As hip-hop began to make real commercial strides in the 1980s, several acts made big splashes. Some of these 80s rappers came and went quickly, and some are still around. Even some short-lived acts ended up powerful influences on future artists.
Here are the best 80s hip-hop rappers. Even if there are some on here you’ve never heard of, rest assured that they all left a mark on the rap music genre.
In four short years, N.W.A. revolutionized the relatively young genre called rap, propelling gangsta rap to wide acclaim.
By 1987, founder Eazy-E had assembled a lineup of huge names: Dr. Dre, MC Ren, Ice Cube, DJ Yella, and Arabian Prince. The group released Straight Outta Compton, an album that spawned three singles, each as inflammatory and mainstream-media-frightening as the last. “Fuck Tha Police” drew the ire of politicians and even the FBI, but its message was one of social protest.
Ice Cube left in 1989, and that was the beginning of the end, but N.W.A. is considered by many to be a group of the greatest 80s rappers ever.
2. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
Joseph Saddler was born in 1958 in Barbados but grew up in the Bronx. It was there he became Grandmaster Flash, a hip-hop pioneer. As a DJ, he was the first to put his hands on the physical vinyl record and scratch.
In 1978, he formed the Furious Five with some fellow hip-hop local legends (Melle Mel and Kid Creole among them). The group released hip-hop singles in 1980 to moderate success, but 1982’s The Message put them on the map.
Hip-hop was a new frontier and would endure many changes, but Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were the vanguards of a generational shift in music despite disbanding in 1983.
3. Public Enemy
While most of Public Enemy’s work came in the ‘90s, their first album dropped in 1987. It didn’t do well commercially, but critics took notice. Spike Lee included “Fight the Power” in his film Do the Right Thing, which helped propel the group to larger audiences.
Chuck D. and Flava Flav, the two faces of the group, played off each other while drawing on Black power themes and the writings of leaders like Louis Farrakhan and Jesse Jackson, among others.
Public Enemy’s sound was innovative, its style built on the socially conscious hip-hop of Grandmaster Flash, and their in-your-face anger sparked awareness in several generations of youth.
Their name came from a mash-up of the two frontmen: Joseph Simmons, aka Run, and Darryl McDaniels (DMC). With Jam Master Jay (Jason Mizell) as the DJ, the Queens trio formed in 1982 and released a debut album in ‘84.
It was the first hip-hop record to achieve gold status, meaning it sold 500,000 copies. They rapped over rock beats and often used hard-rock guitar riffs in their samples. It was a new and innovative sound and led these 80s rappers to record “Walk This Way” with Aerosmith in 1985.
5. Sugar Hill Gang
In 1979, some underground rappers in New Jersey got together and released “Rapper’s Delight.” It was a smash hit, but the group’s inner workings were quite tense. With allegations of rhyme-stealing and using samples without permission, the group devolved after its one hit.
But “Rapper’s Delight” was a watershed moment in music, and Sugar Hill gets a lot of credit for the roots of rap music.
Cheryl James and Sandra Denton were college friends who had an affinity for rap and each other. In the mid-1980s, they became Salt and Pepa, respectively. Salt-n-Pepa consisted of the pair and, later, Deirdre Roper, known as DJ Spinderella.
Their biggest weakness—that they were women in rap, supposedly a man’s game—became a great strength simply by being something of a novelty. The rappers didn’t rely on a gimmick, though. They could actually rap. “Push It” appeared on Hot, Cool, and Vicious, their debut album. It sold more than a million copies.
7. Too Short
Born in 1966 to a pair of accountants, Todd Shaw, who would grow up to become Too Short, was the vanguard of West Coast rap. In 1983, he released an indie-label album, and the buzz began.
His sound was a combination of simple beats from drum machines and funk riffs that were played rather than sampled. In 1988, he released Born to Mack, his major-label debut. It went gold and spawned the first bona fide West Coast hip-hop star.
8. Beastie Boys
Like Salt-n-Pepa, the Beastie Boys had a weakness. While the former group consisted of women, the Beasties were white New York City kids. That—added to the fact that they started as a punk band—got them a lot of grief.
They released Licensed to Ill in 1986. They, along with their label, Def Jam, wanted a hit record, but the album's runaway success—partly due to the crossover hit “Fight for Your Right (To Party)”—took everyone by surprise. It became the biggest-selling rap album of the 1980s.
The Beasties had a long and genre-defying career, disbanding after Adam “MCA” Yauch’s 2012 death.
9. Biz Markie
Marcel Theo Hall was born in Harlem in 1964. By age 14, he was a neighborhood phenomenon as a rapper and beatboxer and was already calling himself Biz Markie. The rapper’s sense of humor often overshadowed his ability to freestyle.
His style involved adolescent-style jokes and wordplay and relied on his less-than-stellar singing voice. The unusual combination made “Just a Friend” a top-ten single in 1989. He was greatly respected in rap circles despite being known as “The Clown Prince of Hip-Hop.”
Biz died in 2021.
Tracy Marrow was born in New Jersey in 1958. His parents died when he was young, and he ended up in California, where he dabbled in crime and gang activity until he enlisted in the army in 1977.
It wasn’t a smooth time, but he decided to pursue music rather than a criminal life when he left the army. As Ice-T, he released Rhyme Pays in 1987 and two more albums before the decade's end.
Ice-T turned his music career into a multimedia empire, appearing as an actor in films and on television in addition to performing with Body Count, a heavy metal group that released “Cop Killer” in 1991.
11. LL Cool J
As one of the first mainstream rap success stories, LL Cool J started with “I Can’t Live Without My Radio,” a 1985 single that announced to the world that his rap game was fire. He followed up with a successful second album, Bigger and Deffer.
As a kid, James Smith endured domestic violence, including the attempted murders of his grandmother and mother by his father. He turned to rap at age 10 to escape and became a major star. He parlayed that success into 13 studio albums and a litany of acting credits.
12. Kool Moe Dee
Mohandas DeWese grew up in New York City, where, by the beginning of the 1980s, he was already known for his raps at neighborhood block parties.
He formed The Treacherous Three, a trio that self-released singles until signing with Sugarhill Records. After a few releases, Kool Moe Dee left to pursue solo work. His album How Ya Like Me Now went platinum and led to Dee being the first rapper to perform at the Grammys.
13. Tone Lōc
Tone Lōc hit the scene as the 1980s wound down, but the chart-topping hits he put out as the decade ended are pillars of hip-hop history.
Born Anthony Smith in California in 1966, Lōc was rapping as a teen. He also participated in gang activity but turned away from that lifestyle with the musical success that came to him via Lōc-ed after Dark, his debut album.
Containing the hits “Wild Thing” and “Funky Cold Medina,” it went to number one on Billboard's Pop Album Chart, making Tone Lōc the first black artist to hold that spot.
14. The Fat Boys
The Fat Boys—Damon “Kool Rock-Ski” Wimbley, Mark “Prince Markie Dee” Morales, and Darren “Buff Love” Robinson—collectively tipped the scales at more than 750 pounds. That, coupled with the group’s name, told the world what it needed to know about them. They were self-deprecating and brought a sense of humor to rap.
They brought beatboxing to prominence. After scoring a record deal by winning a rap contest in New York City in 1983, the Fat Boys went on to lay down seven studio albums. Four of them went gold, but by the decade's end, their shtick had seemed to have run its course despite three feature film appearances.
15. 2 Live Crew
While 2 Live Crew’s roots were on the West Coast, a DJ named Luther Campbell (Luke Skyywalker) in Miami convinced the rappers to relocate. When the group formed, they became the rappers of the 80s who essentially invented Miami rap.
In 1986, the group’s debut album, The 2 Live Crew Is What We Are, contained three certified hits. The problem was that the lyrics were so sexually explicit that one record store clerk was charged with a felony for selling the album to a minor.
The blatant profanity and obscenity in the group’s lyrics motivated politicians to “do something.” 2 Live Crew’s fourth album, Banned in the U.S.A., was the first album to have the now-common “Parental Advisory” sticker.
16. DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince
While Will Smith is an international movie star, his hip-hop work with Jeff “DJ Jazzy Jeff” Townes brought him to the public’s attention. The two met at a Philadelphia party in 1985. A month before Smith graduated high school in 1986, the pair already had a hit single.
Their trademark was raps that told stories—usually funny tales of misadventures—that were profanity-free. This made their act somewhat family-friendly and made their music easier for radio stations to play.
DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince knew great success into the ‘90s. Smith starred in the sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, while Jazzy Jeff made occasional appearances.
17. MC Lyte
Lana Michele Moorer was born in 1970 in Brooklyn. As MC Lyte, she was the first female rapper to score a gold record.
She released her first single at age 16, a song about the darkness of the crack epidemic of the 80s. MC Lyte followed up with a full-length album, Lyte as Rock. While it barely cracked the top 50, the critics loved it. Decades later, the album is still considered one of the best rap albums ever.
18. De La Soul
Three New York high school kids formed De La Soul in 1988, and by ‘89, they had released 3 Feet High and Rising. The album was a smash hit, and its unusual construction influenced hundreds of hip-hop acts.
The album had skits interspersed with musical tracks, and the entire project drew on themes of peace and harmony.
While they had limited commercial success after that first album, the group remains an influential hip-hop act.
19. MC Hammer
Born Stanley Kirk Burrell in Oakland, Cal. in 1962, MC Hammer exploded onto the hip hop scene in 1986. Originally a Christian rapper, Hammer branched out to form his own record label and spent the rest of the 80s rapping and recording.
While 1988’s “Turn This Mutha Out” was a bona fide hit, Hammer’s enormous success would come with the dawn of the 90s with “U Can’t Touch This” and “2 Legit 2 Quit.” He was the first hip-hop act to have a diamond record—10,000,000 copies sold.
20. KRS One
Lawrence Parker adopted the moniker KRS-One (“Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone”). While most of his solo success came as a ‘90s rapper, he made a name for himself as an MC and as the conscience of hip-hop during his time with Boogie Down Productions in the 1980s.
KRS-One established himself as an intellectual, lecturing about rap at such educational bulwarks as NYU, Columbia, Yale, and Harvard.
21. Heavy D & the Boyz
Dwight Myers was born in Jamaica in 1967 but grew up in Mount Vernon, New York. Calling himself Heavy D, he formed Heavy D & the Boyz with producer and DJ Eddie F and dancers T-Roy and G-Wiz.
Between 1987 and 1989, they released two hit albums. The fame paved the way for Heavy D to appear on Janet Jackson’s 1989 single “Alright.” This appearance marked the beginning of a long tradition of rappers making guest appearances on pop and rock recordings.
Heavy died of a pulmonary embolism in 2011.
22. Big Daddy Kane
Big Daddy Kane was a running buddy of Biz Markie’s when they were relative unknowns. He pioneered fast rhyming and changed how hip-hop artists presented themselves, as he paid close attention to lavish costumes and intricate choreography for his live shows.
As the 80s closed, he was a rap star. He didn’t enjoy much crossover success, and some of his early-90s escapades—posing for Madonna’s Sex book, for instance—blunted his cultural relevance, though he continues recording.
23. Boogie Down Productions
Before becoming a known quantity, KRS-One formed Boogie Down Productions in 1986 with DJ Scott La Rock. The group had a revolving-door policy regarding membership, working with D-Nice, RoboCop, Scottie Morris, and many others.
BDP released Criminal Minded in 1987. Five months later, the murder of La Rock destabilized the group, and they never recovered commercially.
One of the first rap beefs involved BDP and rival rappers Juice Crew, but BDP’s real contribution to rap was its fusion of dancehall reggae stylings and hip-hop. Music historians trace the beginnings of gangsta rap to this unlikely mash-up.
24. Ultramagnetic MCs
In 1984, Kool Keith formed Ultramagnetic MCs in the Bronx with Moe Love, Ced Gee, and TR Love. Their first big hit was 1986’s “Ego Trippin.'” The song sampled “Synthetic Substitution,” a 1973 song by Melvin Bliss. It was the first song to do so, and the Bliss tune now stands as one of the most sampled songs ever.
Ultramagnetic MCs were true pioneers, and not just from one sample. They changed the way samples were used and did it without modern tools like VST plug-ins. They were the first group to perform live with a sampler as an instrument and the first rap group to heavily use live instruments.
25. Slick Rick
British-born Richard “Slick Rick” Walters is one of the most-sampled artists of all time, with credits on albums from acts as diverse as Color Me Badd, Eminem, Beyoncé, Beastie Boys, Miley Cyrus, and The Notorious B.I.G.
He rose to fame as one of the best 1980s rappers with Doug E. Fresh & the Get Fresh Crew. Two of that group’s singles were “The Show” and “La Di Da Di.” Both featured Slick Rick prominently, and both are hip-hop classics.
He spent five years in prison in the 90s for attempted murder but resumed recording with Def Jam records upon his release.
26. Eric B & Rakim
In the 1980s, Eric Barrier was an aspiring Queens DJ. He met William Griffin, a rapper who had assumed the name Rakim after converting to The Nation of Gods and Earths.
They recorded their debut album, Paid in Full, in one week, following the success of their single “Eric B is President.” The album made the top ten on Billboard’s Hip-Hop albums chart and went platinum (although that didn’t happen until 1995).
Their follow-up album, Follow the Leader, is one of the all-time great hip-hop albums, showing off Eric B’s uncanny ability to pick the perfect sample and use it well.
27. Doug E. Fresh
Doug E. Fresh (born Doug E. Davis) was the first so-called human beatbox, mimicking drum beats with only his mouth. When he started, it was new and innovative. Now, beatboxing seems like something that’s been around forever.
He formed the Get Fresh Crew and had, along with Slick Rick, two enormous hits in “The Show” and “La Di Da Di,” which are now hip-hop classics.
That was in 1985. It took until 1987 for Fresh to release a full-length album. Oh, My God! was a hit, but once Slick Rick left the Get Fresh Crew and found significant success, Fresh’s momentum seemed to slow.
Top 80s Hip Hop Rappers, Final Thoughts
These hip hop rappers of the 80s changed the emerging form known as rap music. As a result of all these artists’ work, rap developed into different sub-genres like gangsta rap, Atlanta-centric trap, crunk, and G-funk.
Without these artists, those genres would be very different if they even existed.