Bash this beat like a skull: 22 fight-ready songs

Axl Rose (Marc S Canter/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images); LL Cool J (Evan Agostini/Getty Images); NCT 127 (Screenshot: “Kick It”); Jazmine Sullivan (Screenshot: “Bust Your Windows”)
Axl Rose (Marc S Canter/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images); LL Cool J (Evan Agostini/Getty Images); NCT 127 (Screenshot: “Kick It”); Jazmine Sullivan (Screenshot: “Bust Your Windows”)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

LL Cool J’s fourth studio album, Mama Said Knock You Out, was not only a strong pivot from his earlier, more sentimental work, but also a serious turning point for his career. As gangster rap rose to prominence in the late 1980s, fans of the genre began to question the Queens icon’s ability to endure the changing tide with a sound that many of his critics deemed too poppy. So in the video for his booming 1990 title track, LL Cool J got in a boxing ring and fought for his continued relevance with each bar landing like a critical blow to his doubters. Is the idea of him turning to violence in order to make his case ideal in the real world? Absolutely not. But within the safe confines of his music, the imagery of him putting up his dukes and defending his eventual legacy made him and his range impossible to ignore.

Thematically, fighting in music can represent a few things: It can signal survival, protest, triumph, heartache, and anger in a mighty way. For the listener, it provides a window of catharsis, a private moment where they can entertain the idea of shedding the cloak of propriety just once, clench their fists, and swing at the obstacles that stand between them and peace. Nobody should actually follow through with the events laid out in these 22 songs, but if they inspire certain punchy feelings, we totally get it.

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LL Cool J, “Mama Said Knock You Out” (1990)

LL Cool J, “Mama Said Knock You Out” (1990)

Despite the track’s title, we actually have LL Cool J’s grandmother to thank for his immovable fight jam. In his autobiography, the rapper shared that when he expressed concerns over his ability to withstand hip-hop’s changing landscape after a number of up-and-coming rappers dissed his softer sound, the awesome woman replied, “Oh baby, just knock them out!” Clearly he couldn’t just stroll up to Kool Moe Dee or Ice-T and sock them in the face, but he could easily hop in a recording booth and flex his lyrical range. Subsequently, “mama said knock you out” turned into a cultural warning shot of sorts, a way for others to warn the enemy that any provocation will be met with a fight. LL Cool J oscillated between hard-hitting joints and more tender ditties in the years to follow, but any doubt that he could hold his own had long been eradicated. [Shannon Miller]

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The Rolling Stones, “Street Fighting Man” (1968)

The Rolling Stones, “Street Fighting Man” (1968)

There’s a reason Scorsese loves this jam. (And a reason it’s the perfect end-credits song to the pro-leftist-revolution manifesto of a film, V For Vendetta.) After more than 50 years (!), there’s still an incendiary thrill to Keith Richards’ jagged riffing, paired with some of Mick Jagger’s finest lyrical bomb-throwing. (“’Cause summer’s here and the time is right for fighting in the street, boy.”) What makes those bombs land with even more force is the ambiguity of their intent—is it all pointless? Will this violence make a difference? Should I stay the hell away from it? But all the pontificating over its meaning can’t obscure the fact that the song still kicks ass after half a century—all the more impressive when you realize Richards is strumming a damn acoustic guitar. [Alex McLevy]

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Loretta Lynn, “Fist City” (1968)

Loretta Lynn, “Fist City” (1968)

Dolly Parton begged Jolene not to take her man, and Tammy Wynette stood silently by hers while he ran around town. But you better not pull that shit with Loretta Lynn, who offers the other woman an all-expenses-paid trip to “Fist City” on her 1968 album of the same name. Lynn has no illusions about men: “I ain’t saying my baby’s a saint, ’cause he ain’t,” she sings, almost as an afterthought. The real issue seems to be that this bitch is being just a little too smug about the affair, prompting Lynn’s threat to “pick you up by the hair of the head and lift you off of the ground.” She’s a scrappy one, Miss Lynn, and capable, too—just listen to the way she hits that high note at the end of this spirited traditional country number. [Katie Rife]

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Say Anything, “Belt” (2004)

Say Anything, “Belt” (2004)

“And the record begins with a song of rebellion,” Max Bemis intones at the beginning of “Belt,” a coming-of-age stomper that, despite its searing bolts of electric guitar, evokes the warring gangs of West Side Story as it barrels toward an alley-set knife fight. The …Is A Real Boy highlight indulges in no shortage of chest-beating, lingering as it does on sweat-drenched male bodies and a fierce desire to prove one’s manhood to a long-gone patriarch. Cheesy? Maybe in other hands. Bemis sings with narrowed eyes and clenched teeth, conjuring a sense of menace that stresses the importance of this rite of passage, old-fashioned as it might be. [Randall Colburn]

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Brooke Valentine, “Girlfight” (2005)

Brooke Valentine, “Girlfight” (2005)

Don’t let the honeyed vocals and whispered opening throw you—there’s a promise to throw down in 2005’s “Girlfight,” the chart-climbing single off Brooke Valentine’s debut album, Chain Letter. The Texas R&B singer chants “We bout to throw dem bows / We bout to swang dem thangs” before she’s even dug into the instigating incident. Turns out, it’s more of a pattern of behavior that’s brought things to a head. As Valentine makes her way to her adversary’s home, taunting the opposing clique, Warriors style, she sounds less and less interested in talking things out. Like 702’s “Where My Girls At?”, “Girlfight” emphasizes strength in ride-or-die numbers and serves as a reminder that, when lines are repeatedly crossed and diplomacy fails, you can count on a—what?—“Girlfight.” [Danette Chavez]

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Original Broadway Cast of Hamilton, “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)” (2015) 

Original Broadway Cast of Hamilton, “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)” (2015) 

Act One of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s historical stage phenomenon Hamilton comes to a rousing climax with “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down),” a rollicking wartime recount that sets a siege against boisterous strings and contemporary record-scratching. In this version of events, it also serves as the send-off for Alexander’s revolutionary friends, John Laurens, Marquis de LaFayette, and “HERCULES MULLIGAN!!!” By the time the tailor-turned-spy (played by Okierete Onaodowan) reaches his boastful, final verse, “Hercules Mulligan, I need no introduction / When you knock me down I get the fuck back up again,” the acute zip of energy it delivers has the audience feeling battle-ready. The moment is pure adrenaline and rides with the spirit of taking on the opposition alongside trusted comrades. [Shannon Miller]

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Flight Of The Conchords, “Mutha’uckas” (2008)

Flight Of The Conchords, “Mutha’uckas” (2008)

Though they can’t bring themselves to say the words, Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie sound really tired of mutha’uckas ’uckin’ with their shi’ in this musical number from “Drive By,” the seventh overall episode of Flight Of The Conchords. It starts with Bret’s run-in with xenophobic fruit vendor Sinjay (Aziz Ansari), then branches out to include all manner of grievances: transactional shi’, weekly statement shi’, hoarding the Red Delicious shi’. Bret even threatens to “juice” Sinjay: “He’s gonna wake up in a smoothie.” They resolve their issues before any blows are thrown, and even end up bonding over their mutual hatred of Australians. But this wouldn’t be the last time Bret saw violence as the answer: He also formed a ridiculously genial and non-confrontational gang in “The Tough Brets,” which currently counts only loyal Murray Hewitt (Rhys Darby) among its members. [Danette Chavez]

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Crime Mob, “Knuck If You Buck” (2004)

Crime Mob, “Knuck If You Buck” (2004)

There is a reason why anyone itching to spin Crime Mob’s quintessential “do not fucking test me” hit “Knuck If You Buck” in public should do so with the utmost caution. With little more than a drum machine and a handful of ominous, high-pitched notes, the group’s debut single quickly morphed into a nightclub staple. It has also doubled as the unintentional soundtrack for a couple publicized brawls for years after its release. Its percolating production effectively mirrors both the anticipation of an impending fight and the eventual blow, the latter signaled with one of the most well-known beat drops within the rap genre. As potent as it is catchy, it’s no wonder why some DJs issue a warning before playing (or, in some cases, not playing) the celebrated banger. [Shannon Miller]

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Fleetwood Mac, “Somebody’s Gonna Get Their Head Kicked In Tonite” (1969) 

Fleetwood Mac, “Somebody’s Gonna Get Their Head Kicked In Tonite” (1969) 

With a title like that, there’s not much in the way of ambiguity going down in Fleetwood Mac’s “Somebody’s Gonna Get Their Head Kicked In Tonite.” This song was a B-side to 1969’s “Man Of The World” single, and it’s not exactly a standard-issue Mac number. The song was written by guitarist Jeremy Spencer, who was famous in Fleetwood for being able to do uncanny approximations of old-school rock ’n’ roll singers, and he puts that talent to work here, channeling an Elvis Presley-esque vocal delivery for the ’50s-style sock-hop groove of the song, a throwback in every way. Well, save one: There weren’t many ’50s ditties featuring lyrics like “There’s gonna be a pool of blood on the dance hall floor.” The track is an outlier in the band’s catalogue—so much so, that Fleetwood Mac actually credited the recording to the fictional “Earl Vince And The Valiants.” Earl, it seems, has a real bloodlust. [Alex McLevy]

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Guns N’ Roses, “Get In The Ring” (1991)

Guns N’ Roses, “Get In The Ring” (1991)

Yes, the damn thing is nearly six minutes long. Yes, it features an extended bridge in which Axl Rose personally calls out various members of the music press he feels have wronged him, including Spin’s Bob Guccione Jr., whom he implies is pissed off because “your dad gets more pussy than you.” (Guccione Sr. was the founder of Penthouse.) And yes, the band added in crowds roaring in approval after every diss and threat. None of that changes the fact that the song has a killer blues-rock riff, Matt Sorum’s pounding drums, and absurdly entertaining lyrics that are a near-parody of a put-down track. But most importantly, it’s deeply cathartic to shout-sing along to the repeated phrase, “Get in the ring!” Especially for those of us who avoid violence like the plague, because we’d get our asses kicked. [Alex McLevy]

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Jazmine Sullivan, “Bust Your Windows” (2008)

Jazmine Sullivan, “Bust Your Windows” (2008)

“You broke my heart, so I broke your car / You caused me pain, so I did the same.” R&B chanteuse Jazmine Sullivan made one hell of a debut with breakup revenge classic “Bust Your Windows,” a detailed confession of a heartbroken woman’s quest for retribution via a crowbar. Lilting melodies and a soaring strings section only manage to carry Sullivan’s righteous rage to the rafters as she sings of the sting of a former lover’s betrayal. To be fair here, she’s not exactly endorsing this kind of response—she’s even careful to mention that it doesn’t fully mend her broken heart. However, imagining an instance where we can cave to the catharsis and crack open just one jerk’s window is a nice thought, even if it equates to little more than a mild inconvenience for the offender in question. [Shannon Miller]

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The Clash, “White Riot” (1977)

The Clash, “White Riot” (1977)

In 1976, while The Clash’s Joe Strummer was at a London festival celebrating Caribbean culture, police apprehended a pickpocket, resulting in a riotous protest by the predominantly Black attendees. Inspired by the demonstration, Strummer lamented that lower-class white Londoners did not display the same passion when standing up against the class warfare creating strife among poor British people of all races at the time. “All the power’s in the hands / Of the people rich enough to buy it / While we walk the street / Too chicken to even try it,” he and Mick Jones wrote for what would become their band’s first single, 1977's “White Riot.” More than 40 years later, the two-minute punk classic still works as an inspirational fire-up—if not for a riot, at least for an enthusiastic mosh-pit thrashing. [Gwen Ihnat]

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Limp Bizkit, “Break Stuff” (1999)

Limp Bizkit, “Break Stuff” (1999)

Fred Durst built a career (or at least 15 minutes of TRL-abetted fame) on throwing temper tantrums. But only with “Break Stuff” did he manage to elevate his macho posturing to… well, not art exactly, let’s not go nuts here, but at least to a certain lunkheaded singalong glory. Surpassing even “Nookie” as the quintessential Limp Bizkit loser anthem, “Break Stuff” finds Fred yelping knuckle-sandwich threats over buzzsaw guitar that sounds more convincingly angry than he does. The video featured fans and celebrities lip-syncing Durst’s fantasy of turning his bad day into someone else’s worse one; that karaoke vibe perfectly captures the song’s enduring wannabe-tough-guy appeal. Like Fred, we’re all just fronting when we bellow, at the end of the bridge, about breaking anyone’s fucking face tonight. [A.A. Dowd]

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Jackson Wang, “Bullet To The Heart” (2019)

Jackson Wang, “Bullet To The Heart” (2019)

Sometimes you’re not the one throwing the punches, but the one taking the hits. Rapper/singer/K-pop mainstay Jackson Wang opts for heavy gun imagery to illustrate merciless treatment at the hands of a heartless ex that he calls an “elegant assassin.” Dramatically aided by a haunting guitar and far-off, echoing background vocals, “Bullet To The Heart” is the kind of rock-tinged surrender that occurs when someone or something momentarily sucks the fight out of you. Upon the song’s release, Wang noted that the lyrics could also apply to the general feeling of defeat that one experiences with any obstacle. “We always face different obstacles in life,” he explained in a statement. “No matter how successful you are, hardships are still going to keep coming like an endless cycle; they will keep torturing you on this journey to success.” [Shannon Miller]

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Lunachicks, “Jerk Of All Trades” (1995)

Lunachicks, “Jerk Of All Trades” (1995)

The titular heroine of arguably Lunachicks’ greatest song isn’t spoiling for a fight—she’s just ready to beat the living shit out of you if you so much glance at her wrong. “Never ever ever ever underestimate,” sings the band—just on the off chance you were thinking of underestimating the “Jerk Of All Trades”—because “she will kill you, kill you with her hate.” With a breakneck speed and non-stop sonic assault of frenetic riffs, vocals trying to outrun the pummeling drums, and the group’s signature fuck-it attitude all on full display, the song encapsulates everything great about Lunachicks, while telling the story of one badass motherfucker who’s ready to “punch out your lights.” Punk rock doesn’t get much more pure—or potent—than this. [Alex McLevy]

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Bikini Kill, “Double Dare Ya” (1991)

Bikini Kill, “Double Dare Ya” (1991)

In its early-’90s heyday, Bikini Kill was famous for a policy of “girls to the front,” allowing women to get their aggression out in the pit without getting seriously hurt by slamming into a guy twice their size. And the soundtrack to this catharsis is wild and chaotic, but with a focused political intent. Pretty much any Bikini Kill song is appropriate for fighting—on the sidewalk or for a cause. But the group came out of the gate with a manifesto of sorts with “Double Dare Ya,” the opening song off of the Kill Rock Stars compilation CD The First Two Records and an anthem of sorts for the riot grrrl movement. The music is aggressive, with the crouched, swaying bass line of a hardcore song; the lyrics are aggressive as well, but in a more inspirational kind of way, as singer Kathleen Hanna rips up her vocal cords screaming, “Rights! Rights! You do have rights!” [Katie Rife]

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Hello Peril, “I Punched Keanu Reeves” (2019)

Hello Peril, “I Punched Keanu Reeves” (2019)

The charming 2019 Netflix rom-com Always Be My Maybe was elevated into legendary status by the special guest appearance of Keanu Reeves. The erstwhile Johnny Utah plays an uber-pretentious version of himself, the romantic rival of Marcus (Randall Park) for Sasha’s (Ali Wong) affections. Marcus and Keanu soon clash, resulting in a confrontation that culminates with Keanu daring Marcus to “strike” him—which he does, right in the face. As the movie reaches its inevitable happy ending, Marcus ponders if everyone knows that he punched Keanu Reeves, and Sasha encourages him to write a song about it, just to be sure. It seems like just a throwaway line until the hilarious rap song “I Punched Keanu Reeves” by Marcus’ band Hello Peril plays over the closing credits, a worthy testament to such a legendary smackdown: “You best believe I punched Keanu Reeves / And it was better than any scene you could see in Speed / I’m telling you for real / I punched Neo / He could duck bullets but he couldn’t duck me.” [Gwen Ihnat]

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Sweet, “Ballroom Blitz” (1974)

Sweet, “Ballroom Blitz” (1974)

Typically, when someone wants to tell you about their dreams, you’re in for an exercise in boredom. But then, most people’s dreams don’t kick as much ass as The Sweet’s Brian Connolly, who—with the verbal assent of bandmates Steve (Priest), Andy (Scott) and Mick (Tucker)—recounts one of glam rock’s most aggressively enthusiastic odes to mayhem. “Ballroom Blitz” is light on detail of the dream in question; the lyrics explain that “My dreams are getting so strange / I’d like to tell you everything I see”—but who is that girl in the corner, and how does she know so much? Fortunately, the song is heavy on feeling, as Connolly scream-sings the brawl—reportedly based on an incident where the band got pelted by bottles while playing a gig in Scotland—into anarchic life. [William Hughes]

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The Soft Boys, “I Wanna Destroy You” (1980)

The Soft Boys, “I Wanna Destroy You” (1980)

There’s a certain whimsical underpinning to the churning psychedelia on The Soft Boys’ second (and last) LP, Underwater Moonlight. But don’t let the group’s name fool you: They’re not just ready to fight, they’re ready to bring Old Testament wrath down on their enemies’ heads. Frontman Robyn Hitchcock doesn’t hate any one person in particular; his anger is directed at the mysterious, sinister “they” who keep the population hypnotized with cheap distractions and false prophets. And the reckoning for these forces of evil will be Biblical indeed, as Hitchcock threatens, “When I have destroyed you, I’ll come picking at your bone / And you won’t have a single atom left to call your own.” Or maybe it was interpersonal bad vibes after all, given that The Soft Boys broke up shortly after pressing this deranged threat onto wax. [Katie Rife]

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NCT 127, “Kick It” (2020)

NCT 127, “Kick It” (2020)

The first ten seconds of Korean pop outfit NCT 127’s high-octane title track practically foreshadow the fight of a lifetime: Imposing guitar riffs, cautionary wails, and a nice assist from veteran producer Dem Jointz’s “Incomiiiiiing!” calling card at the top of the song all seemingly announce the arrival of some serious performing heavyweights. But “Kick It” isn’t about literal violence; it’s an effective banger about transcending traumatic fear and living up to one’s destiny. The band also paid tribute to Bruce Lee’s unparalleled film legacy, channeling the icon’s distinct battle cries for the bridge. Though the song leans more on inspiration than intimidation, it’s difficult to deny the zip of energy that surges with each chanting refrain and every roundhouse kick. [Shannon Miller]

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Black Flag, “Rise Above” (1981)

Black Flag, “Rise Above” (1981)

Walking into a Black Flag show meant being ready to fight in the early ’80s, as footage of the group’s legendarily violent live shows from the period makes clear. Black Flag’s third and most iconic vocalist, Henry Rollins, was the embodiment of rage-fueled adolescent intensity when he joined the band in 1981—although much of his aggression was directed inward, as reflected in the tortured lyrics about depression on Damaged (1981). Damaged features several iconic hardcore punk songs, but the most rousing of them has to be “Rise Above,” which sees Rollins, guitarist Greg Ginn, and the rest of the band rallying punks to burn the system with the ground (or maybe just fight their dads) with a shouted chorus of, “We! Are tired! Of your! Abuse! Try to stop us, but it’s! No use!” [Katie Rife]

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Trick Daddy, “Let’s Go (feat. Lil’ Jon and Twista) (2002)

Trick Daddy, “Let’s Go (feat. Lil’ Jon and Twista) (2002)

The iconic opening wails of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” never fail to signal an air of chaos, and Lil Jon and Miami mainstay Trick Daddy never back down from a percolating club fight. With some sharp-tongued help from Chicago’s Twista, “Let’s Go” was the consummate warning shot, a promise that you were messing with people who were no talk and all action. The single was Trick Daddy’s most successful hit, and a solid addition to Lil Jon’s respectable slate of songs that promised violence to those that chose to impede on his good time. Anyone who is foolish enough to want it can most certainly get it. Just let them know. [Shannon Miller]

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The playlist

The playlist

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