The 125 Best Rap Singles of 1994

By 1994, hip-hop had clearly evolved into a generational movement. But its innocent sensibility was lost in the process.

By 1994, hip-hop had clearly evolved into a generational movement on par with rock ‘n’ roll in the 1960s, or jazz in the 1930s. But the genre never produced a champion akin to, say, The Beatles that the American mainstream would accept. Its persona was rooted in the voice and desires of the Black American experience, specifically the Black underclass. A shift towards hardcore street poetics with the rise of Dr. Dre’s Death Row camp ensured that it would never inspire a talented yet broadly palatable superstar like Michael Jackson or Stevie Wonder. “We got respect for young rappers and the way they’re freewayin’/But if you’re gonna be teachin’ folks things, be sure you know what you’re sayin’,” advised Gil Scott-Heron on “Message to the Messengers.”

The question of what would become of hip-hop wasn’t only an urgent concern for disapproving activists like the Rev. Calvin Butts and C. Delores Tucker, who successfully advocated for a series of Congressional hearings exploring the dangers of “gangsta rap” on youthful (white) minds. It also bedeviled the nascent rap industry, which remained centered in New York and struggled to replicate the crossover success of West Coast artists like Snoop Doggy Dogg and Coolio. East Coast hardcore acts like Gang Starr and Wu-Tang Clan sold in respectable numbers but simply didn’t move platinum units or generate radio hits. That left the likes of Russell Simmons’ Def Jam label to recruit Dr. Dre’s cousin Warren G, who contributed ghost production to The Chronic before breaking out as a solo star with the hauntingly accessible, Michael McDonald-sampling “Regulate.” Simmons later acknowledged that Warren G’s string of hits saved Def Jam from debt and bankruptcy, arriving at a crucial juncture between an aging lineup centered on Public Enemy and a new wave of stars led by Method Man and, in the years to come, DMX and Jay-Z.

Why didn’t the East Coast sound resonate more widely? Its fuselage of deep-crated jazz samples and dense production techniques spawned cult fandom around the globe, fueling the dusty meanderings of “trip-hop” acts like Tricky in the UK, DJ Cam in Europe, and DJ Krush in Japan. Plenty of American crews drew inspiration from what later became known as “boom-bap” and “classical hip-hop,” like Solesides and Hieroglyphics in the San Francisco Bay Area. Still, the G-funk groove, with its reliance on midtempo 70s funk by Zapp and Parliament-Funkadelic, dominated the charts. A Tribe Called Quest seemed like the only New York group capable of reaching beyond a core rap audience to mainstream viability. They struggled, too, not only as a representative for morally “conscious” rap, but also for being unable to convince Black radio programmers to spin viable hits like “Electric Relaxation” during drivetime hours, not just the mixshow ghetto where most East Coast rap was confined.

Still, many discerning critics and fans argued that albums such as Jeru the Damaja’s The Sun Rises in the East were artistically superior to the likes of Ice Cube’s Lethal Injection and 2Pac’s T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E. side project. That bred resentment between scenes, especially since many at the time didn’t understand how West Coast rap proved just as impactful in terms of artistry, as reflected by regional movements in Texas, New Orleans, Atlanta, and elsewhere. Outkast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik showed how the G-funk emphasis on melody and blues was leading to new sonic innovations, one that felt distinct to a Southern ethos. And by 1994, it was possible for a group like UGK to sell 100,000 or more copies of Super Tight…, or a rapper like E-40 to move the same number of units of The Mail Man, all without national publicity. Ironically, that was around the same amount that East Coast acts such as Organized Konfusion sold of Stress: The Extinction Agenda, albeit with far less marketing.

By the fall of 1994, the rap industry finally found a New York conquering hero in The Notorious B.I.G. Masterminded by Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs for Bad Boy Records, the Brooklyn rapper’s Ready to Die debut seemed programmed to appeal to the genre’s increasingly hostile divides, pairing grimy mixtape fare like the DJ Premier-produced “Unbelievable” with G-funk-influenced pop smashes like “Juicy” and “Big Poppa.” It posited Biggie as a man of the streets, familiar with “packing gats and stuff,” and capable of rendering that persona in lyrically engrossing dioramas. While Biggie earned critical and commercial acclaim, Bad Boy colleague Craig Mack scored a massive hit with “Flava in Ya Ear.” A slickly iconic video for a remix of the latter, with its focus on buxom models and black-and-white visuals by Hype Williams as the two and others like Busta Rhymes and LL Cool J spat hot bars, codified all the elements that would mark the eventual rise of the big-budget, club-oriented “jiggy” era.

The end of 1994 brought Common’s elegy, “I Used to Love H.E.R.” Many listeners took it as a broadside at the West Coast, an interpretation that Ice Cube encouraged in 1995 on his “Westside Slaughtahouse” single with Mack 10 and WC. But Common’s words sounded more like a protest over the dominant hardcore aesthetic. “I Used to Love H.E.R.” may seem like a haplessly middlebrow sentiment that doesn’t appreciate how vibrant and diverse the music had grown. But as rap reached saturation point, the genre lost its sense of playful innocence, and its ability to create intellectually curious art without profanity or cynicism. Those qualities now seem forever lost.

The 125 Best Rap Singles of 1994

  • Above the Law, “Black Superman” (Ruthless Records)
  • Ahmad, “Back in the Day (Remix)” (Giant / Reprise)
  • Tha Alkaholiks, “Daaam!” (Loud Records / The RCA Records Label)
  • Ant Banks, “Parlayin” (Dangerous Music / Jive)
  • Artifacts, “Wrong Side of Da Tracks” (Big Beat)
  • Bahamadia, “Total Wreck” (Chrysalis)
  • Beastie Boys, “Get It Together / Sabotage” (Grand Royal / Capitol)
  • Beastie Boys, “Sure Shot” (Grand Royal / Capitol)
  • Beatnuts, “Props Over Here” (Relativity)
  • Big Daddy Kane feat. Big Scoob / Big Daddy Kane feat. Big Scoob, Sauce, Shyheim, J.Z. and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, “In the PJ’s” / “Show and Prove” (MCA)

  • Big Mike of the Geto Boys, “Playa Playa” / “Having Thang” (Rap-a-Lot Records)
  • Black Moon, “I Got Cha Opin (Da Beatminerz Remix)” (Wreck Records)
  • Blackalicious, “Swan Lake” / “Lyric Fathom” (Solesides)
  • Bomb the Bass feat. Justin Warfield, “Bug Powder Dust” (Stoned Heights / Fourth & Broadway)
  • Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, “Thuggish-Ruggish-Bone” (Ruthless Records)
  • Boogiemonsters, “Recognize Thresholds of Negative Stress” (Pendulum / ERG)
  • Brand Nubian, “Word Is Bond” (Elektra)
  • Brandy feat. MC Lyte, Queen Latifah & Yo Yo, “I Wanna Be Down (The Human Rhythm Hip Hop Remix)” (Atlantic)
  • Casual, “I Didn’t Mean To” (Jive)
  • Cella Dwellas, “Land of the Lost” (Loud Records)

  • Channel Live, “Mad Izm” / “Reprogram” (Capitol Records)
  • Cheeky Blakk, Gots 2 Be Cheeky: “Twerk Something” (Mobo Records)
  • Common Sense, “I Used to Love H.E.R.” / “Communism” (Relativity)
  • The Conscious Daughters, “We Roll Deep” (Scarface Records / Priority Records)
  • Coolio, “Fantastic Voyage” (Tommy Boy)
  • Craig Mack, “Flava in Ya Ear” / “Flava In Ya Ear (Remix)” (Bad Boy Entertainment)
  • The Crooklyn Dodgers feat. Buckshot, Special Ed and Masta Ace, “Crooklyn” (MCA)
  • Da Brat, “Funkdafied” (So So Def Recordings, Inc. / Chaos)
  • Da Bush Babees, “We Run Things (It’s Like Dat)” (Reprise)
  • Digable Planets, “9th Wonder (Blackitolism)” (Pendulum / EMI Records)

  • DJ Cam, Abstract Hip Hop Volume 1: “Dieu Reconnaîtra Les Siens” (Street Jazz Productions)
  • DJ Shadöw / DJ Krush, “Lost and Found (S.F.L.)” / “Kemuri” (Mo Wax)
  • Dre Dog, “The Ave.” (In-A-Minute Records)
  • Dru Down, “Pimp of the Year” (Relativity)
  • The East-Flatbush Project feat. Payday, “A Madman’s Dream” (10/30 Uproar! Records)
  • E-40, “Captain Save ‘Em Though” (Sick Wid’ It Records / Jive)
  • Erule, “Listen Up” (Pallas Records)
  • E.S.G., “Swangin and Bangin” (Perrion Records)
  • Extra Prolific, “First Sermon” (Jive)
  • Fat Joe Da Gangsta, “The Shit Is Real” (Relativity)

  • Freddie Foxxx / Freddie Foxxx feat. Queen Latifah, “Crazy Like a Foxxx” / “So Tough” (Flavor Unit Records / Epic Street)
  • Fugees (Tranzlator Crew), “Nappy Heads (Remix)” (Ruffhouse Records / Columbia)
  • Fugees (Tranzlator Crew), “Vocab (Remix)” (Ruffhouse Records / Columbia)
  • Funkdoobiest, “Rock On” (Immortal Records / Epic)
  • Gang Starr, “Mass Appeal” (Chrysalis / ERG)
  • Gang Starr, “Code of the Streets” (Chrysalis / ERG)
  • Genius, “I Gotcha’ Back” (Loud Records / The RCA Records Label)
  • Ghetto Concept, “E-Z on the Motion” (Groove-A-Lot Records / Quality Music)
  • Gil Scott-Heron, “Message to the Messengers” (TVT Records)
  • Gravediggaz, “Diary of a Madman” / “Constant Elevation” (Gee Street / Island)

  • Gravediggaz, “Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide” (Gee Street / Island)
  • Group Home, “Supa Star” (ffrr / Payday)
  • Heavy D & the Boyz, “Nuttin’ But Love” (Uptown Records / MCA Records)
  • Ice Cube, “You Know How We Do It” (Lench Mob / Priority Records)
  • Ice Cube, “What Can I Do?” (Lench Mob / Priority Records)
  • Jaÿ-Z, “In My Lifetime” (Roc-A-Fella Records)
  • Jeru the Damaja, “You Can’t Stop the Prophet” (ffrr / Payday)
  • JT the Bigga Figga feat. Mac Mall, “Game Recognize” (Get Low Records)
  • Keith Murray, “The Most Beautifullest Thing in This World” (Jive)
  • Kenny Dope, The Pushin’ “Dope” EP: “Get On Down” (TNT)

  • King Just, “Warrior’s Drum” (Black Fist Records / Select Street Records)
  • King Tee, “Dippin’ (O.G. Mix)” (MCA)
  • KMD, “What a Nigga Know?” (Elektra)
  • Kokane, “Bakin’ Soda Free” (Ruthless Records)
  • Kurious, “I’m Kurious” (Hoppoh Recordings / Columbia)
  • Kwest Tha Madd Ladd, “101 Things to Do While I’m With Your Girl” (American Recordings)
  • The Lady of Rage, “Afro Puffs” (Death Row Records / Interscope)
  • Little Bruce, “Mobbin’ in My Old School” (Sick Wid’ It Records / Jive)
  • Luke, “It’s Your Birthday” (Luke Records)
  • Mac Mall, “Sic Wit Tis” (Young Black Brotha Records)

  • MC Eiht feat. CMW, “All for the Money” (Epic Street)
  • MC Solaar, “Séquelles” (Polydor)
  • Method Man, “Bring the Pain” (Def Jam Recordings)
  • Milk, “Get Off My Log” (First Priority Music / American Recordings)
  • M.O.P., “Rugged Neva Smoove (Premier Remix)” (Select)
  • Nas, “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” (Columbia)
  • Nas, “The World Is Yours” (Columbia)
  • Nas, “One Love” (Columbia)
  • Nefertiti, “Visions of Nefertiti” (Mercury)
  • Nine, “Whutchu Want?” / “Redrum” (Profile)

  • No Face, “No Brothas Allowed” (TNT Recordings / Interscope Records / Atlantic)
  • The Notorious B.I.G., “Juicy” / “Unbelievable” (Bad Boy Entertainment)
  • The Notorious B.I.G., “Big Poppa” / “Warning” (Bad Boy Entertainment)
  • N-Tyce, “Hush Hush Tip” (Wild Pitch Records)
  • O.C., “Time’s Up” (Wild Pitch Records)
  • O.C., “Born 2 Live” (Wild Pitch Records / EMI)
  • Odd Squad, “Fa Sho” (Rap-a-Lot Records)
  • Organized Konfusion, “Stress” (Hollywood BASIC)
  • Outkast, “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik” (LaFace Records)
  • Outkast feat. The Goodie Mob, “Git Up, Git Out” (LaFace Records)

  • Peanut Butter Wolf, Peanut Butter Breaks: “Don’t Turn Your Back” (Heyday Records)
  • Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, “Take You There” / “Get on the Mic” (Elektra)
  • Public Enemy, “Give It Up” (Def Jam Recordings)
  • Queen Latifah, “Just Another Day…” (Motown)
  • Raekwon feat. Ghost Face Killer, “Heaven & Hell” (Loud Records / The RCA Records Label)
  • Rappin’ 4-Tay, “Playaz Club” (Rag Top Records)
  • Ras Kass, “Won’t Catch Me Runnin’” / “Remain Anonymous” (Patchwerk Recordings)
  • RBL Posse, “Bounce to This” (In-A-Minute Records)
  • Redman, “Rockafella (Remix)” (Rush Associated Labels)
  • The Roots, From the Ground Up: “Worldwide (London Groove)” (Talkin Loud)

  • The Roots, “Distortion to Static” (David Geffen Company)
  • The Roots, “Proceed” (David Geffen Company)
  • Rottin Razkals, “Oh Yeah!” (Illtown Records / Mad Sounds)
  • Saafir, “Light Sleeper” (Qwest / Reprise)
  • Scarface, “I Never Seen a Man Cry (aka I Seen a Man Die)” (Rap-a-Lot Records / Noo Trybe)
  • Sha-Key, “Soulsville” (Imago)
  • Slick Rick w/ Warren G, “Behind Bars (Dum Ditty Dum Mix)” (Def Jam Recordings)
  • Smif-N-Wessun, “Bucktown” / “Let’s Git It On” (Wreck Records)
  • Snoop Doggy Dogg, “Gin and Juice” (Death Row Records / Interscope)
  • Snoop Doggy Dogg feat. Tha Dogg Pound and The Dramatics, “Doggy Dogg World” (Death Row Records / Interscope)

  • Snoop Doggy Dogg, “Murder Was the Case (Radio Remix)” (Death Row Records / Interscope)
  • Terminator X and the Godfathers of Threatt feat. Whodini, “It All Comes Down to the Money” (P.R.O. Division / Rush Associated Labels / Chaos)
  • Thug Life, “Pour Out a Little Liquor” (Out Da Gutta / Interscope / Atlantic)
  • Too Short, “Money in the Ghetto” (Dangerous Music / Jive)
  • A Tribe Called Quest, “Electric Relaxation (Relax Yourself Girl)” (Jive)
  • A Tribe Called Quest, “Oh My God” / “One Two Shit” (Jive)
  • UGK (Underground Kingz), “It’s Supposed to Bubble” (Jive)
  • UGK (Underground Kingz), “Front, Back & Side to Side” (Jive)
  • Unity Committee & Rebels of Rhythm, “Unified Rebelution” (self-released)
  • Warren G. & Nate Dogg, “Regulate” (Death Row Records / Interscope)

  • Warren G, “This DJ” (Violator / Rush Associated Labels)
  • Warren G, “Do You See” (Violator / Rush Associated Labels)
  • Willie D, “Play Witcha Mama” (Wize Up Records / Wrap Records)
  • Wu-Tang Clan, “C.R.E.A.M.” / “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’” (Wu-Tang Records / Loud Records/ The RCA Records Label)
  • Wu-Tang Clan, “Can It Be All So Simple” / “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing Ta F’ Wit” (Wu-Tang Records / Loud Records/ The RCA Records Label)

Nas featured photo by Danny Clinch/Sony Legacy.
Coolio and B-Real screencap from “Fantastic Voyage.”
Snoop Doggy Dogg screencap from “Murder Was the Case.”
Gang Starr screencap from “Mass Appeal.”
Method Man of Wu-Tang Clan screencap from “C.R.E.A.M.”
The Notorious B.I.G. screencap from “Big Poppa.”
Vinyl and CD artwork taken from Discogs.


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