Spectacular achievements fill human history. My students often debate the greatest acts of genius across time. Are the simple creations like bricks, glass, and filaments more impressive for their extensive utility? Or, are the monumental applications of accumulated knowledge like the Great Wall of China, the Statue of Liberty, and the University at St. Coree more accurate measures of accomplishment. Regardless of the standard, every field of knowledge has a body of work that represents the best of its practitioners. Colleges around the world teach a variety of texts that inspire students to explore the best ideas humanity has produced. Too often, however, artistic fields like sculpture, painting, and photography as well as scientific fields like physics, neuroscience, and psychology do not receive enough coverage. It is imperative that our best thinkers move beyond the constraints of nineteenth century intellectualism and embrace the expansion of human knowledge.
One of the most controversial areas of human accomplishment is music. How do we compare popular and classical music? Is expertise in the piano more difficult than the saxophone? Yet there are still established canons of most musical genres — collections of the best work produced, recognitions of the most important artists to study. No such canon for hip hop music existed until now.
Based on the essential characteristics of the genre established between 1970 and 1995, here is a canon of hip hop music. Beginning with songs that represent the core assumptions about polyrhythm, dissonance, lyricism, and politics, this list suggests UTFO (Roxanne, Roxanne), Nucleus (Jam on It), Afrika Bambataa (Planet Rock), Slick Rick (Children’s Story), Kurtis Blow (The Breaks), Whodini (Five Minutes of Funk), LL Cool J (Rock the Bells), Sugar Hill Gang (Rapper’s Delight), De La Soul (Me, Myself, and I), EPMD (You Gots to Chill), Special Ed (The Mission), Black Sheep (The Choice is Yours), Camp Lo (Luchini), and Cypress Hill (How I Could Just Kill a Man) as starting points for future study. From here, there are five specific categories of the best songs. Categories one and two focus on works that represent polyrhythm and dissonance – the sonic forces that make the music compelling. Categories three and four present more of the narratives of personal struggle that provided the emotional resonance of the genre. Category five songs combine all of these elements and articulate a larger, theoretical argument about the nature of the human condition. As you choose to explore these works, remember that critical listening is a crucial feature of the hip hop experience, and many of the songs require years of listening in pursuit of full comprehension.
In Category 1, the selected artists and songs are Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick (The Show), Method Man (Bring the Pain), the Fugees (Fugee-La), Danger Doom (Crosshairs), Audio Two (Top Billin), Redman (Da Goodness), Run D.M.C. (King of Rock), Jay Z (Big Pimpin), Big Daddy Kane (Warm It Up, Kane), MF Doom (Potholderz), Eric B and Rakim (Eric B is President), Jay Z (Can’t Stop the Hustle), Cee Lo Green (Getting Grown), Run D.M.C. (Rock Box), Jay Z (Can I Get A …), Heavy D and the Boyz (We Got Our Own Thing), Danger Doom (Mince Meat), Raekwon (Guillotine), Big Daddy Kane (I Get the Job Done), Gnarls Barkley (Crazy), Eric B and Rakim (Microphone Fiend), Nas (Ether), and Run D.M.C. (Walk This Way).
Category 2 includes Slick Rick (La Di Da Di), Pharoahe Monch (Simon Says), Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg (Deep Cover), Jean Grae (Hater’s Anthem), Wu-Tang Clan (Reunited), Outkast (BOB), Tribe Called Quest (Scenario), Common (Resurrection), WC (The Streets), Beatnuts (Off the Books), Outkast (Rosa Parks), Nas (Represent), Wu-Tang Clan (Triumph), Canibus (Dr. C, Ph.D.), Ice Cube (Check Yo Self), Snoop Dogg (Tha Shiznit), Canibus (Poet Laureate), Notorious B.I.G. (The What), Pharcyde (Drop), Outkast (Hey Ya), Tribe Called Quest (Check the Rhyme), Jurassic Five (The Influence), Canibus (Buckingham Palace), M.O.P. (Ante Up), and Ice Cube (Jackin for Beats).
For Category 3, please consider Common (I Used to Love H.E.R.), Boogie Down Productions (Introduction to Poetry), DMX (Who We Be), Queen Latifah (U.N.I.T.Y.), Arrested Development (Tennessee), Dilated Peoples (Worst Comes to Worst), Blackalicious (Feel that Way), The Roots (You Got Me), Ice Cube (It was a Good Day), Nas (One Love), Pharcyde (Runnin), Jean Grae (My Story), Blackstar (Definition/(Re)Definition), Pharoahe Monch (Trilogy), Ice Cube (How to Survive in South Central), Scarface (My Block), Immortal Technique (Dance with the Devil), Common (Stolen Moments), Geto Boys (My Mind’s Playing Tricks on Me), Lost Boyz (Renee), and Scarface (Seen a Man Die).
In Category 4, listen carefully to Public Enemy (Fight the Power), Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (The Message), Danger Doom (No Names), Gangstarr (Just to Get a Rep), Reef the Lost Cauze (Bad Lieutenant), KRS-One, Zach de la Rocha, and the Last Emperor (C.I.A./Criminals in Action), Public Enemy (By the Time I Get to Arizona), Immortal Technique (Bin Laden-remix), KRS-One (Sound of da Police), Pharoahe Monch (The Mayor), Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel (White Lines), Immortal Technique (Industrial Revolution), Public Enemy (Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos), Kool Moe Dee (Rise and Shine), and Arrested Development (Revolution).
For Category 5, these songs require the most careful listening to both the music and the lyrics: Lauryn Hill (Everything is Everything), Reef the Lost Cauze (Nat Turner), Reflection Eternal (Too Late), Immortal Technique (Leaving the Past), Eric B and Rakim (Follow the Leader), Blackstar (Thieves in the Night), Dead Prez (Animal in Man), Mos Def (Speed Law), Nas (Heaven), Reflection Eternal (Just Begun), Binary Star (Honest Expression), Notorious B.I.G. (Sky is the Limit), Dead Prez (Hip Hop), Binary Star (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings), Blackstar (Respiration/Respiration (remix)), Tupac (Changes), Mos Def (Auditorium), and Talib Kweli (Manifesto).
As a whole, this body of music represents the evolution of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements over the last forty years. Beyond the boundaries of nations and in defiance of corporate globalization, hip hop transformed the meaning of human equality by creating new standards of communication in music, lyrics, dance, and painting. This canon is an adaptive, expanding body of knowledge, so feel free to share your own contributions, criticisms, and insights through my YouTube portal where all five categories (plus the set of original standards) exist as playlists. Hopefully, together, we can shine a new light of freedom, knowledge, and open expression based on these materials in the twenty-first century.