The 1980s was an immensely fertile time for hip hop. With prototypical hip hop gaining traction in the late ‘70s, hip hop’s popularity would reach boomboxes worldwide by the mid-80s. An entire generation of people wanted to make a name for themselves during this significant period where a brand new genre of music was being birthed.
While we can’t name every person who contributed to the genesis of hip hop, we’ve compiled a list of some of the best 80s hip hop artists whose legacies have stood the test of time.
GrandMaster Flash and the Furious Five
Formed in the Bronx, New York in 1976, GrandMaster Flash and the Furious Five is considered one of the first rap acts to go mainstream. The group, known for its high energy, flamboyant style, and revolutionary use of turntables, rode off the funk of the late ‘70s ushering a brand new style of music known as hip hop.
The group helped solidify the art of DJing as a legitimate art form, even if it meant a couple of your mom’s favorite vinyl got scratched up in the process. This menial sacrifice was all in the name of progress. The group is most remembered for their 1982 track “The Message,” off of their 1982 debut album of the same name. The track depicts the harsh conditions and realities of urban black life.
The group often delivered consciously crafted messages for a generation severely impacted by the rising use of hard drugs. Their 1983 track “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” is the most prominent example of a track urging the public to steer clear from cocaine, and later on crack. The group is widely considered a driving force for the conscious rap movement.
In 2007, the group was inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the first rap group to do so. The group is considered to be one of the greatest acts of all time.
Born in Newark, New Jersey, Queen Latifah began her musical career in 1988, beatboxing in the rap group Ladies Fresh. Queen Latifah could be considered as the Big Sister of hip hop from the way she served as the 5 foot 10 tough and gruff protector of the feminine in the rap sphere. Her most well-known track “U.N.I.T.Y,” off her third album Black Reign is considered to be a hip-hop feminist anthem.
The empowering track greatly served as a response to the rising trend of referring to women as b****** and h*** in rap music. Latifah’s delivery presents a rapper who’s suave confidence in their abilities as a rapper and a woman trampled over much of her competition.
Today, Latifah is probably better known to the younger generation for her successful acting career. Making her first television appearance on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in 1991, Latifah went on to star in her show Living Single, which went on for five seasons.
Rakim & Eric B
Eric B & Rakim are regarded as the quintessential DJ/Emcee relationship in hip hop culture. The two began their partnership in 1985. Their first single, “Eric B is the President” was released on indie record label Zakia. Soon after, larger label 4th & Broadway Records discovered the duo and helped them release their first full-length project Paid in Full in 1987.
The two, considered to be pioneers for new school hip hop, experimented frequently with the use of samples in their music to help elevate their rhymes as well as their popularity. The duo never received conventional mainstream success, although they were extremely popular in the underground rap scene.
The duo released their final collaborative effort Don’t Sweat the Technique in 1992, disbanding the following year after some personal disagreements. In 2016, Eric B announced on his Twitter page that the duo would reunite and perform for their first world tour in over 23 years.
Roxanne Shante, birth name Lolita Shanté Gooden, was raised in Queensbridge, New York. Talented from a young age, her mother entered her in her first rap competition at just 10 years old. Shante won this competition and walked away with a $50 cash prize.
Just a young teenager when she began gaining popularity, Roxanne Shante’s ability to freestyle far surpassed the ability of many of her counterparts in a space dominated by men much older than her. She had a god-given ability that made her one of the best female rappers of the 80s Roxanne found herself in the center of a hip-hop rivalry now known as the Roxanne Wars.
In this battle were two Roxannes, Roxanne Shante, and The Real Roxanne. Many say that this rap battle has the most answer records in hip hop history. After gaining fame from these rap wars, Roxanne went on to release two albums through Cold Chillin’ Records, Bad Sister (1989), and The B**** is Back (1992). In 2017, Roxanne had a biopic film Roxanne Roxanne premiered at Sundance Film Festival which dramatized her early beginnings and tumultuous adolescence in the 1980s.
If you enjoy Roxanne Shante, and hip-hop and rap in general, check out my video review of the Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap below.
Salt-n-Pepa is a pioneering rap duo of the ’80s. The duo’s members didn’t originally see themselves taking a rap career seriously. Both members were telephone sales girls when they began their careers, and even had plans of attending college. Unconcerned with the feminists who thought that hip hops portrayal of women was too hypersexualized, Salt-n-Pepa had no issue talking about love and sex openly in their music. In clothing that was scantily clad, the duo was unashamed to show off their bodies and talk about how much they love men.
With this approach to their music, the duo would explode in popularity, creating iconic hits such as “I’ll Take Your Man,” and “Let’s Talk About Sex.” The video to their 1986 hit “Push It” is almost emblematic of 80’s hip hop, with scenes of a bumpin’ live performance, it captures the fire and fun of the golden age of rap. In 1989, the duo was nominated for the first-ever Rap Grammy, however, they refused to attend the ceremony when it was discovered that their category would not be televised. The duo remains active today, currently having performances lined up for May of 2022 in Las Vegas, Houston, and Kansas City.
The Clown Prince of hip hop Biz Markie began his career performing at nightclubs around New York City and the DMV area. Biz Markie was an exceptional beatboxer, and a welcomed comedic relief in the game when hip hop was dominated by the violent and profane lyrics of gangsta rap.
A big, goofy guy, Biz Markie had no issue being the butt of many jokes. His single “Just a Friend” off his 1989 album would cement Biz’s place as rap’s class clown. The track has frequently been called one of the best songs of the 1980s. Biz had rhymes that took their time but still had delivered raps that people could listen to or jam out to.
Having a successful music career throughout the 90s and early 2000s, Biz eventually became interested in pursuing television and acting. His most notable role is playing an alien parody of himself in the 2002 film Men in Black II. Successful and relevant all the way through the 2000’s Biz, unfortunately, passed away in 2021 from health complications.
Although not a rapper, DJ Spinderella was an integral component of female rap duo Salt-N-Pepa in the ’80s. Born Deidra Roper, she was introduced to Salt-n-Pepa producer Herbie “LuvBug ” Azor just before the group was due to appear at the Westchester Music Festival in 1986.
Salt-n-Pepa’s original DJ, Latoya Hanson had become flaky, and the group needed a replacement. Just sixteen at the time she joined the duo, DJ Spinderella was proof that girls can dominate in rap just as well as men could. Her finesse with the turntable would not only elevate Salt-n-Pepa but would cement her own individual legacy as one of the best DJs of the 80s.
In 1988, She got a shoutout track from her group mates on the track “Spinderella’s Not A Fella (But A Girl DJ)”. Remaining a part of Salt-N-Pepa for almost three decades, DJ Spinderella announced on her Instagram that she had been “terminated” from Salt-N-Pepa in January 2019.
Migrating from South London to the Baychester area of the Bronx in the late 70s, Slick Rick attended the prestigious Laguardia Arts High School in New York City where he majored in visual art. During his time here, he met fellow rapper, Dana Dane. They joined forces to create the Kangol Crew and began performing in hip-hop battles around NYC.
Rick went solo and released his first solo album The Great Adventures of Slick Rick in 1988. The album was monumental, hitting No.1. on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop charts. The album was one of the first hip-hop records to go platinum. Unafraid to sport bright flashy colors that would be considered too feminine in a time where a rough and tough exterior was commonplace for rappers, Slick Rick is cited to be one of the most prominent fashion icons of the golden age of hip hop.
Further exploring the fashion sphere after his final album in 1998, Slick Rick became one of the first rappers to successfully bring high fashion and streetwear to a middle ground. In 2020, Rick returned to the rap game, having a feature on Westside Gunn’s album Who Made the Sunshine on his track “Goodnight.”
Sparky D, born Doreen Broadnax, was raised in Brownsville, Brooklyn. In 1984, when Sparky was 19 she was dating rapper and producer Spyder D. The two rappers collaborated and Sparky made a cameo on her boyfriend’s track “Placing the Beat.” Less than a year later Sparky would release her first solo track “Sparky’s Turn (Roxanne You’re Through).”
This was one of the first response records to the infamous Roxanne Wars of the mid-’80s, and the first one to directly call out Roxanne Shante. Sparky D and Roxanne Shanté would eventually join forces for the 1985 EP Round 1. The rapper had a similar appeal to Roxanne Shante in that Sparky was also a young female hip hop artist that could rap circles around her male contemporaries. After the success and publicity of the rap wars, Sparky would release her debut album This Is Sparky-D’s World in 1988.
Sparky D cites MC Sha Rock as a leading light and mentor in her journey as a rapper, consistently singing her praises in interviews and appearances. Currently inactive in her rap career, citing the hip hop lifestyle as detrimental and toxic to her spirit, Sparky had a brief gospel career in the early 2000s, receiving the 2007 Gospel Choice Awards, for the song “This is for the Church.”
Hailing from Brooklyn, New York, Special Ed came to popularity during hip hop’s golden era in the mid-1980s. As a teenager, he began to collaborate with neighbor and fellow rapper Howie Tee. Together they released Ed’s first demo tape. In 1989, he released his debut album Youngest in Charge.
The album went on to chart on the Billboard 200, breaking the top 10 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Album chart. Off his successful album is the chart-topping hit “I Got It Made.” Known for his cocky, slick delivery, Special Ed would prove that his popularity with the ladies and within hip hop was no fluke.
His legacy is still felt today, with rap queen Nicki Minaj giving him a well-deserved shout-out on her track “Barbie Dreams,” affirming his place as one of the Best Male Rappers of the 80s. Since his last album Still Got It Made in 2004, Special Ed has since, according to his Linkedin, created a media company called SEMEDIA which he operates out of Fort Mill, South Carolina.
Iconic rapper and DJ MC Lyte is widely considered to be a pioneering force for female 80s hip hop artists. With her smooth, soulful voice, you can sense that MC Lyte wanted to be a voice of inspiration for her peers and her generation.
In 1987, at 16 years old, MC Lyte released her debut track “I Cram to Understand U (Sam),” about drug addiction’s impact on personal relationships. MC Lyte had a desire to be more than just a pretty face in hip hop. The prolific rapper often displayed an intelligence, emotionality, and gruffness in her delivery that combined well with her feminine nature.
She often raps about demanding respect from her romantic interests, as well as the world at large. She released her debut album, Lyte as a Rock through Atlantic Records. Her leading single of the same name off this album followed the trend of hyping yourself up as to assert your dominance among your competition, male or female.
Run-DMC, made of members Joseph “Run” Simmons, Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell, and Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels formed the group in their hometown of Hollis, Queens in the early ‘80s. Run DMC is considered to be one of the most influential acts in hip hop history. In 1983, Run-D.M.C. released their first singles, “It’s Like That” and “Sucker M.C.’s,” through Profile Records.
The following year the group released their debut album Run-DMC, which went on to achieve a Gold record. Sporting huge gold chains, Adidas tracksuits and sneakers, the rap group would become fashion icons and come to define a landmark moment in rap history, ushering in the age of “New School” hip hop.
Everybody and their cousin tried desperately to emulate the effortlessly cool look of the legendary rap group, hoping to maybe replicate the same success with their own musical pursuits. Run-DMC is the first rap act to have reached many major accomplishments.
Of their accomplishments includes being the first hip hop act to make a video appearance on MTV, the first hip hop act to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone, one of the first hip hop’s acts to receive a Grammy Award nomination, and the first hip hop act with a Top 10 pop charting rap album.
The group has had quite a prolific career, still having occasional reunions since 2012 despite losing member Jam Master Jay to gun violence in 2002. In 2016, the group received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award for their significant contributions to hip hop.
Easy E was a west coast rapper who co-founded the group NWA with peers Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. A high school dropout, Easy E worked as a drug dealer for some time. Using his income, he created the label Ruthless Records with music manager Jerry Heller. While still active in NWA., Easy E was releasing music as a solo artist.
Known for his incomparably aggressive, raunchy delivery, and unique voice that made him easily recognizable and distinct on the radio, Easy E was heavily influenced by the artists of the transitional period of late 70s funk to prototypical hip hop. He released his debut studio album Eazy-Duz-It in 1988. The album was widely ignored by the mainstream, although the Los Angeles underground rap scene held it in high regard.
This would be his only album release while alive, as Easy E, unfortunately, passed away in 1995 due to AIDS-induced pneumonia. Ten months after his death, his label Ruthless Records posthumously released Easy E’s second and final studio album Str8 off tha Streetz of Muthaphukkin Compton. This album solidified his image in history as The hardcore rapper of the 80s. His story is depicted in the F. Gary Gray directed film Straight Outta Compton, the 2015 biopic about NWA.
Monie Love is a rapper originally from the UK who has lived in New York since 1989. At the time, she was one of the few hip-hop artists from overseas to achieve recognition in America. First rising to prominence as a protégé of Queen Latifah, she got her start in rap as a member of the alternative hip hop collective Native Tongues.
She made her first musical appearances in the late 1980s on Queen Latifah’s Grammy Award-winning, pro-woman single “Ladies First,” Proving that her raps were on par with excellence, like her rap godmother Queen Latifah raised her up to be, she went on to record solo hits such as “I Can Do This,” which became a UK Top 40 hit in early 1989.
Craving to explore other creative avenues, Love began her radio hosting career in 2004 on Philadelphia’s WPHI-FM 100.3. Here, she hosted the morning show for over two years. She currently has a radio show on XM Satellite Radio called Ladies First Radio with Monie Love and hosts Monie in the Morning on Philadelphia radio station Boom 107.9.
Big Daddy Kane
Big Daddy Kane began his career in 1986 as a member of the Juice Crew. Two years earlier, he had befriended Biz Markie, the two going on to co-write some of Biz’s best-known raps. Sporting superhuman breath control, Big Daddy Kane slayed faster-paced beats, showing that rapping should be treated like a sport that requires an Olympic level of mental and physical stamina.
In 1987, Kane signed to Cold Chillin’ Records and debuted his single “Raw”, which was an underground hit. He released his debut studio album Long Live the Kane in 1988. The album featured the hit “Ain’t No Half Steppin.”
A year later, he delivered his chart-topping sophomore album It’s a Big Daddy Thing. Singles “Smooth Operator” and “I Get The Job Done” were among the most popular tracks off the album. Kane continued to release albums through the ‘90s, even taking some time to explore acting. He made his film debut in the 1993 western Posse as Father Time.
Sha Rock got her start as a breakdancer in the Bronx. Affectionately referred to as the “Mother of the Mic,” she is considered to be a foundational artist for all female emcees. Originally a member of the rap group The Funky 4 + 1 More, the group began receiving mainstream attention just a little time before the 1980s began.
Sha Rock has never had an official album release, and very little music is available for discovery online, but her impact as a pioneering female figure of the early ages of hip hop is deeply felt through generations. The bit of music that is available by her on the internet is alongside fellow hip hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash.
The two are on the radio live in 1981, freestyling over the 1979 beat “Good Times” by Chic. Sha Rock is the recipient of many awards for her contribution to hip hop including The Women of Distinction Award from the Hip Hop Culture Center in Harlem, New York.
De La Soul
The Long Island-based rap group released their debut album 3 Feet High and Rising, in 1989 to critical acclaim. Soon after, the trio became a prominent member of the Native Tongues Posse alongside other acts such as A Tribe Called Quest and Queen Latifah. The group had a unique neo-psychedelic sound that made the group distinct from their peers.
Considered to be “alternative rap,” the group didn’t adhere to the traditional conventions of rap at the time, preaching a message of love and peace, gaining the reputation as the “hippies” of the rap game.
In 1990, the group received their first of four Grammy Award Nominations for their track “Me, Myself and I” off of their debut album. Their second album De La Soul is Dead was not as successful but remains a cult classic by the group’s fans. Those who have been fortunate enough to have a physical copy of the album remember its comic book concept with skits throughout the album that had a cartoon to accompany the audio.
The 1991 album is widely unavailable on streaming services due to too many samples that violate copyright law, but the album can be listened to on YouTube. For some time, the group struggled with labels to have the right to own their music, but in 2021 neo-soul rapper Talib Kweli revealed that the group had finally gained ownership of their music.
Heavy D, born Dwight Arrington Myers was born in Mandeville, Jamaica, moving to Mount Vernon, New York in the early 70s. He experienced the very beginnings of rap music, learning from people like the Grandmaster Flashes, and the Run DMC’s of the time.
By middle school, he was mixing his own demo tapes. In high school, he formed the group The Boyz with high-school friends DJ Eddie F, Trouble T-Roy, and G-Wiz. They created a demo tape that landed in the hands of Def Jam executive André Harrell. At the time, André was in the process of creating his music label Uptown Records and made Heavy D & The Boyz the first to sign.
Through Uptown, they released their debut album Living Large in 1987. But it would be their sophomore album Big Tyme that would propel Heavy D into the mainstream. He would quickly become a sex symbol known as “the overweight lover.” A fashion icon, Heavy D helped normalize bigger bodies, showing that people of a bigger frame can be sexy, cool, and fashionable.
Through the 90s Heavy D released three more albums, eventually exploring acting. His first film role was in the 1993 thriller comedy Who’s The Man? His final role would be in the 2011 comedy film Tower Heist alongside Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy. Heavy D passed away several days after the film’s premier from a pulmonary embolism.
Bronx-born rapper Antoinette was first introduced to the rap scene with the help of producer Hurby “Luv Bug” Azor. Much of Antoinette’s popularity is attributed to her beef with MC Lyte. Obsessed with her competition MC Lyte’s skills, she dedicated her 1989 album Who’s The Boss to dissing MC Lyte, presenting herself as fierce competition.
Her raps were delivered tough with a base in her voice that could make her competition shiver. She would often don a huge chunky gold chain in her videos and performances, a very common troupe in hip hop at the time. She released her second album Burnin’ at 20 Below in 1990 and has not had a release since then.
She released a book in 2019 titled “All That Glitters: From Attitude to Gratitude,” where she details the reasons for her departure from the rap game, hoping that the book would inspire people struggling with similar circumstances.
Rap group Public Enemy was originally formed in 1982 on the campus of Adelphi University in Long Island, New York. Founded by Chuck D, Hank Shocklee, Bill Stephney, and Flavor Flav, the group began collaborating on their college radio station. The group was widely known for bringing radical Black political ideologies to pop music.
Though not nearly as violent lyrically as their contemporaries, it should be no surprise that Public Enemy was boycotted by older suburban white audiences for their Afrocentric message meant to inspire revolution among black people. Their most famous release to date is Nation of Millions, which brought the messages of the Black Panther Party and Malcolm X back to a mainstream audience.
Releasing consistently throughout the 90s up to 2020, the group has had a revolutionary influence on hip hop that is recognized greatly in society and in politics. Their most recent album What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down?, released in 2020 was met with widespread acclaim, reaching 26 on the American Billboard charts and number 2 on the UK Hip Hop and R&B Albums Chart.
One of the few rap acts on this list not from New York City, Jersey group Sugar Hill Gang first gained fame from their 1979 hit “Rapper’s Delight” off their debut album Sugar Hill Gang. The group was assembled by music producer Sylvia Robinson, who was the founder of Sugarhill Records. The single, which went on to become a staple in the Old School Hip Hop generation, went on to become a top 40 hit, peaking at 36 on the Billboard 100.
The greatest appeal of Sugarhill Gang was the fact that they were helping to usher in a brand new style of music that many thought would only be a passing fad. Their bouncy, infectious beats got people excited for this upcoming phase in music history. To this day, many people still rock to the bang-bang boogie beat of their landmark song that helped put hip hop on the map.
The group went on to release 3 more studio albums before disbanding for the first time in 1985. They reunited together almost a decade later, releasing their final album Jump On It! in 1999. The group reunited for several world tours over the next 2 decades, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the release of “Rapper’s Delight” and the group’s formation in 2019.
Lady B began her rap career when she graduated from high school. In her post-grad life, she began hanging out at Kim Graves, Philly’s hottest nightclub at the time. During her days at the club, she befriended the late DJ, Lawrence Levan.
Her hit record “To The Beat Y’all” greatly contributed to the acceptance of women in hip-hop and opened the doors for female rappers who would come up under her. Staying true to her love of hip hop throughout her career, she became a radio show host for several stations across Philadelphia.
Considered to be a scholar of hip hop, Lady B has given many lectures on the cultural significance of hip hop. She credits female rap pioneer MC Sha Rock as a luminary, taking inspiration from her as an educator of hip hop. Lady B has received many prestigious awards such as the Philly Urban Legend Award in 2002 as a pioneer in Rap Music and is the recipient of two Lifetime Achievement Awards.
Bronx-born rapper KRS One began his rap career as one-third of the rap group Boogie Down Productions starting in 1987. After releasing over 5 projects as a member of Boogie Down Productions, KRS One ventured out on his own in 1993 with debut solo album Return of the Boom Bap.
The project released through Jive Records received generally positive reviews. KRS One is known as the rapper to introduce Jamaican Zunguzung type beats into American rap culture with tracks such as “Remix for P is Free” which he released while still a part of Boogie Down Productions.
Throughout his career spanning over 25 years, KRS One has released over a dozen hip-hop albums. Considered by his peers to be incredibly curious and spiritually intelligent, he is a pioneer of the conscious rap movement that began with Grandmaster Flash. The rapper has spoken at over 500 universities including Harvard, Yale, and many more. His 2020 project Between Da Protests was received with generally positive reviews.
NWA is widely considered one of the greatest and most influential groups in the history of hip-hop music, Its members were some of the earliest and most significant popularizers of the controversial gangsta rap sub-genre. The group received much controversy during their time for their overtly violent and misogynistic lyrics that had caucasian parents in particular worried for their children’s impressionable minds.
The group dropped their iconic album Straight Outta Compton in 1988. The group is credited with helping to bridge racial musical lines with its surprising appeal to white suburban Americans in the late 1980s. The group had 6 members, most notably Easy E, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre. After a nearly 30-year hiatus, the group reunited with surviving members on stage during the second weekend of Coachella in April 2016.
Just days before, the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Born Ramona Parker, the rapper known as Ms. Melodie first came onto the rap scene as a member of the rap collective Boogie Down Productions. Only having one solo record throughout her career, 1989’s “Diva,” she became a significant influence in the rap game, making many appearances with Boogie Down Productions.
Regarded highly for her aggressive and direct delivery, Ms. Melodie served conscious bars laced with light humor and roaring confidence that has earned her a spot as one of the best 80s hip hop artists. She was married to fellow rapper KRS One for 5 years, divorcing in 1992. Remaining low profile for the rest of her life, she, unfortunately, passed away in 2012 from an undisclosed illness.
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