Every genre has its own way of going to loud and heavy extremes. But rap production has a somewhat abstract set of criteria for judging how hard a beat can be, and how a track can make the MC on it sound like an unstoppable Man of Steel. Maybe the drums sound like they’re going to punch through the speakers. Maybe the bass feels like it’s going to shake you out of your chair. Or maybe an obscure sample with a piercing, high-pitched tone takes the energy of the track to another level. Through the aforementioned techniques, and more, hip-hop’s greatest beatmakers, from Dr. Dre to RZA to Just Blaze, have pushed the genre forward. They’ve done so in part by showing us new ways to make a looped rhythm track sound like a solid, immovable object, or more likely, a steadily pounding mechanical piston.
From Rick Rubin’s rock-rap anthems of the ‘80s to the Swizz Beatz synth bangers of the ’90s to the bombastic Just Blaze soul beats of the 2000s to the Lex Luger trap tracks of the 2010s, the most aggressive hip-hop hits of each era have their own unique texture. The Neptunes’ minimalism can be just as hard as The Bomb Squad’s noisy wall of samples. The handclap from Lil Jon’s 808 can cut through the air just as sharply as a snare that DJ Premier lifted from a ’70s funk record. Sometimes, a shouted M.O.P. or DMX chorus helps amplify a beat’s intensity. Other times, calmly delivered rhymes by T.I. or Biggie contrast beautifully with the frenetic energy of the track and let the production speak for itself. While some of these songs crossed over to the pop charts, others remained favorites of real rap heads and connoisseurs. Regardless of their ultimate fate, these are the hardest rap beats of all time.