One of the most important things that happened during the 1980s was the emergence of the rap music genre. This new presence on the music scene spawned dozens of iconic hip hop songs and a new batch of superstars. It also changed the landscape of American culture permanently.
There are almost too many amazing rap songs from the 1980s to choose from, but we’ve compiled a list of 31 of the most iconic, influential 1980s hip hop songs that everyone should hear at least once.
1. Rapper’s Delight – The Sugarhill Gang
“Rapper’s Delight” was actually recorded all in one take! While this was not the first rap song ever recorded, it was absolutely one of a kind and paved the way for all of the rap and hip hop artists who came after it. The song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2014 and stayed at #36 on the Billboard Top 100 for several months.
2. The Breaks – Kurtis Blow
“The Breaks” is the very first hip hop single to attain gold status, which means it sold more than 500,000 copies. Kurtis Blow was a breakdancer, and he made “The Breaks” for breakdancers to show off their signature moves.
3. Rapture – Blondie
“Rapture” is the very first rap song to make it to #1 on the charts. It was also the first time that rap used completely new music. At the time, rappers were still mostly using existing songs to rap over. In the song, Debbie Harry mentions two rap and hip hop legends while she is rapping: Fab 5 Freddy, who she’s friends with, and Grandmaster Flash in the lyrics “Flash is fast, Flash is cool.”
4. The Message – Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five
“The Message” has one of the most classic hooks in rap and hip hop history, and it has been sampled and referenced dozens of times in other artists’ songs as well as used in video games and movies. It was named the Greatest Hip Hop Song of All Time by Rolling Stone in 2012. It was also the first rap song to talk about the harshness of inner-city life.
5. La-Di-Da-Di – Doug e. Fresh
“La-Di-Da-Di” was the B-side to Doug E. Fresh’s “The Show,” but thanks to its catchy tune and lyrics, it has become one of the most sampled tracks in history. The song has been sampled in over 1,000 other songs, including by other hip hop legends, The Beastie Boys, The Notorious B.I.G, Naughty By Nature, and Beyoncé.
6. Peter Piper – Run-DMC
This song was influenced by popular children’s stories, including the popular tongue twister Peter Piper, which gave the group ample opportunity to show off their lyrical wizardry. It was known as the premier showcase for DJ Jam Master Jay’s skills, and after his murder in 2003, it was played by radio stations across the nation to pay tribute to him.
7. (You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (to Party) – Beastie Boys
The Beastie Boys have stated that this song started out as a “goof” toward bad rock songs, and they recorded the lyrics as a joke before heading out on tour. Despite its satirical roots, the song rose to #7 on the song charts. It appeared on The Beastie Boys’ album “Licensed to Ill,” which became the first rap album to make it to #1. It remains one of the most recognizable songs the group has ever recorded.
8. Bust a Move – Young MC
Young MC won a Grammy for Best Rap Performance for this song, but it was his only solo big hit. It made the phrase “bust a move” a popular new saying. Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers played bass on this track and appeared in the music video, but despite writing the bass track, he was only given $200 for his work on the song.
9. Walk This Way – Run-DMC
When Run-DMC came across the Aerosmith tune “Walk This Way,” they didn’t even know who the band was. In fact, they thought the band was called “Toys In The Attic,” which was actually the album the song appeared on. When Run-DMC approached Aerosmith about using the song, the rockers agreed, and the new version would be the first to combine rap and rock in one track and would help launch Aerosmith’s comeback.
10. Children’s Story – Slick Rick
After working on “La-Di-Da-Di” and “The Show” with Doug E. Fresh, Def Jam Records took notice of Slick Rick’s talent and signed him. This track appears on his debut album “The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick.” The song made #5 on the R&B charts and #2 on the rap charts. The track is one of the most recognizable from the early days of rap and hip hop, and it has been used in television shows, movies, and several video games.
11. Just A Friend – Biz Markie
Biz Markie sings badly on this song, but he would actually be a revolutionary by doing it. At this time, rappers would only rap in their tracks. It would take a full decade before it became common for rappers to also sing on their tracks.
12. Wild Thing – Tone-Lōc
Tone-Lōc admits that the song, which is all about sex, started out even more sexually than it ended up. He toned down the lyrics to give it wider appeal and to avoid censorship from radio stations. His alterations paid off because “Wild Thing” was the first rap song by an African American artist to crossover to pop radio and get a lot of air time. His other quintessential hit “Funky Cold Medina” would be the second.
13. Push It! – Salt-N-Pepa
Despite “Push It!” being Salt-N-Pepa’s most popular hit, they actually hated the track. They believed it undermined their credibility as rappers, but it actually launched their popularity. It was also among the nominees for the very first ever Best Rap Performance at the Grammy. The album the track appeared on was “Hot, Cool And Vicious,” which sold over a million copies and made the group the first female rappers to ever go gold or platinum.
14. Straight Outta Compton – N.W.A.
This song was the title track for the legendary group, N.W.A.’s first album. The group has been widely credited for being the founders of gangster rap, but they insist they were merely documenting what they were witnessing every day living in the inner city. “Straight Outta Compton” was also one of the first records to get slapped with a parental advisory sticker.
15. Going Back to Cali – LL Cool J
“Going Back To Cali” is one of LL Cool J’s most popular and recognizable songs, but in reality, he never cared much for the song. He felt that it was way outside of his comfort zone. One of the most memorable elements of the song is the prominent horns. These were original for the track instead of samples, which was very unusual at the time.
16. Supersonic – J.J. Fad
“Supersonic” stayed on the dance charts for eight weeks after it was released. It was certified gold and was even nominated for a Grammy in 1989 for Best Rap Performance. This made J.J. Fad the first all-female rap group to be nominated for the prestigious award. Several artists have sampled this track for their own records. Perhaps the most recognizable was Fergie, for her mega-hit “Fergalicious.”
17. It’s Tricky – Run-DMC
Run-DMC sampled the huge hit “My Sharona” in this hit and went against what was becoming the norm of glamorizing drugs by saying in their lyrics how they would “leave it alone” when offered drugs. The track appears on the album “Raising Hell,” which was one of the first rap albums to enter the mainstream music arena.
18. Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble – DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince
This was the very first time that audiences were introduced to Will Smith. This was also the first single that he and DJ Jazzy Jeff released. Even though it centers around a false rape accusation, it takes a comedic and whimsical turn, which is complemented by the sampling of the theme song of “I Dream Of Jeannie.” The duo didn’t initially score a big hit with this track, but after they were signed by Jive Records, it was rereleased and went all the way up the charts to #57.
19. Brass Monkey – Beastie Boys
This was the fifth single released off of the group’s debut album “Licensed to Ill.” Thanks to hits like this one and “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party),” the album would become the best-selling rap album of the 1980s. This song is actually about alcohol, in particular, a drink that was popular among college kids made of rum, vodka, and orange juice over ice.
20. Freaks Come Out at Night – Whodini
This super recognizable and widely sampled song essentially details what nightlife was like in 1984. The track made it to #25 on Billboard’s dance music chart and #43 on the R&B chart.
21. Wild Wild West – Kool Moe Dee
Kool Moe Dee recorded this track in London and then filmed the music video in Stanhope, NJ. This was the second single from “How Ya Like Me Now” and it shot to #62 on the Billboard Top 100 Chart and #4 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip Hop Songs. In 1999, Will Smith used samples of this song for his mega-hit of the same name that also appeared on the soundtrack of his movie, “Wild Wild West.”
22. Apache (Jump On It) – The Sugarhill Gang
“Apache (Jump On It)” was the fifth rap song to chart on the Billboard Hot 100, ranking #53. It is enormously popular, and one of the first real mainstream rap songs. It was so popular that Will Smith and Alfonso Ribiero performed a dance routine to it on the hugely popular sitcom, “The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air.
23. F*ck Tha Police – N.W.A.
One of the most notorious and controversial songs in history, the track is a condemnation of the Los Angeles Police Department by the members of N.W.A. The song even prompted the FBI to send a letter to the record label in which they stated that they felt the group was encouraging violence against law enforcement.
24. Fight the Power – Public Enemy
“Fight The Power” is Public Enemy’s most famous song and it was written for Spike Lee’s film, “Do The Right Thing.” He also directed the music video for the track.
25. Me Myself and I – De La Soul
This track was the only song by De La Soul to reach #1 on the R&B chart. Group member Trugoy The Dove has said that the track was the group being themselves and that it was ok to not be “hard” in the world of rap.
26. Posse on Broadway – Sir Mix-A-Lot
This track was Sir Mix-A-Lot’s big-break song and was based on a night that the rapper and his friends actually had while cruising the streets in their hometown of Seattle, Washington. The streets referenced on the track are actual places in Seattle’s Central District.
27. It Takes Two – Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock
The song has been widely sampled over the years and was ranked #37 on VH1’s 100 Greatest Songs of Hip Hop and #18 on its Greatest One Hit Wonders of the 1980s. Contrary to popular belief, Rob Base isn’t saying he can’t stand sex on the track, he is saying “sess,” which is a slang term for drugs.
28. Public Enemy No 1. – Public Enemy
This track was the iconic group’s first single. It was originally made as a promo for their college radio show. During this time, they were known as Spectrum City. The political themes they are most known for aren’t present on this track, but their style is.
29. Parents Just Don’t Understand – DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince
Not only was this the first mega-hit for Will Smith & DJ Jazzy Jeff, but it was also the first-ever recipient of the Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance. The video did so well on MTV that it led to the decision by NBC to begin production on Will Smith’s sitcom “The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air.”
30. 6 ‘N The Mornin’ – Ice-T
This track is considered one of the earliest in the gangster rap genre of music. Years later, Ice-T wrote a follow-up to this song called “Midnight” which continues the story of “6 ‘N The Mornin’.”
31. Planet Rock – Afika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force
“Planet Rock” is the third rap song in history to appear on the US charts. It placed #48 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. This song is the foundation for dance party records and is considered by many the ultimate dance party anthem.
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