Hip-Hop MC

The JLV’s Top 5 Greatest vs. Top 5 Favorite MCs of All Time

Jose Vilson Jose 20 Comments

Hip-Hop MC

Hip-Hop MC

On Facebook, I came across a slight problem that most hip-hop heads come across whenever a major hip-hop event happens (i.e. the release of Notorious, the movie): how do we qualify our short-list of greatest MCs and favorite MCs? I put up my thoughts to the masses and got a good 30+ responses, ranging from super-duper-stars to underground All-Stars. I tried my best to hold my lip about the topic because it’s rather controversial, but unlike the 90s when things got hostile, it’s now become a rather fun conversation where we all get to share our favorite moments in hip hop.

“Yo, son, you remember when Illmatic dropped?”

“I still can’t decide between the Wop and the Smurf!”

or how about,

“There’s no doubt Hip-Hop as we know it was born in the South-South BRONX!”

But by and large, this is the best conversation anyone can ever bring up. It’s usually the rambling you hear before or during a cipher, or the conversations we hear at roundtables somewhere in corporate offices with magazine editors. With that said, I naturally have to contribute my own lists. You’re all gonna look at me crazy, but I don’t care much.

Criteria: Much like Blaze’s ill-fated top 50 MCs of all time, I use the thought that “Greatest” MC includes cultural impact, lyricism, records (critical and popular success), and influence. Now that we have that rubric down, check my steez:

rakim2

Rakim

Top 5 Greatest:

1. Rakim
2. 2Pac
3. Jay-Z
4. Biggie
5. KRS-One

1) That was a tough pill to swallow. #1 will always be #1 to me, strictly because of his ability to take rap lyricism light years above where it was. It was no longer simple a-b-a-b: with Rakim on the mic, the rhyme could have been placed anywhere in the lyric, and yet, it was always perfectly placed. He had commercial success, had songs for the party and for the purist, ate every MC he came across with one line, and he paved the way for at least a third of the MCs out there. And even when he could really lyrically embarrass his contemporaries, he never overdid it, and that’s where his magic lies.

2) 2Pac gets HUGE points now for still being alive even when he’s no longer alive. When you rank on lists that include John Lennon and Elvis Presley, you deserve it. Lyrically, he was alright, but what he actually said and how he was one of the most sincere rappers, if not the most sincere, clearly put him above and beyond.

3) Jay-Z’s been the most consistent rapper of the last decade, and his longevity surpasses LL’s because LL hasn’t been relevant since 2003 … maybe. Despite a large portion of his lyrics being borrowed from other sources (and I use the word nicely), we also know that, without them, as he so thoroughly explains in “What More Can I Say?”, he’d still be better than 1/2 of the MCs out there. Plus, he didn’t get with the trends: he stayed one step in front of them and made them every step of the way. Oh yeah, and there’s also the fact that his christening of the South with his “Ha (remix)” with Juvenile and “Big Pimpin'” with UGK turned a lot of the East’s eyes towards our Southern brethren.

4) Biggie may have ranked higher when he was alive, but unfortunately, his untimely passing cut off his potential that much more. I don’t rank on potential; I rank on action, and Biggie doesn’t pass that litmus test. He may still have a huge following all across the nation, but like I said, he doesn’t have enough material for him to go any higher, no matter how much emotion we want to go with.

5) KRS-One, while not my in my favorite list, had a tremendous impact on Hip-Hop. He was its evangelist, and also its symbol: bombastic, witty, contradictory, rugged, snarky, awesome, and super-lyrical. Woo!

But then there’s this funny little list for my Favorite, and while 4 out of 5 of these men on this list occupy my Favorites list (sorry, KRS), I also have a couple more that I have some emotional / hip-hop attachment towards:

A Reasonable Favorites List

Ghostface Killah, On Stage

Ghostface Killah, On Stage

1. Talib Kweli
2. Ghostface Killah
3. Eminem
4. Kanye West
5. Common

honorable mentions:

6. Redman, 7. Joe Budden, 8. Andre 3000

I know that list sounds like a Who’s Who of “underground to mainstream love”, but honestly, these are my favorites. I lean heavily on these gentlemen for most of my rap music. I have Kanye’s, Eminem’s and Talib’s whole discographies at this point, and am working towards the other gentlemen’s discographies, too. I’ll have to get into each and all of these men at some point, but suffice it to say that when we talk about the greatest, I don’t think any of these men crack the top 10. Honestly. At least not yet.

Jose, who wonders how many haters I’ll have to add to my list after this barnburner …

p.s. – My favorite femcee is Lauryn Hill. Yep. That felt good to say. Favorite group? A Tribe Called Quest.

About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.

Comments 20

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    Jose

    Actually, I did think about that. Chuck D, though I love him, also recognize that Public Enemy’s impact on my favorites list doesn’t crack maybe hits #10 in that favorites list, but doesn’t make top 5 MCs ever. Great impact, cultural relevance, good lyrics (usually), but … he often preferred to be a speaker before a rapper, which worked well to his cultural relevance now. Still awesome, though.

  2. Angela

    Was going to Tweet a response but figured you might need more than 140 characters for a rebuttal, so I brought the conversation here.

    Jose, I think you did good. Really. Jay-Z legitimately belongs on the list, as much as that pains me.

    But leaving Ice Cube and Big Daddy Kane off the “reasonable favorites” is a travesty. Oh, yes, I DO know ’bout that! ;-)

  3. Post
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    Jose

    Oh trust when I say, I got love for Kane and Cube. Cube, especially since I got schooled on him a couple of years ago by Jeff Chang. Yet, neither crack my top 10 either. I never thought about it, but I can recite more Jay-Z songs off the top of my head than any other artist, R&B or otherwise. That’s amazing. Even the more lyrical ones.

  4. JVL

    You list looks familiar SIR! when we see eachother again though, we’ll have to debate your and my # 1 & 5 of the same over a few “bruskies”

  5. The Jaded NYer

    *imitating Buggin Out*
    “Why are there no Latinos on your list?!?! I’m boycotting!”

    I kid, I kid…

    No hate from this end- this was a good list with solid arguments to back it up. I’m curious, though, about Ghostface… of the entire Wu Tang Clan, he’s the only one that made any of your lists?

    Que paso??

  6. Post
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    Jose

    Brewskies huh? OK, I’ll take you up on that.

    Jaded, Ghostface Killah is the dopest. His songs have a soul to them that the other members don’t. Plus, I just love his style. Raekwon, Meth, Inspectah Deck, and the rest were really dope, too, but … I’ve always just loved Ghostface.

  7. Trash Man

    I unfortunately think that Biggie and Pac will always get an undue amount of extra respect because they are deceased. But Chuck D. no where to be found? KRS AFTER Pac and Biggie? Pos from De La? Kane? Nas? Prodigy? Tip?

  8. Post
    Author
    Jose

    I think so, too, which is why I wouldn’t give Pac or Big the greatest of all time status. But notice that Pac and Big, even before their deaths, had TONS of success and fueled the music and movement of hip-hop for almost 2 decades now. Other rappers like Freaky Tah, Ol Dirty Bastard, and Big L have died and neither have had the cultural impact upon death that either of them had. Secondly, KRS, while certainly legendary and in many scenes would go head-to-head well against Pac and Big, hasn’t had the longevity lyrically that others may have had like Rakim, who has never truly fell off. But this was about as “apples and oranges” as it gets.

    The other rappers in my top 10 include Nas, Slick Rick, Big Daddy Kane, Chuck D, and LL. Prodigy? Tip? Hmmm maybe.

  9. Amauri T.

    Great pick with Ghost. The originality he brings is unmatched in or outside the Clan. Can’t believe I missed him on the list in your Facebook thread, because I play his tracks much more than the guys I did mention. Hope a best producers /musicians thread is up next, those guys are generally unsung heroes of hip-hop.

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    Jose

    Pretty funny, but … I gotta tell you, that wouldn’t fly in my hood. And GZA’s nice and so is Rae, but top 5 MCs? Not in my life. Their cultural influence is definitely more as part of the 2nd greatest rap group ever (right behind Run DMC) than individually. Then again, as part of my favorite MCs, they rank in my top 50. At least Rae does. But Ghost is my favorite Wu member ever.

    Yes, Ghost.

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