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40 Most Influential Albums of My Life (That I Heard Before The Age of 13)

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1. Run-DMC: Raising Hell (May ’86)

So yeah, I was four years old when this album came out, so I doubt I had any idea what I was listening to…but I was listening.  I knew the words to “It’s Tricky” before I knew my phone number, and songs like “Peter Piper”, “You Be Illin” and “Walk This Way” were anthems in my house. This album was the catalyst, sparking my interest in all things related to music, coolness and St. John’s University.

2. Beastie Boys: Licensed To Ill (Nov ‘86)

The white Jewish Run-DMC! That’s who the Beasties were to me as a little kid, and it was awesome. I didn’t have any idea where Hollis Queens was, but I knew all about Manhattan, White Castle and whiffle ball bats, so these guys really struck a chord with me. Songs like “Girls”, “Brass Monkey” and “Paul Revere” showed me that rappers could be (gasp) funny.

3. Guns N’ Roses: Appetite For Destruction (July ’87)

My cousins only listened to rock, so I’m pretty sure they introduced me to this album as a means to finally finding some way to relate to their weirdo little breakdancing cousin named Jesse. This stuff was way over my head at the time, but Axl Rose being a badass was impossible to ignore, and that was intriguing. “Paradise City”, “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Sweet Child O’ Mine” were my guilty pleasures (I felt guilty listening to anything outside of hip-hop until college).

4. Michael Jackson: Bad (Aug ’87)

This shouldn’t even count. It’s not even fair. Every second of this album, every music video, every concert clip – this is what made me want to be a performer. Obsessed doesn’t begin to describe my interest level in this album.

5. DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince: He’s The DJ I’m The Rapper (Mar ’88)

I’m pretty sure that “A Nightmare on My Street” is what first brought me towards this album, but the video for “Parents Just Don’t Understand” definitely solidified this as an album I was going to love. Most rappers felt larger-than-life to me at this point, but Fresh Prince made his storytelling really relatable and easy to digest. All about charisma.

6. Public Enemy: It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back (Apr ’88)

In all honesty, it was Flava Flav that caught my eye more than Chuck D initially, but I’m sure most six-year olds would say the same. “Don’t Believe The Hype” and “Bring The Noise” were thrilling acts of rebellion for me, and I think I was subconsciously swept away by Chuck D’s delivery. But when I thought of Public Enemy back then, all I thought was “Yeeeaaaahhhhh Boyyeeeeeeee”. Brutal, I know.

7. Boogie Down Productions: By All Means Necessary (May ‘88)

This album was a graduation of sorts for me. “So, you’re a philosopher…” This album introduced me to so many elements of emceeing that I had yet to encounter with my ears open. Street knowledge. Battle rhymes. Drug references. Cursing. Every track on this album impacted me as a kid, particularly “Part Time Suckers” and “Illegal Business” due to their story-telling components. KRS became a guide for me in many ways because of this album.

8. Big Daddy Kane: Long Live The Kane (June ‘88)

Kane was just cool as hell, and one of the more dexterous emcees I encountered as a kid. “Raw”, “Set It Off” and “Ain’t No Half Steppin” were acts of wizardry to me. This album made me realize that you could show off as a rapper while rapping.

9. Bobby Brown: Don’t Be Cruel (June ‘88)

I remember listening to this tape on a walkman in my room with the blanket pulled over my head because I thought I wasn’t supposed to be listening to it. Bobby was scandalous before he was involved in any scandals. Tracks like “My Prerogative” and “Every Little Step” were gems to me. My friends were listening to New Kids on the Block, which I basically considered to be a garbage version of Bobby Brown.

10. The Fat Boys: Coming Back Hard Again (July ’88)

Yeah so the novelty of these guys definitely got me. They were fat. They beatboxed. They rapped about ridiculous stuff.  I rocked this tape a lot. I legitimately thought that “The Twist” was their song. I was not very worldly.

11. Slick Rick: The Great Adventures of Slick Rick (Nov ‘88)

In all honesty, I don’t really remember loving most of this album, but everyone I knew was talking about this guy. Dude wore an eye patch and his named rhymed. As if that wasn’t enough, he rapped in this story-telling style that I was into at the time so his singles definitely jumped out at me immediately.

12. De La Soul: 3 Feet High And Rising (Mar ’89)

I learned about De La from this compilation tape I had called “Rap Rap Rap.” Their single “Plug Tunin” was on there, and I kind of thought they were geniuses simply because they used panning. Apparently I was easily impressed. But tracks like “The Magic Number” and “Me, Myself and I” were the epitome of dopeness to me, and the skits were funny. They seemed like guys I’d want to hang out with.

13. Beastie Boys: Paul’s Boutique (July ‘89)

This album freaked me out. It was so different from Licensed to Ill that at first I was too upset to care about it. But once I got over that I started getting really into joints like “The Sounds of Science” and “Hey Ladies”. It was around this time that I started writing my own rhymes, and the content from this album definitely served as motivation, teaching me that I could rap about basically anything I wanted.

14. Bel Biv Devoe: Poison (Mar ’90)

My friends were listening to Bon Jovi, Wilson Phillips and Billy Joel in 1990. I was not. I was listening to Bel Biv Devoe, and starting to learn a little too much. I still think this is one of the best albums of all time. “Poison”, “Do Me” and “I Thought It Was Me” were simply the coolest songs I could imagine, particularly in contrast to the crap my friends were all about. Sinead O’Connor was poppin.

15. M.C. Hammer: Please Hammer Don’t Hurt Em (May ’90)

Hammer was too good to be true. I was so into Hammer that I abandoned my beloved Mets and became an Oakland A’s fan, started drinking Pepsi and got lines shaved in the side of my head. I knew he wasn’t much of a rapper, but the dude was essentially a hip-hop Michael Jackson. “U Can’t Touch This” was the biggest song in the universe, and he somehow managed to “cover” songs by The Jackson 5, Prince, Earth Wind and Fire and The Chi-Lites all on one album. Dude had an action figure. I owned it.

16. LL Cool J: Mama Said Knock You Out (Aug ’90)

I grew up seeing LL as a rapper that only girls liked. Until this song, video and album came out. “Around the Way Girl” and “Jingling Baby” became back-of-the-bus jams, and “Mama Said Knock You Out” was the song I would blast in my room when I was, ironically, mad at my mom. This album was bananas.

17. Another Bad Creation: Coolin at the Playground Ya Know! (Feb ‘91)

I wanted to BE these kids! I was nine years old when this album came out, and I was writing and recording raps as a joke. Suddenly there’s little kids on MTV rapping about Spiderman and cereal and playgrounds – I was hooked. Was the album good at all? I have absolutely no idea. I listened to it as if my best friends had made an album and I worshipped its mere existence. And they were friend with Bel Biv Devoe?! Too dope.

18. Boyz II Men: Cooleyhighharmony (Feb ‘91)

If you didn’t know the words to Motownphilly when this joint came out, it was assumed you didn’t speak English. The dude with the deep voice with the cane, the matching outfits, the harmonizing – they were a hip-hop boy band. Yeah, I sang “It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday” acapella in a talent show once. You did too, I’m not embarrassed.

19. Marky Mark & The Funky Bunch: Music For The People (July ’91)

Speaking of I’m not embarrassed…I had a Marky Mark poster on my wall. I’m convinced I know more lyrics from this album than Mark Wahlberg does. “Good Vibrations” and “Wild Side” were songs other people knew existed, but I studied this tape from a songwriting perspective. I remember wanting to make songs like these and aiming to be Marky Mark when I grew up. I was nine years old shopping for Calvin Klein underwear. Too much.

20. Cypress Hill: Cypress Hill (Aug ’91)

I remember a friend of mine reciting the lyrics from “Hand on the Pump” in this weird voice, and I was like “What are you doing?” He played me this album and it was like nothing I had ever heard. Violent, engaging and innovative, this album was refreshing. Joints like “How I Could Just Kill a Man” set the stage for music I had yet to encounter.

21. Red Hot Chili Peppers: Blood Sugar Sex Magik (Sept ‘91)

I had seen videos of these guys, performing with nothing but one sock as a wardrobe, and I pretty quickly put them in the “weirdo boring white rocker” category. But them someone played me the song “Suck My Kiss” and I was intrigued (it wasn’t for a few more years that I would discover 2 Live Crew, which probably would have done what this album did for me in a more palatable way). But the single “Under The Bridge” blew up and suddenly I viewed Anthony Kiedis as an intriguing figure…plus Flea hit a buzzer-beating jump shot at MTV’s Rock N’ Jock basketball game, so they got props for that as well. I remember listening to this tape a lot while riding on buses for some reason.

22. A Tribe Called Quest: The Low End Theory (Sept ’91)

Excuse the cliche, but this album changed my life. I somehow missed Tribe’s first album, so this was my introduction to the group when I was ten years old. I viewed this as a perfect piece of art, enthralling from start to finish. Q-Tip’s voice! Phife’s rhymes! Whatever that Ali Shaheed guy did! It was the illest tape I had ever heard. Knowing the words to “Scenario” was the most significant achievement I remember from my childhood. I literally would make friends at school by reciting the entire song upon introduction. Other tracks like “What”, “Butter” and “Excursions” furthered my interest in being an emcee myself.

23. Nice & Smooth: Ain’t a Damn Thing Changed (Sept ‘91)

This is another one of those albums that I don’t remember loving from front to back, but the singles were enough to make me cop the tape. “Sometimes I Rhyme Slow” and “Hip-Hop Junkies” were the freshest tracks out – I remember seeing them perform live on MTV’s Spring Break and deciding that I too wanted gross coked-up white girls to pretend to know the lyrics to my songs.

24. Guns N’ Roses: Use Your Illusion (Sept ’91)

So Axl Rose was cool and everything, but this double album was beyond anything I could have grasped at the time. I was actively abstaining from everything rock-related, as the world had gone grunge and I wasn’t having it. I starting attending a new school around this time, and too many kids in my grade played soccer, wore plaid and worshipped Nirvana for my liking. But this album broke through my provincially puerile palate, with songs like “Civil War”, “Estranged”, “You Could Be Mine” and “Don’t Cry” acting as a means of temporary escape from my hip-hop haven. If you asked me, Axl Rose was as hip-hop as a frontman from a rock band could be. He was basically 2Pac in bicycle shorts.

25. Black Sheep: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing (Oct ‘91)

This album was a masterpiece to me, comprable to Low End Theory and 3 Feet High and Rising. “The Choice Is Yours” was as powerful as “Scenario”, “Strobelite Honey” was as dope as “Me Myself and I”, and various other cuts from this album opened up my eyes to a world of imaginative emceeing I had reserved for pure idolatry. These guys were hilarious, confident and unique…all traits I, as a ten-year old, aspired to acquire as I grew.

26. Michael Jackson: Dangerous (Nov ’91)

I did not want to like this album. Michael had gotten so weird! He was suddenly so white and effeminate. What were Macauly Culkin and Magic Johnson doing in his videos? Why did he do so much weird stuff? He was a tainted idol to me, so when I bought this album it was supposed to be an exercise in bidding him farewell. But damnit, the album was slammin. “Jam”, “In The Closet”, “Remember The Time”, “Who Is It”…these songs were sick. And current! What was MJ doing being current? The Free Willy song gave me the object-of-mockery I was looking for, but the rest of this album was too dope to be ridiculed.

27. 2Pac: 2Pacalypse Now (Nov ’91)

This was one of those albums that I listened to and didn’t really know what I was listening to. “Brenda’s Got A Baby” was a brilliant song that really affected me for some reason, and I remember seeing this album at a friend’s house and demanding that we listen to it. I found Pac’s style to be abrasive and hard to relate to, but I loved the movie Juice and Above The Rim, so this album slowly grew on me as I became more infatuated with 2Pac the artist.

28. Kris Kross: Totally Krossed Out (Mar ‘92)

I really shouldn’t have been as into this whole thing as I was, but damnit it was just too fun. Another Bad Creation was a cute novelty, but Kris Kross were actually the coolest thing I had ever seen. “Jump” was the biggest sensation since “U Can’t Touch This”, and its level of intrigue was compounded by the fact that I could actually dance like these guys. For I am not much of a dancer. But I could jump, so that was good. “Warm It Up”, “I Missed The Bus” and “Can’t Stop The Bum Rush” had me writing rhymes all day. I could do it if they could do it! (They couldn’t do it. Jermaine Dupri did it.) Yeah, I wore my clothes backwards to school once. ONCE.

29. Arrested Development: 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life Of (Mar ’92)

Arrested Development presented such a staggering collection of well-rounded approaches to art that I couldn’t really accept many other musical groups once I became aware of them. A group with men and women, dancers, singers, rappers, talking about topics lush in historical and contemporary value, preaching messages of peace, awareness and pride. It was enthralling…and popular, which is amazing. “People Everyday”, “Mr. Wendal” and “Tennessee” were full-fledged hits, and Speech could really rhyme. They were such a rare combination of talent, integrity and culture. This album made me take writing more seriously, as suddenly hip-hop was about the life of our species, not simply the life of the individual performing.

30. Das EFX: Dead Serious (Apr ’92)

Innovation! These cats brought a new form of energy and its impact was visible. “They Want EFX”, “Straight Out The Sewer” and “Mic Checka” had aspiring emcees changing their entire approach and delivery. The album was fun and hard at the same time, setting the stage for artists such as Busta Rhymes, and that was ultimately the appeal for me. They didn’t take themselves too seriously, yet they were lauded as indisputably gifted emcees. I wore camouflage because of these guys.

31. Ice Cube: The Predator (Nov ’92)

This album came out of left field for me. I knew NWA existed but I had ignored it. In fact, most West Coast rap simply hadn’t made its way to my ears for some reason until this album. Ice Cube is a genius, and it became apparent on this record as he was able to draw me in with pristine story-telling and crystal clear imagery, yet depict a world of violence, danger and poverty. “Wicked” ,”When Will They Shoot”, “It Was A Good Day” and “Check Yo Self” became my introduction to all things West Coast. The notion of “gangsta rap” never appealed to me, but his style and energy were fascinating. It seemed to alien for me to connect to, but was too well-done to ignore as an album.

32. Dr. Dre: The Chronic (Dec ‘92)

I remember hearing this album and feeling like I was relearning what hip-hop was. The beats were completely different than anything I had heard of before – and DAMN these guys liked smoking weed. Why? What was possibly so great about cars, trees and sun? And who was this guy Snoop Doggy Dogg? I knew nothing of this world, and the glimpse that Cube’s Predator had offered hadn’t done enough to prepare me for the all-encompassing atmosphere Dre was able to create with this masterpiece. “Dre Day”, “Let Me Ride”, “Nuthin But A G Thang” and “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat” were immaculate pieces of art that my ears gravitated towards, even though my brain was all like “what’s a gat?”

33. Onyx: Bacdafucup (Mar ’93)

“Mom, he’s saying ‘Throw Your Guns In The Air’ to encourage people to shoot bullets at the sky and not at each other!” This was my plea in attempts to get my mom’s blessing towards purchasing Onyx’s first album. The album title did not help my cause. Was I enamored by the cursing and posturing and gun references? Honestly, no, that wasn’t what seized my attention. It was the cinematic perspective Onyx brought to music. They were so emotive, so grimy, so thoroughly consistent with their image that it was impossible not to want to listen to them. “Slam” and “Throw Ya Gunz” were the obvious standout tracks, but I viewed the entire album as a fascinating combination of East Coast presentation with West Coast content. As someone who had only recently begun listening to songs with such violent imagery, I was pretty enthralled by Onyx’s entire approach. They made Axl Rose seem silly.

34. Wu-Tang Clan: Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (Nov ’93)

What can be said about Wu-Tang? This was simply perfect. Were they ninjas who also rapped? Were they monks who lived in caves in Asia who somehow knew all about the projects? What was Shaolin? What were these chambers they talked about? How many of them WERE there? And who was the best emcee out the crew? It seemed like every time I had figured out which one was the most talented rapper, I’d hear a verse that would change my mind. The production was from a different planet, the samples helped create an emulsified atmosphere in which these mysterious geniuses dwelled and ODB existed. “Bring Da Ruckus”, “Clan in da Front”, “Da Mystery of Chessboxin” and “Protect Ya Neck” made me want to learn kung fu and get a bullet-proof vest at the same time. Much of the country was singing, “Whoomp There It Is” and “Rump Shaker” around this time. Wu-Tang was the perfect antithesis.

35. A Tribe Called Quest: Midnight Marauders (Nov ’93)

Honestly, I didn’t love it when it came out. I barely even liked it. The Low End Theory was like a parent to me, and suddenly this new parent wants to come along and raise me? I ignored it. I bashed it without hearing it. I made fun of the robotic narrator. But my friends kept talking about how good it was, how it was basically like Low End Theory, just with different beats (my friends didn’t really know much). I remember listening to the album from start to finish, and by the time “Oh My God” came on I was into it. I learned to grow as a listener alongside the artists I admired, and this album certainly was worth the pains of such growth.

36. Snoop Doggy Dogg: Doggystyle (Nov ’93)

Dude was a character. That’s all I remember thinking when this album dropped. The guy from The Chronic had his own album now, and it was all about dogs and sex. I thought he was a novelty act, getting attention because of his controversial content and the fact that he looked like a dog. But this guy could make hits so effortlessly, and all my friends who claimed they hated rap loved his songs, especially girls. It was weird. “What’s My Name”, “Gin & Juice”, “Ain’t No Fun” and “Tha Shiznit” became anthems at all my friends’ houses. They were quoting the skits and new alllllll the lyrics – it was bizarre to me. I had always heard the “keep it real” mantra, but this album made me realize how creating a character could be worthwhile approach to hip-hop. Snoop was like a cartoon character who could rap his ass off.

37.  Outkast: Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik (Apr ‘94)

Somehow I didn’t really see that much of a difference between this album and a lot of the music I was listening to at the time that this dropped. They were two dope rappers rhyming over flawless production, talking about things I didn’t understand and using words I had never heard before. A relatively standard hip-hop experience for me. “Ain’t No Thang” and “Player’s Ball” got a lot of attention from me and my friends simply due to the outrageous slang and twang Andre and Big Boi were using, but Andre’s mic skills on “Claimin True” and “Funky Ride” made me an instant fan. Cadence. This album taught me about cadence.

38. Beastie Boys: Ill Communication (May ‘94)

I remember looking at the track listing for a super long time before allowing myself to listen to this album. THIS BETTER BE GOOD was the main thought in my mind.  Check Your Head was so…bizarre. I was really hoping they at least used real microphones for this new album. I was pleased. This album came at a time when I was writing a lot of poetry and freestyling a lot, but didn’t really feel like making rap songs was something I was sure I wanted to do. But joints like “Root Down”, “Get it Together” and “Flute Loop” wreaked of such joy and enthusiasm, I figured that freestyling and songwriting didn’t have to be that different.

39. Nas: Illmatic (Apr ’94)

This blew my mind. Before listening to the album I was told “This guy is one of the best rappers ever,” and I still wasn’t disappointed. That’s crazy. Dude was a writer, effortlessly blending rhyme skill with storytelling ability. This album showed me what it’s like to have the stars align and be able to put all of your sharpest skill in one direction. I listened to this album as if I were watching a movie, following the narrative and studying the director. Nas was so intricate and complicated. Illmatic prompted me to improve my understanding of rhyme structure.

40. Notorious B.I.G.: Ready To Die (Sept ’94)

It was in September of 1994 that I enrolled in a new school, and it happened to be in Brooklyn. Suddenly I had all of these friends who lived in Brooklyn, and the borough became a part of my identity. To them I was the kid from Manhattan, but to my friends in Manhattan I was the kid who went to school in Brooklyn. And Brooklyn was very excited about this dude named Biggie Smalls. I had heard him before on Mary J. Blige’s songs “Real Love” and “What’s the 411?” and thought he was pretty outstanding. His voice was just so wet. When his album dropped everyone in my school went to grab it, and we were all kind of blown away. It was super dark and painful. It was one of the more emotional albums I had ever heard. I remember being more impressed with Biggie’s honesty on tracks like “Things Done Changed” than his mic skill, but as I listened to it more I started to become enamored with his abilities. His rhymes just stayed in my head all day long. “Juicy” and “One More Chance” were essentially perfect songs.

Reader's Comments

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