I planned on doing a top twenty, but it would cut off way too many records. Making the list was a lot of fun, but it took quite awhile to complete. I’m also opening myself up to comments critiquing my picks.
Please critique away, friends.
I didn’t know what exactly to name this post because ‘best’ doesn’t necessarily fit the parameters of this list. I would say this list is more of a ‘most influential’ or even ‘most iconic’ hip-hop songs of all-time. There are a few exclusions to the rule since there are some tracks on here that aren’t really influential or iconic, but are just damn great. I just went with ‘best’ to make it easy.
I also wanted to explain a few other things. I omitted some hip-hop songs that were also crossover rock tracks like the last few albums of The Beastie Boys, etc…or else there would be a few more songs from them. I also tried to limit songs per artist to try to expand the list of artists to make the list. There are multiple songs by a few guys on here, so that wasn’t a hard rule either.
Slick Rick & Doug E. Fresh – “La Di Da Di”
Public Enemy – “Rebel Without a Pause”
EPMD – “Strictly Business”
De La Soul – “Me, Myself and I”
Kanye West – “All of the Lights”
Crypress Hill – “How I Could Just Kill a Man”
Geto Boys – “Mind Playing Tricks on Me”
Eric B. and Rakim – “Paid In Full”
KRS-One – “Sound of Da Police”
Kendrick Lamar – “Sing About Me/I’m Dying of Thirst”
Souls of Mischief – “93 ’til Infinity”
The Fugees – “Ready or Not”
50. Salt-N-Pepa – “Push It”
This was Salt-N-Pepa’s first hit and it was a banger. These ladies were influential as hell. There weren’t many women in rap/hip-hop at the time. They broke the glass ceiling and went mainstream with ‘Push it’,
49. Drake – “Over”
Drake sort of came out of nowhere in 2010. His album ‘Thank Me Later’ debuted at #1 and it gave birth to many clones that still try to duplicate his style. You can see his influence on many new artists making noise in hip-hop.
48. Kanye West – “Jesus Walks”
This was a single off Kanye West’s debut album “College Dropout”. It was his fourth single off the album. The fact that this was his fourth single says a lot about the quality of that album. This track sounds more like it the music he released on his next few albums. This song serves as a dividing point in his music catalog.
47. Luniz – “I Got Five On It”
This Bay Area hip-hop duo didn’t have any succes after this track, but it’s iconic. There have been hundreds of remixes of this song and was even a top-ten hit in Europe. If it sounds familiar, Puff Daddy later sampled the track with R. Kelly for ‘Satisfy You’.
46. Mobb Deep – “Shook Ones Part II”
This song is told from the perpective of inner-city guys in a turf war. It was the first Mobb Deep track I heard. I didn’t hear Part 1 until I found it on Napster a few years later. It has great lyrics and I love the beat.
45. Jay-Z & Kanye West – “Niggas In Paris”
When ‘Watch the Throne’ dropped in 2011, it was arguably the biggest thing to happen in music in a few years. It would have been like if Led Zepplin and The Who made an album together. Kanye West and Jay-Z killed this track and it’s one of my favorite hip-hop songs of all-time.
44. Kendrick Lamar – “Humble.”
Kendrick Lamar is the most-decorated rapper of the last few years. He makes albums that are beautiful lyrically and you rarely have to skip tracks while listening to one of his albums. This is the freshest song on this list.
43. LL Cool J – “I Need Love”
LL Cool J was one of the most popular rappers of the 1980s. He had some huge hits, but this track stands out. This was the first hip-hop song released as a love song. This broke ground since no other rapper had the balls to release a ‘love balled’ rap.
42. Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock – “It Takes Two”
One could argue that ‘It Takes Two’ is the most iconic early rap song of all-time. Their heavy use of samples was a staple of hip-hop of this time. This song seems to be sampled every other year by popular artists like The Black Eyed Peas, Lil Yachty and others, so its influence hits every generation.
41. Kurtis Blow – “The Breaks”
Kurtis Blow was one of the pioneers of hip-hop. This song is off his debut album and really bridges the gap between Funk and Hip-Hop. Most artists of this era just rapped over samples or instrumentals of an existing song, but Blow rapped over an original song.
40. Nas feat. Lauryn Hill – “If I Ruled the World”
This was the first Nas song to garner mainstream success, which is a bit hard to believe since ‘Illmatic’ was released before this album. Nas paired up with The Fugees’ Lauryn Hill for this track. This is not the last time you’ll see Nas on this list.
39. Common – “I Used to Love H.E.R.”
Common ushered in the modern era of the thinking man’s rapper. His songs aren’t about flaunting wealth or how many women he could get, his songs had substance. ‘I Used to Love H.E.R.’ is about the degradation of a woman with the deterioration of hip-hop music. Some rappers like Ice Cube thought he was taking a shot at West Coast hip-hop at the time.
38. 2Pac – “Hit’em Up”
Speaking of the West Coast, this song was released right at the peak of the East Coast/West Coast battle. 2pac went nuclear with this diss track. He directs his venom towards Notorious B.I.G., Puff Daddy and other Bad Boy artists. This riled up the feud so much that many think this led to 2Pac’s murder three months after its release.
37. Mos Def – “Mathematics”
Mos Def pushes the art form of rap towards social issues. Other artists like Talib Kweli and Lupe Fiasco are in the same vein as they rap about deeper moral/political issues. This was initially a B-side to his first single ‘Ms. Fat Booty’, but I believe ‘Mathematics’ exceeded it in the long run.
36. 2Pac & Dr. Dre – “California Love”
This was probably the first track most people heard from 2Pac (since he wasn’t exactly mainstream at this point). It was his first single after his prison release in 1995. It blew up and was his first #1 hit. It helped his ‘All Eyez on Me’ double album to fly off the shelves.
35. Outkast – “Rosa Parks”
Outkast helped put Atlanta hip-hop on the map. Outkast’s ‘Aquemini’ album is one of my favorite hip-hop albums of all-time. They are talented guys (Big Boi & Andre 3000) and I selfishly want them to release more music together.
34. Eric B. & Rakim – “Microphone Fiend”
I couldn’t make a ‘best hip-hop songs of all-time’ list without throwing in an Eric B. & Rakim track. ‘Microphone Fiend’ is one of those songs that is poured in the foundation of the entire genre. It’s part of the DNA of hip-hop.
33. Ice Cube – “It Was A Good Day”
Want an accurate snapshot of early-90’s South Central Los Angeles? Just listen to ‘Today Was a Good Day’ and Ice Cube helps you time travel back to 1992. It was an area of the country where so many talented rappers came out of, so it’s important to know their struggles.
32. Talib Kweli – “Get By”
Talib Kweli is one of my favorite hip-hop artists. “Get By” is his best track and it helps that he’s rapping over a sick Kanye West beat. West and Pharrell Williams had such a stranglehold on hip-hop since they were both prolific producers during the early 00’s. They later found a lot of success as artists. They had a knack to craft a song to best serve an artist.
31. Eminem – “Stan”
I was a music journalist at the time this song was released in 2000. I was a fan of Dido’s ‘Thank You’ and it was also released about the time ‘Stan’ hit radio. I was surprised that Eminem would sample such a brand new track. I loved the way that he tackled the rigors of fame. At the time of this release, Eminem was a rapper who made silly music videos, so the serious tone of ‘Stan’ helped him grow as an artist.
30. Boogie Down Productions – “The Bridge Is Over”
This track is from one of the earliest battles in hip-hop history. Boogie Down Productions was in the middle of ‘The Bridge Wars’, which pitted rappers from the Bronx and Queens against each other. KRS-One took aim at MC Shan, Marley Marl and the Juice Crew and sampled MC Shan’s ‘The Bridge’ in the process. This diss track is still sampled in songs to this day.
29. Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth – “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)”
This track describes the struggles of growing up with a single mother. Pete Rock talks about the lack of positive male leadership in the black community. The last track is about the life of their friend Troy, Trouble T. Roy in Heavy D & the Boyz, who recently died.
28. Wu-Tang Clan – “C.R.E.A.M.”
Wu-Tang Clan albums are a mix of different styles since there are just so many damn guys in the group. This track features Raekwon and Inspectah Deck, with Method Man taking care of the hook. They rap about the struggles of growing up poor and hustling for money.
27. Jay-Z – “99 Problems”
Jay-Z wiped YouTube clean of this song, so I added a short, live version. When Jay-Z released ‘The Black Album’, he announced that he was retiring. Here we sit well over a decade later and we know that was all a lie. ’99 Problems’ is one of the best tracks ever produced by the great Rick Rubin. He is old school when it comes to hip-hop and he knocked it out of the park.
26. House of Pain – “Jump Around”
I almost omitted this one since it was also played on alt-rock stations. I decided to keep it in since it’s so iconic and it’s basically a Cypress Hill song with Everlast rapping over it. This song has went on to live a life of its own. It’s a popular song at sporting events and is the prominently featured in Wisconson Badgers football games, Arsenal and Melbourne City soccer games and a darts world champion even uses it as his walk-on music.
25. Nas – “Ether”
This is the most vicious diss track of all-time. Jay-Z took jabs at Nas and Prodigy in his song ‘Takeover’, so Nas had to give a response. He skewered Jay-Z and regained his status as a power player in hip hop. Nas was coming off a pretty weak album, so Jay-Z’s beef with him opened the door for him to go for the throat…and sell copies of ‘Stillmatic’ in the process.
24. Immortal Technique – “Dance with the Devil”
This might be an oddball choice to some people. I just love the storytelling by Immortal Technique. It’s dark, twisted tale that will leave your jaw agape. I almost want to call this song “horror rap” because it’s that damn dark.
23. Wu-Tang Clan – “Method Man”
Most people would put ‘C.R.E.A.M.’ above ‘Method Man’, but this is more personal preference. It stands out on ‘Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’, which is hard to do on such a stacked album. Method Man became a legit star from this record. It’s perfectly placed in-between ‘C.R.E.A.M.’ and ‘Protect Ya Neck’. Just talking about 36 Chambers reminds me how much I love that album.
22. Jay-Z – “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)”
When this song dropped in 1998, it not only piqued the ear of hip-hop fans, but the use a song from the music ‘Annie’ in the chorus was a masterful move. It helped the song reach mainstream and put Jay-Z on the map with Top 40 airplay and worldwide success.
20. Nas – “N.Y. State of Mind”
You knew a track from ‘Illmatic’ would end up on here, right? I had to place the best track on one of the best albums of all-time on here. Nas had never been on the same fame level as Jay-Z or Kanye West, but those two guys have a hard time matching the overall quality of ‘Illmatic’.
19. Notorious B.I.G. – “Hypnotize”
It’s such a shame that 2Pac and Notorious B.I.G. were at their peaks when they were both gunned down in separate incidents. Biggie Smalls was murdered a week after releasing ‘Hypnotize’. His album ‘Life After Death’ was arguably his best overall album, but there was at least one more track of his that surpasses this one.
18. Eminem – “Lose Yourself”
Eminem is such a dynamic performer and ‘Lose Yourself’ is the epitome of his skills. He is a great storyteller and his lyrics cut like a knife. One guy told me the only reason Eminem is popular is because he enunciates his words so well. I think that statement is borderline racist (mostly because he was sort of racist in his everyday life). There’s more to Eminem’s fame than that he’s a ‘white rapper’. It’s nice to see that Eminem is still releasing great stuff to this day.
17. Beastie Boys – “Paul Revere”
Just like ‘Doggystyle’, I’ve owned every medium of the Beastie Boys ‘License to Ill’. I know nearly every song word-for-word. You would find more Beastie Boys tracks on this list if not for a decision I made to omit songs played on alt-rock radio. I think ‘Sabotage’ and ‘So What’cha Want’ would have made the top 50. ‘Paul Revere’ is a pure hip hop track and is often still used for remixes. MCA had the idea to make beats that sound like they were being played backwards. It was chic idea and there are still a lot of beats made to sound this way today.
16. 2pac – “Dear Mama”
Tupac made it cool to love your mom. This song is about his mom who was addicted to crack cocaine for a large period of her life. The song is a masterpiece and paints such a detailed picture of a single mother trying to raise her family while addicted to drugs and in poverty. He does it in such a poetic way that the Library of Congress added it to the National Recording Registry in 2010.
15. Run-DMC – “Peter Piper”
Even though most people would point to ‘Walk This Way’ as the trailblazing track on Run-DMC’s ‘Raising Hell’ album, I think ‘Peter Piper’ is an better record. It’s the first song you hear on the album and is banging from the jump. It was never technically a single off the album, but Jam Master Jay’s work on the record is insane. His sample of Bob James track ‘Take Me To Mardi Gas’ was original at the time. There is another song higher on this list that later used that track as well…which is another reason why ‘Peter Piper’ was such a trendsetter.
14. N.W.A. – “Fuck tha Police”
This is argubaly the most controversial song on this list. The FBI sent a letter to their record label upon its release. Ice Cube, MC Ren and Eazy-E describes the relationship between African Americans and law enforcement in 1980s. They say that black Americans are being singled out and over-prosecuted in the court system. The songs message still rings true today. It’s a song you still hear during protests all over the world.
13. Black Star – “Definition”
Black Star somehow slips under the radar on most ‘best of’ lists. Mos Def & Talib Kweli pitched a perfect game with this record. It was my first taste of Talib Kweli when it came out. They only made one studio album and we are long overdue for another joint project. A new album may finally drop in 2018.
12. Warren G feat. Nate Dogg – “Regulate”
I love this song. The way Dr. Dre mixed Michael McDonald’s ‘I Keep Forgettin’ and Bob James ‘Let Me Ride’ is his magnum opus. This was right in Dre’s timeline when he could not do any wrong. Everything he touched back then was a hit or made an impact. I would have loved to see Nate Dogg put out more solo stuff rather than be a guest star on so many tracks. He passed away in 2011, but Warren G is still out there making music.
11. Slick Rick – “Children’s Story”
This is one of the most sampled songs of all-time. Slick Rick doesn’t always get his due from the mainstream, but his material has been sampled by guys like Lupe Fiasco and Eminem, and Montell Jordan’s ‘This Is How We Do It’ took the entire chorus. One could argue that the A/B-side record with ‘Children’s Story’ / ‘La Di Da Di’ may be the best hip-hop singles of all-time.
10. LL Cool J – “Rock the Bells”
Rick Rubin’s fingerprints are all over this list. He produced LL Cool J’s debut album and ‘Rock The Bells’ pushed the album to platinum status. LL Cool J loved the song so much, that he later sampled his own song on ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’, which is very uncommon. If you’re under 20 years old, you probably only see LL Cool J as an actor on a TV show your mom watches, but the dude used to be the sickest rapper in the game. He made Kangol hats cool…before Samuel L. Jackson killed them.
9. Run-DMC – “Sucker M.C.’s”
‘Sucker M.C.’s’ was another A/B-side single on this list. It was paired with ‘It’s Like That’ that was released in 1983. Many believe this was the beginning of the minimalist sound that swept across rap in the mid-80’s. I wouldn’t mind if today’s hip-hop goes back to more simple, clean beats…but I don’t see Migos or Future doing that.
8. Afrika Bambaataa & the Soul Sonic Force – “Planet Rock”
We are about to hit a section where we hit up some of the pioneers of hip hop. ‘Planet Rock’ is another song that helped bridge funk and hip-hop. Bambaataa was influenced by a lot of different genres. He said that George Clinton and synthpop group Kraftwerk were his inspirations. You can hear the use of synth here and it will go onto be a staple of hip-hop.
7. The Sugarhill Gang – “Rapper’s Delight”
This was the first hip-hop song to land in the Top 40. There were many different versions of this song before The Sugarhill Gang recorded it. They actually had trouble finding someone to record them since some thought that hip-hop was just something to be performed live. They rapped over the bass line from Chic’s ‘Good Times’ and no one expected it be this iconic. Some think it was the first hip-hop song of all-time, but there were many before ‘Rapper’s Delight’.
6. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five – “The Message”
This song took hip-hop and used it to talk about social issues. Before ‘The Message’, all the songs were about having fun and partying. This track is about growing up in povery in the inner city. Groups like Public Enemy and N.W.A. said ‘The Message’ was an inspiration for their work.
5. Dr. Dre feat. Snoop Dogg “Nuthin’ But a G Thang”
This song is a snapshot of early-90’s West Coast rap. Dre was an artist with samples and would use obscure, slow jams and mix them with a bass line. Snoop Dogg’s career was launched with this record. ‘The Chronic’ is Dre’s Mona Lisa and is such an objet d’art.
4. A Tribe Called Quest – “Scenario”
Tribe had some success with their debut album, but the second album ‘The Low End Theory’ was when they were cooking with gas. Phife Dawg carried the group on this track along with Leaders of the New School, that included a young Busta Rhymes. PopMatters calls this track ‘hip-hop’s greatest posse cut’, and that the perfect way to describe it.
3. N.W.A. – “Straight Outta Compton”
Remember back when I said Run-DMC’s beat was used in a later song? ‘Straight Outta Compton’ sampled the same song and stole the show. Ice Cube kicks the door open with his opening verse. This also might have been the best performance by MC Ren. All the M.C.’s in N.W.A. were magicians on this track. This is the best West Coast rap of all-time.
2. Public Enemy – “Fight the Power”
Public Enemy released some records that really stand the test of time. I guess it helps that the same problems Chuck D and Flava Flav rap about are still huge issues today. Just like ‘Fuck Da Police’, this song is still played at various protests across the United States. Public Enemy’s work is sample-heavy, but doesn’t fall into the same tropes as other sample-heavy records. Their words are still the most important thing in their music. ‘Fight the Power’ is the right balance of substance and music.
1. Notorious B.I.G. – “Juicy”
What makes a hip-hop song the best of all-time? I guess when it comes to picking the best, it’s a razor-thin margin and personal preference. ‘Juicy’ has everything you’d want in a hip-hop record. Biggie is a great storyteller and describes his real-life story. He’s a rags to riches story, but he made sure you knew his struggle to get there. This is an all-time great song and would land high on an all-time list of all genres.
You can also check the entire Best 50 Hip-Hop Songs of All-Time Playlist on YouTube.
Bobby Roberts (otherwise known as Sweetbob) is the creator of ‘America’s White Boy’ and contributor at Project Shanks. His writing has been featured on ESPN’s ‘SportsNation’, Sports Illustrated’s Hot Clicks, Guyspeed, and various other sites. You can follow him on Twitter at @Sweetbob.