Music I Should’ve Grown Up With (1994-1997)
by Parker Ziegler on June 6, 2013
Posted in: Album Review, Eclectic, Hip Hop, Music, Rock
When it comes to musical taste, I was something of a late bloomer. My childhood was spent sitting mindlessly in the back of my family’s white 1988 Dodge Caravan (which had the most geographically accurate paint chipping of Mexico there will ever be on its left side) listening to whatever my parents chose to play. It was the ‘90s, the heart of the grunge era, and it was a rotation between Nirvana, Staind, (embarrassingly) early Nickelback, and some other bands with frontmen whose voice fell somewhere between moaning and screaming. I listened passively, taking it in along with a handful of “phases” I seemed to perpetually be in the midst of; my parents like to remind me of days obsessed with ‘NSYNC, anything touched by Usher, T.I., or Timbaland, and, of course, gospel.
Around 2008, my older brother introduced me to what is now called “indie rock” in the form of the always-near-and-dear Ra Ra Riot. He explained to me what “indie” meant, what “hipsters” were, and laid out a path of similar artists I might thereafter enjoy (here’s to Passion Pit’s Chunk of Change EP). Pretty soon I couldn’t get enough. Armed with advanced knowledge of such complex processes as torrenting and zipping (R.I.P. Mediafire), my iTunes library vastly outgrew his as I expanded into R&B, Hip Hop, Chillwave, Art Rock, Freak Folk, etc. (and yes, I am aware of how stupid these subgenres sound). My parents also began to take note, and after a few uncomfortable questions of how I acquired said music (“I got it from friends, everyone’s using USBs now.”), my whole family was listening to what I had found.
As I combed through blogs for recommendations, striking plenty of gold and, well, plenty of s**t, I began to notice a trend. Most of the artists I found had been writing and recording this stuff since I was still in diapers; moreover, most were still going strong today. What, I dared to ask myself, had taken me so long? How had I missed ALL of this growing up?
Compiled below is my best attempt to relive my musical childhood with some drastic radio edits. Every two weeks I’ll be unveiling 3 or 4 albums from 1994 (‘90s babies!) up until the present day, going through everything I, and likely many of you, love today and missed back then. This is the music I should’ve grown up with.
Now, I’m not suggesting that Nas is necessarily something to be played for a baby sleeping peacefully in a crib. But there’s little doubt that Illmatic is not only one of the most important albums of ’94, but one of the most important albums in hip-hop history. Coming out in the same year as Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die, it’s impressive that Illmatic attracted as much attention as it did. It’s also a more appealing album than Ready to Die, and in some ways more artfully resigned than Biggie’s opus. “Life’s a B***h” touches on the desperation and destitution of ‘90s black New York with the chorus “Life’s a b***h and then you die / That’s why we gethigh / ‘Cuz ya never know when ya gonna’ go.” Nas’s verses build a story of helplessness but give a glimmer of hope at the end, describing how once “I switched my motto—instead of sayin’ f**k tomorrow” and pursued hip-hop, he achieved some sort of transcendence that propelled him beyond the helplessness. Followed up by the empowerment of “The World is Yours”, Illmatic thereafter achieves an ethos of protest and action that drives the album through.
Perhaps the most attractive thing about Nas’s breakthrough is the sheer poetic liveliness of his verses. Combined with production rooted in jazz progressions and instrumentation (i.e. that heartbreakingly sweet muted trumpet on “Life’s a B***h” or the bassy piano on “N.Y. State of Mind”), it’s hard to find a moment where Nas slips. Unlike other artists of the time, he steps back from the hardship to a contemplative state of self-struggle and change. The influence Illmatic had, especially on early 2000s hip-hop, is unquestionable. Seattle artists like Blue Scholars and Common Market bear a similar affinity for assonance and internal rhyme, even echoing Nas’s line “Sleep is the cousin of death” on a slew of tracks. Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 hit good kid, M.A.A.D. city uses a similar sampling of dialogue to transition in and out of tracks.
To think that something as skillfully artful as Illmatic could be crafted in 1994 is impressive. Nas continues to rock mics today, having toured extensively with Lauryn Hill this past year, and has stayed loyal to his poetic roots with solid albums I Am… and Hip Hop is Dead along with 6 others. Give Illmatic your first listen though—after all, you should’ve grown up with this stuff.
“Life’s a B***h”
1995—Radiohead, The Bends
Most devoted Radiohead fans will dismiss The Bends as a solid but frightfully poppy album compared to the more nuanced Kid A, OK Computer, or In Rainbows. But I’m not that devoted to Thom Yorke and company, and I absolutely love The Bends. The album certainly is poppy—“High and Dry” and “Fake Plastic Trees”, coming third and fourth on the tracklist, are simple, heartfelt, artistic, and…well…sound like what you think of when asked what a pop-driven, guitar track with incredible vocals sounds like. But the simplicity, wretched for other bands with less powerful frontmen/frontwomen, is what fits so well with Yorke’s crooning falsetto. I still remember trying to imitate it while playing a horrific cover of “Bullet Proof…I Wish I Was” on piano junior year of high school.
The album also has sonically heavier tracks interspersed throughout, especially guitar-heavy “The Bends” and “Black Star”. Again, while it isn’t the complex, arrhythmic, whirling sound of “Everything in its Right Place” from Kid A (is it in 10/4 or 10/8?—debates of my friends who spend far too much time worrying about music theory), The Bends is composed with sensibility–it’s not trying to be anything it isn’t. It also seems to have been an important springboard for Radiohead, as OK Computer and Kid A were the next two albums to follow. Knowing they could do incredible indie rock/ pop, they hit their groove with a more experimental sound thereafter.
The Bends was my introduction to Radiohead and an introduction I haven’t forgotten. I drive to it, fall asleep to it, shave to it, heck I’ve even shoveled 2 feet of wet snow off my driveway with this album in my ears. This is the Radiohead everyone should start with, whether you’re 15 years old (I was) or just celebrating your first birthday. Wish I could’ve heard this rather than endless nursery rhymes.
“High and Dry”
For some reason unbeknownst to this writer, Bahamadia seems to have flown under most people’s radar despite being one of the best rappers out there, period. Kollage is a sophisticated and complex hip-hop album, and the rhythmic intricacy of Bahamadia’s verses alone is baffling (honestly, I’ve never heard anyone rap in triplets as quickly and smoothly as she does, especially on “Rugged Ruff”). She keeps her rapping in a cool, collected monotone, even while getting heavy and seductive on tracks like “Total Wreck”. Overall, the simple fact is that Bahamadia commands authority with her music, through both what she’s saying and how she’s saying it.
The production is also a thing of beauty and gives Bahamadia some stellar backdrops over which to declare her presence. The sparse, jazzy piano on “Rugged Ruff”, the echoing calls of “truuuuuue” on “Uknowhowwedu”, and the reharmonized sample of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On” on “I Confess” all make for tracks that seemingly have no holes. Produced by members of Gang Starr (i.e. DJ Premier and Guru), the album’s highest point comes at the end with the sinister “3 Tha Hard Way” and the soulful “Biggest Part of Me”. Here, Bahamadia’s words are most crisp, ending exactly on each snare hit while features K-Swift and Mecca Starr push the latter track to the level of stunning rap ballad.
Much like Nas, Bahamadia is, firstly, a poet. But unlike Nas, there is a composure there that places the Philadelphia femme in a class of her own. There’s no doubt she’s tough, but she’s also observant, both subtle and stark, and unquestionably brilliant. This isn’t simply “Word Play”, as the second track would lead you to believe—this is artistic, defiant, virtuosic.
1997—Erykah Badu, Baduizm
“Oh, what a day / What a day, what a day,” croons Erykah Badu on Baduizm’s second track “On & On”. Such it was on the day I first came across the “Queen of Neo-Soul” as she is popularly called. It’s hard to argue with the moniker, as a score of subsequent Neo-Soul ladies (see Lauryn Hill, Jill Scott, Janelle Monae, etc.) all seem to have taken their cue from Badu. Especially for a debut album, Baduizm is composed, artistic, and knowing—simply put, Erykah knows just how much swag she commands.
A lot of said swag comes from her voice, which echoes so smoothly and coolly on each track. It seems to flow sweetly like some goddess’s nectar over production rooted deeply in a combination of jazz, funk, and soul instrumentation. She hangs on her words until the very last moment, making the endings of each verse crisp and beautiful. Most people who listen to this album for the first time, including me, let out moans of amazement as if to say “How did she do that?” She also breaks away from words into tight interjections of scatting (see those sultry “Oo ee oo ee oooooooo”s on “Appletree”), that display the musicality of her voice. Finally, the intros and interludes of the album are crafted with staggering style and intellect, especially the “food for thought” bit on “Appletree” and the command of “Pick your afro, Daddy” on “Afro (Freestyle Skit)”.
Thematically, Badu tackles a classic as most of her songs focus on unrequited love, difficult relationships, and the coy games of courtship. At times she gets very serious—“Certainly” tackles the topic of date rape with defiant lines like “Who gave you / Permission to rearrange me? / Certainly not me.” Yet there is something about Badu that shakes off these difficulties, whether by humor or sheer coolness. There’s so much emotion here, but its empowered, focused, intensely passionate, and, yes, straight cool. If only I had discovered the Queen sooner, I might have gotten over that awkward braces-and-dirt-stache stage a little faster. If anyone could’ve upped my style from there, it would’ve been Ms. Badu.
“On & On”