This Sunday marks ten years since the late-great J Dilla blessed our ears, minds, bodies, and souls with his masterpiece Donuts, which he released just three days before his tragic passing at the way-too-young age of 32.
As we reserve time to reflect upon the legacy of Dilla’s seminal work this week, we’ve also been inspired to reexamine the other brilliant instrumental hip-hop albums we’ve experienced over the past few decades, which we’ve honored below.
To clarify, we’ve defined “instrumental hip-hop albums” as those that may not be completely devoid of vocals, but keep them to a minimum nevertheless. We’ve also excluded complementary instrumental versions of originally vocal-heavy albums, as well as albums that only peripherally borrow select elements from hip-hop, such as Flying Lotus’ Los Angeles and Boards of Canada’s Music Has the Right to Children, both excellent albums of experimental electronica.
We hope you enjoy revisiting the 12 albums featured below or, as may be the case for some, discovering them for the very first time. And by all means, if you see any of your favorites missing from the list, please let us know!
The 12 Greatest Instrumental Hip-Hop Albums Ever Made
[#12] Knxwledge | Klouds (2010)
An incredulously dedicated and prolific soundsmith, Knxwledge has released over 60 instrumental works in his seven-year career. That’s not a typo. Over six zero. The workhorse has also produced artists including Blu, Joey Bada$$, and more recently, Kendrick Lamar, who solicited his services for the track “Momma” from his Grammy-nominated modern masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly. Imbued with echoes of J Dilla’s more experimental material, Knxwledge’s debut album Klouds triumphs in merging seemingly incongruous sounds and samples into an intriguing and ultimately rewarding aural adventure.
[#11] DJ Krush | Krush (1994)
Though understandably reluctant to define his genre-bending music by any single style, the Tokyo-bred DJ Krush is nevertheless considered one of the most innovative and influential Japanese hip-hop artists of all time. His kaleidoscopic 1994 debut Krush combines a keen appreciation for beat-heavy boom-bap with jazz, soul, dub, and electronic flourishes throughout, making for an irresistible, headnod-inducing experience overall.
[#10] Oddisee | Rock Creek Park (2011)
Without even the slightest of doubts, one of our favorite long players from last year was Oddisee’s The Good Fight. Which gave us good reason—as if we really needed one—to revisit his wonderfully breezy and evocative mixtape from four years prior. A sonic homage to his native stomping grounds of Washington D.C., Rock Creek Park is steeped in ‘70’s era soul, funk, and jazz, but firmly grounded in his purist hip-hop pedigree.
[#9] DJ Cam | Substances (1996)
Paris-bred producer DJ Cam possesses an unparalleled penchant for crafting sublimely melodic compositions that draw inspiration from ‘90s era hip-hop. While a handful of Cam’s LPs can rightfully be considered masterworks, Substances proves the most cohesive offering across his rich repertoire. An undeniable highlight is the gorgeous opening track “Friends and Enemies,” predicated upon a sample of John Coltrane’s “Wise One,” with elements of Gang Starr’s “Mass Appeal” and one of Malcolm X’s most famous speeches incorporated for good measure.
[#8] K-Def | Willie Boo Boo The Fool (2006)
One of hip-hop’s most revered producers, K-Def has bestowed his golden touch upon records by Ghostface Killah, KRS-One, Lords of the Underground, Mic Geronimo, UGK, and World Renown, among many others. More recently, he has channeled much of his energy into his own work, releasing a handful of stellar albums and EPs over the course of the past ten years. The standout effort is the robust, 42-track Willie Boo Boo The Fool, which boasts top-notch samples, resplendent horns, and dense beats in no short supply.
[#7] 9th Wonder | Tutankhamen (Valley of the Kings) (2012)
Fans of the acclaimed Durham, NC trio Little Brother are well acquainted with 9th Wonder. Together with emcees Phonte and Big Pooh, the gifted producer orchestrated the group’s critically applauded first two albums, The Listening (2003) and The Minstrel Show (2005). One of the most sought-after studio wizards in the business, 9th Wonder has collaborated with countless musical luminaries including Erykah Badu, De La Soul, Jay-Z, Jill Scott, Mary J. Blige, Raekwon, and Talib Kweli. Clocking in at a generous 30 tracks, Tutankhamen (Valley of the Kings) delivers an intoxicating mélange of expertly flipped soul samples and buoyant beats, with nary a throwaway track to be heard.
[#6] RJD2 | Deadringer (2002)
Mixing haunting arrangements with fortified bangers, RJD2’s versatile debut long player was deservedly hailed as one of 2002’s finest albums by critics and fans alike. Deadringer demonstrates its creator’s uncanny knack for forging seamless musical connections between different sounds, styles, instruments, and tempos to glorious effect. No wonder, then, that his production and remixing services have since been employed by a diverse crop of acts that includes Aceyalone, Elbow, Leela James, Massive Attack, Souls of Mischief, and Yo La Tengo.
[#5] Pete Rock | PeteStrumentals (2001)
Following the dissolution of his creative partnership with C.L. Smooth after three acclaimed releases including the duo’s masterpiece Mecca and The Soul Brother, crate-digger extraordinaire Pete Rock continued to bolster his already unparalleled production resumé. In addition to continuing to work with many of hip-hop’s finest emcees, the Chocolate Boy Wonder initiated a string of solo efforts, beginning with his 1998 debut Soul Survivor. A few years later, he unveiled his first collection predominantly comprised of instrumental tracks, entitled—appropriately enough—PeteStrumentals. Although a few different versions of the album exist, the most commonly embraced 16-track iteration is a quintessential specimen of Pete Rock’s signature atmospheric beats, enveloping grooves, and innovative sampling. Also worth exploring is the excellent follow-up, PeteStrumentals 2, released last year.
[#4] Prince Paul | Psychoanalysis (What Is It?) (1996)
3 Feet High and Rising. It’s a Big Daddy Thing. The Cactus Album. All Hail the Queen. De La Soul is Dead. A mere sampling of the myriad classic recordings that Stetsasonic alum Prince Paul has been an integral part of. In parallel to joining forces with RZA to form Gravediggaz and partnering with Dan the Automator for the Handsome Boy Modeling School project in the mid to late ‘90s, the Amityville, NY bred production mastermind released a slew of idiosyncratically captivating solo concept albums. The first of these was the sonic headtrip Psychoanalysis, which showcased Prince Paul’s more leftfield and cerebral sonic tendencies, as thematically aligned with various mental disorders. A captivating case study in the experimental genius of one of hip-hop’s greatest sonic visionaries.
[#3] Madlib | Beat Konducta Vol 1-2: Movie Scenes (2006)
Arguably hip-hop’s greatest master of reinvention, the chameleonic Madlib has adopted multiple personas and roles throughout his 20-plus year recording career. From his alter ego Quasimoto to his group Lootpack to his collaborations with MF Doom (as Madvillian) and J Dilla (as Jaylib) to his multiple-personality jazz-soul troupe Yesterdays New Quinet comprised of fictitious session players, Madlib has always approached his music with an open mind and adventurous spirit. Arguably the creative zenith of the projects explicitly adorned with his moniker, the imaginative seven-volume Beat Konducta series showcases Madlib’s genius in abundance. Released just one month after the death of Madlib’s kindred musical spirit, J Dilla, the cinematic, soul-drenched Volumes 1 & 2 are the most enthralling installments of the series. Released in 2009, Volumes 5 & 6 were developed as a musical tribute to Dilla and prove essential listening as well.
[#2] J Dilla | Donuts (2006)
In retrospect, James “J Dilla” Yancey’s rapid evolution from devoted student to sage savant to universally revered ambassador of hip-hop within a remarkably brief ten-year period was truly a beautiful thing to behold. Largely recorded during an extended hospital stay and released just three days before his death, the brilliant Donuts is Dilla’s magnum opus. Indeed, the 31-track album is the perfect manifestation of Dilla’s ingenious approach to flipping soul, funk, jazz and hip-hop samples in never-heard-before ways to create truly original, never derivative compositions. Describing her son’s recording process for Donuts to The Fader in December of 2006, Maureen Yancey explained that “He tried to go over each beat and make sure that it was something different and make sure that there was nothing that he wanted to change.” Ever the consummate perfectionist, J Dilla will forever be missed, but his musical legacy will shine with us for eternity.
[#1] DJ Shadow | Endtroducing….. (1996)
With unrivaled humility and grace (and a fair amount of anonymity), the esteemed DJ Shadow has pushed the experimental boundaries of music for more than 20 years now, while always maintaining a firm sonic foundation in the old-school hip-hop traditions that he grew up with. A product of the Bay Area’s vibrant underground hip-hop scene and the respected Solesides collective that included Blackalicious and Latyrx, Shadow took the world by storm with his exquisitely executed 1996 debut long player Endtroducing..…. An exhilarating, sprawling work of cinematic, dreamlike vision, Endtroducing…..’s perfectly crafted mix of inventive sampling, beats-driven ambience, and lush arrangements produce one of the most timeless albums you’ll ever hear. Nearly twenty years later, it remains the highest water mark for instrumental hip-hop.