hip-hop old school

Step Outside Your Musical Box: Hip-Hop

As many of you know, I handle the theme music playlists for ICA, and as you can tell they’re very eclectic, which is something I’m pretty proud of. My passion for music stems from parents who couldn’t have been more musically diverse. When I was a kid you could walk into our house on any given day and hear our living room’s five-disc CD changer shuffling between classical, country, pop, classic rock, funk, soul, R&B, Motown, disco, and my mom’s favorite, Irish Celtic music.

The fact that I grew up in New Jersey throws in a whole other dimension of musical diversity. In the late ’80s/early ’90s I was obsessed with HOT 97, a NYC radio station, which played a lot of freestyle, disco, house, dance music, and some early version of hip-hop, such as The Sugarhill Gang and Newcleus. I distinctly recall when they changed their format in 1992, pulling all freestyle and dance music from their library to move in a more urban direction, which is what they’re known for today. My outlet for dance music exited stage right while hip-hop entered the spotlight.

old-school-hip-hopThere was something about the golden age of hip-hop that appealed to me. Maybe it was the newness of this form of self-expression, or maybe it was the lyrical storytelling. I won’t lie, the break dancing pulled me in too. People considered it a fad. Little did they know that hip-hop would reinvent itself time and time again in the upcoming decades. The hip-hop music from the early ’80s is completely unrecognizable from what it is now and continues to evolve and reinvent itself.

If you’ve come this far and are still thinking, “But Karen, I don’t like rap music,” then let me clarify this: hip-hop is not just rap music. Hip-hop is a combination of four stylistic elements: emceeing/rapping, deejaying/scratching, break dancing, and graffiti writing. So while Blondie rapped in “Rapture,” this is not classified as hip-hop.

While hip-hop started in the ’70s, it became more mainstream in the mid ’80s into the mid ’90s. This time frame spans both old-school and golden-age hip-hop. I capped the playlist at the year 1995, when the sound became more mainstream—otherwise it would be much longer list than it already is! I also kept gangsta rap songs to a minimum, using only the tamer tracks, which include appearances by 2Pac, Cypress Hill, Biggie, and Ice Cube.

From a cycling perspective, using rap songs can be a bit tricky since they tend to contain a lot of cursing and the content can be risque, but the beauty of hip-hop, especially early hip-hop, is that this is limited. (I also tried to find edited versions of songs on Spotify when possible.)

You’ll find that the majority of songs in my playlist fall into the seated flat zone with a bpm between 80 and 120. And while I like to ride to the beat, I’ve found that lately I’ve been using songs ranging from 100 to 120 bpm for accelerations and surges. I don’t ask my riders to go this fast, but find faster tempos motivate and push them to work harder than they would on their own.

I’ve highlighted a few of my favorites below, but there are over 70 songs on the playlist, so there’s no shortage of music for you to experiment with here. If you’re just beginning to dabble into this genre I’d suggest checking out the standard crowd-pleasers: LL Cool J, Beastie Boys, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, Run DMC, Eric B. & Rakim, and my all-time favorite hip-hop band, A Tribe Called Quest (ATCQ). (Honestly, if I could, I would have a full playlist dedicated to ATCQ.)

Did I miss your favorite hip-hop songs pre-1995? Let us know in the comments below!


  1. I totally get it! I kid around and refer to this style of music with my class as “skating rink” music. I love using freestyle/breakbeat songs on fast flats or during intervals. A few that I’ve rediscovered recently are Planet Patrol’s “Play it at your Own Risk” and Freestyle’s “Don’t Stop the Rock Remix”.

  2. I like Old School Hip Hop back in the days 80’s and 90’s not the present. I find it is not the same now. Thanks Karen for bringing the Old Hip Hop.


  3. Thank you for covering the four elements of hip hop, since most people only think of the rap / MC part. I’m a big fan of the art of DJ’ing and greatly appreciate turntablists. DJ Shadow’s Entroducing was a seminal release for this art form, and I’ve used several cuts in indoor cycling playlists. But, it just missed your arbitrary 1995 deadline by a year. So, I’ll suggest my second favorite turntable artist – X-Ecutioners. I can heartily recommend Play That Beat (Lo Fidelity Allstars Remix) but be aware of the slight use of the N word at the end.

  4. Karen, I Love this!! Thanks so much for some Old School. I can’t wait to get some of these songs on a playlist. I also teach step and have a couple of old School Mixes…..One of my favorite songs is “Double Dutch Bus” by Frankie Smith. Check it out. I think you will like it. 🙂

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