#21 Written: August 28, 2002
NOTE: THIS LIST IS NEARLY 4 YEARS OLD AND I HAVE SINCE REFINED MY THINKING. I FEEL COMPELLED TO DEVELOP AN UPDATE. STAY TUNED FOR A REVISED LIST THAT WILL CERTAINLY INCLUDE EMINEM AND NAS. IT WILL ALSO SEND JAY-Z WAAAY HIGHER ON THE LIST...
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