This week’s mix: hip hop 1998–91

Paul Squires
7 min readMay 15, 2024

This week’s mix is bittersweet for me. At some stage I had to make a mix of hip hop tracks from 1988 to 1991, as it is a period of music that I know very very well, but I have mixed emotions in looking back.

The music is incredible, but it is tied up with a bunch of emotions that are far from positive in terms of my (what is now called) lived experience at the time. My mid-teens in east London were hard, horrible, stupid (in every sense), and messy. But, I have tried to transcend that feeling of retrospective pathos for this mix.

My interest in hip hop came from a schoolfriend’s introduction of the Beastie Boys to me in 1987. It had then moved quickly to a pirate station, London City Radio, where a DJ called the Witch Doctor had a rap show every Saturday and Sunday. From there, I found Dave Pearce’s Friday Rap Show on BBC GLR, Jeff Young’s National Fresh supplement to Radio 1’s Friday dance show, and of course, Tim Westwood’s weekend shows on Capital Radio.

I have included some of Westwood’s jingles in this mix but, given his reputation and later banishing from hip hop, not his voice. Typically for the BBC, when he moved there, the corporation ignored the — one might say — more predatory elements to his behaviour, and it’s both tragic and horrible that such events have now transcended the massive contribution that he has made to UK hip hop.

Do I listen to hip hop now? Of course, but nowhere near as much. In leaving school (the word “relief” is a massive understatement here), my friends and I moved on to ambient house and techno. Gangsta rap totally put me off and was a world away from the intelligent, political, east coast hip hop that I had grown up with. However, some later albums from that decade are still superb (Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde ranks as one of my favourite albums of all time) but this all now feels like past history. Grime is where it’s at. The UK has taken the crown, for now.

I’d like to thank hip hop for teaching me about poetry, rhyme, and delivery in a way that secondary school, at the time, couldn’t.

Tracklisting and commentary

Jungle Brothers, Beyond This World 0:00
(Album 1990 — this detail is where I heard this track and/or my purchase of it)

As I was getting into hip hop in 1987, I gravitated towards the more stripped-down productions of Marley Marl and DJ Red Alert. Not only did they sound completely “un-complex” —stripped-down production, letting the delivery literally speak for itself — but it was easier to listen to on a weak pirate radio signal. The JBs were pioneers of this style with tracks such as Straight Out The Jungle, and while the follow-up to that eponymous album is more complex, it still retains that (deliberately) basic production style. Done… is regarded is something of a curio in hip hop circles but I love it, and the UK remixes of What U Waitin 4? were absolutely massive in 1990.

Big Daddy Kane, Another Victory 04:02
(Westwood 1989, bought years later on CD)

Many years after my interest in hip hop waned and the tapes were gone, I was in the Isle of Dogs, having a conversation with a girl that I was seeing and we were talking about poetry. Out of my head came the point that hip hop is of course a form of poetry, as with the example MCs and enemies I freeze at 32° ‘cos I don’t drop rhymes like these from this track. She seemed convinced and I was surprised that I remembered this classic. I bought the CD the next day.

Biz Markie, Vapors 08:24
(Westwood 1989)

Like Another Victory, produced by Marley Marl, this is the absolute stand-out track from the Biz.

Chubb Rock, Treat ’Em Right 14:06
(Westwood 1990, Single 1990)

A truly unique rhymer with a truly unique delivery.

Boogie Down Productions, You Must Learn (Live from Caucus Mountain Remix) 18:28
(Westwood 1989)

KRS-One deserves an honourary knighthood for his services to music. The stand-out album for me is Edutainment, which I remember having three successive copies of as the pressing was very jumpy on my record player — this did not impress Music Power, the record shop in East Ham High Street, where I bought it.

Digital Underground, Doowutchyalike 23:24
(Dave Pearce 1989, Single and album 1989)

As hip hop’s centre of gravity was moving from New York to California in the 1990s, this was the outfit that led the charge. DU were not afraid to experiment with musical styles, through their piano-playing leader Shock G aka Humpty Hump. Like To The East Blackwards (see later), George Clinton had cast a big shadow over the style of DU’s first album Sex Packets; the group later featured an up-and-coming west coast MC by the name of Tupac Shakur.

DU is perhaps, in hindsight, my favourite group of this period. I associate it with mixed feelings (in terms of memory) but they are by far the most original, playful group of this period, and the album Sex Packets is criminally underrated in relation to other highly-regarded albums of this period, such as 3 Feet High and Rising.

A Tribe Called Quest, Youthful Expression 27:06
(Album 1990)

One of the standout albums of that period, I remember picking this up from Our Price in East Ham High Street and almost running home because I was so keen to play it. My favourite track from the album is Youthful Expression. Q-Tip was just 19 when he provided the vocals on the track, and the ending — where the beats fade out to the piano panning across the headphones is, in itself, beautiful.

Eric B. & Rakim, I Ain’t No Joke 28:12
(National Fresh 1988)

Powerful and bold.

JVC Force, Strong Island 31:54
(Witch Doctor 1988)

This was played to death on London City Radio, justifiably.

Roxanne Shanté, Independent Woman 37:58
(Westwood 1989)

One of the greatest female rappers, whose Have A Nice Day was huge in the mid 80s. This is just such an awesome track — extremely intellgent and compassionate delivery, backed by a 3/4-time beat from Marley Marl. I played this to death.

Chill Rob G, Court Is Now In Session 42:12
(Westwood 1989)

Like Special Ed (below), a rapper whose light was huge for a while but went out quite quickly. An incredibly funky loop backs Rob’s huge, almost bellowing delivery.

De La Soul, Transmitting Live from Mars 46:02
(Westwood 1988/1989, Album 1989)

I had to include De La Soul somewhere. I picked up 3 Feet on import from Music Power in Ilford, took it home where a friend and I were playing Gunrunner on the ZX Spectrum. Outside of the already-known tracks (Westwood had played most of the singles previously), the album was periodically received with “what the hell is this?” while trying to finish Gunrunner.

In hindsight, 3 Feet is far from their best album although it’s the one that is held the highest in regard.

Gang Starr, Words I Manifest (Remix) 46:42
(Westwood 1989)

One of Gang Starr’s early standout tracks, with a cracking percussive instrumental.

Masta Ace, I Got Ta 49:22
(Westwood 1990)

Another from the Marley Marl stable, Tim Westwood played this to death and I hated it at the time, but in retrospect I think that it’s fantastic. Really, really intelligent lyrics before rap (and Masta Ace) went gangsta.

Special Ed, Ready 2 Attack 53:32
(Westwood 1990, Album 1990)

Underrated — I thought that Special Ed would be huge, and he released great tracks such as this, but he didn’t get the critical attention that he deserved.

Ultramagnetic MC’s, MC Champion 57:06
(Westwood 1989)

I had this recorded as part of a live session on the Capital Rap Show by Ultramagnetic. Their lyrical style and wordplay is incredible — really quite jarring at times, and this in my view remains one of their best.

X-Clan, Grand Verbalizer What Time Is It 01:00:28
(National Fresh 1990, Album 1990)

Taking Fiend Break by Frankie Bones and Lenny Dee as previously used on Eric B & Rakim’s Microphone Fiend, this is a beautifully delivered track from Brother J, with Professor X giving out his trademark red/black/green verbal motif. To The East Blackwards is a superb album, using a plethora of Funkadelic samples to powerful Afrocentric effect. Unfortunately, the audio quality of the album on streaming services is terrible for some reason, so I had to play with the variables a little bit.

My memory of this album is listening to it on a personal stereo (probably the Aiwa one that I bought in Dixons for 20 quid), on a very long journey on the 238 bus to meet a friend in Chadwell Heath.

Stetsasonic, Speaking of a Girl Named Suzy 01:04:56
(Westwood 1990)

You cannot have a mix without Stet somewhere, and Talkin’ All That Jazz is too obvious an inclusion, so I went for one of their later tracks about a groupie.

Brand Nubian, Slow Down 01:07:52
(National Fresh 1991)

This is where my interest in hip hop started to wane. Jeff Young mentioned the Edie Brickell samples in this track when playing it, and I bought Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars as a result.

Main Source, Looking at the Front Door 01:12:14
(Westwood 1991)

Again, towards the end of my interest in hip hop, this was a great track with a highly catchy chorus.

MC Lyte, Paper Thin 01:15:08
(Witch Doctor 1988)

Probably my favourite hip hop track of all time. The production is stripped down to the percussion and MC Lyte’s unique New York delivery, ripping into her ex-boyfriend Sam. A stone cold bona fide classic.

3rd Bass, Wordz of Wizdom (Club Remix) 01:20:04
(Single and album 1990)

The first credible white rappers after the Beasties; such were their credentials that they were produced by Stetsasonic’s Prince Paul (alongside De La Soul) and were signed to Def Jam. The Cactus Album has some superb tracks on it (Gas Face being the most well-known) with some filler, but although the career of 3rd Bass was short, they had achieved a lot in only a couple of years.

KRS-1 talking about hip hop on The Late Show, BBC2 / background: Public Enemy, Brothers Gonna Work It Out 01:27:54
(Album 1990)

This was part of BBC2’s The Late Show, a nightly arts strand back when the BBC produced creative, consistently high-quality arts programming. Each evening’s show had a theme, and this special had 45 minutes of performances from rappers of the time. Needless to say, I had it on tape and watched it over and over.

Here’s the mix in HQ on Mixcloud. I really hope that you like it.

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Paul Squires

Founder @imperica @pereramedia / Strategist @ibminteractive / Chair @furtherfield. Digital, media, art, politics, environment, culture, ephemera.