Hip hop is a genre that celebrates not only the music itself but also the culture that surrounds it. And what better way to celebrate the culture than with a great hip hop song about hip hop?
Over the years, countless rappers have paid tribute to the genre with songs that explore its history, criticize its current state, or speculate on its future. From Nas’ poignant “Hip Hop Is Dead” to Lil Wayne’s irreverent “Dr. Carter” to Common’s iconic “I Used to Love H.E.R.,” the top 10 hip-hop songs about hip-hop showcase the diversity of the genre and the depth of its culture. These tracks not only celebrate the music itself but also the values and beliefs that underpin it.
10. Nas – “Hip Hop Is Dead”
Album: Hip Hop Is Dead
Released: December 19, 2006
What does it say about hip hop: In 2006, Nas was sounding like a grumpy old rapper. While the South was having their moment and the Atlanta takeover was getting started, the Queensbridge OG was lamenting the over-saturation of crunk and snap music. Reusing a sample of Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”, Nas decries the state of hip hop as well as the the lack of substance and diversity in the game.
Nas: I don’t wanna lose nobody with this, but what I mean by “hip-hop is dead” is we’re at a vulnerable state. If we don’t change, we gonna disappear like Rome. Let’s break it down to a smaller situation. Hip-hop is Rome for the hood. I think hip-hop could help rebuild America, once hip-hoppers own hip-hop. We are our own politicians, our own government, we have something to say.MTV News Exclusive: Nas Previews Hip-Hop Is Dead … The N | MTV
9. Gang Starr – “Mass Appeal”
Album: Hard to Earn
Released: March 8, 1994
What does it say about hip hop: As the story goes, “Mass Appeal” started out as a joke, poking fun at hip hop acts who were selling out their artistic integrity to reach commercial success. Premo tells the full story in an interview with Complex:
DJ Premier: It was recorded as a joke. We just wanted to make fun of the radio on what it sounded like to get airplay. That’s why I made the background melody real simplistic. I was making fun of the radio, but I’m going to make a funky version of making fun of it. Everything’s a vision, and your brain has to be that intense to be able to capture that. What the radio played, when it came to hip-hop, it sounded too watered down. That was making fun of it, but that record did real good for us.DJ Premier Tells All: The Stories Behind His Classic Records | Complex
8. A Tribe Called Quest – “Show Business”
Album: The Low End Theory
Released: September 24, 1991
What does it say about hip hop: Remember what Q-Tip said on “Check the Rhime” “Industry rule number 4080, record company people are shady.” Well, A Tribe Called Quest doubled down on that sentiment with “Show Business”, this time bringing along Lord Jamar and Sadat X of Brand Nubian, as well as Diamond D.
7. Lil Wayne – “Dr. Carter”
Album: Tha Carter III
Released: June 10, 2008
What does it say about hip hop: Not only is “Dr. Carter” one of the best Lil Wayne songs of all time, it’s one of the most creative rap songs ever made. Talib Kweli famously said the track was “one of the greatest rap songs [he] ever heard.” Over a soaring beat courtesy of Swizz (who samples David Axelrod’s “Holy Thursday”), Weezy provides an indirect rebuttal to Nas’ declaration that “hip hop is dead” and sets out to save the culture instead.
6. De La Soul – “Stakes is High”
Album: Stakes Is High
Released: July 2, 1996
What does it say about hip hop: Released at the height of the East Coast-West Coast rivalry, De La Soul’s fourth album, Stakes Is High, was their darkest work to date, perhaps a mirror of the year in which violence was rampant throughout the culture. On the album’s title track, the trio vent their frustrations on where hip hop is headed, decrying the oversaturation of commercialism and gangsta rap in the music.
Posdnuos: It was kinda like our What’s Going On like a Marvin Gaye. We just had really great songs on there that spoke to what was going on with the times from a music standpoint as well as just life.De La Soul Explains Who Is Carrying “Stakes Is High” Legacy On 20th Anniversary Of Album | HipHopDX
5. Mos Def – “Hip Hop”
Album: Black on Both Sides
Released: October 12, 1999
What does it say about hip hop: Mos Def’s debut album, Black on Both Sides, is simply one of the best rap albums dropped in the ’90s, and this ode to hip hop is just one of the many reasons. Mos goes from talking about his craft to narrating the evolution of hip hop from the cotton fields to talking about rap lyrics being used as prosecutors’ evidence. This is Mos Def showcasing his superb penmanship at its best.
4. 2Pac – “Old School”
Album: Me Against the World
Released: March 14, 1995
What does it say about hip hop: Before Pac was getting busy going to war with half of New York, he dropped “Old School,” a beautiful ode to the Mecca of hip hop. A highlight track off his brilliant third album, Me Against the World, the track finds Pac celebrating ’80s pioneers like Mr. Magic and Grandmaster Caz, shout out his homie Treach, and freestyling on a train with some kids from Brooklyn, amongst other fond memories of the culture.
3. The Roots – “Act Too (The Love of My Life)”
Album: Things Fall Apart
Released: February 23, 1999
What does it say about hip hop: Featured on The Roots 1999 breakthrough album, Things Fall Apart, “Act Too (The Love of My Life)” is the unofficial sequel to Common’s classic 1994 track. On the track, the Chicago MC continues his extended metaphor, recounting Puffy’s takeover of the culture as well as his short-lived before with Ice Cube.
2. Naughty By Nature – “Hip Hop Hooray”
Album: 19 Naughty III
Released: December 1992
What does it say about hip hop: So far, a lot of the tracks included on this list have been focused primarily on a rapper’s disillusion on the state of hip hop. Which is why “Hip Hop Hooray” is such a breath of fresh air; it’s a pure celebratory track about a culture that has taken over the world. The fact that “Hip Hop Hooray” also became one of the biggest rap singles in history certainly helped.
1. Common – “I Used to Love H.E.R.”
Released: September 27, 1994
What does it say about hip hop: When rap fans talk about songs about hip hop, “I Used to Love H.E.R.” is, more often than not, the first pick. Transforming hip hop into H.E.R. (Hip-Hop in its Essence is Real), Common laments the rise of West Coast gangsta rap and fall of conscious artists, and in the process, ignited a feud with Cube. Not only is this one of the best Common tracks, “I Used to Love H.E.R.” is one of the greatest hip hop songs of all time.
Common: Honestly, I’m happy I wrote that song. I’m grateful because of the fact that people responded to the song. Throughout time, people still refer to it as something that meant something to them. It was a great way for me to talk about how I felt about hip-hop at that time. I feel like my perspective has evolved now, but the love is still there.Common Talks About Using J Dilla Production on New Album: “I Had to Make Sure…I Wasn’t Doing Something He’d Be Against” [Interview] | Okayplayer