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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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19

Beastie Boys, “Paul Revere”

Michael “Mike D” Diamond remembers when Adam “MCA” Yauch hit on the squishy beat that propels this crackling single – by running the tape backward. “We were as giddy as kids, yelling in the studio,” Diamond says. “It was the simplest idea, and he killed it.” One rhyme about a girl and “a Wiffle ball bat” got them in hot water for misogyny. The Beasties would back off from that kind of verse as they matured on records and Yauch turned to Buddhism. But they performed “Paul Revere” right to the end: at Bonnaroo in 2009, Yauch’s last show before his death in 2012.

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18

2Pac, “Dear Mama”

“The emotional, the sad songs, were his personal favorite,” recalled 2Pac producer Johnny J. His 1995 ballad tribute to his mother, Afeni Shakur, is the ne plus ultra of hip-hop mom songs. Tony Pizarro’s beat sets a tender mood, and 2Pac strikes a similar note: “I appreciate how you raised me/And all the extra love that you gave me.” But “Dear Mama” hits harder for its realism, especially when Pac raps about his mother’s struggles with drug addiction: “And even as a crack fiend, Mama/You always was a black queen, Mama.”

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17

Run-DMC, “Peter Piper”

The greatest ode ever to the Midas-like powers of a DJ. Jam Master Jay sliced up composer Bob James’ 1975 smooth-jazz nugget “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” as Run and DMC dropped nursery-rhyme science in summing up their partner’s greatness: “He’s a big bad wolf in your neighborhood/Not bad meaning bad but bad meaning good!” Run-DMC’s label, Profile Records, wanted the MTV-ready rap-rock Aerosmith collaboration “Walk This Way” to be the first single off their 1986 album, Raising Hell. But the group was adamant that “My Adidas/Peter Piper,” anthems of hip-hop culture, be the first release; Darryl “DMC” McDaniels later recalled saying, “If ya’ll don’t do it, we’re gonna give it to the radio and fuck everything up.” They prevailed, and Raising Hell became rap’s first blockbuster album. When Jam Master Jay (born Jason William Mizell) was shot and killed in 2002, Run-DMC immediately retired. They’d eventually reunite again in 2012, with Jam Master Jay’s two sons as part of the group.

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16

Jay Z feat. UGK, “Big Pimpin'”

Jay Z has since claimed that he’s a little ashamed by the rawness of his tricky verses on “Big Pimpin’ .” “I thug ’em, fuck ’em, love ’em, leave ’em/’Cause I don’t fuckin’ need ’em,” he boasts. “What kind of animal would say this sort of thing?” Jay said of his own lyrics. “Reading it is really harsh.” But “Big Pimpin'” is the ultimate playa anthem, radiating excess and power. Jay defied North-South regional bias by reaching across the Mason-Dixon to give Port Arthur, Texas, duo UGK a prominent spot on one of his biggest hits. His guests’ nimble wordplay added a brilliant twist to the track: “Go read a book, you illiterate son of a bitch, and step up your vocab,” taunted Bun B. Timbaland’s beat fit the ecumenical vibe perfectly – a bugged-out orchestral sample lifted from a 1957 song by Egyptian singer Abdel Halim Hafez that gave Jay Z’s supersize boasts a perfect sense of world-straddling dominance.

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15

N.W.A, “Fuck tha Police”

The pivot point between Public Enemy’s Black Panther revivalism and gangsta rap’s nihilism, this 1988 hard-funk assault indicted the LAPD and seemed like prophecy in the Rodney King/L.A. riots era. “Fuckin with me cuz I’m a teenager/With a little bit of gold and a pager,” rhymes a 19-year-old Ice Cube, adding, “When I’m finished, it’s gonna be a bloodbath of cops/Dyin’ in L.A.” The FBI took it seriously enough to send a warning letter to the group’s label that alleged the song “encourages violence against, and disrespect for the law enforcement officer.” The publicity established N.W.A as hip-hop’s bad boys and made the song an agit-pop anthem for the ages. “Peace is a fiction to me,” Ice Cube told Rolling Stone in 1989. “We deal with reality. Violence is reality. When you say something like that, it scares people. You’re supposed to picture life as a bowl of cherries. But it’s not.”

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14

Public Enemy, “Rebel Without a Pause”

Opening with a Jesse Jackson sample (“Brothers and sisters, I don’t know what this world is coming to!”) and upping the ante with Chuck D’s broadcaster-baiting (“Radio/Suckers never play me”), this 1987 single perfected Public Enemy’s hand-grenade attack and set the stage for their seminal It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Its siren squeal is actually a looped horn from the 1970 J.B.’s jam “The Grunt Pt. 1”; the groove bites James Brown’s “Funky Drummer”; and Terminator X scratches the chorus of Chubb Rock’s “Rock and Roll Dude.” (“We use samples like an artist would use paint,” said producer Hank Shocklee.) When Chuck D heard the finished recording, he was so blown away he announced, “I could die tomorrow.”

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13

Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick, “La-Di-Da-Di”

Eye-patched British-American rapper Slick Rick was still known as MC Ricky D when “La Di Da Di” was released in 1985. Rick spins a rude tale of being hit on by his ex-girlfriend’s mom, while beatbox pioneer Fresh provides backdrop. A milestone in rap storytelling and product placement (name-checking Gucci, Bally, Kangol, Polo, Johnson’s Baby Powder and Oil of Olay), it would be referenced endlessly – most famously in the chorus of Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize.” It also started the trend of rappers breaking into off-key song. “La-Di-Da-Di” began as a live routine that turned into a sensation. “Doug E. used to carry me around with him,” Rick recalled. “The crowd … first they would look at you like, ‘Whatever, skinny nerd trying to get put on,’ but then when you kicked the humor and they got to laughing and enjoying themselves, it sold itself.”

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12

Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth, “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)”

Hip-hop has produced many classic elegies – from Ice Cube’s “Dead Homiez” to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s “Tha Crossroads.” Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth’s “They Reminisce Over You” is as beautiful as they come. The early-Nineties duo wrote the song for their Mount Vernon, New York, pal “Trouble” T-Roy, a dancer with Heavy D and the Boyz who died while on tour in 1990. C.L. Smooth came up with his lyrics before Pete Rock had produced the track, which is hard to imagine since they fit together so perfectly. Over a tender, sky-blown sax sample from Sixties jazz-pop composer Tom Scott, C.L. Smooth spins a tribute to his fallen friend into a vivid celebration of family (literal, metaphorical and musical) that’s as much free-roaming backyard-barbecue toast as somber funeral speech. “When we listened back to the record, we just started crying,” Pete Rock recalled. “When I felt like that, I was like, ‘This is it.’ Deep in my heart I felt like this was gonna be something big.”

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11

Wu-Tang Clan, “C.R.E.A.M.”

Part of what made the Wu-Tang Clan so great was their messy, multitudinous sprawl. “When we started recording Enter the Wu-Tang, the whole group was usually there for every session; sometimes it felt like their whole neighborhood was in the studio,” recalled Ethan Ryman, an engineer on the group’s landmark 1993 debut. “Every now and then, RZA and I would have to clear the room so we could get to the equipment.” Yet the finest song on the album is ruthlessly efficient: just two breathless verses, plus the catchiest acronym-based hook in history, laying out the rules of street capitalism. RZA’s sampled pianos rattle like the wind down a project alleyway as Raekwon and Inspectah Deck trade harrowing war stories (“No question I would speed for cracks and weed/The combination made my eyes bleed”). It’s not a romantic portrait, but it does have a happy ending, when Rae joins the Clan: “Figured out I went the wrong route/So I got with a sick-ass clique and went all-out.”

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10

Eric B. and Rakim, “Paid in Full”

Exhibit A in the case for Rakim as hip-hop’s John Coltrane. His incandescent thought-bubble rap on “Paid in Full” is all iced flow and sly beat-dodging, a good-versus-evil meditation that calmly frames thug life inside real-life economics (an appetite for “a nice big plate of fish/Which is my favorite dish”) and a novelist’s eye for detail (“Ain’t nothin’ but sweat inside my hand”). In an era when most hip-hop songs exploded with loud, over-the-top boasting, Rakim’s relatable, low-key flow was game-changing. “I always wanted to kind of make the listener feel like it was them that I was talking about, or to the point that I could say the rhyme and feel like it’s them saying it,” he said years later. Eric B.’s beat, looped from a break on “Ashley’s Roachclip” by the Soul Searchers, is just as groundbreaking; it inspired the British DJ team Coldcut to craft “Paid in Full (Seven Minutes of Madness),” which soon became the song’s definitive version, and arguably the dopest remix in hip-hop history.

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9

N.W.A, “Straight Outta Compton”

“A murder rap to keep you dancin’ with a crime record like Charles Manson,” the explosive first track on N.W.A’s 1988 debut kicked off the gangsta-rap era with a raw menace like nothing anyone had heard before. Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, MC Ren, DJ Yella and Eazy-E shifted rap’s focus from New York to South Central Los Angeles despite MTV’s refusal to air the video for “Compton” due to its violent imagery. “Kids were just waiting for it,” said Bryan Turner of Priority Records, which quickly sold 2 million copies of Straight Outta Compton. One of those kids was a young Chris Rock, who brought a copy from L.A. to play for his dumbfounded friends on the East Coast. “[N.W.A] was like the British Invasion for black people,” Rock said.

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8

The Notorious B.I.G., “Juicy”

The greatest rapper who ever lived, at his absolute peak: hilarious, incisive and insanely inventive as he balances urban realism (“Birthdays was the worst days”) and playalistic excess (“Now we sip champagne when we’re thirsty”). The funky first single from the Notorious B.I.G.’s world-smacking 1994 debut, Ready to Die, was a departure from the rugged East Coast rap sound of his 1993 debut single, “Party and Bullshit,” and a far cry from the gangsta-don image he originally wanted to project. But executive producer Sean “Puffy” Combs insisted Big flow over a simple, club-friendly loop of Mtume’s early Eighties dance-party jam “Juicy Fruit.” (Producer Pete Rock says Combs got the idea from him.) “I wanted to release music that let people know he was more than just a gangsta rapper,” Combs said later. “He showed his pain, but in the end, he wanted to make people feel good.” 

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7

Public Enemy, “Fight the Power”

Hank Shocklee, one half of Public Enemy’s production team the Bomb Squad, said the group wanted their track for Spike Lee’s explosive 1989 movie Do the Right Thing to have a “defiant, aggressive, I’m-not-gonna-take-it feeling.” They nailed it. No band since the Sex Pistols had pushed pop music’s sonic and political possibilities as far as Public Enemy did on “Fight the Power.” Chuck D blasted “straight-up racist” institutions like Elvis, John Wayne and the U.S. Postal Service, as the Bomb Squad spun layer upon layer of samples (James Brown, the Dramatics, Uriah Heep) into implosive war-dance funk. Chuck D came up with the song’s concept while on tour with Run-DMC in Italy, and Lee directed its frenetic protest-themed video, which was filmed on the streets of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. The result was the total in-your-face package. In the summer of ’89, it seemed like it might start a full-on revolution.

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6

Dr. Dre feat. Snoop Doggy Dogg, “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang”

Climbing to Number Two on the single charts in early 1993, “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” made Dr. Dre the undisputed king of West Coast hip-hop, while ushering the genre into the mainstream and seriously challenging New York’s cultural dominance. The irresistibly catchy song’s secret weapon was a relatively unknown 21-year-old pup named Snoop Doggy Dogg, whose verses are packed with effortless quotables. ” ‘ G’ Thang” also introduced Dre’s masterful “G-Funk” style of production, which updated George Clinton’s Seventies legacy with slow, rubbery grooves and layered synth hooks. “We made records during the crack era, where everything was hyped up, sped up and zoned out,” Chuck D explained. “Dre came along with ‘G’ Thang’ and slowed the whole genre down. He took hip-hop from the crack era to the weed era.” Take a listen to 21st-century inheritors, from Kendrick Lamar to Future, and it’s pretty clear we’re living in his weedy world.

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5

Geto Boys, “Mind Playing Tricks on Me”

Shortly before the Geto Boys released their 1991 album, We Can’t Be Stopped, the Houston trio’s diminutive member Bushwick Bill was shot in the eye during a suicidal freakout. He survived; a photo of him displaying his wound appeared on the album’s cover. This Top 30 hit, recorded before but issued after the incident, revealed even more of the manic depression and death wish deep inside the Geto Boys’ violent, misogynist rhymes. Scarface, who wrote and produced the track, sounded like his movie namesake: hopped-up and fully armed at the edge of sanity, over dark-treble guitar and a gunslinger-walk rhythm sampled from Isaac Hayes’ soundtrack to the 1974 film Three Tough Guys. In a genre where fear was not thought manly, “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” was a classic of cracked ghetto armor and bloody surrender: proof that even the hardest of the hard have worried hearts.

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4

Run-DMC, “Sucker M.C.’s”

In the beginning, hip-hop was club music, an offshoot of disco usually meant for dancing and partying. After “Sucker M.C.’s,” it belonged to teenagers on the street. “There was never a B-boy record made until we made ‘Sucker M.C.’s,’ ” declared the late Run-DMC DJ Jam Master Jay. Sure enough, the 1983 track – nothing but rhymes and scratches over hard Oberheim DMX beats and hand claps – seemed designed specifically with break dancers in mind. “Sucker” was conceived as a B-side throwaway to the group’s debut, “It’s Like That,” but its whiplash groove and everydude rhymes were even more radical. Run charts his creation myth, disses competitors, brags about his Caddy and his girl appeal. Then his partner introduces himself with “I’m DMC in the place to be/I go to St. John’s University!” Indeed: A new school had arrived. “I wasn’t afraid to rap about school being cool,” Darryl “DMC” McDaniels said years later. “That was empowering. That’s the legacy when people look at Run-DMC.”

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3

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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2

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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1

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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