Last week, hip-hop mourned the passing of Craig Mack, the former Bad Boy rapper who secured his place in hip-hop history with his 1994 hit “Flava In Ya Ear.”
The song introduced Mack’s funky style (“My flavor bidder badder chitter-chatter / Madder than the Mad Hatter”) to the world; produced an iconic remix (and posse cut) in which Biggie had every struggle rapper reconsidering their career options; and, as Bad Boy’s first official single, helped launch Diddy’s then-burgeoning empire.
My favorite part about “Flava In Ya Ear,” however, is the beat, a deceptively simple yet effective earworm envisioned by the legendary producer Easy Mo Bee.
In his list of "Top 50 Hip-Hop Songs of All Time" for Rolling Stone, The Roots drummer and music historian Questlove wrote, “Some of the most powerful hip-hop songs had elements so simple your brain would explode trying to explain their logic. It took Easy Mo Bee almost 17 years to finally reveal his sound source for the two note guitar stab on ‘Flava.’ I wanted to throw someone out the window, Axel Foley style, when I realized I had the answer all along and couldn’t figure it out for myself. (And yes, I’m sworn to secrecy.)”
Inspired by—and including—“Flava In Ya Ear,” here are the 20 best rap songs that are deceptively simple but greater than the sum of their parts.
Note: These selections are not ranked, but presented in alphabetical order.
Beastie Boys — “Paul Revere” (1986)
Produced by: Rick Rubin & Beastie Boys
Rick Rubin is famed for his approach to production, which can be best described as stripping everything down while destroying your speakers (LL Cool J’s 1985 debut album Radio read, “Reduced by Rick Rubin”). But there’s an even more innovative beauty about Beastie Boys’ “Paul Revere,” a song that flipped the script on a piece of equipment that had already changed the game.
In 808, a documentary on the Roland TR-808 drum machine, Adam Horovitz remembers the time Beastie Boys met up with Run-D.M.C. to record a song together. “We get there and there’s an 808 there. I don’t know who’s it was, but [Adam] Yauch was like, ‘Oh, we should record it backwards,'” he explains. “So he programmed the simplest 808 pattern and recorded it on tape and”—at that point, Ad-Rock and Mike D can’t decide between themselves whether Yauch flipped the tape over first and then recorded it, or recorded it first and then flipped the tape over. Either way, it was friggin’ genius.
Biz Markie — “Just a Friend” (1989)
Produced by: Biz Markie
Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend,” his one and only Billboard Hot 100 hit, is a tale about macking on a girl only to be strung along squarely into the friend zone. And like any great tragicomedy, “Just a Friend” has the perfect soundtrack, a hilariously basic beat that fuses the melody from Freddie Scott’s “(You) Got What I Need” with the thumping drums from Lee Dorsey’s “Get Out of My Life, Woman.” Because sometimes you gotta laugh to keep from crying.
Busta Rhymes — “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See” (1997)
Produced by: Shamello, Buddah & Epitome
Between “Woo Hah!! Got You All In Check” and “Touch It,” Busta Rhymes excels at burning down minimalistic beats with his fire-breathing flow. But the Seals & Crofts sample wasn’t the only piece of simplistic genius about “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See.”
“Out of nowhere comes this beat, and it was the most unbelievable shit I heard at the time,” Busta said in Complex’s Magnum Opus episode on the song. “I would just come in [the studio] and play it over and over, and try to figure out what was the best shit to say…what was the simplest shit to say so that people can say the shit with me.”
And people did: “Put Your Hands,” accompanied by its big budget, Coming to America-inspired video directed by Hype Williams and featuring an actual elephant, was a commercial and creative smash. “I think the respect level for Busta Rhymes as an artist went through the roof at that point,” he says.
Clipse — “Grindin’” (2002)
Produced by: The Neptunes
*Bangs out the “Grindin’” beat on the nearest table*
*Everyone in the vicinity starts rapping “Grindin’” in unison*
Craig Mack — “Flava In Ya Ear” (1994)
Produced by: Easy Mo Bee
I’ve already let Questlove gush about the genius of “Flava In Ya Ear” in this article, so here’s the mastermind himself, Easy Mo Bee, on the method behind the magic: “I had bought a stack of records the night before and when I woke up the next day, I stumbled over to the machine—straight from the bed—and I made that beat in my drawers, no lie. That happened in about 20, 25 minutes,” he explained.
As for that famous two-note melody? “It’s a guitar. But with a lot of reverb. A huge throw of reverb. You would think you need all of these other big, busy elements for a melody to carry a song. Those two notes, that was the melody, that’s what carried the song and everything else was built around that. You know what I was trying to recreate right there? Craig G’s “Droppin’ Science” remix that Marley Marl had did.”
Crime Mob — “Knuck If You Buck” ft. Lil Scrappy (2004)
Produced by: Lil Jay
For a crunk anthem that wreaked havoc in the summer of 2004 (and beyond), Crime Mob’s “Knuck If You Buck” is a deceptively simple song. Beneath the riot-inducing chant lies bruising drums, low-budget percussion and nursery-like chimes that give the track an eerie, Grady Twins-esque feel. The fact that the “Knuck If You Buck” beat wound up on the Billboard Hot 100 for a second time over a decade later (Zay Hilfigerrr and Zayion McCall borrowed it for their 2015 dance hit “Juju On That Beat”) is a testament to the timeless quality of Lil Jay’s production. Speaking of which, what the hell happened to Lil Jay?
Drake — “Successful” ft. Trey Songz & Lil Wayne (2009)
Produced by: Noah “40” Shebib
“Best I Ever Had” was the song that ignited Drake’s seemingly unending run almost 10 years ago, but his follow-up single “Successful” remains one of his defining records. If the sparseness of Noah “40” Shebib’s somber production felt as empty as the void a young Aubrey was desperate to fill with success, those haunting synth chords personified the desire and drive that burned deep in Drizzy’s belly. The money, the cars and the clothes were never really in doubt, were they?
D4L — “Laffy Taffy” (2005)
Produced by: K-Rab
You either loved or hated "Laffy Taffy." If, like Ghostface Killah (“My arts is crafty darts while y'all stuck on Laffy Taffy”), you belonged to the latter group, it probably didn’t help that the song was practically unavoidable in ‘05 and ‘06 as it topped the Billboard Hot 100 and smashed the record for digital downloads previously held by Kanye’s “Gold Digger.” But throw “Laffy Taffy” on at a party right now and watch the room go crazy like a class full of kids after a sugar rush. Just look at how many dance crazes followed D4L’s simplistic yet swag-soaked snap anthem. Rest in peace, Shawty Lo.
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E-40 — “Tell Me When to Go” ft. Keak Da Sneak (2006)
Produced by: Lil Jon
“I don’t bump mainstream, I knock underground,” E-40 raps on “Tell Me When to Go.” A pretty ironic statement considering the song earned him his first Billboard Hot 100 hit in a decade and put a national spotlight on the Bay Area’s hyphy movement. Also interesting was the fact the song’s producer, Lil Jon, was an Atlanta native synonymous with the crunk movement. But with its bruising, bare-bones production that was designed to beat up your car speakers as you ghost rode the whip, it’s not hard to see why “Tell Me When to Go” took off.
Kanye West — “Love Lockdown” (2008)
Produced by: Kanye West & Jeff Bhasker
“Good Morning.” “Say You Will.” “Heartless.” “Only One.” “Wolves.” A good chunk of this list could be dedicated entirely to Kanye West, whose ear for minimalist melodies is matched only by his beautiful, dark, twisted, maximalist masterpiece. But what makes “Love Lockdown” so great is how it distills Kanye’s game-changing album into its simplest, most powerful elements. What do you hear in the first 40 seconds? Nothing but 808s and heartbreak.
Lil Wayne — “A Milli” (2008)
Produced by: Bangladesh
A modest yet mesmerizing sequence of 808 kicks, snares, claps and a vocal sample from A Tribe Called Quest’s “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” Vampire Mix (which itself borrows from Musical Youth’s “Pass the Dutchie”) that rings throughout the song like a siren—a red light warning to the rest of the rap game—“A Milli” was the blank canvas on which the Best Rapper Alive produced his million-dollar masterpiece. Too bad Bangladesh had to wait almost half a decade to get his half a milli, though.
Missy Elliott — “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” (1997)
Produced by: Timbaland
Warbling bass, off-kilter snares and crickets chirping away in the background—Missy Elliott’s “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” sounded like it came from a planet where its inhabitants have fisheye lenses for eyes and move only with a stop-motion stagger. While Timbaland’s quirky production and Hype Williams’ cartoonish video helped “The Rain” break the rules of what a hip-hop hit—let alone one from a female rapper—could be, they were only in service of Missy’s eccentric personality. Even her vocal sputters, repetitive rhymes (“So so,” “yo-yo”), and onomatopoeic delivery (“Beep beep, who got the keys to the Jeep? Vrooom!”) were simple in nature but captivating in result.
Mobb Deep — “The Realest” ft. Kool G Rap (1999)
Produced by: The Alchemist
If Einstein believed “the definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple,” then The Alchemist qualifies as a genius (in case his entire catalog didn’t already make that clear). With “The Realest,” ALC simply took a laid-back, two-bar loop from the intro of Ecstasy, Passion & Pain’s “Born to Lose You,” sped it up slightly, threw in a few well-timed breaks and let Mobb Deep and Kool G Rap handle the rest. No wonder Havoc and Prodigy (RIP) made The Rare White Vulture an honorary member of Mobb Deep.
Mystikal — “Shake Ya Ass” ft. Pharrell (2000)
Produced by: The Neptunes
Mystikal is a bundle of energy. The rap game Tasmanian Devil. Hip-hop’s answer to James Brown. But his most iconic song, The Neptunes-produced “Shake Ya Ass,” is created from astoundingly simple ingredients: bongo drums, shaker-style percussion and woodwind chords that sound like they belong in a fairground. The song turned out to be just as fun as it became a Billboard smash and appeared in numerous movies including Scary Movie 2, About a Boy and Kiss of the Dragon. And to think Mystikal didn’t even want to release it as a single.
The Notorious B.I.G. — “Who Shot Ya?” (1994)
Produced by: Nashiem Myrick & Puff Daddy
Biggie claimed that “Who Shot Ya?”—widely believed to be the first diss song in his deadly beef with 2Pac—was recorded months before ‘Pac got shot at Quad Studios in New York. In fact, the song was originally intended to be the intro for Mary J. Blige’s My Life album with verses from Keith Murray and LL Cool J, but Puff said it was “too hard.” Whoever Big was taunting on “Who Shot Ya?,” Nashiem Myrick and Puffy’s chilling, piano-sprinkling production only gave them more reason to be shaking in their boots.
The Pack — “Vans” (2006)
Produced by: Young L
“Vans” is an important song for many reasons. It got The Pack signed to Too $hort. It made Vans—now a staple in streetwear fashion—cool for rappers to wear. And it introduced the world to Lil B, who would later build his own cult following as the Based God. But let’s not sleep on Young L’s production, which forged a hypnotic hyphy anthem out of little more than bass, hi-hats and finger snaps. Vans are brilliantly understated shoes, after all.
Smif-N-Wessun — “Sound Bwoy Bureill” ft. Top Dog & Starang Wondah (1995)
Produced by: Da Beatminerz
Heltah Skeltah may have passed on the “Sound Bwoy Bureill” instrumental (“They didn’t like it. They were like, ‘Get that shit outta here!’” Tek recalled), but thankfully Smif-N-Wessun saw the beauty in Da Beatminerz’s basic boom bap beat and turned into a patois-flavored Tunnel banger. “Even though it came out years earlier, it still rocked in this era,” Cipha Sounds said. “All that reggae shit in the beginning is just Brooklyn. If you live in Brooklyn, even if you're not West Indian, you know what that is."
Snoop Dogg — “Drop It Like It’s Hot” ft. Pharrell (2004)
Produced by: The Neptunes
The Neptunes were always ahead of the curve. But when Pharrell and Chad found themselves in a studio with Snoop Dogg, about 40 scary ass Crips and “a hell of a lot of contact [high],” their funky, futuristic sound blasted off into even weirder, desolate territory. I mean, who puts tongue clicks, spray can sounds and a friggin’ microwave ding on a rap song, let alone on Snoop Dogg’s first—and only—No. 1 single? “I was just reading the room,” Pharrell explained, modest as ever.
Tyler, The Creator — “Yonkers” (2011)
Produced by: Tyler, The Creator
Tyler, The Creator’s “Yonkers” is a perfect example of how irreverence can produce ingenuity—and even an entire career. “N*ggas don’t know that that beat was made as a joke,” he admitted. “I was trying to make a shitty New York beat and we was just rapping like we was from New York like we were retarded.”
Ironically, “Yonkers” turned Tyler (and Odd Future) into the most exciting package of hip-hop and punk since Wu-Tang. While the song’s vulgar rhymes got Tyler banned from several countries, it’s the lurching, sinister beat they should’ve really been worried about; “Yonkers” sounded like a Satanic trance that made you want to kill people, burn shit and say, Fuck school!
Ying Yang Twins — “Wait (The Whisper Song)” (2005)
Produced by: Mr. Collipark
You know a song is a hit when people refer to it simply as “The Whisper Song.” Despite crashing into people’s consciousness with crunk anthems like “Salt Shaker,” Atlanta's Ying Yang Twins turned the volume—and instruments—all the way down on “Wait.” Backed by Mr. Collipark’s undulating bass kicks and finger snaps, the Ying Yang Twins whispered steamy nothings into clubs—and bedrooms—across the country. This song is probably the reason you have a 13-year-old cousin.