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”
Public Enemy – “Fight The Power”
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”
Kanye West – “Through the Wire”
JAY-Z – “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)”
The Notorious B.I.G. – “Juicy”
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”
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”
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.