During the 1990s, LA was a formidable force in hip-hop. With Death Row producing anthems regularly, it seemed as if New York was falling behind. Although the West Coast was home to the best-selling emcee of the decade Tupac Shakur, the East Coast still had its fair share of superstars. As LA began to cultivate its laidback relaxing G-funk subgenre, New York artists such as DMX embraced and revitalised the gritty, grimy sonics of the 1980s in new and refreshing ways.
Producers such as RZA, Pete Rock and Large Professor began to strip back their beats and experiment with unpleasant sounds to combat G-funk’s harmonious, melodic sonics, and the results were astonishing. With acts such as the Wu-Tang Clan, Big L and Nas making use of these raw beats, New York began to claw its way back to the top, and by the late-’90s, following the death of Biggie Smalls, both New York and LA coexist each with a distinct sound and aesthetic.
DMX, Big Pun and Mos Def are all New York legends who rose to prominence during the 1990s. With DMX and Big Pun originating from the Bronx and Mos Def from Brooklyn, they all had distinct cadences and flows, making themselves instantly recognisable on records. DMX was known for his aggressive style and provocative lyrics. The late emcee (real name Earl Simmons) was an unstoppable force in his prime and could make anthems with ease. From ‘What’s My Name?’ to ‘Where the Hood At?’, the icon was an unparalleled hitmaker.
One underappreciated yet artistically exceptional East Coast emcee is Canibus. Born in Jamaica and raised primarily in the Bronx, the rapper (Germaine Williams) found fame following a 1996 remix of the Lost Boyz single ‘Music Makes Me High.’ Released when the West Coast was still ruling the charts, Canibus featured alongside Long Beach collective Tha Dogg Pound. From there, he began to ascend within the industry.
Most known for his feud with the legendary emcee LL Cool J, Canibus had several hits to his name before entering what became a career-ending beef. In 1998, Williams released his debut album, Can-I-Bus, through Universal Music. His diss track aimed at LL received a lot of exposure and was moderately successful. Produced by Wyclef Jean, ‘2nd Round KO’ garnered much attention with the music video for the track starring. Mike Tyson. Moreover, Tyson even had a few lines in the song. However, like Mos Def, Canibus was blackballed by the music business for his overt anti-establishment and political material.
DMX, Big Pun, Caniubs and Mos Def were all stars in the 1990s. However, their journeys would be vastly different. Big Pun (real name Christopher Rios) wouldn’t live to see the next decade as he passed away in 2000. Mos Def (now known as Yasiin Bey) would get blackballed and forced to retreat and rebrand. The late DMX would continue to get even more prominent, and Canibus would transition into acting. Despite their differences when they came together, they made magic, and in 1998 they performed an acapella cypher alongside Mic Geronimo and John Forte. You can watch their freestyles in the video below.