The Ringer's 101 Best L.A. Rap Songs

For much of its history, Los Angeles rap has been generalized as the diametric opposite of New York rap. Out West, they don’t wear Timbs and Avirex; they sport Nike Cortez and khakis. The stick-up kids roam the Five Boroughs, but in L.A. you need to protect your home from the flockers. Instead of boom-bap, it’s G-funk; instead of Bad Boy, it’s Death Row. In New York, it’s practically the dress code to wear a Yankees fitted, but in L.A. a seemingly infinite number of team hats can mean different things depending on what block you’re standing on. The city is the land of palm trees but also Bloods and Crips—of beaches but especially Rodney King and riots.

For outsiders weaned on ’80s and ’90s L.A. rap—particularly the brand of gangsta rap codified by the N.W.A–Death Row family tree—it’s hard to envision much beyond these totems. But to fixate on these things is to miss the totality of what Los Angeles has meant for hip-hop. The music is not just all vibes here—the city has produced some of the most traditionally skilled lyricists the genre has ever seen. And while Dr. Dre and his cohorts are responsible for some of hip-hop’s greatest stylistic advances, so too are more recent rappers like 03 Greedo and the late, great Drakeo the Ruler, who essentially invented a new language and a new way of rapping. L.A. hip-hop wasn’t just created inside the Death Row studio—its fathers and mothers also honed their crafts inside the Good Life Cafe in Crenshaw and later at the Low End Theory in Lincoln Heights each week. After all, Kendrick Lamar has been the city’s mainstream standard-bearer for the past decade, and he’s as much a descendant of Dr. Dre as he is Freestyle Fellowship.

On December 15, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic turns 30. It’s a titanic album that redefined hip-hop at large and helped define a city, even if it didn’t fully define it. Still, to mark the anniversary, we’ve collected the 101 best songs in Los Angeles (and Los Angeles County) rap history and ranked them below. It is an attempt to build a proper modern canon, and while it may have been tempting to load the list with Ice Cube deep cuts—rest assured, “Once Upon a Time in the Projects” was a painful last-minute elimination—duty called on us to craft something that paid homage to the full breadth of the city’s contributions. You’ll find plenty of Death Row tracks—especially at the top of the list—but you’ll also find ones by Hellfyre Club, Cypress Hill, and various DJ Quik associates. Many of the entries will reinforce what you’ve already come to know about Los Angeles. But perhaps more will challenge what you know—and in the process, change how you think about the city’s place in rap history. —Justin Sayles

The Ringer
Bust a Move Mix Tapes Trust No Bitch You Can't Play With My Yo-Yo I Wish Tres Delinquentes Earl Paranoid My Type of Party Bow Wow Wow El Camino Picture Me Rollin' The Recipe (Black Hippy Remix) Peace Treaty Whenimondamic Dead Locs Crenshaw & Slauson (True Story) We Can Freak It Dark Comedy Late Show You're a Jerk Piru Love"/"Steady Dippin' Concrete Schoolyard Mentirosa Teach Me How to Dougie Die Young Hours Guerillas in the Mist Insane in the Brain Worst Comes to Worst Meet the Flockers Out the Slums G'd Up Let's Play House Pay Ya Dues Wild Thing Pitch In Ona Party Bitch Betta Have My Money Black Superman Back in the Day - Remix Rack City Runnin' On a Sunday Afternoon Cartoons & Cereal Musty Soul on Ice (Remix) Xxplosive To Live and Die in L.A. You Know How We Do It Make Room Hood Took Me Under Indo Smoke New York, New York Summertime in the LBC Norf Norf Fantastic Voyage Yonkers Let Me Ride Money Trees Paparazzi Twist My Fingaz How We Do Colors Act a Fool Foe Life Pistol Grip Pump La Raza Mafia Business Next Episode Murder Rap Bow Down Afro Puffs Hussle in the House Everlasting Bass Getto Jam Impatient Freestyle Ain't No Fun (If the Homies Can't Have None) No Vaseline Supersonic Dollaz + Sense 2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted 7th Seal Deep Cover Egypt Egypt Why U Bullshittin'? Real Muthaphuckkin G's It's Funky Enough How I Could Just Kill a Man Batterram Streiht Up Menace Tonite Fuck Tha Police Passin' Me By Gin and Juice California Love m.A.A.d. City Boyz-N-The-Hood Regulate It Was a Good Day 6 'N the Mornin' Straight Outta Compton Nuthin’ But a 'G' Thang

Bust a Move

Young MC

Produced by Matt Dike, Michael Ross

“Bust a Move” dropped during finals week of Marvin Young’s senior year at USC. From then on he’d be better known as Young MC. With an unmistakable bass line courtesy of a pre-fame Flea and a track that went against the trend of gangsta rap that was also growing out of Los Angeles, the previously unknown rapper burst onto the scene and presented a sneak peek at the world of pop-rap that would fully materialize in the ’90s. It’s not a complex song, lyrically or musically, which is part of its appeal. And it’s not like “Bust a Move” was an opening salvo in what would be a stunning career. But there’s something to be said about timelessness and omnipresence, and “Bust a Move” has to rank pretty high on both of those scales. After all, what’s more timeless than a funky beat and the trials of trying to get laid? —Andrew Gruttadaro

Mix Tapes

The Nonce

Produced by Sach, Yusef Afloat

Hearing “Mix Tapes” for the first time as an impressionable middle schooler changed shit for me. I yearned for more music that sounded like this. I begged my friend’s older brother for a dub of the Nonce’s World Ultimate and the Rawkus Records compilation Soundbombing. Immediately after this, I somehow convinced my bachan to put two Technics 1200s on layaway for me and I’d somehow pay it off. The line, “On the turntables, I turned labels,” repeated in my head daily—until I could do so myself. The chorus became my origin story: from making shitty pause tapes and selling them during lunch to writing the wackest raps in an attempt to be an MC like Sach or Yusef Afloat. The rhymes and beats never panned out for me, but I still rock them tapes. —Keith Fujimoto

Trust No Bitch

Penthouse Players Clique (Feat. Eazy-E, AMG, DJ Quik)

Produced by DJ Quik

Despite its status as one of the most influential labels in rap history, Ruthless Records did a poor job at minting stars in the post-N.W.A, pre–Bone Thugs-n-Harmony era. A look at Eazy-E and Jerry Heller’s early-’90s output makes a fun game of Hey, remember them?: H.W.A, Blood of Abraham, Menajahtwa, Frost. (The artist who would become Black Eyed Peas’ was also lurking around at one point, but it’s best to not get involved.) Still, the label produced its share of cult classics during this relatively fallow period. Penthouse Players Clique’s “Trust No Bitch” may be chief among them. Rappers Playa Hamm and Tweed Cadillac are joined by the label boss plus AMG and DJ Quik for a five-minute romp of misogyny, silly wordplay, and Moog synthesizers. (The star here is Quik’s production, driven by a drum break lifted from ’70s British band Fancy—who, somewhat ironically, were initially fronted by onetime Penthouse Pet of the Month Helen Caunt.) “Trust No Bitch” doesn’t have the same footprint as “Tha Crossroads” or “Straight Outta Compton,” but 30 years after its release, it’s secured its place in that lineage as a classic in its own way. —Justin Sayles

You Can't Play With My Yo-Yo

Yo-Yo (Feat. Ice Cube)

Produced by Sir Jinx, Ice Cube

As the story goes, Ice Cube took Yo-Yo under his wing because he saw her as the female version of himself. After watching her slay opponents in high school battles across the Los Angeles area, he tapped her to appear on his solo debut, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, on the battle of the sexes back-and-forth, “It’s A Man’s World.” Yo-Yo was an advocate for Black female empowerment, self-respect, and uplifting her audience—but make no mistake, she was one of the few MCs who could put Cube in his place and go toe-to-toe with him on a record. 

So it was only right that the pair, who fashioned themselves as hip-hop’s Bonnie and Clyde, reunited for Yo-Yo’s breakout single “You Can’t Play With My Yo-Yo” from her 1991 debut, Make Way for the Motherlode

Over a familiar Earth, Wind & Fire sample, Yo-Yo crafted a conscious party record with a theme and title that could’ve been corny had someone else attempted to land it—but as always, Yo-Yo and Ice Cube stayed sucka free for the 1990s. —Andrew Barber

I Wish


Produced by Kandor, Skee-Lo

You couldn’t escape this song and W-S-K-E-E. If I close my eyes I can immediately picture Skee-Lo and his logoless jersey on the cassette single. “I Wish” was a song for the short folks (i.e., me)—for the dreamers, for the schemers, for the nameless individuals who couldn’t hoop (not me—I was decent and my name is Keith). If there’s one thing I still ponder from the 1995 jawn, it’s why did the rabbit have to have a bat? And did the rabbit with a bat only ride in 6-4 Impalas? Who cares? But I really do wish I didn’t have to hear this song as much as I did at its apex. Much love to Little Mookie and Loraine, though, I hope they’re tall. —Keith Fujimoto

Tres Delinquentes

Delinquent Habits

Produced by O.G. Style

You ever been watching a film with some authentic music playing and you thought, “Damn, this would sound hard looped with crispy drums?” That feels like what happened with O.G. Style and the rest of the heads behind this chilled, multilingual marvel before it hit the airwaves in 1996. Cypress Hill’s Sen Dog knew what he was doing when he helped usher in this track that was so hard, Andre Ethier requested it as his walk-up music. —khal


Earl Sweatshirt

Produced by Tyler, the Creator

Where were you when the world shifted? I was sitting in a shitty customer service job, trying to push enough paper to catch up on that week’s episode of Breaking Bad. By the time the bugged clip for Earl Sweatshirt’s OFWGKTA-fueled debut project hit in 2010, grown rap fans had lived through the ’80s, the ’90s, and the Eminem era. Dope rappers grasping at violent fantasies as a way to escape dated rap tropes was, well, dated. But there was something about Earl. Be it his attitude or acumen, Earl Sweatshirt demanded your attention, and above the awkward art Tyler was producing around the same time, Earl’s opening salvo felt like change actively raging against the system. —khal


Ty Dolla $ign (Feat. Joe Moses)

Produced by DJ Mustard

The ceiling for a hip-hop super-producer is often decided by how well they can mold their sound to pop and R&B. Since early in his career, DJ Mustard has frequently collaborated with West Coast crooners like Ty Dolla $ign and TeeFlii. But it wasn't until “Paranoid,” the breakout hit from both Mustard’s Ketchup tape and Ty’s Beach House 2, that ratchet & B felt truly christened. The combination of Ty’s smooth vocals and Mustard’s sunny synth lines brought the ratchet sound to its full potential and paved the way for Mustard to score hits for stars like Jennifer Lopez and Nick Jonas. 

Paranoid” succeeds not only by having one of the better ratchet beats of its time, but also by featuring a premise meant to empower both male and female listeners. Whether you're the man who’s cool enough to somehow convince two beautiful women to like you, or you're one of the two women smart enough to clock the infidelity and set up a plan, the song will likely stroke your ego long enough to keep you from going home early. Atlantic Records rereleased the song for the Beach House EP, replacing Joe Moses with a somewhat clumsy B.o.B verse, but ultimately pushing the song to new heights. —Donald Morrison

My Type of Party

Dom Kennedy

Produced by DJ Dahi

It was impossible to be at a college party on the West Coast in 2012 without hearing “My Type of Party.” It opens with a sample of Don Cornelius, the Black Dick Clark, on the set of his 1970s show Soul Train, introducing Dom Kennedy, who comes in sounding like a revved-up Mr. Potato Head: “Your girl got a cute face, her friend got a nice body.” From there, he raps about Dodge Chargers, the Dodgers, Oprah, and Scarface. Between Kennedy’s delivery and DJ Dahi’s vibey production, “My Type of Party” is unmistakably an L.A. song. But there’s a playful inoffensiveness to Kennedy’s debauchery that helps it appeal to young people outside the 213. 

“My Type of Party” benefited from being released at the beginning of hip-hop’s Blog Era, spreading like wildfire through relatively new online channels and reaching ears it may not have three years earlier. It’s the first real hit from Dahi, an Inglewood-based producer who would continue to define the Blog Era sound, eventually producing songs for Kendrick Lamar (“Money Trees”), Drake (“Worst Behavior”), and Big Sean (“I Don’t Fuck With You”), among many others. It’s also a precursor to the laid-back “lifestyle rap” of recent years, laying the foundation for artists like Larry June and Jay Worthy to continue glamorizing the low-stakes life of partying, eating healthfully, and seeking success in every opportunity, all key components to the West Coast way of being. —Donald Morrison

Bow Wow Wow


Produced by DJ Muggs, DJ Lethal

Funkdoobiest never got a fair shake, but they would’ve jumped at the chance to make a dick joke right there. Irrepressibly horny and porn-obsessed, Son Doobie, Tomahawk Funk, and DJ Ralph M quickly drew comparisons to their fellow Soul Assassins Cypress Hill. The general tenor was: swap the weed smoke and gang violence for sex. While the comparisons weren’t unfounded—Muggs and B-Real’s involvement in Funkdoobiest’s 1994 debut, Which Doobie U B?, didn’t help—they were myopic. Funkdoobiest were hilarious and talented rappers who celebrated their multicultural roots, perhaps the only major-label rap act in the early ’90s with Caribbean (Son is Puerto Rican), Mexican (DJ Ralph M), and Native American (Tomahawk) members.

“Bow Wow Wow,” the lead single from Which Doobie U B?, stands next to Cypress Hill tracks, not in their shadow, a banging product of the Soul Assassins hive mind. Muggs and DJ Lethal create dusty basement funk that feels at once menacing and cartoonish. The combination served as the perfect backdrop for Son Doobie to drop a flurry of imaginative similes with his nasal, ping-ponging, in-the-pocket delivery. Funkdoobiest’s debut crested at 56 on the Billboard 200 on the strength of “Bow Wow Wow,” their sophomore album has millions of streams in 2022, and Son Doobie eventually starred in a porno. Perhaps things shook out all right. —Max Bell

El Camino


Produced by Jack Jr

Initially known as one of the best battle rappers of the pre-acappella era and then as the cofounder and host of Low End Theory—the weekly club night that served as headquarters for the city’s beat music scene—Nocando developed into a third, more volatile thing (and adopted his current stage name, All City Jimmy). “El Camino” is on one level a song about the long tail of the 2008 recession (“Had a good job, but they sent it overseas so …”). More generally, though, it’s about the illusion of meritocracy and the weariness that accompanies its dissolution. When he says, “I bought a white Bronco because O.J. was my hero,” he explains that he wants a “dream team” like the Juice’s lawyers to drag him past all logic and odds; when he expresses ambivalence about Black Lives Matter protests, he’s quick to qualify, rejecting every contemporary political or protest movement save the impulse to “shoot a cop in the face.” That line is followed by a string of slurs Nocan nearly shouts, the idea being to insult wide swaths of people in a way that renders their divisions moot. Instead it functions as a temperature check on the bone-deep exhaustion that animates the song. He seems to be asking: Do I feel anything yet? Do you? —Paul Thompson

Picture Me Rollin'


Produced by Johnny J

Earlier this year, I had a long conversation with Jamal Joseph, who in 1969 was prosecuted alongside Afeni Shakur as one of the Panther 21 and would later earn two college degrees and begin a career as a playwright while in federal lockup for harboring Afeni’s husband, Mutulu. This was at an exhibit in downtown L.A. that displayed hundreds of papers and artifacts from 2Pac’s life. Toward the end of our talk, Joseph nodded at the exhibit’s final portion, which I had yet to see. He asked: “Do you see how high the walls got?”

I thought, at first, that he was speaking in metaphor. But in a room dedicated to the final year of Pac’s life, the exhibitors had stacked master reels from his brief time on Death Row Records, and they reached so high as to make visitors claustrophobic. By all accounts—and in any reading of his work—Pac felt, in that final year, that the walls were closing in around him. He rapped about death even more than he had before going to prison; he worked at a frantic pace, living off per diem and barring his collaborators from editing their work. He had things to say to Bill Clinton, C. Delores Tucker, and other critics of his work, but the sessions for All Eyez on Me and the album that would become The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory were so frenzied that they were usually crowbarred into songs that doubled as radio singles about sex, or lists of grievances with fellow rappers. 

“Picture Me Rollin’” bucks this trend. Tucked in the middle of All Eyez’s second disc, it is the rare moment across that opus when Pac allows himself to breathe, reminisce, luxuriate in shreds of revenge. This is true not so much during his verse—a typically magnetic masterpiece of fear and defiance (“My dreams is censored, my hopes are gone”)—but in the outro, where Pac sounds positively gleeful as he taunts the district attorney who locked him up and the COs who made his life hell in prison. “Can you see me?” he cackles at them. “Am I clear to you?” —Paul Thompson

The Recipe (Black Hippy Remix)

Kendrick Lamar (Feat. Ab-Soul, Jay Rock, ScHoolboy Q, Dr. Dre)

Produced by Scoop DeVille, Dr. Dre

In Los Angeles, you’re almost always near the ocean, but also far from it. Sometimes, it’s a matter of distance: In sunlight, a 10-mile drive to the coast can take hours. Sometimes, it’s a matter of perspective: The vision of L.A. that Kendrick Lamar paints on good kid, m.A.A.d. city is mere minutes from the beach, but seemingly a world apart from it.

Coming as a bonus track on the deluxe version of the darkly poetic good kid, m.A.A.d. city, “The Recipe” remix is a reprieve from the violence and existential crossroads that define the album’s narrative. It’s not the best song that he and his full Black Hippy collective created—that’s possibly “Say Wassup” or even their take on “U.O.E.N.O.”—and it’s not the one that showcases the collective’s full potential (that’s likely early highlight “Zip That Chop That”). But “The Recipe” is their most L.A. song, complete with a Dr. Dre cosign and a smooth Scoop Deville production. The song begins with the sound of a plane landing at LAX—a sign this will be a vacation from the world of “Sherane” and “Money Trees”—before Kendrick, Ab-Soul, Jay Rock, and ScHoolboy Q give praise to the three Ws that define their city: women, weed, and weather. Over the course of four minutes, the quartet luxuriates in good vibes, cruising down blocks with the top down and offering visions of ladies with their tops off. It’s a beachside oasis amid a palm-treed Hades, and a reminder that sometimes all you need is a few simple things to find peace. It’s also a reminder to kick your Nike Cortezes up—it’s gonna take awhile to get back home, so make the most of it. —Justin Sayles

Peace Treaty


Produced by Solid Scheme

On the afternoon of April 29, 1992, four LAPD officers who had been caught on camera beating Rodney King during a traffic stop the year prior were acquitted of assault charges. By nightfall, the city was embroiled in the most acute period of widespread violence since the Watts Uprising in 1965. LAPD chief Daryl Gates had prepared by earmarking $1 million for officer overtime; after five days of fighting across the county, 63 people had been killed, including at least nine by the police and one by the National Guard. Just 24 hours before that verdict was read, however, another group of Angelenos had brokered one of the more remarkable peace agreements in the city’s history. 

On April 28, leaders from the PJ Watts Crips, Watts Circle Piru, the Grape Street Crips, and the Bounty Hunter Bloods finalized a Watts gang truce that was a generation in the making. One year later, Kam’s “Peace Treaty” reflected on both that ceasefire and the threat a united Los Angeles posed to the cops. Over thunderous George Clinton funk, Kam raps that he can “still smell the ashes” from the King riots, and makes a pointed defense of looting: “Quiet is kept, it wasn't just the Blacks / Everybody was looting, and had each other's backs [...] We all had our hand in the cookie jar, took it far enough to make a statement / Daryl Gates: that's where all the hate went.” —Paul Thompson



Produced by Madlib

“Whenimondamic” can be confusion; taken from the first project where many heard the genius of Madlib, Lootpack represents a more vibrant side of L.A. rap. Secure in their roots, Lootpack embraced the odd frequencies they’d picked up in the middle of the desert, giving heads a syrupy-smooth, sample-based peek into what happens when you let go and let L.A. have its way. —khal

Dead Locs


Produced by Scum Beatz

There’s a case to be made that, on a long enough timeline, the smooth-edged precision of G-funk will seem like a historical blip rather than L.A. hip-hop’s defining sound. While the gently swinging flows ushered in by Dr. Dre et al. at the beginning of the 1990s became its chief export, the city has teemed—before, during, and after Dre’s reign—with vocal approaches that are considerably more complicated, from the jagged story raps that spilled out of roller rinks in the ’80s through the jazz experiments in Leimert Park and the Fred Astaire–with-a-beeper patterns Suga Free smuggled in from Pomona. 

In the late 2010s, Blueface became a magnet for criticism in L.A. and around the country from listeners who found his style a bridge too far. The former football star from Mid City boasted that he was “literally talking in this bitch—and it’s still knocking”; he was right. Before “Thotiana” was remixed by Cardi B and broke through nationally, Blueface had become a local sensation with “Dead Locs,” a song seemingly structured around his own weariness, each bar painstakingly yanked out of somebody who had far better places to be. —Paul Thompson

Crenshaw & Slauson (True Story)

Nipsey Hussle

Produced by DJ Dahi, Wizzo

Nipsey Hussle spent the majority of his career communicating what it was like living in a small section of South L.A. He grew up near Crenshaw Boulevard and Slauson Avenue, where he eventually invested his money and opened his own shop, the Marathon Clothing store. On March 31, 2019, Nipsey Hussle was shot to death by Eric Holder in front of the store. Holder was found guilty in 2022 and as of publication was awaiting sentencing.

“Crenshaw & Slauson” is a song steeped in legend. It’s a 12-minute, three-part magnum opus that delves into Nipsey’s journey through the area and into the music business, detailing the sacrifices and traumas he faced along the way. It’s featured as the final track on Crenshaw, which Nipsey famously pressed 1,000 copies of, selling them for $100 each (Jay-Z and Roc-A-Fella Records bought 100). It’s a chill-inducing history of the important moments in Nipsey’s brief time on earth and a tribute to the only place he’d ever called home. In the wake of his death, the video stands as a living testament not only to Nipsey’s success, but to the resiliency of the entire neighborhood that he sought to immortalize in his music. —Donald Morrison

We Can Freak It


Produced by DJ Battlecat

Kurupt, half of the immortal Dogg Pound duo, is in rare form on the first single from his debut solo album. DJ Battlecat’s silky production, aided by additional vocals from Baby S and Butch Cassidy, provides the perfect backdrop to any cookout. But the record’s success is a testament to Kurupt’s resilience. Throughout the early ’90s, the rapper born Ricardo Brown was the little homie of Death Row Records, lending vocals to others’ classics and waiting for his chance. He left the label in 1996, and two years later, equipped with a joint-venture agreement with A&M Records, Kurupt made a masterpiece. Despite the absence of big homie Snoop and the rest of the Death Row crew, the success of “We Can Freak It” pushed Kuruption! to no. 8 on the Billboard charts. But more importantly, it cemented Young Gotti’s position among the best solo artists the West Coast has ever produced. —Logan Murdock

Dark Comedy Late Show

Open Mike Eagle

Produced by Exile

Even as notebook purges go, “Dark Comedy Late Show” ranges wildly, from the paramilitary occupation of Ferguson in the summer of 2014 to relitigations of the Spin Doctors’ catalog, from “presidential speeches on The West Wing” to Iraq, which Open Mike Eagle imagines the U.S. will invade “15 times in my adulthood.” “Late Show” is built around an urgent, Exile-produced chop of the gentler intro to Eagle’s 2014 commercial breakthrough, Dark Comedy, and serves as something of an addendum to that album. It’s a showcase for the rigorous but playful style the rapper forged at Leimert Park’s Project Blowed, itself an evolution of the battle-rap DNA he brought with him from his native Chicago. As on Dark Comedy proper, Eagle moves beyond simple juxtaposition and uses real-life horror (“kids being murdered just for being Black and tall outdoors”) to cast his own burgeoning career as quixotic. “I got a deadline—before, I never had a deal,” he raps. “Stormed out of business meetings/Slipped on mass banana peels.” Underneath all of this, the title and recurring laugh track drive home the real joke of Eagle’s work from this era: that the gravest and most trivial things alike are destined to be ground into consumable pulp. —Paul Thompson

You're a Jerk

New Boyz

Produced by Legacy

The video for “You’re a Jerk” is a sneakily comprehensive vision of Los Angeles at the end of the 2000s: LAPD helicopters swarm overhead like vultures as kids in the most garish clothing imaginable—think checkerboard skinny jeans, Sesame Street character snapbacks—showcase the lighthearted dance craze that dominated the city’s rap scene for nearly half a decade. The New Boyz’s biggest single was among the first songs to crystallize jerkin’s stark, playful minimalism for commercial release, but it carried the banner for a scene that was already thriving off-mic; that video features cameos from celebrated local crews like Action Figures and the Ranger$. 

It also ends with a flip of “Scotty,” a song by the Atlanta group D4L. While there are key differences between snap music and jerkin’ (both genres tended toward airlessness, but the latter was girded by more steadily pulsing low ends, and its dance component was more competitive), each was derided in its time by those who found it insufficiently serious or sophisticated. Yet jerkin’ predicted nearly everything that would follow in L.A. rap, from the ratchet music that blended it with touches of Louisiana and the Bay to the nervous music of the late 2010s whose stars, like Drakeo the Ruler, not only retained jerkin’s coy relationship to the listener, but graduated from its dance crews. —Paul Thompson

Piru Love"/"Steady Dippin'

Bloods & Crips

Produced by J. Stank

After the success of West Coast gangsta rap in the late ’80s and early ’90s, artists and labels from coast to coast wanted to cash in on the craze. However, many of the rappers who hopped on the bandwagon were labeled as frauds or studio gangsters, using street fables to exploit a lifestyle they never actually lived.

Record producer Ronnie “Ronnie Ron” Phillips had an idea of how to combat this epidemic and make the music more authentic: a supergroup of actual Bloods and Crips. Ronnie held auditions for the best rappers from each set (for most it was their first time in a recording studio) and settled on 16 artists—eight from each faction. 

The album, Bangin’ on Wax, was recorded in two weeks in 1993, with a lineup that included the likes of Tweedy Bird Loc, Bloody Mary, Sin Loc (who famously donned a Freddy Krueger mask on the cover), Battlecat (who was already established as a producer and DJ), and Genuine Draft (who would blow up later in 1993 as Domino, who also appears on this list as a solo artist).

While the album was largely seen as a cash grab and gimmick by critics, it did produce the minor hit “Piru Love,” which received heavy airplay on BET’s Rap City and was a favorite on The Box. Over a slick flip of Zapp & Roger’s “Computer Love” by producer J. Stank, the Bloods celebrated their respective sets and gave Middle America a crash course in L.A. gang slang. (“Piru is Crip in reverse but the C’s on its back.”) 

While the Crips had the more established artists of the bunch, none of their contributions matched the height of “Piru Love.” They did make some noise, however, with their single “Steady Dippin’,” which celebrated SoCal lowrider culture and the Blue side of things. —Andrew Barber

Concrete Schoolyard

Jurassic 5

Produced by Cut Chemist, DJ Nu-Mark

For the real hip-hop contingent in Los Angeles, Jurassic 5’s got you covered. The Cut Chemist–and–DJ Nu-Mark–produced “Concrete Schoolyard” is the perfect late-’90s ode to “real hip-hop” that’s lost today. This was a time when there were so many MCs vying for your time that cats had to be unique, either via flows or their name. Listening to “Concrete Schoolyard” feels like listening to “The Message” as a grown adult, but you can’t deny L.A.’s evolution as a hip-hop hotbed, regardless of the era. —khal


Mellow Man Ace

Produced by Tony G

“Mentirosa” isn’t just a landmark track in the history of Los Angeles hip-hop, it’s a landmark for all of hip-hop as the genre’s first Spanglish hit. Weaving in words and phrases from his Cuban American upbringing in the city of South Gate, Mellow Man Ace expanded rap’s entire vocabulary. The video even featured subtitles for no entiendo listeners. On “Mentirosa,” Mellow cut a smooth figure, delivering this story of deception with a charming, digestible flow. Made during the post-Tone Lōc moment, producer Tony G flipped Santana samples like the Dust Brothers did for Van Halen, transitioning the source material to a new generation of park jams. Mellow is the brother of Sen Dog, and the two were members of DVX together before he went solo and the remaining group transformed into Cypress Hill. Though Cypress would go on to exceed Mellow in career success, “Mentirosa” and its unapologetic use of Latin lingo helped pave the way for them and eventually global superstars like Bad Bunny. —Eric Ducker

Teach Me How to Dougie

Cali Swag District

Produced by RunWay Star

In 2022, “Teach Me How to Dougie” seems quaint. Over a decade removed from its impact, the Cali Swag District song feels more pure than it did upon release. In a more centralized world of corporate-backed TikTok dances, it’s nice to reminisce about a song and dance that trades in fluidity and full body bounce over the jerky, upper-body movements of the present.

Like the best hip-hop dances, Cali Swag District leaned into the absurdity of the moment. The song’s first verse features the rapper Smoove transitioning from a tutorial on how to do the dougie (for those curious you must “put your arms out front, lean side-to-side”) into his recounting that he’s so talented at this particular dance that his enemies can’t help but shoot him for it. For that reason alone “Teach Me How to Dougie” belongs in the L.A. rap canon. 

But at its core, “Teach Me How to Dougie” proves that L.A. rap is as varied as it is rich. The home of gangsta rap and G-funk can also birth jerk or carry on the legacy of the dougie. There’s an art and joy to the frivolous. —Charles Holmes

Die Young

Roddy Ricch

Produced by London on da Track

Much of Roddy Ricch’s songwriting hinges on simple, stark juxtaposition: the luxury cars and clothes at the scene of a grisly murder, the distrust that clouds seemingly idyllic new relationships. But the Compton native has also lived this kind of whiplash reversal. As he often says before performing “Die Young,” the signature song from his breakthrough mixtape, 2018’s Feed Tha Streets II, the first major life event that followed his getting famous was not the purchase of a home or a new chain—it was receiving the call that his best friend had died following a high-speed car chase. So while the text of the song suggests Roddy is fretting over the rapper assassinations that have become horrifyingly common—it’s dotted with those quick contradictions: the money bulging from his jeans that makes him a target, the watch that proves he can make bail—it’s taken on the air of an even more totalizing sorrow. —Paul Thompson



Produced by Daedelus

In 2007, after spending a few years on the fringes of L.A.’s underground scene, the San Pedro–based Blu became a blog sensation seemingly overnight with the release of Below the Heavens, his widescreen, largely autobiographical album with the producer Exile. Heavens is a striking debut, one that was immediately concerned with its author’s place in the canon and, despite that author’s youth, gazed backward at his childhood, his parents, the version of his hometown that had already evaporated in the heat. It was Illmatic for people with RSS feeds. Eager fans and critics earmarked him as the savior of L.A.; he signed to Warner and began work on an album, NoYork!, that they imagined would be Heavens on a bigger budget.    

Instead, Blu made a record that captured the glitchy, constantly mutating energy of the city’s emergent beat music scene that emanated from the Airliner in Lincoln Heights. Its roster of producers included Flying Lotus, Samiyam, Dibia$e, and Knxwledge, its raps few of the longform vignettes or vigorous setup-punchline constructions that girded Heavens. Blu would eventually be dropped by Warner, though not before copies of the new LP were burned onto CDs and passed around festival crowds, uploaded online, and filtered through rattling speakers. At its most digressive, NoYork! operates like “Hours,” the Daedelus-crafted suite that unfolds from chorus to chorus, with enjambments of earnest club chants from 30 years prior (“Working class around the world / Gentlemen, women, boys and girls!”) and disaffected takes on verses from The Black Album. It’s electronic but not digital, clipped yet expansive. It imagines a world that operates by instinct alone—and pays time and a half for it. —Paul Thompson

Guerillas in the Mist

Da Lench Mob

Produced by Ice Cube

At the risk of entirely undermining the credibility of this list, I have a working theory that Ice Cube is spiritually a New York rapper. His blunt, perpetually aggrieved persona had always been in conflict with the blunted and laid-back G-funk sound, and when it came time to make his first true solo statement, he enlisted the Bomb Squad for production and returned the favor on Public Enemy’s “Burn Hollywood Burn.” This is all common knowledge, but also consider the first posse album created in Ice Cube’s image. Da Lench Mob were both unrepentant pro-Black militants and unrepentant aggro-rap hardheads, sounding and looking more like a combination of Brand Nubian and Onyx than anything coming from Los Angeles at the time. But while their introductory single, “Guerrillas in the Mist,” makes memorable use of an X-Clan snippet on the hook and James Brown’s “The Payback,” they can’t help but sprinkle in a few requisite Parliament samples as a tribute to the prevailing foundation of West Coast hip-hop. “Guerrillas in the Mist” could’ve stomped through any concrete jungle, but I have to grant ultimate authority on this matter to Grand Theft Auto’s Radio Los Santos, where Da Lench Mob are in heavy rotation right alongside “Deep Cover” and Above the Law’s “Murder Rap.” —Ian Cohen

Insane in the Brain

Cypress Hill

Produced by DJ Muggs

Diss tracks beget more diss tracks. When Chubb Rock chose to mock B-Real of Cypress Hill on his song “Yabadabadoo” by alleging B wasn’t a lyricist, a fire was lit on the hillside. While recording their second album, Black Sunday, Cypress Hill used that flame to ether Chubb Rock. B-Real opened the track with the now iconic rhetorical, “Who you trying to get crazy with, ese? / Don’t you know that I’m loco?” From there, he went full Son of Sam and tossed Chubb in the frying pan. The venom Sen Dog spewed in his verse, however, would go on to make B-Real’s attacks seem innocuous. (A highlight: “Fat boy on a diet, don't try it / I'll jack yo' ass like a looter in a riot.”) It’s safe to say the diss was returned with interest. 

The track was made with an assortment of samples, including three of Cypress Hill’s own tracks, but the most notable were the drums on “Get Out My Life Woman” by George Semper and James Brown’s “UHHH” ad-lib from “Say It Loud.” The blaring horn’s origin, however, is inconclusive, because of producer DJ Muggs’s ever-changing explanation of how that sound came to be. —Rosecrans Vic

Worst Comes to Worst

Dilated Peoples (Feat. Guru)

Produced by The Alchemist

The trio of Evidence, Rakaa Iriscience, and DJ Babu secured their place as L.A. subterranean royalty with their Enter the Dragon–sampling classic “Work the Angles” in 1998, but the lead single off of 2001’s Expansion Team lands on this list instead of that song for one reason: its producer, the Alchemist. Decades before he came to be known affectionately as Uncle Al—and decades before he helped codify the sound of 2010s dusty indie rap—the Alchemist was a Beverly Hills–raised teenager who palled around with James Caan’s son in a group called the Whooliganz. After they split, Al turned to his ASR-10, quickly becoming the beatmaker du jour for the likes of East Coast legends like Prodigy and Jadakiss. With “Worst Comes to Worst,” he saved one of his best performances for some friends back home. He transforms William Bell’s oft-sampled “I Forgot to Be Your Lover” from a forlorn love ode into a triumphant speaker knocker, stretching its horns and electric guitar over an unconventional three-bar loop. The song was a minor hit on rap radio, and it helped push an ostensibly underground group to no. 36 on the Billboard 200. When Evidence says midway through the song, “Actually, that’s best comes to best,” he may as well have been talking about Alchemist's work here. —Justin Sayles

Meet the Flockers


Produced by Mike Free

“Meet the Flockers” anchors YG’s 2014 debut album, My Krazy Life, which took the cinematic sweep of Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city and spliced it with Hennessy, raunchy humor, and a sleek DJ Mustard–helmed sound that would come to define L.A. hip-hop for the rest of the decade. The song wears its California influences openly: the gurgling synths and percussion taken from Mustard’s ratchet niche, sparse piano pulled from turn-of-the-century Dr. Dre, and a cryptic talk box on the chorus inspired by early Zapp & Roger, and later Death Row. The influences go beyond music, too: the caper at the heart of the song—and the album it appears on—is the musical descendant of F. Gary Gray’s classic South-Central setpieces Friday and Set It Off

“Meet the Flockers” isn’t an ode to home invasion; it’s an instruction manual. First, YG says, you find a house and “scope it out.” He proceeds, with barely concealed glee and a hint of mania, to lay out the steps of a successful lick, urging his would-be accomplice knowingly to leave the TV and laptop, and “go and get that jewelry box.” It’s a Compton Ocean’s 11 on wax, a giddy celebration of fast cash and a clear-eyed understanding of its consequences. —Jackson Howard

Out the Slums

Drakeo the Ruler (Feat. 03 Greedo)


In the second half of the 2010s, a new kind of L.A. street rap was emerging from deep in the county and deeper in the internet. South L.A.’s Drakeo the Ruler and the Watts-bred 03 Greedo represented the two poles of this sound. The former’s music was a wobbling maze of slang picked up in jail and in muttered asides between friends, the latter’s the solitary creation of someone who ingested every rap song from Georgia and Louisiana for a decade and blended them into a vehicle for his considerable psychic pain. Greedo had bounced around the country; Drakeo wrote about the chasmic divide between the 60s and the 100s. When they came together to shoot the video for their greatest collaboration, it was late at night on Rodeo Drive, the marquees for luxury boutiques lit up like Halloween decorations. “Out the Slums” opens with a prayer (“Lord, keep me away from these bums”) and nods, coyly, to a kind of transfiguration, Drakeo molting from mudwalking zombie into Cavalli-draped savior. But Greedo steals the song, launching into a verse that bounces on the front half of every measure—his enthusiasm uncontainable, his chain so unimpeachable that diamond testers chirp with “the Neptunes sound” at the mere glimpse of it. —Paul Thompson

G'd Up

Tha Eastsidaz

Produced by DJ Battlecat

Bounce. That Battlecat, West Coast, smooth, synth-riding bounce. “G’d Up” exemplifies the G-funk experience: “You know we keep it bangin’, don't fake the funk.” If you weren’t playing hypeman to Snoop’s hook and singing along with Butch Cassidy’s bridge, you probably never experienced switching lanes on the 101-110 interchange in DTLA. Every verse feels like another pull from the blunt, another swig of the alcoholic beverage of your choice. Tha Eastsidaz embody what it feels like to take an afternoon drive through South-Central L.A. and, most importantly, always recognize the real way that gangstas ride. —Keith Fujimoto

Let's Play House

Tha Dogg Pound

Produced by Dr. Dre, Daz Dillinger

It’s safe to say Daz and Kurupt made a splash on The Chronic. Then they did it again on Doggystyle. By the time the Murder Was the Case soundtrack dropped, interest in Tha Dogg Pound had hit a fever pitch thanks to records like “What Would U Do?” and “Who Got Some Gangsta Shit?” The duo waited patiently for their time to shine, but the controversy surrounding Death Row Records delayed their debut album, Dogg Food, for almost a year. 

Tha Dogg Pound found themselves at the center of a dispute between Interscope’s parent company, Time Warner, and various politicians who took aim at Death Row for their explicit lyrics and content. In the end, Time Warner severed ties with Interscope (an incredibly dumb business move), leaving Death Row’s parent company without a proper distributor. That’s when Priority Records stepped in to save the day, picking up the album and fast-tracking the Daz Dillinger–and–Dr. Dre–produced single, “Let’s Play House.” 

The track would be one of two songs Dr. Dre coproduced on Dogg Food (although he mixed the entire album), and featured dazzling vocals from Dre’s then-girlfriend and former Ruthless Records star Michel’le. The late, great Nate Dogg also contributed, adding some rich baritone to the hook.

But the real stars were Daz and Kurupt, who finally got their moment in the sun, with an addictive and bouncy first single that shot Dogg Food to the top of the charts. But within weeks of its release, Tupac Shakur would join the family, changing the trajectory of the group and label forever. —Andrew Barber

Pay Ya Dues

Low Profile

Produced by Aladdin

After N.W.A came the gold rush. Rappers flocked to Southern California, claiming false local origins to earn a record deal (a subject pilloried on Freestyle Fellowship’s “Sunshine Men”). Simultaneously, L.A. rap’s first crossover rap sensations began nabbing film soundtrack appearances and placements atop the pop charts. In particular, there was the runaway phenomenon of a USC economics student who branded himself Young MC and went platinum with “Bust a Move”—a whimsical tale of the nuptials of his best friend Harry’s brother, Larry, that strayed far away from the realities of late-’80s South-Central street life. 

Enter Low Profile, the duo of WC and DJ/producer Aladdin, whose 1989 single “Pay Ya Dues” became a generational diss aimed at an unmistakably clear target: suckers who didn’t pay dues. If L.A. rap initially carried the stigma of being a bastard child of New York, slightly behind the times, whose artists’ street ties and shrewd marketing allowed them to overcome their less-than-elite skills, WC offered a built-in response. Released well before Ice Cube’s Bomb Squad–produced AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, “Pay Ya Dues” decimates imitation KRS-Ones and Chuck Ds on both coasts, introducing William Calhoun’s own twisted curb stomp flow. 

The former member of Ice-T’s Rhyme Syndicate rapped like he Crip-walked: a fluid blur of aggressive agility. This is a debut as hip-hop genesis story, where Low Profile dreamed about getting paid while driving a raggedy Dodge and making demos in the garage with a broken 808. They arrive on the set with a subwoofer exploding classic, built on a J.B.’s sample and the Zapp drums, while Aladdin laces turntable cuts that cement their four elements bona fides.

“Pay Ya Dues” became one of the region’s first post–Straight Outta Compton hardcore anthems, and it earned a second life in the backpack era when Aladdin included it on the six-CD changer staple Cali Kings: Mixtape Volume 1. There would always be marketable impostors, perpetrators rapping for only 30 minutes but who already had a gold record. Some things will never change. —Jeff Weiss

Wild Thing

Tone Lōc

Produced by The Dust Brothers

Tone Lōc has one of the great voices of hip-hop history, and on “Wild Thing” his party-animal growl was the perfect instrument for this song about skeezing around the city. Producer team the Dust Brothers realized that the common denominator between Sunset Strip kings Van Halen and former Crip Tone Lōc (via lyrics penned partially by Young MC) was unabashed lustfulness, so they went in. The story goes that Delicious Vinyl cofounder Michael Ross originally got the idea for the track after seeing Fab 5 Freddy utter a slimy pickup line in Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It, and eventually that film’s star, Tracy Camilla Johns, returned the favor by appearing in the video for “Wild Thing.” The micro-budgeted clip—which director Tamra Davis estimates cost a few hundred dollars—found its way to MTV and seeped into young America’s freaky psyche. At the time “Wild Thing” was the biggest-selling single since “We Are the World” and Tone Lōc’s kiss-off line even turned into Arnold Schwarzenegger’s second most famous catchphrase, baby. —Eric Ducker

Pitch In Ona Party

DJ Quik

Produced by DJ Quik

For nearly four decades, David Blake’s beats have mastered the art of getting you up off your ass. “Pitch In Ona Party” achieves the feat with a soothing funky bass, vibes, and a subtle hint of G-funk. But the hook of the record is Quik himself, who effectively captures the magic of a West Coast function. He provides the venue, you bring the drank and potato salad, and we all shame the idiot who kicks the extension cord out of the wall, temporarily suspending the euphoria Quik’s created. 

The first single from Quik’s fifth album has all the characteristics of the Compton rapper’s breakout single, “Tonite,” with an updated twist. The 20-year-old kid who can’t hold his liquor from Quik Is the Name is now a nearly 30-something curmudgeon hiding his White Star bottle and contemplating whether to kick his homies out the spot for the blunt burns in his couch. It’s a tale all too familiar in the land of kickbacks, backyard cookouts, and family reunions and provides a lesson for anyone trying to throw a function: Do so at your own risk. —Logan Murdock

Bitch Betta Have My Money


Produced by AMG

AMG flirts with multiple styles across the 21 tracks of his debut full-length, Bitch Betta Have My Money. Though the lyrics are often brazenly profane, the sounds usually bounce between funky, silly, and psychedelic. Only the first single and title track features AMG’s full-on, cocksure pimp posturing. Though AMG was down with DJ Quik and the rest of the “Skanless” posse, he produced almost the entirety of his full-length himself, this time sampling the grit of Los Angeles soul singer Al Wilson’s protest jam “Listen to Me.” While “Bitch Betta Have My Money” was sometimes sampled or interpolated over the years, AMG largely disappeared from public output after his debut’s moderate success, aside from his brief reunion with Quik as the Fixxers in 2007. AMG’s version of “Bitch Betta Have My Money” experienced a resurgence of interest in 2015 when Rihanna released a song by the same name. Aside from the title, the main thing the two have in common is the underlying message: fuck you, pay me. —Eric Ducker

Black Superman

Above The Law

Produced by Cold 187um

Hailing from Pomona, California, Above the Law were one of the early blue-chip signings to Eazy-E’s Ruthless Records. Their debut album, Livin’ Like Hustlers, was released in 1990 and while it was credited as being produced by Dr. Dre and Above the Law, it was actually orchestrated by Above the Law member Big Hutch (a.k.a. Cold 187um). Big Hutch is often credited as being the actual creator of the G-funk sound that Dr. Dre made famous in the early ’90s. In fact, the first time G-funk was ever mentioned on a track was by 2Pac on Above the Law’s “Call It What You Want” in 1992.

But while Dre gets the lion's share of the credit, Above the Law was making some of the hardest and most creative G-funk records of that era. This is probably best evidenced by their third album, 1994’s Uncle Sam’s Curse.

The lead single was “Black Superman,” where the group fancies themselves neighborhood superheroes via the illegal drug trade, battling against a villainous oppressive system built to tear them down at every turn. But the song isn’t all glamor and glitz; it also touches on the pitfalls of street life and the risks that come along with it. Hutch closes out the song with one of the most powerful verses of 1994, stating he’d rather risk a lengthy prison sentence than have his mom go back on government aid. If that doesn’t punch you in your gut, you ain’t listening right. 

The song was so powerful, Boldy James repurposed the voicemail sequence for his 2021 song with Alchemist, “Double Hockey Sticks.” —Andrew Barber

Back in the Day - Remix


Produced by Kendal, Ahmad

Nostalgia and Teddy Pendergrass’s “Love T.K.O.” are a megatron-like combination. Together, they’re an unstoppable force of nature. When I reminisce about wishing I was a kid again, “Back in the Day” instantly comes to mind. For me, it’s an ’86 Nissan Sentra and the era of “yo mama” jokes, bomber jackets, and zero responsibilities. I’m sure I can’t be the only L.A. kid who feels this way since Ahmad’s 1994 record is still in rotation on the radio (shout-out regional radio and KDAY and POWER 106). This song was an outline for how I and my elementary school homies envisioned our childhoods would play out. —Keith Fujimoto

Rack City


Produced by DJ Mustard, Mike Free

To this day, people don’t know how seriously to take “Rack City.” There was a time when people laughed at the DJ tag “Mustard on the beat, ho!” They just thought it was funny because it was sauce or something. The first time many outside of L.A. heard Mustard’s infamous tag was on “Rack City,” which Mustard says he originally sent to YG, who then forwarded it to Tyga. Before the first verse ends, Tyga is talking about having sex with your grandma and throwing thousands in the strip club when he hardly looked old enough to be legally allowed in one. It’s a song that foretells the absurdity that would become Tyga's arc as an entertainer, from having a kid with Blac Chyna—who stars in the confoundingly heist-themed music video—to briefly joining the Kardashian clan by dating Kylie Jenner a little too close to her 18th birthday. His music career took a small dive when he attempted to stray from making the type of ass-shaking music that made him popular, but he’s enjoyed a healthy resurgence in recent years by returning to the formula that made “Rack City” a national sensation: crude club anthems that ride the line between parody and profundity. —Donald Morrison


The Pharcyde

Produced by Jay Dee

Four lovable goofballs from South-Central got together to match their rapid-fire wit with jazzy, sample-heavy beats, and they fucked around and made some of the best songs of all time. Slimkid3, Imani, Bootie Brown, and Fatlip—better known as the Pharcyde—are worlds apart from a lot of the L.A. rap that is gathered on this list, but they made their presence felt in their fractured scene. Even more impressively, they did it in the midst of Death Row and the G-funk/gangsta rap renaissance. The best of the Pharcyde singles, “Runnin’” features the crew spitting their version of youthful life advice over one of many classic J Dilla–produced instrumentals. The breezy jazz of the track—complete with a brief saxophone solo that’s extremely tranquil—is perfect for summertime cruising. It’s impossible to hate this record without seeming like an absolute crab; it’s a perfect example of the Pharcyde’s chill and low-key life philosophy. —Israel Daramola

On a Sunday Afternoon

Lighter Shade Of Brown (Feat. Huggy Boy, Shiro Stokes)

Produced by Jammin' James Carter, Lighter Shade of Brown

Week in and week out, far too many people grind themselves down into nothing by working to survive and basically living for the weekend—if they’re fortunate enough to get that time off. Anything that can knock the edge off of Monday is welcome, even if it’s just a calm Sunday. Where Lionel and the Commodores famously described Sunday morning as easygoing (albeit in a breakup song), the Chicano duo A Lighter Shade of Brown painted a vivid picture of the perfect mellow Sunday afternoon in Greater Los Angeles.

There’s something distinctly idyllic about a day in the park with warm weather, clear skies, and zero bullshit. “On a Sunday Afternoon” builds out the scenery with details: swigging bottles of cold beer, carne asada on the grill, hatin’-ass cops trying to spoil the fun, then cruising around with the top down as the sun sets. Add samples from the Young Rascals, Tommy James and the Shondells, and Joe Tex; an intro from esteemed KRLA DJ Dick “Huggy Boy” Hugg; plus dulcet vocals from Shiro Stokes on the hook, and it adds up to a sepia-toned ode to the weekend’s last gasp. —Julian Kimble

Cartoons & Cereal

Kendrick Lamar (Feat. Gunplay)

Produced by THC, J.LBS

While only a couple of its songs spend time on explicit plot beats, all 12 tracks on Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 Interscope debut, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, fit within its narrative superstructure: The adolescent breaking and entering on “The Art of Peer Pressure” becomes an inciting incident, the brash “Backseat Freestyle” justified as an emblem of youthful overconfidence. On “The Heart Pt. 3,” a promotional track released days before good kid, he exhorts listeners to not “let hip-hop die on October 22” by staying home or bootlegging the LP. It’s an arresting moment, but given the rigid rules by which good kid plays, the line has the unsettling effect of an actor staring directly into the camera. 

The one song from this period that blurs the line between self-contained origin myth and rapper shit-talking was cut from good kid due to sample clearance issues. “Cartoons & Cereal” sprawls across nearly seven minutes and is clouded by television static and ambient noise. Kendrick raps in a tightly wound, seesaw meter—until, finally, he doesn’t. “All them days at the county building,” he drawls, “I’m about to make my mama rich.” It could be childhood fantasy; it could be a sober look at Soundscan projections. After sitting through a Saturday morning of Bugs Bunny and Wile E. Coyote, Kendrick clears out for Gunplay to rap entirely in parable. —Paul Thompson


Shoreline Mafia


“Musty” was such a big song in 2017 that the first thing Atlantic Records did after signing the group a year later was have them remake the video with a bigger budget. Although the new video touts a higher production quality, it fails to capture the grainy, impromptu magic of the original, which introduced the larger world to group members Fenix Flexin, OhGeesy, Rob Vicious, and Master Kato via head-to-toe BAPE outfits, Backwoods filled with dirty laundry, and parking garage posturing next to a single white BMW.

Shoreline Mafia spoke to a younger generation of L.A. hoodlums, with RONRONTHEPRODUCER providing production that built off of—and ultimately pushed past—the more radio-friendly DJ Mustard. They created a brand of “nervous music” more suited for the clubs, helping to canonize the sound regionally alongside 03 Greedo and Drakeo the Ruler. On “Musty,” the group repurposes a word most often associated with mildewy clothes that have been left in the washer too long, adding it to the long list of weed synonyms based on bad smells, like skunk, dank, and gas. It’s not exactly a prerequisite for a classic L.A. rap song to popularize new slang for smoking weed, but it’s always a nice touch. —Donald Morrison

Soul on Ice (Remix)

Ras Kass

Produced by Diamond D

Odd as it might seem for the definitive song from a Los Angeles legend to be produced by an unrepentant New Yorker, the muck and grime that Diamond D leeches out of David Axelrod’s “The Mental Traveler” is Ras Kass’s native environment. Raised in Carson but seemingly formed in the smoky backrooms of ’40s noirs, Ras Kass raps with a technical virtuosity that makes him unimpeachable to East Coast partisans but with a slyly global perspective—as on the “Soul on Ice” remix, when he brags about his music being pumped out of “Audis in Saudi” and laments N.W.A as a distraction from a similar acronym. Few and far between are the MCs who can make dense passages of polysyllabic words feel like something more than a parlor trick. Ras Kass is at the top of that list, as he is on the ledger of rappers whose messageboard and barbershop conspiracy theories have real gravity: This is the most grounded you can sound in a song that ends with slitting the pope’s throat. —Paul Thompson


Dr. Dre (Feat. Hittman, Six-Two, Nate Dogg, Kurupt)

Produced by Dr. Dre, Mel-Man, Scott Storch

Dr. Dre had something to prove in 1999. He was seven years removed from his universally revered The Chronic, but just three removed from his forgettable compilation Dr. Dre Presents: The Aftermath. Dre had left Death Row to start his own label with the help of Interscope founder Jimmy Iovine, and he was in search of the level of success he had previously attained. He had discovered and signed a generational talent named Eminem, like he had with Snoop at Death Row, but the question remained: Could Dre deliver another classic album? As he proved, the best way to erase doubt of any kind is with a hit record. 

The resulting album, 2001, included a mix of massive songs on which Dre produced and rapped, and others on which he did only one of the two. His vocals are absent on the addictive “Xxplosive,” but he made one of the best beats of all time, sampling the bells and guitar strings on “Bumpy’s Lament” and pitching them up to a higher tempo. But without Dre, the guest stars make their presence felt: Hittman harmonizes on the hook, informing listeners the song was made for cannabis connoisseurs wielding two firearms, sitting on chrome rims. Kurupt comes in with ferocity and explicitness, reminiscent of his verse on “Ain’t No Fun,” only with a darker tone and much more eagerness to flex his otherworldly lyrical skills. Nate Dogg, however, is the unquestioned star of this track, as he interpolates his own melodies from “Ain’t No Fun.” The feeling you get when Nate sings “When I met ya last night, baby” is like there’s an inside joke, and you’re in the inner circle. —Rosecrans Vic

To Live and
Die in L.A.


Produced by QDIII

“To Live and Die in L.A.” is the second single on 2Pac’s first posthumously released album (under the alias Makaveli), The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory. As such, it carries the weight of a love letter to the city mailed directly from the man’s grave. Val Young’s vocals bounce over the vibrant instrumental and are the secret weapon to romanticizing life and death in the City of Angels. The way her voice peaks when she sings “It’s the place to be” on the hook gives off the same feeling of warmth that any non-L.A. resident gets when they close their eyes and picture the sunlight hitting their face as they admire the city’s palm trees and clear skies. But 2Pac makes you open your eyes and see the city for what it truly is, as he grounds his lyrics in the realities of South L.A. He raps, “Writing to my peoples when they ask for pictures / Thinkin' Cali just fun and bitches,” in the second verse after highlighting the “ghetto bird” police helicopters, the money-chasing hustlers, and the dope fiend that killed his friend. But even when Pac is preaching the dangers of the city and potentially burning the city to the ground, it’s nearly impossible not to bob your head to the beat as Young’s hums bleed into the background. —Jonathan Kermah

You Know How We Do It

Ice Cube

Produced by QDIII

Ice Cube was already a legend and somewhat of an industry veteran by the time his fourth album, Lethal Injection, dropped in December 1993—despite being only 24 years old. His previous three solo albums were widely regarded as classics (or close to classic in the case of 1992’s The Predator) that touched on sociopolitical issues, police brutality, race relations, and the strength of street knowledge. But two things happened after the release of The Predator: “It Was a Good Day” became Cube’s most successful and highest-charting single and Dr. Dre released The Chronic

Taking a cue from both, Cube’s fourth album leaned more into the popular G-funk sound (and content) that had completely taken over rap at that moment. He doubled down on the smooth sample-heavy success of “It Was a Good Day” with “You Know How We Do It,” which was produced by Quincy Jones’s son QDIII. While the album garnered mixed reviews, “You Know How We Do It” was a clear success in part thanks to the cinematic music video featuring Cube galavanting around Las Vegas with his crew. 

The song climbed to no. 30 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was lauded enough that an official remix song and video (which might even be better than the original!) were released as the lead single from his Bootlegs & B-Sides compilation a year later. —Andrew Barber

Make Room

Tha Alkaholiks

Produced by E-Swift

Rarely has a crew sounded like they’re having as much of a genuine good time on record as Tha Alkaholiks. Made up of two Midwest transplants (Tash and E-Swift) and a dude from Pacoima (J-Ro), they proved that in the 1990s, party raps could be lyrical and the production didn’t have to pander. The group had a higher jokes-per-minute average than an episode of South Side and dropped similes like they were teaching seventh-grade English class. “Make Room” was Tha Alkaholiks’ introduction to most listeners, and it set the bar high. E-Swift’s beat recontextualized sonic lessons taught by the Bomb Squad and DJ Muggs, while J-Ro and Tash nimbly delivered punch lines about everything from lamb-skin condoms to Hooked on Phonics commercials. Then the original Drink Champs closed it down by shouting out all the brews that brought them here, livers be damned. —Eric Ducker

Hood Took Me Under

Compton's Most Wanted

Produced by DJ Mike T, the Unknown DJ

Growing up on the East Coast, there weren’t many who’d claim Compton’s Most Wanted as their shit, but MC Eiht’s “gyeah” is part of the rap lexicon, L.A.-born or otherwise. The hypnotic horns and subtle funk of the instrumental kept you intrigued, but Eiht painted relatable portraits of L.A. terror that, punctuated by a video that featured unflinching reality, helped solidify Compton in hip-hop’s imagination as the last place you’d want to be caught off-guard. —khal

Indo Smoke

Mista Grimm (Feat. Warren G, Nate Dogg)

Produced by Warren G

The Chronic landed with tectonic-shifting force in late 1992, a sonic lowrider quaking and reshaping the landscape of rap and pop music. Warren G, the budding Long Beach–bred producer/rapper who’d gifted his stepbrother Dr. Dre samples for The Chronic, should’ve been cruising to a solo album. Instead, he was left in the wind—no Death Row deal, Chronic royalties, or credit for helping codify the sound of G-funk. Fortunately, at some point during the album’s creation, Warren G befriended West Covina’s Mista Grimm at an open mic and recorded “Indo Smoke.”

One of the twin lead singles for 1993’s Poetic Justice soundtrack, “Indo Smoke” is a thumping paean to puffing the strongest weed and the world’s introduction to Warren’s smoother, mellower iteration of G-funk. Backed by a deep, writhing bass line, he and Mista Grimm wax poetic about toking with equal nonchalance and playfulness. In 1993, “Indo Smoke” also doubled as a reintroduction to Nate Dogg, Warren’s 213 brethren whose warm, resonant baritone would croon the most indelible hooks in West Coast rap history. In his first post-Chronic feature, Nate sounds gleeful while advising the listener against choking post inhale and invokes his gospel choir past for an almost ghostly, “Are you high yet?”

“Indo Smoke” was the hit that sparked Warren’s career, reaching no. 12 on Billboard’s Hot Rap Singles Chart, charting for over six months, and essentially securing “Regulate” a spot on the Above the Rim soundtrack. When Warren and Grimm fell out, Grimm, like all smoke, soon faded. —Max Bell

New York, New York

Tha Dogg Pound

Produced by DJ Pooh

The thing is, it wasn’t supposed to be a diss. But with rising bicoastal tension, a hail of gunfire, and a music video featuring skyscrapers being stomped out all at play, “New York, New York” rapidly became associated with animus. 

To let Kurupt tell it, Tha Dogg Pound wanted to pay homage to New York. “We really felt that New York created hip-hop,” he told XXL in 2013. He prodded DJ Pooh for the beat after hearing it in a St. Ides commercial featuring the Notorious B.I.G.  The hook, delivered by Snoop in all of his velvet-tongued glory, interpolated Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s “New York New York.” But Snoop and Tha Dogg Pound were shot at while filming the video. They audibled and instead crushed buildings in the city’s skyline in the finished product. Combine the visuals with the timing of the single’s release (i.e., following the 1995 Source Awards), and “New York, New York” became part of an escalating conflict instead of a showcase for Kurupt over Pooh’s smooth production.

The song’s legacy is the story around it—primarily the video—overshadowing its intent. There are better songs on Dogg Food, but none are tethered to history like “New York, New York.” —Julian Kimble

Summertime in the LBC

The Dove Shack

Produced by Henry "Hank" Thomas, Lamon “Sleepy” Turner

In the early ’90s, Long Beach was a gold mine for rap talent: Snoop Dogg, Warren G, Nate Dogg, and Daz Dillinger, to name a few. Warren G, who had a firsthand account of Death Row’s success, decided to try his hand at his own label named G-Funk Records under the Def Jam umbrella. He went on to sign two acts from Long Beach: the Twinz and the Dove Shack, both of which released their debut albums on the same day in August 1995. Both contained minor hits, but one lives on as one of L.A. County’s best nearly three decades later.

Summertime in Southern California has inspired countless songs—in rap or otherwise—but this one by the trio of Bo-Roc, C-Knight, and 2Scoops is easily among the best. Every piece of the track serves a different function that locks into place perfectly: the beat, built from guitars, pianos, and drums; guest singer Arnita Porter’s verse, where she cruises the Long Beach coast wearing Daisy Dukes in a 1994 Jeep Wrangler; 2Scoops’s urgent flow, which gives the impression he had to finish his verse quickly because he was next in line to grab his plate of free lunch and go about his afternoon. But perhaps the most profound part comes courtesy Bo-Roc and his deep baritone voice, when he says, “I’m smothering ribs with barbecue sauce / Fools get tossed if they reach across my barbecue grill, so continue to chill.'' It shows both sides of Bo: his affinity for barbecue ribs and cookout culture, but also his upbringing on the notorious east side of Long Beach, which is home to many gangs I’d rather not name here.

When I traveled to Honolulu in 2021, “Summertime in the LBC” was played everywhere as if it were on the new Drake album. I heard it in bars, on the radio, and speakers controlled by natives with the aux cord. You can’t go to a cookout, a pool party, or the islands of Hawaii without being smothered by this song like ribs with barbecue sauce, or getting tossed if you reach across to change the track, even all these years later. —Rosecrans Vic

Norf Norf

Vince Staples

Produced by Clams Casino

There aren’t too many rappers that can get away with a shameless sponsorship plug in the opening lines of a song while retaining their street credibility. But when Vince Staples follows up his Sprite bar with “My Crips lurking, don't die tonight,” it quickly becomes apparent that Coca-Cola products ain’t the only business Vince is about. “Norf Norf” isn’t an ode to North Long Beach, California. It’s a warning sign. The Clams Casino beat sounds like a bad omen, while the lyrics are littered with nods and references to Staples’s past experiences as a 2N Crip throughout. Staples makes even dancing with a girl at a party feel dangerous thanks to his almost frantic delivery. But somehow, he’s at his most frightening when his delivery is at his calmest on the hook, where he repeats, “I ain’t ran from nothing but the police,” over a hollowed-out breakdown of the beat. It’s not a threat, just a stated fact, which makes it that much more menacing. Then he finally breaks up the monotony when he uses the name of his town like a war cry. If there’s any overarching message about L.A. County to leave with after hearing “Norf Norf,” it’s: Stay the fuck away from Norfside, Long Beach. —Jonathan Kermah

Fantastic Voyage


Produced by Dobbs the Wino

However much we talk about the video, we don’t talk enough about the video: The perfect line delivery of “How we gon’ get there? We ain’t got no car! [Slam.] Foo.” The map helpfully illustrating the circuitous route from “Da’ Hood” to “Da’ Beach.” The tremendous amount of trunk space in that Chevy Impala. And the sheer escapist delight shooting through all of it, fueled by Coolio’s delirious star power, his effortless and all-inclusive cool, his high-comedic scowling charisma. “Fantastic Voyage” is a Lakeside-sampling monster that takes its fun far more seriously than most rappers take their seriousness, and like other notable crossover smashes of its day (see “It Was a Good Day” or “Gin and Juice”), it invites everybody to the party while politely illustrating that “escapist” means very different things to different people. Coolio just wanted “A place where my kids can play outside / Without livin' in fear of a drive-by,” and for five minutes or so, he built a full utopian universe of tranquility and peace. May he rest there, too. —Rob Harvilla


Tyler, the Creator

Produced by Tyler, the Creator

“Yonkers” has all the characteristics of a spectacle. From its East Coast–inspired beat and title, to the mainey music video that accompanied it, Tyler was determined to be seen and revered. But the subject matter of the record reveals a complicated character locked in a battle with himself. Over the course of four minutes, Tyler and his alter ego Wolf Haley throw subliminals at Pitchfork, tell Jesus to fuck off, and lust at the thought of killing Bruno Mars. The accompanying video is just as vile: He serenades a beetle, eats it, then proceeds to hang himself as the song fades out. But the visual gives a clue of the ingredients that makes Tyler a star. His imagery is grotesque but endearing, pressing the viewer to want to know more. 

This manifested in the immediate response to the record. Kanye West was intrigued, tweeting out the video, and friendships with Justin Bieber, Drake, and Tracee Ellis Ross soon followed for rap’s biggest rebel.

I have no idea why this song resonates so well with the listening public, which included my 17-year-old self. Maybe it’s a fire you can’t look away from, or a glimpse of the familiar rage that makes us all human. But as the video proved, and the future has confirmed, Tyler is always the most interesting man in the room. —Logan Murdock

Let Me Ride

Dr. Dre

Produced by Dr. Dre

It’s better than “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang.” Our ranking may not reflect this; we regret the error. The bumptious, colossal tranquility of that bassline. The eternal-sunset majesty of that whistling Moog riff. (This is the best G-funk song; future rankings will hopefully reflect this.) The caught-breath a capella swagger with which Dre raps “Just another motherfuckin’—” to start the second verse. The ghostly and electrifying Parliament sample floating over the last chorus to complement that other electrifying Parliament sample. The Chronic is very arguably the greatest rap album of all time (past rankings may not have reflected this); “Let Me Ride” is not-so-secretly The Chronic’s best song. Nate Dogg knew it, and now so do you. —Rob Harvilla

Money Trees

Kendrick Lamar (Feat. Jay Rock)

Produced by DJ Dahi

Capitalism shouldn’t sound good. If any community should be the most antagonistic to the toxic, all-consuming nature of the American dollar it would be that of the modern rapper. But if hip-hop has proved anything it’s that songs about wanting, chasing, and/or flaunting money have an exponentially high hit rate. Which is a long way of saying, I don’t know whether Marx would fuck with “Money Trees,” but it’s a song so perfect he might make an exception.

“Money Trees” is one of the most deceptively dark songs on good kid, m.A.A.d. City. Together, Kendrick and Jay Rock spin a tale of inhumane poverty—home invasions, Top Ramen, baking soda, and turkey-less Thanksgiving. The life of a rapper is a far-flung dream for Kendrick and his childhood friends before they’re ripped back to a reality where even the slight flex of a Louis belt isn’t enough to stem the dread of daily existence. For these reasons alone, “Money Trees” is one of the most potent songs to come out of L.A. in the past 20 years.

Then comes the Jay Rock verse.

For a minute straight, Rock is a man possessed. His words tumble out of his mouth like they contain a lifetime of regret, resentment, and resolve. It’s a tightrope act of suspense, where at any moment the TDE originator might miss a pocket and fall behind the beat. Yet he never does. Instead, Rock barrels forward with the type of alliteration, forced rhyme, and descriptive prose that makes him feel like an artist fully in grasp of his talents. Within 16 bars, Rock builds a world of intense humanity. His projects are the place of “cocaine residue,” government cheese, and where Santa doesn’t visit. “Money Trees” is a nature-vs.-nurture story documenting generations of people forced to make impossible decisions against improbable odds. In that way, there are very few songs that could sound more like L.A. —Charles Holmes



Produced by Thayod Ausar

Xzibit proclaims 1996 as the beginning of a new era on his debut single. What this era will look like is unclear, but “Paparazzi” is a stylistic jumble held together by pure bluster. For example, the video finds Xzibit flipping roughneck linguistics in a parka over concussive boom-bap drums that echoed throughout the year in Loud Records’ offices. However, he’s doing so in front of an orchestra mimicking a sample from a Barbra Streisand classical album. They’re also on the beach, a helpful reminder that Xzibit is an affiliate of Tha Alkaholiks and not, say, Mobb Deep. But X was right after all—1996 did mark a new era, albeit one where this kind of hardhead mafioso rap would be supplanted by shiny suit samples and jiggy raps. Xzibit would eventually learn to work within that system by hosting Pimp My Ride and appearing on Limp Bizkit albums, but not before “Paparazzi” could hit that much harder going forward—there’s no such thing as halfway crooks on L.A.’s answer to “Shook Ones, Pt. II,” just plenty of full-time chumps. —Ian Cohen

Twist My Fingaz


Produced by Terrace Martin

YG’s sound frequently hearkens back to a lot of the Chronic-era Dogg Pound G-funk, but in a way that does more than imitate it outright. It helps that YG is a dynamic force all his own, distinctive and magnetic enough that he stands above the homage. On “Twist My Fingaz,” the Compton MC takes a tried and true tradition of the gangsta groove record and brings his own flavor to it. The song is an ode to his gang ties that also gives his people a little something to two-step to. It’s full of classic G-funk staples: heavy bass, vocoder inflections, and multi-instrument samples and grooves that feel like they belonged to Parliament or the Ohio Players. With rhymes like, “I'm 'bout to pull a Suge Knight and press the issue on sight / The real Bloods either check, or we on your ass,” YG brings plenty of menace and ferocity to this otherwise dance jam record. 

In many ways, YG has served as the flip side to the Kendrick Lamar coin, the version that couldn’t be saved from the m.A.A.d city by God or anyone. YG has a way of relating and personalizing his gangland activities to the point that you could imagine being in his shoes and making those same decisions. More than anything, he is loyal to representing his gang bona fides in the way a Kendrick might rep his existential crises, covering it in all its glory and pain. On “Twist My Fingaz” though, he is all glory and celebration, and it’s extremely infectious. —Israel Daramola

How We Do

The Game (Feat. 50 Cent)

Produced by Dr. Dre, Mike Elizondo

I was in sixth grade. Each afternoon during my walk home from school, I'd call my mother and tell her to play this record over the phone. And when it was finished, I'd tell her to play it again, and repeat the process for another 15 minutes until I made it home. The Dr. Dre–produced feat, highlighted by its unmistakable piano arrangement, soundtracked 11-year-old Logan’s actions, but nearly 20 years after its release, “How We Do” is a reminder of what could’ve been for the Game. 

In 2004, the artist born Jayceon Taylor was primed to be the West Coast’s next big thing. Armed with a Dr. Dre cosign, access to 50 Cent, and the keys to Interscope’s marketing machine, Game was the face of a rollout not seen from a West Coast artist since Snoop’s Doggystyle

His debut, 2005’s The Documentary, lived up to the hype, but beef with 50 and the rest of G-Unit, an estrangement from the legendary producer who’d helped prop him up doomed any chance of the success Dre’s other protégés have enjoyed. Game’s talent suggests he could’ve been one of the best to ever do it, but his inability to avoid confrontation and questionable behavior overshadows anything he does on wax. But “How We Do,” and by extension the rest of his mid-2000s run, is a reminder that Game belongs in any discussion involving the West Coast elite. —Logan Murdock



Produced by Afrika Islam, Ice-T

In retrospect, Dennis Hopper’s 1988 film Colors, about gang activity in Los Angeles from the vantage point of the police chasing them down, is a mostly bonkers affair. Despite that, there is a lot of good that came out of it, including an early appearance by Don Cheadle and an absolutely hilarious Damon Wayans performance. But most importantly came the song “Colors” by Ice-T. Ice’s cold storytelling bonafides are perfect for film soundtracks because he’s an expert at translating a visual story into an auditory experience. 

Those infamous opening words: “I am a nightmare walking, psychopath talking / King of my jungle, just a gangster stalking” tell you everything that you need to know about the world he’s about to take us into. Gang activity is embedded in the soil of Los Angeles street culture, and it colors (heh) so much of the music and art that comes out of the more destitute areas of the city. “Colors” is like your introductory course into delving into the politics of this reality, courtesy the original gangster philosopher. The movie may not come up as much anymore, but the song continues to stand the test of time. —Israel Daramola

Act a Fool

King Tee

Produced by DJ Pooh

“Act a Fool” is an indispensable entry in the L.A. rap tradition of songs about getting increasingly faded (see also: “8 Ball” and “Tonite”). Powered by DJ Pooh’s jittery and disorienting beat, Tee perfectly plays the role of the charismatic lush who you probably wouldn’t, or couldn’t, kick out of your house even after his fifth party foul. Knee deep in brash confidence, on “Act a Fool” he unwinds a tale of deeply questionable decisions and zero regrets. In subsequent years, King Tee became an underappreciated limb on West Coast hip-hop’s family tree, with branches that include Tha Alkaholiks, Xzibit, the Lootpack, and Defari. Tee was also a pioneer in bringing rap to the advertising world after he and Pooh initiated a series of legendary-if-controversial spots for St. Ides, including a classic that interpolated elements of “Act a Fool.” You say Billy Dee Williams is the all-time greatest pitchman for malt liquor. Huh, how’d you figure? —Eric Ducker

Foe Life

Mack 10 (Feat. Ice Cube)

Produced by Ice Cube

If Mack 10 was the unofficial mayor of Inglewood in 1995, “Foe Life” was his campaign song. The beat—arguably Ice Cube’s greatest solo production—is peak mid-’90s G-funk, menacing and knocking without sacrificing groove. Cube layers slices of funk atop kicks and snares that mimic the hydraulic bounce and crash of Mack 10 hitting switches in a Cadillac; a rumbling bass line approximates what you’d hear if that same Caddy were beating down your block. Mack 10 drew understandable comparisons to Ice Cube early in his career, but he matches Cube’s combination of force and swagger, his booming delivery as compelling as the beat. “Foe Life” also displays some of Mack’s best writing. He begins by taking you through Inglewood, hitting switches on the train tracks (probably near Rogers Park) before imploring you to buy his single because he’s broke. (Caddies and hydraulics ain’t cheap.) Over three verses, Mack strings together vignettes of cruising, flirtations, felonies, and the carceral consequences of earning stripes in your city. He slyly alludes to his gang ties yet loudly claims Inglewood at every turn. Like many politicians, Mack 10 knew the import of appearing to bang bipartisan. —Max Bell

Pistol Grip Pump

Volume 10

Produced by The Baka Boyz

The self-mythologizing, posturing, tropes (e.g., territorial pride, gun violence), and trappings (e.g., jumping lowriders, Pendleton flannels) of ’90s West Coast gangsta rap made it ripe for satire. While taking jabs at purported thugs with sequined or academic pasts is easy, creating engaging, questioning, and hilarious art that doesn’t devolve into a half-baked grad school thesis is not. Volume 10’s “Pistol Grip Pump” did it all, ironically becoming part of the canon it lampooned.

A respected regular at the Good Life—the South-Central health food store that hosted a weekly open mic in the ’90s—Volume 10 was known for his numerous and erratic styles. When labels siphoned Good Life talent en masse, he recorded his avant-garde 1994 debut, Hip-Hopera, for Immortal Records. Label A&R Adrian Miller hounded Volume 10 for a marketable single, all but forcing him into the studio with the Baka Boyz. The renowned Power 106 DJs and producers (and brothers) were equally displeased.

Though begrudgingly recorded, “Pistol Grip Pump” is pitch-perfect, a skewering at once blatant, subversive, and banging with batterram force. The Baka Boyz provide a chugging, funky, “Atomic Dog”–esque thump that smacks so hard you almost block out the random dog growls. Volume 10 reigns in his erratic delivery but still delivers a million styles, ridiculing territorial pride for systemically blighted blocks and possibly taking shots at Ice Cube for alleged stylistic theft. The hook (pulled from UGK’s “Pocket Full of Stones”) walks the line between severity and outlandishness so well that you can be in on the joke and down to ride at the same time. “Pistol Grip Pump” didn’t chart long, but it’s been referenced by everyone from Queen Latifah to Young Bleed, was covered by Rage Against the Machine, and is now a mainstay on L.A. throwback radio station KDAY. The joke is on someone, but it depends on who you ask. —Max Bell

La Raza

Kid Frost

Produced by Tony G.

The year was 1990, and Kid Frost was tired of dudes getting over on the raza (technically translates to “race” in English, but more accurately used as a metonym for “our people”). So he made a song about it. By that time, Frost had been rapping for eight years, challenging the likes of Ice-T to battles, having Dr. Dre and DJ Yella spin records at his shows, and breakdancing for Uncle Jamm’s Army, but he still had no tangible success. Being the first Chicano rapper in the music business couldn’t have been easy, but the moment he leaned into that reality with “La Raza,” his career was off to the races. 

A funky bassline kicks this instrumental off, followed by a sample of “Viva Tirado” by brown-eyed soul band El Chicano. The most distinguishable instrument in this song, however, is the snazzy saxophone over the chorus. It’s important to note that the first lyrics Frost raps are in Spanish: “Q-Vo, aqui estoy, MC Kid Frost / Yo soy jefe, matón, yes the Big Boss / My cuete's loaded, it's full of balas.” That translates to: “What’s up, here I am, MC Kid Frost / I’m the boss, the killer, the big boss / my gun is loaded and it’s full of bullets.” The rest of the song masterfully mixes English and Spanish, culminating in one of the best bilingual bars of all time: “You’re so cool that I’ma call you a culo."

The visual for this song was so powerful. Rife with Aztec symbolism and displays of Chicano culture, it was the first time lowrider culture was displayed in hip-hop to the masses, reaching national shows like Yo! MTV Raps. This song not only influenced thousands of Latinos, but it empowered them to be brown and proud while paving the way for those who would soon follow. —Rosecrans Vic

Mafia Business

03 Greedo

Produced by Doggy

There’s an unfinished, unmastered quality to “Mafia Business” that feels as though 03 Greedo recorded it in a fog of sadness and grief, releasing it into the world as quickly as he could in a radical act of catharsis. The song is a haunting tribute to Raymond Lee Arnold, known to friends and family as Mafia Ray, who was shot to death in a barbershop in South L.A. in 2016. Greedo celebrates the Watts legend by including snippets of him talking throughout the song and by interpolating his fallen friend’s old catchphrases into the lyrics.

“Mafia Business” sits 38 songs into Purple Summer, Greedo’s towering 40-song mixtape from 2016 that helped establish him as leader of the New West by displaying a slew of unpredictable vocal stylings and an unmatched emotional depth. There’s a bittersweet resilience on the faces of Mafia Ray's friends and family, who in the music video are seen in the Jordan Downs housing projects holding up a cardboard cutout of his likeness, complete with a blue bandanna wrapped around his neck. With “Mafia Business,” Greedo likely succeeded beyond his wildest dreams in making sure that nobody forgets Mafia Ray or where he came from. —Donald Morrison

Next Episode

Dr. Dre (Feat. Snoop Dogg, Nate Dogg, Kurupt)

Produced by Dr. Dre, Mel-Man

Smoothed over time into a bar mitzvah hit and NBA arena staple, the enduring popularity of “The Next Episode” obscures the fact that the third single of Dr. Dre’s opus 2001 is a masterpiece of raunchy California pride. What’s more L.A. than Dre bellowing, “Compton, Long Beach, Inglewoooood!” or Snoop showing off how his perm swings when he walks? With Dre and coproducer Mel-Man’s ingenious flip of David McCallum and David Axelrod’s 1967 instrumental “The Edge,” “The Next Episode”—which seamlessly blends the sparse space age sounds of 2001 with the G-funk legacy of The Chronic—somehow bottles up the feeling of walking into an L.A. house party in slow motion. It’s cinematic and celebratory, deceptively menacing and often hilarious (Kurupt nearly bursts a blood vessel screaming “DR. DRE, MOTHERFUCKER!” on the chorus), the perfectly timed soundtrack to the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers’ run to three straight championships. 

For all of its cultural capital, “The Next Episode” is also remarkably unconventional as an actual piece of music. There’s the psychedelic, James Bond–like buildup before everything begins, until the song opens into a chorus (if you want to call it that) that is more or less Kurupt and Snoop shouting over each other for several seconds before the verses even start. And to cap it all off, the song ends not with another chorus but instead eight bars of Nate Dogg, until he pauses a few seconds, and you think the song ends, but then suddenly reappears to sing, in a baritone piped in from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, “Smoke weed every day.” Could anything be more L.A.? —Jackson Howard

Murder Rap

Above The Law

Produced by Dr. Dre, Laylaw, Eazy-E

Sometimes you can hear one era bleeding into the next in real time. Cold 187um, the lead member of the pioneering Pomona group Above the Law, would remain deeply charismatic into the 21st century. But on ATL’s 1990 debut single, “Murder Rap,” his raps (“Dope is not the answer / No, I’m not a Cancer / No, I’m not a hero or zero / But a Leo in stereo”) seem a vestige of the decade before. What makes the Ruthless Records signees’ song so disquieting is the way these instantly familiar verses—and KMG the Illustrator’s sober interstitials—are offset by the beat (produced by an Efil4zaggin-era Dr. Dre), which is little more than a siren and drums that seem to be warping the proceedings back in time. “Murder Rap” opens Livin’ Like Hustlers, a vital turning point in the way L.A. rappers wrote about their neighborhoods and in the early codification of G-funk. But its signature song exists outside rote history, a collision of raw elements. —Paul Thompson

Bow Down

Westside Connection

Produced by Bud'da

When “Bow Down” dropped in August 1996, Westside Connection was as theatrical as any of Ice Cube’s movie roles: the guy who began his first two albums with “The N***a Ya Love to Hate” and “The Wrong N***a to Fuck Wit” knows the value of a good heel turn, and after the flop of Lethal Injection, the wild success of Friday, and the ascent of East Coast mafioso rap, Cube enlisted two of his knucklehead buddies to lend street credibility to his latest persona. By the time the album Bow Down was released two months later, 2Pac had been killed and Westside Connection happily took up his “me against the world” mission. The East Coast–West Coast rivalry was now a hot war, and “Bow Down” was the opening salvo in its escalation, taking aim not just at faceless haters but very specific targets: New York rap critics, conscious rappers like Common and Q-Tip, Bad Boy’s R&B hooks, even Cypress Hill for misrepresenting true West Coast rap to alternative white boys. As with most things involving Ice Cube, time eventually eased “Bow Down” into the mainstream—it’s appeared in The Hot Chick, Get Hard, and a Mind of Mencia skit. But it had been five years since N.W.A. declared themselves “the world’s most dangerous group” after Ice Cube left and at least for a few months, “Bow Down” was him reclaiming that title for Westside Connection. —Ian Cohen

Afro Puffs

The Lady of Rage (Feat. Snoop Dogg)

Produced by Dr. Dre, Daz Dillinger

The Chronic succeeded at elevating artists; the Lady of Rage was among several who got a boost from appearing on the album. Two years later, she was still kickin’ up dust on her debut single, which was one of the Above the Rim soundtrack’s standouts.

The demand for women to prove themselves—as respectable rappers and human beings—is one of hip-hop’s worst constants. The Lady of Rage showed that she could hold her own on “Lyrical Gangbang” and “Stranded On Death Row,” but “Afro Puffs” was her domain, even with Snoop on the hook. Her presence set her apart as a rapper and her delivery of lyrics like “‘Cause I’ma break it down to the nitty-gritty one time / When it comes to the lyrics, I gets busy with mine” emanate her alluring confidence. She let everyone within earshot know that she didn’t have shit to prove, and that alone was impressive. 

Equally impressive is how someone from the Southeast could pull off a song that screams ”West Coast hip-hop” so effectively. The Lady of Rage may hail from Farmville, Virginia (as she acknowledged), but from the whistling G-funk synths to the lowriding bass, “Afro Puffs” is undeniably West Coast. —Julian Kimble

Hussle in the House

Nipsey Hussle

Produced by Dxtroit Red

“Hussle in the House” is a study in specificity, which is perhaps ironic for a song that, on first glance, seems to traffic in archetypes. The beat is built around the particular mutation of the Ohio Players’ “Funky Worm” that was used in Kris Kross’s “Jump,” a milieu so familiar that it practically serves as an experimental control for rappers fighting for attention in Los Angeles. But Nipsey Hussle was not worried about being mistaken for anybody else—in fact, he courted the comparisons: “I came from nothing / So did every other rapper.” The confidence that he could transcend that sameness is all there in the opening couplet, which ends with the beat dropping out the way it might for a particularly clever punchline or bit of wordplay. All Nipsey needed was a biography: “I’m turnt up ’cause I grew up in the 60s.”  

The myth Nipsey built for himself was more like an anti-myth, a story of gradual progression and diligent work. On the chorus of “Hussle,” he teases the idea that he and his associates are raking in money not like movie stars or other rappers, but doctors; he wields the names of friends like trump cards as he beckons the listener past memorial candle-clustered corners. “Follow me,” he says—and we do. —Paul Thompson

Everlasting Bass

Rodney-O & Joe Cooley

Produced by Rodney O, General Jeff

The last line of “Everlasting Bass” gets at an unfortunate irony that dogged Rodney O and Joe Cooley’s career. “You see, we’re on a flight,” Rodney raps, “to rock the mic / In Miami, Florida, where they film the Vice.” Despite early Los Angeles rap owing a great debt to L.A.’s electro scene and its danceable and industrial offshoots, the trio—the titular members plus producer General Jeff, who became a beloved community activist in the city’s Skid Row district before his death in 2021—found more success in Miami’s bass music scene than they did at home. Yet “Everlasting Bass” lives up to its name. The accentuation of the evil undertones in 7th Wonder’s “Daisy Lady” is as sinister as it is enduring, and it makes better use than any other hip-hop song of Barry White’s “I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby,” which in the years since has been picked to the bone like a buffalo carcass by producers from both coasts and across the South. —Paul Thompson

Getto Jam


Produced by DJ Battlecat, Domino

Fans of generational talents don’t like to see their heroes become the industry’s job creators. Around the same time the likes of Candlebox and Stone Temple Pilots began to dominate MTV rock blocks, Domino was taken about as seriously by hip-hop cognoscenti, seen as more of a market correction than an actual artist. (His AllMusic bio makes an unverified claim that he was the subject of an unspoken West Coast boycott.) Granted, his laid-back, sing-song flow was strikingly similar to Snoop Dogg’s—and “Getto Jam” was released at roughly the same time as the feverishly anticipated lead single from Doggystyle—but to be fair, his song about a Tanqueray-induced hangover dropped before anyone heard “Gin and Juice.” And I don’t know if anyone was truly in a position to question the street credibility of the lead rapper from “Bangin’ on Wax.” But the relative anonymity of “Getto Jam” was kinda the whole point—Domino’s debut single wasn’t meant to launch a multimedia enterprise, but rather just to take us through the average day in South-Central L.A. for a guy with above-average game. On the first verse, he wakes up and immediately fucks. On the second verse, Domino leaves the house and ultimately chooses his next conquest. The third verse repeats the same process. Indeed, his follow-up single, the self-explanatory “Sweet Potatoe Pie,” demonstrated the diggity-D’s utter lack of interest in world building. “Getto Jam” wasn’t a revolutionary single by any means, but just as definitive as any of the L.A. story-songs that were soon to come—America wanted G-funk more than any other form of hip-hop in 1993, and like a true hustler, Domino became the supply to meet the demand. —Ian Cohen

Impatient Freestyle

Drakeo the Ruler

Produced by London on da Track

For the first decade and a half of this millennium, Dr. Dre cast a long shadow of perfectionist tyranny over mainstream L.A. rap. MCs aspired to become metronome Terminators, chasing a bulletproof, mistake-free, and polished ideal. Then Drakeo dropped “Impatient Freestyle,” hopping out of the Batmobile (a Mercedes) with his eyes closed, spilling juice, clutching a chopper the size of a toddler, and revolutionizing West Coast rap.

On his first two I Am Mr. Mosely mixtapes, the South-Central foreign whip crasher introduced his counterclockwise, slithering brand of nervous music. This is where he mastered it—simultaneously taking it back to the offbeat Ras Kass, Aceyalone, Suga Free attack while sounding like none of his ancestors. After this song dropped, it became impossible not to hear the mumbling, conversational mud walk flow that absorbed almost every breakout street rapper from San Diego to Seattle. He became L.A.’s Gucci Mane, ushering in esoteric lingo, fluorescent get-money flexes, and sinister taunts. (“If I call you-know-who, you know the job is done.”) Los Angeles rap exists in phases of before and after “Impatient Freestyle,” as it once did with N.W.A and The Chronic. Drakeo might as well have set the city’s supply of khakis on fire and sent all the lowriders to the scrap heap. 

Only innate genius and relentless dedication can make something so difficult seem this effortless. This is like a duck smoothly gliding on a pond: On top of the water, it looks calm; seen from below, it’s furiously paddling. It initially sounds slow, rapped in an opiated chopped and screwed ooze, until you realize that he’s practically spitting in double time, never breaking a sweat or cramming in too many words to fit the bars. 

From London on Da Track’s beat, originally conceived for Jeremih’s late-night seductions, Drakeo hallucinates a quintessentially L.A. nightmare. The song is stripped of carnality, but the smoothness and sleeplessness remain. This is a prowler’s anthem made for the home invasion hours: a two-and-a-half-minute creepy crawl with no hook, obscure references, witty punch lines, and neck-swiveling menace. It ends with a coda of coded shit talking that Pac would’ve envied. Suge would’ve risked everything just to sign him. —Jeff Weiss

Ain't No Fun (If the Homies Can't Have None)

Snoop Dogg (Feat. Nate Dogg, Kurupt, Warren G)

Produced by Daz Dillinger, Warren G, Dr. Dre

Since the release of “Ain’t No Fun” in late 1993, it’s become West Coast tradition for it to be played at least once at every house party and have the entire crowd sing as much of it as they can without getting a lyric wrong. That begins with Nate Dogg’s iconic opening: “When I met you last night, baby …” For any song to have a moment like that is rare, but “Ain’t No Fun” has at least three more that have lived on: the hook, which became a popular (if problematic) slogan of sorts; Kurupt’s intro, where he said if he “gave a fuck about a bitch, [he’d] always be broke”; and Snoop’s all-time vulgar rhetorical: “Guess who’s back in the muthafuckin’ house, with a fat dick for yo’ muthafuckin’ mouth?” (This doesn’t even account for coproducer Warren G’s closing verse, where he picks up the baton from Snoop and rattles off an important counting exercise.)

The song was not picked as a single—back then it was seen as too risqué. But it became a hit anyway. It may hold the title as the most inappropriate song of all time that will forever be appropriate at every party until the end of time. —Rosecrans Vic

No Vaseline

Ice Cube

Produced by Sir Jinx, Ice Cube

A few memorable events from 1989: Ronald Reagan departed the White House, the Berlin Wall fell, and Ice Cube made an acrimonious exit from N.W.A mere months after the group received a letter from the FBI. (J. Edgar Hoover would’ve been so proud of the Bureau.) Time had healed nothing by 1991, when, after trading barbs with his former group, Ice Cube decided to put the nail in the coffin. With “No Vaseline,” he asserted himself with a message for the remaining members of N.W.A, the group’s manager, Jerry Heller, and everyone listening.

Responding to accusations of being a traitor (“Calling me Arnold, but you been a dick”), Cube went for the jugular to show that he was the most talented, astute, and ruthless party involved. His primary dig was that Heller was allegedly robbing N.W.A blind (hence his exit from the group) and that they were too stupid to realize it. The fierce resistance to the exploitation of Black people is a perfect snapshot of Ice Cube’s politics and the fire burning inside of him circa 1991, but the calculated viciousness of “No Vaseline” is only part of why it’s noteworthy. The layered samples—primarily Brick’s “Dazz,” which serves as the backbone—ground the song in the funk and soul that were foundational to West Coast hip-hop at the time. 

In 2017, Ice Cube told talk-show host Seth Meyers that it’s hard to listen to “No Vaseline” years later because he’d buried the hatchet with N.W.A long ago. But he also noted that, in the moment, he “had to let ’em know.” And did he ever. —Julian Kimble


J.J. Fad

Produced by Arabian Prince, Dr. Dre

Just to refresh your memory: The S is for Super, the U is for Unique, the P is for Perfection, the E is for Exotic, and the R is for Rrrrrraps. J.J. Fad’s absurdly delightful 1988 electro classic—rapped with infectious slumber-party panache by the immortal teenage trio of Sassy C, Baby D, and MC J.B.—is maybe the catchiest and definitely the most wholesome single Ruthless Records ever released, especially the double-time barrage at the end. (Just to refresh your memory: A sama lama lama lama doo ma nama seema nama.) Dr. Dre, DJ Yella, Eazy-E, and Arabian Prince handled production on the full Supersonic album, and Dre’s perfectionism didn’t dampen the joy shooting through all of it, and the immortal title track especially: “As many times as Dre would say, ‘Again, again, again,’ we didn’t even get mad,” MC J.B. recalled years later. “We played tag in the studio, so we really had the best time ever.” You can totally tell. —Rob Harvilla

Dollaz + Sense

DJ Quik

Produced by DJ Quik

Sometimes the most cutting disses are waiting, in plain sight, for the first aggrieved party to notice and make use of them. “Dollaz + Sense,” DJ Quik’s 1994 evisceration of fellow Compton native MC Eiht, includes the stories of two incidents that could have erupted into violence but didn’t. Each is evocatively written—especially the first verse, in which Quik remembers catching Eiht at the airport, “shakin’ like a crap game.” But no amount of personal history or lyrical ingenuity can account for the spelling of someone’s name. So when Quik raps, at the song’s climax, “E-I-H-T, now should I continue? / Yeah, you left out the G ’cause the G ain’t in you,” the two men should have shaken hands and gone their separate ways. (Quik did: This is the last time he addressed Eiht on wax before their 2002 reconciliation.) But he wasn’t done quite yet. While the legend of Quik begins and ends behind the boards, his single greatest asset may be his voice. Immediately after the E-I-H-T line, he launches into the second story of an encounter with Eiht, when a “little brown bucket” pulled up alongside Eiht’s Camry at a stoplight on Compton’s West Side. “Tell me,” Quik begs, cocksure, “did you feel a little nervous?” —Paul Thompson

2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted

2Pac (Feat. Snoop Dogg)

Produced by Daz Dillinger

“Motherfuck the rest, two of the best from the Westside.” There truly is nothing like a gangsta party. If “California Love” was like watching superheroes join forces to save the world, “2 Of Amerikaz Most Wanted” is like a Steph Curry–Klay Thompson 3-point storm. Two of the most important artists in Death Row’s storied history come together to make magic and reach a high point in both of their careers. Through the first half of the ’90s, Death Row Records could do no wrong. Every song seemed to be a bigger hit than the last, and when Pac joined the label, he was out to prove a major point, putting the entire rap game on notice. Pac’s natural aggression is offset by Snoop’s complete tranquility, making for a song that is as tough as it is laid back. It’s one of the best party records of the decade, and it also comes with a great video that contributed to the larger-than-life, cooler-than-cool profiles of these two superstars. It’s also an opportunity for Pac and Snoop to talk some high-caliber fly shit: rolling in black Benzes, houses in the hills next to Chino, living like Bugsy Siegel, and a major threat to all their enemies. Death Row was like a shooting star in retrospect, giving us brief moments of some of rap’s biggest stars and personalities combining to make huge pop hits. They were fly, they were hard, and by the time you blinked, it was all over. —Israel Daramola

7th Seal

Freestyle Fellowship

Produced by J. Sumbi, Myka 9

The book of Revelation prophesizes that the opening of God’s seventh seal will cue seven angelic trumpeters whose brass melodies trigger plagues that turn the seas to blood, envelop the sky in total darkness, and unleash earthquakes that reduce great cities to rubble. So it would naturally follow that Freestyle Fellowship’s “7th Seal”—a mystic language masked as a subterranean hip-hop classic—theoretically catalyzed the biblical infernos, seismic chaos, civil unrest, and Dancing Itos that wracked L.A. in the ’90s. 

This was the new invasion, the black magic divinations summoned by Michael “Myka 9” Troy, or Microphone Mike—the South-Central-raised Goliath born to a brilliant ne’er-do-well trumpeter who allegedly cracked his 4-year-old prodigy upside the head with claves as punishment for failing to keep accurate time. After earning local renown for clowning Bobby Jimmy and the Critters on KDAY and ghostwriting a couple of songs on N.W.A and the Posse, rap’s John the Revelator formed the Freestyle Fellowship, whose self-pressed limited run of To Whom It May Concern became jazz-rap’s holy grail. Myka’s archangel levitations obliterated conventional time signatures. He heralds the group’s own ascendance: “Be advised they’ll come from a pure black whirlwind.” 

If modal jazz flips defined the generation, Myka 9 was among the first to decipher how to become the instrument itself. The “7th Seal” sample comes from George Duke and Billy Cobham live fusion wax, but Myka somehow embodies both saxophone and trumpet. A light-speed baritone, sinking and soaring like a spaceship launched from Alpha Centauri, crashing into a Leimert Park health food hideaway. His influences included John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and the sounds of the birds. (“When I come home late at night,” Myka once said, “there are finches and sparrows singing. I listen to the way they sing, the way their sounds blend. I try to duplicate what they do.”)

Mark the beginning of L.A.’s hyper-technical avant-garde strain with this cleansing of all stagnant flows. Everything from the Low End Theory to Kendrick Lamar owes a spiritual debt to Freestyle Fellowship and “7th Seal.” When Busta Rhymes first heard these “warping telekinetic measures of rhythmic unison,” he allegedly exclaimed, “What type of style is this?” In the L.A. old school, they used to call freestyling “sky rapping.” More than three decades later, Myka 9 still hasn’t landed. —Jeff Weiss

Deep Cover

Dr. Dre (Feat. Snoop Dogg)

Produced by Dr. Dre

Think about the sheer number of things “Deep Cover” is responsible for: the launch of Dre’s solo career in a sinister fashion; the introduction of Snoop Dogg, who stalks the track like the grim reaper for undercover detectives; popularizing California Penal Code in the broader culture; the birth of a beat so addictive that Biggie rapped on it just before the Bad Boy–Death Row feud and Big Pun used it as the backdrop for his most spellbinding tongue twisting. (One thing it couldn’t do was make anyone watch the film it served as the theme to; like the totally real movie Judgment Night, Deep Cover seems to exist only for the songs it contains.) 

Built largely on a four-note bass line and a Sly & the Family Stone drum break, this pre–Chronic Dre single has gone from casualty of the Body Count controversy to soundtrack curiosity to street classic to one of hip-hop’s most influential songs, full stop. For all the credit Dre gets for smoothing out the edges of gangsta rap with “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” and Doggystyle, it’s easy to forget just how ominous his music could sound. “Deep Cover” distills that energy to its purest form. And while he’s no one’s platonic ideal of a dexterous rapper—even on this early solo showcase, he can sound wooden—he’s proved himself as rap’s greatest talent scout. Here, he does so by unveiling perhaps his greatest find: a 21-year-old, rail-thin Snoop Dogg. (For all the credit Snoop gets for his otherworldly charisma, it’s easy to forget how menacing he can sound; “Tonight’s the night like Betty Wright, and I’m chilling,” he raps cooly mid-verse. “Killing, feeling no remorse, yeah.”) “Deep Cover” is a master class in using a song to evoke atmosphere, and it pushed past the limits of what it meant for a rap song to be considered hardcore. It wouldn’t have the same commercial success as the singles from The Chronic, but 30 years later, it’s just as responsible for everything that came after it. —Justin Sayles

Egypt Egypt

The Egyptian Lover

Produced by The Egyptian Lover

In an alternate universe, gangsta rap never emerges to mock and obliterate the memory of the electro hip-hop that immediately preceded it. In this parallel reality, the Egyptian Lover was always properly contextualized as a pioneer of L.A. club music—the West Coast’s equivalent to Cybotron in Detroit, Frankie Knuckles in New York and Chicago, Scottie B in Baltimore, or DJ Jubilee of New Orleans bounce fame.

L.A. hip-hop’s first breakout star was a turntable Aten tutored by Afrika Islam, who reigned over the Jheri curl–slicked parquet of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Armed with a vocoder, more chest hair than Tom Selleck, and Good Fred Oil procured from the La Rutan barbershop, the Egyptian Lover and his mobile DJ crew, Uncle Jamm’s Army, induced ecstatic dance floor freak fests in which pyramids of Cerwin-Vegas tested the human capacity for bass. His biggest hit, “Egypt Egypt,” took Prince and Kraftwerk to the Valley of the Pharaohs, were it located on 54th and Western. It’s five minutes of artificial insemination set in 4/4, where the Egyptian Lover repeats his name like a muezzin call for robot prayer, interpolating “King Tut’s Theme,” and unleashing 808s that could send limestone tombs tumbling into the Mojave. 

L.A. might have switched its allegiances to gangsta rap by the late ’80s, but “Egypt Egypt” remained in heavy local urban radio rotation until the fin de siècle. It became the first bass record in Miami, where a young Luther Campbell booked Egyptian Lover to rock one of his early parties (the next act he booked were little-known Riverside rappers, 2 Live Crew, who subsequently moved to Miami, blended Egyptian Lover’s louche funk into their own fledgling style, and the rest is history). 

For all the vicissitudes of cultural memory, Egyptian Lover won the crusade for posterity. You can hear his flamboyant, sleazy hip-hop and techno fusion in everything from Compton’s Channel Tres to Philly and Jersey club. A Rosetta stone still being interpreted. —Jeff Weiss

Why U Bullshittin'?

Suga Free

Produced by DJ Quik

There’s no justifying the sexual politics of Pomona’s foremost pimp. Every song on Suga Free’s Street Gospel chronicles the world’s oldest profession with regressive, reprehensible, and indefensible misogyny. Yet the album Suga Free and DJ Quik recorded in a Compton garage is an undisputed West Coast classic, album opener “Why U Bullshittin’?” forever in rotation on L.A. throwback radio station KDAY. Why? 

Half the answer lies in Quik’s production. Years before Timbaland became synonymous with sampling Bollywood records, DJ Quik flipped a pitched sitar sample and his “Heartz of Men” drums into a beat that sounds like a pair of Stacy Adams strutting across glinting marble floors. It’s an aural incantation, the sonic equivalent of being beguiled by a silver-tongued mack. Suga Free is that mack, elevating the pimp persona and flamboyant aesthetic to comedic extremes, blurring the line between the profession’s unsettling realities and hilarious mythos. He shifts cadences and delivery with the nonchalance of throwing his permed hair over his shoulder, rapping smooth bursts and half-sung melodies. Fans of “Why U Bullshittin’?” likely don’t condone slapping women, but they appreciate Free’s nimble rapping, the figurative brilliance of comparing the silkiness of his perm to Charlotte’s web and the waves of Redondo Beach. With Quik’s production, Free employed Richard Pryor–esque comedy and proved that the right delivery can make offensive bullshit an art. —Max Bell

Real Muthaphuckkin G's

Eazy-E (Feat. B.G., Knocc Out, Gangsta Dresta)

Produced by Rhythm D

The embittered demise of N.W.A birthed some of the greatest diss tracks in rap. Ice Cube went napalm-scorched earth with “No Vaseline,” then Dr. Dre made Eazy-E the pint-sized punching bag of The Chronic. Fittingly, Eazy, whose dope deals financed the first N.W.A records, got the last laugh, smirking and sneering at Dre and Death Row with his most enduring and ruthless song, “Real Muthaphuckkin’ G’s.”

The raison d’être for Eazy’s It’s On (Dr. Dre) 187um Killa, “Real Muthaphuckkin’ G’s” is a pointed diss record that doubles as a referendum on studio gangsters. It’s effective with or without context, as eternal as betrayal and retribution.

There’s perhaps no more sinister beat in G-funk history, with Rhythm D wresting maximum menace from the squealing synths that Dre employed on The Chronic. Because he rarely wrote and was notoriously stiff on the mic, Eazy recruited the half brothers and Compton hell-raisers B.G. Knocc Out and Gangsta Dresta to write and guest. Before handing them pen and paper, he ostensibly regaled them with tales of recouping The Chronic royalties, Dre’s sequined jumpsuit days in World Class Wreckin’ Cru, Snoop’s rail-spike thinness, and Suge Knight’s intimidation tactics. While B.G. and Dresta deliver serviceable verses, Eazy raps the lines they wrote for him as if they were pouring out of the darkest parts of his soul. We’ll never know whether he wanted payback and respect or another payday. Eazy unequivocally flipped Dre and Co. the bird on “Real Muthaphuckkin’ G’s,” but he never revealed his hand. —Max Bell

It's Funky Enough

The D.O.C.

Produced by Dr. Dre

OK, let’s just get it out of the way: The D.O.C. is from Dallas. But in the video for “It’s Funky Enough,” with his Kings hat and villain-in-black outfit, the D.O.C. looked like a native of the L.A. rap world that he shaped both on and off the mic. In the mid-’80s as a member of the Fila Fresh Crew, the Texan grabbed the attention of Dr. Dre, who encouraged him to move out west. He subsequently became a key collaborator in the super producer’s long (and sometimes whispered about) history of collaboration. The D.O.C. ghostwrote on Straight Outta Compton and Eazy-Duz-It, and went on to be a critical part of Death Row’s early years—in The Chronic’s credits, Dre singled him out “for talking me into doin’ this album.” But in the space between those two moments, the D.O.C. was poised to become the star of Ruthless Records’ second phase, thanks largely to this song. Over one of Dre’s best beats from that era, the D.O.C. is commanding presence, even when he is rapping in a fake patois. His performance on “It’s Funky Enough” is indelible, a strand in hip-hop’s lyrical DNA that’s just as crucial as “Top Billin” and “La-Di-Da-Di.” Sadly, just four months after the release of his debut album, No One Can Do It Better, the D.O.C. fell asleep at the wheel after a night of partying. He crashed on the Ventura Freeway and flew through his car’s rear window. Though that accident could have ended his life, instead it destroyed his vocal cords, leaving him with just a rasp. A generation of rap literally lost one of its most promising voices, but thankfully it didn’t lose his words. —Eric Ducker

How I Could Just Kill a Man

Cypress Hill

Produced by DJ Muggs

What would it take for you to kill someone? Granted, it’s much easier considering than actually doing, and you don’t want to be in the position to have to ponder it regardless, but here’s an example, courtesy of B-Real: “One-time tried to come in my home / Take my chrome, I said ‘Yo, it’s on.” Was it necessary? No, as he acknowledges (“Didn’t have to blast out, but I did anyway”), but it’s a glimpse of the mentality at the core of Cypress Hill’s breakout hit.

Cypress Hill describes homicide so casually on “How I Could Just Kill a Man” that it’s almost chilling, but B-Real, Sen Dog, and DJ Muggs each do their part to make it sound exquisite. Sen Dog punctuates B-Real’s animated, nasally delivery on the hook, where the former goes low while the latter goes high. But it’s DJ Muggs who shines brightest in the background, crafting the aggressive, plodding canvas built on Manzel’s “Midnight Theme.” He adds Jimi Hendrix’s wailing guitar on the chorus, then inserts an off-kilter organ riff from the Music Machine’s “Come On In” at the beginning of the final verse. Each layer adds to the journey. 

Admitted recklessness notwithstanding, “How I Could Just Kill a Man” isn’t all wanton disregard for life. As B-Real reminds, you might not be able to comprehend what it takes to pull a trigger if you haven’t been in certain scenarios. To truly understand is to know that you may never understand—and you probably don’t want to, either. —Julian Kimble


Toddy Tee

Produced by Leon Haywood

In the early 1980s, the LAPD purchased two Cadillac Gage V100s, a military-grade vehicle designed for a variety of battlefield uses. They were supposed to be used for high-risk warrant arrests. This being Daryl Gates’s LAPD, that was often not the case. The department affixed 10-foot battering rams to both, adorning each with a crudely painted smiley face and the phrase “Have a nice day.” The V100s became harbingers of destruction cruising the streets of South-Central and adjacent neighborhoods, as the department tasked with serving and protecting the area transformed it into a new kind of battlefield. Soon, the battering rams were being deployed extrajudicially, knocking down suspected crack houses and whatever else overzealous LAPD officers felt was appropriate. (In one mission, it destroyed a home while two mothers and three young children sat inside eating ice cream.) 

These raids caught the attention of Johnnie Cochran, who lambasted the department for civil rights violations and wanton destruction. They also caught the attention of Compton Posse member Toddy Tee, who came up with a shorthand name for these seven-ton monuments to force: the batterram. Inspired by the wreckage he saw around him, Tee wrote a song about the V100s and recorded it in his rudimentary home studio. As legend has it, the early lo-fi, Dr. Dre–produced version spread throughout the city until famed L.A. DJ Greg “Rap Attack” Mack heard it at a promotion event at a high school. Mack began playing it on KDAY—off tape reels, as Tee had yet to record the song to wax—and it quickly became a local hit. Eventually, the song made its way into the ears of funk singer Leon Haywood (who, coincidentally, would later be sampled to genre-redefining success by Dr. Dre). Haywood signed on to produce what would become the classic version of “Batterram,” a song as responsible as any for the creation of the subgenre we now call “gangsta rap.”

In its final form, “Batterram” is a seven-minute electro-tinged horror story, in which the V100s become an unstoppable force, tearing through your street and heading straight toward your front door. Its first verse tells the story of an alleged drug dealer who beat his case, only to find a threat lurking outside his home: “You won't hear a snatch, you'll hear a boom,” Tee raps, his voice serving as the warning siren the V100s lacked. It’s a chilling tale—one where there’s a thin line between heroes and villains, and a thinner one between life and death. “Batterram” is proof that simply telling your story can be political, even if you never set out to tell an overtly political tale.

Eventually, the LAPD succumbed to the political pressure spurred partly by the success of “Batterram.” Within a few years, the V100s were decommissioned. That’s not to say the LAPD changed its ways—this was only a few years before the Rodney King beating and the Rampart scandal, and even today, there are questions about the department’s use of force. But like “Fuck Tha Police” and other indelible rap songs that double as protest anthems, “Batterram” lives on as a testament to the power of music that’s too often dismissed as a glorification of violence—and a reminder that sometimes the worst violence is perpetrated by those who are supposed to serve and protect. —Justin Sayles

Streiht Up Menace

MC Eiht

Produced by DJ Slip, MC Eiht, QDIII

Think about the arc of modern narratives: the symptoms of someone’s neurosis or despair are beaten into the audience, their cause treated as a mystery to be unveiled with great ceremony later. All the way back in 1993, MC Eiht was having none of this. Having already mastered his baritone and narrative chops as the leader of his group, Compton’s Most Wanted, Eiht’s first solo hit refuses to waste time being coy. “A fucked-up childhood is why the way I am,” he says at the opening of the first verse, before moving methodically through the Compton of the 1970s and early ’80s. His mother is driven “insane” by the socioeconomic vice grip, his friends murdered in front of him. These scenes are not necessarily autobiographical—they track closely with Menace II Society, which Eiht starred in—but they serve as a parabolic origin story all the same, an explication of the rage that simmers just beneath the mundanity of American life. —Paul Thompson 


DJ Quik

Produced by DJ Quik

In 1991, Compton, California, was responsible for putting out some of the best music in the entire world, thanks to Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, and the Ruthless Records roster. While they were enjoying mainstream success, a young DJ had quickly become an underground darling by selling his own mixtapes locally. DJ Quik had a hit record that landed him a record deal in 1990, and that song was then distributed to the masses by Profile Records. Shortly after, he released his debut, Quik Is the Name

The album debuted at no. 29 on the Billboard 200, and its biggest hit was “Tonite,” a funky, fast-paced party starter that captured the late ’80s and ’90s ethos perfectly. Quik’s delivery was innovative at a time when rappers were extremely methodical about fitting into a mold. His style felt less like he was reading his raps and more like he was having an enthusiastic conversation with the listeners the morning after a party. The self-produced instrumental showed off his own brand of G-funk at a faster tempo, perfect for grooving at parties but perhaps challenging to keep up with if you were trying to rap along with the Quiksta. —Rosecrans Vic

Fuck Tha Police


Produced by Dr. Dre, DJ Yella

On August 1, 1989, N.W.A’s distributor, Priority Records, received a letter from the FBI. Written by Milt Ahlerich, then the assistant director of the FBI’s office of public affairs, the letter accused N.W.A of encouraging violence against law enforcement officers in an unnamed song. That song, “Fuck Tha Police,” is more a brash expression of simmering resentment than outright advocacy for police to experience the excessive, sometimes lethal force they—the LAPD, in particular—had used against Black people for years. 

N.W.A wanted to turn the tables, so “Fuck Tha Police” put the LAPD on trial. With Dr. Dre serving as the judge, Ice Cube, MC Ren, and Eazy-E explain, at great length, their disdain for cops, detailing the harassment, violence, and state-sanctioned racism to which they were subjected. In the end, the defendant is found guilty of being a “redneck, white bread, chickenshit motherfucker” and reveals his racist nature as he goes down in flames. 

N.W.A may have recorded “Fuck Tha Police” in a day, but the sprit of the song and its blunt sentiment was years in the making. It channeled the long-brewing fury associated with living in communities where police routinely misuse their authority into a succinct statement. It’s the result of everything from the Watts rebellion to the early days of Operation Hammer. It became an anthem, in part, because law enforcement’s abuse of power wasn’t specific to the LAPD. And the attitude remains decades later because so little has changed in that regard. —Julian Kimble

Passin' Me By

The Pharcyde

Produced by J-Swift

How can a song about being such a wimp sound so fucking cool? The multifaceted, motley crew that is the Pharcyde simply skates over an all-time beat from J-Swift that takes the keys of Quincy Jones’s “Summer in the City” and turns them into that sound. You know the sound I’m talking about. Joe knows the sound I’m talking about. It’s an iconic song from an iconic West Coast group; its superiority and stature feel so obvious that putting it into words feels pointless. (This is a cop-out, I know, but I also know you’d rather listen to the song than read what I might say about it.) Instead, allow us to point out two more things and then vacate this space to the experts: (1) Simping never goes out of style. The Pharcyde wrote an anthem for the TikTok generation, the only group who takes more pride in their thirstiness. And (2) we need to bring back “rooty-toot nincompoop” as an acceptable insult. It’s time. —Andrew Gruttadaro

Gin and Juice

Snoop Dogg

Produced by Dr. Dre

It’s hard to believe that one of the most memorable personalities in rap history had to spend so much time introducing himself. As with “Deep Cover,” “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang,” and “Who Am I? (What’s My Name?),” “Gin and Juice” begins as a form of branding: “With so much drama in the LBC, it’s kinda hard being Snoop D-O-double-G.” And having spotted you the first line, how much of “Gin and Juice” can you go on to recite from memory? At least the entire first verse? All of it? Think about all the “important” things that “they ain’t leavin’ till 6 in the morning” or “Tanqueray and chronic, yeah I’m fucked up now” have pushed out of your brain—birthdays, court dates, bills, and so forth. 

But as to why “Gin and Juice” is embedded in the cultural lexicon to a degree that no other Snoop Dogg song can match, it all comes back to how Snoop Dogg somehow fades into the background. He’s one of the biggest rap stars on the planet, but on this song he still lives with his mom. Here, Dr. Dre is not the genius architect behind one of the most profound pop cultural shifts of the 20th century, but a guy who refreshes the party favors. Up to that point, Snoop’s music was about the experience of being Snoop Dogg; no one outside of Long Beach or Compton could hear anything from The Chronic and think, “Yeah, I’ve been there.” Perhaps “Gin and Juice” was too accessible, as those of us raised in the Napster era are still likely traumatized by the Gourds’ alt-country cover. But like the best party music, Snoop’s masterwork is relatable if you’ve ever been in a car, smoked weed, got drunk, and felt like life couldn’t possibly get any better. —Ian Cohen

California Love

2Pac (Feat. Dr. Dre, Roger Troutman)

Produced by Dr. Dre

When 2Pac joined Death Row, it was something like two high-speed trains colliding and creating a giant fireball of an explosion. Death Row, thanks to Suge Knight’s strength and fear factor and Dr. Dre being in his production heyday, was a massive, seemingly unstoppable force of mega-hits and mega-talent. 2Pac was already a superstar, but after a stint in jail and being targeted in a nearly fatal robbery, he was a man on fire. He kicked off a vengeance tour like none other. Out of all of that came arguably the most important song in all of West Coast rap history: “California Love.”

2Pac’s rhymes with Dr. Dre’s production made for a highly potent mixture that couldn’t fail. Not only is it a perfect party record but it’s the perfect L.A. party record, a gleefully vibrant ode to hedonistic Southern California vices and culture. Dre reinvents and reinvigorates Ronnie Hudson’s record “West Coast Poplock” as not only the ultimate party jam for the ’90s, but a celebratory announcement of Pac’s return to the outside world. The subsequent music video only propelled this image further with the Mad Max–themed party in the desert; the apocalypse could come and Death Row would still be on top and jamming on your skulls, so get used to it. Dre and Pac turned out to be too powerful and too combustible to actually last, as their relationship would fall apart very soon after. It’s an absolute shame, too—the surround sound of Dre’s production is a perfect canvas for 2Pac’s unsparing, pent-up aggression and irascible charm. It sounds like actual bombs going off during the “Shake it, shake it, baby” refrain, making this song feel larger than life. “California Love” is as nuclear now as it was when it debuted in 1995. And yes, of course, California still knows how to party. —Israel Daramola

m.A.A.d. City

Kendrick Lamar (Feat. MC Eiht)

Produced by Sounwave, THC, Terrace Martin

The thundering centerpiece of good kid, m.A.A.D city is a nearly six-minute chronicle of innocence lost, a breathless, claustrophobic spiral into the perpetual war Kendrick Lamar grew up inside. Frantic, and replete with the expected trauma and gore, the song still manages to convey the depth of what was taken from Lamar and his generation: “A wall of bullets comin’ from AKs, ARs,” he raps, and then, in the same breath, “‘Ay, y’all–duck!’ That’s what Momma said when we was eating that free lunch.” “m.A.A.d city” is a Technicolor coming-of-age nightmare with the bird’s-eye scope of an LAPD chopper and the detail of an autopsy. Lamar was already the savior of L.A. when good kid, m.A.A.D city dropped, but “m.A.A.d city” is what cemented him as the city’s cryptkeeper.  

Part one is anchored by longtime collaborator Sounwave’s looping John Carpenter violins and earthquaking 808s. It’s nocturnal and frenetic, blood red and pitch black; it’s the quiet of night interrupted by gunfire and sirens, the crushing weight of the memory, at age 9, of seeing someone in a new light after suspecting them of murder. But almost as soon as it starts, the song switches: When legendary Compton rapper MC Eiht’s voice emerges on the Terrace Martin–produced part two—“Wake yo punk ass up!” he yells, just as he did at the opening of “Streiht Up Menace,” his 1993 ur-text of L.A. gangsta rap realism—Lamar’s rapping moves from the material to the straight up poetic, as if he’s floating above his dead body. He’s “Compton’s human sacrifice,” a formerly faultless teenager now carrying a big enough gun to hold an entire cul-de-sac hostage.

The choice to feature Eiht, the “Deep Cover” drums and Chronic synths, the same sample as Ice Cube’s “A Bird in the Hand,” the references to the 1992 Bloods and Crips truce—“m.A.A.d. City” is, maybe most of all, a 25-year-old Lamar’s attempt to position himself in the history of Los Angeles, and to claim a place in its rap pantheon. It worked. And then he took on the world. —Jackson Howard



Produced by Dr. Dre, DJ Yella

The birth of a superstar rapper, the birth of a superstar rap group, the birth of West Coast rap as much of the rest of America would come to know and love it, the birth of a nation. As the blockbuster N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton took great pains to illustrate, Eazy-E was not at all a rapper when he entered the booth to recite Ice Cube’s lyrics under Dr. Dre’s exacting guidance, but he’d somehow transformed into one of the most important rappers of all time by the time he walked back out of that booth, having somehow nailed the swagger and menace and delight behind every word, from cruisin’ to jockin’ to knuckleheads to we’ll pull your card. N.W.A would subsequently pull together, change the world, and then break apart, but the camaraderie between Eazy, Cube, Dre, et al., is never stronger or more palpable than right here, as reflected in the somehow not-at-all tentative amateurish command of Eazy’s voice. Quote him all you want. —Rob Harvilla


Warren G and Nate Dogg

Produced by Warren G

In 1982, a bearded white man by the name of Michael McDonald gripped the nation. Within his velvety voice, a constellation of wounded pain swirled. Mr. McDonald couldn’t help but forget that a past love now eluded him and thus things could never be the same. There was no way this soft-rock icon knew what would unfold 12 years later, when two Black men would boldly feel the spirit of his universal truth and move it forward. It didn’t matter that McDonald hailed from Missouri and they came from Long Beach.

The art of “Regulate” transcends creed and color. Warren G and Nate Dogg’s classic is an amalgamation of disparate pieces that give way to a perfect blend of musical alchemy. Who knew that the lead single from 1994’s Above the Rim soundtrack—a song about the type of brotherly bond that can form only when a friend saves another from a dice game gone awry—could sound this ridiculously smooth?

Even in the midst of mortal danger, Warren sounds as if breaking his composure would be a mortal sin. Nate’s voice sounds so angelic it’s easy to forget that he’s depicting a scene of fury and eventual murder. The duo’s love for each other, while platonic and brotherly, is no less strong than what McDonald sang about a decade prior. After Warren and Nate’s tale unfolds, nothing will ever be the same. For the night, the Eastside Motel awaits, but in the morning both artists will tweak “into a whole new era” of G-funk supremacy. —Charles Holmes

It Was a Good Day

Ice Cube

Produced by DJ Pooh

Of course it’s gonna be a good day if it’s scored by a sublimely hypnotic loop of the Isley Brothers’ “Footsteps in the Dark.” Thank you, DJ Pooh;  every time I hear it, I never want this song to end. Beyond that, “It Was a Good Day” is an ingenious exercise in negative space—the ethos of the song is so powerful because Ice Cube isn’t talking about all that. “I rap all this gangsta stuff—what about all the good days I had?” Cube told Blender in 2005, describing the genesis of the track. It’s a simple yet profound question: What’s the point of life if you can’t celebrate a Lakers win over the SuperSonics or a page from Kim (who can have intercourse for a comparatively extended amount of time)? But in cherishing the light, Ice Cube ironically brings even more attention to the dark. These good days are rare and fleeting. The cops won’t look the other way tomorrow. One day the Goodyear Blimp will not read “Ice Cube’s a pimp.” You better treasure what you can while you can, but don’t get in too deep thinking life’s sweet. Even Ice Cube has to eventually stop the Isley Brothers loop and check himself. —Andrew Gruttadaro

6 'N the Mornin'


Produced by Afrika Islam, or Unknown DJ (or Both)

When reduced to bullet points, Ice-T’s life reads like the plot of an adventure novel. He was kicked from one coast to the other after the tragic deaths of his parents; he tried his hand as a hustler and a heavy metal kid, a soldier and a jewel thief; he eventually became the catalyst for a debate over free speech among parties who were forgetting the fundamental, underlying truth: that Ice’s speech was more stylish than virtually anyone else’s on the planet. 

But the fantastical is the enemy of the real. When Ice was selling drugs, he wasn’t Tony Montana—he was trying to flip the Social Security checks he got from the government in the wake of his father’s death so that he could keep his head above water and feed his young daughter. Likewise, the Army was a place of financial refuge, not a swashbuckling excursion. It was in the service that he fell in love with hip-hop. When he came home from his station in Hawaii, he came with DJ equipment under his arm. Before long he was spinning parties, rapping in the sense that the original Bronx DJs rapped: as a feature of the performance behind the decks. 

These early sets were likely dominated by the electro music that Ice favored, and that inflected his earliest recorded raps, like 1984’s “Body Rock” and “Reckless.” But as he was coaxed, inch by inch, away from the turntables, he felt more and more confident deploying the oil-slick pimp talk he adapted from Iceberg Slim novels and his friends back at Crenshaw High. He stopped writing about how nice he was at parties and turned his eye to the gang culture that had exploded during his youth, and that now seemed to dictate what his peers wore, how they talked, and where they felt free to go. 

In 1986, inspired by the Philadelphia gangsta rap pioneer Schoolly D’s “P.S.K. What Does It Mean?,” he got to work on a song that would eventually stretch to 10 verses and more than seven minutes, spanning almost a decade within its narrative—and even ending back in New York. “6 ‘n the Mornin’” is perhaps the only song that surpasses “P.S.K.” as a foundational text for what was originally called “reality rap.” Its depictions of crime and punishment are frequently brutal and sometimes misanthropic, its narrator essentially unflappable. It even features a delightfully tossed-off rejection of a contemporary’s work: in this case Ice’s sneering “This shit was for real—it was no ‘La-Di-Da-Di.’”

And yet for all the influence “6 ’n the Mornin’” would exert in the genre over the next 35 years, its genius lies in its most granular details. Ice’s verses are tactile: the “fresh Adidas” that “squeak” across the bathroom floor when cops are pounding outside, the knees that ache during a dice game, the grin that spreads on a friend’s face when Ice is out of prison after seven years instead of 10. For all the years, scenes, and characters he churns through on the record, not a single detail scans as a cliché, no friend or foe an archetype. It’s overwhelmed by color, relentless in its originality. —Paul Thompson

Straight Outta Compton


Produced by Dr. Dre, DJ Yella

Where were you when you realized that the game changed? I’m not sure where I was, but I know I was a child. That was when Yo! MTV Raps sent Fab 5 Freddy to the West Coast to spend time with N.W.A in their hood. While they didn’t encounter situations as intense as those depicted in N.W.A’s seminal single “Straight Outta Compton”—fat with an “Amen”-break-fueled fury that was armed with pens and cameras pointed at the ills of the community—they gave a ringside seat to the frightening side of the city. For kids who grew up knowing heavy metal as the only rebellious genre du jour, it was dope to have Cube-penned lyrics to revolt to. It’s a song so hard that it became the title of N.W.A’s triple-platinum debut album, as well as the title of their Oscar-nominated biopic. One of the hardest records to come out of L.A. and the rap scene overall, period. —khal

Nuthin’ But a 'G' Thang

Dr. Dre (Feat. Snoop Dogg)

Produced by Dr. Dre

It’s easy to forget now, but The Chronic was no sure thing. 

Following the release of N.W.A’s 1991 sophomore album, the many-times-platinum producer Dr. Dre had grown disenchanted with Ruthless Records and forged a new partnership with rapper the D.O.C., former UNLV defensive end Marion “Suge” Knight, and funk music executive Dick Griffey. (Imprisoned drug dealer Michael “Harry O” Harris would serve as their benefactor.) They wanted to name their venture Def Row—a play on the iconic New York label Def Jam—but Compton’s Most Wanted’s the Unknown DJ owned the rights to the name. So the quartet settled for the proper spelling: Death Row Records. It was a rare case in rap of proper grammar being cooler than an intentional misspelling.

Shortly after, the Compton native went about shopping a completed album to distributors. Except no one seemed that interested in the record that would eventually forever alter popular music history. Maybe they thought the Suge–Harry O connection was too volatile, maybe they doubted Dre as a solo artist, maybe they just didn’t get the music. But one imagines Dre putting on his crispest White Sox hat, going door-to-door at the major labels, playing his tape for white guys in suits, and getting polite rejection letters in the mail a few weeks later. It seemed no one understood what they were listening to—until it hit the ears of Jimmy Iovine and Interscope Records.

Interscope was itself a fledgling enterprise, and it was all too happy to get into bed with Death Row. The two companies formed an alliance that eventually made mostly everyone involved very, very rich—and relatedly, drew plenty of controversy. But most of that would come later. First there was a matter of marketing Dre’s new music. Understanding that programmers wouldn’t catch on to the music like the label hoped, Interscope tried a bold but brilliant promotional strategy: buying 60-second radio spots teasing one song, with the hope that people couldn’t help but call into the station to request it. To work, it had to be the perfect track. I think you already know which song they picked.

Debuting in late 1992, “Nuthin but a ‘G’ Thang” is an extension of what Dre was building toward with N.W.A, but still feels like a portal to a whole new world. It takes the Moog synthesizers he had deployed on beats like “Alwayz Into Somethin’” and laid them atop replayed portions of Leon Haywood’s “I Want’a Do Something Freaky to You,” creating something simultaneously warm and inviting but cold and sinister. Throw in some vocal samples from Chuck D and a few old records in Dre’s crates, and you have the perfect backdrop for Dre and his new secret weapon: a bean stalk of chill menace named Snoop Doggy Dogg.

A thing Dre learned in N.W.A is that even when you’re the star, it’s best to play the background. (It’s easy to do that when working alongside a ball of fury like Ice Cube and a showman like Eazy-E.) Here, in his grand solo coming-out party, Dre holds a fair amount of ground (with verses penned by the D.O.C.), but cedes just as much territory to his protégé. Snoop goes first and does a lot with it without seeming like he’s trying to do anything at all. He’s calm and casual, but in complete command of his craft. Even the sing-songy, mostly nonsensical chorus feels cool as hell in that voice. You listen—then and now—and intuitively, you know you’re witnessing the birth of the modern rap star.

Much of The Chronic dealt with violence: inner-city mayhem, police brutality, the 1992 riots following the acquittal of the officers who beat Rodney King—an uprising Dre absorbed as he crafted the album miles away in his Calabasas home. (The record did not, however, deal with Dre’s own relationship with violence, which includes multiple accounts of domestic abuse and violence against women.) But while much of The Chronic is late-20th-century L.A. street culture blown up to IMAX proportions, “‘G’ Thang” and its day-in-the-life video were pure escapism. Dre and Snoop made what was by all accounts a deeply unglamorous life seem aspirational, and they made the hardest music ever created the most accessible thing on the airwaves. It wasn’t long before radio was playing this song nonstop, of its own volition.

There’s an oft-quoted comment Iovine gave to famed L.A. scribe Jonathan Gold shortly after The Chronic exploded: “See that kid over there? That’s my 12-year-old nephew from Staten Island. You couldn’t get more white and suburban than him. But Dre’s record is all the kid listens to. When you sell this many albums, they are not all going to the South Bronx.” There are several complicated realities in that statement—the way Black pain is commoditized and the way white listeners consume it among them—but the most curious phrase Iovine uses is “South Bronx,” the borough considered the birthplace of hip-hop. Intentional or not, Iovine’s choice of locale gets at another reality: Rap may have started out East, but it was revolutionized on the Left Coast. The streets of South-Central are just as important as the parks in the South Bronx, and Death Row is just as influential as Def Jam. Much of that can be traced to this song, the most impactful in L.A.’s storied rap history—and on the short list of most impactful in the genre’s. Looking back, it should’ve been obvious: Of course this was going to work. How could it not? —Justin Sayles