The first problem with creating a list is keeping it from being completely arbitrary. We want somewhat reliable numbers here, after all we’re not the Swift Boat Veterans. There are ten categories that our MCs were judged on.
The best in the business like Rakim can paint a picture with their words, or can use an extensive vocabulary. The worst feeling in the world is listening to somebody and you know what word they’re going to use at the end of the bar before they say it. Let me guess…run, gun, fun. Gotcha.
I’m a huge Ice-T fan, but he always had trouble making his words fit just right. It’s hard to balance your ideas and the demands of the music. Also, I remember listening to some of Bubba Sparxxx‘s singles and he never changed up when his rhymes occurred in his lines. (Listen to his version of ‘Ugly’ as opposed to the Ms. Jade version, for instance.) Flow is hard.
Nothing gets a reaction like a great punch line. When Journalist dropped the lines “My firearm will lay you down like arm hair, for going there, for trying to take the bacon out my palm here, you’re men small, they’ll fall like Sprint calls, I been raw, all over your hood like lint balls,” I literally whooped out loud. It was a really awkward board meeting after that, but the point is that punchlines are a huge part of hip-hop and to me one of its very tangible connections to its ancestor the blues.
I think Eminem is great. But he doesn’t really talk about a whole lot of different stuff. Most rappers don’t. Most rappers are boring as hell, in fact. There’s only so many times you can about drugs, threaten to shoot someone, or threaten to shoot someone over their drugs as opposed to say… Talib Kweli, who could put three hot verses together about a centipede. (Seriously, Kweli did a hip-hop version of Nina Simone’s ‘Four Women.’ Is there anything he can’t talk about?)
There’s probably a homeless guy in Houston that’s the best rapper that ever lived. But the only person that’s ever heard him is his barber. This category keeps the list from being overrun by local legends. If no one has ever heard of you, then you really don’t matter. An even bigger honor though, is influence, which basically means you’re so hot that someone else changed their style to me more like you, like Jay stealing Young Chris’s flow. Ahem.
When I put this together, (over the course of a month) I realized that this was actually the most important characteristic of the entire list. It comes down to one question, if I hear this person on a track; do I even have to be told who it is? I’m not a DMX fan, but the moment I hear him I know who it is, and that’s really important.
Not just the length of the career, but the length of their relevance. After all, I’m sure “General” Larry Platt performed many songs in his life, but all anybody heard of was “Pants on the Ground.” Just because you’ve been around for a while, doesn’t mean you mattered the whole time.
In the end, the music business is based on people wanting to buy your stuff because they like you. No matter what personality you choose to portray, you still have to have find a way to make people want to buy your album. I’m a gangster, I’ll shoot you for looking at me wrong…oh, and buy my album. I’m rich, I’ve got a G5, with a G4 inside of it like a Russian nesting doll. I’m filthy with the stuff… but don’t download my album for free, please buy it, because I need the money. It’s a delicate balance that few have.
Now I had to be specific with this. I am only talking intentionally released studio material, not mixtapes or bootlegs. But there has to be something said for an artist that can release good album after good album. One of the only flaws about an artist like Nas is consistency; he was in a minor slump until Jay woke a sleeping giant.
On the flipside, the category of quality includes everything, mixtapes, bootlegs, whatever. Pun only released one album in his lifetime, but he devastated so many tracks, he had a huge presence before it even came out. Canibus’s greatest impact was on mixtapes and freestyles.
So now you know how we were judging, and if you don’t see your favorite rapper in the top ten, be honest and see if they measured up in all of these qualities.