10 Standout Hip-Hop Tracks from 1991

by Robert Wheaton

19 October 2011


Cypress Hill, De La Soul, and more...

Cypress Hill
“How I Could Just Kill a Man”

Dark, cloudy, and unsettling, Cypress Hill’s debut was enormously influential, a key influence on the stripped down, flung-together “abstract hip-hop” genre that bled into downtempo and so-called trip-hop just a few years later. The tracks are dense, layered creations; coalitions of drug-induced haze; shards of samples brought together with the edges facing out; lyrics that bring together street violence and nursery rhymes. “How I Could Just Kill a Man”, with its patchwork, coming-from-all-directions chorus, was the b-side to the album’s first single, and broke to a bigger market on the back of extensive MTV airplay and its inclusion in the movie Juice.

De La Soul
“Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa”

Controversially and vehemently rejecting the imagery cultivated so successfully by 1989’s Three Feet High and Rising, De La Soul’s sophomore album De La Soul Is Dead remains a funny, thoughtful, and relentlessly beats-driven album, from the flattened snare sound and lumbering bass of “Oodles of O’s” onward. There’s astonishing force behind “Afro Connections at a Hi-5 (In the Eyes of a Hoodlum)”, which takes the Miami Bass’s subsonic 808 bass sound to make the floor of the song behave like a trampoline, and hauls across the top of it a horn and piano sample from James Brown’s “For Goodness Sake, Look at Those Cakes”.

On “Millie Pulled A Pistol On Santa” the group’s lean and yet patient storytelling paces over the galactic impetus of Funkadelic’s “I’ll Stay”, slowly unspooling a dreadful tale of child sexual abuse to the violent inevitability of its conclusion.

DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince

What is it possible to say about this song that the song doesn’t say about itself? “What about the groove that soothes that moves romance / Give me a soft subtle mix / And if ain’t broke then don’t try to fix it / And think of the summers of the past”. A recasting of Kool & the Gang’s “Summer Madness”, this track was part of the extensive hip-hop summer catalog along with Nine’s “Whutcha Want” and Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day,” and still oozes from car stereos every year.

Black Sheep
“The Choice Is Yours”

Emerging from the Native Tongues collective with its debut, A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, Black Sheep had a stunning start with “The Choice Is Yours”. But if anything that song is over-exposed. Elsewhere on the album, “Butt in the Meantime” and “To Whom It May Concern” are effortlessly funky, and “Yes” is muscular and punchy. Like De La Soul’s “Afro Connections”, “U Mean I’m Not” takes a swipe at the emerging gangsta genre. Still, try to keep still while you listen to the pushy alliance of lyrics and beats in this passage from the middle of the first verse (“The styling is creative, Black Sheep of the Native / Can’t be violated, or even decepticated / I got brothers in the Jungle, cousins on the Quest / Deaf retarded uncles, in parties were they rest”).

A Tribe Called Quest
“Check the Rhime”

A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory was everything it said on the tin, a thunderously bass-heavy album, but one scored with intelligence and wit. Legendary Miles Davis bassist Ron Carter was on board for “Verses from the Abstract” a track that epitomizes the strange asymmetry of the album’s production: a 808-style sine bass throb sets the song bouncing, before being joined by Carter’s bass figures which pop and splurge around in the song’s middle range below a sample cleverly filtered out of the soupy 1977 Heatwave single “The Star of a Story”.

But “Check The Rhime” is the song that united samples from Grover Washington Jr., Minnie Ripperton, AWB, and the Steve Miller Band into a woozy, thumpy summer anthem, animated by the group’s sense of drama and timing. With the video and the storming kick drum interludes, it seemed like the world was stamping on the roof:

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