Here are the 10 best rappers from the formative years of the genre of rap/hip-hop, year-by-year. We identify the groundbreaking MCs who displayed innovative greatness and owned each year of the 1980s.
1980: Kurtis Blow
Kurtis Blow was the first MC to sign with a major label in 1979. He dropped his single “Christmas Rapping” in 1980, which also has the distinction of being the first rap song released on a major label. It has a groove similar to the Sugar Hill Gang’s hit “Rapper’s Delight.”
1981: The Treacherous Three / Kool Moe Dee
In 1981, Kool Moe Dee was a member of The Treacherous Three, which also featured DJ Easy Lee, L.A. Sunshine, and Special K. That year, they released the single “Feel the Heartbeat” on Enjoy Records.
1982: The Furious Five / Melle Mel
In 1982, Melle Mel was a member of The Furious Five along with his brother Kidd Creole (Nathaniel Glover), Scorpio (Eddie Morris), Rahiem (Guy Todd Williams), and Cowboy (Keith Wiggins). They released songs on the labels Enjoy and Sugar Hill Records. Melle Mel delivered a standout performance in the song “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.
1983: Run-DMC / Run
Run and Run-DMC completely changed the rap game when they dropped the twelve inch single “Its Like That” in 1983. It has sold close to 5 million copies worldwide, making it amongst the biggest selling singles of all time. The song also redefined hip-hop and introduced a new school of hip-hop artist.
1984: LL Cool J
In 1984, 16-year-old LL Cool J (James Todd Smith) burst onto the scene with the groundbreaking 12-inch single “I Need A Beat” on Def Jam Records, produced by NYU student Rick Rubin, and both would soon take over.
1985: Doug E. Fresh & MC Ricky D (Slick Rick)
MC Ricky D (Slick Rick) with human beatbox Doug E. Fresh released a live recording called “La Di Da Di,” went on to become one of the most sampled and rap history. The song is on the flipside of a single called “The Show.”
1986: Boogie Down Productions / Krs-One
Krs-One was part of the hip-hop group Boogie Down Productions, which also featured D-Nice and DJ Scott Rock. In 1986, they dropped the provocative single “South Bronx” showing Krs-One’s lyrical prowess. They pioneered a distinctive style that fused hip-hop with dance hall reggae.
1987: Eric B. & Rakim
Eric B. & Rakim, after making a name for themselves with the 1986 single “Eric B is President,” the duo released the album “Paid in Full” in 1987 and their single “I Ain’t No Joke,” which cracked the R&B Top 40 charts in the US. Rakim’s influence on hip-hop has been substantial.
1988: Public Enemy / Chuck D
In 1988, Public Enemy released their landmark second studio album “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” which went to #1 on the US Billboard Top Black Albums and has since achieved platinum status. Chuck D established himself as a stellar rapper. The group put the exclamation point on their jams with interjections by Flavor Flav. The single “Don’t Believe the Hype” reached #17 on the U.S. Billboard Hot Dance Music/Maxi-Singles Sales chart, #18 on the Hot R&B singles chart, and #21 on the dance music/club play singles chart.
1989: Big Daddy Kane
Big Daddy Kane (Antonio Hardy) released his second and biggest album entitled “It’s a Big Daddy Thing” in 1989, which soared to the #4 slot on the Billboard US top R&B/hip-hop albums chart and #33 on the US Billboard 200. That year, the single “Smooth Operator” scored the #1 slot on the US rap charts, #11 on US R&B, and #17 on the US dance charts. The follow-up single “I Get The Job Done” went to #9 on the rap charts and #27 on the R&B chart.