Hip Hop Year In Review Rewind: 1991

In a season of year-end awards and reflections, HipHopDX's J-23 looks back 20 years to a year that saw a slew of amazing albums, a Thug Immortal properly introduced and a city and a coast defined.

Sometimes you don’t really take in how mediocre the game has gotten until you really sit and examine the days of way-back. Take 1991, 20 years ago. I’m sure there are quite a few of you reading this who weren’t born yet, but regardless if you were still swimming in your daddy’s nuts, shitting your diapers or finishing elementary school, anyone with a healthy respect for the foundation of Hip Hop can look at the albums on this list and realize the significance of this year. I’ll let the albums do the talking.

“Had a spark when you started...” - 10 Best Debut Albums

2011 had some highly anticipated debuts to be sure. You think J. Cole and ‘em will hold up to this group 20 years from now?

(in no particular order)

Black Sheep - A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothes : An incredible LP that often gets lost among Native Tongue domination

Cypress Hill - Cypress Hill: Eight albums later and this remains their magnum opus

Organized Konfusion - Organized Konfusion: Pharoahe Monch raps, what else needs to be said?

DJ Quik - Quik Is The Name: Sadly overshadowed by N.W.A./Cube, but funky as dogshit

KMD - Mr. Hood: Always keep young DOOM and company within arms reach

2Pac - 2Pacalypse: 'Pac at his most thoughtful…and least angry

Leaders of the New School - A Future Without A Past: Like a dungeon dragon

Naughty By Nature - Naughty By Nature: Lots of hard beats and Pop sensibility

Del Tha Funkee Homosapien: I Wish My Brother George Was Here – Del was never this funky again

Scarface - Mr. Scarface Is Back: The first in a long line of stellar solo albums

Honorary Mentions (since they were only short EPs, not a full albums)

Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth - All Souled Out – A glimpse into Pete Rock’s genious

Showbiz & A.G. - Soul Clap EP – Few have ever chopped a sample like Showbiz

“You don't have to drive a fancy car, just for you to be a shinin' star” - 2Pac Begins His Rise to Stardom

1991 was the year that one of Hip Hop’s most enduring superstars began his rise to the top. Just 20 years old, 'Pac released what would remain the most political and conscious album of his career in 2Pacalypse Now. While the album was well-received, it was his performance in Juice* that truly made people take notice. Bishop, the legendary character Pac played, had a dark side that he would often embody throughout his controversial career.

*Juice officially hit theatres January 17, 1992, but who’s counting

“A state that's untouchable like Elliot Ness” - Best West Coast Albums

Gangsta Rap may have been playing the front on the left coast, but that was far from the only movement taking place. The Project Blowed/Good Life scene was repping the rest of L.A. while the Oakland scene continued to bubble. Whether or not they were all unified, they didn’t need New York to validate what they were doing.

(in no particular order)

Compton’s Most Wanted - Straight Checkn ‘Em: This album should have gone platinum just like N.W.A.

Freestyle Fellowship - To Whom It May Concern: “the hunt of an emcee brings investigation”

WC & The Maad Circle - Ain’t A Damn Thing Changed: This is the Dub-C album to bow down to

Ice-T - O.G. Original Gangster: Widely regarded as T’s best work

Hi-C – Skanless: Funky and hilarious. Leave my curl alone!

Digital Underground - Sons of the P:  Funky enough to earn the title. Their best album hands down

2nd II None - 2nd II None: Criminally overlooked & DJ Quik-produced

L.A. Posse - They Come In All Colors: DJ Pooh, Bobcat and company are forgiven for Cool J’s “I Need Love”

AMG - Bitch Betta Have My Money: A pimp’s bible on tape

Raw Fusion - Live From The Styleetron: So slept on it hurts. Plus a 'Pac guest appearance if that gets your attention

“…with no vaseline”  - Ice Cube & N.W.A. Beef Escalates

Even though Ice Cube left Niggaz Wit' Attitude two years earlier and released AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted and Kill At Will since then, he hadn’t responded to any of his former group’s shots. “No Vaseline” changed all of that, and then some. Still regarded as many as the greatest diss record of all time, Cube captured the attention of the Hip Hop world. The unfortunate thing is that the beef, combined with the quality of their respective albums, hogged the spotlight. So many of the albums listed above didn’t get the shine they deserved, and still don’t.

“You ain’t heard of that” - 5 Albums Too Many Slept On

ConvictsConvicts: Yet another great album from Rap-A-Lot, don’t sleep on Big Mike

MC Breed & DFC - MC Breed & DFC: Don’t front on this, there is no future in it

Poison Clan - 2 Low Life Muthas: Hilarious and intentional ignorance

Tim Dog - Penicillin On Wax: Wildly entertaining album overflowing with shit talk

Ed O.G. & The Bulldogs - Life of a Kid in the Ghetto: The reason Edo is a legend in the Bean

“and you can’t even get the clearances” – Gilbert O’Sullivan vs. Biz Markie

It never appears on any "most important/influential" lists but Biz Markie's "Alone Again" was a game changer. Failing to clear the Gilbert O’Sullivan sample, the Biz was sued for copyright infringement. From then on out, major labels attempted to clear everything. Album costs inflated, classic songs were shelved for lack of clearance and artists deemed unworthy of huge budgets were stifled. Rest assured, you'll never hear an album like Paul's Boutique again.

“Draped up and dripped out, know what I'm talking bout” - Houston Is On The Map

Geto Boys - We Can’t Be Stopped: If you had to own one Geto Boys album...

OG Style - I Know How To Play ’Em: Rap-A-Lot was untouchable in these years. Great album, better cover

Street Military - Aggrivated Rasta: 5th Ward, South Park and Trinity Gardens unite!

The Terrorists - Terror Strikes: Always Bizness, Never Personal: Only South Park went this hard

Too Much Trouble - Bringing Hell On Earth: One of the most ruthlessly offensive albums ever made

“you ain't the star you were, fuckin’ the same hoes no more” - Juice Crew Gives Way To The Native Tongues

New York has had it’s share of great crews over the years, and most have had their day atop the mountain. The Native Tongues collective had been making their move since the late 80’s, but it was in 1991 that they clearly surpassed the mighty Juice Crew. Big Daddy Kane (Prince of Darkness), Marley Marl (In Control Vol. 2) and Craig G (Now, That’s More Like It) were all critical failures while De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest were delivering two of the greatest albums of all time. The Juice Crew had lost MC Shan and up and comer Masta Ace didn’t generate the buzz as new Natives’ Black Sheep and Leaders of the New School. The torch was passed.

“these are the days and the ways I can never forget” – The Best of 1991

Every album on this list regularly appears on Top 5 and Top 10 Albums of All Time lists. Enough said…except that we’ll never see this again.

De La Soul - De La Soul Is Dead: 180 from their classic debut and a much better album   

A Tribe Called Quest - The Low End Theory:  A life altering album for so many fans

Ice Cube - Death Certificate: Cube was absolutely untouchable here, just a beast

Main SourceBreaking Atoms: Perhaps the purest example of '90s golden-era production

N.W.A. - Efil4zaggin: They missed Cube’s pen, but a sonic masterpiece

Gang Starr - Step in the Arena**:  Couldn’t be titled better, Guru and Preme truly arrive

**Often attributed to 1990, but did drop January 15th, 1991

“My mic is loud and my production is tight” - Watch The Throne: Dr. Dre & DJ Premier break loose

Ask any Hip Hop head who knows their ass from a hole in the ground who the greatest producer of all-time is and chances is are they'll say DJ Premier or Dr. Dre. 1991 was the year both started along that path. While Dre was certainly well established, a bonafide star and a very good producer, he wasn't quite on that next level yet. The Chronic gets all the love for taking him into another stratosphere (not without good reason), but the leap he made on Evil4zaggin was bigger than the one he made on The Chronic. DJ Premier was solid with glimpses of greatness on No More Mr. Nice Guy. Step In The Arena was like a good rookie winning the MVP in his sophomore. 20 years later both are still pillars in the game.

Bonus Round - 10 More Not To Miss

Public Enemy - Apocolypse ’91: So underrated, “Can’t Truss It” is still one of the hardest songs ever

Slick Rick - The Rulers Back: So undeserving of its rep as a mediocre sophomore album

The UMCs - Fruits of Nature: They were no Tribe or De La, but who was? High quality stuff

Ultramagnetic MC’s - Funk Your Head Up: Kool Keith dissing everyone on “Pluckin’ Cards” is worth the purchase alone

3rd Bass - Derelicts of Dialect: Better known for their debut, but this is their best effort

Boogie Down Productions - Live Hardcore Worldwide: Best live album ever, period.

Godfather Don - Hazardous: Godfather Don stayed winning

Terminator X - Valley of the Jeep Beats: Pioneering album for the deejay set

Juice Original Soundtrack: One of the best soundtracks ever

Boyz N The Hood Original Soundtrack: See above

In looking back at 1991's significance, I wanted to pay proper respects to these artists who helped make the year so significant:

Eric “Eazy E” Wright
Tupac Shakur
Eric “MC Breed” Breed
Dwight “Heavy D” Myers
Eric “O.G. Style” Woods
Kurt Cobain

J-23 is HipHopDX's Editor-At-Large. He was a full-time member of the staff from 2001 to 2011, and served in many roles throughout that time, most notably a long-time Music Editor. J lives in London, Ontario.

54 Comments

  • fritzthacat

    i turned 15 in 1991. what a year to be alive and listening to rap. i have most of these albums on cassette. great read, and i agree with most of your choices. maad circle so slept on! and umcs! ultra's 2nd album. wow. so much good stuff in 91! thanks for the trip down memory lane... gonna go dig out that old shoebox full of tapes and crank some of these. happy new year!

  • HRH

    are you a stoner buddy? "Still regarded as many as the greatest diss record of all time" Still regarded AS many as the greatest?? Are you for real you stupid as junkie of a burnt out writer? Fucking faggot cocksucker... go suck a kyke

  • Skip Dillenger

    I did a group presentation on the year in Hip-Hop for my college music history course a couple years ago. This was an awesome year. Cube, Tribe, De La released masterpieces. Nas makes his first appearance on wax, the introduction of G-Funk... amazing.

  • Really DOe

    Forreal top 5 albums: Kid n play- Face the nation Baha Men- Who let the Dogs out Celine Dion- Falling into you Dr. Dre- The Chronic tevin Campbell- I'm ready

    • Anonymous

      all classics, how about drake thank me later, mc hammer please hammer don't hurt em, ace of base, and duran duran hungry like the wolf... all street bangaz nigga holla!!!

  • AKshen

    TEXAS Before the Syrup Take Over!!!

  • Mr.Cee

    That Terrorist Album - "CLASSIC"

  • PHILLY REP

    Dah Shinin,Living Proof,Dog Food were 95'. Bone Thugs joint (Faces of Death) was 93 but Im not 100% sure. And no you cant take credit for Enter The 36 for 94' lol.

  • Anonymous

    Pac album was average as fuck. I dont understand it. In 1991 only some folks at the westcoast were checking for pac.

    • Thug Lord

      In My Opinion Pac was Better before his Death-row Era.The Digital Underground days til '95 "The REALEST" Pac,Ju$t was Slept On by Many.Except Me, this was before JUICE "Bishop" hipe to.I'm Just Sayin,Although He had a good Run @Death-row.

  • 4G

    DOPE!!! Post J-23,Straight memorie Lane from Coast to coast

  • Money Emp

    Rap-A-Lot laid the foundation 4 the $OUTH that year,Tha Blueprint to All these Southern Empires that exist Today.Mo$t of the Album Listed In this featured HOU$TON's BE$T MC's Ever, H-town Is Definitely On the Map, Because of them All.They Slept on CONTROVERSY & GripitOntheOtherLevel but like Lil J said on We Can't Be Stop Album - Intro(REBEL RAP FAMILY),U Know In 1989 We Knock on the Door,1990 We Beat on the door,Now It's 1991, We fin to Kick this MF'er In...,R.I.P O.G.Style Member, Big Mello,& Seagram.Seag & (Gangsta P) who was the first 2 to do A entire Rap Song In Pig Latin

  • EyeMDope

    mad respect for the shout out to Kurt Cobain

  • Machiventa

    Epic year no doubt. Glad to see someone mention that Cypress Hill's debut was their magnum opus, shit changed my life. No mention of Ice T - O.G. Original Gangster or Freestyle Fellowship - To Whom It May Concern... ?

  • Machiventa

    "J-23 is HipHopDX's Editor-At-Large." - "Sometimes you dont really how mediocre the game has gotten" FAIL

  • Renzo rollin

    91 one on of the best years in hip hop for sho. Together with 92 and 88.

  • Nike Champ 718

    This is dope. That summer alone had so much classic material that it made that summer one of the best ever. So many anthems.

  • FERNY

    damn took me back to memory lane with this article... i was around 7-8 years old so everything was fresh to me... i still remember hearing ain't no future in your front from mc breed... never heard so many bad words at once before that i fell in love with it... i still remember where i was when i heard who was there everything that was happening... one of those things that stays implanted in your brain forever... hope we get back to hardcore hip hop back again... im sure we will because everything goes in cycles... PEACE

  • Anonymous

    this was a really cool look at hip hop history and a great way to celebrate that year. but i dont think the game is mediocre now there are alot of great mc's making great music, and we'll see if J cole and them hold up 20 years from now, when 20 years from now comes around lol. i love hip hop, i love the culture, and i love this site, I dont want us to become a grumpy old "back in my day" kind of culture which honestly is what this article and alot of these comments are leaning towards

  • nignog

    nice to see something worth reading on this site for once, great job j-23. if you guys want people to respect the vets, you guys need to keep pumping out articles about the old hiphop.

  • Anonymous

    What a great time for Hip Hop man. I fukin loved that era. Todays hiphop doesn't even come friggin close to these collection of records. Many classics! Nobody is making them anymore.

  • roddy

    Great piece J-23! Happy new year.

  • Anonymous

    Quicks album was a banger and it got slept on

  • NJ

    Great read, a hell of a lot of nostalgia conjured up. 1994 will forever be the greatest year in Hip Hop History though.

    • rbgwarrior

      @Philly Rep: my bad, i must be getting old, the memory aint as sharp as it use to be

    • PHILLY REP

      @rbgwarrior: Dah Shinin', Dog Food and Livin Proof was 95'. Faces of Death (Bone Thugs) was 93, but Im aint 100% sure. And no u get no credit for Enter The 36, that WAS 93 lol.

    • rbgwarrior

      my bad, i meant redman's 'dare iz da darkside (94), not muddy waters(96)

    • rbgwarrior

      1996 was solid, but C'Mon Son! 1988 long live the kane by any means necesssary strictly business it takes a nation... marley marl in control vol.1 great adventures of slick rick he's the dj, im the rapper follow the leader we want eazy critical beatdown run's house the diaboilical biz markie audio two what more can i say stets in full gear 1994 illmatic ready to die hard to earn ressurection the shining word life enter the 36 chambers (late 93) most beautifullest thing in the world sun rises in the east project funk the world blowout comb do you want more sotherncadillacplayalisticmuzick everything is everything living proof- group home muddy waters ill al scratch- creep with me dog food bone's first cd...not the e.p channel live-station identification......to name a few, this was off the top of my head, so i know i missed some other bangerz, but with all due respect, these two years are legendary and can't be fucked with...deep down i believe jay z wished he had dropped in '94 with his lyrical peers. uhuru

    • PHILLY REP

      Sorry my dude but 1996 takes that title: ILLADEL HALFLIFE- The Roots Ironman- Ghost ATLiens- Kast DA Storm- O.G.C Nocturnal- Heltah Skeltah It Was Written- Nas Soul on Ice- Ras Kass Hardcore-Lil Kim All Eyes on Me/ Machiavelli-Pac The Score- Fugees Stakes is High- De La Soul Beats Rymes and Life- Tribe The Coming- Busta Rymes Muddy Waters- Redman Hell on Earth- Mobb Deep Foxy Brown- Ill Na Na Reasonable Doubt-Jay Z Ridin' Dirty- UGK

  • Anonymous

    I wish there really was a hot tub time machine. Follow me @4i2

  • insanemacbeth

    1991 was all about N.W.A. "efil4zaggin". "APPROACH TO DANGER" alone, killed everything!

  • rbgwarrior

    Way to take me back, senior year, i remeber me and my crew being the first in Milwaukee (Brew City, Mil-Town, Kilwaukee,etc) bumping Pac's album..we had the speaker box in the back seat of the '86 Tornado!! Incredible year that's often slept on in the shadows of 1988 & 1994. I'm just glad i was around to bear witness hip hop's version of the Harlem Renasaince.. p.s. Big Ups too for mentioning three classics in particular...Edo G's Life A Kid In The Ghetto, UMC's Fruits Of Nature & OG Style's I Know How To Play'Em...one more thing, Apocalypse '91 was for my $ Public Enemy's 2nd coldest album, behind It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back

  • Anonymous

    Great write. This definitely takes me back. I still have most of these albums on cassettes & CD's

  • J Monopoly

    Very very well written. I only wish you mentioned New Jack City and the impact that movie had on hip hop culture, but this definitely made my day. Much respect!