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 thirty year lifespan.
To pay our respects to the nineties properly, we reached out to various industry heads, be it radio DJs, producers, writers and label owners to choose their favourite records from the era. Peanut Butter Wolf, founder of influential label Stones Throw, Radio 1’s DJ Semtex, often dubbed “the John Peel of hip-hop’’, chameleonic producer Jneiro Jarel and Jordan Ferguson – author of 33 1/3: Donuts, part of Bloomsbury Publishing excellent music series – make up some of our chosen contributors.
The process was at times arduous, and there was inevitably some overlap, however each writer’s reasoning behind their selections offer varying insights into why each album had such a profound effect on their formative tastes.
Flying the flag for UK hip-hop since the start of the noughties, Jehst has built a reputation for uncompromising rhymes with tough production heard most definitively on his classic The Return of the Drifter. His selections here are packed full of bona fide (excuse the pun) classics.
Nas – Illmatic (1994)
I have to put this at the top of my list because not only does the production line-up represent the cream of the New York crop – with the notable absence of the DITC crew – but the sporadic juxtaposition of wild imagery with acute observations of everyday life completely changed the way I looked at constructing rap lyrics forever.
A Tribe Called Quest – Midnight Marauders (1993)
Their first two albums were undeniably classic, but Tribe really came into their own on this album with a refined production style that further set them apart from the wider Native Tongues sound that we’d become accustomed to. People always talk about the bottom end in Tribe’s music – the bass sound – but for me it’s the overall warmth and feeling. Stripped-back ‘boom bap’ grooves with a golden tone.
Gang Starr – Hard To Earn (1994)
B-Boy DNA. This album is to Gang Starr what Midnight Marauders is to Tribe. The Boston-meets-Texas-via-Brooklyn partnership of Guru and Premier combine perfectly balanced no-nonsense, yet equally and effortlessly inventive styles on this minimalist masterpiece. Premo really refined his beat game and laid down some crystal clear blueprints on this one. Less is most definitely more. I still marvel at the ingenuity of the sample chops and the clarity of the execution. Genius.
Smif N Wessun – Dah Shinin (1993)
Evocative, deeply atmospheric production from Da Beatminerz made it light work for dancehall-influenced MC’s Tek N Steele on this Boot Camp Click classic. With the exception of the occasional glimpse of daylight catching the smoke clouds through a crack in the curtains, daytime barely touches this album. This is nocturnal body-clock boodah-head lifestyle music. If I close my eyes Brooklyn still sounds like this…
Diamond D & The Psychotic Neurotics – Stunts, Blunts & Hip Hop (1992)
A rich vinyl-tapestry. A lesson in digging and the blueprint for the format that today’s Madlib and Dilla fanatics revere so fondly. As the protégé of the Zulu Nation’s DJ Jazzy Jay, Diamond definitely had an encyclopaedic knowledge of beats and breaks that coupled with some imaginative sampling and textbook multi’s made this album a B-Boy milestone. Undeniably classic.
Digable Planets – Blowout Comb (1994)
Criminally underrated. From the opening horn solo you know it’s on. This album has such an ill musical vibe and thick, smoky atmosphere that it’s hard to resist the hypnotic effect. Butter flows and jazzy loops are the order of the day. This is summer in the city soundtrack music.
Showbiz & AG – Runaway Slave (1992)
Quintessential boom bap and possibly the ultimate jazz-based ‘hardcore’ hip-hop album. Rumbling double-bass riffs, grainy horn sections, and precisely articulated tales of Ghetto resilience that make this an over-looked precursor to Nas’s Illmatic in many respects. A deeply insightful Bronx tale, told by the neighbourhood Goodfellas.
Mobb Deep – The Infamous (1995)
Nonchalant thug shit. The all too familiar story of hand-to-mouth survival in a dog-eat-dog environment that would provide the stencil for every so-called ‘road’ rapper that came after them. The anthemic lead single alone, Shook Ones Pt. 2 qualifies this album as a necessary inclusion in this list. A potent cocktail of testosterone-fuelled, THC-charged, E&J-laced juvenile delinquency… With extra guns.
Wu-Tang Clan – Enter The Wu Tang (36 Chambers) (1993)
Bars, bravado and Kung-Fu philosophy. Probably the most punk album in hip-hop history – Beastie Boys catalogue included! The relentless energy of a Street Fighter 2 marathon in a dank, smoke-boxed basement, captured on 4-track cassette tape. Urgent SM58 recordings spit, splutter and splatter, overlapping on jagged beats like frantic tags on brutalist concrete. No collective of MC’s had excited rap fans in quite the same way since the days of the Juice Crew – and nor have they since. The influence of this record and the movement that was to follow is unparalleled.
Dr Dre – The Chronic (1992)
Nothing short of game changing. Instantly vintage, super-funky, sing-along gangster rap anthems showcasing the Slick Rick-inspired flows of a young Snoop Dogg. It took a special kind of musical vision (not to mention single-minded ambition) but Dre’s post-NWA re-invention established a trademark sound that was a true paradox; harder than a Compton gang ‘jump-in’ yet catchy enough to change the landscape of popular music forever. Genre defining.
Peanut Butter Wolf
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 a documentary last year, 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 as part of this list is a huge honour.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Diamond 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.
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 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 cuz 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 beast 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.
Dr Octagon- Dr Octagonecologyst (1997)
I first met Kool Keith in 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. And 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.
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. 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 – 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. 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 relatively still 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.
A seasoned music critic, Jordan is responsible for writing an entry into the esteemed 33 ⅓ series, which takes an in-depth look at J Dilla’s masterpiece, Donuts.
A Tribe Called Quest – Midnight Marauders (1993)
The Low End Theory might have been more innovative, but the follow-up perfected that musical formula. The sample selection is unparalleled and the lyrical chemistry between Tip and Phife was never better than it was here, featuring most of their most memorable lines. The first time I heard Award Tour, I knew it would be my one of my favourite songs for the rest of my life.
Ice Cube – The Predator (1992)
Dropping six months after the LA Riots, Cube’s righteous anger reached a laser precision on his third effort. It was like rap as hardcore, as heavy metal. Yet for all the militarized snarling contained throughout, the album takes a momentary respite for the flawless It Was a Good Day, recognizing the beauty that can be found even in even the most oppressive environments.
Outkast – Aquemini (1998)
By their third album, Andre 3000 and Big Boi had proven successful enough to fully follow their muses, embracing each other’s eccentricities and playing them off of each other. The new assuredness allowed the duo to level up as MC’s as well as producers and songwriters to craft a slab of future-funk that woke me up to what was going on in the South.
DJ Shadow – Endtroducing… (1996)
Is it hip-hop? Is it trip-hop? Electronic? Does it matter? Hearing Josh Davis’s debut for the first time was like having someone reach in my brain and pull out every beat pattern I wanted to hear but didn’t know it.
Big Punisher – Capital Punishment (1998)
Pun was able to pack his bars to bursting with internal slant rhymes, yet his flow kept them clear and never overwhelming (think of the Little Italy rhyme in Twinz). Even at his most braggadocios, Pun remained arguably the funniest MC of his time.
Snoop Doggy Dogg – Doggystyle (1993)
Much as I might have disdained the way my high school classmates latched on to the album’s more narcotic and misogynistic leanings, Snoop’s debut was a tipping point for rap’s commercial mainstream acceptance, and there was no way I could resist the unmatched pairing of his slippery smooth, unbothered flow weaving perfectly through the hazy, G. Clinton laced production from Dr. Dre.
The Roots – Things Fall Apart (1999)
A snapshot of the “Soulquarian” movement that would produce landmark classics from the likes of Common, Erykah Badu and D’Angelo, Things Fall Apart tackles their own sense of pre-millennial tension, demanding and etching out their own place in a culture that at the time didn’t know what to do with them. Incorporating lush strings, drum n’ bass and Afro-Caribbean elements, this album exposed me to musical styles I’d never encountered.
De La Soul – De La Soul is Dead (1991)
Refusing to play the roles of hippie peaceniks the media tried to cast them as, the Long Island trio’s sophomore album hits the self-destruct button and resurrects the group on their own terms. Pos, Dove and Mase (along with unofficial fourth man Prince Paul) weren’t just making music, they were world-building. De La Soul is Dead features its own radio stations, supporting cast, vocabulary and meta commentary, and it blew my little mind. Few if any rap records have come close to matching its ambition.
Public Enemy – Fear of a Black Planet (1990)
If this album were nothing but Fight the Power twelve times, it would still make my list. Instead, PE continued to widen their lyrical focus to diversity in the media (Burn Hollywood Burn) the sorry state of social services in the Black community (911 is a Joke) and police brutality two years before the Rodney King incident put the issue into the national consciousness (Anti-N***er Machine). A dense collection that continued shifting the hip-hop album as a work in itself instead of a collection of singles.
The Pharcyde – Labcabincalifornia (1995)
Labcabincalifornia trades its predecessor’s youthful exuberance for the more sombre sounds of boys growing into men, resisting a culture’s assumptions and drifting apart as artists. But the wordplay of Imani, Bootie Brown, Fatlip and Slimkid3 is as deft and fluid as ever, and the production, much of it handled by a young J Dilla, adds a layer of unexpected sophistication (think that bossa nova guitar on Runnin’, or the delicate piano notes that make Splattatorium the most wistful paean to weed-smoking ever recorded).
A man that needs little in the way of introduction to Bonafide readers: JJ has had a chameleonic career in music production, releasing on a number of labels under various guises, collaborating with the likes of Damon Albarn, Massive Attack, TV and, perhaps most notably, teaming up with DOOM for 2012’s Keys to the Kuffs. JJ also put together the quite magnificent Bonafide Beats #50 mix.
Public Enemy – Fear of a Black Planet (1990)
It was revolutionary! Innovative! Powerful! The production was an amazing collage of sounds never heard before then. Public Enemy definitely shaped me as an artist back then.
A Tribe Called Quest- Midnight Marauders (1993)
I love every album from Tribe but this one was the complete package. It was Tribe in their prime! Love the Siri sounding voice over bossa nova jazz! Too many things to put in words on what I loved about this album.
Pharcyde- Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde (1992)
It was fun, crazy, youthful, and the beats J Swift came with on this album were amazing! My man DJ Frosty Ice hooked me up with the tape three months before it dropped. I had the original version of I’m That Type Of N****, which was way better than the version on the official album to me. Classic!
GZA – Liquid Swords (1995)
This album is amazing! I remember watching a lot of anime during that time. Ninja Scroll was one of my favorites! Liquid Swords reminded me so much of Japanimation in a musical form. GZA’s rhyme skills were like martial arts for real. I think RZA did his best production on this album.
Outkast- ATLiens (1994)
Me being a cat born in between Dre and Big’s b-day, and growing up in ATL as a youth when my family left Brooklyn, I could relate to Outkast! I even had a group called APB (Aliens from the Planet Brooklyn) back in ’89! I was so glad to see peers from the south rep real hip-hop and do it as aliens! ATLIENS!!
Goodie Mob- Soul Food (1995)
This album is perfectly titled! It was a full plate of your mama’s best soul food dish with secret recipes from grandma!! It was made with love! Made me chase down Khujo Goodie to collaborate on our album Georgiavania.
Terminator X- The Valley Of The Jeep Beets (1991)
I’ve always loved PE’s style of production. It influenced me to the fullest. So it was natural for me to cop this album from PE’s DJ as soon as I saw it on the shelves. Classic material!
Freestyle Fellowship- Innercity Griots (1993)
These cats used words like instruments. It was like their style and cadence was an extension of the music. Even though there was meaning to the lyrics, a lot of times I didn’t even understand what they were saying. But that’s what made this album so ill to me. Made me think harder. True freestyle talent right there yo!
Souls of Mischief- 93 ’til Infinity (1993)
I remember getting the underground Souls joint called Cab Fare. That made me cop 93 ’til Infinity when it dropped. I was flipping! My favourite song was Never No More. This album is so solid. Love the days of rap crews.
Leaders of the New School- A Future Without a Past (1991)
This album made me east coast stomp like crazy!!! I remember being broke in Brooklyn and I bought a cheap copy of the album from a bootlegger. Felt bad about it so I bought the official CD later. Just another Sobb Story! Ha!
Having come up through the streetwear and UK hip-hop scene in the 90s, Kish’s connections in the scene go back a long way. He remains a prominent figurehead with his show on Soho Radio and his unparalleled sneaker collection.
MC Mell’O’ – Thoughts Released (Revelation I) (1990)
Around this time Mello was the baddest, ruffest British emcee and the leader of the Jus Bad crew that included the likes of Monie Love and DJ Pogo. His lyrics were intense, perceptive and raw. This album set the benchmark for what was to follow. Rappers such as Blak Twang and Roots Manuva owe so much to Mell’O’ and this masterpiece as I regard Mell’O’ as our Rakim.
The Sindecut – Changing The Scenery (1990)
I nearly didn’t include this as my homie Will Ashon had already put this down as one of his but there’s no way I can front. This crew were pioneering in the way they textured their music, the perfect dynamic with regards to a British hip-hop sound. This wasn’t an attempt to bite the American way of producing but a significant moment in hip-hop history which sounded home grown. Moments of melody, punctuated with rough rhymes and frenetic discordant sounds, with Crazy Noddy just ripping through it all…timeless.
London Posse – Gangster Chronicle (1990)
The definitive UK rap album. If you haven’t heard this, stop reading now, Google it, listen and digest it. America had EPMD and we had London Posse. Rough rhymes over hard beats, the perfect synergy between Bionic and Rodney P and rap and reggae…raggamuffin to the fullest…and Rodney P is still killing it on the mic to this day…legendary!
Caveman – Positive Reaction (1991)
Being signed to Profile the home of the rap gods Run DMC was insane for a UK group and accolades from a diverse range of DJs including Westwood and Giles Peterson as the future for home-grown rap was the definite co-sign. They represented the UK at the legendary Hip Hop summit The New Music Seminar in New York. They were the UK’s equivalent to the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, Gang Starr, Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth etc. breaking new boundaries.
Hijack – The Horns Of Jericho (1991)
Ice- T heard them on Westwood and immediately signed them to his Rhyme Syndicate label which was a huge deal and the first time that a UK rap group had been co-signed by a US rap artist. This was also first time that we saw the usage of Martial Arts and it’s relating philosophy within hip-hop. Kamanchi Sly was a dominating beast on the mic, DJ Supreme’s cutting was revolutionary and the sound was an intense, chaotic barrage that just amped you up. I would say that this group, along with Public Enemy and Ultramagnetic MCs influenced later groups such as The Prodigy.
Silver Bullet – Bring Down the Walls No Limit Squad Returns (1991)
Silver Bullet used to be a in a rap group from my hometown called Triple Element along with another mate of mine Conrad who had one release on Tam Tam in 1988. The group split up with Conrad later going on to emcee for LTJ Bukem but Bullet continued on his own and was partly responsible (alongside contemporaries such as Hijack and Gunshot) for creating a sound that would influence the development of Hardcore, which then morphed into Jungle. The perfect accompaniment to Public Enemy with whom he would later tour as the sound was raw, unrelenting and the rhymes heavy with alliteration delivered at a frenetic pace….intense.
Blade – The Lion Goes From Strength To Strength (No Compromise) (1993)
Blade really set an example, which we would then see other rappers following suit, and also have an influence on other genres too including garage and grime with their street level marketing tactics. This album also serves as an example of one person doing virtually everything from the production, to the liner notes. It doesn’t get any rawer or honest than this.
Blak Twang – 19 Longtime (1998)
If Tony Rotton’s previous debut release Dettwork Southeast had received an official release at the time, maybe it would occupy this spot but this album deservedly received worthy accolades from everyone as it proved that the man like Rotten was no one hit wonder and his talent displayed no sophomore jinx but a whole lot of stamina. He had a British rap style different to all the others and had a penchant for laying down a hard beat on the boards too. The listener had an undiluted affinity for his subject matter as his references were firmly grounded with the experiences of the British streets, and I believe had a profound influence on everything that came after.
Roots Manuva – Brand New Second Hand (1999)
Taking the baton from his good friend Tony Rotton, Roots would maintain those standards, possibly even becoming our equivalent to E-40 with the way he invented new slang. Roots unique rap style combined with a more left field, boundary pushing ear for beats, created a visionary masterpiece that sounded like nothing we’d previously heard. Brand New Second Hand is deservedly regarded as a significant landmark in music as it redefined what could be classified as hip-hop, with a sound that challenged our preconceptions, opening up a whole new direction of possibilities.
Task Force – New Mic Order (1999)
Queensbridge had Mobb Deep, Highbury had Task Force. With Chester P & Farma G as two charismatic emcees delivering visceral rhymes full of acute observation and menace combined with the hardest, neck snapping beats from Mark B led to an undiluted rap classic that pervades the streets of London to this day. Their grim depiction is harsh, unflinching and London is laid bare in one of the best and greatest albums by a UK rap group ever!