Theory Teacher's Blog

most important hip hop albums in history?

Recently, I was speaking with the librarian at my university about the necessity of including hip hop in our school’s collection of music. She agreed, but that opens up the obvious question — which hip hop? Obviously, we can’t afford to buy everything. And we wouldn’t want to anyway, because we would only want to buy the “good” stuff. 

Here below is a tentative list that I started brainstorming. I know we won’t get all of them, so this is just a “thinking out loud” kind of list. And sometimes I’ve only named the artist, because I couldn’t make up my mind which particular album. I welcome suggestions and input, but please explain and justify your choices.

Parliament — Mothership Connection
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five — The Message
Gil Scott-Heron — The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
Public Enemy
Tribe Called Quest
Queen Latifah
Salt-N-Pepa — Very Necesssary
New Jack City (soundtrack)
Afrika Bambaataa
Ice T
De La Soul
Mos Def — Black on Both Sides
Black Star — Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star
Kanye West
Missy Elliott
The Fugees — The Score
Tupac Shakur
Boogie Down Productions
NWA — Straight Outta Compton
Ice Cube — Amerikka’s Most Wanted
Cyprus Hill — Cypress Hill

The question for the literary theorist, of course, is a rather classic question. What makes any literary work canonical? Why does one thing get included in the anthology of great works while another thing doesn’t? What are the criteria for inclusion and exclusion? For me, socially conscious hip hop is the kind of stuff I prefer to include, and the commercial “sex, drugs, ‘n’ glamour” hip hop is the kind of stuff I prefer to exclude. That’s a political decision, not an aesthetic one, but it gets tricky because sometimes the distinction is not so clear. Then, there are the albums that get quoted by other albums. So, if you listen to a lot of hip hop you will hear echos of particular rifs from earlier albums by Gil Scott-Heron, Public Enemy, and Tribe Called Quest. Through musical quotations, samples, and allusions, the industry itself has already decided on certain “classics” — albums that have become benchmarks for all future work. This is what the modernist poet T. S. Eliot means when he talks about “tradition and the individual talent” and relates a little bit to what the theorist Stanley Fish means when he talks about an “interpretive community.”

Or, perhaps the hip hop artist Mos Def put it an even better way — “we are hip hop.” In other words, the people who create and listen to hip hop are the people who are always already determining not only its future, but also its past.

So, when we choose something for a class or for a library collection, what is the (his)story of hip hop that we want to tell?


August 24, 2008 - Posted by | music


  1. The story of its evolution. The rise of “gangsta” in the early 1990s reflected the decline of “conscious” Hip Hop only because the Industry took note of what was happening, and, the crack and urban-thug thing had percolated long enough for the phenomenon to transcend coastline. Hip Hop’s transformation was just that, reflecting the reality “on the street”. Hip Hop IS street. No matter where that street may be.

    No Will Smith? I think he should be included because he was the first to move in a big way from CDs to Television and then Movies.

    No Notorious B.I.G. Biggy Smalls? The Tupac Biggy dichotomy defined East Coast/West Coast. You can’t add Tupac without Biggie. Conscious thug vs. smooth thug.

    No Jeru the Damaja? C’mon. =) He was out in the stratosphere, personifying the black consciousness/nationalist aspect of conscious hip hop.

    No Poor Righteous Poets? Hm.

    Good start, at any rate.

    Comment by rahkyt | August 26, 2008 | Reply

  2. Poor Righteous Teachers, I mean. And, of course, The Last Poets.

    Comment by rahkyt | August 26, 2008 | Reply

  3. Rahkyt,
    Good point about Biggy Smalls and Tupac. My bias is towards Tupac because as you point out yourself, he presented himself — or “fashioned himself” to use the theoretical concept of Stephen Greenblatt — as the socially conscious thug whereas Biggy fashioned himself as the smooth, glamour thug. As I mention already above, I obviously have my biases towards the socially conscious hip hop. But you’re right, that given the dialectical relation between Tupac and Biggy, both should be available in order to have a truer historical representation.

    As for Will Smith, there I disagree with you. His contribution to hip hop is to make it un-hip and un-political… which is to say, he helped make hip hop dummer. I don’t deny that he is clever and talented, and I don’t deny that that commercialization of hip hop didn’t play a profound role in its development in the late 1980s, but his biggest hit is already played at the beginning of his Fresh Prince sit-com probably several times a day every day. So, I don’t see the need to buy his albums. Perhaps LL Cool J instead?

    As for Jeru the Damaja and Poor Righteous Poets, you got me there. I don’t know them. The problem of course is that this list can’t be all inclusive. We can’t buy every artists that you or I happen to like, because we don’t have the budget for it. If we add one thing, we might have to subtract another. So, why are these two “essential” to the story of hip hop that we want to tell? I don’t see it.

    Comment by steventhomas | August 27, 2008 | Reply

  4. Aesop Rock’s complete works should be included in this decision. Aesop Rock, a Brooklyn based hip hop artist, produces music that is both extremely complex rhythmically and progressive in it’s view on the socio-economic relationships existing in the United States today. Combine this with intricate beats focusing heavily on live instrumentation and vinyl sampling and you get one of the greatest hip hop artists in the last 10 years. I suggest a listening of Music for Earthworms followed by Labor days and then the single Food Clothes Medicine. His latest release, None Shall Pass, has more studio production value and shys a bit from his raw, socially driven style heard on earlier records. Regardless, it is still a great record and deserves a listen.

    Comment by Alexander Johnson | August 28, 2008 | Reply

  5. I like the list so far. I am only 19, therefore I did not feel the waves tupac and biggie were making, but an artist that should be added to the list is Lupe Fiasco, he is very motivating in his rymes and is new. I think it is important to have the history obviously but I like the way Lupe Fiasco is influencing the hip hop culture. He is from Chicago and unlike most of the mainstream hip hop out right now his songs have meanings and shed light on social problems in the United States, “the hood” and the world. For example he has a song called “Little Weapon” off of The Cool album and the song is about child soilders, and the conflict going on in Africa. In that same song he ties in the effect violent video games have on the youth of the United States. I can’t decide which album would be more benneficial to get, either The Cool which is more recent or Food and Liquor.

    Comment by BradA | August 29, 2008 | Reply

  6. I’m impressed with the comprehensive list so far (especially Amerikka’s Most Wanted, which I think is one of, if not the, all-time greats), but the one album that neeeeeeeeds to be on this list, and hear me out on this one, is Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. Once could interpret the album as sophomoric drivel with an utterly pointless and misguided message about racial politics, but I think it’s more than that.

    First, focusing strictly on the music, The Chronic is still universally considered the best-produced hip-hop album of all time. The production value is unbelievably crisp and clean even by today’s standards, and Dre was practically a Beatles-esque figure in the studio, inventing new techniques to create a heavier, thumping bass sound and seamlessly cut samples. Also, it helped create the genre of sample-laden thug hip-hop that inspired artists like Jay-z, Eminem, and Kanye West (all of whom Dre has produced for), while at the same time reintroducing the Parliament–from whom the album samples most heavily–to a new generation of listeners.

    Like I’ve already mentioned, the lyrics on this album garner the most criticism, and rightly so in some cases, but if one looks at what this hedonistic, arrogant, “fuck-it-all” sort of rap did, it’s actually quite impressive. At the time of its release, this album was the most controversial and absolutely vulgar thing to ever hit the mainstream. It sent conservative, white America into a universal hissy fit and even tested the most liberal-minded person’s beliefs on the subject of free speech. At the same time, the album created an even greater bridge introducing thug hip-hop to a new demographic of white, middle-class teens. And, on top of all that, The Chronic remains one of the best-selling hip-hop albums of all time, even now that hip-hop has become the staple of American pop music.

    I think Dre, who is already represented as a producer for many of the great artists and albums listed above, deserves an extra nod for The Chronic, which furthered his and others’ careers and serves as one of his most shining examples to date.

    Comment by reesemankenberg | August 29, 2008 | Reply

  7. In response to Brad and Alexander, I have to admit that I’m not familiar with Aesop Rock and Lupe Fiasco, though they both sound cool. I’ll have to look them up.

    So far, all the comments have been about adding somebody. I guess I’m also wondering if anybody has any thoughts on what might be subtracted. For instance, I agree with Reese that Dr. Dre’s “Chronic” was significant, though personally I don’t like Dre’s rhetorical style which seems to center on the word “fuck” as if that means something. But one might wonder whether having NWA, Dre, and Ice Cube makes the list too Compton-gangsta-heavy. After all, both Dre and Cube were members of NWA before their solo careers, so couldn’t one argue that the library only needs to get the NWA album and not the Dre and Cube?

    Likewise, one could argue that if the library gets the Black Star album (which was a “manifesto” of sorts by Mos Def and Talib Kweli to argue for conscience, ethics, and political sophistication in hip hop), then we don’t also need to get the solo albums by Mos Def and Talib Kweli (though personally, I think that would be a shame, because Mos Def’s Black on Both Sides is one of my favorites.)

    Comment by steventhomas | August 29, 2008 | Reply

  8. Does VH1 have any authority on this issue?

    Comment by steventhomas | September 26, 2008 | Reply

  9. Unfortunately, I’m only somewhat versed in the art of hip-hop (no pun intended), so I can’t do much to critique the list that’s already been presented, but I do have a couple suggestions for additions.

    First of all, if we’re looking at early hip-hop that has continued to have an impact on our society, why not The Roots? Full disclosure: the only album of theirs I have is Things Fall Apart, but I see no reason why that album doesn’t deserve it’s spot on the list. The music says it itself in “Act Won (Things Fall Apart)”:
    “Inevitably, hip-hop records are treated as though they are disposable. They are not maximized as product, not to mention as art.” Isn’t this the same battle you’re fighting with the library?

    Secondly, if you’re looking for more contemporary hip-hop, I think M.I.A. could make a decent addition, and could add a little variety to the list. Although “Paper Planes” made its way to mainstream radio and was played ad nauseum as a result, the rest of her work deserves serious credit. She does for the third world what early hip-hop did for the inner cities of America. A lot of her themes revolve around the perceived necessity of violence in the third world- see the lyrics to “Pull Up the People” as an example. Musically, she is clearly influenced by some of these early albums that have been talked about, as well as her own Indian/Middle Eastern heritage.

    Comment by kelseygustafson | September 1, 2009 | Reply

  10. […] and community, and — most importantly — laughter into the curriculum (as I did [here] in my blog on the hip hop canon last fall, as well is in my many blogs on pop music [here] and on […]

    Pingback by Jessye Norman, The Roots, and Langston Hughes’s Ask Your Mama « Theory Teacher’s Blog | September 3, 2009 | Reply

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