How do we get from Grandmaster Flash to “Bodak Yellow”? Like this. This is a primer for New York hip-hop, from its origins in the early 80’s to now, these are the songs that have – and continue to – define East Coast hip-hop. If you don’t want to read my breakdown, feel free to just jump right in.
The Evolution of New York Hip-Hop
The songs here are presented in chronological order, and, not counting a few overlaps, actually follow a pretty clear trajectory. The first several songs (from Grandmaster Flash to A Tribe Called Quest) represent the foundations of the genre. Sure, Run DMC had a good deal of success, but none of these originators experienced anything close to the fame and legend of the artists who brought hip-hop to the mainstream in the ’90s. From LL Cool J onwards, we see the mainstreaming of hip-hop. This happens simultaneously with the evolution and popularization of “gangsta rap.” LL Cool J, Biggie, the Wu-Tang Clan, Puff Daddy, Jay-Z, DMX, and Nas truly brought hip-hop to the mainstream in the 1990’s. You’ll notice that we have at least a song a year (on average) from 1986 all the way through to the end of the millenium, before it really dries up until the last few years.
At that time, Southern hip-hop took over the airwaves and New York lost its position as the arbiter of taste in hip-hop. The West Coast and East Coast existed simultaneously – and feuded almost constantly – throughout the 90’s, but in the early 2000’s the South well and truly took the hip-hop throne. From this comparatively quiet period we have Fabolous and Aesop Rock, but little else. Aesop Rock is included not so much because he personally (or “Getaway Car”) demand a spot on the list, but the Def Jux label started by El-P (now of Run the Jewels fame) held down dark, cerebral hip-hop for over a decade and deserves to be represented on any list of influential New York hip-hop. The New York hip-hop scene is experiencing a revival over the last several years, and the artists on this list after the global hit “Bodak Yellow” (2017) have yet to enshrine themselves permanently in the annals of hip-hop, but they’re my best guesses as to who will carry the crown into the next decade.
Tectonic Shifts: The Death of Biggie and the Jay-Z vs. Nas Beef
You can’t write anything about New York hip-hop without mentioning two major, genre-defining events: the death of Biggie and the beef between Jay-Z and Nas. After his first album, Born to Die (1994), The Notorious B.I.G. became the undisputed king of New York. The Wu-Tang Clan were popping off at the same time, but they were 9 guys and from Staten Island. Biggie was larger than life, both in personality and in his presence in the scene. His untimely murder around the release of his second album, cryptically called Life After Death in 1997 created a massive power vaccum in NYC, and while Diddy (then Puff Daddy) tried his best to stay on top (he signed and produced for Biggie), there were suddenly a lot more people and movements vying for the throne.
This brings us to the second pivotal event in NYC hip-hop: the feud between Jay-Z and Nas. After Biggie’s death, there was massive debate about whether Nas (whose first album, Illmatic was an instant classic) or Jay-Z was the new King of New York. This feud gave us some of the greatest songs in hip-hop history, includings Nas’s “Ether” (a term which to this day represents getting utterly bodied). Jay-Z, who was dealing with criminal assault and weapons charges at the time, became one of the most widely dissed rappers of all time. Nas, Mobb Deep, Jadakiss and others all took pot shots at Jay. Not one to take the attacks lying down though, Jay-Z answered back with a slew of songs on The Blueprint (many produced by a then little-known Kanye West) and particularly with the controversial “Takeover.” “Takeover” features some classic lines that have since become metastasised into hip-hop’s subconscious. Particularly his shots at Mobb Deep (“I don’t care if you Mobb Deep, I hold triggers to crews / You little fuck, I got money stacks bigger than you / When I was pushin’ weight back in ’88 / You was a ballerina, I got the pictures, I seen ya”) and Nas (“So yeah, I sampled your voice, you was usin’ it wrong / You made it a hot line, I made it a hot song”) continue to hold an iconic, oft-referenced place in hip-hop’s cultural consciousness. The ultimate diss track though, perhaps the most vicious diss track of all time, was released by Jay-Z in 2002 while on the local New York radio station Hot 97. Over a beat ripped from a classic Nas track, Jay-Z unleashed “Super Ugly” on the unprepared masses. The song was so vicious – including claims of having slept with Nas’s then-fiance – that Jay-Z’s mother made him return to the airwaves and apologize to Nas in its wake. This feud set the stage for a litany of future beefs and arguments over who was the true King of New York, including the beef between 50 Cent’s G-Unit crew and Cam’ron’s Dipset crew (also chronicled in this playlist).
Hopefully this list serves as an introduction (or re-introduction) to New York hip-hop, chronicling its trademarked braggadocio, brotherhood, loyalty, and social activism, as well as its dark underbelly of misogyny, homophobia, and glorifications of violence.
Text List (with Dates and Features)
- Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five – “The Message (Feat. Melle Mel and Duke Bootee) (1982)
- Run DMC – “It’s Tricky” (1986)
- Boogie Down Productions – “9mm Goes Bang” (1987)
- Eric B. and Rakim – “Microphone Fiend” (1988)
- Big Daddy Kane – “Warm It Up Kane” (1989)
- De La Soul – “My, Myself and I” (1989)
- Public Enemy – “Welcome to the Terrordome” (1990)
- A Tribe Called Quest – “Check the Rhime” (1991)
- LL Cool J – “Mama Said Knock You Out” (1991)
- The Wu-Tang Clan – “C.R.E.A.M.” (1993)
- Big L – “Put It On” (1994)
- The Notorious BIG – “Juicy” (1994)
- Mobb Deep – “Shook Ones, Pt. II” (1995)
- Puff Daddy – “Victory (Feat. The Notorious BIG and Busta Rhymes)” (1997)
- DMX – “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” (1998)
- The Lox – “Money, Power, Respect (Feat. DMX and Lil’ Kim)” (1998)
- Black Star (Mos Def and Talib Kweli) – “Definition” (1998)
- Jay Z – “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” (1998) / “Takeover” (2001) / “Super Ugly” (2002)
- Nas – “Ether” (2001)
- 50 Cent – “In Da Club” (2003)
- Juelz Santana – “Dipset” (Feat. Cam’Ron) (2003)
- Fabolous – “Diamonds (Feat. Young Jeezy)” (2007)
- Aesop Rock – “Getaway Car (Feat. Cage and Breeze Brewin) (2007)
- ASAP Rocky – “Fuckin’ Problems (Feat. Drake, 2 Chainz and Kendrick Lamar)” (2013)
- Bobby Shmurda – “Hot N*gga” (2014)
- Flatbush Zombies – “Bounce” (2016)
- Cardi B – “Bodak Yellow” (2017)
- JPEGMAFIA – “Baby I’m Bleeding” (2018)
- MIKE – “Prayers” (2019)
- Pop Smoke – “Welcome to the Party” (2019)
- 22 Gz – “Sniper Gang Freestyle” (2019)
- billy woods – “Spongebob” (2019)