The Greatest Rappers
Of All Time
Hip-hop has gone through a number of changes, from old-school hip-hop and the rise of gangsta rap, the East vs. West Coast feud, through the present day where it remains a dominant genre in American music.
Over the last half-century, we have been lucky to witness a number of incredibly talented DJs, rappers, and songwriters come out of the genre. As Victrola celebrates the 50th birthday of hip-hop, we’ve compiled a list of some of the greatest rappers and hip-hop groups of all time.
In no particular order.
As hip-hop was starting to find its footing in the early 1980s, members of Run-DMC were the genre's first superstars. Hailing from Hollis, Queens, the trio of Jam Master Jay, Rev Run, and DMC helped to take hip-hop from a fringe genre of New York to mainstream America. Their debut album can be viewed as a sort of transition from funky old-school hip to a more defined form of music. The group's streetwear fashion sense also helped to develop hip-hop culture. They branched into rap-rock with their second release, King of Rock, but their third album, Raising Hell is what catapulted hip-hop forward.
Raising Hell became the first hip hop record to be nominated for a Grammy Award, with hits like "It's Tricky" and their collaboration with Aerosmith on a cover of "Walk This Way." The release of Raising Hell is considered the start of hip-hop's first golden age and served to influence nearly everything that came after.Featured Album: King of Rock
Eric B. & Rakim
When they debuted in the late '80s, it didn't take long for Eric B. & Rakim to become known as hip hop's best DJ and rapper duo. Eric B. employed a relatively minimalist setup, but was still considered the most influential DJ around, his use of sampling and percussive beats was unmatched at the time, borrowing from funk and soul songs to give the group their signature sound.
Rakim essentially reinvented the role of the MC. His lyrics and rhyme schemes were far more complex than those that came before, pioneering a sort of flow that was basically unheard of. Previous rappers employed a more rhythmic, simpler flow, more akin to early funk, but Rakim was more conversational and free-flowing. The group's debut album, Paid in Full, is considered a hip-hop landmark and one of the best the genre has to offer.Featured Album: Paid In Full
Boogie Down Productions & KRS-One
Boogie Down productions emerged in the late '80s with Criminal Minded, a textbook gangsta rap record that helped set the tone for the genre. Predating N.W.A. and Public Enemy, the album has been sampled liberally, defined by its hardcore, violent lyrics.
The group's DJ, Scott La Rock, was tragically murdered in 1987, leading to a massive change in MC KRS-One's style. Their follow-up record, By All Means Necessary, is one of hip hop's first socially conscious albums. Adopting the persona of "The Teacher," KRS-One denounces violence, police brutality, and the war on drugs. KRS-One went on to a successful solo career, most notably with Return of the Boom Bap.Featured Album: By All Means Necessary
N.W.A. & Dr. Dre
Though hip-hop originated in the Bronx, a new subgenre was developing in Los Angeles. N.W.A. was one of the first groups to come out of the gangsta rap subgenre, taking a more aggressive, politically conscious tone than anything that had been around to that point. Their lyrics featured subjects like racism, police brutality experienced by Black Americans, and inner-city gang life. Their debut record, Straight Outta Compton is largely credited with beginning the East vs. West Coast feud that would come to dominate the '90s.
After the group disbanded, its members began dropping solo albums, with Dr. Dre's The Chronic standing on its own as the best. The Chronic incorporated elements of funk and soul, as well as helping to launch the careers of other major rappers.Featured Album: Straight Outta Compton
With the rise of gangsta rap and the balance of power in hip hop shifting to the West Coast, Wu-Tang Clan invited us to Enter the Wu-Tang. The New York based group exploded onto the scene in the early '90s with the aforementioned album. Wu-Tang Clan approached hip hop differently; group leader RZA preferred smaller-scale production, once estimating that only around 20% of their music was sampled.
Their music included elements of gangsta rap, complete with socially conscious lyrics about life on the streets of Shaolin (Staten Island), but mixed it with the group's trademark brand of humor. Wu-Tang's latest release came in 2014, a double-album titled Once Upon a Time in Shaolin that is unavailable on any streaming service with only one physical copy produced.Featured Album: Enter Wu-Tang
A Tribe Called Quest
A Tribe Called Quest emerged in the early '90s with one of the best three album runs in music history. Their debut, People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, helped to establish them as the preeminent group in alternative hip-hop. As storytellers and lyricists, the group is second to none, but their musical stylings are what truly set them apart.
Their second record, The Low End Theory, saw them incorporate a distinctly jazzier style, continued on Midnight Marauders. This fusion of jazz and hip hop saw them run with a more minimalist sound compared to many of their contemporaries, combined with lyrics about Black empowerment that included positive affirmations.Featured Album: Peoples Instinctive Travels
In the mid 1990s, Tupac Shakur WAS West Coast hip-hop. He was deeply political, having been raised by parents who were members of the Black Panther Party, which was reflected in his music. He rapped about the problems affecting young Black men like himself and developed a reputation as a deeply introspective, personal lyricist.
Having achieved major success, he released All Eyez on Me in 1996. A radical departure from his previous work, All Eyez on Me was a gangsta rap album, the first double album in the genre, and was far less political than his other work. He rapped about how the thug life brought him prosperity and admiration with a tone of bravado. Sadly, Tupac was gunned down in a drive-by shooting just months after its release.Featured Album: 2pacalypse Now
The Notorious B.I.G.
2Pac's East Coast counterpart, the Notorious B.I.G. AKA Biggie Smalls, had a larger-than-life presence. He was just 22 years old when he debuted with Ready to Die, an almost shocking fact when you consider how his voice boomed. His lyrical flow was developed well beyond his years, and he approached his music with an easily identifiable brand of dark humor.
Unfortunately, that's not where is similarities with 2Pac end. Biggie was also killed in a drive-by shooting, with Ready to Die standing as the only album released during his lifetime. Life After Death, his second album, was released just two weeks after his murder and remains one of the greatest hip-hop records of all time.Featured Album: Ready To Die
Along with Wu-Tang Clan, Nas presided over the rebirth of East Coast hip hop. It was with Nas and his debut, Illmatic, that rap truly began to feel like poetry. His lyrics were raw and unfiltered, with an immaculate flow and unconventional rhyme structures.
He blended hard-bop jazz into his sound, maintaining its subtlety while balancing it so that informed his music without dominating. His lyrics were both blunt and metaphorical, doing away with hip-hop's growing materialism and providing an in-depth look at what it was like in the projects. Illmatic is widely considered the best hip-hop record of the 1990s, and was only the beginning of an incredible career for Nas.Featured Album: Illmatic
By the time she released The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Hill had come a long way from being booed at the Apollo Theater's amateur night at age 12. Hill formed Fugees in the early '90s with Wyclef Jean and Pras, a group that seamlessly blended hip-hop with jazz and soul, a departure from the hardcore hip-hop sound that had taken hold in the era.
With Fugees' success, Hill dropped a solo album in 1998 entitled The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. The album was a massive hit, becoming the first hip-hop album to win the Grammy for Album of the Year. Miseducation was an unconventional hip-hop album, including aspects of reggae, R&B, and neo-soul. For whatever reason, Hill elected not to release another solo album, apparently satisfied with Miseducation's incredible success.Featured Album: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
While the East vs. West Coast feud was in full swing, OutKast was down in Atlanta making a name for Southern Rap. They arrived on the scene in 1994, dropping Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, immediately making their eccentricities and eclectic taste known. They incorporated heavy use of funk and jazz into their music, most notably on Aquemini, before a more mainstream release with Stankonia, which included their first major hits.
Where many hip-hop duos highlight their cohesion, OutKast celebrates differences. André 3000 was more like George Clinton than a conventional rapper, whereas Big Boi brought more traditional hip-hop vibes. The differences are evident on Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, a double album that was essentially two solo albums, with Big Boi's Speakerboxxx delivering traditional Southern rap, and André's The Love Below serving more as a jazz/funk fusion record.Featured Album: Speakerboxxx: Love Below
Jay-Z emerged in the mid-'90s New York hip-hop renaissance, dropping his debut, Reasonable Doubt in 1996. New York was always at the heart of Jay's music, with lyrics about the hustler life and growing up in Brooklyn. Jay initially intended to retire in the early 2000s, but his farewell, The Black Album was so successful that he decided to continue his career.
Eventually, Jay founded a sprawling business empire, launching clothing lines, becoming the president of Def Jam Records, and achieving status as hip hop's first billionaire. That hasn't stopped him from making music, dropping Everything is Love in 2018 with his wife, Beyoncé.Featured Album: The Black Album
Missy Elliott dropped her debut, Supa Dupa Fly in '97, as the genre was gradually becoming friendlier to women rappers. Supa Dupa Fly has an '80s throwback vibe, with aspects of dance music and R&B and cutting back on sampling. Her success continued into the 2000s, with Under Construction serving as one of her best, with hits like "Work It" and "Bring the Pain."
Missy was known for featuring elements of electronica and soul in her music, as well as her eclectic fashion sense. She frequently performed in costumes, and has a reputation for wearing baggy streetwear before Billie Eilish was even born. Missy was also known for her songwriting ability, her lyrics remaining positive and upbeat throughout her career.Featured Album: Under Construction
If there's one thing Eminem can do, and do well, it's shock and awe. There's a lot more to the man's ability, though, and Em's reputation as one of the most skilled rappers of all time is well-earned. Eminem came up in Detroit's battle rap scene, leading to his being signed by Interscope Records and dropping The Slim Shady LP in 1999. As Slim Shady, he developed a penchant for over-the-top violent lyrics, leading to criticism and condemnation.
With the release of The Eminem Show in 2003, he addressed those criticisms with an often humorous tone that led to more mainstream acceptance. Eminem became known for his satirical lyrics, but also for his speed, most notably on 2013's "Rap God."Featured Album: Slim Shady LP
Like many rappers, Daniel Dumile got his start freestyling at open mic nights. Unlike pretty much any other rapper, he did it wearing a metal mask. He dubbed himself MF Doom and began developing a supervillain persona that stayed with him throughout his career. Doom's lyrics were often humorous and occasionally nonsensical, but his stream-of-consciousness flow is what made Doom Doom.
Musically, Doom made heavy use of jazz in his beats and employed a minimalist, analog setup. Despite critical success with nearly every release, Doom remained a cult figure in hip-hop, never achieving mainstream commercial success, but several of his albums, most notably Madvillainy, are considered some of the best hip-hop records of his era. Doom passed away in 2020 at just 49 years of age, but his legacy is beyond reproach.Featured Album: Operation: Doomsday
Nicki Minaj took over hip hop in the 2010s, and she did it clad in pink. Her debut record, Pink Friday dominated the charts upon its release with hits like "Super Bass" and "Fly." Pink Friday and her subsequent releases shared a common theme; fun. Nicki's music is unabashedly fun, incorporating dancehall and pop elements that set her apart from her peers.
Queen, her last album to date, is a more traditional hip hop record, as we await the release of Pink Friday 2. Nicki has a flare for the dramatic, often performing in character as Roman Zolanski or Harajuku Barbie depending on the needs of the song.Featured Album: Pink Friday
The great thing about art is the subjectivity. Everyone's tastes differ, and artists all bring something unique to the table. Still, I don't think you'd hear many people object to anointing Kendrick Lamar as the best rapper working today. His big break came with his sophomore album, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, a '90s throwback record that felt like a resurgence of Los Angeles gangsta rap.
He departed from that sound with 2015's To Pimp a Butterfly, which, simply put, is one of the greatest musical accomplishments of all time. TPAB is a jazz-hip hop record with politically conscious messaging, addressing subject matter like racial discrimination and police brutality. Kendrick went from successful to superstar, and hasn't slowed down, dropping two more fantastic records in Damn and Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers.Featured Album: Good Kid, M.A.A.D City
A talented multi-instrumentalist, J. Cole began releasing mixtapes in the late aughts, leading to his debut record, Cole World: The Sideline Story in 2011. He followed that up with Born Sinner in 2013, quickly earning a reputation as one of hip hop's up-and-coming voices. His lyrics were deeply personal, telling the story of his upbringing and how it shaped him.
The release of 2014 Forest Hills Drive saw a marked change in his style, his lyrics becoming more socially and politically conscious, while actively avoiding the bravado that many of his contemporaries sought to portray. He followed that up with 4 Your Eyez Only, a jazz-fusion record that dives even deeper into politics, with themes of racial discrimination and depression, but carries a hopeful tone as well.Featured Album: 4 Your Eyez Only