Hip hop has seen a plethora of great albums in it’s four decade existence that have pushed the genre’s creativity and trends into all sorts of directions. From the early albums which saw hip hop expand from the streets of New York into homes across the country (and subsequently the world) to the peak eras of the late 80’s and 90’s, the best albums helped to grow and nurture the artform and became the soundtracks to millions of listeners. Of the numerous albums that have been deemed classics by fans and critics alike, there are a few albums that went even beyond this lofty standard to shift the entire landscape of the music. They weren’t just albums,they were moments that changed the game. From advancing the lyrical standard to reinventing how hip hop sounded,these albums set new standards. Without these innovative bodies of work,hip hop would’ve become simply a trend and went the way of other once popular genres of music that died out (disco anyone?). I always point to hip hop’s survival and thriving due to the music constantly changing and being updated by artists that placed their own personal touches on it and dared to be different. This list is the top ten albums that accomplished those feats. Now, as with any list,my picks are subject to debate and there will always be those people that say “where’s this album? Where’s that album?” Keep in mind that these are only ten and if the list was expanded,certainly some albums that have been omitted would have a place. But,in this writer’s opinion,the following albums are the most significant moments in hip hop history. This is not a Ten Best Albums Ever list (although each selection would arguably make that list as well). I’m strictly talking the albums that sparked movements and pushed the culture to new heights and different directions.
This is one of the first huge albums of hip hop but it’s real significance is this is the foundation that hip hop’s greatest record label ever was built on-Def Jam Records. T La Rock’s It’s Yours was the first record to carry the Def Jam logo however when partners Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin set out to release the then-fledgling label’s first full length album,they had a concise vision of exactly how they wanted the label’s product to be:hard,unfiltered and non-commercial. When Simmons and Rubin got hold of a demo by young Queens M.C. LL Cool J, they knew they had found a frontman that fit their vision. The result was this early masterpiece that was strictly hard beats and harder rhymes. A new star was created who would subsequently go on to be a mainstay at the label for over 20 years, which itself became the biggest and most respected hip hop label in the industry. Their all time roster reads like a who’s who of hip hop. Legendary names such as The Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Onyx, EPMD, Redman, Method Man, DMX and Jay-Z all had their greatest success on Def Jam. And Radio is the album that started it all.
For younger fans, it may be hard to imagine a time when hip hop only came out of New York and California. Southern based hip hop exploded in the mid and latter part of the 90s with Outkast, Cash Money, No Limit, UGK and countless others staking their claim to a piece of the hip hop landscape alongside the East and West coast but for a long time in hip hop’s early years the South was virtually quiet. It’s common knowledge that the music started in New York but as it spread to various regions of the country, rappers abroad looked to put their own spin on this music. While the 2 Live Crew out of Florida made a huge splash in hip hop and MC Shy D out of Atlanta was making noise, many historians point to the Geto Boys‘ second album (and the debut for the group’s most popular inception) as the pivotal moment that opened the door for the entire South to be taken seriously alongside their N.Y. and California counterparts. One legendary producer, former Def Jam co-owner Rick Rubin, took a particular interest in the Houston, Texas hip hop group and remixed 10 of this albums tracks for the re-release “The Geto Boys”. Their next album,”We Can’t Be Stopped” featured the huge hit “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” and suddenly hip hop had a new region making waves,”The Dirty South”.
By the early 90s, New York hip hop had become somewhat stale. There were still great records coming out of hip hop’s birthplace but the creativity that went into creating all those late 80s masterpieces was waning a little. A new sound was needed and this was one of the first albums to step up to the plate. With a heavy kung-fu movie soundtrack influence, a group of MC’s out of Staten Island and Brooklyn, respectively,changed everything about hip hop from it’s sound and feel to how record deals were done. Each member bought their own unique style to the table and the result was like nothing ever heard not only in hip hop but music period. The impact that the Wu-Tang Clan has had on hip hop is indisputable and this,their first work,is still considered their best. The game would never be the same again. Suuuuu!
The bible of 90’s hip hop. Nas’ debut album forced every rapper worth their salt to step up their lyrical game. If there ever was a perfect hip hop album, Illmatic is it. Nas set the bar so high with this magnum opus that no one (himself included) could ever reach the lyrical heights that he achieved here. He painted the perfect portrait of young, black males struggling to find their way through a life permeated with crime,incarceration and death. The disc still ranks at the top of many Best Hip Hop Albums lists and rightfully so. As I type this,I just finished watching the documentary “Time Is Illmatic” which gives this album even more clarity (as if that was possible). It boggles the mind to think that such mature lyricism was evoked from someone who at the time was very young. Living in the hood forces you to grow up quick and Illmatic captures that feeling to a tee,serving as inspiration for later great albums such as Only Built 4 Cuban Linx,Reasonable Doubt and many others. Is is also a pivotal moment in the 90’s hip hop renaissance,which many consider the peak era for hip hop.
In the same vein of Illmatic, Biggie’s debut album Ready To Die was also a musical portrait of the black male growing up in a poor neighborhood. However the difference between the two albums was the commercial impact that Ready To Die had. Influenced by one-time friend 2Pac as well as Bad Boy label head Sean “Puffy” Combs,Big helped create the new formula for how hip hop albums would be constructed. He still had the hardcore cuts for the grimey, street cats hanging on the corner but he also included more radio friendly joints such as “Juicy” and “Big Poppa” that were more accessible to females and club-goers. As a result,record sales for this album went through the roof and countless rappers followed suit. Everyone was attempting to re-do Ready To Die in their own form and this album became the proverbial blueprint for hip hop albums in the later half of the 90s.
Dr Dre is one of the most innovative producers in the history of hip hop. The proof is he is the only artist to appear on this list twice. He helped re-define the game not once,but twice. Not many can make that same claim. With his debut solo project “The Chronic”, a new sound known as G-Funk took over not only hip hop,but popular music period. Dre transcended hip hop and crossed over without actually crossing over. This album dominated the industry and ranked among the biggest pop artists of the day in both sales and popularity. Now,I’m not privy to the fact of who actually invented the G-Funk sound as former Dre associates Above The Law says they were the first to do it but I do know who made it blow up. And the sound of this album is really just an extension of Niggaz4Life, Dre’s final album with N.W.A. Dre and his new Death Row camp,including a young breakout star named Snoop Doggy Dogg, captivated the nation and re-defined the sound of hip hop to the point where other rappers were attempting to copy the sound of this album in an effort to keep pace. For the first time since hip hop’s inception,California owned hip hop and it would take a concerted effort by numerous new N.Y. rappers to shift the tide. For a while though, Dre and Death Row ruled the world.
Hip hop began strictly as a party thing. It was all about having fun and braggadocia. However, rap records began taking on a more serious theme beginning with the seminal Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five record “The Message”. Rappers began doing more serious songs on their albums but they were the exception more than the rule. It was with Public Enemy’s sophomore album “It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back” that political hip hop reached it’s apex. This was all serious,no fun and games here. And while their previous debut effort “Yo! Bum Rush The Show” contained political themes along with other albums (certainly Boogie Down Productions’ By Any Means Neccesary) it was with this album that mainstream publications such as Rolling Stone Magazine and The New York Times first praised a hip hop album for it’s sheer genius. This was Bob Dylan protest music,only a hundred times angrier and energetic. The Bomb Squad’s production here rendered everything before it obselete and rappers became more ambitious with the making of albums after this landmark set.
If there were ever any rules to how hip hop records were made prior to N.W.A., they broke every one of them coming out the gate. Before N.W.A., profanity was not commonplace in hip hop records. Addressing subjects such as police brutality, gang warfare,sexism. Now this is not to say that they were the first to do these things but they were the first to do it on such a wide scale and sell millions of albums initially only by word of mouth. They were that revolutionary. Going from the clean rap of The Fat Boys,Whodini, Run-DMC and others to N.W.A.’s brand of “street knowledge” was a culture shock to the industry that basically re-shaped the status quo of the music. Now I know Schooly D and Ice T. made “gangsta” records before the California natives but ask yourself…Who made it huge? That’s the legacy of this album. The Niggas Wit Attitudes made what was previously taboo into what would eventually become the norm for hip hop,for better or worse.
The moniker “God MC” wasn’t bestowed upon Rakim because it’s a dope nickname. Rakim Allah changed the entire way in which M.C.’s rhymed and bridged hip hop from the old school to the new school. Just listen to how every rapper rhymed previous to Paid In Full. There would be a line, a pause, then the next line. Influenced by the continuous horn patterns of jazz, Rakim decided to rhyme in the same pattern with continuous flow to his lines and multiple rhymes within the bars. He set the standard for how rhymes are created and to this day it’s the format that’s used. Rappers from every generation after this album continuously pay homage to him as one of the best ever and this is the album that started it all.
If you’ve read any articles on the significance of Run-D.M.C.’s third album Raising Hell (including my own on this site) or better yet if you witnessed this era,you know exactly why this album ranks as the most important album in hip hop history. Quite simply,the success of this album rocketed hip hop into the big time and squashed all the doubters who said this music was just a fad and would never last. The first hip hop album to reach a million in sales (three to be exact). The first hip hop album to have a video in regular rotation on the previously rock music dominated MTV (Walk This Way). The first hip hop album to garner a hip hop act an endorsement deal with a sneaker company. All of these things which would become commonplace for hip hop started here. Without the success of this album,this music and culture probably wouldn’t be in existence today. Hip hop went from a place of concerts in small clubs and house parties to selling out arenas. It went from the albums being sold in mom and pop record shops and a small section of the local record stores to dominating the music charts. Raising Hell is the most important hip hop album ever because it was the first to reach heights in that were previously thought to be impossible. All hail Run, D and the late, great Jam Master Jay. They will forever be The Kings
*The rankings in this list are those of the author
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