Tapes had two sides, both 45 minutes long. You had that long to say what you needed to say and then it was time to move on. In our Mixtape category, we’re bringing that challenge back. 45 minutes to convince someone why they should like a certain band, artist, genre, or era.
Today, in the first year of the 2020s, I’m going to try and convince you to get into hip-hop from the 1990s. Why? Because it was, for me, the most important era of music. It helped shape my tastes and my beliefs, and it introduced me to a world I didn’t know existed. It soundtracked my life. And, in preparation for all the people who are going to come at me and tell me about the classic songs I missed from the list – I know. But this is the 45 minutes of 90s hip-hop that I was listening to in the late 90s and early 2000s, not all the amazing stuff that I’ve discovered since.
Let me know what you would have included in the comments or over on Twitter, but here’s my 45 minutes of magic:
The Fugees – Ready or Not
I often talk, here and on the podcast, about how Eminem was my gateway into hip-hop music. And he was. I didn’t seriously delve into the genre until 1999 when The Slim Shady LP made me realise that there was good music without guitars, and suddenly a whole raft of amazing artists opened up to me. But before Slim there had been one hip-hop outfit that had grabbed my attention. Maybe it was because the first song I heard was ‘Killing Me Softly’, a simple ballad with barely any rapping, but something put The Fugees CD in the middle of my collection next to Stereophonics and Placebo and it has remained for a lot longer than either of them. I saw The Fugees at Wembley Arena in 1997 (supported by some bloke called Jay Z) and I can still remember watching them perform ‘Ready or Not’ with a zeal I hadn’t witnessed at any of the indie shows I’d attended previously. This is one of the best songs of all time.
Dead Prez – Hip Hop
Okay, pedants. This is one of two songs in this list that came out in the year 2000. But this is such an important, genre defining tune, that I could not leave it off this list. It even has the words hip hop in the title! More importantly than that, though, this song was an absolute staple of the years when I was discovering the genre. Every time I heard that thumping bassline I felt a thrill of excitement that still returns now, 20 years later. It was also one of the first songs that made me think about the political power of hip-hop music.
Biggie – Juicy
The archetypal hip-hop song. This little slice of perfection puts everything that represents hip-hop music into just five minutes. Slick vocals, an addictive beat, lyrics that come back to you in the most random moments. And, most importantly, the rag to riches tale that made hip-hop such an attractive prospect to so many young, black Americans in this era (and every era since). This was the American Dream done the hip-hop way. And while so many artists tried to copy what Biggie did here by bragging about what they earn and the possessions they own, so many also missed the counterpoint to this – the story of where they began.
‘Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis/When I was dead broke, man, I couldn’t picture this/50-inch screen, money-green leather sofa/Got two rides, a limousine with a chauffeur/Phone bill about two G’s flat/No need to worry, my accountant handles that/And my whole crew is loungin’/Celebrating every day, no more public housin’’
Mobb Deep – Shook Ones Pt. II
Anyone who is into 90s hip-hop will know this beat. A visceral account of the violence witnessed by a 19-year-old black American, a heartbreakingly honest tale of the position such a young man felt they had to put themselves in to survive their situation. ‘He ain’t a crook, son/He’s just a shook one.’ On first listen you might miss how devastating the story of this song is – you’ll be too busy swaying your shoulders. But that was what the best hip-hop did, and this is some of the best hip-hop ever made.
Method Man and Mary J Blige – I’ll Be There For You/You’re All I Need
Oh, Method Man. Those effortlessly silky vocals that just guide over the beat. This might be the only love song on this list, but it is no less cool as fuck because of that. Method gruffly discusses why Mary is so important to him, thanks her for putting up with the things he has to do to survive, and she sweetly tells him that he’s ‘all I need to get by.’ It isn’t the most important hip-hop song ever written, but it might be the catchiest.
Wu-Tang Clan – C.R.E.A.M
I could hardly complete this list without some Wu, could I? Often considered the best and/or most important hip-hop album of all time, 36 Chambers was a total gamechanger. But I’m not going to pretend I knew that back then. I didn’t. In all honesty, I didn’t get really into the album or the group until I was much older. But ‘C.R.E.A.M’ was everywhere. On every film soundtrack, every compilation, every list of influential songs. It may have taken a while for me to move onto more of their music, but this one was a firm favourite right from the first time I heard it.
Outkast – B.O.B.
I’m getting to the more personal end of the list now. But this is my mixtape, so kindly step away if you’re about to argue with me about the space this is taking up on it. This song blew my mind. I had been steadily building my collection when I discovered Stankonia, but I was yet to hear someone with the rapid-fire flow of Andre 3000 on this song. Majestic. This is a total party anthem with a political message hiding under there somewhere. But I’ll be honest; this ones all about the flow for me. I’m yet to hear a more impressive delivery.
2pac – Changes
Maybe, for me, the most important hip-hop song of all time. Does it sound a bit cheesy these days? Sonically, yes. But you only have to look at the last few weeks, the #BlackLivesMatter protests and the renewed focus on police brutality and racism, to see how powerful Pac’s message was here. Three verses of crucial, cutting evaluation of the systemic racism that has held people down for years and probably the song that best sums up what Pac was all about. Debates still roll about where 2pac belongs in the list of the all-time greats, but nobody with an ounce of sense can argue how influential he was. This was the most influential song of all.
Dr Dre & Snoop Dogg – Still D.R.E.
In those early days of discovering hip-hop music, Dre was everywhere. Every time I discovered a new artist, there he would be with a production credit or a guest verse. When I went from listening to the current work of the artists I was discovering, to looking back to the people that were influential in making the genre what it was today, there he was again. Twice. And there will be someone, somewhere reading this article and screaming that I should surely be included something from 1992’s The Chronic instead of ‘Still D.R.E’ – but this song, and video, came out when I was fifteen and without it my hip-hop journey may have ended with Eminem. And if you don’t love this beat you’re a robot.
Eminem – My Name Is
I have mentioned him twice already and it would be disingenuous of me to go through this list without including one of his songs. Eminem changed my music tastes forever. ‘My Name Is’ is not his best or my favourite, but when it comes to the music of the late 90s and early noughties there can be no doubting it’s importance. This visceral, violent, and often hilarious piece of music opened the eyes of a whole generation and increased the audience of hip-hop music in immeasurable amounts. Does it suck that it took a white rapper to do that? It does. But I will forever be grateful to this song and artist for making me realise what I’d been missing out on.
So that’s me. 45 minutes to try and convince you to spend some time with what I see as the most important genre and era of music in history. It’s clear from what I’ve written that I didn’t start to get into this music until some of it was close to a decade old, so what’s stopping you from finding your way in now – as the earliest release in the playlist closes in on it’s thirtieth birthday. So go ahead, give the playlist below a listen, let me know what you enjoy and what you don’t. And please post your alternative list and tell me how wrong I am in the comments. Peace out.
Words by Fran Slater