25 Best ’80s Songs
The ’80s were an excellent time for hip-hop and R&B. Disco was dead, paving the way for more dance-infused rhythm and blues, while rap music was getting its sea legs. Sure, the ’80s were an experimental era, but it’s one that’s echoed throughout music. Today we still feel that influence in current artists, along with rap producers constantly sampling music from that era.
To pay the proper respect to days past, The Boombox has picked some of the greatest hip-hop and R&B songs from the ’80s that truly reflect the spirit of the times. Including music from one hit wonders to consistently chart-topping artists, these cuts are the ideal soundtrack of the ’80s. Not to mention, they became classics (hence why we’re even discussing them). So load up that iTunes gift card and take a trip down memory lane. Check out 25 Best ’80s Songs.
It wouldn’t be wildly inaccurate to call T La Rock a “one hit wonder” considering his biggest hit was by far this track right here. However, the impact of the Rick Rubin-produced ‘It’s Yours’ had on hip-hop has echoed for decades. Think back to ’94 and Pete Rock cutting up T La Rock’s hook on Nas’s ‘The World Is Yours.’ Then consider Wu-Tang Clan’s take on T La Rock’s hook (basically an “it’s yours!” break) by borrowing the sample and transforming it into their own song ‘It’s Yourz.’ More recently though, Drake released the semi-controversial (to Wu heads at least) track ‘Wu-Tang Forever,’ in which the sample was revisited at a slower pace. T La Rock probably had no idea a little ditty about self-satisfaction would land him a spot in rap history, but it did.
‘Caught Up in the Rapture’
Talk about the quintessential slow jam. While everything moved so fast throughout the ’80s, Queen Anita Baker took it down a couple of notches with this 1986 song. ‘Caught Up in the Rapture’ took that moment when you feel “caught up” (like Usher expressed years and year later) and turned it into an emotional ballad. It’s no small feat to make a song about love not come across as trite, especially when the ’80s attempted to define romance by a whole new set of standards. Keeping the R&B pure, Baker landed herself a hit that still makes us feel all warm and fuzzy when we hear it.
‘Bust A Move’
Young MC was known for crafting these Slick Rick-esque fantasy tales, only they almost always involved the opposite sex at a club. ‘Bust A Move’ was that audio instructional manual of what to do when you spot a girl in the club, want to dance with her and then want to dance with her naked in your bedroom. Young MC was basically the life coach for all horny young men of the ’80s.
‘It Takes Two’
There’s a clear lesson about the birds and the bees from the onset of Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock’s hit single. It. Takes. Two. No truer words were ever spoken about what it takes to get your freak on. Plus sampling Lyn Collins’ ‘Think About It’ was a genius idea with her “It takes two to make a thing go right” and “It takes two to make it outta sight” lyrics. She made them hot lines, but the guys made it a hot song.
OK, if you’ve seen the film ’40 Year Old Virgin’ you might recall Steve Carell’s character in his bedroom singing karaoke to the tune of Cameo’s ‘Word Up.’ He even attempts the many vocal inflections of lead singer Larry Blackmon. Cameo was a perfect balance of R&B and funk, with sprinkles of electronic music. If you think a group like Chromeo wasn’t a descendent of Cameo then you need to re-listen to this track, which set the tone for an era that wouldn’t happen for another 25 years. “Wave your hands in the air like you don’t care” when this one plays.
On Lauryn Hill’s ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’ album cut ‘Every Ghetto, Every City,’ she says “‘Self-Destruction’ record drops and everybody’s name was Muslim.” She was speaking about the impact that KRS-One’s pet project held. A song that unified hip-hop to collectively speak about what was happening within the Black community, ‘Self-Destruction’ was a posse cut with a purpose: shedding light on the negatives of inner-city life like drug dealing, black-on-black crime and a number of issues that were felt in the ’80s (and are still around today). The beauty of the track also lies within the solid roster of artists, from MC Lyte to Heavy D, D-Nice, and more.
‘Back to Life’
There’s a reason why this group was called Soul II Soul. It’s because they were twice as soulful as any other acts out. This British collective provided their most solid hit with ‘Back to Life,’ which jumped across the pond to the U.S. and fueled many a soundtrack. To this day, you’ll hear this song pop up in some romantic movie scene or moment of realization. Music’s meant to make you feel something, and Soul II Soul accomplished that tenfold.
Salt-N-Pepa — oh yes and Spinderella — spoke for the ladies and did so proudly and loudly. This dynamic trio of women brought a brazen attitude to hip-hop — their rhymes were filled with sexual exploration and self-respect. ‘Push It’ was the first song in which women were the aggressors. Instead of listening to countless songs where men are luring women into sex, Salt-N-Pepa arrived with the message that not only did they want to get busy, but the experience better be a good one. They brought their own version of feminism to hip-hop and it stuck, but ‘Push It’ was the hit that started it all.
Squeaky clean Michael Jackson got his satin tux dirty with this song right here. Sure, the rumor mill was churning out all types of lies once MJ hit the apex of his solo career, but the fact he addressed it in such a straight-forward way was impressive. On the track, he talks about this woman named Billie Jean, who claims he fathered her child. Besides being lyrically riddled with controversy, the song is just too hot to deny. Better luck next time, Billie Jean.
Perhaps it’s the ‘Inspector Gadget’ cartoon sample or maybe it’s the way Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh mesh so well together, but ‘The Show’ became an instant classic once it was released. Slick Rick’s soothing storytelling cadence backed by Doug E. Fresh’s vibrating beatboxing struck a solid balance as the two go back and forth detailing their prep on the song. ‘The Show’ allowed fans to be the flies on the wall during a conversation between two future legends. And somehow that turned it into a monumental moment that sits comfortably in hip-hop history.
‘Never Too Much’
The late Luther Vandross has an entire catalog of tunes that set a mood. From happy to sad, in love or in broken-hearted recovery, Luther is the sonic embodiment of an emoticon. ‘Never Too Much’ is an upbeat battle cry of love, and from the moment the instrumental rolls through, it’s clear that a party is about to start. Outside of the general meaning of the song — how a thousand kisses are never too much — this is the kind of song to throw on at a barbecue and have a good time. Mr. Vandross is that versatile.
‘Get Down On It’
There’s something about Kool & the Gang that makes you demand a good time when you hear their music. The funky soulful outfit crafted the soundtrack to some of the best times in life. Of course ‘Get Down On It’ is no exception. While songs like their No. 1 hit ‘Celebration’ were about good clean fun and celebrating good times (come on!), this effort alluded to more, dare we say, intimate fun. While the song suggests really just “dancing,” by the time the 50th chant of “get down on it” rolls around, it’s clear that there’s more to this song than hanging out on a dancefloor.
‘Rebel Without A Pause’
The song ‘Rebel Without A Pause’ has several meanings for Public Enemy. Their critical acclaim was barely bubbling, while their debut ‘Yo! Bum Rush the Show’ missed the mark in achieving an adequate delivery of PE’s message. In 1988, a year after their first album, they dropped ‘It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back’ with ‘Rebel Without A Pause’ attached to it. Clearly a play on the 1955 James Dean film ‘Rebel Without A Cause,’ this torch single brought a whole other intent along with it. As Chuck D ricochets bars and Flavor Flav interjects with cocky slickness, the true PE sound was starting to take form. They were not about societal standards nor were they willing to conform to cookie cutter music-making either. True rebels at their best.
One of the many marvelous things about Chaka Khan during her prime was (and still is) her self-confidence. The songstress didn’t lack in the self-esteem department, even during vulnerable romantic moments. Flanked by Funk band Rufus, Chaka threw it all out there on ‘Ain’t Nobody.’ While she was providing a list of reasons why she wanted her man back (he knew how to “love” her properly), there still was this undeniable air of confidence. It was as if Chaka was still doing him a favor by inviting him back into her heart. Well, wasn’t she?
‘I Need Love’
We see guys like Drake now and we wonder “Wow, how did rappers get so tender?” Well, let’s not forget who started this emotional craze many moons ago. The difference though was that LL Cool J, in one breath, could just as easily talk about how he needs love or an around the way girl and, in the next, knock you out. Mama said to do so after all. ‘I Need Love’ was LL’s first real foray into what is now coined emo rap. Picture Mr. Smith with all of his muscles and his tough guy exterior asking where his soulmate is. The paradox is awesome. And adorable.
A lot was going on in Janet Jackson‘s life when she made ‘Control’ (both the song and the album) in 1986. Janet — Miss Jackson if you’re nasty — split with her hubby James DeBarge, left the Jackson franchise and was starting to do her own thing. So with a song like this, you could tell the singer was demanding her respect. She wasn’t going to let her family manhandle her, so why would she let any random person on the street? This song set a very specific tone in Janet’s music for a good long while. She was ready for you to take her seriously and definitely not take advantage of her. What a powerful message.
‘King of Rock’
While Run-DMC‘s main goal was to prove their lyrics and beats were pure fire, the message behind ‘King of Rock’ was huge. Rewind to the music video, where Rev. Run and DMC are entering the Museum of Rock & Roll’ and are told by a little security guard with a big ego that they don’t belong there because they’re rappers. They turn around and refer to themselves as the “kings of rock.” While hip-hop was still fighting for credibility, the dynamic duo (plus the late Jam Master Jay) took it a step further demanding their place in popular music. It’s no wonder Aerosmith aligned with them for ‘Walk This Way.’ Another big deal moment in ‘King of Rock’ is the classic line “sucka MCs should call me sire.”
‘Straight Outta Compton’
While hip-hop was planting its roots firmly in its birthplace of the South Bronx and on the East Coast, Los Angeles had a whole other thing going on. The West Coast gangster rap scene was slowly taking form, led by N.W.A. Their sound was fundamentally different from anything arriving from the East and ‘Straight Outta Compton’ was clear proof of that. With each member delivering pure anger and arrogance, N.W.A. had a strong message to their music. Distrust for the cops and other injustices were N.W.A.’s reality while living in South Central L.A. This track put their stomping grounds right on the map as a hot spot for rap music.
‘I Wonder If I Take You Home’
Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam have been credited as one of the pioneers of freestyle music. However, they were just as much R&B as any other dance-driven, soulful act to emerge from the ’80s. ‘I Wonder If I Take You Home’ posed the very necessary question on any woman’s mind: if she takes a guy home and does the deed will he still want to be with her in the morning. Hey, it doesn’t hurt to ask, and that quandary became a hit single in the process. The hook has been interpolated by many, including the late Aaliyah on Junior M.A.F.I.A.’s ‘I Need You Tonight’ and Fergie on the hook to Black Eyed Peas’ ‘Don’t Phunk With My Heart.’
‘(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party)’
The Beastie Boys found their way to hip-hop through another niche culture called punk. The trio took their rocky beginnings and infused it with their take on rap. ‘(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party)’ was one of those anthems that channeled teen angst to the tune of electric guitars, yet maintained the party-like spirit of hip-hop at the time. The result was a group that added diversity to rap music in more ways than one. To this day, you can play this song at any party, and everyone will chant the hook. It’s very necessary. R.I.P. Adam Yauch.
While ’80s genres like hip-hop, R&B and new wave all pulled from disco, the inspiration was executed in totally different ways. However, the singer known as Teena Marie was a rarity. She was categorically Caucasian, yet had tons of soul in her vocals where her race was nondescript if you listened with your eyes closed. Still she leaned on synths and guitars like a typical ’80s hair band. So the result was a blessed fusion of genres that were just starting to get acquainted. Her song ‘Lovergirl’ is the result of the late siren’s cross-genre endeavor and nobody could pull it off like she did. This musical delivery became her signature talent, the very thing that set her apart from the rest and this song is an undeniable reference point. Plus ‘Lovergirl’ is hot!
‘Paid in Full’
‘Paid in Full’ is probably one of the most aspirational/motivational anthems in all of hip-hop history. Rakim literally sits and ponders — “Thinkin of a master plan” as he puts it — over how he can truly achieve that climax of success and be, well, paid in full. His palms are sweaty (no we’re not going to break into Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself’) and he can’t seem to figure out a way to turn these rhymes into millions just yet. Well, that formula wouldn’t be discovered for decades later, but ‘Paid in Full’ truly encapsulates the struggle of a hungry rap artist. And the Ofra Haza sample on the Coldcut remix set the bar for cross-genre fusion. No doubt about that.
Oh Purple One, how much do we love thee? Let us count the ways. Prince‘s ‘Purple Rain’ was more than just a song, it was a major motion picture film and a movement that spanned genres, lifestyles, genders, you name it. Prince’s smooth soulfulness with seething electric guitars provided this entirely sensual experience whenever he touched a mic. But, the song was arguably the start of that, as his own confidence as a burgeoning superstar grew. Now a living legend, Prince and his fans alike look back on ‘Purple Rain’ as that moment when they realized they should demand more from music. He broke the mold with this one, as he’s done for decades.
‘Planet Rock’ shouldn’t be heard, it should be felt. While the song grabs inspiration from funky robotics and the death rattle of disco, it’s the Kraftwerk sample from ‘Trans-Europe Express’ that seals the deal. The harmonious electro-orchestra that permeates this effort became a staple for B-boys to break to, thereby unifying two of hip-hop’s elements. To this day, the song’s instrumental is used to set the tone for discussing hip-hop’s pivotal years going from a dance party soundtrack on Sedgewick Avenue in the South Bronx to spanning the globe.
Gritty New York City living. Many heard about it, but few truly experienced it unless they actually resided within the invisible walls of the concrete jungle. While hip-hop was arguably full of fun and games and party jams in the very early ’80s, Grandmaster Flash made music his vessel to reveal something bigger. “It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from going under,” he says in ‘The Message.’ There’s broken glass (everywhere), money hungry fools and people with no food. That’s the New York City Grandmaster Flash talks about. If he never wrote this song with the Furious Five, who knows long it would’ve taken for hip-hop to achieve any level of social consciousness. However, Flash took a burgeoning genre and gave it a whole new dimension with just one song.