The catch about Golden Eras is that we don’t always know when we’re living in one — we only know when it’s already over. The hip-hop Golden Era is generally recognized to have started in the late ’80s and runs through the mid ’90s, which covers the massive creative stretch where album-length ambitions, advances in sampling tech, and heated competition for mixtape and airplay positioning could be found in the majors, hip-hop imprints, and indies all at once.
And even in the waning years, there was gold: 1994 was the year that gave us the first albums by Nas, OutKast, and The Notorious B.I.G., career-prime material from Gang Starr, Redman, and Scarface, and cult classics from Organized Konfusion, Artifacts, and Gravediggaz. Didn’t matter if your jam of the year was “Time’s Up” or “Regulate” or “Sabotage” — if you lived through ’94 and thought “this is the end of an era” at the time, you were probably a pessimist.
Then again, Common released his first big signature hit in ’94, and it was about how hip-hop was starting to lose its way, so there was already a sense of fragile legitimacy being threatened from all sides by the time the Golden Era ended. And whatever you consider to have ended it — the coast wars, 2Pac and Biggie’s deaths, the rise of the South, the “shiny suit era,” the prevalence of R&B crossover — it was generally agreed upon by 1996 that if hip-hop sucked that year, you could just say “it’s the money” as the reason and get at least a few nods of recognition.
You could also make hip-hop without having a lot of money, and develop the kind of work ethic where what money you make would just go back into the music, but that increasingly seemed like a sucker’s option when the economic bubble of the late ’90s record industry could seemingly provide all the yacht rides and Moët bottles anyone’d ever want. So if you wanted to work at establishing a sort of alternative, independent, distinctly underground style of hip-hop, you had to really need it. And if the disillusionment hinted at by the likes of Common and DJ Shadow wasn’t the dominant reaction, it was still powerful enough — and deeply rooted enough — to help build up a support structure for artists just far enough outside mainstream America’s Will Smith comfort zone.
Often these support structures could wind up carrying an artist further than anyone expected, whether it was a one-off gem of an album or the start of a career that’s still in the midst of putting out must-own records. The story of underground hip-hop — or indie rap, or backpack rap, or whatever your favorite messageboard’s preferred subgenre/euphemism/epithet of choice was — isn’t that different in its essence from other underground permutations of popular music, whether you’re talking about free jazz or punk or thrash or any other scenes that cropped up to fill a void that needed a few more noisy weirdos.
But underground rap took off right when college kids had the time and access to pore over all this stuff on the nascent World Wide Web, and combine that with fast-moving independent scenes and a bumper crop of indies — earlier-established entities like Delicious Vinyl, Mo’ Wax, and Solesides, plus later ’95/’96-established labels like Fondle ‘Em, Rawkus, Rhymesayers, and Stones Throw — that seemed to have a foot in every major city. Underground hip-hop predates 1995, but it’s the second half of the decade where things evolved so rapidly and definitively that we’re still feeling the repercussions today. Not just in a sense of how many of these artists are still putting out records, but how many artists out there are carrying on these concepts while keeping it underground 20-plus years later. If you fuck with Open Mike Eagle, billy woods, Noname, Boldy James, the Koreatown Oddity, or anyone else in that stylistic neighborhood, songs and artists like these are the reason why.