Yes, it’s true – I am a Hip Hop snob. I am always ready to slam and dismiss current mainstream rap, to point out where the good contemporary Hip Hop can be found and especially to school the ignorant about the excellence of the classics of the 80s & 90s and the underground jewels that dropped after the turn of the millennium.
Of course YOU already know what’s up and don’t need any schooling. This article (with the albums listed in no particular order) serves as a document that fellow Hip Hop snobs and evangelists can share with anybody in their social circle – usually the casual listeners or younger ones who haven’t dug very deep yet – who claim to love Hip Hop but who really don’t know what they’re talking about. Share this list with those people and tell them to check out at least some of the albums on this list – listening to just a few of the gems listed here should be enough to set them on the right path.
Critical readers will correctly conclude that there are a whole bunch of classic/essential Hip Hop albums NOT listed here – that’s because I intended to keep it limited to one album per act. Acts like De La Soul, The Roots, Public Enemy, Eric B & Rakim, Gang Starr, Nas, OutKast, and others could easily have had three or four albums on a ‘100 Essential Hip Hop Albums’ list – but to create space for other dope albums deserving attention, they all get represented here by just one of their classic releases.
That said, let’s get into it – hit up the comments with what YOU would do differently. Remember though: naming albums that should have been included is easy, also be ready to say which ones should be removed to make room for the ones you want to add. Let’s go!
Public Enemy - It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back (1988)
The albums on here are listed in random order but this first entry is the best of them all, just so you know. If you’d have to force just one album on a person ignorant of Hip Hop’s past, it should be Public Enemy’s game-changing sophomore album – for me the best and the most important album in the history of Hip Hop.
Run DMC - Raising Hell (1986)
One of the first mega-sellers in Hip Hop and the album that would cement the status of Run DMC as most important Hip Hop act of that time period. A brilliant album, with perfect interplay between Jam Master Jay – one of the first great all-around DJ’s in the game – and the back-and-forth rhyming of DMC and Run.
Of course, in a list with 100 essential Hip Hop albums also Run DMC’s self-titled debut album should be listed for its groundbreaking character, but because I want to keep it limited to one album per artist here I decided to go with Run DMC’s third effort, simply because it’s the better album. Also – this album, together with Beastie Boys‘ debut Licensed To Ill from the same year, was responsible for opening Hip Hop to all kinds of audiences all over the world. Run DMC “took the beat from the street and put it on TV”.
Beastie Boys - Paul's Boutique (1989)
Has there ever been an album, in any genre, that used sampling more brilliantly and creatively than on Paul’s Boutique? This album truly is sampling heaven, with layers upon layers of sonic brilliance, cooked up by the Beasties in association with the Dust Brothers.
Paul’s Boutique was completely different from Beastie Boys‘ much easier accessible and commercially super successful debut album Licensed To Ill – and not what a lot of fans of that album were expecting. I’ll readily admit my 18-year old self wasn’t able to fully appreciate the epicness of this album when it came out, like many other people I really had to grow into it. Paul’s Boutique has aged like a fine wine and is a true musical monument.
Raekwon - Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... (1995)
The best Wu-Tang solo album? Everyone will agree it’s up there with of the best of them. It’s not even a ‘real’ solo album – every Wu-Tang Clan member appears on one or more tracks and production is in the more than capable hands of RZA. That makes this album even more of a group effort than most other Wu-Tang solo releases.
After Kool G Rap, Raekwon can be seen as one of the pioneers of the mafioso sub-genre and this album is one of the best, if not the best of its sort. Only Built For Cuban Linx… was loosely composed to play like a film with Raekwon as the “star,” fellow Wu-Tang member Ghostface Killah as the “guest-star,” and producer RZA as the “director.” The cinematic feel of the album, along with the top-notch production and emceeing, make this one an all-time classic.
Ice T - Original Gangster (1991)
Ice T’s best album Original Gangster is a long album, but it is put together PERFECTLY. It feels and flows JUST RIGHT. You can just feel the love and the energy that went into the making of Original Gangster. It is one of those albums that feels as fresh today as it did when it was released. After three dope albums – Rhyme Pays (1987), Power (1988) and The Iceberg (1989) Ice T reached his peak with Original Gangster, the album that would establish him as one of Hip Hop’s most powerful personalities.
Masta Ace - Disposable Arts (2001)
Masta Ace is one of those few artists who are able to keep reinventing themselves while turning out consistent quality. This album is no exception. Ever since his 1990 debut album Take A Look Around, Masta Ace has been one of Hip Hop’s greatest talents, who was always able to capture the true essence of Hip Hop in all his work.
Disposable Arts is a clever concept album that offers excellent production and dope wordplay; from Masta Ace himself and guests like Rah Digga, Jean Grae, Greg Nice, Punchline, Wordsworth and more. This album arguably is Masta Ace’s magnum opus, although the sequel/prequel A Long Hot Summer is almost as formidable.
Boogie Down Productions - Criminal Minded (1987)
After making a name for themselves in the NYC Hip Hop underground, former social worker Scott La Rock and one of his clients, KRS One, formed Boogie Down Productions and changed the Hip Hop game forever in 1987 with Criminal Minded. The sparse production by the artists – and the at the time uncredited Ced Gee of the Ultramagnetic MCs – combined with KRS One’s lyrical content and distinctive delivery make this album a definitive Hip Hop classic, that without a doubt is up there with the greatest Hip Hop albums of all time.
Together with other groundbreaking 1987 debuts of Eric B & Rakim (Paid In Full) and Public Enemy (Yo! Bum Rush The Show), this album set the standard for Golden Age of Hip Hop.
A Tribe Called Quest - The Low End Theory (1991)
The Low End Theory is the definitive statement about what creativity, innovation, artistry, fun and raw talent can produce. Building on the quality work of their debut, Tribe perfected the fusion of jazzy influences and bass-heavy Hip Hop beats. The album is so coherent and consistent, it almost feels like one long song – in this case a good thing.
Phife, who only played a small part on the first album, really increased his skills as an emcee and establishes a perfect interplay with the exceptional Q-Tip. Clever lyrics and smooth and warm music – this album is nothing short of perfect.
OutKast - ATLiens (1996)
A step up from their already awesome Southerplayalisticadillacmuzik debut album. On ATLiens OutKast shows real growth and new found maturity, resulting in an album that is simply amazing lyrically as well as musically. No skits, no filler, no bullshit – just straight up dope Hip Hop with that unique OutKast twist. Three more monumental albums would follow ATLiens, but this one remains OutKast’s best if you ask me.
De La Soul - 3 Feet High & Rising (1989)
De La Soul Is Dead (1991), Buhloone Mindstate (1993) and Stakes Is High (1996) are album number two, three and four in an incredible four album run. Four albums, four straight classics, where the first one – 3 Feet High & Rising – arguably takes the crown for being one of the most influential and essential albums in Hip Hop history.
Innovative and hugely influential – this cooperation between De La Soul and producer Prince Paul is truly a landmark album in Hip Hop (and music in general). 3 Feet High & Rising introduced the skit to Hip Hop albums; and although skits more often irritate than add value, on this album they work. The whole album is consistent and all the songs are awesome – no filler tracks here.
Clever wordplay, deft rhymes, playful production, incredible sampling, positivity and fun: 3 Feet High And Rising represented a new direction for Hip Hop, clearly a reaction to the tough guy cliches already emerging in Hip Hop, even in its early years.
De La Soul’s debut is a must have for anyone who loves Hip Hop and an all-time classic.
Mr. Lif - I Phantom (2002)
The cover of the album nicely sums up the lyrical content – I Phantom deals with media, government, food, religion, law, sex, violence, drugs, and money – and how these things control and run people’s lives and how they are used to wipe out a person’s individuality.
I Phantom is filled with excellent tracks – if you somehow missed out on this album and you want to have a taste of the album, check out the 8-minute epic “Return Of The B-Boy” (in which Mr. Lif is resurrected as a Hip Hop messiah), and you’ll know what you’re in for.
The thematic and narrative scope of I Phantom is incredible, and even it is heavy stuff at times, this is a brilliant album. Lyrically astute and the production to back up the poignancy of the narrative – this is an important album and one that has to be remembered.
In a year where an album like Nellyville sold over 6 million units, this Mr. Lif masterpiece went largely unnoticed. Fluf over substance – that’s the world we live in and that’s one of the points this album so cleverly makes.
Wu-Tang Clan – Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993)
What can be said about this seminal album that hasn’t been said a thousand times over already? One of the most innovative, groundbreaking, influential and important Hip Hop albums EVER. New York’s answer to Dr Dre’s worldshaking The Chronic of the year previous.
RZA’s incredible innovative production resulting in that trademark dirty and gritty Wu-Tang sound, complemented by 9 emcees who all bring their A-game and show crazy versatility and never-seen-before lyrical creativity: unbeatable.
Q-Tip - The Renaissance (2008)
There was a lot riding on this album, released 9 years after Q-Tip last (solo)album Amplified – which wasn’t all that well-received. While not a bad album at all, Amplified was considered too ‘lightweight’ and insubstantial for someone with Q-Tip’s stature.
The Rennaissance obliterated all doubters and Q-Tip critics. The album is consistent as hell, 13 tracks with no filler material. “Gettin Up”, “We Fight/We Love”, “Official” and “Believe” are highlights, but there really are no weak tracks here. With The Rennaissance, Q-Tip succeeds perfectly in blending the ATCQ vibe we all love with his own distinct style. This album is a blueprint of how Hip Hop can sound when it’s done correctly.
Lord Finesse - Funky Technician (1990)
Founder of the legendary Diggin’ In The Crates Crew, Lord Finesse is one of the sickest punchline emcees in Hip Hop history, together with fellow DITC member Big L.
Funky Technician can be seen as the first DITC album, and an excellent album it is, start to finish. Finesse’s braggadocious rhymes are second to none and the production is typical early 90s NYC style. Straight dope. Funky Technician is woefully underrated, as is Lord Finesse himself. True Hip Hop heads know what’s up though and will surely have this one in their collection.
The Roots - Illadelph Halflife (1996)
Out of most artists catalog it’s not that hard to pick a stand-out album, THE album to represent their contribution to the history of Hip Hop. Like with A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and Gang Starr, that’s not the case with The Roots. This legendary Philadelphian crew can boast more than a handful of bonafide classics, albums like Things Fall Apart (1999), Phrenology (2002), Game Theory (2006) and How I Got Over (2010) are all required listens for everybody who claims to love Hip Hop.
The absolute stand-out in The Roots collection is this 1996 album though. Illadelph Halflife is a LONG album, but there are few, if any, wasted moments. This is smooth, jazzy Hip Hop at its finest, with live instrumentation and exceptional lyricism – a definite must-have.
Queen Latifah - Black Reign (1993)
Although her debut album may have been more important as a trailblazer for female emcees, this third effort is Queen Latifah‘s best record. Latifah’s charismatic and powerful personality really shines on this album, as well as real and heartfelt emotion in some of the songs (partly due to personal tragedy prior to the recording of Black Reign).
Most famous for the Grammy-winning anti-misogynist song U.N.I.T.Y., Black Reign has much more to offer. Tracks like “I Can’t Understand”, “Just Another Day”, “Superstar”, “Black Hand Side”, the dope posse cut “Rough…” and the emotional tribute to her brother “Winki’s Theme” show off Latifah at her versatile best. Great album.
Common - Be (2005)
Common’s second, third and fourth album – Ressurection (1994), One Day It’ll All Make Sense (1997) and Like Water For Chocolate (2000) were all classics in their own right, but many thought Common was over and done with after he released the bizarrely experimental Electric Circus in 2002. Disenchantment with Hip Hop at that time lead Common to drop that strange album, many doubted if Common would ever be able to come back from that. However, what happened was Common got up with Kanye West and J-Dilla to deliver the album of his career.
On Be Common found his fire and his love for the game again. Stellar tracks like “Testify”, “The Food”, “The Corner”, and “Go” are classic Common – in fact, the whole album is tight and consistent as can be. Common would go on to drop a whole bunch of other excellent albums – with 2017’s Black America Again and last years August Greene collaboration being stand-outs too – but Be will forever be his magnum opus.
Nas - Illmatic (1994)
One of the very best Hip Hop albums in history, period. A young and hungry, insanely talented emcee comes together with some of the finest producers in the game, who all bring their best work. No skits, no fillers – just nine 5-star tracks that combine into a seminal work that will forever be revered as one of the most important releases in Hip Hop ever. A monumental masterpiece.
Snoop Doggy Dogg - Doggystyle (1993)
In the pre-internet and Social Media days, when music promotion was a whole different ballgame, there have been few albums that were as hyped and anticipated as Snoop Doggy Dogg‘s solo debut. Having made an incredible impression with his unique style on Dr Dre‘s “Deep Cover” single and later as the top emcee on Dre’s monumental The Chronic, Snoop was hailed as Hip Hop’s next superstar.
With mentor Dr Dre on the boards, Doggystyle managed to meet the crazy high expectations. An all-around Hip Hop classic, on the West Coast arguably only surpassed in ‘classic-ness’ by N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton and Dre’s The Chronic, Doggystyle is and always will be Snoop Dogg’s magnum opus.
J Dilla - Donuts (2006)
Released just three days before his untimely death on Feb. 10, 2006, Donuts turned out to be J Dilla’s magnum opus. Donuts is a fitting reflection of Dilla’s creativity and musicality, and an apt tribute to his career.
Together with DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing (1996), Donuts has become THE landmark album when it comes to instrumental Hip Hop. It serves as the perfect example and as a great inspiration for countless aspiring beatmakers and DJs, showing where talent and dedication can lead to Donuts is the defining masterpiece from an amazingly talented musician who died much too young.
Eric B & Rakim – Paid In Full (1987)
In a musical genre still in its infancy, this Eric B & Rakim masterpiece was a game changer. Seductive, smooth yet hard beats laced with Rakim’s innovative and intricate rhyme style, make for this groundbreaking and seminal work.
This is one of the albums that can be seen as a precursor to 1988, Hip Hop’s break-out year – an album that established Hip Hop as a musical genre that was there to stay. Paid In Full will forever be recognized as one of Hip Hop’s ultimate classics. Filled with unforgettable tracks and Hip Hop anthems this album is a must-have.
Eric B & Rakim would go on to release three more excellent albums – Follow The Leader (1988), Let The Rhythm Hit Em (1990) and Don’t Sweat The Technique (1992) – but out the four Paid In Full is the most essential.
N.W.A. - Straight Outta Compton (1988)
This album was a game-changer; for better or for worse. One of the first real ‘gangsta rap’ albums, and one of the most successful, going multi-platinum without any radio play. It influenced and changed the direction of Hip Hop, producing countless gun-toting clones for decades to come. The difference between all the clones and this album is the originality and authenticity of Straight Outta Compton; combined with the revolutionary & flawless production of Dr Dre and the raw energy & at the time shocking lyrical imagery of Ice Cube, MC Ren & Eazy E.
Jay-Z - The Blueprint (2001)
In his long career, Hip Hop’s biggest businessman Jay-Z dropped a bunch of fantastic albums (along with a couple of duds as well), but he released the album of his career in 2001 with The Blueprint. Jay-Z’s most complete album since his debut Reasonable Doubt and one he would not be able to top with later releases. The Blueprint should be rightfully regarded as one of Hip Hop’s greatest albums.
Kanye West - The College Dropout (2004)
Whatever you think about later-Kanye, his seminal debut album is a true classic. Having already earned stripes producing for others (most notably on Jay-Z’s magnum opus The Blueprint), he exploded on the scene in 2004 with his first album.
The College Dropout is unique and musically diverse, and very listenable – even though Kanye isn’t the best emcee ever and even if the album has too many skits and a few filler songs: always a risk on a 75-minute album. Songs like “Spaceship”, “All Falls Down”, “Jesus Walks”, “Two Words”, “Last Call”, and “Never Let Me Down” all are classics though, and there are plenty more to enjoy besides.
Late Registration (2005), Graduation (2007) and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010) are Kanye-classics too, but The College Dropout is the album that set the tone for the career of this crazy genius, and arguably his most essential release.
Notorious BIG - Ready To Die (1994)
Another landmark album and an all-time classic. The Notorious B.I.G. made a big splash on the scene with his classic debut single Party & Bullshit. Expectations were high for his full-length debut album and boy did he deliver with Ready To Die.
One of the most naturally gifted emcees and storytellers in the Hip Hop game ever, everything came together for him on this album. Excellent production throughout with Biggie’s simultaneously brash and vulnerable lyrics to top off the banging instrumentals.
J-Live - The Best Part (2001)
This is one of the most slept on albums ever, it easily is one of the best Hip Hop albums of the 2000’s decade. The Best Part was recorded from 1996 to 1999, featuring production by Prince Paul, DJ Premier, and Pete Rock. Due to label problems, it was not before 2001 when the album was finally released. There’s no doubt it was worth the wait, though.
J-Live is an incredible emcee, with a great flow and delivery and clever lyrics. “Yes,” “Don’t Play”, “True School Anthem”, “Got What It Takes” and the classic cuts “Braggin Writes” and “Can I Get It” are just six of the awesome songs you have to check out on this album.
Critically acclaimed by those in the know, but sadly ignored by the larger audiences, The Best Part simply is a must-have for any self-respecting Hip Hop head. Oh, and J-Live next album – 2002’s All Of The Above – is almost as brilliant as this one.
Dr. Octagon - Dr. Octagonecologyst (1996)
Dr. Octagonecologyst introduces the character of Dr. Octagon, a homicidal, hypersexual, extraterrestrial, time-traveling gynecologist, and surgeon. Dr. Octagon’s history is detailed throughout the album’s songs, skits, and samples.
According to Mickey Hess, author of Is Hip Hop Dead? The Past, Present, and Future of America’s Most-Wanted Music:
“The album’s beginning and ending tie together the stories of the fictional character Dr. Octagon and the rap career of Kool Keith Thornton himself: We begin with ‘3000’ and end with ‘1977,’ which purports to be an audio recording from an early rap performance by Kool Keith … announcing a 1977 rap show featuring … pioneers Grandmaster Flash, Kool Herc, the L Brothers, and the original scratch creator Grand Wizzard Theodore [sic]. The message is clear: Kool Keith is a part of Hip Hop history, and even as rap moves on to the future, Dr. Octagon does not replace Kool Keith.”
An all-time underground favorite, Dr. Octagonecologyst simply is a perfect album. The concept works, the album flows perfectly and the production by Dan The Automater is absolutely phenomenal – innovative, eery, spaced-out: the instrumentals provide the perfect backdrop for Kool Keith’s trademark bizarre lyrics.
Dr. Octagonecologyst provided a new benchmark in pushing the limits of Hip Hop and has rarely been surpassed since its release in 1996.
Run The Jewels - RTJ2 (2014)
Wow – who would have thought El-P and Killer Mike could outdo their collaborative debut Run The Jewels (2013)? That record was epic and unstoppable enough, but this one is even better – more layered and even darker. The out-of-the-box combination of El-P and Killer Mike has proven to be unbeatable – this album is lyrically intelligent and hard-hitting as well as sonically brilliant, RTJ2 easily is one of the best and most important Hip Hop albums of the past decade.
EPMD - Unfinished Business (1989)
It was either EPMD’s seminal debut Strictly Business (1988) or this classic follow-up for this list – I decided to go with Unfinished Business because Unfinished Business proved EPMD’s consistency and it was the album that would establish them as one of Hip Hop’s powerhouses of that era.
Ghostface KIllah - Supreme Clientele (2000)
No sophomore slump for Ghostface Killah. Where most of his Wu-Tang colleagues struggled (and failed…) to follow-up their classic solo debuts with worthy follow-ups, Ghostface even surpassed his already awesome debut Iron Man with Supreme Clientele. If not for the little lag – with a few skits too many – in the middle of the album, Supreme Clientele would have been an absolute Hip Hop classic. As it is, it’s still a monumental album, and arguably Ghostface’s very best.
Souls Of Mischief - 93 Til Infinity (1993)
Souls Of Mischief – part of the Hieroglyphics collective – succeeded in dropping a West Coast album without the gangsta cliches, and that’s what a makes it a classic Hip Hop album that sounds as fresh today as it did when it came out. Amazing, rapid-fire wordplay by Opio, Phesto, A-Plus and Tajai, who flow together really well with intelligent, funny, and clever lyrics. Some of the best songs from this album include “Let Em Know”, “That’s When Ya Lost”, “Never No More”, and of course, the title track. Dope beats, dope rhymes – dope album.
Deltron 3030 - Deltron 3030 (2000)
Simply brilliant. One of the best concept albums ever created, this collaboration between producer Dan the Automator (as The Cantankerous Captain Aptos), rapper Del the Funky Homosapien (as Deltron Zero/Deltron Osiris), and DJ Kid Koala (as Skiznod the Boy Wonder) is as timeless a piece of music as it gets.
A challenging listen maybe, but ultimately extremely rewarding – a milestone not just for Hip Hop, but for music in general.
Gang Starr - Step In The Arena (1991)
Another one of those acts that dropped a number of classics in a row – starting with this one in 1991. Step In The Arena was Gang Starr’s second album and the start of a perfect 4-album run. Daily Operation (1992), Hard To Earn (1994) and Moment Of Truth (1998) are inescapable masterpieces as well, but for me it is the most important Gang Starr album – as it firmly established Guru’s and Premier’s unique sound – and it certainly is my personal favorite.
This is a long album but there are no filler tracks or unnecessary and annoying skits, you can listen to the whole album without having to skip a single song or interlude – the true mark of a classic if you ask me. With absolute classic cuts like “Take A Rest”, “Step In The Arena”, “Execution Of A Chump”, “Just To Get A Rep”, “Who’s Gonna Take The Weight”, “Check The Technique” and “Form Of Intellect”, Step In The Arena simply is unbeatable.
MF DOOM - Operation Doomsday (1999)
What a comeback! After a long hiatus following his brother’s death and the end of KMD, Zev Lov X reinvented himself and came back on the Hip Hop scene as MF DOOM. He would go on to release a myriad of excellent albums and collaborations – Doomsday just may be the very best of his work.
Jeru The Damaja - The Sun Rises In The East (1994)
In a year when Premier dropped another excellent Gang Starr album with Hard To Earn, he reserved his very best beats for Brooklyn emcee Jeru The Damaja. Jeru’s intellectual street flows combined with Premier’s best instrumentals result in a tight 10- song album with no filler tracks.
Freestyle Fellowship - Innercity Griots
follow-up to their dope but somewhat rough around the edges debut To Whom It May Concern. With this sophomore effort, Freestyle Fellowship deliver the goods.
The jazzy production provides the atypical backdrop for a West Coast album, but perfectly complements the lyricism – and that’s what this album is all about. Conscious, humorous, clever, versatile: emcees Mikah 9, P.E.A.C.E., Self Jupiter and Aceyalone bring it all. This highly original album is a slept-on lyrical masterpiece.
Little Brother - The Minstrel Show (2005)
After their incredible debut The Listening, 9th Wonder, Phonte, and Big Pooh dropped another gem on us with The Minstrel Show. Another one of those albums that received widespread critical acclaim, but no radio play – as it was not about guns, money, and bitches but rather about intelligence and upliftment. Clever rhymes, dope beats, and HEART, this is Hip Hop as it is supposed to be.
2Pac - Me Against The World (1995)
2Pac’s best album. Although the follow-up All Eyez On Me may be the more popular album, Me Against The World is much more cohesive, balanced and tight.
Me Against The World is 2Pac’s third album and the one on which he reaches real maturity. He is not the all-out thug persona yet and the album is better for it. On this album, he is able to show us all aspects of his tormented being, better than on any of his other albums.
Company Flow - Funcrusher Plus (1997)
Underground Hip Hop at its finest. A hate-or-love-it kind of album for many due to its innovative and experimental nature, but doubtless a classic. Company Flow, consisting of DefJux supremo El-P (beats & rhymes), Big Juss (rhymes) & DJ Mr. Len (beats & scratches), dropped this gem to bless Hip Hop in a time period where shiny suit rappers and gangsta posers were already getting most of the spotlight – proving real Hip Hop will always survive, if necessary underground.
Ahead of its time and very influential, Funcrusher Plus paved the way for countless left-field Hip Hop acts, who were and are instrumental in keeping the genre fresh.
Blu & Exile - Below The Heavens (2007)
Record sales don’t make an album a classic. A classic album is timeless, one that will still sound good decades from now. A classic album can be played again and again, without having to skip tracks.
Blu & Exile’s Below The Heavens is such an album. Consistent quality throughout – Exile’s soulful production is perfectly complemented by Blu’s introspective and intelligent lyrics. The album was well received by real Hip Hop heads and critically acclaimed, but it never got the sales or mainstream attention it deserved. This is real Hip Hop and a true underground classic.
People Under The Stairs – The Next Step (1998)
The Next Step is the independently released full-length debut by Los Angeles duo People Under the Stairs, the first in a string of excellent albums. PUTS always come with that authentic, real boom-bap Hip Hop and this first effort is a slept-on gem.
O.C. - Word…Life (1994)
O.C.‘s Word… Life is very similar to Nas’ Illmatic in many ways (excellent beats, clever lyricism, overall cohesiveness), but incorrectly much less revered. Maybe due to lacking promotion by O.C.’s Wild Pitch label, maybe because the competition in 1994 was so awesome – whatever the reason: Word… Life flew so far under the radar it’s ridiculous. This easily is one of the best Hip Hop albums of 1994. Don’t sleep on Word… Life.
Ultramagnetic MCs - Critical Beatdown (1988)
A classic album that has stood the test of time – Kool Keith‘s unique style & lyrics along with the excellent overall production ensure this is one for the ages. Highly original & innovative and very consistent – no weak tracks here.
Critically acclaimed, but at the same time slept on and somehow under-appreciated – this is one album that definitely needs to part of any Hip Hop curriculum.
Atmosphere - You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having (2005)
Even though their previous albums were more than alright, it was their fifth album that changed everything for Atmosphere. You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having, is as beautifully crafted and put together as any other album in that entire decade – Ant had rarely been better behind the boards, and Slug was just fantastic on the mic. Dope beats and intelligent rhymes throughout, stand-out tracks like “Say Hey There”, the fascinating “Pour Me Another” and the touching standout “Little Man” help to make this album their absolute magnum opus.
KRS One - Return Of The Boom Bap (1993)
After 5 albums as Boogie Down Productions, KRS One decided to start releasing albums under his own name. In his 30-year career, KRS dropped many classic albums – this one ranks with the best of them.
Lyrics, flow, delivery, message, beats, diversity – this album has everything. You know you can’t go wrong with KRS One, and with the likes of DJ Premier, Showbiz, Kid Capri and KRS himself on the boards the result has to be a classic.
Slum Village - Fantastic, Vol. 2 (2000)
Pretty much everything J Dilla has been involved in bears the mark of pure quality, and this official debut album from Detroit’s Slum Village in no exception. Brilliantly produced, this is an album you will appreciate more for the beats than for the lyrics, and that’s perfectly fine. Some great guest spots, great vibe – this is an album for the ages.
Black Star - Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star (1998)
Both Mos Def and Talib Kweli planned to release their solo albums around the same time, but they postponed their individual projects and decided instead to collaborate on a full-length LP – and what a collaboration it is. Great album.
Stetsasonic - On Fire (1986)
Stetsasonic – often dubbed ‘the first Hip Hop band’ – came out with a bang with this album in 1986. Fine work from a very young Prince Paul on the boards and great synergy between Stet’s emcees Daddy-O, Frukwan, Delight & Wise – On Fire is an essential 80’s Hip Hop album and after Run DMC’s Raising Hell and Beastie Boys’ Licensed To Ill the best Hip Hop album of 1986.
It usually does not happen, but Stetsasonic deserves to be mentioned with groups like Public Enemy, Ultramagnetic MCs, Boogie Down Productions and Run DMC as one of the vanguards crews responsible for ushering in Hip Hop’s Golden Age.
GZA - Liquid Swords (1995)
Liquid Swords is another highlight in the Wu-Tang (solo) catalog. GZA & RZA may have overdone it a bit on the skits/intro’s, but the songs on this one are true bangers. Elite production by the RZA as usual in that era, and the trademark dope Wu-Tang lyricism. Classic Wu-Tang.
Paris - The Devil Made Me Do It (1990)
Why this album is hardly ever mentioned when discussing best ever Hip Hop albums is a mystery. Everything about this album is DOPE. Production is on point, Paris is a great emcee with a dark, menacing tone of voice and the subject matter is thought-provoking.
Powerful and intelligent, controversial and political – Paris’ debut is a straight up Hip Hop classic.
Immortal Technique - Revolutionary Vol. 2 (2003)
Revolutionary Vol. 2 is a follow-up to Immortal Technique’s debut album, Revolutionary Vol. 1, which is just as excellent and important. Revolutionary Vol. 2 attacks the United States government, especially the Bush Administration. Issues repeatedly discussed on the album include poverty, drug trade, slave labor, censorship, corporate control over the media (including Hip Hop), 9/11, racism, the prison industrial complex, and class struggle. This is Hip Hop for thinking people – you don’t even have to agree with everything Immortal Technique says, but you have to LISTEN to him, so you can think for yourself and make up your own mind.
Mobb Deep - The Infamous (1995)
An album that will forever polarize opinions. Considered an absolute classic and a top 10 album by many, there are also those who find it inaccessible because of the ‘too’ gritty and dark nature of the album and who don’t like it at all.
Wherever you stand, there can be no denying this is a landmark album, both production-wise and lyrically. Mobb Deep brought their A-game on their second album and The Infamous will always be seen as one of the most important mid-90s East Coast albums.
Pete Rock & CL Smooth - Mecca And The Soul Brother (1992)
A timeless musical masterpiece, tasteful and irresistible. After the excellent EP they dropped the year previous, Pete Rock & CL Smooth followed up with this brilliant album. Pete Rock’s multi-layered, horns-filled, bass-heavy boom bap production is simply masterful. CL Smooth delivery serves as another instrument to complete the musical feast this album is from start to finish. Incredibly consistent throughout, Mecca And The Soul Brother is one of Hip Hop’s all-time greatest albums.
Ice Cube - Death Certificate (1991)
Still angry, still hungry. Ice Cube picks up where he left things with his classic debut AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted and even takes things a bit further. Raw and uncompromising, Death Certificate was highly controversial in its subject matter. Ice Cube pulls no punches and spares no one in his examinations of early 90s American society, which can make it an ‘uncomfortable’ listen at times.
Sonically, there is nothing wrong with Ice Cube’s and Sir Jinx’s production – although the funk induced beats on Death Certificate may seem a little less appealing than the Bomb Squad’s stand-out work on AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted – but this album is all about the lyrical content. Widely considered Ice Cube’s best work (together with AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted), Death Certificate is a truly important album in Hip Hop history.
Goodie Mob - Soul Food (1995)
This is Southern Hip Hop at its finest. Real and raw, Soul Food has that genre-bending musicality reminiscent of OutKast with true lyrical depth. One of those albums that age like fine wine and only get better as times goes by. Cee-Lo, T-Mo, Big Gipp, and Khujo dropped a real gem with this album.
Diamond D - Stunts Blunts & Hip Hop (1992)
Yet another NYC classic, true Hip Hop for connoisseurs. Diamond D always was a producer first and an emcee second and it shows. The beats on this joint are flawless start to finish, no need to skip tracks on this album. An underrated Golden Age gem.
Big Pun - Capital Punishment (1998)
Big Pun’s only album released during his lifetime, Capital Punishment is regarded as a classic if only because of Pun’s technical efficiency and incredible wordplay. Great production and plain awesome lyricism by one of the best emcees ever.
Binary Star - Masters Of The Universe (2000)
One of the most slept on albums of the year 2000 (or that decade even) is Binary Star’s Masters Of The Universe. Where dumbed down factory rap was selling millions of copies, this gem of an album sold less than 50.000 units, which is crazy when you think about it. Binary Star’s One Be Lo and Senim Silla, along with producer Decompoze, give us intelligent lyrics, great flows, captivating soundscapes and dope beats – what more should a Hip Hop album offer?
Black Sheep – A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing (1991)
This album is FUN. It’s also hugely underrated and rarely mentioned when classic Hip Hop album’s are considered. It should be, though. Over 70 minutes in length, but not a minute too long – it’s filled with dope, humorous, clever tracks. Mr. Lawnge’s production is tight and Dres is an excellent emcee with a unique voice and flow. Excellent work.
Big Daddy Kane - Long Live The Kane (1988)
Big Daddy Kane‘s debut album immediately establishes him as one of Hip Hop’s top lyricists – a status he will forever hold. This album was produced by Marley Marl at the peak of his powers and is a definitive Hip Hop classic.
Dr Dre - The Chronic (1992)
Has there ever been a more influential album in Hip Hop? Dr Dre‘s production on this album is just INCREDIBLE. Often imitated, never duplicated. It also showed us the full potential of Hip Hop’s next superstar – a young Snoop Dogg. Along with lyrics from a host of other talented rappers and Dr Dre himself, The Chronic is filled with the ‘standard’ gangsta themes (violence, sex, drugs, parties) – difference from most of the others is that on this album it sounds GOOD.
An all-time fan favorite to this day, The Chronic will forever be remembered as one of Hip Hop’s most influential and important albums.
Kool G Rap & DJ Polo - Road To The Riches (1989)
Kool G Rap is generally considered one of the greatest emcees ever, a pioneer of multi-syllabic & internal rhymes and complex rhyme schemes. Later he would go on to make the ‘maffioso’ rap not everyone appreciates, but here he was a straight up emcee with mostly braggadocio, battle-ready rhymes over Marley Marl’s sparse beats. Kool G Rap is often named your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper, and this album shows why.
Elzhi - The Preface (2008)
Elzhi is one of the most underrated emcees in the game. The Detroit lyrical giant dropped an instant classic with The Preface. Bangin beats – mostly provided by equally underrated Detroit producer Black Milk – and excellent wordplay by Elzhi himself and guest like Guilty Simpson, Royce da 5’9″ and Black Milk, make this 2008’s best album, along with The Roots’ Rising Downand Q-Tip’s The Renaissance.
“Guessing Game”, “Motown 25”, “Colors”, “Transitional Joint”, “What I Write”, “Talking In My Sleep” – just a few standout tracks on an album with not a bad song on it.
“Show these motherfuckers what a classic is…” In the intro of the album Elzhi is set up for a tall order, but boy does he deliver. The Preface is an amazing album you just have to have in your collection.
Ohmega Watts - The Find (2005)
What an excellent album! In a year where wack albums like 50 Cent’s The Massacre sold millions of copies, this gem of a record went largely unnoticed.
Perfectly encapturing the 90’s boom bap vibe, sonically paying homage to sounds of the likes of Pete Rock, DJ Premier, Diamond D, Q-Tip, Large Pro and other NYC mid-nineties production giants – but also capturing the vibe of west coast groups like The Pharcyde and Souls Of Mischief – Ohmega Watts simultaneously succeeds to give his beats and rhymes his own authentic and contemporary feel.
The self-explanatory “Where It All Started”, the old-fashioned-feeling “Full Swing” and cuts like “Saturday Night Live”, “Treatment”, and “Mind Power” are just some of the highlights, but the whole album slams.
Filled with jazzy and soulful beats, great sampling and lyrics worth listening to, The Find simply is an amazing debut and an all-around brilliant album.
Showbiz & AG - Runaway Slave (1992)
This is a flawless album: top-notch production from Showbiz (and Diamond D) and guest appearances from Lord Finesse and Big L (among others) – this may just be the best DITC album in a series of excellent albums. Amazingly consistent and entertaining throughout. The album flew well under the mainstream radar but was quickly recognized as a classic by true heads. Quintessential NYC early 90’s Hip Hop.
Madvillain - Madvillainy (2004)
This album is ART, pure and simple. Madvillainy redefined the underground and is a perfect example of what can happen if two left-field geniuses combine powers. MF DOOM and Madlib have both produced many pieces of brilliant music, but this epic album may just be the crowning achievement in both their careers.
Big L - Lifestyles Ov Da Poor & Dangerous (1995)
The classic debut of one of the most naturally gifted emcees ever. Big L, rest in peace.
Eminem - The Marshall Mathers LP (2000)
Eminem in his prime, lyrically unbeatable. Released after his breakthrough The Slim Shady LP (1999) and before the excellent The Eminem Show (2002), The Marshall Mathers LP still stands as Eminem’s magnum opus – the middle of an impressive three-album run and one of the best-selling Hip Hop albums ever. Unlike some others on this list, this album at least is one probably EVERYBODY knows.
The D.O.C. - No One Can Do It Better (1989)
On the heels of the explosive success of N.W.A‘s Straight Outta Compton, Dr Dre turns out another flawlessly produced album. The D.O.C. is a talented emcee who complements Dre’s beats perfectly. The D.O.C. doesn’t need gangster posturing to show and prove he is the man – he has the skills and confidence to carry this album and to make it an all-time Hip Hop classic.
R.A. The Rugged Man - Legends Never Die (2013)
R.A. The Rugged Man is an exceptional emcee. Incredible flow and wordplay, with lyrics that are clever, humorous, self-depreciative, personal, and provocative – this guy really is something else. The beats on this album are dope too, Legends Never Die is one of the best albums of the past decade if you ask me.
Scarface - The Fix (2002)
For many, this is Scarface’s best album and it’s easy to see why. Production is excellent – with some of the soundscapes provided by a young Kanye West in top form – and lyrically Scarface is at his best, deftly balancing his trademark street tales with conscious commentaries. “Guess Who’s Back” ft Jay-Z & Beanie Sigel, “In Between Us” ft Nas, “In Cold Blood”. “Safe”, “Keep Me Down” and of course the monumental “On My Block” are all unforgettable Scarface tracks.
Main Source - Breaking Atoms (1991)
Large Professor, one of Hip Hop’s most respected producers, exploded on the scene with this classic album – showing both his extraordinary talents on the boards and on the mic. Breaking Atoms is an important and hugely influential album in the history of Hip Hop and a testament to the brilliance of Large Pro. And not to forget: this album contained the official debut on wax from young Queensbridge emcee Nasty Nas, with a brilliant opening verse on the dope posse cut Live At The BBQ.
DMX – It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot (1998)
It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot is DMX‘s debut studio album and an immediate mega-success – going quadruple platinum eventually. With DMX’s grimy rap style and the album’s gritty production, the massive mainstream success it garnered wasn’t a given – DMX’s charisma and star power surely had a lot to with that, as well as excellent marketing by the Ruff Ryders label.
This is DMX at the top of his game: introspective, hardcore, and emotional at the same time. He would never top or even equal this album, even though the follow-up Flesh Of My Flesh, Blood Of My Blood, which came out later in this same year, was a pretty good album as well.
dead prez - Let's Get Free (2000)
In an era where conscious Hip Hop had long lost the spotlight to empty-headed materialism and violence, dead prez was one of the crews who kept the tradition started by Public Enemy and KRS-One alive: bringing intelligent, socially and politically charged messages over some kick-ass beats.
Whether you agree with all of dead prez’s points of view or not, you can’t deny the power of their messages. Amidst all the bling-bling, materialistic, candy-coated ‘I wanna be a gangsta’ rap especially pumped out by No Limit and Cash Money Records, this Hip Hop album for the thinking man was an undeniable breath of fresh air.
Slick Rick - The Great Adventures Of... (1988)
It doesn’t get much better than this. A flawless album from start to finish, filled with dope tracks. Slick Rick‘s superior story telling abilities, combined with his humor and typical rap style, make this album an unforgettable masterpiece.
The Fugees - The Score (1996)
A great commercial as well as critical success, The Score was a massive improvement on The Fugees‘ enjoyable but somewhat uneven Blunted On Reality debut album. The Score is a timeless and flawless masterpiece and paved the way for Lauryn Hill‘s monumental solo debut The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill.
The Pharcyde - Labcabincalifornia (1995)
Second album, second classic for The Pharcyde. Even though The Pharcyde’s debut album Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde deserves a spot on any list with 99 other classic Hip Hop albums, I decided to go with their sophomore album Labcabincalifornia for a mention here. More mature and musically rounded than their equally epic debut, Labcabincalifornia is an album that has matured really well. Highlights include the J-Dilla-produced “Runnin”, “Drop” and “She Said” but the whole album is special.
Jedi Mind Tricks - Servants In Heaven, Kings In Hell (2006)
Servants in Heaven, Kings in Hell is the fifth studio album by legendary Philly crew Jedi Mind Tricks and arguably their best, in a series of mostly excellent albums. It is also their best-performing album commercially but still went criminally unnoticed (especially when compared to 2006 highest selling and wack rap albums from the likes of Lil Wayne, Rick Ross and others like them).
Servants In Heaven, Kings In Hell is worth the price of admission alone for the masterpiece that is “Uncommon Valor”, with an epic verse by guest emcee R.A. The Rugged Man. But the rest of the album bangs too. Stoupe’s unique and cinematic soundscapes and Vinnie Paz’s vicious lyrics get equal shine, every track works. With some dope additional rhyming from guest like regular JMT collaborator Chief Kamachi, Sean Price and especially the aforementioned R.A. The Rugged Man, this album truly is a worthy addition to anyone’s music collection.
Digable Planets - Reachin' (1993)
Smooth and jazzy, Digable Planets’ debut album deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and The Roots albums of that era. All about positivity and empowerment, Digable Planets sadly flew a bit under the radar – Reachin’ was and is a flawless listen from start to finish though, and it has definitely stood the test of time.
LL Cool J - Radio (1985)
Which one is LL Cool J’s best album? Mama Said Knock You Out maybe? Or Bigger And Deffer? They both could have been included on this list, but Radio is the album from LL’s body of work that holds the biggest significance in Hip Hop’s history and that’s why it’s included here. LL Cool J‘s debut album is one of the most influential Hip Hop albums of all time. Together with Run DMC’s self-titled debut album from the year before, Radio was the second album that would set the tone for how Hip Hop was going to sound.
Rick Rubin’s stripped-down, minimalistic production complements LL Cool J B-Boy attitude and at the time revolutionary lyricism perfectly. This is one of the greatest and most important debuts in the history of Hip Hop and LL Cool J is one of the all-time greats.
Camp Lo - Uptown Saturday Night (1997)
Camp Lo‘s Sonny Cheba and Geechi Suede come off as sort of hybrid of OutKast, The Pharcyde and De La Soul. Their insanely smooth flows and outstanding creativity and originality make for an atypical late nineties NYC Hip Hop album.
Even though it contained the smash hit “Luchini (This Is It)”, Uptown Saturday Night never really got the recognition it deserved, certainly not at the time of its release. It has aged really well though and is deservedly recognized now by many as the masterpiece it is.
Brother Ali - Shadows On The Sun (2003)
Brother Ali is one of the heavy-hitters of the fantastic Rhymesayers label. All of his albums are great, but Shadows Of The Sun arguably is his very best. Over some of the most engaging Ant production ever heard, Ali paints honest, poignant, and compelling pictures all over the album. While every track is exceptional in its own right, perhaps it’s the painfully open “Forest Whitaker” – where he bravely points out all his physical imperfections while embracing them at the same time – showing the importance of self-love in one of the most empowering cuts ever. With Shadows Of The Sun, Brother Ali delivered a landmark album – one of the best Hip Hop albums of that entire decade.
Murs & Ski Beatz - Love & Rockets Vol. 1: The Transformation (2011)
On a list with 100 essential Hip Hop albums, one spot has to be reserved for Murs – one of the most underappreciated artists in the game. First I wanted to include one of his collabo albums with 9th Wonder – Murs 3:16: The 9th Edition (2004) or Murray’s Revenge (2006) – but decided to go with Love & Rockets Vol. 1: The Transformation after all – it’s an album that is a smooth and solid playthrough from start to finish: dope beats provided by Ski Beatz and with Murs’ trademark clever lyrics.
Murs is great at letting emotion show – just check the single “Remember 2 Forget”, about ex-girlfriend woes or the poignant album closer “Animal Style”, a tale of a closeted highschool homosexual that ends tragically – and at storytelling too: the story of a trip gone wrong in Tuscon, Arizona on “67 Cutlass” is a dope example. Other highlights are his tribute to the legacy of West Coast Hip Hop on “Eazy E”, the Ab Soul and D.I.T.C. rapper O.C. assisted “Life & Time”, and his criticism on the music industry on “316 Ways”.
Overall, “Love & Rockets, Vol. 1: The Transformation” is another great album in Murs’ extensive body of work.
Brand Nubian – One For All (1990)
This album is a monument in the history of Hip Hop music. Original, both lyrically and musically. Sadat X’s, Lord Jamar’s and Grand Puba’s lyrics are alternately thought-provoking and fun; and sonically the albums is dope as well. Brand Nubian‘s One For All should be a mandatory part of any Hip Hop collection.
Too Short - Life Is... (1988)
Life is… Too Short is Oakland legend Too Short’s second studio album. By 1988 Too Short already was a veteran in the Hip Hop game, producing and selling music with his homeboy Freddy B. His debut studio album Born To Mack – with the classic “Freaky Tales” cut on it – deserves a mention here, but it is this album that needs to be on this list – Too Short’s best imho. Too Short deserves his props as one of the original pioneers of (West Coast) Hip Hop.
Black Moon - Enta Da Stage (1993)
What’s the definition of a classic album? It has to be ‘timeless’, contain no filler tracks, have endless replay value and it has to be groundbreaking and influential. Enta Da Stage is such an album. As KRS One would say: this album is real boom bap – real hard beats and real rap. Rough, rugged & raw, the epitome of the early 90s NYC street sound – a must have for NYC Hip Hop heads, if not for every real Hip Hop fan.
Jungle Brothers - Done By The Forces Of Nature (1989)
The Jungle Brothers never really received the same recognition their fellow Native Tongues crews De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest did, but their first two albums are straight up Native Tongue classics as well. Their 1988 debut Straight Out Of The Jungle is a classic, this one is more than a worthy follow-up. Conscious, positive and funky – this album has turned out to be a timeless piece of music.
Jurassic 5 - Quality Control (2000)
This is as good as feel-good Hip Hop gets. Perfectly capturing that throwback Hip Hop vibe, this Californian crew are all about flawless emceeing over dope instrumentals. Chali 2na, Mark 7even, Zaakir, and Akil can flow and harmonize with the best of them. while DJ Nu-Mark and the legendary DJ CutChemist add value with the beats and cuts they provide. Much needed upbeat Hip Hop in times when materialism and violence of gangsta wannabes dominated the mainstream.
Geto Boys - The Geto Boys (1990)
Grip It! On That Other Level (1989) was Geto Boys‘ second album, but the first one with the strongest Geto Boys line-up: Scarface, Willie D & Bushwick Bill (plus the late DJ Ready Red). The album was as groundbreaking and controversial as NWA’s Straight Outta Compton in many ways – with it’s violent and misogynistic topics. Grip! It! On That Other Level was the album that put Houston on the map as a major Hip Hop hub.
The Geto Boys is a remix album containing one track from the group’s debut album Making Trouble (1988), 10 tracks from Grip It! On That Other Level (1989), and two dope new songs – “Fuck Em” and “City Under Siege”. All tracks on the album were re-recorded, remixed and revamped by acclaimed producer Rick Rubin.
Above The Law - Livin Like Hustlers (1990)
One of the earliest N.W.A. / Dr Dre ‘sponsored’ acts, Above The Law comes out with a straight up (West Coast) Hip Hop classic. Slammin’ west coast gangsta funk beats, produced by ATL themselves, Laylaw and Dr Dre. One of those rare albums where you don’t have to skip a track – truly classic material.
Cypress Hill - Cypress Hill (1991)
Cypress Hill’s highly original debut record. DJ Muggs’ funk-laced and bass-heavy production filled with creative sampling, combined with the typical voices of emcees Sen Dog and especially B-Real, created Cypress Hill’s instantly recognizable, signature sound.
Mos Def - Black On Both Sides (1999)
Mos Def is one of the most unique emcees out there – he has a unique, immediately recognizable voice and his flow is tight. He’s intelligent, humorous, passionate, creative, and socially conscious. Black On Both Sides is Mos Def’s masterpiece and a must have for all Hip Hop fans.
Ras Kass - Soul On Ice (1996)
One of the most lyrical albums in Hip Hop ever, by one of the most underrated lyricists. Classic if only for the controversial 8-minute tour-de-force “Nature Of The Threat”.
Lupe Fiasco - Food And Liquor (2006)
The debut from the Chicago’s Lupe Fiasco is one of the best of the decade. In an age of simplistic rhymes and lack of meaningful concepts, Lupe Fiasco brought intelligence and consciousness back to mainstream Hip Hop. He would drop more excellent projects later on (and some misses as well), but Food & Liquor still remains his best album.
Redman - Muddy Waters (1996)
The third album in an incredible three-album run. After the classics Whut Thee Album and Dare Iz A Darkside, Muddy Waters may just be Redman‘s very best album. Red’s lyrical ability is second to none. Bizarre and humorous lyrics delivered in that typical crazy Redman flow – Muddy Waters is an album that is not to be missed.
Cannibal Ox - The Cold Vein (2001)
Cannibal Ox really delivered something special with The Cold Vein. With invaluable work on the boards of El-P during the heyday of the unsung DefJux label, this album is nothing less than a masterpiece. The lyrical prowess displayed by Cannibal Ox’s two emcees Vast Aire and Vordul Mega is outstanding, they succeed in painting a grim picture of modern NYC life with imagery that’s highly creative. El-P’s innovative and layered production is what sets the atmosphere for the album though – this one of those albums where the beats perfectly complement the lyrics and vice versa, creating a musical tableau that is atmospheric and hypnotic at the same time – complex but ultimately eminently rewarding. The Cold Vein was years ahead of its time and is only getting better as time goes by.
Reflection Eternal - Train Of Thought (2000)
Sometimes seen as part three in an unofficial trilogy, with part 1 and 2 being Black Star’s Mos Def And Talib Kweli Are Black Star and Mos Def’s Black on Both Sides, Talib Kweli’s and Hi-Tek’s Train Of Thought album is every bit as brilliant as the other two. Hi-Tek comes with excellent production throughout and Talib Kweli once again proves he is a gifted emcee who can write meaningful lyrics and has the emcee skills to deliver them. No skippable tracks on this album – quality all the way. Intelligent, conscious, positive – Train Of Thought is an all-time Hip Hop classic.
A Tribe Called Quest - Midnight Marauders (1993)
Even though I intended not to put two albums from the same act on this list, I am breaking my own rule by including Midnight Marauders, A Tribe Called Quest’s third album. The second Tribe album on this list, because it is nearly impossible to choose which one is one is better. Faced with the impossible task of following up on the flawless masterpiece that is The Low End Theory, with Midnight Marauders Tribe delivered an album that is every bit as awesome as its predecessor was. There can be no greater praise.
Lyricist Lounge Vol. 1 (1998)
Crucially important in establishing the Rawkus movement, this album is a monument in underground Hip Hop. A double album – with album #1 ‘hosted’ by De La Soul and album #2 by Kool Keith & Sir Menelik – Lyricist Lounge Vol. 1 offers more than two hours of pure Hip Hop gold. Raw Hip Hop beats and scratches combined with clever and socially conscious lyrics – there are virtually no weak tracks here, and A LOT of standouts.
“Criminals In Action (C.I.A.)” by Rage Against the Machine frontman Zack de la Rocha, KRS-One, and The Last Emperor is one of the highlights, as are Mos Def’s & Q-Tip’s “Body Rock” and “Action Guaranteed” by O.C. & Ras Kass. But make no mistake, this whole compilation album is dope a.f. – appearances by aforementioned artists as well as the likes of Talib Kweli, Bahamadia, Rah Digga, Punchline, Wordsworth, Mike Zoot, Company Flow, Juggaknots and many more virtually guarantee top quality.
To top it off we have album one closer “Live from the DJ Stretch Armstrong Show with your host Bobbito ‘The Barber’”, a 12-minute freestyle session featuring Black Thought, Common, Pharoahe Monch, and Absolute. What more is there to want?
Lyricist Lounge Vol. 1: true Hip Hop, no gimmicks, DOPE.
Percee P - Perseverance (2007)
This entry may not be an obvious one when talking about essential Hip Hop albums, but it is a personal favorite, so there you go. Percee P is a criminally underrated emcee. One of the best lyricists in the game, ever. Active in the Hip Hop game since the 1980s, Perseverance, his official solo debut album came out as late as 2007. If he could have gotten himself released in the early 90s, no doubt he would be widely recognized now as one of the all-time greats. As it is, this album may have come too late – in a time when Hip Hop was being watered down and dumbed down for near on a decade already and quality Hip Hop like this was not promoted anymore by the big money people.
This is a real Hip Hop album, that should have a place in any real heads collection. Superior lyrical skill, astute lyrics and produced by one of the best producers in the game: Madlib. It has Madlib’s signature sound; a bit modern & experimental at times, but still with enough of an ‘old-school’ feel to them to match Percee P’s lyrics.
The album has a couple of guest spots – Guilty Simpson, Vinnie Paz, Diamond D, Prince Po, Aesop Rock – all quality emcees, but Percee P outshines them all effortlessly.