Hip hop has amassed its legions of devoted fans through many different channels, amongst them music, dance and fashion. As far as I’m concerned, it was the music that did it, rap.
As novel as it was, the formula was a simple one: a DJ, whose task it was to make/play beats, and an emcee, who provided the vocal aspect.
As years passed I became increasingly enamored with the MC’s craft: the rhymes, the calculated length of each line, the art of “riding” a beat, the thought process and imagination behind the texts. I’ve heard countless rappers strut their stuff on record throughout the 90s, but only a few impressed me, and even fewer were able to truly affect my understanding and appreciation of the art form.
The list below is by no means one of my favourite artists or of the greatest to ever do it.
It is solely based on the impact that each MC has had on me, as a young hip hop fan. When I first heard each of them, something was irrefutably changed in the way that I listened to rap, and these changes are still solidly anchored in me today.
So, without further ado, in no particular order, here are my Top Five of all time!
Black Thought (from The Roots)
The only one on the official lineup, to enter my life in the mid 90s.
This man 1st came to my attention in 1994, with the song “Distortion to Static”, which can be found on their 2nd full length album Do You Want More?!!!??! The effect was immediate, and I purchased the album the same week. Mr Thought was and still is able to cater to two very distinct listeners: one prefers rap in its purest, undiluted, “hardest” form, and will refer to Thought as “your favourite emcee’s favourite emcee”. The other isn’t necessarily a hip hop fan, but appreciates good music, and will gravitate towards more melodic sounds, as well as down to earth and accessible lyrics. Black Thought does it all.
“ I had Dreams like Akira Kurosawa, and realized my meteoric rise to power, they say my drive’s two hundred twenty miles per hour, sixteen bars two hundred twenty thousand dollars…”
“Freestyle on Shade 45’s Toca Tuesday with DJ Tony Touch” (2010)
Rakim (from Eric B. & Rakim)
The instrumental to “Microphone Fiend” troubled me the first time I heard it. There was something ominous, vaguely threatening about it. At 14 years old, it was just about the darkest thing I’d ever heard, and I loved it. Then something happened: Rakim spoke. With a cavernous voice he said “I was a fiend, before I became a teen, I melted microphones instead of cones of ice cream”.
Oh-My-Goodness! Who was this guy?
I watched a couple of videos. He never smiled, never chuckled, never laughed. He was as gloomy as the beats his partner in crime, Eric B., provided for him, and it was perfect. As dark as his raps were, Rakim’s delivery was usually quite smooth, and his lyrics were always top notch. The man had versatility. Believe it or not, he actually gave us one of the best love songs from the genre: What’s On Your Mind.
“ Whoever underestimated still waited, pumping the radio finally they played it, you wondered how come the album was late, I was giving you time to get the last one straight…”
“The R” / Follow The Leader (1988)
Big Daddy Kane (King Asiatic Nobody’s Equal)
Kane is undoubtedly one of the most influential figures in hip hop. It’s pretty much a given that if one knows of him, one will include him in his all time greatest list. I was born in ‘76, so when Kane reached his prime in the late 80s/early 90s, I was old enough to understand what was happening, and it was something to behold. The man represented swagger, in the true Merriam-Webster definition of the word, and it oozed from every syllable he uttered.
Big Daddy Kane is the reason why many of the rappers that we thoroughly enjoyed throughout the years, even started rapping in the first place. The album It’s A Big Daddy Thing, released in 1989, was an artful demonstration of lyricism and style, and arguably one of the best rap albums ever made.
“…Long live the Kane ain’t a damn thing changed, I still get ill and kill at will and build the skill to fill your grill so don’t tell me you’re real…”
“Young, Gifted and Black” / It’s a Big Daddy Thing (1989)
KRS-One (Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone)
The first rap tape I ever purchased was Boogie Down Productions’ By All Means Necessary. I was still very new to this music genre so I didn’t really know what I was buying, my purchases were almost random. I’d seen BDP’s name in some magazine, KRS seemed very respected and most importantly, the album cover looked very cool. So there I was, Friday after school, at Sam The Record Man, a few weeks’ worth of allowance in one hand and the cassette in the other, teenage face beaming with the smile of a pious man who’d just glimpsed the promised land. The plastic wrap came off, the tape came out, the Walkman opened wide, the tape went in, I pressed play and welcomed KRS-One aka The Teacha aka The Blast Master (love that one) into my life.
You see, when he wasn’t reminding the world that he was the best to ever grab a microphone, the aptly nicknamed Teacha brought a deep, rich, almost scholarly aspect to his lyrics. Throughout his many albums he touched on different subjects. Police brutality on “Sound of Da Police”; the importance of wearing condoms on “Jimmy”; the gloriousness of the black woman on “Brown Skin Woman”; his superior rap skills on “The MC”. All these topics and many more, were approached with a level of authority, savvy and confidence that had me thinking that if KRS said it, it must’ve been true. As I’m writing this, I’m realizing that he reminds me of The Matrix’s Morpheus: he truly believed everything he said and as a result, so did we.
“… If a dope lyrical flow is a must you’ve got to go with the name you can quickly trust, I’m not saying I’m number one, hmm, I’m sorry I lied, I’m number one two three four and five…”
“Step into a World (Rapture’s Delight)” / I Got Next (1997)
Ghostface Killah (Wu-Tang Clan)
I believe that the first time I heard Wu-Tang Clan’s 1st single “Protect Ya Neck”, I thought it was interesting, but didn’t think too much of it. Shortly after, I got a hold of Enter The Wu-Tang, and that was an entirely different story. What’s important here is the fact that the very first verse, on the very first song, on the very first album of a group that would go on to become legendary, was Ghostface’s.
“Ghostface, catch the blast of a hype verse…”
Not only did the aforementioned hype verse grab our attention and managed to keep it, but it also hinted at the potential of a man, who would go on to be one of The Wu’s most entertaining and consistent artists.
“Pull out the bull horns, let’s celebrate like Kunta was born, we elbowed our way inside Loud and got on…”
“Black Jesus” / Ironman (1996)