It has become popular for websites, magazines and music television shows to ask artists to list their “Top 5, Dead or Alive” MC’s. When this trend started it seemed like an interesting concept: fans get to hear what 5 rappers most influenced their favorite entertainers, however, like most things in the corporate controlled world of major label Hip-Hop this exercise quickly degenerated into everybody listing the same five rappers out of fear of being branded too eccentric to appeal to the masses. This is the same kind of groupthink that makes all rappers dress alike regardless of how ridiculous the fashion statement (tight jeans and wallet chains, really?), view drug dealing as an acceptable career option and release formulaic albums that are completely devoid of creativity or artistic vision.
It is also abundantly clear that most rappers have a memorized response (that was possibly written by a publicist or manager) to this question that they simply regurgitate to the interviewer whether it be Rocsi on “106 & Park” or Grouchy Greg from allhiphop.com. I am reasonably sure of this because my personal “Top 5” changes constantly based on my mood, what I’m listening to and my surroundings. If you ask me to list my “Top 5” when I’m working out or all fired up about something I will probably respond: DMX, Wu-Tang, MOP, 2Pac and Redman. If you ask me when I’m in the library or deep in thought I might say: KRS-ONE, Chuck D, Ice Cube, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. If you ask me in a club after a few cocktails I might answer: Nelly, Ludacris, Fabolous, 50 Cent and Juvenile (yeah, I occasionally get that drunk). Also, if I’m on the L Train from Penn Station to Yankee Stadium, my list absolutely includes Big Pun and Rakim and if I’m hanging out down south my list probably includes Outkast and Scarface. If you ask me during Hot 97’s “Old School At Noon” I’m probably going to say: Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, Run-DMC, LL and the Beastie Boys, but ask me a few hours later and I might say: Jay-Z, Nas, Eminem, Biggie and Lil’ Wayne and if you catch me with a hoodie and backpack my answer will probably be: Aesop Rock, Cage, Murs, MF Doom and Kool Keith. And the funny thing is, when I say any of those responses I wholeheartedly believe in my list and can make an articulate and convincing argument as to why my “Top 5” are/were so great.
Hip-Hop is much too big of a movement with way too many sub-genres to lump it all into one category (a la iTunes’ “Hip-Hop/Rap”) and make any kind of comparisons between artists as different as Talib Kweli and Young Jeezy or DJ Quick and Immortal Technique. It is precisely this kind of differentiation that has made the genre the most important and consistently relevant youth movement of the last thirty years. Asking an artist or fan to list their “Top 5” is in stark contrast to this concept and completely overlooks the very thing that makes Hip-Hop relevant three decades after the Sugar Hill Gang committed “Rapper’s Delight” to wax. It is like asking someone to to list their “Top 5 Modes of Transportation” and expecting them to compare a Bentley GT, the Concord, a yacht, Reebok Pumps and a Vision Phsycostick skateboard, they are all great, and there is some common thread between them, but are they alike enough that you can really say one is definitively better than the other?
Further, the homogenous “Top 5” list that populates most media outlets is so derivative and unoriginal that it should contain three sixteen bar verses, a chorus sung by a hot R&B chick, contain verses about money, drug sales and strippers and have an accompanying video with expensive cars, champagne, hot tubs and models from King Magazine.
TYPICAL TOP 5 LIST
#1 Biggie or 2Pac
Both of these artists were immensely talented, contributed as much to Hip-Hop as anyone before or since and had lives and careers cut tragically short by senseless violence. However, neither of these guys is beyond reproach and I find it hard to believe that every single man, woman or child to ever make a “Top 5” list thinks they are the top two rappers ever.
To claim B.I.G. was the greatest rapper of all time you have to ignore the fact that he ushered in the era of “anything for money” commercialism that currently dominates the culture. Puffy gets blamed for the obvious samples, shiny suits and club-ready tracks that most purists hate, but aren’t “Juicy,” “Hypnotize,” “One More Chance” and “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems” exactly that kind of “Pop Rap”? It is easy to blame Puffy for where Hip-Hop has gone, but to say Biggie did not play a major role in the culture moving in this direction is patently false. Further, he championed the “Money, Hoes and Clothes” mentality that has hamstrung commercial Hip-Hop since the mid-90’s and displayed open disdain for education, physical fitness and women.
However, Biggie at his best (“Unbelievable,” “Suicidal Thoughts,” “Kick In The Door”) was inarguably one of the best to ever do it. “Ready to Die” and “Life After Death” are easily two of the best records ever made. I just find it hard to believe that every single person with a pulse feels this way.
#2 2Pac or Biggie
To list 2Pac as the greatest of all time you have to overlook about half of his recorded material, because of his insane work ethic and desire to express himself on a wide variety of topics he recorded more sub-par songs/verses than almost any other rapper in history. Also, while is best work is intensely emotional, his rhymes are simple by today’s standards and did not really stand out when he was alive (keeping it 100% real, Ice Cube, Kurupt, Redman, Nas and just about everybody in Wu-Tang rapped circles around him), he was unfocused as a lyricist and often contradicted himself (sometimes on the same song), had difficulty picking hot beats and writing choruses that resonated with fans and his movies, with the exception of “Juice,” were fair at best.
With that being said I also understand that Pac was bigger than his music. He was the quintessential “One Man Movement.” He related to legions of fans in ways most artists can only dream about and even though the beats were average, the rhymes were basic and the hooks/choruses were non-existent the majority of his catalog is bigger than the sum of it’s parts. While this kind of amalgamation is fairly popular in rock music (The Grateful Dead, Nirvana, The Beastie Boys), 2pac is probably the only rapper to successfully pull this off. And while he may be the most influential rapper of all time, with the majority of today’s stars focusing more on “Feeling” and “Swagger” than lyricism, it is also worth noting that the pre-Death Row period of 2Pac’s career was marked by intense political/social commentary and while today’s MC’s openly embrace “Thug Life” very few of them are trying to record the next “Brenda’s Got a Baby” or “Trapped.”
This pick is pretty solid. Jay-Z has recorded two or three times the amount of classic material than any other artist, his lyrics range from cleverly humorous to outright genius, his beat selection is impeccable, his song writing ability is unmatched and if only the “bad” Jay-Z albums existed (“In My Lifetime Vol. 1,” “The Blueprint 2” and “Kingdom Come”) he might still belong in the top 20 of all time. However, there has got to be somebody that doesn’t like his work besides Cam, Jim Jones and Peedi Crack.
#4 The most well known rapper from your town/region
I don’t care if you grew up in The Bay, sold tapes out of your trunk and have been getting “Hyphy” for the last 10 years, you don’t believe E-40 is better than Rakim. You just don’t! To borrow a line from Slick Rick “Stop Lyin’!”
I understand the need to rep your hood, but this has degenerated into outright buffoonery. On a personal level, I grew up in New Jersey, currently spend a significant amount of time in Newark (Brick City!), can recite “Time 4 Sum Akshun” right now without music backing me up and have about the exact same sense of humor as Redman, but I’m not about to put him in my “Top 5,” there’s just too many other MC’s that deserve to be on the list. In my opinion, Reggie Noble belongs in the conversation but to put him in the same category as LL, Run-DMC or Jay-Z is like arguing the Nets are as good as the Lakers simply because I’m a fan.
*Note: The only other option here is to list the rapper that put you on. When an established artist puts a young cat under their wing and provides guidance/financial backing the young cat is clearly indebted to his/her “Big Brother,” but I don’t believe that anybody on Loon’s independent label or in Young Berg’s crew really believes they are in the “Top 5” or even the “Top 500.”
#5 Lil’ Wayne
It is currently popular to say the “unpopular” thing and openly acknowledge the greatness of the MC purists love to hate. Wayne is talented and charismatic, his creative output between 2005 and 2008 was as productive as any stretch by any rapper in history, “Tha Carter III” is a certified classic, his odd persona and rock star antics have made him an icon outside of Hip-Hop, he is the walking embodiment of the narcism and “pleasure now” typical of his generation and he is the first artist to truly understand and profit from the new music industry (while record labels were commissioning focus groups and funding studies of how to profit in the digital age Wayne was recording countless mixtapes and guest appearances and becoming a mega-star).
While Lil’ Wayne has dominated the last few years and is arguably the face of Hip-Hop for the late-00’s, it remains to be seen whether his material will retain it’s relevance in years to come, and only time will tell if “A Milli” will still rock crowds in 2025. Also, his work his incredibly inconsistent with lyrics ranging from awe-inspiring (“Gossip”) to sounding like a rambling drug addict drooling on the mic (“I Feel Like Dying”) and while he remains one of the only exciting artists on commercial radio it is not certain how long this creative hot-streak will last and if he will eventually establish himself as a viable artist with long-term longevity (Jay-Z) or a footnote in the history of Hip-Hop that had a nice three year run and then faded from the scene (DMX).
RAPPERS THAT SHOULD BE ON YOUR LIST
While EVERYBODY lists those “Top 5,” I find it hard to believe that NOBODY thinks the following deserve consideration:
LL Cool J, KRS-ONE, Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Ice Cube, Scarface, Ice-T, Snoop Dogg, Nas (occasionally will be listed instead of Jay-Z if the person making the list has a personal beef with Jay), Big Pun (only listed if the person is hispanic), Big L, Slick Rick or Kool G Rap. Also, individual members of the following groups are also inexplicably ignored: Run-DMC, Beastie Boys, EPMD, Wu-Tang Clan, Outkast, Public Enemy or UGK.