Pete Rock and CL Smooth – They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y) - 1992
This exceptional DJ-MC duo from Mount Vernon, New York made one of hip hop’s most poignant masterpieces. – They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y) was inspired by the accidental death of the pair’s close friend Troy Dixon, who was one of the dancers in ‘Heavy D & the Boyz’. DJ and producer Pete Rock, who is renowned for his imagination and creative use of samples, utilises a saxophone and jazz bass line from Tom Scott’s Today to form the basis of this classic.
Pete Rock was depressed about Dixon’s sudden passing when making this track yet managed to create one of hip hop’s most inspired loops at this low point in his life. CL Smooth’s lyrics speak of his own upbringing and the vital roles his mother and uncle played in raising him in the absence of his father. Towards the end of the track he salutes his late friend and thanks him for believing in him. Emotive.
A Tribe Called Quest- Electric Relaxation - 1993
A Tribe Called Quest consisting of Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and, intermittently, Jarobi White brought a wider audience to hip hop with their cerebral lyrics and laid back style. They also innovated with their use of jazz to craft hip hop tracks with a unique sound combined with witty and almost self-deprecating lyrics. Part of the Native Tongues family which included De La Soul, Black Sheep and the Jungle Brothers, ‘Tribe’ were adept at capturing all the awkwardness and innocence of teenage love from early tracks such as Bonita Applebum to those which came much later such as Find My Way.
Electric Relaxation from their 1993 album Midnight Marauders was the best of the lot – with the two MCs verbally jousting as they serenade a girl. The interplay between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg is brilliant and their contrasting styles really stands out on this track, which is based around a sample of Mystic Brew by the jazz organist Ronnie Foster.
Dr Dre & Snoop - Nuthin but a ‘G’ Thang – 1992
The high point of what was known as the ‘G-Funk era’ when the West Coast briefly stole the limelight from hip hop’s traditional New York hub. Marijuana-infused tales of hustling, LA gang culture and hedonism told over synths, heavy bass lines and with funk-inspired female vocals put areas like Long Beach and South Central firmly on the musical map.
The maestro, Dre delivers this sunshine-soaked anthem with the deft use of several samples including, most notably, Leon Haywood’s I Want To Do Something Freaky To You. The lyrics are pretty superficial but Snoop Doggy Dogg’s languid drawl is unmistakeable and lifts ‘Nuthin but a G thang’ into the hip hop Hall of Fame. A game-changer.
The Notorious BIG – Juicy – 1994
The late Christopher Wallace aka the Notorious BIG was unquestionably one of the greatest MCs of all time. The Brooklyn-born artist’s unique flow and seemingly natural ability to paint such vivid pictures through his rhymes made him stand out immediately when he emerged with a series of guest appearances in the early 1990s. While others tracks on his first LP Ready to Die received more critical-acclaim, Juicy, for me, is the one that will live on forever as his signature track.
MC’s delivering their rags to riches tales is well worn in hip hop now, but nothing beats Juicy for capturing the essence of how to go from ‘negative to positive’ and the importance of giving back. His producer and mentor Sean ‘Puff Daddy’ Coombs, chose an infectious hook from Mtume’s Juicy Fruit to ensure radio airplay and club-friendliness for his talented young artist, which propelled him to stardom. A true work of genius.
Wu Tang Clan – C.R.E.A.M (Cash Rules Everything Around Me) - 1994
The Wu Tang Clan were like a force of nature when they emerged in the early 1990s. Here was this seemingly infinite collective of incredible and varied MCs anchored by this incredibly unique producer. Robert Diggs aka RZA brought his love for kung fu movies and eastern philosophy into hip hop production to create a completely new sound. Here he uses a loop from The Charmels's As Long as I've Got You to create the track’s distinctive, macabre tone.
C.R.E.A.M features Raekwon, Method Men and Inspectah Deck lamenting their tough upbringing in Staten Island, New York as dealing drugs offered the fastest track to riches. Tonally it doesn’t glorify crime in a crude, simplistic way. The underlying message is by learning from one’s errors and seeking advice from one’s elders you can turn your life around.
Public Enemy - Rebel without a Pause - 1988
Hip hop was at its most impactful when it challenged the establishment and offered a voice for the socially disadvantaged. Nobody channelled that better than Public Enemy and Chuck D – the group’s charismatic MC. Chuck D, whose real name is Carlton Ridenhour, called hip hop the ‘Black CNN’ using it as platform for his views on domestic and international events in which he felt his people were suffering. Chuck D is hip hop’s great dissenter and Rebel without a Pause is his calling card. The whistling trumpet sound taken from The Grunt by the JBs laid over a loop from the much-sampled Funky Drummer by James Brown give the track a frenetic and unapologetic feel.
Chuck D addresses the group’s critics in this lament with support from his sidekick Flavor-Flav. This was the first single from the seminal It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back which was recorded at a time when the Public Enemy were touring heavily, giving the album and, in particular, Rebel Without A Pause a real sense that you are at one of their incredible shows.
Souls of Mischief - 93 till Infinity – 1993
While Dr Dre and friends were rapping about guns and ganja in LA, the Hieroglyphics camp including the likes of Domino, Del tha Funkee Homosapien and the Souls of Mischief were creating an altogether different sound further up the West Coast in Oakland.
This group comprised of four MCs, A-Plus, Phesto, Opio and Tajai all of whom show their remarkable collective high bar for lyrical technique over a meandering melody infused with a sample of the jazz track Heather by Billy Cobham.
93 till Infinity comes from that same corner of hip hop where street machismo makes way for common tales of everyday life delivered with a college-educated vocabulary.
This is a classic that was immediately embraced by hip hop lovers upon its release but remains underappreciated to this day. It’s the blueprint for what was to come from the likes of The Pharcyde, J Dilla, Dilated Peoples, NERD and Kanye West.
Jay Z – Public Service Announcement – 2003
With the tragic deaths of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious BIG, there was a void to be filled in hip hop for that superstar MC who loomed larger than all his rivals. It took a few years and a bizarre rivalry with Nas, but few could argue that Jay-Z is not the natural successor to those giants of hip hop.
Not only is Shaun Carter incredibly skilled as a lyricist and MC, Jay Z is also hip hop’s great entrepreneur and this track on his 2003 classic The Black Album captures his essence and lyrical supremacy the best. The short track contains brilliant wordplay as he speaks of his past as a drug dealer to his meteoric rise to the top. Produced by Just Blaze, it contains a sample of an incredible track called Seed of Love by Little Boy Blues, which gives it an almost evangelical feel. Jay Z is one of the most in demand live acts today and whenever he performs PSA, his most ardent fans always go wild, reciting the lyrics religiously.
Classic (Better Than I’ve Ever Been) – Kanye West, Nas, KRS One, Rakim and DJ Premier – 2007
A collaboration facilitated by Nike for a sneaker promotion in 2007, this track was seen as somewhat of a novelty item when it came out and perhaps stands out in this list for that reason. But a glance at the cast may explain why I have included it on my list, and I believe in time it will be regarded as exactly what it proclaims to be, a classic. DJ Premier and Rakim are the dream pairing for most hip hop fans, the former widely regarded as one of the most accomplished DJ/producers whilst the latter as the greatest MC of all time. I couldn’t forgive myself from excluding both from this top ten list.
Nas, Kanye and KRS One – all of whom deserve their place in the annals of hip hop history – deliver the goods as each MC steps up to the mic to challenge their rivals and list their achievements. The signature DJ Premier scratch-heavy and vocal-laden production makes this unmistakeably a ‘Primo joint’ while Rakim shows that he is still the daddy of all MCs. A timely reminder at a time when hip hop has been at a low ebb artistically that the very best can still deliver a classic – even when they are name-checking a sportswear brand.
Mobb Deep - Shook Ones Pt 2 – 1995
Hailing from the socially deprived and crime ridden Queensbridge housing projects in Queens, New York, Mobb Deep delivered tales of inner city struggle and street life with brutal authenticity.
This was the track that put MCs Prodigy and Havoc on the map and depicts a world of gang warfare and territorial disputes. Although the group often collaborated with other producers including Q-Tip and DJ Premier, Havoc crafted this, their most celebrated track, together using several samples including an inconspicuous piano riff from a track called Jessica by jazz pioneer Herbie Hancock The classic lives on in hip hop folklore with its use in a series of video games and most memorably the film 8 Mile.