It all makes sense looking back at it all. Urban music had to be relentless, grandiose, nihilistic, insightful, dangerous, boundless, volatile, brilliant, and balls-out cocky in order to compete in the highly competitive musical onslaught of 1994. This was the year the soaring lyrical genius of Nasir Jones was on full display; a magical time that saw fired Uptown Records assistant Sean “Puffy” Combs establish Bad Boy Records. On Combs’ first at bat, he swung for the fences, signing an ex small-time Brooklyn crack dealer who would instantly transform into larger-than-life rap kingpin Notorious B.I.G. New York hip-hop was getting a much-needed artistic jolt.
In Atlanta, a different kind of musical shift was taking place. The emergence of Outkast launched a genre-shifting salvo for the expanding Southern hip-hop scene. Mary J. Blige, the undisputed queen of hip-hop soul, dropped that decade’s definitive break-up album My Life. Feisty female trio TLC pulled off perhaps the most sublime concoction of R&B, pop, and rap ever recorded with CrazySexyCool. Tony Draper’s rising Houston rap label Suave House was gaining national attention, nipping at the heels of James Prince’s Rap-A-Lot Records. And Snoop Doggy Dogg was busy building on the incalculable impact of 1993’s Doggystyle with a cinematic follow-up that was at times too Cali-gangsta for comfort.
This is the way it had to be in order to just be heard over the mammoth wall of sound that both rock and pop was amplifying. As hip-hop continued to expand its reach, the guitar-propelled grunge movement was heading into its final fast-charging, mainstream stretch. The anti-corporate Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, conflicted leaders of the Seattle rock revolution, did their best to keep it real with their riveting, heart-in-hand MTV Unplugged in New York. Pearl Jam sold a remarkable 877,000 first-week copies of their third studio set Vitalogy. Soundgarden reached superstar status with their fourth release Superunknown and Stone Temple Pilots proved they were far from stale copycats with Purple.
From fluffy Swedish pop imports Ace of Bass to the earnest, sing-along-the-campfire musings of Hootie & the Blowfish, rap and R&B acts had a fight on their hands. So how do you compete in a year in which songbird Mariah Carey seemed virtually unstoppable and the holy pop trio of Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna was still cranking out hits? You release what is universally regarded as hip-hop’s most celebrated debut: Illmatic.
While Nas’ stunning overture didn’t reach multi-platinum commercial heights at the time of its release, it did something much more dramatic. Just as Melle Mel, Ice-T, and Rakim did at pivotal points in the 1980’s, Nas single-handedly changed the cadence, lexicon, and lyrical scope of hip-hop. “N.Y. State of Mind” captured rap’s golden child manifesto in just one line: “I never sleep, ‘cause sleep is the cousin of death.”
Seven months later, Biggie would challenge Nas as the best emcee in the game with his foundation-shaking, Puffy-polished Ready to Die album, a work that jumped full throttle from ominous threats (“The Warning”), brazenly commercial, loverman radio hits (“Big Poppa”), supa emcee gravitas (“The What”), and disturbing self-examinations (“Suicidal Thoughts”). Meanwhile, BIG’s Bad Boy Records stable mate Craig Mack dropped the year’s most infectious single with the jubilant platinum anthem “Flava in Ya Ear.”
Criminally underrated Newark, New Jersey spitter Redman kept it weird and dizzying with Dare Iz a Darkside. Reggie Noble’s Def Squad cohort and polysyllable wordsmith Keith Murray broke through with “The Most Beautifullest Thing in This World” while Philadelphia’s the Roots made their major label debut with the groundbreaking live band-paced EP From the Ground Up. And East Orange, New Jersey’s iconic Lauryn Hill, one of the decade’s most celebrated emcees and vocalists, was introduced to rap fans as a member of global supergroup the Fugees.
Of course the West Coast would have defiant answer. The Suge Knight-executive produced movie soundtrack for basketball drama Above the Rim showed and proved Death Row’s unstoppable reach bringing together some of the most notable stars of the day in R&B and rap. Meanwhile, the Lady of Rage completely demolished usual gender tropes on the bruising “Afro Puffs.” Snoop released the G’d up Murder Was the Case, a short film detailing the fictional violent death of the lanky Long Beach rapper. Its sneering double platinum album kept the Death Row train rolling as lead conductor Dr. Dre gave ample space for Tha Dogg Pound’s Kamikaze lyricist Kurupt and talented rapper/producer Daz to shine.
Outside of the Death Row barrage, Coolio presented a more humorous, lighthearted brand of gangsta rap, scoring a top five pop smash with the Lakeside sampled “Fantastic Voyage.” The Coup represented for the Bay Area on the overtly revolutionary set Genocide & Juice. But the biggest commercial rap come-up of ’94 belonged to Warren G. Who knew that the laidback half-brother of Dr. Dre would become an MTV darling, eventually selling over four million copies worldwide of his Regulate… G Funk Era? Backed by melodic hook master Nate Dogg, Warren’s ubiquitous title track reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, giving Def Jam its first taste of West Coast rap glory.
1994 also found the hip-hop producer at the apex of creativity. Consider this. This was the same year the out-the-box RZA, fresh off the Wu-Tang Clan’s party-crashing 1993 triumph, would unleash Shaolin’s finest next plan of attack, cornering the hip-hop market with Method Man’s dark, dusty solo statement Tical. DJ Premier orchestrated Gang Starr’s most realized work (Hard to Earn); concocted the most inventive, stripped down head-knocker pressed to wax (Jeru the Damaja’s “Come Clean”); and laced both Nas and Biggie with career-defining heat.
Pete Rock showed impressive dexterity on Nas’ immaculate “The World Is Yours;” quarterbacked Heavy D & The Boyz’ rhythm and blues filtered, double platinum LP Nuttin’ But Love and produced his last collaboration with partner CL Smooth on the closing classic The Main Ingredient. And gangsta rap’s ultimate populist conductor, the aforementioned Dr. Dre, was in the middle of his second of three chart-topping runs. Whether it was the Dirty South soul of Outkast’s production team Organized Noize; the pimped-out 808 lean of Houston’s T-Mix; the slamming futuristic funk of Erik Sermon; or the loopy inventiveness of Prince Paul, there were no nights off for hip-hop’s studio visionaries.
And yet 1994 is also a story about change. For many fans the East and West Coast rap monopoly needed to be broken up. Ambitious Ruthless Records honcho Eazy-E knew that there were other stories to be told so the NWA legend quickly signed up Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. The Cleveland rap troop elicited bewilderment from critics who saw their rapid-fire, sing-song rhyme theatrics as a mere gimmick. Bone’s Creepin on ah Come Up was the perfect middle finger. In Chicago Common found his voice on the bare bones testimony Resurrection, his critically acclaimed release led by the peerless anti-gangsta rap allegory “I Used to Love H.E.R.” Fellow Windy City rhymer Da Brat became the first solo female rapper to go platinum with the West Coast influenced Funkdafied.
It was the South, however, that was laying down roots for a future takeover. When Houston’s Scarface, the Geto Boys’ chief lyricist, released his haunting The Diary, a thought-provoking work that articulately dissected death in all forms, he wasn’t just being hailed as a great southern rapper. He was now in the conversation for best emcee, dead or alive. Suave House’s franchise act 8Ball & MJG, straight out of Memphis, raised their national profile with their sophomore return On the Outside Looking In. Master P and his No Limit Records was working the underground, setting the stage for his future coronation as rap’s hit-making P.T. Barnum. And Miami’s booty shaking craze was percolating as the 69 Boyz had everyone joining in on the “Tootsee Roll” dance craze.
Yet as game-changing southern hip-hop statements go, none reached the transformative heights of Outkast’s Andre 3000 and Big Boi. The East Point, Atlanta, Georgia duo’s Southernplayalisticcadillacmuzik was more emphatic proof that hip-hop created below Mason Dixon Line could be daring, witty and lyrically complex as a De La Soul record. In fact, Outkast was so much more. They were as socially conscious as Public Enemy (“Git Up, Git Out”); as hard as Ice Cube (“Claimin’ True”); and as dynamic on the mic as EPMD (“Hootie Hoo”). This was an unheard of mix. Kast, joined by their Dungeon Family brethren Goodie Mob, were a revelation, forcing the world to respect southern rap in all its artistic strains.
But Tupac Shakur overshadowed them all.
The era’s most charismatic spirit, Shakur effortlessly hijacked headlines beyond the borders of the hip-hop world, juggling black nationalistic roots, anti-hero, Thug Life convictions, and matinee idol swagger. In a year dominated by the most diverse roster of music acts of the decade, no one captured the celebratory yet turbulent majesty of hip-hop in ‘94 — for better or worse — more than Shakur. When the outspoken rapper/thespian was asked during an unpublished one-on-one where does he see himself in 10 years, his restless response was fitting for the times.
“In a cemetery…sprinkled ashes, smoked up by my homies,” a a-matter-of-fact ‘Pac said. “That’s the worse case. The best case? Multi-millionaire…owning all this shit. I feel like a tragic hero in a Shakespeare play.” Tupac would come close to realizing his lionizing death on November 30 when he was ambushed and shot five times in the lobby of Manhattan’s Quad Recording Studio. In an exclusive 1995 VIBE interview, Shakur charged that his friend Biggie Smalls and Bad Boy head Combs orchestrated the robbery. The so-called East Coast/West Coast rap war had officially begun.
Overall, hip-hop’s cultural dominance was so undeniable in 1994 that R&B found it harder and harder to operate on its own merits. Jodeci could sing anyone under the table, but dressed like they were ready to spit bars. Mary J. Blige was church as she was hip-hop with many of her Puffy Combs’ overseen tracks heavily influenced by rap’s sampling motif. Yes, Boys II Men tied Whitney Houston’s 14-week record at the top of the pop charts with their Babyface-penned ballad “I’ll Make Love To You,” eventually pushing their album II to an astounding 12 million copies in the US alone. But few kids wanted to emulate the straight-laced Philadelphia crooners.
When Kurt Cobain shot and killed himself in April of 1994, suffocated by the crush of fame and drug addiction, hip-hop was all too eager to step in as the new prototypical rock star, unburdened by any such guilt. By 1995, it was a wrap. The Wu’s unpredictable wild man Ol’ Dirty Bastard would conspicuously pop up on the remix to Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy.” Hip-hop won.