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The 100 Greatest West Coast Hip-Hop Songs of All Time

From N.W.A to Tyler, the Creator, from mobb music to hyphy

100 greatest west coast hip-hop songs all time

PHOTOGRAPHS USED IN ILLUSTRATION/COMPOSITE BY: JEFF KRAVITZ/FILMMAGIC; KAYLA OADDAMS/GETTY IMAGES; KEVIN MAZUR/MTV VMAS 2021/GETTY IMAGES FOR MTV/VIACOMCBS; AL PEREIRA/GETTY IMAGES/MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES; RAYMOND BOYD/GETTY IMAGES; GREGORY BOJORQUEZ/GETTY IMAGES; JORDAN LYE/GETTY IMAGES

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.

Our story of West Coast hip-hop music begins in 1981. That’s when producer, songwriter, and industry veteran Duffy Hooks III formed Rappers Rapp Disco Co. in Los Angeles. The label’s first release was “The Gigolo Rapp,” a nine-minute party platter that featured Disco Daddy and Captain Rapp rocking over an interpolation of Rick James’ “Give It to Me.” That same year, Oakland entrepreneur and soul singer Mickey “Mo” Moore released “Super Rat,” by Motorcycle Mike and the Rat Trap Band on Hodisk Records. However, the tale could start much earlier. There’s plenty of evidence that rap developed long before the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” brought New York hip-hop to the world. “From the nasty tales of Stagolee to H. Rap Brown in the Sixties, most of rap is nothing more than straight-up Black bravado,” wrote Ice-T in his book The Ice Opinion. “Rapping is just something you pick up in the ghetto.”

In four-plus decades, the West Coast scene has blossomed with musical variety, not only in Los Angeles and the Bay Area but also Sacramento, Phoenix, Seattle, and other cities across the region. From the electro era to mobb music, turntablism, hyphy, and more, it has produced so many standout artists, micro-scenes, one-hit wonders, and multi-genre fusions that it proved impossible to fit them all into a single, 100-song list. We could dedicate half of the list to the N.W.A family tree alone, a lineage that stretches from the World Class Wreckin’ Cru to Kendrick Lamar. We could have stuffed it with 2Pac, Dr. Dre, and Snoop Dogg hits. Instead, we chose to go broad, sticking to one main artist’s song apiece, with few exceptions. Even then, we struggled to include everyone who matters. Inevitably, some did not make the cut.

The list was compiled by our editors and a team of critics headed up by Bay Area writer and longtime RS contributor Mosi Reeves. After compiling the initial list, we thought it would be nice to get an insider’s opinion. Our expert eyeballer for the 100 Greatest West Coast Hip-Hop Songs is Mike Cox of the L.A. production duo Mike & Keys. They have worked with many of the artists who appear here, including Dr. Dre, Nipsey Hustle, Dom Kennedy, Xzibit, and Saweetie. “West Coast hip-hop is the inspiration that me and my partner Keys used to make Nipsey’s album Victory Lap, because we were inspired by Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, N.W.A,” says Mike. “We were inspired by them using funk samples with hip-hop drums.”

Mike says that when Nipsey Hussle began work on the Grammy-nominated Victory Lap, he connected with numerous OG producers, including the late Digital Underground figurehead Shock G, Dr. Dre, and DJ Quik as well as engineers who worked on those sessions. “It’s like going and sitting with your senseis that did it before you and getting the blessing. We did that with all the West Coast legends,” he says.

However, Mike wonders what West Coast hip-hop means now in the age of the internet. “The internet made it possible for anybody to put their music up and think they’re a professional,” he says. “It’s made music more of a gumbo effect.… When you have everything accessible to you, you’re kinda all over the place.” Yet that’s part of the history, too. As the region evolves and acclimates to changing tastes in the music industry, our 100 Greatest West Coast Hip-Hop Songs stands as a snapshot of the scene’s important landmarks. It’s made with the knowledge that the future may well uncover a different portrait.

Hear this playlist on Spotify.

From Rolling Stone US

92

Kamaiyah

“I’ve been broke all my life…now I wonder, how does it feel to be rich?” asks Kamaiyah. The Oakland rapper seemed to manifest success: “How Does It Feel?” quickly became a mainstay on local rap radio, earned her a contract with Interscope through Compton rapper YG’s 4Hunnid imprint, landed her on XXL’s 2017 top 10 Freshmen Class list, and led to a platinum-certified hit with YG and Drake, “Why You Always Hatin?” Produced by CT Beats, “How Does It Feel” slaps with boogie-funk rhythm as Kamaiyah dreams optimistically better days for herself and her Big Money Gang in a sing-song voice. “Throwing whips when we swang/BMG do our thang,” she raps.–M.R.

91

Zion-I

Oakland duo Zion-I’s “Inner Light” reflects a brief, largely forgotten period of collaboration between electronic producers and underground rappers at large rave events and club nights like L.A.’s Konkrete Jungle. Producer Amp Live and rapper Zumbi seamlessly fuse light, Roni Size-styled drum-and-bass rhythms with metaphysical rhymes about ascending to a higher consciousness. “I’m like Gogol13, assassinator/Known to roam zones, microphones and faders,” raps Zumbi, referencing the early ’80s manga anti-hero. “Inner Light” kicked off over two decades of global tours for the group, and a run of indie success that only ended with Zumbi’s tragic death in 2021. —M.R.

90

Blu and Exile

Blu and Exile were a combustible duo: a battle-rapper with a spiritual streak set ablaze by a producer operating halfway between boom-bap revivalism and beat-scene psychedelia. Their collaborative debut, Below the Heavens, is a slow-burn classic, matriculating through the late-aughts internet into the indie-rap firmament off the strength of tracks like “So(ul) Amazin’ (Steel Blazin’).” Here Exile reassembles an old Dells track into a microscopic choir of hallelujahs, enraptured by Blu’s breathless flow. But as always with Blu, introspection is close at hand. “My pop a thug, I’m a son of a blood,” he raps, before smiling at the notion of his dad listening to his music. —C.P.  

89

Saafir

“Emotionally disturbed in the third person,” begins West Oakland rapper Saafir on “Light Sleeper.” The first single from his debut album, Boxcar Sessions, spotlights a hardcore eccentric who spent time homeless, landed a brief appearance in the 1993 film Menace II Society, and led his Hobo Junction crew into a famous rap battle against Oakland collective Hieroglyphics. As he meditates on staying alert and wary of others’ intentions over an industrial beat from Jeremy “Jay-Z” Jackson, Saafir drops three minutes of memorable bars and couplets in a uniquely laconic and impactful vocal style. “Now tell me that my shit is fatter than the first/But I’m a light sleepin’ rapper in a hearse.” —M.R.

88

L.A. Dream Team

The electro-stutter grooves of “L.A. Dream Team Is in the House!” became one of the first nationwide looks for Los Angeles rap. Watts-based Snake Puppy and Ohio transplant Rudy Pardee became friends working at a Wendy’s and rapidly rose to success after self-releasing three singles in 1985. All of them would end up as part oftheir MCA debut, the not-wholly-inaccurately-titled 1986 LP Kings of the West Coast. Their biggest hit, “L.A. Dream Team Is in the House!”, is part Dragnet, part “Planet Rock,” part Gilligan’s Island, and all party. —C.W.

87

King Tee

Compton rapper King Tee is an underrated member of L.A. rap’s greatest generation — a talented hardcore rapper, delivering memorable rhymes with roguish charm and a sharp sense of humor. Although many golden-age heads probably don’t know it, “At Your Own Risk (Buddha Mix)” may be his most recognizable track since BET’s daily video show Rap City used it as theme music for several months in the early Nineties. Queens producer Marley Marl remixes DJ Pooh’s beat into a fresh arrangement of car-hopper bass and funky organ breaks, all grist for the self-appointed “king of the West” to flex and boast with. —M.R.

86

Lyrics Born

Born in Japan and raised in the U.S., rapper Lyrics Born got his start in the early Nineties and is still going today, a pathfinding Asian-American voice in hip-hop who has also branched out into acting in recent years. His funky 1993 collaboration with DJ Shadow, “Send Them,” was a showcase for his scratchy motormouth acrobatics on the mic. He was in the worth-checking-out duo Latyrx with Lateef the Truthspeaker, the kind of rap group that worked Angela Davis and Alice Walker references into their rhymes. By the time of Lyrics Born’s 2003 debut solo LP, Later That Day, he’d learned to temper his flow into the playful and empathetic growl you hear over the rubber-band bass bumps of “Callin’ Out.” The result was the kind of the left-field, party-starting jam he might’ve dug out of a crate on a college record-buying excursion. —J.D. 

85

Jurassic 5

“Just act classic,” this L.A. alt-rap crew implored on their breakout song. The J5’s proudly old-school name suggested a traditionalist place apart from Nineties rap’s crass commercialism, and so did their music, with producers Cut Chemist and DJ Nu-Mark refracting a soulful piano sample through the group’s sing-song mic-passing bonhomie. At the time, opening the track with the voice of Bill Cosby from Fat Albert was a nice setup for the song’s generous tone of urban-pastorale nostalgia, a PBS-of-the-streets warmth that could even get you nodding along to tut-tutting punditry like, “It’s not about the bills/That’s not keeping it real/ A lot of tight rappers out here ain’t got no deals’ Pretty soon, Jurassic 5 had a major-label deal themselves. —J.D.

84

Saweetie

The inauspicious beginnings of a spare, 1:47 freestyle posted to SoundCloud became the career-making moment for Sacramento’s Saweetie, who would soon take her dexterous, deeply assured style to the Top 20. Bringing some breezy, confident California swagger to a Southern rap classic (Khia’s “My Neck, My Back”), Saweetie’s rapping about pedicures, beach vacations, and smart investments became a viral sensation. “It was a hard time in my life, and I wasn’t where I wanted to be. So I wrote about things that could inspire me,” Saweetie told Billboard. “I was very prideful when I was going through hard times and didn’t want to ask my family for money. I had a few dollars in my bank account, not going out, sitting in my room, and eating a peanut butter jelly sandwich. So what I had to do was stay positive, keep writing raps, and know someone was going to see it — and they did.” —C.W.