When it comes to music, there’s no objective right or wrong, good or bad – but that never stops passionate music fans from sharing and defending their favorites. From pop hooks to album covers to beats, we’re rounding up some of the greatest of all time in music on Billboard. We spent months discussing, researching and reflecting on music from artists old and new, considering everything from sales to impact to innovation to longevity. The results won’t please everyone – and that’s as it should be. Everyone has their own takes on the greatest in music – this is ours
Creating the perfect beat is a combined matter of timing, creative genius and just the right rapper to complement it. Since hip-hop’s inception, producers spanning The Bomb Squad and J Dilla to Just Blaze and Kanye West have crafted instrumentals that have stood the test of time, but none more so than a handful of premier craftsmen — DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Dr. Dre — who have minted the best beats in the genre’s history. Read on for our countdown of the top 10 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.
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 Some have become outdated, but the one that still sounds the most like the year 3000 was given to Jay Z for his classic “N—a What, N—a Who?”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.
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.
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?