You say you want a revolution, but it often doesn’t come without a little trial and error. While many consider grunge to have sounded the death knell for ‘80s hair metal, there were several other scenes coming to the forefront just before grunge exploded that also saw their potential for being the next big thing in music somewhat thwarted as grunge dominated the first half of the ‘90s.
The key word here is “stalled,” as each of these scenes evolved and continued to have a place in the ‘90s music scene, but never quite reached that early glimmer of promise that was provided in 1988-1991 before Nirvana’s Nevermind album and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” flipped the music world on its ear and ushered in the first musical revolution of the ‘90s. Would things have been different if Nirvana wasn’t there to “entertain us”? We’ll never know. But here are three scenes that appeared primed for a ’90s takeover only to fall behind grunge in the pecking order.
Sure, everyone thinks of Seattle as the host city that birthed grunge, but another city could have been the buzz on the tip of everyone’s tongue as Manchester, England, developed its own “scene” in the late ’80s that saw some positive returns. The term “Madchester” was coined by Factory Records chief Tony Wilson and picked up by the British press to describe the mix of indie dance music, acid house, funk and psychedelic guitar rock that was being played by a new wave of acts coming from the city.
Early ’80s Manchester had already spawned The Smiths and New Order, with the latter act helping to finance The Hacienda nightclub with Factory Records. The venue started to see a shift in 1987 by hosting American house music acts, later launching Ibiza-themed nights and playing acid-house music, which in turn started to influence many of the bands who played the venue as a springboard to bigger success.
And much like grunge had flannel, Madchester too had a look often referred to as “baggy,” with artists notably wearing flared baggy jeans and colorful, sometimes tie-dyed shirts.
Who were Madchester’s lead acts?
Of the acts associated with the Madchester scene, the Stone Roses appear to have been the first to enjoy some breakout success thanks to their 1989 self-titled debut album. Considered one of the most influential albums from that era, the Stone Roses debut featured such standouts as “She Bangs the Drum,” “I Wanna Be Adored,” “I Am the Resurrection” and “Fools Gold,” with the latter song providing their biggest commercial success, hitting No. 5 on the Billboard Alternative Airplay chart.
Stone Roses, “Fools Gold”
The Happy Mondays had a rather prolific stint toward the end of the ’80s that culminated with the single “Step On” from their third album Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches becoming the track to garner them international success. By the time it arrived in 1990, they were already a known commodity in the U.K. thanks to their previous singles “Tart Tart,” “24 Hour Party People,” “Wrote for Luck” and “Lazyitis.” “Step On” would pave the way for “Kinky Afro,” also from Pills ‘n’ Thrills, that would become their first chart-topping single on the U.S. Alternative Airplay chart in the fall of 1990.
Happy Mondays, “Step On”
There were also several other bands to emerge out of the early days of Madchester, though some took longer than others. The Charlatans were a band that took influence from the scene that was already developing as they recorded their 1990 debut Some Friendly. It featured the breakout single “The Only One I Know” and the follow-up “Then,” the start of a successful run for the band in the next few years.
There was also Inspiral Carpets, a band that had success in England with their 1990 debut, Life, featuring the singles “This Is How It Feels,” “Move” and “She Comes in the Fall.” James had been around for a few years, finally breaking through with their third album Gold Mother and the single “Come Home,” but it’d be just at the start of the grunge era when the songs “Sit Down” and “Born of Frustration” crossed over to American audiences. Meanwhile, 808 State leaned more into the electronic music side of the Madchester sound, earning their first Top 10 U.K. single with “Pacific State” in 1989.
The Charlatans, “The Only One I Know”
What was the immediate impact?
Though “Madchester” was often meant to signify bands that had some association with Manchester and the city’s music scene, ultimately elements of that sound and vibe spread to a variety of other U.K. based acts, which combined with Madchester acts presented the U.S. with a new British invasion of sorts for the start of the new decade. Joining Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, The Charlatans and more on the charts were acts such as The Farm, EMF, Jesus Jones and the Soup Dragons starting to make a dent at alternative radio and on MTV.
The Farm, “Groovy Train”
How did things evolve post grunge’s arrival?
While there was plenty reason to believe that this fresh wave of “baggy” Madchester-influenced bands was going to be the next big thing, ultimately grunge is what claimed the throne as the dominant musical style from 1991-1996. That doesn’t mean, however, there weren’t moments of success by some of these acts post the grunge arrival.
The Stone Roses didn’t return for five years after their breakout, eventually evolving their sound on 1994’s Second Coming, featuring the bluesy single “Love Spreads.” They would split two years later. Happy Mondays recorded two more albums, never matching the success of their Pills ‘n’ Thrills era. Charlatans proved to be the most enduring of the Madchester acts, recording 13 albums in total and scoring alt rock hits with “Weirdo,” “I Don’t Want to See the Sights” and “Can’t Get Out of Bed.”
While scene sort of faded in the early ’90s, it also laid the groundwork and influence for some of the biggest successes to come from England in that decade. Blur are one of the latter day Madchester acts, eventually becoming one of the biggest Brit-rock acts of the decade along with Oasis, whose Noel Gallagher had been a roadie for Inspiral Carpets before starting his music career a few years later. Scottish rockers Primal Scream experimented with their sound, adding in dance and psychedelic elements before hitting it big with songs such as “Loaded,” “Movin’ on Up” and “Rocks.”
Meanwhile, acts such as The KLF, Stereo MC’s, The Shamen and Utah Saints hopped on the more danceable club elements of Madchester to become early ’90s superstars. So while grunge did take over, there were still pockets of influence from the initial scene finding some measure of success in the years to come.
Blur, “There’s No Other Way”
2. British Soul / Progressive Soul
Is it possible for a scene to evolve around a beat? In the late ’80s and early ’90s it certainly seemed so. Soul music had continued to evolve in the ’80s, with Sade perhaps giving the sound its freshest new take in the early ’80s with a more rhythmic and airy vibe. Her Diamond Life and Promise albums appear to be somewhat of a blueprint for what was to come with a more jazz-influenced percussive vibe infiltrating her sound. It’s there that we look at a jumping off point, with a beat-driven soul that encapsulates bits of British, Caribbean and African influences to the progressive soul that was emerging in the late ’80s.
Who Were the Lead Acts?
Soul II Soul appear to have been at the forefront of this scene, with “Keep On Movin'” off their 1989 album Club Classics Vol. 1 providing a breath of fresh air to music listeners. The undeniable dance beat laid down the perfect backing for Caron Wheeler’s soulful vocal in the spring of 1989. The song hit No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100, soon to be eclipsed by the follow-up single “Back to Life,” which hit No. 4 with very much a similar backing beat. Soul II Soul would ride that beat to two Grammy wins and a Best New Artist nomination.
Soul II Soul, “Keep On Movin'”
That same year, another fresh female powerhouse vocalist arrived on the scene, propelled by a pair of singles. Lisa Stansfield’s upbeat “This Is the Right Time” became a Dance Chart No. 1 and gave her a Billboard Hot 100 breakthrough. That was soon followed by the soulful “All Around the World,” which not only showcased Lisa’s vocal range but also a beat in the same area code as Soul II Soul’s breakout. Stansfield’s Affection album debuted at No. 9 and she competed against Soul II Soul for Best New Artist at the Grammys.
Lisa Stansfield, “All Around the World”
What Was the Immediate Impact?
A great beat is a great beat, and in 1990 two British producers using the name DNA decided to create a remix using Suzanne Vega’s vocals from her 1987 song “Tom’s Diner” and place it over the Soul II Soul “Keep on Movin'” beat. After Vega heard the remix and a deal was struck with the label, the song was then re-released becoming at Top 10 Hot 100 single, cracking the Alternative Airplay Top 10 and also becoming a Dance Club Songs Top 20 single.
DNA Featuring Suzanne Vega, “Tom’s Diner”
Many know “Don’t Make Me Over” as a Burt Bacharach-penned single that became a signature Dionne Warwick hit. But in 1989, as both Soul II Soul and Stansfield were having their moment, so was a newcomer named Sybil who recorded her cover of “Don’t Make Me Over.” Her soulful arrangement had a very familiar vibe for those listening to music in 1989, with multiple critics pointing out Soul II Soul similarities with the beat-driven update.
Sybil, “Don’t Make Me Over”
And two years later in 1991, the backing “Soul II Soul-esque beat” could once again be heard in the infectious Shanice single “I Love Your Smile.” The song hit No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Shanice, “I Love Your Smile”
How Did Things Evolve Post Grunge’s Arrival?
As you might suspect, the amount of artists trying to capture that specific sound and vibe did dissipate, but it’s safe to say that the impact was felt on a fresh group of acts emerging in the early ’90s. American act Tony! Toni! Tone! had a string of hits including the beat-centric “The Blues,” while the U.K. continued to build upon the success of Soul II Soul and Lisa Stansfield by evolving the sound with such key ’90s additions to the soul field as Seal, Des’ree, Gabrielle, Brand New Heavies and mid-’90s standouts Jamiroquai. Grunge may have dominated the first half of the ’90s, but progressive soul, especially from British artists, continued to have moments of breakout success in the years to come.
Jamiroquai, “Virtual Insanity”
3. Alternative Rap / Hip-Hop
The ’80s essentially provided the birth of rap, with many of the era’s new stars building the genre either finding the humor in their rhymes or using their platform for more serious discussion about the environment around them. But toward the late ’80s, rap started to branch off into more subgenres, with a second generation of rappers starting to experiment with music and refuse to be pigeonholed into one specific rap stereotype.
Simply put, genre lines were blurred and there were no rules on what styles of music you could pull from in providing your musical backing. More jazz, fusion, reggae and soul could just as easily be found as funk and rock riffs. And the material also often skewed more socially conscious in nature, reflecting more positive interactions.
Who Were the Lead Acts?
De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising remains one of the most influential rap albums of rap’s early days, largely treading ground where most of their peers had not yet ventured. As gangsta rap was taking hold, this jolt of positivity in rap form offered a different take. The sample heavy record was just as likely to pull from Johnny Cash as it was Daryl Hall & John Oates. “Me, Myself and I” turned heads upon its arrival, soon followed by “Say No Go,” “Potholes in My Lawn” and more. “Buddy” and “Ring Ring Ring” in future years would solidify their stance as leaders of a new school before grunge’s reign took over.
De La Soul, “My, Myself and I”
A Tribe Called Quest immediately let you know something heady was afoot with the title of their 1990 debut album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. The introduction for many was road tale, “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo,” dipping into a Chambers Brothers classic for the main hook. That debut yielded the future classics “Bonita Applebum” and “Can I Kick It,” and helped put the group on their way to becoming one of the more influential acts in rap and a Rock Hall nominee.
A Tribe Called Quest, “Can I Kick It”
After Licensed to Ill, you’d be hard pressed to think that the Beastie Boys could or would make such a major left turn. But the Beastie’s zigged when everyone expected them to zag, dropping 1989’s Paul’s Boutique and likely confusing quite a few frat bros in the process. Instead of heavy Zeppelin samples and bratty in-your-face aggression, the trio went down the rabbit hole of sampling, pulling out ’70s-esque bass, beats and guitar lines and completely changing the game.
Beastie Boys, “Shake Your Rump”
What Was the Immediate Impact?
The year’s 1991 and 1992 saw an influx of alternative rap and hip-hop acts hit. The biggest among them was Arrested Development, a collective of musicians who churned out such thought provoking singles as “Tennessee,” “People Everyday” and “Mr. Wendal.” That led them to a Best New Artist Grammy.
Arrested Development, “Tennessee”
In the fall of ’91 into ’92, Black Sheep emerged as one of the more prominent new acts, largely based on their jazz-sampling single “The Choice Is Yours” off the A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing album. Other acts finding success right as grunge was about to break were Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Monie Love, Brand Nubian and Jungle Brothers.
Black Sheep, “The Choice Is Yours”
How Did Things Evolve Post Grunge’s Arrival?
If you look at how the ’90s played out, alternative rap and hip-hop probably had the most successful run of the three scenes after the advent of the grunge era. They never really seemed to compete directly with grunge for supremacy, and in some cases, such as Lollapalooza, gladly shared the stage alongside some of the biggest grunge acts of the day.
Post 1991, there’s a wealth of alternative rap acts that left a lasting mark on music, including Outkast, The Fugees, The Pharcyde, Digable Planets, Mos Def, Common and more who’ve continued to evolve the rap game.
Digable Planets, “Rebirth of Slick”
While grunge definitely made life miserable for a number of hair metal acts, as you can see, its dominance also stalled several other music scenes to varying degrees. But the success of the acts in those scenes ultimately relied on their ability to adapt and find their audience with less of a platform to do so. It wasn’t impossible, but it certainly wasn’t as easy as it once appeared to be at the turn of the decade.
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