February 13, 1996.
Two of the greatest albums in music history just casually dropped on this day 25 years ago.
Let's start with 2pac's All Eyez On Me
As Tupac screams in his first line of the eponymous "California Love" he aligned himself with Death Row Records fresh out of jail.
In 1995 he was finishing up his last year of a 2-year sentence for criminal sexual assault in upstate New York at Clinton Correctional Facility.
Just a couple days before being sentenced, he was also ambushed in a New York City elevator lobby of a studio that he was meeting up with Puff Daddy and Notorious B.I.G. at, and shot 5 times.
While in jail, Death Row Records seemed to have taken over the music world.
Suge Knight used physical force to get Dr. Dre released from his contract with Eazy-E, released The Chronic and followed it up with Snoop Dogg's Doggystyle. Both were smash successes and 2 of the greatest rap album ever produced.
While in jail, Tupacs third album, Me Against The World, hit #1 on Billboard.
Nearly all the money made off the album's success went towards paying his insane legal costs and supporting his family. He was dead broke. And Suge Knight smelled blood in the water. He had been trying to sign Tupac for years. Ever since producing the soundtrack to his movie, "Above The Rim". So being the one person to visit him constantly in jail, and send money to his family, quickly endeared Knight to Tupac. He promised to buy his mom a house and cover all his legal costs, and Tupac was sold.
In September of '95 Tupac signed a 3-page contract granting him a million-dollar advance and covering costs of his next 3 albums, which he owed to Death Row. Tupac allegedly told a close friend that he had "sold his soul to the devil".
A week later Suge paid bail for Tupac's release and in October he was released and flown home to LA.
Within an hour of landing, he had hit Can-Am Recording Studio and recorded "Ambitionz Az a Ridah”.
Immediately after finishing "Ambitionz Az a Ridah”, Tupac went on to record "I Ain't Mad At Cha". A totally opposite themed song compared to the hostility and anger in Ambitionz.
"I Ain't Mad At Cha" was a song about a broken friendship.
Tupac worked like a madman. He had clearly been writing like a maniac while in prison and the first thing he wanted to do upon release was put his written words "onto wax" as they say.
There's an amazing book chronicling the recording sessions of the album, "Original Gangstas: The Untold Story of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur, and the Birth of West Coast Rap" by Ben Westhoff . The book claims Tupac left prison with only "Ambitionaz As A Ridah" written and that he went on a writing spree but I feel that the fact he recorded a double-album (Fun Fact - it was rap's first dual-disc/vinyl album ever) in just TWO WEEKS time proves he was a man on a mission with plenty of material either on paper or in his head going into the sessions.
One of the best anecdotes from the book is how Tupac would go days without sleep, and take over two recording rooms side by side in the studio, and literally bounce back and forth between the two essentially recording two songs at a time.
Daz Dillinger and Johnny J produced over half the album while the engineers couldn't move fast enough to keep up with him.
DJ Quick managed to mix the entire album in just two days.
Since it was a double album it technically fulfilled 2/3 of Tupac's requirement to Death Row, which ties in with claims he wanted nothing to do with Suge Knight or the label.
It debuted at #1 taking in a ridiculous $10 million dollars (in 1996) in revenue in its first week. The second most lucrative opening week in music history behind The Beatles Anthology.
All Eyez On Me is over 2 hours of braggadocio and middle fingers. Over 27 tracks Tupac changes up from his more introspective and socially conscious tone from past albums into the swagger-filled guy he seems most to be remembered by in his death.
The album is without a doubt some of Tupac's best work and features some of his best singles.
I wrote a previous blog that's pretty in-depth on "California Love" for the Sunday Sample series that you can read here.
(One last fun fact- Rhode Island's Hasbro Toys now owns Death Row's music catalog)
Now for The Fugees and The Score
The Score - On this day in 1996, Lauryn Hill, Pras and Wyclef Jean decided that Blunted On Reality would not be the beginning and ending of their illustrious careers and dropped their sophomore, award-winning LP The Score.
Even though the explosive success of their sophomore album was unexpected, resulting in the crew’s breakup, the impact of the project catapulted the careers of all three members. The Score’s apex came during a time when gangsta rap was making its way East, giving any other form of lyricism a narrow lane to success.
The commercial success of the album came from singles such as the bubbly “Fu-Gee-La”, the Hip Hop remake of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly’, “Ready Or Not” and the album’s Diamond D-produced title track.
Salute to Pras, Clef, Ms. Hill, John Forte, Salaam Remi, Young Zee, Rah Digga and everyone involved in this monumental piece of Hip Hop history!
The Fugees trio formed in the late 1980's in South Orange, NJ originally calling themselves the "Tranzlator Crew" before changing names.
They achieved decent success with their debut album Blunted on Reality on Ruffhouse Records which afforded them a $135,000 advance and some studio equipment so they could record a follow up album.
They invested the money in more recording equipment and set up a studio in Wyclef Jean’s uncle’s basement, which they christened “Booga Basement”, and hunkered down and recorded the new album in the second half of 1995. The trio handled mostly all of their own writing and production which was impressive seeing as how young they all were. Lauryn Hill was 20, Pras 23, and Wyclef was 25.
Released in February 1996, Lauryn Hill described The Score as “an audio film. It’s like how radio was back in the 1940s. It tells a story, and there are cuts and breaks in the music. It’s almost like a hip-hop version of Tommy, like what The Who did for rock music.”
The Score draws you in with the flagship track “Ready or Not” which uses The Delfonics 1968 hit as a reference point. Wycelf Jean leads us into a dreamlike world of storytelling that could just as easily describe an urban underbelly as his adopted New Jersey hometown.
“Zealots” begins with an eerie reinterpretation of the sample from The Flamingos 1959 hit “I Only Have Eyes For You”.
The first half of The Score unfurls with lyrical political commentary, verbal wordplay, and sing-able hooks on tracks “The Beast”, “Fu-Gee-La” and “Family Business”.
The second half of the album begins with a soft Lauryn Hill vocal sampling of the Roberta Flack classic “Killing Me Softly With His Song”. It is built on a familiar sample from A Tribe Called Quest’s classic “Bonita Applebum”.
Lauryn Hill became a household name and megastar from The Score and this song. She separated herself from Pras and Wyclef via her ability to both sing and rap in addition to her general vibe, character, and appearance.
The album closes out with an incredible tribute to its reggae roots with a signature Haitian-infused version of the Bob Marley classic “No Woman, No Cry”.
The Score was a commercial success immediately upon its release. It peaked at number one on both the Billboard 200 and the Top R&B/Hip Hop Albums chart. A year and a half after its release, The Score was certified six times platinum and went on to win a Grammy for Best Rap Album.
I know I always harp on the differences between music coming out "back then" and today (and date myself), but I can't stress enough what a huge deal it was when two monster releases came out on the same day like this.
Nevermind the fact that Tupac's album was a double CD, meaning that instead of $18, I think it was around $25-28.
Unless you were a rich kid, (I was not), you had to make drastic under-pressure decisions on what CD you'd be buying. You had to choose oftentimes what you'd be listening to for the next 2-4 weeks straight on repeat. It was a huge call.
Then when you'd save up or scrounge up enough you could buy the one you passed up on. But there were also releases coming out in that meantime so it was a sick, endless, whack-a-mole game trying to keep up with new music.
Unless you had SUPER rich friends who had a computer that wouldn't take down the power grid with a CD burner (talking 4x speeds). Then you could split up CD buying responsibilities and burn copies and share them around. But in the days before CD burners, you were either heading down into the hood and trying to find bootlegs, or saving up and paying full retail to the man at a Strawberries, Newbury Comics, or Tower Records.
Today, you lucky bastards just have to pull up Spotify and you can stream every song under the sun ever recorded on-demand.
You have zero idea how powerful that ability is.
Back in the day, you'd play the same cd on repeat endlessly. To the point, you and anybody that rode in your car regularly knew every lyric on that CD word for word.
It's also probably why the music of today has zero shelf life compared to music before streaming. But that's a topic for another blog.