You want to start an argument amongst your friends? Do you want to stir things up in the community? Ask a group of people between the ages of 20 – 50 what are the top 10 best hip hop albums of all time? It’s equivalent to asking a mother to name her favorite child or which toe or finger you could do without.
You are bound to start a long passionate argument. It can turn from being a joyful discussion to a full-fledged fist fight! What album set the tone for everything that was to come afterwards? You must not only consider the MC, but the producers or the production value of the album as well.
Whether you’re brand new to vinyl, or you’ve been spinning records since television was in black and white, here’s my list for the best classic hip hop vinyl records that everyone must own.
So, without further ado, let’s start with #10.
10. Enter The Wu-Tang by Wu-Tang
Release Date: November 9, 1993
Main production by RZA
aka the Justice League of Hip-hop
- Protect Ya Neck
- Method Man
- Can it Be So Simple
Who can go up against the likes of Raekwon, Method Man, RZA, ol Dirty Bastard, Ghostface Killa, Inspectah Deck? It would most certainly take the likes of Superman and the Incredible Hulk to battle these MCs.
What set this team apart from others was their mixture soul sonic sounds produced by RZA, the shaolin concept and the esoteric 5% dialogue interludes between the joints.
Each MC brought their own style and swagger to each slug. From the Method Man’s smooth swift verbal kicks to ODB almost suicidal rants. The prime example was C.R.E.A.M(Cash rules everything around me), which was the quintessential verbal haymaker. The sample by the Charmels, “As long as I’ve Got You” helped create a haunting melodic tale of life as young man in the New York projects.
36 chambers had things poppin’.
9. 3 Feet High and Rising by De la Soul
Release Date: March 14, 1984
Main production by Prince Paul and De la Soul
- Me, Myself and I
- Magic Number
- Pot Holes in My Lawn
De la may have invented the comedic interludes for hip hop albums during the late 80s, early 90s. Interludes such as “Cool Breeze on the Rocks” and “A Little Soap” were creative, inventive and hilarious. Not only were they quirky skits between song, but it conceptualized the entire album.
The interludes set the album as a sort of hip hop game show. Posdenous, Dove and Maseo are the eclectic trio that make up De la Soul with the help of silent partner Prince Paul. You want to talk about innovative sonic sounds and sampling?
This group sampled everyone from Led Zepplin, The Fatback Band, James Brown and Eddie Murphy on one song! While Wu-tang represented the dirty grimy streets of New York, De La Soul was the direct opposite. They brought a light, suburban and almost goofy persona to the hip hop scene. They broke the mold.
The production quality was extraordinary for a debut album. From the album artwork to classic songs, “Me, myself and I”, “Buddy” to “The Magic Number” 3 Feet high and Rising was indeed a game changer.
8. Ready To Die by The Notorious B.I.G.
Release date September 13, 1994
Main production by Bluez Brothers, Sean “Puffy” Combs, Easy Mo Bee, DJ Premier
- Big Poppa
- Ready to Die
If there was ever a cinematic album, this was it. Ready To Die was the highly anticipated debut of one Christopher Wallace.
This was almost like an action, shoot-em-up hustla flick. The Notorious B.I.G, aka Biggie Smalls, was an incredible lyricist. In 1995, Ready to Die reached platinum status and eventually reached quadruple platinum. The singles range from the braggadocio lyrics of “Big Poppa” to the depressed and suicidal fantasy of the aptly titled “Suicidal Thoughts.”
The mesmerizing idea of a midnight phone conversation with Sean Combs is intense. A similar ode is on another single titled “Everyday Struggle”. Biggie raps “I don’t want to living no more, sometimes I here death knocking at my front door… everyday is a struggle”. The album’s big hit was “Juicy”. Using the legendary James Mtume R&B hit “Juicy Fruit” as its melodic foundation, Biggie raps over the funky beat like heavyweight champion.
“It was all a dream, I used to read Word Up! Magazine,” was it’s opening lyric and it just swelled into a tremendous hip hop classic from there. Ready to Die was an opus to the ghetto Horatio Alger.
A rags to riches tale that detailed the life of rats and roaches, drug dealin to finally ballin like a big time rapper.
Oh wait, he was a big time rapper.
7. It Takes a Nation of Millions…by Public Enemy
Released June 28th 1988
Main production by Chuck D, Rick Rubin and the Bomb Squad
- Rebel without a Pause
- Don’t Believe the Hype
- Bring the Noise
- Night of the Living Basehead
- Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos
The summer was hot and so was PE. Let me tell you something when I first heard the sophomore album from PE it literally confused my senses. I did not know what I was listening to. I didn’t know if it was music, heavy metal…or just noise.
The tag team of Chuck D and court jester Flava Flav was a unique mix. DJ Terminator X on the wheels of steel was a bombastic explosion of sound! The production team of Rick Rubin and the Bomb Squad created a sonic boom in hip hop! The album sounded like a riot was going on for 46 minutes and 44 seconds.
The music scene had never heard such barrage of noise since the likes of James Brown. The music landscape was turned on its rhythmic ear. Chuck D’s commanding baritone voice combined with the pulsating industrial sounds crafted by the Bomb Squad was lightning in a bottle. The group’s persona of black nationalism, political rhetoric and rhyme lyrics kept its fanbase on edge and created a global phenomenon.
6. AtLiens by Outkast
Release date August 27th 1996
Main production by Organized Noize and Outkast
- Jazzy Belle
- Wheelz of Steel
- Dope Boyz
I’ll get right to the point. This is my favorite album on the list. The production quality on this album was fantastic, from the strings and percussions to the syncopated drum beats.
The production team, Organized Noize, crafted a masterpiece. ATLiens debuted at number two on the US Billboard 200 chart. It eventually went on to reach double platinum in November of 1996. And let’s not forget the comic book like album cover making the duo like the new Batman and Robin.
The dirty south got something to say was the mantra. Big Boi and Andre 3000 painted a rhythmic and poetic tapestry of their life hustling in the ATL i.e. Atlanta, Georgia. And as Big Boi points out early in the cut “Elevators” they were ‘cooler than a polar bear’s toenails.’
What is interesting about this duo is that well as they rap together they are completely different individuals in appearance and rhyme flow. Big Boi is the quintessential southern b-boy hustler, while Andre 3000 plays the eclectic, p-funk…genie. The most poignant cut on the album is “Jazzy Belle” as it warns a young girl about being too promiscuous and getting caught up in the life of a groupie.
AtLiens has loads of gems can stand the test of time.
5. Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest
Release September 24th 1994
Main production by Q-tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Phife Dawg
- Check the Rhyme
- Buggin Out
Another sophomore album makes the list. A Tribe Called Quest as a group is a classic example of being “in the pocket.” Ali and Q-Tip fit together like a hand in glove when it comes to crafting the sound that is A Tribe called Quest.
Q-tip became legendary for his ability to “dig in the crates,” meaning his ability to dig into the milk crates of albums from all genres and time periods to find the most innocuous sounds from little known artist and albums and turning them into the “tribe sound.”
There is no other rap group that would sample such legendary jazz artists like Art Blakley, Lonnie Smith or Cannonball Adderly. The Low End Theory was a study in the art of sonic/jazz fusion hip hop. From the horns in “Check the Rhyme”, the upright bass on “Excursions” to the jingle beats on “Butter”, the Low End Theory personifies the native tongue experience and the jazzy street of hip-hop all in one fell swoop. The album reshaped the thinking of hip hop. It defined game changer. It was an alternative sound for hip hop that still gave the flavor in your ear.
4. Criminal Minded by Boogie Down Production
Released March 3rd 1987
Main production by Scott La Rock, KRS-One, Ced-Gee
- South Bronx
- The Bridge is Over
- Criminal Minded
In 1987, Criminal Minded was a game changer, because it was one of the first gangsta rap albums. The album was also one of the first albums to sample dancehall reggae, rock music (AC/DC) and was heavily influenced by soul man James Brown.
There is a long story behind this album from Scott La Rock’s death proceeding the album release to KRS-One re-introducing himself with a new collective on a new label. In turn this album became difficult to find and was in and out of print for several years.
So, if you can get your hands on this one, you official have a rare treasure!
3. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill by Lauryn Hill
Release date August 28th 1998
Main production by Lauryn Hill, Che Guevara and Vada Nobles
- Doo Wop (That Thing)
- Everything is Everything
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was a breathe of fresh air never before heard of at the time of its debut in 1998. The debut and only studio album by Lauryn Hill became a gold standard in hip- hop music.
Some may have categorized this album as neo-soul or alternative R&B.
But no, this is a hip-hop album.
It debuted at number one, selling over 420,000 copies in its first week, which broke a record for first week sales for a female artist. Her single “Doo Wop” was the first #1 single by a female rapper that would not be challenged for almost 20 years!
Miseducation has a host of musical offerings. Not only is Lauryn Hill a deft rapper, but she holds a beautiful singing voice. She was a triple threat on one album being rapper, singer and producer.
The album also had clever interludes that could be a piece on its own. As the album was conceptualized around what sounds like a high school classroom setting with the teacher engaging the students on topics about love, life and responsibility.
And speaking of responsibility, “Doo Wop” was just about that thing, that thing. “Girls you know you better watch out/some guys are only about/that thing.”
Again an ode to sexual promiscuity. The entire album was a fantastic mixture of dancehall reggae, R&B soul and hip-hop beats. What stood out on the album was the live instrumentation and very few samples, which is a staple of the genre. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill has gone on to have sold over 27 million copies.
2. Illmatic by Nas
Release date April 19th 1994
Main production by DJ Premier, L.E.S, Pete Rock, Large Professor, Q-tip
- It Ain’t Hard to Tell
- NY State of Mind
Sleep is the cousin of death. A master wordsmith was born.
The debut album of young Nasir Jones was highly anticipated due to the young Queensbridge resident’s cameo appearance on “Live at the BBQ.” His cameo was on the Breaking Atoms album by The Main Source.
Nas rushed the mic with the lyrical nuclear bomb “Streets’s disciple, my raps are trifle, I shoot slugs from the brain just like a rifle. Stampede the stage, I leave the microphone split, play Mr Tuffy while on some Pretty Tone ****.”
But wait, Nas wasn’t done. He then pulled another pin.
“Verbal assassin, my architect pleases, When I was 12, I went to hell for snuffin Jesus”.
That type of bravado was never heard on wax before by such a young MC! The verbal dexterity and visual images he created was unparalleled. And Illmatic proved to be a continuation of that.
The bravado of the then 20 year old became legendary instantly. Illmatic painted a graphic picture of life in the Queensbridge projects, and also left listeners in a New York state of mind.
1) The Chronic by Dr. Dre
Released date December 15th 1992
Main production by Dr. Dre
- Nuthin But a G Thang
- Dre Day
- Let Me Ride
Misogynistic, violent and enthralling. As offensive as it seems, it was equally masterful. The Chronic was all that and then some.
The album epitomized west coast gangsta rap. However, what Dre was able to do was raise the level of musical production, too. He simply created a musical cinemascape.
Hittin switches, helicopters hovering over, gunshots and body bags. The Chronic is an action/horror flick for the eardrums. Laced with p-funk and converted to g-funk, Dre put it down for the nine-two.
The album’s narrative of block parties, street hustling and just surviving on the infamous streets of Compton, was over smoothed out beats, crumpling piano keys that was made for bumpin in your ride. The Chronic sold over more the 5.7 million copies in the US only.
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