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Hip-Hop’s Best Year Ever Can Almost Buy You A Drink

It should come as no surprise to most of you that I wasn’t the most popular kid in high school.

During my 1995 – 1996 freshman year, I endured an awkward post-pubescent, pre-growth-spurt phase that had me looking like the love child of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man and Associate Bob from Demolition Man. Making matters worse, I didn’t get along with the majority of my callow, clique-y classmates who bowed to the altars of Nautica and Polo since all I cared about were video games and comic books; $50 from my parents went into something that had animated pixels and a challenging final boss, not a Tommy Hilfiger shirt.

IMG_5664In a school year full of unrequited love letters, gynecomastia and one unfortunate incident of tripping over my book bag in front of the entire fucking lunchroom, I found a new, enduring love: hip-hop.

Sure, I’d had my Naughty By Nature and Snoop Doggy Dogg cassette tapes, and my television was always tuned to The Box. But the music and culture really connected with me during my lunch periods, when I shared a table with a fellow loner named Fred, a senior. While just about every other table in the room was full of students, he and I always sat on our own.

Fred loved hip-hop, and we’d close out every lunch period by freestyling as we pounded out beats on the table. I couldn’t freestyle for shit, so I was strictly on beat-kicking duty for Fred and a couple of his boys.

Any raps I attempted to write or freestyle were so loaded with filthy gerunds just to keep the bars timed correctly that I quickly gave it up forever – I didn’t think I’d ever be as good as the best rappers at the time. And because that year, 1996, was the single best in the history of hip-hop, there were a lot of cats I didn’t want to compare myself to.

The six- or seven-year period in the early-to-late 1990s was hip-hop’s renaissance – it’s most creatively fertile period and that which produced the most classic albums. But there was something particularly special going on between January and December of 1996; every single month saw at least one album of significance to the genre, and there were often several releases within one or two weeks that are now considered classics.

Nearly every dollar I got from my parents in 1996 went into weekly new releases. I’d frequent the ‘hood music stores – none of which are open anymore – because they sold new albums four days early at a premium (pretty sure I dropped $18.99 on MC Eiht’s Death Threatz to get to one song).

Nostalgia tends to color our perception of the past in a manner that disregards reality. While that’s the case with other, poorly-aged media from 1996 (I’m looking at you, Independence Day and “Malcolm & Eddie”), hip-hop’s reputation from that year is inviolable, its classics plentiful and their replay value high. The host of 20-year retrospectives and documentaries coming out of late prove how real that year – and that whole era – was for hip-hop.

I could (and should) write an entire book on hip-hop in 1996 instead of trying to shoehorn everything into one column (“How could you forget this or that album?!?” will be a comments-section inevitability), but here goes nothing:

It was a year of legendary debut albums: Busta Rhymes dropped The Coming, still his strongest album; Lil’ Kim and Foxxy Brown solidified themselves as New York’s queen Bs after dropping their debuts a week apart; the perennially underrated Xzibit had the no-skip west coast sleeper classic At the Speed of Life; Bahamadia released Kollage, the reigning best female rap album of all time.

Ghostface Killah dropped Ironman, the last of the classic Wu-Tang debuts. And, of course, Jay-Z came out the gate with Reasonable Doubt, the best debut album of all time not named Illmatic.

There were several high-powered sophomore releases as well: The Fugees’ The Score is a nearly perfect heat rock of an album that established Lauryn Hill as hip-hop’s G.O.A.T. female emcee. OutKast’s ATLiens is not only a front-to-back classic but has my favorite album art (I have the professionally-framed vinyl cover hanging on my wall.) Nas’ It Was Written made younger cats like me go back to check out Illmatic, forcing perennial, still-interesting debates on which is the better album.

It was the year Tupac Shakur was murdered, but not before leaving us with his last two “official” albums: All Eyez on Me – a solid release despite double-album filler, and the posthumous The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, which Creed made me pull back out recently.

De La Soul dropped Stakes is High, their best album (fight me), and Mobb Deep’s Hell on Earth didn’t disappoint when it easily could’ve coming on the heels of the classic The Infamous…UGK held down the south with Ridin’ Dirty, their most lauded album. Jeru the Damaja got DJ Premier during his 90s peak to produce the entirety of Wrath of the Math.

EPMD’s Erick Sermon was at his production zenith. He backed Redman’s best album, Muddy Waters, and stomped a mud hole in the ass of Keith Murray’s Enigma, which was pretty much the soundtrack to my sophomore year. Speaking of producers: fuck those of you who had a problem with J. Dilla beats over A Tribe Called Quest, because Beats, Rhymes & Life is a dope album.

Though the social consciousness themes borne in late-80s/early-90s mainstream hip-hop were still present following 1995’s Million Man March, the genre was on the precipice of a sea change that championed consumerism, clubbing and anti-intellectualism. Puff Daddy with his shiny suits and the ascendancy of No Limit Records (Master P’s Ice Cream Man became the label’s first platinum album in 1996) helped shape mainstream hip-hop to look a lot differently in the first decade of the new century. When The Roots touched on those changes on their 1996 classic Illadelph Halflife, they probably had no idea the degree to which it would forever alter the genre.

Twenty years ago wasn’t a great time for me to be a teenager, but it was a stellar period for me to fall in love with hip-hop. I’d like to believe that if I were born in 2001, I’d gravitate toward the “Renaissance Era” of hip-hop much like I gravitated toward 1970s soul music over 1990s R&B (though I love ‘90s R&B as well). One thing is certain: your average teenaged, skinny-jeaned, over-tatted, unintelligible rapper du jour is either directly influenced by some music from 1996 or influenced by another rapper who was.  

So hat tip to 1996. On January 1, your first legal drink is on me.

Dustin Seibert

Dustin J. Seibert lifts heavy weights and plays all his video games on hard mode to find peace. He has a better ear for hip-hop than anyone else you know. He writes like the English language is going outta style because the steaks in his freezer are dependent on it.

  • Godzilla Jr.

    Imma let you finish but…

    1995 was the best year in hip-hop closely followed by 1988…

    • Freebird

      I was young at the time but I was reaaaady. The great summer of 88 is untouched.

    • Cleojonz

      We had the Kane in 88 so that clinches it right there, but 96 was a stellar year for hip hop.

      • miss t-lee

        Kane, PE, EPMD, Eric B & Rakim.
        YEEE.

        • OSHH

          When Paid in Full came out I was like in the 5th grade and I still bump me some Eric B and Rakim..just too too many classics, then the artitst that sampled them, so dope.
          I love that Strictly Business album as well, them early Kane joints Smooth Operator etc… these joints will never play out.

          • miss t-lee

            My older bro loved Eric B and Rakim. He played that album religiously.

        • Cleojonz

          Exactly. This was the year I really really got into hip hop. Reading the liner notes, checking where the samples came from, all that. I pine for those times often because although music still moves me, I can’t make myself care that much anymore.

          • OSHH

            Sadly I don’t care at all anymore because of what it became but when I am in the mood, old school appeases

          • miss t-lee

            Indeed. My older brother was 16 that year, I remember him bumping so much music, which in turn got me interested as well.

  • Wrong. The correct answer is 94

    • miss t-lee

      How old were you in 94, Malik?

      • Old enough.

        • miss t-lee

          The answer is no.

          • Listen I didn’t have to be alive in 59 to know it was a great year in jazz.

            • miss t-lee

              I’ve never tried to claim something was a great year for music, if I wasn’t here to experience it first hand.

              However, braise boo.

              • I have to give love to the old heads and protect the legacy.

          • I keep telling Malik to stay in his lane but he don’t ever listen to me.

            • miss t-lee

              LMAO

      • ChokeOnThisTea

        4. ?

        • miss t-lee

          Exactly…lol

        • Why are you making that face?

          • ChokeOnThisTea

            ?

            ?

          • ChokeOnThisTea

            You’re a youngin’, Ricky. But we still got love for ya.

            • To quote my boy Blu. ????young well hung with a laid back tongue ???

              • ChokeOnThisTea

                ????

        • Lmao

          • ChokeOnThisTea

            ???

    • Digital_Underground

      The problem with ’94 is it basically sandwiched between two better years, 1993 and 1996.

  • cyanic

    You have my compassion. God made me an outsider. I belong to no tribe. Aside from being called ugly I didn’t have to worry about weight until after high school. Now I’m battling high blood pressure and choosing a vegetarian lifestyle to get the pounds off. Tipping close to 300 lbs. I know this thread is about hip hop being your refuge but the picture stopped me cold. On the bright side you became a handsome man in the end. When I lose the weight I’ll still have a face only a mother could love.

  • miss t-lee

    This was solid. 96 was a great year. Pretty sure I owned all these with the exception of Mobb Deep, Redman, and Heltah Skeltah. Ran Ridin’ Dirty into the ground, along with ATLiens. and Hard Core.
    98 was a very close second.

    • OSHH

      Had em all except Tupac, UKG and Busta.

      • miss t-lee

        Born and raised in TX, I’d been listening to UGK since their debut in 91. Ridin’ Dirty is still my favorite album from them.

        • Diamonds & Wood… jeeezus

          • miss t-lee

            I love that one, my fave on the album is “Murder” though—they both snapped.

            • KB

              Lissen…Murder still goes hard.

              • miss t-lee

                Yessir!

        • Raven

          Tell ’em!!!!

          • miss t-lee

            ALREADY!

    • Brandon Allen

      I’m a big fan of 98. But people don’t want to show the era of “jiggy rap” love.
      I got my shiny suit.

      • miss t-lee

        It existed, they might as well get over it.

        • ChokeOnThisTea

          Na Na Na nana Na Na!! Gettin jiggy wit it.

          • miss t-lee

            I didn’t say I liked it…just that it existed…lol

            • ChokeOnThisTea

              Lmao! Well shut me down then. I liked it.

              • miss t-lee

                I’m sorry.

                • ChokeOnThisTea

                  Lol!! It’s all good. That was funny

              • Aww, we all liked it until we learned better. It was really the precursor to the Mac Millers and such of today.

        • Sandra Apple

          <<o. ???????????????????????????????????????????????????:::::::!bc57p:….,….

        • Megan Franklin

          <<o. ???????????????????????????????????????????????????:::::::!bc560p:….,..

      • ChokeOnThisTea

        I feel like 97 was jiggy rap. To me, 98 feels like DMX “How’s it going down” and Jigga’s “Hard Knock Life.”

        • Brass Tacks

          How’s it going Down is my jam!!!

          • ChokeOnThisTea

            Still goes hard. So many “what ifs” regarding DMX had he not had his issues.

            • Brass Tacks

              I say he definitely would have been mentioned alongside HOV as one of the GOATS. He had the Bars. The Hits (Street anthems that immediately became pop anthems). And the look. His drug use among other things is what caused him to fall.

              I shudder to think that kids born after the early 2000’s will probably have no real recollection of just how nice Dark Man X was.

              • ChokeOnThisTea

                “I say he definitely would have been mentioned alongside HOV as one of the GOATS.”

                Folk might go in on me, but I honestly feel the same way.

              • ChokeOnThisTea

                I also feel like Eve doesn’t get the recognition she deserves either, but that’s another story. “I used to be shy-a, but now I’m a Ruff Ryder.”

                • PhlyyPhree

                  And the crazy thing about it, is that Eve never had a serious fall off. No scandal or anything like that. She just kinda…quit.

                  • She got a billionaire.

                  • ChokeOnThisTea

                    I know. It turned out to be a good thing for her, but a bad thing for the industry. I honestly feel like Eve was the last decent female MC. Sorry, but I can’t get on board with Nicki. I tried.

                    • Cleojonz

                      I like Nicki when she is being hard and rapping toe to toe with the boyz, it’s almost reminiscent of Lil Kim. I can’t STAND this pop princess shtick though. Also there is still Remy Ma so I refute your Eve as last decent female MC.

                    • Blueberry01

                      Cosign. I feel like I would have received Nicki better without all of the outlandish plastic surgery and the pop songs.

                  • miss t-lee

                    Yup. Just went to make movies…and design clothes. And marry a billionaire…lol

                • I MISS HER SO MUCH. That’s all I thought through Barbershop 3.

                • Brass Tacks

                  E.V.E. was nice. I always liked her “Love is Blind” track because its a constant reminder of the complexities of Black Love. That collab she did with The Roots is really the only reason I know of them.

                  • LMNOP

                    I was just about to say I love “Love is Blind.”

                  • ChokeOnThisTea

                    Why you keep changing your pic? And for the record, I thought that guy in your avi was soooooooo fine back in the day in Boyz in the Hood and Poetic Justice. So sad how he passed away so young in real life.

                    But yeah, domestic violence is not restricted to black couples. It’s a cross-cultural issue, but I get your point. The song was brilliant. A lot of her stuff was. I still love “Gotta Man.”

                    • LMNOP

                      So true about domestic violence not being a black issue. It can be a hard issue to address though, and I think Eve does it really well, in a way that is respectful to the victim and shows the scope of how many people are affected and how powerless you can feel when someone you care about is being hurt that way.

                      I also really like how she shoots him at the end, but thats probably kind of messed up lol.

                    • ChokeOnThisTea

                      Wait. Didn’t the guy kill his girlfriend in the end? But yeah, the song and video were well done. I wish they had gone done as hip hop/rap classics.

                    • LMNOP

                      Yeah, that part I did NOT like. After that, Eve kills him.

                    • ChokeOnThisTea

                      Ooohhhhhh. I don’t remember that part. Lol

                    • LMNOP

                      I watch the video on youtube a few times a year, mostly for the part where she kills him lol

                    • ChokeOnThisTea

                      ????

                      Lol

                    • miss t-lee

                      Oh my.

                    • LMNOP

                      Hmm, I didn’t even realize how disturbing that could seem until I reread it, but I am very against killing and vigilante justice. Something in me just likes seeing these kinds of stories end differently then they do in real life, but ONLY in the context of a fictional setting like a song. Killing is bad and wrong, and for the record I am very against killing.

                    • Kas

                      What guy died that was in Poetic Justice?

                    • ChokeOnThisTea

                      The guy who shot Ricky in Boys in the Hood also played a role in shooting Q Tip at the beginning of Poetic Justice. He was murdered in real life in the 90s while in prison though, which is why we never saw him in anything else again. ?

                    • Digital_Underground

                      SN: That same guy did not get into the criminal lifestyle until AFTER playing that role in Boyz N the Hood. The story goes that after playing that role so convincingly he was actually embraced local gang members and began hanging out with them. The rest is history.

                    • ChokeOnThisTea

                      Da mn.

                      He wasn’t the only one from those movies to fall victim to that lifestyle in real life. Obviously, Pac did and the guy who had the pacifier in his mouth throughout Boyz in the Hood died a similar death as well. ?

                    • Deeds

                      Oh wow, I didn’t realize all of these guys dies in real life.

                    • Kas

                      That’s as stupid as the basketball player who joined a L.A. gang, his rookie year with the Lakers.

                    • Kas

                      Arrested and died in prison in 2005 (graduated from Beverly Hills High) Pacifier guy died 1994. Monster (short dreads on top) died 1995. Shouldnt we be talking about a curse or something?

                    • ChokeOnThisTea

                      I knooooowwww. But truth is, I don’t think it’s a curse as much as I think those guys were just living that lifestyle (or on the verge of living it) . That’s why they were so convincing in that movie.

                    • Kas

                      Nope, curse. :)

                    • ChokeOnThisTea

                      Black folk and superstitions. Lol

                    • Raven

                      Not just us. :-) Pink toes have their “concerns” about the original Poltergeist movie and how some members of that cast passed away. I’ll give it to them…it was a bit creepy…

                    • ChokeOnThisTea

                      Lol. Believe me, I know it’s not just us. :)

                    • Blueberry01

                      Did you just say pink toes? Lol!

                    • Brass Tacks

                      The Sam Jax experience died right when I found one I liked. So now i’m just going through the list of “troubled youths” I’ve always rocked with growing up.

                      “Its cool to know my avi aesthetic is inline with what you crushed on as a youth doe”

                      And yeah I know it is, but when I think of Domestic violence. I tend to focus on the flowers and thorns in my own backyard.

                    • ChokeOnThisTea

                      I feel ya.

                    • Blueberry01

                      I thought his AVI was Devon Sanders….

                • miss t-lee

                  She definitely doesn’t. Still love her verse on “We Gon’ Make It’.”

                • Simone_was_taken

                  What about Eve verse in Road Dawgs with Amil on DJ Clue mixtape?!? Eve is definitely underrated.

              • L8Comer

                I devoured X in those days smh, memories.

                • miss t-lee

                  Also.
                  Owned every album.

              • Blueberry01

                Yup, King of the Street Anthems. It was just something about him and the whole Ruff Rydaz movement that had us hooked.

            • Blueberry01

              Girl, “It’s Dark and (H e l l) Is Hot” was.my.album. But, yeah, it’s a shame how he turned out…

          • Blueberry01

            I loved that song! (And for some reason, I just thought of “Renee” by The Lost Boyz. The remix, though.) I had such a crush on DMX. It’s a shame how he turned out, though.

        • Brandon Allen

          Wait, you gotta remember Jigga man had “Money ain’t thing” and “Girl’s Best friend” and the whole bad boy crew was eating. Either way jiggy rap ain’t exist in 96.

          • ChokeOnThisTea

            I never really thought of “Money ain’t a thing” as jiggy rap, but perhaps…

      • 1998 is still my favorite year for music across all genres. I actually heard Jiggy in a Sephora a few weeks ago and had to recite the entire song by the lipsticks. No shame.

  • OSHH

    I was a duece duece in 96 and I’d say 93 until 96 was gold as far as Hip Hop was concerned.
    That Heltah Sheltah “Nocturnal” joint so slept on.

  • ’96 – not a girl, not quite a woman. Thick brow, pizza face, chubby cheeks, a style of my own (air max errything) and just weird. I was 14 and was just really getting into Hip Hop and has to sneak off to listen to music with curse words. It was a grand time in music – really the late 90’s is when I FELL IN LOVE WITH MUSIC. Oh what a time to be alive.

  • brothaskeeper

    1996 was a good year. I have to go with 1994 for me. Ready to Die, Midnight Marauders, Ill Communication made it great.

  • 1996 is the year I acknowledge developing my own musical tastes, and not just…liking what I heard around the house. For me…it was Jay…Foxy…Busta…that time frame from ’95-’00 was special for me…but ’96 was THE year…THE summer.

  • Rastaman

    September 13, 1994 forever changed Hip-Hop. That is when the whole vibe of the sound changed….Puff is an easy target for consistent abuse but he gave us Christopher Wallace and our world was never the same

    • Brooklyn_Bruin

      Juicy was catering to the West Coast, and the One More Chance Remix was for the high heel crowd. Both of which were all Puffy and lead nyc back to the top by abandoning it’s traditional sound. That capitulation lead to the end of NYC.

      Not the first time trend hopping hurt the game.

  • Brina Payne

    As a former break-dancing B-girl, 1994 was the year of BOOM Bapping while rocking my Girbauds, K-Swiss, Champion Sweatshirt/T-shirts not to mention getting guys digits cause they loved my Nautica, LOL!

    Ah, my sophomoronic year

    But hip-hop was still authentic and raw. I agree with all of the albums above but 1996 was the start of the Jiggy era which in turn caused the commercializing of rap music #RIPHipHop

    • ChokeOnThisTea

      I don’t know. I think the real commercializing started with Hammer, Vanilla, and my beloved Kid N Play. He ll, it may have even started before them with Run DMC. You could possibly argue NWA too. Truth is, I think once rap/hip hop left the inner city streets and made its way onto radio, television, etc…it was commercialized.

      • Brooklyn_Bruin

        Starts with those frauds Sugar Hill Gang.

        Good music and authenticity aren’t always bound.

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