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  • Writer's pictureMiz

Remembering the Classics—Hip Hop’s Golden Age (And Why I Think You Should Listen to It)

I’ve been listening to Hip Hop music for most of my life—ever since I was a little kid jamming out to the "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" whenever it popped on the TV. But my first real introduction to rap music came when a friend pulled out his iPod Nano (remember those?) and picked some Eminem songs to play while our parents were driving around. From that moment on, I was hooked.

Once I started listening to Eminem, I would look into the featured artists on his projects and the people those artists associated with. From there, the web of artists I was following kept growing and I ultimately became engrained in the culture, equipping myself with the knowledge on who to follow and how to stay up to date on the newest artists and releases.

But now, over the past few years, I’ve found my love of hip-hop stagnating and I had started dialing things back a bit.

I felt this starting to take place in 2020 as I was leaving college and I wasn’t sure what the cause was…then I started to look around at the talent of the year: Drake, Cardi B, Jack Harlow, Future, DaBaby—a lot of you would look at that lineup pretty fondly. But to me, these individuals epitomized what I felt was wrong with rap music at the time. Everything was becoming more “Pop”, and a bigger emphasis was placed on the production rather than the lyricism or the message. I wasn’t able to identify with the sounds being put out, the messages weren’t resonating with me (assuming there even was one), and the artists were mostly just straight up unlikeable.

I’m mentioning all of this because these factors are what led me on a search to find the music I wanted. I had noticed that modern production and modern lyrics weren’t doing it for me, so I decided to dig into the crates, and, from that, I was able to experience a different sound; back when the most popular rap artists weren’t worldwide icons. A time when the genre was still developing into what it would be today. I want to talk about Hip Hop’s Golden Age (~1980-2005) and why I think you should be listening to the music that came from it.

Many of your favorite artists and songs wouldn’t be where they are today if it wasn’t for the first wave of rappers. But while that may be true, I’m not going to sit here and type how you should really “embed yourself in the classics” and listen to the “Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s”, or the likes of Afrika Bambaataa or Run DMC—because I know most of you aren’t old heads like me and would probably find some of that stuff a bit simple or boring (despite “The Message” still being regarded as the best hip hop song of all time). But, while I find value in the simplicity of their sounds, I think there are better examples of artists you can probably enjoy while still recognizing and appreciating the foundation they laid.

East Coast

A photo of A Tribe Called Quest, (from left to right) Jarobi, Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad
A Tribe Called Quest (from left to right) Jarobi, Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad

Probably the most influential set of rappers I’ve been listening to from this era would be A Tribe Called Quest—an East coast rap group consisting of members Q-Tip, Jarobi White, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and the late Phife Dawg. You honestly have no idea just how much of the music you grew up on was pioneered by these guys — “Killing Me Softly”, by the Fugees; “The Glory”,  by Kanye West; “Forbidden Fruit”, by J. Cole, “Gimmie the Loot” by B.I.G, and so many more bites and samples stemming from their lyrics and instrumentation.

Their style is a unique culmination of smooth Lo-fi hip hop and jazz samples, which helps create some of the most melodic and relaxing music I’ve ever heard—of these “Bonita Applebum” and “Electric Relaxation” are two tracks that I can’t recommend enough. But if smooth rap isn’t really your thing and you’re looking for more Boom Bap sounds, they have that covered too—with tracks like the iconic “Scenario (feat. Busta Rhymes),” “Find a Way,” and “Sucka N***a” you’ll have plenty to jam out to. Their beautiful combination of genres and the messages they infuse into their lyrics is what really elevates their music to become timeless.

Just like Tribe who hail from New York City, the dynamic duo that make up the rap group Black Star, Mos Def and Talib Kweli, have arguably the most authentic East Coast/NYC sound you’ll find.

Leading off with my favorite of the two, Mos Def infuses clever lyricism with traditional rock samples to create a varied and versatile track list, from intrinsic music to play when you’re alone to tracks you can put on your party playlist.

I recently touched on Mos and how his career has developed in recent years in my latest article, but at the point in time when Mos was consistently releasing music, he was borderline untouchable. Tracks like “Ms. Fat Booty,” “Mathematics,” and “Close Edge” are likely some of his most iconic songs, but you more likely know him from his numerous features on Kanye West’s discography (“Drunk and Hot Girls,” “Two Words,” “Good Night,” etc.). I personally recommend all of the above, but the track that really hooked me on Mos was “Brooklyn,” a beautiful homage to his hometown mixed with various flows and instrumentation.

Talib Kweli, much like Mos, is a well-known Kanye collaborator who also has a few hits produced by the modern superstar before he became a rapper (“Get By” and “Good to You”). While his music, for me, is more hit or miss, his discography has some hidden gems that you may find more enjoyable than I did.

Blackstar feat. Talib Kweli & Mos Def
Blackstar feat. Talib Kweli & Mos Def

The real gems, however, lie in their work as Black Star (primarily on their self-titled album). Tracks like “Definition,” “Re: Definition,” “Respiration (feat. Common),” and “Brown Skin Lady” are just a handful of the versatile tracks the duo was able to put together during their brief collaborative stint.

Primarily, these two artists and their union created what I (and many) consider to be a core part of what makes the East Coast sound (and more specifically the NYC sound) what it is today. Even then, there are so many instances of artists I want to discuss but likely deserve their own segments or article(s): Jay-Z, Biggie, KRS-One, Wu-Tang Clan, LL Cool J, Nas, Gang Starr, The Roots, and so many more.

The South

We can’t discuss the Golden Age of Hip Hop and ignore the role that other parts of the U.S. played during this time. Briefly, we’ll head down south where the likes of Ludacris and Outkast fostered their own unique sounds.

We all likely know both of these names, so I won’t spend much time on them. But, for those who are unfamiliar, Ludacris, prior to his acting career, was a prominent figure in rap due to his very unique, bombastic music that included slight comedic twists thrown in to keep you on your toes. It’s loud, hard hitting, and just plain fun (although some tracks may be a bit whacy and not for everyone).

Outkast, Big Boi & Andre 3000
Outkast, Big Boi & André 3000

There is also, of course, Outkast. Consisting of superstar duo André 3000 and Big Boi, the two would go on to create some of radios most iconic songs (“Hey Ya’” and “The Way You Move” being the most well-known), but it’s their deeper cuts that really bring out the charm of this duo. Sure, some of you may know “Roses”, or even “Ms. Jackson”, but I doubt many of my peers have listened to anything off of “ATLiens” or even “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik” (said Southern Playa-listic Cadillac Music), which are host to their own sweet deep cuts that I’m sure most of you will find at least one you’ll like (“Elevators (Me & You)”, “Player’s Ball”, “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik”, “Da Art of Stroytellin’ (Pts. 1 & 2),” and “ATLiens” are all good starting points).

The West

While the South played a role in the development of hip hop in the golden era, the West coast had arguably as much impact as the movement on the East Coast—fostering its own unique sounds and artists who helped propel the craft forward in clever and innovative ways.

My favorite of the talent that arose during this time was the individuals who would become N.W.A, consisting of (primarily) Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, MC Ren, DJ Yella, and the late Eazy-E. Their music, arising as a result of rising political tensions surrounding racial prejudice on the West coast, was targeted at a primarily African American demographic who were going through the same struggles they had, from growing up in hoods and being surrounded by gangs and corrupt officials. While “White America” bashed their newly coined genre of “gangster rap,” many around the U.S. would find relatable truths in their messages and go on to accept the group as one of the most influential super groups of all time.

N.W.A, with members (from left to right) Ice Cube, DJ Yella, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, and MC Ren
N.W.A, with members (from left to right) Ice Cube, DJ Yella, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, and MC Ren

Many are now aware of their most iconic track/album “Straight Outta Compton,” thanks largely to the success of their 2015 biopic under the same name, which was not only the name of N.W.A’s raunchy and violent album, but was also the title to their catchy and infectious title track featuring unique production and clever exchanges between the different members. Along with this, the group would make several other famous hits (“F*ck the Police,” “8 Ball,” “Dopeman,” and “Quiet On tha Set” amongst others) before ultimately breaking up not long after their formation.

Even then, the separate members of the group would mostly go on to have very successful rap careers, with the likes of Dr. Dre and Ice Cube still holding a prominent place in the public eye to this day.

Ice Cube, much like Talib Kweli, has a bit more of a hit-or-miss track list for me, but this doesn’t discount the significant impact he had on gangster rap and the genre as a whole. His first solo venture “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” debuted at number 16 on the Billboard charts (a monumental feat for rap music at the time) and would become platinum certified only four months after its release. Most of the music I enjoy from him stems from his ties with N.W.A., but I also enjoy his solo tracks including “It Was a Good Day,” his N.W.A. diss track “No Vaseline,” “You Know How We Do It,” and “Why We Thugs” to name a few.

We all, of course, know about Dr. Dre who, along with his renown production career, was able to become one of the most iconic rap stars of all time. His debut solo-album “The Chronic” changed the West coast sound forever and really cemented what set their music apart from the East coast. What stands out most to me was his iconic use of synths and organs in his productions that created these “electrical buzzes” that became synonymous with the West coast sound, culminating in the creation of its own genre: G-funk.

Some of the tracks I recommend from his discography are “Nuthin’ but a G thang (feat. Snoop Dogg),” “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” “Still D.R.E,” “The Next Episode (feat. Snoop Dogg and Nate Dog),” and “Forgot About Dre (feat. Eminem)”.

The West is host to many other influential names and groups, including Cypress Hill, the aforementioned Snoop Dogg, The Pharcyde, Souls of Mischief, Tupac and many others. I will include my top recommendations from this batch, but I will likely take the time to explore more of these individuals and groups, as well as their impacts, in another article:


  • ’93 Til Infinityؙ—Souls of Mischief

  • Insane in the Brain—Cypress Hill

  • Old School/California Love/Ambitionz Az a Ridah—Tupac

  • Bitch Please/Gin and Juice (feat. Dat N***a Daz)—Snoop Dogg


While I have left out many names I would like to include, it’s too difficult to cover the entirety of rap at this time in one article. Part of what makes this music so compelling is not only the quantity of music produced, but the quality and execution of the varied ideas and sounds being introduced. While modern music feels, to me, more like a corporate product pushed to the masses, old school rap retains the grit and edge that people have come to expect from the genre. The talents of the time feel more authentic as well, and you can tell that mostly everybody is making music because it’s what they love doing—and not as some marketing plot or side venture.

My main point of this is that I hope I’ve helped you to connect with older rap music and uncover just how much great music there is to explore. There are still many hits that have been put out in modern times, but I think you’ll find that if you take a look back at the people and sounds that inspired your favorite artists of today, you’ll walk out with a new perspective (and maybe a playlist song or two.)


If you want to hear more old school rap music (or want a place where my recommendations are compiled), consider checking out my playlist on Apple Music and following me to see what I’m listening to.

Thanks for reading!

Written by: Michael Miserendino

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