Evolution of Hip Hop Month, Week 3: The Golden Age


This week … the golden age of hip hop … 1989 to 1996 … hip hop enters the mainstream.  Like the rock world in the 80s and 90s, hip hop was now big and diverse enough to see some acts break through with commercial success, while other, just as deserving acts, linger in the indie underground.

Below, a time line of the era from some of the most influential members of Hip Hop’s Golden Age.

In 1985, Jeff Townes and Will Smith (aka DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince) were introduced to each other by chance in 1985. One night, Townes was performing at a house party only a few doors down from Smith’s residence, and he was missing his hype man. Smith decided to fill in and both felt strong chemistry: so much that Townes was upset when his hype man finally made it to the party. In 1991, still having a bit of extra money from starring in the successful sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the duo to stage the comeback album, Homebase. The platinum album featured a more mature sound from the group, with Smith rapping in a deeper, consistent voice and changed their sound to fit the era’s trend of hip-hop. Homebase featured the lead-off single “Summertime”, which added rap lyrics to the music of the Kool & the Gang instrumental “Summer Madness” and has become one of their most enduring hits.

In 1988, A Tribe Called Quest forms, composed of rapper/producer Q-Tip (Jonathan Davis, renamed Kamal Fareed), rapper Phife Dawg (Malik Taylor), and DJ/producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad. Along with De La Soul, the group was a central part of the Native Tongues Posse, and enjoyed the most commercial success out of all the groups to emerge from that collective. Their innovative fusing of hip hop and jazz has had a lasting impact on hip hop music, helping to expand the art of hip hop production. They released five albums in ten years, the first three of which were very highly acclaimed, and disbanded in 1998. The group is regarded as iconic pioneers of alternative hip hop music, having helped to pave the way for innovative hip-hop artists.

In 1988, EPMD release their first album Strictly Business, which featured the underground hit “Strictly Business,” based on a sample of Eric Clapton’s version of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff.” The group’s brand of funk-fueled sample-heavy hip-hop proved to be a major force in the genre. Unlike old school hip hop, which was originally based on disco hits but eventually became more electronic, EPMD based its music mainly on lifting funk and rock breaks for samples and helped to popularize their usage, along with Marley Marl and Public Enemy. From Brentwood, New York. The group’s name is a concatenanation of the members’ name “E” and “PMD” or an acronym for “Erick and Parrish Making Dollars” (later “Erick and Parrish Millennium Ducats”), referencing its members, emcees Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith (“PMD”). The group has been active for more than 20 years (1986–present), and is one of the most prominent acts in East coast hip hop. Diamond J, DJ K La Boss, and DJ Scratch were DJs for the group.

In 1988, The Ultramagnetic MCs release the new school classic Critical Beatdown, introducing many new sampling techniques. Many believe that without the group’s primary producer, Ced Gee, the golden era of sampling may have looked very different. Ced, while uncredited, also produced the majority of Boogie Down Productions‘ seminal Criminal Minded. These albums are among the first to use “chopped” samples, rearranged and edited to change context. Both albums also feature many James Brown samples, which became very prominent in Hip Hop in ensuing years.

In 1988, Jungle Brothers release their debut album Straight Out of the Jungle. The Jungle Brothers are an American hip hop group that pioneered the fusion of jazz and hip-hop and also became the first hip-hop group to use a house-music producer. The group began performing in the mid-1980s and released its first album, Straight Out the Jungle, in 1988. With Afrocentric lyrics and innovative beats, the Jungle Brothers were critically acclaimed and soon joined the influential Native Tongues collective. The trio is composed of Michael Small (Mike Gee), Nathaniel Hall (Afrika Baby Bam, an homage to Afrika Bambaataa) and Sammy Burwell (DJ Sammy B). In 1989, they release Done By the Forces of Nature. The album was a critical smash at the time, though it has since been largely ignored by hip-hop critics in favor of the similarly acclaimed alternative hip-hop album 3 Feet High and Rising by De La Soul, released the same year.

In 1989, Public Enemy release their much-anticipated third album, “Fear of A Black Planet” to strong sales and reviews despite controversy over anti-Semitic remarks made by group member Professor Griff in an interview. Chuck D formally dismisses Griff from group. In 1989, The Grammy committee announces that rap will be given it’s own official Grammy catagory. The news is bittersweet, however, after it is announced that the presentation will not be televised. As a result, many of the most prominent rappers, (including Salt-N-Pepa, Public Enemy, DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, Ice-T and more), host a Boycott-The-Grammys Party on MTV the night of the broadcast. DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince go on to win the award.

In 1989, After a year of buzz surrounding her underground singles, Queen Latifah releases her debut album, “All Hail the Queen.” It is praised immensely by the hip-hop community for it’s positive outlook and strong feminist overtones.

In 1989, In an effort to quell the surge of Black-On-Black crime in New York (and as tribute to Scott La Rock); KRS-One (of Boogie Down Productions) organizes the Stop the Violence movement with several New York rappers. Soon, the Movement goes national as West Coast MCs get involved as well. The result is two public-service singles denouncing violence, ‘Self Destruction’ in New York, and ‘We’re All In the Same Gang’ in Los Angeles.

In 1989, De La Soul, a young rap group from Long Island, New York (and also affiliated with the Native Tongues collective), release their debut, “3 Feet High & Rising” on Tommy Boy Records. Building on quirky samples from rock, funk, folk, country and soul and using wordplay that ranged from psychadelic musings to outright jibberish, the group is immediately hailed as the ‘future of hip-hop music.’ The members are Kelvin Mercer (Posdnuos, Mercenary, Plug Wonder Why, Plug One), David Jude Jolicoeur (Trugoy the Dove, Dave, Plug Two) and Vincent Mason (P.A. Pasemaster Mase, Maseo, Plug Three). The three formed the group in high school and caught the attention of producer Paul Huston (Prince Paul) with a demo tape of the song “Plug Tunin'”. Prince Paul was also sometimes referred to as Plug Four. The “Plug” names are alleged to come from the numbers that each bandmate’s microphone was labeled on the soundboard. Posdnuos was always plugged into plug one, Trugoy was plugged into plug two, and so forth. A measure of 3 Feet High and Rising’s cross-over appeal was the fact that it was voted Album of the Year by NME Magazine, a title better known for its taste in guitar-based music. De La Soul has influenced numerous other hip hop artists such as Camp Lo, Black Eyed Peas, and Digable Planets. They were also influential in the early stages of rapper/actor Mos Def’s career, and are a core part of the Spitkicker collective. They are the longest standing Native Tongues Posse group, after the Jungle Brothers.

In 1989, The Beastie Boys, after a long and bitter exit from Def Jam Records, finally release their second album, “Paul’s Boutique.” Trading the frat-boy humor of their debut in favor of dense samples, sprawling sound collages and abstract lyrical themes, the album flops as most fans and critics don’t know what to make of the record.

In 1989, 2 Live Crew, a Florida-based party-rap group, releases their third album, “As Nasty As They Wanna Be.” It is an extremely explicit and sexually provocative–(with the lyrics reaching near-pornographic proportions), and is banned from sale in the state of Florida. The group themselves are arrested for lewdness after performing a concert in Miami. After going to court for the right to perform and write music as they want to, the group is found not guilty in what becomes a heated debate over decency and the First Amendment.

In 1989, the original members of Gang Starr split up, and the only member willing to continue under the name Gang Starr was Guru. He soon got in touch with DJ Premier (then known as Waxmaster C) who sent him a beat tape which Guru liked. He invited DJ Premier to join Gang Starr and in that same year they released their first single “Words I Manifest” along with the album “No More Mr. Nice Guy”. Gang Starr went on to pioneer the New York hip hop sound. The entirety of Gang Starr’s catalog, especially Step in the Arena (1991), Daily Operation (1992) Hard to Earn (1994) and Moment of Truth (1998) are well-respected among critics.

In 1989, Yo! MTV Raps makes it’s debut, with host Fab 5 Freddy. For the first time, the entire country has a platform to watch the latest music videos by all of the top rap artists.

In 1989, Poor Righteous Teachers release their debut album Holy Intellect. From Trenton, New Jersey, Poor Righteous Teachers, often referred to as PRT by their fans, are known as pro-Black conscious hip hop artists, with musical content inspired by the teachings of the Nation of Gods and Earths. Wise Intelligent, as the lead MC, is the most visible and well-known member of the group. Culture Freedom provides backing vocals and production and Father Shaheed serves as a DJ and producer. Its discography, for the most part on Profile Records, is out of print. Holy Intellect received critical acclaim, and spawned the group’s only major radio hit, “Rock Dis Funky Joint”.

In 1989, Special Ed releases his debut album Youngest in Charge album, made when Ed was just 16. Hailing from Brooklyn, but of Jamaican descent, he is identified with East Coast hip hop. Special Ed is probably best known for the songs “I Got It Made” and “I’m The Magnificent”, produced by “Hitman” Howie Tee.

In 1990, Nice & Smooth (a New York duo comprised of Greg Nice and Smooth B), release their most-noted contribution to hip-hop with its second single, “Funky For You,” with the following lyrics: Hey yo, Dizzy Gillespie plays the sax! Me myself, I love to max! Red-Bone booties, I’m out to wax! Stick-up kids is out to tax! The duo released four albums from the late 1980s to the mid 1990s. Their first appearance was on the song, “Pimpin Ain’t Easy” by Big Daddy Kane on his album, It’s a Big Daddy Thing in 1989.

In 1991, cousin of renowned rapper Ice Cube, Del tha Funkee Homosapien released his first solo album, I Wish My Brother George Was Here, at the age of 18. The album was a commercial success, largely due to the popularity of the hit single, “Mistadobalina”. Del began his career writing lyrics for Cube’s backing band, Da Lench Mob.

In 1991, Pete Rock & CL Smooth release Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth release their debut EP All Souled Out. An influential rap group from Mount Vernon, New York, Pete Rock & CL Smooth are producer, DJ Pete Rock (Peter Phillips) who tended to prefer obscure soul and jazz sides for sample sources, frequently making use of horn-driven hooks, and lead vocalist CL Smooth (Corey Penn), who tended to be philosophical in his raps, and he mostly avoided profanity. Their signature hit was “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)”, a dirge for fallen friends–namely Troy “Trouble T-Roy” Dixon, a member of Heavy D & The Boyz, who died in 1990.

In 1991, Chubb Rock released The One, which reached #13 on Billboard’s “Top Hip-Hop/R&B” chart for that year. Three singles from that release, “Treat’em Right”, “Just The Two Of Us” and “The Chubbster”, made it to #1 on Billboard’s “Top Rap Single” chart list for the same year. Born “Richard Simpson in Jamaica in 1968, Chubb Rock is a New York-based rapper who released several commercially successful hip hop albums in the early 1990s. His most recent appearance is on the K’naan single “ABC’s”.

In 1991, The Leaders of the New School released their debut album A Future Without A Past, which included the hits “Case of the P.T.A.”, “Sobb Story” and “The International Zone Coaster”. The group was praised for their light-hearted content, and old-school call-and-response deliveries. The crew was composed of Uniondale, New York natives Charlie Brown, Dinco D, Busta Rhymes and Cut Monitor Milo, Busta Rhymes’ cousin. The four got their start touring with hip hop group Public Enemy, and in fact it was member Chuck D who gave Busta Rhymes and Charlie Brown their names. In 1991, innovative, acclaimed Toronto and New York-based hip hop group Main Source (comprised of Toronto natives Sir Scratch, K-Cut, and Queens natives Large Professor and Mikey D) release their debut album Breaking Atoms, featured conscious MC tracks such as “Looking at the Front Door” and “A Friendly Game of Baseball” and “Watch Roger Do His Thing” as well as the first on-record appearance of Nas on “Live at the Barbeque,”

In 1992, The Pharcyde release their debut album Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde, The album was highly acclaimed, and became one of the most praised and influential alternative hip hop albums of the 1990s. Their second single “Passin’ Me By”‘ became a minor Billboard hit, and is now usually considered a golden-era staple and is the group’s most well known song. After The Bizarre Ride album was released, the group began touring with A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, culminating with an appearance at the Lollapalooza show in 1994. The group formed in South Central Los Angeles (now South Los Angeles), where the group’s members grew up. The original four members of the group are Imani (Emandu Wilcox), Slimkid3 (Tre Hardson), Bootie Brown (Romye Robinson) and Fatlip (Derrick Stewart). DJ Mark Luv was the group’s first DJ, followed by innovative Los Angeles producer J-Swift and then the late J Dilla (formerly known as Jay Dee). The group is best known for the hit singles “Drop”, “Passin’ Me By” and “Runnin'”, as well as their first album, Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde.

In 1993, Freestyle Fellowship release Innercity Griots, acknowledged by many to be among the best hip hop albums of the 90s. A rap group from Los Angeles, Freestyle Fellowship formed in the early 90s and consists of rappers Aceyalone, Myka Nyne, P.E.A.C.E., Self Jupiter and producer J Sumbi. Their vocal techniques focusing on the method of the freestyle, as well as a successful infusion of hip hop and jazz, established the group as forerunners in the sub-genre of jazz rap, and also placed them amongst prominent West Coast underground hip hop acts of the early 1990s like Hieroglyphics, Abstract Rude & Tribe Unique, and The Pharcyde. They are part of a hip hop collective known as Project Blowed. The Fellowship became known in tape-trading circles, identified by their range in rhyming, at times bordering on scat, and Afrocentric messages over jazz inspired beat production.

In 1993, Digable Planets release their debut album, Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space). The album’s lead single, “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat),” became a crossover hit, peaking at #15 on Billboard magazine’s singles chart, earning gold certification by the RIAA, and winning the Grammy award for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group. The group is composed of Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler (from Seattle), Craig “Doodlebug” Irving (from Philadelphia), and Mary Ann “Ladybug Mecca” Vieira (from Washington, D.C.). They were backed by Silkworm, who later embarked on a solo career under the name King Britt.

In 1994, with the release of Resurrection, Common achieved a much larger degree of critical acclaim, which extended beyond Chicago natives. The album sold relatively well and received a strong positive reaction among alternative and underground hip-hop fans at the time. Resurrection was Common’s last album produced almost entirely by his long-time production partner, No I.D., who was also the then-mentor of a young Kanye West. The song “I Used to Love H.E.R.” from Resurrection ignited a feud with West Coast rap group Westside Connection. The lyrics of the song criticized the path hip-hop music was taking and was interpreted by some as directing blame towards the popularity of West Coast Gangsta rap. Westside Connection first responded with the 1995 song Westside Slaughterhouse, with the lyrics “Used to love H.E.R. mad cause I fucked her”. Westside Connection recorded tracks venting their issues with rival East Coast rappers (see East Coast-West Coast hip hop rivalry). Westside Slaughterhouse also mentioned Common by name, prompting the rapper to respond with the scathing Pete Rock-produced attack song “The Bitch in Yoo”. Common and Westside Connection continued to insult each other back and forth before finally meeting with Louis Farrakhan and setting aside their dispute. Following the popularity of Resurrection, Common Sense was sued by a Orange County-based reggae band with the same name, and was forced to shorten his moniker to simply Common. Common debuted in 1992 with the album Can I Borrow a Dollar? and maintained a significant underground following into the late 90s, after which he gained notable mainstream success through his work with the Soulquarians.


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