The 50 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs of All Time – Rolling Stone
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The 50 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs of All Time

Jay Z, Eminem, Tupac, Biggie and more

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Looking for the full list of the 100 greatest hip-hop songs of all time? Check it out right here.

Editor’s note: To make this list, Rolling Stone asked 33 artists and experts – from Rick Rubin to Busta Rhymes – to choose their favorite hip-hop tracks, then crunched the numbers. Click to read the full list of voters.

What Makes a Great Hip-Hop Song?
An Introduction by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson

I was eight years old when “Rapper’s Delight” made its world premiere on Philadelphia radio. It happened at 8:24 p.m. on a Thursday, after a dinner of porgies, string beans and creamed corn. Me and my sister, Donn, were sneaking a listen of the local soul station while washing dishes­ when an army of percussion and a syncopated Latin piano line came out of my grandma’s JVC clock radio – what appeared to be Chic’s “Good Times.” How was I to know that my world would come crashing down in a matter of 5, 4, 3, 2 . . .

I said a hip, hop, the hippy to the hippy/To the hip hip hop, you don’t stop. . . .

The next night, I was prepared, with a prehistoric tape recorder in hand and a black-and-white composition notebook. My boy Aantar became my agent that week, scheduling performances of the song in exchange for snacks or hand-holding with girls in gym class. “Rapper’s Delight” turned this future high school band geek into a superstar for the month of October 1979.

Some of the most powerful hip-hop songs are tracks with elements so simple your brain would explode trying to explain their logic: Take the unstoppable two-note guitar stab in Craig Mack’s “Flava in Ya Ear.” (I hounded the producer, Easy Mo Bee, for 17 years for the secret behind it – then wanted to throw someone out the window when I heard how basic it was.) Or the huge sound of the Roland 909 on Schoolly D’s “PSK” – an echo that seemed like it came from a church cathedral eight city blocks wide.

These sounds had incredible power if you grew up with hip-hop: There was the summer I spent trying to match the mix to “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel,” note for note, on two Fisher-Price turntables. (My father, unimpressed, told me, “There ain’t a living spinning other people’s music” – little did you know, Dad, little did you know.) There were so many times when a song premiere could stop you in your tracks, then become a subject of discussion for the next four hours: in the high school lunchroom when me and Black Thought heard “Wrath of Kane” for the first time, or my first listen to “Fight the Power” – it sounded like Pharoah Sanders and Rahsaan Roland Kirk had gotten into a knife fight.

Hip-hop gives listeners sets of rules that you follow like the law, only to see them change every five years. I’ve seen my reactions to hip-hop change from age nine (“What the hell was that?”) to age 14 (“That was incredible!”) to age 22 (“Wait . . . are they allowed to do that?”) to age 29 (“It was kinda different when I was a kid”) to now (“What the fuck was that?!“). I’ve seen Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” go from ruling the world to being a musical pariah to being an ironic statement in my DJ set that makes people smile.

The greatest hip-hop songs have the power to pull energy and excitement and anger and questions and self-doubt and raw emotion out of you. It could be a song that sets your neighborhood on fire (“Rebel Without a Pause”) or a song on your headphones that makes you rethink what hip-hop is (Ultramagnetic MCs’ “Ego Trippin’ ”). The common thread is change. The best hip-hop songs aren’t blueprints – they are calls to action, reminders that you can start a revolution in three minutes. Just keep that clock radio on.


Outkast, ‘B.O.B’

Stankonia, 2000

Outkast greeted the 21st century with a single that’ll probably still sound ahead of its time in the 22nd: Big Boi and Andre 3000 air millennial anxieties over a genuinely insane beat of jackhammer drums, Hendrix-at-Monterey guitars and massed voices chanting “Power music, electric revival” like a gospel choir conducted by Afrika Bambaataa.


Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, ‘Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel’

Non-album single, 1981

Using three turntables and a crossfader (a device he invented), 23-year-old Flash created a continuous party jam out of records by Chic, Blondie, Queen and more – showing off frenetic steel-wheels moves and establishing the DJ as a new kind of pop musician.


Marley Marl, ‘The Symphony’

In Control, Volume 1, 1988

Wizardly producer Marley Marl dials up a beat for the ages – a ferocious drum break and Otis Redding piano loop – and summons the cream of his Juice Crew affiliates. The result is the first truly great posse cut. Sharpest couplet: Kool G Rap (“Making veterans run for medicine/’Cause I put out more lights in a fight than Con Edison”). MVP: Marley Marl.


Funky 4 + 1, ‘That’s the Joint’

Non-album single, 1980

Nearly 10 minutes and God knows how many bars of exhortations and boasts, sprawling across a hopped-up disco beat. Doug Wimbish’s bass breakdown is as funky as anything this side of Bootsy Collins. But the real star of the show is the Funky Four’s “plus-one woman,” Sha-Rock (a.k.a. Sharon Green), the first female MC featured on a hit rap record.


Salt-N-Pepa, ‘Push It’

Hot, Cool and Vicious, 1986

Salt-N-Pepa’s libidinous jam was one of the first rap records to top the dance charts, and it remains as dependable a party-starter as any song of the hip-hop era. The snake-charmer electro groove is a monster and Cheryl “Salt” James and Sandy “Pepa” Denton trounce all comers in the man-strafing sassiness department: “Can’t you hear the music’s pumpin’ hard like I wish you would?” they rap. Joke’s on you, fellas.


Lauryn Hill, ‘Lost Ones’

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, 1998

The opening track on Hill’s landmark solo debut album is a reminder of how viciously this great singer could rhyme. It was recorded in Jamaica, and Hill raps (and, in the chorus, croons) in her version of a Trenchtown patois; “Lost Ones” sounds like a spit-roasting indictment of her former Fugees bandmate and ex-lover Wyclef Jean, who must’ve been quaking in his Timbs.


De La Soul, ‘Me, Myself and I’

3 Feet High and Rising, 1989

Urged by label brass to provide their adventurous debut album with a song that wouldn’t be “so over someone’s head,” De La Soul concocted a cosmically inclusive house-party jam. Producer Prince Paul threw down an exemplary Funkadelic beat and the rappers dropped a buoyant lyrical statement of purpose: “De La Soul is from the soul.” This song proved that the three guys knew how to rock the body, too.


Audio Two, ‘Top Billin”

What More Can I Say?, 1988

Rhyming over nothing but the drum break from Honeydripper's "Impeach the President," Kirk "MC Milk Dee" Robinson shouts out his parents, his hood, his DJ-brother Giz and his bodyguard, sounding like he might laugh, kick your ass or both. Variations on the hook – "Milk is chillin', Gizmo's chillin'/What more can I say? Top billin'!" – have been spit by MCs from Dre to Biggie to Jay-Z. By now, it's hip-hop bedrock.


Boogie Down Productions, ‘South Bronx’

Criminal Minded, 1987

Kris “KRS-One” Parker of BDP was one of early rap’s most authoritative voices, and this story of hip-hop’s early days is a required master class. DJ Scott LaRock threads a hot James Brown sample and KRS recalls a golden age when his borough reigned supreme; “South Bronx” was a bow shot in a diss war between BDP and Queens’ Juice Crew that set the standard for all regional beef-fests.


2Pac and Dr. Dre, ‘California Love’

Non-album single, 1995

Tupac Shakur‘s biggest hit was a celebration, marking the rapper’s release from prison (“Fresh outta jail, California dreamin'”) with a “serenade [to] the streets of L.A.” It was Dre‘s beat, though, that brought the sunshine: a buoyantly funky party groove, with delicious vocodered singing from Zapp frontman Roger Troutman – a premonition of the Auto-Tune mania that would sweep hip-hop a decade later. 


Kurtis Blow, ‘The Breaks’

Non-album single, 1980

The first rap hit on a major label, peaking at Number 87, was a no-frills joint: a loping bass line and jumping beat with the Harlem-born Blow presiding over playground-party noises and percussion breakdowns. Blow toured extensively behind "The Breaks," taking B-boy culture to mainstream USA while blazing a trail for rappers like Run of Run-DMC, who got his start billing himself "The Son of Kurtis Blow."


Eminem, ‘My Name Is . . .’

The Slim Shady LP, 1999

“God sent me to piss the world off,” announced Eminem on his debut single. Mission accomplished: Over Dr. Dre‘s brisk, cartoon-funk beat, Em tears off Pamela Anderson’s breasts, goes after his junior-high English teacher’s nuts with a stapler and rhymes “head straight” with “impregnate.” He was something truly new: a Midwestern trailer-park kid with serious issues and an endless supply of uproarious rhymes.


Missy Elliot, ‘Get Ur Freak On’

Miss E . . . So Addictive, 2001

In the late Nineties and early Aughts, Missy Elliott and Timbaland were pop’s greatest mind-benders, and “Get Ur Freak On” is their funkiest, nuttiest moment. The beat takes hip-hop Orientalism to outer space as Missy hisses, squawks, stutters (“I sw-sw-switched my style”), bellows commands (“Silence!”) and delivers the greatest hocked loogie in the history of recorded sound.


Ice Cube, ‘It Was a Good Day’

The Predator, 1992

Ice Cube‘s biggest hit is a ghetto pastorale, forsaking violence to revel in good vibes and a plush Isley Brothers sample. Cube eats a fine breakfast, smokes his homeys on the b-ball court, then smokes some chronic with a hottie and doesn’t have to use his AK-47 once. Day: made.


Outkast, ‘Rosa Parks’

Aquemini, 1998

The song that made everyone fall in love with Outkast was a deceptively deep party jam, with Big Boi and Andre 3000 showing off flows as smooth as Georgia molasses. Rosa Parks brought a lawsuit for misappropriating her name, but by then this hit had brought Southern tang to the rap charts.


Mobb Deep, ‘Shook Ones Part II’

The Infamous, 1995

Dedicating their signature track to “all the killers . . . for-real niggas who ain’t got no feelings,” this New York duo cooked gangsta rap down to its inkiest, most nihilistic essence. A snippet from a Quincy Jones soundtrack infuses the song with a sinister hiss. Prodigy promises that his “gunshots will make you levitate,” taking time to remind you that he’s “only 19,” too. All these years later, you still ache for that kid. 


Schoolly D, ‘P.S.K. What Does It Mean?’

"This birthed gangsta rap," Questlove said. "N.W.A just took [its] formula and ran with it." The Philly MC got his track's name from a gang, Park Side Killers, and its beat from an evidently stressed-out Roland 909 drum machine. In a lazily menacing flow, he buys coke, beds a whore, buys weed and flashes a pistol. That he decides not to pull the trigger makes the jam no less chilling.


Jay-Z, ’99 Problems’

Rick Rubin brought his OG magic out of storage to make one of the most explosive beats in rap history, setting body-slam power chords over the drums in Billy Squier’s “The Big Beat.” Jay-Z concocts an indelible pop chorus and sketches out a scene based on an encounter with a racist patrolman from his pre-stardom days. As Jay wrote in his memoir, “The first offense wasn’t the crack in the ride but the color of the driver.”


Kanye West, ‘Jesus Walks’

The College Dropout, 2004

Kanye has never been shy about his God complex, but humility, not hubris, made “Jesus Walks” hip-hop’s finest gospel testimonial. The production is stunning – built on a sample of a Harlem choir cresting above a martial beat – as West avoids easy pieties and raps about spiritual hunger and self-doubt. “Kanye proved to me he can be Marvin Gaye,” said Chuck D. “‘Jesus Walks’ touched on an area no one else had, lyrically.”


Nas, ‘N.Y. State of Mind’

Illmatic, 1994

No track better sums up Nas‘ ability to spin dense, dazzlingly lucid verse. “N.Y. State of Mind” is no anthem or ode to the city; it’s a detailed narrative about a Gotham gunfight, delivered in a nearly 60-bar run that Nas later broke up for the song. “He did the whole first verse in one take,” recalled DJ Premier, who produced the track. “He stopped and said, ‘Does that sound cool?’ And we were all like, ‘Oh, my God.’ ”


Notorious B.I.G., ‘Hypnotize’

Life After Death, 1997

“Hypnotize” was Biggie‘s greatest pop moment, topping the charts weeks after his murder in March 1997. Delivered over Puff Daddy’s Herb Alpert­-sampling candy-corn beat, it showed his knack for leavening gangsta sex and violence with punch lines even a toddler could cuddle up to: “Poppa been smooth since days of Underoos,” he quipped. No one’s been smoother since.

LL Cool J

LL Cool J, ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’

Mama Said Knock You Out, 1990

“Don’t call it a comeback!” begins rap’s hottest-ever comeback. After crossover pop success, James Todd Smith returned to street-fighting hip-hop pledging to “bash this beat like a skull,” and returning fire from a Kool Moe Dee diss record. The beat, one of Marley Marl’s best, rides a four-count chant from Sly and the Family Stone‘s “Trip to Your Heart,” and the track peaks with J repeating, “Damage! Damage!” like he’s done rhyming and is ready to break shit.


Eminem, ‘Lose Yourself’

‘8 Mile’ soundtrack, 2002

Eminem‘s biggest-ever hit plays like Rocky condensed into a five-minute song. It helped that in telling the story of Rabbit – the trailer-dwelling aspiring rapper he played in 8 Mile – Eminem was more or less telling his own, sidestepping demented clowning and pure rage in favor of tough, realist rhymes about overcoming very long odds. Em cut the song during a brief break from filming. “He came in and laid down all three verses in one take,” recalled engineer Steven King. “Jaws dropped – we were like, ‘Oh, my God!’ This story had been building up in him.”


Craig Mack, Rampage, the Notorious B.I.G., LL Cool J, Busta Rhymes, ‘Flava in Ya Ear (Remix)’

Non-album single, 1994

Craig Mack has faded into obscurity – reportedly renouncing rap to join a fundamentalist Christian cult in South Carolina – but he left his mark on rap history with his debut single and its remix, one of hip-hop’s greatest posse cuts. Mack’s verse has its moments – “Wanna grab my dick/Too lazy/Hold it for me” – but the real fireworks come from the guests: a suave, sexy LL; Busta Rhymes, nearly devouring the mic in a manic 20 bars; and, above all, the punch-line-slinging Biggie Smalls, stealing the song right out from under his Bad Boy labelmate, beginning with one of his funniest boasts: “Niggas is mad I get more butt than ashtrays.”

a tribe called quest

A Tribe Called Quest, ‘Scenario’

Q-Tip, Phife Dawg and Ali Shaheed Muhammad cultivated a reputation as bohemian jazzbos, but they made one of their best songs when the incense smoke c