The ‘90s were a renaissance for hip-hop. Twenty or so years after the birth of the genre, hip-hop found its way into the mainstream and flourished. Many artists received critical acclaim and released albums that have endured to this day. No matter what my mood may be, I can always find a ‘90s hip hop track to fit it.
10) Gang Starr, “Above the Clouds”
Gang Starr and Inspectah Deck did an amazing job producing a track that is so iconic that it weasels its way into almost all of my hip-hop playlists. Surprisingly, though, it struggled to make this list. In the end, a timeless beat (with some of the most amazing sampling), gripping lyrical flow and a penchant for Wu-Tang Clan and its affiliates carved “Above the Clouds” a spot on this list.
9) Dr. Dre, “Nuthin’ But a G Thang”
“Nuthin’ But a G Thang” is a quintessential G-funk banger. It can be argued that Warren G’s “Regulate” may stand as the iconic G-funk anthem, what with its place on Regulate … G Funk Era, but anyone who argues that is dead wrong. Dr. Dre defined G-funk with The Chronic and “Nuthin’ But a G Thang” was easily its most iconic track. A young Snoop Dogg adds to the West Coast credibility along with Dre’s G-funk production and constant references to Long Beach and Compton. “Nuthin’ But a G Thang” is ‘90s west coast hip hop.
8) Mos Def, “Mathematics”
“It’s my favorite song about counting.” — Jack O’Brien, Editor-in-Chief of The New Paltz Oracle.
7) Big Punisher, “Twinz (Deep Cover ‘98)”
Big Pun stands as a Latino icon in hip-hop. His ability to blur racial lines between black and Latino communities, especially in the hotbed of the Bronx, earned him a sort of reverence within the hip hop community. “Twinz” establishes itself as one of his best tracks thanks to eerie instrumentals, a hard-hitting methodical bassline and a feature from Fat Joe. Though the instrumental was borrowed from Dr. Dre’s “Deep Cover,” Big Pun capitalizes on the slower tempo using quick delivery of his verses. Pun’s lyrical agility provides one of my favorite lines in any song, “Dead in the middle of Little Italy, little did we know / That we riddled two middlemen who didn’t do diddly.” The duo of Big Pun and Fat Joe flows so well that, at points, the two become somewhat indiscernible in the best way possible.
6) The Fugees, “Killing Me Softly with His Song”
The entirety of The Score is worth a mention, but The Fugees managed to do something with this track that is not often accomplished: improving on the original with a remake. Lori Lieberman’s rendition of the song, and even Roberta Flack’s, are surpassed on all levels by The Fugees’. Lauryn Hill’s silky vocals paired with the minimalistic instrumentals, sitar aside, create such a memorable and catchy track that I could easily listen to “Killing Me Softly with His Song” on loop for days on end.
5) The Notorious B.I.G., “Suicidal Thoughts”
“Suicidal Thoughts” is such a sharp departure from the rest of Ready to Die. On an album that seems to glorify thug life, “Suicidal Thoughts” is a window of vulnerability that stands in stark contrast to the hyper-masculinity of hip-hop culture. It is, without a doubt, one of Biggie’s most powerful tracks.
4) Nas, “The World is Yours”
Nas asks the important questions with “The World is Yours.” This track is so empowering. It’s the song you blast as you cruise down the summer streets with your friends, feeling absolutely invincible.
3) A Tribe Called Quest, “Electric Relaxation”
A Tribe Called Quest is one of my favorite hip-hop groups and Midnight Marauders is one of my all-time favorite albums. “Electric Relaxation” captures the laid back vibe of the album more than any other track and showcases Tribe’s lyrical prowess. Lines like “Bust off on your couch, now you got Seaman’s Furniture” are unforgettably witty and cement this hysterical track as number three on this list.
2) Wu-Tang Clan, “C.R.E.A.M”
Cash does, in fact, rule everything around me.
1) Mobb Deep, “Shook Ones, Pt. II”
“Shook Ones, Pt. II” is the most enduring track on this list. The beat is so subtly aggressive and forgiving to any flow. That is why it has been used so frequently, from the final rap battle in 8 Mile to Black Hippy’s 2013 BET cypher. “Son, they shook, ‘cause ain’t no such things as halfway crooks.”