This article about the history of rap, and Nathan Rabin’s relationship to it, at the Onion AV Club is reductive and sort of laughable. Check it out for some more context. Or don’t. No biggie. But Rabin’s point is that as he grew older, rap stayed the same, and eventually chased him out of the genre.
That is the exact opposite of my experience with hip-hop. For me, rap has been an explosion of infinite possibility. Every year brings me some new obsession or style, and even when I revisit older albums, I find the foundations for modern albums or idiosyncratic outcroppings that were never followed up on. I can’t imagine becoming bored of rap, or thinking that rap devolved, because rap, for me, is in a state of constant and rapid-fire evolution.
I thought about doing a serious rebuttal to Rabin’s piece, personal though it is, because I disagree with so much of it. Half a second after having that thought, I got super bored with the idea. Instead, here’s a few of my rap memories. My memory’s not great, but music is one of those things that sticks with me. I want to try to illustrate rap’s infinite potential, my indelible love for the genre, and how I can chart my growth by way of rap history. For the record, and to provide a bit of context, I was born in 1983 and grew up (for all intents and purposes, if not literally) in Georgia. (Maybe this is a dumb idea, but I did it and you’re about to read it. Love to love to love ya, love ya, love ya!)
Circa late ’80s: At some point, I got DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince’s He’s the DJ, I’m The Rapper on cassette. It was a white cassette, and I played and handled it so often that the words smudged off. I still know about half the album by heart. The only other music I remember personally owning was a Sesame Street tape that included Kermit the Frog’s “Kokomo,” I think, and Big Bird’s “ABCDEFG.” I don’t think the Sesame Street tape counts as rap, though.
1995: I probably became conscious of music as something to pay attention to a little before 1995, but my earliest specific music memories are from ’95. I’d been watching music videos, and I loved Michael Jackson, but it was just something that was there. I would sing songs with my mom — I remember really, really loving the Jackson 5′s “ABC,” and do to this day even though my voice is way too deep for that mug — I wasn’t really paying attention. Either my memory is worse than I thought, or 1995 was a serious milestone year for me. It was when I discovered the Wu-Tang Clan, too.
I came to the Wu a little late, and the T-H-O-D Man was my introduction. “All I Need” was blowing up on BET and Rap City. I knew and loved “All I Need,” and I obviously wanted to hear more. While going through my uncle’s collection, I found his copy of Tical and threw it into his stereo with the volume turned down real low. His room was right next to the living room, and I didn’t want the music to blare through the walls. Come to find out I put the CD on and not only does “All I Need” sound COMPLETELY different, but Method Man is cursing up a blue streak. This was a HUGE surprise to my ears, being a mostly innocent 12 years old.
By the end of the year, though, I was banging GZA’s Liquid Swords like it was going out of style. I’ve known the long speech from Shogun Assassin by heart since 1995, with proper inflection and pauses inserted as needed. Me and my cousin would often say it to each other while on trips in the family van. In hindsight, we were both bastards (is there a special word for girl-bastards, as opposed to boy-bastards?) so it was probably a little creepy and insensitive, but listen: that speech is incredible.
1996: ’96 is defined entirely by two acts for me: Tupac and OutKast. I’d heard both before, obviously, but Tupac ran rap that year. He was inescapable. “California Love” and “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted” alone loom large in my memory, but once I got ahold of the full album of All Eyez On Me, it was over. I was a Tupac fan, soon to become a Tupac stan.
I still remember being in middle school and talking about Tupac’s death. We didn’t have the internet, so all we had were rumors. It was heartbreaking, like a hero had died. The next year, I remember hearing about how Faith Evans collapsed onstage at an awards show when she heard Tupac died, but how she didn’t do anything when Biggie died. It’s a lie, obviously, but it sounded true, no matter how bad it made Faith look. Makaveli is still an amazing album, but back then, it was legendary. A blast of hate and skill, the last gasp of a hero on his way out the door.
OutKast, of course, is OutKast. Do I even have to explain the appeal? They were from Georgia, they were weird, and every single song on ATLiens goes. “Elevators” is the biggest joint on that album, and I swear everyone I knew knew it by heart.
The Fugees were definitely a close second, almost entirely because of Lauryn Hill. The Score was the one rap album that me and my mom could listen to together. She liked the singing, I liked the rhymes and beats, and I don’t remember how we reacted to that awful skit in the Chinese restaurant. It’s sort of funny in hindsight how this was my introduction to Rah Digga, Young Zee, and Pacewon of the Outsidaz, who I got into in a major way years later.
1997: The weirdest thing about 1997 is how Master P arrived out of nowhere, at least back home in Georgia, and made his name off the back of Tupac’s death. Or so I thought at the time. His song “I Miss My Homies” felt like a Tupac tribute to me, but it turns out it was about Master P’s brother. I was salty at the time, but by the time “Make Em Say Uhh!” (na na na na) hit, I was all-in as far as No Limit went. They were undeniable, and while I’d rather not listen to Silkk the Shocker these days… I listened to a lot of Silkk the Shocker back then.
I got Wu-Tang Forever in ’97 and hated most of it. It was weird, it wasn’t the Wu I was used to, and it took about ten years before I really appreciated it for what it was. I liked a few songs — “Dog Shit,” for some reason, and “Hell’z Wind Staff” in particular — but on the whole, I didn’t really bang this album that much. It didn’t help that I couldn’t listen to half the album around my mom.
Busta Rhymes hit for me in ’97, too. It was entirely “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See.” The video was nuts, the beat was incredible, and Busta’s style was this weirdly comedic slash satanic style, with a hard dose of the Shogun of Harlem. It’s sometimes hard to reconcile the Busta I grew up on with the modern Busta, but it is what it is.
1998: I bought my first CD this year. It was Heltah Skeltah’s Magnum Force. I knew of the Boot Camp Clik because my uncle was into that grimey New York rap, and they had an ill logo, so I went for it. It’s still a great album, totally worth banging if you haven’t heard it. It even has good skits, which is rare for a rap album. Method Man’s feature on “Gunz’n'Onez” is one of the top 5 Meth verses ever, and the video for “I Ain’t Havin That” is great. I talked my mom into buying OutKast’s Aquemini, too, which is probably still my favorite Kast record.
I was in Virginia for the last half of the decade, and that meant that I had to know every Timbaland or Timbaland-adjacent song out there. He was from Norfolk, I lived in Hampton, and that was it. Timbaland & Magoo, Missy Elliot, his guest spots on Aaliyah songs… all of it banged. Up jumps da boogie. He was as inescapable as Jay-Z, and I feel like that was just a regional thing, because it seems like he didn’t really blow up until “Big Pimpin” dropped. Remember “Here We Come”? The Buddha Brothers and whoever else it was who ran the mix at the rap station used to play this joint out on the radio in Hampton.
1999: I met this guy at my afterschool job. I can’t remember his name now — Carl, Kevin, something — but he was a white dude who put me up on game. He was really into UndergroundHipHop.com, which had all types of RealMedia files for the downloading of artists I’d never heard of before. I got into Eminem right before the Slim Shady LP dropped via falling in love with him and Royce da 5’9″ as Bad Meets Evil. My friend thought that Eminem sold out with the Slim Shady LP, which is totally a backpacker thing, even if I didn’t know that term back then.
Through UGHH I discovered Company Flow, which was honestly life-changing, which led to Rawkus, which led to Soundbombing volumes one and two, Lyricist Lounge, Last Emperor, Mos Def, and Talib Kweli. That put me onto Black Star’s album from ’98, and by this point, I was well on my way toward hating on music I’d liked previously (peace out Jay and Juvie, what’s happenin’ Canibus and The Porn Theater Ushers and The High & Mighty) and turning into a real deal backpacker.
2000: I moved to Spain in 2000, which derailed music for me. I was still backpackin’ it — especially that Jurassic 5 Quality Control — but I was also probably pretty homesick, which had me banging UGK, 8ball & MJG, and OutKast like it was going out of style. Space Age 4 Eva >>>>>> everything.
Ludacris hit like an atom bomb before I left the US. “What’s Your Fantasy” was crazy, the sort of song that boys and girls would sing at each other, instead of with. Luda had this funny, charming, and still hard style that appealed to basically everybody. It was like if De La Soul and DMX had managed to merge their styles. And don’t even get me started on “Southern Hospitality”. Rap was invented for those kinds of songs. (Watching the video now, I realize that Scarface and Too $hort were in there, which is tight.)
I think I could handwave away digging Luda and being a backpacker because Luda could spit. He was super lyrical in a way a lot of rappers like DMX and Jay-Z weren’t. But he didn’t Canibus it up and only rap about rapping. He took that lyrical-ness and bent it toward some real country rap. The freestyles on those early Luda albums with 4-Ize are super ill.
I actually made one of my best friends in high school because of the Jurassic 5. I had the album, his parents wouldn’t let him have it, and he wouldn’t stop bugging me about it. I eventually relented, found out he was backpacking it up, too, and we bonded. We even had a little rap group for a while.
2001: Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein. I could mention other albums, but I was definitely a def jukie, and this is the only album that actually matters from 2001. Sorry if you liked anything else. You could maybe make a case for The Blueprint, but no. Cold Vein. It was the album I listened to on repeat for days at a time. It was the album with flows I struggled to memorize and then decode. It was the album that had me wishing OHHLA had actual experts transcribing lyrics, instead of fans.