29 Best 90s Hip Hop Songs from the Golden Age of Rap

Hip hop music is known for its unmatched beats, distinctive rhyme patterns, and hard-hitting lyrics. These songs will get you dancing while picking your brain with thought-provoking lyrics.

Whether these tracks offer commentary on romance, society, or hip hop itself, you can be sure you’ll come away from this playlist of the best 90s hip hop songs with different perspectives and new favorite songs.

Check the Rhime – A Tribe Called Quest

‘Check the Rhime’ was a huge hip hop song in the 90s, using a hollow-sounding bass to keep the beat and lively horns for the chorus. A Tribe Called Quest pays homage to their roots, referencing their start “back in the days on the boulevard of Linden.” Linden Boulevard is a road in Queens that is now famously associated with this group.

Slow Down – Brand Nubian

In this rhythmic jam, Sadat, Lord Jamar, and Grand Puba each have a verse describing a different person’s story. A user, a gold digger, and a promiscuous woman are the muses of the song, and the catchy rhymes offer a comprehensive understanding of these people and how the rappers feel about them.

Passin’ Me By – The Pharcyde

‘Passin’ Me By’ tells various stories of lost love. Known as west coast hip hop and a huge chart-topper in the 90s, its unfortunate relatability likely contributed to its success. We’ve all dealt with feelings for someone who doesn’t end up working out. Whether the feelings are unreciprocated or just bad timing, the narrator sings desperately, “she keeps on passing me by,” and we can hear the extreme pain it’s causing in the vocals.

Related: If you’re getting passed by, you might like the best songs about one-sided love.

Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat) – Digable Planets

This unique jazz rap song won the Grammy for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group in 1994 due to its smooth yet invigorating beat. The track has an intriguing rhyme pattern, and it’s clear the writers were intentional about their lyrics. Each line in the verses starts with a noun or question word (like them, she, who, what, or where), which is an interesting touch that helps the song progress from thought to thought.

They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.) – Pete Rock & CL Smooth

Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth pay their respects to a close friend, Troy Dixon. Dixon lost his life after a bad fall at one of his shows. The song is not directly about Dixon, featuring more references to the singers’ own pasts than his, but it’s clear Dixon is always in their thoughts based on the numerous repetitions of “I reminisce.”

Related: Check out our playlist of good 90s songs.

Juice (Know the Ledge) – Eric B & Rakim

This song was written for the 1992 film Juice and ended up being the main theme song for the movie. Juice follows four friends with big aspirations as they make questionable choices (like robbing a convenience store) that eventually lead to a fairly dark end for some of them. Lines that reference standing too close to the edge allude to one of the characters falling to his death.

93 Til Infinity – Souls of Mischief

’93 Til Infinity’ talks about chilling with friends and the beauties of everyday life. From romance to music to food to money, Souls of Mischief show us that wonder can be found even in the mundane. They dedicate themselves to staying in this mentality forever, singing, “this is how we chill from ’93 ’til.”

Related: Don’t pass up our playlist of the best songs about opportunity.

Mass Appeal – Gang Starr

‘Mass Appeal’ works as a commentary on how musicians will sometimes sacrifice authenticity and creativity to get radio play and fame. Radio songs often follow a specific format to be consumable for the broadest audience—unfortunately, this doesn’t always leave room for thinking outside the box. Gang Starr criticizes those who fall victim to this, singing, “your soul you’d sell to have mass appeal.”

N.Y. State of Mind – Nas

‘N.Y. State of Mind’ uses a couple of jazz and vocal samples from past songs and centers around three descending notes that carry you through the song. Nas raps about how dangerous New York can be, which is quite different from other songs that celebrate the dreamy, idyllic environment of New York. Nas gives us a reality check, singing, “I think of crime when I’m in a New York state of mind.”

Related: Want to go to NYC? Here’s our New York songs playlist.

Hip Hop Hooray – Naughty By Nature

‘Hip Hop Hooray’ is an ode to hip hop, appreciating the impactful way it’s contributed to culture and music while also praising just how fun it is. Naughty By Nature is incredibly passionate about hip hop and wants the world to know it, singing, “I live and die for Hip Hop.”

Related: Hear this song on our list of baseball walk up songs.

Hypnotize – The Notorious B.I.G.

‘Hypnotize’ was the first of Biggie Smalls’s songs to hit number one and remains one of his most well-known songs today. With its funk style and references to pop culture, it was a fun, culturally relevant song that people could dance to. Pamela Long is featured in the chorus, singing about how Smalls’s rhymes make us feel: “sometimes your words just hypnotize me.”

Regulate – Warren G ft. Nate Dogg

Whistling synth and melodic rapping give ‘Regulate’ a swaying rhythm that keeps you entertained throughout the song. Warren G and Nate Dogg switch off verses, referencing each other and their talents as the track continues. They talk about partying, dealing with enemies, and reaching new levels of musical talent.

I Like It (I Wanna Be Where You Are) – Grand Puba

Grand Puba pays homage to past hip hop hits with this song, interpolating elements from many different songs in ‘I Like It (I Wanna Be Where You Are).’ He raps about his success, both financially and romantically, talking about counting his money and the steps he uses for how he gets a woman to go home with him.

Related: Stay winning with our victory songs playlist.

People Everyday – Arrested Development

This narrative-style song opens with the scene of a guy in the park with his boombox when his romantic interest appears. They start having a great conversation, but then “a group of brothers started buggin’ out” and disrespecting her. The conflict continues to escalate, eventually resulting in a brawl. The narrator seems disappointed in the tension between everyone in the story, wishing that they all could just love each other.

Related: Stand up for yourself with the best songs about fighting back.

Rosa Parks – Outkast

Outkast compares their contribution to the hip hop revolution to Rosa Parks’s contribution to the civil rights movement. The comparison caused some controversy, and they ended up sued by Rosa Parks’ team, though it’s unclear if Parks led the charge or her management. Despite this, ‘Rosa Parks’ is a great song with an even better beat that solidified Outkast’s presence in the hip hop scene.

Concrete Schoolyard – Jurassic 5

Jurassic 5 separates themselves from inauthentic, fame-chasing artists in ‘Concrete Schoolyard.’ Since their elementary school days, the members of Jurassic 5 created their own beats and rhymes because it was what they loved to do. They weren’t after the money and fame because they knew musicians with disingenuous motives ultimately ended up unhappy.

Related: Recess is over! Go listen to these songs about going to school.

Loungin’ – Guru and Donald Byrd

An interesting feature of hip hop music is the unique rhyme patterns. In most pop music, the rhyme comes at the end of the line. In hip hop music, the artists get much more creative, playing with rhymes in the middle of the line or in consecutive words. ‘Loungin” does an amazing job of this (for example, the line “can’t refuse this, never lose this, it’s the choice this, ’cause my voice is the smoothest”), making it a super fun song to sing along to.

Live at the Barbeque – Main Source

‘Live at the Barbeque’ is probably best known for introducing the infamous Nas to the rap scene. The song’s first verse features the first verse Nas ever recorded, and his references to religion, lynchings, and AIDs told the audience he was not afraid to say what he needed. One of the best examples would be the line, “when I was twelve, I went to hell for snuffin’ Jesus.”

Stakes is High – De La Soul

‘Stakes is High’ seems to be about the downsides of the popularity of hip hop. As things become more and more well known, sometimes the originality gets lost. We see this in many music genres: as artists become more famous, they become disconnected from their roots and caught up in fame. De La Soul wants to avoid this, even though “we livin’ in them days of the man-made craze.”

Can I Kick It? – A Tribe Called Quest

This song invites audience participation with its lengthy call and response sections: “can I kick it? Yes, you can!” With a laid-back style that matches its title, this song is about just kickin’ it and having a good time. A Tribe Called Quest has fun with their rhymes full of confidence and joy.

Related: Enjoy yourself with these songs for good times.

Runnin’- The Pharcyde

This song was used in the film 8 Mile and functions as a kind of anthem for those facing adversity or bullying. The narrator finds that no one respects him and that he can’t even rely on his friends. But rather than shutting down and giving in to others’ taunts, he realizes he “can’t keep running away.” He resolves to always be there for himself, singing, “until the day that I die, I still will be a soldier.”

Related: Listen to this inspirational underdog music.

Juicy – Notorious B.I.G.

Notorious B.I.G. looks back at his beginnings and reflects on how far he has come in ‘Juicy.’ He calls out all the people who didn’t believe in him, telling them to look at his success now. The song is full of pride, and rightfully so because he followed his dreams and didn’t give up. Biggie Smalls wants this song to encourage others who are doubting their dreams, saying, “don’t let ’em hold you down. Reach for the stars.”

Related: Keep your chin up and listen to these songs about not giving up on life.

Dog It – Digable Planets

The riffing saxophone in this song provides the energy to ‘Dog It,’ and it’s clear jazz is an important inspiration for Digable Planets. They talk about how sometimes people are opposed to creativity when it’s something they’re not familiar with. “The noise that we made is blue. Toys who played my crew couldn’t walk the new ground.” The crew couldn’t handle the new jazz sounds they used, but thankfully, that didn’t stop them.

Related: Here’s our smooth list of the best sax songs.

Sabotage – Beastie Boys

The Beastie Boys were somewhat notorious for not being very productive, and this song was born from their producer begging them to stop messing around and finish something. The band didn’t take this very well, likening it to sabotage with lines like “our backs are now against the wall? Listen all y’all, it’s a sabotage.” The argument worked, though, as this became one of their biggest songs ever.

Related: Keep a steady pace with these upbeat songs for running.

What They Do – The Roots

The Roots bluntly rap about their views on the state of the hip hop industry in ‘What They Do,’ most obviously in the line “the principles of true hip hop have been forsaken, it’s all contractual and about money-makin’.” The music video was particularly iconic, remaining one of the most famous in rap history, partly due to the tension it caused between The Roots and Notorious B.I.G. (the video had many similarities to B.I.G.’s ‘One More Chance’ video).

Related: Is your wallet fat enough? Here are some songs about greed and money.

Definition – Black Star (Mos Def & Talib Kweli)

Black Star tackles the difficult topic of how violence and hip hop are often associated, making it clear that they disapprove. They reference the death of 2Pac and Biggie Smalls as proof of “too much violence in hip hop.” They also acknowledge that there is no simple fix to this with the line “be a visionary, and maybe you can see your name in the column of obituaries.” When you have fame and notoriety, that puts you at risk of being a target.

Me or the Papes – Jeru The Damaja

Jeru the Damaja has had lots of bad experiences with women. Many times, they seemed to be using him for his money. He thought these women loved him and saw him but soon realized that “it wasn’t me, it was the paper.” This was emotionally damaging and exhausting, which makes the true love he now has even sweeter.

Times Up – O.C.

‘Times Up’ is one of O.C.’s biggest hits and has been sampled by other songs countless times. O.C. sings about how beautiful real rap is and how he gets a rush from creating, performing, and having people hear his words. At the same time, he takes shots at sell-outs who will never be able to know those feelings because the only thing they want is money. They don’t have a passion as he does, instead choosing to copy whatever is popular at the moment: “admit it, you bit it ’cause the next man gained platinum behind it.”

MVP – Big L

Big L celebrates his talent and contributions to hip hop in ‘MVP.’ He says, “if rap was a game, I’ll be MVP, the most valuable poet on the M-I-C,” to tell us how his rhymes are something to be impressed by. The call and response style and the background “yeahs” add to the validity of his universal acclaim.

More of the best 90s hip hop songs:

  • Protect Ya Neck – Wu-Tang Clan
  • Hard Knock Life – Jay Z
  • Gin & Juice – Snoop Dogg
  • It Was a Good Day – Ice Cube
  • The Humpty Dance – Digital Underground

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About Ged Richardson

Ged Richardson is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of ZingInstruments.com. He has been featured in Entrepreneur, PremierGuitar, Hallmark, Wanderlust, CreativeLive, and other major publications. As an avid music fan, he spends his time researching and writing about new and old music, as well as testing and reviewing music-related products. He's played guitar in various bands, from rock to gypsy jazz. Be sure to check out his YouTube channel, where he geeks out about his favorite bands.

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