In the short yet monumental history of hip hop music, the period between 1988 and 1996 is often referred to as the “Golden Age.” While the appellation may carry some nostalgic baggage, it represents a time and place unparalleled in the hip hop nexus. Indeed, this Golden Age was more than a short-lived era of dope beats and rhymes; it was the pinnacle of hip hop as a social movement, and the embodiment of urban struggle and militancy spanning the entire globe. What follows is a brief list of some of the most innovative and overlooked albums of this period, the likes of which enshrined the Golden Age and truly defined hip hop music.
8. Absent Minded, Extreme Paranoia in Stocktown (Polydor, 1995)
Sweden may sound like an odd place to begin a countdown of eight Golden Age hip hop albums, but Absent Minded’s Extreme Paranoia in Stocktown stands as classic of the Scandinavian rap scene whose critical acclaim garnered mythical status in Europe and beyond. Fronted by emcee ADL (Adam Baptiste), who came to fame as Swedish Champion of Rap in 1989 with his then-group Sons of Soul, and producer Vladi C, their debut dropped in 1995 to rave reviews. With a smooth mix of jazz and soul, interspersed with creative interludes, Stocktown was even featured in a Hugo Boss commercial. That led to the group’s joining with the Fugees on a 1997 European Tour. While it didn’t invade mainstream North American shores with any great momentum, Absent Minded’s first project is an artifact of purist Golden Age hip hop.
7. Jamal, Last Chance, No Breaks (Rowdy, 1995)
While Jamal’s (Jamal Phillips) debut solo release was the only one of his career, its “minor success,” at number 198 on the Billboard 200, was overshadowed by its supreme quality as a work of hardcore hip hop. With production handled by much of the Def Squad crew, including Erick Sermon and Redman, No Breaks is notable for its sampling of “Ribbon in the Sky” by Stevie Wonder, and The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ready to Die” on the album’s single, “Fades ’Em All.” Jamal’s style is markedly raw, yet pointed and methodical, and his debut record captures the beat of the pavement masterfully. For Illadelphiatic grooves and grimy East Coast stylings, Jamal is not to be missed.
6. Poor Righteous Teachers, Holy Intellect (Profile, 1990)
Poor Righteous Teachers’ (PRT) debut album spawned the hip hop classic “Play Dis Funky Joint,” and was named by The Source magazine as one the best 100 ever made. Containing many of the teachings of conscious pro-Black movements such as the Nation of Gods and Earths, Holy Intellect achieved critical as well as commercial success. Emcees Wise Intelligent and Culture Freedom, along with producer Tony D, provide a nostalgic, laid-back sound composed of funk samples and poetic lyricism, enhanced by a few standout hits. PRT continues to make music and spread their message, but it was Holy Intellect that vaulted them to success, and ultimately veneration within the most devoted hip hop circles.
5. The Brotherhood, Elementalz (Virgin, 1996)
The London-based U.K. hip hop group The Brotherhood stormed onto the underground rap scene in the mid-1990s with the gritty, New York-esque track “One Shot.” After the release of a number of other singles, 12”s and the like, Elementalz dropped to critical acclaim. By combining the tried-and-true styles of East Coast, American hip hop, with subject matter and sampling that stayed true to the group’s British heritage, The Brotherhood’s debut became one of the most celebrated in U.K. history. After a short stint touring with the Wu-Tang clan, the group disbanded, leaving a hard copy of Elementalz highly sought after and extremely rare, even to this day.
4. Blahzay Blahzay, Blah Blah Blah (Fader, 1996)
Back in 1994, Jeru the Damaja’s underground hit “Come Clean” featured a now-prolific anthem, “when the East is in the house.” Fast forward two years to 1996 and the emergence of Brooklyn New York’s Blahzay Blahzay (consisting of DJ PF Cuttin and MC Out Loud), and the phrase returned in yet another banger, entitled “Danger.” Remixed by DJ Rectangle, and eventually DJ Premier, the new mix went: “When the East is in the house; Oh my God; Danger!” Understood in context, these words signified the resurgence of the New York hip hop scene utilizing an element fundamental to the art form. Sampling. Indeed, the shared experiences of mid-90s urban life on the East Coast of the United States are encapsulated by both Jeru and Blahzay’s work. It captures a moment in time punctuated by independent hip hop radio, packed clubs, street art, and sidewalk breakers, forces that have practically disappeared as the legacy of the music wanes. Cop it!
3. Cella Dwellas, Realms ’n Reality (Loud, 1996)
Cella Dwellas — comprised of emcees UG the Imagination and Phantasm the Tall Man — hail from Flatbush, Brooklyn, and made their mark on the Golden Age in 1994 with the release of the single “Land of the Lost” on Loud Records. Known for their dark beats and unrelenting, sometimes vicious lyrics, the Dwellas reached critical prominence two years later with the launch of their debut, Realms ‘n Reality. Produced almost entirely by Nick Wiz, with other beats from DJ Megahurtz and The Bluez Brothers, their 1996 effort became an underground classic, one whose mixture of fantastical themes and unparalleled poetics vaults it to the top of this list. In the words of UG, “heads better recognize the flavour.”
2. Boogiemonsters, Riders of the Storm: The Underwater Album (Pendulum, 1994)
For something distinctly offbeat, the Boogiemonster’s 1994 debut certainly provides the most alternative sound on this list. That said, Riders of the Storm birthed two charting singles, “Recognized Thresholds of Negative Stress,” and “Strange,” the second of which peaked at number 43 on the Hot Rap Singles upon release. While originating not from New York City, but Petersburg Virginia, the Boogiemonsters still retain an East Coast style that is bright, conscious and actually pious. In contrast to their second album God Sound, which has a markedly underground vibe, Riders of the Storm was a landmark summer release that still resonates as one of the Golden Age’s most unexpected classics.
1. Guru, Guru’s Jazzmatazz, Vol. 1 (Chrysalis, 1993)
Jazz and hip hop music are in many ways inseparable. Given that the former created not only the musical, but political, opening for the latter, it is not surprising to find many of the Golden Age’s best records are jazz-hop fusions. Among these, Guru’s first instalment of his Jazzmatazz series is arguably one of the best. Featuring some of the world’s finest jazz musicians — such as Branford Marsalis, Ronny Jordan, Courtney Pine, and N’Dea Davenport — Guru blends live instrumentals with socially conscious and introspective lyrics. The result is a feel-good record that touches upon social, economic and political themes, while bringing sonic vibrations that blend two crucial periods of African-American music together. As Guru reminds us, “hip hop, rap music, is real. It’s musical, cultural expression, based on reality.”