Filed under: Miscellaneous
1994. Whenever discussions of the best years in hip hop are raised, ’94 inevitably crops up, and with good reason. Along with a plethora of fantastic releases (‘Hard To Earn’, ‘The Sun Rises In The East’, ‘The Main Ingredient’, ‘Stress: The Extinction Agenda’, ‘Word…Life’ being just a handful), the hip hop world was of course rocked by two of the finest albums in its history: ‘Illmatic’ and ‘Ready To Die’. When approaching every music fan’s arbitrary ‘best albums of all time’ lists, it would seem nearly impossible for any hip hop head to not consider either of these two releases such is their consistent quality (beats and rhymes) and the way that they influenced the game. But in the long run, could it be tentatively argued that these albums specifically had a detrimental effect on the genre, and that a steady decline in quality was inevitable from this point? Let’s see…
I remember a chat that I had with my friend Geoff a year or so ago in which we were discussing the work of John Coltrane whilst listening to 1957’s ‘Blue Train’, a staple of the jazz canon that I imagine is celebrated by aficionados of the genre in the same way that ‘Illmatic’ or ‘Ready To Die’ are within hip hop circles. During this talk, Geoff regaled a story that feels fitting in line with the subject matter currently at hand: it is rumoured that Coltrane essentially killed jazz, such was his ability on the saxophone. His musical genius was beyond question, but in unleashing it to the world at large, he set a benchmark that was simply too high for later artists to match. Now I don’t know enough about jazz to know whether this is true or not, but even with my limited subject knowledge, it seems that this era in jazz’s history is celebrated much in the same way as hip hop’s golden years, and I can imagine jazz purists approach anything that followed with the same sense of scepticism/disappointment that plagues devotees of hip hop who long for joints like the ones they heard ‘back in the day’.
In applying this theory to hip hop, Biggie and Nas seem to be the most obvious figureheads, but it would be foolish to treat them in exactly the same way as each contributed something very different to hip hop. However, what they both achieved was a maintenance of underground credibility teamed with massive commercial success that was relatively unprecedented. Although rap albums of the past had achieved platinum sales figures (‘The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick’ as just one example), none had done so with the New York-centric hardcore aesthetic put forward by Nas and Big. It still astounds me that ‘Ready To Die’ reached such a wide audience: there is no disguising the brutal, violent and misogynistic message that Christopher Wallace puts forward on this record and yet it went on to sell over four million copies before the dust around its release had even settled. Of course, this was not the first time that ghetto music had made it into so many American homes, as earlier successes from the west coast and elsewhere had proven, but this was hardcore, unabashed NYC hip hop at its finest being blasted out of homes, cars and clubs in places where it had struggled to find relevance before.
Nasir Jones is a slightly different kettle of fish. Whereas Biggie was the living, breathing incarnation of the darkest elements of ghetto existence, Nas was the urban poet weaving highly literate narratives that detailed the world that he saw around him and his journey through it. Backed by an impossibly impressive production team, ‘Illmatic’ is my preferred record of the two under discussion, a perfectly contained and cohesive work that has inevitably ended up as the albatross around Nas’ neck. What its success provided him with was the opportunity to access a more commercial audience, his role as ‘ghetto poet’ highly marketable and intensely alluring, and it doesn’t take me to tell you what he has achieved as the years have rolled by.
The dawn of the ‘superrapper’ was now well and truly consolidated. Both Nas and Big embodied the street savvy attitude and elusive sense of style that have proven to be the hallmarks of a successful and commercially viable rap artist, and they represented a city that was the home of hip hop. This establishment of a rap superstar laid the foundation for the less than great rappers of the future, and changed the game forever. In this sense, Big and Nas could be held responsible for the decline of hip hop and its transformation into a multi-billion dollar industry that feels so far removed from the ‘realer’ days of old.
Let’s not blame them though. I prefer to think of them in line with the theory put forward with regards to Coltrane: these releases were simply so good that it would prove nearly impossible to replicate their genius in the future. Coming at the right time in the genre’s history, you can almost sense that hip hop was destined to reach this point (although perhaps this is only with a retrospective eye), and both are representations of the genre at the pinnacle of its creative output. Maybe Nas and Big did kill hip hop, but what they left in their wake were two sensational works that still sound fresh, inspiring and raw to this day. Dig ’em out and treat yourself: hip hop is unlikely to ever be this good again.