Forty years ago this week, Cindy Campbell hosted a back-to-school party at her parents’ Bronx apartment (1520 Sedgwick Avenue, to be exact). Her 16-year-old brother Cliff, an aspiring DJ and noted graffiti artist otherwise known as Kool Herc, was in charge of the music. Inspired by DJs of his native Jamaica, Cliff would extend the “break” of a song by juggling between two records, providing an optimal soundtrack for the increasingly popular practice of break dancing. It was at the Campbell’s party on August 11th, 1973, however, where Cliff broke down songs by James Brown, The Incredible Bongo Band, and Booker T. & the M.G.’s, only to pass the mic to his friend Coke La Rock, who then began shouting overtop the beat. Hip-hop was born.
In light of this monumental anniversary, the staff members at Consequence of Sound have each written a few words about their favorite hip-hop song. Note this is not a “greatest songs list” or anything like that; rather, it’s just a celebration of the genre by fans of all kinds, ranging from novice to longtime enthusiast. As you read along, we also invite you to share your own favorites in the comments section below.
Ol’ Dirty Bastard – “Snakes”
Ol’ Dirty Bastard gets a well-deserved rep for being the demented court jester of hip-hop (sorry, Flavor Flav), so much so that it’s easy to forget that his 1995 solo debut, Return to the 36 Chambers, is actually a pretty underrated gem. It’s a solo record in possibly the loosest sense of the word, as Dirty gets a lot of help from his fellow Wu soldiers, but that collaboration makes the record soar. My personal favorite track comes by way of Dirty’s collaboration with RZA, Killah Priest, and Masta Killa on “Snakes”. The track lets the Wu’s wild, off-the-cuff style fly, and ODB’s scatterbrained word association about demon beasts, salamanders, and piranhas is icing on the cake. –Ryan Bray
Kanye West – “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”
Call the attachment sentimental. In college, I got into a scuffle on Twitter with one of my best friends defending “Can’t Tell Me Nothin’” off Kanye West’s third studio album, 2007’s Graduation. He hated Kanye’s ego. I thought the value of the song was twofold: Kanye admits internal conflict resulting from fame. Also, it’s great fun to shout, “But homey this is my day!” while washing dishes. I closed my case with a link to a video of Zach Galifianakis lip syncing to it for Funny or Die. I’d like to think I won. –Erin Carson
OutKast – “SpottieOttieDopaliscious”
“As the plot thickens, it gives me the dickens reminiscent of Charles,” seems an all too fitting first line from Andre 3000 on the seven-minute hip-hop masterpiece that is “SpottieOttieDopaliscious”. One of the standout tracks from OutKast’s third album, Aquemeni, the song showcases the two rappers’ diverse styles and backgrounds and still sends chills down my spine when I hear it. Over a textured background of reggae horns and a simple drumbeat, Three Stacks raps about a wild night out at the club while Big Boi waxes poetic about meeting his future baby mama and the hardships that come along with raising a child in Atlanta. “Go on and marinate on that for a minute.” Trust me, marinate on this track for the full seven. –Pat Levy
Nas – “N.Y. State of Mind”
This is the song that made me love hip-hop. Sure, I’d always liked it plenty – I danced to 50 Cent and Nelly at school dances and went through a brief Eminem phase somewhere around the fifth grade – but when I sat down to give Illmatic a first proper listen during my sophomore year of college, “N.Y. State of Mind” stopped me dead in my tracks. I’d never heard such an all out verbal machine gun, and Nas’ impossibly complex rhyme structures and brutal inner city imagery were all executed with an equally savant-like smooth flow. It was a game changer for both the genre and my own life as a music obsessive. –Bryant Kitching
Drake – “Over My Dead Body”
Hip-hop and I weren’t real friends until the fall of 2011. In retrospect, Drake was a natural progression from the bands I had loved up until that point: thin, anemic-looking white men singing, in part, about their lack of self-confidence. Drake’s bravado took some getting used to, but it was so easy to feel that same vulnerability lurking right below the surface. “Over My Dead Body” is the first track from Take Care, and from the first strains of the opening piano chords and the haunting hook sung by Canadian singer Chantal Kreviazuk, I knew that this new territory was exactly where I wanted to be. –Katherine Flynn
N.W.A. – “I Ain’t Tha 1”
When my brother and I tuned into N.W.A.’s “I Ain’t Tha 1” for the first time, our heads bopped in satisfaction in every direction. The beat is contagious and playful; Ice Cube rhymes effortlessly with half-hearted aggression and casual demeanor; and the lyrics make you keel over in laughter. Whether it’s deciding which fast-food chain is best to take your honey to or how to properly spell “girl,” Ice Cube sheds wisdom on how to wear your pride and still have a heavy wallet at the end of the day. The weight of random humor that anchors “I Ain’t Tha 1” keeps it quotable to this day. –Sam Willett
The Pharcyde – “Passin’ Me By”
Though often overshadowed on the West Coast by Pac and Dre, the four emcees of The Pharcyde dug into a soulful vein, best evidenced by the heartbroken “Passin’ Me By”. Rather than big posturing and gangster personae, verse one finds Bootie Brown rhyming about his childhood crush on his teacher, and later Fatlip admits to being too much of a wimp to make a move on his dream girl. Samples from Quincy Jones, Weather Report, and Jimi Hendrix fuse into an inescapably smooth, jazzy base, from which some honest, witty, human lines spring. –Adam Kivel
Immortal Technique – “Obnoxious”
I wasn’t much for hip-hop until my good friend introduced me to Immortal Technique. To this day, Technique represents everything I think the best hip-hop is: independent, counter-culture, and intransigent. While the message of “Freedom of Speech” probably illustrates best the modus operandi that attracted me to the underground legend, “Obnoxious” demonstrates the kind of vicious, no-holds-barred spit that could be no one else but Immortal Technique. The track jams everything from politics to digs at other artists to declarations of independence into one unabashedly non-PC cut of the sickest Kalashnikov flow. –Ben Kaye
Spank Rock – “B-O-O-T-A-Y”
Spank Rock’s “B-O-O-T-A-Y”, the centerpiece of their incredible 2007 EP, Bangers & Cash, is one of the filthiest things I’ve ever heard. The track’s all thick, pukey synths, and ominous sirens, with lyrics about “gushy parts,” a dick named Brutus, and sex with people so ugly you need to put a bag over their head. A true pioneer of the post-millennial alternative rap, Spank Rock’s always leavened his (somewhat satirical?) hedonism with chewy nuggets of wisdom, but “B-O-O-T-A-Y” is pure nastiness. An infectious, monocle-fogging celebration of sweaty sex and poor decisions. –Randall Colburn
Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg – “Fuck wit Dre Day (And Everybody’s Celebratin’)”
I’m what you would call a “rockist.” In layman’s terms, I prefer rock over rap 99% of the time, but it wasn’t always that way. “Fuck wit Dre Day (And Everybody’s Celebratin’)” will still get me bouncing up and down when played at any function I attend. I have only positive memories about the dawn of “gangsta” rap, but none more so than this Dre/Snoop collaboration. I can remember a summer at my grandparents, watching the censored video of “Dre Day” repeatedly in the guest room. Imagine my surprise when my young ears finally heard the unedited version, and the conclusion to: “Luke’s bending over/ Now Luke’s getting…” –Justin Gerber
Wu-Tang Clan – “Bring Da Ruckus”
Imagine you’re a teenager in the mid-’90s and you’ve just bought Enter the Wu-Tang. You may have heard “C.R.E.A.M.” or “Protect Ya Neck” within the hip-hop syndication, but nothing could prepare you for the opener. “Bring Da Ruckus” is like the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or “Battery” of hip-hop–an epic opener packed full of attitude, raw sound, and undisputed talent. Wu-Tang Clan went on to make many tracks, but the kickoff to their classic debut is everything a solid hip-hop song should be: four ruthless young MCs, mind-blowing lyricism, and a beat that will chill your blood. –Ted Maider
UGK (feat. Mr. 3-2, Ronnie Spencer) – “One Day”
“One Day” could be the prologue to The Wire. Pimp C and Bun B were Ridin’ Dirty back in 1996, decades before most Americans had even heard the term. The underground duo of UGK proved that as far as the big pimpin’ third coast Houston rap scene was concerned, codeine and crack sales were a nifty financial precursor to kick-starting an album. The Isley Brothers sample of “Ain’t I been Good to You” arranged next to Mr. 3-2’s opening verse sets an immediate tone of struggle and doing whatever you can to stack paper and take care of your people. Between Bun B’s frustrated internal rhymes – “My brother been in the pen for damn near 10/ but now it looks like when he come out man I’m goin’ in” – pair well with Pimp C’s (RIP Pimp C!) reluctant bad boy persona. The song is a reminder that nothing lasts forever and proof that quality 1990’s hip-hop was not monopolized by the west or east coast. So, grab a swisha, get swallowed in the city lights, and keep it trill. –Dan Pfleegor
Project Pat – “Run a Train”
There’s no way this is the best hip-hop song. In fact, it embodies a lot of the problems people have with the genre as a whole. It’s violent. It’s abrasive. It’s misogynistic, even by Project Pat and Three-Six Mafia standards. But when I think of “Run a Train”, I think of Christmas.
It was winter break of my junior year of college. I was riding in the minivan with my parents and sister to go visit my grandparents in Fort Myers and asked if we could listen to a mix CD I had made. My Dad said yes, which was surprising, since he likes to exclusively listen to holiday music around that time of year. We threw it on. Everyone enjoyed “Jesus Walks”. They dug The Dismemberment Plan. But then came the opening sex moans of “Run a Train”. I winced, just waiting for my Mom to eject the disc and toss it out the window.
Then something magical happened. As the slinky bass line and unabashed nut-slapping poured from the speakers, they started laughing. Laughing! By the time Pat was warning how “all that cum gonna rot your fucking teeth out,” I thought my Dad would have to pull over from guffawing so hard. As we continued on our yuletide journey, we put the song on repeat, all of us singing “Let’s call the boys/ Let’s run a train” all the way to grandmother’s house. –Dan Caffrey