The Basics Of DJ Copyright Laws

We have had an influx of DJs sending us messages asking about fair use, copyright, and the legalities of playing music out in venues. In today’s article, guest contributor Aden Russell has put together a solid refresher on the current state of copyright and sampling legal issues for DJs.

Editor’s note: This article does not intend to be legal advice, nor does DJTT intend to give it, and laws referenced here can change after the publication of the article. Always use a lawyer for professional legal advice.

Over the last 20 years, the law has become quite strict around the implications of using copyrighted material in creative works, including music and audio. Thanks to the advent of technology, sampling, ripping, and recreating have become easier and more accessible than ever before. In 2017, people are even sampling Vines.

At the same time, technology has allowed for copyrighted works to be easily detected on platforms such as Soundcloud and YouTube. For the most part, this means producers making a track or DJ’s recording a mix, have to be careful what they use in their works and where they distribute such things. Likewise, producers have to be very careful when using other people’s music in their own creations; they have to have the permission to do so.

An an recent interviewDJ Shadow made a pertinent observation about the evolution of music and sampling:

“In a strange sense I feel like music has never been worth less as a commodity, and yet sampling has never been more risky. We work in a hyper-capitalist time, where you grab what you can, get everything you can, doesn’t matter whether it’s right or wrong, it doesn’t matter whether it’s valid, it doesn’t matter whether it’s deserved.”

However, in this big pool of copyright stuff, there is a term that industry professionals, as well as other DJ’s/Producers, like to throw around: ‘fair use’. If you’ve heard it, you’ve definitely asked yourself ‘what the hell does this mean?’

The Fundamentals and ‘Fair Use’

Nowadays, it’s obvious for many that in regards to producing music, using copyrighted material without permission is illegal in the majority of countries around the world. This is especially true when monetizing your music, which can have hefty financial and legal implications. If you haven’t heard about the basics of copyright, check out this article we posted a while back.

You can plead ‘fair use’ when distributing produced music for free, but it’s still a risk to take and you can still end up in a legal pickle. But in the world of DJing copyrighted material, it’s a whole different ball game. This is one of those times where that term ‘fair use’ comes into play:

  • playing your own music (or official remixes you made) is absolutely fine, because 99% of the time, you own the rights to your own music, unless you gave a label exclusive rights to it
  • playing other people’s tracks requires royalties to be paid to those artists. “What! But I’ve never had to pay for anything but the song purchase?” you’re probably saying. Let’s explain what’s going on here.

Copyright in the Booth

When a DJ plays live at a venue and mixes a collection of tracks, the venue usually pays the licensing fees for the songs that the DJ’s play, 99% of the time, to a Performing Rights Organisation (PRO for short). In the U.S., this is an organisation like ASCAP or BMI (in my country, Australia, it’s called APRA AMCOS).

This means that DJs don’t have to worry about breaching copyright by playing other people’s tracks, because the venue covers you. But what about if we play a sample of an old track and create a live remix out of it, technically creating a ‘new work’ using copyrighted material? In many countries (including the U.S.), DJing is considered a ‘non-fixed medium of expression’, meaning that because a live set is not directly reproducible and distributable, there is a lot more flexibility in the use of copyrighted material in this particular circumstance.

“Under the Copyright Act, a work is fixed in a tangible medium of expression ‘when its embodiment in a copy or phonorecord, by or under the authority of the author, is sufficiently permanent or stable to permit it to be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated for a period of more than transitory duration. A work consisting of sounds, images, or both, that are being transmitted, is ‘fixed’ . . . if a fixation of the work is being made simultaneously with its transmission.’” – Cornell Law School

Modern DJ Technology and Copyright

“Once you add something to the vocabulary, you don’t want to continue to go back to that same way of doing things, because that’s what everybody else is doing now.”– DJ Shadow

In the era of digital DJ technology, playing hybrid DJ/live sets has become more common – including:

  • using formats like Native Instruments’ ‘Stems’ to recreate remixes live
  • playing acapellas and samples over tracks,
  • using Ableton to combine a variety of songs, samples, and stems to create unique new works live

Since live shows fall aren’t fixed mediums, this also gives producers who may have some tracks and/or remixes that contain such material, to play them live without worrying about what could happen as a result, and provides a legal alternative to releasing them.

This gives DJs and producers a lot of creative freedom and expression while playing live, and people love hearing a flip or another take on someone else’s track they all love and know. That this doesn’t mean you can play full songs that you have not legitimately purchased, as any final recording released has to still be owned by you to be allowed to play it. This simply means that you can use those works in new ways without worrying about getting a lawsuit.

Set Recordings

One important note comes into play in regards to performing live and recording it. While the set itself in the moment is not considered a ‘fixed medium of expression’, any recordings, video or audio, technically still can breach copyright.

You can still get into legal troubles when uploading recorded sets to places that do not allow that kind of material. Sites that are allowed to hold DJ sets include Mixcloud and (maybe) Soundcloud. Platforms like YouTube are still a gray area, and DJs need to make sure they 100% have permission to put other people’s works in a mix there, especially when monetizing content. Some uploads manage to get away with it, but it can only be a matter of time.

The Lowdown on DJ Copyright

In summary, the main takeaway is that DJs have a lot more creative freedom in the booth versus in the studio. See what cool things you can do in your DJ set to spice it up, remix a classic, chop some acapellas over your tunes, and do it all live.

Please remember, that if you come across any grey-areas, or need further clarification, this does not negate the need for legal advice. The law is very complex and everyone’s circumstances are different, and the laws differ from country to country, sometimes slightly, sometimes largely. To throw another curveball, the law is constantly changing, and some of the things mentioned in this article can change over time.

If you’re confused or come across a serious issue, the best thing to do is to find a lawyer in your country. Ask them all the tough questions, because an article like this can never supplant real legal advice!

Serato Pro Tip: Copying Crates to a USB Flash Drive

I was actually reminded about this little gem by a tweet linking to an old Serato Newsletter “support tip of the month”. If you’ve got any great tips you want to share, feel free to hit us up on Twitter and let us know too!

If you’re wanting to go back to back with a friend and just use one computer, or just want to have your super club weapon banger crates on you at all times, Serato DJ and Scratch Live allow you to easily copy these to a USB flash drive.

To copy your crate(s):

  1. Open the Files panel in Serato DJ / Scratch Live
  2. Click on the crate(s) you wish to copy
  3. Drag the crates onto your USB flash drive in the Files panel. You will then be prompted to either ‘copy’ or ‘move’ – make sure you select ‘copy’
  4. A progress bar will now appear below the files panel. Once this is completed you can remove your USB flash drive (make sure you do this safely)

You now have a copy of your crate(s) on your USB flash drive. Simply plug it into a computer running Serato DJ / Scratch Live and your crates will appear, ready for you to use!

– See more at:

Originally contributed by Sam from Serato on 14 Jan 2014

Serato Pro Tip: Copying Crates to a USB Flash Drive

Traxsource’s Best Selling Tracks of 2016

2016 has been another vintage year for dance music, with the quality of electronic music releases continuing to astound and delight in equal measure. Our Best Selling Tracks of 2016 are always particularly interesting as it’s an honest reflection of what working DJs are playing. It also showcases the breadth of talent currently working in dance music, and contains a healthy mix of established names and new faces. Ranging from the darkest, heads-down Tech House to the sexiest Disco, taking in the very best in Afro, Deep, Jackin, Soulful House and more, here are Traxsource’s Best Selling Tracks of 2016.  Click the link to discover:  Traxsource’s Best Selling Tracks of 2016

Ergonomics, Organization, & Experimentation: 3 Ways To Improve Your Performances

One sign of a great live performer – DJs included – is that they are constantly looking to improve in as many areas within their skillset as they can. No matter how good you get at DJing, producing, or playing out – if you fail to improve, you give opportunity to others to surpass you. This article offers tips separated into three topics: ergonomics, organization and experimentation – read on to find out how each applies to your DJing, production, or live performance pursuits!

Expanding in these three areas is critical – for ergonomics, physical user interaction with DJ and production equipment is key, as it is fundamental to perform in a comfortable physical state. Organization is widely regarded as one of the most essential characteristics for success. Finally, without experimentation, music would simply not be as we know it today. Results of experimentation also means putting a personal stamp on your performance and standing out from the crowd – something that promoters and punters alike look for in artists.


Photo Credit:

Like musicians, DJs & live performers can benefit highly from ergonomics. This knowledge both greatly improves performance on the short term and will aid your health over years of performing. Stretching, equipment height, and laptop access all fall under this category:

As with many physical activities, stretching can lead to prolonged endurance and keeping yourself injury free while improving your peak performance. You would be surprised how quickly you can improve with simple muscle stretches before and after practicing compared to practicing alone. The recommended muscles to stretch are your upper chest, front neck muscles, shoulder muscles, and forearm muscles. Stretching these muscles for about thirty seconds is recommended. As with all stretching it is important to make sure you don’t strain yourself and if you have any physical constraints, consult your physician.

DJ Equipment Height
While it may not seem like a big deal now, the last thing you want is to have back trouble in your old age. Adjusting your equipment to a comfortable height can not only save your back but also improve the level of your performance over a short period of time. In order to achieve a neutral position for your wrist in relation to the control surface/record platters, their tops (records/ jogwheels / faders) should be approximately even with your navel. Using an adjustable table or road-cases is a smart way of raising your equipment to this level.

Laptop Access
The placement of your laptop is an important factor as having easy access can improve your performance workflow. While there is no one correct placement of your laptop, there are a number of things that you should avoid. If you have to bend down to read the screen your laptop, consider:

  • Increasing font size on your DJ software
  • Upgrading to a laptop with a larger screen.
  • Investing in a laptop stand (DJTT’s store crew recommends the Crane Stand Pro, but thereare many options)

It’s better to access your laptop at a comfortable height with a few steps over to the side than to constantly crane over your equipment. Consider moving your laptop around in your setup until you find a comfortable position to access it. This will prevent you from having to crane your neck or body. While this seems like an obvious thing to do, it is surprising the amount of DJs that fall into the bad habit of craning their body even if  it’s for a few seconds at a time.

Read More: Laptop placement can mean the difference between Serato Face or not.


Organization keeps you motivated, your morale high, and can produce better results in a shorter time.

While it might seem boring to some, being organized can actually lead to more exciting performances, as being in total control of your performance is arguably more satisfying than trying something completely spontaneously. You can’t impress a crowd with a spontaneous technique if you don’t know how it’s going to sound! All the top performers organize themselves in many aspects – including their practices, music collections, and traveling tools.

Efficient Practice

Setting up your equipment in an organized fashion can produce better results and improve your creativity. One way to achieve this is to reorganize your equipment desk/table. Try this simple practice exercise:

  • Clear everything off the desk you practice on.
  • Write on a sheet of paper how long you aim to practice for, what you aim to practice on and the minimum amount of equipment you need to fulfill this practice.
  • Only put on the desk the equipment you need to achieve your goal.
  • Practice!

Sticking to this method of practice, your performance ability will improve rapidly. Start basic and as you improve, increase the challenge.

Sometimes having excess equipment can be distracting if you initially didn’t plan on using it. Deciding half way through your practice that you want to add something else to the practice will ultimately stall your goal. You can always plan your next practice with your new idea but it is important to discipline yourself to complete one goal before advancing to the next.

Aside from tips from Invisibl Skratch Pickz, we’ve never had a complete article about practicing.
Let us know your practice tips in the comments! 

Music Collection

While this is a well documented area, organizing your music collection can lead to an improved workflow, increased creativity, and a better knowledge of your music base.

When building organization, you obviously should consider factors like BPM range, harmonic keys, genres and routines when organizing your tracks. Creating a number of different signature routines can make you stand out among other DJs/performers. (Editor’s Tip: Ean always talks about having his sets organized in small batches, with two or three songs that go well together well-noted in your crates/playlists so that you’ve got “built-in” routines into your standard playlists)

Consider what platform to organize your music in: whether that be in drive folders, iTunes or your preferred performance software as each have advantages and disadvantages. Take a look at previous DJTechTools’ articles for ideas on how to organize your music.

Utility Travel Bag/Case

Knowing exactly what is in your bag is key when touring, travelling or even playing local gigs. Packing your utility bag to go to a gig is a something most performers are familiar with. Organizing it correctly can save you unwanted embarrassment if done right. First write out a list of all equipment/cables/music you plan to use at your gig. With this, consider the items on your list that are most likely to fail. Among the most likely to fail may include:

  • USB leads
  • Audio cables
  • Power leads
  • Cartridge needles

Packing a spare of each of the most likely items to fail is a good measure to combat a DJ’s worst nightmare, silence. You can prove to be the hero of the day should another performer forget a cable. There is only so much preparation you can do. Should your laptop fail, remember all technology has potential to fail. Even the best turntables have potential to fail.

Read More: Always make a list to make sure your DJ gear is all there!


New techniques in all areas of music are often discovered through accidents or experiments. This can be the most frustrating/exciting side of music. Discovering or developing a new technique can be a way of having your own personal signature or contributing to your area of music. Live Performance with computers is a relatively new area compared to DJing and is therefore a means for discovery.

Plan For Experimentation

While techniques from accidents can not be planned, experimentation most definitely can. While planning when to practice, include time or a session for experimenting. For example, if you practice five times a week, include a little time in each practice session for experimenting or if you practice six times a month, change/add one session to experiment.

It is important to remember that experimentation has potential to lead to produce little or no results. Therefore, plan it as a little something extra after the more essential practices that do lead to results. As a reference point, experimentation should include doing things that you have never tried before.

Learn The Rules – Then Break The Rules

It is essential to have a fundamental understanding of what you plan to experiment with. If you don’t know the rules you can’t break them on purpose. For example if you have no idea what you are doing you can end up damaging part of your equipment. So learn as much as you can and then innovate, collaborate but don’t decimate. If you’re not already familiar with the basics of your equipment search for tutorials online or read the included manual.

Take It Further With Software

The more advanced functionality of a performance software, the more experimenting you can do. But even with the most advanced performance software, they all have their ultimate limitations.

There are a few applications that are designed for developing new ideas from scratch that don’t require lines of codes but rather graphical coding. With more code-based solutions, the possibilities are endless and provide a great platform for expanding your ideas. If you haven’t before, take a look at PureData (Free),  Max/MSP (a must for Ableton users), andProcessing (VJs will be very interested in some of the opportunities here, although it’s way more code-instense) bit more  to see if either can offer you something more.

(Editor’s Note: We’ve seen a number of advanced software applications built in Max MSP – including an upcoming application from Mad Zach himself!) 


Whether you decided to introduce stretches before and after your practices, or simply organize your travel bag more efficiently, you’re bound to reap the benefits when you are on stage at your next gig performing. Feel free to discuss these tips below in the comments or contribute your own!

Keith Brady is a MSc Music Technology postgraduate that specializes in DJing and Live Performance. He also spent two years as chairperson of the award winning DKIT DJ Society. For all things creative, music and technology or just to get in touch: follow him on Twitter.

Graphics & photography (except where noted) by Keith Brady.

Top 40 Hip-Hop Albums of 1994


Top 40 Hip Hop Albums 1994

1. Nas – Illmatic

best hip hop albums of 1994

“Rappers, I monkey flip ’em with the funky rhythm I be kickin’ / Musician, inflictin’ composition of pain…” (NY State Of Mind)

Perfection. One of the very best Hip Hop albums in history, period. A young and hungry, insanely talented emcee comes together with some of the finest producers in the game, who all bring their best work. No skits, no fillers – just nine 5-star tracks that combine into a seminal work that will forever be revered as one of the most important releases in Hip Hop ever. A monumental masterpiece.

Top tracks: NY State Of Mind | Life’s A Bitch | The World Is Yours | It Ain’t Hard To Tell

2. Notorious B.I.G. – Ready To Die

best hip hop albums 1994

“It was all a dream / I used to read Word Up! magazine / Salt-n-Pepa and Heavy D up in the limousine / Hangin’ pictures on my wall / Every Saturday Rap Attack, Mr. Magic, Marley Marl…” (Juicy) 

Another landmark album and all-time classic. The Notorious B.I.G. made a big splash on the scene with his classic debut single Party & Bullshit. Expectations were high for his full-length debut album and boy did he deliver with Ready To Die.

One of the most naturally gifted emcees and storytellers in the Hip Hop game ever, everything came together for him on this album. Excellent production throughout with Biggie’s simultaneously brash and vulnerable lyrics to top off the banging instrumentals. Few others were ever able to express their thoughts and feelings the way Biggie was. Super classic.

Top tracks: Juicy | Gimme The Loot | Things Done Changed | Warning

3. OutKast – Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik

best hip hop albums 1994

“Halle-lu-jah, halle-lu-jah / Y’know I do some things more different than I used to…” (Player’s Ball)

After quality releases from groups like Geto Boys, UGK, Eightball & MJG and others in years previous, OutKast‘s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik was THE album that put Southern Hip Hop on the map as a major part of Hip Hop, which after this album could no longer be divided simply in East- and West Coast.

Not immediately recognized as such upon its release,Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik gained more and more recognition over the years and is now universally recognized as a staple of (Southern) Hip Hop.

Top tracks: Player’s BallSouthernplayalisticadillacmuzik | Git Up, Git Out | Crumblin’ Erb

4. O.C. – Word… Life

best hip hop albums 1994

“Non-conceptual, non-exceptional / Everybody’s either crime-related or sexual / I’m here to make a difference, besides all the riffing / To traps I’m not sticking, rappers stop flipping / For those who pose lyrical but really ain’t true I feel…” (Time’s Up)

O.C.‘s Word… Life is very similar to Nas’ Illmatic in many ways (excellent beats, clever lyricism, overall cohesiveness), but incorrectly much less revered. Maybe due to bad promotion by O.C.’s Wild Pitch label, maybe because the competition in 1994 was so awesome – whatever the reason: Word… Life flew so far under the radar it’s ridiculous. This easily is one of the best Hip Hop albums of 1994. Don’t sleep on Word… Life.

Top tracks: Time’s Up | Word… Life |  Born 2 Live |  Constables

5. Jeru The Damaja – The Sun Rises In The East

best hip hop albums 1994

“Real, rough and rugged, shine like a gold nugget / Every time I pick up the microphone I drug it / Unplug it on chumps with the gangster babble / Leave your nines at home and bring your skills to the battle” (Come Clean)

In a year when Premier dropped another excellent Gang Starr album, he reserved his very best beats for Brooklyn emcee Jeru The Damaja. Jeru’s intellectual street flows combined with Premier’s best instrumentals result in a tight 10- song album with no filler tracks.

Top tracks: Come Clean | D Original | Ain’t The Devil Happy | My Mind Spray

6. Gang Starr – Hard To Earn

best hip hop albums 1994

“And you’d be happy as hell to get a record deal / Maybe your soul you’d sell to have mass appeal” (Mass Appeal)

Markedly darker, both sonically and lyrically, than their previous albums,Hard To Earn is yet another 5-star album from Gang Starr. Guru and DJ Premier are both in top form as usual, cementing their status of one the most consistent acts in Hip Hop ever.

Top tracks: Mass Appeal | Code Of The Streets | DWYCK | Brainstorm

7. Pete Rock & CL Smooth – The Main Ingredient

best hip hop albums 1994

“It’s going down from out of town / Off the wicked streets of New York trouble / Me and my man map the plan and make a hefty bundle…” (I Get Physical)

Lacking a monster hit-single like T.R.O.Y. from their classic full-length debut album Mecca And The Soul Brother, The Main Ingredient is often overlooked when it comes to considering Hip Hop’s best albums. That is wrong, because this one is just as flawless as its predecessor. True enough: CL Smooth isn’t the greatest emcee or lyricist ever, but these albums are all about Pete Rock’s production, which is as good as ever on this top notch feel-good album.

Top tracks: The Main Ingredient | I Get Physical | Carmel City | All The Places

8. Common – Resurrection

best hip hop albums 1994

“…but I’ma take her back hoping that the shit stop / Cause who I’m talking ’bout, y’all, is Hip Hop” (I Used To Love H.E.R.) 

Clever and conscious wordplay over excellent production – on his second album Common is maturing into what he would eventually become: one of Hip Hop’s most revered emcees and personalities. In one of Hip Hop’s biggest years, this album measures up to any of the other releases with ease.

Top tracks: I Used To Love H.E.R. | Sum Shit I Wrote | Resurrection | Book of Life

9. Scarface – The Diary

best hip hop albums 1994 scarface

“It’s nineteen-ninety-four and we up against the same shit / I never understood why / I could never see a man cry, til I seen a man die” (I Seen A Man Die)

Raw and haunting, The Diary arguably is Scarface‘s magnum opus in an overall outstanding discography. The Diary, his third solo album, is short and tight (10 full songs) with only one guest (Ice Cube), which makes it all the stronger. No filler material on this album. A (Southern) Hip Hop classic.

Top tracks: I Seen A Man Die | Hand Of The Dead Body | Mind Playin’ Tricks ’94 | No Tears

10. Organized Konfusion – Stress: The Extinction Agenda


“Let the trigger finger put the pressure to the mechanism / Which gives a response, for the automatic *bang* / Clip to release projectiles in single / File forcing me to ignite then travel / Through the barrel, headed for the light / At the end of a tunnel, with no specific target in sight…” (Stray Bullet)

Organized Konfusion were responsible for three excellent albums in the 90s, and this is one is the best of the three. Prince Po and Pharoahe Monch show some unparalleled lyricism on this dark, dense, complicated and intellectual album. A Golden Age underground classic.

Top tracks: Stray Bullet | Thirteen | Bring it On | Stress

11. Dred Scott – Breakin’ Combs

dred scott

“Wakin up the mind, wakin up the soul / Sunshine from the brother, let’s take a stroll / A jeep goes boom, a mother holds an infant / I hear some buckshots goin off in the distance…” (Check The Vibe)

Wrong time, wrong coast? If this outstanding album had dropped in NYC a few years earlier, it probably would have been bigger back then and universally recognized as a classic right now.

As it is, Breakin’ Combs is a sorely slept-on and unjustly forgotten album. Entirely self-produced, Dred Scott delivers smooth, jazzy beats reminiscent of A Tribe Called Quest. Nothing wrong with his lyrics and emcee skills either. Why this album is so underappreciated is a mystery, but it deserves its props – that’s the reason for the high position on this list for one of Hip Hop’s best years.

Top tracks: Back In The Day | Check The Vibe | Funky Rhythms | Duck Ya Head

12. Digable Planets – Blowout Comb


“Stressing the fact that I’m solar guaranteed to go far / Cause the mind is interstellar / Still peace like that, so have no fear / But I’m slicker this year / I’m slicker this year” (9th Wonder)

Digable Planets’ second album in two years and unfortunately their last. Musically reminiscent of The Roots, this smart and seductive album is one of 1994 most creative and interesting releases. A timeless album, that sounds as fresh today as it did in 1994.

Top tracks: 9th Wonder (Blackitolism) | Four Corners | Jettin’ | Dial 7

13. The Beatnuts – Street Level

best hip hop albums 1994

“I just ripped, out the dirt from my coffin / Flippin through loops like a lunatic dolphin…” (Psycho Dwarf)

An underappreciated NYC classic. This is one of those albums that have stood the test of time. The production is excellent throughout, and the braggadocious and humorous rhymes are catchy and creative. Street Level is consistent from beginning to end, no filler tracks.

The Beatnuts always made quality Hip Hop, and this one is among their best work. A must have for fans of the early 90s East Coast sound.

Top tracks: Props Over Here | Psycho Dwarf | Superbad | Are You Ready

13. UGK – Super Tight

best hip hop albums 1994

“I got a ’64 Chevy in my yard / A white drop top, pearl paint job is hard / White plush inside southern robe is fresh / Triple gold double-A Dayton’s is the best, ugh” (Front, Back & Side To Side)

UGK‘s second record flew a little bit under the radar upon its release, in a big year for Southern Hip Hop with classic releases from OutKast and Scarface. While UGK’s first album was well received, this short and tight album was even more acclaimed, even if it never achieved really big sales.

The lyrics are nothing special – mostly the typical pimp and gangsta cliches – but it is the late Pimp C’s funky and bass-heavy production that makes this album shine. No doubt about it: Super Tight is an important Southern Hip Hop album and a solid stepping stone to UGK’s real break-out album: 1996’s classic Ridin’ Dirty.

Top tracks: The Return | Front, Back, & Side To Side | Pocket Full Of Stones 2 | Three Sixteens

15. KMD – Black Bastards

best hip hop albums 1994

“Yo black, yo black, I’m back ransacking through the stacks
Of maniacial thoughts I brought to distort the black” (Black Bastards!)

Originally slated for a 1994 release, Black Bastards was shelved until 2001 because of controversy surrounding the intended provocative album cover and because of the tragic accident that killed Subroc, Zev Love X’s (MF DOOM) brother.

This sophomore album showed a much more mature KMD, production- and contentwise. A real shame it was shelved for six years, we can only wonder now what its impact would have been, had it actually been released in 1994. As it is – this album is a lost classic and a must-have if only for MF DOOM fans.

Top tracks: Sounded Like A Roc | Smokin That Shit | Black Bastards | Fuck With Ya Head

16. The Coup – Genocide & Juice

best hip hop albums 1994

“I spit game on a regular basis; now everybody / Looking at my hand like I’m holding all the aces / Cool that they know our faces, from different places / But you can’t catch up if you don’t know what the pace is” (The Name Game)

The Coup has released a string of excellent albums with socially conscious and clever rhymes, and this sophomore effort arguably is their best. Funky, fresh production, intelligent rhymes by Boots, E-Roc & DJ Pam the Funkstress: another slept-on The Coup masterpiece.

Top tracks: Fat Cats, Bigga Fish | Taking These | The Name Game | Pimps

17. Warren G. – Regulate…G Funk Era

best hip hop albums 1994

“It’s kind of easy when you’re listening to the G-Dub sound / Pioneer speakers bumpin’ as I smoke on a pound / I got the sound fo’ yo’ ass and it’s easy to see / That this DJ be Warren G” (This DJ)

One of the best G-funk albums ever. This album captures the sunny summertime vibe of Los Angeles like few others ever have. Warren G never was the best rapper out there, but he has a nice and mellow flow (reminiscent of Snoop Dogg’s) that suits his own excellent G-funk beats perfectly. Short and sweet at a little under 40 minutes, Regulate…G Funk Era is a definite West Coast classic.

Top tracks: Regulate | This DJ | In So Many Ways | Running With No Breaks

18. Redman – Dare Iz A Darkside

best hip hop albums 1994

“The Funk Doctor Spock, blast up on your block / I’m walkin through the sewer with manure on my socks / Your style, I freaked it when I was a child / So you talkin that baby talk like, Who’s Talkin Now?” (We Run N.Y.)

Arguably less accessible than Redman‘s debut Whut!? Thee Album or Dare Iz A Darkside‘s follow-up Muddy Waters, this album is Redman at his darkest. Highly atmospheric, this is one of Erick Sermon’s production masterpieces, with bass soaked beats that perfectly complement Redman’s frantic and innovative rhymes. Redman has always been one of the most interesting and naturally skilled rappers in the game and this album is one of his best.

Fun fact: the album cover is a homage to the cover of Funkadelic’s 1971 album Maggot Brain.

Top tracks: Bobyahed2dis | Green Island | Sooperman Luva (Part II) | Cosmic Slop

19. Thug Life – Vol. 1

best hip hop albums 1994 2pac

“All my homies drinkin’ liquor, tears in everybody’s eyes / Niggas cried, to mourn a homie’s homicide / But I can’t cry, instead I’m just a shoulder / Damn, why they take another soldier?” (How Long Will They Mourn Me?)

Although Thug Life – Vol. 1 is a group album – Thug Life consisting of 2Pac, Big Syke, Macadoshis, Mopreme and The Rated R  – essentially it is a 2Pac album, as Pac is the eye-catcher of the group and by far it’s most prominent and dominant force. A strong album, which could have been even stronger if it had been just 2Pac.

Top tracks: How Long Will They Mourn Me | Pour Out A Little Liquor| Str8 Ballin | Cradle To The Grave

20. Gravediggaz – 6 Feet Deep

best hip hop albums 1994

“As the blood drips inside of my eye refusing to die / Visions of Hell tormented my faith / So I chewed my fucking arm off and made an escape…” (Diary Of A Madman)

Gravediggaz was a supergroup consisting of Prince Paul (The Undertaker), Frukwan (The Gatekeeper), Poetic (The Grym Reaper) and RZA (The RZArector). Two superproducers working together, that has to result in something special, right?

This pioneering album is perhaps the best and best-known album of the ‘horrorcore’ sub-genre. Taken as the fantasy it is, it is a fun album with a wonderfully dark sense of humor. Excellent production and top notch emceeing – this is a classic, strangely enough with underground as well as mainstream appeal. Here Comes the Gravediggaz!

Top tracks: 1-800 Suicide | Diary Of A Madman | Nowhere To Run, Nowhere To Hide | Defective Trip (Trippin’)

21. Method Man – Tical

best hip hop albums 1994

“I came to bring the pain hardcore from the brain / Let’s go inside my astral plane…” (Bring The Pain)

Tical was the first solo release of a Wu-Tang Clan member after the monumental group album Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and was an immediate commercial success. Raw, gritty and atmospheric, RZA’s basement-sounding production suits Method Man’s hoarse voice excellently.

Method Man has always been one of Wu-Tang Clan’s most charismatic and high-profile members. He also has one of the most recognizable voices of the Clan- and that is part of his ‘problem’: it tends to work better in tracks with other emcees than in solo tracks. All in all, Tical is an excellent album, only slightly less classic than Wu-Tang solo albums like Liquid Swords andOnly Built 4 Cuban Linx… that would follow in 1995.

Top tracks: Bring The Pain | Release Yo’Delf | All I Need | PLO Style

22. Boogie Monsters – Riders of the Storm: The Underwater Album


“I can see your only eyes, locked into your skull / My backbone the zone and when I roam my mind is full / Guess who? I’m swoopin through the air like pestilence / I know your nerves are shot and skin is tight from my presence” (Recognized Thresholds Of Negative Stress)

Not nearly as successful as it should have been, this dope album is yet another example of an album that slipped through the cracks and got overlooked in a period when so many excellent Hip Hop albums were released.

Coming out of left-field, Boogiemonsters quickly got dubbed Christian rappers and went largely ignored. Too bad, because this creative, dynamic yet laidback album definitely deserves more recognition than it got.

Top tracks: Altered States of Consciousness | Recognized Thresholds Of Negative Stress | Bronx Bombas | Juggaknots

23. Public Enemy – Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age


“Talkin dat drive by shit / Everybody talkin dat gangsta shit / Talkin dat drive by thang / Everybody talking dat gangsta swang / Slaves to the rhythm of the master / Buck boom buck another / Neighborhood disaster”(So Whatcha Gone Do Now?) 

At times even more dense production-wise than their previous albums, and maybe a bit too long for its own good – this album was less accessible than previous P.E. albums and sadly marked the decline of Public Enemy’s popularity and importance. It is another excellent Public Enemy album, however. Chuck D’s intelligent lyrics are on point as usual and he pulls no punches here. Underrated and underappreciated.

Top tracks: Give It Up | Bedlam 13:13 | So Whatcha Gone Do Now? | What Side you On?

24. Coolio – It Takes A Thief

best hip hop albums 1994

“Come on y’all let’s take a ride / Don’t you say shit just get inside / It’s time to take your ass on another kind of trip / Cause you can’t have the hop if you don’t have the hip…” (Fantastic Voyage)

Coolio. What a strange career this man had. He had one of the biggest singles in Hip Hop EVER with 1995’s Gangsta Paradise – a song that both made him and broke him in a way.

Before his mainstream fame because of the Gangsta Paradise single, Coolio was an important member of WC’s MAAD Circle. With It Takes A Thief, he dropped a dope solo debut album after his MAAD circle period.

Maybe because Coolio made some strange career decisions (appearing in several reality TV shows) and because he dropped some subpar albums later in his career, this album is often dismissed or forgotten. It shouldn’t be. This is a fun and lighthearted album, with a funky West Coast sound complemented by Coolio’s skilled and often humorous lyricism. Underappreciated.

Top tracks: Fantastic Voyage | N Da Closet | County Line | It Takes A Thief

25. Artifacts – Between A Rock And A Hard Place

best hip hop albums 1994

“I’m out to bomb like Vietnam under the same name Tame One / The bad one, ink flow master bastard with the Magnum / I tags up quick, and then I steps to the exit…” (Wrong Sides Of Da Tracks)

The debut album of this New Jersey duo gained some fame mainly because of the classic graffiti anthem Wrong Sides Of Da Tracks song. It has more to offer than just that track, though. Excellent beats, clever rhymes delivered with skill – this is top quality early-90s East Coast Hip Hop.

Top tracks: Wrong Sides Of Da Tracks | C’Mon Wit Da Git Down | Whayback | What Goes On?

26. Beastie Boys – Ill Communication

best hip hop albums 1994

“I want to say a little something that’s long overdue / The disrespect to women has got to be through / To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends / I want to offer my love and respect to the end” (Sure Shot)

Like its predecessor Check Your HeadIll Communication is not strictly a Hip Hop album, but a mash-up of styles with liberal doses punk-rock thrown in the mix. Never afraid to experiment and do exactly what they wanted,Beastie Boys stayed true to their punk-rock roots on this album. Ill Communication will not be for everybody, but it’s a classic in its own right, with massive appeal to other, non-Hip Hop audiences.

Top tracks: Sabotage | Sure Shot | Get It Together | B-Boys Makin’ With The Freak Freak

27. Keith Murray – The Most Beautifullest Thing In The World

best hip hop albums 1994

“I comes down breaking ground / So back up off of me and sit your ass down / Now when I’m on the microphone I roam through zones / But don’t be trying this shit at home…” (The Most Beautifullest Thing In The World)

Keith Murray made a big splash on the scene with his debut single The Most Beautifullest Thing In The World, which is the biggest the attraction of this album. The beats on this album are mostly provided by EPMD’s Erick Sermon, so it’s evident that the raw, bass-heavy, funk-laced instrumentals are top notch. Keith Murray definitely is a way above average emcee, who has a very distinct lyrical style that suits the beats nicely.

Top tracks: The Most Beautifullest Thing In The World | Sychosymatic | Danger Zone | How’s That

28. Down South – Lost In Brooklyn

Down South - Lost In Brooklyn (1994)

“Clap your hands and hear the voice who’s so damn illuminate / I rock a jam and let the public consume and let’s / Chill before I let the horns hit ya / For now goin, goin, gone, but yo, I get with ya” (Sittin Here)

Another forgotten album, one that is perfectly enjoyable nonetheless. The funky instrumentals are typical mid-90s NYC, and Down South sound a bit like a tuned down Onyx – which just might make this an album that is suited for those who do not dig the over-the-top screaming style of Onyx, but who love their beats. The beats were crafted by underrated producer Shawn J (who also produced for Mad Skillz, Black Star, Artifacts and Da Bush Babees), along with The Beatnuts and Stretch Armstrong. You could do worse than to check this album out.

Top tracks: Tractors, Rakes & Hoes | Lost In Brooklyn | Sittin Here| The Carbonated One

29. Kokane – Funk Upon A Rhyme

best hip hop albums 1994

“My name is Kokane, never askin’ the reason I ball / So Bon Voyage I gots the stack / And I’m out Schwarzenegger, but I’ll be back” (The Aftermath)

Like his equally solid debut Who Am I, Kokane’s second album was sorely slept on. Now out of production, Funk Upon A Rhyme is a forgotten G-funk / West Coast gem. Produced entirely by Above The Law’s Cold 187um the album sonically sounds even more experimental than Above The Law’s own 1994 release – but mostly it works, also because of the weirdness Kokane adds with his lyrical style.

Top tracks: From The Funk To The Back | Slow Burnin’ 22.5 Degrees Fahrenheit | Aftermath | All Bark No Bite

30. Above The Law – Uncle Sam’s Curse

above the law uncle sams curse 1994

“Because my mama to me comes number one / Now you sucker motherfuckers don’t understand / But to my mama, I’m her real black superman” (Black Superman)

Above The Law‘s classic debut Livin’ Like Hustlers will forever be their magnum opus. But this third effort is yet another excellent Above The Law album and definitely a level above most of the other gangsta rap being released at the time.

The lyrics are not just the generic gangsta stories, but also sometimes politically fueled and socially conscious. Additionally, Cold 187um’s production is always top level. A true West Coast G-funk innovator, he was never scared to experiment on the boards. Deep bass, whiny synthesizer sounds, smooth and funky – this is G-funk at its best.

Top tracks: Black Superman | Concreat Jungle | Kalifornia | Gangsta Madness

31. Fugees – Blunted On Reality


“So who’s side am I on? I’m on the righteous / Always check the lyrics, no time to contradict” (Some Seek Stardom)

Nothing like their second album – the mega classic The Score (1996) – the raw and rough-around-the-edges Blunted On Reality is an album that has always polarized opinions.

It is definitely worth having though, if only for the superior emcee skills on display of a young Lauryn Hill.

Top tracks: Vocab | Nappy Heads | Some Seek Stardom | Boof Baf

32. M.O.P. – To The Death

best albums hip hop 1994

“The M.O.P.’s about to run this you couldn’t shun this / I’m leavin rappers with the dumbness…” (Rugged Neva Smoove)

Although labeled hardcore / underground Hip Hop, M.O.P. always had some commercial appeal as well. Similar in rap style to Onyx but arguably more skilled, and most often with better beats, M.O.P. always brought that pure, intense rawness. This is an excellent debut album that flew a little bit under the radar at the time but which has definitely stood the test of time.

Top tracks: How About Some Hardcore | Rugged Neva Smoove |  To The Death | Guns N Roses

33. Big Mike – Somethin’ Serious


“Fool, I’m something serious” (Something Serious)

Big Mike has always been one of the solid members of the Rap-A-Lot family. As part of the Convicts and in his role as a stand-in for Willie D on Geto Boys’ Till Death Do Us Part, he showed the world that he was more than a competent emcee.

Something Serious is a strong solo album. It has typical smooth and funky Southern sound (with the likes of N.O. Joe, Pimp C and others on the production). While it may have no real stand-out tracks, it doesn’t have any filler tracks either. The album is extremely consistent, focused and cohesive and yet another quality early / mid-90s Rap-A-Lot release.

Top tracks: World Of Mind | Something Serious | Playa Playa | Daddy’s Gone

34. Slick Rick – Behind Bars


“In the slammer kid but I’m innocent / Lord played witty wasn’t having any pity / Now in Razor Blade City…” (Behind Bars)

Not as good as The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick? No, not by a long shot (of course…). But still. Behind Bars is not a bad album at all, even though it was deemed as such at the time of its release. Smooth instrumentals and lyrics, this album is perfectly enjoyable.

Slick Rick was in a bad phase of his life when this album was recorded (during a work release furlough that was part of his jail sentence), but even if Slick Rick is not always in top form here, he still rhymes circles around most other rappers. Don’t sleep on this album.

Top tracks: Behind Bars | All Alone (No One To be With) | Sittin’ In My Car | A Love That’s True (Part One)

35. Black Sheep – Non-Fiction


“With no tricks the fix comes with dope fiend precision / I exercise and extinguish an emcee exhibition / I explode and expose, extreme my extent / I exist to expand, not excess but excellent” (We Boys)

Not as accessible and fun as their classic debut A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing,Non-Fiction was pretty much ignored when it was released. That was wrong, though. Compared to their classic debut, Non-Fiction definitely sounds darker and more ‘serious’, but even though it’s different it still is a fine album. Smooth and jazzy production by Mr Lawnge and Dres comes correct on the mic as always. A few interesting guest spots as well (check out Sweet Tee onWho’s Next).

It may lack the spark and commercial appeal of its predecessor and it may contain a few misses, but overall it is more than a solid effort that deserves more recognition than it received.

Top tracks: Who’s Next | Autobiographical | Do Your Thing | B.B.S.

36. Da Brat – Funkdafied


Them calls me the funkdafied, funkalistic, vocalistic / With the real shit, we got the shit you can’t funk with…” (Funkdafied)

This funky album is historic if only because it was the first album by a female emcee to sell over a million units. At 9 tracks (and not all of them bangers) Funkdafied is a little too short and inconsistent to be considered a classic, but it is a dope 1994 release nonetheless.

Top tracks: Funkafied | Fire It Up | Fa All Ya’ll | Give It 2 You

37. Eightball & MJG – On The Outside Looking In


“Tell me what’s goin on, damn, I need help to see / I have chains on my brain from the strain of the / Mental corruption eruptin through this industry / All I see is New York rappers back and forth on BET…” (No Sell Out)

Eightball & MJG were nothing if not consistent in their output. This album may not be the Southern classic their debut album was and not as strong as the next one would be, it is a solid entry in their body of work nonetheless. It does what you’d expect: pimp- and gangsta stories over fat and syrupy Memphis beats. The difference between Eightball & MJG and most of the countless other acts that came / come out with the played-out gangsta fantasies is that Eightball & MJG make it sound GOOD.

Top tracks: Playerz Nite Out | Crumbs 2 Brixx | No Sell Out | So What U Sayin

38. Casual – Fear Itself

casual fear itself

“Peep what I wrote / You bit so hard, I though the shit was a quote / But still I’m taxing, axing the competition / And any wack men, I stomp & dis ’em / Easily…” (That’s How It Is)

The third album is a Hieroglyphics trilogy, the first two being Del’s No Need For Alarm and Souls Of Mischief’s 93 Til Infinity, both released the year previous.

Casual doesn’t have the unique personality of Del and because this is a solo joint Fear Itself misses the energy and synergy of SOM’s 93 Til Infinity – so it is understable why this is the least popular album of the three. But is a perfectly enjoyable album nevertheless. The Hiero-production is on point as always and Casual is a dope emcee (and renowned battle rapper), with a good voice and clever punchlines. You can’t go wrong with a Hieroglyphics album.

Top tracks: That’s How It Is | Me-O-Mi-O | Get Off It | I Didn’t Mean To

39. Esham – Closed Casket


“Lock me up and throw away the key / God took my mind and said fuck me / I kick the wicked shit until I can’t no more / I black out so much I can’t think nomore…” (Mental Stress)

Esham is a Detroit underground legend who has dropped a lot of albums since he was just a kid. His trademark has always been totally over the top psychopathic lyrics, some that make the Geto Boys look like boy scouts.

This is his fourth album and arguably his best. Sonically it’s great and Esham is a skilled emcee, who’s flow and delivery are tight. Unapologetically sordid, Esham’s at times depraved subject matter obviously isn’t for everyone, but if you take it the way you would take in a horror movie (it’s just fantasy folks), listening to this album can be enjoyable ride nevertheless.

Top tracks: Make Me Wanna Holla | Mental Stress | My Homie Got Shot | Brainwashed

40. Odd Squad – Fadanuf Fa Erybody


“Oh yeah, we’re new on the set but not considered as new jacks / A long time coming, now we’re putting it in your back…” (Here To Say A Little Something)

A forgotten record from the Rap-A-Lot catalog, Devin The Dude’s Odd Squad dropped a fun album with Fadanuf Fa Erybody. In stead of rapping about guns and violence, their subject matter is weed and sex. It’s done with humor though, which makes the goofy rhymes more fun to listen to than you would expect. Production by N.O. Joe (and others ) is tight and the album flows really well. A must have for Devin The Dude fans at least.

Top tracks: Da Squad | Here To Say A Little Something | Jazz Rendition | Came Na Gedown

Honorable Mentions

  • Big Daddy Kane – Daddy’s Home
  • Brand Nubian – Everything Is Everything
  • Bumpy Knuckles – Crazy As A Foxxx
  • Scientifik – Criminal
  • Ed O.G & Da Bulldogs – Roxbury 02119
  • Lords Of The Underground – Keepers Of The Funk
  • Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock – Break Of Dawn
  • Schoolly D – Welcome To America
  • Kool Moe Dee – Interlude
  • Fu-Schnickens – Nervous Break Down
  • Craig Mack – Project: Funk Da World
  • Arrested Development – Zingalamaduni
  • Paris – Guerrilla Funk
  • MC Eiht – We Come Strapped
  • Kurious – A Constipated Monkey
  • Twista – Resurrection
  • UMC’s – Unleashed
  • Da Youngsta’s – No Mercy
  • Shyheim – Shyheim A/K/A The Rugged Child
  • Nefertiti – Living In Fear Of Extinction
  • Top Quality – Magnum Opus
  • Da Bush Babees – Ambushed
  • Ill Al Skratch – Creep Wit’ Me
  • Flatlinerz – U.S.A.
  • Yaggfu Front – Action Packed Adventure
  • Mad Flava – From Tha Ground Unda
  • Extra Prolific – Like It Should Be
  • Spice 1 – AmeriKKKa’s Nightmare
  • Saafir – Boxcar Sessions
  • House of Pain – Same as It Ever Was
  • Above The Rim – Soundtrack
  • Murder Was The Case – Soundtrack
  • RBL Posse – Ruthless By Law
  • Master P – The Ghettos Tryin to Kill Me
  • South Central Cartel – N Gatz We Truss
  • Willie D – Play Witcha Mama
  • Rappin’ 4-tay – Don’t Fight the Feelin’
  • Chunk – Break Em Off A Chunk
  • Seagram – Reality Check
  • Lil 1/2 Dead – The Dead Has Arisen
  • Ant Banks – The Big Badass
  • Al Kapone – Sinista Funk
  • E.S.G. – Ocean Of Funk
  • Ghetto Mafia – Draw The Line
  • Tim Smooth – Straight Up Drivin ‘Em
  • Triple Six Mafia – Smoked Out, Loced Out
  • Little Bruce – XXXtra Manish
  • Big Mello – Wegonefunkwichamind
  • Point Blank – Mad At The World
  • Volume 10 – Hip-Hopera
  • Hard 2 Obtain – Ism & Blues
  • K-Dee – Ass, Gas Or Cash (No One Rides for Free)
  • N2Deep – 24-7-365
  • Maestro Fresh Wes – Naaah, Dis Kid Can’t Be From Canada?!!
  • DJ Q-Bert – Demolition Pumpkin Squeeze Musik
  • DJ Krush – Krush


HHGA founder. Hip Hop historian. Avid reader. Proud dad. Marketing guy. Top 5 Golden Age MCs: Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, KRS One, Chuck D, Nas…