THE TOP 50 HIP HOP ALBUMS OF THE 1980s


Today, I’m starting a series of rap album lists.  Just ‘cause I feel like it.  And because we’re coming to the true end of the decade: 2020 is the last  year of the decade, as the period is marked by the first year, 2001, and goes for 10 years.  But also, I know that’s just technically true.  So for the sake of not making my readers crazy, we’ll stick to the 00-09 decade configuration.

My first list, today, recognizes the best hip hop albums from the era of its birth: The 1980s.  Technically, rap started in 1979 with Rapper’s Delight (or a little earlier if you want to go back to King Tim III), but really recorded rap albums started up in ’84.  I credit Kurtis Blow with the first rap album–his 1980 eponymous debut–but mostly it was singles until mid-’84.  Or, like in the case with Sugar Hill Gang, one good song and a bunch of filler around it.

But once we hit 1985, rap, as a genre, morphed and exploded more quickly than any other style of popular music.  We started with artists like Grandmaster Flash, Kurtis Blow, and Melle Mel.  They were like the Little Richards and Chuck Berrys of their time–breaking in on existing terms, trying not to sound incendiary, and creating foundational songs.  @ithin a few years, Blondie and the East Village glitterati adopted rap, and artists quickly moved to the equivalent of late 1960s rock and roll and ’70s metal: Scholly D kickstarted gangsta rap for the outlaws.  Public Enemy pushed a radical and incendiary political agenda.  KRS-One urged black power by all means necessary but then quickly shifted to found the Stop the Violence movement.

In just half a decade, the creativity in 1980s hip hop was unlike anything seen before, or since.  (Note: Because the decade contains far fewer releases than the ones that follow, this is a “top 50” list.  The rest will be a full 100.)

Here’s my favorite albums from the early years of rap.  Please note they’re MY favorites.  I’d love to hear about yours, and why you might disagree with me, but this all comes down to taste and preference.  I lean to East Coast because that’s where I grew up when I lot of these albums were coming out.

  1. Public Enemy-It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988).  There’s nothing I can say that hasn’t already been said about this seminal, foundational rap album.  It’s absolutely perfect.
  2. Run DMC – Raising Hell (1986).  Peter Piper.  It’s Tricky.  My Adidas.  And that’s just the first three songs.
  3. N.W.A – Straight Outta Compton (1988).  The album that changed hip hop–and the world.
  4. Beastie Boys-Paul’s Boutique (1989).  Building on the work of Afrika Bambaataa and proving that rap could grow beyond its boundaries, the group that started as a punk rap band became the genre’s most sophisticated composers.
  5. De La Soul-3 Feet High and Rising (1989)
  6. Boogie Down Productions – Criminal Minded (1987)
  7. Eric B. & Rakim – Paid In Full (1987)
  8. LL Cool J – Radio (1985).  A brash youngster with savage delivery completely upends his established, much more “polite,” contemporaries.
  9. The D.O.C.-No One Can Do It Better (1989). Foundational West Coast gangsta rap.
  10. Afrika Bambaataa – Planet Rock: The Album (1986)
  11. 3d Bass-The Cactus Album (1989)
  12. Jungle Brothers-Straight Out the Jungle (1988)
  13. Whodini-Escape (1984).  “Five minutes of funk, this ain’t no junk.”
  14. Slick Rick – The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick (1988).  Hip hop’s master storyteller.
  15. Ice T – Rhyme Pays (1987). 6 in the Morning: It may not have been the first West Coast Gangsta rap song, but it was the first one that mattered.
  16. EPMD-Strictly Business (1988)
  17. Big Daddy Kane-Long Live the Kane (1988)
  18. Too Short-Born to Mack (1987)
  19. Ultramagnetic MCs – Critical Beatdown (1988)
  20. Salt ‘N’ Pepa – Hot, Cool & Vicious (1986)
  21. Boogie Down Productions-Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hip Hop (1989)
  22. Schoolly D – Schoolly D (1986).  PSK is often credited as being the first gangsta rap song.
  23. Stetsasonic – On Fire (1986)
  24. Run DMC-Run DMC (1984)
  25. Kool G Rap and DJ Polo-The Road to Riches (1989)
  26. Malcolm McLaren-Duck Rock (1983).  Maybe the first example of hip hop created by someone who wasn’t American.
  27. Toddy Tee-Batteram (1985).  A kid in his bedroom with a lofi tape deck made the first important mixtape of the 1980s.  He took East Coast classics and put pure Compton rhymes over them, biting off all the greats and becoming part of the unknown foundation for gangsta rap.
  28. Fat Boys – Fat Boys (1984).  Sure, the Fat Boys were a one-joke band.  But they told the joke so well, and their movie is an underrated cult gem.  Plus, they were the first exposure most of us had to beatboxing.
  29. Marley Marl-In Control Vol. 1 (1988)
  30. Geto Boys-Grip It!  On That Other Level (1989)
  31. Special Ed-Youngest in Charge (1989)
  32. Treacherous Three-Treacherous Three (1983)
  33. Wild Style Soundtrack (1983).  I re-watched this movie recently and, yeah, it’s a bad amateur film.  But it’s so cool to see the roots of hip hop and graffiti art.
  34. Manotronix-The Album (1985)
  35. Boogie Down Productions – By All Means Necessary (1988)
  36. MC Lyte – Lyte As A Rock (1988)
  37. Too Short – Life Is… (1989)
  38. Beastie Boys – Licensed To Ill (1986).  Dated for sure, but highly influential in its day.
  39. Just-Ice-Back to the Old School (1986).  Before Chuck and Griff.  Before Ice-T.  Before KRS-One.  Before Paris. There was Just-Ice.
  40. 2 Live Crew-The 2 Live Crew is What We Are (1986)
  41. Ice T-The Iceberg (1989).  In which Ice invites Al Gore’s wife to “suck my dick while I take a shit all day.”
  42. Jungle Brothers-Done by the Forces of Nature (1989)
  43. DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince-He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper (1988)
  44. Public Enemy-Yo! Bum Rush the Show (1987).  Their signature sound was still being formed–not nearly as “perfect” as their later albums, but still a gem.
  45. Kool Moe Dee-Kool Moe Dee (1986).  I know most people rate KMD higher, but for some reason he just doesn’t resonate as much with me–and it feels dated listening back now.
  46. Young MC-Stone Cold Rhymin’ (1989).  Come on  fatso, just bust a move.
  47. UTFO-UTFO (1985)
  48. Ice-T-Power (1988).  What can I say, I love Ice-T?
  49. Eazy-E-Eazy Duz It (1988)
  50. LL Cool J-Bigger and Deffer (1987)
 Today, I’m starting a series of rap album lists.  Just ‘cause I feel like it.  And because we’re coming to the true end of the decade: 2020 is the last  year of the decade, as the period is marked …