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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


Cardi B

In the summer of 2017, Cardi B laid the framework for her total domination, shifting from a reality-TV rap hopeful to a bona fide hitmaker with “Bodak Yellow.” It crept into the American consciousness just like its beat crawls from gentle menace to full-forced terror, with a rap from Cardi as vicious as it is earnest. It took balls and charm to turn a bar about her formerly imperfect teeth into a source of superiority — and to borrow the flow of a distinctly different rapper and make it completely her own (with credit). She said that when she first heard the track, courtesy of her producer J. White, “Every bitch that I don’t like came to my head … and I pictured me, slapping it to them.” Cardi’s nose is in the air and her foot is on your neck all over the track, and bad bitches everywhere still rejoice in the mayhem. —M.C.


Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth

Dancer Troy Dixon of Heavy D and the Boyz, professionally known as “Trouble” T. Roy, accidentally fell from a two-story height while on tour in 1990 and died at age 22. His elegy — penned by C.L. Smooth and produced by Heavy’s cousin, the legendary Pete Rock — became one of the most universally recognized and beloved songs in hip-hop history. Centered on sax and bass from Tom Scott and the California Dreamers’ cover of the Jefferson Airplane folk-rock ballad “Today,” Smooth’s slice-of-life reminiscences make it the greatest hip-hop tribute ever recorded. In 2007, Rock told The Village Voice, “When I mixed the song down … we all just started crying.” —M.M.L.



Nas opened his seminal debut, Illmatic, with a sneering, revelatory statement. “I’m like Scarface sniffin’ cocaine/Holdin’ an M16, see, with the pen I’m extreme,” the kid from theQueensbridge projects proclaimed on the menacing DJ Premier-composed track “N.Y. State of Mind.” This song, and Illmatic, hailed Nas as the Nineties inheritor to Rakim’s crown. “I’ve been rapping in the 2000s longer than I have been in the ’90s,” Nas said in 2020, “but I still represent the ’90s in everywhere I go, even if the music is different and sounds fresher, newer, I still bring that time with me in the music.” —K.M.



Self-declared kings of rock Run-D.M.C. came for it all on their third album, the Rick Rubin-produced Raising Hell, beginning with this double A-side single. Name-checking nursery rhyme characters for a tribute to their DJ, Jam Master Jay, the Queens MCs made unforgettable use of the cowbell intro from Bob James’s 1975 cover of Paul Simon’s “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” (played by percussionist Ralph McDonald, popularized in Bronx park jams by Grandmaster Flash), under a tag-team delivery recalling the legendary Cold Crush Brothers. LL Cool J had wanted that same breakbeat for “Rock the Bells” (hence the title). After “Peter Piper,” he went back to the drawing board. —M.M.L.


Bobby Shmurda

Bobby Shmurda’s rambunctious “Hot N*gga” all but ruled 2014. Initially rejected by Meek Mill before resurfacing later as a Lloyd Banks freebie, the grisly track — consisting of sirens and an eerie church-like organ — went to another dimension once East Flatbush’s GS9 representative threw his hat into the ring. The Catch-22 here is that Shmurda’s energy and roguish charm turned his life around — but the NYPD used his lyrical confessions against him, and detailing the true-to-life misdeeds of his comrades played a role in his serving a seven-year prison stint. Famous for Shmurda’s now-notorious toss of his Knicks cap and bold two-step, the song’s rowdy video hit over 850 million YouTube views and set a precedent for the rise of New York’s ubiquitous drill sound. —J.F.


Lauryn Hill

Lauryn Hill came out swinging at the start of successful solo career, frontloading her landmark debut album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, with a venomous diss track that many assume is aimed at former Fugees bandmate and ex-lover Wyclef Jean. Though the Grammy-winning album seamlessly blended neo-soul, R&B, hip-hop, reggae, and a heroic Carlos Santana guitar solo, “Lost Ones” was pure boom-bap, with Hill effortlessly shooting lyrical daggers: “Your movement’s similar to a serpent,” she raps. “Tried to play straight, how your whole style bent?” Fellow Fugee Pras confirmed that Jean thought the song was about him, but when asked directly by VladTV,Jean said, “I wouldn’t know that. I think that y’all would have to interview Lauryn Hill. Personally, I don’t take it as a shot at me.” —A.L.L.


Mobb Deep

Rap fans of a certain age will never forget the moment they saw the “Shook Ones” video, where the late Prodigy strode confidently toward the camera, Solo red cup full of liquor in his hand. He looked terrifyingly real as he delivered one of the most famous verses in hip-hop history: “I’ve got you stuck on the realness/We be the infamous/You’ve heard of us/Official Queensbridge murderers.” Actually, Prodigy was originally from Hempstead, Long Island; he met Queens rapper Havoc when both attended the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan. Signed to 4th& Broadway in their teens, the two issued a 1993 debut,Juvenile Hell, that got middling reviews. Back in the lab, Havoc devised a coldly minimalist sound inspired by jazz downbeats and their crew of friends in Queensbridge. The result is a cornerstone of what became known as thug rap. “All we cared about was makin’ some gangsta shit thatweliked,” Prodigy told Brian Coleman inCheck the Technique: Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies. “If we was gonna like it, then the world was gonna like it.” —M.R.


De La Soul

Amityville, New York-based trio De La Soul’s debut single, “Plug Tunin’,” sounded like little else before it. The sound of hip-hop in 1988 was funky like James Brown, with maybe a little hip-house or New Jack Swing thrown in. By contrast, “Plug Tunin’” had a loping pace akin to a soul 45 played at 78 RPM and seemed enveloped in crackly hiss. Before he passed away in February 2023, Dave “Trugoy the Dove” Jolicouer told Rolling Stone that with “Plug Tunin’,” “we also knew we had something totally obscure, something totally different.” It begins with DJ Maseo announcing, “Yo, Pos and Dove, stand clear to be clear to be plugged up into line one and two so y’all can flaunt that new style of speak.” Trugoy and Posdnous then rhyme utilizing cryptically organized phrases and in-jokes over a patchwork of obscure samples knitted together by the group and mentor Prince Paul, and they punctuate each verse with a dusty voice crooning, “mmmm-yeah.” The song was subtitled “Are You Ready for This?” — and truth be told, not everyone got it on first listen. But even “Plug Tunin’” skeptics eventually realized De La Soul were on the verge of creating something special. —M.R.



Jay-Z was arguably King of New York in 1999 when he dropped this DJ Premier-produced deep cut. Kicking some of his cleverest bars ever, Hov proved why he belongs on rap’s Mount Rushmore.“So I’m cruisin’ in the car with this bougee broad/She said, ‘Jiggaman, you rich; take the do-rag off’” perfectly summarized his role as around-the-way Forbes fave. Jay was already richer than God when he dropped Hard Knock Life Vol 3 … Life and Times of S. Carter. But where most rappers would have mainlined the models-on-an-exotic-vacay thing (à la the “Big Pimpin’” video), he cranked out this caustic banger. No yachts here — just guns at the Grammys, bottles on the White House lawn, and endless, effortless swag. —W.D.


Eric B. and Rakim

Before the release of Eric B. and Rakim’s pivotal introductory single, rappers could inhibit the role of chief party rocker, wise street poet or around-the-way B-boy. That all changed with “Eric B. Is President.” Not only does it boast arguably the genre’s most iconic first line (“I came in the door, I said it before …”), the influential jam single-handedly expanded the syntax of rap. Over Marley Marl’s uncredited flip of Fonda Rae’s 1982 post disco gem “Over Like a Fat Rat,” Rakim displays a commitment to his craft that set a new standard; he’s not even the protagonist of his raps, his beguiling mic is, “fighting” and “inviting” the most revered writer of hip-hop’s golden age to rhyme. Hip-hop lyricism would never be the same. —K.M.


Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five feat. Duke Bootee

“It was the first dominant rap group with the most dominant MC saying something that meant something,” Public Enemy’s Chuck D once said of “The Message.” Indeed, few songs have rerouted the artistic and cultural possibilities of a genre like this synth-funk shot of stark, confrontational, inner-city realism. Written in 1980 by rapper and musician Duke Bootee,a member of the Sugar Hill Records house band, and originally titled “The Jungle,” the song caught the ear of Sugar Hill label owner Sylvia Robinson, who asked the Furious Five’s Melle Mel to add some verses. The results moved hip-hop’s focus beyond post-disco party jams and out into the mean streets of a New York reeling from years of neglect and apathy. Over four decades later, it remains the template for political rap records. —J.D.


The Notorious B.I.G.

“Juicy,” the Notorious B.I.G.’s quintessential rags-to-riches debut, is so enthralling that rap purists could not deny the sheer perfection of this radio-or-bust single. Just a year earlier, he was seemingly content with rocking New York’s grimy underground with the spirited Who’s the Man soundtrack throw down “Party and Bullshit.” But Biggie’s 1994 anthem “Juicy,” the anchor to his six-times platinum Ready to Die, would spark the East Coast’s return to commercial glory following a few years of West Coast dominance. Here B.I.G.’s gifted storytelling is on full display: fantasies of limo rides with Salt-N-Pepa and Heavy D; memories of being so broke that “birthdays was the worst days”; images of going from getting chased by the cops to achieving Champagne-soaked stardom. It’s still jarring hearing Christopher Wallace detail his perilous, violent crack-dealing days over a sample of Mtume’s early Eighties bowtie R&B. But Biggie goes beyond mere myth-making here. He encompasses the American Dream. —K.M.


Public Enemy

The sample on P.E.’s iconic 1987 single hits like a canister of mustard gas landing next to a sax player riffing on John Coltrane. But everything about “Rebel Without a Pause ”— that searing sax glissando and those cranium-piercing snares — still sounds anthemic. Save for Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message,” rap music with a conscious outlook was nonexistent until “Rebel Without a Pause.” Chuck D’s bold flow and Flava Flav’s blithe ad-libs cracked the whole culture open.Chuck honors Assata Shakur after dismissing mainstream radio. But the Bomb Squad’s joyously abrasive soundscapes — evoking a soiree in a fallout shelter — are made to charm multitudes. —W.D.


Wu-Tang Clan

In this song, built from the piano trill of the Charmels’ “As Long As I’ve Got You,” Wu-Tang MVPs Raekwon and Inspectah Deck reminisce on hardscrabble childhoods as Method Man spits the instantly infectious hook spelling out the title’s acronym: “Cash rules everything around me, cream get the money, dollar dollar bill, y’all.” RZA first laid the foundation for “C.R.E.A.M.” in his Stapleton Houses apartment studio in Staten Island as an early demo. And its reverberations shockwaved throughout an early Nineties hip-hop culture then dominated by the G-funk sound of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. Prior to the debut albums of Nas and the Notorious B.I.G. in 1994, Wu-Tang reclaimed “the crime side, The New York Times side” of NYC as a center of focal attention.“Meth came up with the hook, but our dude named Raider Ruckus — this was like Meth’s homeboy back then, like they was real close — he came up with the phrase ‘cash rules everything around me’, ” Raekwon told Complex in 2011. The Wu-Tang wordsmiths’ minute details — fire escapes, ball courts, incarceration, smoking weed in staircases, depression — make this rap classic a microcosm of inner-city blues for the ages. —M.M.L.