I chose the albums that made the most impact on me, fascinated me the most, and most importantly could discover something new with additional listens. These are the greatest hip hop albums I've heard to date.
1. Madvillain - Madvilliany
I didn’t see the Madvillainy album coming. I desperately needed good hip hop at the time I heard the album. I still do to this day actually. MF Doom had become one of hip hop’s most notable figures and teamed up with Madlib to produce what I and many consider to be the best hip hop album of the last ten years, Madvillany. It just goes to show that any artist is capable of turning out masterpieces under the right circumstances. Hopefully the next Madvillain project will give even more bang for the buck than the first.
2. Wyclef Jean Presents the Carnival Featuring the Refugee Allstars
Wyclef Jean was the first of The Fugees to release a solo project. Wyclef Jean Presents the Carnival Featuring the Refugee Allstars etched its name onto the Desert Island list at Apocalypse, the first track after the hilarious courtroom introduction. I admire the variety of production. Gone Til November is one of hip hop's most beautiful compositions. Anything Can Happen is fantastic. I don't really care what anyone says about We Trying To Stay Alive, I love it. What I have in Carnival is a wide range of sounds and styles. The album is a carnival on record. The eclectic nature of Carnival was closest I heard and experienced since the last De La Soul album. I can name Wyclef Jean as an inspiration for my radio show. When I wrote about an album that I could discover new things from, Carnival was recorded for that purpose.
3. Public Enemy - It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
On a historic trip to New York in 1988, I saw a vision that would change my life forever. As I walked up the stairs to get out of the subway, I saw a huge poster of Chuck D and Flavor Flav behind bars and the title of one of my most important albums of all time. I remember standing in a trance looking at that photo that and every time we would pass through the subway. I would have to be called away from it to snap me out of it. One listen to the accompanying album can induce the same effects over 20 years later.
Everyone around me was going nuts over Distortion to Static when it first dropped but I just wasn't on board. All that went out the window after I heard Illadelph Halflife. Black Thought is now one of my favorite lyricists. I respect Questlove as a musician and DJ. Illadelph Halflife is one of those albums that take you back in time and you remember the glory days of hip hop. Thank goodness I learned my lesson about The Roots. If I had taken any longer to dig them, Things Fall Apart would have taken Halflife's place on this list.
6. Gang Starr - Daily Operation
I was an even bigger Gang Starr fan after I finally realized how good Daily Operation was. Step in the Arena was a fantastic album to me and could have been on the Desert Island list had it not been for Daily Operation. What appears to be a common thread among some of the albums and artists on the list is my not liking them until I change my mind. When I heard Daily Operation after the few first listens, I didn't like it. The production was dirtier than Gang Starr's past work. I talked to a schoolmate that liked Gang Starr as much as I and he told me get a comfortable chair, turn off the lights and listen to the album. I thought he was being ridiculous. He reiterated his instructions and I realized I should give it a shot.
I got the chance to listen to it in the dark and what do you know! I'm writing a blog about the album fifteen years later. Songs like Take It Personal, Hardcore Composer, B.Y.S. and Much 2 Much are much too much. That sound I didn't like was the foundation for Primo's legend. They never did an album this good until they released Moment Of Truth. Even then, I go with Daily Operation any day.
7. Diamond & The Psychotic Neurotics - Stunts, Blunts & Hip Hop
Diamond D's name first meant something to me when I saw it on Lord Finesse & DJ Mike Smooth's Funky Technician listed as one of the producers. I heard his voice for the first time on A Tribe Called Quest's Low End Theory, which adds to that album's mystique and status as a hip hop classic. Best Kept Secret is an incredible single and Freestyle (Yo That's That Shit) was classic from the moment it was recorded. I have the greatest respect for Diamond D's production, vibe, classic status and contributions to hip hop great contributions to hip hop. In other words, Thank the lord for Diamond D.
8. Ice Cube - Death Certificate
I was never the biggest West Coast hip hop fan. Ice Cube managed to change my mind with his debut. Bomb Squad were involved with the album, which cushioned the blow so to speak, but I learned to appreciate Ice Cube as an artist. He outdid himself on Death Certificate. Who would have thought Ice Cube would do the equivalent of Marvin Gaye by recording a concept album? Death Certificate dealt with topics affecting the Black community like STDs and gang violence, and took time to reveal the truth about his days with NWA. I almost never went a day without hearing that album. This was Ice Cube at his most self-reflective and I was on his side up until Bootlegs & B-Sides.
9. De La Soul - 3 Feet High & Rising
It has been said that a reader does not choose a book, the book chooses the reader. There are some pieces of art that speak directly to us from some reason or another, as if they were made for us. This is my connection to De La Soul's debut. De La Soul looked nothing like any of the rappers of the day. They had no gold chains, their production was not entirely based on James Brown, their rhymes and songs were as varied as the samples they used but something about them and those songs called to me. 3 Feet High and Rising is one of the most important albums of my life, hip hop or otherwise. The group, their albums and music are my most important sources of creative inspiration.
10. A Tribe Called Quest - The Low End Theory
The Low End Theory is still my favorite of A Tribe Called Quest’s discography. I forget which of Tribe's albums got classic status in The Source Magazine, but I give it to The Low End Theory. This album came at the end of the Afrocentric phase and presented the direction East Coast hip hop was going. ATCQ managed to distinguish themselves from De La Soul by being monumental to hip hop on their own terms. This album contains Scenario, hip hop's greatest posse cut. I discovered that the track listing for each format varied from one to the other. The audio cassette order is different from the vinyl, the vinyl is different from the CD and the CD is different from the tape and vinyl. This once again is characteristic of the legendary and mysterious ATCQ. They would repeat that element of surprise on Midnight Marauders where the photo order is different from one format to another. The Jazz (We Got)/Buggin' Out video is possibly still my favorite hip hop video. A Tribe Called Quest molded my musical knowledge and expectations of hip hop to come.
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Below is the playlist of the Desert Island Hip Hop podcast to bring you up to speed.
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1. K.M.D. – Who Me?
2. Wyclef Jean - We Trying To Stay Alive
3. Diamond & The Psychotic Neurotics - Sally Got A One Track Mind
4. Gang Starr - Who's Gonna Take The Weight
5. Ice Cube - Bop Gun
6. Raekwon - Criminology
7. Public Enemy - Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos
8. The Roots - You Got Me
9. De La Soul - Breakadawn
10. A Tribe Called Quest - Oh My God
11. Gang Starr - Royalty
12. Ghostface Killah – Motherless Child
13. Wyclef Jean – Gone Till November