It’s hard for me to pin down the first song I ever heard that featured a rap. I’m not sure if it was ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ by Bob Dylan or ‘Rapture’ by Blondie. While neither of those artists should or could be considered purveyors of the art form, they were my first exposure to rhythmic speech. It would be years later before I heard The Sugarhill Gang’s seminal ‘Rapper’s Delight’ or became aware of DJ Kool Herc and Kurtis Blow.
However, I do clearly recall the first time a rap song made an impression on me and created an overwhelming desire to hear more. ‘Rock Box’ by Run D.M.C. was my first proper introduction to a genre of music that moved me as much or more than the classic rock and Top 40 my mother had exposed me to. I quickly became a massive fan of Run D.M.C., which led to Slick Rick, Kool Moe Dee, L.L. Cool J, The Fat Boys, and more, joining my cassette collection along with the hair metal acts of the early to mid-80s.
A few years ago, I watched Chris Rock’s 2014 film Top Five. The title is alluded to in a scene where the characters discuss their top five MCs of all-time. The movie was great, but this scene, above all others, stuck with me. I asked myself and friends of mine who would be on that list? Each response was different, with only a few MCs universally recognized.
Any Top Five is going to be subjective and open to debate. Before I reveal mine, here are a few caveats. While I’ve been a fan of rap/hip-hop since 1984, there have been very few new artists that move me. (Insert your “Get off my lawn” old man jokes here.) I do like Run The Jewels, Czarface, Kendrick Lamar, and others, but my tastes tend to mainly lie with what’s considered classic hip-hop – early 80s to late 90s.
And I guess the only other proviso is, this is my list. These are the MCs that moved, provoked and entertained me. It will more than likely be different than yours, and that’s ok. I am by no means an expert on MCs or rhyming; I just know what I like. So, enough, with the preamble, let’s start the countdown.
5. King Ad-Rock – I know I’ve probably already lost any credibility I might have had with the inclusion of one of The Beastie Boys. But the Beasties had a significant impact on me and, like it or not, on hip-hop in general. They had the first rap record to hit #1 on Billboard’s Top 200, they are the biggest selling rap group (20 million records) since Billboard started recording sales in ’91, and the third rap group inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame.
I didn’t want to choose all three, so I went with my favorite Ad-Rock (Adam Horovitz). His delivery and playfulness made him stand out to me. They usually took turns on each song, but ‘Sabotage’ is all Ad-Rock. Apparently, the guys came up with the music first, then Ad-Rock hit the mic and largely improvised lyrics jokingly ranting about their producer Caldato Jr. “I can’t stand it, I know you planned it; I’m gonna set it straight, this Watergate; Lord, I can’t stand rockin’ when I’m in this place; Because I feel disgrace because you’re all in my face.”
4. Dres – Andres Vargus Titus, aka Dres, of Black Sheep, has one of the most unique styles I’ve ever heard. Although Black Sheep only released two albums, A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing from 1991 is a classic. It charted three times on the Billboard Hot Music/Club Play charts and spawned the singles ‘Strobelite Honey’ and ‘The Choice is Yours.’ There are also fantastic deep cuts like ‘Try Counting Sheep’, ‘Flavor of the Month’ and ‘Blunted 10’, among others.
Dres is incomparable. Each track is loaded with clever rhymes delivered by his unique cadence. Every verse is dripping with attitude, confidence, and an inimitable flow. Take the opening of ‘The Choice is Yours’ for example. Dres announces himself and Black Sheep as standouts in the ‘Native Toungues’ crew that featured De La Soul, The Jungle Brothers, and A Tribe Called Quest. “Wasn’t in my realm, wasn’t in your sphere; Knew not who I was, but listen here; Dres, D-R-E-S; yes I guess I could start, If it’s alright with you, I’ll rip this here joint apart.”
3. Q-Tip – What can be said about A Tribe Called Quest that hasn’t already been told? They were largely responsible for creating the alternative hip-hop scene and are among the most critically acclaimed and successful groups to come out of New York City. Q-tip (Kamaal Fareed) and Phife Dawg (Malik Taylor) released six albums, all of which were certified gold or platinum.
While Phife was a unique presence all his own, Q-Tip was one of his generation’s most gifted rappers. ‘The Abstract’ created jazz-influenced and esoteric rhymes, with clever lyrics that alternated between playfulness and social consciousness. His distinct inflections delivered flexible rhyme schemes that made it almost impossible (for me, at least) to rap along with. There are a ton of great examples, but one of my favorites is ‘What?’. “Babies babble on, they lookin’ for excuses; Game for the buzzer who kicked it to the losers; Lame as a brain, could be, golly gee; If you see a shrink, he’ll charge you a fee; If you see me ya see the fee is nothing; (Fee will be for patience) all that’s no fronting.”
2. Chuck D – Public Enemy may be the most essential rap group that will ever exist. Inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, the band formed in 1985 out of Long Island, New York. They’ve been called the most “influential and radical band of their time” and were lauded by critics as their first four albums reached gold or platinum status.
Terminator X was one of the best DJs of all-time, but most of the praise resulted from Chuck D’s rhymes dealing with political and social themes. He gave voice to the African-American community’s struggles while also calling out the media and its biases. For me, listening to Public Enemy exposed me to an American history that I wasn’t taught in school. I had never heard names like Huey P. Newton, Louis Farrakhan, or Yusef Hawkins. His powerful baritone grabbed my attention and educated me about an experience I could never have first-hand. “From a lesson learned in Virginia (Beach), I don’t smile in the line of fire I go wildin’; But it’s on bass and drums and even violins; Watcha do getcha head ready, Instead of getting physically sweaty; When I get mad I put it down on a pad; Give ya something that ya never had” – ‘Welcome to the Terrordome.’
1. Rakim – When I first started this list, it was a little different. I gave my top-five some more thought, and upon further reflection, it was apparent. Rakim was the clear number one. Rakim (William Michael Griffin, Jr.), along with Eric B. (Eric Barrier), released four albums and are unanimously considered one of the most influential duos ever to hit the studio. Their debut, Paid in Full, sold over a million copies, was certified platinum and served notice to every DJ and MC on the scene that hip-hop would never be the same.
Rakim is credited as being the first rapper to use internal and multisyllabic rhymes. He was one of the first to write intricate lyrics using metaphor and clever, mostly clean, word choices. No less than Kool Moe Dee said Rakim was “basically the inventor of flow.” He is widely regarded as the most skilled and influential MC of all-time. Put on any of his CDs and hit random, and you’ll get an excellent example of this. But I prefer the most obvious choice, ‘Follow the Leader’. “Follow me into a solo, get in the flow; and you could picture, like a photo; Music makes mellow, maintains to make; melodies for MCs, motivates the breaks; I’m everlasting; I can go on for days and days, with rhyme displays that engrave deep as x-rays; I can take a phrase that’s rarely heard, flip it… now it’s a daily word.”
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