It should come as no surprise to most of you that I wasn’t the most popular kid in high school.
During my 1995-1996 freshman year, I endured an awkward, postpubescent, pre-growth-spurt phase that had me looking like the love child of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and Associate Bob from Demolition Man. Making matters worse, I didn’t get along with the majority of my callow, cliquey classmates, who bowed to the altars of Nautica and Polo, since all I cared about were video games and comic books; $50 from my parents went into something that had animated pixels and a challenging final boss, not a Tommy Hilfiger shirt.
In a school year full of unrequited love letters, gynecomastia and one unfortunate incident of tripping over my book bag in front of the entire lunchroom, I found a new, enduring love: hip-hop.
Sure, I’d had my Naughty by Nature and Snoop Doggy Dogg cassette tapes, and my television was always tuned to The Box. But the music and culture really connected with me during my lunch periods, when I shared a table with a fellow loner named Fred, a senior. While just about every other table in the room was full of students, he and I always sat on our own.
Fred loved hip-hop, and we’d close out every lunch period by freestyling as we pounded out beats on the table. I couldn’t freestyle for s—t, so I was strictly on beat-kicking duty for Fred and a couple of his boys.
Any raps I attempted to write or freestyle were so loaded with filthy gerunds, just to keep the bars timed correctly, that I quickly gave it up forever—I didn’t think I’d ever be as good as the best rappers at the time. And because that year, 1996, was the single best in the history of hip-hop, there were a lot of cats I didn’t want to compare myself to.
The six- or seven-year period in the early to late 1990s was hip-hop’s renaissance—its most creatively fertile period that produced the most classic albums. But there was something particularly special going on between January and December of 1996; every single month saw at least one album of significance from the genre, and there were often several releases within one or two weeks that are now considered classics.
Nearly every dollar I got from my parents in 1996 went into weekly new releases. I’d frequent the hood music stores—none of which are open anymore—because they sold new albums four days early at a premium (pretty sure I dropped $18.99 on MC Eiht’s Death Threatz to get to one song).
Nostalgia tends to color our perception of the past in a manner that disregards reality. While that’s the case with other, poorly aged media from 1996 (I’m looking at you, Independence Day and Malcolm & Eddie), hip-hop’s reputation from that year is inviolable, its classics plentiful and their replay-value high. The host of 20-year retrospectives and documentaries coming out of late prove how real that year—and that whole era—was for hip-hop.
I could (and should) write an entire book on hip-hop in 1996 instead of trying to shoehorn everything into one column (“How could you forget this or that album?!?” will be a comments-section inevitability), but here goes nothing.
It was a year of legendary debut albums: Busta Rhymes dropped The Coming, still his strongest album; Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown solidified themselves as New York’s Queen B’s after dropping their debuts—Hard Core and Ill Na Na, respectively—and a week apart; the perennially underrated Xzibit had the no-skip, West Coast, sleeper classic At the Speed of Life; and Bahamadia released Kollage, the reigning best female rap album of all time.
Ghostface Killah dropped Ironman, the last of the classic Wu-Tang debuts. And, of course, Jay Z came out the gate with Reasonable Doubt, the best debut album of all time not named Illmatic.
There were several high-powered sophomore releases as well: The Fugees’ The Score is a nearly perfect heat rock of an album that established Lauryn Hill as hip-hop’s GOAT female emcee. OutKast’s ATLiens is not only a front-to-back classic but has my favorite album art (I have the professionally framed vinyl cover hanging on my wall). Nas’ It Was Written made younger cats like me go back to check out Illmatic, forcing perennial, still-interesting debates on which is the better album.
It was the year Tupac Shakur was slain, but not before leaving us with his last two “official” albums: All Eyez on Me—a solid release despite double-album filler—and the posthumous The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, which Creed made me pull back out recently.
De La Soul dropped Stakes Is High, their best album (fight me), and Mobb Deep’s Hell on Earth didn’t disappoint when it easily could have, coming on the heels of the classic The Infamous. UGK held down the South with Ridin’ Dirty, their most lauded album. Jeru the Damaja got DJ Premier during his ’90s peak to produce the entirety of Wrath of the Math.
EPMD’s Erick Sermon was at his production zenith. He backed Redman’s best album, Muddy Waters, and stomped a mud hole in the ass of Keith Murray’s Enigma, which was pretty much the soundtrack to my sophomore year. Speaking of producers: F—k those of you who had a problem with J. Dilla beats over A Tribe Called Quest, because Beats, Rhymes & Life is a dope album.
Though the social consciousness themes born in late-’80s/early-’90s mainstream hip-hop were still present following 1995’s Million Man March, the genre was on the precipice of a sea change that championed consumerism, clubbing and anti-intellectualism. Puff Daddy, with his shiny suits, and the ascendancy of No Limit Records (Master P’s Ice Cream Man became the label’s first platinum album in 1996) helped shape mainstream hip-hop to look a lot different in the first decade of the new century. When the Roots touched on those changes on their 1996 classic, Illadelph Halflife, they probably had no idea the degree to which it would forever alter the genre.
Twenty years ago wasn’t a great time for me to be a teenager, but it was a stellar period for me to fall in love with hip-hop. I’d like to believe that if I were born in 2001, I’d gravitate toward the renaissance era of hip-hop, much like I gravitated toward 1970s soul music over 1990s R&B (though I love ’90s R&B as well). One thing is certain: Your average teenage, skinny-jeaned, over-tatted, unintelligible rapper du jour is either directly influenced by some music from 1996 or influenced by another rapper who was.
So hat tip to 1996. On Jan. 1, your first legal drink is on me.
Dustin J. Seibert lifts heavyweights and plays all his video games on hard mode to find peace. He has a better ear for hip-hop than anyone else you know. You can find more of his work at VerySmartBrothas.com.