Every borough in New York has a claim on hip-hop's history. The Bronx may have made it, to paraphrase KRS-One, but Brooklyn owned it, and turned it into a point of pride all their own.
Brooklyn is, by population, the biggest borough in New York City, with 2.5 million residents. Taken separately from the rest of New York City, it'd be America's fourth-largest city. Brooklyn's place in rap history is unimpeachable; arguably the genre's greatest living artist was from the Marcy Projects, and one of its greatest deceased ones repped Bed-Stuy as well. From Big Daddy Kane to MC Lyte, from Stetsasonic to M.O.P., Brooklyn has been home to some of the genre's greatest and most important performers.
Hip-hop isn't just one of Brooklyn's greatest exports; it introduced Brooklyn to the wider world. Many rap fans are as familiar with Brooklyn neighborhoods and streets as they are their own, thanks largely to hip-hop. And hip-hop, naturally, paid it back in tribute.
From Marcy to Canarsie, these are The 25 Best Brooklyn Anthems. Kings County, stand up.
25. Foxy Brown "BK Anthem" (2001)
24. Crooklyn Dodgers "Return of the Crooklyn Dodgers" (1995)
23. Lil Kim "Lighters Up" (2005)
Label: Atlantic, Queen Bee Entertainment
It took four albums but the Queen Bee nailed her Brooklyn tribute on The Naked Truth with "Lighters Up," all in tune with Damian Marley's "Welcome to Jamrock." Lil Kim used the Scott Storch-produced single to advise those unfamiliar with her hometown of Brooklyn—Bed-Stuy, to be exact. But more than an introduction, it's a warning to foreigners unsure of the dangers and perils of BK hoods. While it wasn't her most successful single, it became one of her most dedicated anthems to the place she lays her hat (and plenty of other things). She's quick to rep Brooklyn, but the tribute's made all the more effective by shouting out cities like Philly, Detroit, and Chicago at the same time, just so that every city, everywhere had people putting their lighters up. —Lauren Nostro
22. Jay-Z "Brooklyn We Go Hard" (2008)
Label: Roc-A-Fella, Def Jam
The soundtrack for the Biggie biopic, Notorious, proved to be the best place for Jay to flex his BK pride. With Santigold in tow, Jay went off about his borough. Granted, by this time he was a millionaire a hundred times over, but he still kept it gangsta. However, most of the tough talk and black hoodie rap was reserved for "they"—the dudes still living that hard knock life. But Jay's greatest accomplishments easily eclipsed their ability to snatch chains, as he boasted about bringing the Nets to BK, the borough's first professional sports team in a very, very long time. —Insanul Ahmed
21. Beastie Boys "Hello Brooklyn" (1989)
Label: Capitol Records
It's not nearly as famous as the Beasties' earlier BK anthem, "No Sleep Til Brooklyn." Hell, it doesn't even have its own track listing on the original CD issue of Paul's Boutique (instead listed as part of the larger "B-Boy Bouillabaisse"), but "Hello Brooklyn" is a pithy gem in its own right. Recorded when the Boys were based on the West Coast, it's a fitting ode to their hometown and also a near perfect piece of Beastiesiana, featuring both a reference to a classic '40s movie and a poetic depiction of clumsy young love ("Her breast, I saw, I reached, I felt"). Of course Brooklyn's a different place now than when MCA, Ad Rock, and Mike D talked about "stickin' up old ladies with the handgun or the sawed-off" (sidebar: BK old ladies are so gully you have to rob them with a shotgun?), so much so that when the borough landed its first major pro sports team in 50 years, the organization borrowed the name of this song for its marketing campaign. —Jack Erwin
20. Group Home "East New York Theory" (1997)
19. Jemini the Gifted One "Brooklyn Kids" (1995)
18. Jeru the Damaja "Brooklyn Took It" (1994)
17. Special Ed "The Bush" (1989)
16. Mos Def "Brooklyn" (1999)
Thirteen tracks into Mos Def's spectacular solo debut Black On Both Sides was this track, a Brooklyn anthem that does something only some of the songs on this list do, and really, maybe, does it better than the rest of 'em. From people drinking on stoops to neighborhood crack dealers to getting his hair cut on Fulton and Jay to the subway and the mom and pop businesses that make Brooklyn so great, Mos Def's Brooklyn might not always be pretty, or simple, but it is full of all stripes of real people engaging in a very real, very kinectic, and very colorful life. As time goes on, this song develops a sad golden sheen to it, though: These days, it sounds less like the Brooklyn we know and love, and more like the one we're sadly sentimental for. —Foster Kamer
15. 3rd Bass "Brooklyn Queens" (1989)
Label: Def Jam
"Brooklyn Queens" makes any Best of the Borough list based on its ridiculously absurd video alone. The clip manages to be good-naturedly goofy (see Serch walk into a street sign!), racist (the Chinese delivery guy falls of his bike and spills—WAIT FOR IT!—rice), white-boy-rap-silly (Serch not only participates in a synchronized dance, he jumps over another man's shoulders), and an artifact of a bygone BK (Albee Square Mall is no more, but the fountain at Grand Army Plaza was refurbished eight years ago). The song itself isn't about Brooklyn all that much; it's about ladies who have their eyes on men's wallets, a tried and true (but mostly tried) rap song trope. But it's undeniably a jam, in the old school blunts-and-forties-on-a-summer's-day way, which makes it an outlier in the Brooklyn Anthem catalog. Yeah, BK is a crazy place, and it was even crazier before the locally sourced squirrel's milk stands started popping up, but it's a fun place, too. —Jack Erwin
14. M.O.P. "Brownsville" (1996)
13. The Notorious B.I.G. "Unbelievable" (1994)
Label: Bad Boy
There's only four bars in this song about Brooklyn, but they're the first four, and the beat that leads into them alone is enough to send any Kings-born kid into a tizzy. Big brought hip-hop back to Brooklyn after it had traveled around the world, and the pride its citizens showed in their favorite son meant that he didn't have to drop the names of a bunch of hometown landmarks (although he did, peep the shouts to local weed spots in the liner notes to Ready to Die) for people to know he was one of them. Four bars: "Live from Bedford-Stuyvesant/The livest one/Representin' BK to the fullest." Who in the county of Kings can deny that? —Jack Erwin
12. Divine Sounds "Do or Die Bed Stuy" (1984)
11. Biz Markie "Albee Square Mall" (1988)
Label: Warner Brothers
Wanna know how long someone's lived in Brooklyn? Ask them if they know where the Albee Square Mall is, or was, as immortalized in Biz Markie's 1988 song of the same name, in which he spends two entire verses extolling the greatness of the long-gone downtown Brooklyn mall without actually mentioning any of them (Wendy's, places to buy shoes, Gibb's Pups) until the third verse. Biz's rhymes recall a time before gentrification, when Downtown Brooklyn wasn't a rape-and-pillage situation for condo developers catering to Manhattanites in self-imposed exile so much as a place where you could buy some new kicks and, if you were lucky, not get jumped for them before you left. And of course, the Albee Square Mall was dead the moment developers tried to rebrand it as The Gallery at Fulton Street (um, no), which only lasted so long before they finally just threw their hands up and admitted they were scrapping it in favor of another massive yuppified development in 2007. Thankfully, it's still preserved by way of hip-hop; sure, by making cameos in a few videos (like 3rd Bass's "Brooklyn-Queens" and Funk Flex f/ Buckshot's "No Joke/Follow Me"), but mostly, by way of Biz, his song, and its ridiculous chorus as screeched out by T.J. Swan. —Foster Kamer
10. The Beastie Boys "No Sleep Til Brooklyn" (1987)
Label: Def Jam/Columbia Records
High-minded Riff Raff fans, take solace: In 25 years, perhaps your favorite joke rapper will be considered a classic as well. (The again, perhaps not.) That's the thing about the Beasties circa-Licensed to Ill, particularly, this ridiculously awesome and ridiculously awful anthem: It was all a joke that achieved legendary status. "No Sleep" wasn't really an ode to Brooklyn, it was an ode to rock 'n' roll life on the road, like Bob Seger's "Turn the Page" with none of the tact (and, thankfully, none of the schmaltz). MCA was the only member of the group who was actually from Brooklyn, but he wasn't available to wax too poetic about his home borough because he was, in the words of Ad-Rock, incapacitated in the back of the bus, "skeezin' with a whore." No, this wasn't the Adam Yauch of the Milarepa Fund, nor was it the Brooklyn of a Million Strollers. What is was, though, was a Brooklyn anthem that shouted (literally) "Brooklyn!" to the masses in a way that was as endemic to the BK as Ralph Kramden and Welcome Back Kotter. —Jack Erwin
9. Ol' Dirty Bastard "Brooklyn Zoo" (1995)
It was more than just another hot solo Wu-Tang cut, and more than just ODB's first proper single, or his second-highest charting single next to "Got Your Money." Over the course of a few intro lines, one verse, and a "chorus" that only appeared once—and at the very end of the song—ODB showed the world two very, very important things: (1) He was a force onto his own, and one to be reckoned with, and (2) Brooklyn brings it harder, weirder, crazier, and more intensely than anyone else could or would. Listen to the way simple lines get warped by Dirty into a senseless manifesto about how fucked up he and the borough will bring it ("You can suck my dick" becomes "Youcan suck myDICKKKKKK"). The way Dirty interrupts himself to body-check another brilliant line on the track ("IntroducingYO FUCK THAT NI**A'S NAME/My Hip Hop drops on your head like rain").
And then, the chant, that spiritual at the end: If you didn't know just how worrisome of a place Brooklyn could be, Dirty has some news, spoken, and then, eventually, screamed, in case you didn't get it the first few times: Shame on you, when you step to, the Ol' Dirty Bastard/BROOKLYYYYYN ZOO. —Foster Kamer
8. Gang Starr "The Planet" (1994)
These days it's the subject of more bloggery-per-bandwidth than any other subject in the known world, but back in the late '80s, moving from the hinterlands to Brooklyn (Bed-Stuy via East New York no less) wasn't the most popular migratory path for young people. Luckily for hip-hop, Keith Elam made that trek. There's lots of great "Moving to New York" stories in literature, but this is easily the best in the rap canon. With vivid, detailed imagery-laden bars, Guru puts the listener in the middle of his unique BK experience, but makes it seem entirely universal at the same time: The limited friends you start with, the weed spots and bookstore hangouts you develop, the first apartment, and that awesome New York feeling of going somewhere "just to look around." It's a portrait of the borough at its fullest: gritty, rough, but beautiful. —Jack Erwin
7. Audio Two "Top Billin" (1987)
Label: First Priority
Is there a more timeless anthem of Brooklyn superiority than "Top Billin'"? Okay, so it's not explicitly a Brooklyn anthem, but a sample of Stetsasonic's "Go Stetsa" has the borough of Milk Dee and Gizmo represented on every beat. The duo represented for Bed-Stuy, and "Top Billin" was their signature anthem. Originally released as a b-side to "Make it Funky," the song easily surpassed its flipside, becoming a career-defining single with platinum sales, and one of hip-hop's most frequently-sampled tracks. The drums were swiped from M.C. Shan's "The Bridge," but (unintentionally) altered, and history was never the same. You might say Brooklyn snatched it. —David Drake
6. Jay-Z "Where I'm From" (1997)
Label: Roc-A-Fella, Def Jam
A more rugged picture of Brooklyn has yet to be painted. "I'm from where the beef is inevitable / summertime's unforgettable." Jay-Z was at his most callous and cold on "Where I'm From," a hostile highlight from 1997's In My Lifetime, Vol. 1. It wasn't his vaunted wordplay that made this song so effective, although that was in abundance like booze on a Bed-Stuy stoop. Instead, it was Jigga's ruthlessness, each gritty revelation—"ni**as praying to God so long that they atheist"—stated with such matter-of-fact, calculated coldness.
And of course there was D. Dot's production: with the scraping sound and ghosts low in the background, like voices echoing off project buildings, "Where I'm From" seemed to adopt Brooklyn's urban geography into sonic form. Perhaps the most important details of the song are found in the philosophies he dispenses, the rules of the world around him, which cut so deep: "You couldn't talk about it if you didn't live it," or "We make a million off of beats, cause our stories is deep/and fuck tomorrow, as long as the night before was sweet." —David Drake
5. Smif-N-Wessun "Bucktown" (1994)
Label: Duck Down
Maybe you've heard this before, but Brooklyn is kind of dangerous sometimes. No, we're not even talking about present-day gentrified Brooklyn, but the late '80s/early '90s Brooklyn, back when Tek and Steele stomped the grounds and Boot Camp Clik were still the shit. Those mean streets are where Smif-N-Wessun take us on this lyrical adventure, one where they keep their hand on the gun because they live on the run. Home of the original gun clappers? It wasn't just a punchline. —Insanul Ahmed
4. Cut Master DC "Brooklyn's In the House" (1986)
Label: Zakia Records
You heard 2Pac shout it out on "Old School," you heard Biggie reference it on "Brooklyn's Finest." Cut Master DC's "Brooklyn's In the House" is the defining Brooklyn old school anthem. Cut Master DC was something of a Brooklyn partisan; another major track by the rapper/producer was "Brooklyn Rocks the Best," which is arguably even more pro-BK. Built around a Roland TR-909, the song was a party-starter that also seemed, at least in its opening lines, a little defensive about Brooklyn's reputation as the place that keeps on taking it: "Our favorite pastime is not robbin' you but/going to jams, painting the town/so when we're around, no need to frown." A better tourist brochure for the borough you couldn't find, so they decided to reward him in turn. —David Drake
3. Crooklyn Dodgers "Crooklyn" (1994)
2. Gang Starr "The Place We Dwell" (1992)
Ironically, it was a transplant from Boston who created one of hip-hop's foremost salutes to Brooklyn. Gang Starr's "The Place Where We Dwell" was as much a borough map as it was a song, introducing hip-hop fans the world over to the city geography in two and a half quick minutes. Over a sample of Stetsasonic's "Go Stetsa"—the origin of the shouted "Brooklyn" chant synched in the background—and a Cannonball Adderly drum break, Guru acted as a guided tour to the parts of BK most tourists avoided: "Fort Greene, Bed-Stuy, Flatbush, Brownsville/Crown Heights and East New York will be down til..." He celebrates the borough's history, heritage ("Brooklyn is the home of cultural awareness"), women ("the take-no-bullshit hotties"), and graciously invites visitors not to fear: "Don't be afraid to venture over the bridge/although you may run into some wild-ass kids." OK, so much of Brooklyn might not have the intimidating reputation that it did in the early '90s. But "The Place Where We Dwell" offers a postcard from a time and place that captures the pride it engendered, even in former residents of Massachusetts. —David Drake
1. Jay-Z f/ Notorious B.I.G. "Brooklyn's Finest" (1996)
Everything. It has everything. The Carlito's Way interpolation that's a seventh-inning stretch of hip-hop, church-bells to Brooklyn rap: (DUNDUNDUNDUNDUN. CHIK-CHIC.) "OKAY! I'M RELOADED! You motherfuckers, think you big time? Fuckin' with Jay-Z, you gon' die, BIG TIME. Here come the pain!" (BOOM! BOOM BOOM!)
And then, the now-legendary Clark Kent beat—constructed with part "Brooklyn Zoo", part Ohio Players' "Ecstasy", all shimmering New York City noir sheen—moves onto the track, and Jay-Z starts in, rhyming about his style, the ways cops and feds sweat him, and dice games, and Jay's first bars end, and Biggie picks up right where he left off, and ends his first bar with shooting your daughter in her calf muscle and sprinkling coke on the scene. That's not even a full minute in.
Don't get us wrong, hearing Jay and Big on the same track is nothing short of amazing, every time, like a Marvel Comics What If of rap superheroes come to life. But that chorus, dear god, that chorus. DJ Clark Kent shouting into the mic, the words anyone from the borough should have stamped on their residency forms: "Jay-Z and Biggie Smalls, ni**a shit your drawers/Where you from?/Brooklyn, going out for all/Marcy—that's right—you don't stop/Bed-Stuy/You won't stop, ni**a!" Anywhere else, the scatological humor would be downright weird, but under the mastery herein, it's one of the borough's great rallying cries, totaling up to a song that more than lives up to its grandiose name.
In other words, "Brooklyn's Finest" indeed. —Foster Kamer