Once Ted Demme and Peter Dougherty's "Yo! MTV Raps" went daily in March 1989, the hip-hop floodgates opened. The ratings were sky-high, forcing labels to court every kid in every major city with a mic, a DJ, and a dream. The glut of new rap LPs over the year was overwhelming; you had to have a discerning ear or an in-the-know friend to separate the gold from the pyrite. By 1991, the cassette racks and CD bins at your local record store were stuffed with a new product every week. Thirty years later, we're still trying to sort through what was big at the time and what was legitimately great. So dig out your Karl Kani, fire up the turntable, and let's take a trip back into time to determine the must-own LPs of 1991.
The Ruler’s follow-up to all-timer “The Great Adventures of Slick Rick” is unpolished, repetitive, and clearly the work of a man scrambling to cut an LP before he gets thrown in stir. The uptempo tracks play against the emcee’s relaxed, sing-songy storytelling strengths, but he can still spit exquisite rhymes (even though his delivery often sounds more like Rakim than Rick). Everything you adore about The Ruler is there in “I Shouldn’t Have Done It”, “Mistakes of a Woman in Love with Other Men” and “It’s a Boy” (the three singles, natch), but you can’t fake that nervous edge of a man who knows he's about to go away to jail for ten years. It makes for an oddly tense listen.
What to make of a hip-hop duo that scored hits by loop-sampling Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” and The Partridge Family’s “I Think I Love You”? Aside from their participation in Gang Starr’s “DWYCK” (a DJ Premier triumph that you need to add to your playlist now), this LP represents their high-water mark. The goofy samples put you in the mind of semi-parody, but these guys are from The Bronx, and they rap about being strapped and living life as if there’s a multitude of bullets out there with their name on them. The cognitive dissonance is striking and intentional. Yeah, we’re all having fun here, but we’re all one bad day away from a body bag. It’s a bizarre album.
There was probably no stopping Busta Rhymes from eventually outshining his cohorts through sheer dynamism, but there’s a world in which this lyrically skilled trio, which included Charlie Brown and Dinco D, could’ve stayed together for more than a couple of albums. Their affiliation with the Bomb Squad gave them an early boost, but, as with the equally hyped Son of Bazerk (mainstream music critics loved that group!), that brand didn’t mean a whole lot without Chuck D or Ice Cube at the fore. It’s a shame because this is a largely good-natured LP loaded with witty rhymes and a handful of top-shelf tracks (especially “Case of the P.T.A.”). Their follow-up, “T.I.M.E.: The Inner Mind’s Eye” isn’t nearly as bad as Dante Ross makes it out to be, but Busta was clearly the show, and that’s show business.
In a male-dominated genre, some of the early female emcees felt like they had to hit twice as hard to hang with the bully boys. MC Lyte never played that game. She could go toe-to-toe, rhyme-for-rhyme with anyone, so, by her third LP, she did exactly as the title advised and dropped straight-up knowledge however she pleased. Stylistically, it’s a little bit schizophrenic; there’s smooth R&B uncomfortably interspersed with boom-bap mainstays. But Lyte's comfortable in both genres, and lyrically on point because of course, she is.
2Pac’s debut LP is raw and disturbing and intermittently brilliant. The best songs attack the racist structures that keep minorities in check. “I Don’t Give a F***” resonates strongly in its depiction of a young black man battling systemic racism at every step of his life, right down to telling off the United States government. 2Pac’s defiance at this early stage of his career was a huge part of his appeal. Yes, he was a gifted performer on the verge of movie stardom, but he seemed ready to use that blinding charisma to tear down the establishment. 2Pac’s subsequent albums are frustratingly shallow at times, but he was so very young. He had a right to enjoy his youth and grow up. We wuz robbed.
East Coast hip-hop at its most basic and divine. Spare beats, spare samples, on-time lyrics: whaddya want, a road map? Ed O.G. is an East Coast legend who occasionally turns up with The Roots, Pete Rock and Masta Ace, and never disappoints. A pro’s pro. Like Kool G. Rap, he just might be your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper. “Be a Father to Your Child” is an unusually tender track, but he was way ahead of his time with “Dedicated to the Right Wingers”, a scathing takedown of Florida conservatives attempting to muzzle The 2 Live Crew. But for such simple battles.
Heavy D made hip-hop you could play with your mom in the car, and probably get her to admit it’s catchy as all hell. A mensch by all accounts, “The Overweight Lover” was tight with just about every major producer in music, and they knew how to play off D’s inclusive, good-time vibe. The LP’s lead-off track, “Now That We Found Love”, is a smooth, Teddy Riley reworking of The O’Jays’ classic; it’s about having fun, and, as such, it’s pop hip-hop perfection. The rest of the album is easy on the ears, with tuneful contributions from Pete Rock, Marley Marl and Hitman Howie T. This may not be the best rap album of 1991, but there’s not an LP that sounds more like ‘91 than this one.
Ice Cube was coming off his collaboration with the Bomb Squad on “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted”, and you can hear the give-take between West Coast G-Funk and Public Enemy’s politically charged rhetoric throughout. The former eventually dominates, but the conflict makes for great art. WC is a great emcee who’d find glory with Westside Connection, while Coolio would briefly become one of the biggest rap stars on the planet thanks to “Fantastic Voyage” and “Gangsta’s Paradise”. It’s a clash of styles, but Sir Jinx holds it together with a tight production that sounds like a dress rehearsal for “Lethal Injection” (not “The Predator”, which is a whole other shooting match).
At all of eighteen years old, Del, the cousin of Ice Cube, put together this P-Funk homage, and it remains one of the era’s most unusual efforts. It’s a go-it-alone deal. Del has to fill forty-eight minutes by his lonesome, and his acid-tinged insights are never less than interesting and often hilarious. He comes on like a hallucinogenic Cheech and Chong, with “Mistadobalina” and “Dr. Bombay” towering above the other tracks. It was the beginning of a wonderfully bizarre musical career that has brought us such unexpected joy over the last three decades.
RIP Shock G aka Humpty Hump. Hip-hop artists of the late-’80s and early-’90s were musical spelunkers that led an entire generation into every nook and cranny of ‘70s funk. When you see scads of Gen X-ers at a P-Funk show in 2021, this is the work of Dr. Dre, De La Soul, and, especially, Digital Underground. Shock G’s vision for DU was to build an outfit of differently talented performers who, above all, worshipped the funk. George Clinton shows up for the title track on this album, but the best songs look forward, like “The DFLO Shuttle” and “Kiss You Back”. Shock G’s funk was born in the Bay Area, and unto itself. We only got a taste. You can get a lick here, but be careful. It’ll lick you back.
This is probably not your favorite Ice-T LP (we can quarrel over “Rhyme Pays”, “Power” and, my favorite, “The Iceberg”), but it is his most fully fleshed-out work, a gangsta rapper taking stock of his former life from a place of success, and speaking truth to both power and empowerment. Ice-T has never been a bullshıtter, so it's fascinating to hear him work through the strangeness of his stardom and the shattering of his preconceptions (au revoir, homophobia). Production-wise, it’s a little samey at seventy-two minutes (at least until he debuts his metal outfit, Body Count), but, lyrically, it’s a damn good essay.
Hank Shocklee and the Bomb Squad not only composed the music for Ernest K. Dickerson’s directorial debut, but they also assembled the soundtrack so that it wasn’t just a grab-bag of B-sides from established rap stars. The LP kicks off with two instant, uptempo classics – “Uptown Anthem” by Naughty by Nature and “Juice (Know the Ledge)” – before setting into a comfortable mix-tape vibe of bangers interspersed with slow jams. It capably reflects the melodramatic mood of the film, while working in new tracks from Big Daddy Kane, Teddy Riley, EPMD, and Cypress Hill. The album peaks a little early, but the final track from acid jazz practitioners The Brand New Heavies and N’Dea Davenport provides an upbeat finish.
As Yo! MTV Raps broadened the music’s appeal, there was a fundamental disconnect in that certain (mostly white) audiences had scarce-to-no access to an actual live hip-hop show. Released at the height of the band’s popularity (a year after “Edutainment”), “Live Hardcore Worldwide” shows off Boogie Down Production’s elite stage expertise. KRS-One is a tireless performer, so confident in his presence that he never has to browbeat the crowd into participating. Every single person in these clubs (the LP combines two separate gigs), is hyped to be there, and KRS hurls himself into every spoken syllable. It’s amazing how good this album sounds thirty years later!
This East Orange, NJ trio took Top 40 radio by storm with their buoyant anthem about, well, cheating. Basically, you can swipe the piano hook from the Jackson 5’s “ABC” and have yourself a feel-good hit about anything. Real hip-hop heads generally rolled their eyes at any group that crossed over, but Treach and Vin Rock were too lyrically skilled and authentic to write off. Thirty years later, “O.P.P.”, with its classic call-and-response chorus, can still get a party hopping, but the LPs best cuts are still “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” and “Uptown Anthem” (which was added to the album on reissues after it blew up on the “Juice” soundtrack).
Chuck D famously called rap “Black CNN”, and it’s hard to think of a more sobering urban dispatch than the Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks on Me”. Built around the guitar hook from Isaac Hayes’s “Hung Up on My Baby”, the song finds Scarface, Willie D and Bushwick Bill contending with thoughts of paranoia, depression, and suicide created and exacerbated by their desperate environment. For some listeners, it’s frustratingly relatable; for others, it’s an education. Though this LP lacks the Rick Rubin polish of their first LP, it’s leaps and bounds a better album. It’s scary, catchy and it breaks your heart.
As if there wasn’t enough going on with hip-hop in ‘91, out of nowhere comes this squeal-and-boom sound out of South Gate, L.A. There was nothing remotely like it, and it’s entirely possible that it hastened the legalization of marijuana in the United States. Think about it. Three years earlier, Dr. Dre was rapping about weed giving “a brother brain damage”. Suddenly, B-Real is brazenly rapping about hitting a spliff, and every kid in “Just Say No” Middle America is making fast friends with their neighborhood dealer. Pot culture got a huge lift from the Hill. It also got an anthemic LP that bangs just as hard now as it did thirty years ago (thanks in large part to producing god DJ Muggs).
The Native Tongue cycle essentially ended on this LP with Dres and Mista Lawnge (in that they were a loosely affiliated group after that). Really, though, this was Dres’s show, and it’s one of the most impressive/depressing one-and-dones in hip-hop history. The opening track is a prescient skewering of gangsta rap (“I dreamt I was hard”), and just about every song slams. “Butt… in the Meantime”, “Strobelight Honey”, “The Choice Is Yours”, “Similak Child”, “Pass the 40”... the Sheep were! What happened? Their 1994 follow-up, “Non-Fiction”, is all fumes.
Nihilism has never sounded so good! Dr. Dre was putting the finishing touches on his G-Funk sound, which gives this LP the audacious edge of Steve Wonder’s not-quite-there-but-way-ahead-of-everyone-else near-masterpiece “Where I’m Coming From”. It’s a major work. But all you have to do is take a look at the tracklisting to get a sense of its anti-human repugnance. How far outside of the norm was “Efil4zaggin” in 1991? It would be like Paramount Pictures letting Tony Scott do a high-gloss, shot-for-shot remake of “Nekromantik 2”. It’s a grindhouse album, and, as such, is completely defensible on artistic grounds, but it sounds like no one was in a good place when they recorded it (the band broke up a year later).
There are two types of hip-hop fans: those who own all three Organized Konfusion albums, and those who’ve never heard of them. The former know that Pharoahe Monch and Prince Poetry combined to throw down some of the most sophisticated, conscience-heightening lyrics of the last thirty years, and their 1991 debut might be the best of the bunch. The duo flings behind-the-beat rhymes back and forth like it’s nothing; there was no one screwing around with lyrical structure to this degree back then – and they weren’t bragging about money, cars, or girls (for the most part). This was the hip-hop future we were promised: poets observing life, attacking injustice, and viewing financial success with tremendous skepticism.
The most slept-on LP of 1991, at least in some quarters. Main Source’s debut LP didn’t catch fire like “The Low End Theory”, but it’s almost as influential in its composition. Large Professor may be hip-hop’s most confounding genius; his production here is deceptively complex, with ingenious jazz and blues samples that leave you screaming, “How the hell did you think of that?” The use of Donald Byrd’s “Think Twice” on “Looking Out the Front Door” is brilliantly counterintuitive. The fiendishly clever “Just a Friendly Game of Baseball” made the “Boyz n the Hood” soundtrack, while “Live at the Barbeque” launched the careers of Akinyele and some kid named Nas.
The best hip-hop band in the land learned that nothing lasts forever. The reviews were there, as was the notoriety (particularly in reaction to the fantastical “By the Time I Get to Arizona” video, where the group’s S1Ws neutralize Arizona legislators hellbent on denying a national MLK holiday), but the commercial buzz that greeted “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” and “Fear of a Black Planet” had dimmed. It’s a sensational LP, tighter than “Fear of a Black Planet”, and, thankfully, less regressive in its social criticism (good riddance, “Pollywannacracka” and “Meet the G that Killed Me”). "Can't Truss It" is a top-five PE track. Hard to argue with any album that closes out with PE and Anthrax tag-teaming on a redo of “Bring Tha Noize”. PE had fomented a revolution with white listeners over five years and joined the circle with a beloved thrash metal band. It really felt like something was happening. Then Clinton got elected, and we (well, white folks) exhaled. Oops.
Gang Starr’s second LP firmly established DJ Premier as an elite producer, and the laid-back, raspy-voiced Guru as one of the deftest emcees to ever rock a mic. Though signed to a major level, they didn’t cut so much as one semi-commercial single. Premier’s sound is as spare and unforgiving as a cold winter’s day in New York City, a perfect complement to Guru’s tough-minded philosophizing. Their masterpiece would arrive three years later with “Hard to Earn”, but there’s a case to be made that “Step in the Arena” – with classics like “Form of Intellect”, “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight” and “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow” – is as pure and undistilled an LP Gang Starr ever cut.
The peace treaty ended with “Death Certificate”. Ice Cube took dead aim at his old NWA cohorts, and, in one song (“No Vaseline”), nuked them from orbit. This is an extraordinarily pi=ıssed-off LP, but every beat and sample is a stroke of genius. The “Hip Hug-Her” backing of “Givin’ Up the Nappy Dugout” is so compositionally perfect you want to cry, even though it’s at the service of a song wherein a young kid tells a protective father he’s about to violate his "pride and joy" in an astonishing variety of ways. In answering NWA’s toxic “Efil4zaggin”, Cube went low when he’d already won the PR war. It’s sadly not a coincidence that, aurally, this is Cube’s finest hour. It's so good and so f***ing wrong.
"Crocker!" Posdnuos, Trugoy, and Maseo weren’t ashamed of their debut album or its crossover appeal, but they bristled at being labeled hippies (which they refuted in the opening verse of their smash hit single), or, worse, soft just because they avoided the macho male posturing of the era. Their response was to declare the “D.A.I.S.Y. Age” dead and return fire at just about everyone who dissed them (from their musical peers to Arsenio Hall) via this expansive masterpiece of sampling, beat-making, and rhyming. Working again with producer Prince Paul, the trio outclass their competition lyrically while delving into upsetting real-life issues. “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa” uses Funkadelic’s “I’ll Stay” as the haunting sonic backdrop for a tale of child molestation, while the cautionary “My Brother’s a Basehead” mashes The Door’s “Touch Me” and Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders’ “The Game of Love” together. Unlike “The Low End Theory”, this is not a thematically cohesive work. De La was unsure of their place in hip-hop and the label-happy music industry in general. They knew they belonged, but they still weren’t sure where.
It is hard to convey to those who weren’t there or aware at the time just how hard this LP hit. After their highly uneven debut, “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm”, A Tribe Called Quest seemed destined to be a footnote in hip-hop history, most likely as the band that launched Q-Tip’s solo career. Within a year, Tribe had scaled back to a trio, perfected its signature jazz-inflected sound, and blown up without going pop. On an album teeming with discoveries, Phife Dog rising to the lyrical occasion to form the smoothest double-play combo this side of Robbie Alomar and Omar Vizquel is easily the most stunning. Tapping double-bass legend Ron Carter to play on “Verses from the Abstract” was a musical coup that elevated the project in the eyes of critics, but the layered, rhythmically adroit sampling across the board (starting with that Mickey Bass riff that kicks off “Excursions”) was sophisticated in its own right. Along with Spike Lee’s “Mo’ Better Blues”, this was a generation’s gateway to jazz. Artistically, it’s one of the most important LPs in hip-hop history and maybe the genre’s finest work.
Jeremy Smith is a freelance entertainment writer and the author of "George Clooney: Anatomy of an Actor". His second book, "When It Was Cool", is due out in 2021.