Hip Hop was born in many places. The sweat off bassist Chip Shearin’s back as he played the bassline for the first ever commercial rap song ‘Rapper’s Delight’. Or perhaps the first ever record scratches used for making a beat by Grandmaster Flash earlier in the 70’s. Hip hop was born here, and the idea of rap, the seeds of the genre, were planted in these years. This is the starting point that has led to the best hip hop songs of all time.
In this article, we will discuss the history of hip hop and count down our best hip hop songs of all time.
Stay tuned so you don’t miss all our top picks!
When looking down the timeline, it’s amazing how the seeds of hip hop has blossomed. Maybe the best example of this is in George Westinghouse Career and Technical Education High School, New York.
In this 1920’s built, ornate concrete cube on the corner south of Tillary Street and east of Jay Street, five students attended, at the same time, through the 1980’s.
Shawn Carter, Christopher Wallace, Trevor Smith, Earl Simmons and Oliver Grant. Carter and Smith were often caught rap battling each other in the cafeteria. Crowds of students gathering to hear the two teens trade bars. Those two battling teens would become Jay-Z and Busta Rhymes.
Christopher Wallace was described as a witty “smart-ass” student by his mother; he was still, according to the Huffington Post, a straight A student. Not as rebellious as Shawn Carter, who had been shot 3 different times before he left high school.
These 5 teenagers, crossing paths in the corridor on the way to science, playing around on opposite teams at recess, didn’t know it yet, but they were about to be the catalysts for making hip hop the most popular genre in the world.
Were they all put in one place by coincidence? Or something else. Let’s look at the world these 5 created and inherited, and run down our picks for the best hip hop songs of all time.
Those same streets those 5 young men grew up on. Those that inspired Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver 15 years earlier. The malfeasance of policemen, the gang shootings, the constant paranoia, brewed up inside Nasir Jones. There he dug this classic out from “the dungeons of rap” – N.Y State of mind.
DJ Premier, one of the greatest rap producers, beginning his career, sampled two Jazz songs for this track. The spiraling piano tones looping for the verses for Nas to spit over in a similarly hypnotic fashion.
Verses of this track are so lyrically dense that Premier himself felt he had no choice but to put a hook in between them. This is to ease the pressure on the listener’s ears, sampling a Rakim song for a short breakdown chorus.
The first verse of this song is regarded as one of the most effective rap verses of all time. It begins with one smooth swoop of irony as Nas states “I don’t know how to start this sh*t”. Sure you don’t, Nas. Not like you’re about to rap on one of the best 90s hip hop songs, or anything.
Arguably this track’s most iconic line “I never sleep, ‘cos sleep is the cousin of death’ stands out so boldly like a verse unto itself. The phrase contrasts with New York’s nickname, “the city that never sleeps”.
The fear Nas evokes with this line is of wasting time. Not being able to waste a minute. As if time in New York, Queens, is almost more valuable, more sacred. Because of the risk it carries, the danger that death lurks round each corner, or even that it waits until you sleep. Hence Nas, truly sounding like he is rapping for his life on this track.
Months after Nas had recorded N.Y State of mind, he found himself in M.C Phife Dawg’s grandmother’s basement. He was with fellow “A Tribe Called Quest” member, Q-Tip. There the pair recorded Nas’ track “One Love”. It was a beat hugely influenced by Tribe’s album 3 years prior, The Low End Theory.
This track encapsulates the charisma that defined Tribe, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg trading verses, sometimes even lines between each other. The call and response rhymes on this track show chemistry that probably has never existed so strongly between two artists on one track.
Their conversational moments in the verses “You on point Phife? All the time Tip”. They melt away seamlessly with the witty bars that each spit, lasting long like energiser batteries. Referencing Q-Tip’s name by requesting listeners clean their ears, then check the word on the label.
They’re right, listening to this track is like cleaning your ears, with the smoothest track ever out of Queens. Tribe definitely tops this list in terms of the best hip hop songs to dance to.
The story of Alright is one of the most powerful, hope-filled songs of its decade. It is one born from A Tribe Called Quest, in some way. Pharell Williams was 17 when he first heard People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, Tribe’s debut album.
He states it was “the first time [he] knew that music could be art”. From that moment, started what would be a lifelong love affair with hip-hop.
Fast forward 24 years. Williams is now a multi-million record selling artist and producer. He sits alone and starts laying down jazzy shimmers and layerings into a structure. Six months later, he finally completes the beat. This track would outgrow the definition of a song.
Kendrick Lamar stands on top of a graffiti’d police car, a giant American flag flies on the stage behind him. His silhouette cuts a 5 foot giant out of the stars and stripes. The abstract horns and vocal samples that Pharell crafted, blast from around him as the audience at the 2015 BET Awards celebrate in awe of what they watch.
Alright is a song about hope against struggle, looking for prosperity against strife. Lamar’s telling his story as a black man in America became the anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement. “We gon’ be alright” was chanted at protests all around the USA.
This hopeful piece of hip-hop showed the power of the genre; to create conversation, be introspective, be one of the best 2000s hip hop songs. It’s an irresistible tune all at the same time.
While we’re here on the West Coast, let’s visit the King of Hooks, the late, great Nate. Nate Dogg garnered the nickname “King of Hooks” from his silky smooth California vocals and rap style. He sang countless hooks between the release of Regulate and his retirement in 2009.
This track is maybe one of the ultimate pieces of storytelling hip-hop. He tells a tale where Nate Dogg saves his distressed and captured companion Warren G from a group of robbers that are about to kill him.
Despite Regulate’s smooth whistling synth lines, typical of G-Funk, the sub-genre this song is accredited to being the pinnacle of, the lyricism is grimey, slick and ruthless.
“Sixteen in the clip and one in the hole, Nate Dogg is about to make some bodies turn cold”. This line never loses its impact; the nonchalant attitude the line is spoken with emphasises Nate Dogg’s control of the mic, and the situation too.
Additionally, after he saves Warren, the pair celebrate. “Got a car full of girls, now it’s going real swell, next stop is the east side motel”. The line marks common crossroads between danger and love, since this artist is responsible for producing some of the best hip hop love songs.
Braggadocious, cocky, victorious. The pair’s success against the odds in this tale is paralleled by this track’s success. It was both artists’ most successful track. It went 2x Platinum in the USA and was Def Jam’s most successful single.
Producer Madlib is in Brazil, sifting through crates upon crates of old and obscure second-hand vinyls. He is looking for songs to sample for a project he is working on back in LA. Madlib buys multiple crates worth of records in Sao Paulo (two of which he lost) to make beats from.
When back in LA, he and Brighton (yes, the one in the UK) and later New York rapper, MF DOOM would spend days on end together, recording, rapping and eating thai food. They were making the album Madvillainy, aka ‘your favourite rapper’s favourite album’.
“Meat Grinder” is in the upper echelons of rap. It is certainly one of the top rated hip hop songs of all time. It’s just as obscure of a cut as any track from Madvillainy; there is no chorus, frequent beat switch-ups and looping, repetitive samples. The first line of this track is “tripping off the beat kinda’” which perfectly describes DOOM’s flow and cadence of bars.
He stumbles from line to line, sometimes completely switching his flow up to an off-beat style but then just catching himself back up with a witty one-liner.
“Meat Grinder’s” ticking drums and escalating bassline complement the sound effects mixed in on the track by Madlib. The shrieking guitar plucks sound right out of a western-style cartoon or Frank Zappa songs, with the addition of gunshot samples sprinkled across the track. Like seasoning dropped from a height.
Even after not being with us anymore, anyone who knows DOOM’s music has that loving feeling, or a wish, that he might just be able to make everything make sense in the end with one witty punchline, villainous rhyme or perfectly crafted bar.
Truth be told, this could have been any track from Biggie’s legendary 1994 record Ready to Die. No-one has ever had a flow so malleable, rhymes that trickled out of his mouth so easily.
As soon as you hear him rap, you know why Biggie is one of the best hip-hop artists of all time. He commands a song. Even on tracks where he merely features, like Junior M.A.F.I.A’s Get Money, he is in charge. This track is maybe the best example of that, four minutes fly by, bar after bar, chuckle after chuckle, Biggie commands and entertains like no other.
Machine Gun Funk features a killer, almost glitchy, yet so natural sounding bassline. Drums crashing in over a scratchy synth line on the hook that has your shoulders and head bouncing like they’re on strings.
Biggie lays down the dichotomies of his life in short, snappy and smart bars: “So I guess you know the story, the rap-side, crack-side” referring to his drug dealing past, and his rap dominating present.
And then later “Left the drugs alone, took the thugs along with me” detailing how rap and music became his life in that gap between leaving George Westinghouse High School, and being a worldwide phenomenon.
Sadly, each story needs three acts, and after those first two, came the tragic end for B.I.G; he was the victim of a shooting in New York three years after this track’s release in 1997.
Christopher Wallace, lived as the kid from highschool, one of the best rappers to hold the mic, but died so much more, hence his legendary status, his name plastered across the annals of rap.
This twinkling beat was made five years prior to C.R.E.A.M’s release by Wu-Tang leader RZA. Raekwon heard this beat in 89’ and told his bandmate “don’t let nobody have this, I want that beat”. Half a decade later, RZA kept his word, and Wu-Tang released C.R.E.A.M with a verse from Raekwon.
Raekwon was right to be precious about having a verse on this song. The track is regarded generally as the defining hip hop song, particularly in the 90’s. Its iconic sound has garnered it massive acclaim, most hip hop songs are up for debate around whether they are in a best of all time list. Not C.R.E.A.M.
The motto still is echoes in rap to this very day. Cash Rules Everything Around Me, the feeling of powerlessness to something stronger is so common in rap, like paranoia in N.Y State of mind, the system in Alright, or the power of coincidence across all of hip hop.
Kanye West is one of the biggest names in the world and responsible for some of the best hip hop dance songs like ‘Flashing Lights’. However, Runaway is slightly different and is more melancholic.
In Runaway, Kanye feels powerless to himself, the “scumbag” part of himself. He had exiled himself to Hawaii after the incident at the 2009 VMAs with Taylor Swift. In the studio, recording Runaway (and the entire album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy) everyone had to wear a suit and tie, or highly smart attire.
One wall of the studio was plastered with notices for any newbie to the environment. They read: “No Tweeting” “All laptops on mute” “Total focus on this project in all studios” “No Hipster hats” and finally, again “No Tweeting (Please, Thank you)”.
West had been shunned by the media, and large portions of the public for his antics the year prior. That feeling of not being heard for who you really are, and having things twisted against you is very apparent in Runaway.
This might be the only song on this list that is recognisable with one piano key press.
“Runaway” is an unapologetic apology for Kanye’s personality. Often insufferable, often funny, always self-absorbed. But all the while, still the man that changed the direction of hip-hop in the mid 2000’s and continued to be the lead influence for rap well into the 2010’s.
Over crashing drums and the simplest of piano melodies, Kanye and Pusha look inwards at their faults, their worst traits; “I’m so gifted at finding what I don’t like the most” highlights an inner conflict in West. This was later be discovered as Bipolar Disorder, which he would open up about on 2018’s “ye”.
Arguably Runaway’s most distinctive feature is its 3 minute, unintelligible vocoder solo outro. Kanye stated that he wanted to do a guitar solo to play himself out, but couldn’t play guitar. Instead, he did it with what he knew he could use, his vocals.
Before this epic melodic murmur, West states “Imma’ be honest”, he doesn’t feel heard, we definitely can’t hear him, maybe this is how Kanye feels like he sounds like in the public eye.
Big L, Lamont Coleman, died at age 24. He was shot 9 times in the chest and killed by his childhood best friend Gerrard Woodley. A week before his death, Coleman along with Herb McGruff, C-Town and one other member, began the process to sign to Roc-A-Fella records as a group called The Wolfpack.
That one other member? None other than George Westinghouse highschool alumni Shawn Carter, AKA Jay-Z.
Big L previously signed with Columbia records, but they dropped him. They didn’t like his hardcore, horror-core hip hop that was on display; most prominently on “Put It On”, released a year prior to his signing.
This song incorporates bells and keys, this ding-ing melody accompanies witty threats and brags from Big L like “The last punk who fronted [me] got a mouth full of false teeth”.
Moments of introspection are littered within “You can’t kill me, I was born dead”. This shows that L believes he is living on borrowed time because of his violent and dangerous lifestyle. A lifestyle mainly conceived by the dangers of New York city which he grew up in.
Big L had come a long way from his first raps which he wrote at age twelve. Just as he grew out of his first nickname that his mother gave him as a young child, “Little L”. At this age Little L had not graduated school yet, and each day, played at recess with the man that’d eventually kill him.
“I sit alone in my four cornered room, starin’ at candles” The paranoia is back. If one song could encapsulate all of rap, represent everything that the genre has to offer, the culture, the braggadocio, the coincidence, the comedy, it’d be Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks” on me.
Sampling the 1974’s “Hung Up on My Baby” by Isaac Hayes. They replace a traditional chorus or hook with a guitar riff from the Hayes Track. Each member of the Southern trio Geto Boys finishes their verse with “my mind is playing tricks on me!” Each time reinforcing the fears of living, how they drift when driving on the road, how they question the meaning of events, always second-guessing themselves.
What makes this song so powerful is, despite the confidence at times “I get big money, I drive big cars, everybody knows me, it’s like I’m a movie star”, it also exposes a unique kind of vulnerability that is extremely relatable, unlike Kanye’s celebrity struggles on Runaway.
This song is the full spectrum hip hop, while also being hard to listen to without scrunching up your face and nodding your head.
Mind Playing Tricks on Me is everywhere, trickling into all facets of rap, The Notorious BIG interpolates it on “One More Chance”. Ice cube references it on “When Will They Shoot”. Pusha T (from Runaway) sampled it on one of his breakout songs with Clipse “Nightmares”.
Beyonce references Mind Playing Tricks on Me with Destiny’s Child on the song “Illusion”. This is the interconnected nature of hip hop since she is married to Jay Z.
So there was our list of the best hip hop songs of all time. We’ve touched on the music of some absolute legends of the sport. Ranging from purists like Nas to those who innovate the genre such as Kanye West.
As we’ve discussed, Hip Hop has emerged as one of the most prominent and popular artforms of the past four decades; born from strife, producing killer rap songs you can dance to and inspiring kids like a young Kendrick Lamar to write their own poetry.
It is arguably the ultimate form of postmodern art; sampling, scratching, reusing bars, taking influence and interpolating make rap the community project it is.
Right now, the next best hip hop artist is living, young, out there somewhere in one of the corners of the globe we have reached in this list today. Maybe they’re scratching rhymes of the next best hip hop song into a notebook at home; living an upbringing certainly defined by almost unbelievable coincidence, or something else.