New York Magazine


HIP-HOP STARTED OUT in the parks and traveled around the globe, picking up accents and flavors in every time zone, rubbing elbows with other genres and cultures, and adapting to new climates and temperaments. But the spark that inspired the early bombers, breakers, DJs, and rappers to revolutionize art, dance, fashion, music, and language endures in New York. When kids in the Bronx needed party music to distract from the tumult of the ’70s, DJ Kool Herc figured out how to extend the climaxes of funk records, making long and euphoric vamps out of sweet seconds of ecstasy. Drum-machine fanatics took after auteurs like Prince and Miles Davis, assembling clattering percussion parts that would lead to early-’80s gems like Run-D.M.C.’s “Sucker M.C.’s (Krush-Groove 1).” A happy studio accident in the late ’80s inspired Queens native Marley Marl to invent the art of sampling, setting the stage for the plush jazz-rap stylings of acts like A Tribe Called Quest and the abrasive kung fu rap of the Wu-Tang Clan in the ’90s as well as the Diplomats and Jay-Z in the next decade. As regionalism in rap began to ebb, stars like 50 Cent—and later Nicki Minaj—dominated via annexation, picking and choosing popular sounds and fashions to graft onto their formidable arsenals.

To decide the “best” of New York rap would only tell half the story—an uneven one—so instead, we invited a team of writers to rank a new type of local canon: 100 songs that capture the sound of the city. Old heads will tell you that New York rap is a distinct sound rooted in the thunder-and-lightning interplay between kick and snare drums in an East Coast boombap track, but really, it’s an attitude, a way to be. The ongoing spirit of New York hip-hop is unbridled confidence, limitless audacity. You can see it in the aspiring musicians boosting sound systems during the 1977 blackout, then turning into professional DJs seemingly overnight; in Run-D.M.C. securing the first rap endorsement deal after repping shell-toe Adidas in their music; in a 14-year-old Roxanne Shanté flaming UTFO in “Roxanne’s Revenge”; in Raekwon’s mob epics and Ghostface’s psychedelic crime stories; in Bobby Shmurda’s gravity-defying hat and Pop Smoke’s guttural snarl. The spirit of New York hip-hop springs eternal. Real heads know.

CONTRIBUTORS: Ivie Ani, Naima Cochrane, Eric Diep, Shamira Ibrahim, Craig Jenkins, William E. Ketchum III, Dee Lockett, Starr Rhett Rocque, Gary Suarez, Paul Thompson, Stereo Williams

1. Mobb Deep, “Shook Ones, Pt. II”

(1995) Havoc was sitting alone at his mother’s apartment in the Queensbridge housing projects, reeling from the flop of his debut album, when he warped a piano line from Herbie Hancock’s “Jessica” to sound like it was beckoning the listener into hell. The song transformed Mobb Deep’s career and New York rap writ large, throwing floodlights into the city’s darkest corners. Every word uttered on “Shook Ones, Pt. II” has become iconic, from Prodigy’s opening ad-libs (“To all the killers and a hundred-dollar billers”) to Havoc’s desperate self-examination (“Do I deserve to live?”), from the warm hearts turned cold to the nose bones turned shiv. It’s a note-perfect mission statement for one of the genre’s greatest acts, referenced ad nauseam but never replicated.

2. Grandmaster Flash and

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