We asked NME.com readers to vote on the greatest rapper of all time. The results are in and kicking us off at No. 30 is Bronx bruiser Lord Finesse (born Robert Hall), a gifted producer as well as possessing talent on the mic. He contributed to Dr. Dre’s seminal ‘2001’ album. 1996’s ‘The Awakening’ remains a brilliant rush.
His name in Arabic means ‘student’ but Talib Kweli graduated into the rap big leagues long ago, winning plaudits for his socially conscious, soulful brand of Brooklyn hip-hop. Currently working with Q-Tip on a new album.
Another emcee just as at ease on the other side of the studio glass, producer El-P masterminded last year’s critcially acclaimed ‘R.A.P Music’ by Atlanta’s Killer Mike but is just as comfortable on the mic, as proved on this year’s ‘Run the Jewels’ tape, again working with Killer Mike.
One half of boom bap golden age heroes Eric B. & Rakim, tracks like ‘When I Be On Tha Mic’ make Rakim one of the most respected names in rap to this day.
The unforgettable, talismanic voice of Public Enemy, Chuck D continues to be one of the most outspoken and poetic political rappers alive. 1988’s ‘It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back’ still packs a formidable punch 25 years on.
Hit single ‘I Cram to Understand U (Sam)’, the harrowing story of a relationship rocked by crack addiction, made MC Lyte aka Lana Moorer a big player on the hip-hop scene in the late ‘80s.
‘Straight Outta Compton’ is perhaps the rap game’s most iconic album. That’s in large parts thanks to Ice Cube, the gruff voice at its blood-soaked centre. Check out solo classic ‘It Was A Good Day’.
Five-time Grammy winner Missy Elliott is a hip-hop powerhouse, with songs like ‘Get Ur Freak On’ and ‘Lose Control’ among the best-received of ‘90s rap.
A decorated producer as well as rapper, RZA’s gristly beats and lush flow has lit up some of Wu-Tang Clan’s finest work. Last year’s guest spot on James Blake’s ‘Take A Fall For Me’ proved he can hop on gauzy electronica, too.
“I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man,” once boasted Shaun Carter – and business is currently booming, with new album ‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’ recently giving the man known to the world as Jay Z his first number one album in the UK.
Lawrence Parker aka KRS-One (‘Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone’) is a pioneer in socially conscious rap. Check out 1993’s smokin’ ‘The Return of the Boom Bap’.
Whether making strides into the mainstream alongside Wyclef Jean in The Fugees or baring her soul on solo album ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’, New Jersey-raised Lauryn Hill is one of hip-hop’s most fascinating characters.
13Big Daddy Kane
Juice Crew alumnus Antonio Hardy aka Big Daddy Kane made huge waves among hip-hop heads with his 1988 solo LP ‘Long Live The Kane’, featuring much-loved single ‘Ain’t No Half Steppin’’.
From his origins in Ultramagnetic MCs, Kool Keith became a hip-hop icon, championed for his unusual, eccentric personality and razor-sharp rhymes on albums like ‘Dr. Octagonecologyst’.
Queens’ A Tribe Called Quest is one of hip-hop’s most acclaimed wrecking crews, and at their heart is Kamaal Fareed, best known as Q-Tip. As well as being responsible for Tribe’s slick sound, he’s assured solo act, delivering well-received solo albums as well as memorable guest spots on tracks by the Beasties (‘Get It Together’) and the Chemical Brothers (‘Galvanize’).
No one else is as provocative or unpredictable in 2013 as Kanye West – not just in rap, but in contemporary pop culture as a whole. His latest, ‘Yeezus’, is an experimental grind of Krautrock beats and out-there sound design, but it’s 2010’s ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ that remains his masterpiece, with heart to match the hubris.
You only need to look at the continuing outpour of grief over Tupac Shakur’s death in 1996 to see what East Harlem-born rapper meant to the world of hip-hop. A golden age icon.
Another Wu-Tang clansman, Ghostface Killah (aka Dennis Coles) proved in the aftermath of Wu’s seminal ’36 Chambers’ that he could cut it alone too, delivering 1996’s forceful ‘Ironman’. When it comes to tales of hustle and muscle on the streets of Staten Island, there’s few better.
While the likes of A$AP Rocky and Waka Flocka Flame dragged rap into dark, brooding new territory, Compton emcee Kendrick Lamar delivered an album in 2012’s ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’ that felt progressive without alienating rap’s old guard. From the booming trap of ‘Backseat Freestyle’ to the spiritual ‘Dying of Thirst’, it’s an essential listen.
The soulful growl at the heart of Philadelphia crew The Roots, Tariq Trotter is as politically aware and lyrically complex as they come. Don’t believe us? Check his svelte rhymes on The Roots’ Grammy-winning ‘You Got Me’.
Dressed like a masked villain from a trippy Ingmar Bergman art-house, Doom is rap’s most enigmatic character, the mystery surrounding him continuing to spark conversation over his true identity 15 years after breaking out of the Manhatten open mic scene. 2004’s ‘Madvillainy’ remains a fun, foggy slice of stoner rap.
Mos Def is able to bounce from laugh-out-loud turns in Hollywood comedies (‘Be Kind Rewind’, ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’) to grand political activism, recently undergoing filmed torture treatment to raise awareness for Guantanemo Bay detainees. It’s his brilliant rap talent for which he’s best known though, last earning a Grammy award nod in 2010 with ‘The Ecstatic’.
Marshall Mathers’ evolution from comedy rap provocateur to one of the game’s deepest, most introspective artists has made him a global superstar – which is why when Eminem steps out at Reading and Leeds Festivals this summer as headliner, he’ll be doing it to a reported tune of £6m. Need proof of his seismic talents? 2000’s somber ‘The Marshall Mathers LP’ should do the trick.
Wu-Tang showstealer Raekwon has it all: electric flow, brutally visceral wordplay and unforgettable presence whenever he gets on the mic. He’s also prolific: on top of six solo studio albums and 2010’s ‘Wu-Massacre’, teaming up with Ghostface Killah and Method Man, he’s also lit up some 20 Wu-Tang LPs. A master? You better believe it.
He’s reinvented himself of late as a reggae rasta, but make no mistake: Snoop Dogg is hip-hop personified. Since emerging in 1992, he’s expanded beyond his G-funk sound, teaming successfully with Dr. Dre, into a globe-conquering multimedia machine with his very own branded sat-navs, video games and clothing lines.
No conversation among die-hard hip-hop heads about the game’s greatest lyricists is complete without mention of late Puerto Rican Big Pun (real name Christopher Rios). Conquering the Bronx underground scene in the late ‘90s, Pun released only one album before dying of a heart attack in February 2000. Luckily, that was all it took to cement his reputation as one of rap’s all-time greats.
Rodney Smith proved with 2001’s ‘Run Come Save Me’ that hip-hop needn’t be confined to Bronx block parties and New York hideouts, putting a compelling Brit twist on US sounds. Jungle, rave, dub – Roots Manuva has no problem hopping on all kinds of beats to deliver his soulful rap missives.
Outkast blew a hole in hip-hop with 1996’s ‘ATliens’, before launching a takeover of college radio airwaves with their hit-laden ‘Stanktonia’ (2000) and ‘Speakerboxxx/The Love Below’ (2003) LPs. Alongside collaborator Big Boi, Atlantan Andre 3000’s warm, eccentric style makes a favourite among hip-hop diehards and mainstream pop fans alike.
“It was all a dream / I used to read Word Up magazine…” So begins ‘Juicy’, the 1994 single that would kick-start the career of undoubtedly one of hip-hop’s most iconic names. Notorious B.I.G was gunned down in March 1997 but not before releasing two seminal albums (‘Ready to Die’ and ‘Life After Death’), his laconic, charismatic flow winning over a generation – and generations to come.
And the winner, voted for by you… Nasir Jones – known to the 25m people to have bought his albums worldwide to date as simply Nas – broke new ground for rap in 1994 with ‘Illmatic’, a coming-of-age sprint through the sights and sorrows of his native Brooklyn. Last year’s ‘Life Is Good’, as its title suggests, saw him mellow without losing any of his lyrical fire. The master’s still got it.