Asking a hip-hop head for their top 15 best classic hip hop albums is always a fun yet frustrating task. It’s fun because, well, who doesn’t love a countdown list. It allows you to reaffirm your love for music you already enjoy, while also forcing us to reevaluate albums we may have been too quick to bypass.
And yet, it remains frustrating because there is so much great hip hop over the past few decades, it’s virtually inevitable that some great albums and artists will get passed over.
However, when we begin to discuss the best hip-hop albums to own specifically on vinyl, you begin to tread new waters. While the common hip-hop crate digger does consider a record’s significance to its genre, there are many other factors that often come into play for vinyl collectors, such as:
- The record’s significance to its genre.
- The backstory of the record.
- The sonic quality of the record.
- The packaging and presentation of the record.
- Hidden gems.
When all this criteria is considered, our list for the top 15 hip hop albums begins to shift and sway from other lists you may have seen elsewhere. So without any further delay, here is our list (in order by release date) of the 15 best classic albums in hop hop to own on vinyl.
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And without further ado, let’s begin our countdown with The Sugar Hill Gang.
1. Sugarhill Gang by The Sugarhill Gang
Released February 7th, 1980.
New Jersey conglomerate The Sugarhill Gang are widely credited as the creators of the first recorded rap single Rapper’s Delight, followed by their self-titled Sugarhill Gang LP, which is widely recognize as the first recorded rap album.
While some hip-hop historians argue that the Fatback Band’s “King Tim III,” released weeks prior, is the first recorded rap single, Rapper’s Delight indisputably introduced hip-hop to a global audience. Michael “Wonder Mike” Wright, Henry “Big Bank Hank” Jackson, and Guy “Master Gee” O’Brien were assembled by RnB singer Sylvia Robinson, who is also credited for producing “The Message” for Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.
In 1979, Robinson and her husband formed the group after founding Sugarhill Records with Morris Levy, the infamous owner of the iconic Birdland jazz club. Sugarhill Gang remains an essential hip-hop vinyl not only for its historical significance but also for its unique sonic quality. Only 7 years after Dj Kool Herc’s first block party gave birth to hip-hop, Sugarhill Gang displays rap in its original utility, to party.
While Herc would manipulate classic record players by dropping his needle in place to extend drum breaks for dancers to dance longer, the emcee was rhyming jokes and shoutouts to keep other attendees on their toes. The Sugarhill Gang gives us a peek into what these block parties in the Bronx would have sounded like, felt like. Since Herc recalls only about 80 people at his inaugural DJ set on August 13th, 1973, it’s fair to say that Sugarhill Gang is the closest that most hip-hop heads can get to witnessing the birth of hip-hop.
The original pressing only produced 3000 copies bearing a red label. Though these are extremely rare, their cost would be well worth owning a first press of what is widely regarded as the first hip-hop song ever recorded.
2. Straight Outta Compton by N.W.A.
Released August 8th, 1988.
N.W.A. began in 1987 when a 23-year-old Eric Lynn Wright bailed Andre Romelle Young out of jail. The two would later be recognized as Eazy-E and Dr. Dre. The west coast legends met when Dre’s current group leader refused to pay his bail, but a young Eazy-E knew him from his work in the World Class Wreckin’ Cru and agreed to cover his charges in exchange for his production.
The group’s official roster grew to include MC Ren, DJ Yella, and the infamous Ice Cube. The sonic quality of Straight Outta Compton doubles as testament to its cultural significance. The Compton-based group possessed sample-dense production more familiar with New York’s The Bomb Squad. However, one must remember that the genre was young, and the East Coast’s would dominate hip-hop for its formative years.
The significance of N.W.A., juxtaposed with their New York counterparts LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys, was their sheer grit. While Def Jam’s artists were still party rocking, N.W.A. was detailing gruesome and dark stories of growing up in the crack epidemic. This guerilla documentary style of rapping earned conglomerate founder Eazy-E the praise as the “godfather of gangsta rap.”
Straight Outta Compton is an essential hip-hop record for simple fact that its musical elements of remaining no holds barred and holding no bars back began to shift the culture unintentionally.
3. Fear of a Black Planet by Public Enemy
Released April 10th, 1990.
Depending on who you ask, Public Enemy is either the “East Coast N.W.A.” or N.W.A. is the “West Coast Public Enemy.” Both came on to the scene in 1987, both contained sample-heavy production, both address political issues, so what sets them apart is their approach.
While N.W.A. is more aggressive and passionate, Public Enemy present themselves as more firm and insightful, a contrast that would remain in hip-hop’s East/West divide throughout the genre’s formative years. One example of the contrast is from the two of the group’s most popular singles. “Fuck Tha Police” and “Fight The Power.”
Ice Cube speaks from his personal experience and his resentment towards a corrupt legal system while Chuck D calls out racist white icons, addresses a lack of representation, and cites other examples of systematic oppression. For years to come, the East would be widely regarded as the lyrical, introspective, superior. Public Enemy, comprised of Chuck D, Flavor Flav, and Terminator X, would be forever remembered as the fathers of conscious hip-hop.
4. The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest
Released September 24th, 1991.
Deeper establishing the early New York sound came A Tribe Called Quest. Their second studio album, The Low End Theory, is often considered their most defining work. The album refined the group’s sound that came to consist of grooving bass lines, busy drum breaks, and jazz samples.
A Tribe Called Quest blended the political world of Public Enemy with the celebratory playful party world of Sugarhill Gang. The record’s title serves as a double entendre by referencing both the lower bass frequency of music as well as the position of people of color in American society.
5. The Chronic by Dr. Dre
Released December 15th, 1992.
The years between The Chronic and Straight Outta Compton had not been kind to N.W.A. rapper/producer Dr. Dre. He had faced terrible publicity over being shot four times in his leg, totaling his car, attacking his producer and “Pump It Up” host Dee Barnes, oh, and his house burning down. The 27-year-old Dre was flat broke, former partner Eazy-E’s imprint Ruthless Records, on which Straight Outta Compton was released, was withholding his royalties.
While the city was on fire during the Rodney King riots, Dr. Dre, down on his luck, would create The Chronic an album that defined the sound of Los Angeles and would make the album the first release of his label Death Row Records, that would come to house L.A.’s most legendary rappers. The Chronic’s sound is known as G-Funk, a mix of synthesizes, catchy melodies, and inventive drums.
It was on this debut solo album that Dre would begin to deviate from hip-hop’s normative sampling practice set forth by New York pioneers. The album would feature multiple appearances from Death Row signee Snoop Doggy Dogg, who used the album as a jump-off point for his solo career. The Chronic defined the California sound and officially registered L.A. as a contender as a hip-hop hotspot.
6. Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers by Wu-Tang Clan
Released November 9th, 1993.
A monolith in rap, one of the most identifiable logos in music, and a lyrical supergroup, the Wu-Tang Clan reigns as the pride of Staten Island. The group can best be described as a collective of unique and talented emcees who had been organized by mastermind the RZA.
In a 2015 interview with DJ Vlad, Inspectah Deck told the story of how his famous verse from “Triumph” ended up on two separate songs. Deck explains that the group would stay in the same house, each taking turns writing and recording multiple verses to the same beats only to be sorted by the RZA himself.
For hip-hop heads, Wu-Tang is a go-to for bars and clever references. Deck recalls having to come with your best verse in order to compete in a group of top-tier emcees like Method Man, Ghostface Killa, Raekwon, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, U-God, Masta Killa, and GZA.
This tight-knit collaborative style would prove fruitful in the production process of classic hip-hop albums, making each artist bring the best out of themselves in order to be heard.
7. Doggystyle by Snoop Dogg
Released November 23rd, 1993.
Multi-Grammy winning and multi-platinum Compton artist Kendrick Lamar told XXL “there wouldn’t be a Kendrick Lamar without Doggystyle.” Lamar cites the cohesiveness, the skits, the melodies, as defining points of the sonic quality of Snoop’s album.
Doggystyle came less than a year after Dr. Dre’s The Chronic would be the second legendary release on Death Row Records. Snoop’s laid back flows, relaxed bars, fit perfectly into the easy-breezy California lifestyle image that people recognize Los Angeles for. After his features on The Chronic, demand for a solo album from Snoop Dogg was so high that the album had to famously mixed and mastered by Dr. Dre in under 48 hours in order to be released.
The surefire indicator of a first pressing of this vinyl is due to this rushed released. Track B6 of the dual-LP reads “Murder Was The Case (DeathAfterVisualizingEternity)” rather than “Murder Was The Case (Death After Visualizing Eternity)” corrected on later pressings according to Discogs.
8. Illmatic by Nas
Released April 19th, 1994.
Illmatic XX, the 20th anniversary re-issue of Illmatic, was named the “best new reissue” by Pitchfork. The box set is crafted from a ersatz cherry wood case, a gold CD, never before seen photographs, and a 48-page book. Born Nasir Jones, Nas is the rapper’s rapper. Though not initially selling well, the Queensbridge artist’s debut album has been credited with paving the way for Jay-Z and Notorious B.I.G. with his signature New York lyricism and exceptional story telling.
The album’s intro “The Genesis” begins with a fitting a movie quote from Wild Style where Shy Zoro, a kid from the South Bronx, is commissioned to paint a backdrop for a breakdancing concert. Illmatic includes hip-hop classics One Time 4 Your Mind, Represent, One Love, and… well, the whole album.
9. Ready To Die by Notorious B.I.G.
Released September 13th, 1994.
Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready To Die would be the second album release on Sean “Diddy” Combs’ Bad Boy Records imprint. The album’s lead single Juicy declared B.I.G., popularly known as Biggie Smalls, as a contender for king of New York and more importantly king of Hip-hop.
His debut album success stole the spotlight from Death Row Records and brought it back to New York. Last year, Vinyl Me, Please released a special splatter designed dual-LP reissue with an exclusive 12” x 12” album art print from Braulio Amado.
10. All Eyez On Me by 2Pac
Released February 13th, 1996.
The magnum opus of Tupac Shakur, stylized commonly as 2Pac, is one of only 92 albums to be certified Diamond by the RIAA. It would be only months later that 2Pac would put the East versus West beef on wax with his diss track Hit ‘Em Up released on the B-side of his single How Do U Want it. And only months later, on September 13th, 1996, would he suffer fatal wounds from a shooting on the Las Vegas strip riding passenger to label head Suge Knight.
The following year, on March 9th, Biggie Smalls would be gunned down in Los Angeles in what many believed was retaliation for the death of 2Pac. All Eyez On Me is most commonly sold as quadruple LP press but certain rare copies can be found with a golden stamp reading “Promotional Use Only” on the cover.
Though this has not been confirmed as an indicator as a first pressing, most promotional copies were sent to DJs and tastemakers before an album/single release, especially in the world of hip-hop. Considering the place that 2Pac and Biggie hold in rap culture, its common agreed that both All Eyez On Me and Ready To Die are essential albums for the hip-hop head.
11. Aquemini by Outkast
Released September 29th, 1998.
While New York and Los Angeles lost their shining stars, the south began to dominate the forefront of hip-hop with Aquemini and into the early 2000s. Outkast and their production team Organized Noize had a recording dynamic similar to Wu-Tang. But rather than switching verses in and out, the two groups would constantly build and tweak songs into perfection from their Atlanta basement.
Aquemini marks a defining moment in hip-hop where we begin to see evolved ideas and jazz elements, soulful downsouth samples and unique song structures strung together by odd skits and interludes Like a Pink Floyd of hip-hop, Outkast seemed to be the first to write albums in their entirety as one thought, rather than compiling songs together in an effective sequence.
The first pressings of Aquemini bare labels speckled in orange and yellow before being replaced by solid labels in later pressings. While the most common release is the 3-LP version, in 2005 there surfaced a bootlegged instrumental version of the album with the group’s name misspelled as Outkst.
12. Black Star by Mos Def & Talib Kweli
Released September 29th, 1998.
In the shadow of the rising south came two of New York’s most prolific emcees. Black Star, released on the same day as Aquemini, was a collaborative album that ignited the careers of both Talib Kweli and Mos Def. In line with the stigma of a conscious New York sound, the duo experimented with lyrical acrobatics that earned them regard as some of the greatest of all time.
Mos Def’s melodic bars over dusty drums gave a New York approach to the soulful sound blossoming at the time. When in conversation with purist hip-hop heads, name dropping Black Star definitely earns you a stripe. The most common pressing of the album often contains a poster of casual photos of Def and Kweli with linear notes on its backside.
13. Madvillainy by Madvillain
Released March 23rd, 2004.
In the topic of lesser-known albums praised by hip-hop heads, Madvillainy is a fan favorite. Underground gods Madlib and MF Doom paired up for the legendary Stones Throw release. The album was famously recorded at the Stones Throw house that they both stayed in but rarely saw each other. Stones Throw founder Peanut Butter Wolf detailed their process in a Netflix Documentary about the label.
Madlib would work on the second floor of the house and make beats until he couldn’t stay awake and leave the beats on the first floor, that’s around the time that Doom would wake up, after sleeping in the basement, and write and record to the beats that Madlib left for him. When Doom went to sleep, Madlib would wake up, and the cycle repeated.
Do not purchase the reissue of Madvilliany. The album never received a proper vinyl master and its official vinyl reissue has been trashed relentlessly on various vinyl blogs and forums. Your safest purchase is the Vinyl Me, Please release. *I did a review of Vinyl Me, Please recently, so feel free to read it if you’re on the fence about signing up to the monthly subscription service*
Alike the first pressing, the Vinyl Me, Please is made with a JD lacquer cut as opposed to the DS lacquer used for the reissue. The difficulty in mastering can be partially attributed to Madlib’s beats and their sonic oddities, often sounding walled or underwater on purpose.
14. Donuts by J Dilla
Released February 7th, 2006.
In the 2000s, most albums are not recorded for vinyl. As we now know from Madvillainy, modern musicians often have to jump through hoops to get their sound on wax. J Dilla was a different story. Another Stones Throw artist, Dilla is credited with ushering a new era of beat making.
Revered by icons like Kanye West and Questlove for his un-quantized drum patterns, Dilla took the boxy, machine-like nature of the MPC beat machine and turned it into an instrument by pushing its boundaries. The unique nature of Dilla’s soulful beats make his album Donuts the only instrumental album on this list.
15. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West
Released November 22nd, 2010.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, abbreviated as MBDTF, is a modern vinyl record that checks all the boxes of a great vinyl. The album was recorded in unique cycles, much like Madvillainy and Aquemini, where each creator of the album would wake up to eat breakfast with each other, play basketball, and then go do a “good deed” before returning to the studio to work until the days end.
Following the way that club hits dominated the radio in the 2000s, MBDTF ushered a new wave of artistic hip-hop at the start of the decade much like Aquemini did in 1998. Kanye’s ability to layer vocals and samples displays immense growth from his formulaic approach on prior projects like 808s & Heartbreak. Not to mention the vinyl itself is beautifully packaged. A 3-disc double gatefold sleeve with 5 separate inserts including a 24” by 24” poster of the album’s George Condo artwork.
There it is, a comprehensive list of essential hip-hop albums to own on vinyl with the opinions of both hip-hop heads and record collectors in mind. An eclectic mix of both new and old, all with significance to the world of hip-hop.
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