How 1991 Changed Music Forever

From the arrival of 2Pac to Kurt Cobain ascending to superstar status with ‘Nevermind,’ a look back at one of the most influential years in music ever.

Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero/ The Daily Beast

Yes, 1991 was a helluva year in music. It doesn’t matter what strain of popular music you were into—whether you were bopping to the pop sounds of New Kids On the Block or Mariah Carey, nodding your head to DJ Quik or Nice & Smooth, clubbing with C+C Music Factory, having Black Box providing the backdrop, or singing along to Color Me Badd or Hi-Five—there was a lot of great stuff on the radio. Beyond the nostalgia, it was an important year that represents so much of what would come to define the new decade and the oncoming years of music.

At the dawn of the ’90s, new jack swing was in full flight, with singles from Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 (released at the end of 1989) dominating the charts, and established artists like Whitney Houston embracing the production style courtesy of her L.A. and Babyface-produced album I’m Your Baby Tonight. Mariah Carey’s Emotions established her as competition for Whitney’s throne. En Vogue’s hit debut album Born To Sing, an infectious hybrid of new jack swing and dance/club production, was still reverberating on the charts, while Teddy Riley’s Guy had also released their smash second album, The Future. Additionally, New Edition had splintered into sort of an early ’90s R&B Wu-Tang Clan—with lead singers Ralph Tresvant and Johnny Gill dropping multiplatinum albums, as well as underdog trio Bell Biv Devoe becoming major stars on the strength of their own hit single and album Poison.

But there was a sense of transition in R&B as two quartets emerged who were firmly entrenched in new jack swing but also hearkened back to the glory days of four-part vocal groups. At the top of the year, Philly foursome Boyz II Men would hit big with their debut single “Motownphilly,” a classic that featured hip-hop beats but also showcased this group’s raison d’etre: old school a capella harmonizing. Jodeci dropped their debut single in February of 1991, but it was the second single—the slow-burning ballad “Forever My Lady”—that truly separated them from their peers and predecessors. As did their image: an extension of the “R&B bad boy” aesthetic cultivated by BBD, Jodeci added an outlaw element that would prove to be wildly influential on how male R&B groups from Blackstreet to Dru Hill would present themselves over the next several years. Both of these groups would come to represent the gold standard for similar acts like Silk, Shai, 112, and others. Boyz II Men represented the pinnacle of broad commercial appeal and Jodeci came to define the mainstreaming of street aesthetics outside of the rap game.

And what of rappers circa 1991?

In hip-hop, 1990 had been an interesting intro to the new decade, with rap continuing to cross over—building on the momentum that had been growing since Run-D.M.C.’s Raising Hell in 1986—albeit in pop-friendly and watered-down presentations. Pop-rap sensations MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice had exploded in 1990; Hammer’s Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ’Em had been released in January of that year and Vanilla Ice’s To the Extreme followed that August. Both albums spawned inescapable-but-widely-derided hits (“U Can’t Touch This” and “Ice, Ice Baby,” respectively) but the backlash had been severe. In 1991, credible rap sought to reclaim the genre’s newfound visibility.

Wary of the emergence of both pop-rap superstars and hip-house hits, De La Soul sought to clearly distance themselves from their early “hip-hop hippies” reputation with De La Soul Is Dead. Released that spring, the sophomore album from Pos, Trugoy, and Maseo wasn’t exactly gangsta, but it definitely wasn’t “D.A.I.S.Y. Age,” either. There were no “Buddy” feel-good singalongs this time around, as the Native Tongues as a whole moved into maturity. That sentiment would be even more obvious with the second album from A Tribe Called Quest. Like De La’s release, The Low End Theory signaled a shift in ATCQ’s image, but it seemed less of a reaction and more of a look forward to where the group was heading. Embellishing their jazz-rap approach and toning down some of the more idiosyncratic aspects of their image (no more “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo,” folks), the Tribe set the stage for an entire wave of like-minded acts to hit the mainstream. Over the next two years, artists ranging from Digable Planets to Pharcyde would enjoy crossover success as they put their own spin on the Low End Theory template of boho artsiness and everymanism.

In the summer of ’91, Naughty By Nature’s “O.P.P.” threatened to become the “U Can’t Touch This” of the year, were it not for the group’s ability to deliver catchy singles without donning goofy pants, shooting cartoonish videos, or mastering the Running Man. They were hood—and they wore it proudly, even as they perched atop the pop charts. That fall would see the full album’s release, and Naughty By Nature would spend the rest of the decade merging hardcore street aesthetics with pop-friendly hooks, helping to set the table for grittier rap acts like Redman and DMX to become mainstream stars. Ice Cube’s Death Certificate was also released late in the year, and if his solo debut AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted established him as an important storyteller with an unfiltered artistic perspective, Death Certificate made it clear that Ice Cube was hip-hop’s most necessary voice circa 1991: angry, incendiary and urgent. The lyrics on the album veered from thoughtful to hateful to hopeless to playful at a dizzying pace, and painted a startling picture of what life was like in the concrete jungle that was early ’90s Los Angeles.

The two biggest rap groups as the new decade dawned were undoubtedly Cube’s former group N.W.A and righteous revolutionaries Public Enemy. Both acts had ridden a wave of controversy and acclaim since bum-rushing the mainstream with classic albums in 1988, and in 1991, both acts delivered albums that signified the end of their popular reign. Both Efil4zaggin and Apocalypse 91: The Enemy Strikes Black resonated deeply with the times—the former an exploitative, hedonism-on-steroids depiction of a rap group gone wild as America’s worst nightmare, the latter a firebomb more deliberately aimed at everything from the media to corporate greed. By the end of the year, N.W.A. would implode and the emergence of Dr. Dre’s G-funk in 1992 would signal an end to Public Enemy’s brand of bombastic hardcore political rap in the mainstream. But in 1991, both acts were still at the height of their powers—even if the window was beginning to close.

Two of the hip-hop artists who would assume the mantle from those groups made their debuts in 1991 as guest stars on significant rap singles. A 17-year-old Nas dropped a legendary guest verse on Main Source’s “Live At the BBQ,” sparking interest in the young rapper from Queens who would go on to record his own classic debut in 1994. In the Bay Area, a 20-year-old named Tupac Shakur would drop a few legendary bars on “Same Song” by Digital Underground, before releasing his controversial first album 2Pacalypse Now in November of 1991. Combining N.W.A’s nihilism with Public Enemy’s topical rage, the young rapper was immediately thrust into the crosshairs of hip-hop vs. the establishment. At a time when Ice Cube was being derided for anti-Semitism and Ice-T was being banned for his heavy metal track “Cop Killer,” 2Pac entered a perfect storm of notoriety. He was a few years away from the urban folk hero status he would attain later, but critics like Vice President Dan Quayle saw him as a problem early on. 2Pac was making waves from day one.

Of course, 1991 also saw the ascendance of 2Pac’s rock counterpart in fatalistic ‘90s angst and romanticized Gen X martyrdom. Kurt Cobain became an unwitting poster boy in late 1991, opening the floodgates for similar bands and rearranging rock’s mainstream for a new decade. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hit radio in September 1991, and the band became fixtures on MTV as the song become an anthem before the band’s classic sophomore album Nevermind would become an unexpected hit near the end of the year—as did albums by Temple of the Dog, Pearl Jam (Ten), Soundgarden (Badmotorfinger), and Alice In Chains (Dirt.)

But prior to “grunge” becoming the buzzword du jour post-Seattle explosion, R.E.M. had been enjoying their biggest crossover hits to date in “Losing My Religion” and “Shiny Happy People”—both singles from their hit 1991 album Out of Time. Though “Religion” is regarded as a classic of the decade and “People” is (to put it generously) not, they both represented an epochal moment in popular music: R.E.M. had been moving closer and closer to superstardom since 1988s Green, and Out of Time was affirmation that they were one of the biggest acts in rock, setting the stage for the major commercial and creative success of 1992s Automatic For the People. But most significantly, setting the stage for an alt-rock explosion for which Nirvana would take most of the credit.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers would also break through majorly in 1991. Alternately derided and beloved for their early punk-rap-thrash-funk knucklehead sound and image, the SoCal band would reinvent themselves as Top 40 mainstays with Blood Sugar Sex Magik, becoming one of the most popular and maligned bands of their generation in the process. 1991 also brought with it the My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, a shoegaze classic; Teenage Fanclub’s critically acclaimed Bandwagonesque; and Leisure, the debut album from Blur, thus introducing the world to the brilliance of Damon Albarn.

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But not everything significant in 1991 rock was of the “alternative” variety. It was also one of the last years that a truly broad cross-section of rock music was represented in the mainstream. By the end of the year, grunge would dominate the airwaves and wouldn’t relinquish that stranglehold until 1994, when a wave of poppier post-grunge bands like Green Day and Weezer would emerge. But in 1991, Metallica would become arguably the biggest hard rock band on the planet not fronted by a guy named “Axl” as “The Black Album” debuted at No. 1 when it was released that August, spawning radio hits like “Enter Sandman” and “Unforgiven,” and turning James Hetfield & Co. into an arena tour-de-force.

And U2’s Achtung Baby would arrive near the end of the year, announcing the Irish quartet in their multimedia-savvy, ironic-yet-earnest ’90s image—an image that would become even more pronounced with 1993s Zooropa. But the band’s immersion in dance and industrial music on Achtung… helped them shake off the stigma of their Joshua Tree days and helped them retool for a more cynical decade.

There was the beginning of a pop shift in 1991, as superstars like Prince and Michael Jackson dropped albums that were hugely successful but not not as era-defining as their earlier work had been. Nonetheless, Diamonds and Pearls and Dangerous were both creative high points for both artists: Prince reclaimed the pop charts with his most accessible album since Purple Rain, and MJ delivered his answer to new jack swing dominance in an album that was arguably better than the 1987 blockbuster Bad. But as grunge and gangsta rap emerged as clear indicators of what was happening in the culture, it became clear that the biggest acts of the 1980s were somewhat detached from that culture—at least in the most immediate sense. As the country watched the Rodney King beating, Madonna was prepping her SEX book. The times they were a-changin’. But the biggest stars of the previous decade were still pushing themselves—even if there was a new wave symbolically taking the “voice of the people” baton. The ’90s wouldn’t be a decade of larger-than-life icons—these acts prided themselves on a semblance of authenticity, even the manufactured kind.

In hindsight, 1991 feels like the most important year in ’90s music. It was the year that certain artists, sounds, and styles took over mainstream culture to define the rest of the decade. By the late ’90s, it was no longer shocking for R-rated rap stars to become pop icons or for rockers to dress like high school dropouts or for R&B singers to be raunchy and raw. All of those elements were either introduced or mainstreamed in 1991 by visionary artists doing revolutionary things in their respective genres. It was a year that saw the deaths of Freddie Mercury and Miles Davis and the end of vinyl as the standard format. It was a year that defined Generation X and ’90s culture. It was a year that changed everything.