The 1980s was a golden age in hip hop. On the East Coast, you had Run-DMC and LL Cool J running things, and on the West Coast, you were getting the emergence of Gangsta Rap with Ice-T and N.W.A. However, there were others all over America, you had the Geto Boys running the South in Houston, and other Chicago rappers were on the rise. With this being the case, it is only fitting that we delve deeper into the 80s to see the figures that were dominating the decade and see if we can get to the top ten hip hop tracks of the 1980s.
The 1980s was an exciting era in hip hop because the genre started to generate its own sub-genres after only a decade of existence. The New York tri-state area was beginning to break away from funk and embrace a newer sound called Electro. A self-explanatory term, electro saw hip hop become more electronic, with producers relying less on old funk records and instead turning to electronic drum machines such as the Roland TR-808 to create more brash, industrial-sounding records.
The emergence of Electro on the Eastern Seaboard saw the warmness and soulfulness of funk taken out of hip hop and replaced by a more aggressive, raw and rugged sound that reflected the streets of New York far better than its predecessor. Electro tracks such as ‘I’m The Packman’ by The Packman and ‘King of The Beats’ by Mantronix are a far cry from a song such as ‘Rapper’s Delight’, which is more groovy. Electro, as a sound, also embraced the scratch far more as its emergence coincided with the invention of the technique popularised by Bronx DJ Grand Wizard Theodore.
So as Electro was gripping inner-city youths on the chilly Eastern Seaboard, down in sunny Florida, Miami Bass music was beginning to take over the clubs. Not too dissimilar to Electro, Miami Bass was much faster and shares some similarities with Jungle music, with songs such as ‘I Wanna Rock’ by Luke containing chopped up high pitch vocals and a lot of repetition designed to make people dance. However, Miami Bass remained extremely regional and barely reached anybody outside of Florida.
In the windy city of Chicago, by the mid-80s, rappers were experimenting with house music, another form of underground music taking hold of the clubs. Eventually, they fused the two together, and by the late 80s, Chicago had established its sound of hip house. A great example of hip-house music is ‘Turn Up The Bass’ by Tyree Cooper, released in 1988. It took the clubs by storm as it would fuse the two most popular sounds in Chicago, making a new one perfect for everyone.
Over in the ‘Wild Wild West’, Gangsta Rap was the main sound, with Ice-T considered one of the genre’s godfathers. T’s track ‘6 In The Mornin’ from 1986 was one of the first tracks to be labelled as gangsta rap, but N.W.A would quickly follow and solidify gangsta rap’s place in hip hop with songs such as ‘F*k Da Police’ and ‘Straight Outta Compton’ spreading nationwide like wildfire.
With such a plethora of music to choose from, picking only ten tracks from the 80s is hard, but we managed to. See the list below to see if you agree.
The 10 best rap songs of the 1980s:
10. ‘Potholes In My Lawn’ – De La Soul, 3 Feet And Rising, (1989)
De La Soul is considered one of the first alternative hip hop groups ever. Formed in Amityville, New York, they had a vast amount of success with their debut album, 3 Feet High and Rising, which many consider to be a seminal alternative hip hop album.
‘Potholes In My Lawn’ is one of the group’s most iconic tracks. Being so sonically different from what many would consider the more traditional sound of hip hop, akin to Run-DMC, De La Soul as a trio in the ’80s continued to encourage experimentation within hip hop.
9. ‘6 N The Mornin’ – Ice-T, Rhyme Pays, (1987)
Ice-T is a legend in hip hop and is widely considered as the ‘Godfather of Gangster Rap’. Inspired by Schoolly D’s ‘PSK’, Ice-T’s ‘6 N The Mornin’ set a precedent for the likes of N.W.A, Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg. Furthermore, it put the city of Los Angeles on the map with regard to hip hop.
The song (although it often goes under the radar) paved the way for the likes of Ice Cube, and even Dr Dre has spoken on how Ice-T, with this album, sparked the West Coast movement. Most definitely a classic ‘6 N The Mornin’ is one of the best tracks of the ’80s.
8. ‘Boogie Down Bronx’ – Man Parrish ft Freeze Force, Hip Hop Be Bop, (1985)
Man Parrish (real name Manuel Parrish) is a legendary producer and was an integral part of East Coast hip hop in the early 1980s. Parrish helped create, define and develop the electro in the ’80s and helped push it to the masses.
Electro hip-hop saw the warmness and soulfulness of funk taken out of hip hop and replaced by a more aggressive, raw and rugged sound that reflected the streets of New York far better than its predecessor. Parrish, along with the likes of Afrika Bambaataa, was integral in the popularisation of the sound, and one of his most legendary productions was ‘Boogie Down Bronx’.
7. ‘Planet Rock’ – Afrika Bambaataa ft Soul Sonic Force, Planet Rock, (1982)
Another pioneering electro track, ‘Planet Rock’ by Afrika Bambaataa with additional vocals from the Soul Sonic Force was truly revolutionary when it was released. It was so different from other hip hop tracks, especially those produced by Sylvia Robinson at Sugar Hill Records.
Prior to tracks such as this, hip hop was reliant on funk and soul samples, and tracks such as ‘Rapper’s Delight’ were mere interpolations of other pre-existing funk tracks. However, with the increasing popularity of synthesizers, drum machines and vocoders, hip hop was taking on a completely different form and tracks such as this were integral in that shift.
6. ‘Rock The Bells’ – LL Cool J, Radio, (1985)
‘Rock The Bells’ is a classic hip hop song and a classic phrase of hip hop. The track, produced by the legendary Rick Rubin, embodies 1980s hip hop. It has the impact of electro, utilises the scratch, yet has the bounce of the late ’70s.
The track is not electro, yet still manages to effectively use the electronic drum machine. The track was Rick Rubin’s take on the 1982 song ‘Breaking Bells’ by Crash Crew and has stood the test of time as a hip hop classic.
5. ‘Boyz-N-The-Hood’ – Eazy E, Eazy-Duz-It, (1988)
A legendary track, Eazy E’s ‘Boyz-n-The-Hood’ marks the beginning of N.W.A’s domination on the West Coast and eventually nationwide. It doesn’t mark the beginning of gangster rap. However, it does mark the beginning of its mainstream popularisation and profitability.
Produced by Dr Dre and DJ Yella with the lyrics written by Ice Cube, the track was effectively an N.W.A track as every member was involved in its production. However, it was Eazy who provided the vocals.
4. ‘White Lines’ – Grandmaster Flash ft Melle Mel, (1983)
A classic hip hop song with a funky bass riff, ‘White Lines’ is often described as the best anti-drug song in hip hop history. Produced by Sylvia Robinson with Grandmaster Flash with vocals form Melle Mel, the 1983 track peaked at number 47 on the Billboard 100. However, the song did better internationally and peaked at number seven on the UK Singles Chart.
‘White Lines’ is an interpolation of the track ‘Cavern’ by New York disco-pop band Liquid Liquid and was released on the renowned Sugar Hill Records based in Englewood, New Jersey.
3. ‘It Takes Two’ – Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock, It Takes Two, (1988)
‘It Takes Two’ is nothing short of legendary and is one of the most recognisable old school hip hop songs. The song, which was produced by the two, samples the 1972 track ‘Think (About It)’ by Lyn Collins for its famous “Woo, Yeah!” vocals.
The sample has since been used in a multitude of songs and is often used to add energy to tracks. In 1989, ‘It Takes Two’ was certified platinum by the RIAA and has since been sampled in various tracks, including ‘I Wanna Rock’ by Snoop Dogg.
2. ‘Fight The Power’ – Public Enemy, Fear Of A Black Planet, (1989)
Public Enemy is often considered the group that first used hip hop to really push social change. With so much influence, when the crew released the single ‘Fight The Power’, there was instantly madness. A politically charged, racially charged song meant to empower the black youth of America, it mobilised communities and was an instant classic.
Produced by The Bomb Squad, ‘Fight The Power’ was the group’s lead single for their studio album Fear of a Black Planet. Again a racially charged title, the group really did turn the tide of hip hop. The track was only certified gold by the RIAA, but In 2021, the was ranked number two in Rolling Stone magazine’s ‘500 Greatest Songs of All Time’ list.
1. ‘Paid In Full’ – Eric B & Rakim, Paid In Full, (1987)
Rakim is said to be a lyrical pioneer, and when this track was released, it changed the course of lyricism in hip hop. Rakim was the first MC to break the mould of the basic rhyme scheme of hip hop in which everyone had to rhyme the last word of every sentence. With Rakim, it was a little more complex. The schemes intertwined different rhymes, and the rhyming sat in the pockets of the offbeat.
Not only that, but the song was catchy with amazing production that matched the fantastic and ground-breaking lyricism that Rakim brought to the table, it was an undeniable record. The track includes extremely obscure samples including the vocals of the Israeli singer Ofra Haza, taken from her recording of ‘Im Nin’alu’.
The track is stellar and is most definitely deserving of number-one track of the 1980s. Take a listen to the extended “seven minutes of madness” version below.