Over the past 3+ years I have rated my music – good and not so good – my movies by decade and genre, even my favourite stand up comedians. In fact I was wondering if I was running out of things to make lists out of. Then the other day I realised while culling down a playlist (for work) that a good chunk of my iTunes library – say 40% – is comprised of hip-hop. That’s still a genre isn’t it? I mean it hasn’t already been a lil’ bit fucked over by a few lil’ artists with ‘Lil’ in their name has it?
My first hip-hop album was either ‘De La Soul is Dead’ or Gangstarr’s ‘Hard to Earn’, I can’t remember which cassette I bought first. That’s not to say that my entire collection is as pure, I also purchased both Vanilla Ice’s and Young MC’s debuts, one of which still holds up today – sorry Ice…
But as hip-hop started to better define itself and the various sub-genres emerged, my taste too improved and became better defined, leading to what I think is a pretty solid collection of a couple hundred albums – many of which I view as classics.
So how to rate the artists and groups within the genre? I could do the best albums and in all likelihood would come up with a similar list of a dozen-ish. But I think I’ve already done this, with the 80s, 90s and 00s all boasting Hip-Hop inclusions. I rattled my mind for literally seconds before iTunes once again came up with the answer for me. In the end I simply segmented my library into 3*, 4* and 5* tracks. Whichever artist had the best average in their top 10 tracks (according to me) ‘won’ a spot in the Top dozen.
And looking at the results I doubt that me poring over CD covers for countless hours would have resulted in a significantly different list.
The culling process very nearly took care of itself except for a log-jam near the bottom. It seems that many artists have been lucky enough to come up with one or two 5* classic tracks, but simply weren’t able to back it up. In the event of these occasions I used 4* tracks as tie-breakers.
Unfortunately that process left the following artists as only honourable mention status, all with just two bona fide OGR certified ***** tracks:
Busta Rhymes – I love you Busta but let’s face it, you’re more a personality with a couple of very good albums than a killer Hall of Fame rapper.
***** Tracks: Gimme Some More. Break Ya Neck.
Erik B & Rakim – Rakim on the other hand is a first ballot Hall of Famer, it’s just that aside from some of his better known tracks some of his stuff hasn’t aged as well. That’s what happens with the Pioneers, only the biggest and brightest are remembered.
***** Tracks: Follow the Leader. Let the Rhythm hit ’em.
Ice Cube – In the early days Ice and his perpetual snarl were the epitome of gangsta. Then he got doughy. Then he started rapping more about how good he was than anything else. Then he made “Are we there yet?”…
***** Tracks: Wicked. It was a good day.
Killer Mike – One of the newer kids on the block. Discovered by Outkast but in truth more an Ice Cube descendant, Killer Mike’s debut ‘Monster’ is a modern classic, and despite a couple dud albums since his latest ‘Pl3dge’ shows there is life left in this particular Killer.
***** Tracks: Monster. Akshon.
Method Man – Everything Meth does is so effortless and cool, which is why it is confusing that it is obvious when he isn’t making an effort any more (everything after Tical 2000 really).
***** Tracks: Bring the Pain. Release Yo ‘Delf (Especially the Prodigy remix).
Again it is fitting that none of these artists cracked the dirty dozen, with perhaps Meth most unlucky, though it is no spoiler to say he makes it anyway as part of the Wu. So here we are from 12 to 1;
OGR’s Top 12 Hip-Hop artists of all time.
The Beatnuts – Being relegated to the bottom rung can’t be a shame when you consider the honourable mentions that couldn’t even move off the floor. The Beatnuts are here primarily thanks to their insanely catchy production skills, which hit a zenith with the frankly brilliant ‘Take it or Squeeze it’ album. While the remainder of their discography is not as inspired and their more recent couple albums are in fact a little bland, these production skillz and a decent sense of humour result in fairly regular standout tracks, and elevate what could be more pedestrian songs.
I just wish they hadn’t produced tracks for J-Lo and Will Smith, because when the Beatnuts’ versions come on my wife accuses me of ‘selling out’.
***** Tracks: Watch out now. No escaping this. It’s da Nuts.
Necessary Album: Take it or Squeeze it.
GangStarr – As Guru was fond of telling you on seemingly every album his voice was smooth and his flow and lyrics top notch. If anything it was his steady flow that prevented him from Run DMC or Public Enemy-like fame, as he chose to never emote or yell or use hooks that might grab the ears of the mainstream. No shame in not gunning for airplay or sales, and Gangstarr still managed a few absolute classic albums across the journey.
DJ Premier created the rock-hard beats for Guru to croon over, and was in fact the primary innovator for the duo given Guru’s steadfast consistency.
Alas the passing of Guru last year left no-one to make his tracks purr.
***** Tracks: You know my steez. The Planet. LoveSick.
Necessary Album: Hard to Earn.
In their prime few years between the debut album and Midnight Marauders though no-one could touch the Tribe, sure Public Enemy had the coolness quotient and the Beasties the popular vote, but name another group with the synergy between the incredible production on tracks like Electric Relaxation, Excursions and Award Tour, and the ever listenable drawl of the lanky Q-Tip.
***** Tracks: Excursions. Award Tour. Electric Relaxation.
The Roots – 5 years ago The Roots might’ve been an honourable mention, and while the last couple albums haven’t contained anything immortal or sonically life changing, The Roots lay claim to a Top 10 finish thanks to two reasons; longevity and professionalism.
I thought moving to Jimmy Fallon’s side stage would kill the group as a creative entity, instead it has shown that The Roots cannot be pigeonholed. Black Thought has proven beyond doubt that he is one of the most gifted lyricists in history and QuestLove and the band more musically powerful than any hip-hop backing band ever.
Add to this the fact that they seem to be able to knock out a minor classic in a Fallon ad-break and you have some powerful ingredients from a group that for too long has been seen as merely the backing band to the greats. In years to come history will clearly show that we were all wrong for way too long.
***** Tracks: You got me. Thought @ Work. The Seed (2.0)
Necessary Album: Things Fall Apart
Ugly Duckling – Good guys can finish (near) first. In reality I might demote UD a spot or three but I must adhere to my hastily chosen ranking system and place them here, thanks to verbal dexterity, great (though formulaic) production and a keen sense of both humour and humility.
Any group that can work in references that span several decades and multiple cultures and still manage to intertwine them into complicated lyrical progressions deserves praise. More relevant in this era is the refusal to worry about selling out and a healthy sense of (polite) disrespect for those that do. Just check out the hilarious parody of 50 Cent with ‘In Da Tub’ and ‘Smack’, which disses all ‘ring-tone rappers’.
The double edge sword to a sense of humour is when it goes too far, I allowed ‘Taste the Secret’s interludes and running storyline about fast food workers, but now get frustrated with fast forwarding the between song bits as they grow increasingly unfunny with age.
***** Tracks: Introduckling. A little Samba. Eye on the Gold Chain. In da tub.
Necessary Album: Journey to Anywhere
Roots Manuva – The only non-American on the list is also the man who shone brightest for the shortest period of time. Roots’ peak period began with ‘Brand New Second Hand’ and ended with ‘Run Come Save Me’. For those not aware those are the titles of albums both #1 and #2.
Unfortunately Roots is now up to album #5, with no new classics in a decade. That’s not to say that any of the last trio of albums were less than worthwhile, only not up to comparison with the brilliant predecessors.
And ‘Witness (1 Hope)’ demands inclusion in any all time top 10 relating to hip-hop…
***** Tracks: Movements. Let the Spirit (Hot Chip Remix). Witness (1 Hope). Dreamy Days.
Necessary Album: Brand New Second Hand
People under the Stairs – Barring a freak rhinoceros accident PUTS will end up higher on the list before they lay down the mics. So for now they look up at Public Enemy and smile at what will inevitably be. After a solid debut their discography has been as consistently excellent and listenable across the board – consider them hip-hop’s David Gray – both are incapable of releasing mediocrity and apparently unable to settle for merely ‘decent.
Every PUTS album in a decade and a half has boasted at least a couple 4* tracks, with most knocking out a 5* classic, and their last three or four albums have showcased a sense of humour that puts even Ugly Duckling in the shade.
I just hope they have another O.S.T. in the kitbag to unleash. If that happens expect them to vie for the top spot.
***** Tracks: The Ultimate 144. Empty bottles of water. Keepin’ it Live. Acid Raindrops. The Breakdown.
Necessary Album: O.S.T.
Wu-Tang Clan – Amazing considering after the slightly over-ambitious double album ‘Forever’ the Wu were considered as highly talented pretenders to the throne, if anything they were victims of the impossible heights scaled by their debut album ‘Enter the 36 Chambers’.
But with a core of Ghostface Killah, Method Man and Raekwon (and a rotating cast of random ‘others’) always capable of tearing the arse out of a RZA track the Wu firmly deserve this lofty spot. Even ‘Legendary Weapons’, their most recent album features moments of brilliance, despite being classed as a non-Wu release for some reason despite featuring the entire group on most tracks. If this is an example of what the Wu churn out as a side project, can there be any surprise that their ‘real’ releases are often so good?
***** Tracks: Bring da Ruckus. Can it be all so simple? Wu-Tang Clan ain’t nothin’ ta fuck wit. Protect ya neck. Protect ya neck 2 (the Jump-off). Do you really (Thang-thang)? Fast Shadow.
Necessary Album: Enter the 36 Chambers
Hold up a second…
Even my way more practical than I expected rating system could not separate the next three groups, each of them boasting exactly 10 5* tracks across their phenomenal careers.
But I had to create a tie-breaker of some kind. With two groups now for all intents and purposes defunct I used that as a means of separating Silver and Bronze, ultimately opting to demote the group that purposefully chose to step down from the limelight rather than the trio that had no choice after the death of one of their originators.
The Gold position was then awarded to the group still operating at a high level, rich reward for a career now in it’s 4th decade…
Outkast – I firmly believe that if Andre 3000 and Big Boi remained on the same page (read: Andre 3000 didn’t decide to eschew being one of the world’s finest MC’s in favour of being a mediocre actor and clothes designer) that Outkast would have strolled into the top spot, leaving daylight between them and everyone below. But rocking insane outfits and crafting delicious music wasn’t enough for Andre.
By the time I discovered Outkast their best was already behind them – I ‘caught up’ with ‘Stankonia’ and despite the frustrations cerated by delays and misinformation remained through the lesser subsequent albums, still hanging on to rumour and possibility despite the realisation that the Real Outkast are done.
Big Boi is still holding his end down, but having only half of the best duo in hip-hop isn’t enough.
***** Tracks: Return of the ‘G’. Rosa Parks. Skew it on the bar-b. Morris Brown. Hey ya! Git up, Git out. So Fresh, So Clean. B.O.B. Humble Mumble. Funkin’ Around.
Necessary Album: Aquemini
Beastie Boys – Stubbornness and persistence were ultimately the Beastie Boys only enemy, rather than go out after 1999’s ‘Hello Nasty’ (or better still after ‘Check Your Head’) and hear decades of ‘when are you coming back’, the Beasties released albums of decreasing quality, eventually descending into ‘Gee we’re grateful for ‘Hot Sauce Committee Part 2’, but when are you guys retiring?’.
Unfortunately after a career that saw three white boys reinvigorate and reinvent hip-hop – especially live – the answer came with Adam Yauch’s passing from cancer last year.
The Beastie Boys started as a punk band, found fame as a regrettable novelty, found immortality and renown with a trio of bona fide classic albums that should be in every discerning collection, and stayed ‘big’ thanks to being beloved the world over.
***** Tracks: Brand New. Jimmy James. Pass the mic. So What’cha want? Body Movin’ Three MCs and one DJ (Live). Sure Shot. Sabotage. Shake your rump. Hey Ladies. Body Movin’ (Fatboy Slim remix).
Necessary Album: Check your head.
De La Soul – Proof that the ratings system is ‘karma-approved’, my ipod just kicked into ‘Special’ from ‘AOI: Bionix’, in truth a 3* track, but just another reminder that even average De La stuff is great stuff.
De La were never given the props of many other artists on this list (and altogether too many not even worthy of such a list), perhaps it was the hippy outlook, or the skits, or the fact that they were deemed anti-gangsta in a market that had only just decided to embrace the sub-genre of snarls and faux-aggression. I think it was the skits. Whatever the reason, De La Soul were unfairly relegated to talented novelty status, even after decades of touring and amazing albums.
Put another way, one of my favourite ways to kill an hour is to put either ‘Buhloone Mindstate’ or ‘Stakes is High’ on loud and lie on the couch with the lights off. This despite my favourite De La album actually being ‘Art-Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump’, and their biggest successes being ‘De La Soul is Dead’ (commercially) or ‘Three Feet High and Rising’ (critically).
Pos and Dave are some of the cleverest and witty lyricists going – still – after decades, and the production is always of the highest order.
And to finish off with my unneeded justification for a personal opinion; Outkast chose to take the easy way out and become hip-hop dabblers and the Beasties chose to mine the same vein for a decade and a half too long with diminishing results. De La Soul are not only powering along but continuing to innovate, the Nike co-branded work-out album was chock full of new material purpose built to exercise to, and much of it was very good. The ‘Impossible: Mission’ showed that even their B sides and throwaway tracks contained gold nuggets, and the trio have continued to steal the spotlight in guest appearances and the occasional mainstream track (Gorillaz).
***** Tracks: Fallin’. I am I be. Breakadawn. A roller-skaing jam named ‘Saturdays’. Ring, ring, ring (Ha Ha Hey). Wonce again (Long Island). Long Island degrees. Jennifa taught me (Derwent’s revenge). The Magic Number. Eye Know. Say no go.
Necessary Album: Buhloone Mindstate.
In 25 + years of existence De La Soul have never been seen as the best at any stage, they never sold the most or even got the cool points granted by ‘those in the know’. They simply released album after album of classic hip-hop, never worrying about trends, kudos or image, and for that they are my favourite hip-hop group of all time.
By the way, here’s the Spotify link to a playlist featuring a song from every artist named above.