TIDAL Primer: Hip-Hop in the Alternative Era

Through the dominance of Cypress Hill, Beastie Boys, Body Count and other acts, boundaries and audiences blurred in the early ’90s.

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During a Cypress Hill/Pearl Jam collaboration for MTV in 1993, B-Real rhymes alongside guitarist Stone Gossard. Credit: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic.

Fusing rap and rock was still a novel concept in the early ’90s — but just barely. Blondie’s Debbie Harry had offered her version of emceeing on the band’s 1980 disco hit “Rapture”; Run-DMC, LL Cool J and Beastie Boys had melded distortion and hard-hitting verses in the mid-’80s; and Red Hot Chili Peppers had long since spearheaded an influential hybrid of George Clinton psych-funk and shirtless-white-guy testoste-rhymes. But that early cross-pollination, like most pioneering experiments, seemed self-aware about its innovation. In the years that followed, the boundaries between these previously separated genres gradually blurred, and all the sounds melted together like spices in a cultural stew.

For a moment, the landscape of popular music felt limitless — and no term better encapsulated that sonic freedom than “alternative.” The defining flashpoint occurred in summer 1991 with the inaugural installment of Lollapalooza, a touring music festival founded by Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell. The lineup that year was small in size but massive in scope: the industrial brood of Nine Inch Nails, the arty experimentation of Butthole Surfers, the metallic funk-rock of Living Colour, the debut of Ice-T’s rap-metal band Body Count.

“It was like the revolution had begun,” Dave Grohl told Time Out Chicago in 2011. He and Kurt Cobain, in Los Angeles to record Nirvana’s Nevermind, attended the watershed event together. “That was early summer. ... That fall, radio and MTV and music had changed.”

By the dawn of the Clinton administration, alternative hip-hop and rock had a symbiotic relationship. Emcees were rapping — and sometimes singing — over live instruments; samples and lyrical references were becoming weirder and more obscure. And as these worlds collided, audiences dug deeper into sounds they may have previously ignored. In 1992, it wasn’t uncommon for alt-rock diehards to cite hardcore rap albums alongside their guitar-based favorites.

This anything-goes spirit blew open the doors of possibility. Let’s look back at five albums that embody this pivotal period.

House of Pain
Fine Malt Lyrics (1992)

Six years before Everlast showcased a folkier, more somber side with his breakout solo hit “What It’s Like,” he released the definitive hip-hop tribute to bouncing, “Jump Around,” with House of Pain. No other song on Fine Malt Lyrics, the group’s debut LP, reaches that same level of escapist fun. But certain highlights come close: the bent-guitar wonkiness of “Come and Get Some of This,” the boom sha lock lock boom hook on “Shamrocks and Shenanigans” and a team-up with Cypress Hill’s B-Real on the sax-sampling “Put Your Head Out.”

Cypress Hill
Black Sunday (1993)

Nothing about “Insane in the Brain,” Cypress Hill’s definitive track, screams “hit”: B-Real rhymes a series of nagging hooks in a clipped, nasal tone over choppy drums and bizarre samples that sound like horse neighs and human grunts. Oh, the ’90s! But Cypress Hill struck gold with their idiosyncratic approach: Black Sunday, the group’s most consistent LP, sprinkles a hint of gangsta-hip edginess into their hazy, stoner-friendly cuts, like the Black Sabbath-sampling “I Ain’t Goin’ Out Like That” and the eerily psychedelic “Hits From the Bong.”

Various Artists
Judgment Night: Music From the Motion Picture (1993)

Raise your hand if you remember the box-office-bomb thriller Judgment Night. If so, there’s a good chance you purchased the film’s soundtrack, which features 11 all-star collaborations between rappers and rock/metal bands. Some of these tunes come across as cut-and-paste mash-ups, like “Fallin’,” which pairs power-pop act Teenage Fanclub and alt-rap pioneers De La Soul (along with a sampled snippet of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’”). Others are seamless fits, like Run-DMC pile-driving their rhymes over Living Colour’s funk-metal grooves on “Me, Myself & My Microphone.”

Body Count
Body Count (1992)

Ice-T’s first major foray into metal is best remembered for “Cop Killer,” the infamous thrash track that infuriated Tipper Gore of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) with its menacing lyrics protesting police brutality. (After widespread controversy, the album was recalled and the song was removed from a subsequent pressing.) Some moments on Body Count lean into graphic shock-metal territory (“KKK B---h”); but Ice-T strikes a grittier tone on the pummeling “There Goes the Neighborhood,” calling out rock-audience racism over a riff that lands somewhere between Black Sabbath and early Led Zeppelin.

Beastie Boys
Ill Communication (1994)

Beastie Boys built on the organic, eclectic vibe of 1992’s Check Your Head with that album’s successor, Ill Communication. Casual fans might remember the project for the militant rap-punk attack of “Sabotage,” a minor hit single cemented in the pop-culture canon via Spike Jonze’s satirical cop-drama video. But every song reveals another wrinkle in the multi-textured sound of ’90s Beasties — from the dusty, jazz-flute-sampling “Sure Shot” to the simmering groove of “Root Down” to the instrumental psych-funk excursion “Sabrosa,” full of heavy clavinet and palm-muted wah-wah guitar.

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