The 80s put rap music and hiphop on the map, but even though the underground movement was strong, few rap artists were getting airtime on conventional radio stations. The conservative bigwigs found the lyrical content too controversial or in some cases the subject matter was too violent. With the arrival of the 90s, however, rap and hiphop made a huge leap (though some would argue it took a step backwards) in popularity, with many artists choosing to forgo imbuing the songs with political messages, or stories of real violence and discrimination that many rappers had grown up with. A kinder and gentler style of rap was born, music made for dancing and fun, rather than as a soapbox to express views on what was wrong with society. Often labeled sell-outs by their hard-core brethren, many of these artists enjoyed huge success, and raked in huge dollars as the music exploded in popularity. Here are the top 10 rap songs of the 90s, the decade of dance rap.
10 – Warren G – Regulate
This 1994 hit reached #2 on the billboard charts, and like many rap songs throughout the history of the genre liberally sampled from other popular culture. In this case, the popular western movie, Young Guns provided the quotations, with Warren G borrowing the line, “Regulators, mount up!” from the movie.
9 – Salt ‘n’ Pepa – Shoop
This superstar female hiphop duo had many dance club hits in the 90s, but Shoop was probably the catchiest, although Let’s Talk About Sex was probably their most controversial and well known. Shoop is still in occasional rotation in night clubs where I live.
8 – Ice Cube – Wicked
After breaking away from controversial gangsta rap group, NWA, Ice Cube proved that he could go it alone with his smash album The Predator. Wicked was a hard hitting, lyrical powerhouse, and in my opinion was the standout song of the album. Ice Cube continued on with a great solo career in both music and movies, and his work in both arenas has garnered surprising critical acclaim.
7 – Naughty by Nature – OPP
This one hit (okay, maybe two hit) wonder from the 90s provided us with a new take on cheating on one’s significant other. Though the song is an acronym, simply listening to the lyrics will quickly fill the listener in on the meaning of the song. Though they didn’t enjoy a long time in the music spotlight, Naughty by Nature and their song about other people’s ______ are deserving of a spot in the top 10 rap songs of the 90s.
6 – Tupac Shakur – California Love
Tupac was one of the few rappers in the history of the genre to successfully bridge the gap between ghetto rap and mainstream popular music. His most well-known song, California Love, a collaboration with NWA alum, Dr. Dre is still widely played today, more than a decade after his tragic shooting death.
5 – House of Pain – Jump Around
One of the most popular club songs of all time, House of Pain’s Jump Around is still played nightly at night clubs everywhere. It’s lyrics literally demand you to bounce, and this is always fills the mosh pit every time it plays. House of Pain had a couple of middle of the road hits later on, and front-man Everlast has gone on to decent solo success, but none of his work has come close to this mega hiphop hit.
4 – Vanilla Ice – Ice Ice Baby
Though it will be tough to find anyone willing to admit it today, this was the favorite song of hoards of people back in 1990. Ice Ice Baby was essentially rap set to the music of the Queen hit, Under Pressure, from which Robert Van Winkle (AKA Vanilla Ice) sampled heavily. Ice Ice Baby was the pinnacle of Van Winkle’s career, with no other hits, and a laughable performance in the Hollywood flop, Cool As Ice.
3 – Snoop Dogg – Who Am I? (What’s My Name?)
When Snoop Dogg raps about the gangster lifestyle he knows what he is talking about. This former member of the notorious Crips gang was in and out of jail various times in his youth for gang-related offenses. Rapping is in his DNA, however, and he translated that experience to become a legend in rap music. After providing rap for Dr. Dre’s critically acclaimed debut solo album, The Chronic, Snoop went on to release his own blockbuster album, Doggystyle. Who Am I? along with Gin and Juice got major radio play, and the heavy bass of the song could be heard for blocks booming from house parties and night clubs alike.
2 – Beastie Boys – Sabotage
You can’t have a list of top 10 rap songs, and not have at least one B-Boys song in there. This 1994 smash hit was a bit of a departure for the rap group, as it featured conventional rock instruments like guitar, bass and drums. Despite the presence of the instruments though, this is still a pure rap track, and the accompanying music video is one of the best of all time.
1 – MC Hammer – U Can’t Touch This
Can there be any debate? Back before he dropped the MC title and became known just as Hammer, this Superfreak-sampling, balloon-pant wearing, popcorn-chicken-catching rap superstar gave us this anthem of 90s rap. Hammer’s album, Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em became the first hiphop album to achieve diamond status, selling more than ten million copies. But the instant success went to Hammer’s head, and perhaps banking on a string of such hits, Hammer quickly burned through the massive cash reserves he’d accumulated from royalties from the album. Sadly for Hammer and his fans, he never again achieved the level of success he attained with U Can’t Touch This, and his wild spending left him thirteen million dollars in debt and forced to declare bankruptcy in 1996. For one shining moment though he ignited dance floors all across the world, and U Can’t Touch This is the only logical choice for the number one spot on the list of the top 10 rap songs of the 90s.