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The 100 Best East Coast Hip-Hop Songs of All Time

Biggie, Cardi, Bobby, Nicki, and many more — from Eighties classics to Brooklyn drill

East Coast hip-hop songs list


HIP-HOP WAS BORN IN the Bronx in the summer of 1973. To celebrate the music’s 50th anniversary, “Rolling Stone” will be publishing a series of features, historical pieces, op-eds, and lists throughout this year.

In the early days of hip-hop, no one really talked about the East Coast. That’s because there wasn’t any other coast to compare it to. Hip-hop was born in the Bronx, and though rap’s other regions percolated throughout the Eighties, nearly every major hip-hop artist in the music’s first decade came out of New York — from old-school pioneers like Kurtis Blow and Funky Four +1 More to street-rap progenitors like Run-D.M.C. and LL Cool J, and sonic and political agitators like De La Soul and Public Enemy. When the West Coast scene threatened that hegemony in the early Nineties, the Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, Wu-Tang Clan, and other hard-edged, lyrically brilliant titans helped swing the pendulum back. After Southern rap rose to dominance in the 2000s, a new generation of stars like Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, Bobby Shmurda, Pop Smoke, and Ice Spice reminded the world that rap’s birthplace could still be its vital center.

“East Coast” grew to cover artists like Beanie Sigel and Meek Mill in Philadelphia, Wale and Nonchalant in Washington, D.C., New Jersey favorite son Redman, and Maryland’s own Rico Nasty, among others. What defines East Coast rap? For artists like Eric B. and Rakim, Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth, or ELUCID, it means innovative samples emboldened by a curative dose of boom-bap. In the case of classics like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message,” Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO Tour Llif3,” and Young M.A’s “OOOUUU,” it means a stripped-down sound driven home by ice-cold bravado and prickly bars. It has encompassed hip-hop at its most pop (Who’s down with O.P.P.?), and its most challenging and arty (Gang Starr, Company Flow). While complex lyrics are synonymous with East Coast rap, some of the region’s finest songs contain verses even your parents could recite word for word. Beastie Boys’ “Paul Revere,” Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend,” and Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” might not dazzle you with state-of-the-art wordplay, but they’re still all bona fide classics. The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” incorporates a rhyme about soggy macaroni, but the song still changed the face of music forever.

Our 100 Best East Coast Hip-Hop Songs list touches on all that and much more. We convened a group of RS staffers and critics to compile the list. We focused on impact, relevance, originality, and ingenuity. Some songs have been staples for decades; a few came out in the past couple of years; some were huge hits; others are obscure gems. Of course, with a musical style as vast as this, we had to make some tough choices. Some legendary artists aren’t represented, and some landmark records didn’t make it. Our goal wasn’t to hit every historical signpost, but to end up with a list of influential records that still sound fresh, and great new songs that move the tradition forward.

After we had the list set, we wanted an expert opinion on the results from someone deeply involved with the music. We contacted rapper-producer Roc Marciano, who appears on the list as both a rapper and producer and has collaborated with Busta Rhymes and others. “I think it’s in a good space,” he says of East Coast rap. “I think we got that back to where it’s nice and healthy.” While known for popularizing the neo-boom-bap sound in the past decade, Marciano is also encouraged by the rise of drill. “Rest in peace, Pop Smoke,” he says. “Before he passed, he was probably about to be one of the biggest, if not the biggest artist in the rap game.” These 100 songs celebrate the East Coast’s storied past while offering a crucial glimpse at hip-hop’s ever-promising future.

From Rolling Stone US


Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz

There’s a bittersweet quality behind this Bronx duo’s biggest hit. The only way the band Steely Dan would permit their song “Black Cow” to be sampled here would be for Lord Tariq, Peter Gunz, and the producer KNS to give up all publishing rights. Such gut-wrenching and wallet-shrinking consequences notwithstanding, “Déjà Vu” remains an anthem that celebrates hip-hop’s uptown and outer-borough heritage with no shortage of hometown pride. Befitting the themes of its time, the track mixes references to luxury and gunplay with righteous nods to New York neighborhoods as well as locales beyond the city limits like Mount Vernon and Yonkers. —G.S.


Lil Uzi Vert

Lil Uzi Vert grew up in Philadelphia, and when they dive in on a beat, they can slash as hard as Meek Mill. But on “XO Tour Llif3,” they sound raised by the internet: keyed into global trends, high on Atlanta hi-hats, and Soundcloud angst, transforming heartache into a viral earworm. Really, it’s about that hook. Uzi had always been an uncommonly tuneful MC but something about producer TM88’s spry beat — and a recent relationship-ending argument with their beau — unlocked the rapper’s inner Hayley Williams. As ever with Uzi, heartache and paper-chasing are closely related, giving the song’s fatalism a triumphant edge. —C.P.


Kurtis Blow

Harlem’s Kurtis Blow was hip-hop’s dominant star in the years between “Rapper’s Delight” and Run-D.M.C., helping invent the idea of a solo MC rocking the mic with clever wordplay and pop-star charisma. His signature hit is a master class in light hard-luck realism delivered over a funky, no-frills backing track. The breaks in “The Breaks” come fast and furious. The poor sucker in the song loses his girl, his job, gets audited by the IRS, runs afoul of the Mafia, and becomes the victim of corporate malfeasance when Ma Bell sends him “a whoppin’ bill/With 18 phone calls to Brazil.” And that’s all in the first verse! “The Breaks” went to Number 87 on the Billboard Hot 100, and it became the first rap record to go gold. “I went from about 300 to 400 people to about 5,000 or 6,000 people at the show,” Blow later recalled. “It was crazy.” —J.D.


Westside Gunn

If Westside Gunn is a progenitor of so-called “museum rap” — the Twitter designation for arty street fare — then “Hall” is the piece in his collection that demands you to know about cutting-edge couture and prison day-room etiquette. Over charged strings and a pleading soul yelp, the Buffalo, New York rapper spits, “Camo Valentino off the runway, on the corner serving work like a baker.” Call it high culture for cutthroats. Gritty, emotive, and abstract, “Hall” is Westside Gunn at his best. —W.D.


Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star

The raggamuffin vibes of Mos Def and Talib Kweli’s joyful “Definition” are so Brooklyn, like neutered consonants and boosted Nets gear. Def and Kweli were earthy and easygoing, a sharp contrast to the sliver-toned garb and presidential Rolexes of mainstream fixtures like Puff Daddy.These two pals come off like the best match since diagonally sliced PB&J on whole wheat. Floating on Hi-Tek’s worldly dub, Def asserts, “Me and Kweli close like Bethlehem and Nazareth.” And when Kweli adds, “People follow me, and other cats, they hear me flow/And assume I’m the real one with the lyrics like I’m Cyrano,” it’s evident that Black Star is the definition of dope. —W.D.


Ice Spice

The reigning queen of Bronx drill captured her crown with this song made in her bedroom in about an hour. With a self-assured and unattainable swagger, Ice Spice created a sensation with colloquialisms that came out via razor-sharp elocution but oozed with nonchalance: “Bitch, I’m a baddie I get what I want, like/You thought I was feelin you?” “I was challenging myself to make the quickest song I could make, and I was just like, ‘I’m not going to think too much,’” Ice Spice told SiriusXM. “I think I was a little wine drunk.” —A.L.L.


A Tribe Called Quest

By the time A Tribe Called Quest debuted, rappers had already written memorable odes to Roxanne, Yvette, Veronica, and Jenifa, oh Jenny. But playing with musical space under the intentional influence of Miles Davis — in between an unforgettable sitar hook sampled from Rotary Connection’s “Memory Band” — Q-Tip set a template for future neo-soul and emo rap, recording the smoothest come-on hip-hop had ever heard. The Fugees’ Roberta Flack cover “Killing Me Softly” borrowed from it musically to reach Number One; Mos Def’s similarly proportioned “Ms. Fat Booty” borrowed from it thematically. But for centering the feminine wiles of a Black woman in a way more respectful fashion than hip-hop’s usual freaky tales, nothing beats Bonita, Bonita, Bonita. —M.M.L.


French Montana feat. Charlie Rock

The frantic bop of French Montana’s “Shot Caller” felt like a new vibe (or wave, if you will) for New York. It was loose and fun at a time when so much of New York rap felt cloistered and conservative. The bounce is hypnotic and in pocket (appropriate for down-South strip joints and hicks who frequent strip malls). But those loud trumpets — from the 1979 curio “A Theme for L.A.’s Team” — were ubiquitous in New York, like so many just-off-the-hanger Jeremy Lin jerseys. Not since 50 Cent had a diehard East Coast rapper sounded so melodic. Montana doesn’t so much rap as cascade over the woofer-bursting track — his verses are practically Rodgers and Hammerstein hooks. “Shot Caller” reminded us of the Boogie Down Bronx at its best. —W.D.


Meek Mill

A story told in two acts, “Dreams and Nightmares” reads like an uninterrupted diary entry charting Meek Mill’s trials and tribulations in his journey to success: violence, poverty, incarceration. Despite — or because of — its lack of a hook, it has become a triumphant underdog anthem embraced by Meek’s Philadelphia hometown, embodying the grit and ambition that personifies the city’s identity. The song starts with a sublime piano melody and ultimately swells into a sweeping, maximalist battle cry from the trenches. “I start off real calm and just talkin’ to ’em, really, over a beat,” Mill explained to Songkick. “And the second part, when it get to the ‘nightmare’ part, I just start screaming, going bananas, to the top of my lungs. Stating facts and getting real arrogant and real disrespectful, just showing the both sides. I could be a dream or I could be a nightmare.” —S.I.


The Diplomats

The towering double-disc mixtape Diplomatic Immunity was a coronation for Harlem’s Dipset crew, the moment when Cam’ron’s delirious wordplay, Juelz Santana’s elemental flow, and the Heatmakerz’s soulful, pitched-up beats coalesced into a creative wellspring. Full of jingoistic imagery and still-raw references to 9/11, the 2003 tape serves as a coming-out party in particular for Santana, who wrote the immortal “Dipset Anthem” in a few hours while the rest of the crew was at a club. Egged on by reggae horns sliced into instigating stabs, Santana flips weight on the verses and plays his own hype man on the hook, that simple “Ay!” ad-lib getting more insistent every time he chirps it. —C.P.


Foxy Brown feat. Jay-Z

Foxy Brown enraptured the hip-hop world in the mid-’90s: The Brooklyn native could be aggressive, sultry, provocative, or contemplative at will, leveraging raunchy lyrics with the precision of a scalpel. The commanding beauty immediately appealed to young girls and the fashion world and, on her biggest hit, “I’ll Be,” she overshadows a Jay-Z feature with pure lyricism and charisma — a Lola Falana, dripped in Gabbana. Producer Tone of Trackmasters said they wanted Brown to be “the hard, uptempo bitch,” but she ended up being so much more. “I do things to keep people talking. To bring issues that the average female MC ain’t raising. To talk about things average females talk about,” she told Vibe. “[Women have] been fighting for respect; we’ve been fighting for equality since back in the Bessie Smith days. Millie Jackson, all that.” —S.I.



A self-described “Young OG,” Fabolous is a Brooklyn icon known for making lavish club hits as easily as he deploys mixtape-annihilating freestyles. On this 2013 slap, Fabolous was like a human AI conjurer, cooking up meme after hilarious meme. He references shallow bottle waitresses, fake-deep IG captions, and gold diggers willing to “commit sins for Chipotle,” kicking lines that still feel as current as a trending topic. But there’s nothing generic or artificial here: Every bar feels sui generis. Suavely, he spits, “Every rapper in a cypher, every player in a huddle/You really wanna fuck, but you say you want to cuddle.” Fab’s foresight and wit make “Cuffin’ Season” bang all year round. —W.D.


Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock

“It Takes Two” made absolute dance-floor magic utilizing and popularizing what the Spin Alternative Record Guide called “the best definition of a break”: drums and two errant shouts from Lyn Collins’ “Think (About It),” a loop that would ultimately dominate Chicago house, U.K. drum-and-bass, and Baltimore club. “A lot of people said, ‘Oh, too much “woo, yeah,” you need to take it out at some point,’” Rob Base told Rolling Stone about its famous loop. “I had to fight and say, ‘Nah, we got to keep that in the whole record. That’s got to stay in there.’ And people didn’t understand where I was coming from.” —C.W.


N.O.R.E. feat. Tammy Lucas

Long before dominating hip-hop media with Drink Champs, this podcasting power player built his credibility as an MC. A product of Queens’ LeFrak City and the Green Haven Correctional Facility, Noreaga fully transitioned from spitting urban war-zone bars in a duo with Capone to a solo career with the semi-eponymous N.O.R.E. album. Dropping amid the so-called Shiny Suit Era, this single exemplified the period’s lyrically luxe excesses and forward-thinking production. Over a frenetic, rubbery beat by then up-and-comers The Neptunes and backed by seasoned R&B singer Tammy Lucas, he lives up to the song’s titular grandeur, jet-setting while on the run with braggadocio for days. —G.S.


Slick Rick

London-born, Bronx-raised rapper Slick Rick named his fourth album The Art of Storytelling because of his enviable reputation for spooling out incredibly crystal-clear narratives, like this classic from The Great Adventures of Slick Rick. Framed as a bedtime story (complete with kids’ voices assuring they’re all tucked in), Rick weaves a winding morality tale of a 17-year-old on the run from police for various gun-toting activities until he finally gets his comeuppance. Montell Jordan’s everlasting “This Is How We Do It” has kept Rick’s backing track alive for nearly 30 years. But it’s hard to find more well-known, instantly quotable lyrics from hip-hop’s golden age than these. —M.M.L.