Hip Hop^

May 15, 2010

Continuing with what my “Metal!” and “Country.” articles attempted, “Hip Hop ^”  is my (opinion) list of the top 10 Hip Hop artists in the genre’s history, in terms of entertainment value and importance.

1) Afrika Bambaataa

Bambaataa gets my pick as the first most important and entertaining performer in hip hop history. Sure, the Sugar Hill Gang had dropped “Rapper’s Delight” a few months before Bambaataa’s  “Planet Rock” hit and Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” with better rhymes and more relevant lyrics was right around the corner after it, but those were singles games and Afrika beat them all in terms of consistency and output. Honing his skills as a DJ and block-party leader, he was a forefather of the entire hip hop culture and only Flash and Kool Herc can be considered as better early DJs. While hip hop artists forever after would sample James Brown, Bambaataa worked directly with the man. Sure, Run DMC would hit mainstream by rap fusion, “dueting” with Aerosmith, but Afrika paired his work around the pop genre field, releasing a single even with an ex Sex Pistol. His “Zulu Nation” inspiration would lead to De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. A lot of early hip hop sounds dated, fans listening now often do so for nostalgia or as students of the game. Afrika’s music still sounds great: “Lookin’ for the Perfect Beat,” “Jazzy Sensation,” “Planet Rock,” “Renegades of Funk,” and “Zulu Nation Throwdown” are all classic hip hop tracks that you can still blast today. His deft mixture of dance, electro, rap, pop, funk, and soul was a gamechanger and paved the way for the rest of the artists on this list.

2) Run DMC

It’s hard to over-estimate the imporance of Run DMC to hip hop’s history. They did it all first and often best. They brought a full sound to the music; it was sonically clean yet well-edged, it sounded great on a stereo system, they let listeners know they could sound as well as if not better than anything the rock crowd could produce at any record label. They made albums a hip hop commodity–no more one-off singles and novelty hits, Run DMC released full albums full of hits, deep cuts, and wordplay. They could rhyme, they knew when to use a proper chorus, they could make you dance, think, feel, fight, shout, all that stuff. Yeah, they did “Walk This Way” with Aerosmith and punched down the door that blocked rap from the mainstream, but they had already been doing great things before that. “Raising Hell”  and “King of Rock,” are classic Hip Hop albums and hip hop in the early eighties belonged to Run DMC.

3) Public Enemy

PE shook the scene…they melted it down and stormed the gates, made politics the central focus; revelatory, progressive, provocative politics at that. Chuck D rattled with baritone rhymes, Flava Flav ligtened it up with a little humor, Terminator X laid down fierce cacophonies of sound and samples as DJ, and the Bomb Squad Production made everything go boom. “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” and “Fear of a Black Planet” are two of the greatest albums in hip hop history, and much of their later work had moments that came close to living up to those high points.  PE has it’s tarnish though; there’s the Antisemitism allegations (accusations which in Professor Griff”s case proved to be valid), occasional remarks were misguided (as is the case with any hyper-political group when emotion and outrage is being channeled at full-throttle), and Flav’s later devolvement to MTV eyesore made it harder to appreciate his even his early work. Yet PE was valid and strong; their work sought to push the boundaries, and it’s very sad in hindsight that the blueprint NWA laid won out so much more than PE’s. Singles like “Fight the Power,” “Welcome to the Terrordome,” “911 is a joke,” and “Rebel Without a Pause” are still unstoppable.

4) 2pac

Emotion drives the best work of 2pac. Overpowering, blood-pumping, heart checking emotion–it’s the reason he remains as beloved as he is today. Biggie had stronger wordplay in his rhymes and a whole list of contenders who had more relevant subject matter, musical hooks, and stronger beats can be pondered here, but 2pac wins out with posthumous longevity and hip hop martyr icon status, and not only because of his early and violent death. For music that became often unrepentantly dark and “gangsta,” 2pac’s music appeals to a remarkably diverse crowd; you can find strong, brilliant women in academia writing and teaching courses that reflect on even his most “base” work. The reason is that sense of emotion 2pac gave to every rhyme he delivered. Even when the rhyme scheme and verse structures were less than astounding, he threw it at listeners as if it was cut from his soul. His milieu of interests, background and inspirations kept churning in him it seems, so relevance, spirituality, and righteousness always found a place to emerge in his work even when it seemed he had lost such things. His early work shows the potential he had: 2pacalypse Now, with the social observations and political consciousness of songs like “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” showed that at 19 2pac had his path laid out in seemingly the right direction as a lyricist and MC. The work he did up until “Me Against the World,” was full of relevance, wit, and justice-seeking. Then, his talent perfected with his artistically strongest work, the above mentioned MATW. But by that time, paranoia, nihilism, and violence began to overtake his lyrical content and personality. Legal problems, jail time, and being signed to the West Coast Gangster Rap label “Death Row Records” sealed 2pac’s fate as the west-coast gangster rap persona extraordinaire. The albums he released for the label detail some of his most powerful rhymes and beats, yet the stereotype he began to become beat out the relevant persona he could have been. But even in such work, 2pac remained convincingly listenable; he developed into a consummate storyteller of the most blunt variety, and the atmosphere he was able to create in his music was attractive to listeners who could feel the emotions without necessarily relating to the context. There were moments of emergent beauty peppered throughout even his darkest work, and the hours of studio tracks he left behind that have been released posthumously have never been dull.

5) Jay Z

Jay-Z has been called the Frank Sinatra of rap so many times now that it seems like an unthought out comparison that music journo’s like to throw out, but it’s surpringly apt. Jay Z is laid-back cool. His music is often sophisticated and often abrasive, sometimes simultaneously. He’s a perfectionist and a rhymer of the highest caliber. He’s all about style and image from the top to the bottom without seeming vapid or superficial. He’s braggadocious without being obnoxious. He can lay out complicated rhymes with multiple bars without ever committing pen to pad to preserve those words, he just remembers them. He has a classic album from every point in his career and he’s one of the few hip hop musicians ever to age gracefully and occassionally embrace maturity.  From “Reasonable Doubt” to “The Blueprint 3,” and every hit single between them, he never ceases to be entertaining, up-to-date, and relevant.

6) Outkast

There were a few contenders that almost stole this slot; I came very close to giving it to A Tribe Called Quest who many would argue deserve it more thant ‘Kast. Yet I have to go with Outkast: “Aquemeni” may be the greatest Hip Hop album ever, from perfect one-two punch of the singles “Rosa Parks,” and “Skew it on the Bar-B” to the best post-funkadelic track George Clinton spotted on, “Synthesizer,” to genre-busting and expanding tracks like “Liberation,” and “Chonkyfire,” to perfect rhyme verses in “Return of the G” and “West Savannah,” right down to the cover art, “Aquemeni” is phenomenal. The southern smart hip hop they had paved the way with previously, notably in ATLiens, came to expansion and fruition in that album, and they followed it up by getting bolder, bigger, and hugely popular all without compromising. Stankonia and Love Below work  like the best hip hop albums Prince would record if he was in the field. Even the best moments on their semi-flop soundtrack Idlewild are classic. So where are these guys now?

7)Black Star (Mos Def and Talib Kweli)

I’m cheating a little with this one, because the inclusion of Black Star is not just for their seminal self-titled album from Rawkus Records, good as it was. No, I’m throwing them on here to catch all the great solo records Mos and Talib have made-Mos Def’s classics Black on Both Sides, and The Ecstatic as well as many bright moments on his others; Talib’s entire canon, about to expand with another collaboration with DJ Hi Tek- Revolutions Per Minute. These two rappers have great flows, great rhymes, and generally spot-on lyrical focus and content (though Mos lyrically dropped the ball a bit  on The New Danger, which contained a few unnecessary missteps.

8 ) The Roots

The Roots are proof that hip hop is capable of so much; this is a tight, excellent band with consummate musicians on every instrument, combined with neo-soul and funk flourishes, great lyrics, great rhymes, personality, presence, humor, political engagement, everything you could ever hope for in any band of any genre. Grab an album or start out with the 2 “Understanding the Roots,” volumes, see them perform live, or catch them backing every other great MC on “Dave Chapelle’s Block Party” DVD.

9) Lauryn Hill

I discounted a lot of artists from this list that I love for lack of output or consistency. Let’s Get Free by Dead Prez is close to being my favorite hip hop album, it’s right behind Aquemeni. But it’s DP’s only strong album- they have a few other great singles and not much else released. Lupe Fiasco is my favorite current rapper, but I’m at least waiting for the delayed Lasers before considering his inclusion on such a list, despite him delivering two classic albums so far. Yet here’s Lauryn Hill, with one undeniable and widely praised classic album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and another album, a live unplugged album derided by much of the mainstream press when it was released but loved by her fans. Then nothing. Laury Hill makes the list for a number of reasons–her work with the Fugees, most notably the classic The Score. Her all-time classic work of any genre, “Miseducation”; and the hope that appears with the occassional glimmers of her return, such as her appearance a few years ago in “Block Party.”  Lauryn Hill is an amazing talent; a great female hip-hop artist of the highest caliber, one who can throw in soul, gospel, and R&B while still being authentically hip hop. Lauryn is a great lyricist and an excellent musician, a powerful voice and role model. She’s a picture of what an authentic and un-tainted by the industry hip hop figure should and can be, and she deserves to be on this list.

10)Kanye West

Hated more than Puffy thought he was when he filmed the over-the-top “Hate Me Now” song with Nas, Kanye can’t keep his mouth shut and can’t stay out of the spotlight doing things that make everyone shout “jerk!” (or worse) at him. But Hip Hop in the first decade of the 2000s belonged to him. The College Drop Out merged backpack, street, and club rap, offered up lyrical focuses that people all over the map could relate to. It gave us “All Falls Down,” “Jesus Walks,” and a handful of other instant classics. Kanye’s ear for detail expanded, and though his successive work would rarely be as lyrically poignant and relevant as “Drop Out,” his positive polish and glittering sound would continue to sound better. Late Registration is almost equal to the debut, with moments of sheer fun balanced with moments of social concern. After that second album, Kanye became merely a show-off, but a talented and entertaining one, at least on Graduation. The only falter ‘Ye’s had since (besides various moments in the media) was 808s and Heartbreaks, which still yielded a few great singles and valiantly tried to be sonically progressive–it’s an album no one can fault for ambition. So, if Kanye can keep his ego in check, get his priorities lined up, and get in the studio, who knows what we might get?

a note on an exemption: Eminem:

If a ranking of MCs is done based sheerly on verbal talent, there is no valid and unbiased reason to exclude Eminem. His talent is jaw-dropping; he can throw out ridiculously complex rhyme schemes and verse structures, drop in and out of a multitude of voices and personalites, channel emotion more raw than any artists since ‘pac. Yet, despite all of that, he remains the most wasted talent in hip hop history. Many would scoff at that, since he’s sold millions of records and been a culture phenom, but his talent has been largely wasted in my opinoin. There’s no denying the appeal of much of his work, but where has the content been? Storytelling, shock tactics, and provocation all have their place, but Eminem never evolved past that. Sometimes in his attempts at pushing boundaries and lambasting hypocracy, he rhymed irredeemable things that were taken by teenage fans to be more than he ever likely intended and in many cases that was irresponsible. But more than anything, he didn’t use his talent often enough to push holes and point fingers in the areas that deserved such ire and passion. He did occassionally, and when he did it was amazing. But he never dwelt there– the closest he came was on The Eminem Show, and the “Mosh” single. Each time he flirted with big ideas he skirted back to throwing pot-shots at b-list celebrities and fantasizing about serial murder or inventing new gender slurs. With such undeniable talent, is it too much to ask for meaningful, or at least respectable, subject matter?

***

Other Notable albums: Outkast – Aquemeni; Dead Prez – Let’s Get Free; A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory; The Fugees – The Score; Lupe Fiasco – Lupe Fiasco Presents The Cool; Dave Chapelles Block Party; The Wu Tang Clan – Enter the 36 Chambers; Raekwon – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx; Dr. Dre – The Chronic; Gift of Gab – Escape to Mars; Ice Cube – The Predator; Missy Elliot – Miss E…So Addictive; Cee Lo – Cee Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections; Notorious B.I.G. – Ready to Die; DMX- It’s Dark and Hell is Hot; The Spooks – SIOSS; Redman – Whut? Thee Album

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4 Responses to “Hip Hop^”

  1. Beau Brown said

    Great list! The east coast stole the show on this one, other than Outkast of course. You forgot about a little-known rapper from Queens named Nasir Jones! haha

  2. dmhamby2 said

    Beau: I meant to throw “illmatic” on the notable albums section, at least…I suppose an addition is in order…

  3. […] are these guys now” in regards to Outkast (in my “Best Hip Hop Artists blog here). Well, here’s 1/2 of them; without Andre’s avant garde pushing of the envelope, Boi is […]

  4. […] 29, 2010 In keeping with the thread that included my Hip Hop^, METAL!, and Country. articles, I decided to do one that focused on a decade rather than a genre. I […]

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