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The 8 Ball 03.29.14: Top 8 1980s Rap Albums
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 03.29.2014

Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Music Zone! I'm your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, I will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You're free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is "wrong" is just silly. With that in mind, let's get right in to it!

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Top 8 1980s Rap Albums

It's Saturday (or late Friday night, depending) so you know what that means; time for another 411 Music 8 Ball! I'm your host Jeremy Thomas as always, and this week we're beginning our retrospective of rap music throughout the decades. I would love to say there is a greater reason for inspiring this, like the anniversary of a landmark album or the reunion of a rap group, but my inspiration this week comes from much nerdier sources. Having watched through the various "History of Rap" segments that Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake have done throughout the years for the umpteenth time, I put together a Spotify playlist of the various songs featured within. That got me nostalgic and thus, we have this list.

Rap music's impact on the popular music landscape is as obvious as it is impossible to overstate. Since its development as a growing underground music force in the 1970s and its explosion into the mainstream in the 1980s, rap and hip-hop have taken over the landscape to an incredible degree. You see the influence of hip-hop just about everywhere, no matter what radio station you turn to or where you go. The 1980s were the real formative years for the genre. This week we're going to look at the greatest albums to come out of that incredibly important time for rap and hip-hop.

Caveat: To qualify for this list, an album had to be a rap LP (non-compilation or soundtrack) that was released between 1980 to 1989. That's all the criteria we have this week!

Just Missing The Cut

• Ultramagnetic MC's - Critical Beatdown (1988)
• LL Cool J - Radio (1985)
• Boogie Down Productions - By All Means Necessary (1988)
• Big Daddy Kane - Long Live the Kane (1988)
• Beastie Boys - Licensed to Ill (1986)

#8: EPMD - Strictly Business (1988)

When you're talking about great rap albums of the 1980s, there are a lot of ones that really stand out. I really could have done a top sixteen or even twenty-four and still would have left many out. EPMD's debut LP Strictly Business, however, is one that you simply have to talk about on such a list. The early and mid-1980s saw the rise of artists like Run-D.M.C., LL Cool J, Beastie Boys and the like. With Strictly Business the duo of Erick Sermon and Parrish J Smith fired a warning shot across the bow of these artists, changing the way that we thought of good rap flow. Erick and Parrish delivered a more relaxed, slower flow that was lazy without being half-assed; they weren't the first to use this style of course but they mastered it. And that isn't to say that the album wasn't complex; quite the opposite. With incredible lyrics and top-notch production, this marked a shift in rap's style. The use of samples is exquisite on this, with everything from "I Shot the Sheriff" and "Jungle Boogie" to "Seven Minutes of Funk" making appearances here and giving the LP the stature a timeless classic. There are many albums from this era that were great at the time but don't hold up today following innovations in production and the growth of the genre. Strictly Business still delivers on every level.

#7: De La Soul - Three Feet High and Rising (1989)

Here's another debut LP on the list, and it probably isn't too surprising that we'll see a lot of such. The 1980s was a period when rap acts were making their name in the industry and while many acts had the opportunity to release several albums in the era, for many it was their first disc that really made their impact on the face of hip-hop even today. Three Fight High and Rising is an excellent example of that, a twenty-four track opus that carried an influence that is still felt today. De La Soul delivered skits that on their own seem superfluous and silly, but they fit perfectly within the scope of the album and they are still used often on a number of albums from artists to the current day (hello, Eminem). This was another high mark for production standards (courtesy of Prince Paul) and sampling, with a wide and diverse set of samples used while Posdnuos, Dave and Maseo kept the groove going with fantastic lyrical skills. As rap and hip-hop were going in a more serious and gritty direction, this trio decided to provide a breath of fresh air that kept it free and fun. Most people remember this primarily for "Me Myself and I" but it's far from the only great song; the entire album stands as a highlight of the era.

#6: Slick Rick - The Great Adventures of Slick Rick (1988)

When you think of Slick Rick, there are two things that come to mind: that eyepatch and his inestimable storytelling ability. It's been well over two decades since he burst onto the scene and I dare say that there are few people--if any--who have topped the Bronx-based English-American rapper in terms of ability to convey a tale to a beat. Unfortunately for rap his prime was cut short by his incarceration for shooting a bystander and his cousin (who later admitted to having Walters shot earlier), which resulted in him doing give years in prison. (Unfortunately for the music industry, not for Rick.) But before then he gave us this album, which was his solo debut and which showed listeners just how effectively hip-hop could tell a tale. From the child-to-outlaw path of "Children's Story" and the hilariously (and distinctly un-PC) bawdy tales of "Indian Girl" and "Treat Her Like a Prostitute" to "The Moment I Feared" and more, Rick could weave a story through his lyrics that could was as compelling as it sometimes was offensive. There were great storytellers before Rick, but this album blew them all right off the map.

#5: Run-D.M.C. - Raising Hell (1986)

Run-D.M.C.'s place at the top of old-school hip-hop is absolutely assured; it only comes down to which album you love more. The group released four albums in the 1980s and they were all damned good. Run-D.M.C. is groundbreaking and put them on the map; King of Rock built on the first one and saw them diversify with rock elements. Tougher Than Leather took a little while for listeners to catch onto it but is rightly considered a classic. For my money though it is Raising Hell that is the best in terms of quality, influence and promotion of the genre. Let's be frank; there isn't a chink in this album's armor. It shot the group (and helped shoot the genre) into the stratosphere with the iconic "Walk This Way" featuring Aerosmith, and gave us some of the greatest old-school tracks even beyond that one. The rapid-fire and fun "Peter Piper," the influential elements of "It's Tricky," the classic sound of "My Adidas"...and we're only through the first four songs at this point. This album was produced by Rick Rubin to near-perfection and gave Run, D.M.C. and Jam Master Jay a deserved spot at the forefront of the rap explosion of the era. It's a truly essential piece of hip-hop history.

#4: Boogie Down Productions - Criminal Minded (1987)

Boogie Down Productions isn't the most well-known of the early hip-hop acts, at least by name. Everyone, fan or not, knows groups like Run-D.M.C., N.W.A. and the Beastie Boys, or solo acts like Slick Rick and LL Cool J. And many people know KRS-One, but if you mention his group then you're more likely to get an unfamiliar star. But this was one of the most influential groups of the 1980s without question. BPD delivered their debut LP as a group in Criminal Minded, which like Strictly Business but the old-school acts on notice that a new style was rising. This album struck a serious blow to the era of Run-D.M.C. and the Fat Boys, adding in elements that would be quintessential within East Coast gangsta rap. These days this album seems almost quaint in comparison to some of the LPs from the height of the gangsta era, but there was an urgency in the way they blended in dancehall reggae and how they spat their lyrics with a certain level of aggression. KRS-One shows just how talented of an MC he is here while Scott La Rock keeps the music popping along and Ced-Gee chips in nicely on production. La Rock was murdered after this album was finished and label issues kept this one from reaching the wide scope it could have; KRS kept going as Boogie Down Productions and eventually turned solo. This album became famous for how hard it was to find due to the label problems, but it remains one of the most influential and greatest LPs of the era.

#3: Eric B. and Rakim - Paid in Full (1987)

If there is any hip-hop group that deserves more mainstream recognition for their accomplishments, it's this one. Not that Eric B. and Rakim don't have the respect of the music world; they have been nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame last year and are renowned for their contribution to the early days of hip-hop. But like Boogie Down Productions they don't have the mainstream recognition of other acts and that's a crime. The group put out classic album after classic album between 1987 and 1992 but none of them were as good as their seminal debut LP Paid in Full. It's considered by many to be one of the most important albums from hip-hop's golden days and for good reasons. Rakim's rhymes raised the game to an entirely new level while Eric's sampling on the disc became a feat often imitated but rarely achieved. This was a new level of artistry in terms of word flow and rap lyrics; "Eric B Is President" is an all-time great rap track as are "My Melody" and the title track. This album made other MCs realize that they needed to raise the bar if they wanted to even hope to lay claim to Greatest of All-Time status. And what about the sheer genius of "Chinese Arithmetic," which uses scratching and the sound of water pouring to create one of the most oddly-compelling tracks I can remember. This whole LP is just unequivocally brilliant.

#2: N.W.A - Straight Outta Compton (1988)

If albums like Criminal Minded and Strictly Business were warning shots at old-school rap, Straight Outta Compton was the tactical nuke that devastated the old guard. The album kicks off with the statement that "You are about to witness the strength of Street Knowledge," and good Christ were they not kidding. This is hit new levels of hardcore rap content, making no apologies for its controversial lyrics and firing off a lightning rod of criticism from conservative groups that only helped propel the album ever higher. This album should have pushed rap out of mainstream America with tracks like "Fuck the Police" and "8 Ball" but it was so undeniably good that it expanded rap's scope ever further. It tapped into an underlying frustration seeping its way through the country and pushed gangsta rap into the center of the genre. The production quality stands up to this day and the songs are some of the most memorable in rap music. This is flat-out the best West Coast album to date and absolutely essential when talking about the greatest albums of that decade.

#1: Public Enemy - It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988)

It's close between the top two for me, and I was frankly very tempted to give into my West Coast home and put N.W.A. on top. For sheer power and impact however, I just couldn't because Public Enemy really did have the greatest rap album of the 1980s. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is an absolute watershed album, a landmark within the genre that followed up on Yo! Bum Rush the Show with even more power and fewer prisoners. Public Enemy defined the power of rap, taking aggressive social commentary and setting against fantastic production for an album that still stands as one of the greatest albums (hip-hop or otherwise) ever. This is one of the key albums in shaping the direction of hip-hop; it was controversial to be sure but some of the best artistic works of all-time are. "Bring the Noise," "Mind Terrorist," "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos"...all truly exceptional tracks amidst an album full of nothing less. The was an album that was speaking for people all over during a time of serious racial tension. It's just as powerful today as it was the day it was released and stands tall as the single-greatest rap album of the 1980s.


This week's Music Video A-Go-Go is dedicated to a song whose album got some consideration but just wasn't strong enough to make the list. Still, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince hold a spot in my heart and here's one of their 1980s classics, "Parents Just Don't Understand":

And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don't forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.


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