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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.

100 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs of All Time
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.”

100 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs of All Time
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.

100 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs of All Time
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.