#LongPlayLove: 18 Underrated ‘90s Hip-Hop Albums You’ve Likely Forgotten [FULL STREAMS]

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By Justin Chadwick | @justin_chadwick

The Low End Theory. Illmatic. The Chronic. Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers. Fear of a Black Planet. DoggystyleSouthernplayalisticadillacmuzikReady to Die. The list of indisputably brilliant early to mid ‘90s hip-hop long players may not be an extensive one, but it’s 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-hop’s so-called golden age. Or as music critic Tony Green has referred to the period, hip-hop’s “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 InfamousOne For All. 93 ‘Til Infinity. Daily Operation. Midnight Marauders. Only Built 4 Cuban LinxEnta 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 wouldn’t 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. Let’s 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.

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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 I’m willing to bet that the majority of folks won’t 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, I’ve chosen only albums by artists who haven’t 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 won’t find albums like Ed O.G. & Da BulldogsLife of a Kid in the Ghetto (1991), Showbiz & A.G.’s Runaway Slave (1992), or Group Home’s 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 you’ll ever come across, the selections here are not exempt from subjectivity and certainly reflect your author’s 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 You’ve Likely Forgotten

 

Hard Knocks | School of Hard Knocks
Wild Pitch (1992)

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The NYC duo’s debut and only album ever released stands as a shining embodiment of the socio-politically conscious rap that permeated throughout hip-hop’s golden age. MC Hardhead’s righteous rhymes, acute commentary, and stirring narratives examine the black community’s marginalization in America, with police brutality and systemic corruption a recurring theme. A lyrically potent album, for sure, but DJ Stoneface’s 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”

Stream Here:

BUY Hard Knocks’ School of Hard Knocks via Amazon | iTunes

 

Extra Prolific | Like It Should Be
Jive (1994)

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From 1993 to 1994, Oakland’s revered Hieroglyphics collective blessed our ears with three phenomenal albums: Souls of Mischief’s 93 ‘til Infinity, Del the Funky Homosapien’s No Need for Alarm, and Casual’s Fear Itself. An album that was generally undervalued following Hiero’s terrific triumvirate is Extra Prolific’s 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”

Stream Here:

BUY Extra Prolific’s Like It Should Be via Amazon

 

Da King & I | Contemporary Jeep Music
Rowdy/Arista/BMG (1993)

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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 duo’s career was an ephemeral one, their debut album is a gratifying song suite defined by a mix of playful jams and roughneck anthems. The album’s highlight is “Tears,” a somber rumination on infidelity that showcases the group’s depth and vulnerable side.

Top Tracks: “Flip Da Scrip” | “Ghetto Instinct” | “Tears”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7wboCVLwd3E

Stream Here:

BUY Da King & I’s Contemporary Jeep Music via Amazon | iTunes

 

Boogiemonsters | Riders of the Storm: The Underwater Album
Pendulum (1994)

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Understandably considered a prime embodiment of “alternative” hip-hop, Riders of the Storm is one of the more idiosyncratically crafted albums you’ll ever hear, with the eccentric lead single “Recognized Thresholds of Negative Stress” exemplifying the LP’s unique sound. The quartet’s 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”

Stream Here:

BUY Boogiemonsters’ Riders of the Storm: The Underwater Album via Amazon | iTunes

 

Twinz | Conversation
Def Jam (1995)

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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”

Stream Here:

BUY Twinz’ Conversation via Amazon | iTunes

 

Original Flavor | This Is How It Is
Atlantic (1992)

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On the melodically jazzy first of Original Flavor’s 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 Friend’s 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-Z’s 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”

Stream Here:

BUY Original Flavor’s This Is How It Is via Amazon

 

World Renown | World Renown: The Album
Never Released (1995)

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Referred to by some as “the lost album,” World Renown’s 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 LP’s completion. The album’s shelving remains shrouded in mystery twenty years later, with no real clarity as to why it hasn’t 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 you’ll 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”

Stream Here:

 

Ray Luv | Forever Hustlin’
Atlantic/Young Black Brotha (1995)

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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 Khayree’s top-notch production. Pure uncut Bay Area dope on wax.

Top Tracks: “Bubble” | “Last Nite” | “Stormy Weather”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FVObNL6x7dw

Stream Here:

BUY Ray Luv’s Forever Hustlin’ via Amazon

 

Hard 2 Obtain | Ism & Blues
Atlantic (1994)

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Ism & Blues gained traction across underground circles back in ’94, but was never embraced beyond hip-hop’s niche audiences, and it’s 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”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FeZO_hZZo3Q

Stream Here:

BUY Hard 2 Obtain’s Ism & Blues via Amazon

 

The Nonce | World Ultimate
Wild West/American (1995)

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Members of the L.A. based Project Blowed hip-hop collective that includes Freestyle Fellowship’s 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 album’s laid-back vibes and lo-fi sonics make for a subdued affair, for sure. But combined with the pair’s 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” |

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AY5U6vPusEM

Stream Here:

BUY The Nonce’s World Ultimate via Amazon

 

Trends of Culture | Trendz…
Motown (1993)

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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”

Stream Here:

BUY Trends of Culture’s Trendz… via Amazon | iTunes

 

Saafir | The Boxcar Sessions
Qwest (1994)

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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 & Tech’s renowned Wake-Up Show. Released just a few months before the notorious microphone joust, Saafir’s debut LP Boxcar Sessions reinforces his lyrical prowess and penchant for narrative, both of which are perfectly complemented by the Hobo Junction’s leftfield soundscapes. A Bay Area underground classic.

Top Tracks: “Can-U-Feel-Me?” | “Just Riden” | “Light Sleeper” |

Stream Here:

BUY Saafir’s Boxcar Sessions via Amazon | iTunes

 

InI | Center of Attention
Never Released (1995)

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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 didn’t 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. Rock’s signature buttery-smooth, sample-heavy production is the highlight, though the crew’s 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”

Stream Here:

 

Anotha Level | On Anotha Level
Priority (1994)

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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 label’s 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’” | “What’s That Cha Say”

Stream Here:

BUY Anotha Level’s On Anotha Level via Amazon | iTunes

 

Mic Geronimo | The Natural
TVT (1995)

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A Queens-bred emcee whose career was originally propelled by a fortuitous introduction to Irv Gotti of Murder Inc. fame, Mic Geronimo’s dark, dense debut is one of the more all-around stellar hip-hop song suites you’ll hear from the era. The album boasts superior production provided by Gotti, Buckwild, and Da Beatminerz, among others, seamlessly matched with Mic Geronimo’s 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”

Stream Here:

BUY Mic Geronimo’s The Natural via Amazon | iTunes

 

Dred Scott | Breakin’ Combs
A&M (1994)

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Jonathan “Dred” Scott’s 1994 debut is one of the more gratifying hip-hop albums you’ll 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”

Stream Here:

BUY Dred Scott’s Breakin’ Combs via Amazon

 

Mood | Doom
TVT/Blunt (1997)

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The Cincinnati based trio’s 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-Tek’s 2000 classic Train of Thought. Magnificent mood music, for sure.

Top Tracks: “Industry Lies” | “Karma” | “Millenium”

Stream Here:

BUY Mood’s Doom via Amazon | iTunes

 

The B.U.M.S. | Lyfe ‘N’ Tyme
Priority (1995)

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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)”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QLd_hzxkHdM

Stream Here:

BUY The B.U.M.S.’ Lyfe ‘N’ Tyme via Amazon | iTunes

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