Ranking the 50 greatest hip-hop singles of all time is no easy feat. There are literally thousands of songs that deserve to be in consideration for the top places and deciding which ones to keep and which ones to cut was pretty tricky.
From part 1 to part 4, we looked at a diverse range of hip-hop classics from the 80s to present day, including artists from 2Pac to Nas, Lil Wayne to Audio Two, EPMD to Biz Markie and lots more in between.
This time Stop The Breaks looks at the remaining 10 joints from Naughty By Nature, Wu-Tang Clan, Public Enemy, Geto Boys, Mobb Deep, Slick Rick, Dr. Dre, Pete Rock & CL Smooth and Eric B. & Rakim.
Let’s take a look at the final part of the 50 greatest hip-hop singles of all time.
10. Naughty By Nature – O.P.P.
Produced: Naughty By Nature
Released: August 24, 1991
Album: Naughty by Nature
Label: Tommy Boy Records
There have been few other hip-hop acts or even individual hip-hop artists that have managed to replicate the same commercial success and respect as Naughty By Nature. They had the formula down pat – hard street shit to cater to the heads combined with big radio singles to hook in everybody else.
Straight off the bat, their first single was motherfucking “O.P.P.”! This shit hit 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topped the U.S. Hot Rap Singles. Every commercially successful rapper since 1991 has been trying to follow this formula – from Jay-Z to 50 Cent to Lil Wayne – but no-one’s managed to do it like Naughty By Nature.
Not only is “O.P.P.” one of the greatest hip-hop songs of all time, it’s one of the most influential rap singles ever!
9. Wu-Tang Clan – C.R.E.A.M.
Released: January 31, 1994
Album: Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
Label: Loud Records
“Protect Ya Neck” might have been the Wu-Tang song that launched them all into superstardom but it was “C.R.E.A.M.” that became the group’s most iconic track that has engrained itself in hip-hop’s history.
Everything about “C.R.E.A.M.” is perfect. From the nostalgic sample off The Charmels’ “As Long As I’ve Got You,” to Rae and Deck’s verses to Method Man’s unforgettable hook – it was one of those songs where all the elements connected. Even 20 years later from its release, A-list superstars like Drake are still checking for “C.R.E.A.M.” – you just can’t escape it.
8. Public Enemy – Rebel Without a Pause
Produced: The Bomb Squad
Album: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
Label: Def Jam
“Rebel Without a Pause” was that moment when Public Enemy realised they needed to step it up a notch. Pretty much right after releasing their 1987 debut album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, artists like Eric B. & Rakim and Boogie Down Productions were entering the rap game with force. Chuck D knew they had to take it to the next level. It just was a case of steel sharpening steel.
And so “Rebel Without a Pause,” the first song Public Enemy recorded for It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, was born. The Bomb Squad went crazy with the beat, looping a frenetic sample of The J.B.’s “The Grunt” like an apocalypse siren, while Chuck D stepped up to the mic and unleashed a volcanic tirade on the system. One of the most influential and greatest hip-hop singles of all time, without a doubt.
7. Geto Boys – Mind Playin’ Tricks on Me
Produced: Doug King
Released: July 1, 1991
Album: We Can’t Be Stopped
Label: Rap-A-Lot, Priority
“Mind Playing Tricks on Me” was one of those cases of a rap single received unexpected, enormous commercial success. Before the song, the Geto Boys were infamous for their twisted rhymes, Scarface, Bushwick Bill and Willie D were rapping about necrophilia like it was just another topic.
So when “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” blew up, the shit was unexpected. But looking back at it now, the Isaac Hayes sample was just so damn catchy that Geto Boys could have rhymed about anything and the song would gotten spins. “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” ended up topping the Hot Rap Singles, hitting 10 on the Hot R&B Singles and peaking at 23 on the Billboard Hot 100.
6. Mobb Deep – Shook Ones Pt. II
Released: October 28, 1994
Album: The Infamous
Label: Loud, RCA, BMG
That eerie siren that kicks off “Shook Ones Pt. II” might be the most iconic and recognisable sound in rap history. Havoc, one of the most underrated hip-hop producers of all time, chopped up Herbie Hancock’s “Jessica” so beautifully that it was years later that people realised where the sample came from.
Just based on the beat alone, “Shook Ones Pt. II” would be one of the best hip-hop songs of all time. But then the lyrics. Goddamn Prodigy knows how to make a threat. I mean: “Rock you in your face, stab your brain with your nose bone”? Fuck!
“Shook Ones Pt. II” encapsulated everything that was New York, everything that was Mobb Deep and everything that was hip-hop at the time.
5. Method Man – I’ll Be There for You / You’re All I Need to Get By
Released: April 25, 1995
Label: Def Jam
The stories behind this song are crazy. Method Man would reveal later on that Lyor Cohen, the head of Def Jam at the time, had to bribe him with a new Lexus to do the song because Meth didn’t want to keep pushing his female-friendly image. What a mistake that would have been.
“I’ll Be There for You / You’re All I Need to Get By” ended up topping the Billboard Hot R&B Singles and Hot Rap Singles for weeks on end, peaked at number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was nominated for a fucking Grammy. The Wu-Tang movement had already began but this joint kicked it into overdrive.
4. Slick Rick – Children’s Story
Produced: Slick Rick
Released: April 3, 1989
Album: The Great Adventures of Slick Rick
Label: Def Jam, Columbia
By the time Slick Rick released his 1988 debut album, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, he was pretty much a veteran in the rap game. Rick the Ruler had already been strutting for his stuff for years, featuring with Doug E. Fresh on two popular release “The Show” and “La Di Da Di.”
But it wasn’t until Slick Rick went out on his own and dropped classics like “Teenage Love” “Children’s Story” and “Hey Young World” that the hip-hop world realised the true depth of his imagination, creativity and storytelling abilities.
“Children’s Story” is so genius because of its simplicity. The storyline’s a classic one but it’s the way Slick Rick weaves in different characters with his different voices, builds up anticipation with well-time pauses and closes the song with a warning that makes it one of the greatest hip-hop songs of all time.
3. Dr. Dre – Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang
Produced: Dr. Dre
Released: November 12, 1992
Album: The Chronic
Label: Death Row
“1, 2, 3 and to the 4, Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dr. Dre is at the door.” The most famous opening line in hip-hop history. And like that, the rap game would never be the same again. “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” blew up Dr. Dre, it blew up Snoop Dogg, it blew up The Chronic, it blew up the West Coast, it fucking blew up hip-hop.
Before The Chronic, rap had its commercial superstars – MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice already moved mad units with their albums. But Dre and Snoop managed to bring the streets into the charts while moving millions of units and “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” was the start of it all.
2. Pete Rock & CL Smooth – They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)
Produced: Pete Rock
Released: April 2, 1992
Album: Mecca and the Soul Brother
The beginning horn riff on “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” is a worthy contender against Mobb Deep’s opening sirens on “Shook Ones Pt. II” as the most iconic and recognisable sound on a rap song. Inspired by the passing of their friend, Trouble T Roy, a dancer for Heavy D and the Boyz, Pete Rock and CL Smooth created the most heartwarming and lasting tributes in hip-hop.
“They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” is one of those rap songs where you can play anytime, anywhere in the world and it’ll create the same energy that was there 20 years ago. Simply put, it’s just one of the greatest hip-hop songs of all time.
1. Eric B. & Rakim – Eric B. Is President
Produced: Eric B., Marley Marl (uncredited)
Album: Paid in Full
Label: Zakia Records, 4th & Broadway
“I came in the door, I said it before, I never let the mic magnetize me no more.” I wonder if Rakim had any idea that he was changing the rap game with those now-iconic opening lines?
The magnitude of Rakim’s impact, especially on Paid in Full, is still being felt to this day. There’s not a single rapper working today who can say they weren’t inspired by Rakim Allah, one of the greatest rappers of all time.
The crazy thing is, “Eric B. Is President” was even meant to be the lyrical revolution that it turned out to be. Eric B. & Rakim created it as a dance track – the B-side “My Melody” was the one aimed at the streets.
As if that wasn’t enough, Marley Marl, the track’s producer, changed the rap production game, dipping into James Brown crates for samples and as a result, creating an entire generation of hip-hop producers who learnt his style.
After all’s said and done, after hip-hop recognises the legacy of the song, after we acknowledge Rakim is one of the best to ever touch a mic and Marley is one of the best to ever touch a drum machine, “Eric B. Is President” is the greatest hip-hop single of all time because it’s simply a fucking, incredibly dope hip-hop song. Period.
More in the 50 Greatest Hip-Hop Singles Of All Time series: