1996 was the best year in rap history. And here's why.
Mom's Teatime presenter John Isherwood on why 1996 is THE year to beat
The 90’s were obviously one of the greatest decades in rap. Iconic acts influencing the culture, other musical artists and their music crossing over into movies on a regular basis. Mom’s Spaghetti’s John Isherwood went through the decade and - after much deliberation - chose one year as the elite year for rap in the 90’s.
This article has been written and rewritten more times than I care to think. Honestly I almost wrote two versions before deciding which to put online (copyright Boris Johnson). But after much deliberation, cogitation and digestion, I’ve put it all on the line here. 1996 is the greatest year in rap history and this is why.
Taking the 90’s in isolation, this is where the real explosion in rap happened. The late 80’s genuinely brought rap to the masses, and the genres undoubted commercial breakthrough happened then, but the 90’s were truly special. Maybe it’s because I grew up then and had my real musical education happened in these years, but some of the finest rap tunes were made around the middle of the decade and these are ones that are still mixtape favourites now.
1996 is a special year, one where change in my life happened and my musical horizons expanded. Emerging from the Britpop bubble, my brief flirtation with rap became something more full bodied. My mixtapes went from Oasis and Blur to Outkast and Biggie. 1996 was the year where raps second coming began.
1996 is the year where some of the biggest names in rap were on fire, producing a rich vein of incredible hits. Biggie, 2Pac - dropping two albums in a year, Jay-Z and along with that, we were introduced to solo work from Lauryn Hill.
This was a year that blessed with some truly iconic albums. The Fugees dropped The Score which has gone down as one of the most critically celebrated albums of all time. Coming off the back of a near flop debut, the trio were set to go their separate ways before they decided to head into the studio, backs against the wall and produce songs such as Fu-Gee-La, Ready or Not and the monster hit, Killing Me Softly.
One of the finest rappers on the planet Nas brought us the classic It Was Written. Nas would have been dropping some of these classic cuts as part of 2020’s Gods of Rap tour in the UK if the COVID pandemic hadn’t got in the way. Such classics as If I Ruled the World, The Message and I Gave You Power. Whereas it was a slight departure from his debut, commercially this was a monster.
2Pac dropped All Eyez On Me, arguably his best work. Kicking off with Ambitions Az A Ridah and setting the tone for one of the most captivating works by a true maverick of the game. I Ain’t Mad At Cha and the quintessential mixtape cola with Dre - California Love made up some of the biggest hits of the year.
Outkast burst on the scene properly with ATLiens. Big Boi and Andre 3000 had already had a smash with Players Ball, but this was where ears stood up and noticed. Elevators (Me and You) was the one that broke the mould for laid back rap and then the boys switched up the speed for the title track. A work of pure art.
Despite so many of the finest operating at their apex, Jay-Z released what would turn out to be one of the most highly rated rap albums of all time and along with it brought us a variety of A list guest stars.
Reasonable Doubt sounds as good today as it did in 1996. Teaming with the Queen of Hip Hop Soul - Mary J. Blige for the opener Can’t Knock the Hustle set the tone for this ‘mafia’ inspired album. Linking with another of his home city’s favourite sons - Notorious B.I.G. for Brooklyn’s Finest not only showed off the pairs unmatched flow, but also proved that at the time they were practically unmatched. A journey of success, documented by the man who’s hustle in the game is legendary.
For more of 1996’s finest to add to your playlist, check out UKG - Ridin’ Dirty, Ghostface Killah - Ironman and Redman - Muddy Waters.