1994 was a special year.
- Sound Bwoy Bureill, Smif-N-Wessun, from their debut Da Shinin’. I’ll be frank, the lyrical content of this song does not age well (hint: it’s the wildly homophobic lyrics). The production of this song is still top-notch. I’m not sure that anyone was better at blending hip-hop and dancehall than the Beatminerz. Smif-N-Wessun were one of the most underrated duos of the era. They had the darkness and menace of groups like Mobb Deep, but the horns and flutes in the background and haunting basslines suggest a world that’s slightly less bleak than Havoc and Prodigy’s Queensbridge. They created a sound and mood perfect for long subway ride.
2. Time’s Up, by O.C., from his debut Word…Life. One of the things I love most about O.C. is that he felt more like a working artist than a wanna-be celebrity or mogul. He rarely sounds like he’s trying to jump on a bandwagon or adhere to some trend. There’s a refreshing sense of honesty he brings to this track – insistent without being self-righteous. Time’s Up is the kind of jeremiad against hip-hop that glorified violence and misogyny that was extremely popular in New York at the time, but O.C. adds a personal touch (“I know your folks, you was a sucka as a kid”) that distinguishes it from songs like Jeru the Damaja’s Come Clean. Buckwild’s beat is unforgettable. I can listen to this forever.
3. I Got A Love, by Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, from their second album Main Ingredient. This is just a perfect blend of beat, vocals and video. I still can’t believe that this duo only released two albums.
4. Rockafella (remix), by Redman, from his second album Dare Iz A Darkside. Whenever I hear (or read) people talk about the great producers of this era – Dr. Dre, RZA, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, DJ Quik, Organized Noize – I want to interrupt to remind them that Erick “the Green Eyed Bandit” Sermon deserves to be in the conversation. And no one does a better job of riding a Sermon beat than Redman.
5. Release Yo’ Delf, by Method Man, from his debut Tical. When I first heard Tical, this was my favorite track. Love the epic sounding vocals from Blue Rasberry.
Bonus: It Ain’t Hard To Tell, by Nas, from his debut Illmatic. It’s hard to explain how it felt to listen to Illmatic in 1994, but it quickly became a barometer of quality introspective hip-hop. Nas’ lyrics on this track are abstract, but there’s a sense of purpose and precision to his delivery that separates him from his contemporaries. When I listen to this song, I’m reminded of a time when Nas was the best rapper alive.