The 90s was a golden era for rap music, and this list of the best 90s hip-hop songs proves the point.
A decade when many of the biggest names in rap music were in their prime, 90s rap legends include the likes of Snoop Dogg, A Tribe Called Quest, Jay-Z, and Coolio. There were so many icons that this short list can’t do credit to everyone, but I’m sure you’ll agree that each song on this list is amongst the best.
With distinct scenes in both New York and on the West coast of the US, the songs on this list showcase the prominence of boom–bap and G-funk within hip-hop. Without further ado let’s jump in.
11. Gin and Juice – Snoop Dogg
Year of release: 1994
Snoop Dogg is a living legend of rap music, and ‘Gin and Juice’ is one of the key tracks that got him there. The second single off his debut album Doggystyle, the funk-influenced G-funk track was produced by the legendary Dr Dre.
A feel-good party tune, the song’s lyrics are classic Snoop Dogg fare, focusing on sex, marijuana, and drinking. The iconic refrain runs, ‘rollin’ down the street smokin’ indo / sippin’ on gin and juice / laid back (with my mind on my money and my money on my mind).’
In its day, the track only peaked at number 8 in the US Billboard Hot 100, although it topped their Hot Rap Songs chart. Charts aside, the track has stood the test of time to become universally recognised as one of the best 90s hip-hop songs of all time.
10. Jump Around – House of Pain
Year of release: 1992
You can’t get much more iconic than House of Pain’s hit ‘Jump Around.’ Instantly recognisable, the song is one of most distinctive and most widely played hip-hop tracks of the 90s, in the UK especially.
Produced by DJ Muggs of Cypress Hill, the track has a relatively slow yet hypnotic beat, with a somewhat maddening chromatic riff that loops round and round.
The samples used in the track have been the source of some speculation. The unmissable squeal that first kicks in at 1:09, according to Questlove, is a sample from Prince’s ‘Gett Off.’ It’s hard to argue with Questlove.
The instrumentals perfectly offset the lively bars and raucous singalong chorus that gets any party going. A true classic of 90s hip-hop.
9. Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem) – Jay-Z
Year of release: 1998
‘Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)’ is the song that put Jay-Z on the map for many outside the US. At the time of its release, it was the artist’s biggest hit of his career. From there, he went on to become arguably the most successful rappers of his generation, and one of the most successful rappers of all time.
The song was Jay-Z’s first song to really go off outside of the US, and it reached the top 10 in countries all over the world.
‘Hard Knock Life’ song famously samples – of all things – ‘It’s the Hard Knock Life’ from the musical Annie, which forms the song’s refrain. The wildly unusual choice of source material was a novel creative choice, and potentially one of the reasons the track caught on so well.
8. U Can’t Touch This – MC Hammer
Year of release: 1990
Stop! Hammertime! Everyone loves a bit of MC Hammer, and ‘U Can’t Touch This’ is his trademark tune. Produced and performed by the man himself, the song is an irresistible piece of pop rap that wonderfully reflects the playfulness of much of 90s hip-hop.
The song was lavished with industry award nominations. These included Grammys for Best R&B Song and Best Solo Rap Performance, and MTV Award nominations for Best Rap Video and Best Dance Video.
The classic track’s feel-good, lighthearted lyrics have become iconic in pop culture – especially the line ‘Stop! Hammertime!’ In fact, Hammertime became the name of a reality TV show starring MC Hammer.
The track has also been celebrated for the legendary dance moves in the video, including the bump, running man, the so-called ‘hammer dance.’
7. Can I Kick It? – A Tribe Called Quest
Year of release: 1990
Released at the turn of the decade, ‘Can I Kick It?’ epitomises the sound of 80s and 90s hip-hop. One of the most-recognisable tunes from one of the most significant hip-hop groups of all time, the track could simply not be left off this list.
Widely considered as one of the great hip-hop tracks of all time, in the UK especially, Rolling Stone listed it as number 292 in their list of the top 500 songs of all time. The track’s buoyant, upbeat feeling is infectious.
The track was produced by Ali Shaheed Muhammad and features a sample from Lou Reed. Due to technical legal issues, Lou Reed ended up with credit for the song and claiming a large amount of the royalties.
6. My Name Is – Eminem
Year of release: 1999
The opening track and lead single from Eminem’s sophomore album The Slim Shady LP (1999), ‘My Name Is’ was the world’s introduction to the controversial rapper.
By the standards of the time, ‘My Name Is’ was a rather shocking release from Eminem. Steeped in controversy, the track featured offensive references to a number of celebrities, as well as disparaging comments about the artist’s own mother, Debbie Matthews. Matthews actually filed a £10 million lawsuit against Eminem for the lyrics about her.
Produced by Dr Dre, the track contains elements of comedy rap, shock rap, and horrorcore. Undoubtedly, the shock factor contributed to its commercial success.
5. I Got 5 on It – Luniz
Year of release: 1995
You may not know the name but you definitely know the song. The hit single ‘I Got 5 on it’ from the California rap duo, comprised of Yukmouth and Numskill, is truly one of the best 90s hip-hop songs.
The soulful slow jam rap track is basically a weed anthem. The line ‘I got 5 on it’ refers to splitting a $10 bag of maijuana. Produced by Tone Capone, the track is built from several samples, including Club Nouveau’s ‘Why You Treat Me So Bad.’
A laid-back rap anthem that brilliantly captures the sound of 90s West Coast hip-hop, ‘I Got 5 on It’ is a gem, and well-deserving of a place amongst the best 90s hip-hop songs.
4. Regulate – Warren G
Year of release: 1994
This melodic slow jam rap from Warren G is iconic. Featuring additional vocals from Nate Dogg, and produced by Warren G himself, the track captures the G-funk sound.
The song’s unusual narrative describes a scenario where Warren G is robbed and left at the point of death. In the meantime, while Nate Dogg was cruising around, looking for Warren G, a group of women, transfixed on Nate Dogg, accidentally crash their car.
After Nate rescues Warren G, the pair meet up and find the women, ‘in the same spot.’ The narrative ends with them giving the women a lift, with Warren G suggestively saying, ‘next stop is the Eastside Motel.’
It’s hard to imagine a hip-hop track like this being released today. A legendary track that truly captures something of the 90s era.
3. I’ll Be Missing You – Puff Daddy feat. Faith Evans
Year of release: 1997
One of the most beautiful rap songs of all time, Puff Daddy’s hit ‘I’ll Be Missing You’ is definitely one of the best 90s hip-hop songs.
The song is a stirring tribute to The Notorious B.I.G. – Christopher Wallace – who was murdered in a drive-by shooting in 1997 aged 24. The track stayed at the top of the US Billboard Hot 100 for an incredible seven consecutive weeks, as well as reaching number one in 15 countries outside the US. As a result, it became one of the best-selling singles in any genre.
The track samples The Police’s 1983 hit ‘Every Breath You Take,’ however, permission was not given for use of the sample. The Police’s songwriter, Sting, successfully sued, and shockingly, today he allegedly receives 100% of the song’s royalties.
The track received a strange, rather muted reception from critics at the time. It’s clear that the public felt otherwise, with the song going down as one of the all-time greats of the genre.
2. Insane In The Brain – Cypress Hill
Year of release: 1993
Arguably one of the most famous hip-hop songs of all time, Cypress Hill’s ‘Insane in the Brain’ is an all-time classic. The track, best known for refrain ‘insane in the membrane,’ is the lead single from their 1993 sophomore album Black Sunday.
The song shows Cypress Hill at their raucous best, featuring cleverly comic lyrical tomfoolery. The beat is produced by DJ Muggs, who also produced House of Pain’s ‘Jump Around.’ With the horse-like squeal on beat one, and the buoyant, warm bassline, the two tracks are sonically quite similar – and equally iconic.
The track topped the US Billboard Hot Rap Songs chart, and charted in the top 50 in countries around the world. It was nominated for the 1994 Grammy award for ‘Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group’ and for the 1994 MTV Music ‘Best Rap Video’ award.
As one of the biggest names in East Coast hip-hop, Cypress Hill were the first hip-hop group to earn a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Their notoriety precedes them, and ‘Insane In The Brain’ is one of the best 90s hip-hop songs they released.
1. Gangsta’s Paradise – Coolio
Year of release: 1995
Coolio’s classic track ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ has truly gone down in history. While some of the songs on this list have picked up popularity over time, ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ was a smash hit right off the bat.
The song was the number-one selling US single in 1995, and is certified triple platinum in both the US and the UK. It topped the charts in countries around the world including the US, UK, Australia, Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, and more.
The track, which was co-produced by Doug Rasheed, samples Stevie Wonder’s ‘Pastime Paradise.’ Thanks to Stevie Wonder’s input, the track doesn’t contain any profanity, which may have helped it reach a wider audience.
Famously opening with a reference to the biblical Psalm 23:4 ‘As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,’the track’s ominous story unfolds, with the ghostly choir providing the perfect backdrop for the song’s stark lyrics, which offer a gritty reflection on life on the streets.
One of the most important rap songs in history, and without a doubt one of the best 90s hip-hop songs.
Header image: A Tribe Called Quest
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