When people refer to the “golden age” of hip-hop, they’re often speaking about a period roughly between the mid-80s and the mid-90s, where innovation and experimentation was rife as artists continually made attempts to reinvent the genre. But by the 90s, hip-hop had also become a commercial and cultural behemoth, with megastars like 2Pac, Biggie and Jay-Z taking on the charts and taking over radio, TV and print media all over the world.
Many think of the East Coast-West Coast rivalry as a key characteristic of 90s hip-hop, but aside from the feuds and ultimate tragedies that plagued the genre, hip-hop culture in the 90s was all about breaking new ground in terms of technology, style and wider influences. It was the dawn of new production techniques, the era where artists began fusing genres like reggae and soul, and also an incredibly important time for socially-conscious and politically-minded hip-hop. Despite the music industry’s obvious misogyny and capitalist focus, it was also an inspiring period for women in hip-hop, who were fighting back against the boys’ club mentality and highlighting their undeniable skills as rappers, producers and more. This list of 90s hip-hop will point you towards some of the best of the era, including the women who are often forgotten or erased from the genre’s history despite their clear impact.
45. ‘How’s Life In London’ – London Posse
London Posse, often credited as being one of the first British crews to rap in their own accents, big up their hometown in this track with their additional ragga and dancehall vibes.
Best hip-hop lyric: “So we’d skip, find some honey dips and we’d wop/at the night spots, cos that shit jump in ’86”
44. ‘Daddy’s Little Girl’ – Nikki D
Nikki D’s only studio album, 1991’s ‘Daddy’s Little Girl’, is notable for being Def Jam’s first rap record to be released by a woman but the confidence in its title track also reinforces why the legendary label chose to sign the young rapper in the first place.
Best hip-hop lyric: “Daddy’s little girl, but not the girl that daddy knew/daddy never had a clue of what his little girl would do”
43. ‘Ruff Ryders’ Anthem’ – DMX
There are many DMX tracks that could comfortably fit on this list but ‘Ruff Ryders’ Anthem’ is one of the best to showcase the rapper’s unquestionable swagger.
Best hip-hop lyric: “Nothin’ we can’t handle, break it up and dismantle/light it up like a candle just ’cause I can’t stand you”
42. ‘OPP’ – Naughty By Nature
Naughty by Nature’s cheeky, pop-leaning 1991 single may be about sexual infidelity but its lyrics are playfully hidden under a terrific jingle-like beat.
Best hip-hop lyric: “O.P.P., how can I explain it? I’ll take it, frame by frame it/to have y’all all jumpin’, shoutin’, sayin’ it”
41. ‘Sound Of Da Police’ – KRS-One
One of the 90s’ leading examples of tracks taking aim at police brutality, ‘Sound Of Da Police’ is still considered an enduring anti-cop anthem.
Best hip-hop lyric: “Watch out, we run New York/policeman come, we bust him out the park/I know this for a fact, you don’t like how I act/you claim I’m sellin’ crack, but you be doin’ that”
40. ‘Love Is Blind’ – Eve
‘Love Is Blind’ is a bold and powerfully resentful track from Eve’s debut album about the horrors of domestic violence, directed towards her best friend’s real-life abuser.
Best hip-hop lyric: “I don’t even know you and I’d kill you myself/you played with her like a doll and put her back on the shelf/wouldn’t let her go to school and better herself/she had a baby by your ass and you ain’t giving no help”
39. ‘Can’t Knock The Hustle’ – Jay-Z
The third single from Jay-Z’s debut is a bonafide favourite for its flawless beat and the inclusion of Mary J. Blige on the chorus.
Best hip-hop lyric: “Through my peripheral I see you scheming/stop dreaming, I leave your body steaming”
38. ‘Regulate’ – Warren G
The G-funk masterwork ‘Regulate’ is a simple yet lush, narratively-driven track, which quickly became Def Jam’s biggest single upon its release.
Best hip-hop lyric: “Just hit the east side of the LBC/on a mission tryna find Mr. Warren G/seen a car full of girls, ain’t no need to tweak/all you skirts know what’s up with 213”
37. ‘Deeper’ – Boss
Detroit rapper Boss might have had a relatively short career but she left a mark with tracks like ‘Deeper’ from her 1993 Def Jam album ‘Born Gangstaz’.
Best hip-hop lyric: “I talk a lot of shit but I can back it all the fuck up/I’m real cool people until some bullshit get brung up/look here, believe me I ain’t comin out my crib/tryin to snap on life and run out and do some dumb shit”
36. ‘I Got 5 On It’ – Luniz
Known for being a spacey weed anthem, the irresistible slow rap of Luniz’s ‘I Got 5 On It’ was helped along with the addition of R&B singer Michael Marshall smooth vocal stylings.
Best hip-hop lyric: “Five-dollar bill, on the real, before it’s history/‘cause fools be havin’ them vacuum lungs/and if you let ’em hit it for free, you hella dumb-da-dumb-dumb”
35. ‘The Party Don’t Stop’ – Mia X
Louisiana’s Mia X was the first female rapper to be signed by No Limit Records and she really hit her stride with her second album ‘Unlady Like’, whose first single ‘The Party Don’t Stop’ included guest verses from both Master P and Foxy Brown.
Best hip-hop lyric: “We don’t care if the party don’t stop/got nothing but time so let the beat knock pop”
34. ‘All My Love’ – Queen Pen
With vocals from Eric Williams of Blackstreet (whose classic ‘No Diggity’ featured Queen Pen) and a Luther Vandross sample, ‘All My Love’ was always destined to have a sensual quality about it.
Best hip-hop lyric: “Here’s how it goes, used to see you when I went to the store/always watch you play ball from my bedroom window/and the places you frequent, the chicks you freaked with/the spot in the grass where you kept your stash”
33. ‘Break Fool’ – Rah Digga
Rah Digga’s 1999 debut album ‘Dirty Harriet’ is full of brazen and electrifying bangers but ‘Break Fool’ taunts and trips you up with its razor-sharp lyrics.
Best hip-hop lyric: “Anybody got a beat, then they better keep it hittin/retailers put your fit in for the hottest chick spittin”
32. ‘Stand Up’ – Charli Baltimore
Charli Baltimore’s debut album ‘Cold As Ice’ didn’t ever get an official public release but the single ‘Stand Up’, featuring Ghostface Killah, rightfully garnered her some attention.
Best hip-hop lyric: “Cats fatigued out, thinkin’ they armies/my crew arms me with beats, how we swarm bee?”
31. ‘Concrete Schoolyard’ – Jurassic 5
‘Concrete Schoolyard’ was the first single from Jurassic 5’s eponymous debut EP and its chilled, laidback hook remains one of the most recognisable odes to 80s’ hip-hop.
Best hip-hop lyric: “Let’s take it back to the concrete streets, original beats from real live MCs/playground tactics, no rabbit in a hat tricks/just that classic, rap shit from Jurassic”
30. ‘Shook Ones, Pt. II’ – Mobb Deep
With its Herbie Hancock piano sample and menacing lyrics, the lead single from Mobb Deep’s 1995 album ‘The Infamous’ is a seminal hardcore street anthem.
Best hip-hop lyric: “Son, they shook/’cause ain’t no such things as halfway crooks/scared to death, scared to look, they shook”
29. ‘You Can’t Play With My Yo-Yo’ – Yo-Yo
Yolanda Whitaker, also known as Yo-Yo, was the protege of Ice Cube but really, she should be better recognised for having the best-named crew around, the IBWC (Intelligent Black Woman’s Coalition).
Best hip-hop lyric: “Label me as a woman, and sometimes I feel inferior/falling back on the hands of time makes no man superior/should we dare to take the stand/and diss back all the men”
28. ‘Hell Is Round The Corner’ – Tricky
Tricky’s debut album outside of Massive Attack was a pivotal release in the trip-hop genre but ‘Hell Is Round The Corner’ is the track that stands out for its brutal stream-of-consciousness and spellbinding ambience.
Best hip-hop lyric: “Let me take you down the corridors of my life/and when you walk, do you walk to your preference? No need to answer till I take further evidence/I seem to need a reference to get residence”
27. ‘Afro Puffs’ – The Lady Of Rage
The first single released by The Lady of Rage, who was known in the 90s as the queen of Death Row Records, has a soothing, G-funk swing, assisted by the subtle addition of Snoop Dogg in the track’s hook.
Best hip-hop lyric: “I rock on with my bad self ’cause it’s a must/it’s the Lady Of Rage still kickin’ up dust/so umm, let me loosen up my bra strap, and umm, let me boost ya with my raw rap”
26. ‘Cold Rock A Party’ – MC Lyte
Undoubtedly one of hip-hop’s most pioneering women, MC Lyte was also the first solo female rapper to release a full album and 1996’s ‘Cold Rock A Party’ is a total gem.
Best hip-hop lyric: “So what’s your status? I be the baddest B to hit the scene/since the gangsta lean, I’m all ears/so what you got to say? I hope you bubblin’ it baby”
25. ‘Something To Ride To (Fonky Expedition)’ – The Conscious Daughters
Carla ‘CMG’ Green and Karryl ‘Special One’ Smith might be fairly unknown in the wider hip-hop canon but the San Francisco duo deserve props for their debut album ‘Ear to the Street’ and its funk-infused single ‘Something To Ride To’.
Best hip-hop lyric: “Foothill Boulevard, the bumpy ass strip/homies steady clownin’ on the gas, brake, dip”
24. ‘All Glocks Down’ – Heather B.
Heather B.’s first single is pure attitude, matched only in potency by the producing skills of Boogie Down Productions’ Kenny Parker.
Best hip-hop lyric: “I didn’t feel like playing around/’cause you’s part-time with a part rhyme/committing no crimes and claiming to be hard on the block”
23. ‘I’ll Be’ – Foxy Brown
The second single from Foxy Brown’s debut album features a guest spot from an up-and-coming Jay-Z and at the time, it was both Brown and Jay-Z’s highest charting single.
Best hip-hop lyric: “Loan sharkin’ this year, raise the figures/fifteen percent, make the whole world sit up/and take notice, Na Na take over/y’all take quotas to hit, papa”
22. ‘Player’s Ball’ – Outkast
It might have technically been a Christmas song but Outkast’s debut single is a celebration of hip-hop culture in the South and was responsible for helping to put the Atlanta duo on the map.
Best hip-hop lyric: “It’s beginning to look a lot like, what? Follow my every step/take notes on how I crept/I’s bout to go in depth”
21. ‘The Hate That Hate Produced’ – Sister Souljah
The anger and militancy in its lyrics, as well as Souljah’s powerful and defiant delivery are all responsible for making her 1991 album ‘360 Degrees of Power’ a masterclass in activism.
Best hip-hop lyric: “Souljah’s creating the statements I’m stating/meant to be real, never accommodating/I give it to you straight, I don’t water it down/no need to debate, I don’t change it around”
20. ‘Simon Says’ – Pharoahe Monch
Though that infectious Godzilla sample in the hook was controversially never fully cleared for use, ‘Simon Says’ is still Pharoahe Monch’s biggest tune to date.
Best hip-hop lyric: “New York City gritty committee pity the fool/that act shitty in the midst of the calm, the witty”
19. ‘93 ‘Til Infinity’ – Souls of Mischief
Expertly merging jazz and funk samples, ‘93 ‘Til Infinity’ is a melodically chilled and cleverly constructed jam from the Oakland crew.
Best hip-hop lyric: “My freestyle talent overpowers, brothers can’t hack it/they lack wit, we got the mack shit/’93 to infinity – kill all that wack shit!”
18. ‘The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)’ – Missy Elliott
Already known widely for her work with Timbaland and Aaliyah, when Missy Elliott released her debut solo single 1997, it only served to further cement her place in the hip-hop sphere.
Best hip-hop lyric: “It be me-me-me and Timothy/look like it’s ’bout to rain, what a shame, I got the Armor All to shine up the stain/oh, Missy, try to maintain”
17. ‘Shimmy Shimmy Ya’ – Ol’ Dirty Bastard
‘Shimmy Shimmy Ya’ is classic ODB; a little odd in its delivery, sometimes incomprehensible in its lyrics but a slinky banger nonetheless.
Best hip-hop lyric: “Shimmy, shimmy, ya, shimmy, yam, shimmy, yay/gimme the mic so I can take it away”
16. ‘Uknowhowwedu’ – Bahamadia
She was known for being the female protege of Gang Starr’s Guru but Bahamadia was a formidable rapper in her own right, as made evident by the second single from 1996’s ‘Kollage’.
Best hip-hop lyric: “Raps way back at the plat with super bad disco/used to do the freak the Patty Duke and Giggalo/after midnight on the weekend”
15. ‘Don’t Sweat The Technique’ – Erik B. & Rakim
With a sample of ‘Give It Up’ by Kool & the Gang in tow, ‘Don’t Sweat The Technique’ is flawless in its make-up thanks to that funky bass riff and Rakim’s always on-point delivery.
Best hip-hop lyric: “I change the pace to complete the beat, I drop the bass ’til MCs get weak/for every word they trace, it’s a scar they keep, ’cause when I speak, they freak to sweat the technique”
14. ‘Funkdafied’ – Da Brat
The lead single from Da Brat’s debut album of the same name sees the rapper firmly proclaim that she’s not one to be messed with, with fire lyricism all the way through.
Best hip-hop lyric: “Them calls me the funkdafied, funkalistic, vocalistic/with the real shit, we got the shit you can’t funk with”
13. ‘It’s A Shame (My Sister)’ – Monie Love
Monie Love made her name in the US as Queen Latifah’s protege and one of the UK’s most successful rap exports, thanks partly to her 1990 hit single ‘It’s A Shame (My Sister)’.
Best hip-hop lyric: “Get back on your feet please, I’m beggin’ you to check out all your own needs/don’t let nobody see you in a state of grievin’, over the brother, there’s another possibility”
12. ‘Hip-Hop’ – Dead Prez
Dead Prez’s best-known track is arguably one of the decade’s greatest for its combination of that wobbly bassline, combative hook and prominent anti-capitalist message.
Best hip-hop lyric: “One thing bout music when it hit you feel no pain/white folks say it controls your brain, I know better than that, that’s game”
11. ‘Lost Ones’ – Ms. Lauryn Hill
Though it wasn’t released as an official single, ‘Lost Ones’ is one of the prime moments on ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’ and one of the better diss tracks around, this one supposedly aimed at Hill’s former Fugees bandmate Wyclef Jean.
Best hip-hop lyric: “There come many paths and you must choose one/and if you don’t change then the rain soon come/see you might win some, but you just lost one”
10. ‘Hypnotize’ – The Notorious B.I.G.
As the last song released before Biggie’s death in 1997, ‘Hypnotize’ holds a special place in hip-hop history. It’s also a funk-infused, stone-cold party song.
Best hip-hop lyric: “Biggie, Biggie, Biggie, can’t you see? Sometimes your words just hypnotize me/and I just love your flashy ways, guess that’s why they broke, and you’re so paid”
9. ‘All Eyez On Me’ – 2Pac
The title track from 2Pac’s last studio album was the first he recorded as a newly signed member of Death Row, underlining the rapper’s indisputable talents as a storyteller, while also giving an insight into his position in the East-West beef.
Best hip-hop lyric: “Make sure your eyes is on the meal ticket, get your money/motherfucker, let’s get rich and we’ll kick it; all eyes on me”
8. ‘C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me)’ – Wu-Tang Clan
The second single from Wu-Tang’s legendary debut ‘Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’ features RZA’s production at its very best alongside a signature Method Man hook.
Best hip-hop lyric: “Cash rules everything around me/C.R.E.A.M., get the money, dollar dollar bill, y’all”
7. ‘Not Tonight (Ladies Night Remix)’ – Lil’ Kim
Originally appearing on Lil’ Kim’s debut studio album ‘Hard Core’, the remix of ‘Not Tonight’ which arrived a year later featuring Missy Elliott, Da Brat, Left Eye, Angie Martinez, remains one of the best collaborative efforts in 90s hip-hop.
Best hip-hop lyric: “It’s the rap Mae West, the Q-B/and I got all my sisters with me”
6. ‘Can I Kick It?’ – A Tribe Called Quest
The call-and-response chorus, mellow, laid back approach in the track’s production and confidence in Q-Tip and Phife Dawg’s delivery all make ‘Can I Kick It?’ an early 90s’ jam.
Best hip-hop lyric: “Can I kick it? To all the people who can Quest like A Tribe does/before this, did you really know what live was? Comprehend to the track, for it’s why cuz”
5. ‘N.Y. State Of Mind’ – Nas
One of many phenomenal tracks from Nas’ debut studio album ‘Illmatic’, ‘N.Y. State Of Mind’ incorporates a funky jazz rhythm under the rapper’s symbolism-steeped depiction of life in New York.
Best hip-hop lyric: “It drops deep as it does in my breath, I never sleep, ’cause sleep is the cousin of death/beyond the walls of intelligence, life is defined, I think of crime when I’m in a New York State of Mind”
4. ‘Let’s Talk About Sex’ – Salt-N-Pepa
Salt-N-Pepa’s 1991 pop-rap single was a hit for the way it placed the trio’s cheeky and playful energy front and centre, while also emphasising the importance of safe sex.
Best hip-hop lyric: “Now we talk about sex on the radio and video shows/many will know, anything goes/let’s tell it like it is, and how it could be, how it was, and of course, how it should be”
3. ‘Passin’ Me By’ – The Pharcyde
Jazz-rap at its absolute best, The Pharcyde’s ‘Passin’ Me By’ is a classic for its numerous well-used samples (‘Summer in the City’ by Quincy Jones, ‘125th Street Congress’ by Weather Report, and ‘Are You Experienced?’ by The Jimi Hendrix Experience), memorable hook and undeniable flow.
Best hip-hop lyric: “My dear, my dear, my dear, you do not know me, but I know you/very well, now let me tell you ’bout the feelings I have for you”
2. ‘U.N.I.T.Y.’ – Queen Latifah
Known as Queen Latifah‘s biggest hit single in the United States to date, ‘U.N.I.T.Y.’ is a feminist battle cry, taking aim at the disrespect shown to women in hip-hop culture and in wider society, with references to domestic violence, physical and verbal harassment and more.
Best hip-hop lyric: “Instinct leads me to another flow, every time I hear a brother call a girl a bitch or a ho/tryna make a sister feel low, you know all of that gots to go”
1. ‘Fight The Power’ – Public Enemy
As well as soundtracking Spike Lee’s 1989 comedy-drama ‘Do The Right Thing’, ‘Fight The Power’ remains one of hip-hop’s finest politically charged anthems, with skilfully used samples and loops, powerful references to civil rights and Chuck D’s trademark unapologetic lyricism.
Best hip-hop lyric: “Our freedom of speech is freedom or death/we got to fight the powers that be”