Though rap music has traditionally been a singles-driven medium, there are plenty of great albums to choose from as well, enough that you would be hard-pressed to condense the best of them to a top 20 list. During hip hop’s golden age (1986-92) about ten drop-dead dope records were released every year. Maybe a top 50 list would be more appropriate—after all, as the jazz critic Gary Giddins recently noted in the New Yorker, rap has been around longer than swing ever was. With so many great discs, some were bound to fall though the cracks; it would take too long to list all the classics, so here are ten full-length records worth reconsidering.
Long Live the Kane, Big Daddy Kane. (1988)
A rap pro, do a show, good to go, also
Cameo afro, Virgo, domino, I go Rambo
Gigolo, Romeo, Friday night spend money on a ho-tel,
To get a good night’s sleep I’m keeping in step
Now do I come off?
Strictly Business, EPMD. (1988)
EPMD’s debut was a popular record when
it was first released. Like Kane’s first album it is just ten
tracks deep, but they are all slamming. EPMD brought the funk
sound to hip hop years before Dr. Dre; this record still holds up, and
it’s sure to get your head nodding. Plus, I’ve always been a
sucker for Erick Sermon’s mush mouthed rhymes. This one is about
as good as it gets.
Done by the Forces of Nature, The Jungle Brothers. (1989)
How do you follow perfection? The Jungle Brothers’ first record Straight Out the Jungle had a simple, straight forward production style that combined classic break beats with soulful samples. Lyrically, they were socially conscious, playful, seductive and funny. Their second record picks up where the first left off. Sonically it is more dense; however, it isn’t busy for its own sake, but thoroughly musical. This is one of those records that made you think, but also encouraged you to dance! (What a concept.) Though it may sound dated to a younger listener, I think this is beautifully representative of its time.
Mecca and the Soul Brother, Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth. (1992)
Coming off their EP All Souled Out and Pete Rock’s burgeoning career as a remix producer, the album was one of the most highly-anticipated records of 1991-92, and it did not disappoint. Rock’s production is seeped in soul-jazz records; these tracks are layered with the horn riffs and vibe samples that became his trademark sound, and from a production viewpoint this album is considered one of the greatest hip hop records of all time. C.L. Smooth is a decent MC, and doesn’t detract from the album’s strength. An undeniable classic.
Daily Operation, Gangstarr. (1992)
Critically slept-on when it was released, Gangstarr’s third album was popular with hip hop’s burgeoning underground audience. It features Guru, an MC with a gravelly, monotone delivery, at his very best, mixing a hard-nosed street style with political awareness. The production by DJ Premier features a lot of sampling of jazz and soul records, but the result isn’t nearly as warm as Pete Rock’s sound. Instead, it is far more abrasive and rough. Premier is from Texas and Guru was raised in Boston, but they both ended up in Brooklyn and for what it’s worth, they are able to capture the sensibility of the borough perfectly in this record.
Sex and Violence, Boogie Down Productions. (1992)
This was the last record KRS-ONE did as BDP. It is probably the most slept-on BDP album as well. But it’s a great New York record, ideally listened to on your Walkman as you troop throughout the city—any city. It features KRS-ONE at his best: didactic, enlightening, contradictory, and vicious. He may call himself “the teacher,” but first and foremost, he’s a battle MC. Infused with a Jamaican vibe, the beats by Pal Joey, Prince Paul, and Kenny Parker are bumping. Sure to snap your neck.
Stress: The Extinction Agenda, Organized Konfusion. (1993)
This dark and powerful record is the second joint by Organized Konfusion. The sound is often sinister and murky, but it has a warmth and spirituality too. Lyrically, Pharoahe Monch and Prince Po helped innovate an abstract, tongue-twisting rhyme style. But they aren’t just complicated to show off, and they aren’t merely being clever; their rhymes are soulful and agonizing. This record of barely controlled aggression is as emotional as it is cerebral. Before Nas wrote a rhyme from the point-of-view of a bullet in “I Gave You Power,” Organized did it here with “Stray Bullet.”
Coast II Coast, Tha Alkaholiks. (1995)
Another popular underground record that never received the attention it deserved. But when your name is “Tha Alkaholiks”—eventually shortened to “Tha Liks”—you have to know you’re limiting your audience. Musically, the album is dense and funky (E-Swift handles the production with some outside assistance from Diamond D and Madlib), and Tha Alkaholiks are without an ounce of pretense. Incorrigibly adolescent, they rhyme almost strictly about getting drunk, getting high, chasing girls, rocking the mic and battling anyone who is wack. Here’s a good bit from “Bottoms Up:”
I rock loaded, I never get promoted
But through the bullshit my crew stays devoted
While you be bustin lyrics bout the guns y’all niggaz toted
I’ll be standin like a b-boy with both arms folded
And one from “The Nexxt Level:”
Sendin’ kids back to the lab for more practice
The only way they’d win, if we battled to see who’s the wackest
Ten years later, still a hip-hop slave
A prehistoric b-boy making beats in my cave
Tha Alkaholiks were a throwback before it became chic. For a good ol’ vulgar time, look no further.
The Best Part, J-Live. (1988)
The long-awaited debut record from J-Live was bootlegged before it was ever officially released. “Braggin Writes” was an underground smash single for Live cut in 1995, while he was still a student at SUNY Albany. His first full-length album boasts production from such heavyweights as Prince Paul, Pete Rock, DJ Premier and DJ Spinna. There is a running skit throughout the record where people on the street are asked, “What does it take to be a great MC?” Live tackles the question seriously. Each track on the record can be seen as a challenge for a rapper: Write a song with a dope hook, one without a hook, a love song, a battle rhyme, a narrative, etc. There is a self-consciousness about the album, but that isn’t a detriment. Live doesn’t have a commanding voice, but he’s amazingly agile and clever, and his lyrics grow on you with every listen. He’s the kind of talent who brings to mind Plug One’s line from Stakes is High: “So when I ran a phrase in June you didn’t catch it ‘til December.” J-Live is the gift that keeps giving.
The Unseen, Quasimoto. (2000)
Brought to you by Madlib, one of the most prolific producers on the underground scene, who has recently enjoyed great success with MF Doom on their collaborative record Madvillian, The Unseen was made as a personal mix tape and never intended to be released commercially. But when Peanut Butter Wolf heard it, he knew it would find an audience. Quasimoto is a helium-voiced rapper, and Madlib’s alter-ego of sorts (Madlib is Quasimoto, speeded up.) This album is replete with rare soul-jazz records, dusty drum sounds made by the SP-1200 drum machine, and sampling. It is a head record, an insular, personal effort best experienced with headphones. The high-pitched voice of Lord Quas may put some people off. I found that it becomes infectious after a few sessions, but Stones Throw also released an instrumental version of the album which is a good alternative. This music is good enough even without the rhymes.