Hip hop without the bass is like a PB&J without the bread…it just ain’t right.
In honor of one of our favorite utilizers of the low-end, Stevie Stone, and his upcoming album Malta Bend, we tallied a list of some of our favorite bass lines throughout the history of the genre that places more emphasis on the frequencies 250 Hz and below than any other genre.
These are 20 of the greatest bass lines in hip hop.*
* Notice the use of the word “of”. We know there’s some we left out (there’s only 20 slots!), so let us know what you think those songs are in the comments section below, or forever hold your peace.
Sugarhill Gang – “Rapper’s Delight” (1979)
The original hit provided a original groove that would sustain a new sensation called “rap music.” The slightly sped-up bassline from Chic’s “Good Times” would be the funky basement upon which hip hop would plant its feet, and dance floors were never the same.
This song would be sampled to create another amazing bass classic listed below, but the restless bass line from the verses alone puts this one in the list. A dance floor classic in the 80s, it samples a bass line from Liquid Liquid’s “Cavern” to create a song that would ironically fuel a lot of cocaine consumption, all while warning against the dangers of using cocaine.
Straight up nasty and unavoidably groovy. One of the go-to cuts that DJs use to get the party moving is Digital Underground’s smash hit, the main reason being the octave sweeping bass line, a potent combination of simplicity and movement.
With Eric B. and Rakim, you have a plethora of bass lines to choose from that will send you into a nod-frenzy (“Know the Ledge” and “Paid In Full” come to mind immediately), but we went with this one. Eric B. loops an acoustic bass sample that hits with a funky urgency that doesn’t let up. His production on Don’t Sweat The Technique garnered such acclaim that famed critic Robert Christgau of The Village Voice said “When he hits it right,” is “like the mouth you love doing the spot you forgot.” Whoa.
Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg – “Deep Cover” – Deep Cover Soundtrack (1992)
One of the most sinister labels in rap history came out the gate with one of the most sinister basslines in rap history. The simple, repetitive riff emotes the persistent feeling that something bad is going to happen, and the foreboding feeling never lets up. Like the guitar riff to The Rolling Stones “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, this bassline is a prime example of the power of three notes played in just the right way.
This pounding bass line from Large Professor was the track that would jumpstart Nas’ career. It’s not often that a bass line takes such center stage, but it does here to amazing effect, filling up the entire soundscape of the instrumental. This track is New York hip hop on steroids.
Dr. Dre – “Let Me Ride” – The Chronic (1992)
Yeah Dr. Dre gets multiple mentions in this list and there’s nothing anybody can do about it. A lot of songs from The Chronic could have made this list: obviously “Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang” with its supporting bass riff, or “Dre Day” with the fuzzy, defiant bass line that drives the song, but the spunk of this bass line makes it rise above the rest.
The spirit of hip hop relies on inventiveness, an art that fuses things that don’t normally go together. No other genre exercises such freedom in mashing together genres and sounds. This is evident when you listen to a track like “Rebirth of Slick”, which slows down and loops the very active acoustic bass from Art Blakey’s “Stretching” and makes it work for Digable Planets and their cool-like manifesto.
Another acoustic bass fueled rap song, Ronnie Foster’s “Mystic Brew” gets revamped into a classic that sets the mood for any party, whether it be public or private. The intimate-yet-groovy song is quintessential Tribe, fusing jazz and hip hop in a way that continues to influence producers to this very day.
Four verses of hardcore bliss come from Andre and Big Boi over Organized Noise’s threatening, uncompromised-badassery of an instrumental. The bass in this track was no doubt specifically made for cadillac subs, a swaggering riff that’s the musical equivalent to someone yelling “I wish you would!“
QDIII took multiple elements from Prince’s “Do Me, Baby” and fused together a classic that remains one of the best songs for the whip on a summer day. The live playing from the bass player retains the slap elements from Prince’s song, but is updated with more funk, groove and soul than the sterile-sounding track from where it came. A word to producers: use real musicians! This track is a shining example of what happens when you pair a killer bassist over the proper drums. (Sidenote: We know some people are going to be mad that “Me and My Girlfriend” didn’t make the list instead, but this one slightly edged it out due to its loose swing.)
Simplicity works when you have the right sounds at play, as evidenced by this simple instrumental that turned into one of the biggest hits (out of the many) for Notorious B.I.G. The simplified and boosted re-interpretation of Herb Albert’s “Rise” still has many systems cranked to this very day.
Not so much a bass line as it is a bass boom. We had to throw this in there as a representative of Miami’s bass sound. A bended 808 provides the punctuation this song needed to make it one of the biggest hits of 1999 and a house party staple.
The unnerving and sinister quality of this bass line makes for quintessential Mobb Deep, serving as the perfect soundscape for Prodigy to spit nihilistic, Queensbridge game. The updated bass line from a portion of Grand Master Melle’s aforementioned classic “White Lines” sends chills up the spine.
Frenetic, urgent, unrelenting. For a group that’s hell-bent on revolution, there couldn’t be a better instrumental. The buzzing, distorted bassline just makes you want to get up and do something about something. Just a single, continuous note that’s altered on the pitch-bender, you’ll be hard pressed to find a bass line (or a beat for that matter) with more urgency.
This one’s for the backpackers. Alchemist, one of the greatest and most underrated producers of all time, often lays down tracks with amazing bass work, but we had to choose this one for the fact that it’s smoother than double-malt whiskey.
Kanye flexed his Tribe Called Quest influence, but did the acoustic-bass-on-a-beat thing in his own way, fleshing out the intro to Albert Jones’ “Mother Nature” and turning it into the powerful opening track. The bouncy groove would fuel Common’s mission statement on what would be one of hip hop’s most awesome comeback records.
Out of every bass line on this list, this one is by far the most abrasive. “Hell Of A Life” opens up with a bass that’s distorted beyond all measure (likely channeled through a fuzz pedal), kicking the song off in startling fashion. What starts as a slow and loose-sounding riff, turns into an incredibly tight groove once Kanye’s drums kick in, an incredible feat of instrumentation.
This sinister and sensuous groove further solidified Hit-Boy as one of the premiere talents of the Generation Y beatsmiths. A stripped down groove that only consists of two notes, Hit-Boy found a bass tone that was able to be the backbone for an entire song, a wormy, liquid-y and unmistakable sound that can hold its own with every little else.
One of the least showy bass lines in this list, this one gets the nod for building an undeniably catchy groove while maintaining a classy restraint and austerity. Tech N9ne would craft this spare and spacious instrumental into one of his most powerful songs, and heads proceeded to nod on radio stations across America.
Let us know in the comments section below!