Questlove's Top 50 Hip-Hop Songs of All Time

What makes a great hip-hop song? Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson chooses his favorites.

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Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force,
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14. Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force, "Planet Rock" (1982)


I wasn't allowed to play urban stations on my clock radio when I went to sleep as a kid, but that didn't stop me much. Between 1977 and 1980, Soul Train came on at 1 a.m., right after Saturday Night Live went off. Why my parents were so strict with some things and lenient with others was beyond me, but I was allowed to set my alarm to 12:45 a.m. every Saturday, just as SNL's music guest was doing their second song, so I could watch my favorite show afterwards. Then it was back into bed at 2 a.m. so I could wake up for Sunday school the next morn.

For urban radio on late Saturday, there wasn't an idea of live remotes from such and such club as they do now. Normally you'd get the usual disco fare from 8 p.m. till 2 a.m., then after that the 2 a.m. to 6:00 jock would play some real left-of-center progressive stuff, like a Mandrill album cut or maybe Bill Withers' 10-minute long "City Of The Angels." I know it's hard to believe, but there was a time in life in which radio was the progressive epicenter of what was hip and next. I mean, it built and contracted my geek behind, right? Right?

From '69 to '89, black music was on a roll with what was hip. German prog outfit Kraftwerk's "Trans-Europe Express" was usually on around this time late Saturdays. And man, it was hypnotic. I never knew what to call it, and there was nothing like a Shazam app to tell me song titles, so I'd have to suffer for a week until the next Saturday with a tape recorder ready to go the second I heard all that futuristic electronic shuffle drumming and robotic synths. When 1979 came, I never heard Kraftwerk again on radio. But that song always stuck in my head like a minuscule movie popcorn kernel I could not get rid of. All that changed when I was at a roller-skating party for my neighborhood friend Shawn Riley. His old brother was the DJ. I never heard an 808 drum machine before – it was quite overwhelming to take this all in and be an 11-year-old. And finally to hear that Kraftwerk song after all these years, it was a mystery solved. I ran to the booth and begged to know what it was. They handed me the 12-inch and asked, "You like this? It's too fast!" Then they gave it to me. That moment was my Mean Joe Green with the kid in the Coke commercial. I still have, DJ and cherish that "Planet Rock" 12-inch record to this day.

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