As We Remember: Free in 1993

Justin Spicer / January 3, 2013
The FBI fails to smoke out the Branch Davidians (Photo Credit: Associated Press)

The remnants of the 80s funnel down the drain; one last rinse to rid our hands from all the dirt, grime and sleaze of the Me Decade.

The New Year stood as the loudest proclamation of 90s identity. False starts and awkward glances happened during the early decade but it took a few deep breaths before pop culture and mainstream media jumped into the deep end. And what a glorious, inviting swim it became. The explosion of exposure and influence for music once considered underground began to seep into all facets of life.

But it’s the little things that make 1993 a versatile year in music 20 years after the fact. While short of a wholesale revolution considering major labels were buying demographic appeal, there were some who were eager to stand independently. Prince famously changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol that lent itself to awkward introductions to one of music’s most stalwart personalities. But it is a moment encapsulating the freedom brought about by 1993. It was a new dawn, the doors of conformity momentarily blown wide open as artists well entrenched in the pop lexicon, or those trying to get a foot in the door, were afforded a chance at notoriety.

After a run-in with law enforcement, RZA and Ghostface Killer dropped out of drug peddling despite being broke. The results lead to the formation of the Wu-Tang Clan, a group infamous for changing platitudes and attitudes toward a genre skewering toward limited subject matter. The result, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was a [re]defining moment for hip-hop.

”Digable Planets’ Reachin’ and De La Soul’s Buhloone Mindstate were both released in September, followed by A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders and Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter The Wu-Tang on the same day in November. 1993 was a glorious year for rap music.” – Konrad Jandavs (No UFO’s)

(Wu-Tang Clan – “C.R.E.A.M.”)

A dark cloud loomed over much of 1993. The F.B.I. raid on the Mount Carmel compound, home to David Koresh and his sect of Branch Davidians, was a socio-political catastrophe brought about due to Koresh’s erratic, dangerous behavior and the FBI underestimating his influence. But the lingering effect and how the United States’ intelligence community was viewed in the aftermath was but the first sign of miscommunication and negligence in handling threats at home and abroad.

”Living in Texas, I think the event that made the largest impact was the federal raid on the Branch Davidian complex in Waco. I remember the reaction to the event being particularly polarizing when people I knew around the town I grew up in would discuss what happened.” – Justin Sweatt (Xander Harris)

(CNN coverage of Branch Davidian compound raid)

1993 was full of incidents that begged notoriety. The grisly rape and murder of The Gits lead singer Mia Zapata in Seattle led to the formation of anti-violence non-profit, Home Alive (which has sadly slipped into irrelevancy after its big boosters such as Pearl Jam and Soundgarden abandoned fundraising for unknown reasons).

(The Gits – “Beauty of the Rose”)

There were however, some silver linings in tragedy. A landmark moment for sports fans as well as those in the throes of thwarting cancer came from former North Carolina State men’s basketball coach Jim Valvano. As silly a proposition as “The ESPY Awards” seemed, its inaugural year gave ESPN its most heartfelt moment as Valvano summoned what strength he had remaining to spin a few personal yarns while delivering true inspiration–not just to those battling cancer, but to anyone in need of genuine motivation in the face of daunting odds.

(Jim Valvano’s March 3, 1993 ESPY Speech)

The now-standing Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, located in Cleveland, had its ground breaking ceremony. Snoop Dogg (you may know him now as Snoop Lion) was accused of murder (later immortalized in song). Rick Astley, now more popular as an internet meme, retired from music at the age of 27 despite global success (“Never Gonna Give You Up” was #1 in 25 countries and was far from Astley’s only smash hit).

The Breeders (top) and Frank Black (bottom) in 1993 (Photo Credit: Kevin Westenberg & Elektra Records)

The Pixies officially disband despite their influence on alternative and college rock finally being felt in the mainstream. It didn’t help matters that both Kim Deal (The Breeders) and Black Francis (having changed his stage name to Frank Black) had released new material that was garnering plenty of attention from the alternative press.

The diversity of 1993 is what has stood the test of time. Party anthems, genre resurgences and the underground becoming the normal was all part in fashioning the year that was in music and pop culture. The old guard was still enjoying the limelight as parity reigned. There was freedom, people who could switch between In Utereo and 19 Naughty III without irony; kids sporting Tool t-shirts underneath A Tribe Called Quest hoodies. Worlds were gleefully colliding and the results were a rich and varied year that is still producing profound effect 20 years after the fact.

”I was 12 years old and the only thing that mattered was hearing new ‘alternative’ music. That era is really defined by what became my obsession with The Smashing Pumpkins. They were everything (musically) that a band could be. 1993, ostensibly the year that defined my taste in loud, layered guitars and speedy jazz drumming.” – Joseph Rafidi (Cereal Banter)

”I would have to say that the record that changed everything for me and my friends that summer was the release of “Siamese Dream” by the Smashing Pumpkins. It actually changed the way that I looked at music and was a weird gateway for discovering music that had a more psychedelic flair.” – Justin Sweatt (Xander Harris)

Siamese Dreams has long been a tent pole for 1993. No matter how the years have treated Billy Corgan and the iterations of Smashing Pumpkins that have followed, the band’s critical and commercial breakout still stands tall.

(Smashing Pumpkins – “Rocket”)

Electronic music had long bubbled below the surface of mainstream attention, and though it would be a year before Trent Reznor would emerge as the face of electronic music in service of his tenured underground successes; the variants of dance, industrial, house and noise converging on anyone fortunate enough to be exposed.

“It is also the time when electronic music came onto my radar again via my sister. Mainstream artists like NIN and Front 242, and also more underground sounds my sister would bring back from Baltimore like Scott Henry in the form of unmarked mix tapes. All of that electronic music was what got my brain spinning around how they made those sounds.” – Nathan McLaughlin (Loud & Sad)

”I grew up near Cleveland where industrial music seemed to live longer, thrive more and in 1993 it was probably hitting its peak. There were lots of bands with numbers in their names and tons of black clothing. This was an influence on me as I was attracted to the harsher and fresher sounds that the music offered and to the girls with black and white striped leggings. I was listening to a lot of industrial and electronic stuff such as Skinny Puppy, Nine Inch Nails and Ministry along with oddball stuff.” – Joseph Minadeo (Curator, Patternbased)

(Front 242 – “Animal”)

Much of what happened in mainstream (and even underground circles) became filtered through MTV. With a dedicated news staff helmed by the dry Kurt Loder and affectionate Tabitha Soren and its ADD delivery of music and pop culture, it was the beacon for many youths stuck in Podunk recesses but in need of companionship; perhaps some telepathic understanding.

(MTV News featuring Shonen Knife and Nirvana)

It must be cliché at this point, but MTV — that was the source of comedy, music, culture, sex. It was all there in a not-so-blatant fashion as it is today. There was an overall broader spectrum of authenticity. Music was slightly less formulaic and the mainstream flocked to it. I think since MTV was the place to inhale all this pop culture, that it’s the reason why 90’s kids feel like they enjoyed an era, together. There’s common ground, like “yea man, all I did was watch that shit, all day.”– Joseph Rafidi

“Well, it was probably right around New Year’s, with my extended family in northeast Pennsylvania (we’d rent cabins in the woods together), blasting MTV and jumping around and air-guitaring like maniacs. All I desperately wanted to do was watch Beavis and Butthead and music videos all day long. Hell, still do to this day…sounds like a fun day, ha.” – Joe Houpert (Loud & Sad)

This catharsis experience is often fed through the prism of the burgeoning hotbed of reality television. Despite the negative connotations that have enveloped the genre since its beginning, a generation found itself glued to the exploits of seven strangers picked to live together. Sexual tension, odd personalities and the college dorm mentality prevailed. No one expected “The Real World” to become the touchstone it has through its many incarnations but most would point to Season 2 and count it among why the reality boom happened and how it embodied both the beautiful and ugly that MTV’s filter offered.


(Some of the infamous moments of “The Real World: Los Angeles”)

Hard to ignore, 1993 marked the release of In Utereo, the highly anticipated follow-up to Nevermind. It was met with resistance from all levels, as a lot of Nirvana’s casual base was put off by a harsher sound, producer Steve Albini matching Cobain’s raw lyrics with an equally barebones approach. The mythos around In Utereo and the band’s thinking behind its quality is still debated among people who can’t shake the Nirvana visage. It was further muddled with the band’s legendary performance on “MTV Unplugged,” the trio showcasing a tender and thoughtful side slightly ignored in some of Cobain’s more obtuse lyrics and astringent melodies.

”I was pretty young at the time but I remember thinking ‘Wow, I didn’t ever think it would be possible to translate music that was so destroyed and blown out into something so serene’. That might have also been the first time I ever saw an acoustic bass—that concept just came out of nowhere. That tied with the release of In Utero was just nuts—the whole “Rape Me” deal, just the whole unraveling of that album. I remember having to listen to that recording in hiding.” – Josh Mason

(Nirvana – “All Apologies”)

With reflection, it’s no coincidence 1993 seems to be a crux for creativity, not only self-contained to the albums and acts that graced it, but to those of all stripes that make music today. The year was heavy with pop culture phenomena both commercial (Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Wu-Tang Clan) and critical (Liz Phair, A Tribe Called Quest, Guided by Voices). This month we will explore a few of the events and releases of twenty years ago through a variety of storytelling devices in the hope of remembering 1993 as a year worth rediscovering.

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