In 1986 classics such as Run-DMC's Raising Hell and the Beastie Boys debut Licensed to Ill were released, which many music historians mark as the beginning of "Golden Age Hip Hop." More and more rappers and producers started to mature and experiment. A passing of the torch was in order. Furthermore, by 1987 one thing was abundantly clear to hip hop haters: Hip Hop was not a passing fad. It was here to stay and it was getting better. So, as promised, here are my Top Ten Hip-Hop/Rap Albums of 1987.
Honorable Mentions (No particular order):
Kaos, Court's In Session
Kaos were a group from New York that released an album or two and then disappeared. It was well regarded on a few forums that I visited so I decided to dig it up and give it a shot. Now I would be a liar if I said this album had a chance of making the top ten. It didn't blow my mind quite enough to merit that. However there are a couple of interesting elements on this recording that I felt deserved some attention. Firstly the production is gritty and the beats are very well constructed. I love that filthy 808 house party sound. The producer/DJ, as far as I could ascertain, was Kenny "Dope" Gonzalez who later became one half of the garage/house duo, Masters at Work. Secondly, you know that "hey hey hey" chant that is in almost every song nowadays? Of course you do, YG has it on half of his fucking songs. Well these guys were doing it all the way back in 1987. I found that intriguing. Kenny Dope's production and scratching is definitely the strongest thing about this record. What holds it back are the emcees. They are battle rappers who talk a lot and yet don't really say anything. It comes off a tad bit too amateurish. Sure the emcee duo demonstrate they had some raw talent, but the lyrics have one too many cliches by 1987 standards and the delivery lacks the assertiveness that you come to expect from battle rappers. They sound like they are hesitant and holding back. Still if you are a complete nerd, like me, it's worth a listen for the historical reasons and for Kenny's dirty beats.
Schoolly D, Saturday Night: The Album
Originally self released in 1986, Saturday Night was picked up by Jive Records and re-released in 1987. Since this was the version of the record that most people are familiar with, it makes the 1987 list. Schoolly D is not known for his lyrical cleverness. His style is very straightforward and to the point and his delivery is relaxed to the point of sounding cold. The lyrics on this record are more like the narration in a documentary rather than poetry. In other words, Schoolly D tells it like it is. Drawing inspiration from his Philadelphia neighborhood, Schoolly D described the dog eat dog world of the ghetto like a news reporter. It is a style that would later become infamously known as "gangsta rap". Schoolly D was the first. As the earliest pioneer of the sub genre he deserves a shout out, but by 1987 there were other emcees that were doing the same thing only better. For that reason Saturday Night doesn't make the top ten, but I suggest giving it a listen.
LL Cool J, Bigger and Deffer
There are those out there who probably think I'm out of my mind for not including LL Cool J's most successful album, Bigger and Deffer, on the top ten list. Truth of the matter is, I don't really like LL Cool J that much. He has a few songs that I appreciate, but he just doesn't do it for me. I don't dislike BAD. It is a well produced record. It is widely considered a hip hop classic and ranks high on not only most critic's top ten lists of 1987, but is even considered as one of the greatest rap records of all time. For many young teenagers in the late 80's, this was probably the first rap record that they ever bought. And the rap ballad, "I Need Love" is still played on KDAY. Before "I Need Love", love raps were miserable abominations. Tender lyrics don't sound good when they are yelled in that high energy, Run-DMCish, assertive style (cough, Heavy D and UTFO, cough cough). The juxtaposition between the lyrics and the delivery was laughable at best and destined to be skipped on the CD player at worst. But LL Cool J finally got it right. And, of course, my lady likes it when it comes on the radio. Mission accomplished LL. Bravo. But it's just not really my thing. I consider it "pop" rap and I just happen to like other shit better.
The Top Ten:
10) Fat Boys, Crushin'
I'm not ashamed to admit, I love the Fat Boys. In the movie Krush Groove they completely stole the show and I've been a fan ever since. As far as gimmicky rap groups are concerned, these guys were the undisputed kings. Also they were talented enough to transcend the gimmick in that not all of their raps were about being fat (Heavy D should have taken notes). Crushin' is their fourth and best selling release. It delivers exactly what you would expect from a Fat Boys record, which is bumping drum machines with energetic and irreverently shouted end rhyming. Crushin' is fairly consistent, but loses a little steam toward the end. "Fat Boys Dance" is a forgettable track and "Hell, No!" just sounds like "(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)" but not nearly as good. A song worthy of note is the safe sex PSA "Protect Yourself", which is one of the few songs of the day that actually talked about AIDS. This was during a time when most people (including President Reagan) would rather have AIDS kept under the radar even though by the late 80's it had killed over 20,000 Americans. So props to the Fat Boys for speaking up. Favorite tracks are "Boys Will Be Boys", "Making Noise" and the eternal guilty pleasure, "Wipeout".
9) MC Shan, Down By The Law
The debut album from MC Shan and produced by the legendary Marley Marl. This chronicles the famous Bridge Wars rap feud between Queens' Juice Crew and the Bronx's Boogie Down Productions. The most famous track off this record, "Kill That Noise", was in response to the Boogie Down Productions diss track "South Bronx". The drama induced from this feud enticed listeners to turn on their radios in order to hear the latest bombshell dropped by either side. While MC Shan was not my favorite Juice Crew emcee (with Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, and Masta Ace on that roster? Bitch, please) nor the most prolific, Down By Law is one of the most famous releases from the Juice Crew and deserves a place on this list mainly for it's historical significance. My favorite track is "MC Space" because I'm a sucker for sci-fi themed shit and Marley Marl's beat has that awesome early 80's techno/synth pop sound that slays. But the defiant "Living In The World of Hip Hop" is a close second. This track can perhaps be categorized as a diss track to critics, music big-wigs and haters who claimed that hip hop was a passing fad or, at worst, a menace that was guilty of corrupting late 80's youth. As if the rampant hedonism and excess exalted by the then mega popular and lucrative glam metal bands were any less harmful to impressionable teenagers. In the end all of that turned out to be invasive paranoid social conservative bullshit. So there it is, MC Shan's Down By Law. Hip Hop historians owe it to themselves to give it a listen.
8) Boogie Down Productions, Criminal Minded
As described in the above review of MC Shan's Down By Law, this album was instrumental in promoting hip hop culture and popularity due to it's high profile diss tracks "South Bronx" and "The Bridge is Over". In the "The Bridge is Over" KRS-One picks apart the Juice Crew one at a time. Drama sells and as music biographer Steven Stancell says in his book Rap Whoz Who, "these back-and-forth radio battles were good for both radio stations [KISS-FM and WBLS], raking in listeners by the numbers on the weekends". From the get go, KRS-One demonstrates on this album he's one of the best emcees ever. I once heard him free style at a New Years Eve party many years ago. Trust me, the man's still got it. Co-produced by Ced-Gee, KRS-One and DJ Scott La Rock blended many different musical styles and samples like rock, soul, and dancehall reggae. Sure on paper it looks like an ugly clash of sound but somehow it works. After this release, Scott La Rock was murdered trying to break up a fight. This affected KRS-One profoundly. While he would continue to release albums under the Boogie Down Productions moniker, KRS-One would drop the gangsta subject matter in favor of the socially conscious and political themes that he is famous for. But nevertheless this small slice of gangsta rap from KRS-One is one of the most beloved albums of the "golden age" and deserves a place on my top ten list. The stand outs for me, other than the famous diss tracks, are "P Is For Free" and "9mm Goes Bang" as a very close second. "P Is For Free" has a Jamaican dancehall beat, which not a lot of rappers were using at the time. The bass booms and KRS-One does what he does best in this tale of drug addiction and prostitution. "Golden Age" fans must have this.
7) Ice T, Rhyme Pays
Black Sabbath sample on the first track? Yes please. Rhyme Pays is the strong debut from one of hip hop's most beloved OG's, Ice-T. It was also produced by one of the earliest hip hop pioneers Afrika Islam. As one of the forerunners of gangsta rap, Ice-T with tracks like "6 'N The Mornin'" "Somebody Gotta Do It (Pimpin' Ain't Easy)" prepares for the flood of popularity gangsta rap would receive in the following years. Before gangsta rap became a cartoonish parody of itself by the mid 1990's, Ice-T was one of the few rappers out there doing it justice. Rhyme Pays is a series of harrowing vignettes of gratuitous violence with some party jams mixed in for good measure. From the start, gangsta rap's underlying intention was meant to illuminate the reality of urban decay and the social ills that most suburban dwellers were not privy to. As Eazy-E once said, "Who gave it that title, gangsta rap? It's reality rap. It's about what's really going on." But others viewed this record and others like it as an attempt to glorify and romanticize the vice and murder it described. Perhaps both camps are right in one way or another. This is precisely what the song "Squeeze the Trigger" is about, which is why it is my favorite track. And because of that funky walking bass line.
6) Tuff Crew, Phanjam
Philadelphia's Tuff Crew released this overlooked gem in 1987. Kool Keith and Ced Gee joined the production team for this one and I love that nuts and bolts, stripped down and dirty production. In inspired hands, sometimes good drum machine programming and a mic is all you need. DJ Too Tuff is just a beast on the cut. Emcee trio LA Kidd, Ice Dog and Tone Love have great chemistry and flow between each others rhymes effortlessly. The lyrics are mostly about how bad ass their crew is, rocking the partying and getting wild. And without a doubt, these guys were well versed in the art of rocking the party. This album, like Crushin', is like the swan song of the "old school era" of party jams before records such as It Takes a Nation.. and Straight Outta Compton came along and utterly obliterated everything around them. The Tuff Crew would go on to release a few more albums and enjoy a pretty successful run as an opening act for headliners such as Public Enemy, Run-DMC, LL Cool J, 2 Live Crew, Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, and others. Overall this record just captured that late 1980's "golden age" essence and flavor that we all love. This was the kind of shit that mid-2000's hipster hop tried to imitate. It's fun, high energy and worth a listen. Favorite tracks are... all of them. No joke. This record kicks ass wholesale and is a culmination of what makes hip hop such an enduring musical expression.
5) Too $hort, Born to Mack
This was Too $hort's first major label album and was released in 1988 however Born to Mack was originally independently released in 1987 so I'm going to include it on the list (I realize that this contradicts my argument for Schoolly D's Saturday Night: The Album, but I don't give a fuck, I like this album and want to talk about it). This record is littered with pornographic rhymes that chronicle the hustler and pimp lifestyle. It's filthy, it's funky and it's 100% street. My favorite track, "Freaky Tales", is an epic porno rap that clocks in at over nine minutes, which is as ridiculous as it is impressive. The entire track is a list of names of local hood rats that Too $hort had sex with. It's the portrait of the pimp as a young man. It's ambitious and hilarious. In an interview with Vibe Magazine, Too $hort revealed that the song was originally longer (almost 75 names), but was cut short because he didn't want the track to get played out.. Holy shit.. But what makes this record great for me is the proto G-Funk beats that Too $hort and a friend of his made themselves. The whole album was recorded just using an 808 and a synthesizer. The bass lines produced on the Roland SH-101 synthesizer have that glorious Parliament/Zapp & Roger quality that would become essential to the formation of west coast G-Funk in the 1990's. And the 808 programming provides the music with those deep bass kicks and attack that gives golden age hip hop that signature sound. Too $hort essentially laid the groundwork that helped spring board later Bay Area rappers to success and fame. In effect, he put Oakland on the map. His twentieth album is slated to be released later next month, but Born to Mack was his first big break and helped earn west coast hip hop the credibility it deserved.
4) Kool Moe Dee, How Ya Like Me Now
Kool Moe Dee is one of the true battle rap masters. From his famous roasting of Busy Bee Starski to his 1987 release How Ya Like Me Now, this man was breathing fire toward his adversaries that many couldn't match. The title track, "Don't Dance", and "Rock You" are scathing rants against LL Cool J that would've ended a lesser rapper's career. Granted these diss tracks are tame by today's standards, but in their historical context they are ruthless. One of the things that makes Kool Moe Dee special is that he was one of the few members of rap's old guard who saw a need to adapt to the changing times. His material from the Treacherous Three days certainly wasn't going to cut it towards the late 80's. Kool Moe Dee's style and delivery on this record are miles ahead of his old school peers who released albums that same year (Grandmaster Flash and Spoonie Gee, I'm looking at you). Kool Moe Dee's rhymes became more sophisticated and were still delivered with the swagger, and attitude that give battle raps their appeal. Favorite tracks have to be "How Ya Like Me Now" and "Don't Dance". I'm sorry, there is some other really good stuff on this record, but Kool Moe Dee is at his best when he ripping other emcees apart. It's really an art in itself.
3) N.W.A, N.W.A. and the Posse
Since this is technically a compilation I considered leaving N.W.A. and the Posse off the list. Dr. Dre's The Chronic is more or less a Death Row Records compilation. Could I justify leaving that album off a future top ten list? Of course not. That would be fucking stupid. And "Boyz N The Hood", "8 Ball", and "Dopeman" (all penned by a young upstart named Ice Cube) are some of N.W.A's most iconic and well known songs thus I decided to include it. Aside from N.W.A, the Fila Fresh Crew have a few good tracks on there too and the Arabian Prince's electro masterpiece "Panic Zone" is another highlight among many. This compilation showcases Compton's up and coming rap prowess as well as one of the earliest production credits in the storied career of Dr. Dre. The 1989 re-release replaced Rappinstine's "Scream" with Ice Cube's "A Bitch Iz A Bitch", which was a smart upgrade. I've never heard of Rappinstine and I don't really care. "Scream" fucking sucks. "A Bitch Iz A Bitch" is a harsh diatribe against arrogant and snobby women that, for me, is one of the most memorable tracks on the record. You couldn't get away with making a song like "A Bitch Iz A Bitch" or "Fat Girl" nowadays. Whether that fact is a bummer or not is for the listener to decide. With that, I'd designate this compilation as a near perfect release. None of the tracks are easily skipped (even the ridiculous Fila Fresh "Twist and Shout" remake, "Drink It Up", has a certain charm to it). With emcees such as Ice Cube, Eazy-E and The D.O.C., this roster is stacked with talent. A solid release, but as far as Compton and west coast rap in general was concerned, this was merely the tip of the spear.
2) Eric B and Rakim, Paid in Full
Self produced by the duo, Paid in Full sets the bar incredibly high for everything that came out after it. Eric B is one of the best turntablists ever and MC Rakim revolutionized the way rappers could rhyme and flow by ignoring the end rhyme scheme for a more free form internal rhyme pattern. By this album's release, no longer was it just acceptable to merely "rock the party". By the late 80's, what you said was becoming just as important as how you said it. Lyrical content was becoming more expressive and complex. No longer was just raw energy and a clever turn of phrase enough to carry your record through. Ideas were just as important. The gauntlet had been thrown. Rakim isn't just a rapper, he is a poet. He demonstrates a command of the English language that was miles ahead of his contemporaries at the time. His delivery is stoic and his writing is superb. Rakim's style has inspired members of the Wu-Tang Clan, Jay-Z, Tupac, Biggie, Nas, Eminem and many more. For these facts alone, Paid in Full isn't just a benchmark for "golden age" hip hop, it's a benchmark for the entire genre. The beats are amazing. The samples are classic and well selected and the drums are funky yet understated making a soundtrack that is gritty and heavy. Eric B has three instrumental tracks to demonstrate his skill in creating dark and soulful beats and brings the element of live turntablism to a rap record better than anyone had done before. Favorite tracks are "I Ain't No Joke", "My Melody", "Eric B Is President", and "As The Rhyme Goes On". Basically half the fucking record. But don't let that lead you to believe the rest of the record is filler. They are all good. This album is essential for any hip hop fan's collection and was seriously considered for the number one spot. However...
1) Public Enemy, Yo! Bum Rush the Show
This was the debut album from Public Enemy, who are easily my favorite Islamic black nationalist anti-Semitic rap crew ;) Chuck D is a god damned human wrecking ball when it comes to emceeing. This man has more ideas in a rhyming couplet than most rappers have on their whole fucking album and delivers them with the force equivalent to a punch to the face. However, the lyrics on this record are not as politically incendiary as the next two. Most of the raps are directed toward representing their crew, but the politics are still present even if they are buried in between verses. There is the political track "Rightstarter (Message to a Black Man)" and socially constructive songs "Too Much Posse" and "Megablast". But I'd like to view this album as Public Enemy sort of introducing themselves before getting down to their ideology. Out of the gate, Flava Flav demonstrates why he is greatest hype man of all time. He makes it look easy, but anyone who knows anything about the hype man role knows that it's one of the hardest gigs in the business. With all of that being said, the real reason this album is number one and why Public Enemy's music really sticks out to me is the production team known as The Bomb Squad. Hank and Keith Shocklee, Eric Sadler, Gary G-Wiz and Bill Stephney are a beat making collective that have inspired millions of musicians including myself. Their aggressive, atonal and sample heavy collages of sound are unlike anything that came before. On the following It Takes a Nation... and Fear of a Black Planet, The Bomb Squad would further develop their sound creating a sonic cacophony that is adrenaline inducing yet humbling to listen to. But this album is where it all started. They are one of my favorite production teams of all time, up there with the RZA. Yo! Bum Rush the Show is not my favorite Public Enemy album and you've have a hard time convincing me it is their best. But at the time this record was blowing most shit out of the water and is definitely my number one pick for Best Hip Hop/Rap record of 1987.
There it is. A list of great records that turned thirty this year along with myself. If you like this list, disagree with the rankings, or would like to share your own top ten list, please comment below. As always, I'd love to know what you all are listening to.