On August 11, 1973, a DJ named Kool Herc threw a party in the basement of an apartment building at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in The Bronx, New York – a date now commonly seen as the day when Hip Hop was ‘born’. Of course, the foundations of Hip Hop were laid even earlier and in different places by different people, but August 11, 1973 has become sort of a symbolic date signifying ‘the birth of Hip Hop’. It took some time before artists actually started recording and releasing music, but once they did Hip Hop quickly grew into the most dominant cultural movement in the world.
This article lists 29 essential eighties Hip Hop tracks. Mind you, this is not a ranking and the songs listed here are not necessarily the best the eighties had to offer, but all the songs listed here are iconic and have secured a place of note in Hip Hop history. Enjoy this trip down memory lane!
Sugarhill Gang - Rapper's Delight (1979)
Released in 1979, so technically not an eighties track – but included here anyway because of its undeniable significance and influence, even if it could be (and has been) argued that this song was not a natural continuation of the Hip Hop movement that had been building underground. As early as 1979 the discussion about the difference between commercial ‘sell-out’ / pop-rap and real Hip Hop was prevalent. Because the song was performed by three ‘studio rappers’ who hadn’t been among the ones who pioneered Hip Hop on the Bronx streets, this song was initially dismissed by some.
Be that as it may – “Rappers Delight” was the first (or actually the second … ) Hip Hop song that was released as a single. And despite the controversy surrounding it (also about who actually wrote the lyrics; don’t forget Grandmaster Caz’s uncredited contributions) – the song became a huge hit around the world. There are many disco influences in the music – the groove was taken from “Good Times” by Chic – but the raps are classic and served as a template for how emceeing could actually be done on a record.
Fun fact: the whole song was recorded in one take.
Kurtis Blow - The Breaks (1980)
Kurtis Blow was the first rapper to sign a contract with a major record label. “The Breaks” was the first Hip Hop single that went ‘gold’. A hugely important and influential track.
Spoonie G & The Threacherous Three - The New Rap Language (1980)
The Treacherous Three was a pioneering Hip Hop group that was formed in 1978 and consisted of DJ Easy Lee, Kool Moe Dee, L.A. Sunshine, Special K, and Spoonie Gee, with occasional contributions from DJ Dano B, DJ Reggie Reg, and DJ Crazy Eddie. They first appeared on record in 1980 on the B side of Spoonie Gee’s single “Love Rap”, who had left the group by that time.
‘The New Rap Language” was the B-side to “Love Rap”, and the song that put the Treacherous Three on the map.
Funky Four Plus One - That’s The Joint (1980)
This is a classic cut from the first Hip Hop group ever to get a record deal, and the first group to perform live on national television. Also, this first group with a female rapper: Sha-Rock. No doubt you’ve heard samples from this classic track in later Hip Hop favorites many times.
Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five - The Message (1982)
Perhaps the most important song in Hip Hop history, ever. Up til then Hip Hop lyrics were mostly about fun, parties, and bragging. “The Message” was the first song with unabashed commentaries on life and society, and it had a huge influence on many conscious Hip Hop artists who came later. Melle Mel is seen by many as one of the best rappers ever, and Grandmaster Flash was a pioneering DJ. Along with Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa, Flash is often considered one of the “Godfathers of Hip Hop”.
Run DMC - Suckers MCs (1983)
Released in 1983, as the B-side to Run DMC’s first single “It’s Like That”, this classic Run DMC cut could still comfortably fit in the Old School category when we only look at the timeline, but in terms of sound it actually does not. This song is a perfect early indicator of the direction Hip Hop was going in. Harder, sparser beats and a new, more aggressive style of rapping. Run DMC is THE group that is responsible for bringing Hip Hop from the Old School to the Golden Age.
Whodini - Friends (1984)
“Friends” is the lead single from Whodini’s second album Escape, their second studio album. Escape was a critical and commercial success upon release, being the first Hip Hop album to chart within the U.S. top 40, and was also one of the first Hip Hop albums to be certified platinum by the RIAA.
“Freaks Come Out at Night” and “Five Minutes of Funk” were other highlights on Escape, we picked “Friends” to represent Whodini in this list – because Whodini too often is ignored in talks about early Hip Hop, and they shouldn’t be.
UTFO - Roxanne, Roxanne (1984)
“Roxanne, Roxanne” was the B-side to UTFO’s debut single “Hangin’ Out”. “Roxanne, Roxanne” contained lyrics about a woman who would not respond to their advances, and it gained much attention and airplay, creating a sensation on the Hip Hop scene at the time, inspiring a record-high of 25 answer records in a single year and over a 100 over the years.
Roxanne Shanté - Roxanne's Revenge (1984)
Even though UTFO’s “Roxanne, Roxanne” was not directed at Roxanne Shanté personally 14-year-old Lolita Shanté Gooden took it upon herself to make a song that would get back at UTFO (after UTFO failed to appear at a scheduled performance), with her taking on the moniker Roxanne Shanté, after her middle name. The result was the Marley Marl-produced “Roxanne’s Revenge”.
The single was released in late 1984, taking the original beats from an instrumental version of “Roxanne, Roxanne.” The song was an instant hit that sold over 250,000 copies in the New York area alone. The song also sparked what would become known as the “Roxanne Wars” – a series of rivalries during the mid-1980s, yielding perhaps the most answer records in Hip Hop history.
Doug E Fresh & The Get Fresh Crew – The Show (1985)
One of the greatest Hip Hop party tracks ever, with the first appearance from Slick Rick – who together with beatboxer and rapper Doug E Fresh dropped this unforgettable song (along with the just as classic La-Di Da-Di).
Schoolly D - P.S.K. What Does It Mean? (1985)
One of the first songs that were labeled ‘gangsta rap’ and THE track that inspired Ice T to write “6 N The Morning”. Hugely influential, this is an all-time classic by Philly legend Schoolly D.
LL Cool J - Rock The Bells (1985)
From LL’s groundbreaking debut album Radio, “Rock The Bells” will always be one of LL Cool J’s signature tracks and a landmark track in Hip Hop history.
Run DMC - Walk This Way (1986)
Hate it or love it, Run DMC’s reworking of the Aerosmith song “Walk This Way” is perhaps THE most important track in Hip Hop history when it comes to establishing bridges to audiences worldwide, also on the strength of the now-iconic music video. Run DMC’s role in turning Hip Hop into a worldwide musical and cultural phenomenon can never be overstated.
Ice T - 6 N The Morning (1986)
Inspired by arguably the first ‘gangsta rap’ song – 1985’s “PSK What Does It Mean” by Philly rapper Schoolly D, Ice-T’s “6 N The Morning” is one of the most influential songs in Hip Hop (for better or worse…), as it more or less started gangsta rap. Where most gangsta rappers accomplish nothing but making themselves look like tough-guy posturing, gun-toting idiots, Ice T did it RIGHT. He always combined authenticity with humor, displaying calm confidence without the need to prove anything.
Even if most so-called gangsta rap ultimately didn’t do many favors to Hip Hop as a culture, Ice T is one of the few representatives of that particular form of Hip Hop who belongs in the Hip Hop Hall Of Fame without a doubt.
Ultramagnetic MCs - Ego Trippin' (1986)
The original version of one of the centerpieces of Ultramagnetic MCs‘ underrated 1988 masterpiece Critical Beatdown was recorded as early as 1986. A super innovative and absolute classic track.
Salt N Pepa - Push It (1986)
“Push It” did not appear on the original version of Salt N Pepa’s debut album Hot, Cool & Vicious which was released in 1986. “Push It” was first released as the B-side of the “Tramp” single in 1987 (and as its own single in 1988) and was part of Salt N Pepa’s 1987 re-issue of Hot, Cool & Vicious. With massive crossover appeal, like Run DMC’s “Walk This Way”, this song was a worldwide mega-hit, and one of those eighties songs that helped to bring Hip Hop to listeners around the world.
Public Enemy - Rebel Without A Pause (1987)
“Rebel Without a Pause” was the first song created for and the first single released from Public Enemy‘s masterpiece It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. The song was released in 1987, way before the album came out in the summer of 1988, and it was sort of a bridge between the still somewhat unpolished sounds of Yo! Bum Rush The Show to the Bomb Squad produced perfection on It Takes A Nation. Instant classic.
LL Cool J - I Need Love (1987)
Aw come on, just admit it – you know you love this track too. It’s true that LL’s later attempts on love songs / Hip Hop ballads were more often miss than hit, but this pioneering Hip Hop ballad is a classic we all know the words to.
Eric B & Rakim - I Ain't No Joke (1987)
Rakim immediately sets the perfect tone for the rest of Eric B and Rakim’s debut album with this brilliant opening track to Paid In Full. After dropping their first two classic tracks – “Eric B Is President” and “My Melody” – in 1986, Rakim really raised the bar for lyricists in 1987 with his revolutionary rhyming on Paid In Full – one of the top albums in all of Hip Hop’s history.
Audio Two - Top Billin' (1987)
Talk about a classic Hip Hop song. The brilliant reworking of the “Impeach The President” beat is simply unbeatable. Even if they never made any other real noteworthy music, Audio Two will forever be remembered because of this monumental track – released in 1987 as the lead single for their otherwise disappointing 1988 album What More Can I Say?
EPMD - You Gots To Chill (1988)
“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.
MC Lyte - Paper Thin (1988)
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.
Stetsasonic - Talkin' All That Jazz (1988)
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.
Marley Marl ft Craig G, Master Ace, Big Daddy Kane & Kool G Rap - The Symphony (1988)
Marley Marl’s “The Symphony” is THE ultimate posse cut, the standard by which all other posse cuts are measured. 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.
Boogie Down Productions - My Philosophy (1988)
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. 30 years old and more relevant today than ever.
N.W.A - Straight Outta Compton (1988)
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 is the perfect opening salvo.
Special Ed - I Got It Made (1989)
Special Ed’s signature track. Over an epic beat laid down by Howie Tee, a young Special Ed (15 years old at the time!) drops some of the best and most humorous braggadocious rhymes ever. All these guys today rapping about how much money they make should listen to this song…
Stop The Violence Movement - Self Destruction (1989)
Remember the days Hip Hop was all about consciousness and improvement? In 1988, during a concert by Boogie Down Productions and Public Enemy, a young fan was killed in a fight. The killing occurred shortly after Scott La Rock, a founding member of Boogie Down Productions, was killed in a shooting. KRS-One responded to these deaths by forming the Stop the Violence Movement to advance a vision of Hip Hop that would restore what he called Hip Hop’s original principles to the music industry. Composed of some of the biggest stars in contemporary East Coast Hip Hop, the movement released this single.
“Self-Destruction” was produced by KRS-One and D-Nice of Boogie Down Productions (Hank Shocklee of the Bomb Squad is credited as an associate producer), and featured Boogie Down Productions (KRS-One, D-Nice & Ms. Melodie), Stetsasonic (Delite, Daddy-O, Wise, and Frukwan), Kool Moe Dee, MC Lyte, Doug E. Fresh, Just-Ice, Heavy D and Public Enemy (Chuck D & Flavor Flav).
Public Enemy - Fight The Power (1989)
Arguably Public Enemy’s best-known track, the musical theme for Spike Lee’s classic movie Do The Right Thing is universally regarded as one of the best songs of all time. We agree.