In the past couple of months, I’ve been given a great opportunity to offer my opinion on the best MC’s of all-time in two of Hip Hop’s most well-represented cities – New York City and Philadelphia. I ran down the top 10 rappers in Philadelphia’s storied and underrated history, and touched on the top 5 or top 10 rappers from each of the five New York City boroughs in a five-part article. In addition, I broke down the top 5 rappers from Long Island, New York. I think I’ve thoroughly represented the top east coast rappers so far.
So to me, the next logical move is to run down the best from the west coast, which is mostly represented by rappers from either the Los Angeles area or the San Francisco Bay area. Instead of combining it into two lists, one for each area, I’ve decided to try something new here and do a top 20 instead. This list outlines what I believe to be the top 20 west coast rappers – from anywhere on the west coast – although you’ll find just one rapper here not from L.A. or the Bay Area.
West coast Hip Hop has given the culture some of its most polarizing and commercially successful acts, and has produced the most prolific rapper of the current generation. It has also contributed a number of incredibly influential groups, from N.W.A to The Pharcyde; from Hieroglyphics to Above the Law and many more. Many have criticized the technical skills of west coast rappers, and in some cases, that’s an accurate classification. Many Hip Hop purists don’t have as much respect for the west coast because of the raw, watered down lyrics of instrumental-heavy “gangsta rap” – it’s a world away from KRS-One and Rakim, that’s for sure. And while not all “gangsta” MCs are incompetent lyrically, it’s also important to realize that not all classic west coast Hip Hop is “gangsta rap”. There are plenty of lame west coast MC’s that are very one-dimensional with their lyrics, but for each wack MC, there are two talented or influential MCs. And on this list, we’ll take a look at which of those talented or influential MCs made the cut, and why.
20. Eazy-E - Compton
Influential? Hell yes. Talented? Not so much. I almost didn’t include Eazy on this list, because, let’s face it, he was far from being the most technical or skilled rapper. But then I remembered the charisma and passion Eazy-E showed on his 1988 debut, Eazy-Duz-It.
I remembered how his loud flow and almost hilariously vulgar delivery command me to shut up and listen to his verses upon each spin of a classic N.W.A cut. I remembered how he stood his own in a vicious beef with Dr. Dre upon the dissolution of N.W.A, and how he was mistakenly invited to the White House and had dinner with President George H.W. Bush. Long story short, Eazy-E was a character, a personality: to me, the back-story of Eazy-E’s short life and the firepower behind his sometimes clumsily-delivered lyrics make me realize that it would be wrong not to include him. His influence and legacy are just too great, though his legacy is certainly driven by his untimely death.
But any Hip Hop fan who goes for technicality will tell you that Eazy-E is, at times, one of the laziest and verbally-limited rappers. I was almost unable to overlook this, but it’s impossible not to recognize his legacy. He was the first N.W.A member to drop a solo album, and was one of the very first west coast MC’s to represent, putting out the seminal “Boyz-N-The-Hood” in 1987.
His verses on “Fuck tha Police” and “Straight Outta Compton”, ghostwritten as they may have been, were revolutionary verses, and were delivered in a way that only Eazy could deliver. His career was sparse and unimpressive after 1993, and he would succumb to HIV in 1995 at the age of 31. However, his legacy is not to be overlooked, as he is one of the first and earliest influential west coast rappers, which earns him a spot on this list.
19. Brotha Lynch Hung – Sacramento
Here’s a rapper that’s sure to polarize. Sacramento’s Brotha Lynch Hung is one of those guys that either you love, you hate, or you’ve never heard of. If you’re a cat that is strictly into conscious Hip Hop and has no respect for that gangsta shit, then Lynch is not for you. This man has plenty of dark, twisted thoughts swirling through his head, and what better way to share them with the world through his brand of horrorcore lyrics with a west coast drawl over menacing g-funk beats.
Lynch is most well-known for his 1993 single “24 Deep”, which has a distinct east coast, boom bap sound. The single was dark lyrically, and put him on the map as a highly talented rapper, building hype for his 1995 debut LP Season of da Siccness.
The album took horror-movie cues from Gravediggaz’s 6 Feet Deep and early Three 6 Mafia records, including 1995’s Mystic Stylez, and showcased dark g-funk beats. The album was so dark and graphic that it was cited in a 1996 murder where an 18-year old listened to the song “Locc 2 da Brain” before killing three of his friends before dying in a shootout with police. Lynch certainly didn’t belong in the Native Tongues.
Over the next two decades, Brotha Lynch Hung would go on to put out more than ten albums. While Season of da Siccness achieved the most attention and critical acclaim, 1997’s Loaded, 2010’s Dinner and a Movie and 2011’s Coathanga Strangla also achieved respectable acclaim and success, giving Lynch the distinction of being one of a minority of rappers to release well-received albums in both the golden age and in the 2010s.
Many of Lynch’s albums in the first decade of the 2000s were not so well-received, but he has been able to follow up a strong start to his career with success as of late. Couple this with being easily the best-known rapper out of a place as unlikely as Sacramento, and you can see why Lynch belongs on this list.
18. Spice 1 – Hayward (Bay Area)
Spice 1 is one of the Bay Area’s most brutally honest and skilled storytellers. Since the early 1990s, Spice 1 has represented the ethnically diverse Oakland suburb of Hayward, and has released over twenty albums, with his first three efforts being heralded as west coast classics. Known for being one of the most prolific lyricists of the “Mobb Music” subgenre of west coast Hip Hop, Spice 1’s lyrical content is not for the faint of heart. He often paints a violent, raw portrait of the ghetto, and is more of an uncensored storyteller than a glorifier of the gang-banging lifestyle.
His first three albums – 1992’s Spice 1, 1993’s widely-acclaimed 187 He Wrote and 1994’s AmeriKKKa’s Nightmare are three records that are regarded highly among Bay Area releases. 187 He Wrote is one of the most consistent and hardcore albums from the west coast, with the album featuring vivid g-funk instrumentals, which served as the perfect soundtrack to his graphic and thoughtful lyricism. Take a listen to “Trigga Gots No Heart” to see what I mean. Like many rappers who started strong, Spice 1’s music declined in quality and influence as the years went on, despite him releasing 15 albums in the 2000’s alone. However, the legacy of his first three albums must be recognized, and those records alone define Spice 1 as one of the Bay Area’s best.
17. Dr. Dre – Compton
It is hard to argue against the fact that 1992’s The Chronic may be the best west coast Hip Hop album of all time. That does not mean that the album’s creator is anywhere close to the best lyricist from the west. Like those of fellow N.W.A bandmate Eazy-E, Dre’s lyrics were often ghostwritten, which to me, prevents him from being higher on this list.
However, across two classic albums – the aforementioned The Chronic and 1999’s 2001, Dre delivers his mostly-ghostwritten lyrics in a rather convincing manner, earning him a spot on this list. Songs such as “Nuthin But A G Thang” and “Still D.R.E.” go hard from a lyrical standpoint, regardless of who wrote and delivered the verses.
It would be hard not to include Dre on this list since his two major albums, especially The Chronic, were so influential. However, those albums are more known for Dr. Dre’s forward-thinking and sonically stunning production, and for strong guest features from MC’s such as Snoop Dogg, Kurupt, RBX, Xzibit, Eminem, Devin the Dude and others. Dre’s rapping on his albums is more of an afterthought, but his aggressive delivery and distinctive voice that dates back to Straight Outta Compton and Efil4zaggin from the N.W.A days do conjure up a certain feeling when listening to his music.
Even if many of his lyrics are ghostwritten, Dre has delivered some of the more quotable verses from the west coast. But with Dr. Dre, the aspect of his music that must be paid the most attention is certainly the beats, where he emits raw talent better than nearly any producer in the game – past or present.
16. King T – Compton
While Compton’s King T (Tee) hasn’t released an album since 2002, he can boast being one of the most consistent and hard-working west coast MC’s of the late 1980s and 1990s. Of his five albums between 1988 and 2002, not one can be considered “weak”, as King T brought street-level tales of life in Compton to the table over oftentimes jazzy and thoughtful west coast beats that could, at times, sound reminiscent of the east coast “boom bap” sound. His smooth delivery, flow and distinct diction put the listener in a certain zone that many other rappers fail to reach.
While most of his releases never charted big, he always remained respectable in the west coast Hip Hop community. Career highlights include his 1988 debut record Act a Fool, 1990’s follow-up At Your Own Risk, and 1995’s IV Life. T became active as early as 1987, first appearing on the scene with the song “Bass”.
Later in the 1990s, he would link up with west coast underground crew Tha Alkaholiks, and would appear on Xzibit’s debut album in 1996. The guest appearances continued around the turn of the century with spots on Dr. Dre’s 2001 and Masta Ace’s 2001 masterpiece Disposable Arts. King T is certainly not the best-known rapper from the west coast, but he is certainly an MC that deserves more acknowledgment and praise for his solid work on each of his studio releases.
15. Boots Riley – Oakland
I consider myself a Hip Hop expert, but there are still a number of more underground acts I’ve yet to check out; there are also a number of quality acts I’ve just recently discovered.
One recent discovery I’m glad I made was Oakland trio The Coup, which is headed up by rapper Boots Riley. For those who haven’t heard The Coup or Boots Riley, expect a cross between the political and social energy of Public Enemy, and the g-funk bounce of more mainstream 1990s west coast Hip Hop.
Boots Riley is perhaps a more accessible version of Chuck D, and he kicks political and social raps in an incredibly creative and funky way that truly impresses me. He has a very inviting delivery and tone that does not immediately scream “revolution”, but does get a firm social message across – albeit in a more subtle and creative way than Chuck D or Ice Cube.
The Coup has released six studio albums so far, with their latest coming in 2012. While each and every one of their albums is a quality release, the most influential are easily the group’s first three – 1993’s Kill My Landlord, 1994’s Genocide & Juice, and 1998’s Steal This Album, which is regarded as the group’s best effort. Singles like “Not Yet Free” off of their debut and the witty storytelling of “Me and Jesus the Pimp in a ’79 Granada Last Night” off of Steal This Album illustrate just how good of an MC Boots Riley is. He has a specific message in each verse he drops, and it is easy to tell that he is an intelligent and thoughtful poet.
Boots Riley is severely underrated as an MC, and should be checked out immediately by anyone who has not yet heard The Coup.
14. Xzibit – Los Angeles
For a short period of time, Xzibit was one of the world’s most popular rappers. During the late 1990s re-emergence of Dr. Dre which featured Eminem and other Aftermath Records artists, Xzibit was right in the middle of the action. He was so popular that he went on to host a rather vapid TV show in the years following the Aftermath explosion, but he should be most recognized and respected for his music.
Xzibit, who was born in Detroit and spent much of his childhood in Albuquerque, New Mexico, moved to Los Angeles as a teen and started rapping in the middle 1990s. He was picked up by Loud Records in 1996 and released At The Speed of Life in 1996, one of the most criminally underrated west coast albums of all-time.
The album showed a laid-back delivery with wide-ranging lyrical material and skill, over beats that sometimes sounded distinctly west coast, but also showed a jazzy, boom-bap, east coast leaning.
The album put Xzibit on the map and quickly attracted the attention of Dr. Dre, who was recording 2001 in the late 1990s. After releasing his follow-up album, the formidable 40 Dayz & 40 Nightz in 1998, Xzibit would be featured on Dr. Dre’s record as well as on Eminem’s sophomore record, skyrocketing his popularity to stratospheric heights.
Around this time, the quality of Xzibit’s music would drop off a bit as he released five middle-of-the-road albums after the turn of the century. While he never really “fell off”, his music was clearly at its highest quality on his first two albums. Songs like “Paparazzi”, “The Foundation” and “Recycled Assassins” showcase Xzibit at his best.
From the beginning, Xzibit showed lyrical finesse and talent with his gruff, distinct voice. He had a very down-to-earth way of delivering his verses at the start – perhaps this is the aspect of his music that he abandoned when he exploded around the turn of the century. But one cannot think of quality west coast Hip Hop without acknowledging Xzibit’s first two albums, and some of his turn of the century guest appearances on some of the best-selling and most influential Hip Hop records of all-time.
13. Paris – San Francisco
Another extremely political rapper that could also be compared to Chuck D is San Francisco’s Paris. He is yet another west coast rapper that is often overlooked, when in reality, he should be regarded right up there with California’s best rappers.
He stormed onto the scene with 1990’s The Devil Made Me Do It, an extremely political and conscious effort that raised a lot of eyebrows with the album’s title track upon its release. Paris didn’t hesitate to show a smooth delivery that, despite his laid-back tone, always packed a very potent message.
While Boots Riley had a more intellectual and subtle way of expressing his political and social gripes with the world, Paris was a bit more in-your-face with his lyrics. In some circles, he is seen as a Black Nationalist rapper, though he is not as extremely Afrocentric and abrasive as acts such as X-Clan.
His follow-up album, 1992’s Sleeping With The Enemy, showcased more of the same as his debut. The album was essentially a clone of his first release, which in this case, was not a bad thing. He continued his strong political message on songs such as the album’s title track, and he may have even been a bit angrier on his second release. Paris would go on to release six more albums between 1994 and 2015, each one containing the same message, which he continued to deliver in a smooth and intelligent fashion. He even collaborated with Chuck D on the 2006 album Rebirth of a Nation, which failed to meet expectations.
As well as a talented rapper, Paris has made his way into a successful professional career outside of Hip Hop, and is an acclaimed and published writer, releasing articles published both through publications and his website. Paris is one of the more enlightened voices of Hip Hop, and found a way to balance a smooth delivery and controversial lyrical material while maintaining an intelligent and well-presented stance on the social and political issues he wrote about.
12. Aceyalone – Los Angeles
Another one of this list’s more underground rappers, Aceyalone first emerged in the early 1990s as the standout member of the heralded underground crew Freestyle Fellowship, which released two albums in the first half of the 1990s. Aceyalone was the most technical and skilled rapper of the bunch, which is saying something, as Freestyle Fellowship showcased five (sometimes six) very talented MC’s who touched on very abstract topics. After the group’s 1993 masterpiece
After the group’s 1993 masterpiece Innercity Griots, Aceyalone pursued a solo career, and would release three critically-acclaimed albums in six years – 1995’s All Balls Don’t Bounce, 1998’s concept album A Book of Human Language, and 2001’s Accepted Eclectic. He would go on to release seven more less-acclaimed albums between 2003 and 2015, including a well-received collaboration album with producer RJD2 in 2006. He is also set to release a new album in 2016.
Aceyalone is known for a very unorthodox, dynamic-utilizing flow, as he often goes high to low on his vocal pitch, and tends to go quiet to loud with his tone. Much of his subject material is extremely eccentric and thought-provoking – to me, he’s the Hip Hop equivalent of a nutty abstract painter. But he is also very lyrical and relatable, and despite his abstract subject material, he comes off as inviting to listen to. Check out his unorthodox flow on songs like “Mic Check” and “Faces”. He’s a very talented and underappreciated rapper, and is frankly one of the more intelligent and lyrically skilled MC’s on this entire list.
11. MC Ren – Compton
A member of the original N.W.A lineup that stayed with the group through turmoil into the early 1990s, MC Ren is perhaps the most underrated of the four original MC’s. While Ice Cube was on a level of his own lyrically, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E, despite not being the most seasoned lyricists, often took a lot of credit as the faces of N.W.A.
MC Ren was largely underappreciated, perhaps due to his lack of “star status” compared to the other three MC’s. However, Ren is known for delivering some of the most furious rhymes N.W.A ever dropped. He was often vulgar, abrasive and told uncensored tales of the unforgiving street life. He had a much more refined way of doing this compared to Dr. Dre and Eazy-E, and if it weren’t for Ice Cube, he would be the most talented lyricist of the group.
In fact, after Ice Cube left N.W.A in 1990, MC Ren was the most talented lyricist of the group. His lyrical work on 1991’s Efil4zaggin is second-to-none and is among some of the best “hardcore” or “gangsta” Hip Hop wordplay ever released. Once N.W.A disbanded for good in 1992, Ren wasted no time putting out the classic EP Kizz My Black Azz, which is often seen as one of the best west coast Hip Hop EP’s of all-time. The EP is driven by the song “Final Frontier”, which proves that Ren can carry a track all by himself. He would go on to release three respectable albums in the 1990s, and would release one underwhelming album in 2009.
MC Ren’s often higher-pitched, yet definitively gruff delivery is one that is hard to miss. He has a very unique voice and style, and while he is not the best lyricist on this list, he is one of the hardest-hitting rappers from one of Hip Hop’s most revolutionary groups. He provides some of the group’s best rhymes on their two albums, and deserves as much credit and recognition as any of the other members of the group for his contribution. Add in a respectable solo career and it’s clear to me that Ren belongs where he does on this list.
10. Snoop Dogg – Long Beach
One of the most recognizable and widely celebrated faces of Hip Hop today, Snoop Dogg had an incredible start to his career. He came up under Dr. Dre as Dre headed to Death Row Records after the dissolution of N.W.A – Snoop was recruited to be Dre’s protégé. In 1992, he first appeared on the song “Deep Cover”, which went on to explode the G-Funk scene that year. At the end of the year, when The Chronic was released, Snoop played sidekick on the record, and dropped some of the most memorable verses across any genre of Hip Hop.
He quickly skyrocketed to stardom, and dropped his debut, Doggystyle, in 1993 to an amazing amount of hype. The album sold at an incredible clip, and was instantly heralded as a classic by critics. Today, the record is seen as the quintessential G-Funk album, along with The Chronic.
While Snoop has had a lucrative career and has released many albums, none of them come anywhere close to Doggystyle. The quality of his sophomore album was way lower, and this would unfortunately be a trend for most of the rest of his career. His only other real critical success was 2006’s Tha Blue Carpet Treatment, which showed somewhat of a return to classic form. From shortly after his debut all the way to the present, Snoop has openly associated with many mainstream artists, in and out of Hip Hop. He has been sort of an ambassador to Hip Hop in the process, and has certainly made the genre more accessible due to his association with many popular musicians and entertainers.
In his heyday, Snoop was simply one of the best. Listen to his flow on “Nuthin But a G Thang” and “Gin and Juice” and you’ll see just how talented he is. Listen to his storytelling on “Murder Was the Case” and you’ll realize that he is not just a party rapper with nothing much else to say. Even during his more mainstream years, he has always exhibited a vigorous flow with that patented smooth voice. He has never shied away from showcasing his rapping skills, but of course, his rhymes are enhanced fifty-fold when delivered over classic G-Funk beats. This is evident on guest appearances he made on 2Pac’s All Eyez on Me, Dr. Dre’s 2001, Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP, and even on Kendrick Lamar’s modern-day classic To Pimp a Butterfly.
Snoop’s forays into the mainstream do keep him from being higher on this list in my opinion, but he is still one of the more talented and one of the most recognizable rappers from the west coast.
9. The D.O.C. – Compton
Originally hailing from Dallas, Texas, The D.O.C. moved to Compton as a teenager and quickly became down with Dr. Dre and N.W.A. He became a sort of “de facto” member of the group around the time Ice Cube left, but unfortunately was never able to make an appearance on their next album. Shortly after releasing his debut album, 1989’s No One Can Do It Better, D.O.C. was involved in a very unfortunate car accident that left him without use of his vocal chords, of all things. His rapping career was effectively derailed, and he was never able to achieve the success he was so capable of.
Luckily for him and for Hip Hop fans, The D.O.C. was able to pound out one of Hip Hop’s most underrated and excellent albums of all-time. No One Can Do It Better showcased a furious, loud, energetic delivery from The D.O.C. He rapped circles around any member from N.W.A – even Ice Cube – and his incredible energy on the mic was unlike anything anyone had ever heard of the west coast at that time. The album was steered by the relentless singles “No One Can Do It Better”, “It’s Funky Enough” and “The Formula”. The record was produced by Dr. Dre, and the marriage of D.O.C.’s energy and Dre’s beats produces one of the most fantastic west coast Hip Hop albums of all-time.
He would release two other albums, one in 1996 and one in 2003, but the albums featured mostly guest appearances, as The D.O.C. was left unable to speak properly after his accident. Prior to the accident, he was one of rap’s true passionate performers and was a furious poet, bringing an almost-intellectual aspect to early “gangsta” Hip Hop.
After his accident, little was heard from him, though he would pop up on skits on both of Dr. Dre’s albums as a raspy-voiced, comical character. It is sad to think of what could have been with The D.O.C., but we are lucky enough to have been left with the brilliance that is No One Can Do It Better. His performance on that album alone earns him a spot in the top ten.
8. Ras Kass – Carson
Hailing from the south Los Angeles suburb of Carson, California, Ras Kass seemed to magically appear on the scene in 1994 with the jaw-dropping single “Remain Anonymous”. The song showcased an incredibly complex, abstract multi-syllabic flow that had really only been done in west coast Hip Hop, at the time, by members of Freestyle Fellowship. Ras Kass worked his way up through the underground scene quickly to a record deal, and dropped the album “Soul on Ice” in 1996.
The record quickly turned heads because of Ras’ rapid-fire, unorthodox flow, but also raised eyebrows due to some of its lyrical content. The song “Nature of the Threat” featured controversial lyrics about American history and race relations that listeners of a less-enlightened nature may have interpreted as racist. The rest of the album, which featured just one guest appearance (Coolio, on the song “Drama”), was equally as stunning, though less controversial, and quickly established Ras Kass as one of the hottest MC’s on the west coast.
It turns out the success of Soul on Ice was never replicated, though Ras did drop eight more albums between 1998 and 2014. Some albums were considered stronger than others, particularly his 1998 effort Rasasssination, and 2010’s A.D.I.D.A.S (All Day I Dream About Spittin). Through these albums, he maintained the same complex lyrical delivery, chock full of the metaphors, similes and clever wordplay that allowed him to burst onto the scene in the middle 1990s. Ras Kass is one of the purest, truest MC’s from the west coast, and seems to take absolute pride in each verse he drops. Had more of his albums been as strong as Soul on Ice, it is easy to believe that he may have been closer to or at the top of this list.
7. MC Eiht – Compton
Perhaps riding on the coattails of N.W.A’s success during the late 1980s, MC Eiht formed his group, Compton’s Most Wanted in 1989. With no association to N.W.A or any affiliates, Eiht and CMW brought a slightly more laid-back but still raw and hardcore approach to Hip Hop. The group is known for three classic or near-classic albums in the first three years of the 1990s – 1990’s It’s a Compton Thang, 1991’s Straight Check N’Em, and the group’s magnum opus, 1992’s Music to Driveby. While CMW was a group, Eiht handled all of the rapping duties, and effectively became the face of the group. CMW achieved their highest popularity with Music to Driveby, which was particularly driven by the chilling street-level tales of “Hood Took Me Under”.
CMW would split up for a few years, and Eiht would go solo. He released a smattering of albums between 1994 and 2007, with his most acclaimed being 1994’s We Come Strapped. The album was essentially a continuation of Music to Driveby, though the sound had started to run its course by that time, and while well-received, We Come Strapped did not quite measure up to Eiht’s work with CMW.
Eiht would end up making plenty of notable guest appearances, including on Spice 1’s 187 He Wrote, Cypress Hill’s IV, Pete Rock’s Soul Survivor, and Snoop Dogg’s Tha Blue Carpet Treatment. More recently, Eiht made a quite incredible and random cameo on the song “m.A.A.d. city” off of Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 classic good kid, m.A.A.d city.
From the start, MC Eiht has told vivid and explicit tales about street life and gangbanging. This has not really changed through his career, and is likely one of the reasons why he was recruited for a Compton-heavy modern-day classic such as “m.A.A.d. city”. Eiht has always had a slightly unorthodox, laid-back syncopation-heavy flow that, despite the laid back tone of his voice, always told bone-chilling tales of the streets.
Eiht is perhaps one of the best street rappers from the west coast, and all of the experiences he rapped about seem to be things that he had seen and participated in. His skill has never dropped off, and it was extremely refreshing to hear him spit the same level of greatness in 2012 with Kendrick Lamar that he was known for back in the Compton’s Most Wanted days. MC Eiht is a true west coast legend, and proves that while the “gangsta” life may have lost its musical appeal years ago, a proper storyteller will recapture the same feelings that made “gangsta” rap so remarkable in the 1990s.
6. Kendrick Lamar – Compton
While a few of the rappers I’ve mentioned so far have been active in recent years, none of them first emerged after 1996 – I can tell you that’s also the case for the rest of this list. New, quality Hip Hop artists don’t emerge nearly as often in the 21st century, and if they do, they’re usually underground artists (you’ll see one or two of these in the honorable mention section).
For a ground-breaking artist to emerge in Hip Hop in the 2010s is almost unheard of, but Compton’s Kendrick Lamar has bucked all trends and has done just that. Active in the late 2000s but rising to prominence in 2011 with his album Section.80, Kendrick really exploded in 2012 with the release of good kid, m.A.A.d. city, which is one of the few modern-day Hip Hop classics. On his first two records, Kendrick showed a strong social leaning with an amazing story-telling and commentary skill within his lyrics. His flow was multi-syllabic and complex, and at times, unorthodox.
That same diction and flow was perhaps perfected on 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly, which some consider to be, by far, the best Hip Hop album of the new millennium. Kendrick took a step back from some of his mainstream leanings at that time and went ultra-political, addressing many racial issues facing African-Americans in this day and age. The album had swirling jazz-fusion sampling and live instrumentation and is regarded as an instant masterpiece. On the album, Kendrick stood up to racial oppressors and To Pimp a Butterfly became the de facto soundtrack to the Black Lives Matter movement that still rages on in America today. In early 2016, Kendrick released an album full of tracks that did not make To Pimp a Butterfly, and titled the album untitled unmastered. The album did not quite fit the way To Pimp a Butterfly and good kid, m.A.A.d. city did, but it still rises leaps and bounds above 99% of Hip Hop being released today. Keep in mind the tracks on untitled unmastered were actually CUT from To Pimp a Butterfly.
The man behind the recent magic is a revolutionary voice in Hip Hop, and is extremely instrumental in keeping Hip Hop music fresh, original and accessible. Since he happens to be from the west coast, he makes this list, without a doubt. The only thing keeping him from being higher is the fact that he’s only been around for a bit more than five years – his music hasn’t yet had to face the test of time, so I can only rank him so high. Let’s talk in fifteen years and we’ll see where he ends up on this list.
For now, Kendrick Lamar must be seen as a complete anomaly – a true artist that understands the soul and message of Hip Hop. Many new rappers emerge each and every day, but nearly all of them cross their styles with pop, electronic music, and other forms of music that truly have no place in Hip Hop. Kendrick Lamar is the one artist that does not go past subtle influences of the genres mentioned above, and thankfully for Hip Hop, he is the most recognizable, respected, and well-known Hip Hop artist today.
5. Too $hort – Oakland
Perhaps the first rapper to put the west coast on the map, even before the likes of Ice-T, Too $hort is one of the longest-tenured rappers in the game. Considering he put out material last in 2014, and released his first record, Players, nearly 30 years earlier, he is one of the few rappers to stay relevant over such an impressive span of time in his career.
While many of his records never receive any airplay or respect outside of the Bay Area, the fact that Too $hort began rapping so early, when Hip Hop was still just gaining steam in New York, is enough to put him pretty high up on this list. Add to the fact that a number of his albums are considered west coast classics, and you have a strong case for Too $hort at number five.
While his first four albums were big on the west coast and talked about generally pimping and the street life, 1988’s Life Is… Too Short was his first album to touch on slightly more diverse subject material about the dangers of the street life and the ghetto. However, 1990’s Short Dog’s in the House showed a shift towards more conscious lyrical material, and was most known for the single “The Ghetto”. This song gave listeners a bleak tale of what it was like growing up in the rough part of Oakland, and how the ghetto is essentially a trap for those that aren’t intelligent enough to get out. Much of his material though the 1990s, despite a bit of a regression back to lyrical content mostly about pimps and hoes, was just as well-received, and $hort soon found himself as one of the west coast “grandmasters”.
Too $hort has never been too diverse lyrically, but he has, as mentioned above, had his conscious moments that have shined and set him apart from others. He has always had a steady, smooth flow that has gotten straight to the point. Despite a million other Bay Area rappers that came later sounding like him, it’s easy to tell when Too $hort is on the mic. His longevity is almost as impressive as anyone in the Hip Hop game, and he is probably the most well-known and well-respected artist to be born in, raised in, and still representing Oakland.
4. Del the Funky Homosapien – Oakland
One of the west coast’s finest underground artists, Del the Funky Homosapien first appeared in 1991 with the seminal album I Wish My Brother George Was Here. An ode to funk legend George Clinton, the album had direct funk influences, which were perfect for Del’s bouncy, syncopated flow. Featuring Del’s best-known single, “Mistadobalina”, the album told street-level tales in an intelligent, non-“gangsta” way, and showcased Del’s quirky personality on the mic. The lyrics also had a bit of a social leaning, as Del was not afraid to comment on life in the ghetto. He would continue this formula on later albums, releasing more than 10 more albums leading up to the present. Most notable were his debut, as well as the next three records: 1993’s No Need For Alarm, 1997’s Future Development, and 2000’s Both Sides of the Brain.
Del, who is a cousin of Ice Cube, is also the leader of the Oakland-based Hieroglyphics crew, a group of talented, intelligent socially-conscious rappers that features the likes of rappers such as Casual and the group Souls of Mischief. The group did an album in 1998, 3rd Eye Vision, that showed Del harnessing more of his talents, this time on posse cuts. Two years later, in 2000, Del would team up with Bay Area DJs and producers Dan the Automator and Kid Koala for the Deltron 3030 project, which featured nothing but Del on the mic. The album takes the listener over a thousand years into the future and makes commentary on how the earth has fared from the social and environmental problems that started around the year 2000. The album was an incredible, whimsical, eccentric look into how creative Del could be, and is regarded as his best work. He would also do feature spots on records from electronic/crossover Hip Hop group Gorillaz, which further exhibited how “out there” Del could be.
In recent years, he has done more albums, including a Deltron 3030 sequel, but nothing compares to his work in the 1990s and early 2000s. Del is known for his distinct sounding flow that is laden with his strong Oakland accent. He often gets quite abstract in his lyrics, but sometimes, it’s not quite abstract enough to alienate the average listener. To fans of that style, there is really no one better than Del the Funky Homosapien at telling everything from street level stories to tales of a faraway time and place. Del is one of the stranger MC’s to get behind the mic, but to me, those weird, whimsical tendencies are absolutely fantastic. Think of Del as the west coast’s Kool Keith – there is no one like him, and there probably never will be. Del absolutely deserves a spot in the west coast top 5.
3. Ice Cube – Compton
From his N.W.A days to the string of incredible solo albums he put out in the first half of the 1990s, Ice Cube made a greater impact in just a few years than almost any other rapper, from the west coast or otherwise. He first made his name known on Straight Outta Compton with some of the most influential verses of all-time, but quickly found himself in a feud with his former bandmates, and ended up leaving the group. However, as many people’s first exposure to N.W.A was the song “Straight Outta Compton”, the very first impression they had of the group was from Ice Cube, who dropped a scathing opening verse. Cube started the classic record, showing that N.W.A meant business, and weren’t the same immature-sounding kids from 1987’s N.W.A. and the Posse. He was the most talented rapper out of the group, but as mentioned, his stay in N.W.A was short.
And for Hip Hop, maybe it’s a good thing that Ice Cube left when he did. If he hadn’t left, we wouldn’t have bona fide Hip Hop classics such as 1990’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, 1991’s Death Certificate, 1992’s The Predator and 1993’s Lethal Injection (don’t forget the 1990 EP Kill at Will either). In a string of four straight years, Cube dropped four straight west coast classics – the first two are regarded as two of the top ten west coast Hip Hop albums of all time. All albums showed Ice Cube continuing his angry political and social messages over from N.W.A, as he fumed about topics from racism, to corrupt hospitals, to crooked cops, to the occasional good day. See Cube at the best of his solo career on cuts like “Steady Mobbin’”, “Today Was A Good Day”, “Color Blind” and “Wicked”.
After taking a break from solo records in the middle 1990’s to work on Westside Connection, a side-project featuring rappers Mack 10 and WC, as well as focusing his acting career, Cube kept the albums cranking in the late 1990s and beyond, but the records did not have the flair of his first four. He became more of an actor than a rapper, and ended up becoming one of the highest-grossing African American film stars of all-time. But his furious anger and high-pitched delivery that started back in the 1980s with N.W.A and continued on those first four blistering solo albums will always be the true embodiment of who Ice Cube is. He’s a visionary, a revolutionary, a black man mistreated by society, and a political commentator. While his rhyme schemes weren’t the most complex, he delivered his message in a special way, mixing anger and intelligence like no one else. Ice Cube easily gets my nod at number three.
2. Ice-T – Los Angeles
The first rapper to truly represent Los Angeles, Ice-T began his rap career in 1983 after a stint in the military, and after a brief foray into the lucrative profession of bank robbery. He burst onto the scene around the same time as Too $hort with “The Coldest Rap / Cold Wind-Madness”, and would release a few more singles leading up to his debut album.
From the start, Ice was cold as ice, delivering hardcore tales about the street in his patented smooth flow. It took him a few years to release his debut LP, 1987’s Rhyme Pays, which is one of the first notable full-length records to come off the west coast. He would follow up the next year with the seminal Power, which is the first album that really showed how powerful of a force Ice was with his lyrics. While Rhyme Pays was driven by “6 ‘n the Morning”, Power was driven by its title track, as well as “I’m Your Pusher” and “High Rollers”.
T would take more of a conscious, political twist on 1989’s The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech… Just Watch What You Say with incredible cuts such as “Lethal Weapon”, “You Played Yourself” and “The Hunted Child”. But perhaps his magnum opus was 1991’s O.G. Original Gangster, which showed Ice at his full lyrical potential. The album was a more ambitious, 24-track undertaking, but the title track, “O.G. Original Gangster” and “New Jack Hustler” anchored what turned out to be an album full of classics. He would follow up with 1993’s Home Invasion, which showed that Ice wasn’t quite ready to pack it in yet.
Around the same time, he formed the metal band Body Count, whose self-titled debut included the brutal “Cop Killer”, showing just how angry Ice-T really was. He would focus more on Body Count during the 1990s, releasing a few solo Hip Hop albums as well, though they were never as well-acclaimed as his first five. He would release two more albums – one in 1999, one in 2006 – to lukewarm acclaim and reception. In the early 2000s, Ice transcended the music game and became an actor, most notably appearing in the “Law and Order” TV series.
Much like Ice Cube, Ice-T came up with a tough, crime-ridden life, but soon parlayed his energy into an extremely successful career in Hip Hop and music, then followed it up with acting. Even though many call Ice-T out for being hypocritical – playing a cop on “Law and Order” – it cannot be emphasized enough how much Ice-T did for west coast Hip Hop, and Hip Hop in general. He is the father of “gangsta” music, but maintained his dignity and intelligence while writing about sometimes-grotesque and disturbing topics – some of it real-life, some of it for show. His unmistakable delivery and potent lyrical skill paved the way for many, and Ice-T never lost that fiery passion in his music, even on later, weaker albums. Ice-T is a pioneer like no other, and his influence on Hip Hop through the years is greater than almost any other MC from the west coast – or throughout Hip Hop, for that matter.
1. 2Pac – Oakland
Trendy choice for number one, huh? Yes, everybody’s favorite rapper makes number one on my west coast list. And don’t tell me he’s not a west coast rapper because he was born in Harlem and raised in Baltimore and New York City. Much like Xzibit isn’t a midwestern or southwestern rapper, despite spending most of his childhood in Detroit and Albuquerque, 2Pac isn’t an east coast rapper. He moved to the Bay Area, specifically Oakland in the late 1980s, became a dancer for Digital Underground, and began his rapping and acting career in the Bay Area, on the west coast. He’s a west coast rapper, through and through. End of story.
Now that I have the obligatory disclaimer out of the way, let me explain why I chose the trendiest possible pick for my number one west coast rapper. It’s just impossible to look at the body of work – 5 solo albums and 1 album with Thug Life in 5 short years – and not recognize the consistency. Even 2Pac’s “worst” albums, his first two, are still incredibly solid records. Three of those albums were released between March 1995 and November 1996, in a span of just 20 months. 3 of west coast Hip Hop’s most influential albums in 20 months. Let that sink in. Not even Kendrick Lamar releases them at that rate.
One thing I’ve touched on before when writing about The Notorious B.I.G. is how an artist’s death will posthumously elevate their music, giving it an incredible mystique. Without a doubt, 2Pac’s records do receive extra acclaim; his unsolved murder continues to fuel conspiracy theories nearly 20 years later. But if you are old enough to remember the years 1994 through 1996, you’ll agree with me that 2Pac was EVERYWHERE – as was his music.
He was such a powerful figure in Hip Hop and in pop culture, and most of that is due to the appeal of his music. He spit raw and powerful like nobody else ever had or ever will, and he had just a tremendous energy in his rhymes. Much of his music is about the street life and crime (listen to his later work and count how many times he uses the word “penitentiary”), but he also had conscious leanings, and his first three albums feature a large dose of political and social commentary in between the “gangsta” references.
He did start to give in to mainstream pressure in 1996, as All Eyez on Me and The 7 Day Theory, the latter released under the Makaveli alias, feature a more “pop rap” oriented sound, mostly manifested in the beats he chose. But he didn’t tone down the furious lyrical content; in fact, he was probably angrier and darker from a lyrical standpoint on those two albums than on anything else he put out. He seemed to know that his death was imminent. He believed it, and he lived it. Like Biggie, it showed up in his music, and then it played out in real life. 2Pac was shot in Las Vegas in September 1996, and succumbed to his injuries a week later.
The legacy and importance of 2Pac’s music goes far beyond “California Love”. It starts on his debut, 1991’s 2Pacalypse Now, with songs like “If My Homie Calls” and the real-life street-level tales of “Brenda’s Got a Baby”. His playful side emerges on “I Get Around” off of 1993’s Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. His deepest song ever, “Dear Mama” appears on 1995’s Me Against The World, as well as the classic “Lord Knows”. All Eyez on Me features some of his most tense work, including “Ambitionz Az a Ridah”, as well as the stunning, six-minute epic “No More Pain”. And who could forget the incredibly haunting “Hail Mary” from The 7 Day Theory, recorded just over a month before his death.
All of the above are among my favorite 2Pac songs, but his catalogue goes above and beyond my favorites. There’s party music – “It Ain’t Easy”, “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted”; love songs – “How Do U Want It?”, “What’z Ya Phone #” and “Me and My Girlfriend”, and much, much more. 2Pac’s music ended up appealing to almost everyone in some way, shape or form, some of it released posthumously (see “Changes”), and this is what makes him one of the most influential rappers of all-time.
2Pac was passionate, talented, emotional, and somehow remained calculated and intelligent in his rhymes. By people who aren’t that familiar with his music, he is remembered most for feuding with The Notorious B.I.G. prior to his death. This is not how he should be remembered, though it is an important part of his story. 2Pac packed a lifetime’s worth of classic Hip Hop into just five short years, then departed from this planet, leaving behind an incredible legacy that is still widely talked about and celebrated today. Simply put, he didn’t have enough time on this planet to release a weak album, like so many west coast legends did in later stages of their career.
Many people include 2Pac on their “best rapper of all-time” list, and they aren’t that far off the mark. Perhaps they haven’t heard the likes of Kool G Rap, KRS-One and Rakim in their prime years, but 2Pac is one of the ten greatest rappers to ever walk this planet, and the best off the west coast. His posthumous appeal definitely adds to his reputation, but one must focus on the music that was released during his lifetime. Remember, his last three albums were nearly as critically-acclaimed then as they are now.
2Pac is my clear choice for number one from the west coast, and this is due to his unmatched passion and his concentration of so much classic music into a short period of time. One can only wonder what 2Pac was capable had he not been taken away from us in such an untimely manner.
- Lyrics Born
- Schoolboy Q
- Gift of Gab (Blackalicious)
- Cold 187um, KMG, Kokane (Above the Law)
- Mac Dre
- Warren G
- The Game
- Mack 10
- Imani, Bootie Brown, Slimkid3, Fatlip (The Pharcyde)
- Tajai, Opio, A-Plus, Phesto (Souls of Mischief)
- Earl Sweatshirt
- Myka 9, P.E.A.C.E, Self Jupiter (Freestyle Fellowship)
- Yo Yo
- DJ Quik
- Mac Mall
- Planet Asia
- Zion I