If you ask any hip-hop fan, most will tell you that the 1990s was the Golden Age of the genre. (Though the 1980s weren’t half-bad either.)
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But for anyone who grew up in the era of Snoop Dogg, Tupac, Eminem, and Missy Elliott, you know what decade really reigns supreme.
Here, we wanted to highlight to best of that decade, to enjoy a trip down memory lane and fall in love all over again with some of the best rap tracks in the history of the musical style that has since taken over the world.
Let’s dive in!
1. Snoop Dogg
The Long Beach, California rapper known as much for his love of weed as his prowess on a microphone is as ubiquitous today as he was back in the ’90s with albums like the 1993 offering, Doggystyle, and his features with Dr. Dre on The Chronic. Snoop is on many commercials, performed at the Super Bowl halftime show, and is also known for his friendship with professional homemaker Martha Stewart. But none of that would be possible without his rhymes.
2. Dr. Dre
The Godfather of ’90s rap, Compton, California’s Dr. Dre made his bones in the ’80s with N.W.A. and then solidified his status as one of the greatest of all time in the ’90s, discovering acts like Snoop, Eminem, and more. Whatever your Mount Rushmore of Rap, he’s on it, thanks in large part to his 1992 album, The Chronic.
Perhaps the greatest pure lyricist and rhymer of all time, Detroit’s Eminem burst onto the scene with his 1999 record, The Slim Shady LP. Who doesn’t know the line, Hi! My Name Is! We followed his exploits, both good and bad, as Marshall Mathers made a name for himself with epic, fight-inducing song after song. He went on to become an integral figure in rap later in the 2000s, too, discovering artists like 50 Cent.
A trio of badass rappers, TLC formed in 1990 in Atlanta, Georgia, and released three rap albums in the 1990s, from Ooooooohhh… On the TLC Tip (1992) and CrazySexyCool (1994) to FanMail (1999). With seminal songs like “No Scrubs” and “Creep,” the group of T-Boz, Chilli, and Left Eye left a big impression on rap fans.
5. Missy Elliott
When the video for “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” hit the airwaves in the ’90s, it made everyone consider the idea of putting on a black trash bag and filming a fisheye lens video. The rapper along with the producer Timbaland earned fame and fortune with just one concept and, since, Missy has gone on to be one of the most important lyricists of her generation, even recently earning a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
6. Sir Mix A Lot
On its face, “Baby Got Back” is an ode to the big backsides that many love. But digging a little deeper, the song highlights shapely people and undoes the stereotype that only uber-thin women are the standard of beauty. When Sir Mix A Lot released the track, there is no way he could have known the longevity it would have, earning samples from Nicki Minaj and being one of the most popular karaoke songs ever.
7. Digital Underground
When Shock G died recently, it sent shock waves throughout the hip-hop world. He was a master at grabbing eyeballs and holds the distinction of giving a young Tupac Shakur his first break in music (as a backup dancer). With a fake big nose and a deep voice, “The Humpty Dance” has lived on thanks, in part, to the concept of getting busy in a Burger King bathroom.
Another must-have on anyone’s rap Mount Rushmore, Tupac lived fast and, sadly, died young. In many ways, he remains the standard in the game. A brash, uncompromising artist who lived what he said and believed in the people over power. Sure, he had his downs with his ups, but Tupac will last forever thanks to his work with artists like Dr. Dre and other west coast stalwarts. Sadly, he was caught up in the west coast vs. east coast beef, but his legacy remains so much more.
From the ATL (aka Atlanta), Outkast, comprised of Andre 3000 and Big Boi, helped bring southern rappers to prominence in the 1990s. In truth, they were one of the first—if not the first—to show that rappers can be standouts even if you’re not from New York City or Los Angeles. The duo went on to create epic records together and later, their solo efforts were also acclaimed.
10. Notorious B.I.G.
The Yin to Tupac’s Yang, Notorious B.I. G. is considered by many to be one of the greatest pure lyricists ever. Where Tupac had passion and strength and prolific output, Biggie had style and poetry, metaphors and similes. His capacity for rhyme was second to none and may only be rivaled by the likes of Eminem. Though Biggie also died young, his memory lives on and will for decades.
11. Busta Rhymes
The best rap name in history. Busta Rhymes is just *chef’s kiss* and he also had one of the best voices in the history of the genre, a big, bombastic growl that was instantly recognizable. Busta rose to fame with movie-like music videos in the ’90s that showed his knack for the cartoonish and larger-than-life.
12. Black Star
Comprised of Talib Kweli and Mos Def, Black Star represents the cerebral “backpack” side of the M.C. pool. These two were friends and two of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking rappers of their generation. They were part of a crew that included Common Sense, the Roots, Eve, and more. Their self-titled album remains one of the most important of the decade of how it talks about poverty, American Blackness, fresh ideas, and more.
13. Common Sense
Another high-minded rapper, Common Sense, is known for his wordplay and weaving intricate ideas and rhymes together. The Chicago-born emcee’s album, Be, will forever be beloved but his earlier work in the ’90s like “The Light” is what made him a name to know on the tongues of fans.
14. Jay Z
He’s not a businessman, he’s a business, man. Today, Jay is as much a mogul as he is one of the most important rappers of all time. He’s married to Beyonce, he created the idea of a modern musical businessman and he’s lasted for decades telling his Great American Story from rags to riches, from the projects in Brooklyn to a billion dollars. He also discovered many big names along the way, including Chicago’s Kanye West.
15. Wu-Tang Clan
The collective that changed the game. The RZA, the GZA, Method Man, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Ghostface Killah and more. This group defined what it meant to be a unit, breaking out with important standards like “C.R.E.A.M.” and “Triumph.” Today, the members are still making waves in the industry, branching out as soloists and even actors.
16. The Roots
Another important collective, The Roots made waves in the ’90s thanks to the lyrical prowess of frontman Black Thought and drummer Questlove. Today, the group is the house band for The Late Night Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on NBC, and Quest is making waves as a documentary director while Black Thought continues to put out work that shakes the world, including recently with the standout procure Danger Mouse. The Roots made being anti-money-hungry cool, despite the fact they were still very successful.
17. A Tribe Called Quest
Can I kick it? Yes, you can. A Tribe Called Quest was thoughtful, and fun and they utilized the upright bass unlike any other hip-hop group in the world, employing standouts like Ron Carter on the instrument. Led by the lyricist Q-Tip, the group was chill and still boasted a bite. Today, they’re everyone’s favorite study music. Hit play then hit the books.
Perhaps the best voice in the history of rap, DMX’s growl was and is unparalleled. He and his Ruff Ryders were intimidating and powerful. The emcee empowered many to get in the booth, lift weights in the gym, and be all they could be. He was like a motivational speaker as much as he was a man on the mic.
19. Big Punisher
Who doesn’t know the lyrics, I’m not a player I just crush a lot. The line was everywhere in the ’90s and remains one of the most classic in the game. Big Pun brought pride to Latin rappers everywhere and even allowed the big men in the room to get some shine. Sadly, the rapper has since passed away but his legacy certainly has not.
20. The Fugees
This trio brought intellect and musicianship to the game. Wyclef played the acoustic and produced. Lauryn Hill was the biting emcee and singer with a beautiful face and voice. And Pras offered the voice that stuck to your ribs. Their LP, The Score, is one of the all-time greatest rap records of all time.
A funky, even cartoonish rapper, Redman is low-key one of the greatest rhyme writers of his generation. And his partnership with Method Man created an everlasting duo that featured in television shows, movies, and, of course, on records. When Eminem called out Redman as being one of the best rappers in the game, everyone listened but most already knew.
Last but certainly not least on this list is Nas. From Queens Bridge, the emcee is your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper. He is less flashy than most, and a bit subtle, but his record Illmatic may just be one of the greatest rap albums of all time.
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