Hip-hop's Golden Age marks what many believe to be the genre's zenith, when crackling funk, jazz, and soul samples mixed with banging boom-bap drums and lyrics that were really about something.

It was an era of rapid and remarkable innovation, both sonically and in terms of lyrics and delivery styles. Many debate what years constitute the Golden Age, but for our purposes it began in 1988 and ended in 1993.

Below, then, is our list of the 20 best Golden Age albums. They contributed to hip-hop's legitimacy as an art form, and without them contemporary hip-hop as we know it wouldn't exist at all. -Max Bell

20. Big Daddy Kane  
Long Live The Kane (1988)

Brooklyn's Big Daddy Kane had great buzz after his work with Juice Crew cohorts Marley Marl, MC Shan, and Roxanne Shante in the years leading up to his own debut, Long Live The Kane. Cool, confident, and incredibly gifted at flipping phrases, Kane cemented his spot as one of hip-hop's most commanding voices on the work. Long Live is a adroitly balances hard, fast rap with smooth, danceable grooves and culturally-aware lyrics. -Jake Paine

19. Boogie Down Productions
By All Means Necessary (1988)

Boogie Down Productions hailed from the Bronx and for By All Means Necessary featured DJ D-Nice and sagely orator KRS-One, with group member DJ Scott La Rock having been shot and killed the year previously. The follow-up to their gangster-themed Criminally Minded, By All Means Necessary is the first outwardly political hip-hop album, and has been sampled and referenced by everyone from Diddy and Pharrell to Scarface and UGK to Sublime. -Sama'an Ashrawi

18. Geto Boys
We Can't Be Stopped (1991)

Geto Boys put Houston rap on the map. We Can't Be Stopped is a furiously gangster and harrowingly heartfelt slice of the South. The political (“Fuck a War”) and sociopolitical are tempered with gore and graphic violence (“Chuckie”), which was instrumental in spawning the sub-genre of horrorcore. “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” of course, remains perhaps the best song ever recorded about the plight and paranoia of ghetto life. Play it when Halloween falls on a weekend. -Max Bell


17. Ultramagnetic MCs 
Critical Beatdown (1988)

Even in an era when innovation in hip-hop was rewarded, few artists took as many risks as Bronx quartet Ultramagnetic MC's. While Ced Gee dug in the crates, Kool Keith and company experimented with rhyme patterns and deliveries that embarrassed the status quo and advanced the art form. Critical Beatdown is a benchmark effort when it comes to both technical rapping and trailblazing production. -Jake Paine

16. Eric B & Rakim 
Paid in Full (1987)

Paid in Full is a lyrics-first barrage of nimble internal rhymes and ice-cold self-promotion: “I got soul, that's why I came, to teach those who don't know my name,” Rakim raps. The work has a steely heart, beating in time to Rakim's endless, arid flow and Eric B's timeless production. Few rappers have sounded as natural as Rakim behind the mic, which is why it's no wonder why he's credited as the father of the modern genre. –Luke Winkie 

15. Slick Rick
The Great Adventures of Slick Rick (1988)

Preceded by 1985's “The Show” and “La Di Da Di,” Slick Rick's A/B single with Doug E. Fresh and the Get Fresh Crew, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick came out the wrapper as a classic. Triumphantly bouncy and swingy, it's not a debut, as much as it's a coronation of Ricky D. as hip-hop's king storyteller and a master character creator, with a playfully-outsized ego and taste for imaginatively raunchy tales. -kris ex

14. Digable Planets
Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space) (1993)

Bohemian, mellow, and meditative, Digable Planet's debut is perfect for a Sunday afternoon. Featuring dusty jazz and and funk samples (everyone from Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins to James Brown), the smooth rhymes linger over beats that stretch for Brooklyn blocks. This is the sound, and practice, of third-eye philosophy before it became a buzzword. -Max Bell

13. Souls Of Mischief 
'93 til' Infinity (1993)

'93 'til Infinity was released just over 20 years ago, and Oakland has yet to be rendered as poetically on record since. The rapid, densely packed and deftly delivered internal rhymes from Opio and company helped redefine West Coast rap. The subtly banging beats are culled from deep crate digging, and everyone from Kanye to Freddie Gibbs has flipped the title track. You may find this album in your teens, but it stays in rotation. -Max Bell

12. The Pharcyde
Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde (1992)

Released in the aftermath of the Rodney King riots and amidst a proliferation of nihilistic gangster rap, Bizarre Ride… painted a turbulent L.A. in hilarious and cartoonish hues. With J-Swift providing a dense yet upbeat, jazz-laden soundscape, The Pharcyde cast themselves as comic and self-deprecating everymen. They packed the pipe and talked about the girls they got (“Oh Shit”) and the girls they didn't (“Passing Me By”). Meanwhile, they cracked 'ya mama' jokes as an attempt to drown out the sirens and gunfire. -Max Bell

11. Gang Starr
Step in the Arena (1991)

Boston born rapper Guru and Houston born DJ Premier linked up in Brooklyn to form Gang Starr, giving the world one of the most consistent discographies in the genre's history. Step in the Arena is their best outing from this era; Premier's smooth, boom-bap beats set a new standard for East Coast production, and Guru's stylish monotone made his dropped knowledge accessible to all listeners. -Chaz Kangas

10. De La Soul
Buhloone Mindstate (1993)

No one seems quite able to pick De La Soul's best album, but a strong case can certainly be made for Buhloone Mindstate. A bold, risky outing for the group featuring long jazz solos and Japanese rapping, it was a commercial failure. Still, it's highlighted by mature tracks like “I Am, I Be” which explores the vulnerability that comes with age, largely new territory for a youth-centric genre. Adding to the musicality of the project is the guest feature from saxophone legend Maceo Parker. At a time when many people had the audacity to question whether or not rap was actually music, Buhloone Mindstate helped put to bed any doubts about its legitimacy. -Chaz Kangas

9. Dr. Dre 
The Chronic (1992)

The Chronic is hard to pigeonhole as a “golden age” album; indeed, there's a strong argument for it as the best rap album ever. But whatever the case, it's clear that Dr. Dre's handpicked group of young dynamos, including Snoop, D.O.C., RBX, Kurupt, Daz Dillinger, and The Lady of Rage succeeded in framing a complex, unapologetic portrait of gang culture mentality. Dr. Dre proved himself to be both a masterful sonic architect and a genius talent scout. -Sheldon Pearce

8. De La Soul 
3 Feet High and Rising (1989)

Amityville, Long Island trio De La Soul had immediate and lasting impact in 1989 with their classic debut, 3 Feet High and Rising. With Stetsasonic DJ/producer Prince Paul at the helm, Posdnuos, Trugoy, and DJ Maseo employed a complex figurative vocabulary, cleverly tackling universal subject matters like lust, avoiding drugs, and staying optimistic amid negative circumstances. The sample-steeped track list, meanwhile, demanded to be played in sequence. -Jake Paine

7. N.W.A.
Straight Outta Compton (1988)

Straight Outta Compton remains, more than 25 years later, the quintessential gangsta rap album, not to mention one of the loudest, most fervently apolitical chronicles of street culture – all made in an era when rap's voice wasn't yet magnified by the pop culture megaphone. But despite not addressing politics specifically, it still somehow managed to take on the racial and social issues of its day, addressing them, appropriately, like a bull in a china shop. Los Angeles, and hip-hop, were never the same. -Sheldon Pearce

6. Main Source
Breaking Atoms (1991)

Wild Pitch was one of the most consistent labels of hip-hop's golden era, but their crown jewel might have been Main Source's debut Breaking Atoms. The group, who then consisted of Queens MC/producer Large Professor and Toronto DJs Sir Scratch and K-Cut, made one of the genre's strongest full-lengths, full of intelligent, subtly pointed hood music. Whether examining relationships, painting a picture of community violence, or just having fun, Breaking Atoms is multifaceted. -Chaz Kangas

5. Public Enemy 
It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988)

It Takes A Nation… is a soapbox rally turned riot. Chuck D aggressively delivers his radical spoken word bars over The Bomb Squad's barrage of banging drums and horn stabs, a wall of noise crafted to convey the chaos of New York from Long Island to Staten Island. It's the quintessential political hip-hop album; one made by legitimately informed and concerned individuals, not those espousing conspiracy theories purely for blogosphere appraisal. -Max Bell

4. Snoop Doggy Dogg 
Doggystyle (1993)

Unlike most of these other Golden Age classics, Doggystyle stands outside of time, so sonically fresh it could have been recorded last week. Simultaneously hard and melodic, it helped set the template for the Southern sound that would dominate mainstream rap in the aughts. Also unlike many works here, it doesn't purport to stand for human advancement; it's more like a graphic memoir with the ultimate goal of entertaining you. But it succeeds so dramatically (just about every track does something unique and memorable) that is has become more than just a high-water mark of G-funk, or of the Golden Era. It's simply an all-time rap classic. -Ben Westhoff

3. Wu-Tang Clan
Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993)

Nobody more defied convention in the early 1990s than Wu-Tang Clan. The nine-man collective pulled from three of the five New York City boroughs with a uniformly menacing style. RZA's disturbingly dusted arrangements contrasted beautifully with Method Man and GZA's raspy rhymes, as well as microphone attacks by Ghostface Killah and Ol' Dirty Bastard. Competitive with each other and dismissive of everybody else, the swarm of bees changed the game permanently. -Jake Paine

2. Beastie Boys
Paul's Boutique (1989)

Sure the Beastie Boys (MCA, from Brooklyn, and Mike D. & Ad-Rock, from Manhattan) have gotten lots of love from alternative radio over the years, but they are hip-hop to the core, and nowhere is that better demonstrated than on Paul's Boutique. Recorded in Los Angeles, the work is a brilliant mosaic of eclectic samples, pop culture references, and relentless, nimble lyricism. Stuffed with tales of lovable villains (“High Plains Drifter,” “3-Minute Rule” , b-boy anthems (“Shake Your Rump,” “Shadrach”) and narratives fueled by psychedelics (“Car Thief”), it also contains frantic warnings against racism (“Egg Man,” “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun”), and a 12-minute hip-hop odyssey (“B-Boy Bouillabaisse”). You will never ever hear another album like this. -Sama'an Ashrawi

1. A Tribe Called Quest
The Low End Theory (1991)

The Low End Theory is quite possibly the smoothest fusion of jazz and rap ever recorded. No margarine, no Parkay – the scenario is strictly butter, front to back. Traditionalist boom-bap is turned funky and poetical, as much Mingus, Miles, and James Brown as it is The Last Poets. Queens natives Q-Tip and Phife Dawg (backed by Ali Shaheed Muhammad, from Brooklyn) trade verses like jazz greats trading solos; their laid-back rhymes feel at once improvisational and carefully crafted. They dissect the record industry, offer smooth relationship raps, and deliver light and intelligent mic braggadocio without being solipsistic. The vibes have been often imitated since '91, but the result is never as effortless or effective. –Max Bell

See also: The 20 Greatest L.A. Hip-Hop Albums

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