Today, rapping is one of the biggest genres in the music industry, but this wasn’t always the case.
Modern-day rap began emerging in the Bronx, New York in the 1970s, but only really gained widespread popularity in the late 1980s.
Rapping has roots in African culture, and even today is largely led by urban African-American communities and artists.
Many of the artists on this list of the best 80s rappers were therefore pioneers, adapting and shaping an otherwise new genre.
Salt-N-Pepa are an American hip hop group from New York, formed in 1985.
The group is made up of Cheryl James (Salt), Sandra Denton (Pepa) and DJ Spinderella (Deidra Roper).
“Push It”, released in 1987, became their first hit and was nominated for a Grammy Award.
Their debut album Hot, Cool & Vicious sold more than 1 million copies in the US.
They have sold over 15 million records worldwide.
2. LL Cool J
James Todd Smith, better known by his stage name LL Cool J, is an American rapper, songwriter and record producer.
He is known for his impact on hip hop music, as he was one of the first hip hop artists to achieve commercial success, alongside his peers Run DMC and Beastie Boys.
He signed to Def Jam Recordings in 1984 and released his breakthrough single “I Need A Beat”.
He has also appeared in many films, such as Halloween H20, In Too Deep and Any Given Sunday.
In 2017, he became the first rapper to receive the Kennedy Centre Honors.
Run-DMC was an American hip hop group from Queens, New York.
It was founded in 1983 by Joseph Simmons, Darryl McDaniels and Jason Mizell.
They are regarded as one of the most influential acts in hip hop music, contributing largely to making the genre mainstream.
They were pioneers of ‘new school hip hop’.
With the release of their album Run-DMC, they became the first hip hop group to achieve a Gold record.
In 2009, they became the second hip hop group to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
4. Slick Rick
Slick Rick is an English-American rapper and record producer.
He was born in South West London, but his family migrated to the Bronx when he was eleven years old.
He grew to prominence in the mid-80s, alongside Doug E. Fresh & the Get Fresh Crew.
In 1986, he became the third artist to sign to Def Jam Recordings.
His works have been sampled and interpolated over 1000 times, by artists like Eminem, Kanye West, Snoop Dogg and Beyonce.
5. Biz Markie
Biz Markie was an American rapper, DJ and record producer.
He is best known for his 1989 single “Just A Friend” and is often regarded as a one-hit wonder.
“Just A Friend” became a top 40 hit in several countries.
He was sometimes referred to as the “Clown of Hip Hop”.
He was born in the Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan, New York.
6. A Tribe Called Quest
A Tribe Called Quest was an American hip hop group formed in New York in 1985.
The group is regarded as a pioneer in alternative hip hop.
They were part of the Native Tongues collective.
Their debut album People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm was a critical success, and they continued to see commercial and critical success throughout their later albums as well.
The group disbanded in 1998.
7. Ice Cube
Ice Cube is an American rapper, actor and filmmaker, famous for being a member of hip hop group N.W.A. before pursuing a solo career.
When he was young, his half-sister was murdered.
N.W.A. formed in 1987, with Eazy-E and Dr Dre as other significant members.
He was very influential in the popularization of “gangsta rap”.
Straight Outta Compton was a landmark album that came to characterize West Coast rap.
He released his solo album, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted in 1990.
8. Beastie Boys
Beastie Boys were an American rap rock group formed in New York in 1978.
They experimented with blending harcore punk rock with hip hop.
They achieved local success with their comedy single “Cooky Puss”, released in 1983.
They toured with Madonna in 1985, which led to greater recognition.
Their debut album License to III, released the following year, became the first rap record to top the Billboard 200 Albums chart.
9. Grandmaster Flash
Joseph Saddler, better known by his stage name Grandmaster Flash, is an American rapper and DJ.
He is considered to be a pioneer in hip hop DJing.
Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, making them the first hip hop act to be honored.
He was raised in the Bronx in New York City, after his family emigrated from Barbados.
He cites his parents as influences for his music, as his father loved Caribbean and African American recordings and was a heavy record collector.
10. MC Lyte
Lana Michele Moorer, better known by her stage name MC Lyte, is an American rapper, actress, DJ and entrepreneur.
She was raised in East Flatbush, Brooklyn and began rapping at the age of 12.
She is considered one of the pioneer female rappers in the industry.
She was the first solo female rapper to release a full album in 1988, with her album Lyte As A Rock.
She released eight albums in total throughout her career.
11. De La Soul
De La Soul was an American hip hop trio formed in 1988 in Long Island, New York.
They are best known for their quirky lyrics and eclectic sampling.
They released their debut album 3 Feet High and Rising in 1989, and it has since been dubbed a hip hop masterpiece.
They were part of the Native Tongues hip hop collective.
The group won a Grammy in 2006 for their collaboration with Gorillaz on Feel Good Inc.
12. Queen Latifah
Queen Latifah is an American rapper, actress and singer.
She was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1970.
She signed with Tommy Boy Records in 1989 and released her album All Hail The Queen that year.
She then starred on a sitcom show Living Single from 1993 to 1998.
Her single “U.N.I.T.Y.” was influential in raising awareness of violence against women and the objectification of women.
13. MC Hammer
Stanley Kirk Burrell, better known by his stage name MC Hammer, is an American rapper, dancer, record producer and entrepreneur.
He is best known for his song “U Can’t Touch This”, released in 1990.
He is considered a pioneer of pop rap.
He was the first hip hop artist to achieve diamond status for an album.
His popularity waned in the mid-1990s, leading to him filing for bankruptcy.
14. The Sugarhill Gang
The Sugarhill Gang is an American hip hop trio, best known for their song “Rapper’s Delight”.
“Rapper’s Delight” was the first rap single to become a top 40 hit on the Billboard Hot 100.
It was the trio’s only US hit, but they went on to see success across Europe with their later songs.
The group formed in New Jersey in the late 70s and disbanded in the mid 80s.
KRS-One (which stands for Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone) is an American rapper, lyricist and producer from New York.
He began his career with hip hop group Boogie Down Productions.
Following the release of the group’s debut album, group member Scott La Rock was shot and killed, but KRS-One continued the group, effectively as a solo project.
KRS-One is best known for his song “Sound of da Police”.
He started the Stop the Violence movement after Scott’s death and remains politically active.
16. The Fresh Prince
Will Smith, also known as The Fresh Prince, is an American rapper and actor.
He is best known for playing a fictionalized version of himself in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, an NBC sitcom.
He formed a duo with DJ Jazzy Jeff, creating a number of humorous and light-hearted singles.
They received their first Grammy Award for “Parents Just Don’t Understand” in 1988.
Their most successful single was “Summertime” in 1991.
The duo remain friends to this day, continuing to produce music under Smith’s solo performer credit.
17. Kurtis Blow
Kurtis Blow is an American rapper, singer, songwriter, public speaker and minister.
He was the first commercially successful rapper and the first to sign with a major record label.
He released his self-titled debut album in 1980, which included the single “The Breaks”.
“The Breaks” was the first certified gold rap song.
He has also worked as an actor and co-producer of films.
18. Kool Moe Dee
Kool Moe Dee is an American rapper, actor and writer.
He is considered a pioneer of the ‘new jack swing sound’ in hip hop.
He gained recognition as part of the Treacherous Three hip hop group before embarking on his solo career.
He makes use of a fast and aggressive rap style, laying the groundwork for artists like KRS-One, Rakim, Will Smith and Tupac Shakur.
“Wild Wild West” and “Go See The Doctor” are amongst his most famous songs.
Ice-T, whose real name is Tracy Lauren Marrow, is an American actor, rapper, songwriter and producer.
He was signed to Sire Records in 1987.
He released his debut album Rhyme Pays the same year.
His following album Power went platinum.
He went on to co-found the heavy metal band Body Count.
20. Big Daddy Kane
Antonio Hardy, better known by his stage name Big Daddy Kane, is an American rapper.
He began his career with the Juice Crew, a hip hop collective based in New York.
He is regarded as one of the most influential MCs in hip hop.
He was friends with Biz Markie and co-wrote some of Markie’s best known lyrics.
Kane is known for his ability to syncopate over fast hip hop beats.
William Michael Griffith Junior, also known as Rakim, is an American rapper and record producer.
He is widely regarded as one of the most influential MCs of all time.
He was a pioneer of the use of internal rhymes and multisyllabic rhymes.
Fellow rapper Kool Moe Dee said that “Rakim is basically the inventor of flow”.
Rakim released four albums with DJ Erik B, before releasing three more solo albums.
NWA was an American hip hop group, known for being transformative figures in the hip hop genre.
They are widely considered to be the most influential hip hop group of all time.
They were active between 1987 and 1991.
They were known for their controversial lyrics, which often referred to violence, drugs and crime.
Their first compilation album was released in 1987, called NWA and the Posse, followed by their debut studio album Straight Outta Compton.
Key member Ice Cube left the group in 1989 over royalty disputes.
23. Public Enemy
Public Enemy is an American hip hop group, formed in 1985 by Chuck D and Flavor Flav in Long Island, New York.
They used their music to raise awareness about racism and issues of the American media.
The group has included many members, with Chuck D and Flavor Flav remaining the only consistent members throughout.
In 2020, it was announced that Flavor Flav was fired from the group, but this was revealed to be an April Fool’s Day prank.
Their first four albums were all certified either gold or platinum.
EPMD is an American hip hop group from Brentwood, New York, made up of Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith.
They released their first album Strictly Business in 1988, and many critics consider this their most influential work.
They were known for their heavy use of sampling.
The group split for a period in 1993, after Smith’s house was burglarized and he accused Sermon of being involved.
25. Roxanne Shante
Lolita Shante Gooden, better known by her stage name Roxanne Shante, is an American rapper from Queens, New York.
She first gained recognition as part of the Juice Crew.
The 2017 film Roxanne Roxanne was based on her life.
She was born and raised in the Queensbridge Project, the largest housing project in the US.
Shante gained popularity when she was only fourteen years old due to her role in the ‘Roxanne Wars’, a well known series of hip hop rivalries throughout the eighties.
26. MC Shan
MC Shan, whose real name is Shawn Moltke, is an American hip hop and R&B artist from Queens, New York.
He is best known for his song “The Bridge”, which was produced by Marley Marl.
He released his first record “Feed the World” in 1985.
Not knowing how to deal with a hip hop artist, the label soon dropped Shan.
He was then signed to Cold Chillin’ Records and joined Marley Marl’s Juice Crew.
He released his debut album Down by Law in 1987 with Warner Bros, becoming one of the first hip hop artists to have a major record deal with the label.
27. Jungle Brothers
Jungle Brothers are an American hip hop trio, made up of Michael Small (Mike Gee), Nathaniel Hall (Afrika Baby Bam) and Sammy Burwell (DJ Sammy B).
They were known for their blending of jazz, hip hop and house styles.
They were the first hip hop group to collaborate with a house music producer.
They released their debut album Straight Out The Jungle in 1988.
Their work is thought to have paved the way for De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest.
28. 3rd Bass
3rd Bass were an American hip hop group from New York.
They were notable for being one of the first successful interracial hip hop groups.
The group was made up of MC Serch, Pete Nice and DJ Richie Rich.
The group produced two studio albums in their initial career, both of which have been certified gold by the RIAA.
Serch reportedly attempted to join up with fellow New York-based hip hop group Beastie Boys, but was unsuccessful.
After signing with Def Jam Records, 3rd Bass inherited the label’s feud with Beastie Boys.
29. Gang Starr
Gang Starr was an American hip hop duo that were based in Brooklyn throughout their career.
The duo was made up of Texas record producer DJ Premier and Massachusetts rapper Guru.
They reached their height in the late 1980s, and are considered one of the best MC and producer duos in hip hop history.
They created hits like “Mass Appeal”, “Take It Personal” and “Full Clip”.
In February 2010, Guru suffered a heart attack, went into a coma and passed away, aged 48.
30. Boogie Boys
The Boogie Boys were a hip hop group from Harlem, New York.
They were the first hip hop group to sign with Capitol Records.
They had a hit single with “Fly Girl” in 1985, followed by two successful albums.
The group was made up of William “Boogie Knight” Stroman, Joe “Romeo J.D.” Malloy and Rudy “Lil’ Rahiem” Sheriff.
The group disbanded in 1988 after Sheriff left the group.
31. King Tee
Roger McBride, better known by his stage name King T, was an American hip hop rapper from Compton, California.
He was one of the first artists to emerge from Compton, which is now renowned for producing many of the world’s greatest hip hop acts.
He was signed to Capitol Records, releasing his debut album Act A Fool in 1988.
In the late 1980s, he began working with producer DJ Pooh.
He is also CEO of his own record label, King T Inc.
32. Funky 4 + 1
Funky 4 + 1 were an American hip hop group from The Bronx, New York.
The group was made up of Jazzy Jeff, Sharon Green, DJ Breakout, Guy Williams, Keith Keith, The Voice of KK and Rodney Stone.
They were the first hip hop group to receive a record deal.
They were also the first hip hop group to perform on television.
Eazy-E was an American rapper, known for his influence on the West Coast hip hop scene.
He propelled West Coast rap and ‘gangsta’ rap.
He was part of the infamous hip hop group NWA.
When the group split, there were many disputes and rivalries between the ex-members.
He is sometimes referred to as the “Godfather of Gangsta Rap”.
In 1995, he was suddenly hospitalized and diagnosed with AIDS and died due to its complications.
34. Special Ed
Special Ed was a New York-based rapper that began his career in the 1980s.
He is best known for his songs “I Got It Made” and “Think About It” from his debut album Youngest in Charge, which he released when he was 17 years old.
Youngest in Charge sold over half a million copies.
He was born and raised in Brooklyn to an Afro-Jamaican father and Indo-Jamaican mother.
Whodini is an American hip hop group formed in 1982.
The group is made up of Jalil Hutchins, John Fletcher and DJ Drew Carter.
They were one of the first rap groups to add R&B elements to their music, laying the foundation for new jack swing.
They released six studio albums in total, four of which were certified platinum.
36. Kid N’ Play
Kid N’ Play is an American hip hop duo that originated in New York city.
They were most popular in the late 80s and early 90s.
The duo was made up of Christopher Reid (Kid) and Christopher Martin (Play).
The pair met while performing in rival high school groups and initially called themselves the Fresh Force Crew.
They both went on to break into acting.
37. Heavy D & The Boyz
Dwight Arrington Myers, better known as Heavy D, was a Jamaican-born American rapper.
He was also a record producer and actor.
He was the leader of Heavy D & The Boyz, a group which included dancers/hype men G-Whiz and “Trouble” T. Roy, as well as producer Eddie F.
In 1989, Heavy D performed a guest rap on Janet Jackson’s single “Alright”, one of the earliest examples of a rap performance within a pop song.
38. Doug E. Fresh
Doug E. Fresh is a Barbados-born American rapper, record producer and beatboxer.
He is sometimes dubbed “the Human Beatbox” and is considered hugely influential within American beatboxing.
In the early 1980s, he formed the Get Fresh crew with DJs Chill Will and Barry B, later adding rapper Slick Rick.
Their songs “The Show” and “La Di Da Di” are considered hip hop classics, with “La Di Da Di” being one of the most sampled songs in history.
39. Too Short
Todd Anthony Shaw, better known by his stage name Too Short, is an American rapper and record producer.
He was influential within the West Coast rap scene.
His lyrics often focused on pimping, promiscuity and drug culture.
He began his career in 1983 and gained a local following in his native area of Oakland, California.
His album Life Is… Too Short went double platinum.
Antoinette Lovell Patterson, known widely by her first name only, is an American rapper from The Bronx, New York.
She is mainly known for her feud with MC Lyte and for her song “I Got An Attitude”.
The single was included in Complex’s list of “The 50 Best Rap Songs by Women”.
She released her first album “Who’s The Boss?” in 1989 and her second, “Burnin’ At 20 Below” in 1990.
Best 80s Rappers – Final Thoughts
Many of the artists on this list are icons in the hip hop world, forming the genre as it now stands.
The 80s saw the success of old school hip hop and the tradition into golden age hip hop, where the ‘gangsta rap’ style gained popularity.
Rap plays a large role in the hip hop genre, alongside other elements like sampling, DJing and beatboxing.
The rap artists of the 80s have served as inspirations for the hip hop legends of today, like Kanye West, Jay-Z and Eminem.