Best Year Ever? Celebrating Hip Hop’s Class of ’92—25 Years Later
When New York was red hot and 'The Chronic' was just starting to blaze
Barely two decades deep from the time Kool Herc first ignited a blaze in the Bronx, hip hop was ready to set the world on fire in 1992. Finally coming into its own, the art form was elevating the craft of beats and rhymes into something like a phenomenon. Creativity, originality, and innovation became the only rules for an underground movement that was bubbling up through the asphalt.
Though the streets still held sway over rap, increasing major label involvement assured that crucial collision of art and commerce necessary for mainstream success. Naturally, hip hop’s birthplace of New York remained the epicenter, ruling the charts and airwaves during this influential era of boom bap. If a classic is something that stands the test of time, hip hop’s class of ’92 produced more than its fair share of albums that have aged like fine vintage wine.
Ninety-two also proved to be a changing of the guard, bringing new players to the game, who took the music in myriad directions at once. As jazz replaced funk as the new sampling source of choice, producers such as DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and Diamond D. forged their own signature sounds mining obscure vinyl for chunks of gold, then chopping them up into something else entirely. Their abstract compositions matched the stream-of-consciousness flows of New York MCs. On the other end of the spectrum, groups like Kriss Kross, Das EFX, and Fu Schnickens dared flaunt a pop sensibility that rocked the suburbs as well as the streets. Kriss Kross’s mega smash “Jump” spent eight weeks at the top of BillBoard’s Hot 100—the first rap song to ever do so—and the album that followed, Totally Krossed Out, produced by Jermaine Dupri, went on to sell 4 million copies.
Rap’s expanding palette accommodated everything from boho/country rappers Arrested Development and quirky left-coasters The Pharcyde, to white upstarts House of Pain and the politically-charged Paris and Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, both from the Bay Area. Always a step ahead, the Beastie Boys reinvented themselves by picking up instruments and returning to their punk roots on their breakthrough third outing, Check Your Head (Capitol).
Even the late ‘80s, “Golden Era” rap stars like Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, Kool G. Rap & DJ Polo and Eric B. & Rakim, released albums that year. Unfortunately, only Eric B. & Rakim’s fourth and final studio effort Don’t Sweat The Technique (MCA) and G. Rap & Polo’s third and last LP, Live and Let Die (Cold Chillin’), could really hang with hip hop’s latest crop.
In addition, former N.W.A members Dr. Dre, Eazy E, Ice Cube and MC Ren, who put the west coast on the map, all released solo albums in ‘92, along with Too Short, Spice 1, and Compton’s Most Wanted. Meanwhile, we heard the first stirrings of the Dirty South as The Geto Boys held it down in Houston along with nearby Port Arthur’s UGK, who released their first album, Too Hard To Swallow (Jive). A singular voice out of Chicago, Common—then Common Sense—also dropped his critically acclaimed debut, Can I Borrow A Dollar (Relativity). But as the rest of the country was playing catch up, New York was red hot, blazing a trail for others to follow.
In the Gotham, it was all about crews—modeled after celebrated ‘80s cliques like Marley Marl’s Juice Crew, whose individual members were stars in their own right. It almost seemed as if you couldn’t break into the industry unless you had a crew behind you. In addition to having your back in a crooked and cutthroat field, fellow crew members appeared on each other’s albums helping raise everyone’s profile. Older, more established artists were also thrust in the position of breaking new talent.
The Hit Squad proved to be the dominant crew of ’92, anchored by EPMD and featuring Das EFX and Redman, all of whom released albums that year. Erick and Parrish were deep in the game at this point with a trio of gold albums. Their fourth salvo, Business Never Personal (Def Jam), grew their brand of hardcore hip hop, straight from the “boondocks” of Brentwood, Long Island. The album produced the group’s biggest chart hit to date, “Crossover,” which, ironically, was about not selling out and crossing over to the pop charts. Despite their broader appeal, EPMD still kept it “rough, rugged and raw” for the fans with bangers like “Nobody’s Safe Chump,” “Can’t Hear Nothin’ But The Music,” and “Cummin’ At Cha,” featuring their signature futuristic funk and slow flows. They introduced the entire Hit Squad on the posse cut, “Head Banger,” featuring Das EFX, Redman, and K-Solo, a fellow artist from suburban Long Island.
Living up to their credo of “business,” which appears in all their album titles, EPMD started a management company to shepherd their new artists, both of whom they met on the road. Dray & Skoob of Das EFX—from Teaneck, NJ and Brooklyn, respectively—were contestants in a talent show in Virginia, where they were attending college. Though they didn’t win, Erick and Parrish put them down with the Squad, helping them get a record deal with East-West/Atlantic. The album, Dead Serious, with its lead single “They Want Efx,” driven by a catchy James Brown guitar riff from “Blind Man Can See It” helped deliver a platinum debut. Tracks like “Mic Checka” and “Klap Ya Handz” sealed the deal. The duo’s stuttering staccato style, much imitated at the time, didn’t last long in the fast-paced world of rap.
Originally a DJ from New Jersey, Redman entered the Hit Squad’s orbit after busting some verses for Erick Sermon at a Newark club. He ended up crashing on Erick’s couch as they worked on his classic debut, Whut!? Thee Album (Def Jam). With The E Double behind the boards, Redman carries the whole show lyrically with the help of skits, which helps shape the album into a conceptual piece. He rocks raw nasal rhymes over grooves straight outta P-Funk, layered with Sermon’s bionic syncopation. “Time 4 Sum Aksion” which samples B-Real from Cypress Hill for the hook, is almost militant in its call to get the party started. Meanwhile, “Jam 4 U” coasts on a laid back Roger Troutman sample that doesn’t stop Redman from getting “extremely wild like the hair on Don King.” Erick provides the only guest verse on the album on “Watch Yo Nugget.” Between these three solid slabs by Redman, Das EFX, and EPMD, the Hit Squad set the bar high.
One crew up to the challenge was D.I.T.C. (Digging In The Crates) representing uptown and the Bronx. Spearheaded by Lord Finesse, who dropped his first album, Funky Technician (Wild Pitch) in 1990, other members included Diamond D. and Fat Joe from Forest projects and Showbiz and his partner A.G. (Andre The Giant) from the nearby Patterson houses, also in the Bronx. Future member Big L. represented Harlem. Finesse, who dropped Return of The Funky Man in ’92, was not the only seasoned veteran in the crew—Diamond D. started off as deejay/producer of the ‘80s duo Ultimate Force. Now he was rapping with his own crew, The Psychotic Neurotics, on an unsung debut of Bronx-style Boogie, Stunts, Blunts, and Hip Hop (Mercury/Polygram). But the album really showcased D.I.T.C. since the Psychotic Neurotics only rapped on three tracks. Diamond handled most of the production work with a little help from his friends Large Professor, Showbiz, Q-Tip, and 45 King. Standout cuts on this classic outing include “Best Kept Secret,” “Sally Got A One Track Mind,” “Fuck What Ya Heard,” and “Check One, Two.”
In that same month of September as Diamond dropped this gem, fellow D.I.T.C. members Showbiz & A.G. released another underappreciated full-length, Runaway Slave (Payday/Polygram), coming off the hype of their earlier EP, Soul Clap, which featured jams like “Party Groove” and “Soul Clap.” Like Diamond, Showbiz performs double duties producing and rapping, and his tracks favor noisy horn fanfares, upright bass, and block rockin’ beats. Various members of D.I.T.C. and their extended crew drop intros on every track on the album, and like the park jams they grew up attending, Show and A.G. effortlessly tag team on the mic over dope beats like “Fat Pockets,” “40 Acres and My Props,” and “Silence of The Lambs.”
Also from the Bronx, Ultramagnetic MCs, a seminal group from the ‘80s, reunited after a breakup to release the follow-up to their 1988 classic Critical Beatdown (Next Plateau). Though Funk Your Head Up (Mercury/Polygram) suffered from too much label interference, it still spawned the monster jam, “Poppa Large (remix),” produced by Brooklyn’s Beatminerz.
By their third album, Daily Operation (Chrysalis/EMI), the duo of DJ Premier and Guru had crystallized into a potent force of streetwise beats and poetry. Starting off in Boston, Guru had relocated to Brooklyn in ’89 where he joined forces with Houston native, DJ Premier. Primo not only supplied the illest soundscapes for Guru’s monotone flow, but his turntable wizardry created some of the most memorable hooks in hip hop. He scratches KRS-ONE saying “The girls look so good” over Caesar Frazier’s jazzy horn fanfare from 1975’s “Funk It Up” to make “Ex Girl to Next Girl” a Billboard Hot Rap Single.
More hardcore fare such as “Take It Personal” typifies the New York sound that Gangstarr helped popularize. They lionize their adopted home of Brooklyn on “The Place Where We Dwell,” and let crew members Lil Dap and Jeru The Damaja, part of their extended Gangstarr Foundation, shine on “I’m The Man.” But in this era before crazy cameos, Guru’s insightful and intelligent rhymes carry the whole album.
Like Showbiz & A.G., Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth created a buzz in ‘91 with their debut EP, All Souled Out, before dropping the full-length, Mecca & The Soul Brother (Elektra) in ’92.
Released in June, that record ruled the summer becoming the toast of the five boroughs and beyond with its many memorable hits. “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.),” dedicated to a fallen brother, and propelled by a plaintive sax sample by ‘60s jazz composer Tom Scott and The California Dreamers, made Rolling Stone’s 50 Greatest hip hop songs of all time at #12. “Return Of The Mecca,” “For Pete’s Sake,” “Lots of Lovin’,” and “Straighten It Out,” all feature Pete Rock’s horn-heavy production and C.L. Smooth’s clearly enunciated verses that lacked profanity, providing a blueprint for a new sound that dominated the early part of the decade.
Who needs cameos when a producer like Pete Rock could handle the mic with flair, so only his cousin Heavy D. appears on “The Basement” while New Rochelle’s Grand Puba guests on “Skinz.” Puba, who had left his group Brand Nubian, also released his critically acclaimed first solo album, Reel To Reel (Elektra) in ’92.
New York remained the driving and dominant force behind rap music throughout most of that year, and it seemed like that would never change, but it did on December 15th, when Dr. Dre, formerly the production genius behind N.W.A., released his solo debut, The Chronic (Death Row/Priority/Interscope). The album peaked at number three on the Billboard HOT 200 eventually selling 5.7 million copies in the United States alone, propelling Dre and his protégé Snoop Doggy Dogg on to mainstream stardom. The album redefined hip hop from its grittier, more abstract New York roots to a smoother, slicker, laid-back sound augmented by live instrumentation. Dre still sampled enough P-Funk to keep George Clinton rolling in royalty checks, but he also introduced the menacing, high-end wail of the Mini Moog, jump-starting the G-funk era and helping switch the focus to the West Coast. If The Chronic seemed to come out of nowhere, there was a warning shot in April when Dre introduced Snoop to the masses on the Deep Cover soundtrack. The murderous “187” beat and flow would be emulated by Bronx icons Fat Joe and Big Pun six years later.
But in ’92, New York was still on a roll, and it seemed like the streak of amazing albums would never end. And it didn’t—continuing on into the ‘90s, along with the East Coast/West Coast rivalry. But 25 years later, looking back at those seminal albums that New York’s class of ’92 produced, tells you that a classic can come in many flavors. That’s the most beautiful thing about it.