It is widely believed that the watershed moment that birthed Hip Hop culture was a party held on August 11th, 1973. This party was thrown by DJ Kool Herc in the function room of 1520 Sedgwick Ave in the Bronx, New York. In recent times, it has emerged that there were other monumental occurrences that happened even before that party, which were contributory towards the culture, however, DJ Kool Herc’s party still serves as a tangible reference point of Hip Hop culture’s conception.
It’s 2019 and Hip Hop culture has grown and evolved in epic proportions. As an art form, it has taken many shapes and forms, with elements being added to it to make its composition as a culture. Emceeing, d’jaying, b-boying and graffiti are the four defining elements of the Hip Hop culture. Emceeing takes the fore as it counts as the most predominant element. It is the one element that has stood the test of time and has gotten better and better as Hip Hop grew.
An age-old, omnipresent question has always been, who is the best emcee in Hip Hop, at any particular time? And with the tremendous growth of Hip Hop, (Hip Hop is 46 years old) the more pressing question has always been, who is the greatest emcee of all time? Many Hip Hop fans attempt to answer this question almost daily and while there’s usually relative consensus on at least ten emcees, it is seemingly impossible for rap fans across the globe to agree on one greatest emcee of all time.
I have engaged in numerous Greatest of All Time debates in my lifetime as a passionate Hip Hop fan but it was very recent when I understood that this is certainly the most futile debate in Hip Hop, (most debates in Hip Hop have proven to be). Especially in the context of all time? How can we say of all time when Hip has existed since 1973 and continues to exist? There are brilliant emcees that have blessed mics in each of the four decades, and there will continue to be. Nonetheless, let’s engage the question of is there a greatest of all time in Hip Hop?
First, let’s do the History.
1973 – 1979
These are the formative years of Hip Hop therefore the art of emceeing was at its infancy. Teething and finding its footing. It wasn’t all that great. In fact, most cats weren’t recording songs in the early part of this period. The focal point was performing at shows and rocking the crowd. The team of a DJ and an MC rocking out at block parties. Monumental releases were churned out still, though. Apache, The SugarHill Gang, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were some of the names that took centre-stage in this period. Afrika Bambaataa and The Zulu Nation also contributed in the codification of Hip Hop as a subculture during this time. The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rappers Delight” was the first rap hit, charting on the Billboards charts. Kurtis Blow was the first rapper to be signed to a major label and also the first rapper to ever appear on TV. Towards the end of this period, the focus moved to the emcee, and the art of emceeing started to evolve.
1980 – 1986
Early in this period, Kool Moe Dee dissed Busy Bee in a spontaneous battle, inadvertently starting the practice of battle-rap. Afrika Bambaataa and The Zulu Nation released their first 12’’ called “Zulu Nation Throwdown Pt. 1” and the seminal “Planet Rock” followed. Kurtis Blow sold a million records and this was the impetus for Hip Hop’s foray into big money show-business.Touring was also seen as a lucrative move for Hip Hop as the first successful tour was recorded, the Fresh Fest concert featuring Whodini, Kurtis Blow, Fat Boys, and Run DMC, reeled in $3.5 million. It was also in this period that Ice-T helped pioneer Gangsta Rap through the release of his rap-core singles “Body Rock” and “Killers”. Run DMC also gained traction in this period, which saw the formation of Def Jam Records by Rick Rubin and Russel Simmons, LL Cool J was one of their first artists. Battle-rap continues to grow with the release of 14 year-old Roxanne Shante’s “Roxanne’s Revenge” as a response to UTFO’s “Roxanne Roxanne”. Doug E Fresh also debuted in this period, he brought along with him an American-British emcee named MC Ricky D, who would later change his name to Slick Rick and pivot to great influence in the late 80’s with classic albums such as “The Great Adventures of Slick Rick as well as “The Ruler’s Back. The Beastie Boys, who were the first Caucasian rappers to be embraced by Hip Hop, which at this point had been a strictly black cultural phenomenon, also debuted. Salt N Pepa made their debut appearance this period as well.
1987 – 1996
Now, this is the decade which many see as THE GOLDEN ERA of Hip Hop. It’s all relative though. Eric B and Rakim released their debut “Paid In Full”. These were seen as pivotal releases for Hip Hop as Rakim employed a never heard before technique of rhyming. Their following release, “Follow The Leader” cemented Rakim as a pioneering lyricist for his development of lyricism.
This is the period that saw the emergence of politically charged Hip Hop, with the release of KRS ONE’s group, Boogie Down Productions’ “Criminal Minded” LP, but most importantly, Chuck D’s group, Public Enemy’s introductory album, “Yo! Bum Rush The Show!”. NWA released their seminal work. “Straight Of Compton” solidifying the movement of Gangsta Rap.
The Juice Crew made way for Kool G Rap and DJ Polo. The duo released their debut “Road To Riches” to critical acclaim, as well as two other albums that are considered classics today. G Rap is also credited at advancing rhyme patterns in Hip Hop.
Big Daddy Kane released his landmark album “Long Live The Kane” in this period as well. He’s credited as creating the ladies’ man persona in rap, while still maintaining the macho man who would go at anyone. He further advanced rhyme technique and penmanship.
The Geto Boys, with Scarface, were formed in this period, putting the South on the map.
Busta Rhymes would appear on A Tribe Called Quest “The Scenario” and eventually release his debut album “The Coming” later on.
EPMD emerged as a formidable duo of two emcees and released critically acclaimed albums such as “Strictly Business” and “Unfinished Business”.
The Native Tongues, a collective that would eventually give birth to groups such as A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, who spearheaded smart, conscious Hip Hop also emerged. This was along with groups such as the Jungle Brothers, Brand Nubian, Poor Righteous Teachers, although these groups leaned more into spirituality and identity, through their Nation of Islam and Five Percenters affiliation.
Ice Cube left NWA, started beefing with them and during that time released a trilogy of projects that’s still considered as the best ever three project effort from an emcee in the form of Amerikkka’s Most Wanted”, “Kill At Will” EP and “Death Certificate”.
The West Coast started its dominance with the release of Dr Dre’s “Chronic” album which sold tremendous amounts of units, and this dominance was was certified by Snoop Dogg’s debut album “Doggystyle”, which was the biggest selling Hip Hop debut of all time when it came out.
Wu-Tang Clan also debuted around this time, with the release of “Enter the 36 Chambers”.
Common released his sophomore album “Resurrection” which established him as a serious smart conscious rapper. This was preceded by “Can I Borrow a Dollar?”.
A duo from Atlanta, Outkast would release their debut “Southernplayalisticadllacmuzik” in this time.
A hip hop band, The Roots (formerly The Square Roots) would also release their debut album “Organix” during this period, followed by “Do You Want More!?”. Black Thought as the lead emcee.
A young cat by the name Nas released his debut album “Illmatic” to enormous critical acclaim, as THUS changed the trajectory of Hip Hop after that. Having been heard previously on Main Source’s single, “Live At The BBQ”, he was already dubbed the second coming of Rakim, largely due to the way he was rapping, which had never been heard before. A similar feeling elicited by Rakim when he first came out.
The Notorious BIG emerged as well after some buzz. Puff at the helm, he released the critically acclaimed and commercially successful “Ready To Die”, followed by the well-received “Life After Death”, before he was shot dead later on.
A creative by the name Tupac, who started out as a dancer for a group called Digital Underground was making a lot of noise in this period. He had a released an album and also ventured into acting. It was his abrasive personality and run-ins with the law that brought him notoriety. He went on to be known as a polarizing figure in Hip Hop, with the release of critically acclaimed albums such as “Me Against The World” and All Eyez On Me”. His beef with The Notorious BIG added to his legend.
Jay-Z debuted later on in this period, with the lauded “Reasonable Doubt”. He stalled his career as a rapper by focusing more on the drug game, but was around long enough to learn the game so that his arrival would be calculated and eventually set him up for unrivalled longevity.
1997 – 2000
Rawkus Records was established shortly before this period but really found its feet during this period. It was home to emcees such as Mos Def and Talib Kweli, who released their critically acclaimed collaborative album “Black Star” in this time. It also released compilations known as “Soundbombing” as well as “Lyricist Lounge”.
A white rapper by the name Eminem, who had been trying his hand at Hip Hop for close to ten years at that point, would eventually find success with the help of Dr Dre, who signed him and released his major debut album, “The Slim Shady LP” to overwhelming commercial success.
DMX would emerge in this period, releasing his major debut album “It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot” which debuted at number 1 on the Billboard 200 charts. He dropped It’s Dark And Hell is Hot first, then followed it up with Flesh Of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood in the same year, which also debuted at number 1 the Billboard 200 charts. This made him the first Hip Hop artist to release two albums in the same year that debuted at number 1 on the Billboard 200 charts.
A Latino rapper by the name Big Pun would also debut during this period through the release of his album “Capital Punishment”. He would unfortunately die shortly thereafter. He is the only Latino rapper to go platinum.
A rapper by the name Big L also unfortunately died in this period. He was on the cusp of signing with Jay-Z and Damon Dash’s Roc-A-Fella after releasing two albums prior, “Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous” and “The Big Picture”.
Just before the turn of the millennium, a young rapper by the name Lil Wayne released his debut album “The Block Is Hot”. He had been running with The Hot Boys on Cash Money records for almost ten years until that time. He would later find incredible success five years later.
One last sensation before the millennium turned was 50 Cent who ran with Onyx and Jam Master Jay before putting out his own album, “Power of the Dollar” on Columbia Records. The album was unfortunately shelved due to 50 Cent being shot 9 times in the same period. He would later find immense success in the early-mid 2000s with Eminem and Dr Dre.
There’s no emcee who has come out from this period to date, who is worthy of being in the Greatest of All Time discussion.
Everything that has happened from this period to date is well documented and fresh in most of our minds.
Based on (a) lyricism (lyrical ability), (b) impact (c) influence, (d) success (sales and awards), and (e) longevity: Rakim, LL Cool J, KRS ONE, Kool G Rap, Andre 3000, Big Daddy Kane, Ice Cube, The Notorious BIG, Tupac, Nas, Jay-Z, Black Thought, DMX, Eminem, 50 Cent, Lil Wayne, Snoop Dogg, and Busta Rhymes.
1. The Notorious BIG
5. Andre 3000
7. Black Thought
9. Lil Wayne