Top Ten – Hip-Hop Albums

Clash's top ten hip-hop albums, EVER...

With Radio 1 presently celebrating 30 years of all things hip-hop – check out Trevor Nelson’s page for more – we at Clash figured: why not cobble together a top ten of our favourite albums from said scene, OF ALL TIME.

Just for a laugh, likes.

After a quick rally round a few Clash troops, plus some of our mates elsewhere, this is what we’ve arrived at: ten must-have records of the hip-hop world. What we’ve not done is ordered these, from ten to one, simply because they’re all of equal brilliance (near enough). Buy them all! You can probably get most of ‘em for a fiver these days.

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Public Enemy – ‘It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back’
(1988, Def Jam)
Generally regarded as PE’s magnum opus – although there’s acclaim enough for its 1990 follow-up, ‘Fear Of A Black Planet’, to encourage any newcomer to pick up both – this LP channelled the frustrations of the New York outfit’s debut ‘Yo! Bum Rush The Show’ and set lyrical disgruntlement to cutting-edge Bomb Squad beats. But it wasn’t just the sound of grown men moaning about the state of their lives; this was radical clarion calling for change across the nation, spearheaded by the single ‘Bring The Noise’, which did more for the critical crossover of hip-hop – in respect of its power in nailing a worthwhile, listen-to-this message to a mast – than anything that preceded it. Suffice to say hip-hop hasn’t been the same since.

Public Enemy – ‘Bring The Noise’ (live)

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Beastie Boys – ‘Paul’s Boutique’
(1989, Capitol)
The Beasties’ (pictured) second long-player delivered its share of rib-tickling rhymes, which essentially characterised their debut ‘Licensed To Ill’, but upped the social commentary and featured the sort of slick production which would guide them through further catalogue classics ‘Ill Communication’ and the often overlooked ‘Hello Nasty’. Featuring widespread sampling, ‘Paul’s Boutique’ represented a watershed for its makers in terms of sonic scope and ambition, flowing with a richness of instrumentation that was only enhanced by some of the best lyrical interplay of the trio’s career. ‘Paul’s Boutique’ is less a collection of tracks, more a cohesive single-listen masterpiece of its ilk. And what’s more, that it was the product of three well-to-do white dudes never registered on the hip-hop community’s radar, who respected its beat-sculpting and welcomed it as a bona-fide winner.

Beastie Boys – ‘Shake Your Rump’

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De La Soul – ‘3 Feet High And Rising’
(1989, Tommy Boy)
The must-own album of the daisy age of hip-hop – where lyricism took to promoting positives over bemoaning the unrest of its makers’ communities – ‘3 Feet High And Rising’ introduced NYC trio De La Soul to the world and almost immediately made them stars, with singles from this hugely influential album breaking into the mainstream with an effortless ease. It also showcased the talents producer Prince Paul, a former member of Stetsasonic, who would go on to be a true force in his field. Highly conceptual as well as uncommonly open in its expression of feelings over showy fronting, ‘3 Feet…’ works on various levels – get into the lyrical flow and you’ll find it an escapist haven; follow the beats and your toes will tap furiously; engage your brain and the future appears in kaleidoscopic colours. The record’s a no-brainer classic that coaxes the grey matter into seeing hip-hop in different lights, each one brilliant and blinding if you stare long enough.

De La Soul – ‘The Magic Number’

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Nas – ‘Illmatic’
(1994, Columbia)
Where to start…? A sprawling, intelligent, introspective, ambitious, sample-laced, suggestive, inspiring album, the debut from (formerly ‘Nasty’) Nas collected together a series of recordings laid down over a two year period, and sounded fresher than any other hip-hop release of 1994. And, unlike many a record of its kind, it ran to under 40 minutes in length, meaning Walkman’ed up kids could fit its twisting raps onto a single side of a C90, ensuring that while its topics were heavyweight, digestion of ‘Illmatic’ was a smooth process. A regular on ‘best ever’ lists encompassing all genres, this record’s legacy is a mighty one – it rewired east coast hip-hop, welcoming a hardcore mentality while also remaining open to influences from outside typical spheres, most noticeably jazz (Nas’ father Olu Dara was a jazz trumpeter who played alongside the late, great Art Blakey). And Nas was just nineteen at the time of its release. Staggering. Do, please, investigate.

Nas – ‘It Ain’t Hard To Tell’

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Wu-Tang Clan – ‘Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’
(1993, Loud)
While the group fractured over time, and lost sight of the quality control that characterises this epic debut album, there’s no doubting the power of the Wu-Tang Clan’s seminal emergence. A multi-headed rap beast, the collective – the Clan – lay down intertwined rhymes over maverick production from group lynchpin the RZA. The results are weirdly alien, even when heard today – while hugely influential, no artist has aped the Wu’s style with any true success, a marker for sure of the sublime talents on show here. Eeriness informs many of the compositions, inspiration from the Far East coming through not only in self-mythologizing and dark-of-soul lyricism but also the RZA’s chopped-up beats, as if he took a track and sliced and diced away with his katana of choice. Hard of edge and attitude and knowingly uncompromising throughout, painting a world of violent struggle, ‘36 Chambers’ stands out as the choice selection of the Wu canon, even incorporating the group’s many members’ solo efforts.

Wu-Tang Clan – ‘C.R.E.A.M.’

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Company Flow – ‘Funcrusher Plus’
(1997, Rawkus)
Staying on the east coast, Company Flow’s debut album represented not only a pivotal release in the area’s hip-hop output as a widespread critical success, but was also the first-ever release through the now well-respected Rawkus label, probably the biggest indie label of its kind. ‘Funcrusher Plus’ is essentially a mixed bag of recordings old and new, a handful of which had been previously released by the New York outfit in EP form, but the whole hung together like few hip-hop records do, with a natural flow from track to track enhanced by truly ominous beats which manifest uncomfortable atmospheres for emcees El-P and Bigg Jus to weave lyrical magic atop. Paranoid, confused, embittered but strangely upbeat, the album balances aggression with understatement to great effect. The group’s sole long-player with lyrics, ‘Funcrusher Plus’ is rightly regarded as a classic, despite its limited sales at the time. The group disbanded in 2001, but the tremors of this release are still felt today.

Company Flow – ‘8 Steps To Perfection’

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Dr Octagon – ‘Dr. Octagonecologyst’
(1996, Mo’Wax)
Keith Thornton’s first LP under this particular moniker – the New York rapper’s also released under the aliases Black Elvis and Kool Keith – saw the former member of the influential Ultramagnetic MCs step out alongside DJ Qbert and producer Dan The Automator to deliver a truly mind-warping release. With scratches and cut sitting not atop the music but serving as part of the instrumentation proper, Thornton’s playful rhymes found a hard foil against which to battle – the result is a record that skirts comedic territories with light-hearted couplets and skits, but also produces the critical goods on standout tracks like ‘Blue Flowers’ and ‘Bear Witness’ (the latter reprised on Dan The Automator’s Handsome Boy Modelling School project’s ‘So, How’s Your Girl’ LP of 1999). Taking hip-hop into truly out-there and abstract territories on a lyrical front, Thornton’s narratives – which were getting explicit in the bedroom one moment, projecting beyond the stars the next – are always engaging, even if the onslaught of blindsiding non-sequiturs takes a little getting used to the first time through.

Dr Octagon – ‘Blue Flowers’

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Madvillain – ‘Madvillainy’
(2004, Stones Throw)
This collaboration between masked emcee MF DOOM – now working under the DOOM moniker – and producer Madlib, aka Otis Jackson Jr, elevated the profile of both to whole new levels. Taking comic book content as inspiration, and used its share of comedic license in delivering its constituent pieces, DOOM’s spiralling lyricism sucking the listener into a strange world of cat and mouse chases and villainous plotting and scheming, while the whole package was characterised by some effortlessly classy beats that come in doses small and sharp enough to pack a serious punch. Far smarter than its on-paper premise suggests, ‘Madvillainy’ is one of this decade’s finest hip-hop albums. Quite how it doesn’t feature on the Clash Essential 50 is beyond me. (Or, maybe, it will…)

Madvillain – ‘Accordion’

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Dizzee Rascal – Boy In Da Corner’
(2003, XL)
The only British entry on our Top Ten, Dizzee’s debut was both an award-winning critical hit and a huge commercial release, spawning the massive single ‘Fix Up, Look Sharp’, a mainstay on indie/rap dancefloors the nation over. Its grime textures took hip-hop into new territory, serving to influence a slew of emcees home and abroad in the wake of its successes, which peaked with the taking of the 2004 Mercury Prize. A fan of rock and metal in his youth – well, he still was young in 2003, 18 years old in fact – Dizzee’s reluctance to limit his sonic palette welcomed a new dawn in British hip-hop, where myriad elements could sit pretty beside each other in the knowledge that such embracing was not only opening up once-niche genres to mainstream audiences, but also allowing them to develop into fantastically fresh forms. Nothing Dizzee has released since, as good as his albums ‘Maths + English’ and ‘Showtime’ are, has touched the special sensation of this debut, which sparkles with an irresistible energy.

Dizzee Rascal – ‘Fix Up, Look Sharp’

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N.W.A – ‘Straight Outta Compton’
(1988, Ruthless)
Like this was going to slip the net. In short, ‘Straight Outta Compton’ represents the zenith of the gangsta rap sub-genre, with its makers never trumping its mix of acerbic rhymes and soulful influences and sampling. Controversial at the time of its release thanks to singles such as ‘Fuck Tha Police’ and the introduce-the-team title track, not only due to its excess profanity but also the violent imagery, the FBI took an interest and issues Ruthless with a letter expressing their dislike of what they were promoting. Subsequently, LA’s N.W.A were banned from performing at numerous venues. Listening now, what’s on offer is still alarming in its language, but time’s a healer and there’s little here that’ll truly shock even wet-eared newcomers to gangsta rap’s typical traits of guns, bitches and staggering self-aggrandizing.

N.W.A. – ‘Straight Outta Compton’ (single mix)

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What’s that? The above is bull? You’re some sort of hip-hop expert? Go on then, express yourself – comment below and tell us where we’re right and where we’re wrong, or register HERE if you’re new to

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