1995: A Hip-Hop Retrospective

Ten years can change a lot in the course of history. 2005 marks the age of technological ease, political strife across the globe, and flossy mega-entertainers. Just ten years ago, in 1995, Hip-Hop culture and music was steadily evolving with the fast-moving times. In fact, it can be argued that, compared to now, Hip-Hop back then represented a more vocal, forward-thinking movement. "Let’s take a second to look back…"

By 1995, the world knew the power of Hip-Hop culture, especially rap music. That year, rap represented 6.7% of sales among all genres, with about 500 rap albums released. In contrast, 2005 has been a ghastly year for music sales, with rap being hit the hardest. A recent University of North Carolina study entitled "The Effect of File Sharing on Record Sales" theorized that sales in Hip-Hop are lower compared to Jazz and Country these days because Hip-Hop fans download music more than the typically older fans of other genres.

One phenomenon in 1995 that spurred rap sales was that rappers and R&B artists combined forces with rap verses on nearly all successful R&B singles. Two big collaborations were Method Man and Mary J. Blige’s "You’re All I Need to Get By," and Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Mariah Carey’s "Fantasy" remix. Today, Meth and Mary are seasoned vets with families and newfound perspectives on life. O.D.B. is now deceased, and post-nervous breakdown Mariah was the comeback queen of 2005.

1995 was also the year of well-established regional sounds, ushering in the age of reppin’ one’s hood. On the East Coast, raw lyrical MC’s were mostly from New York, led by Bed Stuy’s Biggie Smalls and including veteran KRS-One, Puerto Rican rapper Fat Joe, Redman and Keith Murray, AZ, and Nas. Crews and cliques reigned supreme, such as Wu Tang Clan, Mobb Deep, Group Home, Channel Live, Smif-N-Wessun, Junior M.A.F.I.A., and newly conscious Onyx. These days, East Coast rappers aren’t as much trendsetters as they are artists struggling to keep their regional identity in a genre that is growing much faster in other parts of the country.

Early on in 1995, the South showed its rap prowess, with songs about the slower, more celebratory living down below. Just before the rise of the ‘Dirty South’ the eclecticism of Goodie Mob shined on Soul Food, and Outkast was named "Best New Rap Group of the Year" at the 1995 Source Awards. Now in 2005, the South leads the country, with artist cliques hailing from Houston to Miami and ‘crunk’ being the overriding rule of thumb.

The Midwest followed suit in 1995, churning out its own unique flavor including the rapping/singing of Bone Thugs N Harmony, who gangster-crooned their way to domestic sales of over five million on 1999 Eternal. After mentor Eazy E’s death, the group dedicated the " Tha Crossroads" to his memory, earning them a Grammy and breaking The Beatles’ 32-year record for fastest rising single. Ten years later, Common, Twista, and Kanye West continue to stand for the Midwest’s versatility and nostalgic flavor. And after falling off the radar for a while, Bone Thugs N Harmony is performing again, most recently at the Chicago House of Blues in mid-December.

The West Coast had also grown into an unstoppable force by 1995. Gang life permeated most of its material, led by favorite son Tupac and anchored by Dr. Dre protégé Snoop Dogg. 1995 also showcased the gang-affiliated sounds of Coolio, DJ Quik, and WC and the Maad Circle, among others. Actually not much has changed in the way of West Coast lyrics and living over the past decade. However, after witnessing so much violence over the past ten years, many West Coast rappers like Snoop and Ice Cube have since taken on kinder, gentler, peace-seeking images.

But, the West was more than gangsta rap. Some rappers took on eclectic styles in 1995 that sounded more like that of rappers in other states. With almost-fun themes revolving around heavy references to liquor and weed, artists like E-40, The Alkaholiks, The Pharcyde, and The Luniz [with their cult classic "I Got 5 On It"], proved that West Coast rap wasn’t just about pimps and gangs. With the exception of E-40, the eclectic, mainstream West of 1995 has seen the rise of multi-cultural rap cliques such as the Black Eyed Peas.

Flare, uniqueness, and raw talent characterized the heavy-hitting Hip-Hop artists of 1995. Most notably, Staten Island’s militia of nine, Wu Tang Clan, released several solo projects during the year, belting out classics that still stand today, such as GZA’s Liquid Swords, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, and Method Man’s Tical. In 2005, the Wu [minus the late O.D.B.] is still performing and recording, but the output of music has dwindled. Meth has since emerged as the most marketable of the crew, starring in slapstick movies and television with longtime pal and collaborator, Redman.

By mixing rap, R&B, and ‘girl power’ in 1995, the group TLC reached sales of 11 million with the singles "Waterfalls" and "Creep" in a Hip-Hop landscape largely void of women. These days, women like Remy Ma and Trina have more a presence in Hip-Hop, though they are still largely under-represented. Topping the female rap news of 2005 was Lil’ Kim of former Junior M.A.F.I.A. fame – even while in jail, her single "Lighters Up" ignited the Billboard Hot 100.

Cali rapper Coolio scored a huge success with 1995’s top single "Gangsta’s Paradise" from the soundtrack to the motion picture Dangerous Minds and rap’s two fallen soldiers, Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur, rose to the top of their respective coasts with Ready to Die and Me Against the World respectively. The albums were noted as some of their best work by music critics for their poignant portrayal of the duplicity of Black male, urban life. Now, after nearly a decade, Biggie and Tupac remain rap heroes and the victims of senseless, unsolved murders. Coolio has gone on to become one of the most recognizable figures for the mainstream rap audience, but hasn’t seen a hit in years.

In 1995, Black Hip-Hop, sports, and political icons were involved in just as much scandal, crime, and notoriety as the stars of today. 1995 marked the advent of sex crime allegations against Black entertainers, including boxer Mike Tyson who was released after serving time for raping a beauty pageant contestant. The late Tupac Shakur was found guilty of sexual assault against a female fan and sentenced to four-and-a-half years in Riker’s penitentiary in February of that year. While he was in jail, Tupac’s Me Against the World hit number one, and he became the first rap artist to top the charts and get married while incarcerated.

In 1995, Hip-Hop artists were among the outspoken celebrities who protested such things as the incarceration of former journalist and convicted cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal. On the minds of everyone including rappers was the most memorable trial of all time, where O.J. Simpson was acquitted of double murder in October 1995. In 2005, lawyer Johnny Cochran, who had been a savior to Black entertainers with legal trouble like O.J. and Diddy, passed away from cancer.

Just as in 2005, political events also rocked the country a decade ago, changing people’s views about war, equality, and issues of morality. The U.S. sent troops to Bosnia on a peacekeeping mission, and in April, domestic terrorist and veteran Timothy McVeigh showed his disdain for U.S. policies by bombing the Oklahoma City Federal Building, killing 168 people. This year, rapper Kanye West was the most outspoken opponent of U.S. policies, announcing before a live audience of millions that President George Bush "doesn’t care about Black People."

Bill Clinton, the so-called ‘Black president,’ won his second run for top office in 1995, just before the Monica Lewinsky scandal. As much a ‘Teflon Don’ as Clinton, Marion Berry rose from the shame of being caught smoking crack in a seedy motel and was elected mayor of Washington, D.C. for the second time. And from across the country in October, scores of Black men were urged by the Nation of Islam’s controversial Louis Farrakhan to converge on the U.S. Capitol for the Million Man March. Compared to now, people seemed more willing to listen and forgive 10 years ago, and the themes that mattered were ones that affected all Americans.

The millions were flowing in other ways years ago. Rappers were slowly being recognized as highly marketable entities. Sprite and Reebok were two giants who capitalized with rap-inspired commercials in 1995. In film, rapper Ice Cube and DJ Pooh wrote and starred in one of 1995’s highest-grossing movies, the weed cult classic Friday. Still today, marketing and advertising campaigns lean heavily on rap and sports icons to set the standard for styles and slang.

Just as Hip-Hop was finding its place in corporate America in 1995, rap labels were showing that they were forces as well. After being released from jail, Tupac Shakur made what may have later become an ominous decision – signing to Suge Knight’s Death Row record label. Another giant, Def Jam celebrated its 10th anniversary. At 1995’s 2nd Annual Source Awards in New York, Notorious B.I.G. received four awards, and Suge Knight publicly attacked Puff Daddy for hoarding his artists’ spotlight. The night’s events helped increase tensions between the East and West Coasts, and the awards show did not return until 1999.

In a sad move for the Hip-Hop hungry American audience, the popular show Yo! MTV Raps was cancelled in 1995. During its successful seven-year run, the show had pumped rap music straight into the homes of MTV’s mainstream white audience, helping Hip-Hop veejays Doctor Dré, Ed Lover, and Fab 5 Freddy become household names. Sadder still, former N.W.A. member Eazy-E and X-Clan member Sugar Shaft both succumb to AIDS during the year. Since 1995, the world has also mourned the loss of several Hip-Hop stars, including Big Pun, Jam Master Jay, O.D.B., DJ Screw, Big L, Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, and Aaliyah.

Longevity and immortality define the careers of many stars of 1995. From Wu Tang to Snoop to L.L. Cool J and others, a large percentage managed to remain the trendsetters up to today. In the past decade, those same artists and Hip-Hop businessmen have acquired more rap labels, erected fashion houses, created music publications, starred in sitcoms and major feature films, and served as spokespersons for global corporations. The stars of 2005 are diversifying in an industry that now requires them to be much more than just rappers.

While 1995 may have seemed a more empowered and creative time for hip-hop expression, one thing is certain. What happened back then still defines what’s cool today, and while ‘bling’ and misogyny did exist in 1995, they are more blatant than ever in today’s rap music and videos. Rap content in 1995 was also heavily street-inspired, but some like Onyx discussed atypical topics like the Illuminati. The threat of the ‘new world order’ loomed large in the minds of some rappers then, but in 2005, despite the Patriot Act and other invasions of privacy, rap is significantly void of talk about moral issues and conspiracy theories.

Today’s rap music still draws negative attention and criticism from political pundits, and its growing global diversity is sometimes considered the ‘watering-down of rap.’ However, ten years later, it is undeniable that rap, the voice of the streets, is still driving a force behind pop culture.

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