In a moment of madness I’ve decided to try and identify the finest 10 instrumentals in Hip Hop history. A thankless task! No genre polarises people like Hip Hop, or should I say no fans are as opinionated as Hip Hop fans. People will even argue that some of these beats don’t deserve to be called Hip Hop. Whatever, I have taken on the challenge! You’re welcome.
The criteria... I could not use the same producer or featured artist twice and I had to somewhat represent the different styles of Hip Hop. Despite these rules, do not get it twisted, these are all beats I personally f*cking love. Just to be clear, the task was to identify the best Hip Hop instrumentals NOT the best Hip Hop producers. While not necessarily mutually exclusive, there is a big difference as it means that consistency of production over a career doesn’t hold weight in this list. I could happily listen to Alchemist beats all day long, for example, but I wouldn’t feel he has one stand out beat deserving of this list (‘Keep It Thoro’ came sooooo close), therefore he doesn’t make the cut despite being one of my favourite producers. I’m still a little gobsmacked The Neptunes and Dr Dre missed out as well.
Here are some pre-empted responses...
‘What?! No f*cking Premo? This guy’s a pr*ck.’
‘Where are J Dilla and Kanye?’
‘If he doesn’t feature something from Illmatic, I will cyber-bully him.’
Please understand that this was not easy! Right, here we go...
1. Dead Presidents– Jay Z (DJ Ski)
Goosebumps. Every time. One of the most beautiful pieces of music in the genre. This technically features Nas which should keep all of the purists happy.
This track alone meant I couldn’t choose any more beats featuring Jigga or produced by Ski. Scarface’s Kanye-produced ‘Guess Who’s Back’ gone! DJ Premier’s Jay Z banger ‘So Ghetto’ overlooked! Camp Lo’s Ski-crafted ‘Lucini’ criminally ignored. Now you start to see how tricky these choices become. However if you were to have only one Jigga or Ski song in this list, this would surely be it.
2. What You Know About That – T.I. (DJ Toomp)
Epic. This is endorphin music. The bass is so deep and rolling that you can’t help but feel on top of the world. This song announced TI as a proper star, which he would’ve continued to be if the law hadn’t caught up with him. The instrumental should be a national anthem.
3. Ready or Not – The Fugees (The Fugees & Jerry Duplessis)
This is one of those tracks that humans will be listening to in 2112. The Enya sample is beautiful; so atmospheric and brooding. When you break the beat down it could not be simpler or more Hip Hop: a raw drum break and a sick sample. Let’s not forget that this was number 1 in the UK for 2 weeks in 1996. You might say ‘Well that doesn’t mean much; music was much better back then’. Let me remind you, this topped the charts in the weeks between Peter Andre and Deep Blue Something!!!
What other number 1 has been more pure to the genre?
4. Hip Hop – Dead Prez (Dead Prez)
The bass. My god! Forget Hip Hop, this track gets love in every genre. What a way to conceal a serious message in a banger. Many have since tried and failed.
Being a UK teen at the time this came out, you couldn’t help but feel that despite the US raps this song had a huge nod to the sounds of Drum N Bass and Garage, and it explains why it always gets more love over here than in the US. BIG track!
5. The Diplomats – I Really Mean It (Just Blaze)
So hard choosing just one Just Blaze beat, but for me this is his best. The Dips were running Hip Hop at the time, there was so much excitement around them and this was the climax. If you wake up to this instrumental every morning you will have a great day. Fact. Try it out! This dropped in a Miami club I was in recently and I’ve never experienced anything like it: people moshing out with the biggest grins on their faces.
Shout out to ‘What We Do’ which narrowly missed the cut.
6. Hard In The Paint - Waka Flocka (Lex Luther)
Straight fight music. Absolutely mental. Why should a track like this be judged any different from a music point of view than a boom-bap classical strings sampling track? They’re both great, in very different ways. This is the best example of the more ign’ant end of Hip Hop.
7. Phenomenon – LL (Diddy & The Hitmen)
Love him or loathe him, Diddy knows how to make hits. This is one of the finest examples of the Bad Boy sound that was ubiquitous in the late 90s. So funky! If you think this choice is ridiculous... imagine the hit Biggie would’ve had with this. Exactly!
8. 7th Chamber pt.2 – Wu Tang Clan (RZA)
If an alien came down and asked to sum up what Wu Tang was all about, this is the track you’d have to play them. Raw, dirty, angry and very messy. No one has managed to recreate this early Wu Tang sound and energy. Method Man also happens to come through with the best verse of his underachieving career on this.
9. Gimme Some More – Busta Rhymes (DJ Scratch)
So hard to pull this song apart to focus on just the beat because there is so much greatness to it: Busta’s energy, the tongue -twisting flow and the video, the f*cking incredible Looney Tunes on acid video!!! But this has to be one of most distinct beats in Hip Hop. When watching the original Psycho film a few years back, I nearly fell off my chair when I heard the sample that frames this track. Genius. This is Hip Hop with ADHD.
10. Ugly – Bubba Sparxxx (Timbaland)
I’ll probably get a bit of stick for this one. Not because Timbo isn’t deserving of a place in the list but because I’ve chosen a track featuring a fat farmer boy. What about the syncopated RnB-redefining Aaliyah grooves? What about the futuristic Missy masterpieces? What about the sultry, sexy genius of Genuwine’s best tracks? Yep, I agree. This just proves to me how special Timbaland is, but no single track of his has blown me away like this did the 1st time I heard it.
You have to remember the timing; this was fresh on the heels of ‘Get Your Freak On’, a track that had already blown people away. It sounded like nothing that had existed before it. Surely he couldn’t do it again. He could, and he did. You needed to play this 10 times straight just to get your head around the percussion. Absolutely mental! I had got my 1st set of decks a few months earlier and this caused me all sorts of problems trying to mix it; a sign of how unlike anything else it was… and still is.
Let the debate begin... and if you are going to tear this to shreds, the least you can do is list your top 10 following the same criteria I did.
1. 2. 3. Go!
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