The following list contains rappers and groups that had a huge impact on the game and/or have a tremendous body of work, but for some reason never got the credit they deserved. This is not a list of underground rappers that should be “big time” but are too abstract/intelligent to ever crossover into the mainstream (pretty much everybody on Def Jux) or rappers with one great album that quickly faded out of our collective consciousness (Das Efx, The Pharcyde, Craig Mack), this is a list of rappers that have put in work and built careers but seem to get snubbed in conversations about the best to ever do it.
This is my personal list of 10 rappers/groups that should be in your “Top 5 Dead or Alive” (I know that math doesn’t even come close to working out, but let’s roll with it for now).
Onyx/Stickyfingaz: No group in the history of Hip-Hop conveyed anger, frustration and nihilism better than these 4 “crazy bald heads” from Queens. Their 1993 debut album “Bacdafucup” (I believe the first and only album to chart on Billboard with the “F-Word” in the title...how badass is that?) was brutal and upon repeated listening was not a question of how much you liked it, but how much you could take. The album sounded like an hour long beat down that was best listened to in small doses or when you were in a really bad mood, this was not party music, playing this CD in large group was the sonic equivalent of throwing gasoline on a fire. I am fairly mild-mannered and was living in a palatial suburb when this was hot and if “Slam” came on in any kind of social setting I wanted to tear some sh*t up (needless to say I never caused any real damage).
The “mad face invasion” continued two years later with “All We Got Iz Us” which overall was a bit of a letdown, but contained “Last Dayz,” arguably the groups best track ever (note: this beat is used for the second round of B-Rabbit’s final battle in “8 Mile”). As the 90’s progressed and everybody was wearing shiny suits and rapping about champagne over R&B samples, fans were not as open to guys yelling and screaming about death, beatings and robberies and their later albums were largely overlooked, however it is worth noting that “React” from 1998’s “Shut ‘Em Down” contained one of the first recorded verses from a young 50 Cent (pre-shooting and pre-drawl), showing the groups ability to spot young talent.
In 2001 Stickyfingaz released his criminally slept on solo debut “Black Trash: The Autobiography of Kirk Jones.” This concept album tells the life story of a young man in NYC that changes from good guy to stick-up kid to inmate and how he reacts with the world around him, including his dealings with money, the law, his family, his girl, racism and god. Sticky enlisted such A-listers as Eminem, Redman, Raekwon and Wyclef Jean to assist him in telling this epic story and the cameos work brilliantly to keep the listener enthralled in this gripping street tale told through songs (that also stand on their own) and short, but entertaining skits. The format of this album clearly was not conducive to crossover appeal but real Hip-Hop heads should check this out, it’s truly a lost classic.
This decade has not been nearly as kind to the group. Stickyfingaz and Fredro Starr have released several solo projects each that have been largely ignored (even by me, I am not really familiar with any of them), done a fair amount of acting and claimed to “Slam harder than Vince Carter” on a tepidly received 2003 reunion.
Masta Ace: It’s hard to shine when your crew consists of Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, Biz Markie, Roxanne Shante, Craig G, and Marly Marl, but Masta Ace was (and still is) a beast. From his 1993 masterpiece “Slaughtahouse” (this guy must hate “-er” endings), to 2003’s “Disposable Arts” and his current work with Punch & Words, he never disappoints. Many casual music fans first heard of Ace when Eminem thanked him for inspiration, along with a slew of other rappers, at a Grammy Awards ceremony, but Masta Ace’s career spans 3 decades and includes introducing the East Coast’s version of car culture to the rest of the world on “Let me Roll” (you wanted a Wrangler or Pathfinder with a system after hearing this, even if you were too young to drive).
Naughty by Nature: Naughty get plenty of props for making bangin’ anthems that still ignite parties and clubs nearly twenty years after they were released. What they don’t get enough respect for is KG’s groundbreaking production and Treach’s awe inspiring flow. In the early 90’s everybody was sampling James Brown and Teddy Riley’s “New Jack Swing” movement had producers convinced that in order to make a club hit the beat had to be as “smoothed out on the R&B tip” as possible. With the release of “O.P.P.” KG crushed that notion, he roughly sampled a piano loop from the Jackson 5 and made no effort to “Smooth It Out” even when Treach ordered him to do so. This chopped style of sampling, which KG employed for the rest of Naughty’s impressive run, directly influenced the production of The Rza (Wu-Tang), The Beat Miners (Boot Camp Clik) and countless others that dominated the rest of the ’90’s.
Treach’s flow and delivery were impeccable, he would speed up and slow down individual syllables within a word to make it fit his rhyme scheme (“Nature/Baker/Hate You” are not supposed to rhyme). This rhyme style resulted in intricate stories being told without the MC overshadowing the beat, which caused songs about infidelity, a rough upbringing in Illtown E.O. and unabashed love for Hip-Hop to become huge hits in the hood, the club and MTV. Treach’s influence can be heard in almost every significant rapper to emerge since 1991 and is extremely prominent in superstars like Eminem, Kanye West and both members of Outkast.
Tha Dogg Pound: Similar to Masta Ace, Tha Dogg Pound suffered rather than benefitted from their high-profile collaborators. After making significant contributions to “The Chronic,” “Doggystyle,” and the “Above the Rim” and “Murder Was The Case” sound tracks, the group released their debut album, “Dogg Food,” in the fall of 1995. This album was overshadowed by other events at Death Row including, the arrival of a fresh-out-of-prison 2pac, the murder trial of Snoop Doggy Dogg (his name at the time), the impending departure of Dr. Dre and Suge Knight becoming a national celebrity. To compound the drama, the album was hated on by most of the East Coast due to the single and video for “NY, NY” which included the group crushing buildings in the NYC skyline and guaranteed the album minimal airplay anywhere east of Chicago.
While The Game gets credit for combining East Coast style lyricism with West Coast beats and aesthetics with his 2005 debut, “The Documentary”, Tha Dogg Pound accomplished a similar feat a decade earlier, but went largely unnoticed. Daz was a solid rapper (and an impressive producer) but Kurupt was an animal on the mic and was one of the first Cali MC’s that fans universally agreed could hold his own in a cypher from Compton to Harlem and anywhere in between.
After “Dogg Food” the group released a string of solid solo projects, most notably Kurupt’s “Streetz Is A Mutha” in 1999, Kurupt married and divorced Foxy Brown and both have put out several group projects in the 2000’s. It is currently rumored that Kurupt is working on a collaborative album with DJ Quik, if this actually comes out (most collabo albums don’t) it should be ‘effin ridiculous.
Cypress Hill: Between the heavy metal imagery and the decidedly non-Hip-Hop business model of releasing LP’s every few years and touring constantly, most Hip-Hop heads washed their hands of The Hill after 1993’s crossover smash “Black Sunday.” However, this group was basically a full decade and a half ahead of the game and the rest of Hip-Hop has only recently caught up. When you see Jim Jones and Lil’ Wayne dressed in skull & crossbones T-Shirts and tight jeans, Jay-Z or Lupe Fiasco performing with a live band or hear any rapper talk about being a “Rock Star” understand that Cypress Hill did that first and, in most cases, better. They introduced the “Rock Star” aesthetic into Hip-Hop and endeared themselves to legions of non-traditional Hip-Hop fans (read: white and hispanic) in the process.
Cypress Hill’s business model of avoiding countless mixtape and guest appearances in favor of a solid studio album every 2-3 years followed by hundreds of live shows a year is much more conducive to making money in today’s music industry where digital downloads have sucked most of the profit away from record sales. Like B-Real said in a recent allhiphop.com interview “you can’t bootleg a live experience” and because of that Cypress Hill has remained relevant longer and probably made more money than most of their peers that rely on record sales to pay for the items that will get them featured on MTV Cribs.
On top of all this the group has consistently released quality music since 1992. From the classic self-titled debut album to stoner anthems like “Hits From The Bong” and more recent party-starters like “(Rock/Rap) Superstar” and “What’s Your Number?” Cypress Hill continues to be relevant and have hits well into the second decade of their career. Add in the facts that they introduced the world to House of Pain, DJ Muggs is an accomplished producer away from the group and the millions of rock fans that site Cypress Hill as the only Hip-Hop they can tolerate and you have one of the most slept on groups in history.
DJ Quik: This Compton CA producer/rapper didn’t make beats as much as orchestrate sweeping soundscapes that completely enveloped the listener in his tales of life on the West Coast. Debuting in the early 90’s, at the end of the first West Coast explosion (when NWA and Ice-T were kind of fading, but before “The Chronic”) with “Quik’s The Name” and continuing with “Way 2 Fonky” DJ Quick established a level of musicality not seen elsewhere in Hip-Hop. It is fair to assume that these two albums influenced Dr. Dre in his transition from the high-energy, Public Enemy-inspired, chaotic production work on NWA’s albums, to the more accessible, laid back “G-Funk” of Death Row (a fact that is probably responsible for Quik’s brief affiliation with Death Row in the mid-90’s). Quik’s artistry peaked on 1995’s “Safe + Sound” an album so musical and richly textured that it would be a decade until anyone (Kanye West) brought this level of production to traditional Hip-Hop.
DJ Quik has been a prominent figure in Hip-Hop for close to 20 years, he has a string of successful solo albums, introduced the world to 2nd II None, AMG (“Bitch Betta Have My Money”), Suga Free and Mausberg (RIP) and has produced songs by all-time greats ranging from 2pac and Snoop Dogg to Jay-Z and Jadakiss.
UGK: The word “underground” can be used in many contexts in Hip-Hop, but the fact that these guys debuted in 1992 and were largely unknown outside of the South until Jay-Z’s summer of 2000 anthem “Big Pimpin’” despite a string of classic albums and a rabidly loyal cult following, truly defines them as “Under Ground Kingz.” Throughout the 90’s the group released a series of albums that would influence the Dirty South aesthetic that dominates today’s commercial Hip-Hop scene, as much, if not more than their more well known peers like The Geto Boys, Outkast and 2 Live Crew. The fact that they did this with almost no radio airplay, no nationally televised videos, limited magazine coverage and way before the internet allowed anyone with a dream and a webcam to be a “Rapper” and you have one of the most impressive stories in Hip-Hop history.
On tracks like “Pocket Full Of Stones” (southern slang for crack), UGK defined the down south hustler/D-Boy mentality seen in today’s superstars like T.I., Young Jeezy, Rick Ross and the entire rosters of southern pioneers No Limit and Cash Money Records. Also, this group could best be described as “your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper” as prominent groups like Three-Six Mafia (the absolutely bananas “Sippin’ On Some Syrup”) and the previously mentioned Jay-Z featured them on tracks before the rest of the word knew who they were.
As the South rose to prominence in the 2000’s the group saw unprecedented success, UGK released several hit albums,both members released solo projects and the Houston Hip-Hop scene they pioneered exploded in 2005 with major label releases from Mike Jones, Slim Thug, Paul Wall and Chamillionaire. The past few years have seen a gradual cooling of Houston's “chopped & screwed” style and the unfortunate incarceration and untimely death of UGK member Pimp C. However, Bun B continues to release quality music on his own, record with artists as diverse as Sean Kingston and Dizzee Rascal and has recently become a player in the streetwear market, doing collaborative pieces with companies like ALife and The Hundreds.
3rd Bass: With songs like “Steppin’ to the A.M.” “Brooklyn Queens” and “Portrait of the Artist As A Hood” that were slightly to the left of what their peers were doing and “The Gas Face” and “Pop Goes The Weasel” condemning their more pop-friendly counterparts, 3rd Bass drew up the blueprint for the NYC underground that spawned NYU’s WKCR and the “white label” 12-in singles of the late 90’s, continued with Rawkus and Fondle ‘Em and is prominent today in indie labels like Def Jux and Fat Beats. With the possible exceptions of the Utramagnetic MC’s and De La Soul, no group better defined the characteristics of “NYC Underground” than MC Serch, Prime Minister Pete Nice and DJ Daddy Rich. “The Cactus Album” and “Derelicts of Dialect” were two early examples of albums that were dense and filled with content and inside jokes, but at the same time accessible enough to invite new fans. Also significant is that the group introduced KMD on 1989’s the Cactus Album, KMD went on to have moderate success, but a decade later Zev Love X put on a mask and changed his name to MF Doom to become one of the most universally respected MC’s in the underground. These albums produced a string of hit singles and innovative videos that are still universally respected in Hip-Hop circles.
In 1992 the group broke up and produced two reasonably successful solo albums, MC Serch’s “Return of the Product” was fairly well received, but most notably contained a verse from a young queens rapper named Nasty Nas (“Back To The Grill”) that further cemented Nas as “next to blow” after his stellar verse on Main Source’s (a group that just missed this list) “Live At The BBQ.” This monumental track also contained verses from Chubb Rock (in my opinion the third greatest morbidly obese MC of all time after B.I.G. and Big Pun) and Red Hot Lover Tone, who would become one half of legendary production duo The Trackmasters (Poke & Tone). The Trackmasters would go on to produce massive hits for Nas, LL Cool J, Jay-Z & R. Kelly and Jennifer Lopez among countless others. MC Serch went on to executive produce the undisputed classic “Illmatic”, be a radio personality in Detroit and eventually transition to television via VH1’s “The White Rapper Show.” (while this failed to produce the next Eminem it was cool to see R.A. The Rugged Man, Kool Keith, La Coka Nostra and the Insane Clown Posse on TV).
Pete Nice debuted with DJ Daddy Rich by his side in 1993 with “Dust to Dust.” In addition to several diss tracks aimed at his former partner, this album has the first recorded appearance by underground stalwart Cage. While industry and personal factors would cause Cage to not release a solo album until 2002, the beginnings of “the illest 4-letter word” could clearly be heard in this early verse. Today Pete Nice runs a baseball memorabilia shop in Cooperstown NY and to my knowledge is not involved in the music industry. The group reconciled in 1994 and recorded several tracks that are now available only on iTunes, these songs are solid and will make fans wonder what could have been if these two could have stayed together and continued to release groundbreaking music.
3rd Base set the standard for underground/experimental Hip-Hop and introduced the general population to Nas, MF Doom, Cage and The Trackmasters in the process, for these feats alone they should be at the top of everybody’s list of influential groups that forever changed the game.
Gangstarr: No group did more to define the New York sound of the ’90’s than Gangstarr (the fact that neither Guru or Premier were actually born in NYC is trivial compared to the impact they had on the music scene). Gangstarr’s music sounded like New York, Premier’s aggressive drum patterns and liberal use of jazz samples combined with Guru’s distinctive voice and straightforward yet sophisticated rhymes were the sound of taking the subway wearing Air Max ’95’s, a Champion Hoodie and a Yankee fitted.
Gangstarr’s career spanned six albums and produced undisputed classics like “Just To Get A Rep,” “Take It Personal,” “Ex-Girl To Next Girl,” “Who’s Gonna Take The Weight?” “The Militia,” and “DWYCK” to name a few. While putting out the majority of these albums (4) between 1989 and 1994 the members found time to release numerous side projects like albums by Jeru The Damaja, The Group Home and Guru’s “Jazzmatazz Vol. 1” that combined his rhymes with live instrumentation by jazz legends and introduced a new generation of fans to one of the greatest American art forms of the last century. On subsequent volumes of the series Guru continued to expand the scope of what a Hip-Hop record could be and introduced elements from various types of world music. Guru is currently recording as a solo artist and continues to put out quality material.
While there is an undeniably dope quality to the Premier/Guru collaboration, DJ Premier further added to his legacy by producing some of the biggest “street records” of all time. In 1997 when Jay-Z said “...and argue all day about who’s the best MC, Biggie, Jay-Z and Nas.” it was basically a question of who bodied their Primo track the best as the producer was instrumental in providing the sonic backdrop to the debut albums that turned the three into household names. Premier had a way of bringing out the best in whoever he worked with, as can be heard in classics by Nas (“NY State Of Mind” and “Nas Is Like...”), Jay-Z (“Friend or Foe” and “D’Evils”), B.I.G. (“Unbelievable” and “Kick In The Door”) that can be rivaled only by Dr. Dre. In the last several years, New York MC’s have turned away from Premier’s gritty sound in favor of accessible pop beats or down south bounce tracks to broaden their potential audience (basically, “Selling their soul to get Mass Appeal” as the 1994 Gangstarr classic predicted), Premier responded to this by working with Christina Aguilera to produce on of the best pop albums of the decade and getting platinum plaques and Grammy awards in the process.
Gangstarr defined the sound of New York City and contained arguably the best MC/DJ pairing in the history of Hip-Hop. DJ Premier’s contribution to music should not be overlooked, if Dr. Dre is Tom Brady (and he rightfully gets credit for being the best), then Primo is Peyton Manning, he might not get the same coverage in the media, but he’s still does his thing at a higher level than anybody else in the game.
EPMD: Most agree that Hip-Hop’s golden age was from 1988-1992, during this period competition to be heard was fierce as it seemed there was a classic LP dropping every other month and styles were changing and evolving at a breakneck pace. In the span of these 4 years EPMD released 4 classic albums that still stand today as examples of consistency. From 1988’s “Strictly Business” to 1992’s “Business Never Personal” the group put out an unrivaled catalog of material consisting of sampled funk that pre-dates the West Coast “G-Funk Era.” These beats were so ahead of their time, that they have been used over a decade later and found new fans (Jay-Z & Foxy Brown’s “Ain’t No...” released in 1996 used the same sample as “It’s My Thang” and Ghostface Killah’s 2007 single “Killer Lipstick” is the same sample as “Please Listen To My Demo”).
In 1992 the group decided to take the “Business” in their album titles literally and started cultivating new talent under the “Hit Squad” umbrella. The original incarnation included K-Solo, Das Efx and future superstar Redman culminating in the best posse cut of all time “Headbanger” (yes, I like it more than “The Symphony”). Unfortunately the group broke up at the end of 1992 to pursue solo careers and fans were left wondering what could have been. Parish continued to release solo material and retained the “Hit Squad” name to work with Das Efx and other up-and-coming groups on material that was fairly well received.
Erick Sermon released several successful solo albums (“No Pressure,” “Double Or Nothin’”, and “Music”), executive produced multiple classic albums by Redman, presented Keith Murray to the masses and produced hits for numerous other artists. Sermon also produced one of the most significant songs of the late ’90’s with LL Cool J’s “4,3,2,1” this song introduced DMX and Master P (on the remix once Canibus was kicked out) to larger audiences, cemented Method Man and Redman as two of the best in the game, and started the feud between LL and Canibus that would effectively end Canibus’ career and definitively put Uncle L in the “G.O.A.T.” conversations.
EPMD reconciled in 1997 and released new material that was a breath of fresh air to fans tired of shiny suits and “Bling, Bling,” the group released another solid album in 1999 and then took a long recording hiatus to produce other acts and tour. In December 2008, the group released their seventh album, “We Mean Business” and has plans to release a sneaker/apparel line with skate company DC Shoes in the near future.
Over the course of two decades EPMD have been the most consistent group in Hip-Hop and have introduced the world to some of the most talented MC’s ever, they should clearly be in the same category as Public Enemy, Wu-Tang Clan and Run-DMC, however if you disagree, as they say, you can “Get The Bozack!”