The Summer Of ’96: A High Point For Hip-Hop–Or The End Of The Golden Era?

Summer Of '96

There’s a bit that opens Stakes Is High, perfectly encapsulating the hand-off of hip-hop’s torch, generation to generation:

“When I first heard Criminal Minded…”

It’s the nostalgic glow of something truly monumental seeping into the light of a new day. Not necessarily replacing it, but reinforcing it. Making it whole in a way that was impossible without the appropriate context. This summer, we celebrate 20 laps around the sun for not one, two, three or four classic albums, but five. Which begs the question, what was in the water back in ’96? And was it the end of what we now consider to be the “Golden Era”?

Experts that have studied this culture and its trajectory far longer than I’ve been alive typically put hip-hop’s adolescence at a staggering 14-year-long stretch, commencing with Run DMC’s breakthrough and capping off right around the meat of Jay Z’s climb to fully-established mogul status at the turn of the century, providing an entirely new model of what was even possible for a hip-hop artist at the time. But for my money, sonically, and perhaps even culturally, the beginning of the end for what is considered to be the “Golden Era” falls on June 25th, 1996, twenty years to the day since Reasonable Doubt was released.

A week later, De La Souls junior record Stakes Is High would land and remind us just how far we’ve come since KRS-One & Scott La Rock dropped their ’87 opus. That same day, Nas released his sophomore album It Was Written, no slump in sight, though it arrived to mixed reviews. But let’s be honest here, it’s hard to stack anything up against Nasir’s debut, widely considered to be one of the single greatest albums ever assembled, regardless of genre.

It Was Written’s reception, however, speaks volumes to my point. That there is and always will be a reactionary pulse to hip-hop; one that jumps to digital when organix are getting played out, one that jumps to live drums when the MPC’s palette is getting too rigid. It’s the push and pull of all musical eras, really. It’s within these same parameters that we evaluate most bodies of music, hoping for more of the same when the prior has been good to us, pushing for something new when the well seems to be running dry.

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