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The 50 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs of All Time

Jay Z, Eminem, Tupac, Biggie and more

Jayz Eminem Tupac Shakur Notorius B.I.G

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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.

32

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.”

31

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.’ ”

30

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
29

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.

28

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.”