What’s the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about hip-hop? Watered-down versions of R. Kelly’s R&B? Puff Daddy’s pop-rap-ified beats that as you grinding your teeth? Or perhaps simply the Fugees' Ready Or Not or Coolio’s Gangsta’s Paradise and then nothing. You’re in luck: if you like the hard hitting beats of hardcore rap and the criminal stories infused within many gangsta rap albums, I’ve got just the list of recommendations for you. If you’re more into alternative rap or don’t know where to start, see my gentle hip-hop intro.
As I wrote in the gentle hip-hop introduction, I tried to come up with a blog post that has tracks neatly categorized into different sub-genres, but that didn’t really work. Instead, I decided to divide my recommendations into two distinct sets: a gentle set, devoid of noisy beats and explicit lyrics, and a “rough” hip-hop set, with more hardcore stuff in it. When trying to get someone into hip-hop, I usually resort to the former, but I equally love tracks from the latter.
This is my rough hip-hop top 11—in no particular order—I recommend people listen to when they say they like rap but don’t know anyone besides Dr. Dre, Eminem, 2Pac, or 50 Cent. Give these a try and then re-evaluate what you think of hip-hop music. It includes well-known classics as well as underground tracks.
- GZA - Living In The World Today (from Liquid Swords, 1995). RZA’s production and sampling combined with my favorite Wu member the GZA/Genius.
- Similar: Wu-Tang Clan - C.R.E.A.M. (from Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), 1993). It can’t get better than this.
- Public Enemy - Bring The Noise (from It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, 1988). Classic politically laden boom rap that still is sounds great.
- El-P - Deep Space 9MM (from Fantastic Damage, 2002). An adventure leaning towards trip-hop with El-P’s typical distortion effects.
- Similar: Run The Jewels - Oh My Darling Don’t Cry (from Run The Jewels 2, 2014). This is just too crazy, both the beat and the lyrics.
- Dr. Dre - Nuthin' But a G Thang (from The Chronic, 1992). The seminal laid-back G-Funk beat you’ll recognize in any Dre track, including the obligatory Snoop.
- Similar: 2Pac - Can’t C Me (from All Eyez On Me, 1996).
- Jedi Mind Tricks - Tibetan Black Magicians (from Visions of Gandhi, 2003). Their older stuff is also great but extremely violent.
- Similar: Non Phixion - Futurama (from The Future Is Now, 2002). Ill Bill’s voice, like Vinnie Paz’s, is raw and hard-hitting.
- Ghostface Killah - Run (from The Pretty Toney Album, 2004). Ghostface’s voice is unique and his stories are always great.
- Similar: Wu-Tang Killa Bees - ‘97 Mentality (from The Swarm Vol. 1, 1998).
- Immortal Technique - Industrial Revolution (from Revolutionary Vol. 2, 2003). Hard-hitting (American) political rap that doesn’t lie.
- Similar: Sage Francis - Slow Down Gandhi (from A Healthy Distrust, 2005).
- The Notorious B.I.G. - Niggas Bleed (from Life After Death, 1997). Brooklyn mafioso rap at its finest, just before it got him killed…
- Similar: Raekwon - Guillotine (Swordz) (from Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, 1995). Different style, same mafioso content.
- IAM - Petit Frère (from L’École du Micro d’Argent, 1997). French ghetto rap with Wu influences that works exceptionally well.
- Similar: Don Luca - In De Cités (from C Mij Da, 2020). A shout-out to Flemish rapper Don Luca.
- OutKast - Da Art of Storytellin’ Pt. 2 (from Aquemini, 1998). Good luck trying to understand the endless stream of words.
- Similar: Nappy Roots - Awnaw (from Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz, 2002). Another great dirty south track.
- Gravediggaz - 1-800 Suicide (from Six Feet Deep, 1994). RZA keeps on popping up, this time reviving horror-core rap.
I kind of cheated (again), it’s still 11, but hey, who’s counting! The Wu-Tang influence is clearly visible. The collective produced a lot of great albums in the nineties. And then there’s the affiliates: Black Market Militia, Sunz of Man, Killarmy, … After the nineties, the popularity of hardcore and gangsta rap steadily declined.
Only Ghostface and Inspectah Deck with the Czarface supergroup are still killing it, but I can’t give any recommendations on contemporary (rough or otherwise) hip-hop. Most of the tracks in this list are from the nineties, while most of the tracks from the gentle hip-hop list are from the 2000s and later. Feel free to create and share your own list, even if it’s another genre!