Legends of the Fall 1994

"No time for looking back, it's done"

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 OneTwo 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 OneTwo and Three. Or in Apple Music playlists here in Volumes OneTwo and Three.

"A strange form,
somethin' kind of lyrical"
By that autumn, the serendipitous creativity and commercial growth of rap music from 1986 to 1993 was coming to close.  1994 was, in some ways, the Golden Era’s wake.  These songs were brutal lyrical laments of a transformative and uplifting street culture passing away.  Moreover, raps of this era chronicle the impact of the crack cocaine epidemic on the black American urban underclass unflinchingly.  These kids grew up on Planet Ready Rock where the lines between the rap game and crack game had blurred.  The impact of the latter loomed too large to ignore evidenced by unflinching titles such as “Shook Ones” or “Stray Bullet.”

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"
Songs such as “Downtown Swinga,” “Buck ‘em Down” and “Let’s Get It On” all capture a confrontational, uncompromising stance: alienated urban black youth who casually flash steel, blow trees and guzzle Hennessy as a means of opposition for anyone within or outside their cypher that encroach upon their block.  “The most violent of the violent-lest crimes we give life to / If these QueensBridge kids don't like you” Prodigy intones on “Shook Ones.”

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..."
There has been always an issue of legality born of the original practices: the acts of graffiti writing, powering DJ equipment from lamp posts, breakdancing and partying in public spaces initially thrived because of the lack of civil order in the Bronx in the 1970s.  Paradoxically, as the clamp down of these “quality of life” crimes removed Hip Hop culture from public spaces in the 1980s, the emerging crack market and the recreational consumption of “blunts,” Heines and Becks become mixed up with B-Boy bravado.  By 1994 the traditional “Four Elements” archetype and illusions of the B-Boy literally transformed before our ears.  Hip Hop lore intersects with criminology as Nas outlines in “Represent”: 

More of matter of factly, graf writer and master of ceremonies El da Sensei from the Artifacts breaks down a day in the life: 

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"
Setting aside sociological analysis, scanning the track listings of these mixtapes reveals the emergence of notable long standing Hip Hop icons both on the mic and behind the boards during this particular autumn.  Biggie and Nas’ should not overshadow the rise in profile of household names such as Busta Rhymes, Common Sense and The Roots.  The verbal assault of Pharoe Monche of Organized Konfusion (“Bring It On”), Sadat XMad Skillz and Keith Murray should not be overlooked either.  Black Moon, Smif n’ Wessun and Mobb Deep refined a murder music aesthetic that continues to be emulated to this day.  The lyrical variety of 1994 was on display as well.  The Cella Dwellas dabble in mysticism (“Land of the Lost”) and the Gravediggaz the macabre (“1-800-Suicide”).  Common Sense (“Chapter 13”), Organized Konfusion ("Stray Bullet") and Jeru the Damaja ("You Can't Stop the Prophet") all employ metaphor skillfully.

"That's what I consider real
in this field of music"
While production work in the Fall 1994 solidified Large Professor, Premier, Pete Rock and Q-Tip’s legacy, Bronx wunderkind Buckwild almost single handedly reinvented the Diggin’ in the Crates aesthetic.  Eschewing be bop horns and piano riffs, Buckwild unearthed the cinematic progressive jazz soundscapes of David Axlerod (“C'mon wit da Git Down”) and Les DeMerle (“Time’s Up”).  The sampling aesthetic had always favored a wide palate, but with “Alladat” and “Thirteen” Buckwild carried on tradition with inventive chops of familiar breakbeats.  Likewise making a name for himself, Chicago’s NO I.D. should be recognized for his new take on soulful boom bap in “Check the Method” and “Communism.”  As a result, twenty years later, NO I.D. has become sought out by Jay-Z, Nas, Common, Big Sean and Kendrick Lamar when attempting to recapture this storied sound of the 1990s.

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.

1 comment:

  1. The summation of "Hip Hop in 1994 began to take inventory of its self in its twenties"..that's a powerful image.
    I think we are starting to see and hear MC's of a similar mode of thinking rise in the last few years, though the art form may never be exactly what it was before...Great read, looking forward to the mixes.