MTV recently unveiled its list of “Greatest Hip-Hop Albums of All Time,” and while the list has merit to some extent, I was disappointed that a lot of the albums I consider great didn’t even make the cut. Aside from Eric B. & Rakim and Public Enemy’s inclusions, I could have listed ten other albums that have a greater claim to Great Hip Hop Album.
And then I realized I have my own blog. So I am going to run down ten albums that I think represent the best hip hop has to offer. These are the ten hip hop albums that have had the greatest impact on my personal musical tastes:
10.) How Ya Like Me Now? — Kool Moe Dee
It may only be remembered for its title track and “Wild Wild West,” but this was a landmark in my appreciation of hip hop. It was the first rap record (okay, it was a cassette) that I ever heard, and I immediately went out and got a pair of British Knights!
L.L. might have gone on to have the longer mainstream career (and honestly, I’m glad I never had to see Moe Dee star in S.W.A.T. and Deep Blue Sea), but I was always firmly in Moe’s corner. Besides, I got Uncle L further down the list with a much better album than Bigger and Deffer.
9.) Mama Said Knock You Out — L.L. Cool J
I didn’t totally leave L.L. off the list. I was in eigth grade when Mama Said… came out, and I still can’t think of a song to ride in a Jeep to better than “The Boomin’ System.” I think most people remember the title track and his electric “MTV Unplugged” performance.
When looking back at L’s career, people will invariably place Radio or Bigger… at the top of their lists, and deservedly so. But for me, this is the record that defines his career. Plus it was the first hip hop album I ever bought on CD. Though, I still think L.L.’s acting career is something less than desirable.
8.) Black on Both Sides — Mos Def
Speaking of rappers-cum-thespians:
I had a friend who was all about Blackstar; and as great as that first record was, Mos’ solo debut was better.
The Mighty Mos Def’s Blackstar collabos with Talib Kweli notwithstanding, Black on Both Sides is a record that only gets better with each listen. Plus, this record has one of my favorite hip hop songs of all time: “Mathematics:”
Power-liftin powerless up, out of this, towerin inferno
My ink so hot it burn through the journal
I'm blacker than midnight on Broadway and Myrtle
Hip-Hop past all your tall social hurdles
like the nationwide projects, prison-industry complex
Broken glass wall better keep your alarm set
Streets too loud to ever hear freedom sing
7.) Self: Volume One — Mountain Brothers
I have to admit that I’m a little biased when it comes to these three brothers from Philly. But it was influential in my life because it was the first legitimate hip hop record from real Asian American MCs. From Peril-L’s flow to Styles’ humor to Chops’ beats, this was a record that bled hip hop.
Unfortunately, a lot of people too easily dismiss Asian American hip hop as novelty acts (see Jin’s rise and flameout), and the MBs never got their due before they went their seperate ways. Still, they took it to the Next Level when they rocked ODU back in ’99!!
6.) Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hip Hop — Boogie Down Productions
I had a hard time deciding which BDP album to represent. Criminal Minded is a hip hop classic. By All Means Necessary has the definitive BDP track “My Philosophy.” And I feel that Edutainment was their strongest album top to bottom (and the Kwame Toure interludes on “Ya Strugglin” made quite an impression on me at the time).
But Ghetto Music was KRS-One’s rawest exploration of hip hop to date. The beats are relentless, and classic tracks just come one after another (“Jack of Spades,” “You Must Learn,” “Bo! Bo! Bo!”) and “Breath Control” is a seminal beat box classic.
5.) Like Water for Chocolate — Common
Common has gotten a lot of press and critical acclaim with the release of his latest album Be. A lot of that probably has to do with the fact that his previous album, Electric Circus, was a commercial flop (even though I thought it was a sonically daring record). The other reason is because of it-producer and fellow Chi-town native Kanye West’s involvement in the production. And even though Be is a really good album, it suffers from bearing too much of Ye’s influence. While that’s not a bad thing per se, it still doesn’t represent Common as much as 2000’s triumphant Like Water for Chocolate.
Musically and lyrically, this is Common’s most enduring album. From the opening vocals by Miss Vinia Mojica on “Time Travelin” to the Mos Def collabo “The Questions” to the rawness of “Thelonious” and the heartache of “A Song for Assata” Chocolate demonstrated that Common’s maturity as a lyricist and as an artist didn’t peak with One Day it’ll All Make Sense (another masterpiece of an album). Also, “The Light” is quite possibly the best hip hop ballad of all time (though the Roots’ “You Got Me” might have claim to that title.)
4.) The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill — Lauryn Hill
Some people might dismiss this as not really being a “hip hop” record. I think they’re wrong. Just because Lauryn sings on Miseducation as much as she raps, it doesn’t mean the album is any less relevant as a watershed moment in hip hop history. Her multiple Grammy awards paved the way for OutKast’s win in 2004 for Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.
Aside from the album’s historical precedence, it’s simply a beautifully executed work of art. Completely void of filler, even the album’s non-musical interludes/skits are vital and serve the message of the album — (these skits involve a teacher and his students discussing love — a lesson that Miss Hill seems to be absent for). And while there is plenty of R&B flavor throughout, tracks like “Lost Ones,” “Superstar” and “Everything is Everything” is hip hop at its realest. And even though Lauryn fell off the map after this album’s astronomical success, Miseducation has forever solidified her place as the Queen of hip hop.
3.) The Low End Theory — A Tribe Called Quest
This was the first record that showed me hip hop could be something that is as artful as it is fun. Tribe was something different; I knew it the minute I saw the “Check the Rime” video on Yo! MTV Raps. The contrast between Q-Tip and Phife, the jazz beats laid down by Ali Shaheed Mohammad.
Undoubtedly, this was also a great party record. Fifteen years later and “Scenario” is still a track guaranteed to get any dance floor jumpin’. But it’s the album’s awareness that impressed me the most. Listening to the Last Poets speak about time underneath the beats of “Excursions,” Tip taking a cue from Pablo Neruda’s 20 Questions in “What?!” and the funky singing by Miss Vinia Mojica in “Verses from the Abstract” brought gravitas to hip hop. This is a seminal record.
2.) (tie) Illadelph Halflife/Things Fall Apart — The Roots
I had a difficult time trying to decide which Roots record would ultimately end up on this list. Organix is, by definition, one of the greatest hip hop records ever made. But I felt it was dishonest to place that one on this list because I came to it after I had become a fan of the band.
I decided to include Illadeplh Halflife because it was the one that opened me — and most of the world outside Philly — to this amazing musical entity. That’s the difficult thing about the Roots for me: everything they do is good. It’s impossible to distinguish because each album has its own quality. For me, Illadelph reinvigorated my love for the music. I had become disillusioned with the way hip hop was being overrun with negativity and gangsta posturing. When the “What They Do” video dropped, it was like a n epiphany! Here was a group bringing musicianship and craft back into the art form.
Things Fall Apart took everything that was building since Organix and Do You Want More to a whole ‘nother level. From the opening dialogue between Wesley Snipes’ and Denzel Washington’s Mo’ Better Blues characters, to the discordant beats of both parts of “Table of Contents,” the record is a nonstop assualt that, for me, elevated hip hop to a standard unseen since Coltrane was blowin’ a sax. And the Grammy-winning single “You Got Me” is the most beautiful hip hop love song ever committed to wax. Period.
1.) Fear of a Black Planet — Public Enemy
To this day, I have not heard an album — of any genre — as politically, sonically and emotionally charged as this hip hop masterpiece. The opening chords of “Contract on the World Love Jam” perfectly set the mood for the rest of the album. The Bomb Squad’s production on this album is a testament to how great hip hop could be. It can be truly said that nothing ever sounded like Public Enemy before Public Enemy. But as great as the beats and samples were on Fear of a Black Planet, this album’s greatest strength lied in its charismatic and inspirational frontman: Chuck D.
“Brothers Gonna Work it Out” is both angry and hopeful. “Welcome to the Terrordome” is the soundtrack for anyone who has ever suffered at the boot of opression and racism. “Power to the People” is the most conscious dance record ever recorded. And “Revolutionary Generation” — a track that celebrated and empowered black women — was indeed revolutionary at a time when hip hop was becoming increasingly misogynistic.
But the album’s greatest triumph comes in the form of a song that was actually released a year earlier. The theme song to Spike Lee’s groundbreaking film Do the Right Thing. The inclusion of “Fight the Power” — truly an anthem for all people in the struggle — solidified Fear of a Black Planet as something more than just a hip hop record. It was an important record. If anyone was unaware of the cancer of racism, “Fight the Power” was educational. If anyone was disgusted with the inequalies of class and race in America, “Fight the Power” was inspirational. With the release of this track — quickly followed by the manifesto that was Fear of a Black Planet — hip hop truly became more than a musical fad. Hip hop became a movement.