The 1990s were a revolutionary time for rap music, with the rise of gangsta rap, the increasing prominence of female rappers, and the debut of both Biggie and Tupac, two of the greatest of all time. Whether you lived through the decade or just want to understand this unique period in music history better, here’s a closer look at the best rappers of the 90s, both male rappers and female.
Best Black Male Rappers of The 90s
Let’s start with some of the most prominent and influential male rap stars from the era.
Although he was only 25 at the time of his death, 2Pac made such an impact during his life that he’s still often considered the best ever. Born in Manhattan but raised in San Francisco and Los Angeles, he epitomized West Coast Rap in the 90s.
Shakur’s music alternated between songs about the hardcore gangsta lifestyle and social issues such as racism, income inequality, and the struggles of modern black life.
His debut album, 2Pacalypse Now, was released in 1991, followed by several others in quick succession. 2Pac was incredibly prolific during his life, recording songs that resulted in seven posthumous albums and counting.
The Notorious B.I.G.
Who’s better: Biggie or Tupac? You’ll find no shortage of opinions in this never-ending debate, but it’s safe to say both 90s rappers deserve a spot on this list.
Christopher “Biggie Smalls” Wallace only released one album during his life (with his second releasing just two weeks after his death). Still, his impact on rap music is practically impossible to exaggerate. His laidback delivery and intricate rhymes detailed true life tales of hustling on the streets, parties, and more.
Biggie was murdered in a drive-by shooting just six months after Tupac’s death. Although his time on this earth was brief, his legacy will live on forever.
This rapid-fire MC had a winding path to fame, starting out as a member of the Leaders of the New School and a guest rapper on a Tribe Called Quest song before launching a successful solo career.
Busta is known for his fast delivery, high energy levels, and creative videos. Some of his biggest hits include “Woo Hah!! Got You All in Check” (his debut single), “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See,” and “Pass the Courvoisier, Part II.”
He entered semi-retirement after 2009 Back on My B.S. but emerged in 2020 with Extinction Level Event 2: The Wrath of God. Is a Busta Rhymes renaissance on the horizon?
Dr. Dre initially set out to create beats, not rap behind the mic, but life had other plans, and he’s now widely considered one of the best 90s rappers. A founding member of NWA, Dre helped pioneer West Coast G-Funk, a type of hip hop known for slow beats and heavy synthesizer use.
In 1992, he released The Chronic, his debut solo album, which went on to earn a Grammy for Best Solo Rap Performance. He would then go on to win five other Grammys, including three for production work and another for “Forgot About Dre.”
Aside from his music, Dre has had a profound effect on the world of rap in other ways, too. He produced and mentored a huge range of other famous rappers, including Warren G, Snoop Dogg, and Eminem.
Audiences first heard Snoop on 1992’s “Deep Cover,” a single from the soundtrack of the movie by the same name. Despite being just twenty one years old at the time, the fledgling rapper had a smooth, soft rapping style that immediately captivated audiences.
After heralded appearances on Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, Snoop’s debut album, Doggystyle, was an immediate success when it dropped in 1992. He has released new albums roughly every two years ever since. Some of his timeless bangers include “Gin and Juice,” “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” and “Doggy Dogg World.”
His success as a 90s rapper has translated into mainstream popularity in many ways. Snoop stars in movies, streams video games on Twitch, and even regularly appears on TV with his friend Martha Stewart.
Another founding member of NWA, Ice Cube launched his solo career in the 90s with AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, Death Certificate, and The Predator. His best-known hits include “Wicked,” “It Was a Good Day,” and “Check Yo Self.”
He’s also an accomplished actor. His first role was in 1991’s Boyz n the Hood, which led to a long-running career in films as an actor, writer, and producer. Proving equally adept at comedy as gangsta rap, Cube co-wrote the hit 1995 comedy Friday.
Nas has faced some highs and lows in his career, but at his peak, there’s arguably none better. In 1994, he released Illmatic, still considered his defining album. Featuring hits such as “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” and “Memory Lane (Sittin’ in da Park)”, the album revived the East Coast rap sound almost single-handedly.
His second album, It Was Written, was also well-received, especially the single “If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)” featuring Lauryn Hill. However, his next several albums sputtered and received relatively poor commercial and critical receptions.
Despite his uneven output, Nas truly shined throughout the early 90s. His career seems to be on the rebound, too. In 2020, his 12th album, King’s Disease, won a Grammy for Best Rap Album.
While much of 90s rap focused on either West Coast or East Coast, Scarface and the Geto Boys were creating their own sound down in Houston, Texas. Known for their gritty, often violent lyrics, the Geto Boys found lots of fame locally, even though their music never played on radio or MTV.
Scarface quickly became a fan favorite, and released several solo albums throughout the 90s, even while he remained a member of the Geto Boys. His first solo effort, Mr. Scarface is Back, was released in 1992 and included the singles “Mr. Scarface” as well as “A Minute to Pray and a Second to Die.”
Best Black Female Rappers of The 90s
While the fellas were certainly representing throughout the 90s, many ladies were also making a huge (and historical) impact. Here are the best black female rappers in the 90s.
Lauryn Hill would’ve been legendary even if she’d never left The Fugees, but it’s her work as a solo artist that established her as one of the greatest of all time. A true female rap pioneer, her melodic and soulful style behind the mic won her fans around the world.
Hill isn’t known just as a great rapper; she’s an equally gifted singer, too. Some of her most famous singles drew heavy inspiration from her personal life, such as “Doo Wop (That Thing)” and “I Used to Love Him.”
After superstardom in the 90s, Hill’s life experienced ups and downs. In 2000, she retired from public life, citing her discomfort with fame. Ten years later, she spent three months in prison for tax fraud. She still performs live occasionally.
The Queen Bee is true rap royalty, helping define the East Coast sound throughout the 90s. Discovered by The Notorious B.I.G. in the year of 1994, she had two top 20 singles as part of Junior M.A.F.I.A. before launching a successful solo career.
Her aggressive and often raunchy lyrics made her stand out from many other female rappers of the time. In the 90s, her three biggest hits were “No Time,” Crush on You,” and “Not Tonight (Ladies Night).” While successful in the 90s, arguably her biggest hits came in the following decade, with “Lady Marmalade” and “Magic Stick.”
For better or worse, Lil’ Kim certainly wasn’t rapping about one type of lifestyle while living another. Her personal life has involved feuds, arrests, and even a year in jail on perjury charges.
Da Brat holds a special place in hip-hop history as the first solo female rapper to sell over one million copies of an album. Her debut, Funkdafied, was released in 1994, and featured hits such as “Funkdafied” and “Give It 2 You.”
In a scenario that could only have occurred in the 90s, Da Brat got her big break after winning a Yo! MTV Raps rap contest, which brought her to the attention of Jermain Dupri. He helped develop her image and hone her skills before producing her first album.
After the success of Funkdafied, she spent the rest of the 90s releasing albums and working on film projects. Recently, she came out as a lesbian and has chronicled her relationship with wife Jesseca Dupart in a reality series called Brat Loves Judy.
This rap trio formed in the mid-80s when Cheryl “Salt” James and Sandra “Pepa” Denton met while working together at a Sears in Queens. Both fans of hip-hop, they eventually recruited 15-year-old DJ Deirdra Roper to form a rap group.
They had modest success through the 80s, including “Push It” and “Shake Your Thing.” But the 90s is when they truly broke through and found enormous success. Their fourth album, Very Necessary, was a smash hit, making them the first female rappers with a multi-platinum album. It features a full plate of classics including Shoop, Whatta Man, and None of Your Business.
When Salt-N-Pepa started, female rappers were virtually unheard of, but this trio broke barriers and captivated audiences with their energetic, sex-positive lyrics. It’s no surprise as to why they’re often dubbed The First Ladies of Hip-Hop.
Queen Latifah is such a mega-star in so many genres it’s easy to forget she got her start in the early 90s as a rapper. Her first album, All Hail the Queen, was released in 1989, and her follow-up, Nature of a Sista’, dropped in 1991.
Her early songs explored new territory for rap music. She rapped about domestic violence, relationships, and other topics from the POV of a black woman. Although originally only a rapper, in the subsequent decades she branched out into other genres, releasing several albums where she sang.
Her work in music, film, and TV has garnered an impressive array of accolades including a Grammy, Emmy, Golden Globe, two NAACP Image Awards, and a nomination for an Oscar.
Foxy Brown is often overlooked, which is a shame because she had a major impact on the 90s rap scene. She started rapping while still a teenager, winning a Park Slope, Brooklyn, talent competition. By the time she was 17, she’s already appeared on albums by LL Cool J, Toni Braxton, and Jay-Z.
In the 90s, she released two solo albums: Ill Na Na and Chyna Doll. One of her most popular singles, “I’ll Be,” features Jay-Z. She continued to appear on songs throughout the 2000s but released only one other solo album during that time. She recently appeared on the 2020 Nas album King’s Disease.
Her lyrics focus on sex, fashion, and the gangster/Mafia lifestyle. At the same time, she also wasn’t afraid to show a softer, more vulnerable side in some of her songs.
Missy started her career as a songwriter alongside her producing partner, Timbaland. The duo helped craft nine songs from Aaliyah’s 1996 album One in a Million before setting off on their own.
Supa Dupa Fly, Missy’s debut album, dropped in 1996, introducing the world to her one-of-a-kind sound and flow. The first single, “Rain,” was an immediate smash, thanks in no small part to the vibrant, unique music video directed by Hype Williams.
Missy went on to release hit after hit throughout the 2000s, winning four Grammys and becoming the first female rapper inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Finding fame in the latter half of the decade, her sound was a fresh alternative to what other 90s rappers were putting down at the time.
Top Black 90s Rappers, Final Thoughts
Were the 1990s the most influential decade in rap history? An argument can certainly be made that they were. Legendary artists such as 2Pac, Biggie, Dr. Dre, Lauryn Hill, and many others all launched their careers in the 90s, introducing styles and ideas that would change rap music forever.