In 1991, on September 23 and 24, Nirvana, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, A Tribe Called Quest, and Primal Scream each released an album. With yet different musical styles, they manage to reach not only a large audience but also to give meaning to the aspirations of society.
The week of September 23, 1991 is synonymous with revolution. In the space of two days, Monday September 23 and Tuesday September 24, several major albums were released in the United States and Europe. In France, Vincent Lagaf’s “La Zoubida” has been number one in the Top 50 since mid-summer, and Mylène Farmer’s “L’autre…” has been the best-selling album since May. During this time, Nirvana, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, A Tribe Called Quest, and Primal Scream are each writing a new page in the history of music and marking a somewhat lost youth with four simply legendary albums.
This specific week is “a turning point” in the eyes of Jean-Marie Pottier, author of the book “Alternative Nation. America’s independent scene 1979-2001”, the most iconic moment in musical history when “the underground has become mainstream“, where the avant-garde broke the door of the general public.
The end of an era
These groups have not only come out of the shadows, but above all, they resonated with society. In September 1991, the world experienced a year of great upheavals: the end of the Gulf War in February, the abolition of Apartheid in South Africa in June, Armenia took its independence that same month… It was also the end of an era in the United States and the United Kingdom. A hard time.
These albums come in a context: “It’s a bit of a coincidence that these four albums, which are different in many ways, come out that week, but at the same time it’s not a coincidence in the sense that they record the end of the 80s, with all the connotations that go with it: the cult of money, aggressive militarism, the Reagan and Thatcher years. These albums embody a bit of this atmosphere, with a different discourse, not necessarily more political, but a more sardonic, nonchalant, relaxed tone in some ways, or also a certain anguish in the face of this somewhat twilight climate in America or the United Kingdom.“, explains Jean-Marie Pottier.
“Nevermind”: Turn the page
In 1989, Hippo, the young main character of Éric Rochant’s film, “Un monde sans pitié”, has these words to describe his time: “If at least we could blame someone. If we could even believe that we are useful for something, that we are going somewhere… But what have we been left with? ?“In 1991, in the United States as in France, the feeling is the same, but the time has come to turn the page saying “it doesn’t matter, too bad” (“never mind“).
For Jean-Marie Pottier, it is a “answer” to previous generations, first from a musical point of view, because there was a desire to “to get out of the clichés of the 80s. To say ‘we don’t want to be like the hard rock stars’, like Guns N’ Roses which they hated. It’s a bit as if, all of a sudden, Guns N’ Roses, despite their colossal sales, found itself stricken with obsolescence or outdatedness.“.
But it is also a non-conformist posture, shouted without superficiality, a violent music like a cry from the heart, or even an ironic attitude, misunderstood by a whole section of American society who only saw in them the image of a jaded and apathetic youth. This movement had a name: grunge. With “Nevermind”, Nirvana adapts it to MTV by making songs cleaner than before, making it accessible to an extremely large audience.
“The Low End Theory”: the violence of words
“1991 is the heyday of some much more commercial hip hop artists, like MC Hammer or Vanilla Ice, and on the other side Public Enemy and NWA“, recalls Jean-Marie Pottier. In other words, dance hits for the general public or pieces with militant speeches and an aggressiveness which will know its golden age with the gangsta rap Few years later. “A Tribe Called Quest arrives with a different discourse, much less hedonistic, highly politicized but less aggressive.”
With a rich writing, a sharp music that mixes jazz and hip hop and a discourse of appropriation of knowledge, intellectual struggle, awareness, “The Low End Theory” paves the way for a new generation of hip hop artists (The Roots, Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, Mos Def or even the French MC Solaar and Oxmo Puccino)while appealing to a large music-loving audience.
“Screamadelica”: So we dance
The message is clear, given from the start of the album: “We want to be free… And we want to get high.The album was released on September 23 in the UK, before being released in the US and becoming a cult record. Prior to this album, Primal Scream were a rock band with little success. At the end of the 80s, part of the youth (just like the group) discovered theacid housethe burgeoning club culture, and ecstasy. Thus was born “Screamadelica”.
“It’s typically an album that embodies the end of the Thatcher years. Basically, England has been washed away by eleven years of liberal policies, budget cuts in all directions. And in the face of this, what do British youth do? She is going to swallow ecstasys and she is going to dance, in a somewhat desperate hedonistic approach, as a response to the darkness of the Thatcher years“, summarizes Jean-Marie Pottier, Primal Scream manages to bring together two worlds, that of rock and that of houseand by the way inspires the electronic scene to come, Daft Punk in mind.
Blood Sugar Sex Magik: “The underground has become mainstream”
In the opinion of singer Anthony Kiedis himself in his autobiography, the group Red Hot Chili Peppers have “known only as a success of esteem” with their first four albums – which is not entirely true because the third has songs that play on the radio. A period of fun and excess that led to the death by overdose of guitarist Hillel Slovak in June 1988 The Red Hot Chili Peppers then give themselves the means of their ambitions, starting by sending the singer to rehab.”There is this side ‘we come from a somewhat underground scene, but we try to take the step that separates us from the general public, including opening up our songs a little towards a more pop sound’“, analyzes Jean-Marie Pottier.
In April 1991, they recruited producer Rick Rubin, the most sought-after producer at the time, who touched on both hip hop and metal (Beastie Boys, Run DMC and other Slayers) to direct them towards atmospheres that could be broadcast a little more on the radio and on MTV. There is therefore a ballad, “Under The Bridge”, which has become a global hit (the clip for which was directed by Gus Van Sant), but also a majority of funny pieces which hide not only a declaration of love for Afro-Music American (hip hop soul, funk, jazz and even blues) but also a desire to celebrate freedom and sexuality. Exactly what part of society is asking for in the early 90s. Following the release of “Blood Sugar Sex Magik”, the Red Hot Chili Peppers play a few concerts, and logically share the bill with… Nirvana.
Pixies and Public Enemy: the march just missed
The Pixies like Public Enemy are also releasing an album on September 23 and 24 but the surge caused by the four albums mentioned earlier does not leave them the slightest chance of competing. “Trompe le monde” is the fourth album by the Pixies (one of the leading bands of the American alternative scene) and the last before breaking up. The irony, emphasizes Jean-Marie Pottier, is that “the end of their adventure“come on”same day as Nirvana’s ‘Nervermind’ release, as Kurt Cobain admitted he openly pumped their tracks, most notably for ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’“.
For their part, Public Enemy does not have the ambitions of MC Hammer and NWA. Since the early 90s, one of hiphop’s most respected bands has been charting its course and trying to continue his attempts at marriage with the world of metal and rap, on “Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black”. With this formula, little chance of seducing the general public, but a legendary piece: “Bring The Noise”, recorded with the thrash metal band, Anthrax. After the release, the two groups go on tour together, and bring together for the first time in a concert hall an audience of metalheads and hip hop fans.