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100 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs of All Time

What makes a great hip-hop song?

100 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs of All Time

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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.

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Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force, “Planet Rock”

“One of the most influential songs of everything,” says Rick Rubin. “It changed the world.” Helmed by a reformed South Bronx gang member turned punk-mystic community leader/DJ, with help from superstar producers-in-the-making Arthur Baker and John Robie, this 1982 atom bomb interpolated parts of Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express” and “Numbers,” mating synth stabs with robotic MC chants (“Rock rock to the planet rock/Don’t stop!”) on a futurist jam that circled the globe. It introduced Roland 808 beats to hip-hop, for which acts from the Beasties to Kanye West would be grateful. Just as important, it coined the sonic language of electro, Detroit techno, freestyle R&B, Miami bass and Brazilian favela funk – in other words, much of modern dance music. “At the time, we barely considered it a rap record,” adds Rubin. “It was more about a new sound.” In the words of Chuck D of Public Enemy, “There hasn’t been a song like it in hip-hop since.”

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Sugarhill Gang, “Rapper’s Delight”

It took three guys from New Jersey to put hip-hop, a still-underground New York-born phenomenon, on Top 40 radio for the first time. Bronx DJ Grandmaster Flash recalled hearing “Rapper’s Delight” on the air and asking, “The Sugarhill who? Who are these people?” Sugar Hill Records founder Sylvia Robinson got the idea for the song while watching a DJ talk over a record in a Harlem club, and she formed the Sugarhill Gang shortly thereafter. On the original 12-inch single, “Rapper’s Delight” was 15 minutes of urban-playboy bragging over a disco-rhythm track that blatantly quoted the bass line in Chic’s 1979 hit “Good Times.” Chip Shearin, who played bass guitar at the “Rapper’s Delight” session, recalled “sweating bullets” as he played the song’s body-moving lick, without changes or mistakes, for a quarter-hour. Shearin, then 17, was paid $70. Chic’s Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards did much better, eventually getting writer credits and royalties after threatening legal action.

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Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, “The Message”

“The Message” was a total knock out of the park,” says Chuck D of Public Enemy. “It was the first dominant rap group with the most dominant MC saying something that meant something.” It was the first song to tell, with hip-hop’s rhythmic and vocal force, the truth about modern life in inner-city America. Over seven minutes, atop a Seventies P-Funk jam, rapper Melle Mel and co-writer Duke Bootee, a member of the Sugar Hill Records house band, traded lines and scenes of struggle and decay, with a warning at the end of each verse: “Don’t push me ’cause I’m close to the edge/I’m trying not to lose my head.” The Furious Five’s pioneering DJ Grandmaster Flash later said that “The Message” proved their music could “speak things that have social significance and truth.” Yet, when they first heard Bootee’s demo (originally titled “The Jungle”), they were worried that hip-hop clubgoers would not dig the subject matter and slowed-down beat. As Melle Mel recalled, he was the member who “caved in” and agreed to record it. Sugar Hill Records head Sylvia Robinson got him to write and rap more lyrics, and Sugar Hill studio player Reggie Griffin added the indelible synthesizer lick. Despite being credited on the record, Flash and the Five appeared only in a closing skit, in which they’re harassed and arrested by police. “The Message” was a hit, but its messy birth was fatal to the Five, who soon split up. Their most notable reunion was in 2007, when they were the first rap group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

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