Rap music might have been around in the 70s, with street performers cranking out beats, but the genre did not launch in a big way until the 1980s. Once the general public started to listen the genre of rap music launched in a huge way. Still, many critics of rap and hiphop music dismissed it as a fad, predicting it would swiftly fade away or at the very best enjoy only a small cult following. Those prognosticators couldn’t have been more wrong. Today rap and hiphop music is a multi-billion dollar industry, and each passing year only strengthens the genre of rap music.
Counting down the top 10 rap artists of the 80s isn’t an easy task, because one can’t simply focus on the music they produced, but also the impact they had on introducing rap and hiphop music to the general population, which ultimately led to the success that today’s rap artists are enjoying. Here are my picks for the top 10 rappers of the 80s:
10 – Tone Loc
All you rap music purists are probably groaning right now, wondering what Tone Loc is doing on a list of the top 10 rap artists of the 80s. Well, as I stated above, this list will be weighted partially by consideration of who I think helped launch the rap genre as mainstream music, and Tone Loc definitely qualifies. His massive single, Wild Thing sold more copies than any other music single in history to that point, in any genre! Wild Thing was the first rap song many young people heard and it got them interested in hiphop music. They went on to expand their musical horizons and leave Tone Loc relegated to the bargain bin of rap history.
9 – The Beastie Boys
The Beastie Boys were one of the first commercially successfully white rap groups, and they were pioneers in helping launch a genre of music that has been as racially charged as any style of music in history. Unlike many other bands from the 80s and 90s the Beastie Boys have managed to reinvent themselves and still remain a major force in rap music to this day.
8 – Boogie Down Productions
Though BDP’s music was initially charged with violent undertones, the death of band member Scott LaRock softened that edge, and with songs like My Philosophy they gained a more mainstream audience. This rap supergroup is a no-brainer as one of the best rap artists of the 80s.
7 – LL Cool J
Another 80s rapper who has enjoyed a long career, LL Cool J was one of the first light-hearted rappers, bringing fun, entertaining music without the strong political or racial messages that most other rap artists’ work was filled with at the time, and songs like Goin’ Back to Cali and I’m That Type of Guy got regular play on mainstream music stations.
6 – Erik B & Rakim
This New York City hiphop duo was one of the smoothest rap groups of the 80s, and basically set the bar for other rappers with their poetic rap lyrics. Though their career lasted a relatively short time, with their last studio album release in 1992, they are still one of the most respected rap groups in the history of hiphop music and definitely worthy of inclusion on the list of the top 10 rap artists of all time.
5 – NWA
During the late 1980s and early 90s Gangsta Rap exploded in popularity, and this group from Compton, California was at the heart of the movement. Extolling violence, bloodshed, and declaring outright war against police in their lyrics NWA quickly gained a following of youth fed up with being under the thumb of authority. Ice Cube and Easy E fronted the band, and both also enjoyed solo careers. Dr. Dre, also an original member of NWA has since gone on to a wildly successfully solo recording and producing career. Though many question their lyrics, and the negative impact their music might have had, few can dispute they were a very popular, influential rap group in the 80s.
4 – Ice T
Though his lyrics weren’t quite as violently charged as those of NWA, Ice-T had his own brand of Gangsta Rap and was immensely popular during the 80s. His hit song, Colors was the theme song of the movie of the same name, and he had several other massive hits during the decade. Ironically, despite the anti-police sentiment in many of his songs, he went on to play a police detective on Law & Order:SVU. How things change.
3 – Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five
If you want to talk about pioneers of the rap music genre these guys are the real deal. Their hit song, The Message was one of the first radio played rap songs, and the accompanying music video is one of rap music’s all time classics. Though they would soon fade into obscurity Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five continue to be remembered as one of the best rap groups of the 80s.
2 – Public Enemy
When it came to walking the line between entertaining and delivering a political message, few have succeeded at doing so like Chuck D and Flavor Flav of Public Enemy. With songs like Fight the Power, Public Enemy gained a huge following of racially oppressed youth who found hope in Public Enemy’s message. Hard to believe these guys are almost 50 years old now. Wow, how time flies.
1 – Run DMC
This should come as a surprise to no one. There really is only one choice for the premiere spot on the list of the top 10 rap artists of the 80s. Run DMC dominated the 80s with hits like King of Rock, My Adidas, Mary Mary, and even a half rap, half rock mega-hit with Aerosmith called Walk This Way. Run DMC were the consummate entertainers, and their music is still widely played today.