The 20 Best 1980's Hip-Hop Albums

Posted by Billyjam, May 26, 2014 12:00pm | Post a Comment

20 Best Hip-Hop Albums of the 1980s

When fellow Amoeblogger Billy Gil, who has done a number of Best Of lists in various genres, invited me to do some hip-hop best-of lists I had mixed feelings about the task. While I love drawing up lists of my favorite hip-hop releases from different eras and regions, I know that no matter what I include or how I position/rate it, later I will feel some kind of regret thinking that maybe I should have included or excluded a release or not ranked it as high on the list. And I am sure there will be commenters who will have the same critical thoughts (a la "I can't believe you didn't include ______ or that you ranked____ as number one," etc.). Simply put, it is difficult to narrow down Best Of lists because firstly it's personal and subjective, and secondly because a list I (or you) may draw up today will be different from one we might compile in a year's time. Musical tastes and opinions, especially in retrospect, are constantly in flux for me anyway.

Furthermore, sometimes an album or a single will rate high on one list (depending on the category) but not so on another. An example from this list would be Too $hort who would rank up the top of a Bay Area list but lower on an overall hip-hop album list of the 80's. Then there are all of those amazing hip-hop singles that were only singles, non-album cuts, or were culled from albums that otherwise were not as strong overall. Or in the case of Malcolm McLaren's 1983 album Duck Rock, which technically is a diverse genre album with hip-hop content and packaged in a hip-hop fashion from its cover art to how it is meshed together by the Worlds Famous Supreme Team radio show, it doesn't technically qualify as a hip-hop album. Add to my not included on the list 80's albums: such compilations as Mr Magic's Rap Attack series since I tried to focus purely on artist (vs. compilation) releases with the exception of one soundtrack on the list. Anyway, to combat all of this, I plan on doing many more best-of hip-hop lists with the goal being to include as many titles of great records as possible overall.

1) Run-D.M.C. - Run-D.M.C. (Profile, 1984)

Like all of the albums on this list, this Run-D.M.C. 1984 debut is personal and close to my heart. I fell in love with it from the day it was released and literally wore out my first copy of the LP. What makes this album so special is that it was the first all-killer, no-filler hip-hop album. Up to this point, rap/hip-hop was primarily a singles genre and the relatively modest number of LPs that had been released up to this point (compared to singles) were not as consistently strong as this one. Furthermore, it officially ushered in the new era of hip-hop: it was hard, raw, aggressive, and in your face like punk rock, over sparse but pounding beats, instead of the disco derived beats typical of the Sugar Hill Records era. Plus it had incredible back and forth rhyming by Run and D.M.C.and mad scratching throughout care of Jam Master Jay (RIP). Truly a five-star masterpiece in my book... Run-D.M.C. would release more gems, such as the strong follow-up (and commercially more popular) Raising Hell two years later, but this one is the one for me.

2) Public Enemy - It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (Def Jam,1988).

Unlike Run-DMC, whose debut album release ranks as my fave, it was not Public Enemy's 1987 debut Yo! Bum Rush the Show but their follow-up a year later, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, that has always grabbed my attention the most. Wow! What a technical masterpiece. With its wall of noise, feedback, and aural assault of guitars, horns, and head-nodding beats it is as much a metal production as hip-hop (hence why it crossed over to many who, up until that point, had not given hip-hop the time of day). Amazing production from start to finish. Of course add in the supercharged, hardcore, on-point, political rhetoric of Chuck D plus the humorous antics of hype man Flava Flav as the humorous counterbalance and you have a perfect hip-hop LP. 


3)  N.W.A - Straight Outta Compton (Ruthless, 1988)

Released six weeks later that same summer as PE's Nation Of Millions, this album, while divergent in political content, was equally powerful and ubiquitous and could be heard bumping loud everywhere back in the summer of '88. Like PE's masterpiece, this album would also summon a whole new sub-genre of rap/hip-hop. While PE signaled the short-lived politically-charged movement of hip-hop, N.W.Acemented gangsta rap as a force to be reckoned with (like it or not) up to this day with anthems like the irresistible single "Gangsta Gangsta," "Straight Outta Compton," and "Fuck tha Police." Crazy to think that Ice Cube (like Ice-T), who once railed against police authority, would go on to be an actor playing a cop (Ride Along). But a lot has changed since Straight Outta Compton was released. Eazy E is now dead nearly 20 years. Dr. Dre is about to become a triple billionaire provided that Beats by Dre/Apple deal goes through. But back in '88, NWA and all its members - Eazy, Cube, Dre, Ren, Yella, and Arabian Prince - were at the top of their game and oozed raw energy and talent. Truly a classic!

3)  Eric B & Rakim - Paid in Full (4th & B'way, 1987)

Two words come to mind when I think of this Eric B & Rakim album: holy shit. It's an amazing work in and of itself with each track oozing perfection and Rakim proving from the get-go that he's one incredibly gifted emcee. As with Run-D.M.C.'s aforementioned release, this album helped usher in a whole new era (the golden era) in hip-hop. 45.5 minutes in length, Paid In Full's ten songs are raw and totally satisfying hip-hop. "Eric B is on the cut and my name is Rakim," from "Eric B is President" is not just an eleven word sentence. That well known (and sampled) phrase has long been cemented into the lexicon of hip-hop, as have many of Rakim's other influential lyrics such as “You thought I was a donut. You tried to glaze me” from the same song. "Eric B. Is President" was just one of five singles off the ten track album, which was essentially a kind of hip-hop Singles Going Steady collection. The four others - "I Ain't No Joke," "I Know You Got Soul," "Move the Crowd," and "Paid in Full" - are all equally classic. Note: this was 1987 when the DJ still was equally prominent to the emcee in hip-hop and hence the prevalence of DJ tracks (30%) including "Eric B Is On The Cut," "Chinese Arithmetic," and the closing "Extended Beat."

4) Beastie Boys - Paul's Boutique (Capitol, 1989)

As with so many great works of art that are not fully appreciated at first, this sample-rich masterpiece was initially dismissed as too high in concept and too low in instant hit material, mainly because of the notable absence of Rick Rubin's crossover production values that had made the Beastie Boys' 1986 debut, Licensed To Ill, such a hit singles-packed release. But as the years progressed and the sheer sonic and lyrical brilliance of this album had a chance to register with all, this album rightfully got the props it deserved. With production assistance from the Dust Brothers and a richly diverse sound that incorporated funk, jazz, rock, punk, and obscure sound effects, Paul's Boutique essentially rescued the trio from ever being relegated to becoming a VH1 one-hit wonder novelty rap item. Instead it catapulted the Beasties to becoming respected, career artists in hip-hop and beyond. Rest In Power MCA.

5) De La Soul - 3 Feet High & Rising (Tommy Boy, 1989)

Like the Beasties' Paul's Boutique De La Soul's 3 Feet High & Rising is another sample happy masterpiece production (and one that consequently landed the artists and label in legal issues).  When  the young Long Island trio's debut album was unleashed on the rap world in 1989 it was totally unlike anything else out there up to that point. It blew people’s minds with its pioneering quirky yet accessible approach to the genre, opening it up to whole new possibilities. A fun, joke and skit-filled, sample-fueled, one-hour plus, 24-song, five star release with head-nodding, timeless tracks like “Say No Go,” “Ghetto Thing,” “Buddy,” and “Me, Myself, and I.” While De La's emcees Posdnous, Trugoy The Dove, and Maseo (Plugs One, Two, & Three), were definitely masters at their craft, much of the credit goes to “Plug Four” (as he was also known), their producer Prince Paul - then of Stetsasonic fame. It was his backdrop of  diverse sounds and samples that created a melange of ever shifting moods and paces for the young trio to play off of. An amazing rich tapestry of sounds. Five star LP!

6) Various ArtistsWild Style soundtrack (Animal, Rhino, 1983, 1994)

While this album was initially released in limited pressing at the time of the film's release I didn't cop my copy of it until a decade later when it was widely reissued. But it's still an '80s album and, it could be argued, deserving of being in the number one slot because of its importance and historical significance. A compilation of incredible emcees and DJs, this is another five-star release oozing hip-hop classics and boasting such artists as Grand Wizard Theodore, Busy Bee, Cold Crush Brothers, and Double Trouble (Rodney Cee and KK Rockwell). This soundtrack, which immediately conjures visions of the influential movie, demands to be paired with the DVD.


7)  Boogie Down Productions - Criminal Minded (B-Boy, 1987)

Boogie Down Productions' (BDP) debut landmark hip-hop album Criminal Minded pushed the envelope when it was released in 1987 and will likely forever remain one of the best hip-hop albums of all time. The cover pictured members KRS-One and DJ Scott La Rock menacingly posing with an arsenal of weapons and bullets - cover art imagery that would become commonplace in later years as gangsta rap took hold, but unseen at this relatively tame era in hip-hop. Meanwhile the minimalist but powerful music on this eleven track album pushed hip-hop into new terrain, subtly melding reggae dancehall with hard hip-hop beats, offering the perfect backdrop to the conscious-tinged, hardcore battle lyics on songs like “9mm Goes Bang” and the Marley Marl/Juice Crew diss “The Bridge Is Over.” The fact that not long after the album’s release tragedy struck with DJ Scott La Rock being murdered in the South Bronx, long a part of hip-hop lore, only further fueled the mystique of this hip-hop classic and all later releases by BDP and main-man KRS-One.

9) Marley Marl - In Control: Volume 1 (Cold Chillin' 1988)

Billed as a Marley Marl album (since he produced it) this influential landmark 1988 hip-hop release by the super talented Queensbridge producer was as much a compilation as an artist album, boasting timeless tracks from some of the best emcees of the time who made up the Juice Crew. Every track on here is great but In Control, Vol. 1 is worth owning just for the posse-cut "The Symphony" alone. In its 5 minutes and 43 seconds "The Symphony" features memorable verses from Big Daddy Kane, Craig G., Kool G. Rap, and Master Ace. Others who ignite the mic throughout this album include Biz Markie, Intelligent Hoodlum (Tragedy Khadafi), Roxanne Shante, and MC Shan. Another 5 out of 5 rated release.



10) Too $hort - Born to Mack (1987)

I am torn between this and the Too $hort release a year later (Life Is... Too Short) but this one rates higher in my book. Born To Mack is Too $hort at his rawest and best with such classic $hort Dog anthems as "Freaky Tales" and "Dope Fiend Beat." Some, including the artist himself, labeled this music "dirty raps" but in actuality this is Oakland street poetry at its pure uncut finest, rhymes over minimalist hypnotic funk beats that draw you in as Too $hort shares his vivid street tales.  "An M. A. C. K. from Oakland, Cal - I - Forn - I - A, I'm Too $hort baby. No I don't play. I'm Mackin" he boldly brags in "Mack Attack." Too $hort, the rap alter ego of the polite and un-assumming person born Todd Shaw, is the ultimate mack persona throughout this album as he takes the listener into his pimp/playboy $hort world; one where a  woman is "a tender," a "freak,"  a "dick pleaser," and of course - the word that has consequently become Too $hort's trademark - a "biaaaaaaatch."  More on this Bay Area classic when I get round to doing my Bay Area best-of lists.

11)  LL Cool J - Radio (Def Jam, 1985)

Beyond the fact that this LL Cool J album kicks some serious ass and, along with Run-D.M.C., personified the newer wave of mid '80s rap/hip-hop, what is even more amazing is the fact that the Queens, New York born rapper was only 17 when it was released. He was only 16 when the lead single off the album ("I Need A Beat") dropped in 1984. Of course, as much of the credit for this album's sound goes to Rick Rubin for his instantly engaging, stripped-down, gritty and minimalist, yet powerful, booming-beat production style that acted as the perfect backdrop for LL's commanding non-stop flow of braggadocios b-boy rhymes - all of which were complimented by lots of scratching interspersed throughout courtesy of LL's DJ partner Cut Creator. In fact the single "Rock The Bells" was as much a Cut Creator track as an LL Cool J one and in the years since has become a staple of hip-hop/scratch DJs to use a tool for scratch freestyles and battle routines. The eleven track album Radio opens on a perfect note with "I Can't Live Without My Radio," a hit single that also appeared on the Krush Groove soundtrack. The artist born James Todd Smith, while known to many as an actor these days, still continues to record and release music, however the flawless Rubin-produced Radio still remains the greatest work of his music career. 

12) Big Daddy Kane - Long Live the Kane (Cold Chillin', 1988)

Long Live The Kane was the debut album from the Juice Crew's Big Daddy Kane with production from the Crew's main man with the Midas touch in the studio, Marley Marl. Truly a golden era hip-hop gem, and one that preceded Kane's later (and not nearly as good) more polished playa style and image, the album stands the test of time boasting such classic cuts as "Ain't No Half-Steppin'" (the record's biggest hit and alone worth the price of the album), "Just Rhymin' with Biz" (as its title implies a collar with fellow Juice Crew emcee the diabolical Biz Markie), "Raw," "Set It Off," and the title track "Long Live The Kane." The album also offered some pro-Black, Afrocentric raps including "Word to the Mother(Land)." When I saw Kane in concert in Central Park last August for the 40 year anniversary of hip-hop he did some of these songs and killed it.

13)  EPMD - Strictly Business (Fresh/Sleeping Bag, 1988)

The debut album from New York hip-hop emcee/production power duo of Erick Sermon and Parish Smith (aka PMD), EPMD's name stood for "Erick and Parrish Making Dollars."  Although only ten songs in length the hip-hop styles displayed on Strictly Business - cool laid back rhymes over smooth funky beats that sampled an infectious blend of funk, soul, and rock - remain influential to this day and personify the creme de la creme of hip-hop's much celebrated "golden age" - something that EPMD kept going on their second album, Unfinished Business, the following year, as well as on later releases (all in their Business series). Unlike albums of today which tend to be smothered in guest emcees and producers, with the exception of DJ K La Boss (who added his turntablist skills to the album track that bore his name), Strictly Business was purely the talents of Erick and Parish who both rapped in a similar almost lazy-sounding, rolling, lyrical flow and also shared production credits. This flawless release spawned four singles, including the title track, the hip-house "I'm Housin," and the funky head-nodding "It's My Thing," and "You Gots To Chill." The latter song grooved along to a sick sample of Zapp's "More Bounce To The Ounce" coupled with a sample of Kool & The Gang's "Jungle Boogie," plus some well utilized Vocoder effects. Meanwhile the song/single "Strictly Business," with its sample of Eric Clapton's "I Shot The Sheriff" won over many non-rap fans at the time, as did their sampling of the Steve Miller Band on three different album tracks. Remember that when this sample heavy album dropped in 1988 it was in the pre Biz Markie vs. Gilbert O'Sullivan landmark sampling law case, a time when hip-hop artists could freely sample other peoples' music with no strings attached. If you listen to any amount of hip-hop in the two plus decades since Strictly Business dropped you will repeatedly hear lyrics off this album being paraphrased or reworked or scratched-in the later hip-hop songs - all proof of how influential and important this five-star hip-hop release was. In fact think I'm going go listen to it right now!

14)  Slick Rick - The Great Adventures of Slick Rick (Def Jam, 1988)

Slick Rick Great AdventuresLately Slick Rick The Ruler has been performing his landmark 1988 album, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, in full to highly appreciative audiences. No wonder since The Great Adventures, which has been exhaustively sampled and referenced in hip-hop throughout the 26 years since its release, is both a flawless and highly influential hip-hop album. Slick Rick is unlike any other emcee in both style and flow. He is a wildly imaginative and witty storyteller who delivers tales with sometimes totally opposite viewpoints in his and his alter ego MC Ricky D's signature half-British accent and snappy musical flow. Recently reissued on vinyl, the album includes such classics as the ever engaging "Children's Story," "The Ruler's Back," and "Mona Lisa," the real raunchy "Treat Her Like a Prostitute," and the X-rated "Indian Girl (Adult Story)." Great Advertures fans include Nas who called it his favorite album of all time.

15) Ultramagnetic MC's - Critical Beatdown (Next Plateau, 1988)

As seems to be the case with so many truly groundbreaking pieces of art that are typically revered only in hindsight and years later, when it was first released 26 years ago Ultramagnetic MCs' debut album, Critical Beatdown, was not appropriately greeted as the influential and important hip-hop album that it actually was. Poor selling and considered a bit too weird and left of center by many rap fans at the time, the album's offbeat lyrical and production approach to the genre ultimately made Critical Beatdown such a landmark release and opened hip-hop up to new frontiers where innovative weirdness could be embraced. Kool Keith's bizarre yet brilliant lyrical flow coupled with Ced Gee's complex take on building tracks out of a myriad discordant samples - unorthodox at a time when simply looping a funk break was the norm - Ultramagnetic MC's were truly unique. Ced Gee, who had already produced the previous year's five-star hip-hop release, Criminal Minded for Boogie Down Productions, was also a mic wrecker and his often bizarre banter was the perfect match for the crazy, rapid fire rhyme flow of Kool Keith who caught the hip-hop world by surprise as he spit with wild abandon lyrics like, "relates it verbal, dissing a mouse and smacking any gerbil." ("Ease Back").  DJ Moe Love added a layer of chopped sounds scratched on top while member TR Love, though on the cover, was barely on this record. Tim Dog was not yet a member of the crew, although he did later appear on a B-side single only release off the album ("A Chorus Line" which was the 12" b-side to the album track "Traveling at the Speed of Thought Remix"). This B-side, along with several other bonus tracks including a hip-house remix of "Traveling," would appear on the 2004 reissue of this golden era album. Great tracks include "Ego Trippin," the James Brown & the JBs sample-driven "Give The Drummer Some," which famously lent its line "Smack My Bitch Up" to The Prodigy's 1997 hit of the same name, and "Ain't It Good to You" with Moe Love scratching up a storm as the man later known as Dr. Octagon spat in his trademark, futuristic style rhymes like, "Thoughtless, when I take you far to the galaxy. And leave your dome piece in the hemisphere. Now you're lost on Jupiter." 

16) Jungle Brothers - Straight out the Jungle (Idlers, 1988)

The debut from the Jungle Brothers was totally ahead of its time. It presented a rich tapestry of innovative hip-hop styles and ushered in the start of the Native Tongues movement, as well as helped shape hip-hop's burgeoning Afrocentric movement. However the JBs (as the Jungle Brothers were often known) didn't manage to make quite the same impact, particularly commercially, as their Native Tongues brethren A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, who both arrived on the scene after them. In fact it was on Straight Out The Jungle where many hip-hop fans heard a (still teenaged) Q-Tip for the very first time. Perhaps the lack of proper recognition for this album was because they were just too diverse and adventurous musically, or that they weren't as consistently powerful lyrically as the other Native Tongue ensembles. Hailing from New York and comprised of DJ Sammy B, and emcees Mike Gee and Afrika Baby Bam the JBs delivered Afrocentric-rooted, uplifting socioeconomic, political commentary that was polar (and coastal) opposite of the simultaneously new gangsta rap movement led by LA's NWA. It was also a marked departure from the gold-chain era of hip-hop and hence distinctly part of the new "golden age" of hip-hop. In addition to its full-on Afrocentric mode Straight Out The Jungle broke new ground on many levels, including being the first hip-hop album (as distinct from Chicago hip-house) to meld house music with hip-hop (the Todd Terry collaboration "I'll House You") which was something that thereafter became a frequent additon to hip-hop albums for a few years. The album was also adventurous enough to include a track built almost entirely around sound samples of jungle animals, plus drums, chants, and scratches ("Sounds Of The Safari").

17) 3rd Bass - The Cactus Album (Def Jam, 1989)

3rd Bass' premiere release, The Cactus Album (aka The Cactus Cee/D), was a powerful and promising hip-hop debut that indicated that the NY crew would have a long and fruitful career. However within three years the trio, comprised of emcees MC Serch and Prime Minister Pete Nice along with DJ Richie Rich, had called it quits. But the three releases they put out in that short span (including their 1990 seven track remix project, Cactus Revisited, and 1991's Derelicts of Dialect) each remain must haves for any true hip-hop collector. Throughout the 21 track album Serch and Nice serve up a bevy of braggadocio rhymes with lots of dissing or bestowing of "The Gas Face" as they called it. "The Gas Face" was the album's recurring theme and the title of the lead single that preceded the LP's release. Along with "The Gas Face" the album's best tracks include "Products Of The Environment," "Brooklyn Queens," "Steppin' To The A.M.," "Wordz of Wisdom," and "Wordz of Wisdom Pt. 2" both of which had the catchy refrain "Three The Hard Way" (which coincidentally was the group's name before changing it to 3rd Bass). While not every track had solid vocal deliveries The Cactus Album's production was amazing on every track thanks to its producers. Sam Sever (who got lots of shout outs throughout the album and later was part of the short-lived Downtown Science) was the Cactus Album's main producer, with production input from both Pete Nice and MC Serch, along with heavyweights Prince Paul and The Bomb Squad (Hank Shocklee, Keith Shocklee, Eric "Vietnam" Sadler). The Prince Paul produced "The Gas Face" also introduced the world to the voice of MF DOOM who made his vinyl debut on the single/album track when he went by the name of Zev Love X, then of the group KMD. A well paced, funky beat driven album it sounds like it was fun recording it. In fact, lots of laughter from the recording sessions were left on the final mix, including on the silly "Flippin Off The Wall Like Lucy Ball" which sounds like MC Serch channeling Tom Waits channeling Louis Armstrong, and led to legal action being taken by Waits against the group.

18)  Biz Markie - Goin' Off (Cold Chillin', 1988)

Biz Markie's Marley Marl produced 1988 debut Goin' Off displays all of his greatest hip-hop assets: a silly, comedic approach to a genre often taken too seriously, plus a gift for rhyming, beatboxing, and singing in an off key style - as witnessed on such standout tracks as "Nobody Beats The Biz," "Picking Boogers" and "The Vapors." In hip-hop Biz Markie was an anomaly: an emcee who could be silly and still taken seriously. The Biz came to fame during hip-hop's golden era as part of the Juice Crew. He was the beatboxing rapper with the comedic streak who won the hearts of fans (many who didn't like even rap before) with such songs as "Make The Music With Your Mouth, Biz" (originally a 1986 single) or "Just A Friend" off the following year's The Biz Never Sleeps. In more recent years the Biz may be better known to mainstream audiences for his movie and TV roles, including the beatboxing alien in Men In Black II or his entertaining "Beat of The Day" segment in the kids show Yo Gabba Gabba! But back in the '80s, along with the Fat Boys and Doug E. Fresh, Biz Markie ranked among the early ambassadors of beatboxing and as such is credited with getting it respected by the mainstream. His consequent albums - none of which were produced by Marley Marl - 1989's The Biz Never Sleeps, 1991's I Need a Haircut, 1993's All Samples Cleared!, and the 2003 album Weekend Warrior were each good but artistically never quite reached the pinnacle of greatness of his debut Goin' Off.

19) MC Lyte - Lyte as a Rock (First Priority, 1988)

Incredible debut album from MC Lyte with which she instantly disproved the common misconception at the time that women couldn't really rap or at least were not nearly as good as their male counterparts. The fact that there were so few other female rappers putting out albums in the '80s with a distinctly uneven ratio of female to male rappers only helped enforce the negative stereotypes of women in rap. But Brooklyn's MC Lyte, who was not simply a great "female rapper" but a "great rapper" by any standards, ably proved that she could more than hold her own and give other sucka emcees (male and female alike) a run for their money. Standout tracks of the ten song LP include the title track, "10% Dis," "I Cram to Understand U," and "Paper Thin" on which she flexes her mic skills in her instantly recognizable raw flow - all complimented with the production of Audio Two, Alliance, Prince Paul, and King of Chill.

20) Schoolly D - Saturday Night! - The Album (Schoolly D Records, 1986) 

With tales of sex and violence Philly rapper Schoolly D was gangsta rap before it was its own accepted genre of music and he influenced artists such as Ice T. Originally released in 1986 (re-released via RCA a year later) Saturday Night! - The Album was the artist's second album on which, with help from his DJ Code Money, he unleashed such in your face tracks as "Get 'n' paid," We Get Ill," "Do It Do It," "B-Boy Rhyme and Riddle," the abstract "It's Crack," and of course the classic title track. "Saturday night and I'm feelin kinda sporty. Went to a bar and caught me a 40. Got kinda a high and a kinda drunk. So I kicked the ass of this little punk" is just the beginning of this tale of a wild and crazy Saturday night out on the town that cemented Schoolly as one hardcore nasty-mouthed, violent, misogynistic rapper - kind of like Eazy E meets Too $hort but only harder. What makes that even more interesting is he would later switch up his style to become Afrocentric and then, in more recent years, move into soundtrack production, but I still find myself going back to this classic and his other early era work.

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