Los Angeles may be the metropolis where international cultures are imported, assimilated, then sold back to the world on the silver screen, but its rap scene is the product of a highly specific set of regional factors, including, but not limited to: The Raiders, Randy’s Donuts, the Roadium swap meet, the World On Wheels roller rink, KDAY every day, freeway transit, auto culture, Latin culture, gang culture, riot culture, bass culture, and burger culture.
From Long Beach to Glendale, Venice to Pomona, the L.A. rap landscape is as interconnected as its highway system, as diverse as its scenery, and as reliable as its climate. Herein is a selection from the rap ecosystem’s first 30 years, with equal consideration given to the pre- and post-Jheri-curl eras. It's presented in one place for your convenient perusal, in emulation of the swap meets where Dr. Dre first circulated his cassette mixes. There are the 100 best L.A. rap songs.
100. Snoop Dogg, “I Wanna Rock” (2009)
Album: Malice n Wonderland
Producer: Scoop Deville
There are a couple of amazing things about “I Wanna Rock.” For one, its existence: the fact that Snoop was still making smash records on the eve of his 40th birthday. The fact that he doesn't change, but doesn't repeat himself. The fact that he rhymes “vamanos” and “dominos.”
It's astounding that the production on “I Wanna Rock” uses the least usable part of Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock's 1988 song “It Takes Two.” Even more astounding is the fact that saidproduction comes courtesy of Kid Frost's son. If that doesn't prove that L.A. rap is one big happy extended family, nothing will.
99. Tone Loc, “Wild Thing” (1988)
Album: Loc-ed After Dark
Label: Delicious Vinyl
Producer: Matt Dike, Michael Ross
“I had a killer telephone voice,” Tone Loc once said, in explanation of his success. And he had a killer track, produced by L.A. DJ Matt Dike, who had broader taste than any producer in hip-hop at the time. You need a pretty refined sense of fun and games to create a danceable rap song based on Van Halen's “Jamie's Cryin'.” The verses were written by Delicious Vinyl's in-house hit maker Young MC, and the hook was based on something Fab 5 Freddy said in a Spike Lee movie, but “Wild Thing” belongs wholly to the smog-clogged speech of one former Crip turned lovable lothario. In other words, the "telephone voice.”
98. L.A. Dream Team, “The Dream Team Is In The House” (1985)
Album: Kings Of The West Coast
Producer: Courtney Branch
Captained by local radio personality Rudy Pardee, L.A. Dream Team epitomized the sound of their city's urban roller-skate culture circa 1985—the moment before gangsta rap rolled in. As the lyrics suggested (“If the music don't get you, the fly looks will”), the Dream Team's sound might not be to everyone's taste. This uprocking jam combines German electronic pioneers Kraftwerk with the theme to Dragnet. Timeless, harmless, hyperactive fun.
97. World Class Wreckin Cru, “Surgery” (1984)
Album: “Surgery” - Single
Label: Kru-Cut Records
Producer: Lozno Williams
To understand “Surgery,” you really need to look at the purple-tinted illustration that adorned the original 1984 Kru-Cut 12-inch, which sold 50,000 copies independently. Dr. Dre—outfitted in O.R. scrubs, a look that unfortunately didn’t catch on in Compton—performs a surgical procedure on a set of turntables, as a pair of assistants hand him necessary implements.
One guy offers a mixer, while a female nurse monitors an IV drip directly into the electronics of the turntable (you can hear the sound of that drip in the music). A man in a NASA suit observes them from behind glass, smoking a pipe. No telling what’s in the pipe, but this was 1984, so use your imagination. The Wreckin’ Cru obviously did.
“Surgery” is still an admirably surreal piece of work. Surgery turned out to be the perfect metaphor for L.A. electro. No pop-locking in the ER!
96. WC & the Maad Circle, “West Up” (1995)
Album: Curb Servin'
Label: PayDay/FFRR/PolyGram Records
Producer: Crazy Toones
“And all the time I'm bumpin WC/Cause it seem like he the only nigga making sense to me.” Such were the words of the great Pimp C in 1994. WC displayed the kind of hard-won wisdom that a Texan could appreciate. Dub-C could have become the West Coast equivalent to Scarface, but where Face turned inward to brooding contemplations of mortality, Dub Crip-walked into a successful career as the third banana in Westside Connection. “West Up” catches him just before then, at the apex of his solo career.
The high-cholesterol bass is just right for WC, who quite obviously came from a place where “even the strongest niggas is drug through the mud.” This anthem came with a great video, in which the crew turns a gridlock headache into a full-scale barbecue in the middle of the freeway. It's the L.A. antidote to that preposterous REM clip for “Everybody Hurts,” only instead of Michael Stipe's Christ pose you get extra servings of ribs, spokes, hoochies, etc.
95. Uncle Jamm's Army, “Dial-A-Freak” (1984)
Album: “Dial-A-Freak” - Single
Label: Freak Beat Records
Producer: Egyptian Lover/Mr. Prinze
By the time “Dial-A-Freak” was released in 1984, Uncle Jamm’s Army really was an army. Led by Rodger Clayton, The Harbor City-based crew of DJs and musicians had been promoting and performing at house parties since the early 1970s, and they were almost single-handedly responsible for cultivating the first wave of L.A. electro and hip-hop innovators, including Egyptian Lover, Arabian Prince, Ice-T, DJ Pooh, DJ Bobcat, and the World Class Wreckin Cru.
Clayton’s roots were in the meaty, friendly, party funk of the Ohio Players and Earth, Wind & Fire, but “Dial-A-Freak” is evacuated of anything organic. It’s a cold rush of wind for an extremely hot party. There's a smell hanging in the air that isn’t weed—something unrecognizably metallic.
One minute you're under the stars on Venice Beach with Egyptian Lover, next thing you know you're riding a camel through the sands near the Pyramids! He’s telling the truth when he raps: “Some say I’m conceited/But I can’t be beated.”
94. The D.O.C. f/ N.W.A, “The Grand Finale” (1989)
Album: No One Can Do it Better
Label: Ruthless Records/Atlantic Recording Corporation
Producer: Dr. Dre, DJ Yella
“The Grand Finale” is the best N.W.A song ever made that isn't an N.W.A song. With a lineup that runs from Cube to Ren to Eazy to The D.O.C.—with hypeman interjections from Dre—“The Grand Finale” offers an alternate picture of the Compton super group. Can you imagine an entire album with Ren and Cube and D.O.C. sharing equal space on the mic?
And yet, it's the soon-to-be ostracized Eazy who steals the show, with a completely preposterous and childlike reference to his dick: “The pleasure and pain my wing-ding inflicted.” If only this lineup had lived into the Death Row era. Instead, we get the best posse cut in the history of South Central rap music. “I got raw when I came to Cali,” the Texas-born D.O.C. admits at the end of the song.
93. Suga Free, “Dip Da” (1997)
Album: Street Gospel
Producer: DJ Quik, Robert "Fonksta" Bacon, G-One
Every family has some peripheral uncle who appears only occasionally. No one knows where he comes from, but he packs more charm and has bigger stories and is a little funnier and a little scarier than anyone else in the family, if only because he's a little unhinged. And then you realize that's why he only appears occasionally. That's Suga Free's role in L.A. rap. The question of why he isn't a bigger star would be relevant if its answer were not so evident: he has too much style and he refuses to make music for the masses.
Also he is from Pomona, and continues to represent the Inland Empire. For that reason, he would probably agree that you haven't really listened to “Dip Da” until you've listened to it at 2:30 a.m. while driving through the Donut Hole in La Puente. If you know, you know.
92. Ice Cube, “Wicked” (1992)
Album: The Predator
Producer: Torture Chamba
Who said New York rappers were the only ones to collab with reggae artists? The first single from Cube's third solo album features dancehall-flavored vocals from the man called Don Jagwarr. And Torture Chamba's beat is musical murder.