Friday, September 23, 2011

1991-20: 1991 in Music Pt. 2: The Year in Hip-Hop/Rap

Part 2: The Year in Hip-Hop/Rap

When rap music entered 1991, it was clearly in a transitional period. While the music was bigger than ever to the public at large. Not everyone liked the public’s perception of what rap music and hip-hop is. The image of such mainstream artists as MC Hammer, Gerardo, and Vanilla Ice may have helped exposed hip-hop to a broader audience, particularly White America. There was a feeling that their success and image didn’t really come from the streets along with the fact that it seemed manufactured. Whatever rap purists felt about this perception of what hip-hop was. It would have a major effect of what was to come later in the decade as hip-hop would become the major music force of the 1990s.

While MC Hammer definitely helped rap music become bigger than ever and more present all over the world. He received lots of criticism from the hip-hop community despite the fact that he wanted to present a positive image. What bothered a lot of rappers and critics at the time wasn’t the fact that Hammer was so big with a very polished, pop sound. It was also the fact that he was making lots of money through endorsements from corporate sponsors and making songs for blockbuster films such as The Addams Family. While Hammer would drop the MC from his name a year later and present himself as a superstar rapper with slick, big-budget videos and songs that featured a massive production. He would alienate a large portion of his African-American audience and eventually lead to bankruptcy.

If MC Hammer’s success was bothersome to purists and rappers in the hip-hop community, that was small potatoes compared to Vanilla Ice’s success. Though Ice’s major label debut To the Extreme was a huge hit in late 1990 and early 1991. His career was already trouble around the time he was a big star with a number one album topping the charts for 16 weeks. Ice’s bio where he claimed to be from the streets of Miami and was a gang-banger proved to be false during an interview which revealed that he was really from a suburb of Dallas. For every interview Ice was doing, it felt like an interrogation as his credibility was shattered and everything about him was questioned.

Though Ice would become rich and successful due to the sales of To the Extreme and the single Ice Ice Baby, Ice’s profile would have dire consequences. Not only would he be parodied by shows like Saturday Night Live and In Living Color about his success. He was also dissed by the rap group 3rd Bass with their song Pop Goes the Weasel that featured a sample of Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer (w/ permission by Gabriel) as well as a cameo by Henry Rollins in the video for the song as Vanilla Ice. In early 1991, Ice would have an encounter with future Death Row Records co-founder Suge Knight who was asking for some royalties for Ice Ice Baby. While the legend was that Knight and his crew dangled Ice from a balcony to get the releases, Ice later shot that down years later as he gave away a portion of the royalties to Knight. Even as Ice said that it was a good thing because he helped invested money in Death Row Records.

Ice’s career later fell hard in late 1991 due to a commercially-disappointing live album as well as a movie called Cool as Ice failed in the box office. Ice’s career cooled throughout the 1990s though he remained in the underground as he found his niche years later. Though Ice’s success was a big deal for the industry, it did hurt a lot of potential for emerging white rappers. Among them was Kid Rock who would finally break through in late 1998 while new yet more commercial white rappers would emerge in the coming years such as Mark Wahlberg under his rapper name Marky Mark and a Canadian rapper named Snow. Yet, they wouldn’t last long though Mark Wahlberg would have success as an actor. It did hurt the potential for white rappers to break into the hip-hop industry as a white rapper was a no-no for years. Even as Ice’s success was a thorn to the side of rap purists.

While pop-rap was helping the music gain wider exposure to the mainstream, there were other forms of rap and hip-hop that were starting to gain ground. Even as it led to a period of classic albums and new artists to emerge. Sub-genres were forming ranging from gangsta rap to jazz-influenced versions of rap music. One of the pioneers of gangsta rap in Ice-T released a new album called O.G. Original Gangster that was considered to be his finest album of his career. The album was considered to be a landmark for the gangsta rap genre while the album also introduced to a new project Ice-T created called Body Count. Body Count was a rap-metal band that allowed Ice-T to expand his musical horizons as he took the band on the road at the first Lollapalooza festival.

While Ice-T explored new avenues, Ice Cube released his sophomore album Death Certificate to rave reviews. Cube, who had left N.W.A. in early 1990 forged a solo career where he teamed with the famed production team the Bomb Squad for his solo debut album AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted in May of 1990 that featured a lot of social and political themes relating to what was happening in America. Death Certificate was released in October of 1991 that expanded on Ice Cube’s exploration with social and political themes while going more extreme about racism and violence. The album helped raise Cube’s profile as he also starred in the 1991 Oscar-nominated film Boyz n the Hood while Cube was also embarking on a personal journey with his conversion to Islam.

Cube’s former bandmates in the influential gangsta-rap group N.W.A. were forging ahead with the release of their second and last album entitled Efil4zaggin (Niggaz4life) which debuted at #2 in the Billboard 200 album charts only to go up to the top spot a week later which was considered groundbreaking for a release as extreme as this album. While the political elements of Cube’s lyrics were missing in the sophomore album, it did however expand the production style of Dr. Dre which leaned towards a smooth, funk-driven style. The album did receive excellent reviews though some critics felt the lyrical content became more misogynistic and more violent. It was during this time that tension between Dre and Eazy-E over money and various issues led to Dre leaving N.W.A. with a degree of controversy due to Suge Knight’s involvement as Dre and Knight eventually formed Death Row Records in late 1991.

If gangsta rap was gaining ground, other social-driven acts like the Geto Boys and Public Enemy upped the ante about issues that were happening in America. The Geto Boys released We Can’t Be Stopped which was their most successful release while its album cover was controversial as it featured Bushwick Bill in a hospital after he shot himself in the eye during a domestic dispute. Public Enemy meanwhile, released Apocalypse 91... The Enemy Strikes Back which many considered to be their last great album. The political-driven group had a song called By the Time I Get to Arizona which was a controversial track over Arizona governor Evan Mecham’s refusal to recognize Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, which was a national holiday. The album also featured a groundbreaking collaboration with the thrash-metal band Anthrax on a remake of Public Enemy’s old 1988 song Bring the Noise.

Another artist who came into the world of gangsta rap and hardcore hip-hop was a newcomer named Tupac Shakur under his alias 2Pac. Shakur was the son of a Black Panther party member as in 1990, he was a dancer for the rap group Digital Underground. He then became a MC as he rapped on the song Same Song for the 1991 film soundtrack to Nothing but Trouble where the group also appeared in the film. In November of 1991, Shakur would release his debut album 2Pacalypse Now. The album was a mixture of the socially-conscious, political hip-hop mixed in with the West Coast sound. What was more striking about the record were Shakur’s lyrics that made him stood out among his peers. Though it wasn’t a big seller upon its release, it did gain controversy in 1992 when Vice President Dan Quayle blasted the album for its violent content over a shooting from a Texas youth to a cop.

Shakur’s arrival into the hip-hop was one of many new artists emerging in 1991. A young budding entrepreneur named Sean Combs worked at Uptown Records where he helped develop the R&B group Jodeci and later sign Mary J. Blige to the label as she became the queen of hip-hop soul. Cypress Hill released their self-titled debut that brought a darker element to the world of gangsta rap mixed in with an element of psychedelia. Another new talent that was emerging as part of a group was Busta Rhymes as he and members of the group Leaders of the New School released their debut album A Future Without a Past. The album was considered to be one of the finest debut releases of that year as Rhymes would get more attention for a rap in the song Scenario in an album what many considered to be one of the greatest albums ever made.

That album is A Tribe Called Quest’s sophomore album The Low End Theory was a fusion of East Coast hip-hop with jazz. Creating a laid-back, bass-heavy sound courtesy of jazz double-bassist Ron Carter, the album featured lyrical content that went above the world of gangsta rap for something far more personal but also socially-conscious without an overbearing message. The record became a landmark release for hip-hop proving how wide the genre was becoming.

The Low End Theory brought a new era to hip-hop known as Alternative Rap as De La Soul released their second album De La Soul is Dead in reaction to critics claiming they’re hippies along with their own response to gangsta rap. With hip-hop flourishing into various sub-genres, there was still a commercial element that kept things going as there were alternatives to gangsta rap. Will Smith under his Fresh Prince moniker with DJ Jazzy Jeff scored a summertime hit with Summertime that was acceptable for all audiences.

The year ended as an important year for hip-hop but rising tensions over the Rodney King beating in March of that year along with a trial in 1992 was boiling. Even as hip-hop was becoming more aggressive in one spectrum as gangsta rap would become a dominant force in hip-hop. On the other side was a more laid-back approach of Alternative Rap with socially-conscious acts like PM Dawn and Arrested Development arriving in that year. MC Hammer’s pop-rap would see a decline as he was unable to reach the African-American audience he wanted to please. The next year would also see N.W.A. disband as Dr. Dre went solo and discovered a new rapper named Snoop Dogg.

1991-20: 1991 in Music: Pt. 1 - Pt. 3

1991-Indie: Pt. 1 - Pt. 2 - Pt. 3 - Pt. 4 - Pt. 5 - Pt. 6

The 50 Best Albums of 1991: 50-26 - 25-11 - 10-2 - Favorite Albums #1

© thevoid99 2011


  1. I had forgotten how many influential hip hop albums came out in 1991. I think I bought every single one of these at the time except for Body Count which I had a duped cassette tape of.

  2. I'm still an outsider when it comes to hip-hop but one of my favorite hip-hop albums is The Low End Theory because there was something so different about it. I loved how laid back it is and all of the jazz influences it has. Still holds up.