Now that hip hop is experiencing soaring popularity in the mainstream, it is interesting to explore how the genre evolved overtime. After gangsta rap with its provocative lyrics, emerged on the West Coast, rappers from the boroughs of New York came out with interpretations and elaborations of this phenomenon. Some resiled from it while others expanded on it. This resulted in some of the most influential albums in the history of hip hop. Here are five essential ones.
Public Enemy – It Takes a Nation of Millions to hold us Back (1988)
Chuck D & co.’s sophomore release bares more relevance than ever 30 years since it came out. It is a confrontational, political rap masterpiece that overtly speaks out against the institutional racism that was rampant in America at the time. Public Enemy were ahead of the curve when you think of the politically charged music of acts such as Run the Jewels and Kendrick Lamar today. The instrumentals are equally as abrasive, typified by unorthodox sampling techniques, scratching and the unmistakeable squealing horn loops on songs such as ‘Rebel without a Pause’ and ‘Don’t Believe on Hype’. They compliment the barefaced tone that Chuck D takes throughout.
A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory (1991)
While groups such as NWA sought to project a tough guy persona, A Tribe called Quest were more concerned with flow and technique. The Low End Theory is hip hop in its most organic form. It has a smooth, jazzy resonance to it with layered drum sounds and deep bass moulding rhythmically tight verses. The rhymes move along with the beats seamlessly. Q-Tip and Phife Dawg offer social commentary, playful humour and even a bit of career advice about the music industry. This is the most minimal out of these 5 albums but has a character and swagger like no other.
Nas – Illmatic (1994)
At just 20 years old, Nas created a defining artefact in East Coast hip hop. His first-person narratives of gang violence captured the gritty nature of the underworld and ghetto in vivid detail. With Q-Tip, DJ Premier and Pete Rock on production, relatively straightforward beats are fused with weighty subject matter. Whether he is chronicling drug deals on the streets in ‘NY State of Mind’ or writing letters to friends in prisons on ‘One Love’, Nas sounds like a realist rather than a showy braggart – he simply tells it how it is. It is no wonder that Illmatic tops many critics lists of the greatest hip hop albums of all time.
The Notorious B.I.G. – Ready to Die (1994)
As far as concept albums go, there are few that are as compelling as Ready to Die. Firstly, it was crushingly prescient of Biggie Smalls’ death which came in a drive-by shooting three years later; he sings “sometimes I hear death knocking at my front door”. Secondly, it is a semi auto-biographical journey that begins with birth and ends with a fading heartbeat. Biggie rises to the top, from a drug dealer to a rapper, with the victory detailed on ‘Juicy’ which is still played in clubs today. But the fame exposes him and he appears uneasy and paranoid as the threat of his demise looms. Ready to Die is overlong and contains some questionable detours from the story but it still stands tall as a vital piece of work in hip hop history.
Raekwon – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (1995)
Widely regarded as the finest solo album from a Wu-Tang Clan solo member, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx has a cinematic quality to it. It focuses on the life of a drug kingpin, leading to the LP being termed mafioso rap. Blaxploitation film samples and snippets of dialogue are scattered throughout the album. You only need to a quick glance at the lyric sheet to see that this is a dense piece of work. It is chock-full of references to New York street slang. Raekwon builds an alliance with Ghostface Killah who features heavily with his acerbic delivery and fiery wordplay. Other members of Wu-Tang Clan show up on multiple occasions here too.
Adam Bielenberg – Music Editor