The Hardest Rap Beats of All Time

A rapper is only as hard as his beats. From Public Enemy's "Bring the Noise" to Clipse's "Grindin" to Future's "Same Damn Time," these are the hardest rap beats

Dr. Dre

Image via Getty/Chelsea Lauren

Dr. Dre

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.

Ice Cube “Wicked” (1992)

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Album: The Predator

Producer: Torcha Chamba

Released just before The Chronic paved the way for a more laid-back sound for West Coast gangstas, “Wicked” was Ice Cube’s first single after the L.A. riots, as well as his first Billboard Hot 100 entry and the lead single to his biggest album. Building on the busy Bomb Squad aesthetic that Cube kicked his solo career off with, producer Torcha Chamba tipped his hat to Public Enemy by throwing them into the array of samples on “Wicked.” But the samples that really build up the track’s frenetic energy are a portamento synth riff from the Ohio Players and a killer drum break from Sly & the Family Stone. 

Ludacris f/ Mystikal and I-20 “Move Bitch” (2001)

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Album: Word Of Mouf

Producer: KLC

2001 was the year No Limit Records was rebranded as The New No Limit, as sure a sign as any that Master P’s label was on the decline. With No Limit’s best talent jumping ship, star rapper Mystikal and Beats by the Pound producer KLC started landing hits elsewhere, including the rowdiest single in Ludacris’s run as a superstar. “Move Bitch” is a road-rage anthem that gains a lot of its power from the relatable anger of Luda and Mystikal stuck in traffic, but KLC’s beat is remarkable for how playful and light on its feet it really is, with snare drums stuttering and skipping around crash cymbal hits, and what sounds like a recorder tooting in the background.

Jadakiss f/ Styles P. "We Gonna Make It" (2001)

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Album: Kiss Tha Game Goodbye

Producer: The Alchemist

Alan “Alchemist” Maman put in work on the '90s West Coast hip-hop scene with everyone from Dilated Peoples to Scott Caan before his affiliation with Mobb Deep established him as the rare out-of-towner whose beats felt like the sound of New York City. When Jadakiss took his first jump out from the Lox as a solo artist, the clubby sound of his debut LP left some fans wanting more, but the pounding drums and spiraling string loops of the back-and-forth Styles P. duo showcase “We Gonna Make It” helped cement Kiss as one of the city’s finest. 

Lil Jon & The Eastside Boyz f/ Bo Hagon “Get Crunk” (2004)

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Album: Crunk Juice

Producer: Lil Jon & Lil Jay

The kings of crunk made several of the hardest party songs to ever come out of Atlanta, most of them guided by Lil Jon’s distinctive 808s and screaming synths. But his hardest track ever came about with help from co-producer Lil Jay, who brought the same kind of eerie edge he’d given to his group Crime Mob’s breakout hit “Knuck if You Buck.” The horror movie synths and gunshot percussion of “Get Crunk” made the gang shouts off the Eastside Boyz sound downright creepy at a time when crossover success was threatening to defang Lil Jon’s trademark yells.

Ghostface Killah f/ Raekwon and Cappadonna "Daytona 500" (1996)

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Album: Ironman

Producer: RZA

The RZA has made many of rap’s rawest, grimiest beats of all time. But he often elects for a light touch with the drums, or a gently swaying groove over a propulsive, insistent beat. The aptly titled “Daytona 500,” however, was a standout single from Ghostface Killah’s solo debut that showed how a RZA beat could really take on forward momentum. Of course, it got little help from the same famous drum break from the 1974 Bob James track “Nautilus” that also drove hip-hop classics like Eric B. & Rakim’s “Let the Rhythm Hit Em.” 

DMX "Intro" (1998)

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Album: It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot

Producer: Irv Gotti & Lil Rob

DMX was virtually unknown outside of New York hip-hop not long before he became one of the rare acts to top the Billboard 200 with his debut album in the spring of 1998. The massive word-of-mouth buzz that drove the multi-platinum success of It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot surely had a lot to do with just how explosive the album’s intro track sounded when you slipped the CD into your car stereo. Irv Gotti would soon become known for his smooth, R&B-inflected productions for Ja Rule. But before that, he was a driving force in DMX’s rise, and his beat for “Intro” held its own alongside head-busting tracks by Dame Grease and Swizz Beatz. 

Mike Jones “Mr. Jones” (2006)

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Album: The American Dream

Producer: Myke Diesel

“Mr. Jones” is a testament to how it takes the right rapper to unlock the power of a beat. When it was first released, as Mike Jones’ first single after splitting from Swishahouse, it sounded like a cheesy left turn from the screwed Houston beats that made him a star. But after Jones’ nasal flow and the chorus of singing children were stripped off the instrumental, and Lil Wayne attacked the beat for Da Drought 3’s “The Sky Is the Limit,” the thunderous drums and dramatic strings suddenly sounded heavy and epic. Mixtape Weezy has stolen a lot of beats from a lot of rappers, but he’s never transformed one as completely as he did “Mr. Jones.”

Notorious B.I.G. “Kick In The Door” (1997)

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Album: Life After Death

Producer: DJ Premier

Biggie only made a handful of tracks with DJ Premier in his brief career, but each one lived up to the union of two hip-hop legends. “Kick in the Door” was the beat Puff Daddy tried to reject that Biggie went out of his way to record over anyway. B.I.G. saw it as the perfect backdrop to air his grievances against his contemporaries: Jeru The Damaja, Nas, and Ghostface Killah, among others. The brilliance of Premo’s work on “Kick in the Door” is not just that he married the iconic horn blat of “I Put A Spell On You” by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins to a boom bap beat, but that he chopped up the waltz rhythm of the saxophone riff so that it fit perfectly over a 4/4 time signature.

The Diplomats "I Really Mean It" (2003)

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Album: Diplomatic Immunity

Producer: Just Blaze

Jay Z may have helped nurture Just Blaze and other producers into forging what became known as Roc-A-Fella’s signature sound. But it was Cam’ron and his Diplomats crew, briefly staging a label mutiny with the help of Dame Dash, that took the Roc’s soul beat formula and put their own swaggering spin on it. “I Really Mean It” was the best example of Just Blaze’s unique chemistry with the Harlem squad, an album track that ended up upstaging the single as the explosive second half of the split video for “Dipset Anthem.” 

Nicki Minaj f/ G Herbo “Chiraq” (2014)

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Album: N/A

Producer: Allen Ritter, Boi-1da and Vinylz

Nicki Minaj no doubt had Chicago’s bubbling drill scene in mind when she made “Chiraq” and invited one of the city’s most respected young MCs, G Herbo, to appear on it. But the single, released in the run-up to 2014’s The Pinkprint, had a unique sound of its own, an icy pulsing track crafted by three East Coast producers best known for their work with Drake. It took on a life of its own, creating a viral craze of “Chiraq” freestyles by dozens of rappers including Meek Mill, The Game, and Chicago’s own Katie Got Bandz.

J-Kwon “Hood Hop” (2004)

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Album: Hood Hop

Producer: Trackboyz

A loud beat isn’t necessarily a hard beat. J-Kwon’s best known track, the party anthem “Tipsy,” had distinctively loud drums, but it wasn’t hard, per se. But the St. Louis teen’s follow-up single, “Hood Hop,” also produced by hometown production duo Trackboyz, was hard as nails. With clipped and stuttering vocal samples shouting along over ominous, whining synths, the title track to Kwon’s debut Hood Hop was an uncharacteristically bleak song from the city often associated with sunny pop-rap hits like “Country Grammar” and “Right Thurr.”

Noreaga f/ Big Punisher, Nature, Cam’ron, and The Lox “Banned From TV” (1998)

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Album: N.O.R.E.

Producer: Swizz Beatz

“Banned From TV” is like the triumphant arrival of New York hip-hop’s rookie class of 1998. It’s a single from Noreaga’s solo debut featuring several future legends, most of which released their own debut albums that year. And the reason they were all able to wild out on an epic posse cut with no chorus is because a 19-year-old Swizz Beatz laced the track with one of those amazingly hooky Casio horn fanfares on which he’d soon build his beatmaking empire. 

Rah Digga “Break Fool” (2000)

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Album: Dirty Harriet

Producer: Rockwilder

In the late ‘90s, sampling fell about as far out of fashion in mainstream hip-hop as it ever would. The resulting dominance of so-called “keyboard beats” often led to weak, tinny piano lines and preset drum sounds. The Rockwilder, however, was one popular producer of the era who knew how to make his synths roar. He never got louder than he did on “Break Fool,” the biggest radio hit from Flipmode Squad star Rah Digga. The slight, stuttering swing in the nasty synth bass line just sounds sweeter when it finally breaks out into long, gurgling sustained notes.

Future “Same Damn Time” (2012)

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Album: Pluto

Producer: Sonny Digital 

Few MCs in recent memory have demonstrated a better ear for beats than Future. But while he’s brought tracks ranging from “Fuck Up Some Commas” to “Mask Off” to the world, the most explosive beat in Future’s discography is still “Same Damn Time,” which bubbles over with apocalyptic bells, squealing synths and tension-building drum fills. Sonny Digital has emerged as a pivotal advocate for the profession of hip-hop production and is spearheading efforts to start a producers’ union, but tracks like “Same Damn Time” gave him the initial soapbox to speak from.

Beastie Boys “So What’cha Want” (1992)

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Album: Check Your Head

Producer: Mario Caldato Jr

The foundation of “So What’cha Want,” the 1975 funk track “I’ve Been Watching You” by Southside Movement, is blown out and pushed so far into the red that the Check Your Head lead single actually sounds heavier than all the hard rock samples on Licensed to Ill combined. The fuzzed-out groove almost seems to affect everything around it, as if the bass and drums are forcing the Beasties’ vocals to distort or warp the color scheme in the song’s video.

Audio Two “Top Billin’” (1987)

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Album: What More Can I Say? 

Producer: Daddy-O

The Honey Drippers’ 1973 track “Impeach the President” is one of the most sampled breakbeats in hip-hop history. While most producers have been content to just loop the tight opening bar of the song and call it a day, Stetsasonic co-founder Glenn “Daddy-O” Bolton had the bright idea to keep stuttering the kick drum and skipping every other snare hit for a distinctive halting pattern immortalized in Brooklyn duo Audio Two’s iconic B-side.

Young Jeezy f/ Shawty Redd “Who Dat” (2008)

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Album: The Recession

Producer: Shawty Redd

With all due respect to Lex Luger, who made a few of the hardest Southern rap hits in recent memory, I’ve always heard his tracks and thought that Shawty Redd did more or less the same thing harder, louder, and better years earlier. “Who Dat,” a street single from 2008’s The Recession, is one of the few songs where the beat roars as loudly as Jeezy’s voice. You can’t blame Jeezy for incorporating the producer’s “Shawty Redd on the track” drop into the hook, because it’s just one of those songs where the beat demands that you give the producer some love.

Meek Mill f/ Rick Ross “I’m a Boss” (2011)

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Album: Self Made Vol. 1

Producer: Jahlil Beats

“I’m a Boss” features the kind of trumpet synth patch that under most circumstances would probably sound tinny, chintzy, and cheesy. But in the context of Jahlil Beats’ pounding, “A Milli”-influenced drums and Meek Mill’s unrestrained holler, that descending horn fanfare sounded simply tremendous. It’s the kind of perfect, galvanizing track that instantly becomes a calling card for both the rapper and the producer, and Meek and Jahlil have reunited many times without quite getting the same result. You know a beat’s hot when both T.I. and Lil Wayne are compelled to hop on the remix.

Jay Z "Public Service Announcement (Interlude)" (2003)

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Album: The Black Album

Producer: Just Blaze

It was the last track thrown together for The Black Album, one of Roc-A-Fella’s longtime in-house producers rising to the occasion to outshine some of the beatmaking legends that had been drafted for Jay Z’s supposed swan song. And even with two brief verses and no chorus, the thunder that Just Blaze brought to “Public Service Announcement” made it an instant fan favorite and one of Jay’s most enduring songs. Despite never being a single, it remains a staple of Hov’s concert setlists and has even appeared on his Greatest Hits album. And when the drums drop and that organ loop screams, it’s easy to understand why. 

TRU f/ Mia X “I’m Bout It, Bout It” (1995)

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Album: True

Producer: Beats by the Pound

Master P learned much about the rap hustle on the West Coast before taking those lessons back to New Orleans to become one of Southern hip-hop’s greatest moguls. And from the sound of “I’m Bout It, Bout It,” he also brought back an affinity for G-funk’s sinister synth whines, as approximated by Beats by the Pound and twisted into something altogether new.

2Pac “Ambitionz Az a Ridah” (1996)

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Album: All Eyez on Me

Producer: Daz Dillinger

It’s one of the most unique and strangest snares in rap production history, less like the sound of a stick hitting a drum and more like a white noise switch being quickly turned on and off: “SKSHHHHH!!” Cam’ron and other rappers have occasionally jacked the beat of the classic opening track from All Eyez on Me, but it’s hard to think of any modern producers who have even attempted a snare sound so harsh. Even Daz Dillinger has rarely used a similar drum sound before or since. But it remains a polarizing and singular track, with an alien ambiance that 2Pac would explore further on The 7 Day Theory.

Nas "Made You Look" (2002)

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Album: God’s Son

Producer: Salaam Remi

In the embattled middle period of Nas’ career, one of the charges most often leveled against him was that his beat selection was poor; that he’d lost his ear for production after moving on from the team that provided the tracks for Illmatic. Much of that blame would presumably be laid at the feet of Nas’ most frequent collaborator at the time, erstwhile Fugees producer Salaam Remi. And if Remi were ever out to answer those critics with one beat, it was probably “Made You Look,” the thunderous lead single to 2002’s God’s Son. Unlikely components, like a fizzing ride cymbal and a dramatically slowed down “Apache” sample, came together to make one of the most relentless and aggressive songs in Nas’ catalog.

Rick Ross f/ Styles P. "B.M.F. (Blowin’ Money Fast)" (2010)

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Album: Teflon Don

Producer: Lex Luger

Rick Ross has built his career on the shrewd curation of very expensive, sophisticated-sounding production. As evident by the slow-rolling organ grooves of “Hustlin’,” to the lush soul beats of his collaborations with singers like Ne-Yo and John Legend. But it was a down and dirty track by the teenage producer known as Lex Luger (then on the rise for his work with Waka Flocka Flame) that became the crown jewel of Rozay’s ascent to rap super stardom. “B.M.F.” is a classic example of Luger’s signature sound, with a brutally simple synth riff hammering away over rapid hi-hat patterns that stutter and release, never quite falling where you expect them to. 

Run-D.M.C. “King of Rock” (1985)

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Album: King of Rock

Producer: Russell Simmons & Larry Smith

When you hear rock records from the mid-’80s that sound like “King of Rock,” you probably don’t think they sound like the best, hardest rocking songs of the time: gated drums, squealing guitar leads, ornate keyboard lines. Those sounds probably came from the bands that are considered the worst that ’80s metal had to offer, the watered-down influence of Aerosmith without their crisp strut. And yet it’s “Kings of Rock” that hits harder than the supposedly more important “Walk This Way” out of Run-D.M.C.’s experiments with rock.

Kendrick Lamar f/ MC Eiht “M.A.A.D. City” (2012)

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Album: good kid, m.A.A.d. city

Producer: Sounwave, THC, and Terrace Martin

“M.A.A.D. City” isn’t one of the hardest beats of the decade; it’s two of them. Sounwave helps Kendrick Lamar set the scene for the 6-minute centerpiece of his 2012 major label debut with taut drums and tense synth string arpeggios. And then, MC Eiht interrupts Lamar to demand, “Wake yo punk ass up” as Terrace Martin cues up a G-Funk beat featuring one of the hardest snare drums in any producer’s arsenal, from the Five Stairsteps’ 1968 recording of “Don’t Change Your Love.”

T.I. “What You Know” (2006)

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Album: King

Producer: DJ Toomp

DJ Toomp has been behind many of T.I.’s biggest street anthems, dating back to the trap music trailblazer “Dope Boyz.” When Tip reached the pinnacle of his career with 2006’s King, Toomp was there to slow things down for the appropriately regal lead single “What You Know.” The stately track strides along like the legs of a giant, while a wall of synths conjures organs, choirs, and lasers all at the same time.

Public Enemy "Bring the Noise" (1987)

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Album: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back

Producer: The Bomb Squad

Beatmakers and production teams often come up with names that trumpet how hard their tracks are, but there’s perhaps nobody with a more explosive, or accurate, name than the Bomb Squad. The Hank Shocklee-led crew behind all of Public Enemy’s classic records detonated its most potent track on the aptly titled “Bring the Noise,” the 1987 single that prepared the world for 1988’s landmark It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Even when Public Enemy teamed with Anthrax for a metal version of “Bring the Noise,” it just couldn’t hit harder than the original.

Dr. Dre f/ Snoop Dogg “Deep Cover” (1992)

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Album: Deep Cover: Music From the Original Motion Picture

Producer: Dr. Dre

The warning shot before The Chronic that introduced Snoop Dogg to the world—the title track from the soundtrack to the 1992 crime thriller Deep Cover—established once and for all that Dr. Dre would have a career after N.W.A. The tense pings of piano over the foreboding upright bass are evidence of the influence of A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory, which Dre would later tell Q-Tip was the album he was trying to top with The Chronic. The G-funk banger managed to sound even harder six years later, when the beat was memorably borrowed by Big Punisher and Fat Joe for “Twinz” (a lyrical standout on Pun’s Capital Punishment).

Three 6 Mafia "Who Run It" (2000)

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Album: When the Smoke Clears: Sixty 6, Sixty 1

Producer: DJ Paul & Juicy J

DJ Paul and Juicy J possess one of the greatest snare sounds in hip-hop, and they probably know it because they’ve used that particular snare on most of their tracks, dozens, if not hundreds, of them over the years. And that perfect slapping snare has never hit harder than when it was accompanied by the blazing brass riff off “Who Run It.” The song’s unique riff always sounds a little unresolved, like the groove is going to go right when it goes left, and it has a forward momentum unmatched by any other Three 6 anthem.

Puff Daddy f/ Notorious B.I.G., Lil' Kim, & The Lox “All About the Benjamins (Remix)” (1997)

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Album: No Way Out

Producer: D-Dot for the Hitmen

“It’s All About the Benjamins” already had one of the hardest beats out in its original incarnation by Puff Daddy and two-thirds of the Lox. But when the mixtape staple was remixed for Puffy’s No Way Out album, Hitmen producer Deric “D-Dot” Angelettie rolled up his sleeves and created a second beat to accompany the Notorious B.I.G.’s verse at the close of the track, switching up the groove and ramping up the energy of the whole song. The source of the sample, the Jackson 5’s “It’s Great to Be Here,” is a joyous and upbeat song in its original form, but under that Biggie verse it sounds like the hardest shit ever.

Clipse "Grindin'" (2002)

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Album: Lord Willin’

Producer: The Neptunes

Although the Neptunes had already made some incredibly hard records like N.O.R.E.’s “Super Thug” and Ludacris’ “Southern Hospitality” by filling the mix with busy drums and laser gun synths, their hardest beat was a spare exercise in old school minimalism, with a wispy, woodblock melody accompanying some absurdly loud drums. To this day, you can sit at any tabletop and pound out the “Grindin’” beat, and any hip-hop fan within a square mile radius will invariably join in on drumming or rapping along. “The world is about to feel something that they never felt before,” Pharrell promises on the song’s intro, and he delivers.

Pharoahe Monch “Simon Says” (1999)

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Album: Internal Affairs

Producer: Pharoahe Monch

As one half of Organized Konfusion, Pharoahe Monch became one of underground rap’s most revered lyricists. Like it or not, however, he’s ultimately become most associated with “Simon Says,” the monstrous banger that preceded his 1999 solo debut, Internal Affairs, without a doubt the hardest song ever released by Rawkus Records. Unfortunately, the uncleared sample from Akira Ifukube’s Godzilla score resulted in a lawsuit that has long kept the album out of print.

Mobb Deep “Shook Ones Pt. 2” (1995)

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Album: The Infamous

Producer: Havoc

The patient tap of the drums, the distant horn blast, the noir atmospherics of the bass line: Very little about the beat for Mobb Deep’s breakout single knocks you over the head like many of rap’s hardest productions. But when Havoc assembled all those elements together, with Prodigy’s snarling threats to “stab you in the brain with your nosebone,” the result was one of the nastiest, most menacing songs in rap history.

LL Cool J "Rock the Bells" (1986)

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Album: Radio

Producer: Rick Rubin

“LL Cool J is hard as hell!” Never has a boast about a rapper’s masculinity been better matched by a titanium-strength blast of percussion. “Ladies Love Cool James” would over the years cement his status as hip-hop’s favorite heartthrob, but early in his career, before street cred meant as much as music, the hungry Queens teenager became a superstar by making some of the hardest songs rap had ever heard. And before “Mama Said Knock You Out,” it was “Rock the Bells” that blew up the spot.

MOP “Ante Up (Robbing Hoodz Theory)” (2000)

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Album: Warriorz

Producer: DR Period

Only the loudmouths in the Mash Out Posse could wind up with the biggest crossover hit of their career with a song about kidnapping. But with the lead single of 2000’s Warriorz, Billy Danze and Lil Fame finally found the beat that matched the intensity of their shouted rhymes. What’s remarkable about “Ante Up,” however, is how much work the horns are doing to make the beat rock so hard. When the track’s producer, DR Period, put the same drums underneath an easygoing Commodores sample for Cam’ron’s “Hey Ma” a couple years later, suddenly they didn’t seem so hard.

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