Hip hop has reached the grand old age of 44, having begun with a birthday party on 11 August 1973, in the recreation room of an apartment building, 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, in the west Bronx, New York City, hosted by Clive Campbell, also known as DJ Kool Herc.
Happy birthday, hip hop!
And what better way to celebrate this most colourful, confrontational and controversial of musical artforms than by rounding up the definitive 30 greatest hip hop albums of all time.
You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge…
You can listen to a Spotify playlist of the key tracks here.
Run DMC - Run DMC
Yes, The Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five had taken hip hop into the mainstream, but Jam Master Jay, D.M.C. and Rev Run were the first group to properly legitimise it with the release of bona fide classic albums. Their self-titled longplayer was a confrontational fusillade of minimal electro, crunching beats and mesmeric rhymes, as exemplified by It’s Like That, Sucker M.C.s, Rock Box and Hard Times.
Key track: Hard Times
Eric B & Rakim – Paid In Full
The first golden age of hip hop was kick-started by the art form’s standout DJ/MC pairing, Eric B and Rakim. A master class in breaks, beats and rhymes, Paid In Full laid down the gauntlet to thousands of wannabe crate digging producers and rappers. Standout tracks include the title track (soon to be remixed into sonic nirvana by Coldcut), Eric B Is President and I Know You Got Soul.
Key track: Paid In Full
Public Enemy - It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back
If, as Chuck D has repeatedly stated, rap is the black CNN, Public Enemy’s second album was their revolutionary state of the nation address. The stark, eerie music bordered on the nihilist, while its doubtful anyone has used hip hop to shine an unwelcoming light on America’s manifold ills in the manner of Chuck D before or since. Don’t believe the hype? One listen to these rebels without a pause will cause you to reconsider.
Key track: Bring The Noise
N.W.A. - Straight Outta Compton
If Public Enemy was hip hop’s militant conscience, NWA (or Niggaz With Attitudes to give them their correct uncompromising moniker) were the hoodlum wing. Their debut album was a brazen example of six individuals who didn’t give a f**k. From the brutal opening triptych of songs (Straight Outta Compton, F**k Tha Police and Gangsta) to the groovy Express Yourself this was indeed a riotous display of street knowledge.
Key track: Straight Outta Compton
De La Soul - 3 Feet High & Rising
Despite what the likes of Public Enemy, N.W.A and 2 Live Crew might have suggested otherwise, not everyone involved in hip hop in the late Eighties was angry. De La Soul, alongside the likes of The Jungle Brothers and A Tribe Called Quest (along with others known as the Native Tongues Posse), were the polar opposite – they were Afrocentric urban hippies pushing a sunshine-soaked vision of hip hop named the Daisy Age. Their debut album was a joyous mixture of soft rock samples, hilarious skits and psychedelic rhymes. It’s positive attitude chimed perfectly with the loved-up acid house era in which it was produced.
Key track: Me Myself and I
Beastie Boys - Paul’s Boutique
Licensed To Ill might have introduced the world to the Beastie Boys, but following its release the trio were routinely dismissed as brattish frat rappers. Paul’s Boutique, released nearly three years, showed otherwise, demonstrating that Mike D, Ad-Rock and MCA really did have the skills to pay the bills. Criminally ignored upon release – probably because it wasn’t Licensed To Ill Part 2 - it is now recognised for what it is: a multi-layered hip hop masterpiece.
Key track: Shake Your Rump
Cypress HIll - Cypress Hill
Alongside De La Soul and Beastie Boys, Cypress Hill were one of the first hip hop acts to crossover to a predominantly white rock crowd. Given that their music was designed to reflect (and even enhance) the slacker habit of smoking weed this perhaps wasn’t surprising. But Cypress Hill’s debut album is no curious novelty – the music is withdrawn, almost as if it’s not there, while B Real’s imaginative rhymes were at once unclear and sardonic. It was a combination that would sell more on 1993’s Black Sunday, but this was the apex of Cypress Hill’s multi-racial creativity.
Key track: How I Could Just Kill A Man
Ice Cube – Death Certificate
Given the strong personalities at play in N.W.A. it wasn’t surprising that Ice Cube’s departure from the group was acrimonious. He poured his vitriol into his solo releases. This reached an apogee on his second album, Death Certificate. An unapologetic treatise at the state of things at the start of the fin de siècle, it was both coruscating and visionary, and not without controversy. The furore surrounding its release might have lessened in the intervening years. Its power most certainly hasn’t.
Key track: No Vaseline
Dr Dre - The Chronic
Not to be outdone by his former protégé Ice Cube, Dr. Dre didn’t take long to release another landmark album by an N.W.A. alumni. Not only was The Chronic acclaimed immediately, it ushered in a new sound within hip hop – G-funk. Instantly recognisable due to the use of synthesisers and an all-encompassing bass, it made a solo star of Dre, and introduced his latest rap ward to the world: Snoop Doggy Dogg.
Key track: Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang
A Tribe Called Quest - Midnight Marauders
Of all the acts beloved of the rap fraternity that coalesce around the head-nodding sound of ‘backpack hip hop’, A Tribe Called Quest are the most cherished. In truth, we could have chosen two other ATCQ albums in this spot – 1991’s The Low End Theory is another stone cold classic – but Midnight Marauders elevated Q-Tip, Phife Dawg and co to legendary status. Their jazz-rap fusions were nothing new, but this was them working at the top of their game.
Key track: Award Tour
Wu-Tang Clan – Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
Released on the same day as Midnight Marauders, the Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album was arguably the most important hip hop album of the Nineties. It not only introduced the world to a collection of colourful characters, but redefined the sonic language of hip hop. RZA’s production was sparse, pieced together with esoteric samples and dialogue from kung fu movies, while the raps from Method Man, Ol Dirty Bastard, GZA, Chef Raekwon, Ghostface Killah et al were incendiary.
Key track: Protect Ya Neck
Snoop Dogg - Doggystyle
There must have been something in the air in November 1993, because just two weeks after ATCQ and the Killer Bees released their era-defining sets, a cocky tyro mentored by Dr. Dre released his debut set. Then known as Snoop Doggy Dogg, Doggystyle was another landmark record. Coated in G-funk finery, Doggystyle opened up a portal into a horizontal West Coast world of weed, sunshine and unforgettable grooves.
Key track: Gin And Juice
Nas - Illmatic
Despite being home to groups like Wu-Tang Clan and A Tribe Called Quest, New York appeared distinctly second best to the sounds emanating from California in 1994. All that changed with the release of Nasir Jones’s debut album, the iconic Illmatic. With production duties served by DJ Premier and Large Professor, Nas’s rhymes reflected upon ghetto life in the Big Apple. Raw, powerful and unforgettable, Illmatic opened the doors for a new generation of MCs to burst through. Speaking of which…
Key track: NY State of Mind
Notorious BIG - Ready To Die
It’s a shame that today The Notorious B.I.G. is known as much for his role in the unfortunate East Coast/West Coast rap wars of the mid-Nineties as his talents as one of the greatest rappers of all time. A vital release in New York’s move towards hardcore gangsta rap, Biggie’s storytelling skills are to the fore on tracks like Juicy, Gimme The Loot and Things Done Changed. The mind boggles as to what Biggie could have achieved if he wasn’t senselessly lost in 1997.
Key track: Juicy
The Pharcyde - Labcabincalifornia
Thankfully, it wasn’t all braggadocio in hip hop in the mid-Nineties. Los Angeles four-piece The Pharcyde followed their mesmeric debut, Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde, with another lesson in irreverent sonic adventure. The jazzy, soporific vibes of Runnin’ recalled kindred spirits A Tribe Called Quest, while the inventive Drop (with an equally original video from Spike Jonze) displayed a steely experimental edge. The group would fall apart after this release with Fatlip leaving, but this was some parting gift.
Key track: Runnin’
2Pac - All Eyez On Me
Hip hop double albums aren’t generally worth the entrance fee. All Eyez On Me changed all that. After a spell inside, 2Pac was focused and angry ahead of his magnum opus. This attitude was channelled into 27 tracks of sparkling virtuosity. The thug life with which he had previously flirted with is wholeheartedly embraced and the result is an epic record of G-funk and gangsta rap that managed to take on the mainstream. And win.
Key track: California Love (Remix)
The Fugees - The Score
The Fugees were inescapable in 1996. The trio – Wyclef Jean, Pras Michel and Lauryn Hill – had made some waves on the underground with their first album, Blunted On Reality, but with The Score everything changed. Hip hop gone pop, without conceding to the mainstream, The Score catapulted Fugees and their conscious songs to stardom. Some complained there were too many covers (Killing Me Softly and No Woman, No Cry among them), but when they sounded this fresh and vital, that was just purist posturing.
Key track: Ready Or Not
Jay-Z - Reasonable Doubt
Today Jay-Z is the biggest hip hop star extant. In 1996 he was just another aspiring rapper who, to use his parlance, had led a hard knock life on the streets of New York. This hustle was the backbone of his awesome debut set. Featuring the likes of Can’t Knock The Hustle, Brooklyn’s Finest and Dead Presidents II, it was a stunning combination of frontline reportage and frankly ice cool rhymes. A star had been born.
Key track: Dead Presidents II
Lauryn Hill - The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
After Fugees disbanded in 1997, few could have predicted what was to follow. Granted, it was obvious in Lauryn Hill the trio had a sparkling talent, but even the most ardent admirers must have been shocked by her first solo album. Mixing classic soul with a reinvigorated R’n’B and leaning on her hip hop roots, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was another crossover success.
Key track: Doo Wop (That Thing)
Jurassic 5 - Jurassic 5
Those bored by the gangsta rap heyday of the mid-Nineties found much succor in the backpack underground sounds that began to emerge in the later part of that decade. Company Flow represented New York’s wild experimental edge, while on the other side of America, Jurassic 5, with their emphasis on turntablism, were all about recalling the likes of De La Soul. On Jayou, Concrete Schoolyard and Lesson 6: The Lecture, the six-piece pleasingly put a smile back on the face of hip hop.
Key track: Concrete Schoolyard
Mos Def - Black On Both Sides
Thanks to his work with De La Soul and his Black Star collaborative album with Talib Kweli, anticipation on the underground hip hop scene was high ahead of Mos Def’s debut solo set. After the release of Black on Both Sides, however, it wasn’t just the underground that appreciated the charismatic character born Dante Smith (and who now goes by the name of Yasiin Boy). A politically aware album, but one that piles on the infectious beats and effervescent rhymes, Black on Both Sides was confirmation that Mos Def was one of the most talented stars pushing hip hop forward ahead of the new millennium.
Key track: Ms Fat Booty
Dead Prez - Let's Get Free
Upon release, Let’s Get Free was rightly acclaimed as a clarion call for righteous and political hip hop – not for nothing were the duo of stic.man and M-1 lauded as the most revolutionary rap outfit since Public Enemy. And while Let’s Get Free is a bombastic and unrepentant call to arms, there are lighter touches too, displaying that sometimes subtlety is just as powerful as an iron fist.
Key track: Hip hop
Eminem - The Marshal Mathers LP
The notion of a credible white rapper was a misnomer for eons – not helped by Vanilla Ice. All that changed with Eminem. A confrontational, provocative and sardonic wordsmith – and another protégé of Dr. Dre – he released three classic albums on the spin in the late-Nineties and early-Noughties. It was the middle release – The Marshal Mathers LP – that captured the witty, irreverent and rebellious spirit best.
Key track: The Real Slim Shady
Scarface - The Fix
Not many musicians release their defining work seven albums in. Even less so in the frenetic world of hip hop where youthful bravado generally trumps maturity every time. But then Scarface is different. An astute businessman as well as recording artist, he knows his audience inside out, being able to give them what they want. And The Fix is the arch example of that. A lurid trip into the rags’n’riches lifestyle of hip hop hustlers, it’s a high octane ride from start to finish.
Key track: In Cold Blood
50 Cent - Get Rich Or Die Tryin'
Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ arrived in a blaze of glory in early 2003. Thankfully, amid the hype there was a classic album to back up all the verbals. In Da Club was the worldwide smash that’s still infectious today, but this was just one high (literally) among a cavalcade of hip hop anthems. What Up Gangsta sets the scene – placing Fiddy in the lineage of Biggie/Nas/Jigga – while Many Men (Wish Death) and High All The Time ensure the taut pace is never broken.
Key track: In Da Club
Outkast - Speakerboxx / The Love Below
OutKast’s Speakerboxx/The Love Below is one of the most audacious moments in hip hop’s rich history. A double album – in essence two solo albums by Andre 3000 and Big Boi – it takes in everything from G-funk to pop, Southern soul to blues, electronica to rock. In this sense it’s everything the artform of hip hop started out as – a cultural sponge imbibing the best that music has to offer. An in Hey Ya! They had the kind of worldwide hit that every musician would die for.
Key track: Hey Ya!
Kanye West - The College Dropout
Today Kanye West is known for his celebrity lifestyle as much as his music (and that still rocks by the way), but a decade ago, West was a serious underground hip hop icon. Having breathed new fire into Jay-Z with his production work on The Blueprint, West’s true calling was rapping himself. If there were doubts he could match his Roc-a-Fella employer there were quickly dispelled with the release of The College Dropout. A vivacious album dripping in hooks and cheeky raps, it set in motion the merry-go-round that West still expertly deals in to this day.
Key track: Through The Wire
Madvillain - Madvillainy
Underground hip hop was in rude health at the turn of the millennium. The likes of Cannibal Ox, Quasimoto, Aesop Rock and co were producing inventive music that was raw, wry and futuristic. The collaboration between MF Doom and Madlib was certainly in the same vein. A hypnotic take on hip hop it melded the duo’s distinctive talents – Doom’s cerebral raps and Madlib’s unconventional beat – into something both charming and mystical.
Key track: America’s Most Blunted
Common - Be
Throughout the Nineties and early Noughties Common ploughed a very unique and idiosyncratic furrow – that of the thoughtful and conscientious rapper. He hit commercial paydirt on his sixth album, Be. Utilising the production work of Kanye West and underground icon J Dilla, Common created a completely unified piece of work on Be. This was the sound of hip hop reflecting upon itself – hence the jazzy backbone and soulful tenor of Common’s voice. The result was magnificent.
Key track: GO!
Lupe Fiasco - Food & Liquor
Hip hop isn’t short of the odd cocksure character or seven, and in Lupe Fiasco the most brazen of musical genres gained another confident young man upon the release of Food & Liquor. Fiasco’s debut album it displayed the nous of a man wise beyond his 24 years. Reminiscent of Kanye West’s The College Dropout, there was a pop sheen to these urbane stories of sex and aspirational stardom. Two things Fiasco wouldn’t be short of from here on in.
Key track: Kick, Push