Here are the 10 best rappers emerging from the pioneering years of the genre of rap/hip-hop, year-by-year, we identify the groundbreaking MCs who displayed innovative greatness and owned each year of the 1990s.
1990: Ice Cube
In 1990, rap music was still largely underground and far from mainstream. Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson) having departed from gangsta rap pioneering group “N.W.A.,” released his solo album “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted”. It demonstrated growth beyond gangster life, exploring the American apartheid. Even without virtually any radio play, the album went platinum.
1991: A Tribe Called Quest/Q-Tip
The hip-hop group “A Tribe Called Quest” was formed in 1985, but main producer and rapper Q-Tip rose to prominence in hip-hop with their second album in 1991, titled: “The Low-End Theory.” The leadoff single “Check the Rhime,” shot the album to #45 in its debut on the Billboard 200 chart. Q-Tip innovated the use of jazz, funk and soul loops in hip-hop.
Making his musical debut in 1990 with EPMD, two years later, Redman (Reginald “Reggie” Noble) released his solo LP “Whut? Thee Album.” The album was noted for its blend of reggae and funk influences and Redman’s fluid style. The album went to #49 on the Billboard 200 chart reached #5 on the top R&B/hip-hop albums. The LP was certified gold. The single “Blow Your Mind” went to #1 on the hot rap singles chart and #4 on the US hot dance charts.
1993: Snoop Doggy Dogg
After making a name for himself with his flow on Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic,” Snoop Doggy Dogg (later known as Snoop Dogg) made his much-anticipated debut with his LP “Doggystyle” and it was an immediate hit, breaking first week sales records for new artist with 800,000 sales. The record would stand for a decade. By 1994, the album had gone four times platinum. The first single “What’s My Name? (Snoop Doggy Dogg song)” reached #1 on Billboard’s US hot rap songs.
In 1994, 19-year-old Nasty Nasir Jones a.k.a. Nas released his debut LP “Illmatic.” Before horrorcore raps existed, Nas introduced his borderline horrorcore style and generated an enormous buzz. The album reached #2 on Billboard’s US top R&B/hip-hop albums chart and #12 on the US Billboard 200. The debut single “Halftime”
1995: The Notorious B.I.G.
Although his debut album “Ready to Die,” was released in September 1994, soaring to #3 on the Billboard US top R&B/hip-hop albums chart and #15 on the US Billboard 200, the following year brought The Notorious B.I.G.to prominence. His single “One More Chance / Stay with Me (Remix),” which featured additional vocals sung by his wife Faith Evans and an uncredited appearance by Mary J. Blige was released on June 6, 1995. It was certified platinum after selling 1.1 million copies within two months.
Arguably one of the most prolific rappers in history, 2Pac released his fourth studio album “All Eyez on Me” in 1996, also the last to be released during his lifetime. It features an all-star lineup of guest appearances. The album made history as the first ever double-full-length hip-hop studio album. It reached #1 on both the Billboard 200 and the top R&B/hip-hop albums charts. The album spawned five singles, including two Billboard #1 singles, “How Do U Want It” and “California Love.”
1997: Busta Rhymes
The avant garde style Busta Rhymes (Trevor George Smith Jr.) finally got its due in 1997 with his second studio album “When Disaster Strikes…” The album reached the #1 slot on billboards US top R&B/hip-hop albums chart and went to #3 on the US Billboard 200. His third single “Turn It up,” reached #1 on the rap charts, #2 on the dance charts, #7 on the R&B charts and #10 on the Billboard hot 100 chart.
DMX ditched the use of 80s pop samples, transforming rap from the glamour of the Jiggy era, bringing a gritty, hard-core approach to the music. Ironically, by ditching the mainstream, DMX became the mainstream. His freshman album, “It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot,” debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 chart, with over 1/4 million sales in its first week in the US. Two years later, it was certified 4X platinum. DMX’s debut single, “Get at Me Dog,” reached #6 on the hot rap singles chart and #39 on the Billboard Hot 100.
In September 1998, JAY-Z released his third studio album “Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life.” It became his most commercially successful album, making its debut at #1 on the US Billboard 200 and the top R&B/hip-hop albums charts. The album sold 5 million copies. The single “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” reached #2 on Billboard’s hot rap songs (1998-1999) and was certified gold in March 1999.