New York City is the most populous city in the USA and the birthplace of hip hop so it’s only natural that some of the greatest and most talented emcees and producers came from their famous five boroughs. East Coast rap songs generally have a pretty basic form to them: drum machine for the beat; a sample to give the song some depth; and urban poetry full of energy, puns, and wit (hopefully). Here are ten of my favourite rap songs from artists born in NYC – in no particular order, with only one song per artist.
“Triumph” by Wu-Tang Clan
This is a big one: 9 verses, no chorus – 5 minutes and 38 seconds of rhyming genius over a powerfully driving beat. All of the Wu-Tang Clan is on display here showcasing their unique flow, cadence, and lyrical wit. Even ODB, with only an introduction and no verse, showcases his mentally-unstable personality. The underrated Inspectah Deck opens this song with one of the best verses of all time:
I bomb atomically, Socrates' philosphies.
And hypotheses can't define how I be droppin' these
Mockeries, lyrically perform armed robbery
Flee with the lottery, possibly they spotted me
“On The Run” by Kool G. Rap
I don’t think anyone, even those on this list, paints a picture in my mind better than Kool G Rap does here. An ultra-violent tale about a thug’s struggle to escape from the mob, this song is all storytelling and no chorus but still the beat makes you want to shake your head.
And I’m holdin' the suitcase
With a half a million dollars right in my motherf**kin' face
And I’m tryin' to ignore it
But sometimes I get tempted to make a motherf**kin' run for it
The thought alone makes me shiver, damn
What if I get caught? They’ll find me floatin in the Hudson river
“Gimme The Loot” by The Notorious B.I.G.
A very heavy beat always works well with Biggie Smalls. The reason this song got chosen over more mainstream songs is Biggie’s split-personality flow, engaging in a conversation between two people, both played by him. I personally think Notorious B.I.G. had the best flow of all NYC rappers.
Then I'm dipping up the block and I'm robbing b***hes too
Up the herring bones and bamboos
I wouldn't give a f**k if you're pregnant
Give me the baby rings and a #1 MOM pendant
“N.Y. State of Mind” by Nas
This classic song from his classic debut CD paints a bleak tale about surviving in NYC. Nas’ storytelling is unbelievably clear. My favourite part of this song is actually the instrumental mixing – to me it sounds like the piano and drums are in the same room jamming together while Nas is ripping the mic over it. Such a simple piano roll has never sounds so sinister.
Rappers I monkey flim them with the funky rhythm
I be kickin', musician, inflictin' composition
Of pain I'm like Scarface sniffin' cocaine
Holdin' a M-16, see with the pen I'm extreme
“Empire State Of Mind” by Jay-Z
There has been no bigger anthem for the city of New York. In reality, Jay-Z has had much better verses throughout his rich back-catalog but no other song of his makes you want to scream the chorus out loud to the rafters as this monster hit does (“Hard Knock Life” is close). Alicia Keys certainly make this song very special. Jay-Z has had better raps, but he hasn’t had a better song.
Mommy took a bus trip, now she got her bust out
Everybody ride her, just like a bus route
“Respiration” by Black Star (Mos Def & Talib Kweli)
First of all, Black Star is a match made in heaven but including a verse from my favourite Chicago rapper, this song had to make the list. Once again, another bleak sounding beat over rapid-fire non-stop rapping, this song demands several listens for appropriate appreciation. I haven’t heard so many multi-syllabic rhymes in any rap song before.
This ain’t no time where the usual is suitable
Tonight alive, let’s describe the inscrutable
The indisputable, we New York the narcotic
Strength in metal and fiber optics
Where mercenaries is paid to trade hot stock tips
“Mass Appeal” by Gang Starr
The master sampler DJ Premier made one half of the awesome Gang Starr and this is maybe their best track. The beat is very simple but it is complemented to perfection by the self-proclaimed “monotone style” of the rapper Guru. I miss these rapper-DJ groups of early hip-hop.
Because I don’t need gimmicks
Gimme a fly beat and I’m all in it
“Brooklyn Zoo” by Ol’ Dirty Bastard
Even though I said one song per artist, “Triumph” was a Wu-Tang song while this is an ODB solo joint. No other rapper has a flow like ODB and any song with him puts a smile on my face – if Notorious B.I.G. had a split-personality on “Gimme The Loot,” ODB is just a stark-raving lunatic on this song. Intense aggression padded with short bursts of singing (“like raaaain”) mark this fantastically frantic song. Though to dismiss any ideas that he’s just a mad man ranting, listen to ODB’s genius come out in the word play he chooses making his verses very tight.
N*gga catchin’ headaches, what?
What? You need aspirin?
This type of pain, you couldn’t even kill with Midol
“Shook Ones, Part II” by Mobb Deep
One of the best beats I’ve ever heard – the muffled, lo-fi sound of the piano roll makes it sound like it is played out of a gramophone. Havoc and Prodigy spit some hot verses over the simple drum beat.
Your crew is featherweight
My gun shots'll make you levitate
I'm only nineteen but my mind is old
And when the things get for real my warm heart turns cold
“Intergalactic” by Beastie Boys
I think this is the song that would confuse most readers to why it would make this list, but really, who is more NYC than the Beastie Boys? These three Caucasians put rap songs on the charts and without their pioneering we wouldn’t have heard any of those previously mentioned rappers on the radio! Even though their rapping style isn’t as “gangster” as other rappers but they are rapping on the song nonetheless so they deserve to be on this list *rant over*. Now back to the song, you can’t say that you’ve heard this song before and didn’t listen to the whole thing. It is such an interesting sounding song with old-fashioned silent-era movie-esque keyboards, electronic and robotic sounds, all on top of sick drum beat. The mix just sucks you in and engrosses you in this extremely fun song.
Well now don't you tell me to smile
You stick around I'll make it worth your while
Got numbers beyond what you can dial
Maybe it's because I'm so versatile
So there you go, ten of my favourite rap songs. There are many which just didn't make the cut but I'll reveal those in a later time.