Thursday, April 13, 2006

Lamont’s Lists
#21 Written: August 28, 2002


The Top 10 Rappers of All time

“Cause who is number 1, if not best then better? Here’s a hint: the 18th letter”

1. Rakim – Isn’t it a little bit amazing to think that if not for Hip Hop as a creative outlet, Rakim probably would never have been given a chance to share his gift for rhythm and poetry with the world? What makes him the best ever? Consider that he pioneered the slow, melodic, multi-layered, introspective delivery style that single handedly changed the way emcees approached the craft and showed us all that so much more was possible with this art form. Consider that he introduced the concept of allusion into hip hop: “so when you see me come up freeze, or you’ll be one of those seven emcees”. Consider that he gave us many of the catch phrases that we still use today in mainstream conversation: Peace, no joke, dropping science, sweatin’ and of course “It ain’t where ya’ from, it’s where ya’ at”.

What made all of this even more amazing was that Rakim almost never free-styled. Have you ever noticed that he never strayed off topic from the title/theme of each song (e.g., I Ain’t No Joke is 100% about seriousness, and Microphone Fiend is all about his addiction to hip hop)? And yes, while he never pointed it out, it is worth noting that he managed to seem menacing and intimidating without ever resorting to violence, misogyny, gunplay, drugs or even a word of profanity. I try to restrain myself from using the G word (G as in Genius) lightly, but when it comes to Rakim, what other word can you find to describe him? [Best Work: My Melody, Microphone Fiend, Untouchables]

“Live from Bedford-Stuyvesant, the livest one, representin’ BK to the fullest”

2. Notorious B.I.G. – I have listened to Ready To Die and Life After Death maybe a thousand times each and I have never once gotten tired of even one verse from Biggie. The man simply never had an uninteresting word to say. To this day, anytime I hear that voice, no matter where I am or what I am doing, I pretty much stop in my tracks, pump up the volume and sing along as loud as I can.

These are the facts: Biggie was as funny and quick-witted as any person who ever picked up a microphone. As verbally dynamic as Malcolm and Martin, with punch lines and observations that mere mortals only wished they could find the words for (“your life is played out like Kwame and those f***** polka dots”). If you are scoring at home based on the Lamont’s Lists system, Biggie gets perfect 10’s across the board. Flawless, perfectly timed delivery, a deep husky voice that was at once polished and raw, the most cinematic and descriptive lyrics ever heard and unrivaled story telling skills. He had all of this plus more charisma and magnetism than one person should be allowed to have. Sure, Biggie was a massive figure and his Bad Boy adventures were a magnet for attention. But beneath it all, he was a flat out bad ass emcee, and he cared more about his craft and proving to the brothers on the block that he was the best ever than even his most ardent fans ever realized.

When we say that Biggie was a master storyteller, we are talking about his performance on songs such as N****S Bleed, Warning, and Somebody’s Got to Die where his ghetto fairytales came vividly to life thanks to colorful characters (e.g., “Arizona Ron from Tucson”, and “Pop from the barber shop”) and his ability to pass along those tiny details (“…wipe the cold out my eyes, see who’s this paging me and why”) that added critical texture to the scenario. Was he really “Ready To Die”? We will never know for sure if he sensed something we didn’t, but what we do know is…Biggie was a one of kind and a Hip Hop treasure. [Best Work: Unbelievable, One More Chance, N****S Bleed]

“As the rhythm’s designed to bounce, what counts is that the rhyme’s
Designed to fill your mind”

3. Chuck D – “YES, the rhythm, the rebel…” These are the opening lines from the greatest rap song ever made, Rebel Without A Pause. A sheer masterpiece that altered the course of the entire hip hop generation. No longer was it hip to be smooth or soft or stupid. If you were a black man asleep at the switch in ’88, Chuck D was your wake up call. We know Chuck’s main sources of power came from his jaw dropping baritone and fiery delivery, but don’t sleep on the lyrics. A wordsmith for the ages, Chuck packed more knowledge and inspiration into a verse than the most accomplished authors could into an entire chapter. He also appeared to be the first to realize that snippets, phrases and even single words that seemingly had no meaning could speak volumes when combined in just the right way – allowing the listener to fill in the gaps…”Base! How low can you go? Death row? What a brother know”. Brilliant right? Let’s all thank Chuck D for having a beautiful mind and for an even more exceptional gift of knowing how to use it. [Best Work: Welcome to the Terror Dome, Black Steel…, Fight The Power]

“Rap is like a set-up, a lot of games a lot of suckas with colorful names I'm so-and-so, I'm this, I'm that, but they’re all just wick-wick-wack”

4. KRS One – KRS One’s Poetry provided hours and hours of entertainment for me and my college roommates back in 1986. Our collective analysis was pretty much “are you kidding me?” I mean: “Cause KRS One means simply one KRS, that’s it, that’s all, solo, single, no more, no less”…whoa. How could anybody be this good? The rest of Criminal Minded, a tour de force of battle rhymes and vocal dexterity only served to increase our sense of awe. And by the time he dropped My Philosophy, his best work yet, the legend was complete and his place on the GOAT list secured. Not only was he a master of every conceivable style and capable of pinpoint observations on everything from wack emcees to politrix, KRS could also rock a live show like few who have ever dared to step on stage with two turntables and a microphone. All hail Kris Parker: “among thousands and thousands of very good emcees – a poet to flow like the breeze”. [Best Work: Poetry, My Philosophy, You Must Learn]

“I’m the baddest, takin’ out all rookies. So forget oreos, eat Cool J cookies”

5. LL Cool J – Isn’t it hard to believe that it was 1984 when LL Cool J dropped Radio? For sheer staying power alone LL deserves his place on the GOAT list. He’s easily the most resilient emcee ever, with an amazing ability to pick himself up off the canvas after taking blows from everyone from Kool Moe Dee to Canibus. Indeed LL has taken on all comers and is still going strong.

For my money, however, LL was at his best on the subtle, sublime and grossly underrated Walking With A Panther. Sure Mama Said Knock You Out was a triumphant statement of courage under fire (and one of the greatest lyrical performances of all time), but it was on Panther where LL showed his true greatness. Here he proved that no one could do the “smooth ladies man thing” better (does anyone even try anymore?) on tracks like I’m That Type of Guy, and the original Jinglin’ Baby. Proving he could serve it up any way you like it – from hard core: Rock The Bells, to ballad: I Need Love, LL has done just about everything over the years. 2004 will mark his 20th anniversary in the game, don’t be surprised if he drops one more anthem just in time for the big date. [Best Work: Mama Said Knock You Out, I Need A Beat, Smokin’ Dopin’]

“Steppin’ to me, yo that’s a wrong move. So what you on hobbs, dope or dog food?”

6. Big Daddy Kane – Big Daddy Kane’s Raw is still the gold standard for fresh out the box freestyle lyrical bravado. It represents the art of lyricism taken to its highest possible level. Kane may have enjoyed only a relatively brief moment in the limelight, and sure, he made some inexplicable career moves (remember the purple silk suits?), but when he was on his game, there simply was no one better. A master of metaphors (“Competition, I just devour, like a pit bull against a Chihuahua”), Kane could flip it from smooth to rugged it an instant, and was certainly the precursor to today’s photogenic, Hollywood-ready emcee-as-leading-man types. Perhaps his greatest legacy however is the fact that his rapid-fire, metaphor-heavy style can be heard all over the radio today on a host of new generation artists. And did I mention that he made Raw. [Best Work: Raw, Ain’t No Half Steppin’, I Get The Job Done]

“I play the cards I was given, thank God I’m still livin’, I’ll pack a nine
‘til it’s time to go to prison”

7. Tupac – The voice, the delivery, the fiery personality, the total package. If you are looking for a reason why we love this culture, look no further that Tupac Shakur. He was the James Dean of the Hip Hop generation and more than anything else, we loved him because he was our very own living breathing Rock Star. How perfect, a thug with a warrior’s spirit and poet’s heart. The people’s champion, Tupac lived it, breathed it, and had it dripping from his fingers. He demanded our attention with his actions and we had no choice but to feel him when we listened to his music. No one ever came close to him at articulating the joys and pains of the Hip Hop nation (and I suspect that no one ever will). If you don’t think so, I beg you to listen to Definition of A Thug N****, his single most blazing performance, where he perfectly captured the irresistible allure of the thug life and all its glory. The biggest regret of Tupac’s death of course is that his best work (artistically and otherwise) was definitely ahead of him. Twenty five years old with the power to move an entire generation…now we are left to wonder what could have been. [Best Work: Definition Of A Thug N****”, Keep Ya Head Up, Me Against The World]

“When G Rap strikes the mic, I recite the type of hype that you like, and make the people unite. I grip up hips and zip up lips, step on reps, you flip and wanna sip on my tip.”

8. Kool G Rap – Here’s the deal folks: Kool G Rap’s Road To The Riches is simply the greatest lyrical performance ever. Period, end of story. Released way back in 1989, it has stood the test of time as a mind boggling, tongue-twisting head-trip. I mean the guy rapped for what seemed like hours without stopping and did the whole song in frikin’ limericks…”When I was five years old I realized there was a road, at the end I would win lots of pots of gold”. A gangsta rapper before there was a name for it, G Rap was politically incorrect when Eminem was still in elementary school. In addition to being thoroughly scary, G Rap also demonstrated that he was a thinking man’s thug (Streets of New York) with a finely tuned sense of humor (Talk Like Sex, Truly Yours). His greatest asset however was his determination to pack every verse with as many rhymes as possible…”In the streets of New York the dope fiends are fiendin’ for morphine, the TV screens follow the homicide scene”. The trademark lisp only made the package all the more appealing. [Road To The Riches, Wanted Dead Or Alive, Talk Like Sex]

“So off we go, let the trumpets blow. And hold on, because the driver of the mission is a pro. The Ruler's back.”

9. Slick Rick – With a vaguely British accent and a patch over one eye, Slick Rick burst on the scene in 1985 with an unusual formula for success. That is exactly what makes him a GOAT – the fact that he was so thoroughly original. Perhaps the most sly and imaginative storyteller of all time, Rick pioneered the sing-songy delivery style that has influenced such contemporaries as Bone Thugs and Harmony, Ja Rule and Nelly. While his partner got most of the credit for La Di Da Di (still a timeless crowd favorite), it was Slick Rick who infused the song with the infectious charm and unforgettable rhymes that made it one of the best ever. His follow-up solo album, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick was flawless, including his crowning jewel, Children’s Story. But don’t sleep on Hey Young World or The Ruler’s Back for a supremely fluid MC at the top of his game. And if you are seeking a lesson from a rap veteran on crafty storytelling, robust punch lines and pitch perfect delivery, pick up a copy of the wildly slept on The Art Of Storytelling. Long live the Ruler. [Best Work: Children’s Story, Hey Young World, I Own America]

“If you haven't heard, I'm Michael, Magic and Bird all rolled in one - cause none got more flows than Young. Plus got more flows to come. And if I ain't better than Big, I'm the closest one”.

10. Jay Z – My appreciation of the super human skills of Jay Z are so well documented at this point that I truly seem to have run out of superlatives. The fact that he is the only contemporary rapper to push his way onto the GOAT list (move over Ice Cube, Chubb Rock and Redman) speaks volumes about his brilliant artistry. Admiring Jigga’s work is easy. His deadpan, effortless flow speaks to the everyman of the hip hop generation in a voice that is polished and poised, yet infinitely familiar. It has been said that great leaders have a way of making the complex look simple and of turning chaos into harmony. By this definition, Shawn Carter should have his likeness on Mt. Rushmore. Jigga’s mind seems to work on a higher level than the rest of ours, how else can you explain his relentless assault on the airwaves, each song and indeed each verse seeming to be a completely refreshing take on the same theme. Talent, charisma, and general’s command of the language of the streets, Jigga simply says the things that mere mortals are not clever enough to articulate, yet he seems to take the words right off the tips of our tongues. “H to the izzo, V to the izza”? Simple, brilliant, unforgettable, all hallmarks of a true genius. [Best Work: Can’t Knock The Husle, Come And Get Me, U Don’t Know]

Oh, And Don’t Think I Forgot About (the next 10 in no order):

Red Man – The Funk Doc still may be able to make a late run
Eminem – Currently the best emcee on the planet
Common – Complex, conscious, and oozing cool
Ice Cube – The original N**** you love to hate
Chubb Rock – Smart, abstract and surprisingly hilarious
Chill Rob G – Had the power but not the longevity
Nas – A couple more One Mic’s and he could also steal a spot
Jeru The Damaja – Brooklyn’s wicked verbal assassin
DJ Run – As good as DMC was bad. His skills were always under-rated
Special Ed – Young and gifted, he had it made

The 10 Greatest Rap Albums Of All Time

Lamont’s Lists
#25 Written: February 12, 2004
The Albums

The 10 Greatest Rap Albums of All Time

1. Public EnemyIt Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back (1988) – There’s no such thing as a unanimous pick when it comes to something like selecting the best album of all time, but with Nation of Millions, P.E. nearly pull it off. A riot on wax, it was a once in a lifetime piece of art that instantly converted hip hop into a major political and cultural force.

The Bomb Squad’s production, a flurry of intricate samples, disturbing background noises and hell-raising sound effects, proved to be the perfect complement to Chuck D’s fiery, hyper-intelligent lyrics. And Flava Flav’s timely doses of humor perfectly rounded out the sound, adding just enough humility to tone down the rhetoric and keep the party going. This album pulses with a sense of purpose and it still sounds every bit as urgent today. You don’t have to be a rap fan or a revolutionary to love it, just someone who appreciates brilliant, flawlessly executed music. (Standout Tracks: Rebel Without A Pause, Bring the Noise, Night of the Living Baseheads)

2. NasIllmatic (1994) – Imagine hip hop’s finest musical minds all delivering their best production work at once while a fantastically gifted emcee gives the performance of a lifetime. That’s what you get with Illmatic. Nine glorious rap songs; magnetic and spiritual and perfect. Nas practically sinks into the tracks, providing listeners with a remarkably rich description of the joys and pains of life in his Queens Bridge housing projects while he “….walks the block with a bop, checking dames plus the games people play…”. The rhymes are dense and Nas’s voice is haunting and melodic. At 20 years old he seems wise beyond his years, so it’s easy to see why he was immediately anointed as the savior of NY hip hop. Illmatic is inspiring and a testimony to how beats and rhymes can occasionally come together to make magic. (Standout Tracks: N.Y. State Of Mind, One Love, Memory Lane)

3. A Tribe Called QuestThe Low End Theory (1991) – ATCQ followed up their 1st classic album (People’s Instinctive Travels…) with this gem that was even better. A lovely jazz/bebop soundtrack flows throughout all 16 tracks on the album, reaching its peak on We Got the Jazz and Excursions. It’s smart, artfully put together and packed with both clever, engaging samples, and trunk-rattling bass. Plus they got mic skills too. Front-man Q-Tip shines as the “abstract poet” while Phife emerges as one of the best emcees of his day. Who can forget his witty solo turn on Butta or his scene-stealing showmanship on Check The Rhyme?

The whole Low End Theory effect is breezy, sophisticated and just plain cool (in a 1940’s Jazz club meets Fort Greene Brooklyn sort of way). Whoever said that rap ain’t highbrow, clearly never listened to this record. (Standout Tracks: Check The Rhyme, We Got the Jazz, Excursions)

4. Dr. DreThe Chronic (1992) – Let me say this about Andre Young (AKA Dr. Dre)…he’s a frickin’ genius. Seriously, the production value on this record is so spectacular that it defies description. Sure, the G-Funk sound that Dre patents here is a direct rip off of Parliament Funkadelic. But I would argue that in his meticulous efforts to re-create, and then re-interpret the music (rather than merely sample it), he actually improves upon the formula. Throw in the breakout performances by Snoop Dogg on songs like the blissful G-Thang and powerful Little Ghetto Boy and you get to a place that is pretty special. Indeed, Dre is a mastermind and his golden touch was never more precise than on The Chronic. (Standout Tracks: Nuthin' But A G Thang, Let Me Ride, Rat A Tat Tat)

5. De La SoulDe La Soul Is Dead (1991) – So much for the sophomore jinx. What De La accomplish on album #2 is nothing short of amazing. A real life concept record. Strung together astutely by skits (remember, De La invented the skit) where the group makes fun of itself and its silly, played out daisy age image. Its fun, oh so clever and just dripping with nuggets of goodness. From the nostalgia of “Saturdays” to the humor of “Bitties in the BK Lounge” to the biting sarcasm of “Ring Ring Ring”, De La excel. What I love most about this record is that it’s so completely care free. Sure, the inside jokes, obscure off-key samples and suburban know-it-all routine can be a bit maddening at times. But this album proves that when you’ve got talent, are willing to take risks and you make music purely to please, well, yourself… the sky’s the limit. (Standout Tracks: Ring Ring Ring, Afro Connections At the High Five, My Brother’s A Basehead)

6. Ice CubeAmerikkka’s Most Wanted (1990) – This is the Clockwork Orange of hip hop records. Violent, mean-spirited, gleeful and yet somehow…brilliant, visionary and managing to make a statement about American culture. Wow, what a ride! Cube rants his way through 23 tracks, spewing anger and spitting fire. And it’s just sooo good. He’s a skilled rapper on a warpath. No target is spared and nothing is left unsaid (no wonder Eminem calls himself the new Icecube). Once again the Bombsquad’s production is spot-on, keeping pace every step of the way. Note the impeccably timed sound effects throughout (like the beer bottle crashing to the ground on You can’t Fade Me, or the static in the TV on Once upon A Time In The Projects)

You can’t help but feel a little guilty for loving this record, but I suppose that’s the beauty of it. Its cathartic and a great release…we should all thank Cube for yelling and screaming so we don’t have to. (Standout Tracks: The N**** Ya Love To Hate, You Can’t Fade Me, Amerikka’s Most Wanted)

7. Mobb DeepThe Infamous (1995) – I was mesmerized by this record from moment I heard the 1st verse on Shook Ones Pt 2…”I got you stuck off the realness, we be the infamous, you heard of us, official Queens Bridge Murderers”. The monotone delivery of Prodigy and Havoc combined with the, haunting piano-looped production was simply intoxicating. What’s great about this album is how vivid the imagery is and how well the music matches the mood. The whole thing plays like a horror movie. Mobb articulate their tales of murder and trife life so convincingly that they up the ante on even their most menacing predecessors. And unlike the gleeful joyride of previous gangsta classics (see Icecube’s Amerikka’s Most…), there’s an undercurrent of sadness that runs throughout this record, making the experience more human and believable. You really feel them when they say its “survival of the fittest”. We didn’t know it at the time but The Infamous was as good as reality rap would ever get. (Standout Tracks: Survival of the Fittest, Shook Ones Part 2, Give Up the Goods)

8. Boogie Down ProductionsCriminal Minded (1986) – Now this is a record that is about the art of rapping. Let’s face it, the beat-making skills of Scott La Rock left a lot to be desired. But KRS One, now this guy had game. Here was an emcee who grabbed the mic and said I can do it better…watch me. Yes, KRS is an extraordinary mic controller and on Criminal Minded he’s at the top of his game. His rhymes flow like the Mississippi, from the battle anthems of South Bronx and The Bridge is Over to the charismatic wordplay of Poetry. When old schoolers long for the days when rap was pure, and skills were more important than Neptunes beats and big budget videos, it’s a safe bet that they are reminiscing about Criminal Minded. (Standout Tracks: Poetry, The Bridge Is Over, Criminal Minded)

9. The Beastie BoysPaul’s Boutique (1989) – After the mega-success of Licensed To Ill it would have been easy for the Beastie Boys to drift off into oblivion or to serve up another Fight For Your Right To Party. Instead, they deliver Paul’s Boutique, and completely catch everyone off guard. It’s sampling as high art, and a flat out masterpiece. Has any rap record ever been more fun to listen to? Or more challenging to keep up with? It’s kinda like one long Simpsons episode, constantly testing your intellect to figure out the jokes and requiring repeated spins to catch all of the pop cultural references. The best thing I can say about Paul’s Boutique is that it still sounds every bit as fresh in 2004 as it did 15 years ago. And it’s largely because of this record that the Beasties have become the cult heroes and “purveyors of cool” that they are today. (Standout Tracks: Hey Ladies, High Plains Drifter, Shake Your Rump)

10. Wu Tang ClanEnter The Wu Tang (36 Chambers) (1993) – If there is one word to capture the magic of this album it’s that it’s “pure”. 36 Chambers truly represents hip hop at its most raw and most honest. A posse of hungry, desperate emcees going balls out on the mic, fighting to outshine each other while one visionary producer (RZA) pulls it all together into a coherent, metaphysical story. For all of RZA’s talents, his gift for subtlety is most on display here, as he laces this album with sparse, high-concept tracks that manage to be intricate and interesting while largely staying out of the way. Never again would the Clan achieve such harmony (pulling it off once with 8 emcees of this caliber was a miracle), but for one moment in time, Wu Tang reigned supreme and brought respect back to New York hip hop. (Standout Tracks: Can It Be All So Simple, C.R.E.A.M., Protect Ya Neck)

10 More That Were Pretty Darn Good
De La Soul – Three Feet High And Rising – The blueprint for indie/alt rap
NWA – Straight Outta Compton – Still the definitive case study for gangsta rap
A Tribe Called Quest – People’s Instinctive Travels… - Bohemian b-boys
Outkast – Aquemeni – Southern fried and stanky
Jay-Z – Reasonable Doubt – A playa is born
Brand Nubian – One For All – knowledge is power
LL Cool J – Walking With A Panther – Uncle L finds his groove
Ultramagnetic MC’s – Critical Beatdown – Kool Keith, incoherent and brilliant
The Notorious B.I.G. – Ready To Die - Unbelievable
Digable Planets – Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time And Space) – Oozing cool

Ok And 10 More But That’s It
Das EFX – Dead Serious – Diggedy dope
Tupac – Me Against The World – The thinking man’s thug
The Notorious B.I.G. – Life After Death – Biggie Smalls is the illest
Main Source – Breaking Atoms – The large professor in the lab
The Jungle Brothers – Done By The Forces Of Nature – Soul soothing
Run-DMC – Raising Hell – The Tipping Point moment for hip hop
Jay-Z – The Blueprint – The Michael Jordan of mic recordin’
Public Enemy – Fear Of A Black Planet – The revolution continues
Raekwon - Only Built For Cuban Linx – The best of the Wu Solo projects
The Roots – Things Fall Apart – A real live band, a badass rapper