Me? When did I meet Hip Hop? Well I was twelve. It was 2005 and I was sitting in my uncle’s car when he played “Diamonds from Sierra Leone (The Remix) by Kanye West featuring Jay-Z. I had seen and heard Hip Hop before, we even shared a head-nod a couple times, but we had never formally met. When I heard Kanye West say:
“And here’s the conflict.
It’s in a black person’s soul to rock that gold
Spend ya whole life tryna get that ice
Bought a Polo rugby, it looks so nice
How could something so wrong make me feel so right?”
I could not ignore the words. I was finally hearing Hip Hop’s voice even with that immaculate beat playing in the background. Sadly, this ignorance continued to until I arrived on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and began listening to relatively older artists and began seeing how much of an influence they had on the artists I had enjoyed over the years. I had heard about the great rappers and rap groups that came before I officially met Hip Hop, but listening to them on my own is what inspired me to want to write about the top five rappers or rap groups I wish I had not been too young for. More specifically, I wish they had been the artists I latched on to early on in my relationship with Hip Hop; a very challenging time for a young boy looking for answers to why his life was the way it was.
There are many various websites and blogs that have produced their own lists of top artists during the 1990s, but very few focus on Hip Hop artists and groups mid-decade. Their categories and rubrics vary with some not even giving any kind of rubric. Since I did not begin listening to Hip Hop until 2005, the pool of rappers and rap groups will come from those who have released the majority of their work before 2005. Therefore, the pool will be made mainly of rappers and groups who were mostly popular during the 1990s and very early 2000s. The pool will be judged based on the lyrical content of their music, their creativity, and their impact (both outside of music and their impact on future generations of Hip Hop). It is important to understand that creativity is subjective and what one person might consider creative. Another may not agree. Thus creativity will be judged based on overall style in comparison to artists in the same pool.
Chillin in the fifth spot, throwing up the peace sign is Lamont Coleman, better known as Big L. Big L was a rapper from Harlem, New York, who was heavily active in the 1990s before being fatally shot in a drive-by shooting on February 15, 1999. He represented for what is referred to as underground Hip Hop during his time. He was also well-known for one of his singles, “Ebonics” where he explains and breaks down New York slang.
This is one of the songs that contribute to his creativity. It cannot be easy to put the entire New York section of Urban Dictionary into one song. Not only was he creative, but Big L’s flow, which incorporates clever rhymes and metaphors, could be attributed to a lot of rappers that came after him such as Lil’ Wayne, and many rappers that came out of New York after Big L. Big L also does not ignore the things going on around him in the rough neighborhoods of New York in songs such as “Street Struck”. His influence in Hip Hop is evident in how he is referenced in many songs today. For instance, Big Sean, a rapper from Detroit, Michigan, rapped in the remix to Kanye West’s “All of the Lights”:
Why every rapper named Big got bodied [huh]?
But every rapper named Sean got money [ooww]
Many rappers and lists consider it to be disrespectful to leave Big L out of any “Top” lists and I would agree. Big L obviously had a huge impact on Hip Hop and seeing how much I clung to those who were influenced by him early on in my relationship with Hip Hop, I would have gained an even better sense of real Hip Hop, had I not been too young to be aware of him.
Standing in a circle in the fourth spot with the lights low, playing the bongos is Digable Planets.
Digable Planets was a Hip Hop trio from New York that consisted of Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler, Mary Ann “Ladybug Mecca” Vieira, and Craig “Doodlebug” Irving. Their poetic style and flow is where they thrived with their creativity. They had a very futuristic and laid-back style of music. They are mostly known for their song “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like That)” on their debut album entitled Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space). One thing that cannot be ignored is the Jazz infusion of many of their songs. While sampling jazz was not uncommon in the 1990s, it was however becoming increasingly less popular to recite poetry-like verses over songs that incorporate these jazz instruments. With their style, Digable Planets were subtly paying homage to the eras and music genres that gave birth to Hip Hop. Contrastingly, their lyrics incorporate futuristic themes that discuss freedom, the future, and Afrofuturism. This can be seen in many of their songs, especially “Escapism (Getting’ Free) where Ladybug Mecca says:
The ancestors grin cause rap is getting’ fat
To some of them its grim cause its youth be havin’ gats
So save all the cares, let down your nappy hairs
‘Cause the beats is givin’ life like air
With Digable Planets’ alternative style stuck out and inspired future groups to be different. Outside of music, you can hear their encouraging of non-violence, and promoting black love to the youth. This recognition for the ancestors is also an example of the Panafricanism. As a twelve-year-old, I knew that I was different, so Digable Planets would have vibed with me in a way that could have helped an introspective and nappy-haired little black kid in middle school. I was just too young to understand them.
Parked in the three spot in a ’64 Chevy with the top back is N.W.A. or Niggaz Wit Attitudes.
N.W.A. was composed of Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson), Dr. Dre (Andre Young), Eazy-E (Eric Wright), DJ Yella (Antoine Carraby), and MC Ren (Lorenzo Patterson). They were most famous for their debut album entitled Straight Outta Compton which was released in 1988. They were recognized and accredited with representing the anger and dissatisfaction of the youth during the 1990s. A youth who’s anger is very much justified. N.W.A.’s creativity could be seen in the way they told stories in their songs like “Boyz-n-the-Hood” which appeared on Eazy-E’s solo album, Eazy-Duz-It (however, the rest of N.W.A. contributed so much to the album, it’s difficult to count them out of it). They were also addressing things such as police brutality and racial profiling by the police in songs such as “F*ck the Police.” In the opening verses, Ice Cube says:
F*ck the police comin’ straight from the underground
A young nigga got it bad cause I’m brown
And not the other color so police think
They have the authority to kill a minority.
Not only is Ice Cube addressing these issues, but he is, as my grandparents used to say, “giving it to you straight.” N.W.A. represented the true rebellious nature of Hip Hop. Their impact on future generations of Hip Hop could be seen in the various rappers, especially west coast rappers, who mention N.W.A. in their lyrics, have tattoos of N.W.A., like rapper The Game. Outside of Hip Hop, when N.W.A. group member Eazy-E was on his deathbed after being diagnosed with AIDS, he encouraged everyone to get checked for AIDS. Eazy-E was the first popular not openly gay male to die from AIDS. His death would wake up the youth and get them involved with maintaining their health. Eazy-E was coined the godfather to gangsta rap, so it could be argued that N.W.A. gave birth to gangsta rap. Thus, their impact is much larger musically.
Being that around 2005 I was growing increasingly upset with the fact that my father is incarcerated. I was not upset with him, but more with the law and how I thought it had trapped him. N.W.A. would have helped me understand a little more of what injustices African American males often have to face and thus would have been a great help to young Darius, I was just too young at the time to see through the shades and heavy base.
A Tribe Called Quest
Running down the street towards the second spot being chased by a gang of youth, is A Tribe Called Quest.
This rap group was originally made up of Q-Tip (Kamaal Fareed), Phife Dawg (Malik Taylor), Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi White. The Tribe has often been highly praised and revered for their intelligent rhymes and clever verses. They also contributed to the alternative Hip Hop genre and have released what many would consider to be classics such as “Electric Relaxation,” “Scenario,” “Bonita Applebum,” and “Check the Rhime.”
They were also very quick to address what M.K. Asante refers to as “reel” Hip Hop versu “real” Hip Hop. One thing that puts the Tribe ahead of the pack is their consistent lyrical content. Even in their “feel good” music, they are still dropping bits of knowledge in their verses. But this is where their creativity shined through also. One could hear them reminding us consistently that real Hip Hop was not dead and would never die. They were even creative in the way they “toss” the track to one another by introducing each other right before they come in and begin rapping during the song. For instance, Q-Tip ended his verse in “Electric Relaxation” with “Aye yo, my man Phife Diggy, he got somethin’ to say…” and Phife Dawg introduces Q-Tip back into “Check the Rhime” with “Yo Tip, you recall when we used to rock / Those fly routines on your cousin’s block?” They were constantly talking to each other in the songs and it only made you nod your head even harder. They were constantly expressing themes of black love, peace, ignoring the haters, and keeping Hip Hop alive. In their song “We Can Get Down” released on their album Midnight Marauders, Q-Tip raps:
This is ’93 and the sh*t is real
Black people unite and put down your steel
Ladies make a forum on your sexual drive
Devote it to your lover and make it thrive.
As seen in these verses, the Tribe was often still sending messages to African Americans even in the “feel good” songs that they were producing. A Tribe Called Quest was so closely linked to Kanye, especially with him working with Q-Tip frequently, that it’s a surprised I never valued their music until I was almost an adult. Their alternative style, and poetic abilities, similar to Digable Planets’ is what would have helped a young outcast in middle school to embrace his differences. Unfortunately, I was too young to branch out and listen to older music.
Standing in the number one spot with two middle fingers and a black bandana wrapped around his bald head is the one and only Tupac Amaru Shakur.
Tupac is often regarded as the greatest rapper of all-time, although many people from New York would argue differently. He was not only a rapper, but an activist and very outspoken with what he thought was wrong with the world, but more specifically, the United States. Tupac’s creativity is often regarded as unmatched along with his flow and delivery. With titles such as “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” “Words of Wisdom,” and “F*ck the World,” Tupac always put how he felt in his music. Tupac was always known for telling it “how it is” and being vocally against the cops, often having altercations with them. Pac embraced themes of freedom, the struggles of life in the hood, love and family, and not being afraid to challenge the system. In “F*ck the World”, Pac raps:
Well homie I don’t give a f*ck if you Blood or Cuz
Long as ya got love for thugs
But don’t try to test me out, stall that
Homie this is Thug Life nigga we all strapped
Pac’s impact on music and the people that heard him speak speaks volumes to his impact both in and out of music. Not only was 2pac rapping about black rights and black life in his music, but he was also speaking at Grassroots movement conferences and rallies; even then still not being afraid to use the slang and real-talk that he uses in the music. Tupac was an important figure in Hip Hop, with some saying that that’s what got him killed. His anger would have resonated with a young and “mad at the world” twelve-year-old and would have helped me understand my situation much better. However, I was just too young to listen to anything past “Hit ‘Em Up.”
While Tupac, A Tribe Called Quest, N.W.A., Digable Planets, and Big L might have been my Top 5, there were some rappers and groups that made the honorable mentions. These include Notorious B.I.G., Rakim, Big Pun, and KRS-One.
KRS-One may have even been five, but Big L’s respect and reference outmatches even him and DJ Marley Marl. B.I.G. would have made the list, but his music would not have made as much of an impact on me as the rappers and groups that made it would have. Rakim and Big Pun would have made the list also, but their lyrical content was lacking in that their rap styles would not have appealed to a young Darius.
In brief, these five rappers and rap groups could have significantly changed the course of my life when I first began hanging out and getting to know Hip Hop. Big L’s respect factor in the game cannot go ignored. Digable Planets’ futuristic and relaxing style of poetry and A Tribe Called Quest’s funky beats and clever wordplay could have done wonders for a confused and lonely middle schooler. Tupac and N.W.A.’s anger would have resonated with me and helped me understand that I was not angry at myself, but with what life was consistently throwing at me. Had I not been too young for these rappers and groups, it is hard to say how much further along in my journey to self-acceptance and understanding. But like it’s often heard in a Hip Hop song every once in a while, I guess we’ll never know.