The 22 Best Hip-Hop Acts of the ’80s—From The Beastie Boys and Ice-T to Run DMC, and LL Cool J

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Hip-hop music began in the 1970s. But that was its most rudimentary stages, in the parks of the Boogie Down Bronx in New York City. Slowly, the genre, which has since taken over the world as the most dominant art form, began to spread its wings to other Big Apple boroughs and beyond.

Today, rap music is everywhere. Rap beats are everywhere. Truly, the genre changed the world. Hip-hop, of course, is not just about music. It’s about business, fashion, dancing, graffiti writing, and the song (which are comprised of emceeing, DJing, beatboxing, and more).

Here, we will dive into the biggest names to rise up out of the style’s early beginnings. Those hip-hop acts that we know and love today have since set the tone for the genre in the decades to come. So, without further ado, let’s dive into the best 22 hip-hop acts of the 1980s. (In no particular order)

1. The Sugarhill Gang

While the group came out with the first rap hit, “Rappers Delight” in 1979, the group continued into the following decade. Their debut hit was the first hip-hop song to break into the Top 40, peaking at No. 36. From there, the three-piece group released its debut LP in 1980, with four more albums to drop from 1981 to 1999.

2. KRS-ONE

Widely considered the Godfather of rap, KRS-ONE (or, Knowledge Rules Supreme Over Nearly Everyone) gave his big voice and his philosophical lyrics to the genre and, as a result, helped make it a household name. With his 1987 LP, Criminal Minded, released under his Boogie Down Productions umbrella, KRS-One would prove to be essential to the art form’s history.

3. Big Daddy Kane

Boasting one of the best voices and most signature rapping styles in the genre, Big Daddy Kane is a founding father of modern rap. And check out our interview with the superstar here. He started his career in 1986 as a member of The Juice Crew and later went solo, known for his hit “Ain’t No Half-Steppin’.”

4. Eric B and Rakim

In the art form’s early days, the DJ was as important as the rapper, if not more so. That’s why so many early groups had the DJ’s name first, as in Eric B. & Rakim. Like KRS-One, Rakim is considered a founding father of the modern genre and he and Eric B. boast hit after hit ever since their debut release, Paid In Full, dropped in 1987.

5. The Beastie Boys

The trio from the Big Apple boasted the most successful rap albums of all time, until very recently. That record, Licensed to Ill (1986), bridged the art form with the party song, bringing rap music into the suburbs. But the group quickly shed its party ethic for more deep-thinking tactics on later albums like Paul’s Boutique and Check Your Head.

6. Salt-N-Pepa

Let’s talk about sex. Let’s also talk about Salt-N-Pepa. Formed in New York City, the trio of Salt (Cheryl James), Pepa (Sandra Denton) and (the best DJ name ever) Spinderella (Deidra Roper) made waves as a prominent group with hits like “Push It” from 1987. The group inspired many in their wake, from TLC to Missy Elliott to many more.

7. Kurtis Blow

The first commercially successful solo rapper ever and the first to sign to a major label, Kurtis Blow is one of the most important figures in the genre. “The Breaks” from his debut solo LP in 1980 changed the game and set the stage for a hall of fame career.

8. DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince

With hits like “Summertime,” “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and the theme song for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, this duo brought joy and humor to the game. It also made the Fresh Prince (aka Will Smith) a household name. The group also received the first Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance in 1989.

9. N.W.A.

The group that brought the world gangsta rap and introduced music lovers to names like Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E. The collective was active beginning in 1987 (and they since spawned a great biopic, Straight Outta Compton). That 1988 album of the same name gave out subversive hits like “Fuck the Police.”

10. Slick Rick

The rapper rose to prominence with Doug E. Fresh & the Get Fresh Crew in the mid-1980s. And 1985 his song “La Di Da Di” is considered one of the most important early hip-hop classics. “La Di Da Di” has since become one of the most sampled songs in history, with nods from later heroes like Snoop Dogg. “La Di Da Di” was performed by Doug E. Fresh, who beatboxed, and Slick Rick, who did the vocals. 

11. Doug E. Fresh

As noted above, Doug E. Fresh was a beatboxer. In fact, he was known as the “Human Beat Box” for his prowess in the oral art form. He is able to imitate drum sounds, special effects, horns and more using just his mouth, lips, gums, throat, tongue and more. All on a simple microphone. He rose to notoriety in 1983 and has since become forever memorable.

12. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five

Let’s take a moment and bow our head in reverence for this group. Formed in the South Bronx in 1978 the group’s members included Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel. The group’s use of turntablism was maybe the most important early innovation in the history of the genre. The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.

13. Ice-T

While many know him from his myriad acting roles these days, the Los Angeles-born Ice-T began his career as an important rapper and socially-conscious thinker. His 1988 record, Power, went platinum and gave the world hits like “I’m Your Pusher.” Ice-T was (and is) fearless and he remains a seminal voice in music and entertainment.

14. LL Cool J

Mama said knock you out. And mama said know your LL Cool J history. Another rapper-turned popular actor, LL Cool J helped solidify the genre in its nascent stages and helped it become a powerhouse in music and a household name. His songs like the 1987 track “I’m Bad” remains a classic to this day. And his work as a rapper helped cement the early hip-hop label Def Jam.

15. Run DMC

Rhymes and Adidas shell-toe sneakers. Collaborations with Aerosmith. Seemingly, there was nothing this collection of musicians couldn’t do. The group rose to fame beginning in 1983 and gave music lovers songs like “Sucker M.C.’s.” Like LL Cool J, Run DMC was critical in the formation of Def Jam and would inspired important acts like The Beastie Boys and more.

16. Public Enemy

The collaboration between the big-voiced Chuck D and the platonic ideal of a hype man known as Flavor Flav changed music. “Fight The Power” is one of the most important songs in American history and the group continues to influence popular music to this day. Public Enemy rose to fame in 1985 and their album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, which dropped in 1987 is a classic.

17. Tone Loc

Tone Loc is on the shortlist of the best voices in rap music. With his low-low-low end, scratchy vocals, the rapper released hits like “Wild Thing” and “Funky Cold Medina” in 1989. Later, the popular emcee went on to act in movies, including Ace Ventura Pet Detective. But that voice. That voice remains etched in the minds of many music fans.

18. MC Lyte

Hip-hop music has long disproportionally focused on male artists over their female counterparts, often to the detriment of the genre. But MC Lyte (and a few others) is the exception to the rule. The emcee rose to prominence in the middle of the decade in 1985 for songs like “10% Dis.” She also boasts the distinction as the first solo female rapper to release a full album with the acclaimed LP, Lyte as a Rock, in 1988.

19. Queen Latifah

The Queen might be known better for her work as a musician in the 1990s (as well as her starring role on the hit television show, Living Single, in that same decade). But technically, she rose to popularity starting in 1989 with her debut LP, All Hail the Queen. That offering gave out hit songs like “Mama Gave Birth to the Soul Children” with the group De La Soul.

20. De La Soul

Speaking of De La Soul… the collective formed in 1988 and would go on to release some of the most well-respected hip-hop music in the history of the genre, including their 1989 album, 3 Feet High and Rising. With thoughtful songs and a pleasant demeanor, the group continues to tour and sell-out shows today to happy audiences singing along to hits like “Me, Myself And I” and “The Magic Number.”

21. Kid ‘N Play

Another fantastic duo and another set of lyricists-turned-actors (we’re sensing a theme here). This collective rose to popularity in 1984 with albums like 2 Hype in 1988 and, later, the House Party movie series, which launched later in 1990. Kid (aka Christopher Reid), who had the big seven-inch fade haircut, and Play (Christopher Martin) were everywhere in the final years of the 20th century thanks to their comedy, acting, music and choreography.

22. The Fat Boys

From Brooklyn, this group rose up in the early 1980s. They’re known for beatboxing, which helped open doors for people like Biz Markie and the aforementioned Doug E. Fresh. They were also one of the first rap groups to release full-length rap albums, along with Kurtis Blow and Run DMC. Their 1987 LP, Crushin’, earned platinum status thanks to their hit single, “Wipeout.”

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