Pretty good alliteration, ain’t it?
Hip hop historians, scholars, and followers of the culture often cite 1988 as the genre’s greatest year in music. There was a seismic shift in which almost any and everything that came before it, was history. Run DMC may have been and still seen some success with Tougher than Leather; but It Takes a Nation of Millions, Straight Outta Compton, Follow the Leader, Long Live the Kane, and, well, you get the point. The year that brought us The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, Strictly Business by EPMD, Straight Out the Jungle ushering the Native Tongues, and I could still keep going with classics, it ain’t 1994.
While it may have taken several years, dozens of people and their life experiences leading up to it, there is one week in hip hop-bookended with two album releases-that is largely responsible for what we know it to be today. April 19th, 1994, Nas’ Illmatic was released and on April 26th, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik by Outkast dropped; and just about every hip hop release after had some of its DNA in there, somewhere.
Illmatic was the a high water mark years in the making. In 1991, the kid from Queensbridge made the most of his one shot, telling the world “When I was 12, I went to hell for snuffin’ Jesus.” He was touted as the second coming of Rakim and those in the know had been waiting for his testimony. On the other hand, Big Boi and Dre were relatively unknowns, signed to a label that produced massive r&b hits, who loudly and proudly let the world know Atlanta was their home; only to be disregarded by hip hop purists. Was Outkast the first hip hop act to come from Atlanta or the south? No. They stood on the platform Luke and 2 Live Crew, Rap-A-Lot and Suave House Records, and UGK built; and with a megaphone, told a sea of boos “The south got somethin’ to say.” Nine years later, they became the only hip hop act to win a Grammy for “Album of the Year.”
I was in third grade in the spring of 1994. I couldn’t have told you who either Nas or Outkast were. My parents were big on r&b; so the only hip hop I heard was those rare instances they had the radio dial on Hot 97 (Note: I was in third grade when Hot 97 switched its format from dance music to hip hop). If anything, in ’94, I remember a lot of B.I.G. and Method Man. The more I think about it, I remember the beat from “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” from back then and “It’s mine, it’s mine, it’s mine. Who’s world is this?” something us kids sang in our school yard at recess. Until 1998, Outkast was only two things: the group that rapped at the end of that episode of Martin when Jerome won the Player’s Ball and one of them was Erykah Badu’s boyfriend.
While words Illmatic and Southernplayalistic weren’t part of my lexicon, both have played major roles into who I am, today. While it wasn’t my personal one, Illmatic is the perfect soundtrack bed for my life in New York in 1994. By the time I’d heard Nas’ debut, I was much older and was able to relate to it. It was New York noire, where a kid from Queens looked out of his apartment window, unknowingly observing the not-so-safe neighborhood, wondering what the world had in store for him past the gray mostly grayed-out skies that seem to linger in New York for half of the year. I identified with Nas’ words and vision because my apartment window in Queens was my vantage point.
By the fall of 1998, my world had expanded past the southeastern corner of Queens. My family moved 10 miles away to neighboring Nassau County; and that was damn near another planet compared to St. Albans, Cambria Heights, Hollis, and Queens Village. That was around the time I was first introduced to Outkast and it blew me away. It started with Big Boi and Dre (who wasn’t Andre 3000 at the time) and evolved into an affinity for Goodie Mob. Their music took me into Atlanta, a place I’d never been; but a curiosity grew. A seed was planted; my stint in Long Island was temporary and only for high school. By the time I sent in my last-minute application to Morehouse College, it had all but been predestined becoming an adult and the subsequent road to manhood would begin 850 miles south of the Long Island Sound.
I moved to the A August 19, 2003. I’ll never forget the day. Call it kismet or God’s perfect storytelling; it was the day T.I.’s album, Trap Muzik was released. That time was the beginning of Outkast’s prophecy eight years earlier when he and his partner in rhyme got booed. Atlanta was on the cusp -if not right at the beginning-of their run. It was only right the duo from the S.W.A.T.S. had their biggest year of all; only to become torchbearers and let the next crop run their leg of a marathon started in 1994. Now, virtually all hip hop roads run through Atlanta. A week after Illmatic dropped; no one would have seen or dreamed of that happening.
I’ve lived in both the concrete jungle and the red clay hills of Georgia. Both places have drastically evolved over the past 25 years. Yet you would be hard pressed to find bodies of work that could capture the soul or ethos any better. If and whenever I listen to both Illmatic and Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, I can’t help but fondly remember the world that kid in Queens looked out of his window to wonder or the man-child in the promised land, beginning to find his way.
If you asked me which album is better or that I like more? Come on, son…