The 1990s represent hip hop’s golden age and commercial peak. As rap overtook rock music as the nation’s dominant youth genre, new stars emerged cementing their legacies with masterful albums, flows, lyrics, and anthems. By mid-decade, Tupac, Notorious B.I.G., Nas, and other icons ruled popular music and pop culture.
This ranking highlights the top 25 MCs whose talent and impact defined rap in the 90s. Several factors determined the rankings including lyrical skill, microphone presence, album quality/influence, hits, fame, longevity within the decade, and cultural resonance of their music.
Through its diversity of sounds and styles, 1990s rap showcased limitless creative possibilities. The MCs below not only achieved greatness individually but also pushed the entire genre to new heights. Let’s dive into the 25 best rappers of the 1990s starting at #25 down to the finale.
Funk-fueled rapper Redman brought whacked-out weed humor and kinetic energy to 90s hip hop. Signed to Def Jam, New Jersey’s Reggie Noble crafted aggressive yet playful hits like “Time 4 Sum Aksion,” “Smash Sumthin,” and “Whateva Man.” His collaboration with Method Man, Blackout!, became a classic pairing. With phat beats and quirkiness, Redman carved out a lane as a distinct and consistent East Coast presence throughout the decade.
#24. Busta Rhymes
With his animated rhyme delivery, Leaders of the New School alum Busta Rhymes emerged as an eccentric solo star in the 1990s. Smashes like “Woo-Hah!! Got You All in Check” and “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See” showcased his rambunctious, rapid-fire flow. Collaborating with artists from Janet Jackson to the Flipmode Squad, Busta helped push hip hop toward a new millennium with vibrant energy.
Houston hip hop pioneer Scarface rose to prominence in the 90s leading legendary group the Geto Boys. His mafioso-style narratives delivered in his signature husky voice brought Southern flavor to the decade’s gritty rap. His classic solo effort The Diary and its hits “Money Makes the World Go Round” and “I Seen a Man Die” made Scarface a respected MC/producer with gangsta edge but also introspective complexity.
With his menacing growl powering raw street anthems, DMX exploded from Yonkers onto late 90s rap radio, debuting at #1 with albums like It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot. His gruff delivery fueled hits like “Party Up (Up in Here)” and “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” that raced up the charts. Though troubled with legal issues later on, DMX’s hardcore brand of hip hop relentlessly rocked the decade.
Bay area veteran E-40 pioneered the independent hustle in 90s hip hop, crafting his own flamboyant style on classics like In a Major Way and “Captain Save a Hoe.” His animated flows lit up the West Coast party scene alongside peers like Too Short. E-40 also co-founded the click (slang for crew) The Click and mentored fellow Northern California acts. His relentless DIY drive and eccentric slang as an MC/entrepreneur made a lasting impact.
Atlanta duo OutKast brought welcome Southern flavor to 90s hip hop, blending funky underground vibes with crossover pop hits. On their 1994 debut Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, Big Boi and Andre 3000’s raw flows shone brightly. Their sophomore effort ATLiens took artistic leaps integrating psychedelic instrumentation and spacey rhymes that wowed critics. OutKast’s innovation and mainstream success opened doors for other Southern rappers to shine.
#19. Snoop Dogg
Calvin Broadus a.k.a. Snoop Dogg became one of West Coast rap’s biggest breakout stars in the 1990s, collaborating with producer Dr. Dre. Snoop’s laidback style instantly connected. Multi-platinum debut Doggystyle spawned hits like “Who Am I (What’s My Name)?” and “Gin and Juice” propelling Long Beach into rap’s consciousness. Throughout the 1990s, Snoop’s distinctive flow and charisma made him a national superstar.
#18. Lauryn Hill
As the frontwoman of The Fugees, Lauryn Hill garnered success fusing rap, reggae, and soul with their 1996 classic album The Score. She then solidified her genius going solo with 1998’s universally acclaimed The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Hill’s confessional lyrics, genre-blending production, and vocal range were trailblazing. Hill’s brief but brilliant recording career in the 90s broke barriers for female artists.
#17. Slick Rick
The Ruler MC Ricky D crafted pioneering narratives rhyming in a sly British accent about criminal misadventures and saucy tales on albums like 1988’s classic The Great Adventures of Slick Rick. Hailing from South London but raised in the Bronx, Slick Rick’s slick storytelling and flamboyant style inspired 90s legends like Nas and Biggie. Despite legal issues deporting him from the U.S., Slick Rick’s legacy as a hip hop pioneer persists.
As frontman of jazz-rap pioneers Gang Starr alongside DJ Premier, Guru had an unmistakable monotone flow pairing perfectly with Premier’s beats. Albums like the 1989 classic No More Mr. Nice Guy showed Guru as a thoughtful MC deserving more credit. Guru also pursued a solo career and launched the Jazzmatazz fusion project. His smooth flow and street-conscious lyrics shine among the 1990s most unique voices.
#15. Big L
Harlem rapper Big L brought ferocious punchlines and elite rhyme skills to the underground scene throughout the 90s before his tragic murder in 1999. Despite limited commercial visibility and just 1 solo album, Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous, Big L’s legacy as an all-time lyricist grew posthumously through classic freestyles and unearthed group material with D.I.T.C. Big L’s wordplay foreshadowed today’s evolving battle rap scene.
#14. The D.O.C.
Born Tracy Curry, Texas native The D.O.C. co-wrote several classic Dr. Dre tracks after pairing with him in the 80s. His 1989 debut No One Can Do It Better brought complex rhymes over funk production. A later car accident damaged D.O.C.’s voice but his creative pen flourished, even ghostwriting for N.W.A. By the late 90s, he re-emerged rapping again. D.O.C.’s razor-sharp early work influenced West Coast greats like Snoop Dogg.
#13. Method Man
Emerging from Wu Tang Clan’s sprawling crew, Method Man stood out with charisma and witty lyricism. His iconic eponymous 1994 solo debut produced rap classics like “Bring the Pain” and “Method Man” showcasing his gruff yet smooth mic presence over RZA’s production. Meth later formed dynamic duo Method Man & Redman. With hazy flows and hip hop reliability, Mr. Mef solo and with Wu-Tang made a huge mark in 90s rap.
As frontman of revolutionary hip hop pioneers Boogie Down Productions, KRS-One’s political consciousness and battle rap mastery influenced many fans and peers. His criminally underrated 1993 album Return of the Boom Bap brought back old school lyricism during commercial rap’s peak. Respected as “The Teacha,” KRS-One’s outspoken style continued driving underground hip hop’s progression in the 90s and beyond.
#11. Ice Cube
After acrimoniously leaving N.W.A., Ice Cube forged a blockbuster solo career as an MC, actor and filmmaker. Incendiary albums like AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, Death Certificate and The Predator contained provocative commentary plus hits like “It Was a Good Day.” Ice Cube provided edgy social analysis and gangsta rap attitude, influencing hip hop’s cultural direction before crossing over to Hollywood stardom.
#10. The Notorious B.I.G.
The undisputed King of New York hip hop, Notorious B.I.G. (Biggie Smalls) became a rap icon across just two studio albums in the 90s before his tragic 1997 death. 1994’s Ready to Die and its smash “Juicy” introduced Biggie’s magnetic style. Three years later, multi-platinum Life After Death solidified his skill. Effortlessly clever, Biggie blended vivid storytelling and hardcore swagger with pop sensibility, becoming a legendary lyricist.
As rap collective Wu-Tang Clan’s prime storyteller, Raekwon earned street immortality for his 1995 solo masterpiece Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…. His cinematic crime tales over RZA production, particularly with Ghostface Killah, brought grimy realism and lean narratives. Tracks like “Ice Cream” and “Criminology” immersed listeners deeply in the underworld. Raekwon also pioneered the influential mafioso sound.
Since dropping 1994’s lyrical perfection Illmatic, rapper Nas has earned prestige as one of hip hop’s sharpest social commentators and writers. Just a teenager when starting out, his vivid inner city dispatches atop jazzy boom-bap production painted visceral pictures. Tracks like “N.Y. State of Mind” revealed a fiery prodigy sparking East Coast rap’s resurgence. Nas’ prolific 90s output brought gritty honesty.
As frontman of Houston’s legendary Geto Boys, Scarface expanded Southern hip hop’s horizons in the 90s by bringing his stark, uncompromising perspective to solo work and their catalog. With his husky haunting voice, Scarface crafted cinematic portraits of crime life on his classic 1991 solo effort Mr. Scarface is Back. Multiple critically acclaimed LPs followed spotlighting Scarface’s gravitas as an elder statesman within the Dirty South scene and hip hop overall.
#6. Andre 3000
As one half of wildly inventive Atlanta duo OutKast, Andre “3000” Benjamin helped expand the possibilities for lyricism and originality in hip hop. His funky, introspective rhymes on albums like ATLiens and Aquemini contrasted with his flamboyant personas in an exciting way. By the late 90s, Andre 3000 was pushing boundaries like no other with his genre-blending ingenuity that garnered OutKast massive crossover appeal.
#5. Snoop Dogg
The laidback Long Beach stalwart Snoop Dogg became an unlikely yet undeniable West Coast rap kingpin in the 1990s mentored by Dr. Dre. Multi-platinum 1993 debut Doggystyle spawned classics like “What’s My Name” and “Gin and Juice” propelling Snoop’s signature drawl into stardom. His liquid flow and complementary chemistry with Dre provided a foundation for Death Row Records’ seminal G-funk sound that dominated hip hop at the time.
#4. Tupac Shakur
Before his tragic murder in 1996 at just 25 years old, Tupac Shakur constantly pushed boundaries as a rapper, actor, activist and poet. Tupac’s blazing charisma on mic communicated both sensitivity and fiery machismo through provocative lyrics, especially on 1995’s landmark Me Against the World. More than just a gangsta rapper, Tupac gave hip hop true artistic depth before becoming an eternal, almost prophetic figure after death.
#3. The RZA
As mastermind behind visionary hip hop collective Wu-Tang Clan, RZA (Robert Fitzgerald Diggs) reinvented rap’s sonic and cinematic possibilities in 1990s New York. His lo-fi, primal production style incorporating dialogue samples suit Wu-Tang’s gritty aesthetic. But RZA’s lyrical delivery also stood out on tracks like “Guillotine (Swords).” Between Wu-Tang’s influential albums and beats for individual member solo LPs, the RZA’s output shaped the decade enormously.
Exploding onto mainstream rap in 1999, Detroit’s defiant lyricist Eminem became one of music’s biggest stars thanks to verbal gymnastics and subversive humor. His major label debut The Slim Shady LP went quadruple platinum with controversial yet comical smashes like “My Name Is.” Marshall Mathers unpacks his chaotic life through rhymes without filters. Regardless of backlash from critics, Eminem’s talent proved groundbreaking, popularizing hip hop globally.
Ruling rap as the decade closed, Brooklyn wordsmith Jay-Z brought streetwise lyrical mastery and anthem smashes like “Hard Knock Life” and “Big Pimpin'” through a peerless late 90s run leading into the 2000s. Reasonable Doubt and The Blueprint are masterpieces displaying his versatile prowess. Both hustler and crossover celebrity, Shawn Carter (Jay-Z) took rap fully mainstream commercially while upholding hip hop traditions rooted in lyricism.
Legacy of 90s Rap
The 1990s represented an artistic zenith for hip hop following its origins 15 years earlier. MCs like Pac, Biggie, Jay-Z, Outkast and Nas all shaped the decade before becoming legends. Regional rap variants expanded with NYC, Cali, Atlanta, Houston and beyond developing signature styles. Though rock and pop retained their strongholds, rap’s irresistible rise seemed prophesized. After the 90s, debate remained over what direction rap would evolve toward after this pinnacle. Unquestionably the dynamic, diverse brilliance of 1990s hip hop culture dramatically shifted music forever.
Frequently Asked Questions
What subgenres emerged in the 1990s?
Beyond chronicling street life, subgenres like jazzy alternative rap and conscious hip hop via artists like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul offered different perspectives. Southern rap rose up starting in Houston and Miami. Crossover pop-rap acts like MC Hammer saw success too.
What events shaped 1990s rap?
Tensions between East and West Coast rap escalated over the decade, turning tragically violent with the deaths of Tupac and Biggie. Rap also faced censorship efforts from politicians over explicit lyrics. But hip hop’s popularity could not be derailed.
How did producers progress hip hop music in the 90s?
DJs and producers like Dr. Dre, RZA, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and Q-Tip crafted distinctive soundscapes blending funk, soul, and jazz. Sampling technology also allowed for richer sonic palettes. The beats were integral to classic albums and timeless songs.
What hip hop styles defined New York rap in the 1990s?
Gritty mafioso and hardcore street rap via Nas, Biggie, Wu-Tang Clan, and Mobb Deep thrived alongside an alternative jazz rap movement spearheaded by acts like A Tribe Called Quest and Gang Starr. NY rap’s diversity persisted at its peak.
How did Los Angeles impact hip hop in the 90s?
Artists like Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Ice-T and Ice Cube forged the G-Funk sound and gangsta rap subgenre that dominated charts. Tupac’s vivid lyrical style also profoundly influenced hip hop before and after his 1996 murder in Las Vegas.