It’s been doing the rounds in various hip hop groups and networks, and the results have been really interesting – choosing 20 (or in some cases 25) albums that have shaped your life in some way. It’s not a list of your best albums, or even your favourite albums, but largely those that made, and left, an impact on you and your space within the hip hop culture. Now, being that it’s such a dope idea, I couldn’t just list them out, I had to make sure I gave a little synopsis on why each album had a place on the list, and in my life of hip hop.
These aren’t going to be in order, and there is no doubt I’m going to overlook some classics from an equally epic moment of my life, BUT there is some value in retrospectively appreciating just how we got to this point and who has helped shape that journey. With so many artists and groups that have had an impact, I’m going to try and ensure I don’t double up on any artists either which is hard when some of my favourite emcees like Scarface and Ghostface have nearly flawless catalogues!!! Anyway, let’s get to the good stuff – the albums!
2Pac – Me Against The World
I would argue that although ‘All Eyez On Me‘ received the attention and acclaim, that ‘Me Against The World‘ is 2Pac’s best album (if not, it’s a close call with Makavelli – The 7 Day Theory) and it also showcased a more authentic and introspective Pac before all the glitz and glamour and the bigger, more ‘bravado’ personality. It’s his most well rounded work and hit me as an impressionable 16 year old when I was looking for influences. When I need my Pac fix, I can still put this joint in, press play and just let it ride almost 30 years later.
Notorious B.I.G – Ready To Die
The debut from Biggie was a monster of a release, featuring Method Man who was huge at the time and who also had the backing of one of my favourite basketball players of all time – Allen Iverson. I remember reading that ‘Unbelievable’ by B.I.G was his fave track and so of course that one got mad airplay from me. It’s the Notorious ones best work as well, mixing that incredible flow with those golden era beats and street tales.
Wu Tang Clan – Enter the 36 Chambers
As iconic now as it was then, Enter the 36 Chambers, not only changed the hip hop landscape, but it certainly woke up the world when it came to just how dusty and gritty hip hop could be. The martial arts influence was also a key feature and selling point as I grew up on Bruce Lee and loved the fighting movies as a younger teen. Whenever I see the cover, I am still taken back to the shop I bought the CD, that’s how pertinent that day is in my mind. The Wu was iconic in my hip hop upbringing and remains that way still to this day. Enter the 36 Chambers is the catalyst for all of that.
Mobb Deep – The Infamous
Actually hard to pick between this and Hell on Earth, but The Infamous gets the nod because I hadn’t heard Juvenile Hell, so to me, this was their debut album and was hard AF. This was my element with the East Coast boom bap, the rough and rugged flows, the two artists working so well together and shining solo as well. It also laced us with some of the grimiest, street anthems like Shook Ones, Eye for and Eye, and my ringtone – Survival of the Fittest. It also featured some of my favourite artists of the time (and all time!) in Nas, Raekwon, GFK and put me on to Big Noyd who I also still bump.
Nas – Illmatic
Took a 90 min train ride because I didn’t have a licence or car, but I needed to cop the CD. I’ve probably owned 4 or 5 copies of Illmatic over the journey because I very rarely left the house without it. It still remains (for me and a lot of hip hop heads worldwide) one of the best and most influential and iconic albums of my life. A young, hungry Nas with an incredible gift, over dope, dusty boom bap beats with bars that were insanely clever and relatable. All in an easy to spin package with every track being a brilliant ride.
Jay Z – Reasonable Doubt
Plenty of people say Jay fell off, or that he is overrated or that he stole BIG’s flow etc. Not many heads, even those who don’t dig Jigga’s latest stuff, can argue that Reasonable Doubt was a masterpiece. Much like Illmatic, Reasonable Doubt was a benchmark album, something that every artist should aspire to create. Jay delivered it with such a confidence, but also with an ear for insane quality not just in his rhymes, but the way the entire album was crafted. Again, when I need a Jay fix, this is my go-to, along with The Black Album, The Blueprint and American Gangster.
Ras Kass – Soul On Ice
In the mid to late 90’s, hip hop was hitting on ALL fronts and that was easily my most influential period of life. When Soul On Ice dropped, it was different and you could tell from first spin. Ras was spitting in a different way, about different things and in a way that engaged your mind as well as entertained. Tracks like ‘Nature of the Threat’ and ‘Evil That Men Do’ would be my “go-to” defence when people suggested hip hop was just gangsta rap about drugs, guns and hoes. SOI remains one of my favourite albums and Ras Kass is one of my all time favourite artists and it all started with this album.
Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP
When I first heard Em, it was on an indie radio station and it was a ‘half listen’ as I was doing something else, but there was SOMETHING there that made me want to seek out who this dude was. In the end it was The Slim Shady EP (not LP) that gave me the taste for Eminem’s different style of lyricism and flow. While The Slim Shady LP was dope, for me the peak Em was The Marshall Mathers LP, an album that was basically flawless, pushed the envelope, entertained, shocked – all in a cleverly crafted package. Enlisting the help of RBX, Snoop, Xzibit and Sticky Fingaz (among others) this shock meets satire meets superb hip hop remains a really fond album and memory having seen him tour on the back of it.
Snoop Doggy Dogg – Doggystyle
Man, this album was something else. I wanted to squeeze The Chronic into the list, but the fact is, Doggystyle was more of a staple in the headphones for me than Dre’s offering. They had a similar sound and similar vibe, but Snoop had a bit more of that entertainment factor that added the personality to the Pound! The West Coast G Funk, the party anthems, that iconic voice and yes, THAT album cover that would go on to adorn my school diaries and t-shirts in years to come….. Doggystyle was a masterpiece and influenced not only me and my listening, but the hip hop landscape more broadly.
Kanye West – The College Dropout
This album was masterful and it’s not discrediting some of the other releases that came out just after, but The College Dropout was some kinda album. The transition from producer to emcee, the calibre and quality of features he had, the backpack rap turned hip hop icon…. musically it was diverse, it was inspired and it was vastly different to a lot of the hip hop albums being made at the time. There is little doubt Kanye is a musical genius and it’s so rare to find such a mature body of work all in one cohesive and comprehensive offering. As a debut album to boot. It was this album that brought some of my friends onto the world of hip hop and for that I am eternally grateful!
N.W.A – Straight Outta Compton
A LOT of memories surrounding this album because there is no way I should have had a copy of it at just 9 years of age. I certainly shouldn’t have taken the copy to primary school and had it confiscated AND I shouldn’t have tried to snitch and blame my brother in Grade 3. But, either way, along with Digital Underground, Naughty By Nature and a few others, N.W.A were some of the earliest hip hop listening at a ripe age of 9 or 10 through to the start of my teen years. The late 80’s and early 90’s certainly sowed the seed and N.W.A was front and centre of that movement for me, and for hip hop!
Jurassic 5 – Quality Control
This album is fantastic and I am a huge fan of what J5 did for hip hop and for me. I loved their fresh aired approach to the craft, the group that worked seamlessly together to deliver music that had such a vibrant feel. It was different to the Wu and the BTNH and other groups. Pharcyde get a lot of the props, and early pre-Fergie Black Eyed Peas were insane too, but for me Jurassic 5 just resonated with me and I still have all their albums to this day. Even got my son into some Charli 2na as a dinosaur 😉 . This was also the first CD I purchased that had a second disc that was all the instrumentals which really helped the love of the music and not just the bars.
Sean Price – Monkey Barz
What can I say about Sean Price. One of the best to ever do it, one of my favourite artists and one of the most consistent emcees behind the mic. Loved his personality, his rugged flow and his ability to sound clever and HARD AF at the same damn time. Monkey Barz is an album that still gets burn when I need to get my ass into gear or when I need that lift outta a slump. Sean P is revered for all the right reasons and Monkey Barz was the album that kicked it all off and started the beautiful emcee / listener relationship! P!
The Left – Gas Mask
One of the more recent installments on this list, Gas Mask is a brilliant album. The approach, the upcoming production of Apollo Brown and my introduction to Journalist 103 all still resonate with me. I was commuting back in these days and as much as the two trains and bus sucked for a couple of hours EACH WAY, ‘Gas Mask’ was the soundtrack for about a year of it! Have never heard another album like it, and I have never gotten sick of it. Have since followed Apollo Brown who has become a fave producer of mine, and copped all Journalist albums too. Doesn’t get the props it should, but was huge for me!
Big L – Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous
Every time I go back and listen to this joint, I just have this unfinished or ‘robbed’ feeling. This album was so raw, so natural and authentic, so dope. It was going to be a tremendous starting point for a journey that would have reached the upper echelon of hip hop. Big L was inspired with his rhymes, enigmatic with his delivery and he chose beats well. He was the complete package and so was this album. It was a shame we never got to see the young artist truly reach his potential, but it is SO VERY evident when you sit back and pop this joint on.
Prince Paul – A Prince Among Thieves
The concept album that changed the game! People have tried to replicate the success of the concept album and there have been some notable attempts over the journey, but for me, ‘A Prince Among Thieves‘ is the greatest concept album of all time AND it’s one of the best, most diverse, most inspired and intricate as well. This also changed the way I listened to music a LOT, because it made me invest myself and my time into it, not just pick out the bangers etc. You rode the waves of the project from start to finish every time you popped it in and pressed play.
The Roots – illadelph halflife
There are so many albums, not just from The Roots, but from De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest etc that could easily make my influential list, but when I’m true to myself and go back without the nostalgia and rose coloured glasses, I actually think I bumped this more. Not saying it’s better, not saying it’s even their best offering, but man this album is something and when it came out I was just infatuated with Black Thought, with the production and the flavour of the album. It was something that fit every mood I was in whether I was studying, chilling, hooping etc and I think that says a lot about an album.
DMX – It’s Dark & Hell Is Hot
Hardcore hip hop is my thing. Not sure why, but it always have been. I love the boldness, the aggressiveness, the feeling you get when these songs come on and just get you so amped that your blood is on fire. DMX came on the scene and he did that – often. But it was more so this album than the others, because it kicked in the door at a time shiny suits and club bangers were creeping in and getting major play. X came and reminded us that hip hop also reps the streets, the real and it wasn’t always singing and dancing. Most of all though, DMX was rugged and raw, but he was introspective and insightful in a similar way to Pac.
Big Pun – Capital Punishment
Man, I think this out of ALL albums in my life probably got the most play and it won’t be why you think. Yes Big Pun was an incredible lyricist and this album had everything from killer tracks, funny skits, incredible features, but I always ALWAYS struggled to catch the complexity of Pun which is why I always had to run it back. You knew he said something insane, but you just had to go back and hear it again and make sure that you got it. Pun made more than just music, he made masterpieces and his flow was impeccable and inspired. Another gone too soon, but he left behind a BIG footprint and this album was just one of the ways he influenced the culture and my hip hop experience.
The Beatnuts – Stone Crazy
‘Do You Believe’ was one of the best and craziest joints I had heard when it dropped on this album in 1997. I would have played that one on repeat for like ten times before I could continue and it’s funny because I’m not sure why it had such an impact. Sure it’s a dope track but the whole album is an underrated classic. Everyone points to ‘Off The Books’ and that was incredible not just the beat, but the bars were on another level and it resonated from blocks to clubs and back again, but Stone Crazy as an overall offering had so many killer joints. It really made me appreciate and respect the production of things at a higher level than I had before.
OutKast – ATLiens
The cover art was brilliant and probably too complex to appreciate at the time it dropped, but then again so were many of Outkast’s lyrics! I have spent so much time deciphering these things over the journey because it was different to a lot of the hip hop I had been listening to from the early days. I was very much East Coast boom bap and West Coast G Funk, so when these guys came on the scene and started to make noise, it changed the listening game for me and made me appreciate so much more, the diverse sounds and songs that hip hop in the South could bring. ‘Aquemini‘ is probably my favourite Outkast record of all time, but ‘ATLiens‘ was the one that really kicked off the love of Big Boi and Andre 3000 and so it gets the nod here.
Redman – Muddy Waters
Who would think I’d be sitting here writing about ‘Muddy Waters‘ and how it influenced me nearly 30 years ago, all while waiting for Muddy Waters Too which is now starting to get a kind of Detox vibe about it!!! Muddy Waters was the album that cemented Redman as one of the best and most consistent lyricists in hip hop. It was his third album and he went from strength to strength in my opinion with this really knocking the taste out your mouth. The polarity between his energy, his satire, his persona and then the depth and quality of his lyricism and insane flow was interesting to me then and I still love it now. Redman is someone who needs to drop new music in 2022.
Gang Starr – Moment of Truth
Every hip hop head knows that you could easily put any (or nearly any) Gang Starr album in your list because they are all incredible. All hip hop fans who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s know just how much of an impact Gang Starr made to the music scene and to the culture overall. I always struggle to pick a favourite album, but I don’t really struggle to pick the most influential album. For me, Moment of Truth captured everything the previous albums did and made it better AND reached into a totally different realm in movies and playstation games. It also houses some of my very favourite Gang Starr songs and featured Deck, M.O.P and Scarface.
Eric B & Rakim – Don’t Sweat The Technique
The first of what would be many crossovers of my two loves – hip hop and hoops. The title track was featured on one of the very early NBA highlights videos and Rakim will always and forever remain in my top 3 artists of all time. When he rapped, I stopped and listened. I was entranced by his deep voice, the clarity with which he rhymed, the content of his rhymes and the lack of profanity meant I could play it any time, anywhere. For me he was the original GOAT and the greatest mic controller in hip hop history. The 18th Letter could easily be here (save for one joint that just didn’t hit the mark for me!) but this album was the stepping stone for so much of my hip hop journey that it needs recognition.
Jedi Mind Tricks – Violent By Design
Anyone with my taste in hip hop KNOWS that JMT was going to feature in here at some point. I love JMT, AOTP and everything associated with Vinnie Paz. The brutality of this album in particular and the energy it brought was next level and it still hits the spot with me today, even if I have mellowed into a forty something father of two lol. It was fierce and it really put the spotlight on just how incredible Stoupe was as a producer – marrying the beats to the bars and creating magic. It was a high octane run through from start to finish, but between Vinne (and Jus back then to his credit) and Stoupe, they made not just an underground classic, but a staple in the hip hop scene both inside and out of Philly.
So there you have it, a look inside my hip hop mind and albums that changed the game for me. As mentioned, these aren’t all my favourite albums, and I am already kicking myself for the quality of albums that have not been mentioned on here but got mad play in the headphones back in the day, but they do represent me and my hip hop journey in some way. The more ‘mainstream’ nature of the list, reminds me of just how hard it was in the land down under to secure some hip hop CD’s before all the streaming services came to light, and how we would wait months and pay twice the price for albums that weren’t released with local distribution.
Now, I live and breath the underground, the indie because the music is better and has become more accessible. And in a way, the albums that I review and that get multiple spins (which in my world, an album has to be top tier to get mad replay or even the time spent to review!) incorporate the same styles and influences from ‘back in the day’ and this list represents that.
Let’s talk about it. What albums are you surprised to see on my list? Which albums did you think would have been a lock for me that I couldn’t squeeze in?