Compiling a list of the greatest ’80s rappers is akin to assembling the cornerstone elements of hip hop music, an era that laid the groundwork for the culture’s future evolution.
Born from the pulsating energy of park jams and block parties in the ’70s, the burgeoning hip hop scene exploded into the mainstream during the ’80s, carving out its own distinct identity. While old school rap pioneers like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five drew inspiration from R&B and disco, it was the arrival of the groundbreaking Run-D.M.C. that infused hip hop with a gritty, streetwise edge.
As Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions reigned supreme on the East Coast, Ice-T and N.W.A. held court on the West, ushering in a new era of unapologetic realism that reflected the raw experiences of communities across the nation. The ’80s proved to be a creative hotbed for the culture, with innovative artists emerging at a breakneck pace, introducing fresh production trends and dynamic rapping styles that would shape hip hop for decades to come.
So let’s get into it. From Kool Moe, Kurtis Blow and MC Shan, to Rakim, Big Daddy Kane and KRS-One, here are the top 20 best 80s rappers of all time.
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Notable releases: Strictly Business (1988), Unfinished Business (1989)
When Long Island rap duo EPMD debuted with their 1988 album Strictly Business, it was a revelation to the hip hop world. Moving beyond the usual James Brown crates for their samples, Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith dug into Zapp and Kool & the Gang vinyls, transforming their production into richer and funkier soundscapes than anything that was available at the time.
While it’s true that their rhymes weren’t particularly slick or technical – especially when you compared them to the likes of Rakim, Big Daddy Kane or KRS-One – their everyday workingman monotone delivery fit the production perfectly. They were like the Long Island version of Run-D.M.C., just with a harder street edge and twice as funky. There’s no way you can talk about the best rappers of the 80s and not mention Erick and Parrish Making Dollars.
19. Biz Markie
Notable releases: Goin’ Off (1988), The Biz Never Sleeps (1989)
The late, great Biz Markie never claimed to be the greatest MC on the mic. He never said he was the best rapper alive. He never had the best bars, didn’t wow you with his technical flow or spit unforgettable punchlines – hell, he didn’t even write all of his rhymes, Big Daddy Kane helped him in that department. But what Biz did throughout his recording career, particularly during the 80s, was create some of the most original and innovation rap songs ever.
Inspired by old school flamboyant performers Busy Bee Starski, Biz created a character through his music, beatboxing and stage presence that will live forever in hip hop culture. You can see the energy of Biz Markie in later rap greats like Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Busta Rhymes. The Clown Prince of Hip Hop was absolutely one of the best 80s rappers of all time.
18. The Fresh Prince
Notable releases: Rock the House (1987), He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper (1988), And in This Corner… (1989)
Will Smith might be better known for his Hollywood achievements these days (and more recently for slapping the shit outta Chris Rock on stage at the Oscars), but back in the ’80s, he was one of the biggest and most popular rappers on the planet. After linking up with DJ Jazzy Jeff at a house party in 1985, the two decided to join forces and released their debut single “Girls Ain’t Nothing but Trouble” a year later. The single’s success led them to a deal with Jive Records, and by 1987, the duo were on their first major tour with the likes of Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy.
After a series of subsequent hit singles – “Parents Just Don’t Understand”, “A Nightmare on My Street” and “I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson” – DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince were suddenly one of the biggest rap acts I the world, and even won the first Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance in 1989. By the end the decade, Will Smith had started to transition into his acting career, but not before cementing himself as one of the best rappers of the 80s.
Notable releases: Hot, Cool & Vicious (1986), A Salt with a Deadly Pepa (1988)
Emerging during a time where hip hop music was still very much seen as a fad by the music industry and executives, Salt-N-Pepa were responsible for breaking down the door for future female rappers to be taken more seriously. After the pair met at Queensborough Community College, where they were both studying nursing, they dropped the first single “The Showstoppa” which received some airplay on New York radio.
After signing a deal with Next Plateau Entertainment, the Salt-N-Pepa dropped their debut album, Hot, Cool & Vicious, one of the most influential rap releases of the ’80s. Not only did the single “Push It” became a huge hit and receive a nomination for Best Rap Performance at the Grammy Awards, the Queens rap duo also became the first female rap act to achieve gold and platinum status. Not only were Salt-N-Pepa one of the best 80s rappers, they’re one of the most impactful female rappers of all time.
16. The D.O.C.
Notable releases: No One Can Do It Better (1989)
Hailing from West Dallas, Texas, but making his name in L.A., The D.O.C. would play a foundational role in future West Coast record labels like Ruthless and Death Row. Originally starting out as a writer on N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton (he also rapped a verse on “Parental Discretion Iz Advised”) as well as on Eazy-E’s Eazy-Duz-It, The D.O.C. made his solo debut in 1989 with No One Can Do It Better. With a blend of the Dallas rapper’s super-lyrical style and Dre’s ultra-funky production, it was a match made in heaven, with the album going down as one of the best rap releases of the 80s.
Tragically, shortly after dropping his debut album, a near-fatal car accident would crush The D.O.C.’s voice box and render him unable to speak for a month. His rapping career was never the same after that. Still, he remained a staple figure on the West Coast rap scene, contributing lyrics to Dre’s genre-shifting The Chronic, and also on Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle. While The D.O.C.’s rap career remains one of the biggest what-ifs in hip hop history, there’s no doubt that he is one of the best Texas rappers of all time, as well as one of the greatest 80s rappers ever.
15. Roxanne Shante
Notable releases: Bad Sister, “Roxanne’s Revenge”, “Runaway”, “Queen of Rox (Shanté Rox On)”, “Bite This”, “The Def Fresh Crew”, “I’m Fly Shanté”, “Pay Back”, “Go on, Girl”
Roxanne Shante was born to rap. At the young age of 14 years old, the Queensbridge teenager connected with Cold Chillin’s Tyrone Williams, DJ Mr. Magic, and Marley Marl to record “Roxanne’s Revenge”, one of the very first recorded rap diss songs in history and the opening shot that led to the legendary Roxanne Wars. She quickly became a household name, joining the Juice Crew and releasing her debut Bad Sister in 1989.
At a time where female rappers was still a new concept, and were frequently discriminated against (Kurtis Blow famously admitted to Shante that he did not vote for her during a competition because she was a girl), the hardened Queensbridge MC proved she could hang with the best of them on any given day. Her 1989 debut album, Bad Sister, officially set off a legendary career that would have Roxanne Shante go down as one of the best rappers of the 80s.
14. Kurtis Blow
Notable releases: Kurtis Blow, Deuce, Tough, The Best Rapper on the Scene, Ego Trip, America, Kingdom Blow, Back by Popular Demand
Being that this is a list of the best rappers of the ’80s, you can safely assume that a lot of the featured names would also rightly fall into the most influential category. But perhaps none of them more than Kurtis Blow himself. Let’s tick off a few of his records:
- first superstar rapper
- first hip hop artist to sign with a major label
- “The Breaks” was the first rap song to be certified gold
While Kurtis Blow wasn’t able to sustain his momentum throughout the ’80s (his debut album Kurtis Blow was his most successful), he was an old school pioneer and originator who laid down a lot of the foundation for future generations of rappers, and is absolutely one of the greatest 80s rappers to ever touch a mic.
13. MC Shan
Notable releases: Down by Law, Born to Be Wild, “Feed the World”, “Beat Biter”
It’s unfortunate that MC Shan is more remembered for his war of words with KRS-One and being on the losing end of The Bridge Wars, rather than the innovative Queensbridge legend that he is. From Cormega to Tragedy Khadafi, Nas to Mobb Deep, the high-pitched street hardened MC had an impact on generations of rappers to come out of the infamous housing projects.
“That album changed my life,” Nas recalled about MC Shan’s 1987 album Down by Law in an interview with Complex. “A big reason is because Shan is from Queensbridge. But still, his rap style, it helped me craft my rap style. The production with him and Marley opened my head to what I wanted to sound like, what I think I should sound like, and what I can potentially sound like.”
Just the way Nas talks about Shan in his raps, it’s almost like you had to be there to understand how much of a living legend the Queensbridge rapper was during his day, but make mo mistake, MC Shan was one of the best rappers of the 80s.
12. Kool Keith
Notable releases: Critical Beatdown (with Ultramagnetic MCs)
If you’re a fan of reading hip hop lists about dope MCs, then you’re going to see Kool Keith’s name pop up on a lot of them. Best 80s rappers? Check. Greatest underground rappers? Check. Most underrated rappers? Check. A huge influence of subsequent generations of independent and underground artists, Kool Keith was so ahead of his time, some rap fans are still catching up to his rhymes on Critical Beatdown to this day.
While the Ultramagnetic MCs don’t get the same sort of shine as other 80s rap great, their debut album Critical Beatdown is right up there with albums like that Criminal Minded, Paid in Full, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Long Live the Kane and The Great Adventures of Slick Rick. With the late, great Paul C and the genius Ced-Gee primarily handling the production, the rappers, particularly Kool Keith, showcase their lyrical wizardry and prove why they were a golden age staple act.
11. Kool G Rap
Notable releases: Road to the Riches (with DJ Polo)
Widely regarded today as the godfather of mafioso rap and one of the hardest MCs to ever lived, Kool G Rap didn’t really come into his own until the early ’90s. His only release during the ’80s was Road to the Riches with DJ Polo – which showcase his incredibly raw but captivating lyrical style – as well as his standout performance on the Juice Crew’s “The Symphony” which featured G Rap going toe-to-toe with Kane on one of the greatest posse cuts in rap history. While Rakim, Kane, and KRS were the reigning lyrical kings during the late-80s, as soon as the rap game heard what G Rap had to offer on the mic, they knew there a new monster emerging from Corona, Queens.
10. MC Lyte
Notable releases: Lyte as a Rock, Eyes on This
When you listen to MC Lyte’s debut album, Lyte as a Rock, the first thing that leaps out at you is her voice. High-pitched, distinctive and strong, Lyte’s voice has been sampled countless times throughout hip hop history, from 2Pac, Mobb Deep and Tribe to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, N.W.A. and Gang Starr. It was arguably her greatest strength on the mic.
At just 12 years old, the Brooklyn MC was already rapping and writing songs. She dropped “I Cram to Understand U (Sam)”, one of the first rap songs about the crack era, at 16 years old, though she had written it at 12. Lyte as a Rock, dropped in 1988, would go on to become one of the most important rap records of the year and position Lyte as one of the leading female rappers who helped to set trends and break barriers.
9. Kool Moe Dee
Notable releases: The Treacherous Three (with Treacherous Three), Kool Moe Dee, How Ya Like Me Now, Knowledge Is King
Coming up during the late ’70s as a member of the hip hop group, Treacherous Three, around the same time as pioneers like Melle Mel and Grandmaster Caz, Kool Moe Dee was one of the few old school rap originators who managed to transition smoothly to the new era. Once Run-D.M.C. dropped “Sucker MCs,” it was a clear changing of the guard, paving the way for the up-and-coming generation and leaving a lot of the originators stuck in the past.
Moe Dee refused to let this happen to him. Breaking out as a solo act, the Harlem rapper released his debut album, Kool Moe Dee, in 1986, which did moderately well and showed the world he could stand by himself as an artist. Moe Dee’s subsequent albums, How Ya Like Me Now and Knowledge Is King did much better commercially, and also showcased his ability to craft hit singles, while retaining his ferocious lyrical ability. In the legendary diss song “Let’s Go,” the rapper famously handed out a bunch of Ls to his rival, LL Cool J:
Tryna be me, now LL stands for Lower Level, Lack Luster Last Least, Limp Lover Lousy Lame, Late Lethargic Lazy Lemon, Little Logic Lucky Leech, Liver Lipped Laborious Louse on a Loser's Lips Live in Limbo, Lyrical Lapse Low Life with the loud raps, boy You can't win, huh, I don't bend Look what you got yourself in Just usin' your name, I took those L's Hung 'em on your head and rocked your bells
Notable releases: Rhyme Pays, Power, The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech… Just Watch What You Say!
Ice-T low key has one of the greatest rapper catalogues of all time. Straight out the gate, the New Jersey-born Crenshaw-raised rapper dropped four classic albums back-to-back, three of which were released in the ’80s. Inspired by Philly rapper Schoolly D’s 1985 single “P.S.K. What Does It Mean?”, Ice dropped “6 in the Mornin'” in 1986 and set off the whole West Coast gangsta rap movement. Up-and-coming West Coast rappers like Eazy-E and Ice Cube would be directly by the record; with the latter MC revealing that “6 in the Mornin'” inspired “Boyz-n-the-Hood.” As the godfather of West Coast hip hop, Ice-T isn’t just one of the best rappers of the 80s, he’s one of the most important and influential hip hop artists of all time.
Notable releases: Run-D.M.C., King of Rock, Raising Hell, Tougher Than Leather
These days, it’s easy to group Run-D.M.C. in the old school rap category due to the nature of their simple rhyme schemes which were latter disrupted by the likes of Rakim, Kool G Rap and Kane. But when the Hollis, Queens trio emerged in 1983 with their debut single, “It’s Like That” backed by the revolutionary “Sucker M.C.’s,” it was an official changing of the guard.
Suddenly, rap acts before them like Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, who were incorporated a lot of disco in their music and fashion choices, were considered out-dated. Forget the tight leather, gloves, and leather boots, from here on out it was strictly Kangol hats, Cazal glasses, leather jackets, and unlaced Adidas shoes. Within the decade, Run-D.M.C. would drop four albums and change the rap game time and time again with achievements like:
- their debut album Run-D.M.C. became the first rap album to be certified gold
- “Rock Box” was a pioneer of the rap-rock subgenre and also became the first rap video to be played on MTV in 1984
- “Walk This Way” was the first rap-rock collaboration that helped break hip hop into the mainstream
- Raising Hell became the first rap record to be nominated for a Grammy Award
- With the commercial success of Raising Hell, the group became the first rap act to achieve platinum and multi-platinum status
Forget the ’80s, Run-D.M.C. are one of the greatest and most important rap acts of all time.
6. Slick Rick
Notable releases: The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, “The Show” / “La Di Da Di” (as Doug E. Fresh & the Get Fresh Crew)
While Slick Rick wasn’t the most prolific rapper during the ‘80s, he more than made up for it with the sheer impact of his music. Consider the fact that “La Di Da Di” made him a star in 1985 and he was performing live shows and being heard on the radio, years before his debut album even came out.
And then The Great Adventures of Slick Rick dropped and it was just a marvel. With vivid tales on tracks like “Children’s Story”, “The Moment I Feared” and “Teenage Love,” the record established Slick Rick as the preeminent rap storyteller on his generation and has gone on to inspire countless rap greats, including Nas, Jay-Z and Biggie. He also happens to be one of the most sampled hip hop artists of all time.
Nas: It’s [The Great Adventures of Slick Rick] a musical storybook. It’s from a New Yorker with an English accent with an imagination that’s never been heard of before in music. He’s just amazing.Nas’ 25 Favorite Albums | Complex
5. Chuck D
Notable releases: Yo! Bum Rush the Show (as Public Enemy), It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (as Public Enemy)
Blessed with perhaps the greatest rapper voice of all time, Chuck D’s booming baritone exuded authority and gravitas whenever he got on the mic; two particularly important elements when you’re part of a group like Public Enemy. After dropping their debut album Yo! Bum Rush the Show in 1987, Chuck felt that the record sounded dated by the time of its release, especially compared to more innovative records like “I Know You Got Soul.” So they got back into the lab to create “Rebel Without a Pause” in response to the game-changing Eric B. & Rakim record.
The subsequent result was It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, a perfect hip hop album crystallised by The Bomb Squad’s blaring, sample-stacked production and Chuck’s voice. These days, when you talk to hip hop heads about the greatest rap albums of all time, their go-to pick is usually Illmatic, or maybe even Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was the GOAT before the term even existed. A lot of credit for that goes to Chuck D, one of the greatest rappers from the ’80s.
4. LL Cool J
Notable releases: Radio, Bigger and Deffer, Walking with a Panther
Kurtis Blow may have been the first superstar rapper, but no other MC in the ’80s perfected the blueprint better than LL Cool J. As a 16-year old from Queens creating demo tapes in his grandparents’ home, LL linked up Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons who were forming what would become Def Jam Recordings. His debut single “I Need a Beat” also became Def Jam’s first official release, and it wasn’t long before he dropped his debut album Radio.
Sparse, hard-hitting and exciting, the record established LL as one of the pioneering new school rappers, but it wasn’t until his second album, Bigger and Deffer, that the Queens MC became a superstar. Featuring the hit singles “I’m Bad” and “I Need Love” (which topped the R&B charts), LL set out the formula on his sophomore by creating songs that catered to the streets as well as the radio. He had the ladies in one hand and the hardcore hip hop heads in the other, and with both, he became one of the greatest 80s rappers ever.
3. Big Daddy Kane
Notable releases: Long Live the Kane, It’s a Big Daddy Thing
People tend to forget that while Rakim was busy revolutionising rhyme schemes, flow patterns, and rap lyricism as a whole, Big Daddy Kane was right there with him, transforming the landscape in his own way. While Long Live the Kane came a little later than Paid in Full, the album was no less impactful. A blend of unforgettable punchlines, incredible charisma, and showmanship, Kane was the only lyrical king who could challenge Rakim for the throne. It’s no wonder why future Brooklyn greats like Jay-Z and Biggie worshipped at his alter – the undeniable swag, the smooth operator charm that hooked the ladies, the gritty battle raps – Big Daddy Kane was the full package and absolutely one of the greatest rappers of the ’80s.
Notable releases: Criminal Minded, By All Means Necessary, Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hip Hop, “Self Destruction” (as Stop the Violence Movement)
When you talk about hip hop greatness, KRS-One’s name should be the first that comes to your mind. In my opinion, there is no other rapper who so singularly personifies hip hop culture than Lawrence “Kris” Parker. Making his name in the mid-80s via a series of disses towards MC Shan, Marley Marl and the Juice Crew, KRS-One became one of the most feared battle rappers of his generation.
But what truly made him great was the fact that he could create songs like “South Bronx” and “9mm Goes Bang,” and also be one of the conscious rappers of his time. KRS was unique in that he was a pioneer in both the gangsta rap and conscious rap subgenres. With three albums dropped in the ’80s as part of Boogie Down Productions – Criminal Minded, By All Means Necessary and Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hip Hop – KRS-One cemented himself as one of the best 80s rappers ever.
Notable releases: Paid in Full (as Eric B. & Rakim), Follow the Leader (as Eric B. & Rakim)
There are moments in hip hop history that are so profoundly impactful that you couldn’t even imagine a time before it happened. Like when Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five dropped “The Message” in 1982 or when Run-D.M.C. change the game with “Sucker M.C.’s” in 1983 or when Slick Rick told a story on “La Di Da Di” in 1985. Eric B. & Rakim had the same impact when they dropped “Eric B. Is President” backed by “My Melody” in 1986.
When you’re talking certain eras in hip hop, there’s a before Rakim and after Rakim. Before Rakim, MCs were rapping in straightforward A-B-C rhyme patterns and simple flows – think Run-D.M.C. on “It’s Like That”: “Unemployment at a record high / People coming, people going, people born to die.”
After Rakim, suddenly the possibilities for multisyllabic, compound rhymes and flow patterns were endless. Think about the way he raps on “My Melody”: “I’m not a regular competitor, first rhyme editor / Melody arranger, poet, et cetera.” With his John Coltrane-influence, Rakim transformed rapping from a relatively simple artform into something as complex as a jazz recital, and every single rapper after him has been influenced by it, in one way or another. Rakim isn’t just the greatest 80s rapper of all time, he’s the most influential MC ever.
Absolutely ridiculous to not only not have Melle Mel at #1, but to not have him in the Top 20!?? How young and naive are the people that made this list!?