This feature was originally published on October 25, 2017.
History got all fucked up when everyone thought that the Baby Boomers had the most important story to tell. And of course the white male baby boomers had the loudest voices. So here we are, in 2017, still feeling the cultural and artistic reverberations from events that happened long after the ’60s became American culture’s supposed pivotal moment.
But the fact is that it wasn’t the late ’60s when everything changed—at least not in popular music. White people were listening to white people performing older black music at Woodstock (not to slight Jimi). And we grew up being told one thing, but knowing something else was true. American popular music today owes everything not to The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, but to the sparks of the late 1970s that took full flight in the ’80s. To techno, to house music, to disco, to dancehall—and to hip-hop.
The ’80s was hip-hop’s first real decade, the era when everything started to blow up. There’s an old saying that no idea’s original: “There’s nothing new under the sun. It’s never what you do, but how it’s done.” And it’s true that hip-hop was a continuation of a much longer story about black American culture. Hip-hop was about poor kids taking broken pieces of the world around them and putting them back together. This was the true break with history—the end of the beginning, if not the beginning of the end.
As complicated as it was creative, as contradictory as it was all-conquering, the story of hip-hop’s eventual aesthetic takeover starts in the ’80s. From artists like Slick Rick to the Fresh Prince, Public Enemy to the 2Live Crew, N.W.A to BDP, Salt-N-Pepa to Queen Latifah, The Fat Boys to De La Soul—this is where rap’s various ideologies and innovations begin spinning outwards, spreading geographically and, culturally. Early on, it wasn’t an album genre; hip-hop was all about parties and park jams, preserved and propagated via bootleg cassette. Soon after it was about stars and singles, disco loops and breakbeats, drum machines, and ultimately, albums. The art of the hip-hop album was perfected by the close of this remarkable decade. All these years later some discs sound dated while others feel fresher than ever. Which records have stood the test of time? Which one embodies hip-hop best? See if you can guess—or just start clicking. These are our picks for the Best Rap Albums of the 80s.