The Notorious BIG’s Juicy has been named the greatest hip-hop song of all time in a poll for BBC Music.
A rags-to-riches tale loosely based on his own childhood (“birthdays was the worst days”), it beat songs by Nas and Kanye West to claim the top spot.
“This song defines the American dream from any kid’s perspective,” said Chicago MC Common, one of more than 100 experts who voted for the list.
Public Enemy’s incendiary Fight The Power took second place.
Lyrically defiant and musically aggressive, the track pushed the sonic and political possibilities of rap in new directions; as Chuck D issued a call to arms for black America: “What we need is awareness, we can’t get careless… We’ve got to fight the powers that be”.
Third place went to Mobb Deep’s menacing Shook Ones (Part II), in which rapper Prodigy threatens to “stab your brain with your nose bone”.
The 25-strong list is short on crowd-pleasers, concentrating instead on heavyweight, credible tracks that moved rap forward. There’s no space for Jay-Z or 50 Cent, while a band like Outkast are recognised for the frenetic, genre-bending B.O.B. instead of radio hits like Ms Jackson or I Like The Way You Move.
Male artists dominate, with only Queen Latifah and Lauryn Hill representing women. The likes of Lil Kim, Missy Elliott and Nicki Minaj all miss out.
The Top 10 is as follows:
1. Juicy – Notorious BIG (1994)
2. Fight The Power – Public Enemy (1989)
3. Shook Ones (Part II) – Mobb Deep (1995)
4. The Message – Grandmaster Flash (1982)
5. Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang – Dr. Dre (1992)
6. C.R.E.A.M – Wu-Tang Clan (1993)
7. 93 ‘Til Infinity – Souls of Mischief (1993)
8. Passin’ Me By – The Pharcyde (1992)
9. N.Y. State Of Mind – Nas (1994)
10. Dear Mama – Tupac Shakur (1995)
Critics and artists based in 16 countries participated in the poll, including hip-hop legends like Slick Rick and Common.
More than 280 tracks were nominated, but Juicy emerged as the overall winner.
“That infinite optimism – going from broke to paid, nobody to legend – still propels rap and keeps us dreaming,” wrote hip-hop journalist Sowmya Krishnamurthy in an essay on the song’s impact, published to accompany the poll.
But the rapper, who was born Christopher Wallace in 1972, was famously uneasy about the song, feeling it was “bubblegum” compared to the hard-edged rap of his debut album, Ready To Die.
In fact, it was almost literally bubblegum – based, as it was, on a sample of Mtume’s 1980s R&B hit Juicy Fruit.
But after being convinced to commit to the track by producer Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, Wallace delivered some of rap’s most iconic verses.
Alternately playful and incisive, it’s a chronicle of his life, from the “teachers who told me I’d never amount to nothing” and the days he hadn’t enough money to eat, to his arrests on weapons charges and, later, drug dealing.
But the backdrop to the story is a love of hip-hop: Wallace references Salt-N-Pepa, Heavy D and Marley Marl, before expressing astonishment that he’s joined their ranks.
“I went from negative to positive and it’s all good,” he concludes. “And if you don’t know, now you know.”
The song “is special because of how it burrows itself in people’s biographies in a way few other songs could,” wrote Billboard magazine in a retrospective of the rapper’s career last year.
“Juicy is an exaggerative biography, but it’s also the tale of hip-hop and how its legends bend the American Dream through sheer genius.”