Since the 1970s, hip hop has taken its place as a prominent music genre. What started as an underground urban movement in the Bronx, has now become a much-loved genre by many. To celebrate the history of hip hop and its influence on music, we wanted to bring you some of the best hip-hop songs of all time.
In the underprivileged areas of New York, hip hop was conceived in black and Latin communities before it became well-known. By DJing at local block parties, they would play disco and funk combined with an MC. With the rise in DJ technology and the development of MCs, old-school hip hop was born. At this time, the music consisted of slow funk grooves with melodic synth riffs and rap lyrics about social issues.
In the 80s, hip hop took off. Rappers like LL Cool J and due Run DMC started adding in catchy hooks which made the music more diverse and palatable for wider audiences. By the end of the 80s, hip hop had taken over studios and established itself as a sought-after genre. Continue to the 21st century, and it has become one of the most popular genres in history!
Top 10 Best Hip Hop Songs Of All Time
Let’s get into it! What are the best hip hop songs of all time?
10. Mind Playing Tricks on Me (1991) – Geto Boys
Starting off our list is a song with rather sombre lyrics. “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” is about the hardships of being a gangster. Lyrics focus on the mental impacts of the lifestyle including PTSD, paranoia, suicidal tendencies and loneliness.
At a time where general audiences looked down on young, black hip hop artists because of their associated lifestyles, lyrics often rang true to their hardships and political injustice. Still, no matter the lyrics, people just took the violence and aggression out of the songs and turned it into a political weapon against the genre instead of listening to the true meaning.
The original inspiration from the song is surprisingly heartwarming. Scarface, a member of Geto Boys, once asked his granda what she was mumbling about. She responses with “Oh, nothing, my mind’s playing tricks on me”.
Due to the controversy of hip hop at the time, this song didn’t receive universal credit until years after. In 2012, Rolling Stones Magazine ranked it as the fifth-greatest hip-hop song of all time! It also put the American South on the map as a centre for music. These artists were bringing out “darker” songs than anywhere else in America which is now recognised as a significant part of Hip Hops history. This makes it of the best 90s hip hop songs.
9. Straight Outta Compton (1989) – N.W.A.
N.W.A changed the world of hip hop when Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, MC Ren and DJ Yella formed the group. A powerhouse of musical talent with their work still being relevant today.
Like many of N.W.A’s songs, this was quite controversial at the time. It was in your face with a darker undertone but combined with MC Ren’s rhythms. Radio stations refused to add it to their playlists and some even refused to recognise it as a song. It was a reflection of the life of someone living in Compton, and people did not like the harsh reality of that. Politicians attacked the song focusing on the lyrics, instead of focusing on how their own government had directly caused the hardships of the people living these realities.
This is something true throughout much of histories music. People focus on the literal lyrics instead of the message behind them and why these people are singing about these things in the first place. If America treated black people equally, they wouldn’t be in the position in the first place to sing about the hardships of their own life!
With protesting American’s and huge tension between law enforcement, it became one of the most politically unsettling songs of the time. Despite this, the album still sold 3 million records without a radio single which is unreal. The rift it caused makes it one of the most significant songs to come out of hip hop.
8. Runaway (2010) – Kanye West
Out of all the best 2000s hip hop songs, Kanye was bound to be at least mentioned. Despite what you think about his personality, you can’t deny he is one of the most prominent musical geniuses when it comes purely to his work.
However, the film “Runaway”, directed by Kanye is the first thing we want to mention when referring to this song. It is a compilation of all the “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” album songs whist taking inspiration from several influences. Films like Purple Rain and Pink Floyd – The Wall, directors Federico Fellini and Stanley Kubrick aswell as designer Karl Lagerfeld were all direct inspirations. This only highlights Kanye’s appreciation of many different areas in culture and his undeniable appreciation of history and the people within it who went against the grain. Of course, this features much more than just Kanye’s song “Runaway”, but is so significant we thought it was worth mentioning.
The actual song is something deeply personal to Kanye, singing about his failed relationships and the way the media portrayed him. Featuring Pusha T, the song received universal acclaim and was praised for the openness of the song and Kanye reflecting his genius self.
7. Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang (1992) – Dr. Dre feat. Snoop Doggy Dogg
“Nothin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” is about music, money and violence. A fact that makes it such a legendary song is that it was Snoop Dog’s first-ever appearance on a major release. Later, he would rise to fame with his album, “Over the Counter”, which was produced by Dr. Dre. Furthermore, it proved Dr. Dre as a successful modern hip hop artist after leaving the group N.W.A.
It became an immediate success reaching number 2 on the Billboards Hot 100, number 3 in the UK charts and number 1 on the Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles and Tracks.
The song has been referenced in pop culture numerous times and has been sampled by Ja Rule, Kris Kross and Mariah Carey to name a few.
However, the song was criticised for exposing teens to unnecessary violence and misogyny. Despite this being true for these particular lyrics, maybe we should focus on the poltical messages throughout most great hip hop songs. Unfortunately, these teens are already exposed to violence in racist America.
6. Alright (2015) – Kendrick Lamar
In 2015, the song “Alright” was more than just a song. With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, “Alright” became a unifying track of POC facing racial injustice in America. It is also where Lamar introduced “Lucy”, a character that plays an essential role in the storytelling of the whole album.
The song was actually inspired by hardships elsewhere. After visiting South Africa, Lamar said how “their struggles were ten times harder in the country”, which motivated him to create the track along with Pharrel Williams.
Upon release, the music and video for “Alright” were immediately considered one of the best of the year. It went on to receive the Best Rap Song and Best Rap Performance award at the 58th Grammy Awards aswell as a few other nominations.
5. Juicy (1994) – The Notorious B.I.G.
This song served as a reflection of Biggie’s unexpected rise to fame after growing up in Brooklyn when rap wasn’t considered a serious genre. Now, it has become one of the most widely known hip hop/rap songs to modern audiences.
In 2019, the BBC music announced “Juicy” as the greatest hip hop song of all time. However, the song did cause some controversy at the time. Despite being one of Biggie’s most famous songs, Pete Rock claims Sean “Puffy” Combs, the executive producer of the Ready to Die album, stole the “Juicy” beat from him. He still stands by this statement today and wants official credit. Whether this is true or not, it is still a great track. The “rags to richest” message in the song has also been up for dispute. Biggie’s mother claimed they were not as poor as he was claiming in his lyrics and disagreed with the way he portrayed their lives.
Multiple references can be heard in the song. Firstly, the line “Time to get paid, blow up like the World Trade referring to 9/11. You can also hear Biggie suggesting he was a drug dealer before getting signed with “The building I was hustlin’ in front of.”.
Despite the dispute over the credit of the song, it is certainly one of the top-rated hip hop songs in history as well as one of the best hip hop songs to dance to!
4. Sucker M.C.’s (1983) – RUN DMC
Also known as Frush Groove 1, this two-sided release, along with “It’s Like That”, was the first-ever single released by RUN DMC and kickstarted their career. It also caused the rise of a new era of hip hop, that had a more street image with abrasive and minimal sounds.
The influence this song has, like many on this list, is extensive. Wu-Tang Clan and the Beastie Boyz have covered the song as well as Public Enemy, Kid Rock and Keith Murray sampling the song to name a few. At the time, it rendered any hip hop before it as “old school” and brought a new wave of music and artists.
Backing tracks by Orange Krush were used as the base for 4 of Run DMC’s track, Kush Groove 1-4. Davy DMX, a member of Orange Krush, stripped down the original track so that all that was remaining was the drumbeat. You can hear a reference to this in the song; “Dave cut the record down to the bone.”. Unlimtaley, this is what lead to the emphasis on a heavy drum beat and the cause of the new wave of hip hop at the time.
3. Planet Rock (1982) – Afrika Bombaataa and the Soulsonic Force
Planet Rock was the third ever hip hop song to make it into the American top hits. Despite this, it was nothing like any hip hop song before it. Heavily involving synths and electronic elements, this song broadened the limits of what hip hop was.
Bambaataa was a New York DJ with a wealth of knowledge of music. One of his regularly played songs was “Trans-Europe Express” by none other than Kraftwerk! Tom Silverman, chairman of Tommy Boy Records, suggested to Bobaata that they use inspiration from the song in his new track, without using samples, however. With also a rise in popularity of Kraftwerk in New York, but no publishers supporting their music in America at the time, Planet Rock targeted a gap in the market.
Tommy Boy Record claimed the 12” single sold around 700,000 copies, which would make it one of the best-selling songs in that form!
2. Rapper’s Delight (1979) – Sugarhill Gang
By 1979, hip hop has been around for 7 years, but mostly within an underground culture of block parties. Sugarhill Gang were the first to get a hip hop song into the American top 100 music charts! It served as a song to get rap into the mainstream after being dismissed as a more traditional R&B song.
The song actually made it to #36 which was outstanding for its scope. It did exactly what it was meant to do and pushed hip hop to a wider audience.
This was also the first hip hop song to use samples using the beat from “Good Times” by Chic. A very popular song found at block parties at the time.
The group was formed by Sylvia Robinson, owner of the New Jersey label Sugarhill Records, hence the name Sugarhill Gang. Sylvia understood that music videos were a great way to promote a song in Europe, thus, Rapper’s Delight became the first-ever rap music video.
1. The Message (1982) – Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
This song set the stage for hip hop to carry a message of political injustice. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were the first dominant group to emerge out of hip hop with MCs rapping messages about the hardships of underprivileged POC living in America at the time. This took hip hop from block parties into the social platform developed by more recognisable hip hop groups.
The song was written by Duke Bootee and Melle Mel after the 1980 New York City transit strikes. Lyrics can be heard referring to the event and reflects hip hops rise with social injustice.
The influence on music culture of this song has been huge. Samples of the track can be heard in songs by the likes of Puff Daddy and Ice Cube as well as being featured in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Phil Collins has even spoken about how the song influenced genesis’ music!
Not only is this one of the best 80s hip hop songs, but one of the best hip hop songs in history and the most influential songs to come out of any genre.
That Was Our List Of The Best Hip Hop Songs
That was our list of the best Hip Hop song!
Whether you’re a hip hop fan or not, you can’t deny its important place within the history of music. It not only has inspired so much music today but often contained deeper messaged of political injustice and the hardships of black people living in America. Unfortunately, we see a very similar situation in today’s America, and these lyrics are still all too a reality. Equally, like many songs today, they reflect a darker side of history that is not white-washed or influenced by the people in power. Because of this, hip hop is one of the most influential and important genres within music!
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