Of all the years when rap music grew from a fledgling sidebar for funk and disco into a global movement — or, to put it more succinctly, the golden age years — 1991 may be the most difficult to summarize.
It was when the genre was being pulled by competing forces. A consensus began to emerge among acolytes that an aesthetic response was needed to protect rap music from pop commercialization and the likes of Vanilla Ice. But this was just before the likes of EPMD’s “Crossover,” which codified hip-hop as something “rough, rugged and raw”; and Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, which posited rap music as the sound of street politics. Until records such as those arrived, hip-hop personified chaos, with varied camps and soloists offering plenty of variety but little evidence of a singular movement.
It was also a year, as Common later put it in “I Used to Love H.E.R.,” that “she got into R&B, hip-house, bass, and jazz.” Did you prefer the youthful hijinks of Leaders of the New School, the droll satire of Del the Funky Homosapien, or the P-funk raps of Digital Underground? You could pick and choose from a variety of electives on the hip-hop campus. Meanwhile, the Afrocentric flavor personified by fabric Black medallions and Cross Colours outfits wasn’t quite out of style as Common claimed, but it was hardening into militancy and uncompromising nationalism. On his difficult, sometimes-brilliant Death Certificate, Ice Cube still specialized in punchy humor with a pointed message. But he also offered songs that weren’t very funny at all, like “Horny Lil’ Devil” and, less defensibly, “Black Korea.” And De La Soul, who scored a massive radio hit with the flower-power funk of “Me Myself and I,” killed off the Daisy Age with De La Soul Is Dead, an hour of in-jokes marked by a misanthropic attitude towards the mainstream.
The defining quality between De La Soul Is Dead and Death Certificate was a growing sense of what real hip-hop should be. It was a sound that couldn’t be corrupted by low-denominator commercialism, and spoke to an audience who understood its codes, whether they caught all the lyrical metaphors and hyperlocal references or not. Hip-hop wouldn’t be a poor, oft-derided stepchild of R&B buppies or a novelty gimmick for pop suburbanites, but a vehicle for the pain and pleasures of Black and Brown youth, expressed forthrightly and without apology.
As Naughty by Nature’s Treach put it on “Ghetto Bastard,” retitled “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” when it was released as a single: “If you ain’t ever been to the ghetto/Don’t ever come to the ghetto/’Cause you wouldn’t understand the ghetto/And stay the fuck out of the ghetto.” Real hip-hop is either something you understand innately and completely…or you never will.
It was a hopelessly idealistic moment where artists believed that their music could affect social change and make money, to boot. Tupac Shakur kicked off his solo career with a press conference announcing his debut album 2Pacalypse Now as well as a lawsuit against the City of Oakland; two cops had beaten him up on a false jaywalking charge. At the center of Public Enemy’s Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black was a protest of the Arizona state legislature’s opposition to a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday. The Disposal Heroes of Hiphopcrisy led an initiative against homophobia. Death Certificate made frequent reference to the Rodney King assault by four Los Angeles police officers. When the quartet’s 1992 acquittal led to violence across the country, Ice Cube was hailed — and criticized — as a truth-teller who virtually predicted the biggest American uprising in a generation.
The story of how this idealism eventually curdled into senseless violence, nightmares of a Y2K apocalypse and, finally, unfettered corporatism would take several years to unfold. It may be inaccurate to call 1991 the beginning of that chapter. But it was certainly a prelude for what was to come.
There were smaller shifts in the genre. MTV and radio programmers grew comfortable with pop rap, leading to massive success for DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s perennial “Summertime” and the now largely forgotten PM Dawn’s “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss.” Rap critics — still mostly centered in New York — began to treat Houston as a major hub, thanks to Rap-A-Lot’s flagship group the Geto Boys. Meanwhile, rising artists like Vallejo’s E-40 and Mac Dre earned little attention outside of small regional publications. 1991 may have been the last year when the New York rap industry could reasonably claim knowledge of everything that happened in the genre, before an explosion of local scenes made that impossible.
On this latest installment in a series of best hip-hop singles lists, I attempted to refine some of the research I used previously. I didn’t rely solely on chart placements. A recurring feature that debuted in Billboard, “The Clip List,” was a big help: It helped me determine that X-Clan’s “Fire & Earth” video premiered in 1991, not early 1992. I also looked at Hits magazine and previously cited sources such as hiphopgoldenage.com, Discogs, and Ego Trip’s Book of Rap Lists. As always, I reserve the right to make alterations.
The 100 Best Rap Singles of 1991 (in alphabetical order; click on links for more on each entry)
- AMG – Bitch Betta Have My Money (Select Records)
- AMG – Jiggable Pie (Select Records)
- Anthrax feat. Chuck D – Bring the Noise (Megaforce Worldwide / Island)
- Black Sheep – Flavor of the Month (Mercury)
- Black Sheep – The Choice Is Yours (Revisited) (Mercury)
- Brand Nubian – Slow Down (Elektra)
- Brand Nubian – All for One (Radio Version) (Elektra)
- Comptons Most Wanted – Growin’ Up in the Hood (Orpheus Records / Epic)
- Consolidated – Brutal Equation (12-inch Mix) (Nettwerk)
- Convicts – This Is for the Convicts (Rap-a-Lot Records)
- Cypress Hill – The Phuncky Feel One / How I Could Just Kill a Man (Ruffhouse)
- De La Soul – Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey) (Tommy Boy)
- De La Soul – A Roller Skating Jam Called Saturdays (Tommy Boy)
- De La Soul – Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa (Tommy Boy)
- Del Tha Funkee Homosapien – Sleepin’ on My Couch / Ahonetwo, Ahonetwo (Elektra)
- Del Tha Funkee Homosapien – Mistadobolina / Burnt (Elektra)
- Digital Underground – Freaks of the Industry (TNT Recordings / Tommy Boy)
- Digital Underground – Same Song (Tommy Boy / Reprise)
- Digital Underground – Kiss You Back (TNT Recordings / Tommy Boy)
- The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy – Television, the Drug of the Nation (4th & B’Way)
- DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince – Summertime (Jive)
- DJ Laz feat. Danny “D” – Mami El Negro (Pandisc)
- DJ Quik – Born and Raised in Compton / Sweet Black Pussy (Profile)
- DJ Quik – Tonite (Profile)
- Downtown Science – Room to Breathe (Def Jam Recordings / Columbia)
- E-40 – Mr. Flamboyant (Sic Wid’ It Records)
- Ed O.G. & Da Bulldogs – I Got to Have It (PWL America)
- Ed O.G. & Da Bulldogs – Be a Father to Your Child (PWL America)
- 8 Ball and MJG – Listen to the Lyrics (On the Strength Records)
- E.P.M.D. featuring L.L. Cool J – Rampage (Def Jam Recordings / Rush Associated Labels / Columbia)
- Gang Starr – Love Sick / Credit Is Due (Chrysalis)
- Gang Starr – Step in the Arena / Check the Technique (Chrysalis)
- The Genius – Words from a Genius (Cold Chillin’ / Reprise)
- Geto Boys – Mind Playing Tricks on Me (Rap-a-Lot Records)
- Granddaddy I.U. – Something New (Cold Chillin’ / Reprise)
- Greysun & Jasun – Livin’ Like a Trooper (Atlantic)
- Hard Knocks – Nigga for Hire (Wild Pitch Records)
- Heavy D & the Boyz – Now That We Found Love (Uptown Records)
- Heavy D & the Boyz – Is It Good to You? (Uptown Records)
- Hi-C – I’m Not Your Puppet (Skanless Records)
- Ice Cube – Jackin’ for Beats (video only)
- Ice Cube – Steady Mobbin’ / No Vaseline (Priority Records)
- Ice-T – New Jack Hustler (Giant / Sire / Warner Bros. Records)
- Ice-T – O.G. Original Gangster (Rhyme Syndicate Records / Sire / Warner Bros. Records)
- J Rock – Drug Dealer (DJ Premier Boombox Jeep Mix) (Ghetto Groovz Records)
- Justin Warfield – Season of the Vic (Qwest / Reprise)
- K-Solo – Fugitive (Atlantic)
- Kid Capri – The Apollo (Cold Chillin’ / Warner Bros. Records)
- King Tee – At Your Own Risk (Budha Mix) (Capitol)
- K.M.D. – Nitty Gritty (Dog Spelled Backwards Mix) / Plumskinzz (Elektra)
- KMD – Who Me? (Elektra)
- Kool Moe Dee – Rise “N” Shine (Jive)
- Leaders of the New School – Case of the P.T.A. (Elektra)
- Leaders of the New School – Sobb Story (Elektra)
- Lifers Group – The Real Deal (Shadow Remix) / Shadow – Lesson 4 (Hollywood BASIC)
- A Lighter Shade of Brown – On a Sunday Afternoon (Pump Records)
- L.L. Cool J – Mama Said Knock You Out (Def Jam Recordings / Columbia)
- Lord Finesse – Return of the Funky Man (Giant / Reprise)
- Mac Dre – California Livin’ (Strictly Business Records)
- Main Source – Just Hangin’ Out / Live at the Barbecue (Wild Pitch Records)
- M.C. Breed and the DFC – Ain’t No Future in Yo Frontin’ / Just Kickin’ It (SDEG)
- MC Lyte – Poor Georgie (First Priority Music / Atlantic Street)
- M.C. T. Tucker & D.J. Irv – Where Dey At (Charlot Records)
- N.W.A – Appetite for Destruction / Always Into Somethin’ (Ruthless Records / Priority Records)
- Naughty by Nature – O.P.P. (Tommy Boy)
- Naughty by Nature – Everything’s Gonna Be Alright (Tommy Boy)
- Nice & Smooth – Hip-Hop Junkies (Bedford Park Mix) (Rush Associated Labels / Columbia)
- Nikki D – Daddy’s Little Girl (Def Jam Recordings / Columbia)
- Organized Konfusion – Who Stole My Last Piece of Chicken? (Hollywood BASIC)
- Organized Konfusion – Fudge Pudge / Walk into the Sun (Hollywood BASIC)
- PM Dawn – Set Adrift on Memory Bliss (Gee Street / Island)
- Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth – All Souled Out: The Creator / Good Life / Mecca & The Soul Brother (Untouchables Music / Elektra)
- Poor Righteous Teachers – Shakiyla (Profile)
- Prince Rakeem – Ooh I Love You Rakeem (Tommy Boy)
- Proper Dos – Mexican Power (Big Chill Records)
- Public Enemy – Can’t Truss It (Def Jam Recordings / Columbia)
- Queen Latifah – Latifah’s Had It Up to Here (Tommy Boy)
- Queen Mother Rage – Mental Erection (Cardiac Records)
- Raw Fusion – Throw Your Hands in the Air (Hollywood BASIC)
- Resident Alien – Ooh the Doo Doo Man (Dewdooman / Rush Associated Labels / Columbia)
- Salt-n-Pepa – Let’s Talk About Sex! (Next Plateau)
- Sammy Sam – I Ain’t Nothin’ to Play With (Smith & Smith Records)
- Scarface – Mr. Scarface (Rap-a-Lot Records)
- Showbiz & A.G. – Soul Clap (Show Biz Records)
- Sister Souljah – The Final Solution (Epic)
- Slick Rick – I Shouldn’t Have Done It (Def Jam Recordings / Columbia)
- SMK – Gangsta Walk (Brutal Records)
- Special Ed – Come On, Let’s Move It (Profile)
- Spice 1 – In My Neighborhood / 187 Proof (Triad Records)
- Tim Dog – Fuck Compton (Ruffhouse / Columbia)
Brand Nubian photo by Mark Seliger.
De La Soul photo by Ebert Roberts/Redfern.
Ice Cube photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images.
DJ Quik photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images/Michael Ochs Archives.
Originally published on criticalminded.com. This post has been updated.