Cooking up the perfect record requires a number of ingredients. From beats and rhymes to ad-libs and flow, if MCs get the formula right then they might just end up with a hit on their hands, one that enjoys the type of longevity that lives on for generations. The opening lines of a track are another key component. Without someone setting it off, hooking listeners in from the jump with a clever piece of wordplay or some sort of bold declaration, the track has to work 10 times harder for a listener’s attention.
Taking into consideration impact, delivery, wordplay, how well the words marry the production, and just how flat-out timeless and iconic the bars themselves are, we’ve put together a list of the 35 best opening lines in Hip-Hop.
“I've been through mad different phases like mazes to find my way/And now I know that happy days are not far away…”
The lead single from X’s sophomore album Flesh Of My Flesh, Blood Of My Blood is a tear-jerking confessional from a man battling a surplus of personal demons. Putting his tough guy persona to the side, Ruff Ryders’ top dog lets listeners know from jump that he sees a light at the end of a very dark tunnel.
34. Puff Daddy feat. The LOX, Lil Kim and The Notorious B.I.G.
“All About the Benjamins"
"Now/What y'all wanna do?/Wanna be ballers, shot callers, brawlers/Who be dippin' in the Benz with the spoilers/On the low from the Jake in the Taurus/Tryin' to get my hands on some Grants like Horace/Yeah, livin' the raw deal, three course meals/Spaghetti, fettuccine, and veal..."
If your opening bars have everybody rapping along, you did your job. It could be argued that the opening form this classic posse cut from the Bad Boy family is technically a hook, but oh well -- it blends so seamlessly into Diddy's flossy verse that it doesn't matter.
33. MC Lyte
"Hot-damn, ho -- here we go again/Suckas steal a beat when you know they can't win/You stole the beat, are you having fun?/Now me and the Aud's gonna show you how it's done..."
Lyte would later admit that she felt goaded into going after Antoinette after the latter's appearance on the Hurby Luv Bug-produced track "I Got An Attitude." Lyte's compadres Audio Two thought the beat ripped them off and accused Antoinette of biting Rakim's flow, so they sent "lil sis" Lyte on the attack. She opened her most famous diss track with a line so great Lil Kim quoted it on Mobb Deep's "Quiet Storm" remix a decade later.
"You Gots To Chill"
"Relax your mind, let your conscience be free/And get down to the sounds of EPMD/Well you should keep quiet while the MC rap/But if you tired, then go take a nap..."
That undeniably lazy flow. That infectious Zapp sample. And Erick Sermon kicking things off with one of rap's most memorable opening couplets. Erick and Parrish had only started making dollars, but this kind of no-nonsense appeal would become a hallmark for the legendary duo.
The Notorious B.I.G.
"Who the fuck is this? Paging me at 5:46/In the morning, crack of dawn and/Now I'm yawning/Wipe the cold out my eye/See who's this paging me and why?
It's my nigga, Pop, from the barbershop/Told me he was in the gambling spot and heard the intricate plot..."
Biggie is on everyone's short list of Hip-Hop's greatest storytellers and this song is a good example of why. And it opens with a strikingly evocative few lines from the late, great Chris Wallace. He puts you right there; groggily grabbing the phone to learn about the dealings of his enemies.
30. DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince
Opening lines: "Here it is; a groove slightly transformed/Just a bit of a break from the norm/Just a little somethin' to break the monotony/Of all that hardcore dance that has gotten to be/A little bit out of control/It's cool to dance/But what about the groove that soothes that moves romance?"
It's become a mainstay of the warmer months and pre-"Big Willie" Fresh Prince started the song by letting you know exactly the kind of vibe he was going for. The verses were so smooth and effortless that a long-standing rumor began circulating that Rakim ghost-wrote Prince's lines. (He did not.)
29. Lauryn Hill
"It's funny how money change a situation/Miscommunication leads to complication/My emancipation don't fit your equation/I was on the humble, you on every station..."
Lauryn's first official solo single was a lion roaring outta the gate. L-Boogie made it clear that she was not holding back, and she opened this classic trick with thinly-barbed shots at her ex-bandmate (and ex-boyfriend) Wyclef Jean.
28. Eightball & MJG
"Space Age Pimpin'"
"I'll be obliged if you step outside/Because my ride is awaiting/Our date, steak and a night cap/We mating..."
The legends out of Memphis came with it here. Romantic thuggery at it's finest, this single got Eightball & MJG airplay on R&B stations around the South. And it's MJG who kicks things off with syrupy lines about sex and steak. It's R-rated but some how still manages to feel kinda sweet.
27. Main Source w/ Nas, Akinyele & Joe Fatal
“Live At The Barbecue”
“Street's disciple, my raps are trifle/I shoot slugs from my brain just like a rifle…”
Known for introducing the world to future Hall of Famer Nas (who went by Nasty Nas at the time), Main Source’s lyrically-charged posse cut wouldn’t be what it is without the Queensbridge wunderkind’s dizzying opening bars, made up of biblical proclamations, gun metaphors and a nod to Rakim.
"Now Peter Piper picked peppers/But Run rocked rhymes/
Humpty Dumpty fell down/That's his hard time/Jack B. Nimble/What?/Nimble -- and he was quick/But Jam-Master was faster/Jack's on Jay's dick..."
Run and Dee took the novelty of a nursery rhyme and turned it into their best ode to their legendary DJ. Rick Rubin's flip of Bob James' "Take Me To Mardi Gras" would become a Hip-Hop staple, but the two emcees set things off before the beat even drops. Which makes it even more ill.
“The Way I Am”
“I sit back with this pack of Zig-Zag's and this bag / Of this weed, it gives me the shit needed to be/ The most meanest MC on this... on this Earth/ And since birth I've been cursed with this curse to just curse…”
Another example of premium wordplay, Eminem’s articulation of the track’s opening lines is topnotch. His alliteration is on-point as he maneuvers through a sea of syllables while the haunting piano loop, menacing bass line and airy bell chimes ride on in the back. It may be complex, but it’s catchy as hell.
24. LL COOL J
“Rock The Bells”
"LL Cool J is hard as hell/Battle anybody I don't care who you tell/I excel, they all fail/Gonna crack shells/Double-L must rock the bells..."
The cocky 16 year old out of Queens had already released an anthem for his first official single ("I Can't Live Without My Radio") but it was this bombastic anthem that truly cemented James Todd Smith's arrival. And those opening lines are among the most memorable and iconic in the history of this music.
"That's you with that bad ass Benz, ha?/That's you that can't keep your old lady
'Cause you keep fuckin' her friends, ha?/You gotta go to court, ha?/You got served a subpoena for child support, ha”
Even with Master P and No Limit Records smashing NOLA rap through the mainstream just a couple of years earlier, there wasn't anything on the charts that sounded quite like this classic from Juvie. To borrow a line from another Juvenile hit, his opening lines set the stage for Cash Money to take over for the 99 and the 2000s.
“6 ’N The Mornin’”
“6 in the morning, police at my door/Fresh adidas squeak across the bathroom floor…”
Slick Rick might be the ruler when it comes to storytelling, but this hood epic from Ice-T proves T is among rap's great yarn-spinners; and it helped kickstart the then budding sub-genre of gangsta rap. Inspired by Schoolly D’s “P.S.K. What Does It Mean?," Ice’s detailed run-in with authorities sounds right at home over Afrika Islam’s minimalistic, yet energized, production.
21. A Tribe Called Quest w/ Leaders Of The New School
“Ayo, Bo knows this, and Bo knows that /But Bo don't know jack, 'cause Bo can't rap…”
Yet another posse cut held in high regard, Tribe’s “Low End Theory” anthem blew the doors off Hip-Hop thanks to a mind-bending verse from a young, up-and-coming Busta Rhymes. And while the Dungeon Dragon undeniably stole the show, Phife’s play on Bo Jackson’s Nike commercial set the scene perfectly.
“Keep Ya Head Up”
“Some say the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice/I say the darker the flesh, then the deeper the roots…”
A man of many faces, ‘Pac’s contradictory nature was one of the reasons people loved him as much as they did; it made him real. And although Kendrick Lamar and Jungle Brothers have both referenced Wallace Thurman’s novel “The Blacker The Berry” in their music, it’s ‘Pac’s black pride anthem celebrating women of color that garners boundless adulation thanks to its vulnerable honesty.
19. Lil Kim w/ Jay-Z & Lil Cease
“Big Momma Thang”
“I used to be scared of the dick, now I throw lips to the shit/ Handle it like a real bitch…”
Long before Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” had people losing their minds, Lil’ Kim kicked down the door with a brand of explicit rhyming that was both pornographic and empowering. Biggie’s protégé was also witty and extremely lyrical - regardless of whether rap’s Frank White wrote her rhymes or not. Acting like a coming out party, this was Kim’s “the champ is here’ moment.
“I Used To Love H.E.R.”
“I met this girl when I was 10 years old /And what I loved most, she had so much soul…”
Hip-Hop’s most famous love letter is a legacy record that put Common on the map. Helping to rebrand him as a more conscious MC, it also started a war of words with Westside Connection, spawning arguably one of rap’s best diss records, “The Bitch In Yoo.”
17. Method Man
“Bring The Pain”
"I came to bring the pain hardcore from the brain/Let's go inside my astral plane/Find out my mental, based on instrumental/Records, hey, so I can write monumental…”
If it was good enough for 2Pac to borrow for the hook of his hypnotic All Eyez On Me epic “No More Pain,” then it’s good enough for this list. The way in which Meth rips into the click clacks of RZA’s metronome-like intro is deadly. Razor-sharp from start to finish, the Ticallion Stallion’s intrepid delivery and pointed wordplay cemented his status as cult hero.
16. Eric B. & Rakim
"Paid In Full"
Opening lines: "Thinking of a master plan/Cause ain't nothing but sweat inside my hand/So I dig into my pocket, all my money spent/So I dig deeper/But still coming up with lint..."
Rakim offered a cold-as-ice look at the mind of a kid on the streets, considering right from wrong. Nobody likes to dream about getting paid; but instead of going back to "all the devious things" he did, he wrote rhymes. But he starts by letting you know how hungry he is.
15. Public Enemy
"Bring The Noise"
"Bass! How low can you go?/Death row? What a brother know/Once again, back is the incredible/Rhyme animal, the uncannable D/Public Enemy number one/
Five-O said 'Freeze!'/And I got numb/Can I tell 'em that I really never had a gun?/But it's the wax that the Terminator X spun"
P.E.'s first album put them on the map, but it was the second one that really cemented the Strong Island collective. And it was this nuke of a track that showed everyone who P.E., Chuck D and Flavor Flav really was. Chuck's opening salvo has become one of Hip-Hop's most sampled.
“Straight Outta Compton”
“Straight outta Compton/Crazy motherfucker named Ice Cube/ From the gang called N***as Wit Attitudes…”
Although this wasn’t N.W.A.’s official introduction - that was 1987’s N.W.A. And The Posse - it might as well have been. Cube’s opening bars hit like a sledgehammer to the face, scaring the hell out of America and waking up the world to a new supergroup who would soon be dubbed one of music’s most influential groups ever.
13. Geto Boys
"Mind Playing Tricks On Me"
"At night I can't sleep, I toss and turn/Candlesticks in the dark, visions of bodies being burned/Four walls just staring at a nigga/I'm paranoid, sleeping with my finger on the trigger..."
With those lines, Scarface ushered in a type of gangsta introspection that would become a hallmark of great Hip-Hop. Going inward was relatively new territory for rappers who'd talked about the streets, and Face's brilliant work on this 1991 hit made it mandatory.
12. Dr. Dre w/ Snoop Doggy Dogg
“Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang”
"One, two, three and to the four /Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dr. Dre is at the door/ Ready to make an entrance so back on up/ 'Cause you know we're 'bout to rip shit up…”
Like a G-Funk remix of a “Sesame Street" episode, Snoop’s opening bars on the first single from Dre’s game-changing album The Chronic are a Hip-Hop staple. Delivered with Tha Doggfather’s unmistakable Long Beach drawl, it was at this point the world was put on notice, signaling the arrival of a new brand of gangsta rap.
11. Eric B & Rakim
“Eric B. Is President”
“I came in the door I said it before/I never let the mic magnetize me no more…”
With a set of lines that metaphorically opened the door to a new generation of MCs, Rakim’s internal rhyming laid the foundation for the game’s more technically inclined rappers. His smooth flow and head-turning rhymes paired with Marley Marl’s chattering drum kicks - made using records by The Honeydrippers and James Brown - make for quite the royal affair.
"Allow me to re-introduce myself/My name is Hov'/Oh, H to the O V/I used to move snowflakes by the O Z/I guess even back then you can call me/C.E.O. of the ROC..."
Jay-Z's then-retirement was looming and the Brooklyn icon decided to go out in style. There were huge hits from The Black Album in 2003, but none were more anthemic than this interlude from Just Blaze. The kind of song that makes you feel like a baller even if your checking account is overdrawn.
9. Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five
"Broken glass everywhere/People pissin' on the stairs, you know they just don't care/I can't take the smell, can't take the noise/Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice..."
It's pretty much Hip-Hop 101 to know why this track is on the short list of most important records ever made; but what gets undervalued is just how effectively Melle Mel and (ghostwriter) Duke Bootee captured the poverty of (not just) Reagan-era NYC. Mel opens with lines that drop you right into the ghetto, and you're tuned in to whatever he's about to say.
8. Wu-Tang Clan
“I bomb atomically, Socrates' philosophies and hypotheses/ Can't define how I be dropping these mockeries/Lyrically perform armed robbery/ Flee with the lottery, possibly they spotted me…”
The way in which Inspectah Deck pieces together his selection of complex rhyming words and intricate syllable play is a thing of beauty. Whenever people feel like discounting Deck as one of the lesser talented members of the Wu, this needs to be played as loud as possible next to the ear of said perpetrator.
7. LL Cool J
“Mama Said Knock You Out”
“Don't call it a comeback, I been here for years/Rocking my peers and putting suckas in fear…”
A list like this can’t be taken seriously without the inclusion of LL’s booming declaration that he ain’t never gone nowhere. Inspired by the wisdom bestowed upon him by his grandmother, Mr. Smith’s rip-roaring rap anthem has transcended Hip-Hop, providing the soundtrack for countless sporting events, motivational speaking engagements and advertising campaigns.
6. Mobb Deep
“Shook Ones, Pt. II”
“I got you stuck off the realness, we be the infamous/ You heard of us, official Queensbridge murderers…”
With an arsenal of top-tier opening lines just sat in their back pockets, Mobb Deep could so easily have made this list a thousand times. But if any intro bars were ever guaranteed to make the cut it was going to be Prodigy’s not-so-friendly warning shots aimed in the direction of wannabe thugs over Havoc’s ingenious sampling of Herbie Hancock’s “Jessica” and a stove turning on.
5. Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock
“It Takes Two”
"I wanna rock right now/I'm Rob Base and I came to get down/
I'm not internationally known/But I'm known to rock the microphone/
Because I get stupid, I mean outrageous/
Stay away from me if you're contagious..."
It still feels like the song everybody can rap the first few bars of. It's a dance classic. It's a car classic. It's just a classic. Rob and E-Z Rock's most inescapable hit opens with Rob's world-beating lines, the most arrogant bit of quasi-modesty in Hip-Hop history.
4. The Sugar Hill Gang
“I said a Hip-Hop, the hippie the hippie To the hip, hip hop you don't stop /Rock it to the bang bang boogie/ Say up jump the boogie to the rhythm of the boogie, the beat...”
It may not be the most lyrical entry on the list, but it’s certainly the most iconic. Without it, all the other tracks might not even exist. When Wonder Mike uttered the term Hip-Hop on record for the very first time little did he know it was going to change the cultural landscape forever.
3. UGK feat. OutKast
“International Player's Anthem”
“So I typed a text to a girl I used to see/Sayin' that I chose this cutie pie with whom I wanna be/And I apologize if this message gets you down/Then I CC'ed every girl that I'd see-see 'round town..."
It's perfection. So creative and clever, so heartfelt and sincere, Andre 3000 opened this uber-classic with one of the best in a long career of great verses. The entire song is a victory lap for classic southern rap, and Three Stacks set it all off for UGK and OutKast to remind everyone what legendary looks like.
2. Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick
“La-di-da-di, we like to party/We don't cause trouble, we don't bother nobody/We're, just some men that's on the mic/And when we rock upon the mic we rock the mic right/For all of y'all, keep y'all in health/Just to see you smile and enjoy yourself..."
It's not Hip-Hop's first great story rap, but it feels like the standard. Doug E. Fresh teamed with the Britain-by-way-of-the-Bronx rhymer MC Ricky D and gave us this masterpiece from The Get Fresh Crew. Before Ricky gets into his tale about an overzealous woman, he sets things off with such casual quirkiness that it became indelible.
1. The Notorious B.I.G.
“It was all a dream, I used to read Word Up! magazine/Salt-n-Pepa and Heavy D up in the limousine…”
Biggie’s classic rags to riches tale features arguably the most recognisable opening lyrics in Hip-Hop history. Bringing the track to life with his nasally cadence, Big educates listeners, painting a picture of a teenager with titanic aspirations, remembering a time before becoming a legend when staring at magazine covers was his main source of inspiration.
* HEADER CREDIT: Andre 3000 and Big Boi of Outkast during 2006 VH1 Hip Hop Honors at Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City, New York. (Photo by Theo Wargo/WireImage)