In August 1973, the Jamaican-born Clive “DJ Kool Herc” Campbell held his first block party in the Bronx, bringing the Jamaican sound system culture to America and inadvertently providing the first sparks that would ignite hip-hop. For most of the 1970s, hip-hop remained an underground phenomenon within New York City, as b-boys learned to loop drum breaks from their favorite records with two turntables, breakdance to the music, and rhyme over it. By the end of the decade, however, independent labels had begun to capture rap music in the studio, and hip-hop quickly began to make noise internationally as the new sound of Black America.
The 1980s were hip-hop’s first full decade as a documented musical genre on record, and from ’80 to ’89, rap grew from single to albums, from party songs to social commentary, from simple funk breaks to complex sample-delic walls of sound, and from a niche regional subculture to a multi-million dollar industry which turned MCs across the country into platinum pop stars. With hip-hop officially turning 50 years old this month, here’s a look back at the greatest beats and rhymes of the 1980s:
50. The Sugarhill Gang – “Apache” (1981)
Hip-hop largely developed outside of recording studios and Billboard charts through most of the 1970s, but the decade ended with the Sugarhill Gang’s release of “Rapper’s Delight” in September ’79, which propelled the genre into the Top 40 for the first time. The New Jersey trio of Big Bank Hank, Master Gee, and Wonder Mike never quite captured the public’s imagination on the same level again, but they released a few more hits in the first half of the ‘80s. The most enduring of those tracks was built on the Incredible Bongo Band’s cover of Bert Weedon’s “Apache,” a breakbeat so popular with the original ‘70s b-boys that it’s been called ”hip-hop’s national anthem.”
49. Kurtis Blow – “The Breaks” (1980)
Harlem’s Kurtis Blow became the first rapper signed to a major label in 1979 when Mercury issued his holiday novelty “Christmas Rappin’,” followed the next year by his self-titled debut album. “The Breaks” was built on an original funk groove by a live band, with Blow riffing on every possible meaning of the word “breaks” (or “brakes”) for more than seven minutes in an early display of hip-hop’s potential for wordplay (and cheesy puns).
48. Run-DMC – “It’s Like That” (1983)
A key part of recorded hip-hop’s early years of relying heavily on session musicians for backing tracks, bassist Larry Smith played on early ‘80s classics including “The Breaks.” When the stark drum machine minimalism of Run-DMC’s debut single swept in a new sound which made songs like “The Breaks” sound unfashionable, Smith moved behind the boards alongside Russell Simmons, manager of Kurtis Blow and brother of Run-DMC’s Joseph “Run” Simmons. In fact, Blow mixed “It’s Like That,” which consisted primarily of lyrics Run had been paid to write for a Blow song.
47. Whodini – “Freaks Come Out at Night” (1984)
Brooklyn trio Whodini was Run-DMC’s primary competition in the mid-‘80s, but once again the same players were behind the scenes with both groups, including the aforementioned Russell Simmons and Larry Smith. The more electro-influenced and R&B-adjacent sound Smith crafted for Whodini was completely distinct from his work with Run-DMC, with Whodini’s Jalil Hutchins taking inspiration from funk songs like “Super Freak” by Rick James for the hook of the group’s signature song.
46. Eazy-E – “Boyz-n-the-hood” (1987)
One of the foundational songs of west coast rap, “Boyz-n-the-hood,” actually began its life as a failed attempt at an east coast rap song. Ruthless Records founder Eazy-E charged rapper Ice Cube and producer Dr. Dre with writing a song for New York group H.B.O. (Home Boys Only), with Dre sampling a pinging synth from the Whodini deep cut “I’m a Ho.” When H.B.O. rejected the track, it became Eazy-E’s debut single, which would quickly spark the genesis of N.W.A.
45. Biz Markie – “Nobody Beats the Biz” (1987)
The Wiz, an electronics retail chain with dozens of stores in the Northeast, was famous throughout the New York area for its ”Nobody Beats The Wiz” jingle in the ‘80s. Biz Markie, the Juice Crew rapper and DJ dubbed “the clown prince of hip-hop,” personalized the commercial for one of the hits from his debut album Goin’ Off without provoking any legal action from the company. However, a later Biz Markie album sampling Irish singer Gilbert O’Sullivan without authorization would prompt a lawsuit in which the ruling had an enormous impact on sampling law in the ‘90s.
44. Too $hort – “Life Is … Too Short” (1988)
West Coast rap pioneer Too $hort began selling self-released albums on cassette out of the trunk of his car throughout Oakland in 1983, before more than a handful of New York rappers had released albums. By 1988, he’d secured national distribution, and the album Life Is… Too Short went double platinum on the strength of its title track, a slightly more reflective and existential song than the tales of pimpin’ and street life on which $hort built his brand.
43. Sir Mix-A-Lot – “Posse on Broadway” (1988)
As hip-hop spread from state to state in the ‘80s, the Pacific Northwest was one of the last regions with a platinum rap star to call its own. Sir Mix-A-Lot gave Seattle a local pride anthem in “Posse on Broadway,” which crossed over to the Billboard Hot 100 and helped his debut album Swass go platinum a few years before his hometown became the center of the alternative rock universe.
42. 2 Live Crew – “Me So Horny” (1989)
Before any kind of conventional mid-tempo hip-hop took hold in the deep south in the ‘90s, a fast, hypersexual style of danceable hip-hop known as Miami bass exploded out of Florida thanks to Luther Campbell and his group 2 Live Crew. A series of regional hits with explicit titles like “We Want Some Pussy!” and “Throw the Dick” culminated in “Me So Horny,” a top 40 hit sampling Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. The ensuing moral panic went all the way to federal court after Florida police began arresting retailers who sold 2 Live Crew’s As Nasty As They Wanna Be album to minors.
41. The Showboys – “Drag Rap” (1986)
The ‘80s hip-hop song that influenced the sound of southern rap the most may have actually been made in Queens. A Hollis duo put together a novelty track based on the theme song of the ‘60s cop show Dragnet, which at first made little commercial impact in New York. DJs and producers in Memphis and New Orleans found the track’s distinctive 808 snares and xylophone loops irresistible, and the genre of New Orleans bounce, and a substantial amount of the Cash Money Records catalog, were built around the sound of the so-called “Triggerman” breakbeat from “Drag Rap.”
40. The Sequence featuring Spoonie Gee – “Monster Jam” (1980)
The Sequence, a trio of women from South Carolina, were trailblazers on multiple fronts as the first all-female group on Sugar Hill Records and one of the earliest southern rap groups on wax. Labelmate Spoonie G appeared on the Sequence’s best ‘80s single, the eight-minute epic “Monster Jam.” The first voice you hear on the song, Angie B., would go on to launch a long, successful career as R&B singer Angie Stone, selling over five million albums.
39. The Treacherous Three – “Body Rock” (1980)
Spoonie Gee was an early member of the Treacherous Three, but he’d gone solo and been replaced by Special K when the group released its most important singles, “Body Rock” and “New Rap Language.” The most prominent voice on “Body Rock,” Kool Moe Dee, wound up becoming the group’s biggest star when he released his solo debut in 1986.
38. T La Rock & Jazzy Jay – “It’s Yours” (1984)
T La Rock was the older brother of the Treacherous Three’s Special K and claimed his own place in hip-hop history when he recorded “It’s Yours,” the first rap single produced by Rick Rubin and released on the latter’s nascent Def Jam label. From T La Rock’s intricate use of polysyllabic words to Rubin’s harsh backing track, “It’s Yours” was a blueprint for the sound with which LL Cool J and other Def Jam artists built the label into a commercial powerhouse.
37. LL Cool J – “I’m Bad” (1987)
A couple of months before Michael Jackson topped the Hot 100 with “Bad,” LL Cool J laid claim to the same three-letter word with his first song on the chart. The follow-up single, “I Need Love,” helped introduce the concept of a hip-hop ballad and began Ladies Love Cool James’s two-decade reign as rap’s top heartthrob. First, he needed to release “I’m Bad” to balance out his tough guy bonafides.
36. Special Ed – “I Got It Made” (1989)
By the end of the ‘80s, LL Cool J was old enough to drink, leaving the lane open for other new teen rap stars. The first to follow in his footsteps was Flatbush’s Edward “Special Ed” Archer, who released his debut album Youngest in Charge on his 17th birthday. Unlike LL, however, Special Ed peaked early, and despite a few more radio hits in the early ‘90s, he never entirely remained a major star as an adult.
35. 3rd Bass f/ Zev Love X – “The Gas Face” (1989)
3rd Bass’s MC Serch and Pete Nice signed to Def Jam in 1989 as the most prominent white rappers in the game since the Beastie Boys had broken through several years earlier. The Cactus Album’s most successful single, “The Gas Face,” featured the recording debut of Zev Love X of KMD, who’d resurface a decade later as underground rap legend MF DOOM.
34. Marley Marl featuring Masta Ace, Craig G, Kool G Rap and Big Daddy Kane – “The Symphony” (1988)
In the late ‘80s, hip-hop had begun shifting from groups to solo artists. The lead single from Juice Crew producer Marley Marl’s debut album In Control, Volume 1 was a preview of the future of rap: several established solo MCs all coming together on an eventful posse cut. Long before Puff Daddy or DJ Khaled made a habit of stacking several stars on a track, “The Symphony” set the template, with Kool G Rap and Big Daddy Kane facing off at the peak of their powers.
33. J.J. Fad – “Supersonic” (1988)
Girl groups were on the rise in hip-hop as the ‘80s wound down, including Salt-N-Pepa in New York, L’Trimm in Miami, and J.J. Fad in Southern California. The latter’s MC J.B. and Baby-D signed to Ruthless Records just as N.W.A was taking off, and their single “Supersonic” allowed then up-and-coming co-producer Dr. Dre to flex his versatility on the uptempo electro track, later heavily sampled on Fergie’s “Fergalicious.”
32. MC Lyte – “Cha Cha Cha” (1989)
While the girl groups were thriving, a 17-year-old MC Lyte made history as the first female solo rapper to release a full-length, Lyte As a Rock, in 1988. “Cha Cha Cha,” the lead single from her follow-up album Eyes on This, became Lyte’s influential radio breakthrough. It was later sampled by Lil Kim, covered by Remy Ma, and even inspired Jack White’s “Lazaretto.”
31. Queen Latifah – “Dance for Me” (1989)
New Jersey’s Queen Latifah launched her career soon after MC Lyte, affiliating herself with the respected crews Flavor Unit and the Native Tongues. After several hit albums, Latifah transitioned into film and television, becoming one of the most successful rapper-turned-actors of all time.
30. DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince – “Parents Just Don’t Understand” (1988)
Like Queen Latifah, Will “The Fresh Prince” Smith used hip-hop stardom as a springboard to Hollywood, becoming an A-list movie star in the ‘90s. You can hear all of the personality and charisma that would power Smith’s second career via his early singles with DJ Jazzy Jeff, especially the playful, Slick Rick-influenced storytelling on their MTV breakthrough “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” The song won the first hip-hop Grammy for Best Rap Performance, but the artists boycotted the ceremony in protest of the fact that the award wouldn’t be presented during the television broadcast.
29. Tone Loc – “Wild Thing” (1988)
Raspy-voiced L.A. rapper Tone Loc was one of the first hip-hop artists to learn how fickle pop crossover fame could be. The hits “Wild Thing” and “Funky Cold Medina” powered his debut album Loc-ed After Dark all the way to the top of the Billboard 200, but his 1991 follow-up album completely missed the chart. “Wild Thing” producers Matt Dike and Michael Ross scored another massive single with Young MC’s “Bust a Move,” but success was similarly fleeting for him as well.
28. Newcleus – “Jam on It” (1984)
The Brooklyn group Newcleus and its precursor DJ crew Jam-On Productions were initially more interested in making electro, the style of 808-driven synth funk which developed parallel to hip-hop. Once Newcleus experimented with rap on 1983’s “Jam-On Revenge” and the 1984 sequel “Jam on It,” they found a successful formula that made the group internationally popular.
27. Doug E. Fresh & The Get Fresh Crew – “The Show” (1985)
Beatboxing, the art of vocal percussion, was a staple of early hip-hop, and Harlem’s Doug E. Fresh was its most gifted early practitioner, earning him the nickname “The Human Beatbox.” Doug E. Fresh & the Get Fresh Crew’s breakthrough single “The Show” and its equally popular B-side “La Di Da Di,” set the stage for then-group member Slick Rick to become one of the most influential MCs of all time. SPIN named “The Show” the top rap single of ‘85 a few months after the magazine’s debut.
26. Stetsasonic – “Talkin’ All That Jazz” (1988)
A decade before the Roots became hip-hop’s most popular and enduring live band, Brooklyn’s Stetsasonic paved the way. The single “Talkin’ All That Jazz” from the group’s second album In Full Gear was a pointed rebuttal to jazz musician James Mtume’s unimpressed comments about hip-hop: “You criticize our method of how we make records / You said it wasn’t art, so now we’re gonna rip you apart.”
25. Herbie Hancock – “Rockit” (1983)
Not all jazz musicians turned their noses up at the arrival of hip-hop. Legendary keyboardist Herbie Hancock and producer Bill Laswell embraced the sonic bricolage of the genre on the 1983 instrumental album Future Shock. The MTV staple “Rockit” helped introduce record scratching as a musical instrument to the world with a virtuoso performance by pioneering turntablist Grand Mixer D.ST, who was featured in the hip-hop film Wild Style the same year.
24. Melle Mel – “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” (1983)
New York’s rock underground was often intertwined with the city’s early hip-hop scene. One notable example is the no wave band Liquid Liquid, who broke up in 1983 after releasing a handful of hugely influential 12” singles. Around the same time, the Sugar Hill Records house band recreated the distinctive bass groove of Liquid Liquid’s “Cavern” for a solo single by Melle Mel of Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five. The track, a cautionary tale about cocaine, was an international hit, but Sugar Hill had already essentially ceased to exist by the time Liquid Liquid won a court case against the label for copyright infringement. The music video for “White Lines” was directed by a college student named Spike Lee, who had just begun making acclaimed short films.
23. Public Enemy – “Fight the Power” (1989)
By the end of the ‘80s, Spike Lee had become arguably the first influential filmmaker of the hip-hop generation. Upon the release of Lee’s masterpiece Do the Right Thing in the summer of 1989, Public Enemy marched through Brooklyn with its soundtrack anthem “Fight the Power” for the song’s Lee-directed music video. A controversy over anti-Semitic comments by Public Enemy’s Professor Griff overwhelmed the group that summer, but “Fight the Power” remains a dynamic and indelible high watermark for political hip-hop.
22. Beastie Boys – “Paul Revere” (1986)
Ad-Rock, MCA, and Mike D formed the Beastie Boys as a hardcore punk band in 1981 before they began experimenting with rapping. They improbably became the first white rap group to reach No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with 1986’s License To Ill, which turned into a crossover phenomenon thanks to guitar-driven rap/rock anthems like “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party).” The album also featured innovative hip-hop tracks such “Paul Revere,” inspired by MCA playing the tape of an 808 beat in reverse to create its distinctively warped backwards drums.
21. De La Soul featuring the Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest, Monie Love, and Queen Latifah – “Buddy (Native Tongue Decision)” (1989)
In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, a loose affiliation of east coast groups and solo artists banded together as the Native Tongues collective, bringing an offbeat and Afrocentric sensibility to a series of classic albums by Long Island’s playfully psychedelic De La Soul, the mischievous Brooklyn group the Jungle Brothers, and the soulfully cerebral Queens trio A Tribe Called Quest. Though Native Tongues members regularly guested on each other’s albums, the infectious posse cut remix of “Buddy” from De La Soul’s landmark debut 3 Feet High and Rising was just about the only time all the original rappers in the collective appeared on one track together.
20. The D.O.C. – “It’s Funky Enough” (1989)
Of all the great MCs mentored by Dr. Dre, Tracy “The D.O.C.” Curry is the sad “what if?” story: a hugely talented rapper who suffered injuries that permanently changed his voice months after the release of his debut album No One Can Do It Better and his signature hit “It’s Funky Enough.” The D.O.C. remained a sharp writer, penning several verses on Dre’s 1992 classic The Chronic and recording two more solo albums with his raspy new sound. In 2023, the D.O.C. said he’s declined multiple offers to use recent advances in artificial intelligence to make new music with his old voice.
19. UTFO – “Roxanne, Roxanne” (1984)
Answer records, in which one artist penned a song as a response or sequel to another act’s hit, have a long history predating hip-hop. The rise of rap inspired a whole new breed of answer songs, though, most famously with dozens of songs created in the wake of Brooklyn group UTFO’s playful hit about a girl named Roxanne. UTFO created an official follow-up to “Roxanne, Roxanne,” with Adelaida Martinez playing the title role on “The Real Roxanne,” but it was far from the most famous spinoff from the “Roxanne Wars.”
18. Roxanne Shante – “Roxanne’s Revenge” (1984)
The most popular response to UTFO’s “Roxanne, Roxanne” came from 14-year-old rapper Lolita Shante Gooden, who took the name Roxanne Shante when she teamed up with producer Marley Marl for the hilarious and profane “Roxanne’s Revenge.” As a member of the Juice Crew, Shante became arguably the first serious female rap star, releasing two solo albums. Her life story was dramatized in the film Roxanne Roxanne, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2017.
17. MC Shan – “The Bridge” (1985)
Marley Marl played a role in the playful battle of the sexes in the “Roxanne Wars,” but two years later he became embroiled in a slightly more serious beef between boroughs known as the “Bridge Wars.” It all got started way back when Queens rapper MC Shan released “The Bridge,” a salute to the Queensbridge housing projects where the members of the Juice Crew met. Some Bronx residents felt that the song implied that Queens, not the Bronx, was the birthplace of hip-hop, leading to a prolonged feud.
16. Boogie Down Productions – “South Bronx” (1986)
Bronx duo KRS-One and DJ Scott La Rock’s vicious response to MC Shan, “South Bronx,” was the opening salvo from Boogie Down Productions’ classic debut album Criminal Minded. It was far from the last word in the “Bridge Wars,” which further escalated with Shan’s “Kill That Noise” and BDP’s “The Bridge Is Over,” but “South Bronx” remains one of hip-hop’s most timeless diss tracks and an anthem for the place where the genre was born.
15. Funky 4 + 1 – “That’s the Joint” (1980)
The Funky 4 + 1 was a Bronx group comprised of four men and the female rapper Sha-Rock, whose style of “echoing” words on “That’s the Joint” was a formative influence on Darryl “DMC” McDaniels of Run-DMC. In 2022, DMC told SPIN, “My rhyme style with the echo is from a girl, Sha-Rock, the first greatest female MC ever, who’s better than 99% of the dudes rappin’ today.”
14. Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force – “Planet Rock” (1982)
While many of hip-hop’s early DJs gravitated towards breaks from American funk and disco records, Afrika Bambaataa found inspiration in the icy synths of pioneering electronic groups like Germany’s Kraftwerk and Japan’s Yellow Magic Orchestra, interpolating the former’s “Trans-Europe Express” on “Planet Rock.” In 2016, however, a disgraced Bambataa stepped down from the Universal Zulu Nation organization he founded amidst revelations that he had been sexually abusing boys and young men for decades, forever tarnishing his legacy as a foundational hip-hop artist.
13. Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock – “It Takes Two” (1988)
For the last few decades, rappers have released warm weather club jams in hopes of scoring the hit hip-hop fans consider that year’s “song of the summer.” Arguably the first consensus summer jam to sweep across the country was “It Takes Two,” Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock’s Lyn Collins-sampling single which was ubiquitous in the hottest months of 1988. As one of the first hip-hop hits with a melodic chorus, “It Takes Two” foreshadowed the formula of rapped verses and R&B hooks that would rule urban radio in the ‘90s and beyond.
12. Schoolly D – “P.S.K. What Does It Mean?” (1985)
With grimy rhymes about drugs and guns, and coded references to the street gang Park Side Killas, Philadelphia rapper Schoolly D arguably invented gangsta rap on his early singles “P.S.K. What Does It Mean?” and “Gangster Boogie.” And the thundering Roland beat on “P.S.K.” is one of the most recognizable rhythm tracks of ‘80s hip-hop, sampled and interpolated by everyone from the Notorious B.I.G. and Eminem to DJ Khaled and Siouxsie and the Banshees.
11. Ice-T – “6 ‘N the Mornin’” (1986)
“P.S.K. What Does It Mean?” directly influenced Ice-T’s “6 ‘N the Mornin’” and Eazy-E’s “Boyz-n-the-hood,” ensuring that while gangsta rap may have been created in Philly, it would find its most fertile breeding ground in Los Angeles. Ice-T didn’t realize the potential of his breakout track at first, initially releasing it on the B-side of the “Dog’n the Wax” single.
10. Audio Two – “Top Billin'” (1987)
Milk Dee and Gizmo of Audio Two were another act which didn’t realize they’d almost buried their signature song on the B-side of a less promising track, “Make it Funky.” The Honey Drippers’ 1973 track “Impeach the President” provided one of the most ubiquitous drum breaks of ‘80s hip-hop, as heard on everything from MC Shan’s “The Bridge” to Eric B. & Rakim’s “Eric B. Is President.” Nobody chopped up those drums more distinctively than Audio Two did with the halting swing of “Top Billin’,” which would become the foundation of countless other hits, including Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love” and 50 Cent’s “I Get Money.”
9. Salt-N-Pepa – “I’ll Take Your Man” (1986)
For a decade after their platinum 1986 debut Hot, Cool & Vicious, Salt-N-Pepa and their DJ, Spinderella, reigned as the top-selling women in hip-hop. The synth pop confection “Push It” made them household names, but “I’ll Take Your Man” was the sharp and sassy banger that really proved they could hang with their male contemporaries. It also influenced future generations of female rappers like the City Girls, who updated the track on their 2018 hit “Take Yo Man.”
8. Run-DMC – “King of Rock” (1985)
Run-DMC first experimented with heavy guitar riffs on 1984’s “Rock Box,” which made them the first hip-hop group on MTV. A year later, they doubled down with the bigger and better “King of Rock,” crowning themselves the new rulers of rock’n’roll. More hits would follow, including the famed team-up with Aerosmith for a remake of “Walk This Way,” but the genre of rap-rock peaked on Run-DMC’s second album.
7. N.W.A. – “Straight Outta Compton” (1988)
The city of Compton in south central Los Angeles became world famous after N.W.A named its debut album after its hometown, and Compton has continued to loom large over west coast rap in the popular imagination thanks to subsequent generations of platinum rappers like Kendrick Lamar and the Game. “Straight Outta Compton” was more a dynamic mission statement than a radio single in its time, but the song belatedly became a top 40 hit in 2015 after the release of the aptly named blockbuster N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton.
6. LL Cool J – “Rock the Bells” (1985)
“LL Cool J is hard as hell,” with the last word punctuated by an AC/DC power chord, may be the most electrifying opening line in all of hip-hop. LL Cool J was only 17 when he released his debut album Radio, and he remained a mainstay of the Billboard charts until he was nearly 40, making him the first rap star to stay relevant through several vastly different eras. Two decades after this song’s release, it became the namesake of the Rock the Bells Festival, which found veterans of ‘80s and ‘90s hip-hop performing their classics for huge crowds all over America and Europe.
5. Big Daddy Kane – “Ain’t No Half-Steppin'” (1988)
Much as Liquid Liquid’s “Cavern” built an early bridge between hip-hop and underground New York rock, Bronx dance-punk band ESG’s 1981 song “UFO” became an unlikely rap staple which provided the noisy, otherworldly clang in hits like Big Daddy Kane’s “Ain’t No Half-Steppin’.” The biggest star to emerge from the Juice Crew, Kane wrote rhymes for Biz Markie before emerging as a solo artist in his own right, and one of his proteges, Jay-Z, went on to become one of the biggest rappers of all time.
4. Eric B. & Rakim – “Paid in Full” (1987)
Big Daddy Kane’s chief rival for the New York throne was Rakim, a teenage microphone fiend who revolutionized the art of rhyming with his debut album as a duo with producer Eric B., Paid in Full. The album’s title track took on a second life after being remixed by British dance duo Coldcut, and “Paid in Full (Seven Minutes of Madness Remix)” helped expand the possibilities of cut-up sampling while bridging the worlds of streetwise New York rap and international dance music.
3. Public Enemy – “Rebel Without a Pause” (1987)
No ‘80s rap group marched to the beat of a different drummer more memorably than Public Enemy, literally in the case of the group’s sophomore album It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back. On it, production team the Bomb Squad deliberately crafted songs about 10 beats per minute faster than most of the rap hits of the day. The album’s first single announced itself with the unnerving squeal of a saxophone, sampled from the J.B.’s “The Grunt,” which sounded more like a tea kettle – a blast of treble serving as a counterpoint to Chuck D’s deep, commanding voice.
2. Slick Rick – “Children’s Story” (1989)
The British-born Slick Rick had already earned a reputation for storytelling rhymes by the time he released his solo debut The Great Adventures of Slick Rick in 1988. He framed the album’s narrative centerpiece as a bedtime story for kids, but “Children’s Story” was a grim tale of stickup kids, dope fiends, and trigger-happy cops, ending with a stern warning: “This ain’t funny so don’t you dare laugh.”
1. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five – “The Message” (1982)
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were the first hip-hop act inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the group’s leader is an innovator in DJ scratching. Grandmaster Flash had nothing to do with the most important song credited to his name however, which was created by Furious Five rapper Melle Mel, songwriter Duke Bootee, and producer Clifton Chase. “The Message” broke new ground for hip-hop with a gritty and unvarnished look at inner city poverty and violence at odds with the party rocking-rhymes which defined the genre at the time. The song’s electro backing track was so funky and danceable, however, that it’s been sampled again and again in less somber hits by Puff Daddy, Ice Cube and, earlier this year, Coi Leray.