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10 Other ’80s Hip-Hop Albums You Should Know

These often overshadowed gems helped kick off the golden age of hip-hop

Rakim (left) and Eric B (right) in London 2 November 1987
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With the groundwork well and truly laid by the genre-warping wizardry of Bronx DJs and turntablists Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, Kool Herc, and Grand Wizzard Theodore in the 1970s, the heady ascent of hip-hop in the ’80s remains easily one of the most uniquely powerful maelstroms of sonic synthesis and revolutionary culture in modern music.

But while brought (and broadened) to the masses via the perfectly genre-bending brilliance of Run-D.M.C., Public Enemy, N.W.A, and the Beastie Boys — not least thanks to the efforts of Joseph Simmons and Rick Rubin et al. — the story of the genre in the ‘80s has also become something of a tale of oversight, overshadowing, and textbook selective revisionism.

Sure, New York will always remains the undisputed motherland of hip-hop, and the ever-expanding lineage of the genre is always going to be most widely indebted to the trailblazing efforts of the aforementioned heavyweights, but myriad lesser-known masterstrokes at the tail end of the decade equally helped set down the ABCs for the genre’s Golden Age in the early ‘90s and the sweeping global revolution it is today. Here are 10 other hip-hop albums you should know.

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Eric B. & Rakim – Paid in Full

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As timely as they come, the debut album from Eric B. & Rakim was unleashed to widespread critical acclaim 30 years ago this week. Recorded in Marley Marl’s home studio and NYC’s Power Play Studios across ’86-87, it became an instant classic, propelling the heady evolution of early hip-hop to a new echelon of sophistication and straight-up skill. Raising the bar in terms of both sample-heavy production and lyricism (Rakim’s free-rhythm style skilfully sidestepped bar lines and was likened to legendary pianist Thelonious Monk), the likes of “I Know You Got Soul” and the album’s timeless title track proved slick and perfectly righteous exhibitions in wordplay, scratching, and first-rate bombastic musicality.

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The D.O.C. – No One Can Do It Better

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While the genre wasn’t short of braggadocio circa its release mid-1989, even the title of Dr. Dre protege Tracy Lynn Curry aka The D.O.C.’s debut album brimmed with sheer confidence. An emphatic 13-track gem that doubled up as one of West Coast rap’s earliest exploits, it still holds up strong thanks to Curry’s boundless lyrical virtuosity and the funk- and beat-heavy joint production of Dre and Eazy-E. From the the proto G-funk fluidity of “The Formula” to closing highlight “The Grand Finale”, Curry’s self-proclaimed “rhythmic American poetry” was a robust heads up to New York and beyond that the West Coast was not only more than Dre and Ice-T, but a burgeoning scene on the brink of something very special.

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EPMD – Unfinished Business

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Landing less than a year after the release of their abiding debut, Strictly Business, the arrival of EPMD’s Unfinished Business proved both testament to pure momentum and telling of just how fast-moving the game was on the very cusp of the ‘90s. Certified gold by the RIAA three months after its release in August 1989, it doubly underlined the Brentwood duo of Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith’s all-but-peerless prowess as masters of feel-good, groove-laden hip-hop. Better still, featuring a slew of inspired samples of artists as diverse as fellow doyens Public Enemy and Run-D.M.C., Bowie, The Stylistics, and a hefty dose of Funkadelic, peaks including “So Wat Cha Sayin’” and the brilliantly bobbing “Total Kaos” saw EPMD bypass the time-honored sophomore slump in fine, seemingly effortless fashion.

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Biz Markie – Goin’ Off

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Released via New York imprint Cold Chillin’ Records and produced by the ever-prolific (and presumably sleepless) Marley Marl, Goin’ Off by Long Island whizz and undisputed “Clown Prince of Hip Hop” Biz Markie was yet another debut album that knocked it out of the park and then some upon its release back in the day. But rather than even flirt with the notion of rivaling the killer flow and lyricism featured on fellow 1988 gems It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and EPMD’s Strictly Business, Markie, Marl, and ghostwriter Big Daddy Kane melded flair, humor, and a fair dash of knowing juvenility (“Pickin’ Boogers” anyone?), resulting in a record that — while since eclipsed by time and the benchmarks of more enduring stalwarts of the scene — has very few rivals when it comes to fun.

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Slick Rick – The Great Adventures of Slick Rick

 10 Other 80s Hip Hop Albums You Should Know

A release since sampled to no end by the likes of Black Star and Snoop, The Great Adventures Of… by British-born American rapper Richard Martin Lloyd Walters aka Slick Rick was the third and final album released on Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons’ epochal Def Jam Recordings in 1988. And as its title hints, the release proudly flew the flag for rap that, beyond the holy triumvirate of production, image and flow, put storytelling firmly centre stage. Laced with well-worded warnings about pitfalls of the game, Slick Rick spat tales repping honesty, respect, and maturity that were at odds with the more hard-hitting hip-hop releases of 1988. Bolstered by production courtesy of the one and only Jam Master Jay of Run-D.M.C. and some killer beats by the Bomb Squad — not least on “Let’s Get Crazy” and “Teacher, Teacher” — it remains a playful ‘80s classic once you get past Rick’s offbeat English accent and his oft questionably explicit chutzpah.

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Kool G Rap & DJ Polo – Road to the Riches

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Another bona fide Cold Chillin’ classic, Road to the Riches by Juice Crew stalwarts Kool G Rap and DJ Polo all but single-handedly kick-started the mafioso rap trend via its title track, paving the way for the more openly street-orientated yet insistently showy advent of Biggie, Raekwon, Nas, JAY-Z and countless others besides. Produced by — you guessed it — Juice Crew founder Marley Marl, the album found Kool G — Tyson-esque lisp notwithstanding — in fierce form from the get-go. Perfectly married with DJ Polo’s percussive clout, supreme scratching, and samples of everyone from James Brown and Eddie Murphy to Gary Numan and Kraftwerk, he took braggadocio to vivid new heights on “Streets of New York”, the breathless “Men at Work”, and the 1989 album’s seminal title track. A quintessential and almost criminally underrated golden era release, it still comfortably affirms Kool G as one of the most out-of-sight rappers of the ‘80’s era.

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Ghetto Boys – Grip It! On That Other Level

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Having come up short on their bland, Run-D.M.C.-mimicking debut, Making Trouble, the year previous, Grip It! On That Other Level by Houston rap heroes Ghetto Boys made for arguably the greatest — not to mention swiftest — turnarounds in ‘80s hip-hop. Both spurred on by and bearing the imprint of N.W.A.’s then recently released Straight Outta Compton, the trio of Willie D, Scarface, and Bushwick Bill (who have operated as Geto Boys since 1990) re-emerged as an almost new-fangled, masterfully provocative proposition. Somewhere between its raging, largely crime-centred lyricism and DJ Ready Red’s funk-indebted production, cuts including “Do It Like a G.O.” and “Gangsta of Love” ensured the album — reportedly Tupac’s all-time favourite — became both one of the ‘80s’ strongest blueprints of gangsta rap and one of the earliest examples of the horrorcore sub-genre.

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Eazy-E – Eazy-Duz-It

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Both self-financed and released via his own label, Ruthless Records, Eazy-Duz-It by N.W.A.’s Eazy-E dropped just a month after Straight Outta Compton set the rap world alight — a remarkable fact, if not feat, by anyone’s standards. But produced by Dre with some assistance from DJ Yella — and almost entirely ghostwritten by Ice Cube alongside The D.O.C. and MC Ren — its status as one of the earliest examples of a spin-off release from a member of a noteworthy rap group was significantly belied by the sheer collaborative nature of the record. This, however, was no bad thing. With Eazy-E coming to the fore as a profane, entertaining, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, divisive rapper in his very own right, the LP’s title track, the stellar “Boyz-N-The-Hood”, and outright peak “Nobody Move” saw Dre emerge yet further as one of the true greats on the desk. For those reasons alone, Eazy-Duz-It is an ‘80s hip-hop release that everyone must know.

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Boogie Down Productions – Criminal Minded

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While a sizable chunk of classic ‘80s hip-hop records derived much of their rhythmic and melodic DNA from funk and soul vanguards such as James Brown, Parliament, and Funkadelic, others took the road much less sampled. Fusing a raw dancehall aesthetic with a tapestry of dope beats and fragments of everyone from Jamaican DJ Yellowman and AC/DC to Billy Joel and Mississippi blues singer and producer Syl Johnson, Criminal Minded by South Bronx masters Boogie Down Productions was one such release. With MC KRS-One, in particular, firing on all cylinders and then some, the trio presented a compelling — and decidedly forceful — take on their environs that resonated throughout the ’90s via Gangsta rap and beyond.

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Big Daddy Kane – Long Live the Kane

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Last by no means least, you will struggle to find a more resounding and cocksure debut than Long Live the Kane by Juice Crew’s Antonio Hardy aka Big Daddy Kane. Establishing the Brooklyn legend as one of ‘80s hip-hop’s truly great lyricists alongside the likes of the mighty Rakim, Chuck D, and the aforementioned KRS-One, Kane mercilessly bragged his way through 46 whole minutes of enlightened rapping that all but bursts at the seams with technique, charisma, and pure gall. With the likes of “Raw” and “Ain’t No Half Steppin'” proving just two highlights — and the omnipresent Marley Marl holding his own on production — Long Live the Kane remains not merely the finest hour on Cold Chillin’ Records, but also one of the most entertaining and influential first gambits in all of hip-hop.

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