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