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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


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.