Many pop songs have less than 100 words of lyrics. Many hip-hop songs have over 400! At that rate, a 14-track rap album would require as many words as a short novel, which helps explain why the making of those records is such a collaborative effort.
But guest verses have always had a practical purpose. They allow different artists with different followings to share their audience. But the kind of verse we’re concerned with here — those that turned a no-name into a star — didn’t arrive until the early ’90s, when the genre was commercially established.
Simply put, it’s hard for a verse to launch a career if there aren’t any job openings.
Things began to change in the late ’80s: N.W.A. and Public Enemy courted controversy with songs like “Fuck the Police” and “Public Enemy No. 1”, bringing national media attention to hip-hop music. New media outlets like MTV and The Source pushed artists, and in 1990, as Billboard editor Paul Grein said, “Rap exploded.”
The foundation was laid, and the next generation of artists made liberal use of other artists’ tracks to sell themselves. They were hungry, and they were young. In fact, the earliest notable example was only 18 years old.
Here are 10 hip-hop verses dropped in the ’90s that changed rap forever.
A New Path To Fame
Main Source’s “Live At The Barbecue” feat. Nas. (1991)
Main Source was a conscious rap trio based in Toronto whose first album, Breaking Atoms, was released to universal acclaim. It’s definitely a period piece, although it’s easy to see how, if Main Source hadn’t broken up, they might have flourished alongside acts like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. These days, the group’s best remembered for its song “Live at the Barbecue”, which featured an 18-year-old Queens emcee named Nasty Nas.
“I specifically meant for that verse to spark my whole existence in rap music, so I approached it that way,” Nas told Rolling Stone. The realism and poetry that made him famous on his debut album, Illmatic, are present in embryonic form on “Live at the Barbecue”. He references AIDS, the KKK, and Barbara Bush while spitting out flows as knotted as anything yet heard in hip-hop: “I move swift and uplift your mind/ Shoot the gif when I riff in rhyme.”
A year later, he signed a deal with Columbia Records, but “Live at the Barbecue” was the first shot fired by the young guns who went on to dominate the ’90s.
We’re All Mad Here
A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario” feat. Leaders of the New School (Busta Rhymes) (1992)
Despite a long and influential career, A Tribe Called Quest only made four trips up the Billboard Hot 100, reaching its highest point with the 1991 posse-cut “Scenario”. Not coincidentally, “Scenario” was the first time that national radio audiences were exposed to the percussive patterings of a young emcee named Busta Rhymes.
The son of Jamaican immigrants, Busta was one of the first artists to bring the musical patois of Kingston dance halls to hip-hop, and his off-the-wall persona made him an awkward fit within his group at the time, Leaders of the New School. LONS would stagger on for another three years before finally breaking up (on an episode of Yo! MTV Raps, no less) and “Scenario” was the beginning of the end, the moment when the attention shifted from LONS, the group, to Busta Rhymes, the star.
In hindsight, it’s not just that Busta’s strange, although he is certainly strange (“Chickety Choco, the chocolate chicken”). And it’s not just that he’s endlessly quotable (“RAOW RAOW like a dungeon dragon!”), either. It’s the way he raps downhill, how his internal rhymes build and build, snowballing into a syllabic avalanche. If you recall, the early ’90s were a transitional period for hip-hop, and even today, Busta’s verse on “Scenario” sounds like the revolution.
The Master And His Muse
Dr. Dre’s “Deep Cover” feat. Snoop Doggy Dogg (1992)
Let’s get one thing out of the way: Dr. Dre is not a great rapper. But he is a good host, and his thrilling beats and monotone mumble do a lot to make his guests look good. In fact, on “Deep Cover”, Dre is so stone-faced as an undercover cop that audiences can’t help but root for the charming drug dealer instead. Keep in mind, this was Dr. Dre’s first single as a solo artist after the breakup of N.W.A., and in that first single, his character is murdered by the other emcee.
Talk about an introduction! A molasses-voiced 22-year-old kid calling himself Snoop Doggy Dogg became a star almost overnight. Thus began Dre’s second great partnership, as well as the musical movement that came to be known as Gangsta-Funk. A few months later, Dre and Snoop would release the definitive album of the G-Funk era, The Chronic, but “Deep Cover” was the first indication of their remarkable chemistry.
The Pessimistic Stoner
Nas’ “Life’s A Bitch” feat. AZ (1994)
The rising tide of gangster rap didn’t just make superstars richer; it created more opportunities for rap’s middle class, even those who weren’t gangster rap. Case in point: AZ. The Brooklyn emcee never had a top 10 hit or a top 10 album, but he still managed to sell millions of records between 1995 and 2008. Today, however, his most enduring song remains his first.
“Life’s a Bitch” is one of the greatest hip-hop songs of all time, and while Nas’ verse is terrific, it’s AZ’s contribution that cements the cut as a classic. “Life’s a bitch and then you die/ That’s why we get high/ Cause you never know when you’re gonna go,” is AZ’s rallying cry, and his verse is dense in every sense of the word. His piercing voice is a stark contrast to Nas’ rumbling baritone, and together, they present a bleak view of the world as a treadmill, with everybody running like hell just to keep up.
King of New York
Craig Mack’s “Flava In Ya Ear Remix” feat. Notorious B.I.G. (1994)
The talent of Biggie Smalls made it overwhelmingly obvious that he was going to ascend to superstardom no matter when he was first heard. His debut solo single, “Juicy”, dropped one month later, but since “Flava in Ya Ear” came out first, it had the privilege of launching the career of the Notorious B.I.G.
While Nas and Jay Z would take a few years to find their voices, Biggie arrived fully formed and instantly iconic. His thick-tongued rumble and nimble wordplay are on display from the beginning: “Niggas is mad I get more butt than ashtrays.” L.L. Cool J and Busta Rhymes were the bigger names at the time, but there’s a reason Biggie gets first billing: He was the most convincing rapper out of the East Coast.
“I get mines the fast way/ The ski mask way,” he raps, and this attitude, part posturing and part P.R., would bring a lot of attention to hip-hop in the coming years.