While hip-hop grew from humble beginnings in the late 70s and early 80s, many rap fans would argue the 90s were the genre’s renaissance period. Join me as I take you through 15 of the best rappers of the 90s, many of whom would go on to influence nearly all rappers who would come afterward.
The Best Rappers of the 90s (Summary)
Two of the greatest 90s rappers were Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls,—two rivals who were taken from us far too early. And sadly, Prodigy of Mobb Deep is another fallen 1990s legend.
Nas was another game changer, Jay-Z had us remembering how much we loved “Annie” in the late 90s, and Del the Funky Homosapien was always an overlooked as one of the top west coast rappers.
- You Might Also Like: Best Houston Rappers
1. Tupac Shakur
It would be hard to have a list of best 90s rappers without mentioning Tupac Shakur, more commonly known as 2Pac. Despite meeting an untimely death in 1996, Pac has remained nearly as influential in death as when he was alive.
Favorite Song by Tupac Shakur: “How Long Will They Mourn Me?” is just one of many great tracks by the late rapper. This track from the sole Thug Life studio album is a reflective and hard-hitting piece.
- You Might Like: Eminem vs Kendrick
2. Biggie Smalls
Much like his rival 2Pac, Biggie Smalls—more commonly known as The Notorious B.I.G.– was taken away from us far too soon. He’s also one of the most revered and iconic names in hip-hop. His music helped the east coast scene remain strong during an era of west coast domination in the mainstream.
Favorite Song by Biggie Smalls: “Mo Money Mo Problems” isn’t the deepest or most gangster of Biggie’s work, but this is an iconic track with a message that is genius in its simplicity.
- You Might Like: Best Chicago Rappers
3. Lauryn Hill
If Lauryn Hill had disappeared from the face of the earth after her work with The Fugees, she would still be regarded as a hip-hop legend. Luckily for us, Hill changed the game even more with her 1998 solo release The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, the best-selling album by a female rapper.
Favorite Song by Lauryn Hill: “Ex-Factor” opens Hill’s classic debut album and immediately establishes her prowess. Hill chose to explore more personal and vulnerable subjects as opposed to gangster topics, all the while incorporating influences like soul and reggae into her music.
- You Might Like: Hottest Female Rappers
Nas was only 19 years old when he dropped his 1994 debut Illmatic. That album is so good that Nas was essentially propelled to legend status overnight, and while nothing he has done since has been as good, hip-hop fans can be quite forgiving when you’ve got a masterpiece like that under your belt.
Favorite Song by Nas: “The World Is Yours” is a classic street anthem, an uplifting ode to the hood.
- You Might Like: Biggie vs Jay-Z
5. Ghostface Killah
While most hip-hop fans would agree the legendary collective Wu-Tang Clan introduced a host of great talents to the rap world, Ghostface Killah is my personal favorite of the bunch, renowned for his wordy and fast rhymes. Not only does he shine within his original group, his solo career has given us great albums well into the modern era.
Favorite Song by Ghostface Killah: “Assassination Day” is just a great track from Ghostface’s 1996 debut solo album Ironman. The track is eerie and experimental.
- You Might Like: R&B vs Hip Hop
Another Wu-Tang Clan alumni like Ghostface, GZA established himself as a force to be reckoned with on his own with 1996’s debut solo release Liquid Swords. While GZA hasn’t had the solo career of Ghostface, Liquid Swords is a landmark hip-hop record that, for me, eclipses even Wu-Tang’s 36 Chambers. GZA’s lyrical fixations with esoteric and philosophical subject matter made him stand out.
Favorite Song by GZA: “Living in the World Today” is a classic. It’s got the hardcore, gangster-oriented vibes of the east coast mixed with GZA’s trademark philosophical lyricism. An analysis of hip-hop lyrics found that GZA had the second highest vocabulary in rap, and it’s more surprising that he isn’t first place.
You Might Like: Best 80s Hip Hop Artists
An east coast legend who helped popularize “hardcore hip-hop” and “boom bap,” as well as helping spark a trend towards socially conscious and political lyricism in rap, KRS-One is a true original.
The man’s something of an enigma, which has kept his music great all these years—how many gangster rappers can you name who can give you a political manifesto extolling the virtues of being a vegan?
Favorite Song by KRS-One: “Sound of da Police” is a classic from KRS-One’s 1993 debut Return of the Boom Bap, an old school jam speaking presciently of police brutality and systemic racism.
- You Might Like: Best Hip Hop Albums of the 2000s
Jay-Z is famous for so many different things besides rapping that I feel I might need to remind younger readers that Jay-Z hustled the whole way to the top and earned his status as a legend of the game. Even ignoring the great work he’s done in the 2000s and beyond, Jay-Z’s 90s run is top tier east coast hip-hop.
Favorite Song by Jay-Z: “Dead Presidents” is a classic diss track from 1996’s Reasonable Doubt. The feud between Jay-Z and Nas would give us more great music in the future, but this is where it begins.
- You Might Like: Best Hip Hop Albums of the 90s
Prodigy made up one half of the classic east coast duo Mobb Deep. The Infamous and Hell on Earth are two albums that belong in every rap fan’s collection, landmarks of the east coast scene that redefined the sound of hip-hop.
Favorite Song by Prodigy: “Shook Ones, Part II” is a classic gangster anthem from 1995’s The Infamous. Much like Wu-Tang and Nas, this track juxtaposes its gangster lyrics with a deceptively chill but eerie beat.
- You Might Like: Classic Hip Hop Vinyl Records
10. Ice Cube
As many hip-hop fans will know, Ice Cube got his start with legends N.W.A. back in the 80s. However, it was in the 90s when Ice Cube came into his own as an artist and made his greatest contributions to hip-hop. While N.W.A.’s impact on their own is insurmountable, Ice Cube’s solo career was more mature, dealing with more reflective and political issues.
Favorite Song by Ice Cube: “Don’t Trust ‘Em” from The Predator might have some dated lyrics, but it’s the type of jam only a heartbroken and scorned rapper could pen. Blast this one after a breakup.
- You Might Like: Alternative Hip Hop Artists
Likely the most overlooked name on this list, K-Rino is one of Houston’s finest exports. He got his start in the 90s and has continued to release albums with as much—if not more—frequency than when he was a young guy new to the game. K-Rino is militant in his political and philosophical fixations, and it gives his music a grimy and hardcore edge to it.
Favorite Song by K-Rino: “War in South Park” is just one of many great tunes by K-Rino. This is a classic old school gangster jam from his 1993 debut.
- You Might Also Like: Underground West Coast Rappers
12. Juicy J
While Memphis titans Three 6 Mafia are more commonly discussed in terms of a collective, the individual players of this group were all fantastic in their own right. While DJ Paul and Juicy J were essentially the Lennon/McCartney of Three 6, I have to give the edge to Juicy J personally.
The guy had menacing and evil rhymes, exploring gangster rap from the perspective of a willing and ready participant, as opposed to the “reluctant thug” character peddled by many others in the game.
Favorite Song by Juicy J: “Sweet Robbery Part 2” from Mystic Stylez sums up Juicy J’s mission statement well. This is a dark and heavy track about the joys of robbery, but the rhymes and flow are great.
- You Might Also Like: Best Underground Rappers
13. Del the Funky Homosapien
Del is well-known among hip-hop heads like myself, but he’s not quite the household name Jay-Z and 2Pac tend to be. It’s a shame because a lot of the rap that tries to be quirky nowadays is often trying and failing to emulate Del the Funky Homosapien.
If the stage name couldn’t make it clearer, Del’s lyricism was primarily concerned with subjects outside of the serious gangster realm, frequently drawing on humor, politics, and other subjects.
Favorite Song by Del the Funky Homosapien: “Mistadobalina” is a great track from Del’s debut album that showcases his penchant for creativity and silliness.
- You Might Also Like: White Male Rappers
14. Andre 3000
Andre 3000 has never been afraid to reinvent himself or experiment with different styles, and that’s likely a huge contribution to the lasting impact and success of Atlanta’s finest, Outkast. Not to detract from the importance of his partner in Outkast, Big Boi, Andre 3000 just has this soulfulness and versatility that makes him stand out.
Favorite Song by Andre 3000: “Rosa Parks” is about as on the nose of a title you can get for a song about the civil rights movement, but the track itself is a classic. This jam from Aquemini is the perfect example of Andre 3000’s rhymes.
- You Might Also Like: White Female Rappers
While the Geto Boys as a group were hugely influential and helped put Houston on the hip-hop map, Scarface was the MVP of the hip-hop collective. Despite being associated with brutal, cutt throat gangster rap, Scarface always had a reflective side to him. His rhymes could range from thoughtful and collected to ruthless and over-the-top.
Favorite Song by Scarface: “I Seen a Man Die” is a classic from 1994’s The Diary which examines the PTSD and mental issues that often come from life in the hood. It manages to explore the subject matter and the resulting trauma without glorifying.
While it would take all day to go over all the great rappers from the 90s, here are just 15 of the best. While some of these entries will be names you’re likely already familiar with, hopefully this list will remind you of some of the overlooked legends who made 90s rap such a great and innovative time for music.
This article was written by Amanda and edited by Michael.