We asked 33 artists and experts – from Rick Rubin to Big Boi, Mike D to Chuck D – to vote for their favorite hip-hop songs.
The first national Miami bass hit came from Lady Tigra and Bunny D, teenagers with personality for days who met as dancers on a local TV show and had rhyme battles with boys in the high school lunchroom. “When I was singing ‘Grab it like you want it,’ I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about,” Tigra recalled. “We were virgins!”
“Get Low” was the Number Two hit that signaled the peak of the high-energy, high-alcohol-content, shout-happy movement known as “crunk.” Ying Yang Twins brought the “to the windows, to the walls” hook (originally a black fraternity chant), and yowler-producer Lil Jon flipped it into over-the-top party music.
Maya Arulpragasam was a globally connected radical who turned into one of hip-hop’s most forward-thinking artists. “Paper Planes” was a Clash-sampling shot at immigrant-fearing Westerners, complete with gunshot sound effects. In 2008, it blew up into one of the unlikeliest Top 10 jams ever. “[It’s] my underdog song,” she said, “but it’s become the biggest song.”
This towering New York anthem began as a demo by Angela Hunte, who grew up in the same Brooklyn building as Jay Z, and Jane’t Sewell-Ulepic. With a vocal from Keys, the song took on an angelic power. “Even amongst all that dark and destitution, there’s that underlying possibility that you just might be able to do it,” Keys said. “That’s what the song is about.”
An Afrocentric crew who rapped about not dating crackheads were hardly natural stars. But Brand Nubian were so good they made it seem like a sure thing. Producer Sadat X couldn’t get the “what I am” refrain from Edie Brickell’s 1988 hit to fit an Ohio Players drum break, so he brought a vocalist in to sing it, not that anyone noticed.
Non-album single, 1996
One of hip-hop’s most powerful mourning anthems put Midwest hip-hop on the map. At the time, Bone Thugs had lost several loved ones, including Eazy E, who signed them in 1993. “To this day, when we perform it,” said Krayzie Bone, “there will be, like, 20 people in the crowd crying.”
After years in the industry shadows as a producer-writer-guest, Elliott emerged as a singular hip-hop figure with “The Rain.” Timbaland’s stop-motion digital syncopation and her giddy vocal gymnastics gave the song a playfully futuristic tint that Hype Williams’ groundbreaking video only enhanced.
The Oakland collective’s lone hit was a transporting blast of youthful talent. Over amped-up sax and marimba, A-Plus, Tajai, Opio and Phesto traded flicking, word-spilling vignettes with uncanny exuberance. “Now you have younger generations who were born in ’93,” said Phesto. “They’re like, ‘ ’93 ’til infinity.’ It means so many different things to so many different people.”
“There’s no way we’re gonna sell this album ’cause all of the songs are so street,” said Cash Money producer Mannie Fresh of rapper B.G.’s fourth LP. “How do we get him to everybody?” The answer was “Bling Bling,” which hooked a diamond-studded slang term to a synth-y bounce and landed it in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary.
Teenage producer Lex Luger came up with more than 200 beats in a week, one of which became the backdrop for Ross’ high-def hustler fantasy “B.M.F.” Ross compares himself to drug lords like Chicago’s Larry Hoover and Detroit’s Big Meech, who later called the song “a priceless way of recognizing and paying homage to me and the B.M.F. family.”
Rotund, uproarious Biz Markie is one of hip-hop’s most lovable figures. For “Just a Friend,” he donned a powdered wig to play piano in the video and bellowed an outlandish interpolation of Freddie Scott’s 1968 soul hit “(You) Got What I Need.” Said Biz, “I tried to get Al B. Sure! and I tried to get Keith Sweat but they were busy doing their stuff, so I said I’ll do it.”
Before his sudden death in 2007, rapper Pimp C celebrated his release from jail with this lush posse cut: Houston’s reigning hip-hop duo UGK were joined by fellow Dirty South crews Outkast and producers Three 6 Mafia for a celebration of playalistic splendor over a sweet sample from the soundtrack for the blaxploitation film The Mack.
“[‘The Bridge’] was the first ‘rep your hood’ record,” recalled MC Shan. With a James Brown-sampling beat from Marley Marl, this ode to Queensbridge instigated a full-blown regional war when the Bronx’s Boogie Down Productions released “The Bridge Is Over.” Things got so heated that Marley claimed BDP made their record using a stolen reel of his drum sounds.
Digital Underground mastermind Shock G wrote the bass line for this funky free-form party jam and invented a fictional fake-nosed character named Edward Ellington Humphrey III to perform it. “I said that he was my brother from Tampa, an ex-lounge singer who got in a grease accident in the kitchen,” he said. “And people were buying that shit.”
Atlanta producer Dupri built his Nineties success on poppy hits like Kris Kross’ “Jump,” so his record label didn’t consider a collaboration with Jay Z mainstream enough to be a single. But with a hot beat and classic Jigga lines like “I’ve been spending hundreds since they had small faces,” “Money Ain’t a Thang” blew up all the same.
The first and greatest “Roxanne” response record birthed a unique hip-hop voice. On “Roxanne’s Revenge,” 14-year-old Lolita Shanté Gooden teamed up with producer Marley Marl and fired back at rap machismo. “My name’s just startin’ to blow up a little bit – and someone’s shooting me down,” laughed U.T.F.O.’s the Kangol Kid. Shanté went on to record classics like “Have a Nice Day” and “Go On Girl,” becoming one of rap’s revolutionary female voices.
Hip-hop’s first beef war started innocently enough. In 1984, Brooklyn trio U.T.F.O. released a lackluster single called “Hanging Out.” Its B side, however, caused a sensation: “Roxanne, Roxanne,” an irresistible jam where the peacocking guys in U.T.F.O. get repeatedly shot down by a “stuck-up” hottie. Soon the New York hip-hop market was overrun with jams like “Sparky’s Turn (Roxanne You’re Through)” and the unforgettable “Roxanne’s a Man (The Untold Story).”
Bay Area O.G. Todd Anthony Shaw – a.k.a. Too $hort – exerted a massive influence on West Coast hip-hop with his laid-back flow and pimp rhymes. “Freaky Tales” was his finest hour, an incredible 10 minutes of lascivious versifying. “It’s like bar after bar after bar,” recalled Snoop Dogg. “And niggas remembered that shit and learned that shit.”
Raekwon’s 1995 solo album was a tour de force of stark beats and densely woven crime narratives. But its best song is all lighthearted fun, a freewheeling riff on the image of “titties” as ice cream cones; Ghostface Killah, Cappadonna, Method Man and Raekwon get theirs over RZA’s sunnily creeping beat. “I came up with the idea to make T-shirts to go with it,” RZA said.
Backed by Large Professor’s heart-in-your-throat collage of drums, horns and a coveted Michael Jackson sample, the lead single from Illmatic unveiled Nas’ raspy project poetics. “We took ‘Human Nature’ and … made it real scratchy and scruffy,” said Large Professor. “Everything he’s saying is uplifting … but it’s for the hood.”
This classic cheating song was inspired by a pal from Naughty by Nature’s East Orange, New Jersey, neighborhood who used the phrase O.P.M. for “other people’s money.” “We decided to flip that to ‘O.P.P.,'” recalled Vin Rock. The group thought its subject matter was too raw for radio, but it became a pop-rap smash.
“Beat Bop” was a one-off studio rendition of a hip, early-Eighties downtown-Manhattan dance party. Graffiti star-child Jean-Michel Basquiat bankrolled and produced the 10-minute track. In it, frisky 15-year-old rapper K-Rob and raconteur Rammellzee had a hypnotic MC battle over a dubby beat and a violin. It’s an iconic old-school head-trip.
With a James Brown vocal bit flipped to make the Godfather of Soul sound like a Martian bobcat and bizarre rhymes from legendary head case Kool Keith (“Like a migraine headache, your cells start to melt/While the Technics spin, the wax is on the felt”), the Bronx crew built a radical early hip-hop jam. Said DJ Premier, “They was like the astronauts of hip-hop.”
Deploying the bass line from Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” and a sample from organist Lonnie Smith, “Can I Kick It?” was a high point for eclectic, buoyantly Afrocentric hip-hop. Q-Tip raps that Tribe “flows in layers.” Indeed they did. And a new artistic bar was being set.
Slick Rick was hip-hop’s first great storyteller – “wise as an owl, soft as a dove” amid “all these angry motherfuckers,” as he put it. And this bedtime tale about two kids who take up “robbin’ old folks” remains hip-hop’s most deftly detailed story-song. Told in a flurry of voices, it rendered Rick’s “ghetto ambience” with playful brilliance.
Brooklyn’s mash-out posse jolted you like the potholes of their Brownsville streets. When they howled, “Yap that fool/Ante up!/Kidnap that fool!” you checked for an exit, even if you were chilling at home. With its relentless horns and larcenous lyrics, “Ante Up” was the ultimate New York street anthem.
DJ Premier grabbed the scratched hook (“Money’s growin’ like grass with the mass appeal”) from “Pass Da Mic” by Philly also-rans Da Youngsta’s and the melody loop from fusion jazzbo Vic Juris to create the ultimate indictment of pandering pop-rappers. Guru, who died in 2010, rocks a gruff tough-love flow that made him one of the most honored voices in hip-hop.
Based around a reconfigured bit of the Seventies soul hit “Strawberry Letter 23,” this is the rarest kind of hip-hop song: a heartfelt apology, inspired by André 3000’s worries and guilt over his relationship issues with Erykah Badu. “Music gives you the chance to say what you want to say,” André said. “And her mom loved it. She’s like, ‘Where’s my publishing check?'”
On their 1992 debut single, all nine Wu-Tang rappers unleash a dizzying flurry of styles, punch lines and nicknames, jerked forward by the defiantly bleary beats of the RZA, who got $100 from each MC for funding. “That’s the introduction of our careers right there,” says Raekwon. “That record definitely made the biggest statement for us.”
“Don’t let me get in my zone,” West raps. Too late. Recorded at the Le Meurice hotel in Paris, this minimalist thunderbolt embodied Ye’s claim that his music was “where art meets commercial.” But the song is no breezy high-life jam: West barks about wilding out in France, while Jay imagines the dark fate that could have awaited him had he not become Jay Z.
“If Dirty wasn’t rhyming in the booth, he was talking or goofing around, and he wanted us to record all of it,” said his hype man Buddha Monk. That madcap genius is all over “Brooklyn Zoo,” which was co-produced by ODB, especially on its endlessly repeated chorus. “It’s like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins somehow made the best hip-hop single in history,” recalled Questlove.
Kanye West was on an opulent creative splurge when he recorded this tornadic posse cut featuring Rick Ross, Jay Z and indie-folk wisp Bon Iver. But the breakout star was Nicki Minaj, promising to eat our brains with her gold-teeth fangs and stealing the song’s psycho-horror video. Said Ross, “I knew then she’s one of the greatest.”
The most succinct mission statement for Afrocentric anti-corporate, revolution-minded hip-hop since Public Enemy. These Brooklyn radicals invaded radio playlists, demanding a choice between “a Lexus or justice.” Said rapper M-1, “It was an attempt to get to the level of sickness within our people.”
Atlanta rapper T.I. hit the Top 10 with this epic, a standout pop moment for Southern trap music. Producer DJ Toomp and co-producer Wonder Arillo came up with the colossal, heart-tugging synths – which were an homage to Roberta Flack’s 1970 cover of the Impressions’ “Gone Away.” “When T.I. heard it,” Toomp said, “he had the hook in, like, 10 minutes.”
Ice T culled from his real-life experience to write the pioneering gangsta rhyme, detailing a first-person picaresque of a “self-made monster of the city streets” over a stark electro-thwack. “It’s like if you made eggs every mornin’ and one day someone said, ‘Hey, you should sell these eggs,'” Ice T recalled. “To me, my life was so involved in that drama every day, it was easy.”
Released as the New Orleans pun-machine was being hailed “the greatest rapper alive,” Lil Wayne’s biggest hit saw him compare himself to B.I.G., 2Pac and Jay Z over a spacey minimalist beat. Producer Bangladesh confirmed Wayne’s boast that he never wrote down hit rhymes: “He went in on it immediately, just freestyle.”
“[At the time] you had these Spuds MacKenzie girls, little skinny chicks looking like stop signs, with big hair and skinny bodies,” recalled Sir Mix-A-Lot. “I did it as a knee-jerk response to that kind of stuff.” The Seattle rapper-producer’s slinky electro beat and hilarious video made for pop’s greatest positive-body-image jam.
Riding a sample of jazz bassist Ron Carter, the New York duo of Dres and Mista Lawnge rocked the nursery-rap chant, “Engine engine No. 9 on the New York transit line,” to give Native Tongues hip-hop a jubilant mosh-pit energy. The song still sucks you in with electromagnetic force.
Some of the lyrics to this menacing track were originally part of a demo called “Trigger Happy Nigga,” which got the L.A. crew its record deal. Vocalist B-Real spit his roughneck verses over DJ Muggs’ beat (which featured a Farfisa from garage-rock footnotes the Music Machine), and a blunted masterpiece was born.
The world’s introduction to Snoop Doggy Dogg – before the gin, juice, pimps or ho’s. For his recorded debut, on Dr. Dre’s first post-N.W.A solo effort, the lean scrapper took this song (which had been originally slated for The Chronic) and made it the template for his style. (It’s definitely more memorable than Deep Cover, the movie it came attached to.) Over a dissonant piano clank and Dre’s bass-drum kaboom, Snoop played the steely black youth at war with the LAPD, delivering the chorus – “‘Cause it’s 1-8-7 on an undercover cop” – with a singsong smirk. Asked about using police code for murdering an officer as a hook, Snoop said, “If [the press] would have went in-depth on that song, there would have been some shit out of that.”
Before the Beasties dominated MTV, they launched a sneak attack on black radio with this hard-hitting, White Castle-referencing jam. “The fact that they were white definitely made them stand out,” said Def Jam’s Russell Simmons. “But they were ultimately accepted by black people because they were good.”
A record that’s like a variety revue on wax. Fresh’s giddy human beatboxing and Slick Rick’s sly flair made “The Show,” which was backed with the equally classic “La-Di-Da-Di,” a global hit. “I was 17, and I’d made a million dollars,” Fresh recalled. “It was huge.”
Eminem’s scariest song because, for once, the horror seemed real. Anchored by a sample of U.K. singer Dido’s “Thank You” (which also became a hit), the song followed an obsessed fan who acts out Em’s deranged fantasies. “I try to help him at the end of the song,” Em said. “It kinda shows the real side of me.”
Hooking up in a South Central music workshop, the Pharcyde brought fresh artistry and exuberance to hip-hop. Over a track that bopped like the Bomb Squad on a beach getaway, four distinct rappers complemented each other with quippy charm – to member SlimKid3, this song was like “a beautiful bird circling our heads all day.”