In the late '80s, J. Prince founded Rap-A-Lot Records, one of the most influential independent labels in rap music.
Housing a roster of talent who has inspired artists for decades with their ingenuity, grounded lyricism, and earthy, blues-based production (mostly courtesy of Mike Dean, N.O. Joe, and Mr. Lee), Rap-A-Lot’s output throughout the 90s helped establish the sound and aesthetic of southern rap, and also swayed the sound of artists well outside of the region.
Scarface, Geto Boys, Devin the Dude, 5th Ward Boyz, and Do or Die are among the artists who called the label home, and whether it was Devin’s hilarious quick wit and comical storytelling, Scarface’s soul-searching, street-intelligent rhymes, or Willie D’s no-holds-barred delivery, Rap-a-lot’s diversity is a major part of what shaped its legacy of releasing classic material.
Here are 20 of Rap-A-Lot’s greatest songs of the 1990s.
“Mind Is Playing Tricks On Me” - Geto Boys
With its murky production and mind-trip lyrics, this is Geto Boys’ signature song for a reason. Featured on the group’s third album, We Can’t Be Stopped, mostly, it’s Scarface allowing listeners into the inner-workings of his psyche (he famously wrote Bushwick Bill’s trick-or-treating verse), and it’s a fascinating, eerie glimpse into the mind of one of Hip-Hop’s most complex figures.
“PWA” - 5th Ward Boyz
5th Ward Boyz delivered their most widely known song to date on their fourth album, Usual Suspects. Featuring label mates, Devin the Dude and Willie D, the song doesn’t deviate from its explicit title lyrically. It isn’t surprising that Devin shines on the hook over production by Mr. Lee.
“Po Pimp” - Do or Die featuring Twista and Johnny P
In 1996, Chicago group Do or Die arrived on the rap scene with their Rap-A-Lot debut, Picture This. The lead single, “Po Pimp” is where they most succinctly delivered their brand of pimp-tales over production by The Legendary Traxster. With an assist from fellow Chicagoan, Twista, the song remains their most commercially successful, going gold.
“Playa Playa” - Big Mike
Next to Scarface and Devin the Dude, Big Mike was probably the most skilled rapper on the Rap-A-Lot roster. After replacing Willie D for the Geto Boys album, Til Death Do Us Part, Mike released his solo album, Somethin’ Serious in 1994. Super producer N.O. Joe provides the beat, and “Playa Playa” and sounds just as good almost 30 years later as it did when it dropped.
“Mary Jane”- Scarface
You’d be hard pressed to find a better ode to weed than Scarface’s 1997 song, “Mary Jane.” Over one of his best beats ever (he co-produced the track with Mike Dean), Scarface gets dreamy-high with stream-of-consciousness rhymes. The Untouchable is full of standout tracks, and is undoubtedly one of Face’s best albums, and “Mary Jane” is one of the reasons why.
“Smile” - Scarface featuring 2Pac
A few years after he released what was his most acclaimed album to date, 1994’s The Diary, Scarface returned in 1997 with The Untouchable. Where The Diary was grimy and dark throughout, save for a few bright spots, The Untouchable was sleeker production-wise but still gravelly, with Scarface at the top of his game lyrically. “Smile” is still one of the most known tracks on the album, mostly because it was released just a few months after 2Pac’s untimely death. As expected, both Face and Pac do what they do best on this song— wrestle with their inner-demons, question their place in life, and rage against the disenfranchisement of their community.
“Hand of the Dead Body” - Scarface featuring Ice Cube and Devin the Dude
1994’s The Diary is considered to be one of the best albums in Scarface’s decades-long career, and “Hand of the Dead Body” plays a significant part in establishing its legacy, with a notable feature from Ice Cube, and Devin the Dude crooning on the hook. At the time, the genre was under heavy scrutiny, and the message here is clear: America’s racist systems are to blame for disparities faced by Black folks, not rap music.
“The World Is a Ghetto” featuring Flaj - Geto Boys
In 1996, Scarface, Willie D, and Bushwick Bill returned with The Resurrection. At their best, Geto Boys were one of the most world-wise, world-weary, perceptive relaters of truth. While their experiences varied, the energy they brought to their stories was the same, and it makes them one of the most respected Hip-Hop groups of all time.
“Havin' Thangs” - Big Mike featuring Pimp C
Produced by Pimp C and brought to life by his contribution to the hook, “Havin Thangs” helped pushed Somethin’ Serious to Billboard’s top 40, and remains a southern classic.
“G-Groove,” 5th Ward Juveniles
One of the lesser known acts on Rap-A-Lot, 5th Ward Juveniles scored a minor hit with the only single released from their 1995 debut, Deadly Groundz, “G-Groove.” Produced by N.O. Joe and Mike Dean, the mid-tempo, soulful track samples The Blackbyrds “Mysterious Vybes”.
“I’m Dead”- Scarface
On his 1991 debut, Mr. Scarface, Scarface established that he’s a talented storyteller, which is seen on this hair-raising tale about one of his favorite topics: death and spiritually, inspired by fellow Rap-A-Lot artist, Gangsta Nip.
“Boo Booin” - Devin the Dude
When you talk about storytelling in Hip-Hop, Devin’s name has to get a mention. There’s nobody better at adding humor to life’s complicated situations than The Dude. Whether he’s chastising you for whining, since “an is better than nan,” explaining how taxing it is to be a rapper and creative, or in this case, explaining why “boo-boo’n” is a handy excuse to throw out when you just want to mind your business, Devin is one of the best who’s ever done it.
“Time Taker” - Geto Boys
The Geto Boys reunited for their 1995 album, The Resurrection. The album is probably their best from top to bottom, and “Time Taker” is a sleeper middle track that features Face, Bushwick, and Willie at their peak. It’s contemplative track that examines life, death, spirituality, bad choices, and the time we’re given to get it right. Basically, it’s Geto Boys doing what they do best over a mellow Mike Dean beat.
“Do What You Wanna Do” - Devin The Dude
Words of wisdom from the Dude come via his timeless track, “Do What You Wanna Do” from his classic 1998 self-titled solo debut. This song plays like a Sunday School lesson, minus the cursing of course, as Devin explains why it’s always best to follow your own gut, never mind what naysayers might think about your life choices.
“Still Po Pimpin” - Do or Die
Just as the title suggests, Do Or Die returned to the pimpin’ theme for part two of “Po Pimp" with “Still Po Pimpin’” from their second album, 1998’s Headz Or Tailz. Twista shows up again to up the lyricism on the song.
“Fuck Faces” - Scarface featuring Tela, Too $hort, and Devin the Dude
Scarface decided it was time to showcase his homies’ talents on his 1998 compilation album, My Homies. Explicit sexpades abound on “Fuck Faces” where Tela, Too $hort, and Devin’s storytelling is also top-notch.
“The Other Side” - Facemob
Scarface has never shied away from forsaking the solo spotlight to join with other rappers, and he did so in 1996 when he formed Facemob and released the group’s debut, The Other Side of the Law. “The Other Side” is the group at its best, but it’s Devin who flips the track on the head with his closing verse, offering a glimpse of what he’d bring to the table with his 1998 debut.
“Coughee” - Odd Squad
Comical, witty and quirky, Odd Squad (Devin the Dude, producer Rob Quest, and Jugg Mugg) laid the foundation for avant-garde southern rap back in 1994 with their debut, Fadanuf Fa Erybody!! The album didn’t just show the skilled diversity of the group members, it pushed Rap-A-Lot in a fresh direction too, even though it never received the promotional push it deserved. A set up for what Devin would later do with his solo albums, “Coughee” is the Dude weaving a comical tale about acquiring, and enjoying “coughee.”
“Responsibility” - Ghetto Twinz
In 1997, Ghetto Twiinz released their sophomore album, In That Water. The album peaked at #13 on Billboard’s Top Heatseekers chart, and “Responsibility” emerged as one of the release’s most relatable tracks. Twins Tonya and Tremethia are in top form lyrically, addressing the misogyny too many women brush aside because at the end of the day, they still have responsibilities they have to uphold. The New Orleans natives released two more albums on Rap-A-Lot, both of which charted on Billboard, but “Responsibility” remains one of their most recognized songs.
“I Seen A Man Die” - Scarface
Scarface takes you all the way inside of his head on “I Seen A Man Die,” weaving an eerie tale about witnessing death up close over spooky production handled by himself, N.O. Joe and Mike Dean. The song, featured on The Diary, hit the Top 40 on the Billboard 100 and is probably his most well-known solo song.