(circa 1980 – 1995)
In a recent Rolling Stone article, there was a feature with Chris Rock’s Top 25 hip-hop/rap albums of all time. For whatever reason, it inspired me to come up with my own.
I usually try to avoid ‘Top (fill in the blank)’ lists. For one thing, I’m usually at a lack for words to defend my choices other than to say "I just dig it". I’m not the best debater, and when it comes to my own personal tastes, I have little interest in trying to be. As the saying goes, I may not know art, but I know what I like. I’ve tried to select LPs where I’ve tended to listen to them all the way through, or at least 90%. I’ve also tried to keep things to one LP per artist, wherever possible, though a few double-entries may have slipped through. I’ve also put a specific time frame on the entries. Hip-hop’s ‘golden age’ varies from person to person. For my purposes, I’d place it from roughly ’84 to ’94, as my own tastes in hip-hop were pretty much cemented by ’95 came around. Sure enough, there have been albums and artists I’ve enjoyed since then- Jay Z, Nas, DMX, and Eminem come to mind—but for whatever it’s worth, I feel that this earlier stuff clearly helped set the foundation for the rap to come from ’95 – 2005.
This was the cassette-in-a-boombox-or-Walkman era, so tapes were the default way that most people my age tended to listen to music, unless you were a neighborhood DJ of some kind. At the time, I had a small but functional boombox, and by my senior year in high school had a double-cassette deck stereo. I didn’t have the money to just buy LP tapes on a whim, though—most often, I tried to get copies dubbed from friends or my cousin Scott in Detroit, who was usually up on newer stuff before I was. I spent most of my summers up there, while my school years were in Gary, IN- about as far from New York or L.A. as you could get, and almost totally off the radar as far as hip-hop concerts were concerned. We just didn’t have the promoters, and for the most part, the venues- the much-vaunted Genesis Convention Center, which opened in 1980, was regularly criticized for bad acoustics; in years to come, a local rental hall, McBride’s, seemed to be the main/only hip-hop dance event in town.
So here they are, in semi-alphabetical order. In the years since these records have come out, I’ve moved on from cassette copies to CD copies. Who knows what’s next, but I’m hoping it’s not expensive.
Addendum: All of these albums, especially the original studio LPs, need to be re-released as deluxe editions. Unfortunately, most of the major record labels have not yet seen fit to treat their hip-hop catalogs with as much respect as their backlog of recordings for various other genres (pop, jazz, rock & roll, etc.). I'm convinced that plenty of the higher-ups at these labels just don't care about their older rap catalog. Another concern is that when much of this material was first released, sampling laws were not as clear as they are now-- The labels are scared silly at the notion of any retroactive lawsuits pertaining to any uncleared samples, so classic albums are allowed to languish out of print (or at best, the original unrevised album may remain, while a bevy of potential bonus material, i.e., 12-inch alternate takes, remixes, live tracks, remains uncollected).
Criminal Minded- KRS One’s (and Scott La Rock’s) first classic LP. I wasn’t aware of the group when they first came out, though. Its exact release date escapes me-- I guess it had to come out in late ’86 or early ’87. I remember being up in Detroit for Christmas vacation, and Scott was like "There’s this rap group with a guy with my name!" I don’t think he had their tape yet, though. They weren’t really on the radio near us, unless it was one of those ‘late night weekend mix’ shows. I have a dim memory of seeing a Criminal Minded poster in a record store, but I don’t think it was until the summer of ’88, when By All Means Necessary came out (I can remember a radio jock misidentifying "Stop the Violence" as being an Ice-T cut), when I really got hip to BDP. Of course, by this time, Scott LaRock had been killed, but the fact that the two lead guys were named Kris and Scott had become a source of pride for me and Scott, and we informally adopted their stage names. The LP became notoriously hard to find after a while, and I didn’t get around to copping my own cassette copy until ’91, when Sugarhill Records (!) somehow picked up the catalog rights. I’ve since bought maybe two or three CD copies (including when one got stolen), including the instrumental version of the LP. Traffic Records has the catalog rights now- there’s a double-disc version with the vocal and instrumental versions together, and there’s a Best of B-Boy Records version which has the original LP plus the now-obscure 12" singles that preceded it.