The Top 100 Hip-Hop Albums of the ’90s: 1990-1994

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DJ Quik - Quik Is the Name10. DJ QuikQuik Is the Name

DJ Quik didn’t invent g-funk, but the Compton rapper and producer easily made the most prolific career out of the west coast movement. Released when he was only 21 years old, Quik’s debut album Quik Is the Name revolves around many of the typical gangsta rap cliches — drinking, partying, sex, more partying, more sex, et al. But if Quik doesn’t initially present himself as the most insightful lyricist, his confidence and charisma are off the charts, and his production is never anything less than supremely funky and chill. Quik Is the Name is a party album first and foremost, and one that could get butts waggling some 22 years after its release. DJ Quik is in the motherfuckin’ house. – Jeff Terich

Geto Boys - We Can't Be Stopped9. Geto BoysWe Can’t Be Stopped

The Geto Boys earned some well-earned if misleading attention late in the game for use of their single “Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta” in the 1999 film Office Space. But well before that, Scarface, Bushwick Bill and Willie D put Houston, Texas on the hip-hop map with their uniquely gritty, uncompromising and profane spin on gangsta rap. The depiction of Bushwick Bill on a gurney, sans eyeball, is a pretty gross image but also a fitting introduction to the Texas trio, whose lyrics carried as much heartfelt sincerity as outright malevolence. Though the malevolence is hard to get around — at times, We Can’t Be Stopped borders on horrorcore, and there’s almost no point in singling out misogyny (almost…) because the ire and violence is spread out pretty evenly toward anyone and everyone. However, these dark and violent reflections of ghetto life can also lead to chilling paranoia as well, as best heard on their classic track “Mind Playin’ Tricks On Me.” It’s a form of terror that’s more effective simply because it’s real. – Jeff Terich

Organized Konfusion - s/t8. Organized KonfusionOrganized Konfusion
(Hollywood Basic)

It’s hard to think of a more impressive show of virtuosic, incessant verbal dexterity—in terms of that, it’s matched only by Illmatic, which is, interestingly, another debut. But considering they produced every track as well, with added interplay and character from having two MCs in the booth to compensate for any lack of edginess or, say, generation-defining anthems, it arguably stands toe-to-toe with the aforementioned classic. Yet it’s really impossible to compare. The productions here are funky with a heavy hint of aggression—put together it’s an assault. And intangible is the duo’s ability to trade off rhymes and play hype man for each other, interact and play within rhyme schemes. They just ooze urgency and talent, and ideas upon ideas; they had been around for a few years together trying to get a label and an album together, and looking back, listening to the free flow of energy, it seems serendipitous that they were stifled, forced to hold it in until they had built up enough creative energy to unleash such a juggernaut. – Justin Stephani

Del Tha Funkee Homosapien - I Wish My Brother George Was Here7. Del Tha Funkee HomosapienI Wish My Brother George Was Here

Just look at the samples—there’s Parliament, Donald Byrd, and then of course, there’s Parliament, even Eric B and Rakim, Biz Markie, and then more Parliament on top of James Brown make an appearance, which then transitions into Parliament. What to expect from an album whose name serves as a shout out to George Clinton. Needless to say, this album feels good, and you don’t need to meditate too hard to Get It. In fact, when you start to think about it, the lyrics can raise a host of questions; after all, there are tracks called “What Is A Booty,” “Pissin’ On Your Steps,” “Money for Sex” (to be fair, he laments this practice), and then the one that thoroughly outlines the myriad ways “Dark Skin Girls” are preferable to white girls. (Disclaimer: “See this don’t apply to all the girls with light skin / just the one’s with their heads up their rear end“). An unabashed dose of hip-hop culture and an ever-so-slight precursor, or at least a parallel progression, to the sonic maturation of A Tribe Called Quest and other peers that would best be separated as more sophisticated. But beyond the charm of the uninhibited, this album is focused, consistent, and pulled off with an aplomb that proves Del’s place as a peer to the most forward-thinking hip hop minds of the early ’90s. – Justin Stephani

Ice Cube - Death Certificate6. Ice CubeDeath Certificate

By 1991, Ice Cube had ingratiated himself as an essential figure in the developing West Coast hip-hop scene. He had already set fire to hip-hop with his work with N.W.A. and with his debut solo offering, 1990’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, but with Death Certificate, Ice Cube took things to a whole new (and personal) level. Instead of using broad strokes to paint the picture of life in South Central, Cube put the spotlight squarely on a few incidents that would later fuel the Los Angeles riots, namely the beating of Rodney King (“My Summer Vacation”) and the shooting of 15 year old Latasha Harlins by a Korean store owner (“Black Korea”). On top of the social snapshots of pre-riot L.A. that Cube brought nationwide, he also (finally) addressed issues that hit closer to home for him. “No Vaseline” was Ice Cube’s response to his former bandmates in N.W.A., which saw him tear apart his former group, in the process becoming arguably one of the hardest diss tracks of all time. – Ryan Brun

KMD - Mr Hood5. KMDMr. Hood

Abbreviated for either Kausing Much Damage or positive Kause for a Much Damaged society, KMD mixed a conscientious focus on social commentary a la Native Tongues, albeit with even more well-played goofiness. Between their funky, upbeat and politically charged jams, the group set up the character of Mr. Hood, a racist square whose dialogue is pulled straight from instructional record. The result is a playful, positive and thought provoking set of tunes that’s, above all, fun. Jams like “Peachfuzz” and “Who Me?” show off the group’s lyrical dexterity and self-deprecation, while the various interludes featuring Mr. Hood or Bert from Sesame Street clown on racism in a way that juggles frustration and anger with belly laughs. But there was a villain in their midst the whole time — the group’s Zev Love X later donned a tin mask and dubbed himself MF DOOM. And now you know the rest of the story. – Jeff Terich

Black Sheep - Wolf In Sheep's Clothing4. Black SheepWolf In Sheep’s Clothing

This was the year when the Native Tongues rap collective, a set of acts based out of New York and specializing in laid-back verbal gymnastics, really rose to prominence. If Jungle Brothers were its trailblazers, A Tribe Called Quest the ladies’ men, and De La Soul the slacker/stoners, then Dres and Mr. Lawnge — the duo called Black Sheep — were the scene’s pranksters. Often called upon for guest spots on their contemporaries’ posse cuts and skits, their debut A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing positions their words and themes as fearless and their beats as smart. And that’s no joke: The duo were credited with arrangement and production, so unlike most albums and artists on this list they worked without a DJ or other outside producers in the studio. When you experience the punch of their big hit “The Choice is Yours,” the fluttering jazziness of “Flavor of the Month” and “Try Counting Sheep,” the subtle sociology of “Black with N.V.,” or the over-the-top humor of “Hoes We Knows” and “U Mean I’m Not,” Black Sheep aren’t being disguised by or hiding behind anything. – Adam Blyweiss

Main Source - Breaking Atoms3. Main SourceBreaking Atoms
(Wild Pitch)

Long before a rift between East Coast and West Coast hip-hop factions led to a heightened, sometimes tragic rivalry, Main Source provided a shining example of the chemistry that collaborators from opposite sides of the United States-Canada border could cook up. A trio comprising two Toronto natives — Sir Skratch and K-Cut — and New York’s Large Professor, Main Source were a self-contained unit of overflowing talent and insightful, incisive lyrics. Their debut, Breaking Atoms, is a masterpiece of production, weaving together soul and jazz samples in mellifluous harmony, setting the tone for a whole generation of classics. “Looking At the Front Door,” the biggest single from the album and still a hot piece of beat-laden jazz-funk, rides a hypnotic Donald Byrd sample, while the subtler loops of “Live from the Barbeque” play backdrop for a posse cut featuring a young Nas. Which is not to overlook the rapping on the record, which touches upon the dubious use of “peace” on “Peace Is Not the Word to Play” or police brutality on “Just a Friendly Game of Baseball.” Their only other album, Fuck What You Think, lost the spark of their debut, which might have something to do with Large Professor’s departure from the group. An album like Breaking Atoms, however, needs no follow-up. – Jeff Terich

De La Soul - Is Dead2. De La SoulDe La Soul Is Dead
(Tommy Boy)

This second album from the loopiest members of the Native Tongues tribe is hip-hop’s The Usual Suspects: The greatest trick De La Soul ever pulled was making themselves believe their debut, 3 Feet High and Rising, sucked. So surprising and pervasive was that album’s success that Posdnuos, Trugoy, and Maseo not only feared but actually saw their work overexposed (as The Turtles ended up suing them over a sample) and misinterpreted (a TV performance for Arsenio Hall became a flashpoint for a diss war). Saddened by the encroachment of gangsta rap and their own public image as so-called hippie rappers, De La Soul’s sophomore release was a concept album that incorporated the edgy sounds of the near-future (“Afro Connections at a Hi 5 (In the Eyes of the Hoodlum),” “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa,” “Fanatic of the B Word”) with this overarching desire to put a stake through the heart of their past. The trio and their producer Prince Paul, however, couldn’t escape their talent—even in the process of pulling up their daisies De La Soul is Dead planted a new crop of jam-packed tracks including huge rap-disco hit “A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays’” and the music-industry critique “Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey).” – Adam Blyweiss

A Tribe Called Quest - The Low End Theory1. A Tribe Called QuestThe Low End Theory

When Phife Dog proudly proclaims “I’m smooth like butter…it’s like butter” on The Low End Theory, he might as well be referring to the entire album, which boasts a jazzy flow smooth enough to bring Donald Fagen to tears. However, TLET isn’t just cool as hell (though it certainly is that), it’s one of the most artistically ambitious, forward-thinking, and all-around excellent rap records of the ’90s. Of particular note is the two-headed approach between “The Abstract Poet” and Phife, which allows the group to move between direct and indirect lyricism with fluid ease. The result is excellent: on the page, the lyrics on The Low End Theory stack up with all of its best contemporaries, but when brought to life by the rappers’ confident elocution, they constitute one of those rare records where just about everything goes right and leaves no room for question. So don’t question – just bask in the mastery. – Connor Brown

Next: 1992


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