It is one of the most popular genres worldwide, with a rich history that begins in the late 70s, accompanied by an entire culture that goes beyond music. From breakdancing to DJs and MCs, many young people celebrated parties in forgotten neighborhoods of New York while they tried to make a living and improve their social status. So the years passed. Hip-hop culture evolved and grew larger, reaching more places. Street gangs occupied more public spaces, and the best rappers of the 90s embraced all these social experiences to constantly speak about their reality. This was evident, especially in two subgenres that often merged into one: conscious rap and gangsta rap. They drew inspiration from figures like Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, but also from black voices like Marvin Gaye or the Five Stairsteps.
Between the past and the present, unforgettable voices emerged that never forgot the streets. From New York to California, not forgetting Southern rap, all the 90s rappers featured in this entry and in our playlist had something to say about their time. The lyrical level of many, combined with their innovative flow, has kept them sounding just as fresh for the most part, but above all, just as relevant, despite having, in some well-remembered cases, marked the end of gang violence and coastal rivalries, defending a slightly different style of rapping based on the history of each region, but also on the climate and way of life determined by their place of birth.
In this entry, we will highlight a total of 11 rappers from the 90s who stood out not only for their style and lyrics but also for the productions behind their songs. As is customary on this blog, we will also include a Spotify playlist that features not only the names of these rappers but also their best rap songs of the 90s. Therefore, if you enjoy everything related to the world of hip-hop, we recommend that you subscribe to our playlist and share it with all the rap fans you know.
The Best Songs of 90s Rappers in English
Despite appearing in the Spotify playlist of the best rappers of the 90s, in our featured selection, we will only talk about individuals, not rap groups. This means we leave out Public Enemy, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Naughty By Nature, or the Wu-Tang Clan.
Rapper 2Pac was so prolific that he continued to release new singles and albums for almost 10 years after his death in 1996. In addition to releasing music as 2Pac, he was also a member of Thug Life and released an album as Makaveli.
In the early days of his musical career, after collaborating with Digital Underground, the lyrics of his songs were mainly focused on social and autobiographical themes, highlighting tracks like Brenda’s Got A Baby or Keep Ya Head Up, where he emphasized the importance of being raised by his mother, Afeni Shakur, a former member of the Black Panthers.
Although he always incorporated some songs in his repertoire that were closer to the gangsta rap genre (Trapped) or simply festive (I Get Around), it was with the album Me Against The World (1995) that this first genre, focused on lyrics about street gangs, drug dealing, gang-related murders, and police violence, began to stand out more prominently in his discography. What’s interesting in this regard is that he never neglected his other social concerns. In a way, he was always an activist for social and racial rights.
However, his encounters with the courts, following an incident where a man killed a police officer while listening to Me Against The World, followed by an attempted murder and a stint in jail after being accused of sexual assault, seemed to take a toll on him over time, although he always seemed very aware of the mistakes he made and had a good understanding of the world he lived in. Adding to that was the emergence of Suge Knight, a mafia figure and music producer, who offered a three-album contract in exchange for his release on bail. It was at this moment that 2Pac’s creativity seemed to flourish, as he released all the planned albums in his contract within a year.
This last fact is what led many fans of the 90s rapper to believe that he was murdered by his producer, albeit through another person. 2Pac wanted to go solo, just like Dr. Dre had done shortly before, especially after realizing that, of all the profits generated by the sales of his records, he only received a car as a gift and little else.
Among the best 2Pac songs in the 90s —as we mentioned, he continued releasing music in the 2000s, even after his death, which led to various theories about it—, we find, in addition to the ones mentioned earlier, the following: Dear Mama, So Many Tears, All About U, All Eyez On Me, or California Love. As Makaveli, there were Hail Mary, Me And My Girlfriend, and To Live And Die In L.A. in 1996, which fueled the 7-day theory. Regarding his participation in Thug Life, notable tracks include How Long Will They Mourn Me, featuring Nate Dogg, Bury Me A G, and Pour Out A Little Liquor. After his death, tracks like Do For Love, I Wonder If Heaven Got A Ghetto, R U Still Down (Remember Me), and Staring Through My Rear View appeared in 1997, along with a greatest hits album featuring the new track Changes. In 1998, he appeared on an official release of Hit ‘Em Up, which had been published as an attack on Puff Daddy and The Notorious B.I.G. after believing they had orchestrated the first assassination attempt he suffered.
The Notorious B.I.G.
The Notorious B.I.G.’s career has many similarities to that of 2Pac, although he had less time to give his fans a larger repertoire, having been assassinated in response to 2Pac’s death. Many 90s rap fans remember the East Coast-West Coast wars, which ended with the deaths of their two biggest musical figures at the time. The deaths of two beloved figures in their circles put an end to most of these fights, which went far beyond music, as you can see.
In the case of Biggie’s Bad Boy, always accompanied by his producer Puff Daddy, now known as Diddy after several name changes, we highlight tracks like Big Poppa, Juicy, or Who Shot Ya (which was the single that made 2Pac think that the shooting that almost killed him was Biggie’s doing, until then a buddy). His collaboration with Da Brat on Da B Side is also notable. After his death in 1997, tracks exploring the subgenre of gangsta rap such as Hypnotize or Mo Money Mo Problems appeared on the album Life After Death, released just a few days later. That same year, Puff Daddy released an album full of collaborations (including his famous dedication to The Notorious B.I.G., I’ll Be Missing You), where the rapper appeared on tracks like Victory or Been Around The World.
Finally, his presence in the group Junior M.A.F.I.A., where the rapper Lil’ Kim also stood out, is worth noting. With them, he released singles like Get Money or Player’s Anthem, recommended if you’re a fan of the great Biggie Smalls and company. Both songs were used in the song 2Pac used to attack both the rapper and the rest of his crew, from the first to the last, in what was then called a “diss.”
Another of the always-remembered names when thinking of 90s rap. Nas is one of the biggest exponents of New York hip hop. His career is still alive and kicking in 2022, but his prime was during this decade. He renewed many things, tackled issues with a unique perspective. The East Coast-West Coast war affected him, as he was part of the hardcore New York scene, although over time it seems he was one of those who got less involved and stayed focused on his own path.
From his 90s discography, we recommend songs like N.Y. State Of Mind, The World Is Yours, If I Ruled The World (Imagine That), featuring Lauryn Hill (a member of the Fugees), The Message, or Nas Is Like.
Ice Cube’s career began as a member of the gangsta rap group N.W.A., formed in the late 80s, where he was a colleague of people like Dr. Dre and Eazy-E, among others. His departure from the band had to do, according to themselves, with disagreements regarding the contract with the record label Ruthless Records, managed by Jerry Heller. He thought Heller was ripping them off, and at one point, he felt that his friends and group members were on the wrong side, instead of supporting him. That’s when he started his solo career, although the distribution of his works still depended on Priority Records, the distributor founded by Eazy-E in the early days of the group.
From the 90s discography that Ice Cube released, the most remembered will always be No Vaseline, It Was A Good Day, The Predator, You Know How We Do It, and Check Yo Self (Remix). As for N.W.A., when Dr. Dre saw that Ice Cube was right, he also left the group and started a much more recognized career as an MC, music producer, and talent scout. However, not being the author of the lyrics in his songs has led us to choose the one who started writing them in the first place.
In a similar way to what happened in N.W.A., where its members continued to be part of Priority Records despite leaving the group, Method Man is part of the Wu-Tang Clan, but the circumstances were quite different. In his case, the group collaboration continues, the record label Wu-Tang Records, and the brand as a whole have only grown since its inception in 1992.
In addition to being a significant businessman, MC Method Man is such a great rapper that, in addition to standing out solo, he made a song in which he was the only one singing become one of the singles from the Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album. That’s the level. In a group with a minimum of 8 egos, they chose his song for the group’s promotion. It wasn’t the first single, but that’s the level.
As for his best songs: Protect Ya Neck, C.R.E.A.M., Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing Ta Fuck Wit, and Triumph in the Wu-Tang Clan, where, in addition to standing out for his lyrical skills and flow, he was usually in charge of the best hooks if there were any. In solo work during this decade, we find I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need to Get By, which sampled a song from the aforementioned Marvin Gaye and featured the legendary Mary J. Blige, Bring The Pain, Da Rockwilder (with his friend Redman), as well as collaborations like Ice Cream (by Raekwon and Ghostface Killah), Symphony 2000 (with EPMD, Redman, and Lady Luck), and N 2 Gether Now (by Limp Bizkit).
Rapper Paris has always been one of the most politically active, both in his lyrics and in other areas of his life. Born in San Francisco, California, he is the founder of Guerrilla Funk Recordings and Scarface Records, mentoring artists like DJ Shadow and The Conscious Daughters.
Still active, standout tracks include The Days Of Old, with its unique jazz base that reclaimed the genre as something inherent to black culture. Also, The Devil Made Me Do It or Guerrilla Funk, which gave its name to his aforementioned record label.
Among the 90s rappers who survived and thrived throughout the decade, Master P is one of the most prominent. Apart from his officially retired music career, he is an actor, entrepreneur, investor, and producer. He is the founder of the popular label No Limit Records, which went bankrupt and was relaunched multiple times as The New No Limit Records, Guttar Music Entertainment, and is currently known as No Limit Forever. He is also the founder and CEO of P. Miller Enterprises, a financial and entertainment conglomerate. As a rapper, Master P has released 13 studio albums throughout his career and has appeared in over 12 films.
His most remembered songs from this decade include How Ya Do Dat, a 1998 collaboration with Young Bleed, the ode to weed that is Pass Me Da Green, or the ode to alcohol that is Burbons And Lacs. In all these tracks, the beats created using impeccable samples stand out. Someday, we’ll also have to talk about the best producers in 90s rap.
Famous for being a good guy, Common initially introduced himself as Common Sense, making it clear where he stood in his lyrics. This Chicago rapper arrived on the hip-hop scene in 1992 with his debut album Can I Borrow A Dollar?. He is well-known for his second release, Resurrection (1994), and his subsequent collaborations with The Soulquarians. Since then, he has continued to release new material, which he balances with his acting career.
We also really like his third album, One Day It’ll All Make Sense, released in 1997, from which Invocation comes, undoubtedly his best song. However, his best album is still from a later decade. Be (2005) is still his career peak today, despite always maintaining a high level.
Originally a graffiti artist, KRS-One is one of those 90s rappers who put most of their effort into speaking out against injustices and criticizing the violence within the black community in the United States, both from within and from outside. In fact, he is recognized as one of the founders of the Stop The Violence movement and as a pioneer in general in the music and hip-hop culture.
If, by chance, his MC name doesn’t ring a bell, you’re sure to recognize Sound Of Da Police, even if you don’t know who he is. In fact, if you’re a fan of Ayax Y Prok, you might know him from there, as a tribute or nod, that is. In addition to that song, we also recommend Step Into A World (Rapture’s Delight), a quite different vibe but equally honored in later rap songs.
Rapper Rakim is one of the most important figures in how he helped revolutionize the genre in the early 90s alongside Eric B, with whom he formed the duo Eric B & Rakim. Together, they created Don’t Sweat The Technique, with its catchy and legendary beat, and Paid In Full, from 1987. In solo work, we find Guess Who’s Back from 1997, or When I B On The Mic from 1999.
And you might wonder, what about Will Smith? The guy released hits in the 90s such as Yo Home To Bel-Air (from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air), Summertime, or Boom! Shake The Room when he was with DJ Jazzy Jeff and he called himself The Fresh Prince, while totally solo he gave us singles like Men In Black, Miami, Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It, or Wild Wild West.
We don’t have a convincing answer, really, beyond to what extent his music career has influenced genre members over time since its inception. That’s why we included him here as well.
Perhaps he was more of an outsider in rap, disconnected from what was happening within the movement in general, much more pop or commercial for purists. At least it seems logical to deduce this from his generally light lyrics, although they are equally worth enjoying for a good time.
(Madrid, 1987) Novelist by vocation, SEO specialist by profession. Music lover, cinephile and reading lover, but in “amateur” mode.