The Top 15 Rappers Of The 1980s
The 80s is often referred to as the ‘golden age of hip-hop’ and it’s not hard to see why. Run DMC, Public Enemy, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five…all of these groups changed the face of rap/hip-hop forever. Rolling Stone magazine stated that the 80s were a time “when it seemed that every new single reinvented the genre”.
Below we’ve put together a list (in descending order) of the top 15 rappers of the 1980s. You’ll be digging out your gold chains and retro Adidas in no time!
15. Kurtis Blow
“And these, are, the braaaakes…!” Kurtis Blow had a hit single with ‘The Brakes’ in 1980, a track from his self-titled debut album which became the first hip-hop record to achieve gold status in the United States.
He released an album a year throughout most of the 80s, including the popular Best Rapper On The Scene (1983).
As well as a stellar music career, Blow produced some of the most successful rappers of the decade, including the legendary Run DMC (Run was initially billed as ‘The Sons of Kurtis Blow’). Blow is now an ordained minister and founded The Hip Hop Church of Harlem.
14. MC Hammer
OK, so he could almost be considered a one-hit-wonder in some ways (who can forget the first time they heard ‘U Can’t Touch This’).
However, MC Hammer has been hailed as an innovator of pop-rap and was actually the first hip-hop artist to achieve platinum status with an album.
His trademark style included OTT dance moves and of course those iconic ‘Hammer pants’. He’s also collaborated with a number of famous artists including Tupac Shakur, Tha Dogg Pound and Big Daddy Kane.
13. DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince
Youngsters will likely only know Will Smith for his blockbuster movie career. Before that he was in a little show called The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and before that he was one half of hip-hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince.
Hailing from West Philadelphia, the pair had hits with Parents Just Don’t Understand (1988) and Summertime (1991) – the first track earned them a Grammy Award For Best Rap Performance, whilst Summertime gave them another Grammy and a spot at no. 4 on the Billboard 100.
The pair continued to make music together in the 90s under Will Smith‘s solo performer credit, and are still friends to this day.
12. The Sugarhill Gang
The Sugarhill Gang paved the way for mainstream success in the world of hip-hop – their hit single ‘Rapper’s Delight’ became the first rap song to enter the Top 40 in the US.
The group continued to achieve fame – particularly in Europe – with singles such as ‘Apache’, ‘8th Wonder’ and ‘Rapper’s Reprise (Jam Jam)’.
Some of the original members are still performing together and even played at V festival in 2016 as part of their world tour.
Salt-N-Pepa are notable on this list for being the only female rap group, but they proved an instant hit amongst both men and women in the 1980s.
Their lyrics were as sexualised and blunt as their fellow male hip-hop acts, and their 1986 single Push It turned platinum in the US and several other countries.
Their success continued well into the 90s too – after they released ‘Shoop’ and ‘Whatta Man’ in 1994, Salt-N-Pepa won the 1995 Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group.
Eazy-E performed both as a solo artist and as a part of the hip-hop group NWA (see below for more on these fellas).
Real name Eric Lynn Wright, he is affectionately known as ‘The Godfather of Gangsta Rap’, with critics often praising his ‘distinctive delivery… over-the-top lyrics, and undeniable charisma’.
Before he was due to hit the heights of superstardom, Eazy tragically died in 1995, due to complications from AIDS.
9. Slick Rick
Rapper Slick Rick released his debut album, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, in 1988 and the record spawned a number of hits including ‘Children’s Story’, ‘Hey Young World’ and ‘Teenage Love’.
Originally from London, Slick Rick moved to America when he was 11 years old and quickly became caught up in the NYC music scene.
His music has been sampled by over 600 artists(!) including Eminem, Kanye West, Beyoncé and Biggie Smalls – as a result, Slick Rick is still the most-sampled hip-hop artist of all time.
If that wasn’t cool enough, his album La Di Da Di (1985) was the first ever rap album to feature an explicit content sticker.
8. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
The group probably had the best names in hip-hop, comprising of six members over all: (Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel, The Kidd Creole, Keef Cowboy, Mr. Ness/Scorpio, and Rahiem).
They released their first single ‘Freedom’ in 1980 but achieved mainstream chart success with the classic track ‘The Message’ which warned about the dangers of inner-city poverty to one of the best beats in hip-hop.
The group was plagued by internal legal battles during the release of their second hit ‘White Lines (Don’t Do It)’ and they eventually disbanded.
7. Big Daddy Kane
Known as one of the pioneering masters of fast-rhyming, Big Daddy Kane rose to prominence in the NYC hip-hop scene thanks to his debut album Long Live The Kane (1988) which featured tracks such as ‘Ain’t No Half-Steppin’.
Kane was noted for his charisma and ‘swagger’, an image which – together with his music – led him to being named one of the most influential artists of the golden era of hip-hop.
Allmusic magazine stated that “his best material ranks among the finest hip-hop of its era, and his sex-drenched persona was enormously influential on countless future would-be players.”
Before Ice-T became reality TV fodder alongside his voluptuous wife Coco – and following his surprising stint in the military – Ice-T was one of the most fascinating rappers of the 1980s. He began his career in the underground music scene, before gaining success with Rhyme Pays (1987).
It certainly did for Ice-T, and after taking over the hip-hop world he went on to form a heavy metal group in the 90s called ‘Body Count’. The rapper sparked controversy with his track ‘Cop Killer’ which allegedly glamourised police shootings and eventually left the music industry to work in film and TV.
He has also done voiceover work for the GTA video game series and starred in his own reality show. A true Renaissance (hip-hop) man.
5. Eric B. & Rakim
No other hip-hop duo rocked heavy gold chains quite like Eric B. & Rakim. Their music wasn’t bad either and together they have been named by rap stars young and old as the best DJ/MC combination of all time. Eric looked after the turntables whilst Rakim rapped over them, producing classic 80s albums Paid in Full and Follow The Leader.
After disbanding following some legal issues with their label in the 90s, the two recently announced that they will be touring again and have even posted dates for a US tour this year.
We hope they’re wearing matching outfits again!
4. LL Cool J
James Todd Smith, better known by his stage name LL Cool J (Ladies Love Cool James), was responsible for a string of hits in the 80s and 90s including ‘I’m Bad’, ‘Rock the Bells’ and ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’.
His hit single ‘I Need A Beat’ established him as one of the break-out hip-hop stars of the era and he was one of the first acts to be produced by the legendary Rick Rubin.
He’s also done lots of acting work and currently stars as NCIS Special Agent Sam Hanna in the CBS crime drama NCIS: Los Angeles, alongside Chris O’Donnell, on top of hosting the gameshow Lip Sync Battle.
3. Public Enemy
Public Enemy burst onto the 80s hip-hop scene with their politically-charged lyrics and vocal criticism of the American media. The group started out as an opening act for The Beastie Boys before their second album It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988) garnered mainstream success.
The album contained the hit single ‘Don’t Believe The Hype’ and was followed up by several albums lamenting the problems inherent within African-American communities. ‘Fight The Power’ is generally regarded as one of the most influential hip hop songs of all time, and was later used by Spike Lee in Do The Right Thing.
Although they continue to record music, their early albums are by far their most popular, influencing not only other hip hop acts but also rock and indie artists too.
2. Run DMC
Run DMC were by far the biggest-selling hip-hop group of the 80s. They were founded in 1981 in Hollis, Queens, New York and consisted of Joseph Simmons, Darryl McDaniels and Jason Mizell. Their Kangol hats, unlaced shoes and leather jackets created an entirely new look for the 80s, but it was their music that people really fell in love with.
They had many successful collaborations with producer Rick Rubin, including Raising Hell (1986) which turned double-platinum and is still one of the biggest-selling hip hop albums of all time. Their sound was defined by a rap-rock fusion, which culminated in their popular single ‘Walk This Way’, a cover of the famous Aerosmith song.
After creative differences and a couple of later albums, Mizell was murdered at his recording studio in Queens. Simmons and McDaniels announced the official break-up of the group shortly after.
NWA was an East Coast hip-hop collective consisting of Arabian Prince, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, DJ Yella and MC Ren (Arabian Prince left the group before the release of their first album). Straight Outta Compton (1988) marked the beginning of a new wave of gangsta rap – with songs like ‘F*** Tha Police’ and ‘Gangsta Gangsta’ it’s easy to see how the group gained a reputation for controversy.
Since then NWA has influenced countless artists in the hip-hop world and beyond.
However, internal tensions plagued the group (mainly stemming from a feud between Eazy-E and Dr Dre) and members came and went in quick succession before they dissolved for good in 1991.