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.
Enter The Legend
Big Daddy Kane’s “Show & Prove” feat. Jay Z. (1994)
We are in the midst of a staggering streak. Between 1998 and through his most recent album in 2013, Jay Z released 10 solo albums, and each one has peaked as the No. 1 album in the country. Like most conquerors, his origin story has been obsessed over and mythologized, and it begins with “Show & Prove”. The posse cut was only a modest success as a single — Big Daddy Kane was underrated in the ’90s, and the problem has only gotten worse with time — but Jay Z’s verse remains a revelation.
Even in 1994, Jigga was an unmatched craftsman. His speed and pure percussive power allowed him to hold his own against much more experienced emcees, even as his verse is sandwiched between the wit of Big Daddy Kane and the bonkers charisma of Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Before, as Jay Z said on The Black Album, “I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars,” he was one of the most challenging listens within hip-hop. These early cuts are to be treasured.
Do or Die’s “Po Pimp” feat. Tung Twista (1996)
When Tung Twista recorded a verse for Do or Die’s “Po Pimp”, things weren’t too hot for the rapper. His two albums had landed with a thud, and his solo career was in limbo. Do or Die weren’t exactly better off, either, floating around unsigned with zero prospects for the single.
Yet “Po Pimp” became a local favorite, and Do or Die nabbed a deal with Rap-A-Lot Records, which gave the song a wide release, making it a surprise hit that climbed all the way to No. 22 on the Billboard Hot 100. In return, Tung Twista also scored a record deal, and a new name to boot, but while Twista had a couple of hit albums, that’s hardly how he’ll be remembered.
Twista is the first great guest-verse specialist. His double-time flows are always nice for a bar or two, but quickly grow tiresome over the course of a full 45 minutes. And while some of his collaborations feel more memorable than others — Kanye West, Mariah Carey, Do or Die, or Busta Rhymes — this is, in fact, an illusion.
Truth be told, none of his verses are better than any others because they all sound the same. And you know what? That’s okay. As such, Twista is always welcome to come visit, as long as he doesn’t stay.
Hip Hop Gets Weird
MC Lyte’s “Cold Rock A Party” feat. Missy Elliott (1996)
As one of 20 members of the Swing Mob (a collective which included Ginuwine and Timbaland,) Missy Elliott worked as a ghostwriter and producer on a string of hits in the early ’90s. In 1996, she began laying the groundwork for a solo career by performing a series of guest verses. The biggest hit of the bunch, and indeed the best argument that Missy Elliott was a star in waiting, was MC Lyte’s “Cold Rock a Party.”
MC Lyte was the first solo female artist to release a full album with 1988’s Lyte As a Rock, and a mere eight years later, she sounded like a dinosaur. Missy Elliott’s bizarre rhymes, however, were fresh and endlessly listenable: “Puff Daddy be my pal/ When I He He… He He He He He He How.” If Busta Rhymes was eccentric, then Missy Elliott went a step further into the outright strange. With help from her Swing Mob partner Timbaland, Elliott’s solo career pushed the boundaries of hip-hop.
The First Great Growler
LL Cool J’s “4, 3, 2, 1” feat. DMX. (1997)
The 1995 Mic Geronimo track “Time to Build” has come to be recognized as an underground classic, but while it features young up-and-comers DMX and Ja Rule, it didn’t have enough of an impact at the time to jump-start their careers. DMX would have to wait until 1997 to begin building buzz, and he seemed to have a lot of pent-up energy. On “4, 3, 2, 1”, he exploded across the airwaves, roaring like a devil.
These days the growler is a recognizable archetype for the genre, like the drawling stoner or excitable high voice. But DMX was always more than a growler, and “4, 3, 2, 1” showcased his range. He loves contrast: quiet and loud, fast and slow, lyrics sung and lyrics howled. He knows how to use a pause, too, packaging his lyrics in staccato bursts. In the tradition of upstarts on posse cuts, he was able to steal some shine from the more established artists; in this case, LL Cool J and Method Man.
The First Shitty Gangster of Love
Jay Z’s “Can I Get A…” feat. Ja Rule (1998)
Ja Rule is not the second great growler. The only interesting aspect of his music is his gravelly voice. His “gangster of love” shtick was already old by the time a series of petty prison sentences ended his career, and that career wouldn’t have lasted half as long if he’d kept a supply of lozenges.
But back in 1998, there were reasons for optimism, specifically the hook for “Can I Get A…”, which was written by Ja Rule, and which Jay Z heard and wanted for himself. The first two verses between Jay Z and Amil play out as a battle of the sexes. After that, Ja’s guest verse doesn’t add much to the song, except outright misogyny. “I fucks with my gat out, bounce and leave a hundred/ Makin’ her feel slutted even if she don’t want it” is gross in a really brutal way.
But it didn’t matter. Jay Z was already one of the world’s best-selling hip-hop artists, the song was a hit, and Ja benefited from the Hov Halo, introducing himself to hundreds of thousands of new fans. He emerged from the experience poised to become a commercial juggernaut in his own right. We’ve had lots of shitty gangsters of love, but Ja Rule was the first.