1988 was Hip Hop’s break-out year, arguably the second or third year of its Golden Age, but THE year that artists creativity, innovativeness, and diversity truly took Hip Hop to the next level. Where 1987 produced four of five genre-defining albums, 1988 saw at least a dozen albums released that would all turn out to be hugely influential classics.
For what is without a doubt one of the best and most important years in Hip Hop history, we have selected 40 of its very best songs. In a year such as 1988, inevitably a lot of deserving tracks did not make this list – if you think songs we left off should have been included, please let us know in the comments!
1. Eric B & Rakim - Microphone Fiend
This beat. These lyrics. PERFECTION. Strangely the single release of this track wasn’t a huge success in 1988, but since then this track has rightfully come to be recognized not only as the quintessential Eric B & Rakim song but as one of Hip Hop’s biggest songs as well.
2. Big Daddy Kane - Set It Off
The ultimate example of Big Daddy Kane’s rapping prowess and lyrical skill. Pure, unadulterated Hip Hop – it doesn’t get any better than this. One of the stand-out tracks of the all around masterful debut album Long Live The Kane (of which the almost as good “Raw” track would also have been included here, if the original version of that song wasn’t already on our Top 40 Hip Hop Songs 1987 list).
3. Boogie Down Productions - My Philosophy
This track was so far ahead of its time, Hip Hop still hasn’t caught up yet. Filled with Hip Hop Quotables, this song addresses the commercialization of Hip Hop and the rise of wack and fake rappers. Almost 30 years old and more relevant today than ever.
Prophetic and brilliant, My Philosophy will always be considered one of Hip Hop’s biggest songs EVER.
4. Public Enemy - Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos
This has to be one of the most impactful songs Public Enemy ever did, and that is saying something. A powerful story of a jailbreak, directed at the US government and its prison system. Hard-hitting lyrics, perfect instrumental – this is Public Enemy at its best.
5. N.W.A - Straight Outta Compton
N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton album was a game-changer; for better or for worse. One of the first real Gangsta Rap albums, going multi-platinum without any radio play. It influenced and changed the direction of Hip Hop, producing countless clones for decades to come. The difference between all the clones and this album is the originality and authenticity of Straight Outta Compton; combined with the revolutionary & flawless production of Dr Dre and the raw energy & at the time shocking lyrical imagery of Ice Cube, MC Ren & Eazy E. The album is a super classic and this title track the perfect opening salvo.
6. Slick Rick - Children's Story
After he made his imprint on the scene in 1985 on Doug e Fresh’s classic songs “The Show” and “La Di Da Di”, Slick Rick released his nearly flawless debut album The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick in 1988. Slick Rick’s superior story telling abilities, combined with his humor and typical rap style shine on the whole album, this song is the best track.
7. Ice T - Colors
The powerful title track of the classic 1988 movie “Colors”, will forever be one of Ice T’s most recognizable tracks. Easily one of the greatest Hip Hop songs ever.
8. Public Enemy - Don't Believe The Hype
With “Rebel Without A Pause” and “Bring The Noise, the first singles from Public Enemy‘s monumental It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, already included on our Top 40 Hip Hop Songs 1987 list – P.E.’s classic critique of false media and rumors is yet another winner from their classic sophomore album. Classic beat, classic rhymes, classic hook. Don’t Believe The Hype!
9. N.W.A - Fuck Tha Police
One of the most controversial songs in Hip Hop ever? The sad thing is that in the almost 30 years since this song was recorded nothing has changed…
10. Eric B & Rakim - Follow The Leader
Five minutes of lyrical perfection. Together with Lyrics of Fury, perhaps one of the best examples of how advanced Rakim was with his lyricism. Listen to it and then listen to it again and let it sink in. Rakim will take the listener on a metaphorical trip into outer-space and then back into the listeners head. A lyrical masterpiece.
11. EPMD - You Gots To Chill
You Gots To Chill is the quintessential EPMD song. It introduced the world to the laidback funk-laced Hip Hop of EPMD – and is just as timeless a classic as the album it came from, Strictly Business.
12. Stetsasonic - Talkin' All That Jazz
This underappreciated song is a response to critics of sampling in Hip Hop. The stand-out track from Stetsasonic’s solid second album In Full Gear.
13. MC Lyte - Paper Thin
An emcee who can spit with the best of them, male or female. MC Lyte‘s debut album still is a classic piece of work, that belongs in any Hip Hop fan’s collection. “Paper Thin” is the now classic cut with which Lyte made her mark.
14. Biz Markie - Vapors
The lead single from Biz Markie‘s full-length debut album Goin’ Off. In full story-telling mode Biz shows us how people’s behavior changes after you become successful. Classic.
15. Eazy E - Boyz N The Hood (Remix)
16. Eric B & Rakim - Lyrics Of Fury
A powerful display of lyrical mastery. Complex rhyme schemes, internal rhyming, spitfire delivery, breath control – all on the highest level here. The dark and chaotic backdrop on this track only enhances Rakim’s power on the mic. “A performance never again performed on a mic” – WORD!
17. Big Daddy Kane - Ain't No Half Steppin'
Universally recognized as one of Hip Hop’s biggest singles ever, this song shows us what a legendary emcee and producer can accomplish when working together while both of them are on the peak of their abilities. “For you to beat me / it’s gonna take a miracle” – and that’s the truth.
18. Marley Marl - The Symphony ft. Master Ace, MC Craig G, Kool G Rap & Big Daddy Kane
THE ultimate posse cut. Marley Marl’s beat brilliantly interpolates Otis Redding’s Hard to Handle, Masta Ace and Craig G warm things up nicely, and Kool G Rap and Big Daddy Kane kill it with classic verses.
The Symphony is the standard by which all other posse cuts are measured.
19. Run DMC - Beats To The Rhyme
This track is HARD. Sick instrumental and rhymes – arguably the best track of Run DMC’s fourth album Tougher Than Leather.
20. Public Enemy - Night Of The Living Baseheads
The third single released from It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. The lyrics deal with the effects of crack cocaine and the classic video that goes with the song only enhances the strength of the message.
21. DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince - Brand New Funk
The first single from DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s most successful album, He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper. This classic cut features some of Jazzy Jeff’s most infectious sampling and production, complemented by The Fresh Prince’s dope lyrics – this is true Hip Hop.
22. Slick Rick - Hey Young World
We could have included almost all tracks of Slick Rick’s Great Adventures…, we chose this particular song – the third single of the album – because of its meaningful lyrics.
23. Ultramagnetic MCs - Watch Me Now
With “Ego Trippin'” and “Funky” already included in the 1986 and 1987 lists respectively, it was still hard to pick a track from the brilliant Critical Beatdown album. We settled for “Watch Me Now”, but could have picked a number of other songs as well – as Critical Beatdown was as consistent as it was creative and innovative.
24. Tuff Crew - My Part Of Town
Pure and uncut Hip Hop from this forgotten crew from Philadelphia. DJ Too Tuff KILLS it.
25. N.W.A. - Express Yourself
Kind of a unique track in N.W.A’s repertoire, as it is free of profanity. The song is addresses authenticity and censorship in music, it’s also noteworthy because of the Dr Dre’s lyrics “I still express, yo I don’t smoke weed or sess / Cause it’s known to give a brother brain damage / And brain damage on the mic don’t manage nothing…” – while he would go on to record the ultimate Hip Hop classic The Chronic only a few years later.
26. LL Cool J - Jack The Ripper
Another LL Cool J hard-hitter produced by Rick Rubin. LL destroys Kool Moe Dee on this track in response to the dis Kool Moe Dee directed at LL on his album How Ya Like Me Now.
27. Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock - It Takes Two
This platinum selling single is one of the biggest songs in Hip Hop, ever. Massive crossover appeal and a party favorite to this day. R.I.P. DJ EZ Rock.
28. MC Lyte - 10% Dis
MC Lyte effortlessly destroys Antoinette – a female emcee who had a feud with Lyte and the Audio Two over alleged ‘beat biting’. This is how you do it.
29. De La Soul - Plug Tunin'
30. Ice T - High Rollers
High Rollers is the highlight of the all around excellent Power album. Not just glamorizing the hustlers’ life of crime, but also addressing the risks involved in such a lifestyle. Dope track.
31. Boogie Down Productions - I'm Still No. 1
One of the stand-out tracks from the excellent By All Means Necessary album. As early as 1988 KRS proclaims with confidence he is ‘still’ number one, and will still be fifty years down the line. With three decades in, he certainly is well on his way.
32. Eazy E - Eazy-Duz-It
One of the absolute highlights on Eazy Duz It, mainly because of Dr Dre’s epic production on the track. “Yo Dre, give me a funky-ass bassline…”
33. Jungle Brothers - Straight Out The Jungle
The title track from the excellent debut album of the Jungle Brothers, a group affiliated with The Native Tongues collective. An influential album – it marked the beginning of a series of classic albums by groups like De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and Black Sheep. This song is the perfect introduction to an underrated group (who admittedly made some bad albums later on after label troubles broke the flow in their career).
34. Big Daddy Kane - Wrath Of Kane
1988’s prelude to Big Daddy Kane’s 1989 album It’s A Big Daddy Thing. This is a battle rhyme classic. Kane once again shows he is a wordsmith like no other as he flows effortlessly over a hard-ass beat.
35. Audio Two - I Don't Care
After “Top Billin'”, the first single from Audio Two’s debut album was released in 1987, expectations were high for their debut album What More Can I Say? The duo failed to deliver however, because outside the mega-classic single “Top Billin'” there was only one other really good track on the album – this one.
36. LL Cool J - Going Back To Cali
That bass! Originally released in 1988 as a single from the Less Than Zero soundtrack and in 1989 as part of LL’s third album Walking With A Panther, this track is another LL Cool J banger co-written and produced by Rick Rubin.
37. King Tee - Bass
King Tee is a much respected West Coast Hip Hop veteran, who dropped a bunch of dope albums in the late 80s and early 90s. For some reason, he never got the recognition and fame of some of his contemporaries, but real heads know what’s up. The DJ Pooh produced “Bass” is one of the many stand-out tracks from King Tee’s classic debut Act A Fool.
38. EPMD - Stricty Business
Classic sampling of Bob Marley’s “I Shot The Sheriff” gives this opening track of EPMD’s epic debut its ultra-recognizable hook. The perfect opener of a landmark album.
39. Too Short - Cusswords
One of the highlights of Too Short‘s second studio album Life Is… Too Short, arguably one of the most consistent and best albums in his whole (extensive) catalog. This song is a signature Too Short track – it has him going off for 7 minutes, delivering his trademark ‘dirty raps’ over a thumping beat.
40. 7A3 - Mad Mad World
The 7A3 was a group based in Los Angeles, consisting of a young DJ Muggs (pre-Cypress Hill) and the emceeing brothers Brett and Sean Bouldin. They dropped a dope album in 1988 – Coolin’ In Cali – but are perhaps best known for contributing this awesome track to the classic Colors Soundtrack.
- Run DMC – Run’s House
- Public Enemy – Louder Than A Bomb
- Public Enemy – Prophets Of Rage
- Public Enemy – Terminator X To The Edge Of Panic
- Boogie Down Productions – Stop The Violence
- Ultramagnetic MCs – Ease Back
- EPMD – Let The Funk Flow
- Big Daddy Kane – Long LiveThe Kane
- Slick Rick – Mona Lisa
- Slick Rick – The Ruler’s Back
- Ice T – Drama
- Ice T – I’m Your Pusher
- Jungle Brothers – Because I Got it Like That
- Jungle Brothers – On The Run
- N.W.A – Gangsta Gangsta
- N.W.A. – Parental Discretion Iz Advised
- N.W.A – A Bitch Iz a Bitch
- Eazy E – Eazy-er Said Than Dunn
- Eazy E – We Want Eazy
- Biz Markie – Goin’ Off
- Stetsasonic – Sally
- MC Shan – They Used To Do It Out In The Park
- MC Lyte – I Cram To Understand U
- DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince – Parents Just Don’t Understand
- DJ Cash Money & Marvelous – Ugly People Be Quiet
- Superlover Cee & Casanova Rud – Girls I Got Em Locked
- Doug E Fresh – Keep Rising To The Top
- Lakim Shabazz – Pure Righteousness
- 7A3 – Coolin’ In Cali
- 7A3 – Why?
- Three Times Dope – Greatest Man Alive
- Kid N Play – Gittin’ Funky
- Schoolly D – Here We Go Again
- Too Short – Life Is…
- Too Short – Nobody Does It Better
- King Tee – Act A Fool