The 90s were without a doubt, the golden age of rap. NME’s bringing you a killer playlist of the 20 finest hip-hop tracks of the 1990s.
Nas, ‘The World Is Yours’
See more: Top 10 90s rap songs
Taken from his stunning 1994 debut album, ‘Illmatic’, ‘The World Is Yours’ mixes up the mythology of Scarface with Nas’ own NYC upbringing, complete with shoutouts to all of the five boroughs. A legendary tune – and one that made a hip-hop hopeful one of the most respected rappers in the world.
Warren G, ‘Regulate’
One of the greatest yarns in hip-hop history, ‘Regulate’ is Warren G and Nate Dogg’s tale of a night gone awry in Long Beach, California. In this ultimate party tune, Nate comes to the rescue of Warren – who’s being robbed – and then the two set about creating the G-Funk era. All in a night’s work eh, lads?
Wu-Tang Clan, ‘CREAM’
The Wu-Tang Clan are the most innovative, cinematic and outstanding hip-hop crew of all time, and their 1993 debut, ‘Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’, is often considered the finest rap album ever released. ‘CREAM’ – led by Method Man, Raekwon and Inspectah Deck – is a celebration of 1990s hip-hop’s most precious commodity: “dollar dollar bills, y’all”.
Ol’ Dirty Bastard, ‘Shimmy Shimmy Ya’
Rude and raucous, ‘Shimmy Shimmy Ya’ is one hell of a party tune. Wu-Tang Clan’s late, great ODB shows off one of the most recognisable voices of the 1990s with this filthy and fun guttural groover.
Salt-N-Pepa, ‘Let’s Talk About Sex’
The first ladies of 1990s hip-hop, New York trio Salt, Pepa and DJ Spinderella broke down barriers with their effortlessly fresh tunes and ballsy attitude. ‘Let’s Talk About Sex’ wasn’t just a dancefloor filler, but a prescient education in safe sex and a timely debunking of harmful media censorship.
Dr Dre, Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang
Following his formative stint with NWA, Dr Dre slipped into the limelight with his debut solo album ‘The Chronic’, which just so happened to be one of the best rap records of all time. With Snoop Dogg on board, this seamlessly funky four minutes set the bar for the next twenty years. One of hip-hop’s high watermarks.
Jay Z, ‘Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)’
Hip-hop has used some strange samples in its time, but none more odd than Jay Z’s use of a chorus of squealing kiddies from the musical Annie. Somehow though, in his 1998 hit single, Jay managed to make stage brats sound cool, going platinum in the process.
Beastie Boys, ‘Sabotage’
This former hardcore punk band showed a flash of their rowdy roots with this riff-heavy 1994 single. Aggro, awesome and showcasing some serious scratching, it also has one of the best music videos of the decade: a Spike Jonze directed, 1970s cop show piss-take, complete with dodgy fake ‘taches.
Jurassic 5, ‘Concrete Schoolyard’
The pinnacle of earnest, backpacker hip-hop, ‘Concrete Schoolyard’ was this Los Angeles collective’s breakthrough track. It was as socially conscious as it was downright fun, mixing old school samples of Ike Turner with the group’s giddy flow.
Snoop Dogg, ‘Gin & Juice’
Snoop’s second single showcased the rapper’s now iconic, laconic drawl and received a Grammy nomination in the process. A Dr Dre production, it sees Snoop in his happy place: a debauched party full of weed, women and booze. It was this track that set up Snoop as one of the biggest characters in the game.
Public Enemy, ‘911 Is A Joke’
Public Enemy, one of the most important rap acts of the 1980s, maintained their relevance in the following decade. ‘911 Is A Joke’ is Flavor Flav’s caustic take down of the US emergency services, slamming the ambulance response rate to black areas and calling out “911 is a fake live saver”.
Naughty By Nature, ‘Hip Hop Hooray’
Sampling everyone from James Brown to the Isley Brothers and Peter Gabriel, there’s no way ‘Hip Hop Hooray’ couldn’t have been a hit. Add to that a holler-along chorus and this 1993 track – from the New Jersey group’s third album ‘19 Naughty III’ – boasts legendary status.
Digable Planets, ‘Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)’
Jazzier than your average 1990s hip-hop hit, Digable Planets’ debut single featured a horn section and a laid-back, lo-fi vibe. The 1992 track scored a Grammy and proved that rap could be as smooth as soul music.
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House of Pain, ‘Jump Around’
A house party staple since 1992, House of Pain’s seminal ‘Jump Around’ mixes tennis metaphors (“I’ll serve your ass like John McEnroe”) with big squelchy beats and a serious sample from Bob & Earl’s soul classic ‘Harlem Shuffle’ – all seamlessly produced by Cypress Hill’s DJ Muggs. An unbridled classic.
Ice Cube, ‘It Was A Good Day’
Like Dr Dre, Ice Cube was a former member of NWA. The first to break away from the seminal 1980s gangster rap group, he released a run of brilliant solo tracks, including this chilled out effort from his 1992 album ‘The Predator’. The track sees him having a pretty perfect 24 hours – smoking, shagging and getting some trashy take-out in his South Central neighbourhood. It’s the simple things, isn’t it.
2Pac, ‘California Love’
Yet another Dr Dre-related jam, this 1995 classic came out just after 2Pac was released from jail. A celebration of all things California, the Death Row label release features vocals by Roger Troutman of iconic funk band Zapp as well as a ludicrous, Mad Max-inspired video.
A Tribe Called Quest, ‘Scenario’
Taken from A Tribe Called Quest’s second album ‘The Low End Theory’ (which years later would give its name to a Flying Lotus-endorsed club night in LA), ‘Scenario’ is notable for announcing Leaders Of The New School member Busta Rhymes’ talent to the world after he guested on the track.
Missy Elliott, ‘The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)’
With a memorable, Hype Williams-directed video and a sample of 1970s soul classic ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’, this single from Missy’s 1997 debut album announced a major league talent onto the US hip-hop landscape. Sparse and sensual, it’s as laid back as it is innovative.
Digital Underground, ‘The Humpty Dance’
One of the most sampled songs in the history of hip hop, this Golden Age gem – from Digital Underground’s 1990 debut ‘Sex Packets’ – has been plundered by everyone from Public Enemy and Ice Cube to Redman and um, The Spice Girls… Cool?
The Notorious BIG, ‘Hypnotize’
Released just three weeks after Biggie Smalls’ March 1997 death, ‘Hypnotize’ was produced by Puff Daddy and went to Number One stateside. It’s a track tinged by tragedy but also a fittingly brilliant example of his colossal talent.
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