10 Things You Didn’t Know About ’90s Hip Hop


This weekend was the 20th anniversary of the Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, the latest in a roll call of significant ’90s hip hop anniversaries that have fallen this year. (It’s also 20 years since the album caused an uproar at our esteemed literary editor’s high school.) All the reminiscence has gotten us thinking about that era of hip hop in general, and poring over the history that’s been written (and unwritten) about one of the genre’s golden periods. Culled from our research, here are ten things that maybe you didn’t know about ’90s hip hop!

Dr. Dre hated “Fuck Tha Police”

… at first, anyway. When N.W.A. were recording Straight Outta Compton, Dre was decidedly unimpressed with Ice Cube’s lyrics for the song, apparently asking him, “What else you got?”

An Australian radio station once played “Express Yourself” for 24 hours straight.

Also on the N.W.A. front, Australian youth radio station Triple J was one of the few stations in the world brave enough to let the incendiary “Fuck Tha Police” loose over the airwaves. This went down like a sack of shit with conservative politicians, who demanded that the government-funded station’s management ban the song. They eventually did so — but not before the station played “Express Yourself” on a 24-hour loop in a protest against censorship.

MC Lyte is now a successful voice-over actor.

You probably never knew it, but it’s likely you’ve heard hip hop’s feminist trailblazer on the TV or the radio, selling you things. As per her website, “She recorded a campaign for telecommunications giant AT&T and she has also been the voice behind the VH1 HipHop Honors and national campaigns for Wherehouse Music, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Nike.”

Nas’ performance on “NY State of Mind” was a first take.

It’s a strong contender for the greatest rap of all time, and it was written a couple of minutes before it was recorded. As per producer DJ Premier: “Right at the beginning of the record, when he says, ‘Straight out the dungeons of rap, where fake niggas don’t make it back.’ And then there’s kind of like a silence, where the music is building up, and you hear Nas go, ‘I don’t know how to start this shit…’ He did the whole first verse in one take, and I remember when he finished, he stopped and said, ‘Does that sound cool?’ And we were all like, ‘Oh my God!'”

Nas co-wrote “Gettin’ Jiggy With It”

Not exactly on the level of Illmatic, but hey, everyone has to get paid, right?

Tupac was in Digital Underground

OK, you probably did know this, but it’s still awesome. Check him out with Shock G!

Tone-Loc was a genuine gangster

… as in, he was in the Rolling 60s Crips, and was very much about that life. Dan Charnas’ excellent book The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop tells the story of his first recording session, with DJs Matt Dike and Michael Ross:

Dike and Ross discovered soon enough that Smith was two people. On some days, he was Anthony, a nice kid who lived with his mom in a modest house just south of Hollywood: the kid who came into the studio, smoked, and said his rhymes in exchange for bags of weed, provided by Ross. On other days, however, he was ‘Tone-Loc,’ short for ‘loco,’ a guy who left his mother’s home every day to hang out with a notorious street gang called the Rolling 60s Crips. One day, Ross went to pick Anthony up for a session, and Tone-Loc appeared at the door holding a shotgun. On another, Tone-Loc showed up to the studio sweating with a fresh bullet wound in his shoulder. Most days Anthony was the nicest guy on the planet. But some days, Tone could be paranoid and menacing, pretty much scaring the shit out of everyone.

Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” Is Based On an Ice-T Song

Specifically, it’s based on a track of the same name from Ice-T’s 1993 album Home Invasion. Jay-Z lifted the original’s chorus and furnished it with entirely new verses — probably a good idea, considering that the original found Ice-T cavorting with 2 Live Crew’s Brother Marquis, a collaboration that yielded lyrics like, “I got a ho from the East, got a ho from the West/ Got a ho that likes to jack it off and rub it in her chest/ I got a ho from the North, a ho from the South/ A ho that likes to suck it long and hold it in her mouth.”

KRS-One is an acronym

It stands for “Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everybody,” apparently — you can hear KRS spell it out in the first verse of “MCs Act Like They Don’t Know” (above).

The Wu-Tang Clan’s record deal changed hip hop (and the music industry)

RZA negotiated an unprecedented deal for his sprawling rap crew: Loud Records could release the album, but the group’s members would be free to negotiate their own solo deals with whoever they liked. It meant the Clan’s influence would be spread throughout the industry — as Charnas wrote in his book, RZA’s genius idea was that, “He would sign the Wu-Tang Clan not to one label, but all of them…. The Wu-Tang Clan became the first hip-hop group to reverse the relationship between record companies and artists. The members of the Wu weren’t branded like property with label logos. Quite the opposite: The labels themselves sought out the mark of the ‘W.’”