In the late Eighties, N.W.A kicked off a gangsta-rap revolution that launched the careers of the Nineties' biggest solo stars (Dr. Dre, Ice Cube) and created a template for the new sound of hip-hop. The decade's hefty roster of rap luminaries ranges from certified icons like Tupac and Biggie to novelty acts such as Vanilla Ice, but across the board, hip-hop from that era has proved surprisingly enduring. We asked our readers to vote on their favorite Nineties hip-hop tracks. Here are the results:
Drake and Meek Mill can keep trying, but hip-hop's greatest diss song has already been made: 2Pac's "Hit 'Em Up." The West Coast rapper sounds almost gleeful as he rips apart Biggie and the rest of his East Coast peers, claiming to have bedded his enemy's wife and mocking the sickle-cell diagnosis of Mobb Deep's Prodigy. The video goes just as hard, featuring impersonators of P. Diddy, Biggie and Lil Kim.
Hip-hop's favorite stoner made a slice of G-funk perfection with this laid-back party anthem. Who could forget that simple, sung chorus and it's unforgettable concluding phrase, "with my mind on my money and my money on my mind"? Along with "What's My Name?" his debut solo single, "Gin and Juice" helped propel Snoop's solo career and ensure the critical and commercial success of his debut LP, Doggystyle.
Ice Cube took a quick break from relaying his typically dark tales of ghetto life to give praise to one of his better days. "It Was a Good Day" presents a more mundane tale than Cube fans were accustomed to hearing from the former N.W.A. member. As a testament to his talent, he makes a day filled with simple pleasures — smoking weed, cruising the town, watching Yo! MTV Raps — sound like the greatest one ever.
Biggie's debut, Ready to Die, was innovative for a number of reasons, but its deft balance of club bangers and hood storytelling may be its most distinctive feature, a trait best represented by "Juicy." More than 20 years after its release, the track still sounds as dazzling as it did back then, and Biggie's reflection on all those who didn't believe in his talent remains as tear-jerking as ever.
Illmatic became a classic due to its clear, astute depiction of ghetto life. Nas' skills as a storyteller stepped up the Nineties rap game, and on an album steeped in iconic tracks, "N.Y. State of Mind" comes out on top. From the MC's nimble flow to the warm vintage-jazz samples, everything about the song feels at once relaxed and urgent, encompassing everything its author — and NYC as a whole — stood for in that moment.
Jazz-rap trio Digable Planets may not have reached the same level of fame as their peers A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, but they still produced a breezy, catchy mega-hit with"Rebirth of Slick." Between the pulsating bass and infectious "I'm cool like dat" refrain, it's no wonder the single hit the Billboard Top 20. Savvy Nineties-rap fans rejoiced when Digable Planets member Ishmael "Butterfly" Butler resurfaced more than 15 years later with the heady, avant-garde-leaning Shabazz Palaces.
Vanilla Ice's novelty smash and lone hit record is the type of hip-hop track that anybody can rap along with, and that's a huge facet of its appeal. Driven by a choice bass line, borrowed from Queen and David Bowie's "Under Pressure," "Ice Ice Baby" remains one of the most unstoppably catchy songs of the Nineties — a track that's held up a lot better than many contemporary haters may have predicted.
Tupac Shakur reigned supreme as the King of California during his too-brief career, so it's appropriate that he created an enduring anthem for his homeland. Aided by Dr. Dre, this 1995 single facilitated 'Pac's post-prison comeback and launched his relationship with Suge Knight and Death Row Records.
Rapcore reached an aesthetic peak with the Beastie Boys' heaviest single, "Sabotage." Harking back to their days playing hardcore punk, Ad-Rock, MCA and Mike D showed off their skills on guitar, bass and drums, respectively, crafting a screeching blast of noise-funk goodness. The Spike Jonze–directed video, with its odes to kitschy crime dramas like Hawaii Five-O and Starsky and Hutch, proved to be just as memorable as the song itself.
The first single off Dr. Dre's solo debut, 1992's The Chronic, not only features one of the most memorable beats of the Nineties; it's also the track that helped catapult the former N.W.A member into the hip-hop stratosphere as a star all on his own. Just as importantly, the song introduced the world to the rapper then known as Snoop Doggy Dogg, who would release his own debut, Doggystyle, the following year.