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The Best 80s Rappers from the Golden Era of Hip Hop

Yo, pickin’ the greatest rappers from the ’80s is like building the foundation of hip hop itself. Forget the ’70s block parties – the ’80s was where the game blew up, where hip hop carved out its own space and found its real voice. Old-school legends like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were still droppin’ heat, but it was Run-D.M.C. who brought the rough, street sound that changed everything.

Meanwhile, East Coast cats like Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions were droppin’ knowledge bombs, while Ice-T and N.W.A. were puttin’ the West Coast on the map with raw stories that shook the world. The ’80s was a wild time for hip hop, new legends poppin’ up every day, switchin’ up the production game and droppin’ the flyest flows the world had ever heard. This was the era that made hip hop what it is today.

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.


Notable releases: Strictly Business (1988), Unfinished Business (1989)

When EPMD dropped “Strictly Business” in ’88, heads were blown! Forget James Brown samples – these dudes dug deep into Zapp and Kool & the Gang, makin’ their beats funky as hell. Yeah, their rhymes weren’t as slick as Rakim or Kane, but that everyday flow was perfect over those beats. They were like the Long Island Run-D.M.C., but way harder and funkier. Any list of the best ’80s MCs gotta have Erick and Parrish straight ballin’ on it.

Biz Markie

Notable releases: Goin’ Off (1988), The Biz Never Sleeps (1989)

Biz Markie wasn’t the most skilled MC, true, and even Big Daddy Kane helped him write some rhymes. But that dude was a straight-up original! Biz brought a crazy energy and wild style that nobody had seen before – the beatboxin’, the funny flows, he built a whole character that was pure hip hop. You feel that Biz energy in legends like ODB and Busta. The Clown Prince of Hip Hop was one of a kind, and that makes him an ’80s legend for sure.

The Fresh Prince

Notable releases: Rock the House (1987), He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper (1988), And in This Corner… (1989)

Yeah, Will Smith is a movie star now (and a pretty controversial one at that), but back in the ’80s, The Fresh Prince was a straight-up rap superstar. Team up with DJ Jazzy Jeff, dude was droppin’ hits like “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and takin’ on Mike Tyson in his rhymes! They were on tour with legends like Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy, even took home the first-ever Grammy for Best Rap Performance. Before he hit the big screen, Will Smith was one of the biggest MCs in the game, no doubt.


Notable releases: Hot, Cool & Vicious (1986), A Salt with a Deadly Pepa (1988)

Back when folks thought hip hop was just a trend, Salt-N-Pepa kicked down the door for female MCs everywhere. These ladies met in college and dropped “The Showstoppa,” which blew up on the radio. Signed to Next Plateau, they dropped their classic debut, “Hot, Cool & Vicious.” The hit “Push It” got them a Grammy nod, and they became the first female rap crew to go gold and platinum. Salt-N-Pepa weren’t just ’80s icons, they changed the game for all the female rappers who came after.

The D.O.C.

Notable releases: No One Can Do It Better (1989)

The D.O.C. was a West Coast legend, rollin’ from Texas to L.A. and droppin’ heat on N.W.A. and Eazy-E’s classics before hittin’ us with his own joint, “No One Can Do It Better.” Dude had crazy lyrical skills, and Dre’s funky beats were the perfect match – that album is an ’80s masterpiece. Sadly, a bad accident messed up his voice, cuttin’ his rap career short. But D.O.C. kept workin’, penning fire for Dre on “The Chronic” and even Snoop Dogg’s “Doggystyle.” His story might be a “what if,” but there’s no doubt – The D.O.C. is a Texas rap legend and one of the greatest MCs of the 80s, period.

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 with fire in her veins! This Queensbridge legend was only 14 when she dropped “Roxanne’s Revenge,” one of the first diss tracks ever, and kicked off the Roxanne Wars. She joined the Juice Crew and dropped her classic debut “Bad Sister” in ’89. Back then, female MCs were rare, and dudes often looked down on ’em – but Roxanne proved she could spit with the best. Her skills and fearless attitude made her an ’80s icon and a true pioneer for women in hip hop.

Kurtis Blow

Notable releases: Kurtis Blow, Deuce, Tough, The Best Rapper on the Scene, Ego Trip, America, Kingdom Blow, Back by Popular Demand

Aight, lemme break down why Kurtis Blow deserves his spot as an ’80s legend. Dude was the first rap superstar, first to sign with a major label, “The Breaks” was the first gold rap single…the list goes on. Yeah, he didn’t stay on top forever, but Kurtis Blow paved the way for everyone who came after. No old-school pioneer deserves more respect, and that makes him one of the greatest MCs of the 80s, for real.

MC Shan

Notable releases: Down by Law, Born to Be Wild, “Feed the World”, “Beat Biter”

It’s a shame folks remember MC Shan more for beefin’ with KRS-One than for the Queensbridge legend he was. This dude influenced generations of MCs from those projects – Cormega, Tragedy, Nas, Mobb Deep – all felt his high-pitched, raw flow. Nas straight-up said Shan’s “Down by Law” changed his life, that Shan’s style and Marley Marl’s beats shaped his own sound. Yeah, MC Shan ain’t talked about enough, but make no mistake – the dude was one of the illest MCs of the ’80s, period.

Kool Keith

Notable releases: Critical Beatdown (with Ultramagnetic MCs)

True hip hop heads know Kool Keith is a legend. Dude might be underrated by the mainstream, but lists of the best MCs always got him on there. The Ultramagnetic MCs don’t get the same love as Run-D.M.C. or Public Enemy, but their album “Critical Beatdown” is straight fire, up there with all the ’80s classics. With Paul C and Ced-Gee droppin’ the beats, Kool Keith spits some wild, next-level rhymes. This dude was so ahead of his time, he’s still schoolin’ rappers today.

Kool G Rap

Notable releases: Road to the Riches (with DJ Polo)

Aight, Kool G Rap is the godfather of mafioso rap, one of the illest MCs ever – but he didn’t blow up ’til the ’90s. His only ’80s joint was “Road to the Riches” with DJ Polo, but that showed his raw, unpolished style. Then came his verse on the Juice Crew’s “The Symphony” – G Rap spittin’ fire alongside Kane, one of history’s best posse cuts. Rakim, Kane, and KRS were runnin’ things in the late ’80s, but as soon as heads heard G Rap spit, they knew a new beast was comin’ outta Queens.

MC Lyte

Notable releases: Lyte as a Rock, Eyes on This

MC Lyte dropped her debut album “Lyte as a Rock” and one thing was clear – that voice! High-pitched, one-of-a-kind, and strong as hell, you can hear her sampled everywhere in hip hop, from Tupac to Bone Thugs. That voice was her superpower! This Brooklyn legend was spittin’ bars at 12, dropped “I Cram to Understand U (Sam)” about crack at 16, and then changed the game with “Lyte as a Rock” in ’88. MC Lyte was a female pioneer, breakin’ down walls and settin’ trends for years to come.

Kool Moe Dee

Notable releases: The Treacherous Three (with Treacherous Three), Kool Moe DeeHow Ya Like Me NowKnowledge Is King

Kool Moe Dee is a true OG. This dude was rockin’ mics with Treacherous Three when legends like Melle Mel and Grandmaster Caz were runnin’ things. When Run-D.M.C. changed the game, a lot of old-school cats got left behind, but not Moe Dee. He dropped his first solo album in ’86, showin’ everyone he could stand on his own, and with albums like “How Ya Like Me Now” and “Knowledge Is King,” he proved he could make hits and spit fire like he always had.

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 is one of the most underrated legends in the game. This dude dropped four straight classics, three of ’em in the ’80s! He started the whole West Coast gangsta rap movement with “6 in the Mornin’,” straight up inspired Eazy-E and Ice Cube to blow up the scene. Dude is the OG of West Coast hip hop, and that makes him not just an ’80s great, but one of the most important MCs of all time.


Notable releases: Run-D.M.C., King of Rock, Raising Hell, Tougher Than Leather

Peeps think Run-DMC are old-school cause their rhymes were simple compared to cats like Rakim and Kane. But back in ’83, when they dropped “Sucker M.C.’s,” they changed the whole damn game. Suddenly, the old disco-flavored rap acts were played out. Forget that flashy gear – from then on, it was all about Kangols, Adidas, and that streetwise style. Run-D.M.C. dropped four albums and kept switchin’ up the rap music game – first gold rap album, first rap vid on MTV, first rap-rock collab that blew up the mainstream… these dudes were innovators, pure and simple. The Beasitie Boys took over the 90s, but Run DMC ain’t just rap group legends of the ’80s, they’re hip hop royalty, period. 

Slick Rick

Notable releases: The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, “The Show” / “La Di Da Di” (as Doug E. Fresh & the Get Fresh Crew)

Slick Rick didn’t drop a ton of music in the ’80s, but dude’s impact was undeniable with his rap style that shaped the future. He was a star with just one track, “La Di Da Di” – cats were bumpin’ that joint way before he even dropped his album! Then “The Great Adventures…” came out, and it blew minds. Dude’s stories on “Children’s Story” and others were next level, makin’ him the greatest storyteller of the era. He inspired legends like Nas and Biggie, and he’s one of the most sampled rappers ever. Talk about ’80s greatness, Slick Rick is at the top of the list.

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)

Chuck D’s voice alone could shake the room – that deep, powerful vibe was perfect for Public Enemy’s message. Even after their debut in ’87, Chuck D wanted to push harder, make hip hop that was just as wild as what Rakim was doin’. The result? “It Takes a Nation…” – a sonic explosion thanks to The Bomb Squad’s production, and Chuck D’s voice cuttin’ through it all. These days, folks rep Nas’ “Illmatic” and Kanye, but “It Takes a Nation…” was the real GOAT, changing the game forever. And Chuck D is a big reason why – no doubt, he’s one of the best ’80s MCs ever.

LL Cool J

Notable releases: Radio, Bigger and Deffer, Walking with a Panther

Straight up, Kurtis Blow might’ve been hip hop’s first star, but LL Cool J perfected the game. This dude was a teenage kid from Queens makin’ demos in his grandparents’ house when Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons snatched him up to launch Def Jam. They dropped “I Need a Beat,” and just like that, a legend was born.

His first album “Radio” was raw and hard, showin’ LL was a true pioneer, but it was “Bigger and Deffer” that turned him into a superstar. “I’m Bad” and “I Need Love” blew up the charts, and LL knew how to balance the street joints with tracks for the ladies. That’s how you become a legend, and that’s why LL Cool J is one of the best to ever rock the mic in the ’80s.

Big Daddy Kane

Notable releases: Long Live the Kane, It’s a Big Daddy Thing

Folks forget that while Rakim was changin’ the rap game with his complex flows, Big Daddy Kane was right there with him, doin’ his own thing. “Long Live the Kane” dropped a little after “Paid in Full,” but it was just as powerful. This dude had the punchlines, the charisma, the stage presence – he was the only MC who could go toe-to-toe with Rakim. No wonder legends like Jay-Z and Biggie looked up to him, Kane had the swagger, the ladies loved him, and he could spit battle rhymes that’d burn you up. Big Daddy Kane had it all, and that makes him one of the best ’80s rappers, period.


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 the true essence of hip hop, KRS-One is the real deal. Dude came up as a battle rap legend, takin’ on MC Shan and the Juice Crew, straight fearless. But KRS could switch it up – he dropped classic street anthems like “South Bronx,” then conscious joints that made you think. Dude was a pioneer for both gangsta rap and conscious rap! With Boogie Down Productions droppin’ classics like “Criminal Minded” and “By All Means Necessary” in the ’80s, KRS-One proved he was one of the illest MCs of the era.


Notable releases: Paid in Full (as Eric B. & Rakim), Follow the Leader (as Eric B. & Rakim)

There are moments in hip hop that change the game forever, like when Grandmaster Flash dropped “The Message,” Run-D.M.C. hit us with “Sucker M.C.’s,” or Slick Rick told a whole story on “La Di Da Di.” But Eric B. & Rakim did the same damn thing in ’86 with “Eric B. Is President” and “My Melody.”

Hip hop ain’t the same before and after Rakim. Before him, MCs kept it simple, rhymes like Run-D.M.C. on “It’s Like That.” Then Rakim comes along, droppin’ rhymes nobody ever heard before, complex flows like a jazz musician. Listen to “My Melody” – the dude changed the whole damn game! Rakim ain’t just the best of the ’80s, he’s the most influential MC ever, period.

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