What Dad Wants You to Know About ’90s Hip-Hop Soundtracks
New Jack City makes me feel nostalgic.
My partner and I watch — and, at times, laugh — while Wesley Snipes delivers his tragic, Shakespearean performance. While we watch, I am talking about Christopher Williams’ acting debut and singing “I’m Dreamin’” louder than our Bed-Stuy apartment’s walls can take. I’m talking the rising tide of the New Jack Swing era and how Teddy Riley’s production is the backdrop for the lives of 1980s babies. The 1990s were the landscape for my upbringing: how I lived, loved, talked, and ran the streets. It’s why all of my friends — and brothers and their friends — pulsed through our hood like renegades.
I stood up during the ending credits after Nino Brown got his just due; I held my child while doing the Roger Rabbit during Aaron Hall’s scene in a nightclub filled with sweaty bodies. It made me realize how much the ’90s and the music that became the backdrop of the films I loved as a kid shaped my role as a young Black teen in the Bronx. It also helped inform the role I now play as an artist and father to two young Black girls with very distinct personalities, both at different ages, growing up in their own worlds.
The soundtracks of ’90s films — Who’s the Man?, Deep Cover, Above the Rim, New Jack City, Love Jones, Menace II Society, Strictly Business, Mo’ Money, New Jersey Drive, and Juice, to name a few — helped shape all the teen angst Black kids felt during the post-Reaganomics era. As an East Coast, Bronx-bred, New York City child, I would catch Ralph McDaniels’ Video Music Box and The Box on public access television. It was part of the early onslaught of BET’s Teen Summit and Rap City, both hosted by Prince Dajour. This kind of programming gave us the visuals for the sounds we heard pumping out of boomboxes and Jeeps as we also learned about crack and sex.
Films like ‘New Jack City’ tell the story of latchkey kids, single-mother storytellers, and broken-window policy beneficiaries; the movies and scores served as a means of replicating our dreary but joyous day-to-day living.
We wore Triple Fat Goose, The North Face, and Columbia jackets. We burned the ends of our JanSport strings to keep away potential theft in school stairways between classroom switches. We ducked gangs on Blood Initiation Day before it got too late to show our bus passes past 6 p.m. to cranky MTA workers, all the while keeping our Timbs fresh and our Nautica sweats new. We made it home in time to watch Batman: The Animated Series, Darkwing Duck, and Ricki Lake before finishing our CIMS homework.
My daughters will discover the ’90s through films and photographs, much in the same way many of us watch Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. march, Malcolm X prophesize, and Shirley Chisholm corral in stunning photos and videos captured in black and white. My daughters will not know what it means to tape music videos on VHS or count down to the debut of Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time” video premiere. They won’t know what it’s like to look forward to a cameo or lyric they can’t Google or YouTube. They won’t understand the anticipation of dial-up internet — the rotary sound of a faux luxury for those who could afford it — clogging the phone lines for potential suitors or bill collectors. They won’t know a life without a smartphone.
Films and soundtracks of the ’90s became a microcosm of Blackness nationwide. Doughboy’s monologue in Boyz ’N the Hood is poignant; its gravity is understood across all ghetto spectrums, regardless of zip codes and intrastate distance. O-Dog’s rage in Menace II Society and the range and litany of disorders surrounding Juice’s Bishop are reminders of the Black boys and girls we knew who lived those lives offscreen and told those same stories beside bodegas. Films like New Jack City tell the story of latchkey kids, single-mother storytellers, and broken-window policy beneficiaries; the movies and scores served as a means of replicating our dreary but joyous day-to-day living.
And their music described our lives. When you pressed play on SWV’s “Anything” in the tape deck, you were in a scene with Tupac in a way modern film doesn’t allow. It’s the tragedy of our contemporary world of Instagram and immediate critiques. Soundtracks don’t hold the same weight anymore, because the scores of our lives constantly exist and exit with TikTok and viral moments.
Deep Cover, despite Larry Fishburne’s skill set, did not age well. (Trust me, we revisited — and just went back to our iPhones.) But the soundtrack? It’s the nostalgia that delivers me right back to early ’90s drums, denim, and the bagginess of it all. It brings me back to the boom-bap synchronicity, Bomb Squad production, Dr. Dre at his finest, and Snoop Dogg just becoming. We saw each other not only through the visual representations of Black fashion and mannerisms, but also through the soundscape that elevated our slang through lyrical jousting and storytelling.
Each soundtrack gave us a rhythm. When Rakim told us to “Know the Ledge,” and when MC Eiht told us he grew up to be a “Streiht Up Menace,” we were given both the music to ride to and the authentic soundtrack to the rules and regulations of our blocks.
My daughters will have those same moments, but not in the ways they were shared by the alive and deceased I knew and loved. That’s a symptom of age and generational gaps. My daughters will eventually share the “you don’t know what it’s like” sentiment with their children. I will probably laugh and remind us just how much time seeps into how we talk about the things we both love and miss. Those moments for my daughters now will come in clips that last as long as the time it takes them to finish a Seamless order.
The ’90s films that told our stories — my story — can’t be explained in one essay. But the music and memories that go along with them are alive in every piece and poem I write and every train ride I take in this era of the mask. My daughters will never fully comprehend how much that world shaped my life and continues to shape the ways they live. But as their father, my job is to implore them to listen, watch, half-step with me, and try.