The best hip hop songs: 25 great rap tracks, revealed
Classic joints you need in your collection: including Wu-Tang Clan, Dr. Dre and Public Enemy.
Hip hop turns 50 in 2023 so we’ve tried our darndest to condense half a century of history into our selection of the best hip hop tracks ever, starting with 25 of the best cuts and our plan is to add from there.
If you’re looking to put a date in your diary, the official day of celebration falls on Friday 11th August, marking a Bronx back-to-school party held by DJ Kool Herc in 1973. Herc would unwittingly enter the hall of fame for playing two copies of the same record back and forth, looping percussion to keep the beat alive.
UPDATE: A15-track selection was nowhere near enough to represent our hip hop hall of fame picks, so we've upped the list to 25 stone cold classics. Big names added to the roll-call include N.W.A., Eminem, Run DMC and Madvillain. Love them or hate them? Vote for your favourite hip hop all-time greats below.
It’s hard to know whether those in attendance realised they were witnessing the birth of a culture that would dominate world music and despite bearing some responsibility for PJ & Duncan’s ‘Let’s Get Ready to Rumble’, we’re eternally grateful for Herc’s turntable experimentation.
With a crate containing five decades of rap classics to choose from, picking the best hip hop tracks ever is far from easy, so this list is subjective.
You’re bound to have your own views and we encourage debate, but hopefully something on the list inspires you to vote for your top pick and send it to the top of the Shortlist charts.
- Next up, read about the best hip hop albums of all time
Best hip-hop songs
1. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: The Message (1982)Stream on Spotify
We think Chuck D has it spot on when he describes the Furious Five as the first dominant rap group with the most dominant MC saying something that meant something.
Melle Mel may have been the first rapper to call himself a master of ceremonies, but don’t forget the small matter of ‘The Message’ having some fella called Grandmaster Flash behind the decks.
Really though, ‘The Message’ is all about the lyrics of social significance painting scenes of inner-city struggle and decay, and less about the music, which still feels entirely relevant today, if not more so.
The video remains a bonafide classic, the hooks, chorus and verses go as hard as they ever have and put simply if you don’t think the track earns its place on this list, well, don’t push us, because we’re close to the edge.
2. The Notorious B.I.G.: Hypnotize (1997)Stream on Spotify
We know you were expecting ‘Juicy’ but this isn’t a democracy and quite honestly there is nothing, absolutely nothing, we would rather pump louder in a late-night Uber than ‘Hypnotize’.
Poignant for being released five days before Biggie’s death, it’s also the track he was in LA to record the video for when he was murdered, and subsequently became the first posthumous number one since John Lennon’s ‘(Just Like) Starting Over’.
The track itself is an absolute stunner, featuring the purest of head-nodding basslines from Herb Alpert’s ‘Rise’, and finding Biggie in imperious form celebrating everything from luxury footwear to edible snails.
A shout out to Pamela Long on the chorus vocals and I suppose we should give Puff credit for the production, but we’ll leave you with this: All the talk of a Lexus LX and “my car go one-sixty, swiftly”? Legend has it Biggie never drove.
3. Eric B & Rakim: Paid in Full (1987)Stream on Spotify
We read a comment under this track on YouTube that said ‘Paid in Full’ feels like the opening credits to the golden age of hip hop. While we can’t condone the username ‘OJ’s Bloody Glove’, we do agree with their viewpoint.
It’s a song with so many layers you feel short-changed with a track time of under four minutes, so kudos to British dance music duo, Coldcut, for not only reading the room, but the song title too, and giving us our money’s worth with a seven-minute remix.
Speaking of royalties, Rakim must have been paid by the word for this one given we only get one verse, but as he’s always been a Rolls-Royce of a rapper you just end up savouring every single precious line.
4. Dr Dre ft. Snoop Doggy Dogg: Nuthin’ but a “G” Thang (1992)Stream on Spotify
The track that established Dr. Dre as the undisputed king of the West Coast and challenged New York cultural dominance owes plenty to a then-unknown skinny 21-year-old called Snoop Doggy Dogg.
If East Coast rap was hard and aggressive, West Coast rap was… well, exactly the same only Dre’s ‘G-Funk’ production style of slow, groovy rhythms and layered synth hooks had us hoodwinked into thinking this was somehow more parent-friendly.
The single reached number two in the States, edged out somewhat amusingly by Snow’s ‘Informer’, but “I lick he boom-boom down” aside, the weed era of hip hop was now upon us and the genre felt all the better for it.
Props to Dre’s younger stepbrother, Warren G, another proponent of ‘G-Funk’ (and the man responsible for ‘Regulate’) for it is he who allegedly brought the Leon Haywood sample for the ‘Nuthin’ but a “G” Thang’ into the studio.
5. Mobb Deep: Shook Ones (Part II) (1995)Stream on Spotify
Widely considered to be one of the greatest hip hop beats ever created, you only have to watch a sample breakdown of ‘Shook Ones (Part II)’ to know producer Havoc was living up to his name by creating beautiful chaos.
A sinister portrayal of street life in mid-90s New York, the track references a ‘shook one’ – someone who acts tough but when it comes down to it they’re a bit of a coward, like that one mouthy mate we've all got.
Once samples of Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones and the Daly-Wilson Big Band merge, it’s left to the other half of Mobb Deep, the sadly departed Prodigy, to lay down an unforgettable first verse before Havoc takes over on number two.
With lyrics like “stab your brain with your nose bone”, this isn’t one for the faint-hearted – which is what the song is about anyway, so with that in mind good job lads.
6. A Tribe Called Quest: Scenario (1991)Stream on Spotify
The perfect example of when a plan comes together, ‘Scenario’ is a collaboration between A Tribe Called Quest and Leaders of the New School accompanied by a truly memorable music video.
Notable for a breakout performance by a then 19-year-old Busta Rhymes, the track is a stone-cold pass-the-mic party banger where everyone brings their A-game, although arguably eventually a tie between Busta and Phife Dawg for top honours.
The rhymes are tight, the sample from jazz organist Brother Jack McDuff crazy obscure, and the video features cameos from Spike Lee, De La Soul, Kid Capri, Brand Nubian, Fab Five Freddy and Redman.
It’s also worth catching the group’s 1992 performance on The Arsenio Hall Show… and yes, that is Busta dressed as The Cat in the Hat. Iconic.
7. Sugarhill Gang: Rapper’s Delight (1979)Stream on Spotify
I said-a hip, hop, the hippie, the hippie to the hip hip hop-a you don't stop the rock it to the bang-bang boogie, say up jump the boogie to the rhythm of the boogie, the beat.
It’s tempting to mic drop and leave things there, but consider for a moment that the original 12-inch of ‘Rapper’s Delight’ featured 15 minutes of MC bragging rights over a disco track that blatantly ripped off the bassline from Chic’s ‘Good Times’.
Rather than sampling the original lick, it was left to bassist Chris Shearin to faithfully recreate it for a full quarter hour without slipping up during the song’s original recording session. He was paid the priestly sum of $70 for his troubles.
As the song blew up, Chic’s Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards were initially annoyed, but a bit of legal action here and some writing credits there soon resolved things. Amazing how royalties from hip hop’s first global hit calmed the storm.
8. Roots Manuva: Witness (1 Hope) (2001)Stream on Spotify
Look, we had to represent the UK somewhere along the line and while we pay homage to the likes of London Posse, Dizzy Rascal, Skinnyman and Stormzy, ‘Witness (1 Hope)’ is so quintessentially British it’s impossible to ignore Roots Manuva.
Anyone able to shoehorn “ten pints of bitter”, “bionic zit splitter”, and “cheese on toast” into the opening verse of a rap track, while still making it sound raw and from the street, is fine by us.
Indeed, we tip our hat to Rodney Hylton Smith, not only for the lyrical genius and homegrown cultural references interspersed with Jamaican dancehall, funk and electronica, but because the video makes us laugh out loud just thinking about it.
Picture Mr Manuva taking part in a sports day complete with real-life primary school kids, only he’s now fully grown, and a fully-fledged rap star, that’s just rocked up in the school’s car park driving a bright red Ferrari. Iconic.
9. Public Enemy: Public Enemy No.1 (1987)Stream on Spotify
We know it doesn’t hold the significance of ‘Fight the Power’ but the first single from Public Enemy’s debut album Yo! Bum Rush the Show is one of the most recognisable hip hop tracks ever made and features four venomous rap battle verses from Chuck D.
During the 1980s, PE’s production team The Bomb Squad changed the way rap records were made. Aided by a pre-lawsuit era for sampling, they began experimenting with the unmistakable ‘Blow Your Head’ by Fred Wesley and The JB's.
For the purists, the track was made using a pause-tape beat. Using dual tape decks, producers could play and record samples from another tape, pausing once the sample ended, then replaying and recording repeatedly for several minutes.
Anyway, the sampled track would have meant nothing without hip hop’s greatest ever hype man, Flava Flav, bookending the absolute fire emanating from the poetic, political, lyrical son, Chuck D. Play it loud.
10. Nas: N.Y. State of Mind (1994)Stream on Spotify
“Straight out the fucking dungeons of rap…” is one hell of an opening gambit for a 19-year-old rapper and sometimes it’s hard to fathom just how ahead of the game Nasir Jones was when he recorded ‘N.Y. State of Mind’.
The gorgeously grimy production from DJ Premier inspired the young Nasir to such an extent Preemo recalls him writing his verses there and then in the studio. It blows our tiny minds to think they then sat on the track for two years before releasing it.
Sample junkies will gorge on the fact the track features jazz songs ‘Mind Rain’ by Joe Chambers and ‘Flight Time’ by Donald Byrd, as well as scratched vocals from Eric B & Rakim’s ‘Mahogany’, while the drums come courtesy of Kool & the Gang.
But really it’s Nas’s complex lyricism that makes this such a huge track from debut album Illmatic, delivering a near 60-bar run that DJ Premier eventually broke up to create the track.
11. N.W.A.: Straight Outta Compton (1988)Stream on Spotify
“You’re now about to witness the strength of street knowledge” isn’t just a worldie of an opening line, it’s also a warning to gird one’s loins because things are about to get a bit naughty. Sometimes it’s hard to fathom this was released as far back as 1988 because it still sounds so fresh, let alone entirely relevant, and N.W.A. stands for what? Oh, right, yes, still provocative.
‘Straight Outta Compton’ was all about shots fired, in a lyrical sense anyway. It would also spark worldwide infamy for Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy E, MC Ren, and south central LA, from which none have ever really recovered, nor wanted to. This is gangsta rap after all.
Do take a moment to enjoy the instrumental, though. The sampling of drums from Funkadelic’s ‘You’ll Like it Too’ and The Wintstons ‘Amen, Brother’ is so glorious it’ll leave you in no doubt that “damn that s*** was dope”.
12. Craig Mack: Flava in Ya Ear (Remix) (1994)Stream on Spotify
Put Biggie Smalls, LL Cool J, Busta Rhymes and fellow Flipmode Squad member Rampage on a track and odds are something good is going to come of it. The remix of ‘Flava in Ya Ear’ is better than good.
It features the same backing track as Craig Mack’s lead single from 1994 and his verse is golden – “I wanna grab my dick, too lazy, hold it for me” – but you can’t deny the ‘talent’ for too long.
What makes ‘Flava in Ya Ear’ kind of weird is you just wouldn’t place this group of MCs together – it’s as if Bad Boy opened a packet of Panini stickers and decided to just sort of go with it – but the contrasts in styles are what makes the track so memorable.
Best verse? We’ll leave you to decide.
13. KRS-One: Step into a World (Rapture’s Delight) (1997)Stream on Spotify
A play on the Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’, ‘Step into a World’ references something called the rapture – an evangelical belief of an end-time where believers in God will rise to the heavens.
So what the heck has that got to with hip hop? Well, KRS-One’s take on this is that he’s the greatest rapper on the planet, he reigns supreme, and if someone should beat him to it will truly be the end of days, aka the rapture.
The track features a sample from ‘The Champ’ by The Mohawks, along with a stealthy inclusion of Blondie’s ‘Rapture’ which was synonymous with the New York hip hop scene.
Anyway, all you need to know from here is that KRS embarks on a kind of lyrical tirade attacking how hip hop, in his opinion, has become all about the Benjamins. Make your own mind up, but the track kicks.
14. Jay-Z: Dead Presidents II (1996)Listen on Spotify
Is Jay-Z the greatest rapper of all time? Debatable. What isn’t is that Shawn Carter writes anthems that transverse time, and on his days off he does the same for other people – see ‘Still D.R.E.’, which Jay-Z wrote in full.
Jay’s list of accomplishments is long and distinguished but we’re going to take you back, way back, to his debut album Reasonable Doubt when Jay put pen to paper on a promotional single called ‘Dead Presidents’.
Here’s where it gets a little weird because the track didn’t actually appear on the album – despite a video featuring a cameo by Biggie. Instead, we got ‘Dead Presidents II’. This version uses the same Lonnie Liston Smith, A Tribe Called Quest, and Nas samples (the latter of which sparked a feud between the pair), but journeyed even deeper into Jay’s soul. Confirmation, early on, that the man was a songwriting genius.
15. Eminem: Lose Yourself (2002)Listen on Spotify
Picking the greatest Eminem track is a bit like choosing which Bill Murray movie to watch – it depends on your mood and which incarnation you’re after. One minute you’re being driven around by Dr. Dre dressed as the Boy Wonder, the next you’re pushing out a six-minute epic about a crazed fan drowning his pregnant girlfriend, who happens to be Dido.
We’re going with ‘Lose Yourself’ because it probably best encapsulates the ludicrousness of Marshall Mathers’s career. A white destitute battle rapper from Detroit plucked from obscurity to rock a Super Bowl halftime show. In other words, the American Dream.
Written during the filming for the 8 Mile movie, the verses are tight, the hook a true earworm, and the guitar riff created by co-writer and producer Jeff Bass is instantly memorable. It was also the first hip hop track to win an Oscar.
16. Lauryn Hill: Doo Wop (That Thing) (1998)Stream on Spotify
Fresh from establishing herself as a global musical superstar with the Fugees, Lauryn Hill promptly embarked on a solo project that would break records and birth the first US number one written, produced and recorded by a female soloist since 1989.
‘Doo Wop (That Thing)’ was named single of the year by Rolling Stone in 1998. An incredible feat considering the abundance of quality music that year. Centring on men and women being exploited by the opposite sex, it became an anthem for self-empowerment, as well as a true party playlist essential, with elements of soul and doo-wop swing as its influences.
Hill and her backing singers were said to have recorded it in a barbershop-quartet style after dinner one night, which puts most people’s post-tea-time productivity to shame.
17. Wu-Tang Clan: Da Mystery of Chessboxin’ (1993)Stream on Spotify
‘Da Mystery of Chessboxin’ is something of an anomaly. It’s not the most notable track on Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and arguably the best verses come from fringe members of the group (step forward U-God and Masta Killa).
We know this is going to split opinion, and the fact it’s made the cut ahead of say ‘Protect Ya Neck’, ‘C.R.E.A.M.’ and ‘Triumph’ is controversial in itself, but consider the case for the defence before drawing a conclusion.
A true Wu-Tang classic requires certain ingredients: Kung-fu film samples, swords, chess references, a video containing legit Wu Wear, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard (preferably unhinged). Check, check, check, check, and check.
Top fact: ‘Da Mystery of Chessboxin’ takes its title from the kung-fu flick The Mystery of Chess Boxing. It’s also where Ghostface Killah got his MC name, taken from the film’s villain, the Ghost-Faced Killer. Lovely stuff.
18. 2Pac: California Love (1995)Stream on Spotify
Like a lot of tracks on this list you will hotly debate whether what we've chosen is even that artist’s best and while ‘California Love’ might not be, we would argue it’s Tupac’s most symbolic.
Fresh out of prison and newly signed to Death Row Records, he would find Dr. Dre at his absolute peak with a track that feels like it would become a national anthem if California ever voted for independence.
The video had all the elements too – a big-budget Mad Max-esque blockbuster starring Chris Tucker, while a young Kendrick Lamar watched the majesty and mayhem unfurl from his father’s shoulders as it was shot in Compton. Somebody should paint that.
Funnily enough, this is the second track on this list to feature a reference from the movie The Warriors. Top marks if you can guess the other. Anyway, cue Robert Troutman and his vocoder.
19. Missy Elliott: Get Ur Freak On (2001)Stream on Spotify
Missy Elliot and Timbaland went together like lager and a medium spicy lamb bhuna in the 2000s, delivering hip hop that was luscious, addictive and just the right side of daring, epitomised by the absolute mega-hit that was ‘Get Ur Freak On’.
Pitchfork ranks this as the 7th best song of the decade and to be honest we would consider bumping it higher because as we settled down into a new millennium this sounded like the future and we liked it.
What’s amazing about ‘Get Ur Freak On’ (in a sea of amazingness) is there isn’t a single kick drum. Just Bhangra beats and Missy at her absolute surreal best, spitting three admittedly economic, but no less memorable, verses.
My God this track blew up dancefloors during that decade and it was pure girl power too. Missy flipped the connotations of ‘bitch’ on its head and made herself untouchable in the process.
20. Run DMC: Peter Piper (1986)Stream on Spotify
We’re going to upset a few people here, because while we would hazard a guess most would choose ‘Sucker MC’s’, ‘It’s Like That’, or even ‘Walk This Way’ as Run DMC’s finest track, you’re all wrong because it is in fact ‘Peter Piper’.
The first song from hip hop’s first-ever multi-platinum album, Raising Hell, it’s essentially a bunch of tongue-twisting nursery rhymes intertwined with comic book and fairy tale references. But mainly, ‘Peter Piper’ is a homage to DJ Jam Master Jay (RIP).
The song samples ‘Take Me to the Mardi Gras’ by Bob James to devastating effect with Joseph ‘Run’ Simmons and Darryl ‘DMC’ McDaniels doing the rest, and from there “you all know how the story go”.
21. All Caps: Madvillain (2004)Stream on Spotify
There is a video on YouTube where college professors attempt to analyse the lyrics of Madvillain's MF DOOM. In fairness, trying to pick apart his genius does require a PhD at times, but then this is someone whose writing should absolutely find its way into the classroom.
We know you’ve got your favourite track, with your favourite producer, and your favourite guest MC, but in terms of offering an introduction into the worlds of not only the sadly departed MF DOOM but also the multi-talented Madlib, we’ve gone with ‘All Caps’.
Madlib’s meticulous crate-digging coupled with DOOM’s complex bars are complemented by a comic book video that’s a work of art in own right. This, my friends, is the complete package, and your MF DOOM starter for 10. Where you go from here is up to you, just remember ALL CAPS when you spell the man’s name.
22. Little Simz: Gorilla (2022)Stream on Spotify
Those who have been down with Simz since day dot will find picking one track to populate this list excruciating – and with good reason because it’s hard to find a moment when the queen of UK rap hasn’t been on point across her first five studio albums.
Purists will point to ‘Wings’ or possibly the nostalgia of ‘101 FM’. This author has a penchant for the feminist punk statement ‘Boss’, but self indulgence aside it’s probably a toss-up between ‘Introvert’ and ‘Gorilla’.
We’re going with the latter because one, the release took everyone by surprise just before Christmas, and two, sampling Ramsey Lewis’s ‘Summer Breeze’ shows true hip hop DNA. Shout-out to the production and videos on all of the above, though. The game has been raised, UK.
23. Monie Love: It’s a Shame (My Sister) (1990)Stream on Spotify
Many will point to Queen Latifah’s ‘Ladies First’ as the archetypal female rap anthem, but a year later a Battersea-born MC who also featured on that track turned in a solo album with a single that has aged like a fine wine.
To this day, we still can’t place Monie Love’s accent. It’s not British, it’s not American, but there’s no debate over her flow on ‘It’s a Shame (My Sister)’ which is absolutely on the money, whether in dollars or pounds.
Top of the Pops 2 trivia time. The song samples The Spinners’ 1970 single ‘It’s a Shame’ written by Stevie Wonder and mixed with the guitar riff from Sister Sledge’s ‘He’s the Greatest Dancer’. The track was also co-produced by Andrew Cox, from British ska band The Beat. Anyway, great sampling, great hook, great message, and a lovely bit of saxophone thrown in for good measure.
24. Blackalicious – Alphabet Aerobics (1999)Stream on Spotify
"Artificial amateurs aren't at all amazing..." And so starts Alphabet Aerobics, a miraculous rap that goes through the alphabet, dedicating two bars at a time to a letter and moving through all 26 with the tempo rising. It's a tongue-twisting feat that is no gimmick, thanks to the lyrical prowess and technical mastery on show. The track has waded into meme territory over the last few years, with many a budding rapping trying but not quite reaching the heights of the original - surprisingly one of those who came close, though, was Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe.
Rest in peace, Gift of Gab.
25. Subway Theme: DJ Grand Wizard Theodore (1983)Stream on Spotify
Back in 1983, a movie focusing on the four pillars of hip hop – DJing, MCing, breakdancing, and graffiti – debuted in New York and began to spread the message far and wide about each developing art form. It was called Wild Style.
With a scripted story shot in the South Bronx and Lower East Side, the film featured everyone from Fab Five Freddy to Grandmaster Flash and played out a bit like 1979’s The Warriors in places. Only for an 18 certificate, there’s virtually no violence – just good vibes.
Anyway, we digress, because the soundtrack is banging and takes you back to the birth of the culture. The ‘Subway Theme’ would eventually be sampled by Nas on Illmatic’s ‘The Genisis’, but for now kick back, close your eyes, and pretend you’re riding the D train.
- For further hip hop goodness check out our definitive list of the best hip-hop albums of all time.