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After being established as a viable art form in the late ’70s via The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” hip hop music officially started taking off in the 1980s.

While it would be years later until rap became the dominant force in pop culture, a lot of the innovation and trends were set down in this decade that would go on to influence generations of superstars later down the line.

From the lyrical innovations of Rakim and Big Daddy Kane to the production techniques of Marley Marl to the righteous anger of Public Enemy and N.W.A., the ’80s is where it all started.

To celebrate the most influential decade in hip hop history, here is a list of the defining tracks from a golden era that have stayed timeless in the culture.

From Ice-T’s “I’m Your Pusher” to EPMD’s “You Gots to Chill” to Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend”, here are the 50 best hip hop songs of the 1980s.


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50. Biz Markie – “Vapors”

Released: April 1988

Album: Goin’ Off

Producer: Marley Marl

49. Kool G Rap & DJ Polo – “Men at Work”

Released: March 14, 1989

Album: Road to the Riches

Producer: Marley Marl

48. Ice-T – “I’m Your Pusher”

Released: August 23, 1988

Album: Power

Producer: Ice-T, Afrika Islam

47. Jungle Brothers – “Black is Black”

Released: November 8, 1988

Album: Straight out the Jungle

Producer: Jungle Brothers

46. DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince – “Parents Just Don’t Understand”

Released: February 17, 1988

Album: He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper

Producer: Pete Harris, Will Smith, Jeffrey Townes, Bryan “Chuck” New

45. Gang Starr – “Words I Manifest (Remix)”

Released: April 22, 1989

Album: No More Mr. Nice Guy

Producer: DJ Premier

44. MC Lyte – “10% Dis”

Released: 1988

Album: Lyte as a Rock

Producer: Audio Two

43. The D.O.C. – “It’s Funky Enough”

Released: June 16, 1989

Album: No One Can Do It Better

Producer: Dr. Dre

42. T La Rock & Jazzy Jay – “It’s Yours”

Released: 1984

Album: N/A

Producer: Rick Rubin

41. Ultramagnetic MCs – “Give the Drummer Some”

Released: October 4, 1988

Album: Critical Beatdown

Producer: Paul C

40. Kool Moe Dee – “How Ya Like Me Now”

Released: November 3, 1987

Album: How Ya Like Me Now

Producer: Kool Moe Dee, Teddy Riley

39. Salt-n-Pepa – “Push It”

Released: March 8, 1987

Album: Hot, Cool & Vicious

Producer: Hurby Azor

38. Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force – “Looking for the Perfect Beat”

Released: December 1982

Album: Planet Rock: The Album

Producer: Arthur Baker, John Robie

37. Boogie Down Productions – “9mm Goes Bang”

Released: March 3, 1987

Album: Criminal Minded

Producer: DJ Scott La Rock, KRS-One, Partner Lee Smith

36. Kurtis Blow – “The Breaks”

Released: June 14, 1980

Album: Kurtis Blow

Producer: J.B. Moore, Robert Ford Jr.

35. Big Daddy Kane – “Wrath of Kane”

Released: September 19, 1989

Album: It’s a Big Daddy Thing

Producer: Marley Marl

34. Roxanne Shante – “Roxanne’s Revenge”

Released: 1984

Album: N/A

Producer: Marley Marl

33. Boogie Down Productions – “The Bridge Is Over”

Released: March 3, 1987

Album: Criminal Minded

Producer: Ced Gee, DJ Scott La Rock, KRS-One, Partner Lee Smith

32. Stetsasonic – “Talkin’ All That Jazz”

Released: June 21, 1988

Album: In Full Gear

Producer: Prince Paul

31. Stop the Violence Movement – “Self Destruction”

Released: January 15, 1989

Album: N/A

Producer: KRS-One, D-Nice, Hank Shocklee

30. De La Soul – “Me Myself and I”

Released: April 1, 1989

Album: 3 Feet High and Rising

Producer: Prince Paul

29. Run-D.M.C. – “It’s Like That”

Released: August 10, 1983

Album: Run-D.M.C.

Producer: Russell Simmons, Larry Smith

28. LL Cool J – “I’m Bad”

Released: June 13, 1987

Album: Bigger and Deffer

Producer: L.A. Posse, LL Cool J

27. EPMD – “You Gots to Chill”

Released: April 30, 1988

Album: Strictly Business

Producer: EPMD

26. N.W.A. – “Gangsta Gangsta”

Released: September 5, 1988

Album: Straight Outta Compton

Producer: Dr. Dre, DJ Yella, Arabian Prince

25. Eric B. & Rakim – “Eric B. Is President”

Released: 1986

Album: Paid in Full

Producer: Marley Marl

24. Ice-T – “6 in the Mornin'”

Released: 1986

Album: Rhyme Pays

Producer: The Unknown DJ

23. MC Shan – “The Bridge”

Released: 1985

Album: Down by Law

Producer: Marley Marl

22. Big Daddy Kane – “Warm It Up, Kane”

Released: September 19, 1989

Album: It’s a Big Daddy Thing

Producer: Big Daddy Kane

21. Eric B. & Rakim – “Microphone Fiend”

Released: July 25, 1988

Album: Follow the Leader

Producer: Eric B. & Rakim

20. Eazy-E – “Boyz-n-the-Hood”

Released: March 3, 1987

Album: N.W.A. and the Posse

Producer: Dr. Dre, DJ Yella

19. LL Cool J – “Rock the Bells”

Released: September 22, 1985

Album: Radio

Producer: Rick Rubin, LL Cool J

18. Biz Markie – “Just a Friend”

Released: September 26, 1989

Album: The Biz Never Sleeps

Producer: Marcel Hall

17. Run-D.M.C. – “Walk This Way”

Released: July 4, 1986

Album: Raising Hell

Producer: Rick Rubin

16. Schoolly D – “P.S.K. What Does It Mean?”

Released: 1985

Album: Schoolly D

Producer: J.B. Weaver Jr.

15. Public Enemy – “Fight the Power”

Released: July 4, 1989

Album: Fear of a Black Planet and Do the Right Thing: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Producer: The Bomb Squad

14. Eric B. & Rakim – “I Know You Got Soul”

Released: July 7, 1987

Album: Paid in Full

Producer: Marley Marl

13. N.W.A. – “Fuck tha Police”

Released: August 8, 1988

Album: Straight Outta Compton

Producer: Dr. Dre, DJ Yella, Arabian Prince

12. Boogie Down Productions – “South Bronx”

Released: 1986

Album: Criminal Minded

Producer: DJ Scott La Rock, KRS-One, Partner Lee Smith

11. EPMD – “Strictly Business”

Released: June 7, 1988

Album: Strictly Business

Producer: EPMD

10. Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five – “The Message”

Released: July 1, 1982

Album: The Message

Producer: Edward G. Fletcher, Sylvia Robinson

9. Slick Rick – “Children’s Story”

Released: April 4, 1989

Album: The Great Adventures of Slick Rick

Producer: Slick Rick

8. Marley Marl – “The Symphony”

Released: 1988

Album: In Control, Volume 1

Producer: Marley Marl

7. Big Daddy Kane – “Ain’t No Half-Steppin'”

Released: June 21, 1988

Album: Long Live the Kane

Producer: Marley Marl

6. N.W.A. – “Straight Outta Compton”

Released: July 10, 1988

Album: Straight Outta Compton

Producer: Dr. Dre, DJ Yella, Arabian Prince

5. Audio Two – “Top Billin'”

Released: October 15, 1987

Album: What More Can I Say?

Producer: Audio Two, Daddy-O

Released in 1987, “Top Billin” is one of the last great classics from Hip-hop’s early years. The track features emcee Milk Dee dropping a b-boy freestyle over a hard breakbeat produced by Stetsasonic’s Daddy-O. It’s a street corner rap straight outta Brooklyn.

“Top Billin” has been sampled, covered and quoted on countless recordings over the past three decades. Audio Two would never again match the success of the song. Soon gangster rap would change the culture for good. However, this track remains as an iconic moment in hip-hop history. Not only did “Top Billin'” one of the best hip hop songs of the 1980s, it’s one of the most iconic rap anthems of all time.

4. Doug E. Fresh & MC Ricky D – “La Di Da Di”

Released: August 13, 1985

Album: N/A

Producer: Dennis Bell & Ollie Cotton for City Slicker Productions

In 1985, before he went by Slick Rick the Ruler, Richard Martin Lloyd Walters was known as MC Ricky D of the Get Fresh Crew. That’s when hip-hop’s greatest storyteller and the legendary Doug E Fresh created this landmark recording. They stepped into the studio with two mics and no beat. They came out with this masterpiece. As one of the greatest 80s rappers, Slick Rick proved that he was also hip hop’s finest storyteller.

The track has been sampled countless times since its release. Snoop Dogg famously covered the song (as “Lodi Dodi”) in 1993. Nearly 40 years after its release, this beatbox tale of Ricky D’s romantic exploits is still regarded as a definitive classic of Hip-hop. The men responsible are heralded as two of the founding fathers of the genre.

3. Eric B. & Rakim – “My Melody”

Released: July 7, 1987

Album: Paid in Full

Producer: Marley Marl

With this epic freestyle, the world met the man who many regard as the greatest rapper of all time. In 1986, Rakim’s smooth musical flow and sophisticated lyrical style set the gold standard for all future emcees. His influence can still be felt to this day.

This track was originally released as the B-Side to Eric B. & Rakim’s debut single “Eric B. is President.” It has since become regarded as a classic in its own right. With a hard-as-nails beat produced by legendary New York City DJ Marley Marl, “My Melody” is a six minute hip-hop master class of technique and lyricism.

2. Run-D.M.C. – “Sucker M.C.’s”

Released: August 10, 1983

Album: Run-D.M.C.

Producer: Russell Simmons, Larry Smith

More than any other group, Run (Joseph Simmons), DMC (Darryl McDaniels) and Jam Master Jay (Jason Mizell) epitomized hip-hop when this single dropped in 1983. Run’s brother Russell Simmons had just launched the iconic Def Jam record label with Rick Rubin. With the release of Run-DMC’s eponymous debut they introduced the genre to a world beyond the five boroughs. 

The album’s fifth track “Sucker M.C.’s (Krush-Groove 1)” is now regarded as a seminal work of hip-hop’s second wave. Originally released as the B-Side to the single “It’s Like That”, the song tells the story of the group’s rise to fame. Run’s lyrics are a veritable reference dictionary of old-school hip-hop lingo.

1. Public Enemy – “Rebel Without a Pause”

Released: July 1987

Album: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back

Producer: The Bomb Squad

In 1988 Public Enemy unveiled their ground shaking sophomore album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, and changed hip-hop forever. Chuck D, Flava Flav, Professor Griff and Terminator X had made waves a year earlier with Yo! Bum Rush the Show. But when their second album’s first single dropped, they unleashed a tsunami.

In “Rebel Without a Pause” Chuck states his intention to, “Voice my opinion, with volume!” He fulfills that promise. The song is a harbinger of the sea change to come. PE’s music shifted the focus of the hip-hop world to subjects of Afrocentric pride and political activism. Rap was suddenly the smartest music on the radio.

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