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Three Stylistically Iconic Hip Hop Album Covers from the 1980s: A visual essay


Licensed to Ill (1986) by the Beastie Boys


Licensed to Ill (1986) by the Beastie Boys
Licensed to Ill (1986) by the Beastie Boys

Licensed to Ill (1986), the debut hip hop album from the Beastie Boys, premiered with the now legendary two-sided cover featuring a jumbo jet (American Airlines, Boeing 727) being snuffed out like a joint after crashing head-on into the side of a mountain.


The tail of the plane sports the Def Jam logo and the registration number "3MTA3" spells "EATME" when viewed in a mirror.


The idea for the album's cover came from the album's producer, Rick Rubin, after reading the Led Zeppelin biography Hammer of the Gods (1985). The artwork was created by Stephen Byram and World B. Omes.



Paid in Full (1987) by Eric B. & Rakim


Paid in Full (1987) by Eric B. & Rakim
Paid in Full (1987) by Eric B. & Rakim

Eric B. & Rakim’s 1987 Paid in Full debut album cover is an incredible example of classic hip-hop iconography.


The image – featuring the impeccably dressed duo showing off a fat stack of bills – is a symbol of their personal and professional aspiration. The untrained eye may not register the Dapper Dan custom made threads worn by Eric B. and Rakim, but the conspicuous Gucci "knock-ups" represent an entire legacy.


The cover sent a defiant message to a society that often stereotyped the genre and its culture. Its influence extends into today, with countless artists paying homage to its iconic imagery.


Straight Outta Compton (1988) by N.W.A.


Straight Outta Compton (1988) by N.W.A.
Straight Outta Compton (1988) by N.W.A.

N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton (1988) debut album cover encapsulates the essence of the group's unapologetic, hardcore, and trailblazing ethos.


Dre, Cube, Eazy-E, Yella, and Ren, are all standing in the middle of a street, looking down at someone on the ground and pointing a gun, ready for whatever comes their way next.


Taken by a 28-year-old photographer scraping by a year after graduate school, he hung with the group around L.A., trying out different locations and poses until they spontaneously landed on this one. As the photographer was getting ready to take the shot, he didn't know if the gun pointed at him was loaded or not.




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