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10 Essential Hip-Hop Songs
From Run-DMC to Public Enemy, meet the artists
and songs that define this enormously popular genre.

 

A man holding a microphone singing on stage at a concert

   

 

Hip-hop began in the 1970s in the Bronx as a culture — and a movement. The genre includes music, deejaying, breakdancing and fashion, while providing a launchpad for endless innovation. “It is the child of funk, the grandchild of jazz, the cousin of soul and R&B,” says Wes Jackson, founder of the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival. “It combines elements of rock, blues and even classical.” Hip-hop has become a multibillion-dollar industry, a testament to the genius of the genre’s young pioneers, says Sean XLG Mitchell, author of Hip Hop Hooray: Celebrating 30 Years of Rap Music. “There’s a universal lesson that hip-hop can teach the world,” he says. “No matter how many obstacles stand in your way, you can overcome them all if you persevere and believe in yourself.” To acquaint yourself with the best of hip-hop, check out Mitchell’s 10 essential songs:

1. “Rapper's Delight,” Sugarhill Gang (1979)

It’s the most important rap record of all time. As rap gained popularity in the streets of New York, Sylvia Robinson, a popular rhythm and blues singer, signed the Sugarhill Gang — widely considered the first rap group — to her label and released “Rapper’s Delight.” The song put hip-hop on the map.

2. "The Message," Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (1982)

“This song took rap music from the brink of dying as a fad to mainstream respectability,” says Mitchell. “Unlike earlier rap songs with a cliché party theme, “The Message” was the first rap record to touch on social issues,” raising awareness of poverty and despair in urban areas across America. In 2012, Rolling Stone named it the greatest hip-hop song of all time. 

3. "Planet Rock," Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force (1982)

An influential hit in the clubs, “Planet Rock” introduced a new style to hip-hop called electro. “The song was like Star Trek meets hip-hop — digitalized sounds used on top of rhythmic drumbeats,” says Mitchell. The vocals in the hook sound computerized, giving the song a futuristic style.

4. "Friends," Whodini (1984)

This mid-tempo, bass-driven song was ideal for radio airplay and became an instant hit. When it was released in 1984, many mainstream music fans still hadn’t connected with hip-hop. The infectious “Friends” changed that. “It’s a thoughtful song with a broad appeal that everyone can relate to,” says Mitchell.

5. "La-Di-Da-Di," Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick (1985)

With this entertaining guy-meets-girl song, hip-hop embraced humor. “The rhymes were delivered in a comedic style, using exacerbated voice pitches to pronounce certain words with sporadic intervals of singing out of tune,” says Mitchell. The human beat box sounds of Doug E. Fresh have made this one of hip-hop’s most sampled songs.

6. "Walk This Way," Run-DMC (1986)

“This track underscores the versatility and creativity within the art form,” says Mitchell. “Run-DMC essentially remade the rock hit along with Aerosmith, combining both rock and rap in an amazing showmanship of artistry that set new boundaries for rap music by expanding its platform.”

7. "Fight the Power," Public Enemy (1988)

Public Enemy personifies the socially conscious and political side of hip-hop. The song’s rage-filled lyrics speak a language of self-empowerment and activism, making it the perfect title track for the Spike Lee movie Do the Right Thing.

8. "Summertime," DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince (1991)

The song’s breezy lyric — “Here it is the groove slightly transformed, just a bit of a break from the norm” — sets the tone for this timeless classic, which earned the Philly duo of Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince (Will Smith) their second Grammy award.

9. "Dear Mama," 2Pac (1995)

With “Dear Mama,” 2Pac confronts his mother’s cocaine addiction and shares his enduring love. “This is perhaps the most thoughtful and creative rap song ever,” Mitchell declares. “The poetic rhymes intertwine thoughts and memories of joy and pain and speak from a universal voice as a dedication to all mothers around the world. This song reflects a side of hip-hop that’s rarely seen.”

10. "Empire State of Mind," Jay-Z featuring Alicia Keys (2009)

Mitchell’s take: “What makes this song relevant is that it captures the popular Frank Sinatra version of the Big Apple in hip-hop style. It encompasses the feel, drama and stylings of an old classic made new again with witty rhymes and a sing-along hook. It's the signature song that says hip-hop is the new sheriff in town.”

—Nicole Pajer

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