1990 was another year that showed incredible growth for Hip Hop as a musical genre. From the conscious and political raps from Public Enemy, Ice Cube, Paris, Poor Righteous Teachers, Boogie Down Productions, X-Clan, Intelligent Hoodlum, and others to the blatant pop-rap from the likes of MC Hammer, Candyman, and others – Hip Hop was as diverse as never before. Also, it was no longer just New York City that dominated the game – as more and more acts from especially the West Coast started leaving their mark. For this list, we have selected what we think are the best 1990 Hip Hop songs. Agree? Disagree? Discuss!
1. LL Cool J - Mama Said Knock You Out
The Marley Marl produced title track of LL Cool J‘s fourth album, Mama Said Knock You Out, showed LL in top form. 22 years old at the time – and already a Hip Hop veteran, LL Cool J felt it was necessary to knock out all critics who said he fell off with his third album, Walking With A Panther.
The song was produced by Marley Marl and uses samples from James Brown’s “Funky Drummer,” the Chicago Gangsters’ “Gangster Boogie,” Sly & The Family Stone’s “Trip to Your Heart” the drum break from Digital Underground’s “The Humpty Dance”, and LL Cool J’s own “Rock the Bells”.
2. A Tribe Called Quest - Bonita Applebum
The second single from their debut album People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, Bonita Applebum is ATCQ’s first ode to female beauty. Humorous and cheeky, you just gotta love Bonita Applebum.
3. Boogie Down Productions - Love's Gonna Getcha (Material Love)
The perfect example of storytelling and conveying a message through music. KRS One’s articulation and tone of voice ensure you can understand every word he says. The brilliant video that goes with it makes this thought-provoking song even stronger.
4. Public Enemy - Burn Hollywood Burn
From Public Enemy‘s second masterpiece, Fear Of A Black Planet, this song addresses Hollywood’s persistent exploitation and stereotyping of blacks. Chuck D pulls no punches as usual, Ice Cube and Big Daddy Kane put it down too. Fierce.
5. Ice Cube - Jackin' For Beats
Banking on the explosive success of his debut AmeriKKKas Most Wanted, Ice Cube quickly followed that album up with the EP release Kill At Will. This track has Cube talking about taking someone else’s beats.
Who beats are getting jacked here? In order: Call Me D-Nice by D-Nice, So Whatcha Sayin’ by EP, Welcome to the Terrordome by Public Enemy, The Humpty Dance by Digital Underground, Funky Drummer by James Brown, Big Ole Butt by LL Cool J and Heed the Word of the Brother by X-Clan, in addition to a whole bunch of samples by various other artists.
6. Poor Righteous Teachers - Rock Dis Funky Joint
“Rock Dis Funky Joint” is the third single from Poor Righteous Teachers‘ excellent debut album Holy Intellect, and an all-time Hip Hop classic.
7. N.W.A - 100 Miles & Runnin'
“100 Miles and Runnin’” is a song by N.W.A from their 1990 EP of the same name. It’s the first N.W.A release after the departure of Ice Cube and the first song in which a stab is directed at him (“We started out with too much cargo, so I’m glad we got rid of Benedict Arnold”). Cube would respond a year later with the classic “No Vaseline”.
8. Eric B & Rakim - Let The Rhythm Hit Em
On their underrated third album Let The Rhythm Hit Em Eric B & Rakim came with a denser and darker sound than they had on their previous two albums, aided with production work from Large Professor and the late Paul C.
This track is a perfect example of Eric B.’s (or rather Paul C’s) haunting beats complemented by Rakim’s flawless flow & delivery – nobody ever did it better.
9. Brand Nubian - Slow Down
One of the singles from Brand Nubian’s all around brilliant debut album One For All. Even though they all dropped plenty of good music later in their careers – with Brand Nubian as well as solo – One For All will forever remain Grand Puba’s, Sadat X’s and Lord Jamar’s magnum opus.
10. Too Short - The Ghetto
A departure from his trademark ‘dirty raps’, this radio-friendly social commentary is one of Too Short‘s biggest hits (selling close to 3 million units).
11. Kool G Rap & DJ Polo - Streets Of New York
The first single from Kool G Rap & DJ Polo’s 1990 album Wanted: Dead or Alive, has G Rap rapping about the social issues in New York City’s ghettos, such as alcoholism, domestic violence, drug abuse, gambling addiction, gun violence, homelessness, police corruption, poverty and prostitution, over piano and saxophone samples of the Fatback Band’s “Gotta Learn How To Dance”
12. Digital Underground - The Humpty Dance
After they made a big impression on the scene in 1989 with their independently released debut single “Doowutchyalike”, Digital Underground blew up in 1990 with this ultimate party track.
Watch for a young 2Pac in the video, who worked as a dancer and a roadie for D.U. before his own career took off.
13. Gang Starr - Jazz Thing
“Jazz Thing” is a Gang Starr non-album single that was featured on the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s film Mo’ Better Blues. A history lesson in Jazz and a dope warm-up for Gang Starr’s near-perfect sophomore album Step In The Arena, which would be released early 1991.
14. Above The Law - Livin' Like Hustlers
The title track of Above The Law‘s brilliant debut album. The album was co-produced by Dr Dre, but Above The Law’s own production talent was considerable too, as they would amply prove later on in their career. The Livin’ Like Hustlers album is amazingly consistent, this is but one of the many stand-out tracks.
15. A Tribe Called Quest - I Left My Wallet In El Segundo
Released on April 11, 1990, as the first single of their debut album People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, I Left My Wallet In El Segundo was the first introduction to A Tribe Called Quest for most of us. Who didn’t immediately fall in love with ATCQ’s sound, style and humor when they first heard this one?
16. Public Enemy - Welcome To The Terrordome
One of the centerpieces of P.E.’s monumental third album. The immediacy, controversy and sonic density that characterize Fear Of A Black Planet all come together in this classic Public Enemy track.
17. EPMD - Rampage ft LL Cool J
18. Paris - The Devil Made Me Do It
“The Devil Made Me Do It” is the lead single from Paris‘ brilliant debut album The Devil Made Me Do It. Few have ever matched Paris’ raw power and ferocity, and especially his debut is one of the most underrated albums in all of Hip Hop’s history.
19. Ice Cube - Endangered Species (Tales From The Darkside) ft Chuck D
From Ice Cube’s monumental solo debut AmeriKKKas Most Wanted, this epic collabo between the conscious voice of the East Coast and the angry voice of the West Coast delivers big time. Over a typical noisy Bomb Squad track, both emcees spit some venomous lyrics about police brutality and institutional racism against young black males.
20. Eric B & Rakim - In The Ghetto
On this Large Professor-produced track, Rakim’s vivid imagery paints an atmospheric picture of his life on the NYC streets. Arguably one of Rakim’s deepest tracks.
21. Lord Finesse - Funky Technician
The title track from Lord Finesse’s debut album does what Finesse does best: kicking laidback rhymes about his own superior lyrical abilities, using humor, metaphors and punchlines. “Beware of Lord Finesse, the Funky Technician…”
22. Kool G Rap & DJ Polo - Erase Racism ft Big Daddy Kane & Biz Markie
Kool G Rap reunited with his fellow former Juice Crew members Big Daddy Kane and Biz Markie to compose “Erase Racism” following the death of Yusef Hawkins, a 16-year-old African American who was shot to death by a group of Italian American youths in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, New York City in 1989. The song speaks out against racism and xenophobia in society.
23. Ice Cube - Dead Homiez
24. Master Ace - The Other Side Of Town
From his excellent debut album Take A Look Around, this poignant Marley Marl-produced track brilliantly interpolates Curtis Mayfield‘s song with the same title and is a perfect testament to the talent of a young Masta Ace.
25. Kid Frost - La Raza
“La Raza” (The Race / The People) is Kid Frost’s debut and biggest single, featuring both English and Spanish lyrics. It was the lead single for his first album Hispanic Causing Panic and was instrumental in introducing ‘Chicano’ culture into Hip Hop. Classic West Coast track.
26. CPO - Ballad Of A Menace ft MC Ren
“Ballad Of A Menace” is a song by CPO (CPO Boss Hogg, DJ Train and Young D), released on 1990 as the lead single from their debut studio album To Hell and Black, (co)produced by and featuring MC Ren. A decent album, with one classic track on it: this one.
27. West Coast Allstars - We're All In The Same Gang
A West Coast all-star line-up uniting against gang violence – this powerful track is a great answer to “Self Destruction“, the similar anti-violence song from a group of East Coast all-stars of the year previous.
28. Public Enemy - Brothers Gonna Work It Out
What an album opener. This high-octane, sample-heavy banger – with that signature Bomb Squad sound – kicks of P.E.’s third album Fear Of A Black Planet in perfect style.
Musically as dense as any track off It Takes a Nation Of Millions, this song showed that P.E. had every intention and full confidence to follow up the uber-classic It Takes A Nation with yet another masterpiece album.
29. Above The Law - Murder Rap
The ominous siren sound and the backward-looped drum beats laid down by Dr. Dre, provide the perfect soundscape for one of the centerpieces from Above The Law‘s all around excellent debut album Livin’Like Hustlers.
30. Intelligent Hoodlum - Intelligent Hoodlum
This moody and atmospheric opening track to Tragedy’s debut album with the same name, may not be one of the best-known tracks of that album – but it is one of the best. The perfect opening track to an awesome – and greatly underrated – album.
31. King Tee - Played Like A Piano ft Breeze & Ice Cube
“Some cool shit for the King’s anthology…” A newly-solo Ice Cube and MC Breeze of the L.A. Posse join King Tee on this butter smooth posse cut.
32. King Sun - Be Black
The lead track from King Sun’s second album Righteous But Ruthless is lyrically and musically dope, full of consciousness in a year where conscious Hip Hop was still in full swing.
33. A Tribe Called Quest - Can I Kick It?
The third single from A Tribe Called Quest’s debut album People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. The original brilliantly interpolates the bassline of Lou Reed’s Walk On The Wild Side along with Spinning Wheel by Lonnie Liston Smith and Sunshower by Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band. An all-time party classic.
34. K-Solo - Fugitive
K-Solo was a member of EPMD’s Hit Squad / Def Squad since the beginning, first appearing on EPMD’s second album Unfinished Business in 1989. In 1990 he released his debut solo album Tell The World My Name, produced by EPMD.
Even though K-Solo never made it big, he was a talented emcee and especially his debut album (only one of two albums he would ever release) contains a bunch of great songs. The personal “Fugitive” is arguably the best track.
35. LL Cool J - The Boomin System
One of the best album openers ever. LL talks about a booming bass and you need a system that can handle it to fully appreciate this trunk-rattling banger.
36. D-Nice - Call Me D-Nice
D-Nice – of Boogie Down Productions affiliation – dropped a critically and commercially quite successful album with his debut Call Me D-Nice. The title track is but one of the dope cuts from that album.
37. Geto Boys - F*** Em
The opening track from the The Geto Boys remix album, on which Rick Rubin worked his magic. Except this one and “City Under Siege, all tracks on that 1990 album were revamped versions of songs that appeared on Grip It! Ont That Other Level from 1989 (plus a new version from ‘Assassins’ that appeared on Geto Boys’ 1988 debut album Making Trouble).
Both lyrically and sonically “F*** Em” is one of the hardest Hip Hop tracks ever. Signature Geto Boys.
38. Chubb Rock - Treat Em Right
“Treat Em Right” was originally released on the Treat ‘Em Right EP released in late 1990, later included on the 1991 Chubb Rock album The One and released as the album’s lead single, becoming one of Chubb Rock’s biggest hits. Is Chubb Rock where Biggie got his style from?
39. Big Daddy Kane - It's Hard Being The Kane
The stand-out track from Big Daddy Kane’s somewhat inconsistent and overall disappointing third album Taste of Chocolate. This track is classic Kane, though. An unstoppable and untouchable lyrical assault.
40. Public Enemy - 911 Is A Joke
“911 Is A Joke” is about the lack or lateness of response to emergency calls (to the 911 emergency number) in black neighborhoods, and specifically references the poor response by paramedic crews (and not the police).
- 2 Live Crew – Banned In The USA
- Public Enemy – Brothers Gonna Work It Out
- Professor Griff – Pawns In The Game
- Eric B & Rakim – Run For Cover
- Eric B & Rakim – No Omega
- Eric B & Rakim – Mahogany
- Ll Cool J – To Tha Break Of Dawn
- LL Cool J – Illegal Search
- Geto Boys – City Under Siege
- Run DMC – The Ave
- A Tribe Called Quest – Push It Along
- A Tribe Called Quest – Luck Of Lucien
- Granddaddy I.U. – Something New
- Special Ed – The Mission
- EPMD – Manslaughter
- EPMD – Give The People
- EPMD – Gold Digger
- Paris – Break The Grip of Shame
- Paris – Scarface Groove
- Paris – This Is A Test
- Paris – The Hate That Hate Made
- Brand Nubian – Step To The Rear
- Brand Nubian – All For One
- Brand Nubian – Wake Up
- Kool G Rap & DJ Polo – Money In The Bank
- Kool G Rap & DJ Polo – Bad To The Bone
- Master Ace – Me & The Biz
- Master Ace – Music Man
- Master Ace – Brooklyn Battles
- Master Ace – As I Reminisce
- Lord Finesse – Bad Mutha
- Lord Finesse – I Keep The Crowd Listening
- Lord Finesse – Track The Movement
- Ice Cube – Who’s The Mack
- Ice Cube – AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted
- Ice Cube – You Can’t Fade Me
- Ice Cube – Once Upon A Time In The Projects
- Above The Law – Untouchable
- Above The Law – The Last Song
- Compton’s Most Wanted – It’s A Compton Thang
- Compton’s Most Wanted – This Is Compton
- Digital Underground – Freaks Of The Industry
- Too Short – It’s Your Life
- Too Short – Ain’t Nuthin But A Word To Me
- Too Short -Paula & Janet
- King Tee- At Your Own Risk
- X Clan – Funkin Lesson
- Intelligent Hoodlum – Back To Reality
- Intelligent Hoodlum -Arrest The President
- Intelligent Hoodlum – No Justice, No Peace
- Boogie Down Productions – Black Man In Effect
- Boogie Down Productions – Original Lyrics
- Boogie Down Productions – Ya Know The Rules
- King Sun – The Gods Are Taking Heads ft Poor Righteous Teachers
- Poor Righteous Teachers – Holy Intellect
- Lakim Shabazz – The Lost Tribe Of Shabazz
- D-Nice – Crumbs On The Table
- D-Nice – The TR808 Is Coming
- D-Nice – A Few Dollars More
- Three Times Dope – No Words
- Boo Yaa Tribe – Once Upon A Driveby
- Boo Yaa Tribe – Raid
- K-Solo – Your Mom’s In My Business
- K-Solo – Tales From The Crack Side
- K-Solo – Spellbound
- Shazzy – Black Is A Nation
- The Jaz – Put The Squeeze On Em
- The Jaz ft Jay Z – The Originators
- YZ – Sons Of The Father
- The Afros – Kickin’ Afrolistics
- Audio Two – I Get The Papers