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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Public Enemy,
Suzie Gibbons/Redferns8/50

8. Public Enemy, "Fight the Power" (1989)

Black America saw itself take a giant leap forward in the Civil Rights period, just to slip 10 miles backwards in Reagan's America. The first sign of disillusion in the sound of black music came courtesy of Sly and the Family Stone's muddy 1971 album There's a Riot Goin' On. Twenty years later, the crack epidemic came and singlehandedly almost wiped us out. Those who used, those who pushed, those who lived with those who used and pushed, and especially those who made it a life mission to avoid those who used and pushed. The elderly and young were prisoners in their homes – thank God for Dad's record collection or I'd have gone crazy. It just wasn't safe.

Public Enemy managed to explain the madness of the crack era in its sound. (I'd say every period of hip-hop was associated with its drug of choice: '77-'82 was post-disco coke, '82-'87 was the 40-ounce/B-boy period, '87-'92 was the panic/crack era, '92-'97 was the weeded and blunted era, '97-'02 was the sexy/ecstasy period, '02-'07 the sizzurp era, and so on.) PE ruled the '87-'92 crack period because its musical backdrop matched the times: Songs were now 115-125 bpm instead of the previous 95-110 fare. Melody was thrown out the window – this was Pharoah Sanders and Rahsaan Roland Kirk in a knife fight, this was your four-year-old sneaking a triple espresso when no one was looking at 10 p.m., this was playing Skrillex at your grandma's funeral, an air raid siren in a nursery. This was music's worst nightmare.

Flavor Flav's batshit crazy stance was used as bait (I fell for it) to attract the unaware. Once trapped inside, Chuck D's baptist preacher rapid-fire scream was the nail in the coffin. The best sweet and sour combo in hip-hop. Actually, the original contrary duo in hip-hop. 1989 marked a particular anger in New York: Tawana Brawley's rape case, Yusef Hawkins' murder in Bensonhurst, Michael Griffith's murder in Howard Beach. In one five-minute cyclone of a song, Chuck D pulls his inner Howard Beale out and declares he is mad as hell and he is not going to take it anymore. I mean, my dad and I had world-class debates on the merits of Public Enemy, but even that one-two punch of Elvis and John Wayne almost made my dad say "Yeah!" Of course, right before i could yell that he was a PE fan, he quipped in the next breath, "But that's still not music." I know, Dad. Trust me. I know.

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