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.
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." 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. "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."
While Outkast and Nas were tearing down area-code boundaries, Da Brat crushed gender stereotypes and went platinum in the process.
"I was looking at the female rappers that was out there, and I knew what the formula was," Jermaine Dupri said of his protégé's debut, Funkdafied. "I knew the master plan was to get her on the radio. That's all that was missing out the whole female game. Salt-N-Pepa sold records 'cause they was on radio. MC Lyte wasn't selling because she wasn't on radio."
Brat continued to prove that a female could be a viable commodity by thriving with more commercial success than most of her male peers. The fans fell in love with her tomboy image, unabashed rap style and throwback '70s rhythms. She might not have been known for writing lyrics that made you wear out your rewind button, but the ATL transplant bubbled with personality. Back in New York, a 300-plus pound hoodfella from Brooklyn known as Biggie Smalls was the total package. He was running neck and neck with Nas when it came to poetic ingenuity and had enough charisma to make him worth his weight in platinum and ice.
By the time Biggie dropped Ready to Die in September of '94, not only did he have to legally change his name to the Notorious B.I.G. (someone else was going by Biggie Smalls at the time), but he switched up his rap style for the better. B.I.G. was no longer just that hungry guy from Bed Stuy rapping about partying and "bullsh---ing." He had enhanced his repertoire and managed to accommodate everyone.
Ready to Die was all-encompassing -- he had beats that sounded like they originated in the East, beats that could have been conceived in the West, timeless party anthems, cinematic tales of drug-dealing, concept raps and a tune called "Juicy" that was so inspirational, it made Rocky Balboa look like he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Big not only penned better words than everybody else, he said the words better than everybody else.
"Notorious B.I.G. was the King of New York, of rap," Nas said. "We supported Biggie. There was jealousy, of course, but overall New York supported Biggie."
Out in the West, Warren G stepped out of the shadows of his big brother Dr. Dre and friend Snoop Dogg to sell over a million copies of his Regulate ... G Funk Era album. MC Eiht held it down for the streets of Compton and built off of his acting role in "Menace II Society" with his acclaimed We Come Strapped. Tupac began to let the world know what thug life was about when he formed a group of the same name and put out a self-titled album. Pac also continued to mesmerize moviegoers as the sinister Birdie in "Above the Rim," and started connecting strong with Death Row.
You didn't have to rap to get love in the hip-hop community. Puff Daddy executive produced the debut by a teenager named Usher Raymond. Everyone rallied around Mary J. Blige when she dropped the most compelling LP of her career, My Life. Jodeci continued to prove bad (and mad) was good, as they kept the women screaming. The only artist who rivaled Jodeci in making the females go insane was R. Kelly -- if you didn't have 12 Play in your tape deck, you were just playing around.
Now that 2004 is here, is another renaissance on the way? The MCs who were new in 1994 are now time-tested OGs. Nas is gearing up to drop another album, there's talk of a Wu-Tang LP, and many of the Wu's members will put out solo albums, as will Method Man's pal Redman. P. Diddy says he has the itch to make an album and Bad Boy has been working to piece together a new release by Notorious B.I.G. Snoop has connected with Warren G and Nate Dogg and has a supergroup album on tap and A Tribe Called Quest are ready to make a comeback.
But for a golden age like 1994 to arrive we're going to need new acts to kick doors down. Last year 50 Cent stepped up. Who's next? Stay tuned.