While the boom-bap New York style of hip-hop seems to have passed out of the mainstream in favor of the highly melodic, trap style of rap music you see littering the charts today, there are still some artists out there that are keeping this longstanding and sacred tradition alive. Modern rap groups like Flatbush Zombies, Pro Era, and The Underachievers are true to their roots, carrying the torch of New York ’90s hip-hop (while also adapting to the modern era) and often paying homage to the great New York rappers that paved the way for them.
I would argue that with groups like these, as well as individual acts like Action Bronson and Bishop Nehru, underground-style New York hip-hop is far from dead. However, it’s certainly not at its peak either. As any true hip-hop head will tell you, New York City in the 1990s was the golden era of boom-bap.
The rap scene in New York in the ’90s was characterized by a grimy, yet smooth, and cleverly lyrical style. Through their music, New York rappers gave the impression that they wouldn’t hesitate to stomp you out with a Timberland boot, but that they could also carry themselves with class and style, and that they were capable of weaving together some very impressive rhyme constructions and wordplay.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a lot of the new generation of rappers, but when it comes to what I consider true hip-hop, there was no better time and place than New York City in the ’90s. For anyone looking to dip their toes in this incredible style of music, here are some 1990s New York hip-hop groups that you should absolutely listen to:
Let’s start this off simple. It doesn’t get much more true to New York than 50 dudes standing on stage passing the mic around while the others just bounce around menacingly on stage. The group was formed in the late ’80s when RZA basically decided to round up all the best rappers in Staten Island and form a supergroup to represent the rap scene in their borough.
The entire Wu-Tang Clan probably has more members than you can count, with the most notable of them being RZA (pronounced “rizza”), GZA (pronounced “jizza”), Ghostface Killah, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Method Man, Raekwon, Inspectah Deck, U-God, Masta Killa, and Cappadonna. Each member of the Wu brings their own flavor to the mic, yet all of them are lyrical embodiments of Staten Island.
Songs to Bump:
- C.R.E.A.M. by Wu-Tang Clan
- Ice Cream by Raekwon
- Da Mystery of Chessboxin’ by Wu-Tang Clan
- Liquid Swords by GZA
- Brooklyn Zoo by Ol’ Dirty Bastard
Of course, I couldn’t possibly talk about New York hip-hop without mentioning the man who many people consider to be the greatest rapper of all time, Biggie Smalls. Junior M.A.F.I.A. was a collection of rappers formed and mentored by Biggie, and some of the more notable rappers involved were Lil’ Cease, Lil’ Kim, Capone, Nino Brown, and Trife. M.A.F.I.A. was an acronym for “Masters At Finding Intelligent Attitudes”.
The group put out one studio album together titled Conspiracy in 1995. After Biggie Smalls was murdered in 1997, the group was all but disbanded. They did release another album under the Junior M.A.F.I.A. moniker in 2005 titled Riot Musik, but things really weren’t the same without Biggie.
Songs to Bump:
- Player’s Anthem by Junior M.A.F.I.A.
- Drugs by Lil’ Kim
- Machine Gun Funk by The Notorious B.I.G.
- Sky’s the Limit by The Notorious B.I.G.
- Ten Crack Commandments by The Notorious B.I.G.
Diggin’ in the Crates
If you know your hip-hop, you may not necessarily know the name Diggin’ in the Crates, but you almost definitely know one of the members. The collective was formed in New York in 1992 and included Lord Finesse, O.C., Fat Joe, Big L, Buckwild, Diamond D, A.G., and Showbiz. The name of the group refers to how they would search through crates of records to find samples for their simple, bass-slapping beats.
The group was forged in the underground rap battle scene of New York City. Fat Joe became the first New York rapper to secure a solo deal with a major label with his debut album Represent. Big L was shot nine times in a drive-by shooting in 1999 after achieving the status of rap legend over the span of his career.
Songs to Bump:
- Way of Life by D.I.T.C.
- Da Enemy by D.I.T.C.
- 98 Freestyle by Big L
- Gameplan by Lord Finesse
- The Crack Attack by Fat Joe
Representing Queensbridge, Queens, Mobb Deep was the rap duo of Prodigy and Havoc. If you’ve never heard of them, you probably remember Eminem freestyling over the beat to their song Shook Ones (Part II) in the final rap battle of the 2002 film 8 Mile. Prodigy and Havoc first met at the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan, and it was only natural that their rap styles aligned. To the untrained ear, the two of them can often sound like the same person, as they’re unbelievably compatible both lyrically and sonically.
Mobb Deep was heavily involved in the bitter rivalry between east coast and west coast rappers during the ’90s, and apparently, members of Tupac Shakur’s posse attended a Mobb Deep concert only days after Tupac’s death. In fact, Tupac directly called them out in his song Hit ‘Em Up, saying that one of them had sickle cell disease.
Songs to Bump:
- Quiet Storm by Mobb Deep
- Extortion by Mobb Deep
- The Learning by Mobb Deep
- Give Up the Goods (Just Step) by Mobb Deep
- Survival of the Fittest by Mobb Deep
Boot Camp Clik
Formed in 1993, Boot Camp Clik wasn’t quite as big as Wu-Tang Clan, but the Brooklyn-based outfit definitely gave them a run for their money. The syndicate consisted of several smaller hip-hop groups including Smif-N-Wessun (Tek and Steele), Heltah Skeltah (Rock and Sean Price), O.G.C. (Starang Wondah, Top Dog, and Louieville Sluggah), and Buckshot (from Black Moon). The group dropped their first album For the People as Boot Camp Clik in 1997.
Most of the members were from the Brownsville area of Brooklyn, with the exception of Tek (who was from Bedford-Stuyvesant) and Buckshot (who was from Crown Heights). Each member of the group had their own unique take on the hard-hitting New York boom-bap style, with members of Smif-N-Wessun and Heltah Skeltah even incorporating Jamaican patois into many of their raps.
Songs to Bump:
- Sound Bwoy Bureill by Smif-N-Wessun
- Rugged Terrain by Boot Camp Clik
- Letha Brainz Blo by Heltah Skeltah
- Leflaur Leflah Eshkoshka by Heltah Skeltah
- Bucktown by Smif-N-Wessun
Gravediggaz was about as dark as New York hip-hop ever got. They showcased their dark senses of humor making light of gruesome horrors over haunting, spacey beats. Their entire sound was both whimsical and terrifying at the same time. The group was formed in 1994 brought together four rappers who had already established themselves in the industry, and took on alter egos for the Gravediggaz group.
The group consisted of Frukwan (The Gatekeeper) and Prince Paul (The Undertaker), who had been in the group Stetsasonic together, Poetic (The Grym Reaper), and RZA (The RZArector). According to Frukwan, the group’s name means “digging graves of the mentally dead, and it stood for resurrecting the mentally dead from their state of unawareness and ignorance.”
Songs to Bump:
- 1-800 Suicide by Gravediggaz
- Blood Brothers by Gravediggaz
- Diary of a Madman by Gravediggaz
- Psycho Linguistics by Prince Paul
- Unexplained by Gravediggaz