The 1990s was a golden age for hip hop. From Nas to Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, there was undeniably a lot of talent in the culture. However, talent does not always lead to sales, as some artists know all too well. More often than not, it is about marketing, creating a brand and sometimes just your basic likeability. In this article, we’re going to explore the artists of 1990s hip hop and see who was the biggest.
During the 1980s, New York was undoubtedly the city holding the torch for hip hop, but during the 1990s, most would agree that, although New York still had good artists, the sound of G-funk was ruling the charts, and the majority of people were looking to Los Angeles for their hip hop. With albums such as The Chronic, Doggystyle and Dogg Food topping the Billboard 200 chart on a regular basis.
When we’re looking back at hip hop in the 1990s, we’re looking (for the most part) at two feuding record labels, Death Row Records on the West Coast and Badboy Entertainment on the East Coast. Both companies had their own stars, with 2pac signed to Death Row and Biggie Smalls signed to Bad Boy. Respectively, these two artists, with their affiliates i.e. Snoop Dogg, Dr Dre, Lil Kim and Diddy, were ruling the rap charts and selling unfathomable amounts of records with their feud actually fuelling sales.
But there was talent beyond the feud. In New York, crews like the Wu-Tang Clan, Mobb Deep and The Lox were gaining notoriety, while in Oakland, The Click Crew was producing notable rappers like E-40. Many cities across America were blossoming in the 90s, in fact, some were just getting on the map despite the fact the genre had been around for a little over a decade. For example, in Miami, Trick Daddy Dollars and Trina were having huge amounts of success with their song ‘Naan’ doing very well. Eminem was on the rise, and Nas had already made huge waves in the genre. Even Houston crew Geto Boys had a foot-in.
So, evidently, there was a lot of talent across the nation, but it was the beef that was making the most noise and selling the most units. The Notorious BIG was arguably one of the biggest artists in hip hop during the 90s, but 2pac Shakur was right there fighting for the title of biggest rap artist in the US. Obviously, 2pac thought he was as he described his music as “America’s Most Wanted”, and in a 1996 interview with MTV, inferred that Bad Boy “sell a couple of records, we [Death Row] sell large amounts of records.” However, returning to the hard facts, that might not actually be the case.
By straight-up album sales, 2pac was the second best-selling rapper of the 1990s. As an established solo artist, Shakur released six albums: 2Pacalypse Now (1991), Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. (1993), Me Against the World (1995), All Eyez On Me (1996) and The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory (1996). Except for his debut album, which he released before signing with Death Row Records, all of Pac’s albums are certified Platinum or Diamond.
All Eyez On Me is certified Diamond, meaning it has surpassed 11 times platinum. ‘I Get Around’ featuring the Digital Underground is one of 2pac’s less aggressive songs. It peaked at number 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 but was still certified gold. However, his most well-known song ‘California Love’ featuring Dr Dre. ‘California Love’ sat at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks, going two time Platinum. It has been streamed over 435million times and is still considered a classic to this day. 2pac has sold an estimated 58 million albums worldwide.
However, coming out on top in what was a toxic rivalry is The Notorious BIG, who in all of 1990s hip hop was the highest selling. With only three albums: Ready to Die (1994), Life After Death (1997), Born Again (1999) and one group album with Junior MAFIA entitled Conspiracy (1995). Notorious BIG’s most well-known song is ‘Big Poppa’, which, released in 1994, has been certified six times platinum and is one of the rapper’s most renowned tracks alongside ‘Juicy’. Biggie has sold an estimated 75 million albums worldwide.
So Biggie Smalls was the biggest rapper of the 1990s.