Goin’ Off: 10 Albums for the hip-hop layman

james bell

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Ten albums for the hip-hop layman. This list has been my burden, my baby. I’ve carried it for the last month or so. Consider this the document of my labor.

It began with a serious debate between me, myself and I and my knowledgeable counsel, who shall remain nameless. The questions popped up like Wu-Tang affiliates — I think it’s at a couple thousand members now. Do I acknowledge the canon or not? How subjective should I be? How is my list different from any you can find on Amazon? Those lists are infinite, by the way. How can I encapsulate one genre? How can I boil it down to ten essential entrees for those who haven’t the stomach to approach such a vast array of styles and flavors?

Then I asked myself why I was creating the list in the first place. And all I’ve come up with is this: Hip-hop is one of the most intriguing, innovative, and influential genres of American music. And being that it pulls its influences from just about anywhere, it will also lead you to places and music you would never have explored otherwise. In other words, if you haven’t been tuning in, you’re missing out.

But to be well versed in this genre is a daily task: Mining the past, indulging in the present and searching for the future. It never ends. So for the layman, trying to dive in can be a daunting endeavor. And I understand. I empathize. For without a few kind souls — again, no names — to take my hand, I wouldn’t have been able to do it either.

In the end, the discussion was incredibly long. It was heated. Tedious, even. Darts were thrown. I believe I was talking to myself at one point. But a list had to be made. I took everything my cohorts said into consideration and I listened to the albums I was entertaining for the list. So now, I lay myself bare.

The list I’ve compiled is incomplete. I’ve failed. I know. There’s no denying it. And those with even a tenuous knowledge of hip-hop will say the same when they’re done. But at least you’ve been forewarned. There are more than ten albums you need to hear to truly appreciate and understand hip-hop. I know. And there are some big names that aren’t on here. I know.

For example, and in stream-of-consciousness order: 2Pac, Ice Cube, N.W.A., DJ Quik, Eazy-E, Jay-Z, Run D.M.C., The Beastie Boys, Big Daddy Kane, Kanye West, The Geto Boys, UGK, Goodie Mob, Wu-Tang Clan, EPMD, Redman, Black Star, Gang Starr, Cypress Hill, MF Doom, Aesop Rock, Black Sheep, De La Soul, Too $hort, E-40, Souls of Mischief, Hieroglyphics, Digable Planets, The Pharcyde, Jurassic 5, KRS-One, Lauryn Hill, LL Cool J, Mobb Deep, Mos Def, Public Enemy — I think you get the idea.

But for now, this is my list. It will be subject to change in a month or two. Maybe even a week depending upon who comes out of the woodwork to drop a classic. But hopefully that’s what you, sir or madame, take from it. Hopefully you will take this template, continually fill it in on your own, and extend a hand when some future layman asks for your guidance.

I’m not going to explain anymore. You’ve read too much already. I’ll just say that each album is there for a reason — some historical and/or canonical, some personal, and some integral.

I’ll let the works speak for themselves. To analyze these albums any more than I already have in compiling this list will take something away from them that I don’t want to lose. It’s selfish, maybe. But once you listen, you might agree.

1. Nas: Illmatic

2. Eric. B and Rakim: Paid in Full

3. Notorious B.I.G.: Ready to Die

4. Dr. Dre: The Chronic

5. The Fugees: The Score

6. Eminem: The Marshall Mathers LP

7. GZA: Liquid Swords

8. Outkast: ATLiens

9. A Tribe Called Quest: Low End Theory

10. Freestyle Fellowship: Innercity Griots

Contact James at [email protected]

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