NOTE that I said my childhood. I would never pretend to speak for a generation. I thought the 90’s were pretty sweet, but I would think everyone thinks their decade of upbringing is/was a good one. Folks like me born at the tail end of the 80’s (I’m guessing my grad class covers 1987-1988 birthdays) have an interesting divide as far as this idea of a “introduction to pop culture” decade. We get the 90’s until we’re about 12 or 13, and then it’s all new millenium.
I consider most of my childhood to have been in the 90’s, but I guess you could make an argument that some of my junior high and all of my high school years were post-2o00, so I can’t claim the decade entirely. Whatever.
These are what I consider to be the 10 most defining songs of my childhood. Not the 10 greatest. Not the 10 most popular. Just the 10 I considered to have the most impact on me, via playtime or just general cultural infusion.
(I might retroactively go back and post links. I might not.)
1. Michael Jackson – “They Don’t Care About Us”
Michael Jackson was hands-down the defining artist of what I consider my childhood. Resisting urge to make joke. Hey, how could we know how he’d turn out? Still, I try to separate the present day tabloid magnet Michael from the Michael who made incredible music. And he did make incredible music. I think that fact gets drowned out by all the unfortunate crazy shit he’s done in his washed-up years. Some of the stuff Michael put out there…well, without it, we wouldn’t have some of the stuff we have today (for better or worse.) So it was really difficult to pick one MJ song (didn’t want to flood the list with ’em), because I listened to so many (bought “History” the first day it was released for $40 at Best Buy!) But I chose this one because I was always fascinated with the rhythmical variations and it has a completely bad-ass (and controversial for its time) music video.
2. Sugar Ray – “Cash”
I’m not going to pretend that this is, in any way, a good song. But it was pretty much my introduction to vulgarity in music. And you were a cool kid if you listened to this on a smuggled-in Walkman on a fourth grade field trip to the Levi Coffin Underground Railroad House. This is off “Floored”, which is the same album that gave us “Fly.” And it’s easily the most vulgar track on the album, and album which at the time everyone seemed to own or want to own. I’ll never forget passing around that surely-now-ancient Walkman at the picnic table, during lunch, and hearing Mark McGrath shout out the following lyrics: “I need some fucking cash/You need some fucking cash/We all need some fucking cash/Run and get my gun!”
3. Bone Thugs N Harmony – “Crossroads”
This song always reminds me of AOL for some reason. Probably because I first got “the Internet” (AOL) around when this came out. Good ol’ dial-up! Anyway, my buddy and I would spend countless hours trying to download clips of this song from that AOL Downloads or AOL Sounds or whatever it was called. This was also my introduction to hip-hop. There would be later forays, including others on this list, but this is the first I can remember. Oh, and fact about this song: to this day, I don’t know the lyrics, so I use the same made-up ones I improvised in elementary school.
4. Third Eye Blind – “Semi-Charmed Life”
Probably a safe pick for a generation, but yeah, I was big into it too. Like the next song on this list, I took pride in knowing all the lyrics. And impressed many a kid at recess. Which should tell you how easily impressed kids are. My greatest memory about this song in particular was the fact that I never actually owned the album, so I really only heard it on the radio. Until I decided to attempt my first attempt at pirating music. I had this old microphone that hooked up to my computer, and I don’t even remember why I had it, just that all I did with it was record skits with background music/sound FX to clown on teachers I hated and play them back for friends. So my strategy, which I also tried with Puff Daddy’s “Come With Me” (not on list), was to play the radio version from my boombox while having my microphone record it. At the time, I can’t remember the quality being horrible. But I can’t remember when I got my first pube either, so I mean, I don’t necessarily stand by my historical word.
5. Barenaked Ladies – “One Week”
I was somewhat upset to see BNL break up. I’ve always thought BNL were a great thing for music. They were always original, always fun and came out with my favorite cover of all time. “One Week” was great, though, because it took Third Eye Blind’s ability to record difficult-to-discern lyrics and took it up another level. I can clearly remember being challenged to lay down the “Chinese chicken” verse (as we called it) in the morning before class started in fifth grade. Got me so many ladies. Just kidding, of course. The only thing I got in fifth grade was suspended. And the clap.
6. Notorious B.I.G. – “Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems”
I was really debating what the “definitive” hip-hop song was, for me, back in the day. I owe a lot of this to my good buddy from back then (who is, coincidentally, still my good buddy – I can’t believe anyone would tolerate me that long either!) He was big into the Bad Boy/No Limit scene. Posters and everything. So I was debating between a lot of tracks from this era: Silkk the Shocker’s “It Ain’t My Fault”, brother Master P’s “Make ‘Em Say Ugh!”, Puffy’s “I’ll Be Missing You.” But in the end I went with Biggie and Bad Boy, because it probably got the most playtime and I can remember it the clearest. It’s weird though – I can’t really remember ever witnessing the Bad Boy/Death Row beef, Tupac and Biggie’s deaths, etc. I know I was around. Maybe it was just being a kid and not paying attention to the news. I think it’s that, because the first things I can really remember keeping up on in the news were Columbine and Princess Di’s death.
7. “Water Runs Dry” by Boyz II Men
You are a liar if you say you grew up in the 90’s and didn’t give a shit about this song. This, more than anything (well, okay, Montell’s “This Is How We Do It” is a close second) takes me back to the roller rink days. United Skates of America to be specific. God, I couldn’t count how many times I went there. School field trips, day camp trips, with friends, for birthday parties, to test out new in-line blades for street hockey, etc etc. And then they’d dim all the lights and announce that it was a slow skate, then throw this song on. Do I remember that because I held someone’s hand and romantically made my way around the oval? Hell no. I remember it ‘cuz I always got yelled at for skating past all those stupid couples that were actually skating slow.
8. Eminem – “My Name Is”
This holds a special place for a couple of reasons. One: my stupidity. We were shooting around out back in someone’s backyard basketball court one day and talking about this song, because it was on the radio. I remember one of the neighborhood kids saying something to the effect of “he’s good for a white guy.” My response? “He’s white?!” Yeah, I didn’t know Eminem was white, even as this song started to get big. My bad. The second reason is because this was one of the first songs I illegally downloaded. Still remember a neighborhood kid showing me this crazy P2P program, and this was even pre-Napster. I forget what it was called. And think about how old that is for a second: you probably weren’t even downloading porno until you got to Kazaa or Limewire. This was a good three or four programs before that! But, yeah, Em was a Walkman (or is it Discman? Shit, I should go back and correct this maybe…probably not) staple. “The Real Slim Shady” was probably the more impactful song playtime-wise, but this list isn’t just about playtime.
8. Marcy Playground – “Sex and Candy”
This was the first song I ever listened to so much that I got sick of it. The radio was largely to blame for this. Actually, I didn’t even like this song at first. But since WZPL played it approximately 20 times per hour, I grew to like it. And that lasted a while. Until I left the radio on just a little too long during some intense N64 sessions. Then I didn’t like it. These days? I like it! It reminds me of the N64. Which is a very good thing.
9. Rappin 4-Tay – “Message For Your Mind”
This was another tough choice. I had to throw in something from the “Dangerous Minds” OST because it was party of a birthday haul that brought me a minted Metallized Michael Jordan card (that I think I have since lost) and a bunch of als0-minted Reggie cards. Basketball cards. Damn. The obvious would have been Coolio’ “Gangsta’s Paradise”, but honestly I remember Weird Al’s “Amish Paradish” more than I remember that joint. So it was between Big Mike’s “Havin’ Thangs” and Rappin 4-Tay’s “Message For Your Mind.” Big Mike (of Geto Boys fame) just misses the cut because he would have made it for the same reason one of the other tracks on this list did – because I had to play it very quietly so as not to upset my parents, back when they gave a damn about that stuff. Rappin 4-Tay makes it because I liked the song back then and I’ve grown to appreciate it a lot more through the years. That song is just ill. The sampling is more on-point than any other sampling track I can think of, and the lyrics are rock-solid. Give it a listen. You’ll agree.
10. R. Kelly – “I Believe I Can Fly”
Two words: Space Jam. Space Jam embodies pretty much everything important about my childhood. Basketball, cartoons and original soundtracks. It’s pretty incredible to look back and see all the artists on the “Space Jam” OST: Seal, Coolio, B-Real, Method Man, LL Cool J, Busta Rhymes, D’Angelo, Salt-N-Pepa, Jay-Z, The Spin Doctors, etc. Gee, you think this OST might have had something to do with my current taste in music? What amazes me is that it’s all these artists, but the kid-friendly verses from them. I think it was a specific attempt to create hip-hop heads out of young audiences. And I think it worked. I remember the day I lost this CD and the extent of my sadness as a result. A good primer for future depressions. But why this song? Why not the “Space Jam” anthem by the Quad City DJs? Or “Fly Like An Eagle”? Well, this song just makes me think of ‘Space Jam’ more than any of the others. Specifically the basketball driveway scene. And then all of my childhood experiences of playing basketball in driveways. So that’s why.
Just Missed the Cut:
The Immortals – “Techno Syndrome-7” (Mortal Kombat theme song)
Los del Rio – “Macarena”
Matchbox Twenty – “3 A.M.”
Outkast – “Rosa Parks”
Oasis – “Champagne Supernova”