While the roots of hip hop can be traced back for eternity, it is hard not to recognise the 1980s as the moment it turned from simply being a youthful fad into a brand new genre of music. Not only that, but it was a style, a vision and a way of living that was now becoming a part of America’s rich creative culture. Below, we’re compiling a short and sweet list of our favourite hip ho albums from the 1980s.
As the bubbles of pop began to deflate around the inner-city streets of America’s capitals, the need for a new wave of music began to be ever-present. During the late-’70s and early ’80s the green roots of house, techno, dancehall and, of course, hip hop were beginning to find their way towards the sunlight of widespread admiration. By the time the power-mad decade really got kicking, hip hop had sprouted and was smiling at a new world.
From there on, music would be unfathomably connected to this period. From it, vines of subgenres have sprung and found their own lanes, meaning that almost everything you hear on the radio today can be traced back to one of the culture’s most fruitful periods. It makes picking out only five of the best albums of the decade a supremely difficult challenge.
That means big-hitting records like LL Cool J‘s Radio and De La Soul’s Three Feet High have fallen by the wayside. Run-DMC’s self-titled LP also falls short, Kool Moe Dee, Slick Rick and Big Daddy Kane are also among the names left off our exclusive list. However, what we do have is pure fire.
Below, we’re picking out our five favourite hip hop albums from the 1980s
Five best hip hop albums of the 1980s
5. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back – Public Enemy
Few artists are as capable of delivering a sonic Hadouken to the temple as Public Enemy were in the 1980s. A group that was brought up on punk rock and defined by their refusal to conform, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is arguably their crowning moment. Buoyed by the densely layered production of The Bomb Squad, the group’s second record would shape hip hop for decades to come.
While other rappers were focusing on finesse and style, Public enemy’s chief lyrical arsonists, Chuck D and Flava Flav were preparing Molotov cocktails for the establishment. Run-DMC were rapping about Adidas trainers while D and Flav were planning to bring the government to their knees. While some were singing “crack is wack”, D and Flav were piecing together information to suggest it was the White House behind the new drug epidemic.
On It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Public Enemy led the charge for hip hop to become conscious and combative.
4. Licensed to Ill – Beastie Boys
The Beastie Boys‘ Licensed to Ill arrived amongst a wave of revolutionary rap artists making incredibly important albums in the mid-1980s. Run-DMC’s Raising Hell, Eric B. & Rakim’s Paid in Full, and Public Enemy’s other smash, Yo! Bum Rush the Show were all monumental in their assertion that hip hop was not only more than a passing fad, but that it should be taken seriously as an art form.
Licensed to Ill was not among them. Instead, Mike D, MCA, and King Ad-Rock, along with producer Rick Rubin, made what essentially turned out to be the first parody rap album. The three white boys, none of whom were of legal drinking age at the time, took turns making references to Budweiser, woolers, and porno mags in their exaggerated nasally flow behind Led Zeppelin samples. Songs often took place in school or on the streets of New York because these were teenagers singing songs for teenagers. They knew that they couldn’t compete with the gravitas or grit of their contemporaries, so they went for ridiculousness instead.
Despite turning hip hop into a joke just as it was getting major critical respect, The Beastie Boys wound up making songs so infectiously fun that they were embraced along with their more serious contemporaries. ‘(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party)’ was an MTV staple, while ‘No Sleep ’til Brooklyn’ and ‘She’s Crafty’ could be heard in frat houses all across America. Three Jewish punk rockers from New York wound up being three of the biggest rap stars in the world.
3. Raising Hell – Run-DMC
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of Run-DMC on the hip hop world. Not only did the group provide a firm foothold in the world of mainstream music, showing a generation of kids that they could make a living from their passions, but they did it all with a plethora of genre-defining songs. On the group’s third record, Raising Hell, they demonstrate that once more. Songs like ‘Tricky’ have gone on to become songs for the ages.
While it’s easy to blame the Beastie Boys for the suburban saturation of hip hop the reality is, that Run-DMC had far more to do with the proliferation of rap than the former punks. It was the group’s ability to maintain their image while floating between genres and artistic barriers that made the tri such a force to be reckoned with.
If you wanted a moment where that crossover was guaranteed, then you need only look to this album, a record full of rage and rap.
2. Paid in Full – Eric B and Rakim
There’s something incredibly pleasing about a hip hop duo. whether it is the beats and lyrics combo of Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick or the duelling creativity of Outkast, the synergy of a high-functioning hip hop twosome is hard to ignore. That was certainly the case for one of hip hop’s undoubted pioneers: Eric B and Rakim.
The reality is, that there has never been a more perfect partnership than Eric B and Rakim. The rapping duo were the perfect meeting of man and machine as MC Rakim’s innate talent for rhyming met its match in Eric B’s dizzying DJ skills. It not only made for some killer records like Paid in Full, the duo’s iconic 1987 record.
Often regarded as the crown jewels of the golden generation, the group wouldn’t last long but their mark on hip-hop will be burned on the genre forever. If some duos rely on one half more than the other, Eric B and Rakim is certainly the most balanced act in hip hop history. Smooth as butter and twice as rich, Eric B and Rakim should offer every listener, either first time or seasoned, the kind of emulsifying hip hop fats that only make speakers smile.
1. Straight Outta Compton – N.W.A.
In 1988, eleven years on from the incendiary explosion of punk rock, N.W.A, a group of rappers and producers led by Easy-E and including Dr Dre, Ice Cube and MC Ren, produced the most vitriolic response to an album in living memory. With Straight Outta Compton, N.W.A. not only put gangsta rap on the map, but they created a record that would transcend genre and define an entire generation of kids.
“Do I look like a motherf**king role model?” asks Easy-E on ‘Gangsta Gangsta’, clearly amused by the duality of not only being bonafide, gun-toting gangbanger but now, it would seem, a pop star. Throughout the record, these assertions are meditated on and returned with full force and straightforward “f*ck you!” while others, including the themes of race, police brutality and making it in a system designed to keep you down, are given their first mainstream airing.
It’s easy to get caught up in the language, the attitude and the persistent antagonism of N.W.A. and, after all, that’s a pretty large chunk of why they grabbed so much acclaim. But to ignore their socio-political message and their slick schemes and expert production would be to do the group a sincere disservice. Instead, this album should be listened to with care, concentration and as loud as it can go.