10 Essential Hip House tracks

Treble staff
hip house tracks Vic Mensa

House music has been healthier and more profile of late than it had been for a while, but so has its hybrid offshoot, hip house. Hip house is basically as simple a mixture of styles as you can get—it’s literally rapping over house beats (or scratching and sampling over house beats as the case may be). But, maybe unsurprisingly, it works remarkably well. That is, when it’s done right. In the early days, artists were only beginning to scratch the surface of how to blend house with hip-hop, reaching a peak in the late ’80s when artists such as Tyree and The KLF refined and essentially perfected the recipe. Yet hip house has seen a resurgence, if not an outright renaissance thanks to an upswing in house-laden hip-hop singles in the past half-decade, from the likes of Azealia Banks, Shamir, Vic Mensa and Le1f. As the genre moves forward into the next generation, we’re honoring its best moments with a list of 10 essential hip house tracks, with a playlist for your listening enjoyment.


hip house tracks NewcleusNewcleus – “Jam On It”
from Jam on Revenge (1984; Sunnyview)

Yes, we know, Afrika Bambaataa, blah blah blah. Dude legitimized the use of synthesizers and vocoders to futurize rap, no question. But for all of his sonic innovation, the raps he led were still largely nascent, feeling their way through primitive dancefloor exhortations and crypto-religious philosophy. It wasn’t until this family affair out of Brooklyn started releasing tracks with vocals sped up, chipmunk-like, that rap with an electro groove managed to tell stories in the same vein as Slick Rick and Run DMC. And man, “Jam on It” was on some sci-fi shit, from the crew (“I’m Cozmo D from outer space/I came to rock the human race”) to the story (Newcleus in a soundsystem battle with Superman himself) to the deliberate bassline and staccato keyboard riff. That last bit of boogie would itself time-warp into legend, sampled by Nightmares on Wax for “I’m for Real” at the dawn of both trip-hop and the history of Warp Records. Wikki-wikki. – AB


essential 4ad tracks marrsM/A/R/R/S – “Pump Up the Volume”
(1987; 4AD)

How do you make a hip house record with no discernible rap? Focus on the wheels of steel, that’s how. This offshoot of 4AD acts Colourbox and A.R. Kane didn’t just embrace the flat drums and piano stabs of the burgeoning house scene. On top of it they laid a pastiche of scratches and found sounds: lyrics from Public Enemy and Eric B. & Rakim, funk from James Brown and Jimmy Castor, oddities from Islamic chants and German pop and classic bad films. There were certainly mixing contemporaries with larger legacies like Grandmaster Flash and Steinski; there were equally definitive songs like Paul Hardcastle’s depressing “19.” Yet few moments in recorded history managed to mean so much to a particular label (this was 4AD’s best-selling single forever), champion new performance styles (including sampledelica), and herald the rise of multiple genres and subgenres (including turntablism). – AB


hip house tracks The KLFThe KLF – “What Time is Love”
(1988; KLF)

UK musical gadflies Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond made a living using society to tweak their electro, and using their electro to tweak society. Before disappearing in a fog of infrequent remixes, occasional new cuts and a deleted KLF back catalog, they saturated the market in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s with a few different versions of their dramatic acid track “What Time is Love?” The middle child in this set of siblings built upon the spare skeleton of the original most notably with a megaphone rap from Isaac “Bello B” Bello of British rap group Outlaw Posse. With its inclusion on The KLF’s mainstream LP The White Room, it scored a victory for so-called stadium house on both sides of the Atlantic. – AB


essential hip-house tracks TyreeTyree – “Turn Up the Bass”
(1989; ffrr)

Tyree Cooper’s 1989 single “Turn Up the Bass” incited a little bit of controversy upon its release when it was marketed as the “first hip house track on vinyl.” UK outfit The Beatmasters had a bone to pick with that distinction (and there’s at least a couple on our calendar that predate it), but “Turn Up the Bass,” regardless of how early it was in the shuffle, was certainly one of the first truly exceptional hip house tracks to hit the clubs. With its roots in Chicago house, the track incorporates that signature sound’s funky beats and hypnotic piano loops, while emcee Kool Rock Steady offers up some fairly silly but definitely perfect for the track verses (He uses the phrase “awesome, super duper trooper,” which Treble is having printed on buttons right now—pre-order yours today!). It’s maybe the purest distillation of what hip house really is, – JT


essential hip-house tracks Jungle BrothersJungle Brothers – “What U Waitin’ 4”
from Done By The Forces of Nature (1989; Warner Bros.)

One of the first groups outside of Chicago to innovate within the house/hip-hop crossover space, NYC’s Jungle Brothers mixed funky samples and clever lyrics into the mix, resulting in a sound that was both genre-defining and distinctly house influenced. Dance jam “What U Waitin’ 4” throttles forward from moment one and only lets up its ferocity when intentionally adding more tension to its distinct groove. This song is a deserved classic in both house and hip-hop circles, and for damn good reason. – ATB


essential hip-house tracks Missy ElliottMissy Elliott – “4 My People”
from Miss E…So Addictive (2001; Elektra)

“This is for my motherfuckin’ club heads—ya feel me?” Leave it to Missy Elliott to so nimbly adapt to a house jam without losing her ability to dominate a track with her signature high-speed-syllable verbal cadence. The original production on “4 My People,” a highlight from her 2001 Miss E…So Addictive album, was done by frequent collaborator Timbaland, who captures a vintage house vibe nicely via thumping beats and bright flashes of synthesizer. So it only made sense that UK house duo Basement Jaxx would put their own remixed spin on it with sputtering garage beats and squelchy keyboard squeaks. The recurring “ecstasy” single entendre that Missy drops is maybe a little too on the nose, but as dance parties go, this one’s on fire. – JT


hip house tracks Azealia BanksAzealia Banks – “212”
(2011; Self-released)

In the long-overdue public queering of hip-hop, Azealia Banks turned to the world of club music—which has important cultural ties to the LGBTQIA community—and created something damn near a universal anthem. Her shifting, shifty rap about dominance over peers and haters and their baes rests on a bed of squeaking EDM interpolated from “Float My Boat” by Belgian DJ Basto and his brother Lazy Jay (who gets co-billing here). Yet it doesn’t overshadow her commitment to the word “cunt,” that bane of English. Definitely on the list of worst insults ever, and even in its most positive connotation it’s a terrible term for a beautiful thing, yet in Banks’ hands—mouth—it’s a beacon, a tool, almost a gift. From generally uncomfortable sources of language and sound, a song we put on repeat without a second thought. – AB


essential hip-house tracks Vic MensaVic Mensa – “Down on My Luck”
(2014; Virgin)

It makes perfect sense that, after a long period of time during which hip house went out of favor, the artist to end up making the style sound so fresh would be from Chicago. “Down on the Luck” isn’t necessarily an explicit homage to the piano-heavy days of ’80s Chicago house, but Mensa’s richly textured, synth-laden production takes an already good idea of a certain era and brings it into the present. Everything about “Down on My Luck” is vibrant and bright, with Mensa himself engaging in some rhythmically dexterous sing-rap that made the track one of 2014’s most immediately arresting singles. Bonus points for the Groundhog Day-inspired video, in which Mensa repeats his lap through the club, each time ending with some new, unfortunate twist. – JT


Shamir RatchetShamir – “On the Regular”
from Ratchet (2015; XL)

If Shamir’s style weren’t so damn flexible and innovative, it would be a throwback to hip house heyday. But their style isn’t exactly hip house, and Shamir doesn’t really rap. No, “On the Regular” is a practice in circling around a revered style from just enough distance to land on something entirely new. It’s a masterful stroke from one of electronic music’s freshest rising stars. Besides, the line “Don’t try me/ I’m not a free sample” alone is worth your time. – ATB


essential hip-house tracks Le1fLe1f – “Koi”
from Riot Boi (2015; XL)

Le1f splits his debut LP Riot Boi between atmospheric, Blood Orange-esque soundscapes and high-energy club stompers. The highlight from the latter grouping is “Koi,” a tense dance-floor monster with a short attention span and enough energy to power a small town. It’s also strikingly minimalist, relying mostly on a deep bass line and one intoxicating synth to propel its rhythmic madness. Dance like there’s no tomorrow, children, because I’m 90 percent sure Le1f’s P.A. is about to explode. – ATB

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