Rolling Stone recently published a run-down of the top 50 hip-hop songs of all time. After consulting with a panel of 33 journalists, industry figures and artists (including professional rap encyclopedia ?uestlove and the remaining members of the Beastie Boys), the numbers were crunched and Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s “The Message” came out on top. It’s a fine pick–and with its socially-conscientious lyrics the record is usually credited with helping to broaden the parameters of what the music could be about–but as with all lists there’s room for contention and discussion at the top. Here are six alternative picks that would do a convincing job of representing the potency of hip-hop to the world.
“Rebel Without A Pause”
It’s the greatest song on hip-hop’s greatest ever album. If that logic isn’t persuasive enough then the mix is: Chuck’s intelligent intensity, Flav’s amped antics as rap’s best ever hype man, a beat that makes anything you previously thought was hardcore seem like wispy chamber music, and scratching on the chorus to boot.
The Sugarhill Gang
A while back I interviewed ?uestlove and he got to talking about how he had deduced that hip-hop’s very first song-on-wax contained every element of the music that followed in its wake. There’s the braggadocio rhymes with a side of sexcapades; there’s live instrumentation and sampling (?uesto was convinced that part of the opening percussive riff was taken from another recording and not replayed); there’s the specter of ghost-writing and biting with some of Grandmaster Caz’s lyrics being appropriated by Big Bank Hank; and there’s the goal of creating songs for the clubs, enjoying crossover success, catching accusations of selling-out, and then having the rappers ripped off by their label anyway. Beyond the party grooves, consider the song a long-ass prescient history lesson.
An early cornerstone of rap’s golden era, MC Shan’s glorious slice of hometown pride bigged up his Queens heritage while setting down a template for one of hip-hop’s greatest ever battles: As KRS-One and his Boogie Down Productions crew decided that the South Bronx not only created hip-hop but did it better, there followed a series of the most potent rap anthems ever released, all fueled by the spirit of competition. Underscoring this is a stark Marley Marl production that forged the template for much of what emerged during the music’s most fabled and fertile period.
Get your damn hands up — it’s the anthem. Over a drum loop that rap lore has it was flicked into life after a technical mistake, Milk Dee recites rap-a-long brags where every single line is a quotable. Also includes one of the most smart-ass dis lines when the lithe Milk Dee warns a foe, “Stop scheming and looking hard/ I got a great big bodyguard.” (Also in the national rap anthem stakes: Gang Starr and Nice & Smooth’s “DWYCK.”)
The Notorious B.I.G.
Joyous and uplifting, Biggie’s autobiographical tale of self-belief was cannily fused to a radio-friendly loop. Without “Juicy,” Big’s reign might have stalled at the streets, but courtesy of some gentle pushing from Puff Daddy he found himself beloved by the masses. It’s a formula faithfully followed by swarms of rappers since, though no one’s yet pulled it off quite like Big did. Thanks, Puff.
Eric B & Rakim,
“Eric B Is President”
In the far-off future, rap music will sound like this.