Off the top of our head, we can name 50 dope singles that came out in ’94, ’95 or ’98, let alone of all time. Ranking the 50 greatest rap singles of all time is no easy feat. There are literally thousands of songs that deserve to be in consideration for the top places and deciding which ones to keep and which ones to cut was pretty tricky.
So let’s not waste any more time and get into it. From Nas to Biggie, Jay-Z to 2Pac, Biz Markie to Big Daddy Kane, Slick Rick to Rakim, here are the 50 greatest hip hop singles of all time.
50. Audio Two – “Top Billin'”
Producer: Daddy-O, Audio Two
Released: October 15, 1987
Album: What More Can I Say?
Label: First Priority Music
I’d hate to call the Brooklyn duo, Audio Two, a one-hit wonder, but I’d be hard pressed to remember another song of theirs that has had the same impact as “Top Billin’.”
Produced with Stetsasonic’s Daddy-O, “Top Billin'” captured hip-hop at its most youthful, energetic and innocent – playful taunts delivered over a simple, rugged beat.
From Jay-Z to Kanye West to 50 Cent, artists from around the world and through the years have dipped into the super funky “Top Billin'” for their hits, making it one of the greatest hip-hop singles of all time.
49. Ice-T – “6 in the Mornin'”
Producer: The Unknown DJ
Album: Rhyme Pays
Label: Techno Hop Records
As one of the pioneers of gangsta rap, it only makes sense that Ice-T created an influential gangsta track like “6 in the Mornin’.” Influenced heavily by Schoolly D’s 1985 street anthem “P.S.K. What Does It Mean?,” Ice-T’s rhymes are simple yet effective; painting a stark and harrowing picture of West Coast gang life.
Along with Schoolly D and Boogie Down Productions’ “9mm Goes Bang,” “6 in the Mornin'” was integral to pushing hip-hop towards a harder, grittier era.
Not only is “6 in the Mornin'” one of the most influential rap songs of all time, it’s also one of the greatest hip-hop songs of all time.
48. DMX f. Sheek Louch – “Get at Me Dog”
Producer: P.K. and Dame Grease
Released: February 10, 1998
Album: It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot
Label: Ruff Ryders, Def Jam
At the start of 1998, hip-hop was completely dominated by Puff Daddy and his Bad Boy army. With hits from Biggie, The LOX, and Mase sweeping through radio like a hurricane, Puff had hip-hop in total shiny suit and champagne mode.
So when a young, hungry rapper from Yonkers started to make some major waves with his hardcore, street sound – it was a breath of fresh air for hip-hop fans hungry for an alternative to the Bad Boy dictatorship.
Kicking off with the super raw “Get at Me Dog,” DMX growled, barked and tore his way up the charts and through the streets, taking hip-hop away from the limousines and back to the gutter.
DMX would have bigger hits, more memorable songs later in his career, but “Get at Me Dog” was his firing shot and definitely one of the greatest hip-hop songs of all time.
47. 2Pac – “Keep Ya Head Up”
Producer: DJ Daryl
Released: October 28, 1993
Album: Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z.
The magic of 2pac and the reason why he’s still so dearly loved around the world is because of his ability to appeal to people from all walks of life.
Pac could write a heartbreaking song like “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” then raise the stakes with “Trapped.” He could put out a hit single like “I Get Around” talking about sexing the ladies, then turn around and release a song like “Keep Ya Head Up” shouting out women.
And you know, it was all authentic.
2Pac was truly the realest rapper because he rapped what he felt – whether right or wrong, he said it, and he said it with conviction. “Keep Ya Head Up” was one of the greatest moments in his short-lived career and one of the greatest hip-hop songs ever.
46. Kanye West – “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”
Producer: Kanye West, DJ Toomp
Released: May 15, 2007
Label: Roc-A-Fella, Def Jam
Kanye West already had a bunch of amazing singles before “Can’t Tell Me Nothing.” From “Through the Wire” to “Jesus Walks” to “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” Kanye already won the fans hearts and burnt up the charts at the same time.
But with “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” he managed to strike a chord he hadn’t ever before. I’m not quite sure what is was – the soaring production (co-produced with very talented DJ Toomp), the haunting female vocals floating over the beat, the fucking Young Jeezy adlibs, some of Kanye’s best bars of his career?
For the first time in his career, Kanye had a radio hit and street anthem at the same time – one of the greatest hip-hop songs he’s ever released.
45. Nas – “Made You Look”
Producer: Salaam Remi
Released: February 11, 2003
Album: God’s Son
Label: Ill Will, Columbia
Nas sometimes has a problem with being too didactic with his rhymes – at times it feels like he’s lecturing the listener, which makes the song forceful and boring at times.
So when he lets loose with the Grey Goose and just goes off on a track like “Made You Look,” it’s fucking hip-hop heaven. Nas brought back to the ’92, “Halftime” era, just dropping bars and bars of that hard shit. Praise Salaam Remi for the beat. “Where them gangstas? Where them dimes at?”
44. T.I. – “What You Know”
Producer: DJ Toomp
Released: January 28, 2006
Label: Grand Hustle, Atlantic
The King of the South isn’t as widely coveted a title as The King of New York. Still, when T.I. made the claim to the South’s throne, he definitely riled up some feathers.
Who was he to crown himself as The King of the South? What about Scarface? OutKast? UGK? Lil Wayne? Then he dropped “What You Know” and everyone went silent. Or maybe it was that you couldn’t hear them over DJ Toomp’s soaring, majestic synths or T.I.’s sneers over them.
If T.I. became The King of the South in 2006, then “What You Know” was his coronation track and one of the greatest hip-hop songs ever.
43. Black Star – “Definition”
Released: May 26, 1998
Album: Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star
Label: Rawkus Records
Let’s think back to 1998 in hip-hop. Puffy had the radio game completely locked down, Jay-Z had blown up to become one of hip-hop’s A-listers, DMX was starting to make waves in the industry and Master P was making history with his savvy entrepreneurial techniques.
Somewhere amongst all this, two Brooklyn rappers were quietly crafting a classic for the underground heads. From the smooth Hi-Tek production to the Boogie Down Productions sample to Talib Kweli and Mos Def’s nimble, relatable rhymes, “Definition” was an instant classic from beginning to end.
As the first single off the Black Star album, which in turn was one of the first releases off Rawkus Records “Definition” wasn’t just responsible for launching Mos Def and Talib Kweli’s career and also for an era of incredible underground hip-hop music.
42. 50 Cent – “In Da Club”
Producer: Dr. Dre, Mike Elizondo
Released: January 7, 2003
Album: Get Rich or Die Tryin’
Label: Shady, Aftermath, Interscope
With a laser-like focus, an unstoppable work ethic and the mixtape game on lock, the top of the rap game was the only place that 50 Cent would be satisfied with.
After overrunning the streets with an onslaught of incredible mixtapes – 50 Cent Is the Future, No Mercy, No Fear, God’s Plan – 50 signed with Eminem and it was a wrap.
With Em to the right of him and Dre to the left of him, 50 became the big homie overnight and “In Da Club” was his stamp of approval. Dre’s production on the track is phenomenal but it’s 50’s knack of catchy hooks and his melodic style of rapping that captured the streets and the charts.
41. Naughty By Nature – “Hip Hop Hooray”
Producer: DJ Kay Gee, Eazy-E
Released: December 10, 1992
Album: 19 Naughty III
Label: Tommy Boy Records
You know that whole thing where street rappers make a hardcore album but put out a few singles that appeal to the radio and the clubs? Yeah, Naughty By Nature perfected that formula.
With the first three singles from their debut album hitting massive chart success and radio airplay, no-one thought the hip-hop trio could do it their second time around.
Then Naughty By Nature goes ahead and drops “Hip Hop Hooray,” topping the US R&B chart and peaking at number 8 on the Billboard Hot 100. “Hip Hop Hooray” is the very definition of a classic party track – it’s fun, catchy, timeless – and absolutely one of the greatest hip-hop singles of all time.
40. Lil Wayne – “A Milli”
Released: February 13, 2008
Album: Tha Carter III
Label: Cash Money, Universal Motown
After releasing his most commercially successful single to date – the 5x platinum “Lollipop” which spent 5 weeks on top the charts – Lil Wayne knew he had to bring it back to the streets in a major way.
The answer to that was Bangladesh’s, stuttering, mind-blower of a beat. After “A Milli” dropped, it was a wrap – Weezy had the streets and the charts locked down. Tha Carter III debuted with over a million units sold in the first week, making it the number one first week hip-hop opener of 2008.
Wayne hasn’t rapped as ferociously or as effortlessly since “A Milli” dropped. And judging by the number of rappers who have tried to freestyle over the beat – from Jay-Z to Kendrick Lamar to Jadakiss to Drake – no-one’s managed to match Weezy’s bars on bars on bars since either.
39. The Fugees – “Ready or Not”
Producer: The Fugees, Jerry Duplessis
Released: August 29, 1996
Album: The Score
Having Lauryn Hill rap on any track was a Catch-22 for Pras and Wyclef. On one hand, you’ve got arguably the greatest female rapper dropping instant classic bars on a song that will probably blow up. On the other hand, standing next to Lauryn on a track showed just exactly how much she outclasses everyone.
“Ready or Not” wasn’t the monster smash that was “Killing Me Softly” – in fact it was the least successful single off The Score – but with the haunting Enya sample and all three members rapping their hearts out on the track, it had a lasting impact on hip-hop fans. Meek Mill recently used the beat for one of the cuts off Dreamchasers 2, sixteen years after “Ready or Not” rocked the rap game.
38. EPMD – “You Gots to Chill”
Album: Strictly Business
Truthfully speaking, any cut off EPMD’s debut studio album, Strictly Business, could be considered in the top 50 greatest hip-hop singles of all time. Whether it’s the knocking “You’re a Customer” or the first track of their “Jane” series, EPMD had classics for days on that first album.
But it’s actually their second single that gets my vote for the best cut off Strictly Business. Featuring Erick and Parrish’s down to earth rhymes and stacks of funk samples – from Kool & the Gang to Zapp – “You Got’s to Chill” was an instant hip-hop classic and one of the most widely quoted tracks of all time.
37. Jay-Z – “Dead Presidents”
Released: February 20, 1996
Album: Reasonable Doubt
“Ain’t No Nigga” may have been the Reasonable Doubt single that propelled Jay-Z into a lucrative deal with Def Jam, but it was “Dead Presidents” that had the streets ringing.
DJ Clark Kent, longtime Hov collaborator, recalls how it was “Dead Presidents” that had Biggie a little concerned about this up-and-coming Brooklyn rapper. This is the shit legends are made up of.
There’s so many elements to this song that make it one of the greatest hip-hop singles of all time. The genius Nas sample, the Q-Tip drums, the melancholic Lonnie Liston Smith and of course Hov’s eye-opening lyrics about the street life.
“Dead Presidents II” is definitely up there in terms of Hov’s rhymes, but the first one was just on another level. I mean – “while others spit that Wonderama shit, me and my conglomerate, shall remain anonymous, caught up in the finest shit.” I mean, come on?!
36. A Tribe Called Quest – “Electric Relaxation”
Producer: A Tribe Called Quest
Album: Midnight Marauders
Hip-hop heads can argue for days on end about which Tribe album is the best between The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders. In fact, hip-hop heads can argue for days on end which cut off both those albums are the best. For my Midnight Marauders vote, it’s got to go to “Electric Relaxation.”
It’s the best examples of Q-Tip’s amazing ear for dope loops and definitely shows why he’s one of the greatest hip-hop producers of all time. Plus you’ve got Tip and Phife going back and forth with just day to day rhymes. Not much to say about it, “Electric Relaxation” is a hip-hop classic and absolutely one of the greatest hip-hop singles of all time.
35. Gang Starr f. Nice & Smooth – “DWYCK”
Producer: DJ Premier
Released: March 8, 1994
Album: Hard to Earn
Label: Chrysalis, EMI Records
According to DJ Premier on the NahRight feature for the 20th anniversary of Hard to Earn – The Making of Gang Starr’s Hard to Earn with DJ Premier – “DWYCK” started out as a B-side for Gang Starr’s ’92 single “Take it Personal” but the shit blew up so big it only made sense to put it on an album.
To this day, “DWYCK” still stands as one of the most timeless and effective summer records. The brutally efficient “Synthetic Substitution” breakbeat, Greg Nice’s hyped up intro, Guru’s infamously memorable line about lemonade and Smooth B’s chilled out intro – everything about the track is unforgettable.
34. Run–D.M.C. f. Aerosmith – “Walk This Way”
Producer: Rick Rubin, Russell Simmons
Released: July 4, 1986
Album: Raising Hell
This record is just genius on so many levels. On a cultural level, on a musical level and on a business level, “Walk This Way” is simply genius.
To put this shit into perspective, this was the first hip-hop record to hit the top 5 on the Billboard Hot 100, playing a massive role in breaking rap music into the mainstream by introducing it to a much wider audience.
Most of the credit needs to go to Rick Rubin, whose idea it was for the legendary trio to not only remake the song but to bring in Aerosmith as well.
Of course, it wouldn’t have been so successful if it hadn’t been for Run and D.M.C.’s natural chemistry on the track, allowing them to effortlessly trade bars over the rock instrumentals.
Not only is “Walk This Way” one of the greatest hip-hop singles ever, it’s also one of the most important and influential of all time.
33. Public Enemy f. Pete Rock – “Shut ‘em Down (Pete Rock Remix)”
Producer: Pete Rock
Label: Def Jam
The original beat for “Shut ’em Down” was a monster in itself but when Pete Rock remixed it with what would become his signature horns and crisp drums, that version became an event. It’s also one of those few times when the remix would overtake the original as one of the greatest hip-hop songs of all time.
The Chocolate Boy Wonder would follow up this track with 3 classic albums with CL Smooth and a handful of classic remixes for Naughty By Nature, Jeru the Damaja, Mary J. Blige and more, but “Shut ’em Down,” one of the greatest hip-hop songs of all time, was where it all began.
32. Scarface – “I Seen a Man Die”
Producer: N.O. Joe, Scarface, Mike Dean (co-producer)
Released: November 1, 1994
Album: The Diary
As one of the greatest rappers of all time, Scarface’s main legacy (of his many) is his ability to inject a range of emotions in his voice, rhyming style and content. There’s no doubt that the highly emotive rappers after, like 2Pac and DMX, were influenced by Face’s world weary rhymes and his vocal inflections that made it sound like he’s seen too much in his time.
“I Seen a Man Die” – Scarface’s single off his classic ’94 album The Diary – is the best example of this rare ability. Produced in collaboration with N.O. Joe and Mike Dean, the track was a chilling narrative told by Scarface as a close observer. Haunting, sombre and devastatingly unforgettable, “I Seen a Man Die” cemented Scarface amongst the top pantheon of great storytellers.
31. Puff Daddy f. Lil’ Kim, The LOX & The Notorious B.I.G. – “It’s All About the Benjamins”
Producer: Deric “D-Dot” Angelettie for The Hitmen
Released: June 30, 1997
Album: No Way Out
Label: Bad Boy Records
Cipha Sounds, current Hot 97 morning show host and former DJ at the infamous hip-hop nightclub The Tunnel, declared Puff Daddy’s ’97 smash single the number one greatest Tunnel banger of all time, beating out other classics like Busta Rhymes’ “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See,” Cam’ron’s “.357” and Biggie’s “Who Shot Ya?”
How can you possibly disagree? Everything about “It’s All About the Benjamins” defines club banger. The infectious guitar sample, Puff’s catchy opening lines, The LOX holding shit down in the middle and Biggie coming in at the end to body the track over the smooth Jackson 5 sample. Greatest Tunnel banger of all time? Definitely. One of the greatest hip-hop singles of all time? Absolutely.
30. Dr. Dre – “Still D.R.E.”
Producer: Dr. Dre, Mel-Man, Scott Storch
Released: October 13, 1999
Album: The Chronic 2001
Label: Aftermath, Interscope
From the N.W.A. days to Death Row days, Dr. Dre was arguably one of the top and most important hip-hop producers of all time. Straight Outta Compton, No One Can Do It Better, The Chronic, Doggystyle, it was like every record Dre touched, he changed the game.
But then something happened. Maybe it was because 2Pac was wreaking havoc on the East Coast or Suge Knight had turned Death Row Records from a creative powerhouse to a gangster’s paradise. Either way, Dre was not feeling it and it showed in his production work. I mean, fuck, The Firm album was a disappointment despite easily hitting platinum status. If Nas and Dr. Dre can’t get together and make a classic, something was definitely wrong.
But hip-hop has learnt to never count Dre out. With Eminem on the left of him, Snoop Dogg on the right and Mel-Man helping behind the boards, Dre was back and 2001’s first single “Still D.R.E.” said it all. With stripped down, sinister piano grooves driving the beat and timeless bars written by Jay-Z, the track announced a new era ruled by Aftermath.
29. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five – “The Message”
Producer: Ed Fletcher, Clifton “Jiggs” Chase, Sylvia Robinson
Released: July 1, 1982
Album: The Message
Label: Sugar Hill
Before Melle Mel rapped about broken glass everywhere, hip-hop artists weren’t talking about that street shit like that. It was only after “The Message” was released when rappers began to incorporate more commentary into their rhymes instead of just the usual party stuff.
Any street rapper, from Jay-Z to 50 Cent to Pusha T, is Melle Mel’s son. Plus the beat is banging as well. Why do you think Ice Cube used it for his “Check Yo Self” remix?
The point is, every now and then, there’s a rap song that just comes in and changes everything. “The Message” was one of them, turning the art of rap into a more serious, socially conscious genre and is definitely one of the greatest hip-hop singles of all time.
28. Biz Markie – “Just A Friend”
Producer: Biz Markie
Released:September, 21 1989
Album: The Biz Never Sleeps
Label: Cold Chillin’, Warner Bros.
You! You got what I need but you say he’s just a friend. C’MON! How do you not sing along to that? Even the most cynical, hoodie-wearing, Timberland-stomping hip-hop fan would break out as soon as they hear Biz Markie belt out those tunes.
These days we’ve got dudes like Future and Drake pouring their hearts over rap lyrics but let’s not forget who started all shit – the Diabolical Biz Markie.
There’s a great story Biz tells on the Peter Rosenberg and Cipha Sounds’ Juan Epstein podcast: at live shows, he would start off the song and just have the whole crowd finish it for him without wasting a breath. There’s absolutely no arguing against – “Just A Friend” is the most memorable and loved hip-hop song of all time.
27. Boogie Down Productions – “South Bronx”
Producer: Ced Gee, DJ Scott La Rock, KRS-One
Album: Criminal Minded
Label: B-Boy Records
If you’re a hip-hop head, then the story behind “South Bronx” should be well pretty well known to you. After KRS-One and his partner DJ Scott La Rock felt dissed by Marley Marl and Mr. Magic when they said their demo was wack, KRS got in the booth and lashed out at MC Shan’s tribute to his home, the Queensbridge Housing Projects.
The result? A rowdy, chant-filled track layered over knocking, James Brown drums that had every New York borough jumping. Harlem, Brooklyn, Queens, it didn’t matter where you were from – “South Bronx” had everybody yelling out “South Bronx! South, South Bronx!”
26. Snoop Dogg – “Who Am I? (What’s My Name?)”
Producer: Dr. Dre
Released: October 30, 1993
Label: Death Row Records, Interscope Records, Atlantic Records
It’s hard to imagine how amazing the anticipation for Snoop Dogg’s first album was back in 1993. The only modern day rapper I can think of is 50 Cent when he was breaking into the rap game 10 years after Snoop.
Think about it. Snoop played an enormous role in The Chronic, arguably the most transformative and revolutionary hip-hop record ever created. Snoop’s vocals over Dre’s beats were a match made in heaven and hip-hop fans couldn’t get enough of it.
So when “Who Am I? (What’s My Name?)” was released in October ’93, that shit blew Snoop up to whole another level – peaking in the Billboard Hot 100’s top 10. Released a month later, Doggystyle moved over 800,000 units in its first week, setting the commercial record for a debut artist. Enough said.
25. Ice Cube – “It Was a Good Day”
Producer: DJ Pooh
Released: February 23, 1993
Album: The Predator
As a rapper with over 20 years of music under his belt, to say that “It Was a Good Day” is Ice Cube’s greatest song of all time speaks volumes of it. What more can you say about this classic? The gorgeous Isley Brothers sample? Cube at his storytelling best? The incredible music video?
It was a momentary respite, a lull in the violence, a temporary change from the charged Ice Cube we all know and love. Long before Kendrick Lamar took us on his eventful night, Cube drove listeners through the Compton on a regular ’92 day. Not only the best Ice Cube of all time but one of the greatest hip-hop singles ever.
24. Jeru the Damaja – “Come Clean”
Producer: DJ Premier
Album: The Sun Rises in the East
Label: Full Frequency Range Recordings
As one of the greatest hip-hop producers of all time, Premo has laced some of the best rappers of all time with some serious heat. Whether it was Jay-Z’s “Friend or Foe,” Nas’ “Come Get Me,” Rakim’s “When I B on the Mic,” Biggie’s “Unbelievable” or Common’s “The 6th Sense,” DJ Premier has produced some of the best tracks for the greats.
But nothing comes close to Jeru the Damaja’s “Come Clean.” As part of Jeru’s debut album, The Sun Rises in the East, which Premo produced entirely, “Come Clean” was a masterpiece in music production. Made up of a ridiculously simple loop, some banging drums and Onyx vocal samples, the track was a dirty platform for Jeru to fire shots at fake MCs, wherever and whoever.
DJ Premier’s best beat ever? Maybe. One of the greatest hip-hop singles of all time? Fuck yeah!
23. LL Cool J – “Mama Said Knock You Out”
Producer: Marley Marl
Released: February 26, 1991
Album: Mama Said Knock You Out
Label: Def Jam
We already talked about “Still D.R.E.” as one of the best comeback singles ever. But few hip-hop songs come close to LL Cool Js phenomenal return to the throne. LL attributes the title to his grandma telling him to knock the critics out and how better to do that than over a funky, hard-as-fuck Marley Marl beat? “Mama Said Knock You Out” won the streets, smashed the charts and returned LL to the king of rap music. Don’t call it a comeback!
22. Clipse – “Grindin'”
Producer: The Neptunes
Released: May 14, 2002
Album: Lord Willin’
Label: Arista, Star Trak
This is where it all starts. The Neptunes had produced a bunch of hits for a range of artists before but it was with “Grindin'” that they established their domination on street-hardened but radio-friendly records. Combining the off-the-wall drum patterns, ridiculously catchy loop with Pusha T and Malice’s incisive dope-slinging rhymes was genius. Props the Clipse bodying the shit out of that beat and creating an anthem in the process.
21. A Tribe Called Quest – “Scenario”
Producer: A Tribe Called Quest
Released: January 1992
Album: The Low End Theory
What other song was embedded itself in hip-hop memory like “Scenario” has? What other verse has engrained itself in listeners’ minds more than Busta Rhymes’ retarded verse? You came for A Tribe Called Quest but you left remembering Busta’s dragon impressions. Greatest posse cut of all time? It’s definitely up there! Absolutely one of the greatest hip-hop singles of all time.
20. Eminem – “Stan”
Producer: The 45 King & Eminem
Released: December 4, 2000
Album: The Marshall Mathers LP
Label: Aftermath, Interscope, Shady
Before “Stan,” Eminem had already established himself as one of the most talented and refreshing lyricists to come into the rap game. His unique blend of incredible rhyme skills, self-deprecating humour and irreverent subject matter made him the most exciting rappers in a long time.
But it was when he dropped “Stan” that hip-hop fans realised he was on a different level. Driven by a haunting bass-line and a vocal sample from Dido’s “Thank You,” Eminem wove a gripping story about obsession that was so perfect that the word “stan’ has entered the hip-hop vocabulary. Arguably Eminem’s greatest songs and definitely one of the greatest hip-hop singles of all time.
19. Wu-Tang Clan – “Protect Ya Neck”
Released: May 3, 1993
Album: Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
Label: Loud Records
Forget about the historical significance or the industry impact of this single. Forget that it was the launching pad for the motherfucking Wu-Tang Clan. Forget that this song pretty much changed the rap game forever. Forget all that.
All you need to know is that “Protect Ya Neck” is a fucking dope hip-hop joint with a banging beat and nine of the best rappers of ever touch a mic battling it out for the best verse.
Deck sets it off, Rae holds the streets down, Meth brings the energy back up, U-God bridges the gap between Meth and Dirty who vomits all over the song, Ghost tears the beat to shreds, RZA starts a riot and GZA just closes it out perfectly. This is the best hip-hop posse cut ever and one of the best hip-hop singles of all time.
18. N.W.A. – “Straight Outta Compton”
Producer: Dr. Dre, DJ Yella
Released: May 16, 1988
Album: Straight Outta Compton
Label: Priority, Ruthless
The opening track on N.W.A.s’ landmark album was like an atomic bomb detonating. Dr. Dre says it straight up at the beginning – “You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge.”
Ice Cube, MC Ren and Eazy E then proceed to show the hip-hop world just how much shit is about to change. And of course Dre’s beat is just a slammer – loud funk samples layered over blaring drums – it evoked the same feeling of the Bomb Squad’s work but with a West Coast touch.
Not only is “Straight Outta Compton” one of the greatest hip-hop singles of all time, it’s probably the most important opening track on a rap album ever.
17. The Notorious B.I.G. – “Hypnotize”
Producer: Sean “Puffy” Combs (co.), D-Dot, Ron Lawrence
Released: April 1, 1997
Album: Life After Death
Label: Bad Boy
“Hypnotize” is one of those universally adored joints. Biggie had the gutter joints, he had the shiny pop joints, he had the storytelling joints, he had the braggadocio joints, but “Hypnotize” is one of those rare hip-hop tracks that just appeals to everyone from all over the world. Not only is it one of Biggie’s best songs ever, it’s also one of the greatest hip-hop singles of all time.
16. Big Daddy Kane – “Ain’t No Half-Steppin'”
Producer: Marley Marl
Album: Long Live the Kane
Label: Cold Chillin’
You can put “Ain’t No Half-Steppin'” against any hip-hop song that you think is lyrical and I guarantee Big Daddy Kane will hold up against any of them. Over a chilled-out, funky Marley Marl beat, Kane just sits back and casually decimates his opponents. I mean the dude just spells out his name and makes it sound great. Big Daddy Kane has some joints back in the day, but there’s no question that “Ain’t No Half-Steppin'” is his best and one of the greatest hip-hop songs of all time.
15. Common – “I Used to Love H.E.R.”
Producer: No I.D.
Released: September 27, 1994
Label: Relativity Records
Hip-hop fans forget how long Common’s been in the game. With his debut album, the under-the-radar Can I Borrow a Dollar?, dropping at the tail end of ’92, the Chi-Town MC’s been in this bitch for over 20 years and he’s still dropping that quality hip-hop shit.
Released on his ’94 album, Resurrection, “I Used to Love H.E.R.” was the song that launched Common into the mainstream, peaking at number 31 on the U.S. Billboard Hot Rap Singles. More importantly, it would be the song that ignited a war-of-words between Common and Ice Cube. Thankfully, wiser heads prevailed and nothing escalated from the firing shots.
Looking past the beef with Cube, “I Used to Love H.E.R.” is one of the most significant hip-hop songs in history – Common documenting the evolution of the culture using a brilliant metaphor over a subdued No I.D. jazz beat. As one of the greatest hip-hop singles of all time, the impact of “I Used to Love H.E.R.” is still felt today. There’s a reason why Kanye referenced the opening lines for his 2008 smash hit single “Homecoming.”
14. OutKast – “Elevators (Me & You)”
Producer: Organized Noize, OutKast
Released: July 5, 1996
Label: LaFace Records, Arista
Before Big Boi became a solo artist, before Andre 3000 took off in a spaceship, before “Ms. Jackson,” before “Hey Ya!,” before the diamond-certified Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, before the Coachella reunion, before all that, OutKast were just two dope boys in a Cadillac.
“Elevators (Me & You)” lacked the global appeal of the duo’s later singles, it was made up of an eerie loop and striking drums. Making up for the sparse beat, however, Andre and Big Boi unleash some of their most thought-provoking and classic rhymes ever.
You could probably create a greatest hip-hop singles of all time list using just OutKast joints but for now, I’m going to stick with “Elevators (Me & You).”
13. Nas – “One Love”
Released: October 25, 1994
I went through a few phases listening to Illmatic. It’s an album that warrants such listening habits. At first, during my Wu-Tang phase, I was instantly drawn to the raw, hard-hitting “N.Y. State of Mind.” During my Eric B. & Rakim phase, I was bumping the shit out of “Halftime” and “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” – trying to catch all of Extra P’s sample loops. After that, it was “The World Is Yours” – I worshipped Pete Rock as god (I still do) and thought the song was greatest shit I had ever heard.
Now I’m in my Tribe phase. Q-Tip laces the track lovely with his exotic xylophone loop and trademark, snapping snares along with a simple but unforgettable hook. Nas comes through and revealed why he would become of the best rappers alive.
Yeah, the Queensbridge rapper could spit but it wasn’t just his lyrical skills. Nas has an ability to touch people’s emotions in an understated but immensely powerful way and “One Love” was the best example on Illmatic of this.
12. Jay-Z – “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)”
Producer: The 45 King
Released: October 27, 1998
Album: Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life
Label: Roc-A-Fella, Def Jam
It all starts from here. The 40/40 Club, the half a billion fortune, the iconic wife, the countless number one hits, the platinum plaques, the multimillion record sales, the best rapper alive title, it all starts from here.
Jay-Z had been in the rap game since the ’80s, he had dropped two albums since his debut in ’96 – one gold and one platinum – he had a couple radio hits but it was “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” that launched him from a dope NY rapper to become the King of New York then eventually the King of Rap.
11. 2Pac – “Dear Mama”
Producer: Tony Pizarro, DF Master Tee (co-producer), Moses (co-producer)
Released: February 21, 1995
Album: Me Against the World
There are many reasons why 2Pac is one of the best rappers of all time. The unstoppable work ethic, his knack for unforgettable hooks, the instantly recognisable voice, the range of emotions he managed to convey with his lyrics, the list goes on. Perhaps the most significant reason why 2Pac is so loved all over the world is because of his ability to relate to people from all walks of life.
The best example of this is the lead single off his ’95 magnum opus, Me Against the World. Other Pac fans might argue for All Eyez on Me as his best record but I’ll hold my ground with his third album and songs like “Dear Mama” are the main reasons for my argument.
2Pac’s loving tribute to Afeni Shakur will have the hardest thugs and goons around the world blink back tears just listening to it – that’s how powerful Pac’s rapping was and why “Dear Mama” is simply one of the greatest hip-hop songs ever.
10. Naughty By Nature – “O.P.P.”
Produced: Naughty By Nature
Released: August 24, 1991
Album: Naughty by Nature
Label: Tommy Boy Records
There have been few other hip-hop acts or even individual hip-hop artists that have managed to replicate the same commercial success and respect as Naughty By Nature. They had the formula down pat – hard street shit to cater to the heads combined with big radio singles to hook in everybody else.
Straight off the bat, their first single was motherfucking “O.P.P.”! This shit hit 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topped the U.S. Hot Rap Singles. Every commercially successful rapper since 1991 has been trying to follow this formula – from Jay-Z to 50 Cent to Lil Wayne – but no-one’s managed to do it like Naughty By Nature.
Not only is “O.P.P.” one of the greatest hip-hop songs of all time, it’s one of the most influential rap singles ever!
9. Wu-Tang Clan – “C.R.E.A.M.”
Released: January 31, 1994
Album: Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
Label: Loud Records
“Protect Ya Neck” might have been the Wu-Tang song that launched them all into superstardom but it was “C.R.E.A.M.” that became the group’s most iconic track that has engrained itself in hip-hop’s history.
Everything about “C.R.E.A.M.” is perfect. From the nostalgic sample off The Charmels’ “As Long As I’ve Got You,” to Rae and Deck’s verses to Method Man’s unforgettable hook – it was one of those songs where all the elements connected. Even 20 years later from its release, A-list superstars like Drake are still checking for “C.R.E.A.M.” – you just can’t escape it.
8. Public Enemy – “Rebel Without a Pause”
Produced: The Bomb Squad
Album: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
Label: Def Jam
“Rebel Without a Pause” was that moment when Public Enemy realised they needed to step it up a notch. Pretty much right after releasing their 1987 debut album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, artists like Eric B. & Rakim and Boogie Down Productions were entering the rap game with force. Chuck D knew they had to take it to the next level. It just was a case of steel sharpening steel.
And so “Rebel Without a Pause,” the first song Public Enemy recorded for It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, was born. The Bomb Squad went crazy with the beat, looping a frenetic sample of The J.B.’s “The Grunt” like an apocalypse siren, while Chuck D stepped up to the mic and unleashed a volcanic tirade on the system. One of the most influential and greatest hip-hop singles of all time, without a doubt.
7. Geto Boys – “Mind Playin’ Tricks on Me”
Produced: Doug King
Released: July 1, 1991
Album: We Can’t Be Stopped
Label: Rap-A-Lot, Priority
“Mind Playing Tricks on Me” was one of those cases of a rap single received unexpected, enormous commercial success. Before the song, the Geto Boys were infamous for their twisted rhymes, Scarface, Bushwick Bill and Willie D were rapping about necrophilia like it was just another topic.
So when “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” blew up, the shit was unexpected. But looking back at it now, the Isaac Hayes sample was just so damn catchy that Geto Boys could have rhymed about anything and the song would gotten spins. “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” ended up topping the Hot Rap Singles, hitting 10 on the Hot R&B Singles and peaking at 23 on the Billboard Hot 100.
6. Mobb Deep – “Shook Ones Pt. II”
Released: October 28, 1994
Album: The Infamous
Label: Loud, RCA, BMG
That eerie siren that kicks off “Shook Ones Pt. II” might be the most iconic and recognisable sound in rap history. Havoc, one of the most underrated hip-hop producers of all time, chopped up Herbie Hancock’s “Jessica” so beautifully that it was years later that people realised where the sample came from.
Just based on the beat alone, “Shook Ones Pt. II” would be one of the best hip-hop songs of all time. But then the lyrics. Goddamn Prodigy knows how to make a threat. I mean: “Rock you in your face, stab your brain with your nose bone”? Fuck!
“Shook Ones Pt. II” encapsulated everything that was New York, everything that was Mobb Deep and everything that was hip-hop at the time.
5. Method Man – “I’ll Be There for You / You’re All I Need to Get By”
Released: April 25, 1995
Label: Def Jam
The stories behind this song are crazy. Method Man would reveal later on that Lyor Cohen, the head of Def Jam at the time, had to bribe him with a new Lexus to do the song because Meth didn’t want to keep pushing his female-friendly image. What a mistake that would have been.
“I’ll Be There for You / You’re All I Need to Get By” ended up topping the Billboard Hot R&B Singles and Hot Rap Singles for weeks on end, peaked at number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was nominated for a fucking Grammy. The Wu-Tang movement had already began but this joint kicked it into overdrive.
4. Slick Rick – “Children’s Story”
Produced: Slick Rick
Released: April 3, 1989
Album: The Great Adventures of Slick Rick
Label: Def Jam, Columbia
By the time Slick Rick released his 1988 debut album, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, he was pretty much a veteran in the rap game. Rick the Ruler had already been strutting for his stuff for years, featuring with Doug E. Fresh on two popular release “The Show” and “La Di Da Di.”
But it wasn’t until Slick Rick went out on his own and dropped classics like “Teenage Love” “Children’s Story” and “Hey Young World” that the hip-hop world realised the true depth of his imagination, creativity and storytelling abilities.
“Children’s Story” is so genius because of its simplicity. The storyline’s a classic one but it’s the way Slick Rick weaves in different characters with his different voices, builds up anticipation with well-time pauses and closes the song with a warning that makes it one of the greatest hip-hop songs of all time.
3. Dr. Dre – “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang”
Produced: Dr. Dre
Released: November 12, 1992
Album: The Chronic
Label: Death Row
“1, 2, 3 and to the 4, Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dr. Dre is at the door.” The most famous opening line in hip-hop history. And like that, the rap game would never be the same again. “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” blew up Dr. Dre, it blew up Snoop Dogg, it blew up The Chronic, it blew up the West Coast, it fucking blew up hip-hop.
Before The Chronic, rap had its commercial superstars – MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice already moved mad units with their albums. But Dre and Snoop managed to bring the streets into the charts while moving millions of units and “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” was the start of it all.
2. Pete Rock & CL Smooth – “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)”
Produced: Pete Rock
Released: April 2, 1992
Album: Mecca and the Soul Brother
The beginning horn riff on “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” is a worthy contender against Mobb Deep’s opening sirens on “Shook Ones Pt. II” as the most iconic and recognisable sound on a rap song. Inspired by the passing of their friend, Trouble T Roy, a dancer for Heavy D and the Boyz, Pete Rock and CL Smooth created the most heartwarming and lasting tributes in hip-hop.
“They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” is one of those rap songs where you can play anytime, anywhere in the world and it’ll create the same energy that was there 20 years ago. Simply put, it’s just one of the greatest hip-hop songs of all time.
1. Eric B. & Rakim – “Eric B. Is President”
Produced: Eric B., Marley Marl (uncredited)
Album: Paid in Full
Label: Zakia Records, 4th & Broadway
“I came in the door, I said it before, I never let the mic magnetize me no more.” I wonder if Rakim had any idea that he was changing the rap game with those now-iconic opening lines?
The magnitude of Rakim’s impact, especially on Paid in Full, is still being felt to this day. There’s not a single rapper working today who can say they weren’t inspired by Rakim Allah, one of the greatest rappers of all time.
The crazy thing is, “Eric B. Is President” was even meant to be the lyrical revolution that it turned out to be. Eric B. & Rakim created it as a dance track – the B-side “My Melody” was the one aimed at the streets.
As if that wasn’t enough, Marley Marl, the track’s producer, changed the rap production game, dipping into James Brown crates for samples and as a result, creating an entire generation of hip-hop producers who learnt his style.
After all’s said and done, after hip-hop recognises the legacy of the song, after we acknowledge Rakim is one of the best to ever touch a mic and Marley is one of the best to ever touch a drum machine, “Eric B. Is President” is the greatest hip-hop single of all time because it’s simply a fucking, incredibly dope hip-hop song. Period.