I consider myself extremely fortunate to have come of age during the formative years of the transcendent musical art form called ‘Hip-Hop’. This genre of music holds the distinction of being an amalgam of gritty truth, and fantastical fiction born organically from the streets of these United States of America. It would be difficult to fully convey the impact Hip-Hop has had on American culture, but suffice it to say that it’s been immense. The following list highlights some of the greatest individual artists of this genre, as well as the most influential. Breaking this list down to twelve was no easy feat, and there will undoubtably be those of you who disagree in one war or another. The bottom line is that the artists on this list are certainly deserving. We ask you to enjoy and remember…
(One caveat: This list contains real hip-hop artists, no bubble gum.)
#12. Raekwon The Chef
It’s not unusual to hear tales of criminal mischief throughout Hip Hop music. Raekwon however, did it with a unique delivery, and flair that is rarely rivaled. Originally a member of the iconic group ‘The Wu Tang Clan‘ Raekwon’s solo debut, the seminal Album: “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.” (1995) put the Hip Hop community on notice that The Chef was an individual talent to be reckoned with. Nobody exposes the grimy life of street crime like ‘The Chef’…
#11. Big L.
NYC born and bred, Big L was originally Lamont Coleman before his comet blazed brilliantly, though tragically brief, across Hip Hop culture. His debut album “Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous” (1995) was received well, and showcased his lyrical talent, and compelling prose, but it was his 1998 single ‘Ebonics‘ released through his own label, that remains his seminal work. His life and career was cut short on February 15th 1999, a victim of a drive-by shooting in his native Harlem. His next four albums were all released posthumously, his legend grew after exponentially after his untimely death. Another premature ending to a bright future…
#10. Big Pun.
His charisma was unmistakeable. His lyrical talent remarkable. His impact on Hip Hop was as imposing as his physical size. Born Christopher Lee Rios from the Bronx, NY, Pun (short for Punisher) would later emerge as a serious force in the industry. Becoming the very first Latin solo Hip Hop artist to go ‘Platinum’ in album sales with his 1998 release ‘Capital Punishment’. On that record setting album was the single ‘Still not a player’ which catapulted him to super stardom. He was a frequent collaborator with ‘Fat Joe’ and a member of ‘The Terror Squad’. Known for the technical proficiency of his delivery, his impact cannot be overstated. Unfortunately, Pun who had a battled obesity throughout his adult life, including a stint at a weight loss program in North Carolina, succumbed to a massive heart attack and respiratory failure while staying at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in White Plains, NY on February 7th 2000.
What can you say about a force of nature talent? Rakim is special. His discography includes seven albums over the course of three decades. That makes him a distinguished member of Hip Hop elder statesman. New York City’s own, William Michael Griffin, Jr, is widely acclaimed for the masculinity of his voice, and the raw power of his verses. His ability to manipulate simple rhyme patterns into compelling prose is legendary. As his is remarkable longevity, in a business that is littered with supernova examples of point in time artists. His ground-breaking 1987 album was recorded with partner ‘Eric B’. ‘Paid in Full’ contained arguably the greatest Hip Hop single of all time, the title track of the same name. As well as five charted singles, including ‘I ain’t no joke‘. His follow up album ‘Follow the Leader‘ (1988) garnered wide critical acclaim, and attained ‘Gold’ status in sales, reaching #22 on the charts. Remarkable for a style that is considered more underground than commercial. Rakim was one of the stewards of Hip Hop during what is now considered it’s ‘Golden Age‘(1985-2000).
#8. Mos Def.
His voice is unmistakeable. His persona, magnetic. His lyrics are a wonderful combination of soci0-political commentary and entertaining rhythm and rhyme. A multi-talented artist, Dante Terrell Smith, aka. Yasiin Bey, aka. Mos Def started as a child actor from the age of fourteen. Starring in television movies such as ‘God Bless the Child’ (1988), as well as the short lived ‘The Cosby Mysteries’ (1996), later on on his career he starred alongside Bruce Willis in the film ’16 Blocks’ (2006). But what he is best known for is his music. His debut solo album ‘Black on both Sides’ (1999) released by the now defunct ‘Rawkus Records’ was quite simply sublime. A wonderful tapestry of rhythm and verse that still resonates on a personal level with this author. He collaborated with Talib Kweli to form the group ‘Black Star’ in 1998 releasing ‘Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star’. Which featured the popular singles ‘Respiration’, and ‘Definition’. He also participated in several compilation concept albums such as ‘Lyricist Lounge’ (1999), and ‘SoundBombing’ (1999). Always an artist with eclectic sensibilities, Mos Def’s more recent work has been a fusion of jazz, and spoken word. However the strength of the Rawkus years puts him squarely at #8 on my list.
This man has proven that prodigious Hip Hop talent is no longer racially specific. The complexity of Motor City’s own Marshall Bruce Mathers’s life rivals the intricacy of his emotionally supercharged music. Known for the lightning quick delivery of his rhymes, if you blink you might miss the exposition of personal turmoil that pervades his lyrics. Quite simply, Eminem is a transcendent Hip Hop talent. He owns the distinction of being the highest grossing album seller in the decade of the 2000’s. Having sold in excess of 172 million of them, that’s world-wide folks. Each of his first three albums ‘The Slim Shady LP’ (1999), ‘The Marshall Mathers LP‘(2000), and ‘The Eminem Show‘ (2002), were huge global successes. I could tell you about his life, but all one would have to listen to his music, and it’s all there. The good, the bad, and the ugly. If you’ve been living under a rock, and haven’t peeped his music, now might be a good time. Trust me…
#6. Slick Rick.
Perhaps the most entertaining of al the artists on this list Slick Rick, aka. Ricky Martin Lloyd Walters, also holds the distinction of being the only foreign born artist on this list. Born in England, Slick began his illustrious career in 1983. Simply put, his lyrical storytelling style was as fun, as it was brilliant. Before Andre 3000, there was Slick Rick. His 1988 debut album ‘The Great Adventures of Slick Rick’ released on Def Jam Records, is arguably among the greatest of all time. With wildly popular singles such as ‘Children’s Story‘, ‘Teenage Love‘, and ‘Hey Young World‘, he was one of the brightest stars in the Hip Hop galaxy during the ‘Golden Age‘. An attempted murder charge in 1990 involving the shooting of his cousin derailed his career prematurely. But prior to that, his collaboration single with Dougie Fresh, ‘The Show‘ (1985) proved to be groundbreaking, and timeless. One of, if not the best, Hip Hop party single of all time. While out on bail awaiting his trial, he recorded his second album, ‘The Ruler’s Back’ (1991). While not as successful in terms of units sold, it solidified him as one of the best in the game when it came to entertaining style, and lyrical content. Years of legal red tape with U.S. Immigration, and deportation issues prematurely sidelined a bright career.
‘Hova’s’ career has spanned three decades, and his world-wide entrepreneurial success is widely recognized. What many people might not realize is that Jay-Z, aka. Brooklyn, NY’s own Shawn Corey Carter, came up in the game with most the greatest Hip Hop artists of all time. Having worked with The Notorious B.I.G., Big Daddy Kane, LL Cool J, Big L, and DJ Premiere. Like a chess master he has skillfully capitalized on his opportunities where others have either fallen off, or died. He has seamlessly traversed the Old School, and into the New School. Among his prolific discography, three of his albums stand out, ‘Reasonable Doubt’ (1996), ‘The Blueprint’ (2001), and ‘The Black Album‘ (2003). All of which have sold into the millions of copies. He has been known to retire on occasion, but somehow, I expect to continue to see him on the scene.
Many of you have probably never heard of Lawrence “Krisna” Parker, aka. KRS-One. But believe me when I tell you it’s not because he hasn’t been around. His career has spanned four decades, since it’s beginnings with Scott La Rock and ‘Boogie Down Productions’ in the middle 1980’s. The release of the group’s debut album ‘Criminal Minded’ (1987) rattled cages in Hip Hop with it’s raw energy, and politically pointed lyrics. His single ‘My Philosophy‘ is an all-time great. ‘Unfortunately, Scott La Rock was murdered shortly after the albums release, thus making KRS-One essentially a solo act, though not officially until 1993. Kris has made a career out of lecturing and advocating for the uplifting of the black community, particularly the violence that pervades it. He has been a prolific recording artist, having released twenty-four albums, including six officially as a solo artist, and another six collaboration albums. His body of work is a litany of socially conscious music aimed at enlightenment, and education. He started the ‘Stop the Violence’ movement shortly following La Rock’s death, and has carried that torch throughout his entire career. He is without question, the most noble human being on this list…
Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones, aka. ‘Nas’ is a true child of the mean streets of NYC, and has shown himself to be a transcendent artistic talent since the very beginning. The release of his debut album ‘Illmatic’ (1994) was one of those ‘where were you, when you first heard it’ moments. It’s that good. Many people in Hip Hop circles consider that album to be the best of all-time. The amazing fact of the matter is that Nas was only nineteen years of age when he recorded it. If that doesn’t qualify as prodigal, then what does? He has gone on to follow up that initial success with eight consecutive platinum, and multi-platinum albums, with sales totaling over 25 million copies worldwide. Widely considered among the very best Hip Hop artists of all time he sits on this list at #3, among stratospheric company…
#2. The Notorious B.I.G. aka. Biggie Smalls.
Let me qualify his position on this list by stating that this decision came after much consternation, as my heart says he is actually #1, but he was edged out ever so slightly by the crowned #1 artist, based purely on the size of his body of work. Sadly, his untimely murder cut short perhaps the brightest potential of any artist on this list. Nevertheless, what Biggie lacks in amount of work, he more than makes up for with style, influence, and raw talent. Christopher George Latore Wallace, aka. The Notorious B.I.G. had the rare combination of storytelling ability, and ultra-magnetic charm. His flow seemed effortless, his rhymes among the cleverist on record. His persona was intoxicating to his fans. The content of his stories, and his everyman aura, made him the kind of man whose success you wanted to root for. His debut album ‘Ready to Die’ (1994) was an off the charts mixture of raw street and party anthem. A by-product of the influence of Producer Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs, and ‘Bad Boy Records’. That album single handedly brought the light back to the east coast Hip Hop scene, a scene that had been overshadowed for several years by west coast music, and artists. His follow up double LP ‘Life after Death’ (1997) but Hip Hop on notice that there was a new king. Sadly, Biggie would never live to see the impact, and success of that album. He was murdered in Los Angeles, CA on the evening of March 9th 1997. Sixteen days before the album was set to drop. There have been two additional albums released posthumously, and his world-wide record sales have topped 17 million copies. What could have been? I have intimated that at least one other artist’s career on this list, has greatly benefitted from the spot in east coast Hip Hop that Biggie left to be filled. This is one artist that this writer misses everyday.
#1. Tupac Shakur. aka. 2 Pac
When you mix animal magnetism, with superstar charisma, and poignant, intelligent lyrics, you get a one of kind artist. In this case our #1 Hip Hop artist of all time. Tupac Amaru Shakur had once in a generation type talent. His voice carried a power that belied his relatively small stature. The son of a Black Panther revolutionary, it should come as no surprise that Tupac rode through this world on a musical horse with defiance and bravado. Although drama, and violence seemed to follow him throughout his life, Tupac managed to record at a prolific pace, especially in the weeks immediately after his release from prison in 1995-96, including ‘All Eyez on Me’ (1996). He has to date sold in excess of 75 million records, along with influence that is immeasurable. His work with the Digital Underground served as a springboard for his career. He released four albums while alive, then another six posthumously. He was also a trained actor, appearing in nine Hollywood films in the 1990’s, including the cult classic ‘Juice‘ (1992), and ‘Poetic Justice‘ (1993). He routinely rapped about the social inequities and hardships that the black community faced in America. Often referred to as a ‘renegade poet’ he left little doubt that he was a magnificent artist, and entertainer. A complex life, that was followed by an untimely death his music lives on.