What's the formula for a hit record? Sure, lyrics provide the substance (there's no doubt about that), but it's impossible to deny the power of the right instrumental. This is the reason that talented rappers team up with hit-making producers in hopes of finding success. The right producer can bring out the very best in an artist and create magic in the studio.
So what happens when a producer makes a beat that's so powerful that all it needs is the right bars to make it massive? A few instrumentals that naturally come to mind are The Notorious B.I.G.'s "Who Shot Ya," co-produced by Diddy and Nashiem Myrick. The record is the beat of choice used by Funkmaster Flex for his infamous rants during his radio show on Hot 97. Then there's Jay Z's 1996 Ski-produced track "Dead Presidents." The beat has been used for countless rappers' freestyles from Lupe Fiasco to Drake to Lil Wayne, among others.
More contemporary examples, though, like Desiigner's "Panda," produced by U.K. producer Menace or Jahlil Beats' lauded "Hot Boy" record for Bobby Shmurda show that the original artist doesn't necessarily make the beat live up to its full potential, but rather it can sometimes be the other way around. This, in turn, brings the producers themselves to the forefront, becoming just as popular as the rapper who spit on the beat.
Hip-hop has a long history of genre-defining beats -- records that can take a rapper's lyrics to the next level. These beats produce undeniable game-changing (as well as life-changing) hits, define summers and stir up nostalgia no matter when their played. Here at XXL, we’re highlighting 20 classic hip-hop beats -- and of course there's many more in the game to choose from. Rappers, grab your pens and let the lyrics flow.
"Shook Ones Part 2"Mobb Deep
Produced by Havoc.
"Come Clean"Jeru Da Damaja
Produced by DJ Premier.
"Mass Appeal"Gang Starr
Produced by DJ Premier.
"N.Y. State of Mind"Nas
Produced by DJ Premier.
"Scenario"A Tribe Called Quest
Produced by A Tribe Called Quest.
"In Da Club"50 Cent
Produced by Dr. Dre with co-production by Mike Elizondo.
"Deep Cover"Dr. Dre
Produced by Dr. Dre.
"Who Shot Ya"The Notorious B.I.G.
Produced by Diddy with co-production by Nashiem Myrick.
Produced by The Neptunes.
"Dead Presidents"Jay Z
Produced by Ski.
Produced by Diddy, Stevie J and the Hitmen.
"Top Billin'"Audio Two
Produced by Daddy-O and Audio Two.
"Step Into a World (Rapture's Delight)"KRS-One
Produced by Jesse West.
"Touch It"Busta Rhymes
Produced by Swizz Beatz.
Produced by The Neptunes.
Produced by J Dilla.
Produced by J Dilla.
Produced by Buckwild.
"Flava in Ya Ear"Craig Mack
Produced by Easy Mo Bee.
"Keep It Real"Milkbone
Produced by Mufi.
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The Hardest Rap Beats of All Time
Every genre has its own way of going to loud and heavy extremes. But rap production has a somewhat abstract set of criteria for judging how hard a beat can be, and how a track can make the MC on it sound like an unstoppable Man of Steel. Maybe the drums sound like they’re going to punch through the speakers. Maybe the bass feels like it’s going to shake you out of your chair. Or maybe an obscure sample with a piercing, high-pitched tone takes the energy of the track to another level. Through the aforementioned techniques, and more, hip-hop’s greatest beatmakers, from Dr. Dre to RZA to Just Blaze, have pushed the genre forward. They’ve done so in part by showing us new ways to make a looped rhythm track sound like a solid, immovable object, or more likely, a steadily pounding mechanical piston.
From Rick Rubin’s rock-rap anthems of the ‘80s to the Swizz Beatz synth bangers of the ’90s to the bombastic Just Blaze soul beats of the 2000s to the Lex Luger trap tracks of the 2010s, the most aggressive hip-hop hits of each era have their own unique texture. The Neptunes’ minimalism can be just as hard as The Bomb Squad’s noisy wall of samples. The handclap from Lil Jon’s 808 can cut through the air just as sharply as a snare that DJ Premier lifted from a ’70s funk record. Sometimes, a shouted M.O.P. or DMX chorus helps amplify a beat’s intensity. Other times, calmly delivered rhymes by T.I. or Biggie contrast beautifully with the frenetic energy of the track and let the production speak for itself. While some of these songs crossed over to the pop charts, others remained favorites of real rap heads and connoisseurs. Regardless of their ultimate fate, these are the hardest rap beats of all time.
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The 10 Greatest Hip-Hop Beats of All Time
10. Lil Wayne, "A Milli," produced by Bangladesh
Perhaps the most influential beat of the 21st century, this Bangladesh banger single-handedly started a new wave of trap that took the early innovations of Atlanta cats like Shawty Redd and DJ Toomp to the future. Nothing more than a hypnotically repetitive patois vocal sample (from a ridiculously obscure Tribe Called Quest remix) over an 808 drum kit, it's ridiculously simple, but you could freestyle over it endlessly. That rat-a-tat snare breakdown is the probably most copied drum fill in recent memory.
9. Jay Z featuring Amil and Jaz-O, "N---a What, N---a Who?," produced by Timbaland
Timbaland has always had a genius knack for crafting beats that sound like they're from the future. Some have become outdated, but the one that still sounds the most like the year 3000 was given to Jay Z for his classic "N---a What, N---a Who?" With its strobe synths and stuttering drums, Timbo provides a sonic template with pockets of silence that Jay fills with a constantly shifting meter. The chemistry is evident to this day.
8. Snoop Dogg featuring Pharrell, “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” produced by The Neptunes
Since the beginning of their reign as two of rap’s greatest creative minds, the Neptunes’ Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo proved to be masters of both minimalism (Clipse’s “Grindin’”) and maximalism (Gwen Stefani's colossal "Hollaback Girl"). But their best instrumental slots in the latter. With "Drop It like It's Hot," the Virginia duo provided a breathable landscape comprised of fingersnaps, mouth clicks and a Juno 106 synth that combined to form a beat that harnessed the pure keyboard sounds of the '70s and surrounded it with highly experimental percussion that paid off.
7. Puff Daddy and the Family, “All About the Benjamins,” produced by Deric "D-Dot" Angelettie
Puff Daddy typically leaned on his production group The Hitmen to mine samples from ‘60s and ‘70s records and flip them into shiny bucolic fare (Notorious B.I.G.’s “Mo Money Mo Problems,” Puff Daddy’s “Been Around the World”). But the peak of The Hitmen’s output came with “All About the Benjamins,” helmed by Deric “D-Dot” Angelettie, who slowed down a guitar lick from Love Unlimited’s “I Did It For Love” and made it the centerpiece atop whizzing percussion. It was dizzying and satiating, all at once, playing background to some of the finest bars from the Bad Boy crew.
6. Wu-Tang Clan, "C.R.E.A.M.," produced by RZA
The backdrop for Wu-Tang's most iconic song, this beat exemplified RZA's ridiculously prolific peak period. His dusty, rich soul samples -- here courtesy of the Charmels' "As Long As I've Got You" -- inspired folks like Kanye West and Just Blaze, and the drunken drum loop popularized swinging drums in an age of quantized, clockwork boom-bap. It all came together on "C.R.E.A.M.," a smear of organs, church-y wails, and an unforgettable piano melody that perfectly represented the bleak hood nightmares described by Raekwon and Inspektah Deck.
5. Mobb Deep, “Shook Ones Part II,” produced by Havoc
Mobb Deep’s Prodigy and Havoc spun a dark world for their classic 1995 debut The Infamous, with an even darker sonic landscape -- chalk it up to Havoc’s keen ear for gritty samples that pull together sounds from different records. It was with “Shook Ones Part II” that he perfected his craft, pulling from songs by Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock and Daly Wilson Big Band to create a menacing late-night instrumental that seamlessly coalesced with the pair’s tale of turf wars and chest thumps.
4. Dr. Dre featuring Snoop Dogg, “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang,” produced by Dr. Dre
Dr. Dre has consistently doled out classic beats for his own albums as well as sets from a wide range of artists like Snoop Dogg, Gwen Stefani and Eminem. Nothing epitomized the West Coast G-Funk sound more than “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang,” which established instrumental and percussive conventions that still dominate the area’s sound today. Recalling the funk sound of Parliament Funkadelic and interpreting it in the rising genre of hip-hop at the time, the instrumental served as the undisputable foundation of an entire movement.
3. Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, "They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)," produced by Pete Rock
This may have been the first hip-hop beat that could make you cry. And not just because of the inspiration behind it -- the senseless, unexplainable death of a close friend (Heavy D backup dancer Trouble T.R.O.Y, who died in a freak accident on tour). Sampled from a Tom Scott cover of Jefferson Airplane's "Today," the instrumentation -- a filtered bass line, choir and saxophone -- introduced a new moody impressionism to rap beats that would inspire producers like Kanye West and J. Dilla later on. Producer Pete Rock was always known for his horn loops, and here he chose exactly the right one.
2. Nas, "NY State of Mind," produced by DJ Premier
DJ Premier is arguably the best hip-hop producer of all time, and this may he his finest beat, and the one that represents him the best. He was raised in Texas before moving east, but his mid '90s work -- particularly on Nas' flawless Illmatic debut -- basically exemplifies the classic New York underground sound that folks like Joey Bada$$ idolize to this day. It's been called "boom bap," and the drums that start this classic Nas highlight (arguably the best album opener of all time) could very well be the inspiration for the term. It features also another Premier signature -- one of his weird, unidentifiable monotone chirps, sampled from who knows where -- and then the piano riff fades in, as sinister as the darkest Queensbridge stairwell. There's no escape from the street scenarios it inspired Nas to describe -- or this unforgettable beat once it gets into your nodding head.
1. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, "The Message," Produced by Ed Fletcher, Clifton "Jiggs" Chase and Sylvia Robinson
Old school hip-hop's greatest instrumental masterpiece, and the best sample-free rap beat ever, made before the innovations of folks like Steinski, Rick Rubin and Marley Marl brought loops to the forefront. The mix of cascading synthesizers, guitar plucks and timbale fills was the perfect backdrop for what's widely hailed as the prototype for sociopolitically conscious rap. Twelve years later, Ice Cube would jack the beat pretty much in entirety for "Check Yo Self," another hit with something to say. How's that for timeless?
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