It started-as many of these lists do-with a discussion on Facebook. Following Big Money’s review of De La Soul’s First Serve album, he wondered if Pos, Dave and (sometimes) Maseo had cemented their status as the greatest hip-hop group of all time. The opinions expressed following that simple question ran hot and heavy, and finally, we gathered the PB hip-hop braintrust (with a little assist from Popdose’s Michael Parr) and came up with this Top 10 list.
If you’re a hip-hop fan, let the debate begin…did the right group make it to #1? What about the crews who didn’t get included? No Cypress Hill? Salt-N-Pepa? Brand Nubian? Leaders of the New School? Onyx? Feel free to congratulate us or cuss us out in the comment section. Before you do that, though, click on those YouTube clips and enjoy the music.
Joe S. was the kid in elementary school who somehow was able to procure contraband cassettes with the Parental Advisory sticker so prominently displayed on the case. Joe was the first to introduce me to two of the most notorious groups of the time – Guns N’ Roses and N.W.A. “Do you know what N.W.A. stands for?” he asked me at the lunch table. Of course I didn’t. When he divulged that the acronym stood for “Niggaz Wit Attitude,” I didn’t know what to think. And when a prepubescent Dr. Gonzo first heard the music on that tape in his predominantly white suburban bubble, he surely didn’t know what to think. It was undoubtedly the angriest, most violent music I’d heard to date. Whereas Public Enemy advocated fighting the power and dismantling the racially oppressive social and political system, N.W.A. very clearly saw that takeover as necessarily violent. In retrospect, N.W.A. was a supergroup – Ice Cube, Eazy E, and Dr. Dre would all go on to successful solo careers (but only one would take up acting in family-oriented comedies). More than post-group success, N.W.A. gave birth to one of the most popular and most controversial genres of popular music in decades – gangsta rap. All of the hubbub that would ensue in the early-mid 1990s over violent, misogynist lyrics – “Cop Killer,” any of the subjects of C. Delores Tucker’s crusade – can all be traced back to N.W.A. Though their output was a mere two albums, their influence arguably changed hip hop for the next decade.-Dr. Gonzo
9) Eric B. & Rakim
You never get a second chance to make a first impression…..Clever mens’ deodorant slogan, or clear cut truism?
Sure, everybody knows that Rakim (aka the R, the 18th letter, the god of hip hop) is without peer as an emcee. For me to relate that here would be tedious, and really, just too easy. I’ve never been one to go the easy route. I tend to take the road less traveled, tackling things sometimes unnoticed, or cared about….for better or for worse, that’s just how my brain rolls. One thing that always struck me about the greatness of Eric B & Rakim was the manner in which they introduced themselves to the world. Their first single “Eric B is President” took New York, then the planet by storm….so much so that if you ask any head who came up during hip hop’s golden era they will likely be able to recite not only Rakim’s lyrics, but Eric B’s cuts to you with precision and acute accuracy. That’s how important the single was and is to hip hop. So, the opening single blew up…but how would they fare on a full album? Their debut, Paid in Full, is hip hop royalty, boasting classics like, “My Melody”, “I Know You Got Soul” , “Move the Crowd” and “Paid in Full”. As great as Paid in Full is, I always go back to the opening verse, on the opening track of the duo’s debut album.
“I ain’t no joke, I used to let the mic smoke,
now I slam it when I’m done and make sure it’s broke.
When I’m gone, no-one gets on, ‘cuz I won’t let
nobody press up or mess up the scene I set.”
Talk about a coming out party. That bravado, that unabashed confidence let crews everywhere know that this duo was different. Rakim, brilliant and a master of words. Eric B., the quiet, stoic man behind the turntables…providing cuts and scratches that would partner Rakim’s words in depth, hardness and straight up aggressiveness. The two formed an unstoppable team. Paid in Full was just the jump-off. By the time “Follow The Leader” came out it was game, set, match….Eric B & Rakim’s status as legends, all time greats in hip hop was firmly established, never to fall from that mountaintop. It all started with a smoking mic, and a brilliant scene set by one of hip hop’s all time greatest groups, led by the greatest emcee the world has ever seen or heard. We hold certain truths self-evident…… that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness….and that Rakim is emcee par excellence….and he ain’t no joke. – Chuck
8) The Beastie Boys
From hip-hop’s Great White Dopes to enlightened elder statesmen, The Beastie Boys have defied all odds to become one of the most legendary acts in recent music (not just rap) history. Licensed To Ill wasn’t the first album to bring hip-hop into Middle America, but it was the first time that Billy and Molly in North Dakota realized that people making the music could look (however vaguely) like them. That feat, by itself, would warrant at least vague historical significance, but the Beasties followed that up by making 1989’s Paul’s Boutique, one of the most excellent “what-the-fuck-did-I-just-listen-to?” albums in pop music history. Initially perceived as a flop, the album would go on to become highly influential, and it was followed by a return to commercial relevance via 1992’s rock-rap hybrid Check Your Head and the series of stylistically divergent albums that followed. Although it can be argued that they were at least partially responsible for acts like Limp Bizkit (AKA Licensed To Ill after a lobotomy,) Mike D., MCA and Ad-Rock have made enough good music over the past quarter-century that you can more than forgive them for their followers.-Big Money
Perhaps it’s a bit too easy to hinge a paragraph about OutKast being awesome on their historical importance; they didn’t so much change the landscape as much as they carved out a weird little corner where all of hip-hop’s hippies, soul men, and undercover rockers could go to be as freaky as they wanna be. What’s most interesting about OutKast, I think, is the way that they do business, the pure skill with which they synthesize their vast pool of influences. Because it’s purely hip-hop – no matter how often they throw hints of psychedelia, acid-rock, or space-funk into the mix, Big Boi and Andre 3000 are consummate emcees, and each wonky beat packs more bounce to the ounce than, arguably, any of their contemporaries. It’s the pure, visceral thrill of hip-hop with a throbbing vein of experimentation lurking just beneath the surface; this is precisely why all the indie kids soiled their collective trousers fawning over Stankonia. Even as the two individual partners have drifted apart creatively, Big Boi applying his winding, rat-a-tat flow to the sort of wildly exploratory outer-space hip-hop the pair once pioneered as a duo, Dre trying his hardest to be a 21st century Prince, when their collective talents dovetail, the result is rarely less than pure nirvana. – Drew
If not the best ’round this hood, Run-D.M.C. are arguably the most important band on this list. Consider this: if it weren’t for Run-D.M.C.’s breakout success, it’s possible that many of the groups above and below may never have existed at all. Born and bred in Hollis, Queens, the group was the first Hip-Hop act to go platinum; double-platinum; appear on American Bandstand and MTV; and get nominated for a Grammy. Perhaps more significantly, they were the group that kicked down the divide, and made their way into the suburbs. -Michael Parr
5) Public Enemy
Chuck D. once proclaimed that hip hop was the CNN of Black America. Coincidentally, Public Enemy’s music was perhaps the best evidence of this claim in the late 1980s through the mid 1990s. Hip hop had ventured into socio-political commentary much earlier, most notably via memorable sides from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (“The Message,” “Beat Street,” “New York New York”). But Public Enemy took that social and political consciousness to a whole new level. Chuck’s lyrics were abrasive, demanding, and militant, but rarely did he concede to the overt violence of his gangsta rap contemporaries. Rather, Chuck’s lyrics expressed the palpable frustration of the systemic racial inequalities that continued to plague America a decade and a half after the Civil Rights movement. Simply demanding that the system change was no longer an option – Chuck wanted action. Musically, Public Enemy’s sound paralleled Chuck’s lyrical assaults. The incomparable production style of the Bomb Squad was a chaotic, sonic assault with layers upon layers of samples manipulated so thoroughly as to render them unrecognizable. Although the group continues to issue new music (two albums this year, I’m told), it is their classic period from 1987’s Yo! Bum Rush the Show through 1991’s Apocalypse ’91: The Enemy Strikes Black that remains a treasure trove of beats, rhymes, socio-political commentary, and some of the most innovative production in hip hop history.-Dr. Gonzo
4) De La Soul
Hey, they were my #1.
In my humble estimation, the only group in history whose catalog can hold a candle to De La Soul, as far as consistent quality goes, is The Roots, and De La has a half-decade lead on them. The jokiness of their first couple of albums somewhat obscures the fact that Pos, Dave and Maseo (along with unofficial fourth member Prince Paul) were sonic innovators from jump, and in the cases of Pos and Dave, have emerged as first-rate emcees. The regard with which some hold 3 Feet High And Rising has also obscured the fact that their next two albums-1991’s De La Soul is Dead and 1993’s Buhloone Mind State-are as good, if not better than their debut. They get extra props for never selling their vision short, remaining positive in the face of commercial and personal adversity, and spawning/assisting in the career ascensions of everyone from A Tribe Called Quest to Mos Def and Common, De La is this list’s sleeping giant, and if their latest First Serve project is any indication, there’s even more to come.-Big Money
3) Wu-Tang Clan
Wu-Tang Clan were 9 of the most thorough rappers from the 90’s that reign at the top of the best hip-hop groups of all time. Members including Rza, Gza, Method Man, Inspectah Deck, Ghostface Killa, U-God, Capadonna, Raekwon, & the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard gave us classic albums like 36 Chambers and Wu-Tang Forever. No one has done it with as many members as the Wu have and no one will. Method Man, Raekwon & Ghostface still put out major label albums while Rza is still heavy into production. Inspectah Deck & Capadonna have released independent albums respectfully. Like they told us back then, “Wu-Tang Clan ain’t nothin’ to f*ck with”.-Nixon Nyce
2) The Roots
Trying to condense the Roots’ litany of accomplishments into a paragraph is sort of a bitch. Where do you even begin? Do you go through every album, link by link, and talk about how each has contributed to hip-hop’s longest winning streak? Do you dwell on that whole “holy shit, they play fucking instruments” thing, and how they’ve effectively invalidated that “well, rap isn’t technically music” argument? Do you talk about how they’ve given late night musicians a new standard to live up to, or complain that Black Thought is the most under-appreciated MC of his generation? For that matter, is it too early to put Questlove in the same company as James Brown, Miles Davis and Frank Zappa?
(Hint: it’s not. One of the sad things about music criticism is that no one fully acknowledges an artist’s contributions until they’ve died, fallen off or reunited after twenty odd years of dormancy. You think it’d kill these people to have a spine once in a great while.)
I’ll say this instead: The Roots embody hip-hop’s past, present and future better than any group that’s ever existed. They have the badass lyricism of pioneers like Rakim, Big Daddy Kane and Kool G. Rap, the crazy bust-your-shit-open rhythms of artists like Primo, Marley Marl and Pete Rock, and the relentless creativity of forward-thinkers like El-P, Kanye West and Prince Paul. Hell, with the possible exception of De La Soul, they’re the only group in hip-hop capable of working with both established legends (Jay-Z, Phonte, Common) and rising stars (Blu, Wale, Big K.R.I.T.). Groups like Public Enemy, Run-DMC and NWA might command more influence and magnitude, but when it comes to sustained brilliance, The Roots are a band without match.-Greg
1) A Tribe Called Quest