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Back When: The 49 Best Rap Albums Of '94

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Who has the best rap album of 1994? VIBE breaks down rap's greatest year. What’s the greatest year in hip-hop history? ’88, the year of Public Enemy, Big Daddy Kane, and Boogie Down Productions? ’96, when ATLiens, Ironman, All Eyez On Me, and Reasonable Doubt dropped? What about 1994?

Things were in a state of healthy flux in ’94. Death Row was in full effect with Dre and Snoop’s classic debuts at their back while East Coast kingpins of the late 80’s gave way to a web of new groups like EPMD, Brand Nubian and A Tribe Called Quest. Rap-A-Lot was tightening their grip on the Southern market while acts like Crucial Conflict and Daytona Family began popping up from the Midwest. The hip-hop crescent was fertile with the changing of the tides.

So fertile, in fact, that we could easily double this list and still enjoy every album on it. We’re not gonna say 1994 was the best year in rap (tell us in the comments!), but we will give you 49 different ways to argue that point. From Common to Gang Starr, Bone Thugs to UGK, Spice 1 to Biggie Smalls, these are the 49 best rap albums of 1994. —Max Weinstein Ruthless By Law, RBL Posse

49. Ruthless By Law, RBL Posse

Why has the RBL Posse’s legacy been swept under the rug? They’ve never really had a hit song with national exposure (though ”Don’t Give Me No Bammer Weed” hit No. 16 on the Hot Rap Singles chart), nor did they ever hook up with bigger acts like Dr. Dre or Too Short. They kept to themselves in San Francisco and built their own following with the debut album A Lesson To Be Learned.

Their second album, Ruthless By Law, was their most commercially successful, peaking at No. 23 on the Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop chart. It’s best for the whip with snares that’ll smack you upside your head, but headphones are appropriate too—Black C, Hitman and Mr. Cee weave subtle details into their rhymes that make for laughs and signal to the close listeners that these guys are better than their profile might signal. Perhaps the reason they’ve been mostly forgotten by the rest of the country is that two thirds of the group, Mr. Cee and Hitman, have passed away, leaving only Black C to promote the group’s work.

Craig Mack

48. Project: Funk Da World, Craig Mack

Once Project: Funk Da World failed to go platinum (at least), Puffy had no plans of a sophomore LP for Craig Mack, but he thought the first one would blow up. It dropped one week after Ready To Die (not a good idea) and featured the mega smash single “Flave In Ya Ear,” boosted by the remix where Biggie shames UPS workers. Craig’s singular intonation makes his raps effective, but Easy Mo Bee produces five of the 11 songs on the LP, making it a truly funky experience.

Ghetto Mafia

47. Draw The Line, Ghetto Mafia

Nino and Wicked are Ghetto Mafia, the Atlanta rap group that proved anomalous in their hometown at a time when Outkast was taking over. The production falls in line with the G-Funk imitations that ran through the South at the time, but Ghetto Mafia were harder than most rappers in ATL. They would score their biggest hit years later with “Straight From The DEC,” and if you listen to DJ Screw tapes you’ll know “In Decatur,” but Draw The Line made them neighborhood staples. See “Life Of A Sniper” and “A-Town” for proof.

Big Mello

46. Wegonefunkwichamind, Big Mello

Big Mello is the unsung hero of Rap-A-Lot. His first album, Bone Hard Zaggin, is stuffed with classics, and this sophomore project continues the Swisher Sweet vibe with beats by himself and Crazy C. His booming, bottom-heavy voice commands any record he lays down on, and he’s in the turning lane throughout the LP. Just play “Ride 4 Yo Ass” and let the high sink in.

Extra Prolific

45. Like It Should Be, Extra Prolific

The Hieroglyphics crew was a breeding ground for rappers to establish solo careers, but Extra Prolific were never an integral part of that development process. Snupe and Mike G were the second group to split from Hiero, after Souls of Mischief, for a deal with Jive. Mike G would leave after Like It Should Be and Snupe took over Extra Prolific as a solo duo while clinging to Hiero, but he eventually got kicked out of the group. Noz floated some juicy rumors about why that might have happened right here.

As many have pointed out in the past, Snupe (the sole rapper) balanced a backpacker’s rubbery delivery with an eye towards pimping. It’s jarring to picture an underground rapper talk about the same shit Too Short exhorted, but that juxtaposition is exactly why it works so well. Mike G has some blunted beats to match (especially “One Motion”), making for a classic, albeit underrated West Coast album.

Rappin' 4-Tay

44. Don’t Fight The Feelin’, Rappin' 4-Tay

Too many rappers are occupied with being cool or imitating their favorite rappers. Not enough of them want to be original. As Hov said, they’re scared to be themselves.

Rappin’ 4-Tay doesn’t have that problem. From the very first song (which fucking goes, by the way), 4-Tay is on some other shit with his raps. He goes left of center with the beat, he tries a different rhythm for his words, and it works. That’s what happens across the album, hence why Drake bit a whole verse from “Playaz Club.” Sigh.

Esham

43. Closed Casket, Esham

At one point on Closed Casket, Esham simplifies his entire life to a biological coincidence – “man, I ain’t nothing but a nut.” It’s depressing to hear from someone so mentally tortured as the Detroit rapper, but if he wasn’t that way we might not have gotten this classic LP wrung out of him.

Before Chance The Rapper was born, Esham was espousing acid rap as his own, and Closed Casket is widely considered to be the greatest manifestation of that sound. The first half might feel slow for newcomers but it picks up on the back side with tracks like “Make Me Wanna Holla” and “24/7.” He released a ton of albums on his own independent record label Reel Life and was even namedropped by Eminem on “Still Don’t Give A Fuck,” but the admiration ended when he dissed Marshall (and Hailie) in 2001. Regardless, Detroit rap fans know his legacy.

Above The Law

42. Uncle Sam’s Curse, Above The Law

Pomona group Above The Law signed to Ruthless Records in 1989, affording them proximity to N.W.A. at their peak. Dre hadn’t yet dabbled in G-funk, so when Above The Law’s debut album Livin’ Like Hustlers dropped with a heavy dose of the G-Funk sound, it was considered the first of it’s kind. Producer Cold 187um studied under Dre and the two apparently learned things from one another at Ruthless, but the ABL producer has often gone on record to set things straight—he invented G-Funk, not Dre.

Uncle Sam’s Curse comes at the tail end of the group’s career, before KMG the Illustrator passed away and Cold 187um was imprisoned. “Black Superman” was a small hit (later hijacked by French Montana and Max B to perfection), but songs like “Set Free” and the magnificent “Gangsta Madness” prove that the crew still had it even after they’d peaked. Little Bruce

41. XXXtra Manish, Little Bruce

Little Bruce is a national treasure, motherfucker. His history dates back to 1990 when he recorded a diss towards Mac Dre in the hopes of getting noticed as an upcoming rapper. It worked, and since him and Dre lived in rival neighborhoods anyway, Dre recorded a response. Bruce is E-40’s cousin and signed to Sick Wid It, but by being a self-proclaimed “loose cannon,” he was considered a liability and they dropped him once the distribution deal with Jive was set in motion.

No matter, though—XXXtra Manish is still fire. Favorites include “Mobbin’ In My Old School” and “Fuck Little Bruce,” but his rap career proved short-lived. Like Suga Free, the pimp game kept calling him back, and lord knows it pays better than the rap game.

Celly Cel

40. Heat 4 Yo Azz, Celly Cel

Celly Cel was a member of the early Sick wid It infantry, along with artists like Al Kapone, D-Shot and The Click. Judging by “Gin Wit No Juice,” Celly Cel and his cohorts weren’t looking to identify with Death Row’s powerful movement. E-40, who owned Sick-Wid-It, is known for being real in the field without having to talk about it too much.

Heat 4 Yo Azz is a street documentary—bullets wiz, gold diggers abound, friends die, and the cops don’t give a fuck. To answer KRS’ eternal question, Cel has to defend himself, or else he’ll be next. So is the cyclical nature of violence, but thanks to his verbal acumen, the Vallejo rapper comes through it with a classic debut album.

U.N.L.V.

39. Straight Out The Gutta, U.N.L.V.

Purists often forget it’s okay to have a little fun mixed in with your rap music. Cash Money’s own U.N.L.V. were far from lyrical miracles, but their importance to the New Orleans rap scene can’t be overstated. As well as being one of the first locally distributed artists on Cash Money Records in the 90’s, the Uptown N*ggas Living Violent were also pioneers of the local bounce sound. Two of their songs, “Drag Em N Tha River” (a Mystikal diss) and “Go DJ,” would even lay the explicit groundwork for later hits by Juvenile and Lil’ Wayne.

Straight Out The Gutta finds Tec-9, Lil Ya and Yella Boy geeking out over Mannie Fresh production that pounds your face in. Early Cash Money acts like Gangsta Dee, Lil Slim and Mr. Ivan help out at certain points, making it something of a family affair. Ultimately, the album is a balanced mix of unmistakable homegrown cadences and ear-drumming beats that puts the spotlight on street raps about life in the N.O.

Artifacts

38. Between A Rock And A Hard Place, Artifacts

Tame One and El Da Sensei were backpackers before the term was en vogue (El says “I load my backpack with spray paints and markers” on “Wrong Side Of The Tracks”). In 1993, a four-song Artifacts demo tape made the rounds after the duo was featured on “Do You Wanna Hear It” by the Nubian Crackers (LOL). That tape led to their record deal and subsequent debut album, which included every song from the demo except “Check Da Fine Print,” produced by Lord Jamar and featuring Brand Nubian.

Between A Rock And A Hard Place is guided by the talented T-Ray behind the boards, with a little help from Buckwild. It’s telling that the most memorable track is Buckwild’s remix of “C’mon Wit Da Git Down,” and while the album as a whole is a solid listen on a booming system, it also might have set the precedent for boring Underground Rap.

Tame would go on to actually have a backpack-strapped legacy as one half of the Leak Bros. with Cage, while El Da Sensei petered out, despite continuing to release new material as late as last year (an album with Sadat X is apparently in the works for 2014). Da Brat

37. Funkdafied, Da Brat

Funkdafied doesn’t sound like any other album on this list—and no, it’s not because a woman is spitting. After winning the grand prize at a rap competition in ’92, Da Brat met Kris Kross and was introduced to Jermaine Dupri, who signed her and began developing her image as a female Snoop (it’s apparent not only in her voice, but in how much weed she smokes on the record.) As only the second album to be released on So So Def, Funkdafied was also the second one that to go platinum.

Before the beat drops on each song, you’re expecting to hear a generic drum kit. As a production mastermind, Dupri made sure that every track stood out from the next, and as a whole the album stood out from any others in the field. He also wrote the single “Funkdafied” and incorporated an Isley Brothers sample, thus hitting the lotto with the first solo female rapper to ever sell 1,000,000 records.

Willie D

36. Play Witcha Mama, Willie D

Five years after Scarface, Bushwick Bill, DJ Ready Red and Willie D released Grip It! On That Other Level, Willie D was already on his third solo album. He left the group in ’92, alluding to his departure on the second track of Play Witcha Mama, “Is It Real (My Mind Still Playin’ Tricks On Me).” Scarface claims that Willie didn’t like how Face’s first solo album had “Scarface of The Geto Boys” on the front, and by ’93 Willie had dipped and Face wanted out, too.

Play Witcha Mama isn’t Willie’s best solo record, but that makes it even more impressive as you listen to it. Throughout the album he’s hallucinating, killing honkys, seducing mothers, and singing about putting his you-know-what in a woman’s throat to the tune of “Float On.” Are you not entertained?

He gives his posse a little too much shine, but Willie still has a heap of things to talk about, and that alone (with help from Crazy C and Grizz) makes Play Witcha Mama one of the best albums of ’94. Flatlinerz

35. U.S.A. (Under Satan’s Authority), Flatlinerz

Most rap fans will credit the Gravediggaz as pioneering “horrorcore,” but few remember the Flatlinerz. While it seems counterintuitive, the East Coast was lagging behind the rest of the country in the rap race during 1994, even though Biggie, Wu-Tang and Nas were holding down street rap. Def Jam signed the Flatlinerz to compete with gangsta rap, and while they didn’t do well commercially, their only album is unfairly ignored today. Produced almost entirely by Rockwilder with a couple beats from DR Period at the end, Russell hooked it the fuck up for his nephew Jamal (a.k.a. Redrum) and his bandmates Gravedigger and Tempest, even though the label would drop the group after selling a dismal 36,000 copies.

Death is a lifestyle for the Flatlinerz as they take trips through cemeteries and travel 100 stories below ground. Their terrifying imaginations come alive over slapping boom bap as they smoke Phillies in their caskets, but they weren’t too popular thanks to a music video where Redrum raps while hanging from a noose and Gravedigger spit from a crucifix. By the looks of their videos, they seemed to have a decent budget, but nothing good ever lasts.

Gravediggaz

34. 6 Feet Deep, Gravediggaz

It’s crazy to think that RZA and Prince Paul were in the same group after the initial success of De La Soul and Wu-Tang. Rzarector’s drunken monkey style is in full effect here while the Gatekeeper and the Grym Reaper keep their flows more in line over expert Undertaker (Prince Paul) beats. Paul claims he was depressed at the time and he felt lucky for finding a group of like-minded guys.

6 Feet Deep was originally named "Niggamortis," but you gotta give a little to get a little, so if they wanted to talk about suicide and cups of blood, they had to have a softer album title. They shopped their demo around for a year and were rejected by the likes of Jive and Def Jam, perhaps because Russell had the Flatlinerz lined up. Eazy-E met with the group with interest to sign them to Ruthless, but it must have been one of those Jerry Heller gigs, because Prince Paul said the deal was wack. “Diary Of A Madman” ended up getting play on Hot 97 (even though Funkmaster Flex didn’t want to play it), and today people see Gravediggaz for much more than a simple gimmick.

Lord Infamous

33. Lord of Terror, Lord Infamous

If you like your rap dirty, grungy, and lo-fi, dripping with blood, cum, and piss, Three 6 Mafia is for you! The early 90’s saw an outbreak of homegrown tapes from DJ Paul, Juicy J and Lord Infamous full of hiss, stomp and evil, the most notable of which include Vol 1. Da Beginning and Come With Me To Hell Vol. 2 (in 1999 Relativity would release Underground Vol. 1, compiling a number of songs recorded between 1991 and 1994).

1994 was a crucial year for Three 6 Mafia; solo tapes from Koopsta Knicca, Gangsta Blac, Carmike, Lil’ Fly, Lil’ Gin, Project Pat, DJ Paul & Juicy J all made the local rounds. Collecting every project in it’s proper form would be like reading Proust’s In Search Of Lost Time in one sitting: it’s nearly impossible.

Lord Infamous’ solo tape, better known as Lord of Terror, stands out, perhaps because he did that weird half-singing thing sometimes, but also because he’d let his flow break into a sprint instead of being locked in step with Paul’s production. He throws in an instrumental for good measure, but stand outs like “Lick My Nuts” and “Where Is The Bud” ensure that this is a weeded adventure into a delightfully twisted mind. Beastie Boys

32. Ill Communication, Beastie Boys

Mike D, MCA and Adrock were the definition of live, but it’s impressive they lasted as long as they did, especially after their dicey departure from Def Jam. Eight years after they got into the game, Ill Communication was their second triple-platinum album and their second No. 1 album on the Billboard charts. It didn’t have the cultural impact of Licensed To Ill or Paul’s Boutique, but it did cement their legacy beyond those first two records. Plus it surprised the hell out of Capitol—according to Mario Caldato Jr. (their engineer) they had never even set a deadline for the album to be handed in. Everyone seemed to have forgotten about the Beastie Boys.

The eccentricity that’s been on display since their second single was magnified on their third and fourth albums with selections of instrumentals that didn’t have any rapping on them at all, like “Sabrosa,” “Shambala” and “Transitions,” all of which sounded heavily jazz-influenced. Free of the direction that Rick Rubin and the Dust Brothers often imposed upon them, the Boys spent three years in the studio prior to Check Your Head “screwing around and playing instruments,” according to MCA. The many flavors of Ill Communication, be it rock, rap, scratch, or jazz, were born out of that creative freedom. And to think—if Russell Simmons hadn’t stole their cash, we might have never gotten such a fantastic record. Point Blank

31. Mad At The World, Point Blank

Mad At The World is an example of a rapper being captivating regardless of the production. Point Blank, the stupidly slept-on gangsta rapper from Houston via Chicago, talks about wanting to kill himself (“One Way Out”), never trust women (“Thought U Was Down”), and people close to him dying (“Until It Hit Home,” in the vein of Ice Cube’s “Dead Homiez”).

As a whole, the album isn’t as incredible as his debut, Prone To Bad Dreams, mostly due to the beats, but lyrically he’s just as existential as the first go round. One look at some of the song titles (“Mad At The World,” “Until It Hit Home,” “Slipped Into A Coma”) reveals his dissatisfaction with life as a whole. He’s got an uncomfortable lack of filter as he spews any anxiety that he feels; you’re hard-pressed to find a rapper that sounds more infernal than Blank on the title track. It’s the kind of shit that scares old people. That’s how you know it’s dope.

He's also an exception to the overcooked machismo of most rappers. Yes he waxes poetic about bitches and hoes, but he's like Lil' B in that he can show his vulnerability one minute and then sound like a dick the next. He’s not afraid to lay out the complicated, contradictory experience of being a human, and it proves to be endearing.

Digable Planets

30. Blowout Comb, Digable Planets

The second Digable Planets album was even more blunted than their first outing, as if they’d gone in the reverse direction that Tribe took from Low End Theory to Midnight Marauders. That analogy holds when you look at both the music and it’s reception – commercially, the muted vibes of the album kept it from doing as well on the charts as their debut did.

Perhaps it was on purpose. Ishmael Butler said he was inspired to mix the vocals at a lower volume by George Clinton, who said that inaudible elements of music give it longevity by drawing the listener in. Butler also wanted the vocals to be “woven in with the fabric of the music, not necessarily something that was on top.” He was betting on his music’s richness to stand the test of time, and he ended up being right. Blowout Comb doesn’t sound dressed to impress—it’s bare bones, Brooklyn-centric rap that flirted with boom bap via bluesy loops.

Butler also did something unprecedented in rap – after the group’s crossover hit “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” in ’92, he was afraid that the group’s center would destabilize due to crossover popularity. Prior to the sophomore album, he took a trip to Watts, L.A. and absorbed black history from elders he stayed with. Both of his parents were Black Panthers, and it occurred to him that being abstract wouldn’t work to broadcast the group’s Afrocentric message. Thus he changed his name from Butterly to Ish, and Ladybug, who changed her name to Mecca, can be heard namedropping the likes of Eric Dolphy and bell hooks. They needed to be direct if they wanted their music to make an impact. It worked like a charm.

E.S.G.

29. Ocean Of Funk, E.S.G.

Everyday Street Gangsta is a Houston rapper down with DJ Screw’s Screwed Up Click. If the album cover doesn’t immediately convince you to spin the LP, perhaps the fact that E.S.G.’s classic “Swangin and Bangin” is the main sample for Drake’s “HYFR.”

Ocean Of Funk is tailor made for rolling in a slab during the summertime thanks to expert production from Sean ‘Solo’ Jemison, who would go on to produce other classic albums by Lil’ Keke and Big Pokey. Today, E.S.G., like many rappers from the S.U.C., aren’t as celebrated as their patriarch, but a quick survey of topics on the album—crooked cops, close friends, and the death of family members—shows that Ocean Of Funk is much more than a bed of flawless beats.

8Ball and MJG

28. On The Outside Looking In, 8Ball & MJG

Ball and G’s second official album catapulted them closer to the sound they’d perfect on their next LP, On Top Of The World. The dope thing about these two is they’ve got two distinct, complementary ways of rapping. 8ball has a round, chunky style of busting words out his mouth, while MJG makes a beeline to the beat, like he’s punching holes in the paper he writes on. Like UGK and Geto Boys did for Texas, the Memphis boys made it cool to be country by just being themselves—hence ”No Sellouts.”

They grew from the pimp-ass gangstas they were on Comin’ Out Hard to take a look at their neighborhood’s infrastructure, consider their paranoia around friends, and examine “white man’s society.” There’s a balance of G-Funk, which sounds less polished on cuts like “Sesshead Funky Junky,” and the Southern orchestration of songs like “So What U Sayin,” that lends to the idea that they’re continuing to search for their sound while getting closer to perfecting it. On The Outside is a seminal Southern rap record from one of the greatest groups to ever rise from below the Mason-Dixon.

K-Dee

27. Ass, Gas Or Cash (No One Rides For Free), K-Dee

South Central rapper K-Dee ran with Da Lench Mob (sorta) but couldn’t be more different than those dudes. His only album is some of the smoothest shit this side of vanilla gelato, with the majority of beats provided by Ice Cube. The album plays the way a velvet robe feels—luxurious, comfy, soothing. Curren$y fans might recognize “Hittin’ Corners,” but prepare to get pimped by this entire record.

Murder Was The Case

26. Murder Was The Case (Soundtrack), Various Artists

Murder Was The Case is one of the finest Death Row releases ever. “Natural Born Killaz” saw Cube and Dre reunite, Dogg Pound drops two songs that weren’t on Dogg Food, and “Who Got Some Gangsta Shit?” exists. Plus, Dre, Daz and Quik beats abound. What more could you want in ’94?

Method Man

25. Tical, Method Man

Tical is sort of an enigma amongst the legendary first wave of Wu-Tang solo albums. It was the first album that RZA crafted after 36 Chambers, seeing how Method Man had been anointed the early breakout star. It had two hit singles, including “Bring The Pain” and “All I Need,” but the latter really exploded with the help of Puff Daddy’s Trackmasters remix, complete with Mary J. Blige vocals. Wu-Tang and Puff? Sounds like oil and water.

It’s hard to believe, but Tical was almost too dark, muddled in low end without any of the “wow” moments that subsequent Raekwon, GZA, and Ghostface albums had. RZA even admitted he didn’t like how 36 Chambers and Tical were mixed by “established engineers” he was working with in Manhattan. Yet despite all that, Michael Gonzales was right—Tical gets deeper every time you listen to it. It’s headphone music that travels your zooted mind waves and then melts like fudge. Saafir

24. Boxcar Sessions, Saafir

Oakland rapper Saafir bounces off the walls. If Q-Tip is the Abstract Poet, Saafir is the Obtuse one, shifting shapes and eluding your grasp like a ball of putty. He’s known for stealing the spotlight on Casual’s Fear Itself, but when Saafir asked him to return the favor on his own album, the Hiero rapper balked. That led to the legendary battle between Saafir, Casual and Tajai on Sway and Tech’s Wake Up Show in ’94, where, by most accounts, Saafir ripped the Hiero kids with what were rumored to be written rhymes.

Boxcar Sessions isn’t for everybody. It’s an exhausting listen at times; you have to hold on to Saafir’s arrhythmic flows through 19 songs. He attacks the beat sideways and would come to influence other nerdy rappers like Aesop Rock, but no one mastered the technique like Saafir because, as Noz noted, the baritone of his voice is deeper than the nasally inflection that later word jumblers would use. Boxcar Sessions is a poetic exercise for the ears, but you’ll be better equipped for it after multiple reps.

O.C.

23. Word…Life, O.C.

Don’t ask a diehard D.I.T.C. fan to choose between Word…Life and Jewelz —they’ll get broken up about it. O.C.’s debut album is impeccably produced by Buckwild with help from Lord Finesse, DJ Ogee and Organized Konfusion. It’s also somewhat dense lyrically—not that he’s talking about moving mountains, but his delivery awards repeated listens as you catch nuances in his flows from one verse to the next. And in case you forgot, there are few better ways to start a song than “You lack the minerals and vitamins, Iron and the Niacin.”

Kurious

22. A Constipated Monkey, Kurious

Fuck “g” – Kurious owned his Puerto Rican heritage and told gringos to “Spell It Wit A J” on his highly regarded debut album. Released on Bobbito’s first independent record label Hoppoh, A Constipated Monkey was dominated by production from The Beatnuts and SD 50’s with help from The Groove Merchantz and Pete Nice & Daddy Rich. The sample choice is astounding, ranging from Junior Mance to Dizzy Gillespie, and Kurious is a brutally slept-on MC, walking the streets with innocent eyes wide open. The CM crew was also known for their comedy, so it’s not only the music that makes Constipated Monkey a classic; it’s the atmosphere that engulfs the record—laidback, lighthearted, and yes, curious. That “Uptown Shit” bassline is not to be missed, either.

Big Mike

21. Somethin’ Serious, Big Mike

One-time Geto Boy Big Mike is best known for the Southern swamp funk that he brought on his Rap-A-Lot debut, Somethin’ Serious. “World of Mine” is the kind of single that rap heads wished could still blow up and “Havin Thangs” is a beat/hook combo from heaven, but he had a falling out with Scarface and ended up in prison after setting fire to one of J. Prince’s studios. Plus he flipped an Al Green sample better than Kanye did—no easy feat.

Master P

20. The Ghettos Trying To Kill Me!, Master P

Spice 1 was an adamant believer that Master P was wack and he bought all his own records, but that was probably a theory Spice formed once No Limit blew up. In ’94, Percy Miller was still a smalltime hustler in Richmond, California, and Ghettos Trying To Kill Me came at the tail end of his West Coast start.

The original version (it was rereleased in ’97) is the essential copy, as it contains classic songs like “Some Of These Hoes Jack” and “Study Being a Gangsta.” Other must-haves include “The Ghettos Tryin’ To Kill Me!” and “Hands Of A Dead Man,” where P claims that he got arrested with crack in his mouth but he’ll shit it out later. No sweat. He’s an imaginative rhymer with an unmistakable voice, and combined with swinging beats, he carves out a no-frills, dope ass street album.

The Beatnuts

19. Street Level, The Beatnuts

The Beatnuts, for whatever reason, are the most slept-on producers to ever touch MPCs. Maybe it was because they were Latino, or because they never had a smash hit that got incessant radio play, but nobody had samples like Psycho Les and JuJu. Take their debut single, “Reign Of The Tec,” from their first EP, Intoxicated Demons—it sampled fuckin’ Black Sabbath. Who woulda thought?

Street Level was their first full-length, and a quick glance at the samples used is a who’s who of jazz giants – Herbie Hancock, Cannonball Adderley, Roy Ayers, Donald Byrd, Lonnie Smith. The beats were stone crazy, but the rhymes were as fly as ever thanks to Al Tariq, who then went by Fashion (Street Level was his final effort with the group before he departed to drop God Connections in 1996). Allegedly produced entirely on the MPC60, Street Level still pounds as hard as it did 20 years ago. To this day, nobody makes beats like JuJu and Les. M.O.P.

18. To The Death, M.O.P.

Listening to M.O.P. is like subjecting yourself to threats of getting bashed in the face with a glass bottle—thrilling, though intimidating. Their debut LP To The Death was produced entirely by the unheralded DR Period (save the final track) and features sleepers like “Ring Ding” and “Blue Steel” as well as the single that first put them on via House Party 3, “How About Some Hardcore?” The album received little promo on the indie label Select Records, motivating M.O..P. to sign with Relativity for their next joint, but nonetheless, To The Death signals the beginning of Brownsville’s most feared rap group.

Keith Murray

17. The Most Beautifullest Thing In This World, Keith Murray

Keith Murray is a prime example of MCs who don’t say much and are damn good at it. Most of his debut album is spent talking about writing rhymes, rocking mics and smoking weed, but his gift is making it sound so cool. Having Erick Sermon at his back (pause) helps a lot, but there’s also the way Murray pronounces words that draws you in. If he’d said “the most beautifullest thing in this world” without leaning into that non-word, nobody might have given a shit.

The guy who first went as Do Damage and Keefy Keef had a deadly trio of talent: a distinct voice, an extensive vocabulary, and a spunky sense of rhythm. He wasn’t saying anything out of this world (though he did end up escaping the world), but his debut is the type of CD that doesn’t leave the whip. The Coup

16. Genocide & Juice, The Coup

When Public Enemy fell from grace, a rap group from the other side of the country took up their case. The Coup was the next progression of political rap—when Proposition 21 passed, they drove a flatbed truck around and performed “guerilla hip-hop concerts” to raise awareness and protest the bill. According to Coup frontman Boots Riley, “California is a very racist place.”

Riley, the nucleus of the group as rapper and producer, is a fascinating rap figure unlike most we’ve ever seen. By age 15 he was a member of the Progressive Labor Party, and when he started making music he did so with the goal of buying “guns and ammunition” in order to form “organizing centers” around the country. That would scare the shit out of (white) folks today.

Genocide & Juice is hip-hop theatre. Riley was not only an activist, but also a meticulous artist whose influences range from Prince to The Cure. The opening trio of songs finds Boots infiltrating a high-class party and eventually robbing the white guests, who openly try their hand at rap in a mocking fashion. It’s both literal—the party is exclusive and Boots has to sneak in as a server—and metaphorical—society as a whole has cast blacks out of the party. Since the release of Genocide & Juice, few if any artists have been able to make as focused and funky of a political statement.

Common

15. Resurrection, Common

Common ain’t for everybody. He was always a little… affected. If Nas was rapping from the project window, Com was rapping from the laundry room. Just look at what Ice Cube did to him. But he had styles, like the wonky voice fluctuations that he freaked on his debut, Can I Borrow A Dollar? Those were mostly demos that he reworked with No I.D. and Twilite Tone after dropping out of college, so when it came time for his sophomore LP, he had matured, started listening to Coltrane and The Last Poets, and focused not only on raw rhymes, but entire song structures too.

Signed to Relativity, Common also put No I.D. in position to get in the studio with the label’s first artists, The Beatnuts; hence the jazzier sound that informs Resurrection—No I.D. claims he learned about digging for records from Les and JuJu. Gone are Com’s battle rhymes in lieu of contemplative verses, and couched with Ahmad Jamal and George Benson samples, Resurrection is more Tribe than Freestyle Fellowship. There’s an underpinning of wisdom to each song, like he’s telling you epiphanies he’s had throughout the years. It’s a soothing album, a coming of age tale that bridges the brusque personality of his debut and the refined, Soulquarian-ordained fourth album. MC Eiht

14. We Come Strapped, MC Eiht

I imagine MC Eiht and Spice 1 talked a lot to each other about their guns. Their weapons are like vessels they can pour their constant anger into on every verse. These tools of preemptive defense are, along with their microphones, all they have to fight the world with.

Once Compton’s Most Wanted began to fizzle, MC Eiht still had some shit to talk, and We Come Strapped found the East Bay gangsta slowing down some of the flavor found on The Chronic for some funkier rhythms. You can smell the smoke wafting to the ceiling on “All For The Money,” “Compton Bomb” rains sunshine, and “Nuthin’ But The Gangsta” features the always entertaining Redman. MC Eiht could mellow out or get hype in a heartbeat and his arsenal of flows seems endless, making We Come Strapped a fun ride every time.

Casual

13. Fear Itself, Casual

Casual is a high-flying West Coast version of Common, tonally (no, he doesn't sound like he's wearing olive green Gap sweaters when he rhymes). He's got a slick tongue that front flips from one line to the next with the transport of Yoshi. His delivery is shot through with adrenaline and an animated sense of narrative on Fear Itself (“There goes the brothers who bit, ooh goody!/They got ‘em surrounded, description: blue hoody.”) Engulfed by a concrete jungle of acoustics via Domino, Casual shows out by rendering the beat D.O.A. every time. Few MCs have as many gymnastic styles as those displayed on Fear Itself, making it one of the seminal albums to spring from the Hieroglyphics camp.

If you aren’t listening closely, he sounds complex, but follow each word and you realize he’s telling simple tales. His jumbled technique across the album masks a straightforward storyteller. The contents of Tarantino’s films aren’t anything new—it’s the way he shows you that stands out. Mixed with the outstanding beat selection, Casual’s bars make for a standout in Cali rap history. Odd Squad

12. Fadanuf Fa Erybody!!, Odd Squad

Back when Devin the Dude was D The Fat Square Twista, he brought Rob Quest, the group’s blind producer, together with Jugg Mugg, another local rapper he met in Houston, to form Odd Squad. Rap-A-Lot producer Crazy C got ahold of some demos of theirs, passed them on to J. Prince, and the rest was history.

Notoriously known as Scarface’s favorite Rap-A-Lot album and bolstered with comedy like “Put Cha Lips,” Fadanuf Fa Erybody!! embodies what Rob explained as the group’s purpose: “the way we look at things is a lighter look of life in the hood…we are looking at the good side of life in the hood. We like to chill, kick it, and really we tried to record a party on our album.” Saxes enrich the beats as the regular Joe rappers keep it simple, and listening to them transmits a country mentality; that is to say, you’ll come away feeling like “it’s all good.”

Jeru The Damaja

11. The Sun Rises In The East, Jeru The Damaja

Premier might have found his sound on Daily Operation, but he didn’t perfect it until Hard To Earn, Living Proof and The Sun Rises In The East dropped. Primo boiled his beats down to the raw materials – drums, samples and scratches – for the purest product. The result is a drug so potent that it stuns you and lingers for days after intake.

Primo has a tendency to fuck with traditional NY-cap wearing rappers and Jeru fits that role. The ebb and flow of his delivery can encircle and snag a snare at any point, making the interaction between words and music an essential third element to the album. It was a departure from Guru’s monotone wisdom – Jeru was poetic where Guru was direct – and thus made NY rap fans jubilant. Most importantly, the album was a powerful addition to the resurrecting army of East Coast rappers that included Gravediggaz, Biggie, Wu-Tang and Nas.

Pete Rock and CL Smooth

10. The Main Ingredient, Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth

Pete Rock breaks it down to the raw nutrients. There’s an enduring magic to his early beats, even if we still don’t know what the fuck C.L. Smooth is talking about. The Chocolate Boy Wonder’s ear for samples, bass and drums matches any mood, but not every system. Pump this shit loud so it feels like you’re enveloped in a cocoon of audio drugs. No one can manipulate a vocal sample like that dude.

There isn’t much else to say. Play it in the summer, the winter, the dark, the light. It doesn’t matter. It’ll bring you somewhere else anyway.

Bone Thugs-N-Harmony

9. Creepin’ On Ah Come Up, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony

Kurupt might have called them “hoes in harmony” on the opening track of Dogg Food, but by that time Bone Thugs were well on their way to becoming one of the most influential rap groups to ever touch down. Their debut EP (not counting Faces Of Death), executive produced by Eazy-E and released on his Ruthless label, shot them into the stratosphere while E.1999 and Art Of War would suspend them there.

Creepin’ On Ah Come Up had the cultish harmonies of “Mr. Ouija,” the breakout single “Thuggish Ruggish Bone” and the blunt-melting “Foe Tha Love Of $.” Their influence was felt almost immediately—in ’95, Three 6 Mafia would accuse them of biting and diss them on “Live By Yo Rep,” even though Mystic Stylez simply doesn’t compare to the Bone Thugs EP. Today, artists like A$AP Rocky and Freddie Gibbs owe elements to BTH’s fearless experimentation on their breakout project. Plus, if you haven’t already heard it, DJ Screw made the intro sound like the climactic scene in a horror movie.

Redman

8. Dare Iz A Darkside, Redman

If you’re ever bored with some friends and a bag of buddah happens to be lying around, do yourself a favor—play Redman’s first three albums and try to decide which one is the best. Depending on the weed, you’ll pick a new one every time.

Chances are, Dare Iz A Darkside will get a majority of the wins for its eccentric weirdness and it’s fully realized cosmic slop sound. Everything from the artwork to the intro to the Rockafella remix makes this album an instant bugged classic. You can always find lines to rewind, beats to snap your neck a little harder to, jokes to laugh a little longer about. Redman is an MC’s MC, a rapper of the highest order who low-key has one of rap's strongest catalogs.

Organized Konfusion

7. Stress: The Extinction Agenda, Organized Konfusion

Beneath their everyday dealings, Pharoahe Monch and Prince Po saw a larger force at work in Queens, New York. Extinction Agenda is to this day one of the fiercest lyrical showings ever recorded, especially as Monch vacillates from singing on “Black Sunday” to rapping from the perspective of a bullet on “Stray Bullet.” The album is heartfelt to the point of being heartbreaking, as our protagonists hold nothing back in showing us what’s happening in their neighborhood. Front to back, it’s one of the best albums of that decade.

UGK

6. Super Tight, UGK

Bun B and Pimp C are perhaps the greatest Southern rap group ever, besides the Geto Boys. Everyone has their UGK preference— many hold Ridin’ Dirty as their best work (it’s probably their most comprehensive), while others champion early works like Too Hard To Swallow and the fantastic ’94 LP, Super Tight.

There isn’t a weak song on Super Tight, but what’s fascinating is Pimp C’s approach to the production. As a fan of New Orleans funk, he brought in local musicians from the city to replay samples live in the studio with him. Artists included Chris Severin on bass, David Tornkanowsky on keyboard, and guitarist Leo Nocentelli of the legendary Meters. In his love for music, he went beyond mere sampling to dig up deeper textures and create an on-record atmosphere that no one in the South was coming close to at the time. Few have matched the sound since.

Scarface

5. The Diary, Scarface

File this as another reason why ’94 is rap’s greatest year. Face has had many phases of his career, but with The Diary he reached his most personal. The production progressed beyond the breakbeats of Mr. Scarface Is Back into full-blown symphonies thanks to Mike Dean and N.O. Joe, but it’s the emotive storytelling of Brad Jordan that makes this album punch you in the gut. “I Seen A Man Die” might be the illest song of his career.

Gang Starr

4. Hard To Earn, Gang Starr

You may think Daily Operation is the duo's greatest album, while others think Moment Of Truth was Gang Starr’s shining moment, but neither of those LPs sound like Hard To Earn. Top moments include: the intro (pair it with RZA talking shit on the intro for disc 2 of Wu-Tang Forever), the beat switch on “Speak Ya Clout,” beats like “Mass Appeal” and “Comin’ For Datazz,” and lemonade still being a popular drink. Guru had not only come into his own, but slowly forced his way into the “best rapper out” discussion, while Premier fleshed out his sparse drum patterns for a bigger, warmer sound. The result is an album that doesn’t sound like it’s aged a year. OutKast

3. Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, OutKast

On any given day, OutKast’s debut album is arguably their best one. That seems ridiculous in the face of the three that came after, but there’s a rawness to their rhymes and a deeply country soul to the beats that flew away after it. Shit, Andre was talking about guns. This was OutKast before OutKast.

What makes them one of the greatest rap groups ever is that they changed their sound from one album to the next. They didn’t take themselves too seriously on their first LP, letting loose and shooting from the hip with whatever rhymes came to their mind. In the epic discography (that ends with Stankonia), their debut is far too slept on.

The Notorious BIG

2. Ready To Die, The Notorious B.I.G.

Surely, enough thinkpieces will be written to make you never want to listen to Ready To Die again when its 20th anniversary comes in September, so we won't be verbose. What Puff and Big achieved on this album, however, changed the course of hip-hop. That Biggie could still be rugged with hits like “Juicy” to prop up the album opened the eyes of rappers to the possibility of crossing over without losing street credibility. Nothing was sacrificed because Christopher Wallace was always himself. Track down the original version of the album to see what could have (not) been. Peace to the Bluez Brothers, too.

Nas

1. Illmatic, Nas

You didn't expect a troll here, did you? Hip-hop’s holy grail, Illmatic, is the perfect mix of beats, rhymes, sequencing, and duration. Nas’ gift hasn’t proved to be his curse, either, as he’s gone on to drop albums that don’t compare to, but branch out from his fertile beginning. Anybody wishing for another Illmatic in 2014 should probably have a Coke and a smile. If this list has taught you anything, it’s that rap’s history is deeper than you might think. We can look behind us to inform our future, but if you want old shit, it’s there.

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