I've gotten a little nostalgic for the 1990’s in the past few weeks. I'll watch an old television show or hear a song from that era and it always brings me back to my school days. All it takes is a certain song and I can mentally place myself back there during those days when I was some odd combination of carefree, tense, sassy and full of angst.
I remember the radio being this treasure trove of music. Every genre from hip hop to R&B, dance and freestyle to pop and rock music all had something to offer. In those days, I was mostly into R&B and hip hop. I also dabbled in dance and freestyle music and would scan the radio dial down to the mainstream station that played all of the pop and rock hits every now and then.
For me, the 1990’s were a time when the songs on the radio spoke more to what my friends and I were feeling, thinking and seeing around us than what our family members, especially our parents, could ever understand. Our favorite artists talked about love and heartbreak, social issues, street life, gang life and everything in between. We would spend the weekends listening to the songs by up and coming artists and the latest hits from our favorite artists. There was just this excitement about music and the artists from this time that I can remember so well and I find myself longing for those days again.
And the remixes! In a word, they were just fabulous! Remixes were made popular in the 1970’s when DJs would create remixes of great disco and funk songs. They became especially popular in the R&B and hip hop world in the 1980’s and 1990’s. These remixes were sometimes better than the original song, often using a more avant-garde beat and even rawer lyrics than in the original. DJs were the original creators of remixes but later on producers would come and remix a hit song for an artist on their label. P. Diddy, known as Puffy then, was famous for his remixes long before he branched out and formed Bad Boy Entertainment. The great thing about remixes were that they were used by most genres and could bring an artist to a whole other audience. This was especially popular with pop artists whose songs were remixed to reach a dance and hip hop audience.
Talking about music with my friends at school and in my neighborhood became one of my favorite pastimes. I can remember talking about the latest hits during home room or at lunch with my classmates. "Did you hear that new beat by so-and-so?" was the beginning of most conversations Monday mornings during home room. It often became a contest between friends over who heard a particular artist, a new song or even a remix first. Often, the winner of these contests had an older sibling with a broader music collection which included mix tapes produced by local DJ’s offering the latest and greatest hip hop and R&B hits. Being an only child, I would go to 125th Street and get my mix tapes from local street vendors or create my own by taping my favorite songs from the radio.
Watching music videos was also another favorite pastime. I remember spending hours watching videos after school or on weekends. Music videos had been popular for about a decade, but most of them were pretty low-budget. That is, unless the artist was a mainstream success. Back then, it could take months (okay, precious weeks) for a popular radio song to premiere with its music video equivalent. And even then it may not get played by some of the more popular music video shows. At that time, MTV was notorious for not playing hip hop and even popular R&B songs until late at night with few exceptions. Hip hop artists like Run-DMC and Dr. Dre and Snoop broke many barriers when their videos were played during prime time. Still, we were just happy to see people who looked like us and who came from our neighborhoods on the small screen, not to mention what clothes they were wearing, how the girls wore their hair and what cars they were driving.
These days we call music from this period, the golden age of hip hop and the New Jack Swing era; back then, it was just good music. The New Jack Swing sound, a fusion of hip hop, jazz, hard rhythms, dance, and samples from funk and soul artists from the 1970’s. Its sound is urban and contemporary and was very popular with R&B and hip hop artists in the late-1980’s before crossing over to the mainstream. This sound was created by Teddy Riley, a producer and member of the group Guy, and influenced other artists and producers from this period.
Hip Hop at that time offered a variety and range we have yet to experience again. There were just so many good artists and all of them seemed to have their own unique style. Hip hop offered us artists that were natural storytellers, thoughtful and poetic, or socially conscious and raw. Tupac (pre-Thug Life), KRS-One, Eric B & Rakim , X-Clan, Public Enemy etc. were all some combination of these elements. We had the sexy and sophisticated rappers like Big Daddy Kane and LL Cool J, both of whom were swarmed by adoring female fans at every concert. We had positive rappers who weren't afraid of showing a sensitive side like Heavy D & The Boyz and Father MC.
There were rap groups emerging from the underground scene that brought an alternative style and flavor to the hip hop scene. They combined elements of jazz, rock and funk with stories and consciousness we had not really experienced before: A Tribe Called Quest, Leaders of the New School (which featured Busta Rhymes before he went solo), Lords of the Underground, Pharcyde and come to mind.
There were the party songs that moved the crowd and songs about street life, crime and gangs in the ghetto by gangster rappers who said as many curse words, called women as many awful names as they could get away with and talked about explicit sex in ways other rappers had not done before. And even though it was wrong, we loved it because it was so raw and they sounded just like all of the d-boys and street guys we saw on our corners or watched on the evening news.
There was MC Hammer, the first major hip hop success story with his dance moves and parachute pants. I went to see him perform at Madison Square Garden and even watched his cartoon show on weekends. He had it all, the money, the mansion, the cars, jewelry and clothes, and even those who talked trash about him "selling out" wanted what he had before his financial troubles began.
There were female rappers who offered their own style, flow and female consciousness to the hip hop game, and all without being hyper-sexualized or dramatic (not that I mind those female rappers, I'm just saying). Back then, there were many, although Salt-N-Pepa, MC Lyte and Queen Latifah were the queens of rap at that time. And of course there were artists that could combine all of these elements of hip hop into one album and almost no one wanted or needed commercial success.
The R&B from this time was as hard-hitting, urban and raw as the hip hop from this era thanks in part to New Jack Swing, but also because we began to hear a fusion of R&B and hip hop which started with Mary J. Blige and producer-turned impresario P.Diddy/Puffy and started the next wave of music that we still hear today. So many female singers and groups from the early 1990’s came out using the same sound that Mary and Puffy created. The male singers of this era were sexy bad boys who did not hold back in their lyrics, on stage and in their videos. The women were equally as raw, challenging the men in their songs and demanding love and sexual favors that would make a church pastor blush. They spoke to the 1990’s woman who was as independent, feisty, and ambitious as her male counterparts. There were so many good R&B artists and groups from this era that I could spend the rest of this blog writing about them.
Overall, 1990’s music was quite good. In addition to my love for R&B and hip hop music, I listened to dance, pop and rock music from this time period. Rock musicians had a lot to say during this era where grunge rock and alternative music were heavily marketed. The dance music from this era, mostly house and freestyle was also heavily played on my radio. For example, More Than Words by Xtreme is still one of my favorite songs and dance tunes by Crystal Waters and CeCe Peniston had some of my favorite dance songs ever.
I not only remember the excitement about music from this period, but I can also remember and connect certain people, places and events in my life to particular artists and their albums. Whenever I hear a Jodeci song for instance, I remember how I played their first album, Come And Talk To Me, almost every day in my Walkman to and from school. By then, I had amassed my own small music collection, but somehow I could not bring myself to listen to anything but Jodeci. Forever My Lady still reminds me of a first love that dedicated that song to me.
I came into my teenage years to Mary J. Blige's album, What's The 411? Mary was one of the first artists to combine R&B with hip hop and sang about issues that young women in the inner city could relate to. She sang about wanting love (Real Love), heartbreak (My Love) and reminiscing about a love lost (Reminisce and You Remind Me). When my first boyfriend and I broke up, this album was almost like a soundtrack for me.
I'm not saying that today's music is bad. Not at all. I love music from all different genres and eras. I guess I'm just nostalgic for those days when I looked for a new beat, a new sound and always found it.
Until then I'll be looking for a new beat.