This week marks the 25th anniversary of Straight Outta Compton, N.W.A’s violent and powerful debut album that forever shaped the face of rap music. To mark the occasion, we’re running down 15 other albums that helped shape the genre into the ever-expanding and extremely lucrative behemoth that it is today. From its humble beginnings to its larger-than-life characters, we give you the 15 most influential rap albums.
Assorted Artists – Super Disco Brake’s (1979)
Long before anyone was laying rhymes over digital loops, “breaks,” the rhythmic foundations of rap, surfaced in the form of Super Disco Brake’s Volume 1 (and later Ultimate Breaks and Beats). The then-underground releases, shrouded in gray legality for their often unauthorized use of copyrighted material, ran full tracks from the era together seamlessly to create an extended break, the backbone and signature element for all future sounds.
The Sugarhill Gang – Rapper’s Delight (1979)
Maybe it was fate, or maybe it was the fact that “Rapper’s Delight,” the first mainstream proto-rap single to break into the Top 40 charts, was laced with rhymes written by (but never officially credited to) Grandmaster Caz of The Cold Crush, but the Sugarhill Gang never again made it as big as they did with their 1979 single. Still, the song stands as a mile marker for the budding genre, its first foray into mainstream markets.
Afrika Bambaataa – Planet Rock (1982)
No single song can sum up Afrika Bambaataa’s contribution to the early evolution of hip-hop; between solidifying the genre’s staying power by pulling its earliest talents into “supergroups” to taking the break beat stylings of turntable pioneers like Kool DJ Herc to new heights, Bambaataa has rightfully earned the designation of the Godfather of Hip-Hop. But “Planet Rock” does stand out: the splicing together of samples from across the musical spectrum (from Japanese electropop Yellow Magic Orchestra to the German Kraftwerk) and the single’s status as the first gold-certified 12-inch vinyl signaled a growing demand for the genre.
The Cold Crush Brothers – Fresh, Wild, Fly and Bold (1984)
While the song itself stands as a notable contribution to hip-hop, the story behind it and lessons learned are what really pushed “Fresh, Wild, Fly and Bold” onto this list. Set for stardom—it sold 16,000 units in its first week of release, a big fucking deal back in 1984—a distribution dispute between Tuff City and Profile Records curbed its growth prematurely and ultimately cost the Cold Crush a certified gold release. Though enterprising minds in the industry would have likely birthed the notion of setting up their own labels anyway, what happened to the Brothers in 1984 demonstrated the obvious need for new labels from within the culture to manage and protect the naïve artists of a potentially lucrative new industry.
The Jump: The First Modern Rap Album
Run-D.M.C. – RUN-D.M.C. (1984)
Run-D.M.C.’s eponymous debut marked the birth of the modern rap album; it did away with the upbeat, lighthearted funk of hip-hop’s early ’80s innovators in exchange for a sparse, almost empty sound overlaid with an emphatic, pronounced beat and cutting, raw rhymes. It stood as a leap, a departure rather than part of a seamless evolution, as though Run-D.M.C. had grown impatient waiting for hip-hop to catch up and released the album four years ahead of its time.
Run-D.M.C. – Raising Hell (1986)
Between Run-D.M.C. and Raising Hell came LL Cool J’s Radio, a resounding seconding of the minimalist aesthetic Jam Master Jay, D.M.C. and Rev. Run had achieved on their inaugural effort. It cemented the sound as the definite direction for all future followers. But it wasn’t until Raising Hell that this new-school philosophy gained widespread acclaim; the covering of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way,” surrounded by standout songs like “It’s Tricky” and “Peter Piper,” brought a whole new audience to the genre.
Beastie Boys – Licensed to Ill (1986)
But “Walk This Way” was still only one track; what the Beastie Boys did on Licensed to Ill emboldened still hesitant hip-hop listeners to adopt the genre full-time. Part rap, part rock, it meshed two worlds by creating what amounted to a mockery, a satire of both and taking it way too seriously. The fact that Ad-Rock, MCA and Mike D were all from white, Jewish, middle-class New York families probably had something to do with making the music more accessible to a new wave of would-be rap connoisseurs.
Rap as Cultural Criticism
Public Enemy – It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988)
N.W.A – Straight Outta Compton (1988)
A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory (1991)
Music has never been just an art, an entertainment source in and of itself. From the Blues to Dylan, Coltrane to Cobain, it has to one extent or another been a soapbox, a place of profound if not at times mysterious expression, documenting the times. Rap was no different; once the foundations were formed, once it got comfortable in its own skin, it became a pulpit, a vantage point for a largely disenfranchised black community. Of the most prominent preachers, three stood out: Public Enemy for their oft-militant approach (perhaps best exemplified in “Fight the Power”); N.W.A for their uncompromising and unapologetic look at the life of a gangster (a theme and a sound that would soon transcend the rap game); and A Tribe Called Quest for rhymes and rhythms every bit as complex as their hyperintelligent (but less aggressive; indeed, positive) commentary.
Departure from Sampling
Dr. Dre – The Chronic (1992)
Up until The Chronic, rap was largely dependent on sampling and up-tempo break beats borrowed (or stolen) from another record to hold any album, any song together. Dre, a veteran of N.W.A and already considered one of rap’s great pioneers, changed the game again with his first solo release. Dark, drawn-out and characterized by a slow, booming bass, The Chronic was recorded using live band “interpolations” to create the wholly unique beats and instrumentals that would come to characterize much of the next decade in West Coast rap and ultimately mark the rise of the now integral original producer.
Rise in the East
Wu-Tang Clan – Enter the Wu-Tang (1993)
Notorious B.I.G. – Ready to Die (1994)
By 1993 rap was in large part dominated by this new West Coast sound; the Souls of Mischief from Oakland, the Pharcyde from L.A. N.W.A had essentially disbanded and each member became a household name in his own right. And whispers of a solo release from then-unknown star of The Chronic, Snoop Doggy Dogg, were everywhere. So it came as a bit of a surprise when the Wu-Tang Clan, the East Coast’s answer to N.W.A, dropped Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) on everyone. It was all raw, eerie aggression, a vast departure from the laid-back (though still haunting) sounds coming out of California. RZA, GZA, Raekwon and Method Man were always cutting in, playing off each other. It was quite simply the most complex sound to come out of the rap world to date.
Then came Biggie. If Wu-Tang’s Chambers, with its distinct sound, carved out a place for the East Coast rap scene, elbowed it back into the big picture, Biggie’s Ready to Die was going to keep it there. Part street life epitaph à la N.W.A, part funky good times from way back in the day, Big Poppa aka Frank White aka Christopher Wallace took the image of a rapper from ghetto street rat to kingpin. And never did the mantra “act as if” play out more true; from here on in, MCs emerged on the scene as larger-than-life figures.
Nas – Illmatic (1994)
Jay-Z – Reasonable Doubt (1996)
With both scenes taking on distinct qualities (and the well-documented beefs that sprang from those distinctions), the only place to go was up. A competition-breeds-excellence sort of thing. And while much has been written about which coast was better, who was pushing the sound harder, the genre further, the real innovation was taking place inside a few city blocks of New York City. Illmatic was a hyperintellectual look at street life, complemented by a skill on the mic “not seen since Rakim”; Reasonable Doubt was crafted with immense care, ratcheting the level of production up to something orchestral. Together, the two opened the doors for rap to go anywhere, proving that the genre could be as complex and creative as any that had come before it.
Welcome White Boys
Eminem - The Slim Shady LP (1999)
At some point in 1999 “Forgot About Dre” started making the rounds on MTV and some white kid who talked funny and fast was featured on the hook and a verse that was equal parts perverse, violent and lyrical genius. No one knew what to make of it; he was a freak show, a kind of off-the-wall, wacky Batman villain, a pyromaniac who laced his rhymes with weird sound effects and was decidedly bent on killing his wife. He was a parent’s nightmare, a bleached-blond Marilyn Manson brainwashing the kids. And sure enough, soon every kid on the block was wearing a visor upside down and sideways with their pants hanging low, The Slim Shady LP on loop. His equally insane videos didn’t help stop the flow, and as much as some rap purists might hate to admit, Marshall Mathers probably did more for spreading rap into the mainstream than anybody before him.
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