50 Hip Hop Cult Classics You Need To Hear: [A cult classic is something such as a film or book that is considered to be one of the best of its kind by a small group of people.] We typically think of ‘cult classics’ in terms of movies, but in music, there are cult classics too. It might be helpful to think of ‘cult classic’ status as an act that has a very devoted but relatively small following (compared to the mainstream), or an album or artist whose following is somehow greater than the sum of their parts would suggest. The albums listed here – in no particular order – are all highly acclaimed, but not by wider audiences.
Organized Konfusion - Stress: The Extinction Agenda (1994)
Following their eponymous debut LP, Pharoahe Monch and Prince Po had a lot to live up to. They admirably succeeded in creating an album with similarities to the first album, while doing something completely different at the same time. Prince Po and Pharoahe Monch come with unparalleled lyricism on this dark, dense, complicated, and intellectual album. This album was way ahead of its time in vision and execution. Some albums from this era sound dated now but Stress: The Extinction Agenda sounds as fresh today as it did on the day it was released – the mark of a true classic.
In terms of wordplay, flow, delivery, AND content – this is the gold standard. Pharoahe Monch is and has always been the better rapper of the two, but Prince Po is perfectly able to hold his own – which is incredible enough. Both emcees manage to step up their already considerable game from their debut, they come with phenomenal rhymes and complex flows – bar for bar lyrical Hip Hop doesn’t get much better than this. Whether they are storytelling, philosophizing, joking, bragging, being conscious, or simply throwing out battle raps – their lyrical performances are top-tier in every aspect – there is NOTHING cliche or run-of-the-mill about the lyricism on Stress: The Extinction Agenda. Some of the tightest and most inventive rhymes you’ll ever hear are on this album, with the conceptual gem “Stray Bullet” being a particular lyrical highlight.
The mostly self-produced beats on Stress: The Extinction Agenda are dope as f too – dark and menacing, but jazzy at the same time: musically this album comes off as a hybrid of the sounds of A Tribe Called Quest and Wu-Tang Clan – combining the best of both worlds.
Stress: The Extinction Agenda is one of the most underrated albums released in the 1990s – this truly is a one-of-a-kind kind of album. If you’ve ever wondered why many consider Pharoahe Monch a GOAT emcee – study this album and you will know. Stress: The Extinction Agenda is an all-around brilliant album that should not be overlooked.
CunninLynguists – A Piece Of Strange (2006)
The third album from the underrated CunninLynguists is a masterpiece from start to finish. Much darker and denser than their more light-hearted and fun first two albums, A Piece Of Strange takes us on a journey following the story of a man and those closest to him in their struggles with right and wrong, love and hate, while at the same time exploring the religion and racism that were (and are) so prevalent in the south. The 16 songs contain loose connections with certain defined Biblical numerics and their interpretations. In Kno’s own words:
“This album is not meant to be overtly Christian in theme or presentation, but more so delivering an amoral slant to a storyline communicated through Hip Hop. Deacon’s life growing up as the son of a preacher definitely led us to some of the insights and story molding that went on when we were making and recording the album, but as most moderate Christians will tell you…you have to relate the material as generally as possible without preaching and talking down to people. APOS wasn’t meant to teach faith-infused lessons necessarily, but simply to deliver a story.”
A Piece Of Strange offers excellent production and clever lyrics – the whole album is as good as it gets. Standouts tracks aplenty, but cuts like Brain Cell and Nothing To Give especially shine. Don’t sleep folks, this truly is a landmark album.
El-P – Fantastic Damage (2002)
The first solo album by Definitive Jux head-honcho El-P builds on the lyrically and sonically dense sound he pioneered with Company Flow, with Fun Crusher Plus (released via Rawkus Records in 1997) as the benchmark album that was instrumental in keeping real Hip Hop alive. On Fantastic Damage, he produces avant-garde digital beats and drops ill lyrics designed to make you listen carefully and to make you think. With his drive to experiment and innovate, El-P’s (and Def Jux’s) influence on keeping Hip Hop fresh and exciting cannot be overstated.
MF DOOM - Mm..Food (2004)
Mm… Food is kind of a concept album, as every track is compiled primarily of food-related subject matter. The food-related concept works better than you might expect, particularly when DOOM uses it as a means to cleverly diss other emcees. This album holds some of DOOM’s best beats and bars, as a listening experience Mm.. Food can be a challenge though – mostly because of the overabundance of skits (most notably in the middle of the tracklist) that are meant to thematically tie together the actual songs on the album, but that actually break its flow (especially because they are sometimes stuck to the songs, so not-skippable). Sure, the skits on any MF DOOM album are an essential part of the listening experience, but here it’s a bit over the top.
Despite the skits, this is one of MF DOOM’s best albums. “Beef Rap”, “Hoe Cakes”, “Rapp Snitch Knishes”, “Poo-Putt Platter”, and “Vomitspit” are some of the classic MF DOOM cuts on Mm.. Food. Production (mostly from DOOM himself) is awesome, and DOOM’s complex flows and abstract lyrical imagery, make for a dope album that is aging really well.
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, 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.
Blackalicious - Nia (1999)
The Sacramento-based duo of producer/DJ Chief Xcel and late emcee The Gift of Gab dropped an excellent (full-length) debut album with Nia. Progressive, soulful, stylistic, and inventive production and exceptional lyricism by Gift Of Gab, truly one of the most underrated and poetic lyricists in the Hip Hop game.
Killer Mike - R.A.P. Music (2012)
We love it when everything we value in Hip Hop comes together in one project. Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music (Rebellious African People Music) is such a project, one that fires on all cylinders. Hard-hitting, kick-ass beats for Killer Mike to spit his uncompromising and thought-provoking lyrics over, this is what Hip Hop is all about. R.A.P. Music was an instant classic, reminiscent of the fire and fury early Ice Cube and Public Enemy albums brought – this album has that same sense of intensity and urgency.
Killer Mike was already able to boast a strong discography before the release of R.A.P. Music, but this album is on another level. His synergy with DefJux head-honcho El-P is awesome – something they would continue to prove with the three excellent Run The Jewels albums that would follow this collaboration. Killer Mike’s lyrics are raw and unapologetic yet intelligent and socially conscious at the same time – and the ingenious soundscapes provided by El-P only serve to strengthen Killer Mike’s diverse lyrical content.
R.A.P. Music was too real to attract big-time mainstream media attention, but it is an important album and a modern classic.
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.
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.
R.A. The Rugged Man – Legends Never Die (2013)
R.A. The Rugged Man is an exceptional emcee – better than your favorite rapper. Few, if any, emcees can go bar-for-bar with R.A. The Rugged Man. His technical skill, his incredible flow, his breath control, and his bar-building skills are second to none. Due to all kinds of label woes and a strong-minded personality with an unwillingness to compromise, he only released three albums in the more than three decades he’s been active in the game – but on those three albums, and on numerous guest appearances on other people’s songs (where he usually bodies everybody else involved), R.A. has consistently shown an unbeatable lyrical ability.
Legends Never Die is R.A.’s second album, displaying his superior flow and wordplay, with lyrics that are clever, humorous, braggadocious, 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 most entertaining albums released in 2013.
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 comes with that authentic, real boom-bap Hip Hop and this first effort is a slept-on gem, with classic tracks such as “San Francisco Knights”, “Los Angeles Daze”, “Time To Rock Our Sh”, and “The Next Step II”.
Jurassic 5 - Quality Control (2000)
Perfectly capturing that throwback Hip Hop vibe, this Californian crew is 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.
Atmosphere - God Loves Ugly (2002)
On God Loves Ugly Atmosphere’s Slug and Ant wanted to show how far away they stood from conventional, traditional Hip Hop imagery and themes. Absorbing their need to be different, they came up with some of the most conceptually intriguing Hip Hop of the early millennium. On God Loves Ugly, Slug and Ant managed to weave tales of sorrow, frustration, and forgiveness together seamlessly over beds of melancholic melodies that swell with tension and angst over bone-cracking snares and taut bass lines. With some of the most beloved classics in Atmosphere’s catalog, including “F*@k You Lucy”, “Godlovesugly”, “Lovelife”, “Modern Man’s Hustle” and “Shrapnel”, God Loves Ugly was effectively a lesson on processing pain without becoming a victim to it. Considered one of the first ’emo-rap’ (an over-used label these days) albums, Atmosphere brings passion with an intricate poetic nature that makes God Loves Ugly of their very best albums.
Brotha Lynch Hung – Season Of Da Siccness (1995)
Sacramento’s Brotha Lynch Hung is an incredibly underrated emcee, who deserves props as one of the pioneers of the horrorcore subgenre. Season Of Da Siccness is his (full-length) debut album, and like all albums on this list definitely not for the faint of heart. “Locc To Da Brain,”, “Siccmade”, “Rest In Piss”, “Welcome 2 Your Own Death” are just a few of the standout tracks on this album. Lynch’s great flow goes together perfectly with the dark and sinister beats, entirely produced by Lynch himself.
The album is filled with shockingly graphic violent stories and images, but it is intelligent and even sometimes emotional at the same time. Season Of Da Siccness may be hard to digest, but ultimately it has to be considered an all-around classic. Season Of Da Siccness arguably is Brotha Lynch Hung’s best and definitely his most essential album – but most of the rest of his catalog is dope as hell (pun intended) as well, especially his concept album trilogy (Dinner and a Movie (2010), Coathanga Strangla (2011) and Mannibalector (2013)) is more than worth checking out.
Mr. Lif – I Phantom (2002)
The cover of the album 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 it, 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 awesome, 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.
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 the date of its release. 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.
Cage – Hell’s Winter (2005)
Not an easy or comfortable listen, as per usual with Cage – the Orange County rapper who never shied away from talking about his troubled past and his personal demons. Compared to other Cage releases, Hell’s Winter is less demented but even more personal – even if some of the stories Cage relates are hard to stomach, especially with the knowledge that at least some of these stories he tells are based on real events and personal experiences.
With his move to Definitive Jux, superior production values under the supervision of DefJux head-honcho El-P are guaranteed. El-P, Blockhead, Camu Tao, DJ Shadow, and RJD2 each bless Cage with musical backdrops, for him to bare his mind and soul. Sonically superior and lyrically intense – Hell’s Winter is Cage’s magnum opus and one of the many jewels in the DefJux crown.
Three 6 Mafia - Chapter. 2: World Domination (1997)
The breakout album from Three 6 Mafia. The Memphis crew created some mainstream buzz with this album, which is built on their earlier releases, reprising four hits previously released on Mystic Stylez (1995) and Chapter 1: The End (1996): “Late Nite Tip”, “N 2 Deep”, “Body Parts” and “Tear Da Club Up”. Chapter. 2: World Domination is filled with top-tier dark and hypnotic beats crafted by DJ Paul and Juicy J, and with cutthroat lyrical content – at 80+ minutes this is a monster of an album, but it never overstays its welcome. Chapter. 2: World Domination is a BANGER from start to finish – Three 6 Mafia’s best.
KA - Honor Killed The Samurai (2016)
A chilling barrage of aesthetic metaphors, brooding imagery, and incredible rhyme schemes from KA – Hip Hop’s Shakespeare from Brownsville, NYC. Like its equally excellent predecessor The Nights Gambit (2013), the conceptual Honor Killed The Samurai is another beautiful project consisting of minimalistic, understated instrumentals that serve to give room to KA’s narrative and subtle wordplay.
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 should LISTEN to him, so you can think for yourself and make up your own mind.
Masta Ace Inc. - Slaughtahouse (1993)
On this album, Masta Ace and crew criticize the attitude of gangsta rap and the glamorization of violence in Hip Hop successfully ridiculing gangsta poseurs – a refreshing point of view in a post-Chronic Hip Hop world. Slaughtahouse is an important document that was way ahead of its time, with dope beats and intelligent lyrics from start to finish, and with classic cuts on it such as “Slaughtahouse”, “Boom Bashin”, “The Mad Wunz”, “Jeep Ass Niguh”, and “Saturday Nite Live”.
Zion I – True & Livin’ (2005)
True & Livin is the third album from Oakland’s duo Zion I, the first album on their own label LiveUp Records. Zion and Amp Live expand their creative and experimental sounds on the album, featuring a wide range of musical styles, laced with intelligent, socially conscious lyrics. Amp Live’s head-nodding beats are laced with jazzy and elegant musical backdrops, and Zion’s thoughtful and expressive lyrics complement the soundscapes beautifully. Guests like Talib Kweli, Aesop Rock, Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, and Gift of Gab only add to the quality of the album.
The singles “Soo Tall”, the Talib Kweli featuring “Temperature” and especially the excellent “Bird’s Eye View” are immediate standouts, and cuts like the abstract “Poems 4 Post Modern Decay” (with Aesop Rock), “The Bay”, “Stranger In My Home” (with Gift Of Gab) and the jazzy “Doin’ My Thang” also bang – but there are no weak tracks on this album. True & Livin’ flew way under the radar in 2005 – if you missed it somehow it definitely deserves your attention.
Slum Village - Fantastic, Vol. 2 (2000)
Pretty much everything the late great J Dilla has been involved in bears the mark of pure quality, and this official debut album from Detroit’s Slum Village is 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.
Freestyle Fellowship - Innercity Griots (1993)
Innercity Griots is the follow-up to Freestyle Fellowship’s dope but somewhat rough around the edges debut To Whom It May Concern. With this sophomore effort, Freestyle Fellowship really deliver the goods. The jazzy production provides the atypical backdrop for a West Coast album but perfectly complements the jazz inflections in the vocals with their unusual time signatures and scat-influences. Consciousness, humor, cleverness, versatility: emcees Mikah 9, P.E.A.C.E., Self Jupiter, and Aceyalone bring it all with their wordplay. This highly original album is a masterpiece.
Busdriver – Temporary Forever (2002)
Weird, but wonderful. Los Angeles’ Busdriver has never made a straightforward or accessible album, and like all of Busdriver’s work, Temporary Forever is an acquired taste without a doubt. Busdriver’s unorthodox and wild flows and his general abstract and experimental style will leave many heads spinning, but those who allow themselves to be swept away by Busdriver’s eccentricity and by the beats that perfectly gel with his lyrical antics will soon count this underground classic as one of their favorite albums.
Temporary Forever is Busdriver’s second album, and although he would go on to release a couple more great projects (especially Fear of a Black Tangent (2005) and Perfect Hair (2014) are must-haves too), this one stands as his absolute masterpiece.
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 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 starting to get most of the spotlight. 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.
Killah Priest - The Psychic World Of Walter Reed (2013)
41 tracks, 2 hours & 17 minutes of music – The Psychic World Of Walter Reed is a monster of an album. Despite its length, Killah Priest’s tenth album is one of his best. In typical Killah Priest fashion, The Psychic World Of Walter Reed is laced with cryptic observations, cosmic imagery, and religious references, all of it mixed up with street wisdom – his content can be heavy-going at times, making his music something for a niche audience. But there’s plenty to enjoy even if you are not inclined to dissect all of Killah Priest’s relentlessly dense lyrical content – his resonating baritone is a joy to listen to, and the beats on this album are dope. It says a lot that the instrumentals crafted by elite beat crafters like RZA, 4th Disciple, and Ayatollah don’t even stand out – the beats from producers like Jordan River Banks, Ciph Barker, and Kalisto are just as good: for a 41-track album, The Psychic World Of Walter Reed is incredibly cohesive and consistent.
With The Psychic World Of Walter Reed, Killah Priest solidified his status as one of the most consistent artists out of the extended Wu-Tang family, second only maybe to Ghostface Killah (who not coincidentally had the best feature on this album). The Psychic World of Walter Reed may not be an easy or straightforward listen, but it’s an intriguing one – one that deserves attention. Killah Priest is to be applauded for his vision and artistic audacity, few (if any) artists are able to do behemoth projects like this one and coming out on top, Killah Priest succeeded admirably.
Prince Paul - A Prince Among Thieves (1999)
Producer extraordinaire Prince Paul’s (Stetsasonic, De La Soul, Gravediggaz) second solo effort is the brilliant concept album A Prince Among Thieves, sometimes dubbed the first ‘rap opera’. The album tells the story of a young man named Tariq, who is trying to get a record contract and needs to make some money to finish up his tracks and get his demo tape ready for a meeting with Wu-Tang Clan’s The RZA. A Prince Among Thieves features cameos by Kool Keith, Big Daddy Kane, Chubb Rock, Biz Markie, De La Soul, Everlast, Sadat X, Xzibit, Kid Creole, Special Ed, Chris Rock, RZA, and Buckshot. Fresh beats and dope rhymes throughout – without a doubt, this is one of the best concept albums in Hip Hop ever.
Little Brother – The Listening (2003)
One of the most celebrated indie Hip Hop releases of the early 2000s, The Listening by North Carolina crew Little Brother is an album that needs to be in your record collection. The Listening is near-flawless, perfectly encapturing the spirit and vibes of classic early & mid 90’s Hip Hop, similar to the soulful sounds of De La Soul, ATCQ, The Fugees and The Roots, but unique enough to stand on its own.
“For You”, “Whatever You Say”, “The Way You Do It”, “Away From Me”, “The Listening” – all tracks featuring clever rhymes by Phonte and Big Pooh and exceptional production by 9th Wonder. Even though The Listening was much-lauded it went relatively unnoticed. If YOU missed out it on for some reason, it’s never too late to pick it up.
Mac Mall – Illegal Business? (1993)
E-40’s cousin’s debut album is a forgotten West Coast classic, a typical product of the Bay Area of the early/mid-90s. Mac Mall (incredibly just 15 years old at the time of recording of this album) is on point lyrically with his tales of life on the streets, but what makes this album really stand out is the production. Producer Khayree gave Mac Mall an album full of amazing beats and deep bass, sounding as fresh today as it did on the day it was released.
Brother Ali – Shadows On The Sun (2003)
While all of Brother Ali’s albums are great, Shadows Of The Sun is his absolute best. Over some of the most engaging beats Ant ever crafted, 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 Whitiker” – where Ali 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. Other stand-outs include “Room With A View”, “Shadows On The Sun”, “Blah Blah Blah”, “Champion”, “When the Beat Comes In”, “Win Some Lose Some”, and the heartbreaking “Picket Fence”. With Shadows Of The Sun Brother Ali delivered a landmark album – the best Hip Hop album released in 2003, and one of the best Hip Hop albums of the 2000s.
Binary Star - Masters Of The Universe (2000)
One of the most slept-on albums of the year 2000 (or that whole 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, and dope beats – what more do you want?
Above The Law - Uncle Sam's Curse (1994)
Above The Law‘s classic debut Livin’ Like Hustlers will forever be their magnum opus. But this third effort is another excellent Above The Law album and definitely a level above most of the other gangsta rap being released at the time. The lyrics are not just the generic gangsta stories, but also sometimes politically fueled and socially conscious. Additionally, Cold 187um’s production is always top level. A true West Coast G-funk innovator, he was never scared to experiment on the boards. Deep bass, whiny synthesizer sounds, smooth and funky – this is G-funk at its best, with classic Above The Law tracks like “Black Superman”, “Concrete Jungle”, Kalifornia”, and “Gangsta Madness”.
Aesop Rock – Labor Days (2001)
Labor Days is Aesop Rock’s third studio album and one of his absolute best. As always with Aesop Rock, the instrumentals are innovative and exciting, and you need to really listen closely to his next-level wordplay to get his meanings – this is music for thinking people. “Daylight,” with its epic bass-line, clever lyrics, is a stand-out, as is “Save Yourself,” which addresses Hip Hop traditionalists who’d rather talk about their skills and diss the bubblegum rappers than say anything meaningful. But there’s much more to enjoy on Labor Days, one of Def Jux’s flagship albums, an album that was instrumental in moving forward the alternative Hip Hop scene around the turn of the millennium. Labor Days is a classic.
De La Soul - Buhloone Mind State (1993)
De La Soul‘s third album, De La Soul’s third classic. Few groups in Hip Hop, if any, can boast both the longevity and consistency De La Soul has shown over the years. Buhloone Mind State is the most generally underappreciated album of De La Soul’s first four. The reason for that probably is that it has less commercial appeal than the others. Artistically it is every bit as strong, though, cohesive and consistent throughout – an artistic peak for both De La Soul and producer Prince Paul. De La Soul’s first four albums are all classics, this one is definitely up there with the best of them – with strong jazz influences felt by contributions from Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley, and Pee Wee Ellis, and by samples from Eddie Harris, Lou Donaldson, Duke Pearson, and Milt Jackson.
Dälek – From Filthy Tongue Of Gods And Griots (2002)
Dälek is an experimental Hip Hop crew from Newark, New Jersey – comprised of MC Dälek, Oktopus, and DJ Still ( who passed away in 2018). From Filthy Tongue Of Gods And Griots is their second album and arguably their best, even if there is much more quality to be found in their catalog. Dälek’s music is never easy or straightforward and no doubt this album is an acquired taste, with its boom bap-driven beats backed up by noisy and industrial soundscapes and unorthodox instrumentation. This album was way ahead of its time, and a classic in the industrial Hip Hop subgenre.
Lord Finesse & DJ Mike Smooth 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 a dope album it is, start to finish. Finesse’s braggadocious rhymes are second to none and the production is typical early 90s NYC style. Funky Technician is slept-on by many, as is Lord Finesse himself. True Hip Hop heads will know what’s up though and will surely have this one in their collection.
billy woods - History Will Absolve Me (2012)
History Will Absolve Me is billy woods’ 3rd full-length solo album, and his best. The cover of this album has a close-up picture of controversial former Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe paired with one of Cuba’s Fidel Castro’s most infamous quotes – an album cover that clearly indicates this is not a bubblegum rap album. Musically this album could have been part of the Def Jux realm with its dusty and experimental-sounding musical backdrops. The beats set the perfect stage for woods’ staccato flow and thought-provoking lyrics; with his views on subjects as politics, race, sex, and class. History Will Absolve Me is a challenging and intense listening experience, but ultimately an extremely rewarding one. History Will Absolve Me is one of the best albums in 2012, sadly ignored upon its release. It is standing the test of time though, so it is never too late to check it out if you slept on it up to now.
J-Live - The Best Part (2001)
This is one of the most slept-on Hip Hop albums ever, and it easily is one of the best of the 2000’s decade. The Best Part was recorded between 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 lyrics worth listening to. “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.
Felt – Felt 2: A Tribute to Lisa Bonet (2005)
When Atmosphere’s Slug and Los Angeles underground phenomenon Murs combine forces the result has to be something special, right? Right! As established already with their first collaboration Felt: A Tribute to Christina Ricci Slug and Murs prove once again they have great synergy. “Dirty Girl”, “Early Morning Tony” (with all its references to eighties classics), “Marvin Gaye” and especially “Breaker Down Like A Shotgun” are easy favorites but Felt 2: A Tribute to Lisa Bonet is consistent throughout, no skips necessary.
The Goats - Tricks Of The Shade (1992)
A very original concept album, ahead of its time. Not easy to get into though, mainly because they overdid it a little bit with all the skits. If you can get past the skits, you’re in for a highly original and intelligent, political album. “Typical American” is a classic song.
Canibus – Rip The Jacker (2003)
Nobody ever disputed Canibus’ superior lyrical skills. The fact he made a bunch of not-so-good albums had more to do with subpar production than his work on the mic. On Rip The Jacker, his fifth studio album, everything finally comes together for Canibus – resulting in what undoubtedly is his best album.
Production is done completely by Jedi Mind Tricks’ production genius Stoupe The Enemy Of Mankind, ensuring a totally cohesive sound throughout the whole album. The intricate soundscapes laid down by Stoupe mesh well with Canibus’ complex and sharp rhymes. “Indibisible”, “Showtime At The Gallow”, “Genabis”, “Levitibus”, “No Return” and the 8-minute epic “Poet Laurette II” (in which Canibus spits 200 bars over 3 different beats) are standouts, but all eleven tracks on this album are fire.
Aceyalone - A Book Of Human Language (1998)
Los Angeles-based emcee Aceyalone is an incredibly talented artist, always pushing lyrical boundaries and succeeding effortlessly in all styles he employs. He released a string of excellent creative and innovative albums throughout his career, and this one is his very best. A Book of Human Language combines intelligence, creativity, and superior lyrical skill – resulting in a brilliant concept album that should be a part of any real Hip Hop fan’s music collection. A Book of Human Language is a left-field masterpiece.
Danny Brown - Atrocity Exhibition (2016)
Danny Brown hit a home run with Atrocity Exhibition. This album feels like a feverish nightmare that gives us a glimpse of the insanity, depression, and hedonism of the Danny Brown psyche. This album is deep and dark and at times over the top, both sonically and lyrically. Production is superb though, and even those who gravitate towards more traditional styles will find a lot to like here. Danny Brown’s crazy flows range in style from hype and energetic to somber and reflective – but the content always is thought-provoking. You can call it experimental, or crazy, or weird – but be sure to call it a classic too: Atrocity Exhibition is Danny Brown’s best album.
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 undeservedly much less revered. Maybe due to bad 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.
Elzhi – The Preface (2008)
Elzhi is one of the most underrated emcees in the game. The Detroit-based 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 guests like Guilty Simpson, Royce da 5’9″, and Black Milk, make this one of 2008’s best albums. “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 motherf***ers what a classic is…” In the intro of the album Elzhi sets himself up for a tall order, but boy does he deliver.
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. Coming six years after Sittin’ On Chrome, Disposable Arts is often seen as Masta Ace’s comeback album – and what an album it is.
Disposable Arts is a clever concept album that follows a young Brooklyn man’s release from prison, his return home, and his life at “The Institute of Disposable Arts”, a school in which Ace enrolls after realizing how bad the situation in Brooklyn is. The album offers excellent production and dope wordplay throughout; from Masta Ace himself and guests like Rah Digga, Jean Grae, Greg Nice, Punchline, Wordsworth, and more. Disposable Arts is universally acclaimed by Hip Hop connoisseurs, but the album sold poorly and is definitely underappreciated in that regard. This is Masta Ace’s magnum opus.
Kno - Death Is Silent (2010)
On the four CunninLynguists albums preceding this project, Kno already amply proved that he can put a big stamp on an album in terms of production. In 2010 the CunninLynguists producer released Death Is Silent: a solo album on which he also accounts for a large part of the lyrics.
The production on this album is nothing short of spectacular, and the beats and the stories blend together like gears on a machine. “Loneliness”, “Rhythm Of The Rain”, “Spread Your Wings”, “Graveyard”, “I Wish I Was Dead”, “They Told Me” and “The New Day” are all highlights, but this album’s strength is its consistency. The whole album has the same feel, without ever sounding monotonous. This is an album to zone out on, to press play, and let it run from start to finish – no need to skip anything, there are no fillers tracks and no stupid skits. Of course CunninLynguists colleagues Natti and Deacon The Villain make appearances, as do regular collaborators like Tonedeff and Substantial. But even if Kno will always be a producer before he is an emcee, he can carry an album on the microphone as well. He calls himself the Emo Premo on one of the tracks, providing lyrics that should shame most full-time rappers.
Death Is Silent is one of our favorite albums released in 2010. From start to finish, this is a masterpiece of music (not just Hip Hop). Anyone with an interest in quality music with substance will like, if not love this melancholic masterpiece.
Dr. Octagon - Dr. Octagonecologyst (1996)
Is this Kool Keith’s best album (outside Ultramagnetic’s monumental debut Critical Beatdown)? In a catalog as deep and diverse as Kool Keith’s, it may be hard to choose – but Dr. Octagonecologyst definitely is our Kool Keith solo favorite. An all-time underground favorite, Dr. Octagonecologyst simply is a near-perfect album.
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. 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. A masterwork, that sounds as fresh today as it did on the day it was released.
Madvillain – Madvillainy (2004)
Arguably THE cult classic of cult classics. This album is ART, pure and simple. Madvilliany redefined the underground and is a perfect example of what can happen if two left-field geniuses combine powers. The late MF DOOM and Madlib have both produced many pieces of brilliant music, but this epic album is the crowning achievement of both their careers. Madvillainy is universally recognized as a masterpiece but didn’t sell all that well. For HHGA, Madvillainy is the best album of the 2000s decade and a top 10 Hip Hop album of all time.