing b-side, “Who Shot Ya?” a record that separated the boys from men (and the weak from the obsolete), raised the bar. On the latter, which was a redux of both rhymes and beat from a freestyle with Keith Murray on DJ Clue’s Bad Boy Vol. 1 mixtape (Keith’s portion would actually appear excerpted as an interlude on Mary J. Blige’s My World), Big coldly dissected his opponents, “Fuck all that bickering beef, I can hear sweat trickling down your cheek/Your heartbeat sound like Sasquatch feet—thundering, shaking the concrete.”

Elevating the record’s vicious raps, 2Pac would claim Big’s detached subliminals were aimed at him, and evidence of Biggie’s collusion in ’Pac’s shooting at Quad Studios. One cannot understate the importance of this feud in both rappers’ success (and ultimate undoing). But Big’s true subliminal shot that year was not at ’Pac but at Death Row’s dominance, and it was packaged as a nod.

On the same Clue tape, Biggie used a patchwork of classic Dr. Dre beats to tell one his most incredible, winding narratives on “Real Niggaz Do Real Thingz.” As Napoleon had taken the crown from the hands of Pope Pius VII, coronating himself, with that one freestyle Big demonstrated the ability to best his competitors lyrically and stylistically on their own tracks, and in doing so subtly announced his ascension. The Source concurred, crowning him “King of New York” in their July issue. He shored his position over the summer with standout verses on R&B hits by Total and 112 as well as a starring role on Junior Mafia’s two classic singles, “Player’s Anthem” and “Get Money.”

But nothing hammered home Biggie’s place at the top of rap like his live performance video of “Me And My Bitch” from The Show soundtrack, replete in a pin-striped suit and bowler. By the end of 1995 the distance between him and every other rapper was dramatic and evident, as contenders like 2Pac and Nas reinvented themselves as ridahs and dons in reaction. But there is only one Frank White, and in 1995, the world was his, unchallenged.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Raekwon, Prodigy, 2Pac
Although, during 1995, Big certainly embodied hip-hop’s future, the supremacy of Raekwon and Prodigy’s rapping during that year cannot be overlooked. East Coast thuggery had been refined, polished, and perfected, and Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… and Mobb Deep’s The Infamous represented the genre’s creative climax. No reaches for radio play, the two albums were unflinching, dark, and cinematic.

And the LPs’ two lead rappers, both of whom had been considered marginal MCs since their respective debuts in 1993, emerged that year as top tier talent with truly unique voices. Members of Kool G Rap’s lyrical bloodline, both took his gritty style and subject matter, abstracting it, moving off the beat, and even occasionally out of rhyme, to tell their stories in obtuse, noir fragments. Unfortunately their figurative flows may have also limited their audience.

Meanwhile, 2Pac released what many consider his best album, Me Against the World, featuring production from Easy Moe Bee. But ‘Pac would spend most of the year in jail on a rape charge, so despite his obvious artistic growth, he was largely sidelined from any conversation about being the best. That said, his October ’95 signing to Death Row would put things in motion for him to come guns blazing the following year. —Noah Callahan-Bever