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,
David Corio/Redferns1/50

1. Public Enemy, "Rebel Without a Pause" (1987)

When I was 16, I changed high school and churches. Of the two, the church seemed more of a clique-y mean-girl atmosphere than high school. Most of the kids there grew up together, so there was a bond. I was a weird looking kid that they probably thought was more trenchcoat mafia-ish than a "regular" guy. I didn't have much social skills, because I pretty much went to school and came straight home. The youth group of my church organized a beach trip and I decided to tag along even though I felt isolated. Some of the kids I was cool with, but the popular ones really didn't let me play in any reindeer games. I sought refuge in music. The night before, I stayed up and decided to record some songs off the radio, so that if they decided to shut me outta conversations or games, I could at least drown in my headphones.

What I wasn't ready for was the song that saved my life, and theirs. I'm not trying to make this weird. But I do feel like every teen goes through an angsty "woe is me"/"fuck the world" period. Maybe it's loneliness, maybe it's pressure, maybe it's innocence lost. For the most part, I've often found that music can be a great remedy for that unchanneled anger. Black music was the one genre that I had never found an effective means of release – I mean, that's what speed metal was for, and moshing, and punk culture. And who knows what the consequences are for those that don't have this release?

On the radio, Lady B warned us all to record her next set and thank her later. She was dead serious. She was going to play us something, and she didn't know what to make of it. Silence. Then she said, "Start your tapes…"

"Brothers & sisters!" The voice of Jesse Jackson came booming over the speakers. "Brothers and sisters! I don't know what this world is coming to!!!!!!" Two horn stabs, a scratch, and –

Oh my God. What the hell is this?!?!? It was the sound of your brain in a vice grip. The sound of a tea kettle screaming for its life? The scream of a bunch of teens feeling my wrath!?? The steam of uncried tears??! It was like each squeal of St. Clair Pinckney's alto sax represented my anger at something – but what? I wanted to blast this song to smithereens, but it was 1:30 a.m. and my parents were asleep. That did not stop me. I played and played and played and played and played this song, over and over and over, until it was 6 a.m. and I'd been listening to "Rebel Without a Pause" for four and a half hours.

I took a cat nap, but woke up at 7:45 because I could not get that squeal out of my head. I made a 60-minute cassette with that song and only that song. I copped 16 batteries, 'cause you never know when you will need your Walkman to work for 4,000 hours in a row. I got in that church van at 10:30 a.m., and sure enough, only two of the 14 kids acknowledged me. I didn't care. I blasted that song until my Sony sports headphones cried for mercy. The whole two-hour trek, I annoyed the shit out of them – for the squeal could pierce any soundscape. It was like I needed that song to just calm me down and keep me sane. I needed to channel the rage I was feeling. Actually, all of America needed a channel for its rage. PE offered that opportunity with each panic-packed second. Now I'm way more calm than I've ever been. But at that one time in life when I didn't have a friend or a care in the world, this song was my refuge. Believe the hype.

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