When VIBE Magazine dropped its iconic black and white debut issue in September of 1993—featuring a ridiculously fresh faced Snoop Doggy Dogg gracing the landmark cover—it was yet another reminder how ubiquitous urban culture had become. In that year alone, jovial PG-rated rapper and future box office king Will Smith and his fish-out-of-water NBC sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was still riding high as a top 25 show. Global sports icon Michael Jordan led his Chicago Bulls to their first three-peat NBA championship of the decade. And Angela Bassett was basking in the proverbial glow of her soon to be Oscar-nominated big screen performance in the unflinching Tina Turner biopic What’s Love Got to Do with It.
But it was all in the music. With no hint of over-the-top, fervent hyperbole, 1993 was a historically transformative period for hip-hop and rhythm and blues. “I was always good at rap, but I never really had no study habits because I didn’t think nobody would put no money into me or see my talent…my true talent,” Snoop confessed in his first mainstream cover story. Two months later, the Long Beach, California native-born Calvin Broadus (Dr. Dre’s wiry, charismatic breakout star who anchored the former N.W.A. member’s 1992 gangsta rap epic The Chronic), would become the first artist to have a debut album, the sonically flawless Doggystyle, enter the Billboard 200 album charts at no. 1. It was no fluke. Death Row Records was a problem. Hip-hop would never be the same.
The diverse stories, stats and triumphs tell the tale. 1993 was the commercial breakthrough for future rap deity Tupac Shakur—the all-heart, at times volatile son of a revolutionary Black Panther who showed his playful side with his gold playboy manifesto single “I Get Around.” Cypress Hill was flying high both figuratively (and literally) with their triple platinum set Black Sunday. For millions of fans, the freewheeling, marijuana-advocating Latino-American rhyme set was part of an entirely fresh, alternative rap scene-taking place on the West Coast.
Yes, Cali was still the capital of reality rap as such headliners as Ice Cube (Lethal Injection), Above The Law (Black Mafia Life), Too $hort (Get In Where You Fit In) and Eazy E (It’s On [Dr. Dre] 187um Killa) were keeping it gangsta. But jovial, leftfield South Central, Los Angeles act the Pharcyde was more Native Tongues than Compton’s Most Wanted. The party-or-bust Tha Alkaholiks could have been members of New York’s sample-heavy Diggin’ in the Crates outfit. And the Hieroglyphics crew and Freestyle Fellowship were more likely to crash an after hours rhyme cipher than trade G’d up ‘hood tales.
1993 also offered a prophetic glimpse at the South’s future hip-hop takeover as groundbreaking Atlanta duo OutKast cut through the burgeoning rhyme dominance of the East Coast and West Coast. Big Boi’s and Andre’s effortlessly new age, pimp strutting introduction, “Player’s Ball,” signaled a new era in rap. Meanwhile, New York hip-hop was enjoying its most stylistically diverse time yet.
It’s only fitting that the most influential hip-hop act of all time—Hollis, Queens’ own mighty Run-DMC—would record the last vital LP of their pioneering career in a year filled with noteworthy classics: Down With The King. Leading the commercial charge, fellow Queens standouts and ‘80s peers Salt-n-Pepa flexed boundless girl power on their addictive set Very Necessary. MTV gave the empowering trio a crucial stamp of approval as album sales bubbled to five million copies in the States alone.
Criminally underrated lyricist Treach led his East Orange, New Jersey Naughty By Nature crew to its second consecutive platinum album, aptly titled 19 Naughty III. Grizzled Bronx, New York vet and Boogie Down Productions stalwart KRS-One re-invented himself as hip-hop’s ultimate B-Boy on his DJ Premier-backed solo comeback Return of the Boom Bap. And Brooklyn newcomers Black Moon ignited New York’s next hip-hop wave on the influential underground classic Enta da Stage, a two-fisted report from the streets that was as often times menacing as it was infectious.
But if Snoop’s classic Doggystyle led the way for the West Coast, a pair of East Coast centered works stood head and shoulders above the competitive NYC market. What are the odds that two of the three most celebrated hip-hop albums of 1993—A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders and the Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)—were released on the same day of November 9th?
Stylistically, the two groups could not have been more dramatically apart. Tribe’s Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad immersed their brilliant jazz and subterranean soul sampled set with fun, introspective and hopeful lyrics celebrating and dissecting the black experience. The Wu—the relentless, nine member Staten Island clique led by groundbreaking producer the RZA—blended unfiltered street cred; quirky pop culture references and jagged Kung-Fu movie clips; 5 Percent Nation Muslim ideology; and soul crushing battle raps.
“Protect ya neck!” Shaolin’s finest declared on their industry crashing first single. It was no mere threat. While A Tribe Called Quest was aiming for hearts and minds, the Wu-Tang Clan was coming for heads.
Indeed, hip-hop was rolling. However, in 1993, rap music, which faced conservative push back from radio program directors that viewed the much criticized artform as too raw and profane for daytime spins, still took a backseat to R&B. This was “before hip-hop’s tightfisted control over Nielsen’s SoundScan charts; before rappers became the dominant face of pop,” detailed VIBE in a January 2007 feature about that genre-blazing period.
Michael’s baby sis, Janet Jackson, thoroughly embraced her R&B roots on the six-times platinum janet, a sensual statement that topped the Billboard pop album charts for six consecutive summer weeks. A pre-scandal R. Kelly dropped his definitive sex throwdown—the multi-platinum 12 Play. Mary J. Blige followed up her game-changing 1992 triple platinum breakthrough What’s the 411? with the influential What’s the 411? Remix compilation. And Toni Braxton’s Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and Antonio “LA” Reid-produced self-titled debut moved more than five million units as it became an inescapable fixture on quiet-storm radio.
But R&B’s complete control over the music landscape was in full display on Billboard’s June 5, 1993, pop singles chart. Seven of the top 10 tracks in the country were of the rhythm and blues tradition: Janet Jackson’s “That’s the Way Loves Goes” (1); Silk’s “Freak Me” (2); H-Town’s “Knockin’ da Boots” (3); SWV’s “Weak” (4); Vanessa Williams and Brian McKnight’s “Love Is” (5); SWV’s “I’m So Into You (6); and Robin S.’ “Show Me Love.”
A year later, R&B would relinquish its tight grip on the pop charts, making way for hip-hop’s biggest commercial flourish yet with the continued rise of Death Row, the arrival of Bad Boy Records and the dramatic rise of the South.
But that’s another story.