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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.

100 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs of All Time
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.” 

100 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs of All Time
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.