When Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight came out 40 years ago, it was dismissed by many tastemakers as a gimmicky track made to make money. Then the song started moving units in the millions and climbed its way up the US Billboard charts, peaking at number 36 in 1980, and at number three on the UK Singles Chart. Rapper’s Delight wasn’t the first hip-hop song, but it was the genre’s commercial Big Bang, and a sign that this music born in the housing project hallways and public parks of the Bronx was more than a passing fad.
Hip-hop is pop culture now. The genre’s dominance of radio waves, streaming numbers, and billboard charts is undeniable, not to mention its influence on everything from avant-garde electronica to the DNA of mainstream pop music from artists like Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran and Ariana Grande.
But it’s more than that. Hip-hop has become a dominant cultural force, driving conversations about music, literature, and entertainment forward. Cardi B and Common are movie stars. Young Thug has created a wake of imitators that span genres and sounds. Kendrick Lamar won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2018 album DAMN. And it has become a truly global phenomenon, crossing ethnic, linguistic, and geographical boundaries. The journey from the turntables of DJ Kool Herc to the addictive, meme-ified sounds of Megan Thee Stallion and Lil’ Nas X was long, but hip hop is here to stay.
We asked 108 critics, artists, tastemakers, producers, and photographers from 15 different countries to name their personal top five hip-hop tracks of all time. There were more than 280 different songs named, a testament to the breadth and depth of the genre, and how the term ‘greatest’ can be interpreted in various ways.
The results are dominated by the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of hip-hop between the mid-80s and mid-90s, though there are some surprises from a more recent vintage with Kanye West’s Pusha T-assisted Runaway taking 12th place. There was a remarkable lack of women in the Top 25; only Queen Latifah’s 1993 hit “U.N.I.T.Y.” and Lauryn Hill’s supremely catchy “Doo Wop (That Thing)” appear in the list. (You can read more on the dearth of female MCs in our list here.) Rapper’s Delight, the track that arguably started it all, came in at number 14.
The full list of critics’ picks is below. One more thing to add: The purpose of polls like these should be to generate debate as well as encourage discovery. And we are aware that no list can be definitive or will please everyone – so look at the list below, listen to the playlist, and get in touch using the hashtag #GreatestHipHopSongs, and let us know what’s missing. And look out for more features on the global impact of hip-hop in the weeks to come.
25.* Alright, Kendrick Lamar (2015)
25.* Rosa Parks, OutKast (1998)
24. All Of The Lights, Kanye West ft. Rhianna, Kid Cudi (2010)
23. Grindin’, Clipse (2002)
22. Lose Yourself, Eminem (2002)
21. Doo Wop (That Thing), Lauryn Hill (1998)
20. International Players Anthem, UGK ft. OutKast (2007)
19. U.N.I.T.Y., Queen Latifah (1993)
18. Fuck Tha Police, NWA (1988)
17. It Was A Good Day, Ice Cube (1992)
16. B.O.B., OutKast (2000)
15. They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.), Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth (1992)
14. Rapper’s Delight, Sugarhill Gang (1979)
13. Paid In Full, Eric B & Rakim (1987)
12. Runaway, Kanye West ft. Pusha T (2010)
11. Electric Relaxation, A Tribe Called Quest (1993)
10. Dear Mama, Tupac Shakur (1995)
9. N.Y. State Of Mind, Nas (1994)
8. Passin’ Me By, The Pharcyde (1992)
7. 93 ’Til Infinity, Souls of Mischief (1993)
6. C.R.E.A.M., Wu-Tang Clan (1993)
5. Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang, Dr. Dre ft. Snoop Doggy Dogg (1992)
4. The Message, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five (1982)
3. Shook Ones (Part II), Mobb Deep (1995)
2. Fight The Power, Public Enemy (1989)
1. Juicy, Notorious B.I.G. (1994)
More on BBC Music’s greatest hip-hop songs of all time:
What critics had to say about the top 10
Full list of critics who participated – and how they voted
Why Juicy is number one (not available in UK)
Trends and surprises in the poll (not available in UK)
Why are there so few women in hip-hop polls? (not available in UK)
Playlist of the top 25 songs (Spotify)
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