Rap's Bittersweet Nostalgia for 1994

Twentieth-anniversary fever has gripped the genre, but not every hip-hop newcomer from the Illmatic era is part of the party.
Outkast at Coachella 2014 (AP)

Some of the biggest stories in rap this year haven’t been about what’s new, but rather about what’s old. Twenty years old, to be exact.

Each passing month brings more attention paid to works from 1994. Chief among the honorees has been Nas’s Illmatic, a debut whose 20th birthday has been celebrated with a two-disc reissue, accompanying tour, three-part Fuse special, and feature-length documentary. The two-decade anniversary of Outkast’s debut Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik brought about the long-awaited onstage reunion of members Big Boi and Andre 3000.

Elsewhere, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony has embarked upon a tour commemorating the 20th anniversary of their debut EP Creepin on ah Come Up, and Warren G announced plans for a follow up to his multi-platinum selling 1994 debut Regulate...G Funk Era. Mobb Deep’s new release The Infamous Mobb Deep confusingly shares a title with their breakthrough album and includes a second disc of outtakes from 1994 studio sessions. A few months late to the party, Onyx released their first album in a decade, Wakedafucup, with a title inspired by their debut Bacdafucup, and The Wu-Tang Clan has reported internal strife around their already-delayed album planned for the 20th anniversary of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).

Certainly, 1994 was an important year for the genre. By then, hip-hop had established itself as a coast-to-coast juggernaut, with NWA, Ice-T, and Geto Boys proving that even the most controversial records could be made into chart-toppers. Major labels scrambled to sign young up-and-coming rappers from across the country; even historic imprints associated with other genres such as Motown Records sought the next great rap debut.

“All of a sudden in '94 people are rapping with no frills again, with less focus on a gimmicky delivery and more on content,” says J-Zone, the New York rapper, producer, and author of 2011’s Root for the Villain: Rap, Bullshit, and a Celebration of Failure. “Illmatic got the most regard because it was the first to break the trend of gangsta image-driven rap.”

1994’s rookie class also included such still-revered acts as Gravediggaz, M.O.P., Coolio, Keith Murray, and the late Notorious B.I.G., and less-remembered ones like Jeru the Damaja, O.C., Big Mike, Casual, and Artifacts.

“A lot of these artists were just establishing themselves and sounded hungry as hell,” says D.C.-area rapper and producer yU, who performs with Diamond District and the 1978ers. “It’s the exact opposite of what you find nowadays with the relaxed, ‘I can do this in my sleep’ attitude that a lot of emcees have.”

But there’s something innately awkward about all the resurgent fanfare for these classic records. For each tour and retrospective, middle-aged musicians must assume the personae of their teens and early 20s, overlooking two decades worth of artistic output. Nas has been beckoned to recite Illmatic’s 10 tracks dozens of times this year at venues ranging from the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony Orchestra to the Preakness Stakes’ InfieldFest. If these performances have highlighted Illmatic’s timelessness, they’ve also reasserted the consensus that Nas has yet to surpass his debut. In selecting Coachella for their reunion, Outkast joined a bill mostly composed of electronica artists and a young audience in part predated by Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. Of the new Mobb Deep record, Pitchfork’s Jayson Greene wrote, “the album is exactly the sort of hastily tossed-off, forgettable project that legacy acts will sometimes tack onto can't-miss releases.”

The focus on 1994 also highlights rap’s precarious position today. Hip-hop sales swelled corresponding with the pre-Napster boom at the turn of the century, but in the intervening years rap lost a significant market share. Forty-three of Billboard’s year-end Top 200 Albums were rap records in 2004, but in 2013 only 25 cracked the Top 200. Last fall the 10th annual Rock the Bells Tour, a hip-hop specific concert series that saw the reunions of ‘90s icons the Fugees and A Tribe Called Quest, was cancelled due to slow ticket sales. Upon the cancellation, planned performer Kid Cudi tweeted, “Hip hop shows aren’t exciting...People wanna smile and dance.”

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Pete Tosiello is a sales planner for National Journal.

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