Reed Jackson saw your MCM and
your WCW selling bootleg candy corn.
Hip-hop has always had an obsession with death. For every line about making it to the top, there’s at least two about going six feet deep. Even the most jubilant jams often reference the theoretical demise of somebody, whether it’s the MCs themselves or a hypothetical friend or foe. It’s a reflection of the genre’s base in reality; the music is supposed to mirror life and that means talking about the dark stuff.
Afrika Bambaataa’s first single ever, recorded in 1980, was called “Death Mix.” RUN-DMC’s breakout single “It’s Like That,” often viewed as fun and upbeat, was actually about the hardships that came with living in Hollis, Queens, and includes the line, “People coming, people going, people born to die.” Scarface and the Geto Boys rapped about it constantly. Tupac seemingly predicted his own. And now Future, the biggest wave creator in the game, uses it as somewhat of a backcloth to his music, lacing his warbly croons with an impending sense of doom.
All this has resulted in a lot of songs about dying, but for a number of years in the ’90s it went beyond that. For a group of innovative and ill-minded MCs, death became more than a reflection of reality—and instead a form of expression in itself. They created art purely about the act of dying and how weird, interesting, and even funny it can be sometimes. This resulted in music that, while graphic in nature, was significant in its willingness to dive into a subject that is both constant and enigmatic. It also resulted in a lot of shock-value material that was violent, mysterious, and, for angst-ridden teenagers like myself, fun to get into. The best of it had the appeal of a well-written horror flick: exciting for both its gruesomeness and its ability to create something thought provoking amid the madness.
Perhaps for that reason, at its peak of popularity, it was labeled “horrorcore.” But the term implies a gimmicky nature when really it was something much more. Hip-hop’s only Oscar-winning group, highlighted below, found its footing in the depths of the sub-genre. Two of hip-hop’s most celebrated producers, RZA and Prince Paul, devoted years of their prime to releasing dark, ominous rap as part of the Gravediggaz. The argument could even be made that the most popular MC of all time, Eminem, was heavily influenced by the style.
Like with any genre, there’s plenty to sift through. While there’s a fair amount of material that leans more on the shock aspect (here’s where I mention ICP), there are also a lot of records that are simply good ass albums done by talented MCs. They aren’t filled with creaking organs or spooky sound effects, as some might assume. Rather, they’re reflective of the hip-hop of the time. Here are five of the best of them.
Ganksta NIP – Psychic Thoughts (1993)
In its early stages, Houston hip-hop had a specific style — a far cry from the chrome and candy colors its often associated with today. It was dark, moody, hard-hitting music that sounded like the unraveling of a man’s mind. Rap legend Scarface would go on to popularize the sound, but he was undoubtedly influenced by South Park’s Gangsta NIP, who was also signed to Rap-A-Lot Records and actually wrote the Geto Boys most blatantly unnerving song, “Chuckie.” Ganksta was a huge character, often dropping references to mythical monsters and folklore in-between tales of his rough upbringing in south central Houston. He was also a devoted member of the Nation of Islam and would sometimes begin his strange tirades of supernatural street talk with the universal Islamic greeting of “Asalaamu Alaikum.”
Psychic Thoughts was his debut on a major and was enticing for its bizarre subject matter and head-rattling production. Its sound was similar to that of Scarface’s solo albums of the time, which were West Coast leaning in their squelching keys and samples but heavier in their drums and bass lines. This is partially a result of their mixing, which was done by now-legendary engineer Mike Dean, who worked on all of Ganksta NIP’s early records. Despite its fierce artwork, Psychic is actually less lyrically violent than some of the other records on this list, but still a hardcore listen nonetheless.
Esham – Closed Casket (1994)
Ask anyone in Detroit’s hip-hop scene about Esham, and they’ll most likely have at least a few vivid memories of the “acid rap” MC. That’s because he was one of the most popular rappers in the city in the early ’90s, thanks to a mixture of raw lyricism, heavy production, and dark theatrics, including coming out of a casket on stage to start his shows. Slum Village has cited him as a major part of Motown’s music history; Eminem and D12 even got into a beef with him after Em described himself as a cross between Ozzy Osbourne, Charles Manson, and Esham on his debut. His aesthetic was based on brutality and shock—just look up the cover of his 1993 album, KKKill The Fetus, for an example of that—but he was really more of a street rapper than anything, using over-the-top imagery to describe life on Detroit’s east side.
Closed Casket dropped when the West Coast was reigning supreme, and its production is heavily influenced by Dre’s sample-based production and G-synths as a result. When I played it for a few friends the other day, they described it as a morbid version of The Chornic, which is a pretty intriguing comparison. After breaking onto the scene with a few punk and metal-inspired records, Casket is really when Esham started hitting his stride in terms musicianship, crafting songs that were gripping for both their jaw-dropping candor and songwriting. The album is also when Esham started gaining a lot of buzz (he would sign to TVT Records not long after), so there a few really smooth singles here that were obviously created to reach radio but still have an underlying tone of something much realer.
Three 6 Mafia – Mystic Stylez (1995)
Only in hip-hop could a group of five Memphis project kids, draping a cross while rocking ski masks, go on to win one of the most prestigious awards in film. It’s a beautiful thing. But if you check out their debut, you can hear why the group has gone on to such success—it’s really way ahead of its time. The most obvious example of this is “Tear Da Club Up,” the album’s most memorable single. One listen of it and you realize how well the song has aged and how similar it sounds to a lot of today’s popular trap stuff. My favorite part of it is not the stuttering hi-hats or the chanting chorus, but the floating strings in the background, adding an air of mystique and moodiness. This sound—dark-ass club music, essentially—is what Three 6 would learn to master early in their careers, with Mystic Stylez being the blueprint.
The lyricism used on the record is violent, graphic and even sadistic at times. But like many albums of this style, the devil talk is more amusing filler than actual truths. On “Da Summer,” the first song that gave Three 6 radio play, mentions of grave plots and homicides are brought up, but the song’s tone is steeped in nostalgia, with its warm Rick James sample and breezy hook. It’s demonstrative of how, despite having a dramatic style, these guys were songwriters first and foremost.
Brotha Lynch Hung – Season of Da Siccness (1995)
Somehow, my first music concert ever was a Brotha Lynch Hung show. It’s a fact that still shocks me to this day. The Sacramento MC performed to a half-full room, full of OGs and weirdos alike, in the dingiest venue in town. My mom dropped my baby-faced self and my best friend, who I distinctly remember was wearing a goofy faux-hawk that day, off at the venue and told us she’d be back to pick us up a few hours later. She must have been drinking. Brotha Lynch was over an hour late to start his set, was barely audible on the mic because the venue’s shitty sound system, and, for whatever reason, had one of those toy Spider Man web shooters on his wrist to spray red gunk in the crowd’s face all night. It was bizarre, uneven—and freakin’ awesome. My friend and I were in bliss.
The highpoint of the night came when Brotha Lynch played “Locc To Da Brain,” his big single from his debut, Season of Da Siccness. The record actually charted on Billboard when it was released and has supposedly gone on to go platinum. It shouldn’t come as a surprise: Season is one of the all-time great dark hip-hop albums, thanks mostly to Lynch’s rapid-fire flow and the record’s funky production. It’s also decisively street—Lynch was a well-known Crip—so it’s often labeled more as a gangster rap album than a “horrorcore” record. But Lynch would always take his lyrics one step further; while gangster MCs would often boast of their recent killings, Lynch would talk about their gruesome aftermath, sometimes saying he’d eat the bodies after they were left soulless. “My uzi says it’s dinnertime,” he coldly raps on “Dead Man Walking.” Yeesh.
Doomsday Productions – Pray 4 Me (1997)
Las Vegas’ Doomsday Productions were affiliated with Brotha Lynch Hung and were noticeably more theatrical than some of their counterparts. They rapped over beats built on shadowy backdrops and ’80s-style synthesizers, giving their albums the feel of a Wes Craven soundtrack. Its three members also rhymed in extreme vocal tones, with rapper Eklypss being the most tremendous example, sounding like a hip-hop version of the Crypt Keeper. Some of their most well-known songs—“Redrum,” “Day of the Dead,” “Embrace the Darkness”—have the same titles as the campy cardboard cuts you’d find on a Wal-Mart Halloween compilation. But even with their very literal interpretation of the horror genre, Doomsday could rap, and they made a lot of music that thumped.
My favorite of the members was the hilariously named Pit, who rapped in a droll moan that counterbalanced Eklypss’ sinister squeal perfectly. He shines the most on Pray 4 Me, the group’s second album and probably most well known. Pray features the song “Siccness,” a cut that immediately conjures up images of fog slithering over a graveyard and was a go-to jam for hip-hop horror heads back in the day. It’s the song before it, though, “Sweet Dreams,” an anthem about street retaliation, that shows off the group’s ability to toe the line between theatrical storytelling and hardcore realism.