1980: Kurtis Blow
Credentials: "The Breaks"
In 1980 Kurtis Blow wasn't just the best rapper alive, he was the first rapper to show and prove that a career in rap was even possible. Blessed with a booming, elastic, singsong voice, he became the first MC to sign with a major label in 1979—hot on the heels of the "Rappers Delight" phenomenon—and dropped the hit single "Christmas Rappin'."
He came right back with a self-titled debut album the following year, powered by "The Breaks," which became the first gold single in rap history. Blow's exuberant flow on the cut still thrills three decades later. He would continue to be a force in hip-hop, touring the world, producing, and acting, but this was the year when it first came together for him.
Honorable Mentions: Spoonie Gee, Kool Moe Dee, Jimmy Spicer
Harlem native Spoonie Gee's fresh rhymes on "Spoonin' Rap" contained the first references to jailhouse life in rap music, including the invaluable advice "Please my brother, don't drop the soap." As the standout member of the Treacherous Three, Kool Moe Dee distinguished himself on cuts like "Love Rap," "New Rap Language," and "Body Rock." Brooklyn rapper Jimmy Spicer's "Adventures of Super Rhyme (Rap)" gave him enough clout to become one of the first artists signed to Russell Simmons' Rush Management. Simmons would co-produce his future hits "The Bubble Bunch" and "Money (Dollar Bill Y'All). —Rob Kenner (@boomshots)