The Essential: Hip-Hop
From block-party origins to multi-millionaire empires, no music quite represents the ‘American Dream’ (and nightmare) like hip-hop. Michael Leonard digs through 40-plus years of LPs from wildly differing styles of urban music born of vinyl itself…
In August 1973, at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the west Bronx, there was a party: 25c for ‘ladies’ and 50c for ‘fellas’. And that, says legend, is when hip-hop was born. Man-mountain Clive ‘Hercules’ Campbell, aka Kool Herc, was a Jamaican DJ already armed with a two-turntable setup, and he started mixing tracks and scratching live for the first time (publicly, at least), while his friend ‘Coke La Rock’ (no one remembers him!) rapped over the beats. It makes hip-hop 44 years old. The rest is… here.
Even in broad-brush terms, ‘rap’ and ‘hip-hop’ aren’t interchangeable. Rap is the rapping, hip-hop the wider culture of rappers, DJs, graffiti, breakdancing et al, as decreed by another NYC legend, Fab 5 Freddy. At least it once was. No raps? There are still hip-hop instrumentals – arguably the bedrock of much of today’s cut-and-paste pop.
Rap is now everywhere, but hip-hop is not. Vanilla Ice may have had the first No. 1 Billboard rap single with Ice Ice Baby, but is that essential hip-hop? You be trippin’! (Ice’s story is actually pretty complex, but… sorry, time’s up!). Drake is the world’s primo music star right now and he raps. But Drake’s not hip-hop. Not anymore. And, of course, rappin’ Ed Sheeran is dead to us. In fact, we’ve gone all North American here. We appreciate the UK’s produced its own share of wildly inventive rap artists – from Massive Attack to Tricky, via The Streets and Roots Manuva to Plan B and Dizzee Rascal, even the current grime scene stars such as Skepta – but they don’t sit easily inside ‘just’ a hip-hop capsule.
Even if you redux hip-hop to ‘two turntables and a microphone’ – no longer the case, anyway – you’ll find more variety than you could fathom. Deep funk, disco, jams and politics… love songs, violence, dadaism and party tricks. And some pretty offensive stuff, too. It’s called life.
Hip-hop isn’t always best suited to albums – in no small part due to dance’s culture of extended floor-fillers, varying mixes, novelty tracks, or simple one-off masterstrokes. It’s Yours (1984) by T La Rock was a game-changer, but any long-term album success for T was elusive. No matter, there are some great old-school compilations. Here, we’re concerned with the full works. But we’re egalitarian – only one album per artist. And spread across as many years as is realistic, in reverse chronology. It’s been a tough call…
Good Kid, m.A.A.d city – Kendrick Lamar (2012)
Classics are hard to call straight away – some are saying that Lamar’s fourth LP Damn (2017) is already that, but it was this conflicted tale about his Compton upbringing that made Lamar “the James Joyce of hip-hop” (!) according to Georgia Regents University professor Adam Diehl. Young but wise beyond his years on the likes of The Art Of Peer Pressure, this LP set Kendrick Lamar on a stratospheric rise.
Discogs £17-£24 (median £19)
Food And Liquor – Lupe Fiasco (2006)
Years in the making with Kanye, Jay-Z, The Neptunes and Pharrell Williams all involved, Food And Liquor nevertheless arrived like a breath of fresh air. It’s wonderfully melodic, with strings and big keyboard sweeps flying over the beats, as 25-year-old Fiasco lays bare his “heart and soul”. Hip-hop here is merely the vehicle for a fast-travelling mind that avoids and outwardly challenges cliché – an aptly named, nourishing and intoxicating album.
Discogs £15-£59 (median £31)
Be – Common (2005)
Its real victory is for Kanye again, as co-producer, but Common’s sixth album sees the Chicago native stepping up his rhyme game, too. With The Corner featuring The Last Poets and They Say starring John Legend, it’s inclusive, warm and innovative, yet also cohesive in an all-too-rare example of how strong and varied a modern hip-hop LP can be. “He’s the Marvin Gaye of rap,” enthused West.
Discogs £4-£8 (median £6)
The College Dropout – Kanye West (2004)
These days, Kanye West is an irritating egomaniac. Back then, he was an irritating egomaniac who made great hip-hop, and blew up the business with this guest- and soul-sample packed treatise on how a “failure” wins. The skits may be tiresome after repeated listens, but they kinda have to be there: this was everyman hip-hop for a contradictory, confused and consumerist age.
Discogs £7-£40 (median £20)
Speakerboxxx/The Love Below – OutKast (2003)
One of hip-hop’s most audacious album releases, this is in essence two solo albums by Big Boi and Andre 3000. Hey Ya! fuelled its massive crossover, but Big Boi’s Southern rap wins overall, even though there’s everything from G-funk to pop, electro to rock, soul to blues seeping across its eclectic grooves. Disjointed to some, but it’s hip-hop personified – and a glorious reminder of the only rules being no rules.
Discogs £18-£35 (median £22)
Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ – 50 Cent (2003)
Fiddy’s tale is so clichéd it sounds made up, but that’s what made him such a success. Bottom line, his debut’s runaway victory could simply not be denied. 11 million sales across the US and Europe, via sleekly efficient hip-hop anthems In Da Club, 21 Questions and P.I.M.P.. A biography, a movie, videogames and clothing lines followed… then, bankruptcy. For some, it was everything wrong with hip-hop and the beginning of the end.
Discogs £11-£44 (median £22)
The Blueprint – Jay-Z (2001)
Bootlegged so much its release was pushed forward, this album birthed Izzo (H.O.V.A.) and Song Cry, and after a few years of keyboard-led records, it went back – implied by its title – to classic soul as the bedrock. Heart Of The City even proved the Jigga wasn’t all tough guy… He’s more franchise than art, really, but at least he’s sometimes funny: “Your reign was shorter than leprechauns”. Yep, he was back.
Discogs £15-£35 (median £21)
The Marshall Mathers LP – Eminem (2000)
Credible white rappers remain a rare currency, but nearly everyone in hip-hop agrees Eminem is simply one of the best ever, regardless of genealogy. Another protégé of Dr. Dre, Eminem unleashed three classic LPs on the spin between 1999 and 2002, and this middle release captured his witty, irreverent wordplay best. The Dido-sampling Stan was the breakout hit of an often autobiographical triumph.
Discogs £16-£40 (median £22)
Quality Control – Jurassic 5 (2000)
It took a full seven years for J5 to cut a full-length LP, but it was worth the wait. With their emphasis on turntablism, J5 recalled a decade or more before, and the tongue-twister rhymes from Zaakir, Chali 2na, Akil and Marc 7even were like a constantly revolving kaleidoscope. As a testimony to the pure skills of hip-hop, it was a life-affirming throwback – and put a smile back on the face of the genre.
Discogs £9-£39 (median £21)
Things Fall Apart – The Roots 1999
In a world often dominated by old breaks and repeating lyric themes, The Roots – a ‘real’ band – are leftfield outsiders. This career highlight (You Got Me, featuring Erykah Badu, won a Grammy) would never have made Yo! MTV Raps, but it is genuinely challenging, melding real drums, human beatboxing, limber jazz jams and raps about the state of rap. Things Fall Apart? Here, they came together beautifully.
Discogs £11-£15 (median £28)
Black On Both Sides – Mos Def (1999)
With its concerted effort to reinject some consciousness into a post-gangsta landscape, BOBS was ambitious stuff to begin with. Add Mos Def’s forays into reggae, plus his singing and playing of bass, drums, congas, vibraphone and keyboards, and guest spots from Busta Rhymes and Q-Tip, and it turned into a tour-de-force. It remained underground to the mainstream, but sold a million copies to people who knew.
Discogs £22-£70 (median £36)
It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot – DMX (1998)
Raw, brutal and dark indeed, DMX wasn’t shaken by the turbulence of recent rap shootings – but he mixes his own ugly menace with his (claimed) devout Christianity, giving his persona the aura of some sort of hip-hop Johnny Cash. The LP’s sparse, synthetic electronica felt new and shot it to No. 1. Movies, arrests, drugs, trauma, label lawsuits and jail followed with almost scripted inevitability.
Discogs £6-£16 (median £10)
Supa Dupa Fly – Missy ‘Misdemeanour’ Elliott (1997)
Elliot and co-producer du jour Timbaland together delivered something genuinely new here – feminist, avant garde, playful hip-hop/R&B that still sounds futuristic. Its influence on R&B’s digital grooves was huge and The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly), Sock It 2 Me and Beep Me 911 were pop smashes. After this, she really got her freak on, but this Supa Dupa Fly a brilliant debut.
Discogs £3-£61 (median £28)
The Score – Fugees (1996)
Was it hip-hop? Was it R&B? Was it pop? Even the mean streets needed some respite in ’96, and Fugees were inescapable that year. The covers (Killing Me Softly; No Woman, No Cry) made The Score chart-friendly but underneath was a true hip-hop inventiveness almost impossible to dislike. The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill (98) was even better – but that genius album was bigger than hip-hop itself.
Discogs £15-£97 (median £33)
Endtroducing….. – DJ Shadow (1996)
A whole album made up of samples off old LPs? Not even vocals? That’s it? Yes, it is, but this is turntablism and sampling as high art, and set the mood for hip-hop’s ambient soundscapes of today. It’s roughly done, but equally true to hip-hop’s roots and visionary at the same time. Track names aren’t important, the ethos and mood is. The crate-diggin’ nerds’ own Tubular Bells.
Discogs £25-£70 (median £35)
All Eyez On Me – 2Pac (1996)
Hip-hop doubles are generally bloated, yet even at four LPs, All Eyez On Me was justified. After jail time, Tupac Shakur went full-on gangsta and simultaneously conquered the mainstream with California Love and the title track. Its ‘forbidden fruit’ crossover appeal is obvious – with 904 profanities, it’s the most cussin’ album ever made – and Hit ‘Em Up elevated the East-West war. Pac was shot dead, too. You knew that.
Discogs £10-£200 (median £114) US version
The Infamous… – Mobb Deep (1995)
Mobb Deep brought an eerie, sparse piano-led sound to East Coast beats on this second album, but what really gave the Queens projects duo their aura were their youth and (like Biggie) graphic stories: The Infamous paints a life in a gang warzone where violence and paranoia are the only rules and where there “ain’t no thing as halfway crooks”. Sounds like a soundtrack to a never-made crime movie.
Discogs £28-£140 (median £46) (US version)
Labcabin California – The Pharcyde (1995)
Even with its mid-90s mired in violence, hip-hop could still surprise. Recalling kindred spririts ATCQ, The Pharcyde’s second album (after Bizarre Ride II...) was even more irreverent, clever and cosmopolitan – Spike Jonze’s backwards video for Drop helped mainstream exposure, but the whole of Labcabincalifornia (Hey You, Moment In Time)… is refreshingly out there. They split soon after, but this was some sign-off.
Discogs £11-£53 (median £24) US version
Regulate… G Funk Era – Warren G (1994)
With G-funk in full swing on the West Coast, Dre kept empire building with his actual half-brother, Warren Griffin, also an ex-bandmate of Snoop. Regulate was gangsta sanitised, but delivered so masterfully, it went down a storm. Cali, blunts, girls, low-rides, sunshine and sampling Michael McDonald… Regulate was ghetto-life good times through a soft-focus lens.
Discogs £15-£53 (median £29)
Ready To Die – Notorious B.I.G. (1994)
Biggie’s fame is inevitably elevated by his death, but he had a real knack for playing out his rhymes like scenes in a (very ugly) movie, and elevated East Coast gangsta when LA largely ruled. Gimme The Loot, Things Done Changed and the title track were indelible pieces of ghetto noir and, for a while, it made him and Sean ‘Puffy’ Coombs hip-hop’s hottest duo. Biggie was shot dead. Of course.
Discogs £13-£31 (median £24)
Illmatic – Nas (1994)
With DJs du jour Premier, Q-Tip and Pete Rock on beats duty, Nasir Jones emerged fully as an old-school storyteller who was also highly literate, questioning and not without vulnerability. N.Y. State Of Mind and The World Is Yours led a brief 40 minutes of packed quality – varied, but it held together – and the sleeve photo of Nas as a kid belied the maturity of its 21-year-old author.
Discogs £11-£59 (median £18)
Doggystyle – Snoop Dogg (1993)
Already a star after The Chronic, Snoop (assisted by Dre) simply continued his languid gangsta and ganja tales on his full solo debut, and Doggystyle really is all about his delivery – he’s got one of rap’s most melodic voices. It doesn’t even try to dig obscure samples or be clever with words, as Gin And Juice and Who Am I? (What’s My Name?) earned it a debut at No. 1 in the Billboard chart.
Discogs £17-£97 (median £35)
Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) – Wu-Tang Clan (1993)
The dawning of a dynasty, …36 Chambers brought a whole new lyrical and musical language to hip-hop. Its sparse, gritty beats rolled back previous jazzy years, while the Clan’s multiple personalities were inventive and prescient. It still sounds strangely eerie: who else wrote hits called Da Mystery Of Chessboxin’? It introduced RZA as a true production master.
Discogs £20-£35 (median £25)
Black Sunday – Cypress Hill (1993)
Beer and pop (music) had helped Beastie Boys and De La Soul click in the white ‘burbs, but a huge, fat blunt made Cypress Hill even more popular. Black Sunday was probably the biggest crossover hip-hop album to that date, enlivened (just about) by B-Real and Sen Dog’s comedic voices, rock samples and heavy metal-esque art. Insane In The Brain was huge; even Bill Clinton would’ve inhaled to this one.
Discogs £15-£44 (median £22)
Mecca And The Soul Brother – Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth (1992)
One for true hip-hop heads, Mecca… is 80 minutes long, but still compelling for Pete Rock’s peerless production (his use of beefy organ riffs, cymbal rides and horn loops is a signature). C.L. Smooth is no passenger, covering all ground and, in Lots Of Lovin, he’s even romantic – the oddest of taboos for the time. It’s not a religious album per se, but it still sounds positively spiritual.
Discogs £4-£31 (median £19)
The Chronic – Dr. Dre (1992)
With NWA splintering, Dre wasted no time in building his reputation. Its use of bassy synths and Parliament/Funkadelic ushered in a new recipe – G-Funk – and made Dr. Dre an unlikely star. The lyrics of main guest rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg (sic) aren’t all that, but for its cinematic production and pop savvy alone, The Chronic was a game-changer. That’s right, that ‘Beats headphones guy’ once made records.
Discogs £19-£186 (median £66) US version
Step In the Arena – Gang Starr (1991)
Like ATCQ, Gang Starr delved into jazz and slow funk for beats and breaks and delivered one of the outwardly smoothest albums of the era. Premier was/is one of hip-hop’s greatest producers and old-school scratch DJs, and The Guru’s silky monotone makes this a snugly enveloping album, with Just To Get A Rep and Who’s Gonna Take The Weight? taking the New Yorkers from underground to stardom.
Discogs £12-£45 (median £31)
The Low End Theory – A Tribe Called Quest (1991)
Too many Tribe albums, too many classics, frankly. But we’ll give this head-nodder the nod. With Phife pushed to the fore alongside Q-Tip, it simply bubbles in its own brilliance. Its jazz-spinning beats are low-riders indeed, and Check The Rhime, Buggin’ Out and the posse-cut Scenario (which broke Busta Rhymes) are slam-dunks. Among the Native Tongues posse, Tribe ruled supreme.
Discogs £15-£80 (median £47)
O.G. Original – Gangsta Ice-T (1991)
The ex-Crips member born Tracy Lauren Marrow has never been the most acclaimed of MCs, but on his best album by far, Ice nails it. His lyrics aren’t particularly poetic, but his flow is superb, his thug-life vignettes compelling and the sonic clarity is outstanding. It’s stacked with classics (The Tower, New Jack Hustler…, Midnight) and introduced his rap-metal troupe Body Count.
Discogs £4-£36 (median £17)
Death Certificate – Ice Cube (1991)
Cube left N.W.A in a rage, and here he’s seething about everything: ‘Amerikkka’, pop dance (“You can new jack swiiiiiing on my nutz!”), N.W.A, N.W.A’s manager, Korean shopkeepers, the LAPD, and, oh, getting woken up early. And with his new Lench Mob’s beats banging over Death and Life sides, it’s musically explosive, too. Hardcore. Cube made it clear: this was not an album for white people.
Discogs £7-£34 (median £20)
Paul’s Boutique – Beastie Boys (1989)
The Beasties’ Licensed To Ill debut may have had the charm of a lift-fart, but its three-years-in-the-making follow-up showed they actually had vision and talent. The trio’s rhymes were still shrill, but it was the rainbow tapestry of cut-ups (aided by The Dust Brothers) on The Sounds Of Science, B-Boy Bouillabaisse et al that surprised. A benchmark in sampleology. That’s right, it was now a word.
Discogs £9-£150 (median £28)
3 Feet High and Rising – De La Soul (1989)
De La Soul rose perfectly timed for the mainstream ascent of a luvved-up generation. The LP’s skits were fresh, Prince Paul’s production was magpie-like (Hall & Oates became dope), and it was shot through with sunshine rather than bullets. Hamstrung by too many “Sgt. Pepper… of hip-hop” epithets, the formula was ripped up straight after. That’s what hip-hop sometimes does – tricks your mind, then kicks your ass.
Discogs £4-£30 (median £15)
The Great Adventures Of… – Slick Rick (1988)
The Richard Pryor of rap, Slick Rick (originally from London) dumped vulgar comedy on a fast-politicising scene. There’s no denying Ricky Walter’s lyrical skills, character turns or pioneering storytelling prowess, for sure, nor the album’s overall ingenuity. He remains one of hip-hop’s most sampled MCs for lunatic classics such as Children’s Story, The Ruler’s Back and, ahem, Treat Her Like A Prostitute. ‘He’s observing, yo’ honour’, goes the defence.
Discogs £6-£19 (median £13)
Straight Outta Compton – N.W.A (1988)
If PE were hip-hop’s politicised rallymen, N.W.A were the rioters tearing up outside. This debut LP’s brutal opening triptych of the title cut, Fuck Tha Police and Gangsta caused uproar that not even the chart smarts of Express Yourself would balm. Behind Ice Cube and Eazy-E’s pottymouths, Dr. Dre emerged as a new alchemist of funkology, cutting a lean, mean soundtrack to middle America’s worst nightmare. News just in: N.W.A don’t give a fuck. No, really.
Discogs £13-£4 (median £30)
It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back – Public Enemy (1988)
Hip-hop’s first great polemicists. Whether it was their media awareness (“Hip-hop is the black CNN”), strategies (Chuck D wrote song titles first) or Chuck and Flavor Flav’s Blackman vs Joker tag-teaming, PE was a masterstoke: brothers, whiteys, TV, labels – no-one was spared. Add the Bomb Squad’s musique concrète sampling and you had a truly monumental LP that sounded like nothing else. Bring the noise!
Discogs £1-£20 (median £10)
Critical Beatdown – Ultramagnetic MC’s (1988)
Never mainstream, but in Kool Keith (later aka Dr Octagon and Dr Dooom), The Ultramagnetics had a surrealist MC who genuinely brought art to supposedly ‘simple’ street poetry. Although often unintelligible, Keith’s internal rhyming style was a key force for Eminem, while the Ultras’ beats and breaks were on a par with the dense attack of Public Enemy. Sadly, KK’s probably most famous for being sampled (The Prodigy’s Smack My Bitch Up).
Discogs £13-£28 (median £20)
Criminal Minded – Boogie Down Productions (1987)
Widely considered the first boom in ‘gangsta’, the cover had KRS-One and DJ Scott La Rock posing with weapons. It’s more than just unsettling stories about robberies, gang warfare and crack whores, though – KRS-One’s ragga chat was also highly influential, as were the clanking, skeletal beats. It sounds dated now, but at the time, this was a genuine gut-punch and Scott La Rock’s fatal shooting the same year only increased the legend.
Discogs £12-£37 (median £19)
Paid In Full – Eric B. & Rakim (1987)
One of the first great DJ/MC pairings, with Rakim still judged by many to be the greatest microphone fiend ever. The title track (remixed by Coldcut) and I Know You Got Soul (remixed by Norman Cook) later gave them chart hits, and even if this isn’t even the duo’s best album (see Follow The Leader) it was a great leap forward. The so-called ‘golden era’ is on.
Discogs £5-£26 (median £15)
Hot, Cool & Vicious – Salt-N-Pepa (1986)
Hip-hop has never made it easy for women, but Salt-N-Pepa’s taboo-busting LP debut wasn’t just a commercial landmark (the first female rap LP to go platinum), it was also decent. Sure, it was all masterminded by producer Hurby Azor, even down to many of the rhymes, but it’s fun, sassy, clean and cute… with a quality man-putdown in Tramp. Post-album No. 1 hit Push It made it onto 1987 pressings onwards.
Discogs £2-£11 (median £7)
Run-D.M.C. – Run-D.M.C. (1984)
Big Bang time LP-wise, with the Hollis, Queens trio of Russell ‘Run’ Simmons, Daryl ‘D.M.C.‘ McDaniel and Jam Master Jay (Jason Mizell) throwing out beats and rhymes that would define 80s hip-hop. A minimal electro influence is strong, but there’s real staying power here. It’s Like That, Sucker MCs, Hard Times and the groundbreaking Rock Box remain classics. Quite possibly the prime reason ageing B-boys still buy in Sports Direct (Kangol, y’all!).
Discogs £8-£30 (median £13)