In this photo essay, we look at the impact of six album releases that changed the face of hip-hop and the music industry as a whole.
According to a study by scientists at Queen Mary University of London and Imperial College London, the 1990s hip-hop movement can be described as the single largest revolution in music within the last half-century. During that time, young people around the country found their own thoughts echoed for the first time in the voices of Nas, Jay Z, 2Pac, the Notorious B.I.G, Queen Latifah, and dozens more, and their words reverberated from coast to coast. In a 1992 article for The New York Times, Michel Marriott put it this way: “At its core, hip-hop is a brightly colored yet edgy challenge to the status quo.”
Some thought rap music was just a passing phase, but unlike so many revolutions, hip-hop never fizzled out. The momentum that began with these early pioneers still persists today, and new talent continues to reshape the genre. On December 15th, we’ll celebrate the 26-year anniversary of Dr. Dre’s influential album The Chronic. Let’s take a look back at just a handful of the moments that made this decade so important.
Raising Hell by Run-DMC, May 15, 1986
On May 15, 1986, Run-DMC, a phenomenon straight from Hollis, Queens, released their third album, Raising Hell. The group had experienced some recent setbacks—the competition was fierce, and that winter, Joe Simmons aka DJ Run had suffered a collapsed lung—but in many ways, they were on top of the world. Writing for the August 1986 issue of SPIN, John Leland described the trio as “the most powerful group playing any genre of music today.”
Run-DMC brought different sounds together and introduced hip-hop to a wider public than ever. “Before us, rap records was corny,” Jam-Master Jay told Leland. “Everybody was telling me it was a fad. And before Run-D.M.C. came along, rap music could have been a fad.”
But they had come along, and they proved once and for all that hip-hop would be around for generations to come. Raising Hell became the first rap LP to make the top ten of the Billboard 200 chart, and soon after, Run-DMC made history by snagging a Grammy nomination—two years before the awards even introduced a rap category. As Busta Rhymes once said, “Run-DMC didn’t change music, they changed everything.”
The Chronic by Dr. Dre, December 15, 1992
At the close of 1992, Dr. Dre, previously of N.W.A, released his first solo album and showed the world that the West Coast was a force to be reckoned with. With appearances from Snoop Doggy Dogg, The D.O.C., Kurupt, Daz Dillinger, and more, The Chronic took the industry by storm, introducing a nation to Death Row Records and the G-funk genre.
Music was in Dre’s blood. “I can remember when I was just like about four years old in Compton,” the artist reflected in a 1993 interview with Rolling Stone. “I would go to sleep with headphones on, listening to music. My mom and my pop—they would have music so loud, loud enough to shake the walls.”
The Chronic was made at a crucial point in American history; the sessions had already started when the LA riots broke out, and in trying times, Dr. Dre gave voice to a generation. “It captured the house party feel that we grew up with, you know?” Ice Cube tells Shadrach ‘Shad’ Kabango in the Peabody Award-winning documentary series Hip-Hop Evolution. “Forget your problems, you know what I mean? It was just the perfect record at the perfect time. To me, the record really helped LA heal.”
That legacy lives on. Writing for Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Artists of All Time in 2004, Kanye West later described the album as “the benchmark you measure your album against if you’re serious.”
Very Necessary by Salt-N-Pepa, October 12, 1993
In 1993, Salt-N-Pepa returned to the scene after a three-year break, during which time all three members—Cheryl “Salt” James, Sandy “Pepa” Denton, and Deidra “Spinderella” Roper had become moms. With iconic songs like Whatta Man, Shoop, None of Your Business, and more, Very Necessary became an anthem for women across the country. Salt put it well in 1994 when she said, “We are positive, strong women, and we demand our respect.”
The record addressed the topics on everyone’s mind, including gender equality and the HIV crisis. By 1993, it earned its place as the best-selling rap album ever created by a female artist. At the time, the trio must have understood the significance of the album and of the hip-hop genre as a whole. The days of worrying that rap was just a passing trend were over “Kids are being born into rap music as their music,” Salt told the LA Times a few months after its release. “That’s all my daughter listens to, so I know it’s going to be around for her generation when they get my age. You can’t kill it.”
Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) by the Wu-Tang Clan, November 9, 1993
After the successes of Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg in the West Coast, the East Coast worried it had fallen behind the curve. Then came the Wu-Tang Clan, a nine-man group from Staten Island unlike any musical act anyone had seen. As legend has it, the group paid $300 in quarters to record their debut single Protect Ya Neck. “Time stopped in New York,” the journalist Mimi Valdes says, remembering this moment in the documentary Hip-Hop Evolution. “You could not explain that record.”
It felt gritty, unpolished, and real. Producer DJ Premier describes it this way: “Things would be out of key and just not the norm. Just dirt. Nothing’s clean.” And people loved it.
“They came out of the projects and were making music that became a worldwide revolution,” Yoram Vazan, the owner of Firehouse Studio, where the Wu-Tang Clan recorded the album, told SPIN in 2013. And just like that, New York was back in the game.
Life After Death by The Notorious B.I.G., March 25, 1997
The fraught battle between the East and West Coasts took a tragic turn when two legendary artists— Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G.—were murdered: Tupac on September 13, 1996, and Biggie on March 9, 1997. They were 25 and 24 years old, respectively. Biggie’s second album Life After Death was released sixteen days after he was killed; on its cover was a picture of the artist in a graveyard, taken by the photographer Michael Lavine six weeks earlier.
At the time of his passing, Biggie was going through a transition. Shortly before, he’d spoken to Cheo Hodari Coker, who wrote for The Los Angeles Times about the musician’s desire to slow down. “I wanna see my kids graduate,” Biggie had explained. “I want to go to my daughter’s wedding and my son’s wedding, and I want to watch them get old. You’re not going to get to see that if you’re out there wilding.”
His wishes for the future might not have been realized, but Biggie left a permanent mark on the hip-hop community. By 2000, Life After Death was certified Diamond, and earlier this year, Brad Washington of The Source dubbed it “the ultimate rap album.”
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill by Lauryn Hill, August 25, 1998
In 1998, Ms. Lauryn Hill, already recognized for her work with The Fugees, released her first solo album. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was raw and personal, touching on themes like love, motherhood, spirituality, and more. “The record was already inside her,” former manager Jayson Jackson said in an interview with NPR more than a decade later. “She would go into the studio, and it would just pour out of her.”
In the wake of the losses the hip-hop community had suffered, including the deaths of Tupac and Biggie, Hill sang about healing and self-love. She told Rolling Stone in 1999, “What’s in that record, to me, is a movement from a darker space and a return to a brighter space.” Here, she referred to herself and her own path, but she might as well have been speaking about a generation.
Hill swept the 1999 Grammys with ten nominations and five wins, one of which was Album of the Year. But Hill was never in it for the attention; as she told Simon Witter of The Guardian, “Awards are like whipped cream, man. It’s incredible, but it doesn’t change the essence of who I am.” Though she took time away from public life, Ms. Hill is now on tour on the 20th anniversary of Miseducation.
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