Is everyone making a 50 for 50?
On the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of Hip Hop, I've been reflecting on the impact the music has had on me, my life, and my work.
It seemed important to pay tribute to one of my biggest artistic and personal influences.
One of my clearest early memories is the first time I ever heard a rap song. It was a cassette tape someone had recorded from an AM radio station they'd picked up from NYC on the south coast of Massachusetts.
This was before people I knew had MTV. I didn't have cable yet. Radio stations weren't playing rap yet in Massachusetts. At least not the ones I could get on my radio.
The song, loaned on a tape from a friend’s older sister, featured beatboxing, music samples, organ music, scratching, and rhymes. It was none other than “The Show” by Doug E. Fresh. If anything could start a nearly 50-year love affair, it's that song.
In fact, if “The Show” debuted today, I think it would be a hit.
While the above verbiage about the days of pre-MTV makes me sound old, how about this:
While “The Show” played, my friend and I actually stared at the boombox. I was in a moment of disbelief. It was like the days before TV. We were actually riveted to these sounds. I was instantly hooked. But it would be a few more years before rap would become mainstream enough for a suburban kid to get his hands and ears on some more.
As a visual artist and a poet, there is little doubt hip hop has greatly impacted my work. The layered beats of Public Enemy were a sort of musical collage I could untangle and interpret. By sampling a variety of different sounds and beats, Hank Shocklee, Keith Shocklee, Chuck D, Eric "Vietnam" Sadler, and Gary G-Wiz made something greater than the sum of the parts. While I'd loved rap music–especially that produced by Rick Rubin for Run DMC and Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, and The Bomb Squad had me going back to think about producers as the unsung heroes of musical innovation. Does anyone even recognize what DJ Muggs did for music to this day?
This continued with my obsession with The RZA and Dr. Dre. I even saw Puff Daddy as a musical Andy Warhol, taking the expressionist styles of earlier rap and creating Pop Art.
While my top 5 MCs are personally important, my relationship to hip hop goes back to the earliest part of the form: the DJ, or the producer, was the main event. The MC was just another layer to the symphony. To me, the producers are always more important. MCs are like great actors. They can only do so much amazing on their own without a good director. Producers are the directors of Hip Hop. DJ Muggs,
If you have any doubt about the impact Hip Hop has on collage, just check out Shepard Fairey’s portraits.
When I was studying poetry in grad school, there was a great deal of talk on artistic influences. At the time, Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop seemed to be top-billing in poetry.
Not only did they not do anything for me (although I admit I see regrettable echoes of Stevens now in my work), I was surprised that more poets weren't heavily influenced by rap.
Maybe I was just a rapper without a voice. But my writing had roots in music. To me, poetry is writing that has music embedded in it. How could this not be influenced by rap?
While there are many rappers I admire, the two that most clearly sound in my work are Raekwon and Ghostface. Both use assonance, layered sounds, slant rhymes, quotes, stories, fluctuating voices (as well as tones), intense imagery, tragedy, drama, and humor in their music.
Using their influence to let a poem run on its own has helped me overcome a poetry problem more than once.
Making My List
I thought it might be fun to put down my personal top 50 tracks that have made my appreciation, love, and obsession progress over the years.
My rules in making the list were to only write down songs that were important to me when they came out. Now that I have access to every song ever and can go back and devour Grandmaster Flash, and track rap history, my answers would be different.
But this is also my personal best. Not what I think the best 50 rap songs of all time are, or the most important, or the most revolutionary. These are the songs that changed everything for me. These are the songs I listened to on repeat a thousand times. These are the songs I played at house parties and watched people dance from wall to wall in an undulating mass of bass beats, lights, bodies, and life.
Another rule was I wasn't allowed to edit out the songs I'd rather not admit to. Kid N Play is on my top 50 list.
I also wasn;t allowed to go back and edit after I thought more or saw everyone else's ideas.
The truth is, there's a huge lack of women rappers. And Canadians.
But it's the songs that have made up the soundtrack to my life.
My Personal Top 50
I still remember what it felt like the first time I heard Snoop on the Deep Cover soundtrack. I was in clubs when "The Choice is Yours" was just out to see what happened to a dance floor while people shouted, “You Can Get With This.”
I'm not sure a song has ever meant more to me than "Scenario" by A Tribe Called Quest. How can you explain the impact NWA had when Motley Crue was still a thing?
Everything changed over and over with these songs. Things I didn't know could be done were done over and over.
Here they are, in no particular order, my much debated personal top 50 Hip Hop songs:
Doug E. Fresh, The Show
It’s Tricky, Run DMC
Paul Revere, Beastie Boys
Joy & Pain, Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock
Fuck tha Police, NWA
Ghetto Bastard, Naughty by Nature
Summertime, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince
I'm the Type of Guy, LL Cool J
Fight the Power, Public Enemy
Mind Playing Tricks On Me, Geto Boys
Sometimes I Rhyme Slow, Nice & Smooth
Scenario, A Tribe Called Quest
Juicy, Notorious B.I.G.
Pimpin Ain't Easy, Big Daddy Kane
100 Miles and Runnin, NWA
Get it Together, Beastie Boys
Hand on the Pump, Cypress Hill
The Choice is Yours, Black Sheep
Aint Gonna Hurt Nobody, Kid N’ Play
Sabotage, Beastie Boys
Deep Cover, Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg
They Want EFX, Das EFX
Here Come the Lords, Lords of the Underground
Down with the King, Run DMC
Mamma said Knock You Out, LL Cool J
What's My Name, Snoop Dogg
Top of the Mornin to Ya, House of Pain
Throw Ya Gunz, Onyx
Uptown Anthem, Naughty by Nature
Method Man, Wu-Tang Clan
Release yo Delf, Method Man
To Live and Die in LA, 2Pac
Fanatic of the B Word, De La Soul
When Will They Shoot, Ice Cube
7th Chamber (Part II), Wu-Tang Clan
Shimmy Shimmy Ya/Baby Come On, Old Dirty Bastard
Wu Gambinos, Raekwon
Renegade, Jay-Z / Eminem
Humpty Dance, Digital Underground
They Reminisce Over You, Pete Rock & CL Smooth
Shadowboxin’, GZA / Method Man
Still DRE, Dr Dre
Hate Me Now, Nas & Puff Daddy
Still Not a Player, Big Pun
True Fuschnick, Fu-Schnikens
Mo Money Mo Problems, Notorious B.I.G.
Patiently Waiting, 50 Cent / Eminem
Through The Wire, Kanye West
California Love, Dr Dre, and 2 Pac
Playing Music Chess With ChatGPT
After I made my list, I asked ChatGPT do it. I got:
"Top 50" lists are inherently subjective and can differ significantly based on who's creating the list, their personal tastes, regional preferences, and what they consider when defining "top" (sales, influence, lyrical content, etc.). However, based on critical acclaim, influence, and popularity up until my last training cut-off in September 2021, here's a list that encompasses many of hip-hop's most celebrated tracks:
"The Message" - Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five
"Rapper's Delight" - Sugarhill Gang
"Fight the Power" - Public Enemy
"Nuthin' but a 'G' Thang" - Dr. Dre feat. Snoop Doggy Dogg
"Juicy" - The Notorious B.I.G.
"Dear Mama" - 2Pac
"Paid in Full" - Eric B. & Rakim
"C.R.E.A.M." - Wu-Tang Clan
"Straight Outta Compton" - N.W.A.
"Stan" - Eminem feat. Dido
"Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)" - Jay-Z
"Summertime" - DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince
"It Was a Good Day" - Ice Cube
"Planet Rock" - Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force
"Mind Playing Tricks on Me" - Geto Boys
"Shook Ones Pt. II" - Mobb Deep
"Lose Yourself" - Eminem
"I Used to Love H.E.R." - Common
"U.N.I.T.Y." - Queen Latifah
"Run's House" - Run-DMC
"Regulate" - Warren G feat. Nate Dogg
"Passin' Me By" - The Pharcyde
"My Name Is" - Eminem
"Mo Money Mo Problems" - The Notorious B.I.G. feat. Puff Daddy & Mase
"Can't Tell Me Nothing" - Kanye West
"The World is Yours" - Nas
"HUMBLE." - Kendrick Lamar
"Doo Wop (That Thing)" - Lauryn Hill
"Ms. Jackson" - OutKast
"Big Poppa" - The Notorious B.I.G.
"Rosa Parks" - OutKast
"Alright" - Kendrick Lamar
"Hip Hop" - Dead Prez
"Gin and Juice" - Snoop Doggy Dogg
"Check the Rhime" - A Tribe Called Quest
"Award Tour" - A Tribe Called Quest
"In Da Club" - 50 Cent
"B.O.B." - OutKast
"T.R.O.Y. (They Reminisce Over You)" - Pete Rock & CL Smooth
"Get Ur Freak On" - Missy Elliott
"Hotline Bling" - Drake
"99 Problems" - Jay-Z
"ATLiens" - OutKast
"Jesus Walks" - Kanye West
"Mama Said Knock You Out" - LL Cool J
"Fuck tha Police" - N.W.A.
"Daydreamin'" - Lupe Fiasco feat. Jill Scott
"Through the Wire" - Kanye West
"Scenario" - A Tribe Called Quest
"The Next Episode" - Dr. Dre feat. Snoop Dogg, Kurupt, and Nate Dogg
Regrets and Oversights
Comparing my list to AI, the only ones I wished I had thought of for my list, and that would have made my personal 50 are:
“Shook Ones,” by Mobb Deep,
“Hard Knock Life,” by Jay-Z
“Big Poppa” by Notorious B.I.G., which I think is a better answer than Juicy for me.
The others not on my list that could be are the Run DMC and NWA songs. In fairness, there are some albums that I could have picked just about any song from. This includes almost all Wu-Tang, most PE albums, Dre albums, EPMD, and Run DMC.
One of my favorite rap songs isn't on either list: "It's Nasty" by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five. I didn't put it on my list because I probably never heard the song until years after it came out. The same is true for "Can You Feel It" by The Fat Boys.
I also regret there aren't more Nate Dogg tracks on my list. While missing from here, I have long believed that nearly every track Nate Dogg ever appeared on was an excellent rap song.
Another regret is the lack of Redman. He's one of the best and better than many on the list. But his impact on a single song wasn't as heavy for me. It made me want to fudge EPMD’s "Headbanger" for "Crossover." But I think "Crossover" had the bigger impact on me.
They also merge together in terms of music videos. The impact of music videos and MTV is probably deep in this list as well. Many of the songs here I first heard on MTV.
If there was a mixtape category DJ Green Lantern would have more airtime. I miss the bootleg mixtape days.
Recent songs are too new for me to understand if I will embed them into the computer chip of my brain. But I will say that DJ Khaled’s remix of Latto’s "Big Energy" is pretty likely to make this list next time around.
Also, Cardi B, Lizzo, and Megan Thee Stallion are making some of the best music right now. Some of these songs probably aren't on my list because I'm elderly and not going to clubs anymore.
The remixes of Mariah Carey’s "Honey" and "Heartbreaker" would make the list, too, if they were Hip Hop songs. But since they are more R&B with a rap interlude, I left them off the list.
Fantasy wouldn't be on the list, though. Adding Mariah to an ODB track is like putting too much water in whiskey. It's better to drink ODB straight out of the bottle.
I could make a top 50 ODB list.
When I made my personal list, I kept some of those that I edited out to get to the top 50. I also added some as they occurred to me.
That said, I'm pretty sure I'll never get these lists right.
But the next 20 are:
Don't Sweat the Technique, Eric B. & Rakim
360, Grand Puba
Uptown Baby, Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz
Tap the Bottle, Young Black Teenagers
Here It Comes, MC Serch
Indian Girl, Slick Rick
Crossroads, Bone Thugz and Harmony
Victory, Puffy Daddy
One & One, Luke Skywalker
Ill Street Blues, Kool G Rap
Jack of Spades, KRS One
Magic Stick, Lil’ Kim
Passin Me By, The Pharcyde
Back to the Hotel, N2Deep
Victim of the Ghetto, College Boys
Buck Whylin’, Terminator X & The Valley of the Jeep Beats
Let Me Clear My Throat, DJ Kool
What's Up Doc, Fu-Schnikens (and Shaq-Fu)
I’m disappointed in myself that Gang Starr’s “Above The Clouds” wasn’t on here. I'm also pretty sure "Don't Sweat the Technique" belongs in the top 50 and not here.
What can I say? Apparently, I sweat the technique.
Thanks for everything Hip Hop. Happy 50th.