Hip-Hop’s Greatest Year: 15 Albums That Made Rap Explode
Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
Release Date: June 28, 1988
Key Tracks: “Bring the Noise,” “Don’t Believe the Hype,” “Night of the Living Baseheads”
What Caught On: Having already established their sound on 1987’s Yo! Bum Rush the Show, the production team known as the Bomb Squad (led by Hank Shocklee) hit their stride in ’88. The tracks on Nation of Millions… aren’t simply samples layered over backbeats — rather, the samples are stacked on top of each other, crowding each other out and swirling into a chaotic, noisy stew. Chuck D didn’t invent righteous belligerence, but he certainly got it on MTV. “Our two big singles coming into this record [“Rebel Without a Pause” and “Bring the Noise”] had really brought the speed of rap music up a notch,” Chuck explains. “We wanted the songs to move faster to match our intensity, and that made me more intense in turn. That was the foundation of that record.”
What Didn’t: If there’s one thing that Public Enemy proved, it was that rap groups have a hard time sustaining more than one dynamic personality. Chuck’s razor-sharp raps are sometimes derailed by the turned-to-eleven goofiness of Flavor Flav.
Run-DMC, Tougher Than Leather
Release Date: September 16, 1988
Key Tracks: “Run’s House,” “Mary Mary,” “I’m Not Going Out Like That”
What Caught On: Neither a straight hip-hop album like Raising Hell nor a crossover album like King of Rock, Tougher Than Leather proved that a rap group could be everything to everyone. Nobody truly loved Tougher Than Leather, but everybody liked something about it (save for one of its creators). “I hated Tougher Than Leather!” says Darryl McDaniels, a.k.a. DMC. “That album was too rushed. I wanted to just be DMC, and I was stuck rhyming on this radio shit. Chuck D is always saying that Tougher Than Leather is his favorite hip-hop album, and I always tell him he’s crazy!” But even McDaniels acknowledges its importance. “Raising Hell opened the door, and Tougher Than Leather kept it open for groups like EPMD, Jungle Brothers and Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince.”
What Didn’t: Run-DMC’s acting career. The album spawned a film of the same name, but most people only allow Run to play himself on Run’s House.
EPMD, Strictly Business
Release Date: June 7, 1988
Key Tracks: “Strictly Business,” “I’m Housin”
What Caught On: Believe it or not, most rap producers hadn’t truly dipped into the classic funk library before Eric Sermon got his hands on the decks. People had sampled soul records before, but nobody had really built tracks around a single loop. Sermon’s work on Strictly Business set the bar for rap production that continues today. “Nobody worked harder than EPMD,” explains DMC. “We went on tour with them and when we wanted to goof around, they were working on beats and rhymes. Those guys lived hip-hop.”
What Didn’t: Parrish Smith. EPMD have retired (and returned), but Erick Sermon managed to strike gold as a producer away from the group, most notably as Def Squad (with Redman and Keith Murray).
Slick Rick, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick
Release Date: May 2, 1988
Key Tracks: “Children’s Story,” “Mona Lisa,” “Treat Her Like a Prostitute”
What Caught On: Slick Rick’s first album was an incredible statement of purpose and he established himself as a master weaver of tales. Rick took storytelling to a new level in hip-hop, and you can hear his influence in rappers from Kool G Rap to Nas.
What Didn’t: The Great Adventures of Slick Rick was one of the last big hip-hop albums that relied on a more old-school disco sound; in ’88, it sounded like Rick was an old saw holding onto old ways even though it was his debut (perhaps that’s why it’s one of the most-sampled rap records of all time).
N.W.A, Straight Outta Compton
Release Date: August 8, 1988
Key Tracks: “Fuck Tha Police,” “Express Yourself,” “Straight Outta Compton”
What Caught On: Is there anything that didn’t? Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, MC Ren and Yella held court at the launch of “gangsta rap,” which would be the genre’s primary style for the next decade. Vivid, ultra-violent, sexually charged and unapologetic, Straight Outta Compton stripped hip-hop to its core and sounded the alarm for change, and rap music hasn’t been the same since. “That record is perfect,” says Rick Ross.
What Didn’t: Dre, Cube and Eazy all became legends; despite formidable skills and overwhelming respect among other MCs, Ren and Yella remain historical footnotes.
DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper
Release Date: March 29, 1988
Key Tracks: “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” “Nightmare On My Street”
What Caught On: Thought to be a fading art form, DJ Jazzy Jeff brought back scratching in a big way on his team’s second album. While the group was able to cross over to the mainstream on Will Smith’s goofy, easy-going charisma, they were respected in the hip-hop community because of Jeff’s skills on the wheels of steel.
What Didn’t: Smith’s kid-friendly rhymes faded into novelty status, which is a shame — current hip hop could use a little of Big Willie’s laid-back humor. “At that time, you could be a fan of He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper and also be a fan of N.W.A,” says Mike Gee of Jungle Brothers. “There was a sense of inclusiveness in hip-hop that doesn’t exist today. Today, you’d get laughed at, but then it was like, ‘Look what’s possible!’ ”
Biz Markie, Goin’ Off
Release Date: February 23, 1988
Key Tracks: “Make the Music With Your Mouth, Biz,” “Vapors”
What Caught On: You know that typically overweight, extremely odd dude who is always the sixth member of hip-hop crews? That’s Biz, or somebody like him. Markie was the rare MC who had incredible mic skills and also knew that it was all a gag.
What Didn’t: Humor in hip-hop. It goes through cycles, but nobody goofed like Biz, and few have ventured down that road.
Boogie Down Productions, By All Means Necessary
Release Date: May 10, 1988
Key Tracks: “My Philosophy,” “Stop the Violence”
What Caught On: Following the death of DJ Scott La Rock in 1987, KRS-ONE’s always-rotating troupe shifted from the blinding street violence of their debut to a more conscious vision on their second album, without sacrificing the hard-hitting production. “A lot of people think of KRS-ONE as this guy who only worked the positive angle,” says Joe Budden. “But he knew how to express every emotion: anger, sadness, whatever.”
What Didn’t: KRS-ONE’s free-form rhyme style (most of these tracks didn’t have choruses) disappeared from the hip-hop landscape for a long time.
Eric B & Rakim, Follow the Leader
Release Date: July 25, 1988
Key Tracks: “Microphone Fiend,” “Lyrics of Fury”
What Caught On: Follow the Leader established Rakim as the greatest rapper in the game, setting the template for any rapper who would call himself a virtuoso. It’s the height of rap for rap’s sake, and proof that you could make an entire album just about being a street poet. “There has been great hip-hop since then, but I’m not sure anybody has ever matched ‘Microphone Fiend,’ ” says Chuck D.
What Didn’t: Rakim’s rhyming still sounds great on this record, but over time he was eaten alive amidst the more innovative and aggressive work of the rappers who followed him.
Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock, It Takes Two
Release Date: August 9, 1988
Key Tracks: “It Takes Two”
What Caught On: With a bouncy beat and a shout-along sample chorus, “It Takes Two” gave birth to a new generation of hip-hop novelty tracks. The song proved that hip-hop could easily cross over in rapid fashion.
What Didn’t: The rest of the Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock catalog.
Ultramagnetic MC’s, Critical Beatdown
Release Date: October 4, 1988
Key Tracks: “Give the Drummer Some,” “Ego Trippin,” Travelling at the Speed of Thought (Remix)”
What Caught On: Another stunning debut, Critical Beatdown introduced the rap world to the touched brains of Ced-Gee, TR Love, Moe Love and especially Kool Keith, who rhymes about strange fits of violence, bizarre sex and whatever else pops up in his subconscious. Critical Beatdown is chock-full of the type of scatological word-association rhyming that Keith later made legendary as Dr. Octagon (and other guises), as well as informed the work of Lil Wayne.
What Didn’t: Kool Keith’s sanity. Heard through the prism of his subsequent work, Keith sounds downright restrained on this record.
The Jungle Brothers, Straight Out the Jungle
Release Date: November 8, 1988
Key Tracks: “Black Is Black,” “I’ll House You,” “Because I Got It Like That”
What Caught On: Straight Out the Jungle represents the beginning of the Native Tongues movement, a collective of forward-thinking hip-hoppers that included A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and Black Sheep. The album rests grounded, intense flows on top of esoteric beats. “We knew we were doing something different, but we didn’t do it because it was different,” says Jungle Brothers’ Mike Gee. “To this day, I don’t know that it’s been reproduced as well, even by us.”
What Didn’t: The hip-hop dance single. Though “I’ll House You” was a minor hit, the Jungle Brothers’ house experiment became a liability in hip-hop; the JB’s never matched the street cred they had here.
Bid Daddy Kane, Long Live the Kane
Release Date: June 21, 1988
Key Tracks: “Set It Off,” “Ain’t No Half Steppin’,” “Long Live the Kane”
What Caught On: Kane’s flow — tough, boastful, and syrupy smooth — gave birth to the “sensitive hustler” persona that Biggie Smalls and Jay-Z parlayed into legendary careers (in fact, a young Jay-Z worked for a short time as a Kane hypeman). Long Live the Kane is in many respects a transition album for all of hip-hop, as the Marley Marl-produced beats sound decidedly old-school, but Kane’s rhymes were something entirely new.
What Didn’t: Kane’s legacy, sadly. Rarely mentioned in the same breath as the other titans on this list, Kane remains something of an MC’s MC (not unlike Rakim). Just ask Scarface. “I can still rap Long Live the Kane from memory,” he says. “Everybody should rap along with Kane — it will make you a better rapper. It helped me!”
MC Lyte, Lyte as a Rock
Release Date: September 6, 1988
Key Tracks: “I Cram to Understand You (Sam),” “10% Dis”
What Caught On: Lyte was a female rapper who came as hard as the guys. Lyte as a Rock contains some great storytelling (especially on “I Cram to Understand You (Sam),” which was about her brother’s crack addiction), and “10% Dis” is as cutting as any attack song from the Eighties. Though she didn’t necessarily subvert her femininity, she also didn’t harp on it. “Lyte could hang with anybody,” says Joe Budden. “She wasn’t a ‘female MC.’ She was an MC who happened to be female.”
What Didn’t: Though Lyte certainly opened the door (and Queen Latifah and Salt N Pepa helped keep it open), it remains an uphill battle for women who take on rap music. Only Missy Elliott, Eve and a handful of others have managed to crack the thick glass ceiling in modern rap.
Release Date: September 13, 1988
Key Tracks: “I’m Your Pusher,” “Power,” “Soul On Ice”
What Caught On: Ice-T is notorious for his latter-day ultra-violence with Body Count (“Cop Killer” came four years later), but in his early days he was the West Coast version of Big Daddy Kane: a hustler with a conscience, a smooth-talking “OG.” No stranger to guns, drugs and women (the iconic album cover tells most of the story), T also had the same sort of guilt complex that would inform Tupac’s best work. N.W.A. were the shoot-first gangsters, but Ice-T was the gangster-as-businessman.
What Didn’t: Though the rhymes are still fresh, the beats on Power sound rote and stale. Also, T’s hair (thankfull) went the way of the Jheri curl.
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