Like 1979, 1982, 1988 or 1997, any working chronology of Hip Hop music should never overlook 1994 as a pinnacle year of its development, especially for New York. Knowledgeable heads will cite Nas’ Illmatic and Notorious BIG’s Ready to Die with just cause. Those less provincial will note Snoop Doggy Dogg’s solo album, Common’s resurrection of Chicago and Outkast’s debut from Atlanta. Strikingly, Fall 1994 Hip Hop is a period that sounds both dated and inventive. It is a moment when old school sensibilities of rocking mics mixed with a menace inflicted by a box cutter’s blade.
The mixtapes Legends of the Fall 1994 (aka "When We Were Very Young") Volumes One, Two and Three captures both the pleasure and pain of this period. MP3 mixes are zipped up and Apple Music friendly by yours truly. You can also find this mix in Spotify here in Volumes One, Two and Three. Or in Apple Music playlists here in Volumes One, Two and Three.
|"A strange form,
somethin' kind of lyrical"
No doubt Nas' epic “One Love” or declarative “Life’s a Bitch” may be the best of these moments. But Lord Finesse’s “Shorties Kaught in the System” or Rae and Ghost’s “Heaven and Hell” also capture a growing dread that things done changed. The youth of the late 1980s and 1990s have been abandoned not only by systemic inequality of the Reagan years but familial rejection. "Ready to die, why I act that way? / Pop Duke left Mom Duke, the faggot took the back way” Biggie scorns on “The What.”
|"You see it, I be it"
Friends are no allies either, in “Alladat” Sadat X raps: “Everybody claims to know nothin’ / And these is the peoples that's down wit me / Supposedly, theys on my side, yeah right / They let a nigga die in the night if you let em” Parrish Smith publicly feuds with his long time friend and business partner Erick Sermon on “I Saw It Cummin’”: “Not trying to promote violence but thats the way it is / The code of the ghetto ain't got shit to do with showbiz.” Further, Biggie and Tupac may famously share a track here on “Let’s Get It On” but within a year’s time whatever friendship they might have had would be marred by a growing violent coastal feud.
The type of sonic and platonic unity showcased by Kid n’ Play’s “2 Hype” or Rob Base and DJ EZ’s Rock “It Takes Two” in 1988 has been eclipsed by the perils of both glitz and glamour and the code of the streets by 1994. In OC’s words, “Time’s Up” the rap game had become a farce, ribald fables without lessons, lyrics without meaning: “Non-conceptual, non-exceptional / Everybody’s either crime-related or sexual.” Veteran Craig Mack swings in “Flava in Ya Ear,” simply saying of new jacks, “You won’t be around next year…”
|"From Melrose to Patterson, Lexington to Madison"
|"When we start the revolution..."
More of matter of factly, graf writer and master of ceremonies El da Sensei from the Artifacts breaks down a day in the life:
“Lately playin' Hurricane G demos in my WalkMan / I walk and I talk and read issues of The Source and / Check out the dreadlocks in Bedrock puffin indo / By the branch like plants, and do the cypher dance / Then it's back to the set, to write raps about my eps / Takin' tokes for the stress as I get flexi wit da tech”
Curiously, some of the main ingredients of this era survives from a time before crack. Vocal stop gap measures sometimes identified as the black preacher's “whooping” are heard in such as standard Hip Hop phrases “Yes, yes, y’all” or “And ya don’t stop." Further the “call and response” devices for song hooks are evidenced throughout. Whether with sample snippets or vocal choruses, songs such as “Mansion and a Yacht,” “Hit Me with That”, “Without a Doubt,” “2,3 Break,” “What a Niggy Know,” and “Word is Bond” all display the hallmarks of an Old School era fading away. The works of the Redman and The Artifacts carry the baton as well but are weighed down by a casual misogyny and nihilism that characterizes American culture at large by this decade.
|"For every rhyme I write is 25 to life"
|"That's what I consider real
in this field of music"
It’s ironic to be canonizing a year and a season that itself was lamenting the end of one era and the beginning of the next. If we were to personify Hip Hop culture, one might characterize that Hip Hop in 1994 began to take inventory of its self in its twenties, mourning the "back in the days" passed. Captured on these mixtapes are the generational voices of young black adults navigating a rap music industry’s coming of age while simultaneously besieged by the violence and catastrophe of the avertible crack cocaine epidemic. Their collective past histories had become the future by the fall of 1994 and as such, Hip Hop prepared to sing the blues.