XXL’s 25 Essential Independent Hip-Hop Albums

Throughout the years independent record labels have continued to evolve. Today independent is a term used to define any record label not owned or operated by any of the four major record companies (Sony, Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group and EMI). And while the independent game is thriving in 2010, it isn’t exactly a new concept for rap artists.

In the 1980’s Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin established Def Jam Records from their NYU dorm room, before signing to CBS in 1985 for $2 million dollars. Pioneers like Luther Campbell (Skyywalker Records), J. Prince (Rap-A-Lot Records) and Tony Draper (Suave House) continued the trend and defined their independence outside of New York. In more recent memory, labels like Master P’s No Limit and Bryan “Birdman” Willams’ Cash Money Records went from local indie labels to multi-million dollar rap powerhouses. Today we have notable rap indies like Strange Music, Duck Down Records, Rhymesayers and Stones Throw.

Whether platinum selling titles or critically acclaimed works, hip-hop has a rich collection of independent releases. Today, to celebrate America’s independence, XXLMag makes a list of 25 essential indie hip-hop albums that every fan should be familiar with. All we see is fireworks.

BDP Criminal Minded; B-Boy Records, 1987
It was his battle with the Juice Crew’s MC Shan that put KRS-One in the game, but it was his Boogie Down Productions group album Criminal Minded that cemented the Blastmaster’s place in hip-hop. Thanks to tracks like “Poetry” and the title track “Criminal Minded,” this album stands as one of rap’s defining works.

Eric B. & Rakim Paid In Full; 4th and B’way, 1987
While rap was still in its formative years and the rhyme schemes were still simplistic, Long Island MC Rakim offered higher vocabulary and complex bars. His first album with DJ Eric B. featured classic songs like “I Know You Got Soul” and “I Ain’t No Joke.”

N.W.A Straight Outta Compton; Ruthless/Priority, 1988
In 1988 N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton dropped like a bomb. Not only did the platinum-selling album establish West Coast rap dominance; its socio-political message drew attention from the F.B.I. who tried to shut the group down. Regardless songs like “Straight Outta Compton,” “Dopeman (remix)” and “Fuck tha Police” went on to influence gangsta rappers for years to come.

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  • geico lizard

    Solid list

  • Chris S

    does anyone know where i can buy Below The Heavens?? i found one copy online but it was going for like $127

    • http://www.xxlmag.com peterose24

      itunes probably the best independent rap album in about 5-6 years overall one the the best albums in a while

    • bowlhed

      I got mine from Amazon Mp3 for about $7

  • Malik

    Madvillainy and Donuts are the only albums they have stayed in constant rotation, I mean the ENTIRE albums. Play them front to back at least 10 times each month.

    Chris S. I believe they stopped production on the albums, you’re going to have to download on iTunes or Amazon if want to put money in Blu’s pocket. You can get Johnson&Jonson on CD though.

    • Chris S

      damn. i got a pretty nice cd collection going and i like to add to it with Below the heavens but i guess i might get it off iTunes first.

      you should try to get up on some Atmosphere. the rapper, Slug, is just incredible and the producer, Ant, is just as impressive. check out When Life Gives You Lemons…

  • Just Sayin

    Solid list…one gripe though. Where is Pastor Troy?! “We Ready, I Declare War” was IT down here in Columbia,SC. I know somebody fucks with me on this one.

    • DV8

      I remember that shit. I was in Texas when that came out. Automatic crunk fest when that shit came on. The whole album was pretty solid.

  • Tommie Bunnz

    Ayo, Just Sayin is right bout Pasto Troy. We Ready I D eclare War is stil in my rotation. I was stationed in VA when I heard it from my homie, and had to cop that shit.

  • swype-matic

    Glad to know that a couple of these are in my collection

  • that nigga

    You guys kill me, supposed to be journalists but never do the full homework of your articles. WTF happened to CORMEGA and his Legal Hustle imprint? He sold over 700,000 records independently and also won an award for best Independent Artist for The Realest. Do your fuckin homework XXL.

    • swype-matic

      Yea, it did seem like it was certain albums they chose, overlookin’ others. I might catch some flack for this, but I woulda had Lil Flip’s “The Leprechaun”. It sold 100K fast just from word of mouth, and and was the first houston rapper to really start houston’s mainstream rise.

      • e.l.


        • swype-matic

          Scarface and the Geto Boys laid the foundation for that to happen, but even when they did come out, not every radio station played their stuff, and not many other Houston artists were really breakin’ through (or allowed to break through) [besides UGK] then. Because of Lil’ Flip, people really took notice to Slim Thug, Paul Wall, Mike Jones, and Chamillionaire.

  • JustMe

    i think of all of those E.1999 Eternal is the most succesfull, with close to 10million copies sold -n- a Grammy.

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  • drevious

    thanks for puttting mac dre on the list

    • DV8

      at the time of his death he was outselling major artist independently. To bad the game missed out.

      Thizz In Peice to The Furl!

    • Mario

      mac dre boy all damn day boy

  • http://www.xxlmag.com 615banga

    needs Doubt Me Now.
    Lil Wyte’s first album. sold over a hundred thousand with no radio/video

    also need some lil keke. he done sold over 600,000 independtley

  • roderick504

    fuck the majors we major

    ye told me that

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  • mad indie

    what about slim thug? dude went platinum by himself. thats how he got signed to star trak.

  • Yungtex

    Fuck that list no Z-Ro or Trae

  • Carpino

    the bay started the independent hustle. mac dre, too short n the many other ogs always held it down for the bay


    Good lookin’ out on that TECH N9NE’s KILLER, def a hot album. DOES ANYONE remember DJ MAGIC MIKE?? I thought some of that ish he did on cheeta records was ill. Sound off below if you feel me…

  • Robert Faulk

    “Hard to believe that this multi-platinum album was initially released independently, but before they were absorbed into the Sony system, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony dropped their first album on Eazy-E’s Ruthless Records, through Relativity”

    “Creepin Oh ah Come Up?”

    I know B.O.N.E. Enterprise was Independent, but COaCU? and E.99?

  • Wallman

    Eminem – Infinite

  • Wu Clanman

    WHere’s “the mask and the mouse” by mf doom, or “operation doomsday”??????????????

  • Brahsef

    I can’t believe some of you are bitchin about records left out. They can’t put everything got dayum. The list is pretty solid overall.

  • gaddic

    Where the fuck is Brother Ali’s 1st or second album?

  • beaver

    Madvillainy IS FUCKKIN CLASSIC..


    WOW…no TOO SHORT or E-40?

  • Anonymous

    half of this is garbage

  • W. J. Rice

    I feel old, I have all this shit as it came out except Ra Allah and Criminal minded. I was too young to cop that shit when it first came out

  • The Southern Comfort

    Not a bad list and I suppose meant to be somewhat representative regionally and in terms of era as opposed to strictly the BEST 25 indie releases.
    One i definitely thought should be there though is Cannibal Ox “The Cold Vein”. it’s a phenomenal album and El-P’s production is mind-blowing.
    From this list though it’s clear that indie labels have produced the most artistic examples of hip-hop for a long minute, keep up the good work!

    • robmarkman

      We talked about “Cold Vein” but ultimately Funcrusher Plus kinda feels that lane.. El P Fantastic Damage is a good one too.

      • The Southern Comfort

        Thanks for the response Rob, fair enough you’ve only got so many spots and many a style to touch on, i don’t have funcrusher plus so will definitely have to get it if it’s in that league.
        To be honest, pretty much any Def Jux release could sit nicely up in here. keep ‘em coming man!

  • brand-new

    we need jedi mind tricks, “violent by design” on the list

    • Herman

      I heard that, man. That album was so sick.

      But overall, a solid list. I was surprised at how many albums I own on here. Nice read, great Hip Hop.

  • gift

    overall, i feel the lists of albums was pretty solid. I can’t believe not one DJ SCREW album made the cut. Dude had 3 n the mornin, Blue 22, all work no play, and many other’s. Honestly, without screw, houston wouldn’t be anywhere near where it is now. THat man put it down in a real way for H-town and for Texas. I know niggas is trippin by not mentioning E-40. That cat revolutionized what it means to be independent. Come on XXL. Overall though, good list.

  • http://www.bboycult.com $yk

    Yo Rob,

    you’ve been killing the posting fam. Except my late pass to this one…

  • J.Pinto

    OVERCAST!- Atmosphere. great stuff

  • edwin

    you put tech n9ne but dont even put Proof – searching for jerry garcia. i dont get it

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  • JayohJayohJay

    NO ILLMATIC?????

  • Tasos


    Sure, it’s only missing classics like ILLMATIC, READY TO DIE, ENTER THE 36 CHAMBERS and ILLADELP HALFLIFE…

    Unbelievable. I would expect more from XXL, lol :@

  • Screwhead 4 Life

    SouthparkMexican sold 1.2 million records just from hustle town , third wish , and power moves. Plus if you add the sales for when devil strike 160,000 and the last chair anothe 100,000 sold independenly,this nigga still doing it from behind the walls,

  • Shaun

    It’s independent albums. Fucktards.