While hip-hop first infiltrated the mainstream in the ’80s, it wasn’t until the following decade that it began to dictate culture, and the golden era truly came alive.
The recent Super Bowl half-time show, which featured stars such as Snoop Dogg, and Dr Dre, proves a huge public appetite to revisit those glory days of yesteryear. Everything was fresh, exciting, and most importantly, each rapper had their own unique character and flow.
Artists were breaking ground at breakneck speed, and things were constantly evolving. If you blinked for a second, a new rapper was on the scene who was ready to take your place. There was no time for complacency, and everyone had to be on their toes.
Discussing the difference between the ’90s and now, Interscope Records co-founder Jimmy Iovine said: “I’m always looking for the lyricist and to see where the anarchy is coming from – words about social injustice you know. I don’t see anything like that right now. I’m sure there is but no one’s brought it to my attention; except for Kendrick Lamar.”
Below, we explore ten tracks that helped soundtrack the decade from those who built hip-hop into today’s behemoth.
10 best hip-hop songs of the 1990s
Snoop Dogg – ‘Gin and Juice’
The second single from his debut album Doggystyle, ‘Gin and Juice’ is arguably the very distillation of what makes Snoop Dogg a true hip hop hero. Based around the theme of an impromptu house party, the song reflects the life of Snoop Dogg and his time in the LBC, sipping on, you guessed it, gin and juice.
A hook that will outlast the very notions of a house party, ‘Gin and Juice’ remains one of Snoop’s finest collaborations with Dr Dre. The former N.W.A. man picked out a sample of ‘I Get Lifted’ by KC and the Sunshine Band but it is Snoop’s narrative storytelling that really steals the show, laying out a blueprint for his entire career.
Lauryn Hill – ‘Doo Wop (That Thing)’
When The Fugees split, Lauryn Hill ventured out on her own and rose to the task with ease. Her 1998 debut album, The Misseducation of Lauryn Hill, is one of the most revered hip-hop records of all time, yet, agonisingly, she’s never released a follow-up.
With that record, Hill proved that she could go toe-to-toe with any of her male contemporaries, and ‘Doo Wop (That Thing)’ still sounds as heavenly now as it did when you first heard it.
It also made Hill a record-breaker when the track reached number one, and she became the first woman since Debbie Gibson to debut at the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 with a song she wrote, recorded, and produced on her own.
DMX – ‘Party Up’
After DMX had success with ‘What’s My Name’, he raised the stakes by getting even more fierce on the anthemic ‘Party Up (Up In Here)’, which kept his hot streak of form alive.
Like everyone else he made, the song is built on the foundation of X’s furious, confrontational and energetic delivery, which makes it the perfect club anthem. ‘Party Up (Up In Here)’ gave DMX the greatest chart hit of his career, and the success of this track led to a Grammy nomination for ‘Best Rap Solo Performance’, with X losing out to Eminem.
Wu-Tang Clan – ‘C.R.E.A.M.’
In the ’90s, there wasn’t a more important collective in hip-hop than Wu-Tang Clan, who remain the rap equivalent of The Avengers. Everyone had their own role and brought a different sprinkling of spice to the equation, which plays out heroically on ‘C.R.E.A.M.’
While the track didn’t become a major success in the charts, it’s widely recognised as not just one of the definitive hip-hop songs from the era but of all time. It was their third single and offered an enticing introduction to everything Wu-Tang stood for, which people still can’t get enough of.
Ol’ Dirty Bastard – ‘Shimmy Shimmy Ya’
Staying on the Wu-Tang theme, next up is the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard, who proved that he could do it on his own too. ‘Shimmy Shimmy Ya’ is ODB in full flow at the peak of his powers, and he does things with his voice that you didn’t think were humanly possible.
He shows off his wit too, and hilariously spits, “Lyrics get hard quick cement to the ground, For any emcee in any fifty-two states, I get psycho killer, Norman Bates, My producer slam my flow is like bam, Jump on stage and then I dip down.”
Tupac – ‘California Love’
After signing a three-page handwritten contract behind bars to secure his bail money, the newly released Shakur needed to prove his worth to new label CEO, Death Row Records’ Suge Knight. ‘California Love’ was the ideal way to get the second chapter of his career off to an impactful start.
Pairing with Dr Dre, who also produced both this and hip-hop banger, ‘Can’t C Me’, Pac’s return to the mainstream was epic. ‘California Love’ remains as fresh today as it was in 1995.
Biggie Smalls – ‘Juicy’
‘Juicy’ is Biggie’s most honest song and also his best. It’s a mini-memoir that tells his rags to riches tale from the hood to becoming one of the biggest stars on the planet while raising two fingers at those who dared to doubt his greatness. This song isn’t just Biggie’s finest moment but arguably the most pivotal track in hip-hop history.
In the first verse, Biggie gives his own eulogy as he arrogantly raps: “Yeah, this album is dedicated, To all the teachers that told me I’d never amount to nothin’, To all the people that lived above the buildings that I was hustlin’ in front of, Called the police on me when I was just tryin’ to make some money to feed my daughter (it’s all good).”
Dr Dre – ‘Nuthin’ But A G Thang’
‘Nuthin But A G Thang’ with Snoop Dogg featured on Dre’s seminal first solo LP, The Chronic, and confirmed Dre as an icon in waiting and hinting at the legend status Snoop would soon obtain.
Built out of the projects of California, the song is dripping in street knowledge and a culture that few could obtain. Gin and juice is the drink of choice, lo-los are the only way to ride and smoking on the porch is the only way to spend Monday mornings. It’s a song that speaks to the real-life of gangbangers across the country.
Nas – ‘The World Is Yours’
Nas’ debut album, Illmatic, is a masterpiece that every hip-hop head has in their collection, and the record doesn’t get better than the powerful ‘The World Is Yours’.
It’s a track that made people from the projects believe that nothing was stopping them from achieving their dreams and within the realms of possibility if they put their mind to it. Pete Rock’s beat is one of the most divine in history and topped off by Nas perfectly adding his layer of magic.
Jay-Z – ‘Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)’
Jay’s second album, Hard Knock Life, saw Jay reign supreme as one of the most gifted lyricists of his generation, and the title track did all the talking for him. His debut album, Reasonable Doubt, created a buzz and got people talking, but it was on his second release that he truly made everybody realise that he was the real deal.
Explaining the track, Hov said: “You know, I knew how people in the ghetto would relate to words like, ‘Instead of treated we get tricked’ and ‘Instead of kisses we get kicked ‘… It’s like when we watch movies we’re always rooting for the villain or the underdog because that’s who we feel we are. It’s us against society. And, to me, the way the kids in the chorus are singing ‘It’s a hard-knock life’ is more like they’re rejoicing about it. Like they’re too strong to let it bring them down. And so that’s also the reason why I call it the ‘Ghetto Anthem.'”