The Evolution of Music: Gangsta rap, grunge and girl groups in the 1990s

Simon Button

The 1990s brought us a range of exciting new music, from squeaky clean pop to grunge and gangsta rap. 

Going mainstream in the 1980s, gangsta rap continued to flourish in the early 1990s, making Ice-T, Ice Cube and Dr Dre into stars as the genre courted even more controversy over increasingly misogynistic lyrics and incitements to violence.

Read more: The evolution of music in the 1980s

Dr Dre performing on stage
Gangsta rap legend, Dr Dre. Image via Flickr

Another genre that was bubbling under in the previous decade and came to the fore in the 1990s was grunge—the angsty punk/metal hybrid which originated in Seattle, promoted thrift store fashion as modelled by Courtney Love.

"Music lost one of its biggest-ever superstars when Freddie Mercury died from AIDS-related complications"

The genre reached its apex in 1991 when Nirvana, fronted by Love’s soon-to-be husband Kurt Cobain (below), unleashed their Nevermind album.

kurt cobain playing guitar
Kurt Cobain recording in Hilversum Studios. Image via Flickr

The decade lost one of its biggest stars when Cobain committed suicide in 1994, whilst in the year Nevermind was released music lost one of its biggest-ever superstars when Freddie Mercury died from AIDS-related complications—prompting a 1992 benefit concert at Wembley Stadium where the likes of Elton John, David Bowie, George Michael and Lisa Stansfield paid tribute to the Queen frontman.

Having made it big in the States, Stansfield was one of the artists featured on the soundtrack to the Whitney Houston film The Bodyguard, which eventually shifted 45 million copies to become the biggest selling soundtrack album of all time. By the decade’s end, the album was also the fourth best-seller in the US, bettered only by Metallica’s self-titled fifth studio album, Shania Twain’s Come On Over and Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morissette.

a black and white animation from Madonna's Vogue video

Madonna signed Morissette to her Maverick label after the Canadian singer-songwriter was rejected by every other major record company. The Material Girl herself continued to dominate the charts with a run of hits that included Vogue (above), Justify My Love and Frozen whilst reinventing the pop concert format with her Blond Ambition tour, establishing a format (themed sections and multiple costume changes) that everyone from Kylie Minogue to Beyoncé and Lady Gaga has since adopted.

Madonna also reinvented herself as a dominatrix with her Erotica album and full-frontal Sex book, landed the plum role of Eva Perón the Evita movie and rounded out the 1990s with another reinvention, namely as the Kabbalah-embracing earth mother on Ray Of Light.

Snapping at her heels were a new bunch of teen pop princesses like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, not to mention world-conquering British fivesome the Spice Girls, who burst onto the scene with 1996’s Wannabe and—despite going on hiatus after just four years—became the most successful girl group of all time.

Their homeland was also home to Britpop, the UK’s bright answer to the darkness of grunge that saw Oasis and Blur going head-to-head for chart supremacy—with the latter’s Country House single pipping the former’s Roll With It to the post.

"Pop music, Brit and otherwise, flourished in the 1990s"

The Gallagher brothers’ (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? album still ranked as the decade’s best-seller in the UK.

Pop music, Brit and otherwise, flourished in the 1990s, with Simply Red scoring big with their Stars long-player, Take That, the Backstreet Boys and eventually Westlife flying the boyband flag, and Robbie Williams flying the Take That coop to launch a hugely successful solo career. Ditto Gerri Halliwell, who quit the Spice Girls to earn three solo UK number ones.

Read more: Blur guitarist Graham Coxon's favourite records

Divas were out in force, too, with Mariah Carey topping the Billboard Hot 100 with a record-breaking five consecutive number one singles, Janet Jackson outshining her brother Michael, Cher resurrecting her iconic status with Believe and Whitney Houston holding the Billboard top spot for an almighty 14 weeks with I Will Always Love You from the aforementioned Bodyguard soundtrack.

Talking of soundtracks, Celine Dion showcased her three-octave vocal range on the love-it-or-loathe My Heart Will Go On from the decade’s biggest blockbuster Titanic and Wet Wet Wet outdid Whitney over here by hogging the number one slot for 15 weeks with Love Is All Around from Four Weddings And A Funeral.

missy elliot dancing
The iconic Missy Elliott

Dance floors were humming throughout the 1990s, as the likes of Ce Ce Peniston’s Finally and Snap’s Rhythm Is A Dancer kept feet busy, Daft Punk fused the electro and house genres, Missy Elliott blended R&B and hip hop, and Los del Rio fashioned a new dance craze with Macarena.

Billy Ray Cyrus, meanwhile, did his bit to popularise line dancing on Achy Breaky Heart in a decade that saw country music cross over into the mainstream, thanks also to Shania Twain’s blockbuster sales and the Dixie Chicks shifting 14 million copies of their debut album.

"Post-Britpop bands showed rock-and-roll was far from dead"

Even Pete Waterman got in the act, sort of, when he launched new signing Steps with the line dance-themed 5,6,7,8.

The critics scoffed but at least they got their serious music fix with the emergence of post-Britpop bands like Stereophonics and Coldplay who, in a decade that saw the Rolling Stones hold the top two spots for most lucrative tours, showed good old rock-and-roll was far from dead.

 

Read more: The music revolution of the 1960s

Read more: Music of the 1970s

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