We all know that lists are subjective – that is the point of them. So I’ve decided to do a series of top ten albums across genres. They’ll appear sporadically. And rather than call them “Top Ten” I will call them ten of the most important – sorry if that sounds pretentious. It’s not meant to. It’s meant to describe the albums as being important to me, seminal in terms of turning me on to a genre, reminding me of the things I liked about a genre – reintroducing me – leading on to other similar (or disparate) musical ideas. Important in that sense.
We’ll start with hip-hop. Because I’ve been revisiting some favourite hip-hop albums lately – so my list has probably changed (at least a little bit).
Right now, these are the ten albums in the hip-hop genre that I think are among the most important in terms of me connecting with them. And them connecting with me.
I have to start with this album because it is the first rap album I ever heard. The first full-lengther from The Beastie Boys and I recognised the purloined Led Zeppelin beats and riffs. I delighted in Kerry King playing the guitar on No Sleep Till Brooklyn. I didn’t think of this as a rap album, or a hip-hop album. It was just one of my favourite albums to listen to. These days it gets a spin a couple of times a year. And I think it’s still a good laugh. Still really dig the intro track: Rhymin & Stealin with its loop of Black Sabbath’s Sweet Leaf and its big booming When The Levee Breaks drums.
It’s their third album – but to me it’s the only one that really matters. Because it’s the one that I heard first and the one I still go back to. Yes, of course, It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is a classic. But I prefer this. This was the first hip-hop group I really got in to (I saw The Beastie Boys as three gimmicky white guys – many probably still do. But they seemed more like jokers than rappers). So Public Enemy felt more like the real deal. I found Chuck D very scary. In a good way. And I still get a kick out of so many tracks on this album. Let’s go with Anti-Nigger Machine as a sample track today.
I’d heard N.W.A. They were a big deal with the newspaper stories circulating. But Straight Outta Compton was never as important to me as Ice Cube’s debut solo album. In recent years he’s become a bit of a joke – in his poor film choices and lame acting. But watch him live, he can still deliver. And the thing I always go back to with this album – much like Fear Of A Black Planet – is that within the anger (and perhaps because of it) these are albums that feature strong songs. All the classic funk, soul and R’n’B records are in there, samples-wise, but Ice adds his storytelling flow to create several mini-masterpieces. I like Endangered Species (Tales from the Darkside). It features Public Enemy’s Chuck D. And it features the most sampled drumbeat in history. As well as Ice referencing his old band as a way of looking forward.
I’ve just finished reading this book about the album Illmatic. So I flicked through the album a few times too. The two things that are commonly said about Illmatic that stand to this day are that it was one of the first albums to feature so many different producers (many of them huge names) and yet still give off a cohesive ‘album’ feel. And it is short. No filler. No stupid skits. It’s on point. When a rap artist releases something short, sharp and smart it gets compared to Nas. Specifically this album. And it’s still easy to see why. If you need an example, check One Love. I also love the way that the 10th anniversary version of this album featured the remixes and extra cuts on a bonus disc, so that the original album was left to run under 40 minutes. More hip-hop albums should follow this rule.
If I was picking the best hip-hop albums – revisionist-styles – then of course I’d name The Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) but I heard this second solo album by Genius/GZA before I heard any other Wu-related albums. And I still go back to this as one of the key Wu releases. And as one of the key hip-hop albums in my life…the opening, title track, Liquid Swords, has an ominous feel and mood behind it, beginning with the dialogue from Shogun Assassin and rolling on in to the work of both GZA and RZA.
It’s been diminishing returns for DJ Shadow since this phenomenal debut studio. Well, as far as I’m concerned it has been. I’m sure he delights with his live shows still but this is the one for me. An album I have loved since the first time I heard it. And an album I hear something new in each time (usually it is the literal ‘something new’; spotting a new sample, working out which bit of David Axelrod or Giorgio Moroder has been recontextualised). But also this is an album that feels different when you take it out and play it in different settings, across different formats. I’ve got it on my iPod. And I have a CD and vinyl copy of it. I like listening to it in the car on road trips. I like playing it walking around town. It provides the perfect soundtrack to many different spaces and moods. It is also my favourite album to impress upon those that say they hate hip-hop or rap music in any shape or form. I just don’t understand how you couldn’t get something of value from this record.
7. Dr. Dre 2001
I have to include this album because…well because it’s a favourite. And it’s brilliant. As with the DJ Shadow album, I pick up on new samples being recontextualised every time I hear it; Dr. Dre taking from Axelrod, from the horror soundtracks that John Carpenter writes to accompany his own films, from anything and everywhere. And he assembled an amazing all-star cast of big name rappers – many, Snoop Dogg and Eminem as just two standouts, delivering their best work. It’s a big, brash album – and it sounds fantastic. Even comedian Eddie Griffin is memorable (see here). But if I have to pick one sample track for anyone out there not convinced or previously unaware of this album, then I’m going with Still D.R.E.
Again, if I’m picking a classic hip-hop album I’m going with The Blueprint – a work of genius in my book. But before I heard that I took a punt on this album. An impulse buy that turned me on to the music of Jay-Z. I bought it because I had already heard The Roots (they work as the live band for this show). In fact I could easily select their album, Things Fall Apart, as a bonus to this list of 10 influential (to me) and meaningful hip-hop albums. I played this Unplugged album three times in a row the day I got it. And then I drove in to town and purchased The Blueprint.
I’d heard Antipop Consortium before (their 2002 album Arrhythmia). Then, someone was chatting to me about hip-hop, saying he was not much of a fan but he liked what he’d hear of the Antipop Consortium fellas. I said, yeah me too. He asked if I’d heard the album they did with jazz pianist Matthew Shipp. I hadn’t. My friend went on to explain that what he loved about the album – and the group – was the willingness to explore, to show that hip-hop doesn’t need to be as rigid as it is often painted out to be. He was right. This is a favourite album of mine – across any genre – one I have done my best to mention often and play to people; always keen to see new fans picking up on it.
I still think this is the best thing that both MF Doom and Madlib have done – they proved to be the perfect pair creating this dark, textural work. I love that they simply named the song Accordion after the loop that projects it. Again, this is the sort of thinking – musically – that lifts hip-hop up and out of pigeonholes. One of my favourite albums – possibly a desert island disc for me; certainly one of the best things I have heard in the last decade. And it made me search out a heap of music by Madlib (so much on offer there, through various guises) and through MF Doom – now known as just Doom.
So there are ten albums. It could easily have been a lot more. And yes I left out Life After Death and 3 Feet High And Rising and 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life of… I even left out Electricity – the album by Wellington DJ Alphabethead (a seriously brilliant record which, if like anything on the list – and it’s not really – would take after Endtroducing…)
I know I left out heaps of great albums. But that’s the challenge of a list. And that’s why this is ten of the most important – not the definitive ten best. It’s also ten that have meant (and continue to mean) a lot to me. Now I want to hear about ten of your favourites. Ten hip-hop albums that have meant something to you – or as many as you can muster up to ten…
This way we all get to learn from the lists; spotting an album named a bunch of times by different people might be an indication to try it. Or – maybe – the one album that one person names that you’ve never heard of is the one that will pique your interest…that’s the beauty of everyone contributing.
So from Sugarhill Gang to Gang Starr – and to all points in between and boldly beyond – name the hip-hop albums that you deem important in your listening life.