Establishing a canon is tricky, like the Run-D.M.C. song of the same name. It’s important to remember that any human creation is subjective by nature, which means it’s imperfect. This notion extends to all things, including the canons that are formulated to be the gatekeepers that can grant any work of art a place in heaven. In early history the canon was originally a religious concept: the term referred to a collection of scriptures that were deemed worthy to be included in the bible. Here, the religion of concern is hip-hop, and the objects of this analysis are its scriptures in the form of music.
Hip-hop music is a combination of two original elements of hip-hop culture: DJ-ing and MC-ing, the former being the musical expression of hip-hop culture, the latter being its poetic expression. DJ-ing is the art of creating music out of pre-existing forms, such as the break beats of records that were re-combined into the pastiche that is hip-hop music. MC-ing is the art of delivering spoken word poetry rhythmically over the beat of the music, or, rapping.
The time has come to canonize hip-hop albums; to offer a starting point with regards to studying the great artistic achievements in hip-hop music. Canons are living things; they expand and constrict with time. Due to hip-hop’s relatively young age, the assumption must stand that the canon will grow, and that this is just the beginning.
What follows is a cataloguing of 8 essential albums that any hip-hop canon can’t do without. 8 is an arbitrary number, chosen to avoid the hackneyed “top-ten” list, and also to avoid ranking the works against themselves. The albums will be presented in chronological order.
Raising Hell (1986) by Run-D.M.C.
This is the album that marked the beginning of the “golden age” of hip-hop music, and also the album that sent hip-hop into the mainstream, or rather, brought the mainstream to hip-hop; best symbolized by the song “Walk This Way”, which was a collaboration with Aerosmith as a remake of their song of the same name – the first rap/rock fusion to be a success as a pop hit. The album was produced by Rick Rubin, who can be credited as one of the architects of hip-hop’s early studio sound. This was a pivotal work for a number of reasons: it’s one of the last of the “classic” albums in hip-hop music, featuring a minimalist production style that Rubin came to be known for and an equally minimalist tag-team approach to rhyming that almost became extinct later in the decade; and also due to its stunning commercial success (three million records sold), hip-hop lost its innocence. Gone were the days of an idealistic stripped-down subculture – hip-hop matured as a global cultural commodity.
It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988) by Public Enemy
Public Enemy’s second album displays the apex of their style: hard-hitting socio-political lyrics by Chuck D, satiric counterpoint by Flavor Flav, and an experimental collage-style musical production sound by the Bomb Squad. The song “Don’t Believe the Hype” exemplifies Public Enemy’s polemical approach, and “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” showcases Chuck D’s storytelling abilities in the politically-tinged plot about a prison break. This album made stars out of Public Enemy. While their next album Fear of a Black Planet (1990) would be selected for preservation on the U.S. National Recording Registry as a work that is “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” this album is the more polished of the two. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is the Rosetta Stone for revolutionary rap, in form and content.
Straight Outta Compton (1988) by N.W.A.
If It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is the Rosetta Stone for socio-political revolutionary rap, Straight Outta Compton, released in the same year, has a similar status in relation to gangsta rap. This is the album that put Compton on the hip-hop map as the home of West Coast gangsta rap, and also marked the shift in popularity towards gangsta rap music, which is still the dominant form today. N.W.A. is the original super group of hip-hop all-stars: Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, MC Ren, DJ Yella. Their song “Fuck the Police” features the same revolutionary spirit that characterized Public Enemy, with a touch of urban anarchy and blatant violence. This song also earned the group a letter of reproach from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, making them the most notorious musical group working at that time. What N.W.A. offered was an unflinching and explicit look at ghetto life in South Central Los Angeles, and rap music would literally never be the same afterwards. Hip-hop’s loss of innocence was completed with the release and success of this album.
The Low End Theory (1991) by A Tribe Called Quest
If such things as perfect albums exist, this is one of them. The construction and execution borders on the flawless: fourteen songs, no skits, and no filler. Q-Tip and Phife Dawg make for a great one-two rhyming combo, one of the greatest in the history of hip-hop. Evidence lies in the song “Check the Rhime”, which is an example of hip-hop music at its purest, as well as a classic recording. The jazzy production with live instrumentation that dominates this album marked a schism with West Coast G-funk, which was primed to explode at the time; and it also prefigured the series of Jazzmatazz fusion albums by Guru which began appearing only a few years later.
The Chronic (1992) by Dr. Dre
This is the musical masterpiece of hip-hop. Kanye West said it best when he noted that this is the album every producer must measure himself against, if he’s serious about his work. The Chronic introduced the hip-hop world to G-funk, or gangsta funk, which is a musical style that combines a cool, West Coast feel with Parliament-Funkadelic styled funk music and the raw gangsta rap lyrics that Dr. Dre helped pioneer as part of N.W.A. The album also introduced Snoop Doggy Dogg, launching his career as one of the biggest stars in hip-hop, putting Long Beach on the hip-hop map as the second home for West Coast gangsta rap, and introducing the Dogg Pound as well (Daz, Kurupt, Warren G). Credit must also be given to Daz (Snoop’s cousin) and Warren G (Dre’s half-brother), brilliant producers in their own right, for contributing to the creation of the G-funk sound. Though labeled a solo release, this album was really a huge collaborative effort featuring a multitude of guest appearances. Much like the work of Shakespeare for the Western Canon, The Chronic is utterly indispensible for any conceivable notion of a hip-hop canon.
Ready to Die (1994) by The Notorious B.I.G.
After the early 90s takeover of hip-hop by West Coast G-funk, Ready to Die was the album that helped revitalize the New York scene. This was The Notorious B.I.G.’s debut album, though he was only able to follow up with a double album before he was killed. The work has a strong narrative current on life and death that unifies the album, and it features a gamut of emotions from introspection, anger, lust, pride, and spite, to remorse; the tonal shifts in the songs’ content are grand, along with the shifts in musical styles. Biggie is considered by many to be the greatest rapper who ever lived. While that’s debatable, the fact that this album is a supreme work in hip-hop is not. “Big Poppa” is one of the great club anthems, “One More Chance” the greatest raunchy sexual boast song in hip-hop, and “Unbelievable” a peerless match between lyricist and producer at the top of their respective games: Biggie and DJ Premier. The definition of a masterpiece is something endlessly repeatable and endlessly enjoyable, and that’s Ready to Die.
Reasonable Doubt (1996) by Jay-Z
The debut album by Jay-Z helped to initiate a sub sub-genre of gangsta rap: Mafioso rap. Crime and hip-hop became linked as big businesses as depicted in Reasonable Doubt, evidenced by the impeccable suit, hat, and expensive cigar that Jay-Z sports on the album cover (and also portending his future as one of the most successful of all hip-hop entrepreneurs). If Biggie isn’t the greatest lyricist in the annals of hip-hop history, Jay-Z is, and the highlight of this album is being able to judge for yourself through the track “Brooklyn’s Finest,” which features the two heavyweights trading verses in a brilliant fusillade of battle rapping. Never has a more powerful lyrical struggle for supremacy been captured in a single recording, and the result sounds very much like a stalemate.
The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory (1996) by Makaveli
If Jay-Z and Biggie are the greatest hip-hop lyricists, Tupac Shakur is the greatest hip-hop artist, and this is his supreme testament. This album is soaked in legendary status: it is reputed to have been recorded in a mere seven days, and it was released posthumously, (Tupac having been shot and killed only two months before), ominously featuring a drawing of a crucified Tupac as cover art. Shakur dons the pseudonym “Makaveli” in reference to Niccolò Machiavelli, and creates what remains as a truly profound work of art in hip-hop. All of the proof lies in a song called “Blasphemy,” which is a piercing analytical critique of the state of modern society in America. Nothing Tupac wrote before has been as powerful or as pertinent; it’s the sum total of all his work as a rapper, actor, poet, and outlaw, while this album is the sum total of the single greatest and most influential career hip-hop has seen. So the arc of the hip-hop canon begins with the rise of the golden age, and ends here, at its sunset, with the fall of Tupac Shakur, amid the dusk of the 20th century.
*Translated and re-printed from the magazine Huper (#444, November 2008, Belgrade)