What Makes a Great Hip-Hop Song?
An Introduction by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
I was eight years old when “Rapper’s Delight” made its world premiere on Philadelphia radio. It happened at 8:24 p.m. on a Thursday, after a dinner of porgies, string beans and creamed corn. Me and my sister, Donn, were sneaking a listen of the local soul station while washing dishes when an army of percussion and a syncopated Latin piano line came out of my grandma’s JVC clock radio – what appeared to be Chic’s “Good Times.” How was I to know that my world would come crashing down in a matter of 5, 4, 3, 2 . . .
I said a hip, hop, the hippy to the hippy/To the hip hip hop, you don’t stop. . . .
The next night, I was prepared, with a prehistoric tape recorder in hand and a black-and-white composition notebook. My boy Aantar became my agent that week, scheduling performances of the song in exchange for snacks or hand-holding with girls in gym class. “Rapper’s Delight” turned this future high school band geek into a superstar for the month of October 1979.
Some of the most powerful hip-hop songs are tracks with elements so simple your brain would explode trying to explain their logic: Take the unstoppable two-note guitar stab in Craig Mack’s “Flava in Ya Ear.” (I hounded the producer, Easy Mo Bee, for 17 years for the secret behind it – then wanted to throw someone out the window when I heard how basic it was.) Or the huge sound of the Roland 909 on Schoolly D’s “PSK” – an echo that seemed like it came from a church cathedral eight city blocks wide.
These sounds had incredible power if you grew up with hip-hop: There was the summer I spent trying to match the mix to “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel,” note for note, on two Fisher-Price turntables. (My father, unimpressed, told me, “There ain’t a living spinning other people’s music” – little did you know, Dad, little did you know.) There were so many times when a song premiere could stop you in your tracks, then become a subject of discussion for the next four hours: in the high school lunchroom when me and Black Thought heard “Wrath of Kane” for the first time, or my first listen to “Fight the Power” – it sounded like Pharoah Sanders and Rahsaan Roland Kirk had gotten into a knife fight.
Hip-hop gives listeners sets of rules that you follow like the law, only to see them change every five years. I’ve seen my reactions to hip-hop change from age nine (“What the hell was that?”) to age 14 (“That was incredible!”) to age 22 (“Wait . . . are they allowed to do that?”) to age 29 (“It was kinda different when I was a kid”) to now (“What the fuck was that?!“). I’ve seen Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” go from ruling the world to being a musical pariah to being an ironic statement in my DJ set that makes people smile.
The greatest hip-hop songs have the power to pull energy and excitement and anger and questions and self-doubt and raw emotion out of you. It could be a song that sets your neighborhood on fire (“Rebel Without a Pause”) or a song on your headphones that makes you rethink what hip-hop is (Ultramagnetic MCs’ “Ego Trippin’ ”). The common thread is change. The best hip-hop songs aren’t blueprints – they are calls to action, reminders that you can start a revolution in three minutes. Just keep that clock radio on.