What Dad Wants You to Know About ’90s Hip-Hop Soundtracks

The energy can’t be duplicated

Joel Leon.
LEVEL
Published in
5 min readFeb 27, 2021

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“New Jack City.” Photo: Warner Bros.

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.

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Joel Leon.
LEVEL
Writer for

he/him. @tedtalks giver. @EBONYmag / @medium writer. @frankwhiteco . creative. @taylorstrategy senior copywriter. @thecc_nyc 21’ class. @twloha board. #BRONX