Hip-hop is populated by an unrivaled, rabid fanbase. Hip-hop heads turn into lawyers when stating their case on the genre’s most fervid debates. The Mount Rushmore of these heated disputes are as follows…
- Who is the best emcee?
- What is the best hip-hop album?
- Who is the genre’s most influential group?
- When was hip-hop at its best?
These arguments will ring throughout time. Perhaps never being truly settled. Well, I am here to offer a definitive answer to question number 4. Out of all the amazing and groundbreaking moments, albums, songs, and artists in hip-hop’s storied past and everchanging present, the genre shined brightest on one day. November 9th, 1993.
To fully grasp why this day is so important, one must understand the landscape of the genre in the early 90s. A landscape that at the time was ruled by the West Coast. Gangsta rap was booming thanks to the success of NWA. A name that is often brought up in the previously mentioned debate of “who is the genre’s most influential group?” With 1988’s Straight Outta Compton and 1991’s Niggaz4Life (minus Ice Cube and Arabian Prince who both had since left the group), NWA had established gangsta rap as a force in American popular music and had begun to shift the hip-hop spotlight from East to West.
The world’s most dangerous rap group spawned kings of West Coast hip-hop. Ice Cube and Dr. Dre’s solo careers quickly blossomed. Dre would go on to plant his flag in the ground as hip-hop’s brightest innovator at the time and a trailblazer of production with 1992's The Chronic. An album that catapulted G-funk into the music world and made it hip-hop’s signature sound at the time. It was so sonically groundbreaking that everyone featured on it rode a rocket ship into the spotlight (most notably a kid named Calvin Cordozar Broadus Jr., better known as Snoop Dogg). Hip-hop had officially left its hometown and jetted out to the left coast.
While there were plenty of great hip hop acts in New York at the time, the five boroughs were gasping for a breathe of fresh air. After all, New York had ruled hip-hop since its inception. The genre was birthed from Bronx block parties in the 1970s and 80s. Fast forward to the early 90s, with the West gripping tightly to the culture, a miracle was needed to pull it back home. That miracle came on one faithful day in the Fall of 1993 as two groundbreaking groups released albums that would spark a second Golden Age in hip-hop. A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders and Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).
The production on these projects must be mentioned first. The skill of sampling was used on both in its own unique and effective way. For those not familiar, sampling is the art of re-using and re-purposing existing music and sounds to create something new altogether. Since its introduction into the genre by the legendary Marley Marl, sampling has become the foundation of hip-hop production.
On Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), RZA, the Wu’s General and “sharpest motha fucka in the whole Clan” (as described by fellow group member Method Man) pairs timeless soul samples with bits from martial arts films to formulate sounds that had never entered human ears before. He created gritty and menacing beats to serve as the perfect backdrop to all of the Clan members bold and unique lyrical performances. RZA’s production obliterated the minds of anyone who popped this album into their tape deck. Toss on the iconic “C.R.E.A.M” and tell me that the sample of The Charmels 1967 smooth love ballad “As Long As I’ve Got You” married with Raekwon’s hard hitting opening rhymes (“I grew up on the crime side, the New York Times side. Stayin a live was no jive”) doesn’t make you feel something deep in your soul. The Wu were sonically one of a kind.
Jump over to Midnight Marauders where A Tribe Called Quest continued their mastery of sampling that they showed on their previous album The Low End Theory. Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad utilized a broad range of jazz, funk, soul, and R&B samples throughout. Their ear for eclectic samples is on full display on “Electric Relaxation” where a sample of funk organist’s Ronnie Foster’s “Mystic Brew” is weaved with a superbly controlled drum beat to create one of the album’s most celebrated tracks. Q-Tip even experimented with vocal sampling which is most effectively used on “Sucka Nigga” where he lifts a sound clip from the 1983 hip-hop movie Wild Style to serve as the backbone of the song. This album still serves as a gold standard of sampling today.
Lyrically these projects could not be more different. Midnight Marauders is the peak of hip-hop’s Afrocentricity movement. The lyrics are witty, positive and humorous. Tribe commented on social issues, the use of the n word in everyday life, and relationships with the opposite sex all while injecting their signature brand of smooth braggadocio. A shining example of Tribe’s unmatched lyrical prowess is on “We Can Get Down.” Phife Dawg glides on the beat proclaiming, “Not every MC be with the negativity. We have a slew of rappers pushing positivity. Hip-hop will never die yo, it’s all about the rap. So Mayor Barry smoking crack, let’s preach about that.” While Q-Tip declares, “This is ’93 and the shit is real. Black people unite and put down your steel. Ladies make a forum on your sexual drive. Devote it to your lover and make it thrive.” Phife and Tip had sharpened their lyrical swords on their first two albums and were at the peak of their abilities here on Midnight Marauders.
“Ghostface catch the blast of a hype verse. My glock bursts, leave in a hearse, I did worse,” raps Ghostface Killah on “Bring Da Ruckus”. These are the words that spark the fuse of the lyrical dynamite stick that is Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Each song is the musical equivalent to a Mike Tyson combo. Every member of The Wu brings different techniques and styles with each verse. Ol’ Dirty Bastard can blow the roof off of a track with his gruff, unorthodox and often sing-song style. Then, within seconds GZA can play lyrical chess, effortlessly executing complex and technical rhymes. Each Wu emcee varies drastically but there is one constant that ran through all of their rhymes: an insatiable hunger. Their hunger to give the world a window into their struggle while growing up in Staten Island. Their hunger to succeed and leave that struggle in their rearview. Their hunger to be better than each other and anyone else in the hip-hop world. That hunger is at the heart of this album and an immense part of what makes it so incredible.
These two albums sparked a renaissance for New York hip-hop when it was needed most. Following the day these two projects were released an avalanche of classic albums followed. Nas’ Illmatic (1994), Biggie’s Ready To Die (1994), Mob Deep’s The Infamous (1995), Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt (1996), and The Fugees’ The Score (1996). All certified classics. All inspired by Tribe and Wu.
November 9th, 1993 will live on as hip-hop’s high watermark. A vital day that shaped the music world forever. If you’re a hip-hop fan, play these two albums as loud as you can today. Loud enough for Phife Dawg and ODB to hear you (RIP). It’s the least you can do.