The prevailing ethos of the 1980’s was to make money, by any means necessary, either by engagement with corporate America, or through entrepreneurial hustles. And music started to reflect that concept, as hip-hop and its focus on material gain took root in inner cities across the U.S.
Racial disparities remained, as even superstars such as Michael Jackson and Prince were denied airtime on MTV, then a fledgling cable network that debuted in 1981, but which initially refused to feature Black artists. Prince, contrary to popular belief, was the first Black artist to debut on the network.
Prince’s “1999,” the title track from his fifth album by the same name, appeared on the network in December 16, 1982, followed by Jackson’s “Beat It” in March of 1983. Both artists were, of course, immediately supported by BET, which first aired on January 25, 1980.
Sifting through hundreds of possible choices, here are 20 songs that represent Black culture at its best and some might say, most prolific, throughout the 80s.
The first big star of hip-hop, Kurtis Blow’s hit established not just the future of the genre but its sales potential, as it is credited as the first hip-hop single to go gold, selling over 500,000 copies.
Although he’d already recorded two dance hits, ‘The Glow of Love” and “Searching” with the group Change, “Never Too Much” is literally the first song on Luther’s first solo album, his first classic ‘80s smash, and his first double-platinum single.
Though he never quite got the mainstream recognition attained by Prince or Michael Jackson, Rick James was an important artist, given his funk bonafides. This was the one song that allowed him the mainstream success he craved, going to #16 on Billboard’s pop chart and eventually earning him a gold record.
Whether through familiarity or alchemy, this Maze featuring Frankie Beverly song has endured the test of time, becoming not just a staple at every Black celebration, but a defining part of the culture’s soundtrack. Beyoncé’s 2019 cover version went to #5, higher on the charts than the original.
This song hails from one of the hit groups from Motown’s post-Detroit era. It was, arguably, the peak moment for the sibling groups that dominated the charts in the ‘70s and ‘80s. A #2 R&B hit, it featured El DeBarge’s silky falsetto joined by his equally melodic siblings, helping the group’s second album, All This Love, to go to #3 on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop albums chart.
The 4x-platinum, two-time Grammy-winning song that helped Michael Jackson’s Thriller become the best-selling album of all time, “Beat It” changed the game for Black artists, pure and simple. It launched Jackson into global superstardom and is now one of only three songs from the ‘80s that have reached over a billion YouTube views.
The rock-oriented song would come to define Run-D.M.C.’s sound, making the trio one of the earliest superstars of hip-hop. “Rock Box” was the first video by a hip-hop group played on MTV, though the group didn’t care at first for the guitar solo that made the song a hit.
The first single from Purple Rain, Prince’s career-changing album and movie, it catapulted the Minneapolis genius into superstardom and a place among music royalty. Recorded without a bass line, an innovation at the time, the platinum single ranks #52 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All-time list.
U.T.F.O.’s smash was the ‘80s version of going viral. The song’s success led to 14-year-old Roxanne Shanté’s cheeky response, “Roxanne’s Revenge,” which led to dozens of answer records hitting the streets and her career as one of hip-hop’s earliest female hitmakers.
The Brooklyn-based hip-hop trio holds two important distinctions in hip-hop: their 1983 song “Magic’s Wand” is credited as hip-hop’s first video, and their upscale videos and style, along with catchy songs including “Friends,” “Freaks Come out at Night,” and “One Love,” were precursors of hip-hop’s upcoming merger with R&B.
In the pantheon of coming-of-age records, Janet Jackson’s ranks near the top as Michael’s baby sister’s definitive statement to the world. The title cut for her 5x platinum album, it was recorded in Minneapolis with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, marking Janet’s ascension as a superstar, on her own terms. The gold single went #1 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop songs chart in 1987.
A notable early salvo in beef records, this was New York rapper KRS- One’s answer to “The Bridge,” the MC Shan/Marley Marl song that boasted the borough of Queens as hip-hop’s true center. KRS’s blistering response set the tone for later records such as LL Cool J’s “Jack the Ripper,” 2Pac’s “Hit ‘Em Up,” and Nas’ “Ether.”
Though it was not even on the initial release of the duo’s 1986 Hot, Cool & Vicious album, the platinum single helped earn the duo (plus DJ Spinderella) the first-ever platinum album certification by a female rap act. The video, which showcased Salt-N-Pepa’s dynamic live shows and highlighted the decade’s fashion trends, is among the era’s most significant.
Produced by the L.A. Posse, LL Cool J’s 1987 hit was the Queens MC’s breakthrough hit. As the first single off his multiplatinum Bigger and Deffer album, “I’m Bad” established him as a mainstream superstar and set the tone of braggadocio for many rap stars to follow.
The 1987 release is one of the most influential hip-hop records of all time. Rakim’s precise, skillful wordplay, devoid of profanity, set the bar for hip-hop’s most gifted lyricists who cite him as an inspiration. The song’s remix, “Seven Minutes of Madness,” by British dance duo Coldcut, is among hip-hop’s early remix successes.
Whitney Houston was already a star, but this platinum single is not only a quintessential ‘80s pop diva anthem, it was also Houston’s second Grammy win, for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female that year. “I Wanna Dance” was Houston’s fourth #1 Billboard Hot 100 hit.
The first release from N.W.A.’s debut album of the same name, “Straight Outta Compton” establishes hip-hop’s move away from its initial East Coast dominance. It also put into motion the careers of its biggest stars, producer Dr. Dre and future solo hitmakers Eazy-E and Ice Cube. The song was certified platinum in 2016.
The Boston-based quintet endured major changes, including the addition of Johnny Gill when Bobby Brown departed for a successful solo career. The reconfigured group prevailed with this #2 R&B hit and video with choreography that made it an instant classic. Keeping it out of the top spot? Brown’s “Don’t Be Cruel.”
After his departure from New Edition, the group that brought him to fame, Brown became a solo star with his first album, King of Stage. Though Teddy Riley would be considered the architect of New Jack Swing, Brown was its first big hitmaker, collaborating with L.A. Reid and Babyface for this #1 Billboard R&B hit. The single went gold in 1989.
Written for Spike Lee’s film, Do The Right Thing, Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” is among the top protest songs of any genre. It went #1 on Billboard’s Rap Singles chart and was honored as one of the 365 Songs of the Century compiled by RIAA and the National Endowment for the Arts in 2001.
Visit BET.com for the next sampling of best songs from the 1990s and check out Black Music Month: 100 Best Songs Of All Time – The 1970s.