“ATLiens,” East Coast-West Coast Beef, and The Rise of Female Emcees: 1996 Was Hip Hop’s Year

This year at Atlanta’s A3C Festival, the focus will be on one of hip hop’s golden years, 1996. Hence, our partnership with them to curate and put on the 1996 Main Stage. And what a year that was two decades ago. A year for big changes, rap both expanded and contracted in ’96 as careers were born while legends passed away. It was one moment in time that ultimately set the tone for hip hop as we know it. But what made 1996 so special? Why that year out of every other year in the ‘90s? As we gear up for A3C, let’s travel back twenty years and relive hip hop’s most pivotal period.

A New Day

In the early ‘90s, hip hop was still figuring itself out. Coming off the high of the ‘80s, the ‘90s introduced the Golden Era, where artists were emerging and changing around a sound that was relegated to being titled “the new Disco” just a decade prior. But as artists were just learning how to make hip hop a legitimized business, the nature of the culture began changing. Bone Thugs-n-Harmony even performed “Tha Crossroads” at the MTV Music Awards, showing that what people perceived as thugs could also make meaningful music with important messages. New York City was still a focal point, but no longer the only frame of reference.

Albums On Top Of Albums

Master P was on his fifth studio album Ice Cream Man, as the No Limit tank was still plowing down those New Orleans streets slingin’ CDs. Dr. Dre jumped ship from Death Row and headed to Aftermath, releasing a few compilations that year including First Round Knock Out. While it wasn’t the most cohesive work, it featured “Deep Cover” with Snoop Doggy Dogg, a four year old track that somehow got its second wind that year. By then Snoop was now aligned with Death Row and releasing Tha Doggfather that November. It was a time for trial and error, as new sounds were emerging. Earlier in the year in February, Tupac would drop his final project while living titled All Eyez On Me. That same month, The Fugees would drop their massive commercial success The Score. Busta Rhymes would arrive the next month with his solo debut The Coming, and by June Jay Z would drop his debut album Reasonable Doubt. De La Soul followed in July with Stakes Is High, with Nas still keeping pace with his follow-up to Illmatic titled It Was Written.

Outkast dropped ATLiens in August, the Roots came with Illadelph Halflife in September, Ghostface Killah’s Ironman in October, and Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown would drop their respective solo debuts Hard Core and Ill Nana in tandem the second and third weeks of that November. Mobb Deep came with Hell On Earth that same month, along with Tupac’s first of many posthumous offerings, The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory (as Makaveli). Redman closed out the year with Muddy Waters. Other artists like UGK, Kool Keith, Three 6 Mafia, Heltah Skeltah, Ras Kass, LL Cool J, and Jeru the Damaja all released albums that year, among many others.

The purpose of all that is less about a roll call of who showed up that year for rap class, but more so to highlight the variety. East, West, Midwest, South. Every corner of hip hop was represented with album releases in 1996, many of which became classics. It was perhaps the first time in rap history, where every style and sound of rap was represented, as new styles were being born and traditional styles remained in place. But after this year, everything changed.

What’s Beef?

It started in 1994, when Tupac Shakur was shot at Quad Recording Studios in New York City, blaming the Notorious B.I.G. for the near fatal shooting. The situation caused an East Coast / West Coast war that seemingly came to a head in 1996 and carried into 1997, leaving two casualties of war: Tupac Shakur on September 13, 1996 and the Notorious B.I.G. on March 9, 1997. Their deaths marked a dramatic shift in how hip hop was dealt with from that point on. Once the Shiny Suit Era was ushered in by ’97, hip hop became a business. Beef would become less of a weapon and more of a moneymaker, when both sides considered the loss was greater than the gain by not keeping it on wax.

Ladies First

1996 brought three important women into our frame of reference: Lauryn Hill, Lil’ Kim, and Foxy Brown. While we knew of Lauryn from earlier Fugees work, as well as Lil’ Kim with Junior M.A.F.I.A., this would be the year they all blew up in their own ways. Lauryn became hip hop’s around the way girl, a lyrical powerhouse who could kick it with the guys but demanded her respect an earned it. Kim and Foxy held similar positions as rap’s outspoken vixens, discussing sex like a dude and oozing I-Don’t-Give-A-Fuckness. Let’s also not forget that in August of that year, MC Lyte came with Bad As I Wanna B, bringing us the commercial hit “Cold Rock A Party,” produced by Puffy with guest vocals by Missy Elliott.

So ladies were in a sweet spot, and as Lauryn Hill drove the Fugees straight to the Grammy’s with the cover of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly,” L-Boogie smoothed out some of rap’s rougher edges, with R&B having some hip hop ambiguity. Some viewed the Fugees’ mainstream success as the decline of hip hop’s edge, but what it did was broaden the lanes for rap artists in the years to come. For better or worse, without the Fugees there would be no Drake. Someone had to swing that pendulum, and it was arguably a woman in a group of guys.

Why ’96?

1996 was the year we lost Tupac, but gained Jay Z. It’s a self-explanatory statement given the direction hip hop moved in from that point forward. It marked the change in rap music as we knew it—with more regions, more sounds, and another gender dominating the space. We gained a lot, yet lost a lot, and twenty years later the effects of 1996 still echo throughout hip hop as we know it.

Related Posts


Mass Appeal X A3C: Why 1996 Mattered So Much


The Most Important Hip Hop Singles From 1996


From Hit Squad to Def Squad: The Evolution of One Hip Hop Crew


2016 BET Hip Hop Awards Cyphers: Still No Wu-Tang Cypher


Watch: Artists Pay Tribute to Outkast at A3C and Interviews with Keith Murray, Twista, and Bun B on 1996


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