When Vince Staples dared to say that he doesn’t really care about ’90s hip-hop one Wednesday last year, dudes promptly stepped in his mentions, offended that a rapper who was born in 1993 didn’t feel strongly about what was poppin’ when he was in short pants.
Yes, a lot of awesome rap was made in the ’90s. They were the genre’s formative years, and when a lot of its defining history took place. But there was also a lot of garbage, both in terms of music and culture. And if you’re going to go to bat for the vague concept of “90s hip-hop” you are implicitly defending all the fuckery that happened too. So before you dig in too deep, let’s go over some of the lesser points of the decade.
1. The rapping wasn’t that good.
People like to hold up the 90s as peak lyricism, as if bars have been getting steadily worse since 1999. And yeah, there’s definitely an argument to be made that nobody’s going to ever rap better than Kool G Rap and Nas did on ‘Fast Life’ or Bun B did on ‘Murder’. But if you go back and revisit a lot of the so-called classics from the era, you will be disappointed when you realize every rapper in 1992 ended their verse with two bars about being done with their verse. And while it sounded really smart at the time, rhyming a bunch of five syllable words that sound vaguely scientific wasn’t the revelation everyone thought it was. Word to Afu-Ra.
2. The politics weren’t that great.
The ’90s were better because rappers were really saying something on these tracks, not spitting ignorance and hate like they do today. Right? Yeah OK. First of all, “90s hip-hop” includes ‘Ain’t No Fun’, most of the 2 Live Crew catalog and a bunch of Bushwick Bill songs about stabbing women. I’m not even mad. Just saying, violence and ignorance weren’t invented in 2001. But a lot of the so-called “conscious” rap that folks like to point to when they talk about the sanctity of ’90s hip-hop is pretty problematic. The many many songs about racism and the need for equality, if not an outright revolution are great. The antiquated ideas about what women should and shouldn’t do are not. And let’s not forget the rampant homophobia! I’ve made my peace with all this shit – AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted might be my favorite album of all time – but it’s really hard to say the ’90s were an exceptionally positive and progressive decade for rap.
3. Nobody in the South could get on.
You want to know why Cash Money was able to sign a $30 million distribution deal in 1998? Because they spent the previous seven years building an entire network of their own. Just like everyone else in the South had to do. The New York-centric hip-hop industry didn’t fuck with the South because they sounded different. The same thing happened all over the country: rappers couldn’t get noticed in New York no matter how popular they were locally. So they did for self. I guess this was a net gain because so many artists learned how to eat on their own and secured their legacies accordingly. But in a time before internet, it basically took a Jay-Z cash grab to get UGK on MTV.
4. The labels fucked artists over.
Labels were shady from the jump and continue to be shady today, but they were particularly shady around 1994 when they realized there was money in hip-hop and started indiscriminately signing every rapper to the shittiest, most exploitative contracts imaginable. The anti-label sentiment of the whole late ’90s backpack movement is the collective venting of a generation of artists who got jerked when they were young and hungry, after wasting a few years of their life working on albums that would never come out or be shelved indefinitely.
5. The labels fucked fans over.
The advent of CDs made the 90s a shitty time to be a music consumer in two ways. First, since CDs had a higher profit margin than vinyl, there was a push to make records sound shittier as a way to nudge fans to buy CDs instead. As vinyl declined, so did the idea of purchasing single songs. If you wanted to own ‘I Can’t Stand the Rain’ you were probably marching your ass down to Sam Goody and paying $16 plus tax for the whole damn Missy album. Which is a bad example because that album is amazing, but you get the idea.