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

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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.

Dr Dre, Snoop Dogg

Dr. Dre feat. Snoop Doggy Dogg, ‘Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang’

The Chronic, 1992

Climbing to Number Two on the singles chart in early 1993, "Nuthin' But a 'G' Thang" made Dr. Dre the undisputed flag bearer of West Coast rap, while also ushering that genre into the pop mainstream. The song's secret weapon was a relatively unknown pup named Snoop Doggy Dogg, whose verses are packed with effortless quotables. The song also introduced Dre's masterful "G-Funk" style of production, which updated George Clinton's legacy with slow, rubbery funk 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 with ' "G" Thang' and slowed the whole genre down. He took hip-hop from the crack era to the weed era."

Geto Boys, Willie D, Bushwick Bill, Scarface

Geto Boys, ‘Mind Playing Tricks on Me’

We Can’t Be Stopped, 1991

In 1991, Bushwick Bill of the Geto Boys took a bullet – reportedly self-inflicted – in the eye during a suicidal freakout. He survived; a photo of the diminutive MC displaying his wound appeared on the Texas trio’s album cover. This Top 30 hit – a classic of cracked ghetto armor that put Houston hip-hop on the map – revealed even more of the manic depression and death wish inside their rhymes. Scarface, who wrote and produced the track, sounded like his movie namesake: fully armed at the edge of sanity, over dark-treble guitar and a gunslinger-walk rhythm sampled from an old Isaac Hayes tune. “It was an awesome, complex display of paranoia,” says Questlove. “It managed to add a third dimension [to Geto Boys’ sound], and it humanized them.” 

Run DMC, Jam Master Jay

Run-DMC, ‘Sucker M.C.’s’

Run-D.M.C., 1983

In the beginning, hip-hop was club music, an offshoot of disco. After “Sucker M.C.’s,” it belonged to teenagers on the street. Nothing more than brawling rhymes over a spare beat from an Oberheim DMX drum machine, the song appeared as the B side to Run-DMC’s debut single, “It’s Like That,” and cut with sidewalk-­spinning break dancers in mind. “There was never a B-boy record made until we made ‘Sucker M.C.’s,'” said Run-DMC DJ Jam Master Jay. But the song’s lyrics were as potent as its whiplash groove. Run charts his creation myth (“Two years ago, a friend of mine/Asked me to say some MC rhymes”) before his partner introduces­ himself: “I’m DMC in the place to be/I go to St. John’s University!” flying his alma mater like gang colors. A new school had arrived. 

Afrika Bambaata soul sonic force

Afrika Bambaataa & the Soul Sonic Force, ‘Planet Rock’

Non-album single, 1982

“One of the most influential songs of everything,” says Rick Rubin. “It changed the world.” Helmed by 25-year-old Kevin “Afrika Bambaataa” Donovan, a reformed South Bronx gang-member-turned-punk-mystic-community-leader/DJ – with help from superstar producer-in-the-making Arthur Baker and keyboardist John Robie this 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!”) into a jam that got the world break-dancing. It introduced Roland 808 beats to hip-hop, for which acts from the Beasties to Kanye would be grateful. Even more important, it coined the sonic language of electro, Detroit techno, freestyle R&B, Miami bass, Brazilian favela funk – i.e., much of modern dance music. “At the time we barely considered it a rap record,” says Rubin. “It was more about this new sound.” Chuck D adds crunk music to the list of genres that “Rock” inspired: “It’s as important as Willie Mitchell or Booker T. were to the Memphis scene. There hasn’t been a song like it in hip-hop since.” 

sugarhill gang

Sugarhill Gang, ‘Rapper’s Delight’

Non-album single, 1979

It took three guys from New Jersey to put hip-hop, a still-underground New York club phenomenon, on Top 40 radio for the first time. Three years before “The Message,” Sylvia Robinson’s Sugar Hill Records was facing bankruptcy when she made a discovery in a Harlem club. “She saw a DJ talking and the crowd responding,” remembered her son Joey. “She said, ‘Joey, wouldn’t this be a great idea to make a rap record?'”

Robinson (who passed away in 2011) assembled the Sugarhill Gang – Joey discovered Henry “Big Bank Hank” Jackson working at a pizzeria, listening to an early hip-hop tape, and asked him if he knew how to rap. The original 12-inch single, “Rapper’s Delight,” was 15 minutes of undeniable urban-playboy bragging – some of it “borrowed” from Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers – over a rhythm track that blatantly quoted the bass line in Chic’s 1979 hit “Good Times.” Bassist Chip Shearin had to play that lick for a quarter-hour. “We were sweating bullets because that’s a long time,” he said. (Shearin, then 17, was paid $70. Chic’s Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards did much better, getting writer credits after legal action.)

“Rapper’s Delight” was edited down to six and a half minutes and reached Number 36 on the pop charts, and suddenly rap was a viable genre for recorded music. Bronx hip-hop pioneers like Grandmaster Flash were shocked: When he first heard it on the air, he asked, “The Sugarhill who? Who are these people?” 

grandmaster flash and the furious five

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, ‘The Message’

The Message, 1982

“The Message” was a total knock out of the park,” says Chuck D. “It was the first dominant rap group with the most dominant MC saying something that meant something.” It was also the first song to tell, with hip-hop’s rhythmic and vocal force, the truth about modern inner-city life in America – you can hear its effect loud and clear on classic records by Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, N.W.A, the Notorious B.I.G. and even Rage Against the Machine. Over seven minutes, atop a creeping rhythm closer to 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: drugs, prostitution, prison and the grim promise of an early death. There was 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,” each word enunciated like a gunshot.

Flash, born Joseph Saddler, grew up in a neighborhood that closely resembled the song: the South Bronx during the worst of the Seventies urban blight. He and the Furious Five had become the number-one DJ crew in the borough – pushing aside early pioneers like Kool Herc and Pete “DJ” Jones – with a mix of party-hearty showmanship and Flash’s groundbreaking turntable skills. (Among other things, he invented the scratch.)

In a 1983 interview, Flash claimed “The Message” showed that he and the Five “can speak things that have social significance and truth.” But when Flash and the Furious Five first heard Bootee’s original demo (a track the latter called “The Jungle”), they worried that hip-hop clubgoers would not dig the subject matter and slowed-down beat, unusual for an early rap record. As Melle Mel remembered, he was the group member who “caved in” and agreed to record it; Sugar Hill boss Sylvia Robinson got him to write and rap more lyrics to Bootee’s track, and Sugar Hill studio player Reggie Griffin added the indelible synthesizer lick. Despite the credit on the record, Flash and the rest of the Five appeared only in a closing skit, in which they’re harassed and arrested by police.

“The Message” was a commercial success, peaking at Number Four on Billboard‘s R&B-singles chart, but its messy birth was fatal to Flash and the Five, who split into factions. Their most notable reunion would finally come in 2007, when they became the first rap group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 

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