The 1970s were the decade in which Hip Hop was ‘born’, witnessed only by the happy few who were there. In the 1980s Hip Hop grew from a local phenomenon to a new musical genre and worldwide cultural movement, with Hip Hop albums steadily starting to be released from the mid-eighties on. The 1990s were the first full decade in which Hip Hop albums were being released, with dozens of dope records coming out every single year – a lot of which we now consider Hip Hop classics.
For this list, we ranked what are in our opinion the best 1990s Hip Hop songs. Obviously, not everyone (or more likely no one) will agree 100% with the order on this list. That’s OK, it is exactly why these lists exist: to have a healthy discussion about the music we all love. So, let’s get into it – are your favorites missing? Which songs would you rank higher or lower, or leave off the list? Share your opinions in the comments!
1. Pete Rock & CL Smooth - They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.) (1992)
“They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” was inspired by the death of Pete Rock & CL Smooth’s close friend Troy Dixon (better known as “Trouble” T. Roy of Heavy D & the Boyz) in 1990. The song was the lead single off their monumental debut album Mecca And The Soul Brother and is now widely regarded as one of the best Hip Hop songs ever.
2. Wu-Tang Clan - C.R.E.A.M. (1993)
The final single from Wu-Tang Clan’s monumental debut album Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). C.R.E.A.M. offers a haunting lesson in street economics; with excellent verses from Raekwon and Inspectah Deck, and with Method Man‘s unforgettable hook.
3. Geto Boys - Mind Playing Tricks On Me (1991)
This is not only Geto Boys’ signature and best track but one the best tracks in Hip Hop EVER. Check Brian Coleman’s Check the Technique: Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies for the story behind ‘Mind Playing Tricks On Me’.
4. Nas - N.Y. State Of Mind (1994)
The quintessential Nas track and one of Hip Hop’s best songs ever, bar none. A classic narrative of life on the NYC streets, this is one of the many classics Nas’ partnership with DJ Premier would yield and just maybe the biggest of them all.
5. 2Pac - Dear Mama (1995)
Dear Mama is a heartfelt tribute to 2Pac’s mother and one of his most celebrated and most famous songs.
6. LL Cool J - Mama Said Knock You Out (1990)
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”.
7. A Tribe Called Quest - Check The Rhime (1991)
The lead song of The Low End Theory – one of Hip Hop’s most celebrated albums ever – shines because of the back-and-forth synergy between Q-Tip and Phife, who bounce their lines off each other effortlessly and to perfection. The ultimate ATCQ track?
8. The Pharcyde - Passin' Me By (1992)
In a time when gangsta rap was starting to dominate West Coast Hip Hop, these guys didn’t feel the need for gangster posturing and weren’t afraid to show their funny and vulnerable sides. “Passin’ Me By” is one of the big tracks off their epic debut album Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde and an undisputed Hip Hop classic.
9. Ice Cube - It Was A Good Day (1992)
This feel-good hood anthem is not just Ice Cube’s best song, but one of the best songs in Hip Hop, period.
10. Mobb Deep - Shook Ones Pt 2 (1995)
Classic Mobb Deep rhymes over a signature sinister Havoc beat – this song is not just Mobb Deep’s best, but one the very best in the history of Hip Hop. THE centerpiece of the all-around epic album The Infamous, which was a big part of the ‘renaissance’ of East Coast Hip Hop.
11. Wu Tang Clan - Triumph (1997)
This monumental song features all nine original members of the Wu-Tang Clan, plus Cappadonna. Straight bars, no hook – this is an epic track with Inspectah Deck laying down one of the most lauded opening verses is Hip Hop ever. “I bomb atomically…”
12. Common - I Used To Love H.E.R. (1994)
In this super classic track, Common cleverly describes what appears to be his changing feelings for a girl, but what turns out to be his ever-evolving relationship with Hip Hop. Truly a landmark recording and the centerpiece of one of the best albums in one of Hip Hop’s best years.
13. Notorious B.I.G. - Juicy (1994)
The first single from Notorious B.I.G.‘s monumental debut album Ready To Die and an unbelievable critical and commercial success. This Biggie joint is an all-time classic not just because of its universal appeal, but because of its essentially positive vibe and emotion.
14. Souls Of Mischief - 93 'Til Infinity (1993)
Souls Of Mischief‘s lead track off their slept on 1993 debut album with the same title is an all-time Hip Hop classic.
15. Gang Starr - Mass Appeal (1994)
Gang Starr always had that straight up, real hardcore Hip Hop. In this epic joint from their fourth album Hard To Earn, they address sell-out artists who are willing to compromise their sound and themselves for chart success. The quintessential Gang Starr track.
16. A Tribe Called Quest - Electric Relaxation (1993)
17. Dr Dre - Nuthin' But A G Thang ft Snoop Doggy Dogg (1992)
A hugely influential & timeless classic, this ‘G-Funk’ track and lead single off Dr. Dre’s seminal The Chronic ushered in a new era in Hip Hop. It established West Coast dominance in rap, and it was the breakthrough moment for Dr. Dre’s young protégé Snoop Doggy Dogg.
18. Black Star - Definition (1998)
“Definition” is the first single from Black Star’s (Mos Def & Talib Kweli) eponymously titled monumental 1998 album. In a time when Hip Hop was struggling with materialism and mass-produced mindless factory rap, Mos Def and Talib Kweli brought it back down to the essence with a dose of consciousness, positivity, and intelligence.
19. KRS One - MCs Act Like They Don't Know (1995)
The perfect symbiosis of the KRS-One – DJ Premier collaboration. Over Premo’s masterpiece instrumental, interpolating Kurtis Blow’s classic “The Breaks”, KRS once again lets other rappers know what’s the deal. The lesson to be learned here: you’re not a real emcee if you can not rock a crowd. No one better suited to make that claim than one of the best live performers Hip Hop has ever seen.
20. Bone Thugs N Harmony - Tha Crossroads (1996)
Released as a single in 1996, and in this version not appearing on their album 1995 E. 1999 Eternal album, “Tha Crossroads” is the biggest selling single and Grammy-winning song by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. This remake of the original “Crossroads” was done after the death of BTNH mentor Eazy E, which makes this timeless dedication to deceased loved ones all the more heartfelt.
21. A Tribe Called Quest - Bonita Applebum (1990)
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”.
22. Ghostface Killah - All That I Got Is You (1996)
In this heartbreakingly beautiful autobiographical song, Ghost tells the story of his impoverished childhood and the struggles growing up. He raps about how he grew up in a three-bedroom apartment without his father who left him at the age of six. Growing up poor he experienced hard living conditions like “pluckin’ roaches out the cereal box. ” The album version featured Mary J Blige, the video version regular Wu-Tang collaborator Tekitha.
23. Mos Def - Mathematics (1999)
From his classic solo debut album Black On Both Sides, this timeless DJ Premier-produced banger is one of Mos Def’s signature cuts. Fun fact: this is one of Premo’s own favorite beats.
24. Boogie Down Productions - Love's Gonna Getcha (Material Love) (1990)
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.
25. Warren G - Regulate ft Nate Dogg (1994)
“Regulate” is the worldwide smash hit by Warren G and Nate Dogg. Released in the summer of 1994, the track appears on the soundtrack to the film Above the Rim and later Warren G.’s album Regulate…G Funk Era. One of those timeless tracks that still gets played today.
26. Public Enemy - Burn Hollywood Burn (1990)
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.
27. KRS One - Step Into A World (1997)
An ultimate party anthem, energizing fans and intimidating and schooling rivals at the same time. Great lyrics, great instrumental – it is the absolute highlight of the somewhat uneven I Got Next album and one of KRS One’s best songs. “I’m not saying I’m number 1, oh I’m sorry I lied – I’m number 1, 2, 3, 4 plus 5”
28. 2Pac - I Ain't Mad At Cha (1996)
The catchy piano-laced background melody perfectly enhances Pac’s emotional lyrics on one of his biggest hits, the last one under the name 2Pac (before switching to the Makaveli moniker). Ironically, the song was the first one to be released after his death and has 2Pac taking a trip down memory lane and making peace with some people from his past. The accompanying video has 2Pac being shot dead after leaving a hotel and entering heaven, to be received by legends as Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, and Jimi Hendrix. Prophetic indeed.
29. Eric B & Rakim - Know The Ledge (1992)
Taken from the ‘Juice’ movie soundtrack and from Eric B & Rakim‘s fourth and final album Don’t Sweat The Technique, this track tells the story of a young thug trying to make it on the streets. Hard-hitting beats and lyrics – a perfect soundtrack to the movie starring a young Tupac Shakur.
30. Nas - If I Ruled The World (1996)
One of Nas’ more radio-friendly songs, from his sophomore album It Was Written. A great collaboration with Lauryn Hill and a brilliant recreation of Kurtis Blow’s old school classic, Nas paints a picture of how his version of utopia would look like.
31. Camp Lo - Luchini (1997)
32. De La Soul - Stakes Is High (1996)
De La Soul’s scathing attack on what they perceived as an ongoing decline in Hip Hop music and Hip Hop Culture. As relevant – if not more relevant – today as it was over twenty years ago, this track turned out to be highly prophetic and stands as one of the staples of De La Soul’s discography.
33. Outkast - Elevators (Me & You) (1996)
An Organized Noize produced musical masterpiece from OutKast‘s monumental sophomore album ATLiens, with a butter-smooth bassline and both emcees’ lyrical genius on full display. Andre’s and Big Boi’s stutter-stop flows that don’t necessarily stick to the beat work perfectly, as they always do. The spacey, catchy hook ensures the mainstream appeal, but it still is Hip Hop to the core.
34. Luniz - I Got 5 On It (1995)
“I Got 5 On It” is a mega-hit by Oakland duo Luniz. It was released in May 1995 as the lead single from their debut album, Operation Stackola, and is one of those rare songs that has stayed in rotation worldwide to this day. “I Got 5 On It” brilliantly samples Club Nouveau’s “Why You Treat Me So Bad” (1987), Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” (1973) and Audio Two’s “Top Billin’” (1987).
35. Snoop Doggy Dogg - Gin & Juice (1993)
“Gin and Juice” is the second single by Snoop Doggy Dogg from his debut album Doggystyle, and one of Snoop’s signature songs. Expectations for Snoop’s debut album were sky-high after his performances on Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, and with Doggystyle Snoop (and Dre) delivered, and then some.
36. Method Man - I'll Be There for You / You're All I Need to Get By ft Mary J Blige (1995)
“I’ll Be There for You / You’re All I Need to Get By” is a brilliant remix of Method Man‘s “All I Need” (which appears on his 1994 debut album Tical), and a beautiful remake of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s 1968 hit, “You’re All I Need To Get By”.
37. Ol' Dirty Bastard - Shimmy Shimmy Ya (1995)
“Shimmy Shimmy Ya” is the second single and arguably best-known track of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, from his solo debut album Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version. It was produced by fellow Wu-Tang Clan member RZA. A perfect testament to ODB’s crazy brilliance.
38. OutKast - Rosa Parks (1998)
39. DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince - Summertime (1991)
DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince‘s biggest hit and a track impossible to dislike. A feel-good summertime anthem if there ever was one.
40. KRS One - Sound Of The Police (1993)
As relevant today as it was over two decades ago, in this song KRS-One addresses police brutality specifically directed at black people, cleverly linking the days of slavery to the way police acts in these modern times. Poignant, powerful, and sadly still relevant. One of the many excellent tracks on KRS’s debut album under his own name.
41. Wu-Tang Clan - Protect Ya Neck (1993)
The debut single from Wu-Tang’s classic first album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was a gamechanger. It features verses from eight of the original nine Wu-Tang members. It was an incredible introduction of a new supergroup to the Hip Hop scene and a perfect prelude of equally brilliant things to come.
42. Pharaohe Monch - Simon Says (1999)
A Hip Hop party-banger if there ever was one. Do you remember the first time up in the club you heard this Pharoahe Monch classic coming from the speakers?
43. OutKast - Player's Ball (1993)
The pimped-out classic that started it all, the first single of Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik which would be released in 1994. An incredibly important and influential song, as it was OutKast’s introduction to the world and the kick-off of a decade with brilliant OutKast music.
44. Naughty By Nature - O.P.P. (1991)
Restyling themselves Naughty By Nature after a not bad but unsuccessful debut album under the name “The New Style”, NBN became a major commercial success. “O.P.P.” is probably their best-known track in a long string of hits.
45. Gang Starr - Above The Clouds (1998)
Is this not one of the most creative Hip Hop beats ever? Combined with stellar lyrical performances from Guru and especially Wu-Tang Clan‘s wordsmith Inspectah Deck, this is one of Gang Starr’s best tracks.
46. O.C. - Time's Up (1994)
47. Eminem - My Name Is (1999)
The song that catapulted Eminem to international stardom and the real start of an epic career that would make Em one of the best-selling artists in music ever.
48. Nas - The World Is Yours (1994)
Over a classic beat provided by Pete Rock, who brilliantly interpolates the old school classic “It’s Yours” by T La Rock, Nas drops three dope verses. Just one of the 9 near-perfect tracks on Nas’ debut Illmatic, the best album of the 1990s.
49. Lost Boyz - Renee (1996)
This four-man crew from Queensbridge (Mr. Cheeks, Freaky Tah (R.I.P.), Spigg Nice & Pretty Lou) drop a near-classic with their debut album Legal Drug Money. Great lyrics mainly from Mr. Cheecks, dope East Coast beats, and the album flows just right. The stand-out track is the legendary “Renee”, an emotional account of a love ending tragically.
50. Big L - Ebonics (1999)
Released in 1999 under his own Flamboyant Entertainment label (after Columbia dropped him due to disappointing sales figures of Lifestylez…), this was one of 1999’s biggest indie single releases and it remains a classic track to this day. Big L brilliantly breaks down street slang in an unforgettable song filled with Hip Hop Quotables.
51. Black Star – Respiration ft Common (1998)
52. Notorious B.I.G. – Sky’s The Limit (1997)
53. Ice T – Original Gangster (1991)
54. Rakim – When I B On Tha Mic (1999)
55. The Roots – What They Do (1996)
56. Fat Joe – John Blaze ft Nas, Big Pun, Jadakiss & Raekwon (1998)
57. GZA – Liquid Swords (1995)
58. Crooklyn Dodgers – Crooklyn (1994)
59. Gang Starr – Take It Personal (1992)
60. Black Sheep – The Choice Is Yours (1991)
61. Keith Murray – The Most Beautifullest Thing In This World (1994)
62. Cypress Hill – How I Could Just Kill A Man (1991)
63. 2Pac – Keep Ya Head Up (1993)
64. Jurassic 5 – Concrete Schoolyard (1998)
65. A Tribe Called Quest – Scenario ft Leaders Of The New School (1991)
66. Biggie Smalls – Party & Bullshit (1993)
67. Beastie Boys – Intergalactic (1998)
68. Scarface – I Seen A Man Die (1994)
69. A Tribe Called Quest – Award Tour (1993)
70. The Fugees – Ready Or Not (1996)
71. Big Pun ft Fat Joe – Twinz (Deep Cover 98) (1998)
72. Scarface – Smile ft 2Pac (1997)
73. The Pharcyde – Runnin’ (1995)
74. Dr Dre – Still D.R.E. (1999)
75. Beastie Boys – Pass The Mic (1992)
76. Raekwon – Ice Cream ft Method Man, Ghostface Killah & Cappadonna (1995)
77. Ice Cube – Jackin’ For Beats (1990)
78. Dr Dre – Keep Their Heads Ringing (1995)
79. Poor Righteous Teachers – Rock Dis Funky Joint (1990)
80. 2Pac – So Many Tears (1995)
81. Nas – Nas Is Like (1999)
82. Rakim – It’s Been A Long Time (1997)
83. Ras Kass – Nature Of The Threat (1996)
84. Brand Nubian – Slow Down (1990)
85. Gang Starr – Full Clip (1999)
86. Jay Z – Brooklyn’s Finest ft Notorious B.I.G. (1996)
87. The Roots – The Next Movement (1999)
88. House Of Pain – Jump Around (1992)
89. Raekwon – Verbal Intercourse ft Nas & Ghostface Killah (1995)
90. Wu-Tang Clan – Da Mystery Of Chessboxin’ (1993)
91. dead prez – It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop (1999)
92. Common – Retrospect For Life ft Lauryn Hill (1997)
93. De La Soul – Ego Trippin Pt 2 (1993)
94. Digable Planets – Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat) (1992)
95. Main Source – Live At The BBQ ft Nas, Akinyele & Joe Fatal (1991)
96. Run DMC – Down With The King ft Pete Rock & CL Smooth (1993)
97. The High & Mighty – B-Boy Document ’99 ft Mos Def & Skillz (1999)
98. Jeru The Damaja – Come Clean (1993)
99. Xzibit – Paparazzi (1996)
100. Jay Z – Hard Knock Life (1998)