Retrospective: The Best Hip Hop Artists of The 80s

By @TrueGodImmortal 

As hip hop continued to evolve over the years, one era that seems to get lost in the sauce a bit is the 80s. The true starting point for official hip hop, the simplistic style and rhymes in the 80s were a welcome departure from the poppy sound and an aggressive necessity for music during this period. There will be some great MCs and artists who do not make this list (Ultramagnetic MCs, Schoolly D, 3rd Bass, Whodini, Special Ed, Roxanne Shante, Just Ice, Treacherous Three, MC Shan, Stetsasonic, etc) and there is a good reason why all of those who missed the list aren't here. Based on the DAR criteria for the best? Some of them just missed the cut. It doesn't take away from their accomplishments in the 80s however, and these are all legends still. Here is our look back on the greatest hip hop artists of the 80s.


-The group that truly revolutionized hip hop in many ways with their brash and abrasive content, aggression, simple look into life in the hood, as well as the reality of the police brutality and racial profiling we face on a daily. With a group that would spawn three huge legends in hip hop, as well as some of the most successful artists the genre has ever seen, the legacy of NWA was immortalized with the motion picture "Straight Outta Compton". With Eazy E leading the charge, the crew maintained a presence for years, leading Dr. Dre to a huge career and Ice Cube utilized the group to eventually get a bigger name (him going solo and dissing NWA worked amazingly). The impact of the NWA will be felt for years and years to come still. To many, they are the most important hip hop group of all time, and I don't necessarily agree personally, it's hard to really argue against that honestly.

*Big Daddy Kane

-When you speak of the 80s, there are a few rappers that come to mind instantly. One of those is without a doubt Big Daddy Kane. BDK came into the game focused and ready to showcase his skill. With his classic Long Live the Kane album, BDK solidified himself as one of the top artists in hip hop, a MC that struck fear into many others when it came to lyricism. Kane was a ghostwriter for Biz Markie, and eventually became down with the Juice Crew as well, sparking the legendary track "The Symphony" with a very memorable verse. His most successful album "It's A Big Daddy Thing" would follow his debut, and Kane continued to grow to new heights as the 90s started to come about.

*KRS One/Boogie Down Productions (submitted by @CherchezLaPorsh)

-Also known as "The Teacher", KRS-One is ranked among the greatest MC's of all time. He's known as an intellectual rapper and one who is always rapping songs with substance and knowledge. I've often said that when KRS opens his mouth it's as if gems are just spilling out and I truly believe this. Personally I think KRS brings an entirely different edge to hip hop music that not very many people do. His solo work would definitely bring his name much attention, but it was the work in Boogie Down Productions that put him on the map. Criminal Minded? By All Means Necessary?? These are amazing albums! I don't think anyone can deny KRS' talent. The content of his albums truly resonated with mass amounts of people and I think he shed light on a lot of issues that were happening at the time that no one else was really addressing. I also think he stays true to his moniker of the teacher, as each song had at least one bar that peaked an awareness in most people. KRS-One to me should be widely considered a Hip Hop scholar. His music carries weight and his name will forever be synonymous with wisdom in Hip hop.

*Kool G Rap 

-One half of the duo Kool G Rap & DJ Polo, as well as a member of the Juice Crew, Kool G is honestly one of my favorite hip hop artists period, but he is tied for my top hip hop artist of the 80s. Kool G would also have an appearance on the legendary track "The Symphony", before releasing the debut classic Road To the Riches with DJ Polo at the end of the decade in 1989. Kool G continued his run into the 90s and is still actively making music today with his gritty brand of lyricism and aggressive style. When speaking of the greatest MCs from the 80s, and the greatest hip hop artists from Queens period, Kool G is definitely one of them.


-The God. Now, technically this should be Eric B. And Rakim, but we are talking the lyricists and the artists, so I'll just talk Ra for the moment. There's no doubt in my mind that Rakim is one of the greatest ever and he's tied with Kool G as my favorite hip hop artist of the 80s. Lyrical dexterity, a commanding voice, along with internal rhyme schemes helped catapult Rakim to be seen as the greatest.

As a lyricist, he was without a doubt ahead of his time, in a game where the lyrics at times packed more of a playful punch than actual skill in a way. Rakim was one of the first to truly display top tier lyricism and perfect displays of aggression combined with refined wisdom at such a young age (majority of the rappers in the 80s who became big were barely 22 years old as Kane, Kool G and Rakim were all around the same age when they got big). Rakim provided the listeners with an experience that we weren't truly used to at the time and that is what made him so special not only in the 80s, but to hip hop in general. To this day, many consider him the greatest or at least top 3 and I can't argue against that.

*Slick Rick (submitted by @CherchezLaPorsh)

-If I walk up to any true Hip Hop fan and say these 5 words: "rapper with an eye patch" regardless of age, gender, upbringing, what city they lived in etc...any true fan will know and say Slick Rick almost instantly. He was known as the "Dapper Rapper" for his clothing style, Kangol hats, his well put together appearance and the famous eyepatch and gold chains he rocked. No one else at the time matched this level of style. Even though I was incredibly young when Slick Rick dropped his first single and debut album, in later years I discovered how much of an integral role Slick Rick had in the lives of my favorite artists and the culture as a whole. So much so, that it would be crazy not to mention him when bringing up more recent artists.

Rick inspired the majority of those considered all time greats in lyrics, flow, beats, storytelling, style etc. His first and most recognizable success was back in '85 with "La-Di-Da-Di" and the "The Show" with Doug E Fresh as a double single. "La Di..." would go on to become probably the most iconic and most sampled song in rap by later artists. The success didn't end there, with the release of "The Great Adventures of Slick Rick", the Hip Hop nation experienced the amazing storytelling ability in songs like "Children's Story", this song was exactly that, a story of some kids trying to make some cash and got caught up with cops, trying to outrun them, guns get involved etc... you can clearly see how, in a song, he used verbal illustration and vivid descriptions, and at the time, no one else was doing this. (Montell Jordan would later reference lines from this song in "This Is How We Do It") and he (slick rick) did it again in "Mona Lisa" with the same level of cohesiveness and ability.

*LL Cool J

-Let's be clear: when talking consistency, in the 80s, LL might take the title. He brought forth nothing but the best, with his Radio and Bigger and Deffer albums leading the way for the 80s. He supplied us with hit songs, dope albums, aggressive lyrics and would not let up. He was a huge driving force in the success of Def Jam Records and LL was also a true pioneer for the game in many ways. When you talk the 80s and you think hip hop, if you don't include LL in the conversation, you need to reevaluate. LL is one of the most Influential MCs and has managed to have a sense of longevity over the years by maintaining a high profile career and selling gold and  platinum albums in three decades, a feat that not many others can claim, if any at all.

*Run DMC

-I'm not the biggest Run DMC fan personally. I think lyrically they displayed a lot of weakness, but there is no denying at all the impact they had on the industry and hip hop in general. Clad in Adidas and hats almost always, the Queens group put themselves on the map with a sound unlike anything we had heard thus far. They would be the first group in the genre to gain a gold and platinum plaque, as well as go multi platinum and they did this in succession. One after the other, Run DMC owned the mid-80s easily and became the strongest force in hip hop during this time.

They are one of the most important groups in hip hop history and they managed to bridge the gap between hip hop and rock music in a big way, starting with their massively successful album "King of Rock", then continuing with the mega hit "Walk This Way", a collab with rock legends Aerosmith that shook the foundation of the industry.

*Public Enemy

-To many, Public Enemy could be the greatest group of all time. They are definitely one of the top two greatest hip hop groups of the 80s, no debating. With a consciousness that was needed, along with an extremely militant side as well, Public Enemy brought a flavor to this game that wasn't truly appreciated until later I believe. Their album "It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back" just might be the greatest hip hop album from the decade, and it is certainly in my top 5 hip hop albums from the 80s. Chuck D managed to provide as much commentary on the ills of the world in his lyrics and with a true combination of different spirits in one group, Public Enemy is no doubt one of the greatest hip hop artists and movements of the 80s.

*Kurtis Blow

-While not necessarily the best rapper, Kurtis Blow was without a doubt the man in the early 80s. Spawning successful albums and a string of hits as well, Kurtis showed that you could take hip hop and not only make it a hobby, but also a career.

*Beastie Boys

-Now, while I'm not a fan of the Beastie Boys and share different sentiments when personally discussing them, there is no denying the impact and the iconic wave they brought along to the game. The albums they released, the success they received, and all the accolades were well deserved without a doubt. They were not top tier lyricists, but they were truly a big impact on hip hop.

*Heavy D and The Boyz

-How soon we forget the legend of Heavy D. One of the most entertaining MCs of the 80s and one who created some great hits. Heavy D and the Boyz arrived basically in 1987 with the solid album "Livin Large", and the single "The Overweight Lover's In the House" brought fun to hip hop while still maintaining a bit of lyrical ability all the same. The more successful "Big Tyme" album also struck before the 80s ended, and would keep their names in the light with the New Jack Swing sound being more crisp than ever. When you think the 80s and greatness, you have to credit Heavy D and The Boyz.

*Biz Markie

-I tried not to put Biz on this list but it was impossible not to include him in some ways, but I'll keep it brief. At a time when hip hop was in transition, Biz always provided some hilarity and honesty as well in his music. He did what we did to perfection, most of which was penned by another 80s great, BDK.

*2 Live Crew

-Now, I know... the music wasn't necessarily the greatest, if we are being honest. But how can one deny the raunchy, aggressive and downright filth that 2 Live Crew brought to the table? With censorship not being a factor or a concern, the Florida crew tested limits and won big. They are very vital to the 80s hip hop scene and remain groundbreaking still to this day.

*Ice T

-Now, we love Ice T as a Law and Order character, as well as his role in helping to take down Nino Brown (or we hate him for that), but in the 80s? Ice T was a rapper that had the cops and the government sweating bullets. Ice T in many ways was a pioneer for gangsta rap, bringing the reality he saw in his world to the music. And he did it in the hardest way possible. When talking the 80s, you can't sleep on Ice T. Ever.

*Kool Mo Dee

-Admittedly, I'm not a Kool Mo Dee fan. I respect his contributions to the culture, but I haven't been able to ever truly get into his music. Regardless, he still maintained a level of success, relevance, prominence and until his clash with LL, he seemed pretty untouchable in a way. Kool Mo is definitely one of the strongest forces to come out of 80s hip hop.

*Queen Latifah

-Long before she was Living Single or shooting out with cops in Set It Off, or releasing a jazz album, the Jersey girl was a damn good rapper, and full of all the black power in the world. Her 1989 album "All Hail The Queen" is a classic, with her epic single "Ladies First". The queen definitely took the hip hop world by storm as the 80s came to a close.

*Too Short 

-I can't lie: Too Short was the man in the 80s. With his "Born To Mack" album, he just set the tone for not only his career, but for the vibe going forward with the pimping topic in the songs we heard later on. Too Short was a pioneer, providing real and gritty tales for the listeners to bring you close to the Bay Area and how it really was out there.

*MC Lyte

-One of the greatest, if not the greatest female MC ever, MC Lyte brought a smooth but rugged demeanor to the table, the likes of which we weren't truly prepared for I believe. Her album Lyte As A Rock is a true classic and she solidified herself as a giant in the game with her "Paper Thin" single.

*Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five

-Now, I'll admit: I'm not the biggest fan of this group, but to deny their impact and what they meant to the genre in the 80s is impossible. The debut album "The Message" was monumental and the title track is still one of the most important hip hop tracks in history. When you think of the decade, any group that features not only Grandmaster Flash, but Melle Mel as well has to be featured on any list that talks 80s hip hop.

*De La Soul

-Now, De La would go on to have a big impact well into the early 90s, but their start? It all took place with the huge classic Three Feet High and Rising in 1989. The album which was far too creative in many ways for the average listener, implemented skits in their album to give it a bigger feel and what came of it was pure greatness. There is no denying the legacy that De La built off this one epic album, and it all began right in the 80s.


-Impossible to talk the 80s without talking the most dominant female group of the era. With the trio pushing boundaries and limits as female hip hop artists, they truly set the tone for the future female MCs who wanted to walk in their footsteps but could never quite duplicate the greatness.

*DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince

-It would be impossible to talk the 80s without mentioning this epic duo. With three dope albums released in the 80s, Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince took their music act and saw it turned to a TV show, one of the best sitcoms ever to be exact. However, before that, they worked feverishly at making dope music, and while Will Smith is not a top tier lyricist or a great one, he no doubt brought his A Game along with Jeff to make a ton of hits to truly end the 80s off right.

*Jungle Brothers 

-The Native Tongues really didn't get the love they deserve at time. This is the more slept on  collective in the crew, but the Jungle Brothers held it down in the 80s, especially with their amazing debut "Straight Out The Jungle". Their follow up album would be dope as well, and solidify them as a big force in 80s hip hop.


-Erick and Parrish. An amazing duo, one of the best ever. Their album Strictly Business is one of the greatest to be released in the 80s. Their follow up Unfinished Business is also an amazing album, solidifying their legacy as top tier artists for hip hop in the 80s. The legacy of EPMD is still just as strong today, and they were sample kings for the era without a doubt. Pure greatness personified.



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