The Low End Theory. Illmatic. The Chronic. Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers. Fear of a Black Planet. Doggystyle. Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. Ready to Die. The list of indisputably brilliant early to mid 90s hip-hop long players may not be an extensive one, but its still an awe-inspiring one nonetheless. All of the aforementioned albums enjoyed considerable critical and commercial acclaim, and are universally revered as prime specimens of the hip-hop long form. Must-own masterpieces, in other words. Quintessential compositions that define the latter half of hip-hops so-called golden age. Or as music critic Tony Green has referred to the period, hip-hops second golden age.
There are also a handful of albums that most critics and fans alike typically consider second-tier classics. Mecca and the Soul Brother. De La Soul is Dead. Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde. The Infamous. One For All. 93 Til Infinity. Daily Operation. Midnight Marauders. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. Enta Da Stage. While not as critically untouchable as the top-tier, these LPs are still regarded as some of the best the genre has ever produced.
Then there are a handful of sleeper albums that wouldnt necessarily be classified as underground, but never transcended beyond a few spins here and there on late-night specialty DJ radio shows, a few plays of their lone singles on Yo! MTV Raps or Rap City, and the obligatory 3 or 3.5 mic reviews in The Source. Lets call this the peripheral tier, comprised of the albums that faded into relative obscurity within a year or two of their release (or even sooner, in some cases), only to be dusted off periodically by the most devoted of hip-hop heads.
OK, so perhaps the title of this piece assumes too much and more credit is due to our well-informed readers. Perhaps you remember some of these marginalized diamonds in the rough before. And you may even count a few of them among your personal favorites. But Im willing to bet that the majority of folks wont immediately recognize most of these albums or if they do, they never gave them the time of day when they were released 20-plus years ago.
But while the upper echelon of decades-old hip-hop joints continue to be lovingly reissued on limited edition colored double-vinyl with 3-D album artwork, there are a number of albums that warrant reevaluation and celebration. The following list while not exhaustive by any stretch of the imagination revisits the 18 unsung albums that most immediately come to mind for me.
Granted, this list could have been much, much more expansive, as there are easily fifty or more albums that qualify for the underappreciated tag. So to narrow the list down, Ive chosen only albums by artists who havent been heard from recently, say in at least the past five to ten years. With a few exceptions, most of these albums never even remotely scratched the surface of the Billboard charts and are the only albums the respective artists ever released. Hence why you wont find albums like Ed O.G. & Da Bulldogs Life of a Kid in the Ghetto (1991), Showbiz & A.G.s Runaway Slave (1992), or Group Homes Livin Proof (1995), as each of these artists have popped up on records here and there over the years.
As with pretty much every list youll ever come across, the selections here are not exempt from subjectivity and certainly reflect your authors personal biases. So if you disagree with any of these choices or happen to discern any albums that are omitted from the list, let us know in the comments section below!
18 Underrated 90s Hip-Hop Albums Youve Likely Forgotten
Hard Knocks | School of Hard Knocks
Wild Pitch (1992)
The NYC duos debut and only album ever released stands as a shining embodiment of the socio-politically conscious rap that permeated throughout hip-hops golden age. MC Hardheads righteous rhymes, acute commentary, and stirring narratives examine the black communitys marginalization in America, with police brutality and systemic corruption a recurring theme. A lyrically potent album, for sure, but DJ Stonefaces captivating soundscapes ripe with vibrant funk, jazz and soul samples pack a powerful punch as well.
Top Tracks: A Dirty Cop Named Harry | Blow to the Head | Thoughts of a Negro
Extra Prolific | Like It Should Be
From 1993 to 1994, Oaklands revered Hieroglyphics collective blessed our ears with three phenomenal albums: Souls of Mischiefs 93 til Infinity, Del the Funky Homosapiens No Need for Alarm, and Casuals Fear Itself. An album that was generally undervalued following Hieros terrific triumvirate is Extra Prolifics excellent Like It Should Be. Comprised of emcee Snupe and producer Mike G, with production assistance from their Hiero comrades A-Plus and Domino, the duo laced their debut (and only) album with laid-back grooves and braggadocio boasts a-plenty. The perfect soundtrack for the late-night unwind.
Top Tracks: Brown Sugar | First Sermon | Go Back to School
BUY Extra Prolifics Like It Should Be via Amazon
Da King & I | Contemporary Jeep Music
A Brooklyn-bred duo comprised of Izzy Ice and DJ Majesty, Da King & I were signed to Rowdy Records, the independent label originally formed by acclaimed producers Dallas Austin and Antonio L.A. Reid. Though the duos career was an ephemeral one, their debut album is a gratifying song suite defined by a mix of playful jams and roughneck anthems. The albums highlight is Tears, a somber rumination on infidelity that showcases the groups depth and vulnerable side.
Top Tracks: Flip Da Scrip | Ghetto Instinct | Tears
Boogiemonsters | Riders of the Storm: The Underwater Album
Understandably considered a prime embodiment of alternative hip-hop, Riders of the Storm is one of the more idiosyncratically crafted albums youll ever hear, with the eccentric lead single Recognized Thresholds of Negative Stress exemplifying the LPs unique sound. The quartets spiritual disposition, witty wordplay and expansive vocabulary make for a rather cerebral listening experience, though the leftfield sonics will grow on you after a few listens. An adventurous ride, indeed.
Top Tracks: Bronx Bombas | Honeydips in Gotham | Jugganauts
Twinz | Conversation
Def Jam (1995)
Yes, the Twinz are indeed twin brothers. Deon “Trip Locc” Williams and Dewayne “Wayniac” Williams, to be more precise. But the Long Beach-bred, Warren G endorsed duo possessed the laid-back microphone skills and enticing g-funk blessed sonics that proved they were much more than a novelty act. An underrated west coast gem.
Top Tracks: Eastside LB | Good Times | Round & Round
Original Flavor | This Is How It Is
On the melodically jazzy first of Original Flavors two LPs, the duo of Ski and Suave Lover display their refreshing humility and passion for the art of rhyme across tracks like Waitin 4 My Break and When I Make It, while introducing frivolity to the affair on tracks like Best Friends Girl. The group would later endure a lineup change and become a trio, as Suave Lover was replaced by T-Strong and DJ Chubby Chub in time for sophomore and final LP Beyond Flavor, which featured a guest spot by an unsigned up-and-comer named Jay-Z. Ski would subsequently produce a handful of tracks on Jay-Zs 1996 debut LP Reasonable Doubt, including the classics Dead Presidents II and Politics as Usual.
Top Tracks: Brain Storm | Handle the Technique | When I Make It
BUY Original Flavors This Is How It Is via Amazon
World Renown | World Renown: The Album
Never Released (1995)
Referred to by some as the lost album, World Renowns self-titled debut album was never officially released, despite the duo of John Doe and Seven Shawn being signed to Warner Bros. Records at the time of the LPs completion. The albums shelving remains shrouded in mystery twenty years later, with no real clarity as to why it hasnt seen the light of day yet. Producer K-Def, whose breezy boom-bap production is the highlight of the album, has explained that We were forced to make the album in two weeks, and when it was finally done, World Renown was dropped including the entire black music division from Warner. The album has leaked in drips and drabs, so if you happen to be so inclined, you can find the album in various states of completion online. Take one listen to the underground mixtape classic How Nice I Am or the Marley Marl produced Come Take a Ride, and youll be itching to hear more. Hopefully, if the hip-hop gods are merciful, World Renown: The Album will receive the proper release it deserves at some point in the future.
Top Tracks: Come Take a Ride | How Nice I Am | Shoowa Showa
Ray Luv | Forever Hustlin
Atlantic/Young Black Brotha (1995)
Originally part of the Santa Rosa, CA group Strictly Dope with a young Tupac Shakur, Ray Luv is a revered rhyme-spitter among Bay Area hip-hop heads, though he never attained the broader national popularity enjoyed by his Northern California peers E-40, Rappin 4-Tay, and The Luniz. His sophomore (and best) album Forever Hustlin features vivid and at times, remarkably poignant street narratives that ride seamlessly atop Khayrees top-notch production. Pure uncut Bay Area dope on wax.
Top Tracks: Bubble | Last Nite | Stormy Weather
BUY Ray Luvs Forever Hustlin via Amazon
Hard 2 Obtain | Ism & Blues
Ism & Blues gained traction across underground circles back in 94, but was never embraced beyond hip-hops niche audiences, and its a shame. The lone album by the Long Island trio of Taste, DL and DJ Six Seven boasts plenty of headnod-inducing tunes with clever, call-and-response rhymes throughout. One of the most criminally underappreciated hip-hop LPs ever made.
Top Tracks: Ghetto Diamond | Heels Without Souls | L.I. Groove
BUY Hard 2 Obtains Ism & Blues via Amazon
The Nonce | World Ultimate
Wild West/American (1995)
Members of the L.A. based Project Blowed hip-hop collective that includes Freestyle Fellowships Aceyalone and Mykah 9, the duo of Nouka Basetype and the late Yusef Afloat crafted a heartfelt homage to the old-school with World Ultimate. The albums laid-back vibes and lo-fi sonics make for a subdued affair, for sure. But combined with the pairs more than competent rhymeplay, World Ultimate made for a refreshingly brave counterweight to the g-funk and gangsta rap that dominated Southern California hip-hop throughout the mid-90s.
Top Tracks: Bus Stops | Keep It On | Mix Tapes |
BUY The Nonces World Ultimate via Amazon
Trends of Culture | Trendz
Arguably one of the more obscure selections on this list, the lone offering by the NYC-based trio of Emcee Nastee, Grapevine and M.O.L. is one of the more unexpectedly entertaining LPs of the era. A sample-heavy album with that healthy balance of frivolity, boom-bap grime, and sharp wordplay that defined much of the early 90s style, Trendz warrants a deluxe reissue stat.
Top Tracks: Off & On | Old Habits | Valley of the Skinz
Saafir | The Boxcar Sessions
While some folks may be more familiar with him from his cameo in the Hughes Brothers seminal 1993 film Menace II Society, Oakland native and Hobo Junction alum Saafir is a gifted emcee with a singular style and compelling vocal cadence. Beyond his collaborations with west coast hip-hop royalty including Digital Underground, Ras Kass and Xzibit, Saafir earned his fair share of infamy for one of the most memorable freestyle battles of all-time, which pitted him against Casual of the Hieroglyphics crew live on Sway & Techs renowned Wake-Up Show. Released just a few months before the notorious microphone joust, Saafirs debut LP Boxcar Sessions reinforces his lyrical prowess and penchant for narrative, both of which are perfectly complemented by the Hobo Junctions leftfield soundscapes. A Bay Area underground classic.
Top Tracks: Can-U-Feel-Me? | Just Riden | Light Sleeper |
InI | Center of Attention
Never Released (1995)
The Mount Vernon, NY hip-hop quintet hooked up with the legendary Chocolate Boy Wonder himself, Pete Rock, to produce their debut album. The LP was unfortunately shelved and didnt see an official release until it was released by BBE Records in 2003 on the Lost & Found: Hip Hop Underground Soul Classics compilation, a release that Rock allegedly did not endorse. Rocks signature buttery-smooth, sample-heavy production is the highlight, though the crews mic skills are more than legit on this consistently solid album. Filler-free hip-hop at its finest.
Top Tracks: Fakin Jax | Square One | Think Twice
Anotha Level | On Anotha Level
This L.A. based five-member group originally garnered a good deal of industry buzz when they scored a record deal with Priority Records, largely due to their affiliation with the labels superstar, Ice Cube. Though their recording career would prove to be short-lived, their debut and only album was one of the strongest efforts released in 1994. A playful affair full of braggadocious rhymes big-upping the left coast, the album features Cube and The Pharcyde, whose lyrical style the crew most closely resembled.
Top Tracks: Caught You Swingin | Just Feelin | Whats That Cha Say
Mic Geronimo | The Natural
A Queens-bred emcee whose career was originally propelled by a fortuitous introduction to Irv Gotti of Murder Inc. fame, Mic Geronimos dark, dense debut is one of the more all-around stellar hip-hop song suites youll hear from the era. The album boasts superior production provided by Gotti, Buckwild, and Da Beatminerz, among others, seamlessly matched with Mic Geronimos confident and captivating rhymes. Time to Build remains a hip-hop artifact of sorts, as it features some of the earliest rhymes that DMX, Ja Rule and Jay-Z committed to wax, before any of their careers took off for real. Royal Flush and O.C. of the Diggin In the Crates (DITC) crew also deliver solid guest spots.
Top Tracks: Masta I.C. | Time to Build | Wherever You Are
Dred Scott | Breakin Combs
Jonathan Dred Scotts 1994 debut is one of the more gratifying hip-hop albums youll ever hear, due in large part to its positive Afrocentric messages and crisp production. Breakin Combs is also noteworthy for introducing the world to soul songstress Adriana Evans on the single Check the Vibe. The album proved to be the beginning of a successful musical partnership between Scott and Evans, as he subsequently co-produced all of her four long players to date. Highly recommended.
Top Tracks: Back in the Day | Check the Vibe | Nutin Ta Lose
BUY Dred Scotts Breakin Combs via Amazon
Mood | Doom
The Cincinnati based trios debut album features production by Hi-Tek of Reflection Eternal fame, as well as guest verses from Talib Kweli on five tracks. The cinematic, chilled-out soundscapes and introspective lyrical fare on offer here are early harbingers of Kweli & Hi-Teks 2000 classic Train of Thought. Magnificent mood music, for sure.
Top Tracks: Industry Lies | Karma | Millenium
The B.U.M.S. | Lyfe N Tyme
An acronym for Brothas Under Madness, The B.U.M.S. made more than a little noise beyond their native Oakland with their debut long player, which successfully straddled the line between West and East coast styles. Emcees E-Vocalist and D-Wyze were embraced by radio luminaries Sway & King Tech, who even asked the duo to compose an opening anthem for their acclaimed Wake-Up Show. Melodic tunes and savvy rhymes abound, making this an LP worth revisiting often.
Top Tracks: Elevation (Free My Mind) | Take a Look Around | Wreck Your Ears (Can Do)