The global growth of hip-hop is best measured in decades. After Rapper’s Delight took over the radio waves at the end of the 1970s, New York became the superheated centre of this brave new sound. Throughout the ’80s, hip-hop remained largely a localised scene. Turntablists like DJ Kool Herc were scratching and spinning records in the Bronx, Run DMC were making rock-influenced tracks in Queens, and Kurtis Blow was spitting narrative rhymes up in Harlem.
The 1990s saw an explosion of the sound across the US. Every region developed their own sonic signature, from the kaleidoscopically funky tracks that Virginia-native Missy Elliott dropped to the chopped and screwed rhythms of Port Arthur, TX’s UGK and the soul-and-gospel inflected rhymes of Chicago’s Common. (The year 1990 was also the first time a hip-hop song took the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100. Sadly, it was Vanilla Ice’s Ice Ice Baby.)
When the Millennium arrived, hip-hop started to creep into the mainstream narrative around pop culture. The sound was everywhere, as the green shoots of its international rise were beginning to show, with artists like MIA. and Dizzee Rascal becoming international stars.
The past decade has entrenched hip hop as not only a permanent part of pop culture, but as pop culture itself. Hip-hop is how people speak about themselves from Kashmir to California. The genre that was once so tightly defined has started endless branches of new genres. Hip-hop doesn’t just belong to the Bronx anymore. It’s everywhere.
As a result, we felt it was the right time to ask critics around the world what they think are the greatest hip-hop songs of all time. No surprises to see that almost all of the 280 songs nominated in total are from US artists. But we also received nominations for songs originating outside the US. As the purpose of these lists should be to encourage discovery as well as debate, we thought we would put together a list of the critic’s picks from around the world to create a global playlist. Here are the standouts from the critics’ picks that show hip-hop’s five decades of growth into a global phenomenon.
Shinjitsu No Dangan, King Giddra (1995)
Just because international hip-hop didn’t hit the big time until the noughties doesn’t mean there weren’t artists trying to bring the genre to their own shores. King Giddra – not to be confused with MF DOOM’s alias King Gheedorah – was a Japanese group which took political cues from groups like Public Enemy, highlighting the stark economic reality for many Japanese people in the shadow of a deep recession. Musically, Shinjitsu No Dangan (Bullet of Truth) is a mixture of East coast boom-bap and the rock-tinged sound of Cypress Hill. Production-wise it may not be terribly innovative, but the song is full of fire.
Je Danse Le Mia, IAM (1994)
If you ask any hip-hop head where the best non-English rap hails from, the answer is invariably France. IAM came to prominence in the early ’90s, taking equal cues from New Jack Swing and R&B. Je Danse Le Mia reached number one in France, and stayed there for weeks, inspiring a whole new generation of hip-hop artists who saw that the genre had star-making potential. The song toes the line between goofy and infectious, with a funk-injected beat that wouldn’t have been out of place in the 1970s.
I Luv U, Dizzee Rascal (2003)
Whether grime is hip-hop or not is a debate that still rages today, but no one can argue that Dizzee Rascal brought the uniquely English genre to the world’s stage. The beat and flow of Dizzee’s hit is proto-grime, all aggressive jungle and garage beats over rapid-fire rhymes that still sound smooth at 140bpm. I Luv U didn’t start grime, but it did catapult it into the public consciousness.
Soweto, Pro Kid (2005)
There are rappers that put entire cities on the map. Think Meek Mill and Philadelphia or Drake and Toronto. Soweto’s Pro Kid was another one of these, popularising a regional hip-hop style born and bred in the famed Johannesburg suburb. Soweto has all the triumphant swagger of Jay-Z or Rick Ross rhyming over a vintage Just Blaze beat, but Pro Kid also brought a distinctive vocabulary of Sowetan slang and vernacular to the table, creating something sublime in the process.
How to Rap About Africa, Black Vulcanite (2016)
In 2005, Kenyan author and journalist Binyavanga Wainaina wrote a satiric essay labeled How to Write About Africa. It became a landmark piece of criticism, lampooning those who would come to the continent and follow a tired formula that highlighted stereotypical narratives about poverty, genocide, and corruption. A decade later, the Namibian group Black Vulcanite put Wainaina’s essay to music, giving it a seething beat that takes cues from iconic producers like DJ Premier and Madlib. The resulting track, How to Rap About Africa, is less tongue-in-cheek and more caustically critical, bringing the anti-establishment fire of Public Enemy and Dead Prez to a whole new era and geography.
Sub City, Stogie T (2016)
South Africa’s hip-hop scene is one of the world’s most mature, and it has produced some of the most artistically gifted MCs this side of Queens. But even in that crowded field, Stogie T stands apart. The 38-year old MC famously flexed his skills on radio show Sway in the Morning, spitting a flawless freestyle over the beat from Nas’s NY State of Mind. It was a star-making moment, but Stogie T has been rhyming since the turn of the millennium, including the standout track Sub City from his eponymous 2016 album.
Ngqangqa, Kanyi (2017)
As hip hop became a dominant musical force, it also became an outlet for those seeking to keep their own oral and narrative traditions alive in an era of cultural homogenisation. Kanyi Mavi, an MC hailing from Cape Town, raps in Xhosa – a language spoken by more than eight million South Africans that contains distinctive “click” consonants. Mavi’s rapping is studded with those clicks, giving the austere, gritty beat on her 2017 track Ngqangqa another layer that would be impossible to add using another language.
Fight da Faida, Frankie Hi-NRG MC (1993)
Italy may not be the first country you think of when it comes to hip-hop, but Frankie Hi-NRG MC has been in the game as long as legendary acts like Common and UGK. His debut single is as politically charged as any Public Enemy track, railing against the influence of the mafia in Sicily on a sparse, springy beat centered around a Sly and the Family Stone sample. Frankie does his best Ice Cube impression on Fight da Faida, knowing that understated style can be the most devastating way to deliver a rhyme.
Atrevido, Orishas (2000)
Most of the songs on this list sound like American hip-hop. Atrevido, a track from Cuban rap group Orishas, doesn’t. It’s hip-hop by artists intimately familiar with Cuba’s manifold musical traditions, from rumba to bolero to jazz, yielding a sound that could fit comfortably into any number of genres. Orishas’ ability to shape shift and blend heritage with modern tastes has inspired artists from Bad Bunny to Camilla Cabello, and made the Caribbean one of the modern powerhouses of contemporary hip-hop.
More on BBC Music’s greatest hip-hop songs of all time:
The 25 greatest hip-hop songs of all time
What critics had to say about the top 10
Full list of critics who participated – and how they voted
Why Juicy is number one (not available in UK)
Trends and surprises in the poll (not available in UK)
Why are there so few women in hip-hop polls? (not available in UK)
Playlist of the top 25 songs (Spotify)
How many of these songs do you agree with? Let us know with the hashtag #GreatestHipHopSongs on Facebook orTwitter.
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