Since I am having some trouble coming up with a blog topic on my week off, I decided to make a list of the fifteen or so greatest hip hop (or "rap" as it used to be called) albums of the 1990s. I have not included lyrical content whatsoever in this list. Also, it's one of those lists where I'll think of obvious ones that I forgot, so I may go back and edit this list. I don't expect anyone who knows me to have any interest in this list whatsoever, but I'm doing it for posterity and my own reference. Heeeere we go...
15) DE LA SOUL - "Buhloone Mind State" (1993): De La were always a bunch of wacky pranksters, more interested in funny skits and nutty sound-collages than in creating great music, at least in my opinion. But on this album, they grow up, and I mean big time. It's maybe the must "musical" of any rap album I've ever heard. It's mature and really really gorgeous at some points. The jazz riffs are perfectly placed, or played in some cases. It's a great intro for people who maybe think rap is too hardcore or negative. This album is a real beaut. Download: "Patti Dooke," "Ego Trippin' (Part Two)," "3 Days Later," "I Am I Be," "In the Woods," "Breakadawn."
14) ERIC B & RAKIM - "Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em" (1990): Not only is Rakim one of the five greatest rappers of all time (and anyone who puts Biggie or Tupac in the same league clearly has no idea what good MC'ing is), but the production on this album is great, feeling almost like a '70s cop movie, but more grimy. The lyrics are almost -- ALMOST -- overshadowed by the dark instrumentals. Rakim's golden pipes are the perfect compliment to the basement-deep soundscape. Download: "Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em," "No Omega," "Run for Cover," "Mahogany."
13) RAEKWON - "Only Built for Cuban Linx N****z" (1995): All Wu-Tang fans thought this album was going to suck, but it is clearly (with the possible expection of GZA's "Liquid Swords") the best Wu-Tang solo album. The songs are all about some kind of Black Mafia, with all sorts of Italian aliases and the whole thing is a little silly lyrically. But the production is incredible. Just remarkable stuff. Some of it is intense, some of it is jazzy, but nearly every track is outstanding. Download: "Verbal Intercourse," "Criminology," "SpotRusherz," "Knuckleheadz," "Guillotine (Swords)," "Wisdom Body," "Wu-Gambinos."
12) PETE ROCK & CL SMOOTH - "Mecca and the Soul Brother" (1992): This is an exhausting double-album, but in the best way. CL Smooth is the caramel-voiced guide through the album, but since he really doesn't say all that much, the horn-laden beats of Pete Rock dominate the album. This album turned Pete Rock from unknown to wunderkind producer. The beats are all catchy and would fit in at a family reunion as much as a hip hop club. Very mainstream sound, but without sacrificing quality of music. Download: "For Pete's Sake," "Act Like You Know," "Wig Out," "They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y)," "On and On," "Can't Front on Me," "The Creator," The Basement," "Skinz."
11) A TRIBE CALLED QUEST - "The Low End Theory" (1991): Maybe the best testament to a hip hop album's influence and innovation is if it can somehow bend another genre of music to sound like hip hop rather than the other way around. There were a lot of jazz-rap groups before and after the Tribe (Gang Starr, Dream Warriors, Black Sheep, Digable Planets), but this is the first album to grab jazz by the horns (get it? haha) and make force it to sound like hip hop, and not try to make a hip hop song sound jazzy. This album is the perfect confluence of the two genres. It's a rap album that comes from jazz tradition instead of just shoe-horning the sound into the songs. Download: "Buggin' Out," "Show Business," "Check the Rhime," "Jazz (We've Got)," "Scenario."
10) GANG STARR - "Hard to Earn" (1994): Gang Starr had always been a pioneer in jazz-rap, but on this album, they branched out from the confines of the bebop jazz style and went into darker territory. The jazz is still there, but now it's more of an accent to the harder edge this group took. Lead rapper Guru had always been the positive mouthpiece for DJ Premier's beats. (DJ Premier, by the way, is probably the greatest hip hop producer that ever lived.) But here, Guru takes control and the instrumental reflects his new-found anger and edge. And it's a natural hardness, not one cooked up by a record company. Or at least it doesn't feel that way. Download: "Alongwaytogo," "Code of the Streets," "Tonz 'O' Gunz," "The Planet," "Blowin' Up the Spot," "F.A.L.A." "Comin' for Datazz."
9) EPMD - "Strictly Business" (1988): Probably the first rap-funk album. It's slow funk, oozing with lowdown funk. The lyrics service the beats and the production, but it started the East Coast funk movement. A bottom-heavy sound with a nice contrast between Erick "E Double E" Sermon's ultra laid back lispy style and Parish "PMD" Smith commanding forcefulness. Download: "Strictly Business," "You Gots To Chill," "Jane," "Let the Funk Flow," "You're a Customer."
8) A TRIBE CALLED QUEST - "Midnight Marauders" (1993): I bought this and the Wu-Tang debut album on the same day. Although most people consider "The Low End Theory" to be the superior album, I think "Midnight Marauders" actually improves on the previous record. "Low End" was a breakthrough for jazz-rap, but this album perfects the formula (though "Low End" may actually hold up better as a full album). Not only do Q-Tip and Phife's lyrics perfectly compliment the laid-back grooves, but the beats actually enhance the lyrics. The instrumentals actually mask some of the flaws of the MCs. Very symbiotic. Download: "Steve Biko (Stir it Up)," "Sucka N***a," "Electric Relaxation," "Oh My God," "Keep it Rollin'," "Lyrics to Go," "God Lives Through."
7) DJ SHADOW - "Entroducing..." (1996): This album is actually in the Guiness Book of World Records as the first album created from 100% sampled material. In other words, Shadow didn't actually produce one sound on this album, but rather took it all from other sources. And the way he created it, you would never know. The texture of the songs on this album are unlike anything else I've ever heard. There are no lyrics, but the instrumentals are fantastic. Download: "Building Steam with a Grain of Salt," "Midnight in a Perfect World," "The Number Song."
6) WU-TANG CLAN - "Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers" (1993): The album itself practically re-defined the concept of a group, putting a full nine rappers on the album as full-time group members (well, 8 and one was added later). And while the mystical kung-fu concepts and lyrics are what were the hook for many, what people forget is how truly revolutionary RZA's production was on this record. It used samples from old kung-fu movies not only in interludes but in actual songs. It's hardcore chamber music, using eerie pianos and bizarre sound effects in the context of the songs. It really feels as if it was created in a dungeon, but that creates the ominous aura that surrounds the whole record. Download: "Bring Da Ruckus," "Shame on a N***a," "Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber," "Wu-Tang Clan Ain't Nuthing Ta F'Wit," "C.R.E.A.M." "Method Man," "Protect Ya Neck."
5) REDMAN - "Whut? Thee Album" (1992): This album is a double-whammy in that not only does it may be the best East Coast funk rap album ever made, but Redman is a dynamite lyricist. He's funny and he can battle with the best of them. He even battles himself on "Redman meets Reggie Noble." This is one of the great underappreciated rap albums in history, both musically and lyrically. It's a bumping, bass-heavy album, but still doesn't sound West Coast. Download: "So Ruff," "Watch Yo Nuggets," "Redman Meets Reggie Noble," "Tonight's Da Night," "How to Roll a Blunt," "A Day of Sooperman Lover."
4) DIAMOND & THE PSYCHOTIC NEUROTICS - "Stunts, Blunts & Hip Hop" (1992): Diamond is the consummate crate-digger, finding unknown and obscure instrumentals to sample, and then combining them into a dense sonic collage. Very jazzy, but more lighthearted than most of the artists on this list. Diamond's lyrics are not so great, but they carry forth the tradition of the MC serving the DJ rather than the other way around. No space is wasted and there are very few weak beats on the album. Download: "Best Kept Secret," "Sally Got a One Track Mind," "*!*! What U Heard," "Red Light Green Light," "Check One, Two," "Freestyle (Yo, That's That Sh..)," "Stunts, Blunts & Hip Hop," "Feel the Vibe."
3) BLACK MOON - "Enta Da Stage" (1993): The epitome of East Coast/Brooklyn hip hop. In addition to having gangsterish lyrics, the production is straight from the gutter, juxtaposing pretty jazz flourishes with a grimy texture. A saxophone will be backed with a distorted, bottom-of-the-floor bassline that is both musically sound (meaning it sounds like a real instrumental, and not just a beat), but also menacing and dark. Plus the misspellings on the album are great. Download: "Who Got Da Props?," "Black Smif N Wessun," "Son Get Wrec," "I Got Ya Opin," "How Many MCs," "U Da Man."
2) CYPRESS HILL - "Cypress Hill" (1991): The album that changed my concept of what hip hop could do with instrumentals. I had been always loved rap but had been frustrated with repetitive beats and instrumentals that rarely deviated from their source sample. This album not only would change drum beats and insert bridges into the song (very rock) but they did it in a way that still sounded like a hip hop album and not a novelty rock album. It's the perfect marriage of rock sounds in a hip hop context. It's like the Bomb Squad on acid. Magnificent. Every track is rife with dirt and distortion. Download: "Hand on the Pump," "How I Could Just Kill a Man," "Light Another," "The Phuncky Feel One."
1) THE BEATNUTS - "The Beatnuts" (1994): Maybe my favorite album ever. The lyrics are really hedonistic and negative. They make NWA look politically responsible. Only Fashion (later Al Tariq) has any real lyrical skill, although JuJu and Psycho Les are pretty funny guys. But the beats here are beyond stellar. Not only do create a musical barrage, but the beats are so funky and raw that they completely compensate for any lack of lyrical content. The epitome of "I don't give a f**k" hip hop. Download: "Ya Don't Stop," "Hellraiser," "Let Off a Couple," "Get Funky," "Hit Me With That."
Honorable Mention: Black Sheep "A Wolf In Sheep's Clothing," Compton's Most Wanted "Music to Driveby," Del the Funkee Homosapien "I Wish My Brother George Was Here," Dr Dre "The Chronic," EPMD "Unfinished Business," Fugees "The Score," Gang Starr "Daily Operation," Group Home "Livin' Proof," GZA/Genius "Liquid Swords," Nine "Nine Livez," The Roots "Do You Want More??!!??!" Smif N Wessun "Da Shinin'"