The 50 Best 90s Hip Hop Artists: The Golden Age of Rap


The 50 Best 90s Hip Hop Artists: The Golden Age of Rap

Hip-hop isn’t just a music genre; it’s a cultural movement that emerged in the Bronx, New York City, in the late 1970s. This dynamic art form encompasses elements like rapping, DJing, graffiti, breakdancing, and fashion

However, the 1990s marked a pivotal era when hip-hop transcended its humble beginnings to become a global phenomenon. This decade, often referred to as the “Golden Age of Hip-Hop,” witnessed an explosion of young talent that tested and expanded the genre’s boundaries, cementing its place in mainstream popular culture.

This article chronicles the 50 most influential hip-hop artists who shaped this transformative era, propelling the genre to new heights with their innovative sounds, thought-provoking lyrics, and undeniable impact on the music industry and beyond.

The Origins and Rise of Hip-Hop

Before delving into the legendary artists of the 90s, it’s essential to understand the foundations upon which they built their craft. 

Hip-hop’s origins can be traced back to the late 1970s in the Bronx, where pioneers like DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash pioneered techniques like extending breakbeats to create longer and more energetic dance periods.

As the new sound captivated the ears of listeners, groups like Run-D.M.C. and Beastie Boys formalized these techniques, incorporating their unique styles and breaking into the mainstream music scene. 

The early 1980s also saw artists like LL Cool J introducing a softer side to hip-hop, while Public Enemy brought a powerful political message centered on issues of systemic racism.

These formative years laid the groundwork for the hip-hop industry, primarily governed by independent labels like Def Jam Records and Sugar Hill Records, setting the stage for the Golden Age that was yet to come.

The Rise of the DJ and Sampling Culture

The Rise of the DJ and Sampling Culture

One of the defining aspects of hip-hop’s early years was the rise of the DJ as a central figure in the genre. DJs like Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa pioneered techniques like “scratching” and “beat juggling,” which allowed them to manipulate records and create entirely new sounds.

As sampling technology advanced, artists began to incorporate snippets of existing recordings into their own tracks, creating a rich tapestry of sounds and influences. 

This sampling culture became a hallmark of hip-hop, with producers like DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and J Dilla crafting intricate beats that paid homage to the genre’s roots while pushing it in new directions.

Best East Coast Rappers

You can’t talk about the best 90s hip-hop artists without acknowledging the pivotal role played by the East Coast, particularly New York City, where the genre was born. 

This era witnessed a string of influential new artists emerging from the streets of NYC, each bringing their unique style and perspective to the table.

Key East Coast Artists

  • Nas: With his seminal album “Illmatic,” Nas captured the complexities of life in the Queensbridge projects like no other. His lyrical prowess and unparalleled storytelling have cemented his status as one of the greatest rappers of all time. Often cited as one of the most lyrically gifted MCs, Nas’s poetic verses painted vivid pictures of the struggles, aspirations, and resilience of urban youth.
  • Wu-Tang Clan: Combining martial arts themes with gritty, urban storytelling, the Wu-Tang Clan redefined what a rap collective could be. By launching the careers of individual members like Method Man, Raekwon, GZA, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, they exhibited unprecedented group dynamics and showcased a diverse array of styles and personalities.
  • Notorious B.I.G.: Rising from the streets of Brooklyn, Biggie’s storytelling and lyrical prowess were unparalleled. His debut album, “Ready to Die,” is widely considered a classic, with its raw, unfiltered portrayals of street life and drug culture. His life, tragically cut short in a shooting, created an eternal debate about who was the greater rapper of the era: him or his West Coast rival, Tupac Shakur.

Other notable East Coast acts included:

  • Gang Starr: Comprised of rapper Guru and DJ Premier, this duo’s jazz-infused beats and profound lyricism were revered in hip-hop circles. Their album “Moment of Truth” is a standout in their discography, showcasing Premier’s exceptional production skills and Guru’s introspective rhymes.
  • Leaders of the New School: Known for their high-energy performances and humorous lyrics, this trio brought a playful and lighthearted vibe to the East Coast scene. Their hit “Case of the P.T.A.” became an anthem for young hip-hop fans at the time.

The East Coast scene also saw the emergence of influential record labels like Bad Boy Records, helmed by Puff Daddy (later known as P. Diddy), who brought a flashy, glamorous style to hip-hop. 

Albums like “No Way Out” and “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” exemplified the label’s signature sound, blending hard-hitting beats with catchy hooks and star-studded features.

Additionally, iconic fashion styles like baggy jeans, Timberland boots, and Jynco jeans became synonymous with the East Coast hip-hop culture, influencing youth fashion trends across the globe.

Best West Coast Rappers

Best West Coast Rappers

While the East Coast reigned as the birthplace of hip-hop, the West Coast quickly established itself as a formidable force in the 90s, with artists experimenting with the new sound and infusing it with their unique perspectives.

Early West Coast Contributions

  • Digital Underground: This oft-overlooked group not only exploded onto the pop and R&B charts in 1990 with “The Humpty Dance” but also launched the career of one of the West Coast’s most legendary rappers, Tupac Shakur. Tupac’s time with Digital Underground served as a stepping stone for his eventual rise to stardom as a solo artist.
  • Cypress Hill: One of the earliest West Coast rap groups, Cypress Hill took the narrative about marijuana and Latino culture to mainstream America. Their upbeat, funky sound, featuring DJ Muggs’ unique beats, became a favorite in the 90s hip-hop scene. Albums like “Black Sunday” and “Temples of Boom” showcased the group’s distinct style and helped pave the way for other Latino rappers.

Gangsta Rap and Social Commentary

The West Coast was also known for its raw, unfiltered portrayal of social issues and gang life through the lens of gangsta rap. Artists like N.W.A., Ice Cube, and Tupac Shakur (aka 2Pac) tackled themes of racial inequality, poverty, and violence, providing a powerful commentary on the harsh realities of their neighborhoods.

“We’re not giving you no goddamn family values or nothing to go out and be a clown with. We giving you raw, uncut, motherfucking reality rap.” – Ice Cube

This unapologetic approach to storytelling not only fueled the infamous East Coast-West Coast rivalry but also sparked national debates about censorship and the role of art in reflecting societal struggles. 

N.W.A.’s seminal album “Straight Outta Compton” became a lightning rod for controversy, with its explicit lyrics drawing the ire of law enforcement and conservative groups alike.

Tupac Shakur, often considered one of the greatest rappers of all time, took a multifaceted approach to his music, blending hard-hitting social commentary with introspective and poetic verses. 

Albums like “Me Against the World” and “All Eyez on Me” cemented his status as a cultural icon and a voice for the disenfranchised.


The Distinctive Sound of G-Funk

In the midst of the intense gangsta rap scene, Dr. Dre offered a smoother, almost hypnotic alternative with the emergence of G-Funk. 

Influenced by 1970s funk music, this subgenre combined laid-back grooves with West Coast culture, reflecting the complexities of life in neighborhoods like Compton and South Central LA.

Key artists who embodied the G-Funk sound included:

  • Snoop Dogg: With his distinctive vocal drawl and smooth flow, Snoop Dogg became an instant icon upon the release of his debut album, “Doggystyle.” His collaboration with Dr. Dre on tracks like “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” and “Gin and Juice” defined the G-Funk sound and cemented Snoop’s status as a pop culture icon. Beyond music, his persona and catchphrases permeated mainstream media, making him one of the most recognizable figures in hip-hop.
  • Warren G & Nate Dogg: As part of the West Coast hip-hop collective 213, Warren G and Nate Dogg made their mark with the hit “Regulate.” Nate Dogg’s smooth vocals provided the perfect counterpoint to Warren G’s laid-back rhymes, creating a sound that became synonymous with the G-Funk era.
  • Tha Dogg Pound: Comprised of Daz Dillinger and Kurupt, this duo rose to prominence as protégés of Dr. Dre and contributors to Snoop Dogg’s albums. Their debut, “Dogg Food,” showcased their raw lyrical prowess while maintaining the signature G-Funk vibe.

Southern Hip-Hop Emerges

While the East Coast and West Coast dominated the hip-hop landscape for much of the 90s, a new force was brewing in the “Dirty South”Atlanta, Georgia. Far removed from the genre’s epicenters, a group of teenagers congregated in the basement of a home owned by Rico Wade’s mother, forming a collective known as the Dungeon Family.

In this makeshift studio, groups like OutKast, Goodie Mob, and even the R&B trio TLC were born, infusing their Southern experiences with funk, soul, and gospel influences. 

Their distinct sound, marked by the slurred accent of Southern speech, challenged the East and West Coast dominance on the charts and introduced a fresh perspective to the hip-hop scene.

“The Dungeon Family was more than just music; it was a cultural phenomenon that showcased the unique experiences and narratives of the South,” said music critic Alan Light.

Key Southern Hip-Hop Artists

  • OutKast: The duo of Big Boi and Andre 3000 pushed the boundaries of hip-hop with a blend of funk, soul, and even psychedelia, releasing seminal albums like “ATLiens” and “Aquemini.” Their eclectic sound and eccentric personas set them apart from their contemporaries, solidifying their status as one of the most innovative and influential groups of the 90s.
  • Goodie Mob: Known for coining the term “Dirty South,” this group tackled social and political issues, particularly on their debut album “Soul Food.” Their conscious lyrics and soulful beats resonated with audiences seeking depth and substance in their music.
  • Organized Noize: The production trio behind the Dungeon Family played a significant role in shaping the sound of Southern hip-hop, producing hits for OutKast, Goodie Mob, and TLC. Their unique blend of live instrumentation and modern production techniques helped define the “Dirty South” aesthetic.

Beyond the Dungeon Family, other Southern artists like UGK, 8Ball & MJG, and Scarface gained prominence, further solidifying the region’s impact on hip-hop culture

Their raw, unapologetic lyrics and distinctive drawls provided a stark contrast to the sounds emanating from the East and West Coasts.

Native Tongues

Native Tongues

Amidst the rise of gangsta rap and the intensifying East Coast-West Coast rivalry, a collective known as the Native Tongues emerged in the late 1980s, offering a fresh alternative to the prevailing narratives in hip-hop.

Originating with the Jungle Brothers after the success of their 1988 album “Straight Out the Jungle,” the Native Tongues also included artists like Monie Love and Queen Latifah. These artists infused hip-hop with relaxed samples, playful lyrics, and an emphasis on Afrocentric themes.

However, it was A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul who took the movement to new heights with their iconic albums released in 1989 and 1990, respectively. Their music emphasized peace, intellectualism, and positivity, providing a stark contrast to the gritty narratives prevalent in other regions.

Key Native Tongues Artists

  • De La Soul: Best known for pioneering the “D.A.I.S.Y. Age” with their eclectic, alternative approach to hip-hop, their debut album “3 Feet High and Rising” is considered a seminal work in the genre. Its innovative sampling and quirky skits set a new standard for creativity in hip-hop production.
  • A Tribe Called Quest: Helped lay the foundations for alternative rap with their innovative mix of jazz, funk, and socially conscious lyrics. Albums like “The Low End Theory” and “Midnight Marauders” showcased their exceptional musicianship and thought-provoking verses.
  • Digable Planets: Fusing jazz and rap in a way that was both commercial and artistic, this trio gained fame with their hit “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat).” Their unique sound and conscious lyrics resonated with audiences seeking an alternative to mainstream hip-hop.

The Native Tongues movement not only influenced countless artists within the hip-hop community but also helped broaden the genre’s appeal to a wider audience. 

Their emphasis on positivity, unity, and social awareness provided a counterbalance to the harsh realities depicted in other subgenres, showcasing the versatility and depth of hip-hop as an art form.

Subgenres Diversify

As the 90s progressed, hip-hop continued to evolve, giving rise to various subgenres that showcased the genre’s versatility and the boundless creativity of its artists.

Jazz Rap and Alternative Hip-Hop

Building upon the foundations laid by the Native Tongues, a new wave of artists emerged, fusing hip-hop with jazz and alternative influences. 

Groups like Digable Planets, Pharcyde, and The Roots captivated audiences with their unique blends of jazz samples, intricate rhyme schemes, and playful lyrics.

Notable artists in this subgenre include:

  • Freestyle Fellowship: Pioneers of the jazz-rap subgenre, their lyrical dexterity and complex rhymes were groundbreaking, leaving an indelible mark on underground hip-hop. Their album “Innercity Griots” is a masterclass in lyrical experimentation and abstract lyricism.
  • Pharcyde: Introduced a fresh, playful vibe to West Coast rap, steering away from the prevailing gangsta rap themes with their debut album “Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde.” Their quirky personalities and offbeat humor set them apart from their contemporaries.
  • The Roots: Unique for their use of live instruments, they brought a jazzy, improvisational style to hip-hop. Albums like “Illadelph Halflife” and “Things Fall Apart” showcased their exceptional musicianship and socially conscious lyrics. They have continued to innovate, becoming the house band for “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”

Hardcore Rap’s Raw Intensity

On the other end of the spectrum, hardcore rap emerged as a subgenre that turned up the aggression and intensity of traditional hip-hop. Artists like Wu-Tang Clan and Mobb Deep crafted raw, minimalistic beats and gritty lyrics, delivering each track like a gut punch.

  • Mobb Deep: Known for their grim, brutally honest portraits of life in Queensbridge, their 1995 album “The Infamous” is a landmark in the hardcore rap genre. Prodigy’s vivid storytelling and Havoc’s menacing production set the tone for a subgenre that thrived on authenticity and rawness.
  • DMX: With his raspy voice and dark themes, DMX was a defining voice in hardcore rap, capturing the complexities of street life with an unparalleled intensity. Albums like “It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot” and “Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood” solidified his status as a force to be reckoned with in the genre.

Rock/Rap Fusions

  • Beastie Boys: Originally a punk band from NYC, the Beastie Boys fell in love with hip-hop during its formative years, becoming pioneers in blending rock instrumentation with hip-hop beats and samples. Their albums like “Paul’s Boutique” and “Check Your Head” showcased their versatility, seamlessly transitioning from hard-hitting rap tracks to punk-infused anthems.
  • Rage Against the Machine: Combining rapturous vocals from Zack de la Rocha with Tom Morello’s incendiary guitar riffs, Rage Against the Machine created a sound that was both politically charged and sonically groundbreaking. Their self-titled debut album became an instant classic, resonating with audiences drawn to their uncompromising stance on social issues.
  • Judgment Night Soundtrack: The 1993 movie soundtrack “Judgment Night” paired multiple hip-hop artists with rock artists, resulting in groundbreaking collaborations like Helmet and House of Pain (“Just Another Victim”), Biohazard and Onyx (“Judgement Night”), and Cypress Hill and Pearl Jam (“Real Thing”).

These fusions not only expanded the creative boundaries of hip-hop but also introduced the genre to new audiences, bridging cultural divides and demonstrating the universal appeal of music that defies categorization.


Hip-Hop Becomes Global

The 90s witnessed hip-hop transcending its roots and becoming a global phenomenon. Music videos played a pivotal role in this transition, introducing the genre to audiences worldwide and showcasing the distinctive fashion styles and cultural influences that accompanied it.

From baggy jeans and Timberland boots to graffiti art and breakdancing, hip-hop’s impact extended far beyond the realms of music, shaping youth culture and sparking conversations about social issues on a global scale

The rise of MTV and its dedicated hip-hop programming, such as “Yo! MTV Raps,” provided a platform for artists to reach new audiences and solidify the genre’s mainstream appeal.

Hip-hop also began to influence other aspects of popular culture, with films like “Boyz n the Hood,” “Menace II Society,” and “Juice” offering raw and unflinching portrayals of urban life that resonated with audiences worldwide. 

Fashion brands like FUBU, Phat Farm, and Rocawear capitalized on the growing popularity of hip-hop style, further cementing the genre’s influence on the world stage.

Iconic Tragedies

While the 90s marked a golden era for hip-hop, it was also marred by two tragic events that cast a dark shadow over the entire genre. The deaths of Tupac Shakur in 1996 and Notorious B.I.G. in 1997, both victims of drive-by shootings, left the hip-hop community reeling.

These untimely losses not only robbed the world of two of the greatest rappers of the era but also highlighted the harsh realities that many artists grappled with, fueling an ongoing debate about the “greatest rapper” between the two rivals. 

The murders, which remain unsolved to this day, sparked widespread speculation and conspiracy theories, further cementing the mystique surrounding these iconic figures.

Beyond the personal tragedies, the deaths of Tupac and Biggie served as a wake-up call for the hip-hop community, prompting introspection and calls for unity in the face of violence and animosity. 

Their legacies lived on through their music, inspiring countless artists to follow in their footsteps and use their platform to address social issues and give voice to the voiceless.

Hip-Hop’s Next Wave

Hip-Hop's Next Wave

As the 90s drew to a close, a new wave of artists emerged, poised to carry the torch of hip-hop into the new millennium. Among them were:

  • Jay-Z: Breaking into the mainstream with “Reasonable Doubt,” Jay-Z combined a hustler’s ambition with a wordsmith’s craft, laying the foundation for his future status as a mogul and business tycoon. His album “Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life” cemented his place as one of the most influential rappers of the era, with its gritty street narratives and infectious anthems.
  • Eminem: Bursting onto the scene in the late 90s, Eminem showcased lyrical dexterity and provocative themes that drew from the foundations laid by the 90s titans. His breakthrough album “The Slim Shady LP” was a shot of adrenaline for the genre, with its unapologetic lyrics and Eminem’s rapid-fire flow captivating audiences worldwide.
  • Missy Elliott: A multi-faceted artist known for her innovative music videos and unique style of rap, Missy Elliott broke gender barriers in a male-dominated industry, becoming one of the most successful female rap artists of her time. Her debut album “Supa Dupa Fly” introduced audiences to her futuristic sound and visionary concepts, setting the stage for a career that would inspire generations of artists to come.

While the 2000s had its own iconic moments, the raw creativity and cultural shifts initiated in the 90s remained unparalleled, cementing the decade’s status as the “Golden Age of Hip-Hop.” 

The artists of this era not only pushed the boundaries of music but also served as catalysts for social change, using their voices to shed light on the harsh realities of urban life and challenge systemic injustices.


The 1990s was truly the “Golden Age of Hip-Hop,” a transformative era that showcased the genre’s incredible diversity and creativity. From the lyrical storytelling of East Coast legends like Nas and Notorious B.I.G., to the raw intensity of West Coast gangsta rap icons like Tupac Shakur, to the emergence of Southern hip-hop pioneers like OutKast, this decade pushed boundaries and gave voice to marginalized communities.

 Collectives like the Native Tongues and subgenres such as jazz rap and rock/rap fusions further demonstrated hip-hop’s versatility and evolution. The 90s also cemented hip-hop’s global dominance, with music videos, films, and fashion trends amplifying its mainstream appeal and cultural impact worldwide. 

Although marred by tragic losses like Tupac and Biggie, their enduring legacies inspired future generations to carry the torch, solidifying the 90s as hip-hop’s golden age – a pivotal time that sparked cultural shifts and paved the way for the genre’s continued influence.

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