Crate Digging is a recurring feature in which we take a deep dive into a genre and turn up several albums all music fans should know about. As a new Run the Jewels album drops this week, we look at a rich history of records by hip-hop duos.
It’s hard to believe that hip-hop is only about 47 years old, give or take a year or two. So many memories, iconic figures, highs, lows … the genre brings about a wealth of emotion, regardless of one’s demographic. As hip-hop has grown, so has its sound, its reach, as well as its influence on popular culture. But during its infancy, the rapper and the DJ were the perfect marriage between two musicians of different crafts blending together to make a singular sound. Hip-hop “crews” were more prevalent early on, but there was something about the duo that audiences were drawn to more than any other dynamic. Now, the individual seems to have risen to the top of the ranks, but there have been and still are some amazing duos in rap.
On June 5th, the rapper/producer team of Killer Mike and El-P will officially release the fourth installment of Run the Jewels. The group, which goes by the same name, represents what many people consider the essence of hip-hop — the emcee and the DJ. The digital age has transformed that into the “rapper and the producer,” but the concept remains. Proverbs 27:17 states that “Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” The same could be said about two musicians coming together for a common cause.
In anticipation of Run the Jewels 4, we’ve compiled a list of 10 albums by hip-hop duos that every fan should be privy to. Whether it be two rappers or a rapper and a producer, the final product is undeniable. A combination of different coasts, older releases, and more contemporary classics, these albums are crucial to anyone who enjoys hip-hop and a testament to why the genre (and the hip-hop duo) is here to stay.
Eric B. and Rakim –Paid in Full (1987)
For all intents and purposes, rap music could be divided into two different eras: Before Rakim and after Rakim. As one of the most revered MCs of all time, Rakim forever etched his name in the annals of hip-hop history with the release of Paid in Full. Unlike the MCs that came before him, Rakim deployed a laid-back, intricate rhyme scheme that differentiated him from the rest of the pack. Combined with the dexterous DJing of Eric B., the duo was the first MC/DJ tandem to break through in major with hardcore hip-hop. Not a second is wasted on Paid in Full, including the title track, the dance floor banger “I Ain’t No Joke”, “Eric B. Is President”, and “I Know You Got Soul”. It’s absolutely stacked with classic after classic. Paid in Full is a landmark LP, launching the genre of rap into the golden age of hip-hop while becoming one of the albums by which all great hip-hop records are measured. –Rashad Grove
Hardest-Hitting Track: “I Ain’t No Joke”
Public Enemy – Fear of a Black Planet (1990)
Many hip-hop enthusiasts would claim that It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is the superior project, but they cannot argue the heights reached by Public Enemy’s third album, Fear of a Black Planet. Chuck D’s powerful voice and disruptive content permeated culture on a global scale, especially after the success of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. The group’s spark, the energetic Flavor Flav, popularized the “hype man” in hip-hop and added a unique element to the extremely militant tone of Public Enemy. “911 Is a Joke” and “Fight the Power” are two of rap’s most memorable tracks, and “Burn Hollywood, Burn” (which features Ice Cube and Big Daddy Kane) became an ironic classic when Cube would later conquer the movie business. Fear of a Black Planet holds a special place in rap’s pantheon because the messages that Public Enemy expressed in 1990 still remain on point 30 years later. –Okla Jones
Hardest-Hitting Track: “Fight the Power”
Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth – Mecca and the Soul Brother (1992)
When it comes to MC and DJ/Producer duos, few were quite as masterful as Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth. With the slyly smooth lyricism and the jazz-influenced soul samples of Pete Rock, their second album, Mecca and the Soul Brother, is still regarded as one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time. Among the gems that the project is laced with, “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” is the standout. Inspired by the loss of hip-hop dancer Troy Dixon (aka Trouble T Roy), who died tragically in an accident, Rock and Smooth created a timeless classic full of pathos that still reverberates today. Along with other singles “Straighten It Out” and “Lots of Lovin,” Mecca and the Soul Brother remains the crème de la crème of hip-hop and a benchmark for all projects that followed in its footsteps. –Rashad Grove
Hardest-Hitting Track: “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)”
Salt-N-Pepa – Very Necessary (1993)
Salt-N-Pepa are the greatest female rap group of all time and one of the best rap acts to emerge during the late ’80s and early ’90s. After gaining a considerable following on their first three albums — Hot, Cool, & Vicious, A Salt with a Deadly Pepa, and Blacks’ Magic — the trio released their fourth album, Very Necessary, to critical acclaim and tremendous commercial success. With themes of Black femininity and club jams, the LP spawned an array of singles, including “Shoop”, which peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100; “Whatta Man”, which featured En Vogue and shot up to No. 3; and “None of Your Business”, which earned the group their first Grammy. Without question, Very Necessary is still the crown jewel in the Salt-N-Pepa discography and one of the best albums of the ’90s. –Rashad Grove
Hardest-Hitting Track: “Shoop”
Mobb Deep –The Infamous (1995)
Considered a major contributor to New York’s rap renaissance in the mid-’90s, Mobb Deep’s The Infamous became what many hail as one of the greatest albums in hip-hop’s history. Havoc’s haunting and rugged melodies fused with Prodigy’s stories of the street life in the inner city are credited with redefining the sound of hardcore rap. The Infamous received critical acclaim and featured some of rap’s seminal artists of the time; Nas, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, and Q-Tip were all an integral part to this classic body of work. Mobb Deep’s sophomore album is an exploration through the urban landscape of the Queensbridge Houses from the perspective of two African-American youths in a world filled with narcotics, poverty, and the possibility of death around every corner. The Infamous introduced a grittier style of music that many artists attempted to recreate in subsequent years, solidifying its place as a classic in any genre. –Okla Jones
Hardest-Hitting Track: “Shook Ones Pt. II”
Click ahead for more great albums from hip-hop duos…
UGK — Ridin’ Dirty (1996)
1996 proved to be one of the landmark years in hip-hop history. At the height of the East Coast v. West Coast beef, a duo from what has come to be known as the “Third Coast” — Port Arthur, Texas, to be specific — released a body of work that would influence the sound of future artists to this very day. Chad “Pimp C” Butler and Bernard “Bun B” Freeman’s (widely known as UGK) third studio project, Ridin’ Dirty, instantly became a central album in the canon of Southern hip-hop. It gave the culture of Houston national exposure while showcasing Pimp C’s experimental production and Bun B’s dedication to lyricism, which proved that elite emceeing was not restricted to areas located above the Mason-Dixon line. Ridin’ Dirty explored the broad spectrum of the reality of street life and the optimism of a brighter future. The vulnerability from both Pimp and Bun on “One Day” was indicative of the intense subject matter on the album. Tackling topics such as poverty, regret, relationships, and religion, Ridin’ Dirty was an exclamation point to the infamous night in 1995 when Andre 3000 told the world that the South had something to say. –Okla Jones
Hardest-Hitting Track: “One Day”
Black Star – Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star (1998)
Every few years, hip-hop experiences a shift in its sound. Whether fueled by artistic creativity or monetary gain, there are certain fads that exist in the genre when the industry recognizes what “works,” as the saying goes. What is always commendable is when an artist or group goes against the grain and records music unique to what the majority releases or what they feel the public is more willing to consume. In 1998, during a time where hip-hop was at its most extravagant, Black Star released Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star. Both natives of Brooklyn, Talib Kweli and Mos Def delivered an album that was outside of what was deemed popular in the late ’90s. Tracks such as “Definition” and “Astronomy (8th Light)” are clinics on what true lyricism should sound like in any era. Black Star resonated with many hip-hop fans and was a refreshing escape from the monotony of the sound at the time. –Okla Jones
Hardest-Hitting Track: “Respiration” (ft. Common)
Gang Starr – Moment of Truth (1998)
Since 1989, Gang Starr, featuring the late great Guru and super-producer DJ Premier, were proud purveyors of underground, hardcore hip-hop. Their reputation was sterling as they grinded their way up the ladder of success together. But on their fifth album, Moment of Truth, the dynamic duo realized their magnum opus. Defying the odds by hitting their creative peak deep into their career, Moment of Truth is a testament to the longevity of Gang Starr. Moment of Truth was a critique of modern rap music, which was becoming more mainstream, and Gang Starr displayed to their world what they called, “the real hip-hop.” From their reintroduction to the masses with “You Know My Steez” to the gorgeous sonics of “Royalty” (ft. K-Ci and JoJo) to posse cuts and conceptual songs that always have a message, Moment of Truth is a time capsule of Gang Starr at their best. –Rashad Grove
Hardest-Hitting Track: “Above the Clouds” (ft. Inspectah Deck)
Outkast – Aquemini (1998)
After displaying creative ingenuity and song-writing brilliance on their first two albums, ATL’s finest, Outkast, delivered a masterpiece with Aquemini. The LP is filled with adroit lyricism, imaginative production, and an undeniable, organic chemistry between Big Boi and Dre (now known as Andre 3000) that comes shining through on the album from beginning to end. From the juke joint soul of “Rosa Parks” to the Organized Konfusion-crafted funk of “Skew It on the Bar-B” and the Slick Rick-assisted “Da Art of Storytelling”, Outkast cement their legacy as one of the best duos of all time with this classic. Essentially, Aquemini was a foreshadowing of the staying power of Southern hip-hop in the mainstream and the continual boundary-pushing artistic vision of Outkast. –Rashad Grove
Hardest-Hitting Track: “Return of the ‘G’”
Clipse – Hell Hath No Fury (2006)
There are common themes that the casual fan will always associate with rap music. Concepts like money, women, and fame are some that may come to mind. Hip-hop, however, is a genre with immense depth, so to reduce it to a few topics (especially frivolous ones) would be not only irresponsible but blasphemous. With the genre emerging from a place of struggle and desperation, the allure of the music is the great ones’ ability to vividly depict life as they know it, through words over a beat. The influence of street culture, as well as countless gangster films, the theme of drugs has become one of hip-hop’s most popular discussions.
At some point, the genre became oversaturated with drug talk – some artists being more believable than others. The Virginia-bred duo Clipse made a truly addictive album that would make the likes of Tony Montana, Richard Porter, and Pablo Escobar proud. 2006’s Hell Hath No Fury is 12 tracks filled with the opportunities as well as the pitfalls that cocaine provides. With production primarily handled by The Neptunes, the gritty tones of “Keys Open Doors” and “Mr. Me Too” was the perfect backdrop to Pusha T’s slick metaphors and Malice’s uncanny storytelling ability in regards to the drug game. Hell Hath No Fury is cocaine-rap at its peak, and the music is just as pure. –Okla Jones
Hardest-Hitting Track: “Ride Around Shining” (ft. Ab-Liva)