The ’96 Sound

Why was this one of the best years for Hip Hop?

The music, the culture, the movement that came with it and the complexity of their flow and rhyming — 1996 was the year of Hip Hop. 

This was the beginning of the four elements, which were b-boying, emceeing, djing, and tagging. This was also the year that most producers started using samples for their instrumentals, which made the entire sound of Hip Hop sound smoother. It was the final step in evolution for Hip Hop and it left a lasting impression.

Many call ‘96 the year of 2Pac, because he released All Eyez on Me, which is classic and then died later in the year. So a couple of months after his death, his producers released an album he had been working on, The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, so of course he was going to gain popularity. It’s not necessarily a good thing, but when rappers die, people praise them like legends.

Both of Pac’s albums were good and quite classic, but it was much more than the year of 2Pac. There were over 100 Hip Hop albums that dropped during 1996 and it helps make the argument that 1996 was the best year for Hip Hop thus far.

1996 was a big year and it decided if Hip Hop would be a leading force in the music world. During the early 90s, a lot of great albums were released, but these classic albums had to be followed up with a sophomore album.

Within these albums, flow and rhyming became a focus of a rapper’s “to do” list. You’ll never hear emceeing this raw ever again. The multi-syllable rhyme scheme is what has set 90s Hip Hop a part from rap today and 1996 was the year that few rappers decided to make an album without it.

Anybody can rhyme cat with hat, but now the game was asking for multi-syllables like conclusion and intrusion. 

So now that the sophomore albums were set to be released, fans expected the sophomore albums to match the greatness of the first albums, but only a few did. These albums were great, but for different reasons. 

The second Outkast album, ATLiens, definitely impressed many; even though people were disappointed that it didn’t surpass what they were able to do on their debut album, it was still really good. They did carry on the clean production to this album and continued to prove themselves as rappers.

Outkast carried themselves in a boasting manner and tried to keep their flow as raw as possible. That’s why their second album was more popular than their freshman album. The dirty bass lines in their beats and raw in your face flow would later on influence southern rappers to join the game.

Nas also dropped a sophomore album. Nas dropped Illmatic in 1994, which might be the best Hip Hop album of all time and he followed it up with a solid It Was Written in 1996. This was another great sophomore album, but there was disappointment, because it wasn’t a classic like Illmatic, but at the time people didn’t know that Illmatic was going to be one of the best records ever made. 

Nas had deep, thought-provoking lyrics and raw rhymes about the streets. This type of style had finally made it to the mainstream level and other rappers quickly jumped on the bandwagon. 

Hip Hop managed to branch into so many different variations this year that you couldn’t name them all, but you could definitely tell East Coast Hip Hop from West Coast Hip Hop. A lot of people like to mention the beginning of the East Coast vs. West Coast rivalry, but it was all love in ‘96. Almost every album from this year had artists, both East Coast and West Coast, on each other’s album. 

Hip Hop wasn’t new in 1996, but it was making its transition into being the most predominant form of music. There was a culture being formed around Hip Hop and the fan base would eventually grow to an unimaginable amount.

As far as production goes, there hasn’t been better production since the 90s and there haven’t been instrumentals that use unique samples like they did during this era. If 1996 was the peak for Hip Hop, then that means the rap game dwindled in greatness before the arrival of the millennium, which marked the end of a pivotal era in music.

Though the music was amazing, this year went beyond the music, because the Hip Hop world promoted a certain kind of lifestyle. More people than ever before started dressing and acting like emcees. If a rapper wore a certain color, fans would wear that color.

Have you seen people flash the “west side” hand sign? 2Pac made that popular. Even if they were gangsters that threw up “west side” you still saw Hip Hop fans throwing it up if they were from the West Coast. He turned it into the “West Coast” hand sign and only super stardom can allow someone to do that. This was one of the moments that really revealed how powerful Hip Hop was going to become.

I bet you didn’t know that it was 1996 when the Hip Hop movement was at its peak, huh? Well, it was the beginning of the fall of Hip Hop as well. Pac died and then others slowly followed until the top 4 rappers of all time were deceased. 

So, ‘96 was the year for Hip Hop, because musical influence was at its highest in the street life mentality of upcoming rappers and the rap game contained some of the illest structures of rhyme. Sadly, this year was also one of the last good years of Hip Hop.

By 1999, it was a completely different picture in the rap game and people had moved on. Now when you look back at 1996, you can appreciate Hip Hop even more knowing that it was a year that will be marked down in history for music.

by Felix Cordova

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