Remembering September 24, 1991, the Day Underground Music Hit the Mainstream
Possibly the greatest-ever release day saw new albums from Nirvana, A Tribe Called Quest, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pixies
Published Sep 20, 2021"Teenage angst has paid off well, now I'm bored and old." These lyrics that open Nirvana's 1993 swansong, In Utero, may have sounded, to the uninitiated, like the melodramatic moans of a rock star. But those with their ear to the ground recognized it for what it was: a signifier that the underground was dead. Two years after "punk broke" (as Sonic Youth would declare in their 1992 tour documentary, 1991: The Year Punk Broke), even some of the most challenging and anti-establishment acts would find themselves signed to major deals, as Boredoms, Butthole Surfers and Ween shared labels with Cher, Donny Osmond and Metallica, respectively.
Although the transformation from punk to college rock to alternative rock was a decade and a half in the making, it's possible to point to one single day as the demarcation point where underground music would be hurtled into the mainstream: September 24, 1991.
This isn't the only landmark release date in music history: notably, September 29, 1998 is known as a landmark date in the world of hip-hop, as Black Star's Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, JAY-Z's Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life and Outkast's Aquemini all hit stores.
Still, no single date has transformed modern music more dramatically than September 24, 1991. Years later, that fateful Tuesday has become known as greatest release date in music history. An inconceivable day where not just Nirvana's iconic Nevermind, but a pile of incredibly influential and critically-lauded albums, landed in stores: Red Hot Chili Peppers' Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Pixies' Trompe le Monde and A Tribe Called Quest's The Low End Theory all arrived that very same day. Primal Scream's Screamadelica came out the same week in the UK (with the North American release to follow soon after), and Soundgarden's Badmotorfinger was also scheduled for September 24 but was pushed back to October 8 due to "production problems." (To this day, Badmotorfinger's release date is still frequently listed as September 24, 1991.)
Besides the eminence of the music released, what made this date so remarkable was the fact that it kicked off such a colossal musical and cultural boon that absolutely no one could have dared predict.
While punk rock exploded in the late '70s, it was initially mostly a British phenomenon. As the Sex Pistols and the Clash were gracing the top of the UK's Official Albums Chart, the Ramones and Television struggled to scrape the US Billboard 200 chart. By the late '80s, underground music started to finally make headway in North America, but instead of home-grown college rock like the Replacements and the Smithereens, it was British goth that broke through. Tracks like the Cure's mopey "Lovesong," Love and Rockets' haunted "So Alive" and Depeche Mode's motorik "Enjoy the Silence" would all mind-bogglingly appear in the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Around this time, the magazine debuted its Modern Rock Tracks Chart in response to the growing number of commercial radio stations popping up across the country. One of the new format's premier stars were the Pixies, as their first three eligible singles ("Monkey Gone to Heaven," "Here Comes Your Man" and "Velouria") all hit the Top 5. Signed to taste-making UK label 4AD, lauded in England and welcomed alongside Morrissey and New Order on the airwaves, the Boston band's blend of dark themes and loud-quiet-loud song structures bridged the gap between UK and American modern rock. Their celebrated fourth LP, Trompe le Monde, opened the door for modern rock stations to give Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" its first spins.
Billboard's newly launched chart was wildly eclectic in its early years, with singles from Joan Armatrading, Dream Warriors and Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers all making appearances. But as grunge and alternative rock began to explode, it would have been easy for radio to kill off the diversity found on modern rock radio had Red Hot Chili Peppers' Blood Sugar Sex Magik not been so overwhelmingly popular by fans and critics alike. The album proved to be a heterogeneous love letter to Black American-created genres, including hip-hop ("The Power of Equality"), funk ("Funky Monks"), jazz ("Apache Rose Peacock") and blues ("They're Red Hot") and gave lily-white program directors the prompt they needed to keep acts like Lenny Kravitz and Us3 on playlists.
As the '90s began to take shape, the burgeoning Madchester scene gained major popularity in England. While groups like the Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and the Charlatans were mostly ignored in America, alternative dance acts were charting higher on the Billboard charts than in their home country. Created with help from a mix of rock producers and electronic musicians, Primal Scream's instantly-acclaimed Screamadelica appealed to critics on both sides of the Atlantic. After its release, alternative dance would become more sophisticated, as MTV and radio abandoned EMF and Jesus Jones for the likes of Bjork and Tricky.
At the same time, mainstream hip-hop was still in its party-rap infancy phase, leading to some completely vapid early hits like MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This" and Vanilla Ice's "Ice Ice Baby." Released two years after De La Soul's game-changing debut, Three Feet High and Rising, A Tribe Called Quest's The Low End Theory helped bring alternative rap to the masses. Trading in sample-thick rhythms for minimal jazz soundscapes, the Queens trio delivered an earthy, progressive version of rap, opening the door for everything from Arrested Development to Beck.
Although the common narrative around Nevermind was that it was a runaway smash upon release, it actually entered the Billboard chart at a lowly 144. But among strong chart debuts by Red Hot Chili Peppers and A Tribe Called Quest, the Billboard 200 was ornamented by a healthy number of crossover metal and alternative albums, including the Cult's Ceremony, Alice in Chains' Facelift and Jane's Addiction's Ritual de lo Habitual. While Nirvana gets most of the credit for killing off hair metal in the early '90s, Soundgarden found themselves in the perfect climate to put a nail into glam metal's coffin. Once critics and fans heard Badmotorfinger's mix of alternate tunings, political lyrics, odd time signatures and guitar effects, it was clear that the Seattle acts were making music more in line with Sonic Youth than Skid Row.
Looking beyond the surface, Nirvana's role in the paradigm shift that dominated the '90s was actually more cultural than it was musical. Whether it was members sharing a kiss on Saturday Night Live, Kurt Cobain's "Corporate Magazines Still Suck" T-shirt, or their Incesticide liner notes ("If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please do this one favor for us — leave us the fuck alone!"), Nirvana presented an enlightened version of rock that even punk couldn't reach.
Long after Cobain's untimely death in 1994, Nirvana's shadow loomed large, playing a major role in the mainstream explosion of indie rock – a musical genre that, in the decades since, has become increasingly welcoming to people of all genders and sexualities.
Some critics and fans have declared "rock is dead" in recent years. But in truth, rock remains as vital and groundbreaking as it's ever been — it's simply just retreated back into the underground, where it rightfully belongs. Anyone who expected Foo Fighters, the Black Keys and Queens of the Stone Age to fulfil rock's unbridled, boundary-pushing subterranean spirit need only look to acts like Downtown Boys, Girlpool and Sheer Mag. Thirty years since that fateful Tuesday in 1991 changed the trajectory of music history, rock is still thriving.