Hip-Hop Turns 50: Essential Hip-Hop Vinyl Records of the 1980s

Hip-Hop Turns 50: Essential Hip-Hop Vinyl Records of the 1980s

On August 11th, 1973, people attending a certain party in The Bronx were treated to something entirely new. A young DJ, known around the neighborhood for his innovative approach to music, would be spinning records. An 18-year-old DJ Kool Herc was about to debut something he'd been working on, and using his signature dual turntable setup, was able to loop drum and dance breaks from two different records, keeping the crowd energized and dancing rather than waiting for an entire song to hear a particular drum solo. As these breaks caught on, Herc began talking over the beats, inventing humorous rhyme sections that would go with the rhythm. 

This event has become widely recognized as the birth of hip-hop, a musical genre that would see a meteoric rise in the subsequent years. Hip-hop would become more than a musical genre. It was a movement, a culture-shifting event in American history that would inform fashion and language, and it was a movement created by and largely centering Black Americans. 

As we approach hip-hop's 50th birthday, we thought it would be a fun exercise to explore the genre through its changes and evolutions. Because the 1970s was a little bit of a grey area in terms of recordings and radio play (more on that at another time), we decided to start with hip-hop's first mainstream golden era. Here are some essential hip-hop vinyl records from the 1980s. 


Raising Hell (1986) — Run D.M.C.

In the mid 1980s, hip-hop was starting to firmly find its footing, but Run D.M.C.'s Raising Hell was the record that catapulted it into the mainstream. Produced by Def Jam Records, Raising Hell is one of the most important releases in music history, becoming the first hip-hop record to be nominated for a Grammy and the first to receive widespread acclaim. Raising Hell contains hits like "It's Tricky" and a rap-rock collaboration with Aerosmith on "Walk This Way." Raising Hell is the album that ushered in hip-hop's first golden age, the album that introduced both hip-hop music and culture to mainstream America, and remains one of the greatest albums in the genre's history. 

Licensed to Ill (1986) —Beastie Boys

Another early Def Jam production, Licensed to Ill is often credited along with Raising Hell as being an album that helped to bring hip-hop to mainstream America. Licensed to Ill became the first hip-hop record to top the Billboard charts, and it bears mentioning that the Beasties being a white group is not a coincidence in that regard. Still, Black and Jewish Americans have a long history of musical collaboration, dating back to the days of Tin Pan Alley and early Broadway, and Licensed to Ill is an album that gives true reverence to the genre. The Beastie Boys come at every track with their signature brand of humor and punk attitude, making Licensed to Ill a timeless classic. 

Paid in Full (1987) — Eric B. & Rakim

Debuting with Paid in Full, it didn't take long for Eric B. & Rakim to become known as the genre's most influential DJ and rapper duo. DJ Eric B. was considered hip-hop's best disc jockey, his ability to sample and his use of percussive beats was unmatched, especially on his relatively minimalist setup. Rakim's lyrical ability, as well as his introduction of new rhyme schemes, made him one of the genre's most exciting MCs. Paid in Full is the duo's most influential album, featuring iconic tracks like "Eric B. is President" and "I Ain't No Joke."

Straight Outta Compton (1988) — N.W.A.

Despite hip-hop's Bronx origins, an entirely new subgenre was developing on the West Coast. "Gangsta rap" was more politically conscious, featuring lyrics about subjects like racism, police brutality experienced by Black people, and urban gang life. Straight Outta Compton brought the genre out of the L.A. market, showing the rest of the country a more hardcore, aggressive tone. The success of Straight Outta Compton shifted the center of hip-hop's power and is largely credited with beginning the East vs. West Coast feud of the 1990s.

All Hail the Queen (1989) — Queen Latifah

Like many aspects of society, it should come as no surprise that hip-hop, especially in its early days, was a male dominated genre. Women artists in the mainstream were few and far between, but rappers like Queen Latifah began to change the landscape. Better known these days as an actress, Queen Latifah began her career as a rapper, and her debut album, All Hail the Queen was a landmark release. Latifah incorporated elements of funk and jazz, and her lyrics talked about issues like domestic violence and relationship issues. Her collaboration with Monie Love, "Ladies First," remains a feminist anthem. 

By All Means Necessary (1988) — Boogie Down Productions

While Boogie Down Productions' equally excellent Criminal Minded established them as one of the best gangsta rap outfits in the genre, the murder of DJ Scott La Rock saw the group move in a new direction. MC KRS-One decided to shift from the violent themes of the previous record into more socially conscious style, adopting the persona of "The Teacher" and writing lyrics denouncing violence in hip-hop, police brutality, and the war on drugs. With a cover photo inspired by Malcolm X, By All Means Necessary is widely recognized as the first socially conscious hip-hop record, and stood to inspire an entire wave of more political rap. 

3 Feet High and Rising (1989) — De La Soul

As the 1990s loomed on the horizon, gangsta rap had caught on in popularity, gradually shifting the landscape of popularity in an edgier, more hardcore direction. Enter De La Soul, often described as the founders of alternative hip-hop. De La Soul had a decidedly lighter tone to their music, using humor, surrealism, and heavy use of funk and soul sampling to complete their debut record. Described by some as "hippies," De La Soul offered up a sound and attitude unprecedented in hip-hop at the time, and had a profound impact on alternative rap moving forward. 

He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper (1988) — DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince

In West Philadelphia, born and raised, DJ Jeff Townes and MC Will Smith formed one of the most successful hip-hop duos of their era. The young duo took the scene by storm with funky, old-school beats and playful, more radio friendly lyrics. This led to their song, "Parents Just Don't Understand," becoming the first hip-hop track to win a Grammy Award. The duo went on to dominate the '90s, creating and starring in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, with Smith emerging as an actor, culminating in an Academy Award win in 2022.

Stone Cold Rhymin' (1989) — Young MC

By 1989, hip-hop had undergone a number of metamorphoses. Subgenres like gangsta rap, alternative rap, and socially conscious rap had sprung up and added their own flare to the genre. Even in its relative youth as a musical genre, Young MC's emergence made him something of a throwback. His debut album, Stone Cold Rhymin' listened like something out of the late '70s, with party-oriented lyrics and rhyme structures focused on percussive beats. His hit single, "Bust a Move" remains a party favorite. 

It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988) — Public Enemy

We saved (arguably) the best for last. Public Enemy's sophomore effort is nothing short of a masterpiece. It serves as the acme of '80s hip-hop, incorporating virtually every innovation of the genre up to that point while influencing nearly everything that came after. The group employed an avant-garde recording process, making use of noise and unusual song structures to provide a backdrop for Chuck D's rapping. Chuck's lyrics were politically conscious, with themes of Black empowerment and criticism of the music industry itself. It takes a Nation of Millions provided a blueprint for hip-hop's 1990s evolution and stands the test of time as one of the greatest records of all time.