“At the club, I loved the music and recognized that the records that were coming out at this time—there were no albums in rap yet, just 12-inch singles—and the ones that were coming out didn't sound like what the club felt like,” Rick Rubin explain when asked to provide his motivation for coming up with the raw production style of T. La Rock’s "It’s Yours." Two years after that single dropped in 1984, Rakim would go on to release "Eric B. Is President," on which he famously rapped that “MC means 'move the crowd.'"
By then, hip-hop had been bubbling for years as a mostly underground, and predominantly live phenomenon. It took half a decade before Sugar Hill Records’ Sylvia Robinson proved that a rap record was even commercially viable, when "Rapper’s Delight" became a hit in 1979. With a history like that, it’s somewhat surprising hip-hop has a relative dearth of actual live albums. Then again, it might not be easy to capture the feeling of a great live hip-hop show on a recording, but it certainly isn’t impossible either, as the following ten albums ably prove.
Here are the ten best live hip-hop albums of all time, ranked.
10. Wu-Tang Clan — Live at Montreux 2007 (2008)
Back in 2007, the complete Clan (minus the deceased ODB) had been touring together on and off again for a few years, after celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Wu with a world tour three years earlier. That meant their swords were not only as sharp as ever at the Montreux Jazz festival, but their chemistry was once again in full swing. Blazing through a 32-song tracklist full of classics from both solo and group records, the group sounds fully in sync finishing each other's verses without missing a beat.
Despite recording the Wu in optima forma, most of the tracks come across as rowdy and rushed versions of their more nuanced studio counterparts. This probably makes the live album a hard sell for those unfamiliar with their classic catalog, folks who are better off listening to the original albums from which the setlist pulls its tracks from. For their established fans, though, it’s a feast of recognition caught in a flurry of energy.
9. Mac Miller (with The Internet) — Live From Space (2013)
By the time Mac Miller released Live From Space in 2013, he had already found impressive commercial success with his debut album Blue Slide Park. Though he was still pegged by many as a talented, though not particularly interesting stoner rapper still searching for his own sound, his sophomore album Watching Movies With The Sound Off, which followed a string of increasingly well-received mixtapes, found the rapper opening up about his life and what moves him, atop beats (several of which he produced himself under the alias Larry Fisherman) both more original and stylistically consistent.
The tour following this creative triumph was the perfect occasion for Miller to record a live album. Rather than having a DJ drop in the beats behind his verbs, Miller joined forces with The Internet, the funk/soul outfit founded by Odd Future members Syd and Matt Martians. The band adds subtlety and warmth to the set, which is most apparent on the live rendition of title track "Watching Movies," where Miller goes into beast mode, feverishly tears up the mic. Closing out the album are a bunch of bonus tracks that didn’t make Watching Movies With The Sound Off, which is a nice addition, but the live tracks are definitely the main attraction.
8. J. Cole — Forest Hills Drive: Live from Fayetteville, NC (2015)
Cole returned to his hometown of Fayetteville, NC on August 30, 2015, to perform 2014 Forest Hills Drive, his most critically acclaimed (and then most recent) album to date, in its entirety. A victory lap like that is designed to be a historic night, and Cole delivers exactly what was expected of him. His proclivity for organic-sounding production works greatly to his benefit here, ensuring that the recreation of his beats by a live band feels natural, while he crisply spits his lyrics in full control of his voice. And despite being recorded in an ice hockey stadium built to house an audience of 10,000 people, Cole and his backing band still manage to create a somewhat intimate vibe, without sacrificing the stadium grandeur of the evening.
The only downside to Forest Hills Drive: Live was also the biggest selling point of the evening it recorded. Just like any good album, the setlist for a concert has a specific arch. Playing a specific album completely through means the arch for this record is a carbon-copy of its predecessor, which unfortunately makes the live recording feel more like a bonus treat than its own thing.
7. MF DOOM — Live from Planet X (2005)
Presented in a single, continuous 38-minute track without any edits or cuts, thus recreating the flow of the performance in its full glory, Live from Planet X is one of rap’s most enjoyable live albums. Most surprisingly, it was recorded by a rapper with a severely spotted live reputation. “I’m the writer, I’m the director,” DOOM once said, defending himself against fans who were angry he sent out imposters wearing his iconic mask for live performances. “If I was to go out there without the mask on, they’d be like, ‘Who the fuck is this?’”
Thankfully, the original form of the metal-faced villain stepped onto the stage of San Francisco’s DNA Lounge in 2004, where Live from Planet X was recorded. DOOM was at the absolute top of his game on that evening, performing tracks from all of his projects up until then, including some from his then-still-brand-spanking-new and undeniably classic album Madvillainy with Madlib. To make rapping this technically proficient sound as casual as he does here takes a true master of the form.
6. Boogie Down Productions — Live Hardcore Worldwide (1991)
"If anyone ever asks you the question, 'Who is the number one set and sound?'" KRS authoritatively states in the record’s intro, “...please, play them this album.” The 1991 live album that follows indeed offers good evidence to back up the intro’s bold statement. Many rappers—and this includes more than a few veterans too—have a tendency to shout their lyrics when performing live, sacrificing intelligibility for energy, and often even running out of breath by the time their punchline is supposed to hit.
KRS, however, has always rapped his lyrics with all the subtlety of a ram-raid while having honed his skills live before ever stepping into a studio. As a result, his battering-ram flow and booming voice are pretty much exactly the same live as they are on record, and on these recordings, it might even be better. Live Hardcore Worldwide is hip-hop at its most unapologetic and raw. Politics, Black empowerment and braggadocio trade places over scratches and trunk-rattling drums. Hear the audience go nuts over Criminal Minded’s title track, and you’ll almost feel like you’re right there, knowing that a rap show can't get much better than this.
5. Oddisee & Good Compny — Beneath the Surface (Live) (2017)
Even though Oddisee’s Beneath the Surface has only been out for a few months, the album, recorded on last year’s tour supporting The Iceberg, is already among rap’s greatest live recordings. “I’m not one to romanticize what we do for a living because it gives a false representation to people who look up to us and aspire to be in this position,” Oddisee explained in a 2015 interview about his insane touring schedule. “It’s definitely, seeing the world. It’s definitely, touring with my friends, having great conversations, but at the same time, it’s a lot of long car rides in small confined spaces.”
Thankfully, he shares those rides with a group of guys who are more than just guns for hire, as Oddisee and Good Compny have turned into a very finely tuned touring machine with more evident chemistry than peroxide and potassium iodide. The greatest concert albums are those that manage to add something to already good songs, and Beneath the Surface captures many of those moments. Listen to how the jittery instrumental flourishes of "Things" add shades reminiscent of Afrobeat, or how the interplay of voices (including that of the audience) on "Rights & Wrongs" gives a whole new dimension to the song.
4. Kanye West — Late Orchestration (2006)
Ask anyone what the best album in Yeezy’s discography is and, if they don't tell you My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, you'll most likely hear Late Registration. The combination of its lush orchestration and sample-based beats touched many straight in the feels, and when Kanye performed it live at London’s Abbey Road Studios, he turned that up a notch.
“You know how good it feels to have strings for that chorus?” Kanye says during "Crack Music," as the string section joining him throughout the show adds a plush, almost ethereal vibe to the original version's stomp. Unfortunately, Late Orchestration edited out all of his banter with the audience, so a little bit more of Kanye himself would’ve provided those who weren’t among the lucky 300 people in attendance with a stronger impression of the evening. Still, the power of the songs remains impressive enough, and those strings do give them a beautiful layer, making this an oft-overlooked but indispensable addition to his discography.
3. Lauryn Hill — MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 (2002)
If the reception of Star Wars: The Last Jedi proves anything, it’s that not giving audiences what they expect can turn to some sour faces, no matter the inherent quality of the material itself. Lauryn Hill found this out the hard way when MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 was released to lukewarm reviews and (at the time) meager sales.
With people expecting unplugged renditions of Lauryn’s greatest hits, presumably taken from The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and The Score, Ms. Hill took a left turn, releasing two discs of brand new material, with some of it sounding more like sketches of songs mulling around in her head. “It’s one of those songs that would fade down if I was in the studio,” she says jokingly after abruptly stopping "Just Want You Around." It’s one of many asides she shares with her audience, giving insight into her writing process and what goes on inside her head.
Just how open Lauryn is in this session can be heard when she almost breaks down crying in the finale of "I Gotta Find Peace of Mind." The word "intimate" doesn’t begin to describe this album. With nothing but her beautiful voice (which is only enhanced by the slight raspiness of it on this recording) and an acoustic guitar, here is a brutally honest, insanely talented artist, at the peak of her artistic prowess, bearing her soul without reserve.
And the masses shitted on her for it.
The world doesn’t deserve Lauryn Hill’s MTV Unplugged No. 2.0.
2. JAY-Z — MTV Unplugged (2001)
Released at the height of what is arguably hip-hop’s greatest beef, and featuring the genre's greatest live band backing one of the greatest rappers of all time, it's no wonder JAY-Z’s Unplugged session somehow still manages to exceed expectations. “Ché Guevara with bling on” comfortably runs through a selection of his greatest hits up ’til then, with The Roots riding shotgun. With styles varying from DJ Premier-produced boom bap to Neptunes bangers and chipmunk soul by Kanye, you might expect not everything in Jay’s discography to easily translate to a live rendition, but The Roots aren’t just any band.
Unsurprisingly, Questlove and company find the exact right angle for every interpretation, with Jay in the pocket for each of them. A prime example is this set’s version of "Takeover." As Jay spits, “I don’t care if you Mobb Deep," The Roots quickly switch up and play the classic beat from "Shook Ones." That trick is repeated in the final verse when "Oochie Wally" is played as Jay mentions that song, and again when they switch to "NY State of Mind." That Nas even recovered from getting blasted on his own beat like that is no small wonder.
1. The Roots — The Roots Come Alive (1999)
It may not come as a surprise that hip-hop’s greatest live band released hip-hop’s greatest live album, a feat they accomplished way back in 1999. The way Black Thought plays with the levels of his verses on "Step Into the Realm," for instance, rapping quietly at first and increasing the volume while he works towards the chorus, adds a completely new dimension to the song. Scratch and Rahzel also join the crew for some deftly simulated turntablism.
Just listen to how Black Thought’s vocal melodies on "Jusufckwithis" move along with the bass and guitar lines and realize that these guys can improvise like the greatest of jazz combos, rock the house like no other and rap with the absolute best the world has witnessed. Listen to the crowd hang on every note. Listen to the textures of this recording, and the care that must have gone into post-production and mastering, which is above and beyond not just most live rap albums, but most live albums—period.
Every rap fan should catch The Roots live at least once in their life, but if you haven’t done so yet, this album is the next best thing.