The story of the genre of hip-hop’s beginnings toes the line between humble and mythical. Amongst the fire and brimstone of the burning Bronx in the early 1970s, DJ Kool Herc set out to take the genre of disco and turn it on its head. On August 11, 1973, around 50 people stuffed themselves into the rec room of a Bronx apartment complex to attend the first known hip-hop party in history. The legendary Jamaican-American DJ was one of the revolutionaries of the art form, taking identical records and spinning them on two turntables to create extended drum breaks which became the beats that rhymes get rapped over. No fear of scratching the records stopped him from setting the basics for one of the most influential genres of the past three decades.
Hip-hop has developed immensely since its renegade infancy. The genre has held many movements and sounds within its scope: from the raps dealing with protests and social commentary, the era of gangsta rap dominating the airwaves, the highly criticized and critiqued realm of “mumble” rap to everything in between. Each era, individual moments, each sound produced transcendent artists and iconic songs. In the spirit of record-keeping and appreciation, we recount some of the most iconic songs in the history of the art form, the ones that are forever immortalized in our hearts and ears.
Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, Grandmaster Melle Mel, Duke Bootee - “The Message”
This song is one of the most salient examples of the beginning of “conscious-rap.” At the start of the genre, rappers primarily rapped about what they knew, and that was their surroundings. For lyricists Melle Mel and Duke Bootee, this objectivity manifested itself as a chronicle for the state of urban Black America. The sprawling, seven-minute funk track holds many moments that built the foundation for the cadence, flow, and subject matter of the next generation of rappers.
The Sugarhill Gang - “Rapper’s Delight”
One of the longest songs ever to become successful as it did, “Rapper’s Delight” is the gold-standard for early hip-hop success. It was the first rap track to appear on Billboard’s Hot 100, appearing on the heralded list back in 1979. Aside from its commercial prowess, the track is considered one of the most influential in the history of the genre. From the bass line sampling Chic’s “Good Times,” to numerous cornerstone phrases that are permanently ingrained in every older rapper’s lexicon.
Public Enemy - “Fight The Power”
Some songs perfectly encapsulate the frustrations of a single race with both clarity and blaring intensity. “Fight The Power” is the premier example as Chuck D and Flavor Flav rebelled against the entirety of systemic racism. Behind a symphony of samples and droning horns, the duo attempt to inspire those subjugated people to rise against the system that they were born into. And now, even in the current societal landscape, it retains its value as a protest and freedom anthem.
Nas - “N.Y. State of Mind”
Over one of the legendary DJ Premier’s best productions, Nas took his listeners on a five-minute ride through his version of New York. There isn’t a moment in which you can tear yourself away from the song. As the iconic drum beat trudges along, Nas spits with an intensity and precision that only a few throughout the eons of music could imitate. As any rap fan can attest to, that “sleep is the cousin of death” line rings in your head long after the first listen.
N.W.A - “F*** Tha Police”
Sure, some rap songs can resonate with a group of fans or a city due to regional specificity. However, very few can resonate with an entire race as this N.W.A. track did. On behalf of the entire Black community, the Compton natives took the Los Angeles Police Department and the whole system of racist policing to trial. The riotous and blatant track pushed the group into the crosshairs of the police and the FBI, and quickly developed into a protest track that has stood the test of time.
Dr. Dre & Snoop Dogg - “Nuthin’ But A “G” Thang”
Dr. Dre’s foray into solo work was ridiculously successful and profitable, but no piece of art will surpass this track from his debut album "The Chronic." The sample of a 1975 Leon Haywood track created the perfect sound for the West Coast atmosphere. Combine the timeless production with the flawless foil of Dre’s deep, heavy voice with Snoop Dogg’s laidback, casual delivery and you get an effortless platform performance. It wasn’t the first collaboration between the two artists, and it certainly wasn’t the last; however, it was the best.
Kanye West - “Through the Wire”
Kanye West’s journey towards becoming a rapper started with him scratching and clawing for his verse to be heard while he was producing for bigger artists. In a twisted bout of irony, his breakout solo track was recorded after a horrific car accident that almost robbed him of his life and left him with his jaw wired shut. Just recording the track in that state was an astounding feat itself, but to create a transcendent piece of work like “Through the Wire” was the stuff of legends. From the incredible Chaka Khan sample to the graphically honest lyrics, Kanye endeared himself to the entire genre with ease.
JAY-Z - “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)”
In a clever twisting and appropriation of the Annie story from which the famous sample “It’s a Hard Knock Life” came from, JAY-Z’s personal rags-to-riches story became the track the turned him into a superstar. He rode the delightful sample with transparent lyrics chronicling the less than glamorous beginnings of his life, allowing him to celebrate the success that he achieved due to his hard work and dedication. The song became the soundtrack for rappers looking to make a name for themselves amongst the crowded genre and arise from the suffocating environment of America.
The Notorious B.I.G. - “Juicy”
From the very first single from Biggie’s debut album "Ready to Die," it was fully apparent that the Brooklyn native was made for stardom. Over a sample of Mtume’s 1983 hit track “Juicy Fruit,” Big delivers a sermon that both celebrates the history of hip-hop and allows him to reflect on his newfound riches and success. Amid endearing appreciation of the growth, he was able to achieve, he displays a rapping prowess on the track that others would try to mimic for years to come. Numerous quotable moments are strewn throughout his three verses, cementing the performance in rap lore forever.
2Pac - “Dear Mama”
This is probably one of the most famous love letters in the history of music. Instead of a devotional track to the love of his life, 2Pac dedicated an entire track to his mom Afeni Shakur, showing appreciation and love for everything she did for him. For an artist that embodied the essence of gangsta rap and toughness, he created a touching song that gets played whenever someone wants to show appreciation to the one that birthed them. It’s sweet, touching, and honest.
Bone Thugs-N-Harmony - “Tha Crossroads”
Rappers are known to attempt to dedicate tracks to those who have passed on as a form of appreciation and remembrance for their time on this Earth. Few songs are as emotionally intelligent as this Bone Thugs track off of their album "E. 1999 Eternal." Behind the timeless piano production, the Cleveland natives rapped about how they missed their Uncle Charles and promised to see their loved ones again. It always tugs at the heartstrings no matter when you listen to it.
UGK feat. OutKast - “Int’l Players Anthem (I Choose You)”
There’s bound to be moments of greatness when you combine two of the most celebrated rap duos of all time on a track. From the very start of Andre 3000’s introductory verse, which runs in tandem with the original sample’s melody and lyrics, it became clear that the foursome arrived to achieve perfection. As much praise that gets lauded on Andre’s verse, the following performances by Pimp C, Bun B, and Big Boi deserve the same amount of recognition as they all contribute to the perfect track.
Eric B. & Rakim - “Paid In Full”
Any rapper who grew up listening to hip-hop in the 1980s recognizes the lyrical prowess of Rakim. With his God-level rapping skills, he and Eric B. set the standard for rapper-producer duos for years to come. “Paid In Full” is the prime example of the duo’s chemistry, where a flawless Rakim verse is sandwiched by candid conversations between the two. On top of the track brimming with personality, Rakim coined the phrase “Dead presidents,” which has been a mainstay on almost every hip-hop track ever.
Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth - “They Reminisce Over You”
In a list of songs that are rife with instantly recognizable beats and hooks, this might be the most salient example of a track that has cemented itself in the minds of every rap fan. The transcendent combination of the saxophone and bass production is easily one of the most impressive beats in Pete Rock’s immense catalog. C.L. Smooth unpacks a slew of bars dedicated to happy memories and nostalgia with ease.
The Pharcyde - “Passin’ Me By”
For many years, the profession of rapping was synonymous with attempting to frame oneself as a “hard” individual. On this iconic track from the South Central Los Angeles quartet, the rappers avoid any attempt to falsely represent themselves as hard, instead electing to frame themselves as hopeless romantics. Over a sample of Quincy Jones’ “Summer In The City,” they rapped about the relatable issues of shooting your shot to someone out of your league, becoming a part of the soundtrack for heartbroken teens everywhere.
A Tribe Called Quest - “Can I Kick It?”
As one of the groups that decided to branch off from the trend of gangsta rap during the early 1990s, A Tribe Called Quest carried the torch and became the gold-standard for “alternative” rap artistry. The rap stylings of Q-Tip and the late Phife Dawg exhibited the pinnacle of chemistry and meshed perfectly with DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad. “Can I Kick It?” can be considered the peak of the group’s work, as the cool, laid-back beat is the perfect background to elite raps from the Q-Tip and Phife.
Geto Boys - “Mind Playing Tricks On Me”
Armed with possibly the greatest album cover of all time, the Geto Boys revolutionized the subgenre of horrorcore, delving into grisly themes that even gangsta rappers usually elect to avoid. “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” is a legendary track that allows the trio of Scarface, Willie D, and Bushwick Bill to delve into the paranoia and psychological stress of the lives they led. Each rapper spits verses on the symptoms and consequences of their lifestyle with horrific candor, to the point where you have to feel depressed after each anecdote. And somehow, the beat causes the track to never register as off-putting.
The Fugees - “Ready or Not”
In a battle for supremacy as Lauryn Hill’s most recognizable chorus, this track reigned supreme with its crossover appeal. Lauryn’s voice floats perfectly over the hauntingly eerie production, handing the mic to Wyclef Jean as he delivers a clean performance. Instantly, Lauryn snatches the attention right back, putting the rap world on notice that she held the ability to rap with the best of the genre. Pras closed the track with a cool showing, as the Fugees displayed the best of their talents from their short-lived composition.
Ice Cube - “It Was A Good Day”
Ice Cube’s post-N.W.A. career produced several signature moments, but none was bigger than the 1992 track “It Was A Good Day.” Historically known for aggressive and violent bars, Cube switched it up and created one of the most wholeheartedly positive songs in the history of music. Off the strength of a flawless Isley Brothers sample, Cube chronicles a perfect day in which the Lakers beat the Supersonics, nobody he knew died, and he didn’t see a single cop. To this day, no artist has so clearly enjoyed the simpler things in life as Cube did on that day.
Slick Rick - “Children’s Story”
The art of storytelling in rap is a delicate skill. It’s a balancing act between registering as corny and unbelievable, all whilst attempting to engage the average rap fan with the content of your story. There’s no greater example than Slick Rick’s cautionary tale of two wayward stick-up kids. Framed as a bedtime to story to a couple of children, the London born rapper takes his listeners one a dizzying ride chronicling the perils of a life of crime. On top of being a memorable parable, the song also contains one of the best opening lines of all time as he raps “Once upon a time not long ago.” Many rappers have tried to emulate Slick Rick’s storytelling prowess, but few have succeeded.