Ah, 1994: a great year for rocking butter beats by The Beatnuts and DJ Premier while puffing L's, drinking 40s, and gettin' mad props for kickin' rhymes in a cipher. (But don't front, yo, or someone might pull out their jammy!) This was the peak of the boom-bap era, wherein you had to keep it hardcore at all costs, even if it meant missing out on all the loot the West Coast G-funk gangsters were clockin' (and, increasingly, the Dirty South players, too). A lot of people viewed this as East Coast elitism, but more than a few West Coast underground crews, like Hieroglyphics and Solesides, got down with the realness, too.
The boom-bap tide crested in 1994, and many of the trends that eventually consumed hip-hop emerged during that fateful year. There was Lil Dap intoning, "The world's about to end" on Group Home's classic "Supa Star," an early hint of the full-blown Y2K/Illuminati mania to come. There was Jay-Z's debut single, "In My Lifetime." More than a few tracks criticized hip-hop's fascination with gangsterism, including O.C.'s "Time's Up," Common's "I Used to Love H.E.R." and Jeru the Damaja's "Come Clean." Then there were the twin peaks of Nas' Illmatic and Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready to Die. The first, released in the spring, represented East Coast aesthetics at its creative height, with production contributions from DJ Premier, Large Professor and Q-Tip. But Ready to Die, released in September, was a successful compromise between West Coast funk and East Coast jazz beats, and when it far outsold Illmatic, it signaled a death knell for boom-bap. And that's not counting 2Pac's fateful shooting by robbers in November, which led to accusations that Biggie and Puff Daddy set him up, marking the unofficial beginning of the East Coast-West Coast beef.
Maybe that's why old heads treasure those days so much. It was an era when raw and uncompromised rap dominated the conversation in a way not heard since. That's no knock on West Coast and Southern artists like Snoop Dogg and The Dogg Pound, UGK or OutKast -- just nostalgia. Personally, I don't miss drinking nasty malt liquor or smoking way too many blunts. But the music still sounds lovely.