The 90s were packed to the hilt with incredible works of music that were also incredibly commercially successful. Especially from ’95 onward, Hip Hop was a commodity selling millions of records a year. And there are quite a few artists, catapulted into the spotflight because of a hefty lead single or follow-up, that eventually found the platinum promise land either during the decade or over the ensuing years. 

Others were not so lucky, and although they were superlative and of great importance to Hip Hop as a whole, they somehow were not well received enough by the album buying public to reach the one million mark. And this is our barometer. In a world where Will Smith’s Big Willie Style goes 9x platinum and Vanila Ice’s To The Extreme is also out collecting platinum checks, that these albums couldn’t find their way into the wallets of a million people is downright criminal. So, here, we present 10 classic albums from the 90s that, somehow, never hit one million albums sold territory. 

People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm

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Artist:A Tribe Called Quest
Year:1990
Commercial Impact:Gold; Peaked at #91 on Billboard 200

Three classic recordings dropped in the inaugural year of the 1990’s and two of them went platinum. The first was Public Enemy’s Fear Of A Black Planet, which featured the varied aural landscape only an environment low on sample clearances could muster. The third was Ice Cubes AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, signifying the power of N.W.A. (and its fallout) and pillared by, well, the power of Cube’s vivid narrative over fantastic production. But right smack in the middle was the debut of quad-pronged Rap grouping A Tribe Called Quest. Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed-Muhammed and Jarobi burst out of the NY scene coming out of Queens, and made an album that most people didn’t know what to do with at the time, and although The Source gave the record 5 mics sales still managed to flounder. This one is an example of how crucial a first single is. The group dropped “Description Of A Fool” initially instead of far more successful (and just flat out better) follow-ups “Bonita Applebum” and “Can I Kick It?”. Because of that, the album floated around in commercial circles, going Gold several years later, but is and will always remain a Hip Hop staple for devotees and casual listeners of the genre alike.

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De La Soul Is Dead

Artist:De La Soul
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Year:1991
Commercial Impact:Gold; Peaked at #26 on Billboard 200

“Hello boys and girls…” the intro which sets the tone for the NY trio: Posdunuos, Dave and Maseo. Somewhere in between 1991’s west coast gun totin’ and “power to the people” tracks, De La Soul managed to squeeze their 2nd album in (fictitious radio station and all) named De La Soul Is Dead. The title mocks their original reception and “Daisy” approach to music, which took the back seat in a gangster prevalent Rap world. On their second album, De La became disillusioned with the current Hip Hop environment with (Vanilla Ice taking number one spots) and set up a metaphor in which kids found their album in the garbage. The album was truly of a “moment,” chronicling what was happening in the environment at the time in much the same way Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thingdid. They scoffed at being referred to as the “Hippies of Hip Hop”, and somehow created an album that spoke both the Native Tongues language all while putting forth their lament. Deeply personal and truly ironic, De La Soul Is Dead is a precursor to all of the hipster Rap that floated around the web in the aughts, and their view that Hip Hop would eventually go into a sugar coma lacking in what 1991 would have deemed “substance” has all but come true.  

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Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde

Artist:The Pharcyde
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Year:1992
Commercial Impact:Gold; Peaked at #75 on the Billboard 200 

One of Delicious Vinyl’s first groups to be signed in the 90s was The Pharcyde, who ultimately changed the face of what was thriving in the Golden State. South Central, Los Angeles spawned the likes of Imani, Slimkid3, Bootie Brown and Fatlip, who were clearly more so shaped by the sounds influencing the likes of De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest (whom they later went on tour with). This was evident in Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde; their first full length production. Perhaps the City of Angels wasn’t ready to hop on their bizarre ride of introspective lyricism, warped voices, and acid jazz production. There was no mention of the street life, instead it was all about having fun and having crazy adventures as described in “Oh Shit”and “Passin’ Me By”. Hip Hop enthusiasts today will always have J-Swift’s beats in their collection and we’ll never let them pass us by. Sadly the group would lose two of its members in the years following this Hip Hop classic: Fatlip in 1995 and Slimkid3 in 2000. 

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‘93 ‘til Infinity

Artist:Souls of Mischief
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Year:1993
Commercial Impact:Peaked at #85 on Billboard’s Top 200; #17 on the Top R&B/Hip Hop Charts

September 28, 1993 was the date Souls of Mischief released their debut studio album, ‘93 ‘til Infinity. Their peers and competition at the time were heavy hitters The Wu-Tang Clan, A Tribe Called Quest (now on their third album), Snoop Dogg, KRS-One and De La Soul. The album is definitely a classic due to the iconic fat beats and jazzy sound, but it was its consistency that astounded. Most Hip Hop heads have the title track memorized for word, and it even charted, peaking at 72 on the Billboard 100. But what makes this album so special isn’t its title single (which is a staple of classic Hip Hop, golden age wizardry) but it’s relatively complex emotional take on their everyday lives. As far as slice of life albums go, 93 ‘til Infinityis one of Hip Hop’s most beloved and most underrated, and countless groups since have copied its topics and harmonies.

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Resurrection

Artist:Common
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Year:1994
Commercial Impact:Peaked at #179 on Billboard Top 200 – #27 on the Top R&B/Hip Hop Charts

Still very influenced by the Empire State, the Rap game was learning to accept the likes of the South and the Midwest. Enter Common Sense. Resurrectionwas the Chi City native’s second album and it included the classic single and commercial hit “I Used To Love H.E.R.”. Common’s work with No I.D. didn’t seem to reach as many ears as expected, which is surprising because of both the seminal Hip Hop hit that was the aforementioned, and the overall intensity of I.D on the boards. It didn’t though, only landing 2000 copies the first week. But it was a watershed moment for the Chicago emcee (and the Hip Hop world by extension) as critics and Hip Hop heads alike lauded the record. And it solidified Common’s ability to capture an essence of the zeitgeist that would continue into his later work. Several even consider it Common’s best work and, therefore, a must for anyone’s collection. In 2000, mainstream would finally embrace the Chicago emcee when his first major label album Like Water For Chocolate dropped and peaked at number 16 on the Billboard Top 200

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The Infamous 

Artist:Mobb Deep
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Year:1995
Commercial Impact:Gold, Peaked on the US Billboard 200 at #15 and the US Top R&B #3 

This album put Mobb Deep on the map, but the sales paled in comparison to the previous month’s release of Tupac’s Me Against The World, which, despite a few outliers, was almost universally regarded by critics as ‘Pac’s best album but still just a slightly above average one. Robert Christgau (writing for The Village Voice) had this to say, “Tough-guy sentimentality is an old story in American culture, but self-pity this rank is usually reserved for teen romances and tales of brave avant-gardists callously rejected by the mass media.” There was no such sentimentality on Mobb Deep’s The Infamous. The gritty, dystopian lyrical content and menacing production provided a candid look into a cultural cache´ that many in the wider culture simply ignored. Both coasts would continue to delve into these stories, with New York’s version coming to define the spirit of the “golden era.” Of course, the duo brought the pessimists view to city life, taking a dispirited approach, but they also brought with them a classic from “the dungeons of Rap” to the doorsteps of middle class kids everywhere in America who were fascinated their city counterparts and had never heard anything quite this “dark.” The Infamous, went certified gold fairly quickly, but couldn’t go platinum spinning tales of pure chaos with all-time great songs like “Shook Ones pt. II”.

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Ridin’ Dirty

Artist:UGK
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Year:1996
Commercial Impact:Gold, Peaked on the US Billboard 200 at #15 and the US Top R&B #2

1996 saw the release of ATLiens,the sophomore album by Atlanta supergroup OutKast, but two years before a shy Andre Benjamin (the beginning of what would become a legitimate stage fright showing) would state at the Source Awards, “The south got somethin’ to say.”  In 1988 a group called Underground Kingz or U.G.K. released The Southern Way, and it was the South’s introduction to Bun B and Pimp C, two Port Arthur folks who grew up in the shadow of oil refineries and gravitated to what 8Ball & MJG called “country rap.” Now, they’d both collide, as Ridin’ Dirtywould come to solidify what we all know and love about Texas rap: candypaint gleaming in the light, lean, screwtapes, grillz and soul samples galore. The album never had any singles or videos, but reached certified gold status, and is their best selling album to date. Houston Hip Hop has expanded by leaps and bounds since, but it suffered from Hip Hop’s regional bias at the time, which is our shame because of this album’s greatness. 

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The War Report

Artist:Capone-N-Noreaga
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Year:1997
Commercial Impact:Peaked on the US Billboard 200 at #21 and the US Top R&B #4

The War Report was Capone-N-Noreaga’s debut album, and it was one of the most unapologetic, breathtaking views into the reality of life in LeFrak City – a sprawling Queens’ apartment complex comprised of twenty 16 story towers. The effect of their isolation was a deeply held dog-eat-dog view, and from that philosophical position is where they relayed their tales of grisly crime, street justice, and rules of existence. Unfortunately for C-N-N, the thematic portrait painted under the guidance of Tragedy Khadafi may have been too “street”, but the album still attained considerable success, crescendoing on the Billboard 200 chart at 21. The War Report was a showing from the Queens natives that garnered them commercial success even though most of the orchestrating was done by Noreaga on his own after Capone was sent to prison. Noreaga went on to a successful career as a mainstream artist, and the fans were left to wonder what levels of greatness could have been achieved had Capone not been hit with that trip up north.

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Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star

Artist:Black Star
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Year:1998
Commercial Impact:Peaked on the US Billboard 200 at #53 and the US Top R&B #13

Two of Hip Hop’s great philosophers teamed up with DJ Hitek, Shawn J. Period and a few others to give you one of New York’s pillars of edutainment. “Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star,” was a remarkable product, especially in 1998 amidst the swirling candycane fad that was the “shiny suit era.” There was not one wasted bar by each emcee, and both seemed to be both in competition with each other (constantly one-upping each other on tracks) and in harmony — folding their verses into the narrative of the other.  These students of Marcus Garvey delivered a project of Native Tongues like conviction and honesty that existed outside of the time in which it was created. However, the mainstream was already long out the door, preferring the bling of Jay-Z’s Vol 2… Hard Knock Life or the maniacal storytelling and implicit violence and spirituality of DMX. Singles like “Definition” peaked on the Billboard 100 chart at 60, and the album itself peaked on the Billboard 200 at 53, but what we will remember most is how each verse catapulted these emcees into a conversation for greatness. Though their approach ran outside of mainstream interests at the time and received little radio play, this record will live on as one of Hip Hop’s all time greats.

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Black on Both Sides

Artist:Mos Def
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Year:1999
Commercial Impact:Gold, Peaked on the US Billboard 200 at #25 and the US Top R&B #3

Speaking of the artist formally known as Mos Def moving on to a solo career, he followed up the Black Star collaboration with his Rawkus Records debut and first solo album “Black on Both Sides.” The critically acclaimed showing sparked talk of an entrance into a new era of Hip Hop, and the album only sold just over 500,000 copies, but it never reached the plumage of platinum, despite the selling frenzy the Hip Hop music industry was in at the time. Black on Both Sides gave us everything Def was beginning to become known for, an infectious rhyme scheme, afrocentric productions, and a spirituality woven into intricately laid bars that could at times take your breath away. “Ms. Fat Booty” is still one of the most dopalicious odes to a woman’s magnificence in Rap history, and the twist at the end still one of Hip Hop’s most treasured. Its not going plat’ aside, Black on Both Sides was an impressive way to end the 90s, and would influence both Hip Hop and R&B artists to present day. 

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RELATED:10 Great Hip Hop Producers & Their Unlikeliest Collaborations [List]  Paperham Lincoln is a product of Indiana with a slightly oxymoronic infusion of Hip Hop journalism, now interning in the editorial section at HipHopDX. Find Paper preaching all things raw and purveying truths of the new sort. Follow him on Twitter@PaperhamLincoln.

Karina Dominguez is an LA native who started writing for personal, artistic reasons at age 17, then evolved her writing style while becoming a contributor for an indigenous pop culture e-magazine. Her love for Hip Hop is thanks to Biggie’s Ready To Die album and she works with the community on various cultural or socially conscious projects. You can follow her on Twitter@_LArain.