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No high-pitched man, no beef needed to sell ...

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The 300-plus pound hoodfella is crowned king, and how the West kept winning. ...

Jermaine Dupri Talks Ready To Die

Nas: The Genesis

1994 Essential Albums

In Their Own Words

  A Look Back At 1994

  Remembering Biggie Photo Flipbook

Notorious B.I.G.: The Last Interview

Nas: Stillmatters

Tupac: Reconstructing Tupac

Outkast: Black Dog/Black Wolf

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— by Shaheem Reid, with additional reporting by Rahman Dukes

On April 8, 1994, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain was found dead in his home from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. It was a kick in the balls for rock, and on the heels of the devastating news the music seemingly headed into a tailspin. The passionate, zeitgeist-shifting post-punk offered up by Nirvana and the slew of alternative acts that succeeded in their wake was quickly supplanted by grunge-lite and forgettable one-hit wonders. The Spice Girls lurked just around the bend.

B.I.G. and Pac
But while rock fans were in mourning, another genre of music was experiencing a rebirth. Two weeks after Cobain's death, a young rapper named Nas released his debut LP, Illmatic, an album marked by gritty b-boy melodies and stunning lyricism. That same year Sean "Puffy" Combs tried his hand at directing a music video for a new group called Outkast. Biggie and Tupac were homies. The Wu-Tang Clan were unrivaled in skill (or size) as an MC collective. Snoop, then calling himself "Doggy Dogg," became the undeniable king of rap. And a female MC named Da Brat did not have to expose her breasts or thong to become the first solo female rapper to push a million-plus units. Hip-hop hasn't exactly been floundering in the decade that's passed since '94, but it hasn't seen as great — or as influential — a year since.

The music of that time was raw and from the heart. Albums weren't made in two weeks just to hit a release date. Rappers actually got along, but didn't saturate their albums with guest appearances. There was no such thing as the industry's hottest producer laying tracks for anybody and everybody just to get a $200,000 paycheck. Radio was comparatively willing to take chances and MCs didn't need a female or high-pitched man singing on their hooks to get spins.

"It was more fun because cats was more into trying to make good albums," Raekwon, who was thriving in '94 with Wu-Tang, remembered of the golden year. Along with Black Moon's Enta Da Stage, Snoop Doggy Dogg's Doggystyle and A Tribe Called Quest's Midnight Marauders, all of which were released at the tail end of '93, Wu-Tang Clan's Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) helped set the stage for the new era in hip-hop with its groundbreaking tracks. 

"Back then it was so hard for us to go gold, it kind of made hip-hop more interesting," Raekwon continued. "You got to hear different worlds. Dre and them had it. Snoop was fire then."

  Snoop Doggy Dogg
"Who Am I
(What's My Name?)"
(Death Row)
Neither Wu-Tang nor Snoop struggled to go gold. Enter the Wu-Tang eventually went on to sell more than a million copies in '94, while the former Doggy Dogg went platinum practically out the gate, thanks to his appearances on Dr. Dre's 1992 smash, The Chronic. In '94, though, status wasn't purely based on SoundScan figures — the measuring stick was the material. Almost every month it seemed like a new landmark LP was dropping and the game was changing all over again.

Illmatic was the first classic LP to come out that year and it quickly became the benchmark. "When I made Illmatic, I was a little kid in Queensbridge trapped in the ghetto," Nas reflected in 2001, shortly before the release of Stillmatic. "My soul was trapped in the Queensbridge projects."

The chipped-tooth metaphor master was obviously lying: His body may have been in the projects, but his soul was in the music. He poured his heart into his street narrations and they resonated with everyone.

  Nasty Nas
"The World Is Yours"
"We used to always hear it chillin' with Nas [in Queens]," Mobb Deep's Havoc, who grew up in the same projects, remembered of the LP while it was still in production. "What's funny about it was he was humble with it. I would listen to it and the songs were so ill, it made you wanna cry. He was just calm, like, 'How you like it?' We was hearing it piece by piece, so when it came out, it wasn't surprising to hear everybody's reaction. Everybody was going crazy. You could not walk through the 'hood without hearing Illmatic. It was on your brain."

A little after the King of Queensbridge's debut, a little-known group out of Atlanta would start waving the flag for the Dirty South. Dre and Big Boi brought back some of the smooth, soulful sounds of the '70s, and mixed their conscious introspection with stories of wilding out with women.

"I remember when I got it," David Banner recalled about copping Outkast's Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. "I remember it because it was one of the defining moments in Southern history. Outkast's album really set us apart. It was refreshing to hear people talk like us and do exactly what we do [in the South]. That's one of the greatest albums, period, to me. As a rapper it made you feel like you were able to be from the South and do what you feel you needed to do."

Next: The 300-plus pound Brooklyn hoodfella is crowned king, Tupac emerges and 50 Cent kicks the doors down ...
Photo: MTV News

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