10 Defining Hip-Hop Tracks from the 70s to the 90s

As of August 11 of this year, hip-hop has officially been around for 50 years. As one of the most global and mainstream genres of music nowadays, it’s clear to see that the vision for hip-hop in its early years has been fully realized. With this, though, it’s important to remember how important the formative years were, and how much the pioneers of rap should be credited for their work.

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The first three decades of the genre, the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, all helped to bring hip-hop to the commercial forefront, staving off criticisms of its at-times lack of melody, provocative motifs, and promotion of violence. In honor of this, we at American Songwriter have compiled 10 songs from the three aforementioned decades of hip-hop that have helped define and uplift the genre the most.

1. “Rapper’s Delight,” The Sugarhill Gang (1979)

The first rap track to ever land on Billboard‘s Hot 100 chart, “Rapper’s Delight” was an introduction to hip-hop for mainstream audiences. Released in September of 1979, the song included five different mixes, spanning from an almost 15-minute long rendition to a succinct four-minute version. To this day, it is still the best-selling 12-inch vinyl record single of all time.

2. “Superappin’,” Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five (1979)

The debut single for the iconic group Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, led vocally by emcee Melle Mel, “Superappin” was an excellent first impression to the mainstream for the posse. Released in November of 1979, the track’s jovial lyricism made the Furious Five a perfect voice to lead the rap revolution.

To all the fly kids and the young ladies
Introducing the crew ya got to see to believe
We’re one, two, three, four, five MC’s

3. “The Breaks,” Kurtis Blow (1980)

The lead single for New York native Kurtis Blow’s self-titled debut album (1980), “The Breaks” became the first hip-hop song to be certified gold by RIAA. Peaking at No. 87 on the Hot 100, the hit intentionally highlights the breakbeat production Blow employs, a style of instrumentation the nation would ultimately fall in love with.

4. “It’s Tricky,” Run-DMC (1986)

With Run-DMC already established as one of the hottest rap groups in the industry, the release of “It’s Tricky” catapulted them ever further into mainstream acclaim. Peaking at No. 57 on the Hot 100, the song served as the fourth promotional single for the group’s third studio album, Raising Hell (1986).

5. “Boyz-n-the-Hood,” Eazy-E (1987)

Eazy-E’s debut single, and practically his first crack at being a rapper, “Boyz-n-the-Hood” surpassed every expectation the California native had for it. Written by Ice Cube and produced by Dr. Dre, the song peaked at No. 50 on the Hot 100 and made it obvious that Eazy-E needed to collaborate with Cube and Dre to eventually form N.W.A.

6. “Fight the Power,” Public Enemy (1989)

Made for the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s 1989 movie Do the Right Thing, Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” would become one of the first anthems for civil unrest made by the hip-hop genre. Reaching No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Rap Singles chart, the song launched Flavor Flav and Chuck D of Public Enemy into a new stratosphere of success.

“I wanted it to be defiant, I wanted it to be angry, I wanted it to be very rhythmic. I thought right away of Public Enemy,” Lee said of the song.

[RELATED: Public Enemy and Ice-T to Headline The National Celebration of Hip-Hop Festival]

7. “Shook Ones, Part II,” Mobb Deep (1995)

The lead single for New York group Mobb Deep’s sophomore studio album, The Infamous…, “Shook Ones, Part II” would end up being the most beloved song of their career. A sequel to their “Shook Ones” track from the year prior, the timeless ain’t no such things as halfway crooks has become one of the most immortalized lyrics in the history of the genre.

8. “N.Y. State of Mind,” Nas (1994)

Produced by the iconic DJ Premier, “N.Y. State of Mind” is one of the most beloved tracks on Nas’ debut album, Illmatic, widely regarded as one of the best hip-hop albums of all time. Exemplifying the rugged reality of living in New York anecdotally, the song was ranked No. 31 on Rolling Stone‘s 100 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs of All Time list.

9. “Hypnotize,” The Notorious B.I.G. (1997)

The last song The Notorious B.I.G. released before his death in 1997, “Hypnotize” served as a promotional single for the legendary emcee’s sophomore album, Life After Death. With its mesmerizing Biggie, Biggie, Biggie, can’t you see? hook by Pamela Long, the song became Biggie’s first-ever No. 1 hit on the Hot 100.

10. “My Name Is,” Eminem (1999)

The lead single for Eminem’s 1999 sophomore album, The Slim Shady LP, which was really his LP as a commercially mainstream rapper, “My Name Is” solidified Em’s fan-favorite nickname “Slim Shady” for him. Peaking at No. 36 on the Hot 100, the song has since been certified 3x platinum by RIAA.

Photo by Oliver Morris/Getty Images

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