Beats, Rhymes and Life: The name of the famous A Tribe Called Quest album. The reason "beats" comes first? They're arguably the most important element of hip-hop. The beat is the cornerstone of every song, the foundation lyrics are built upon. It dictates the time-signature, the tempo, the tone of the lyrics. IT's at the beginning and the end of the creative process that goes into each of these songs.
The genre's soundscape is so wide-ranging and so incredibly diverse, though, that it creates some difficult calculation issues to work through. For example: How do you rank the disco instrumentals of early hip-hop with the layered samples and filtered bass lines of golden-era New York rap? How do you rank Too $hort's trunk-rattling bass against Swizz Beatz's erratic Triton keyboard swipes? There are unlimited measuring sticks by which production can be compared. Consider the clattering, found-sound effects of DJ Premier's best mid-'90s beats, or the raw, drum machine-oriented backdrops of '80s rap, designed to shock the system. How do you weigh those against, say, a lush vintage loop from the Hitmen or a crossover pop smash from Timbaland?
When dealing with 30-plus years of music, a hundred slots fill quickly. As a result, a lot of classics were cut, and some of rap's best producers may not be fully represented. Ultimately, though, every beat on this list is irrefutably essential to the advancement of the genre we hold so dear.
Without further ado, Complex presents the 100 Greatest Hip-Hop Beats of All Time.
100. Public Enemy, “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” (1989)
Producer: The Bomb Squad
Album: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
Label: Def Jam, Columbia, CBS
The Bomb Squad had already proven that they could bring the noise with chaotic, multi-layered symphonies of sampled mayhem, but this solemn tale of busting out of the bing showcased a more subtle approach. Based on a piano riff from Isaac Hayes' “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic,” the tension of this beat builds-up from verse to verse, with the live phone-in from Flava Flav adding an authentic clandestine atmosphere to the proceedings. Just Blaze would later flip the same loop for The Game in homage to the original, which is still one of the most effective displays of the power of Public Enemy to this day.
99. Tyga, “Rack City” (2012)
Producer: DJ Mustard
Album: Careless World: Rise of the Last King
Few expected “Rack City” to take over the world, and even fewer could have predicated that none of Mustard's hits would match it for years, even as he took over the rap game, until 2014's “Na Na” and “Don't Tell 'Em.” The West Coast's club-rap takeover during those years suggested to many that Mustard was simply remaking the same beat over and over, and there was some controversy over exactly who originated the sound (there was some evidence that producers in the Bay Area were working with a suspiciously similar thump in years prior, and producer Mike Free eventually sued Mustard, saying he'd created this record). But it's undeniable that Mustard, at the very least, popularized this sound, and it was amoral club anthem “Rack City” that proved prophetic, defining the sound of a generation, one that was quite the opposite of Mustard's idol, Lil Jon's. This club record is cool and relaxed, even low-key, rather than aggressive. But it's this dispassionate flatline that enabled Mustard and others to push in every direction at once.
98. Common, “The Light” (2000)
Producer: J Dilla
Album: Like Water for Chocolate
Common was never afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve, and here we witness a man deep in the throes of a serious case of “Baduizm.” Crisp drums add a hard edge to the almost syrupy loop, before your boy Bobby Caldwell seals the deal on the sampled hook. For the video, Lonnie was joined by Erykah to demonstrate the sensual seduction that is mangoes and lava lamps. That's what happens when you blend Common at his most emo with J Dilla at his smoothest.
97. Mike Jones f/ Slim Thug & Paul Wall, “Still Tippin'” (2004)
Producer: Salih Williams
Album: Who is Mike Jones?
Label: Asylum, Swishahouse, Warner Brothers
The combination of the Slim Thug vocal loop, a "William Tell Overture" sample, and Paul Wall informing us that he's “got the Internet goin' nuts” made this Mike Jones' biggest hit and a breakout song for the then-burgeoning Houston rap scene. The original version with Chamillionaire featured the same vocal loop, but it wasn't until Salih Williams remixed it with the ill Gioachino Rossini loop that it reached its full potential. It turns out the Swishahouse crew was somewhat partial to classical music, as “The Nutcracker, Act 2, No 1: Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy” is used on “Got It Sewed Up,” from the same album.
96. Pacewon, “I Declare War” (1998)
Producer: Ski Beats
Album: Ruffhouse Records Greatest Hits
Most recently heard on Sean Price's “Figure 4,” this unmistakable Lee Mason flute break first appeared on Pacewon's debut single in 1998 (which was also the same time it had been bootlegged on a Dusty Fingers LP and used by Madlib for a Lootpack song). Did Ski dig this gem up himself, or was he just the first to flip the bootleg? Regardless, it's a superb loop that does all the heavy lifting itself, sounding like secret agent theme music. This former pal of Eminem impressed everyone on this and its often forgotten follow-up, “Sunroof Top,” before vanishing from all but the most dedicated New Jersey rap fan's radar.
95. Gang Starr, “Mass Appeal” (1994)
Producer: DJ Premier
Album: Hard to Earn
Label: Chrysalis, EMI
DJ Premier's work with Guru had a slightly different sound than much of his outside production work, often featuring a simpler, less choppy compositional structure. This beat provides further evidence that few producers have the patience nor the ear of Premier, who discovered this snippet right in the middle of a song called “Horizon Drive” by jazz guitarist Vic Juris. Throw in some thumping drums and well-chosen scratch hooks, and you've got another Gang Starr classic to add to their impressive resumé.
94. OutKast, “ATLiens” (1996)
Similar to Eminem, OutKast’s sound has often existed in its own world—one built only for ATLiens. Certainly, the majority of their beats sound nothing like contemporary hip-hop, mostly because 'Kast and, to a greater extent, the Dungeon Family, are just so damn original. But if “B.O.B.” is a standout example of their idiosyncrasy, then so is “ATLiens,” and perhaps even more so.
The song is built on two samples. The first is “Around the World” by Attilio Mineo, which gives the track its atmosphere via that spooky, space-aged intro. But the hallmark of the beat is a looped-up vocal, courtesy of the Chambers Brothers’ “So Tired.” The sample sounds like what we imagine an Instagram filter would sound like, which in turn gives the beat its unwinding effect.
93. DJ Quik, “Born and Raised in Compton” (1990)
Producer: DJ Quik
Album: Quik Is the Name
As Quik explained to us in a 2012 interview, he first fell for Isaac Hayes’ soul classic "Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic" thanks to his mother, who used to play it around the house. The song became the basis for Quik’s debut single, “Born and Raised in Compton.” Quik said it best himself: “[Sampling] this track in particular, it just made me feel like a god. Like, on top of the world. It just sounded so big.” With the help of a 4-track Tascam recorder and an SP1200 drum machine, Quik transformed Hayes’ original into the perfect basis for a story about his own origins.
92. Jeru the Damaja, “Come Clean” (1994)
Producer: DJ Premier
Album: The Sun Rises in the East
Label: Full Frequency Range Recordings
“Come Clean” is the sound of raw rap. Armed with nothing more than loud drums and something that sounds like it came from under the sea, Jeru stepped to the plate to prove why he was the D. Original Dirty Rotten Scoundrel as he kicked his unique vocal science. Much like that other 1994 underground classic, O.C.'s “Time's Up,” this track was also notable for featuring a scratch hook that makes no mention of the song title whatsoever.