Nas is right. Hip-Hop is dead. The finality of it hits me everytime I hear the latest new "hit" and it's another snap-your-fingers-do-that-dance song. Gone are the days of the real M.C. (master of ceromonies for the unenlightened). Now it's all about how many spins you get on the radio and how many times BET shows your video within an hour. From rockin' the party to wiping ourselves down . . . that's how far it has come.
My generation is a unique and pivotal one in history in many ways: first ones born in the post- civil rights era ('70's), first to really feel the effects of Reaganomics and crack, and also priviliged to have witnessed the birth of this genre and how it has threaded itself into the fabric of American culture (remember KFC was one of the first to use rap music in their commercials?).
Yep, we watched as corporate America realized that this wasn't just a fad (and that there was a lot of money to be made from the exploitation of it). Watched as they became the controllers of what was hot. You used to be the man if you had a tape to sell out of your trunk, now if you don't have a video out or a segment on MTV Cribs you're a nobody.
I remember I saw a Judge Mathis episode (whose show I hate by the way) where the defendant was an aspiring rapper and and to prove the legitimacy of his claim that he had talent, he spit some of his lyrics on the spot. Now he was no KRS but he was saying a little something, but the judge basically ridiculed him saying that because he had never heard of him and he refused to follow along with the popular stereotypes pushed by the mainstream he would never be a "success" (i.e. make a lot of money) as a rapper. Dude even said he was more into it for the love of the flow rather than monetary acheivment but the judge just pooh-poohed that. And I just mention that to give an example of how this thinking has penetrated the minds of most people who only have a casual knowledge of rap music. Imagine what African Americans who don't even listen to rap must think of it. I get so tired of trying to explain to people in my own age group that all rap music is not like "Laffy Taffy", listen to some Talib, or Common, or the Roots.
But it's only to be expected. In my observation whichever way our people have gone, so has our music. Brothers was gonna work it out in the '80's, now we just trying to party like rock stars. Seems like black america is wildin' out even more than ever but not in a good way anymore. We used to wild out to stick up for our rights, now it's just to tear the club up or show you got the biggest rims, the fattest knot, the most ice. . .but this is best discussed in depth in another post. This post is about something often debated among hip-hop fans: The best M.C.s in history.
Yes I'm talking about spanning the whole history of hip-hop, which is a perfect task for someone in my age bracket because as I've said we witnessed it from the birth to now. Really something like this is seriously needed because hip-hop is not maximized as an art form. In other musical genres the pioneers are revered figures by fans (i.e. The Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead, Frank Sinatra, even Miles Davis and Coltrane), but not hip-hop. Young niggas laugh when you bring up KRS-One or Rakim in a discussion of the greatest m.c.'s of all time and are more likely to nominate Young Jeezy or Lil' Wayne (they're nice, but no comparison). We should be listening to Criminal Minded like white people listen to those old Beatles albums.
My criteria is kinda simple: lyrics, longevity (at least 2 good albums), and innovation. I'm trying to mention not only the best lyricists but the artists who changed the game somehow. As Melle Mel said "Hip Hop is about writing and rhyming, it's about standing in front of a mic (or an opponent) and destroying it lyrically". And I won't have any bias towards the younger generation on m.c.'s there are some good ones out there. Like I said one of the things I'm trying to do with this blog is spark debate and there should be plenty about a topic as subjective as this.
So without further adoo, this is my top ten.
10. Eminem - Some people would put him higher, others would not even have him on this list. My reasoning for including him is that white guys do have a place in hip-hop probably starting with the Beastie Boys and Rick Rubin, so I felt I should include their best representative. And he is always saying some shit that makes you rewind to make sure you heard him right.
9. Common (Sense) - has dropped the Sense part nowadays but that's how he started out. Gotta give props to my friends Show and Big Dre' for hipping me to Common back when he dropped 'Resurrection'. That was the album that really put him on the hip hop map (although his first album 'Can I Borrow a Dollar' was tight too) with the song 'I Used to Love H.E.R.' subliminally suggesting that hip-hop was headed down the wrong path of gangsta rap and materialism. So he's been around a long time and is still dropping dopeness (his latest is 'The Game' which I have to bump at least once a day and one with Talib Kweli, I believe they are from his latest album about to come out). Also back in around '98/'99 I went to a free concert outside on the student commons at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN featuring Common and The Roots. There were a lot of things that made that experience super tight: the fact that I was lifted, the fact that the place was not overpacked because it was not really advertised so if you were there it was on the humble, it was the end part of summer great weather, Common and The Roots actually showed up (well except for Black Thought). So they started later than the rumored start time but when they started they rocked it for like two and a half hours straight just Common and the Roots band. Common basically freestyled the whole show with a mix of semi-remixes of old school hits and lines from off the head that included the names of streets and places in Nashville which got the crowd hype. And after it was over I just remember walking away thinking that it was all free, no charge. That's hip-hop.
8. Jay-Z - Sigh . . . to tell you the truth I was really debating about whether he should be on this list ('HOV lovers hear me out!). His success has been mainly due to rap's current obsession with materialism. He was one of the first to really start name dropping designer names and labels in his rhymes and helped make bragging about how much money you have mandatory. Those things made me really dislike him as an artist (and that nickname 'Jigga', one syllable away from jigaboo!). I felt he was way overrated. But I can't front, he may stick to the same subject matter for the most part but he always comes up with new and clever ways to say it. 'Reasonable Doubt' is a classic no question, you can still beat down a block with 'Can't Knock the Hustle'. And he has progressed lyrically thru out his career, always improving. So I think it would be a to0 big off an oversight to leave him off. He represents one of the best of the second era of hip-hop (roughly early '90's to 2000).
7. Nas - sort of a living legend. I've never heard of a debut album being as highly anticipated as 'Illmatic' was (one of the few albums to ever get 5 mics from The Source). For years before it came out you would hear rumors on the underground rap scene of this kid named Nasty Nas ripping the mic. 'Illmatic' came out in the spring of '96 just in time for one of the last/best years of the infamous Freaknic in ATL. When I got down there I was amazed at the number of people from all around the country bumping Nas. He single-handedly shifted rap's focus back on lyricsm after it had been binging on uncreative gangsta rap. I believe his first appearance on wax was 'Live at the Barbecue' the last cut on 3rd Bass's often overlooked second album. Large Professor and Akinelye were both on this cut and were big at the time but Nas stole the show: "street's disciple my raps are trifle/I shoot slugs from my brain just like a rifle/stampede the stage, I leave the microphone ripped/play Mr. Toughy while I'm on some Pretty Tony shit/verbal assassin my architecht pleases/when I was twelve I went to hell for snuffin' Jesus". Are you telling me these Young Joc Laffy Taffy niggas are coming close to that???!!! Please.
6. Tupac/Biggie - these two will always be linked together not just in the history of rap music but in American culture so it only makes sense to put them together on this list. Two guys who started off as buddies but ended up enemies and in the middle became two of the most prolific artists in the history of any musical genre. If you mention one you have to mention the other and it's useless trying to decide which one was better. Each had the innate ability to make you feel what they were feeling not only with what they said but how they said it. Hell one could argue the case that if they were still alive hip-hop would be too.
5. Ice Cube - The Product. He's got the longevity and he's a pioneer of (West Coast) gangsta rap, an original member of NWA. Known for spitting such lines as "I was told cuz I didn't witness the whole act/in 'n' out was the movement of the bozack/it was hot and sweating and lots of pushin/then the nut came gushin'/and it was hell tryin to bell to the ovary/with nothin but the Lord lookin' over me/I was white with a tail/but when I crossed the finish line: young black male!"
4. LL Cool J - even though his is annoying with the constant licking of the lips and the obsession with his body, I can't front on Cool James. When it comes to longevity he is pretty much the standard. He's had umpteen albums and always at least one hit from each one (I think the last was 'Headsprung'?), and countless classics. The inventor of the rap love ballad. Took out KoolMoDee with 'Jack the Ripper' (although MoDee's answer song was tight, but not tight enough). One of the first rappers to transcend the genre and go into movies and tv. Gave Foxy Brown her first big shot on wax.
3. Kool G Rap - the real originator of gangster rap music, besides maybe Schoolly D and Too Short on the West Coast. G Rap was spitting rough rhymes way before NWA or the Geto Boys made it extra popular. Still he is mostly only known to true heads. Was on classic tracks like 'The Symphony' ,'Ill Street Blues', and 'Talk Like Sex'. If you can ever find his best hits CD released by now defunct Cold Chillin' Records cop it immediately because it's a rare find. A sample 'you know the evil that men do, so show him how the game go/we snatched him by his hands and feet and threw him out the window/up, up, up and away cuz I don't play clown/buck, buck, buck take that with you on the way down/I'm hoping you got wings or springs on your shoes/but you lose becuz I got the Ill Street Blues.
2. Big Daddy Kane - long live the Kane. I don't see how you could avoid mentioning him in this discussion. I mean 'Raw', 'Ain't no Halfsteppin'', 'Set It Off', his verse on 'The Symphony', I could go on and on. Sure he hasn't really done anything in the last 10 years but the lyrics on those songs still surpass those currently being passed off by these rappers posing as m.c.s He very much helped make flatop fades cool (up north people called them 'big daddies' as in "man what's up with your big daddy, you need a cut don't you?!"). One interesting antidote is his supposed rivalry with Kool G Rap, fellow member of the Juice Crew. I've heard it said that the last two verses of "The Symphony" was a little personal battle between G Rap and Kane. Opinions differ on which verse was better but I think all agree they both were tight.
1.-Tie Rakim - of course the god m.c. needs to be near the top of this list, but it is too hard for me personally to decide between him and KRS One so I declare a tie. Do I even need to go into an explanation of why he is perhaps the greatest m.c. of all time? Universally respected among all rappers, all pay homage due to Rakim. Examine any line of his lyrics on any song. There are no out of place words, no wasted syllables, no throw away lines. His delivery is pretty much flawless. He's like Jordan on the mic for real.
1.-Tie KRS One - the m.c. who would rather teach than rule. Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone. See this is a person who lived a substantial part of his life growing up literally on the streets homeless. He knows reality for real for real. And you cannot call yourself a truly hardcore head if you've never been to or at least heard a KRS concert, he's gives perhaps the best live shows of any rapper ever. So he is the complete emcee, elevating to a higher form metaphysically but still among the masses. He's still hot doing underground shit and he says that every year he writes a seperate battle rap for each of the top ten selling rappers that year, so if the masses ever wake up watch out Jeezy!