The 10 best hip-hop albums of the 90s according to Peanut Butter Wolf

Photo credit: Jaime Barcenas

Admittedly, choosing your favourite records from a certain time period and a certain genre would be a difficult, unenviable task for anyone, even more so when the era chosen is the nineties, indisputably the creative high point in hip-hop’s fourty four year lifespan.

If you are a regular reader of Bonafide you will know that one of our all-time favourite labels is Stones Throw. A notoriously private and press-shy person, the brainchild behind the label Peanut Butter Wolf was the subject of the 2013 documentary, Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton which lifted the lid on his and the label’s life. Needless to say, he’s hands down responsible for some of the most important hip-hop albums of recent times, so having his selections is a huge honour.


 

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1. X Clan – To The East Blackwards (1990)
At the time this came out, one of the main rules in hip-hop was to not sample/use beats from other hip-hop records, but this record threw that rule out the window. The beginning of the 90’s brought me X Clan, Lakim Shabazz, Chill Rob G, Brand Nubian, Gangstarr, and Tribe. They all were disciples of Public Enemy who really brought consciousness into hip-hop stronger than anyone before them in my opinion, but Brother J did it in a way that was ooh so funky.

 

 

 

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2. Freestyle Fellowship – To Whom It May Concern (1991)
In 1991, everyone was talking about Organized Konfusion and Freestyle Fellowship as being the groups with the most advanced lyrics/rhyme styles. Charizma (the rapper I was in a group with at the time) and I went to see Freestyle Fellowship live and I remember us both buying this tape after the show. It was one of those albums that reminded me of De La Soul’s 3 Feet High in that they had fun with it and went all over the place stylistically.

 

 

 

220px-breakingatoms3. Main Source – Breaking Atoms (1991)
Large Professor! One of the most underrated producers in hip-hop history. There’d be no Madlib or Dilla without him. This is really the album that gave Nas his break. I remember when Live At The BBQ first came out, this rapper Quiz One from San Jose that I was working with said he was on the track and showed me and I believed him.

 

 

 

 

front4. RBL Posse – A Lesson To Be Learned (1992)
When this came out, I was living in the Bay, but wasn’t really listening to any Bay Area rap other than Hiero and Hobo. Charizma and I were really more into the east coast stuff which sampled from records from the 60’s than anything g-funk/gangsta rap that was taking from funk from the 80’s, even though I was buying funk records as a kid in the 80’s. Years later, I went back and bought all the gangsta rap tapes and vinyl and CDs I could get my hands on. Actually, I must admit, at the same time that I made the Charizma album, I was producing gangsta rap for this group called Siggnett Posse, but I did that just to challenge myself and see if I could do it.

 

stunts5. Diamond D and the Psychotic Neurotics – Stunts Blunts, & Hip Hop (1992)
Diamond and Showbiz & AG came out under Lord Finesse and really, I could put any of the albums from the DITC crew in this top 10 and feel good about it. This was the time, when some artists’ bonus songs on the b-side of 12” singles were better than songs on their album, like Diamond’s – You Can’t Front. Early 90’s is my favourite time for east coast hip-hop.

 

 

 

slumvillage-vol1official6. Slum Village – Fan-ta-stic vol 1 (1996)
This album didn’t really see the light of day outside of Detroit until the 2000’s, after Fantastic Vol 2 came out and everyone said, “vol 2? Then where’s vol 1?” This is the perfect blend of East Coast and West Coast and since Detroit wasn’t on a coast, they had the liberty to be influenced by both. Super slappin BOOM BAP beats with drums in front and sparse production that anyone could sing the melodies along to. And dirty as hell. Straight to tape! Oddly, Madlib’s production was very similar at this time, even though he was doing the same thing on his own, without knowing about Dilla (and vice versa). I think it’s because they were both influenced by Pete Rock and DJ Premier.

 

company_flow_-_funcrusher_plus7. Company Flow – Funcrusher Plus (1997)
When I first heard the 12” to 8 Steps To Perfection, I was instantly hooked. Company Flow pressed the album themselves on double vinyl and it didn’t even have an album cover because it was too expensive to do it that way. This was before they were signed to Rawkus and I had just started Stones Throw a year earlier. I’d talk to Bigg Jus who was working at Tower Records and try to explain to him about my label and he was very friendly, but I think they were already in talks with Rawkus. It had tinges of Wu-Tang Clan, but was its own thing. And the beats were super dirty. I was working on My Vinyl Weighs A Ton when they first released Funcrusher and I had El P come to my house and do a song for my album and he wrote the lyrics to my song on the spot in my home studio and rapped them and he called it Population Control. A few months later, he needed another song for the expanded Rawkus version of their album so he used those same lyrics on that one and I had to scrap our original version.

 

220px-dr-_octagonecologyst_cover8. Dr Octagon- Dr Octagonecologyst (1997)
I first met Kool Keith around 1994 when he did a solo show in San Francisco. Kut Masta Kurt brought him out and later became his DJ and producer for his solo stuff. I’m guessing Automator met him around the same time. I gave Keith a beat tape and exchanged numbers and the next year, he flew me to LA to record Wanna Be A Star, his first solo record. He ended up doing on a whole Kool Keith solo album with Kurt and did this “side project” with Automator at the same time. I was going to Automator’s studio a lot while this was being recorded and he’d show me tracks and at the time, I liked them, but he carried himself kinda pompously, so it made it hard for me to really like them. Also back then, I was into simpler production, but I liked the way it was recorded. Automator would use Dr Dre’s The Chronic as a reference for all the records of mine that he engineered and he told me that was his secret for the Dr Octagon stuff as well. I think watching Dan’s success with this record may have subconsciously given me the motivation to pursue DOOM for a “side project” with Stones Throw produced by Madlib.

 

220px-soundpieces9. Lootpack – Soundpieces (1999)
Lootpack was Madlib, Wildchild, and DJ Romes, but at the time, Madlib was doing projects with a whole crew of people from his hometown of Oxnard, CA: Declaime, Oh No (who’s Madlib’s brother), Kan Kick, MED, Kazi, Godz Gift, and his own alter ego Quasimoto (Quas would actually make this list, but wasn’t released til 2000). But Madlib had albums with all of these guys and nobody could keep up with his level of productivity. The demo versions of this album was actually a lot more lo-fi and raw and probably the way Madlib wanted them to sound in the first place, but we went to Kut Masta Kurt’s studio and had him recut all the songs where we could separate all the tracks and properly mix them down after. After this album, Madlib refused to ever let anybody separate his tracks again. This album sounded too clean for him, but it was well received in LA and even in NY which at the time wasn’t supporting many West Coast records. I remember my friend Jazzbo called me and told me, “I just interviewed D’Angelo and he told me his album of the year was Lootpack”. We had no idea we were on his radar, but later found out that Dilla showed him the record. Dilla showed everyone he was working with that record, which meant, ?uestlove, Tribe, Erykah Badu, Busta, etc. He opened a lot of doors for us.

 

mf-doom-operation10. MF DOOM – Operation Doomsday (1999)
This album was it for Madlib and I. We were roommates and at the time, we’d DJ a lot of gigs together and the song Rymes Like Dimes would always get spun by either one of us. It was really cool to hear him flip an adult contemporary song from Quincy Jones/ James Ingram and make it “hip-hop”. Nobody was doing that at the time. It was only an album cut, but we’d practically fight over who could play it. The album itself in general sampled from softer, almost smooth jazz artists from the 80’s and 90’s like Sade, Babyface, Atlantic Starr, George Duke, and SOS Band; music you’d be more likely to hear in a dentist office than the streets. I think DOOM first touched on that style with KMD’s What A Niggy Know that sampled a Jody Watley song that was still relatively new at the time. After we released the Lootpack and Quasimoto albums, I asked Madlib who he wanted to work with “outside our immediate crew” and he said Dilla and DOOM and we churned out Jaylib and Madvillain.

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