Bring the Noise 
An album-by-album rundown of hip-hop's best years
By Nathan Brackett

From Gadfly February 1999


The Billboard charts don't lie: More than ever, it's a hip-hop world. The scruffy music genre that started in the parks and clubs of the Bronx in the late 1970s has become the most important new pop music of the end of the 20th century and a dominant influence on modern youth culture. Rap is still not 25 years old, but landmarks in its short history are taking shape. If the late 1990s are rap's most prosperous time yet—hip-hop artists are currently outselling rock bands, and modern R & B is almost totally in rap's shadow—the late 80s can now be acknowledged as the most creative period in hip-hop up to this point. Just as rock fans understand the impact of the musicians of the mid-to-late '60s, to fully understand the hip-hop of today, one must understand what was happening in the late '80s.

For our purposes, hip-hop's golden era stretches from 1986, the year of the release of Run-DMC's Raising Hell, to 1990, the year that Ice Cube's Amerikkka's Most Wanted was released. In those four years, hip-hop went permanently from a fad to something impossible to ignore by anyone who wanted to claim some knowledge of popular music. Thanks in no small part to developments in technology (specifically, the advent of the Roland SP1200 drum machine and sampler, which allowed producers to sample chunks of records and work them into drum loops more easily than ever before), the terrain covered by hip-hop opened up dramatically.

The following is an album-by-album breakdown of the major albums of the period. Each one has echoes (often, given sampling, quite literally) in the rap of today, not to mention in rock, pop, dance and beyond.

Run-DMC Raising Hell (1986)
From the relentless, chiming funk of "Peter Piper" to the up-with-people anthem "Proud to Be Black," this was one of the first hip-hop albums fully realized from start to finish. Rap has always primarily been a singles-oriented art form, meant to be played by DJs spinning 12-inch singles at clubs, park parties and late-night mix shows. But with Raising Hell, Run-DMC showed that rap groups could display rock sensibilities without losing their edge. Produced by the trio's DJ Jam Master Jay (Jason Mizell) and lead rapper Run (Joseph Simmons), the album is also one of the high points of the rap/rock fusion trend of the '80s. Both "It's Tricky" (which makes reference to Knack's "My Sharona") and the cover of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" were hit singles that appealed to white rock audiences. Suddenly rap was the soundtrack on suburban hockey team buses and summer pool parties.

Beastie Boys Licensed to Ill (1986)
The crashing, echo-laden drums lifted from Led Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks" could be the single most jarring introduction to a hip-hop album ever. On the release of License to Ill, a Village Voice headline shouted "THREE JERKS MAKE A MASTERPIECE," which was just about right. Well, almost—there were four jerks, including producer Rick Rubin, who goaded the band further and further into their tongue-in-cheek fantasies of angel dust, gunplay and sodomy with whiffleball bats. But for all these whiteboys' lyrical debauchery, Rubin made sure that the actual grooves had no wasted space. Licensed to Ill was powered by jackhammer grooves made up of spare drum machine-generated beats and brittle rock guitar riffs. "She's Crafty," for instance, was just another Zeppelin riff with a beat, some rhymes and a shouted chorus. This was a wrecking ball of adolescent id, the likes of which hadn't been seen since AC/DC's Back in Black. When Licensed to Ill was released, it was the best-selling rap album ever (a fact that some credited to the Beasties' race, partially correctly). To this day it remains on the Billboard charts, next to Bob Marley's Legend and Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, one of the albums that keep selling in large numbers over the years.

Public Enemy Yo! Bum Rush the Show (1987)
When Long Island posse Public Enemy's debut first hit, it was harder, darker and smarter than anything hip-hop had heard before. Public Enemy were older than most rappers when they got their start (Chuck D. was 26 in an industry full of rappers in their teens), and the extra sophistication showed. On their first album, PE mixed usual b-boy concerns—women, cars and boasting—with hints of the black nationalist awareness that would eventually dominate their music. "Rightstarter (Message to a Black Man)" was the first truly politicized rap song. The production hinted at the revolution that Public Enemy would soon help spur in hip-hop; there was a steely edge to their music that set it apart. Although many of producer Hank Shocklee's and Chuck D.'s sample sources were similar to other rappers', and James Brown, for example, was a staple, they always managed to find the offbeat, weirdly funky snippet. "Public Enemy No. 1" took one long, bleating horn sound from Brown's "It's the JB Monaurail" and let it run through the song, giving it a powerfully dissonant feel. They would cultivate this funky uneasiness in years to come.

Erik B. & Rakim Paid in Full (1987)
Rakim is still recognized as one of the greatest rappers of all time. He was the prototypical streetwise dreamer, an abstract-minded MC with an eminently smooth, deadpan rhyme flow. Paid in Full is the masterwork created by him and DJ/producer Erik B.; it contains austerely funky, bottom-thick, but often melodic tracks that perfectly complement Rakim's serpentine lyrics. The duo also arguably opened the floodgates of James Brown sampling with the undeniable "I Know You Got Soul" (which borrows from the James Brown song of the same name). (When Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee first heard that single, he had to pull his car over to the side of the road—the same reaction, interestingly, that Beach Boy Brian Wilson had when he first heard the Phil Spector production "Be My Baby," sung by the Ronettes.) Erik B. and Rakim made hip-hop that at the time epitomized the new school and today sounds timeless.

Boogie Down Productions Criminal Minded (1987)
Criminal Minded introduced one of the great figures in hip-hop, rapper KRS-One. With this album, KRS's clear, cutting rapping style won him an immediate following. The harsh narrative "9mm Goes Bang" anticipated gangsta rap, but KRS was more complex than that. "Poetry" made a convincing case for him as a wordsmith; meanwhile "South Bronx," a simultaneous trashing of Queens-based rapper MC Shan and history of the South Bronx's rap roots, was one of the great dis records of all time. KRS was not as skilled as Rakim or as politically aware as Chuck D., but forthrightness and street savvy gave him hip-hop's most prized quality: credibility. Criminal Minded's talented DJ/producer Scott La Rock was murdered after the album's release, and KRS-One devoted himself even more to being rap's "teacher" and spreading a message of nonviolence (one that he often undercut with his own songs). But his debut record established KRS as a b-boy's b-boy. Years later, he claimed that he was hip-hop. Fans could understand why.

Run-DMC Tougher Than Leather (1988)
As Run-DMC crossed over to white audiences and became pop stars, their street credibility suffered among their core audience of black hip-hop fans. Tougher Than Leather's tough mission was to recapture those fans without losing the group's new mainstream audience. The album also shows Run-DMC responding to newcomers like Public Enemy, who favored up-tempo beats and smooth transitions between songs. The first four songs—"Run's House," "Mary, Mary," "Beats to the Rhyme" and "Radio Station"—make up one of the most breathless beginnings of any rap album ever. Things get a bit spotty from there on; the group's do-wop track is an experiment that should never have been. Run-DMC were never to duplicate their past success.

Public Enemy It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988)
It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is more than just an album important to hip-hop; it's a landmark in pop music. Musically, it took sampling in rap to a new level of sophistication, making a dense, funky pastiche out of everything from James Brown grooves to air raid sirens—it picked up the experimentation of albums like Brian Eno and David Byrne's sample-collage My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and melded it to the streets. Lyrically, Chuck D. had taken a big political step: He was now dropping references to jailed political activist Joanne Chesimard and (to the dismay of many of the group's Jewish listeners) Louis Farrakhan. The result was a thunderously funky album that mixed a radical political message into pop music perhaps more ably than anyone since Woody Guthrie, from the call to arms "Bring the Noise" to the prison jailbreak "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos." In the short term, Nation of Millions helped spur a trend in "afrocentric" rap (along with the Jungle Brothers' Straight Out the Jungle), which, to many, amounted to rappers wearing Africa medallions instead of gold chains. In the long term, the album has been recognized as one of the most important albums of the '80s, if not of all time.

Ultramagnetic MC's Critical Beatdown (1988)
For years, this independently released album was a litmus test for a true rap fan—if you knew Critical Beatdown, you were one. Led by the fantastically offbeat Kool Keith, a nasal, staccato rapper who called himself "the greatest MC in the whole world," Ultramagnetic MC's combined rock-hard, reverberating beats and choice samples, mostly culled from the James Brown catalog. Keith and fellow rapper Ced Gee might make rhymes that were willfully bizarre or spacey, but they were also from the Bronx and one step closer to the street than many other rap stars of the '90s. They (along with the Juice Crew) helped create the template for much of '90s hardcore East Coast hip-hop; a lot of what you hear on New York rap radio sounds like Ultramagnetic more than any other artist on this list. Keith has gone on to become an underground rap icon and has enjoyed recent acclaim for his Dr. Octagon project.

EPMD Strictly Business (1988)
Strictly Business is a lesson in how much you can do with straight sampling. EPMD would just find a groove they liked and let it run. Rappers Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith were Long Island b-boys who took after Rakim in their style and held their subject matter to the meat-and-potatoes themes of sexual prowess and hanging out with boys. This was deceptively simple hip-hop, satiny smooth but with an everyman appeal. EPMD would eventually become a cottage industry, churning out follow-ups such as Unfinished Business (1989), Business as Usual (1991) and Businesss Never Personal (1992) before they split up in the mid-nineties and then reunited for Back in Business (1997).

Jungle Brothers Straight Out the Jungle (1988)
The Jungle Brothers helped popularize "afrocentricity"—the celebration of black history and culture—in rap music with this simple, sublimely funky debut. Songs like "Black is Black" forwarded the Jungle Brothers' vague pro-black agenda, while "I'll House You" was a risque triumph that melded house music with rap (and was a big hit in England, inspiring a legion of hip-hop/dance fusions). At the root of the Jungle Brothers' appeal was their charismatic call-and-response tag-team rhyme style, displayed to great effect on tracks such as "Sammy B.'s on the Cut." Though they received little mainstream attention, the Jungle Brothers helped set the stage for De La Soul's highly acclaimed Three Feet High and Rising.

NWA Straight Outta Compton (1988)
This was the beginning of the gangsta rap era in hip-hop. NWA weren't the first rappers to describe the street in violent, explicit terms (KRS-One, Schoolly D. and Ice-T all have claims on being the first gangsta rapper), but NWA were more over-the-top and foul-mouthed than any of their predecessors. On record, at least, they were bitch-slapping, AK-47-toting street thugs. But what put the record over the top was Dr. Dre's chunky, full-bodied grooves; production-wise, NWA were Public Enemy's smoothed out, dope-slinging cousins. So-called reality rap (as NWA themselves called their music) has become the norm for hip-hop in the '90s, but we haven't yet reached the point where the group's harsh lyrics sound tame—they do sound purposefully over-the-top, though. At the time, however, no one believed that NWA could possibly have a sense of humor. White listeners in particular thought that, unlike the Beastie Boys, NWA were dead serious.

Beastie Boys Paul's Boutique (1989)
Producer Erik B. was recently quoted saying that he could make 15 albums out of Paul's Boutique. This album was the new Beasties: a little overripe, maxing and relaxing in Los Angeles, with their new friends the Dust Brothers unloading a latticework of old funk and rock into their songs. Clichés run thick in rap criticism about brilliant sampling, but Paul's Boutique is the real thing: On "Egg Man," for instance, the delicious groove from Curtis Mayfield's '70s funk classic "Superfly" is paired with the theme from "Psycho" and tidbits lifted from Public Enemy and Cheech and Chong; elsewhere, bouncing ping-pong balls, the Eagles, the Ramones, the Beatles and car skids that become turntable scratches are filtered in and out of the album. The Beasties were still bratty, but a little less so, and they showed a knack for linear storytelling—"Jonny Ryall" is the nicely detailed, well laid-out story of a bum on their block. At the time, Paul's Boutique sold in paltry numbers and was a disaster for the Beasties' new label, Capitol. But the album received favorable reviews and has come to be acknowledged as the Beasties' finest record. It sells more copies these days than it sold six months after its release.

De La Soul Three Feet High and Rising (1989)
Despite the reports of some music critics, De La Soul were not hippies (although their debut's album cover did feature day-glo flowers, and they promoted something called the "D.A.I.S.Y. Age," the acronym standing for "Da Inner Sound Y'all," whatever that means). They were, however, something totally new to hip-hop in 1989 and stand as perhaps the quirkiest group ever to gain acceptance from hip-hop's core audience of black urban youths—kind of a high-water mark for unadulterated goofiness in rap. The songs on Three Feet High and Rising were framed by silly skits involving a fake game show, and one of the tracks was a French 101 instructional tape set to music. The between-song chatter gets boring after repeated listening, but at the heart of the album are solid grooves and creative, able rhyming. De La Soul proved able storytellers on tracks like the anti-drug "Say No Go"; meanwhile, songs like "The Magic Number" (which sampled an old Schoolhouse Rock tune) showed off Prince Paul's ear for hooks. De La Soul began their career with a war against crass materialism and played-out fashions (specifically shell-toe Adidas sneakers and gold chains) in hip-hop. Since the release of Three Feet High and Rising, the clock has been rolled back—shell-toes are a youth footwear staple, and conspicuous consumption is as popular as ever—but De La Soul still inspire rap's stylistic left bank.

Jungle Brothers Done by the Forces of Nature (1989)
Done by the Forces of Nature is the great underrated album of this period. It tied together the experimental spirit of De La Soul with the Jungle Brothers' ever-more-serious afrocentricity. The result was deeply felt and deeply funky. "Beyond this World" is a mesmerizing, uptempo introduction to the album; "Sunshine" leads from an everyday tragedy on a ghetto street to an expansive, spiritual ending. Elsewhere there are odes to black womanhood ("Black Woman"), woolly instrumentals ("Good News Coming") and calls to unity ("Tribe Vibes"). Unfortunately, the album wasn't accepted by the hip-hop community. The Brothers' biggest hits so far had been their most down to earth, for instance, their bawdy hit "Jimbrowski," and those were gone now. Done by the Forces of Nature's lukewarm reception became a warning to experimental, spiritual rappers: Don't go too far.

A Tribe Called Quest People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990)
This album was something of a swan song for the boho rap of the Native Tongues collective (De La Soul, the Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah and A Tribe Called Quest). It's also an unusually unabrasive rap album, powered by mellow grooves on tracks like the mariachi-flavored "I Left My Wallet in El Segundo" and the sexy "Bonita Applebum." There is some filler on Travels, though. At its worst, it came off as a poor man's Three Feet High and Rising. On their next album, the classic Low End Theory, the Tribe would back away from the overt boho flavor of their debut and reposition themselves as jazz-inspired regular homeboys.

Ice Cube Amerikkka's Most Wanted (1990)
For his solo debut, former NWA rapper Ice Cube teamed up with Public Enemy's production team, the Bomb Squad. The result was an album that still stands as the ultimate East Coast-West Coast rap collaboration. Hank Shocklee and company produced sample-heavy, electrifying grooves to lie under Ice Cube's raw lyrics. Tracks like "Once upon a Time in the Projects" and "Nigga You Love to Hate" could be as violent and misogynistic as NWA's most evil moments, but there was usually some redeeming wit or even a moral to Ice Cube's tales. At the same time, Amerikkka's Most Wanted changed hip-hop. It was becoming increasingly accepted that much of the innovation in the genre would happen within the framework of gangsta rap. And even though "gangsta rap" has become an outdated term, that remains true to this day.

The gangsta‑isms of NWA and Ice Cube would come to pervade the hip‑hop mainstream. Strong scenes in cities such as Oakland, Houston and Seattle—all slinging the same kind of guns‑and‑hos hip‑hop as Los Angeles—would challenge New York as the creative center of the music. Authenticity, or "realness," the premium quality for any rapper, became synonymous with being a roughneck. In 1992, KRS‑One, the self‑styled teacher who had preached "Stop the Violence" in 1988, attacked Prince Be of the pacifistic, Spandau‑Ballet‑sampling duo PM Dawn onstage at a party. Word of the incident spread quickly through hip‑hop circles; it was a powerful symbol that the positive‑minded, anything‑goes era of De La Soul and Public Enemy was over.

Still, today there is a wide sprectrum of rap‑inspired music, stretching from drum 'n' bass in the United Kingdom to the San Francisco Bay area's "turntablist" scene, which could not have happened without the flowering of the mid- to late '80s hip‑hop. Chuck D.'s complaint that "radio suckers never play me" seems positively quaint now—every major city in the nation has a station that plays hip‑hop 24 hours a day. Similarly, the "Fear of a Black Planet" that Public Enemy noticed in the white mainstream seems well founded: The malls and high schools of middle America are overrun with suburban homeboys who can recite Jay‑Z and Wu‑Tang Clan lyrics by heart. Never mind that Chuck D. himself has had to moonlight as a VH‑1 deejay to make ends meet. He and his peers brought the noise, and America listened.