I’m fully aware that my audience, what little audience I have, is probably not teeming with hip hop fans. For most people, and certainly for most book lovers, serious literature and hip hop do not sit comfortably beside each other. I have spent long enough trying to convince the naysayers that rap music, good rap music, ought to interest anyone with a love of language, with so little success that I won’t bother to reiterate those arguments here. All I can say, really, is that hip hop is a big passion of mine. It moves me [maybe being a working class kid has something to do with that] and intellectually engages me in profound ways.
This is not a definitive list [there are plenty of great songs missing], and it isn’t meant to be a rundown of the most important hip hop tracks [how could it be with no Rakim or NWA or Wu Tang?]. My intention is simply to showcase some of my favourites, and to hopefully introduce the receptive few to one or two that they may not have heard before.
1. Hip Hop by Mos Def
Mos Def’s ode to the genre is probably a great place to start.
2. NY State of Mind by Nas
Nas’ Illmatic is my favourite album. This is the opening track [if you ignore the skit that precedes it]. Some have interpreted the line “with the pen I’m extreme” as an admission that Nas, to paraphrase Jay-Z, scribbled in his notepad and invented his life. Being ‘for real’ is bafflingly important to many artists and fans of the genre. I would suggest having an imagination is a much greater boast.
3. It’s All Real by Pitch Black
The words ‘Produced by DJ Premier’ are pretty much a guarantee of quality.
4. The Survival of the Fittest by Mobb Deep
Gangster rap. Or whatever you want to call it. Drug dealing, guns, smoking dope, and murder. All of those are present in Mobb Deep’s lyrics. However, I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing. There is something cinematic about the best gangster rap, something appealingly visual. Take these lines from Shook Ones II:
Your crew is featherweight
My gunshots’ll make you levitate
I’m only nineteen but my mind is old
And when the things get for real my warm heart turns cold
My gunshots will make you levitate? Great image.
I chose this track, however, because of Havoc’s weird, minimal production. Gives me chills.
5. Let Me Ride by Dr Dre
Lyrically many of Dre’s records are appalling. Indeed, some of them are simply indefensible. Musically, however, he is a genius. His G-Funk era work is still unsurpassed.
6. The Stakes Is High by De La Soul
Almost the antithesis of Dre. Produced by J DIlla, this is my favourite hip hop track. My favourite lyrics too:
I’m sick of bitches shakin’ asses
I’m sick of talkin’ about blunts,
Sick of Versace glasses,
Sick of slang,
Sick of half-ass awards shows,
Sick of name brand clothes.
Sick of R&B bitches over bullshit tracks,
Cocaine and crack
Which brings sickness to blacks,
Sick of swoll’ head rappers
With their sicker-than raps
Clappers and gats
Makin’ the whole sick world collapse
7. SpottieOttieDopaliscious by Outkast
Less G-Funk and more, um, just plain funk. This isn’t really a hip hop track, but it’s too great to exclude.
8. Ebonics by Big L
Big L gives us a rundown of slang terminology.
If you 730, that means you crazy
Hit me on the hip means page me
Angel dust is sherm, if you got AIDS, you got the germ
If a chick gave you a disease, then you got burned
Max mean to relax, guns and pistols is gats
Condoms is hats, critters is cracks
The food you eat is your grub
A victim’s a mark
A sweat box is a small club, your tick is your heart
Your apartment is your pad
Your old man is your dad
The studio is the lab and heated is mad
9. Liquid Swords by GZA
GZA has better metaphors and similes than 90% of novelists. I’m serious.
“I flow like the blood on a murder scene.”
“Your lyrics are weak like clock radio speakers.”
10. They Reminisce Over You by Pete Rock & CL Smooth
Like DJ Premier and Dre, Pete Rock is one of the truly great hip hop producers.
11. Check The Rhime by Tribe Called Quest
This narrowly beat out Award Tour.
12. Check Yo Self [Original] by Ice Cube
Every hip hop fan has heard the remix, which samples Grandmaster Flash, but the original is far superior.
Check yourself before you wreck yourself.
13. Fasers by King Geedorah
King Geedorah is Viktor Vaughan who is actually MF Doom. Doom is a metal-mask wearing MC who is of the most inventive lyricists in hip hop history.
14. Things Done Changed by Notorious BIG
It took me ages to get into Biggie. I just could not let his friendship with Puff Daddy slide. I mean, fucking Puff Daddy? Anyway, eventually I got over it. Things Done Changed isn’t glamorising violence, it is more of a lament.
Back in the days, our parents used to take care of us
Look at em now, they even fuckin scared of us
I find that oddly moving.
15. Fight The Power by Public Enemy
This runs The Stakes Is High real close as my favourite song. With kids in America being gunned down by a police force that appears to believe that it can murder black people with impunity this kind of music is more necessary than ever.
16. Don’t Feel Right by The Roots
Sex, drugs, murder, politics and religion
Forms of hustlin’, watch who you put all your trust in
For me, hip hop is the only form of music that consistently has something meaningful to say. People can listen to their guitar bands who sing about how some girl with butterfly hairclips ditched them at the local indie disco, and that’s fine, but it doesn’t speak to me.
17. I Used To Love H.E.R. by Common
We’ll end where we began, with another ode to hip hop, although this one is not celebratory, but, rather, reflects on how the genre has changed for the worse.