If there is one moment that captured the wild, unpredictable musical landscape of 1995 it was the moment Suge Knight took the mic at the Source Awards. That wet August evening was thick with nervous, sweat-inducing tension as the Cali rap strongman lobbed what amounted to a sneering declaration of war. “Any artist out there that want to be an artist and stay a star, and don’t have to worry about the executive producer trying to be all in the videos, all on the record, dancing… come to Death Row!” said the label’s imposing 6′ 3″ cofounder and CEO.
Knight’s Meta side-eye was aimed squarely at Bad Boy Records’ flamboyant head Sean “Puffy” Combs. When Dr. Dre was booed after winning Producer of the Year, his multiplatinum protégé Snoop Dogg forcefully called out the NYC contingent: “Y’all don’t love us?!!!” he blasted. “Well… let it be known then!” The East Coast/West Coast rap feud cast an ominous shadow over the night’s proceedings as an imprisoned Tupac Shakur sat behind bars on sexual assault charges at Clinton Correctional Facility.
Of course rap beef wasn’t the only thing popping off in 1995. In the world of urban fashion the brightly kissed tones of Cross Colours gave way to the more stark, working class cut of black denim pants, gray and brown Dickies, industrial boots, and firefighter jackets. High fashion houses quickly took notice, taking cues from hip-hop’s gangsta rap culture. Martin was still making TV audiences double over in laughter. Its star paired with Will Smith to kick off the Fresh Prince’s incredible run as a bonafide box office champ with the buddy cop actioncomedy Bad Boys.
But if 1993 represented an historic coming out party for urban music, and 1994 saw rap extend its cultural reach beyond the East and the West, 1995 proved to be a complete takeover. By year’s end, 15 of the top 25 hit US singles were African-American-based from kindler, gentler ‘hood rapper Coolio (“Gangsta’s Paradise”— no. 1) and sassy pinup girl Adina Howard (“Freak Like Me”— no. 13) to old guard favorite Michael Jackson (“You Are Not Alone”— no.21).
The Wu-Tang Clan ruled, catapulted by a trio of solo statements that captured the imagination of the hip-hop nation. Bone Thugs-n-Harmony enjoyed unfathomable crossover success with their full-length debut E. 1999 Eternal (10 million sold worldwide usually gets you the last laugh), dedicated to their late mentor Eazy-E, who died of AIDS complications in March of that year. TLC would become the biggest pop act on the planet as 1994’s CrazySexyCool rolled into ’95 like a runaway Mack truck, eventually topping sales of 20 million units.
Philly band the Roots found acclaim on their groundbreaking, jazzy live-and-upfront revelation Do You Want More?!!!??! LL Cool J, who had released his first album in 1985 — the Def Jam landmark Radio — proved to be the embodiment of hip-hop’s dogged longevity, selling over two million albums of his return-to-form statement Mr. Smith. Over on the R&B side of things, R. Kelly dominated radio with his self-titled work, a toned down departure from his previous sex romp. West Coast crooner Montell Jordan held on tight to the no. 1 pop spot for seven consecutive weeks during that spring with “This Is How We Do It,” a cheeky party starter that gaudily sampled Slick Rick’s great “Children’s Story.”
And two of the era’s most prominent female emcees, Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown, would both make stellar we-got-next introductions. A year later, the one-time friends turned rivals released their debut platinum albums, Hard Core and Ill Na Na, in the same November month, respectively.
Flash back to the Source Awards.
The highly partisan New York crowd was on edge. Even Atlanta duo Outkast got caught in the crossfire. The future Andre 3000 was taken aback by the audible grumblings coming from the Big Apple audience who still viewed southern rap as a foreign interloper. As he and partner Big Boi accepted the award for Best New Rap Group, Andre’s defiant statement was prophetic: “The South got something to say.”
Indeed, New Orleans’ animated Mystikal (Mind of Mystikal), the Dungeon Family’s Goodie Mob (Soul Food), and Memphis’ controversial Three 6 Mafia (Mystic Stylez) crew would all release debut albums in 1995, further backing up Andre 3000’s claim. But allegiance to the East Coast — headlined that night by Puff, Biggie and his rambunctious Junior Mafia clique — was too strong at that point. Indeed the tug-of-war between Death Row and Bad Boy became one of the biggest headlines of 1995. And it was Tupac who set the stage for a bicoastal showdown.
During his now legendary VIBE jailhouse interview, the outspoken rapper/actor charged that Combs and Bad Boy franchise star the Notorious B.I.G. were well aware of the infamous November ’94 robbery that left him with life threatening gunshot wounds. Unfortunately cooler heads did not prevail. Even as ‘Pac’s third release Me Against the World was deemed a critical and commercial triumph thanks in large part to the earnest tear-jerker “Dear Mama.”
But it didn’t matter that ‘Pac topped the Billboard 200 for four weeks, eventually going double platinum. The incarcerated force-of-nature, who denounced all ties to his Thug Life mantra, seemed like the proverbial man without a country. That is until Knight posted Tupac’s $1.4 million bail in exchange for the cash-strapped, hungry artist signing a solo deal with Death Row. An incendiary video for Tha Dogg Pound’s “New York, New York” was shot featuring a mammoth Kurupt, Daz Dillinger and Snoop literally kicking over skyscrapers in the Big Apple. The message was clear. The West Coast was ready to ride.
But there were a few holdouts. Although Knight executive-produced DJ Quik’s warm and funky Safe + Sound, the multi-talented Compton native sidestepped regional beef. Too $hort extended his streak of five platinum albums in a row with the pimped-out Cocktails. Like Digable Planets did a year earlier with their illuminating ode to Black nationalism, Blowout Comb, the Pharcyde exceeded all artistic expectations with the their own lane-switching follow-up Labcabincalifornia. The album was notable for a myriad of reasons, among them the coming-out-party for late hip-hop production genius Jay Dee known to millions of followers today as J Dilla.
The Wu-Tang Clan was also immune to the East Coast/West Coast beef. The Staten Island, New York collective seemed more concerned with flooding the market with their spectacular grade of hip-hop led by studio maverick — the incomparable RZA. Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s bizarre, raw and ridiculously shameless Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version was speedball on wax. The GZA presented a jaw-dropping ghetto morality tale on his intensely dense and dramatic Liquid Swords.
And Raekwon? The Wu’s resident Chef cooked up the year’s most-lauded rap effort. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… wasn’t so much a concept album. The Ghostface Killah (!!!) featured classic — also billed as the Purple Tape — was the riveting soundtrack to the highs and lows of a paranoid drug dealer looking to escape with one last score. “Incarcerated Scarfaces” broke it down in black and white terms: “Half-ass crews get demolished and bruised.”
It could also be argued that 1995 was the last great year of the East Coast-paced boom-bap sound. Brooklyn’s Smif-N-Wessun broke through on the Bootcamp Clik stamped Da Shinin’. Queens street rhyme tandem Mobb Deep equaled A Tribe Called Quest’s meticulous, digging-in-the-crates production on their evocative The Infamous. And Nas was still leading the lyrical class with ‘94’s Illmatic.
But it was Bad Boy that added fuel to the flame-thrower when Biggie fired off the two-fisted “Who Shot Ya?” Puffy Combs’ echoing chant of “East Coast!!!” could be heard jabbing in and out of the “Big Poppa” B-side. When asked about the track, Biggie dismissed any notion that he was mocking his former friend. “I wrote that muthafuckin’ song way before Tupac got shot,” BIG pleaded his case in his own VIBE sit-down. “It was supposed to be the intro to that shit Keith Murray was doing on Mary J. Blige’s joint. But Puff said it was too hard.”
We all know what happened over the next two years. Tupac and Biggie would both die senselessly, shot to death over a petty, tragically trivial squabble. It’s little wonder that in the same year the so called East Coast/West Coast feud threatened to destroy hiphop, fans found solace in the throwback sounds of Richmond, Virginia music prodigy D’Angelo. While it’s true that D’s hypnotizing first single “Brown Sugar” carried the backbeat of hip-hop, it was really a return to the stripped down majesty of the blues. The sound would be dubbed neo soul.
Erykah Badu…Angie Stone…Jill Scott…Les Nubians…Maxwell. Black music had found its salvation. The South won. The likes of Outkast, Scarface, Master P, UGK and Cash Money Records tapped into the complex hip-hop zeitgeist. An enterprising local Brooklyn rapper by the name of Jay Z picked up where his friend Biggie left off, transforming his it-was-all-a-dream proclamation into a half-billion dollar realization. Lauryn Hill blew up. Snoop embraced his role as America’s coolest uncle. Nas grew in legend. And Tupac became James Dean.
Somehow hip-hop always finds a way.