Perhaps the only thing more contentious than this inane election (WTF ‘Murica?) is the debate around this central question – who’s the best rap group of all time? For the purpose of this list, I’m including duos, which usually aren’t classified as groups by audiences and critics. Nevertheless, it’s important to note the duos because, to quote Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock, it takes two to make a thing go right.
Unless you’re Clinton and Kaine…
10. The Fugees
“The Candle that burns twice as bright, lasts half as long.” – Blade Runner.
“Maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan.” – Every Fugees Fan ever.
Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean, and Pras were responsible for one of the greatest, but short lived, hip-hop acts of all time. This is precisely the result of egos who couldn’t stand one another working with each other all the time. It happens more than we think.
After a less than impressive debut, the Fugees released their greatest album The Score in 1996 (which was a great year of hip-hop albums). Lead by singles such as “Killing Me Softy” and “Ready or Not,” the album was another noteworthy addition in alternative hip-hop. Wyclef Jean incorporated live instrumentation with the sampled tracks. Lauryn Hill dominated the mic with her crooning and emceeing. Pras wasn’t bad either.
Eventually, they went on hiatus and did their own solo projects. Unfortunately, that was it for the group. Not all good things are meant to last, but we all wish they would last just a little longer.
Recommended Album(s): The Score (1996)
9. The Roots
Never do what they do…a creed the Roots followed to near perfection.
Long before they became Jimmy Fallon’s house band and before Questlove’s hair became the greatest fro of all time, The Roots made their name as one of hip-hop’s most unique groups during the early 2000s. Sonically, the Roots had continued the tradition of live instrumentation over sampling. Because they were a legitimate band, this allowed them to reach heights that other alternative hip-hop artists had never reached.
Part of the musical collective of the Soulquarians (with Erykah Badu, Dilla, and Q-Tip to name a few), the Roots could easily be qualified as one of the greatest neo-soul acts ever, in addition to being number 10 on this list.
Recommended album(s) – Things Fall Apart (2000), Phrenology (2002), and How I Got Over (2010).
8. Geto Boys
If you’re like me, you’ve whistled “My Mind’s Playin Tricks On Me” a thousand times. A song about the mental health of young Black men in the ghetto (no pun intended), we have Geto Boys to thank for creating one of the most haunting singles ever released in music PERIOD. Hailing from Houston, Texas, Scarface, Bushwick Bill, DJ Ready, and Willie D were at the zenith of this group’s popularity. They advanced the subgenre of horrorcore with their hit single.
After a largely awful debut album, their second release “Grip It! On That Other Level” turned more than a few heads in the right direction. They were the first Southern Hip-Hop group to reach mainstream popularity and have been widely credited by other southern artists as opening the doors for the region into the art. Scarface would have a successful solo career, but ultimately can credit Geto Boys for propelling him to further fame.
Recommended Album(s): Grip It! On That Other Level (1989) and The Resurrection (1996).
7. Beastie Boys
Starting off as a garage hardcore punk band, the Beastie Boys ascended to being one of the longest lasting as well as one of the greatest hip-hop acts of all time. Composed of Mike D, MCA, Ad-Rock, they debuted with a classic, Licensed to Ill in 1986. It also goes without saying that the album benefited much from Def Jam co-founder Rick Rubin and his legendary production. In fact, that album was so commercially successful (around ten million units) that their followup, Paul’s Boutique, was considered to be a failure. Way to make us feel better.
They weren’t necessarily on the same lyrical level of their peers Run-D.M.C. and A Tribe Called Quest. But their willingness to mesh different genres such as rap, rock, and punk, to name a few, is the primary reason for their long lasting success. While they were no means the first to attempt to mesh these sounds (Run-D.M.C. did it earlier), they had advanced the rap-rock fusion genre into a series of successful albums such as Check Your Head and Hello Nasty. Very few musical groups in general could achieve such a successful crossover, but these Rock and Roll Hall of Famers fought for our right to party regardless of their genre.
Recommended Album(s): Licensed to Ill (1986), Paul’s Boutique (1989), Check Your Head (1992), and Hello Nasty (1998).
6. Public Enemy
Welcome to the Terrordome!
Spike Lee’s magnum opus, Do the Right Thing, starts off with a saxophone rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” before it transitions to the violent beats of Fight the Power. That became Black people’s new national anthem and we have Public Enemy to thank for it. Chuck D, Professor Griff, and Flava Flave launched some of the most scathing criticisms of racism in the United States ever with albums such as It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet. They helped advanced the subgenre of political hip-hop into the forefront, which (needless to say) made more than their fair share of White audiences uncomfortable.
Like anything remotely connected to politics, they weren’t without criticism. They were charged of being misogynist, antisemitic, and homophobic – all pervasive issues within Black nationalist circles. They also received condemnation by folks whose delicate Puritanical senses were offended by their obscenity. Oh well…
Regardless, we have never seen another group anywhere near as militant and as dope as Public Enemy.
Recommended Album(s): It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988) and Fear of a Black Planet (1990).
5. Run D.M.C.
If you’re the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, or any hip-hop act not named Sugar Hill Gang or Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, you owe your success to Rev Run, D.M.C., and Jam Master Jay, a.k.a. Run-D.M.C. If you’re rocking gold chains and Adidas shoes with the matching warmups, you definitely owe your existence to these fellas.
Run D.M.C. is responsible for the breakthrough of hip-hop into mainstream popularity and respectability. Jam Master Jay’s master deejaying with Rev Run and D.M.C.’s emceeing helped elevate the genre to heights it had never seen before. They were the first rap group to go platinum (when that actually mattered), to perform in arenas, and have a major endorsement deal. They helped eliminate the notion that rap was nothing more than a fad with their slick rhymes, productions, and crossover appeal with rock audiences long before Beastie Boys did (re: “Walk This Way” remix with Aerosmith).
Jam Master Jay was tragically murdered in 2002, which signaled the end of the group. Seven years after his death, Run-D.M.C. was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – the second rap act to receive the honor.
Recommended Album(s): Run-D.M.C. (1984), King of Rock (1985), and Raising Hell (1986)
4. A Tribe Called Quest
Like “A Pimp Named Slickback” you have to say the full name of A Tribe Called Quest. Not Quest, not Tribe, or Called (?). A. Tribe. Called. Quest.
While Run-D.M.C. and Beastie Boys were fusing rap and rock, A Tribe Called Quest had successfully fused the grooves of jazz with equally smooth rhymes of hip-hop. The Low End Theory burst down the door for alternative hip-hop and jazz-rap, with tracks like “Jazz (We’ve Got),” “Scenario,” and “Buggin Out.” They followed up with Midnight Marauder, which gave us the smoothest jazz rap ever (and The Wayan’s Bros intro) “Electric Relaxation.”
Beats, Rhyme, and Life is nowhere near as positive and upbeat as its predecessors, but it’s still a really good album.
Just recently, Phife Dawg passed away at the age of 45. As such, the group plans on releasing one final album this year to commemorate the loss of their beloved member. I’ll be in line to buy it.
Recommended Album(s): The Low End Theory (1991), Midnight Marauders (1993), and Beats, Rhyme, and Life (1996).
If you’re like me, you’ve blasted, sung, or tweeted “Fuck Tha Police” unapologetically – especially in light of the recent attention paid to police brutality against Black folks.
Now, I’ve (correctly) written about this group before in a less-than-positive light. Their violent misogynist and homophobic lyrics (as well as their behavior) are almost legendary in the wrong sense of the word. But make no mistake about it Niggaz With Attitude is one of the greatest hip-hop groups of all time.
Straight Outta Compton is an assault on a listeners ear. It was the album that announced the arrival of the West Coast hip-hop scene and gangsta rap. West Coast artists such as Snoop Dogg, The Game, and Kendrick Lamar have all credited NWA for their inspiration and success. While members MC Ren and DJ Yella frequently get pushed to the periphery, the group’s true superstars were Ruthless Records founder Eazy-E, emcee extraordinaire Ice Cube, and superproducer Dr. Dre. They rapped about the life on the streets of Compton, which made it even more infamous than before.Of course, their hit single “Fuck Tha Police” earned them the ire of every law enforcement agency. They still hate that group and that particular song to this day.
Ice Cube, who wrote lyrics for everyone else, eventually left the group on less-than-amicable terms (ref: “No Vaseline”), which meant that their followup album Niggaz 4 Life lacked the same strong lyrical flow.However, whatever they lacked in lyricism, they made for in outstanding sound (credit to Dre’s evolution into one of the greatest producers) and even worse misogyny than before. To put it this way, Niggaz 4 Life assaulted both the senses and moral comfort of the listener.
Their internal problems, all of which stemmed from Jerry Heller and Eazy-E essentially stealing money from the others, led to the group breaking up after only two albums. Yet their mark on gangsta rap, their willingness to destroy notions of censorship and “decency,” and the success of their members afterward place them in distinguished company.
2. Wu-Tang Clan
Shame on a nigga who thought Wu-Tang wasn’t going to be on this list. They did more than bring the ruckus – they brought damn near everyone and their mama in that group. It gets so long that we mistakenly include their associates, like Redman, as actual members. Let’s go through the list – Method Man, Raekwon, RZA, GZA, Ghostface Killah, Cappadonna, Inspectah Deck, Masta Killa, U-God, and ODB. Sadly, with ODB’s death, there’s only nine left in this legendary group.
Wu-Tang boasts so many successful solo artists that their presence alone boosted this group the echelon of hip-hop legends. Once they released Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), their home city of New York was placed back into prominence in hip-hop – which was dominated by the West Coast explosion. Simply put, it’s a hardcore listen. It’s also funny as hell, especially when Method Man jokes about torturing Raekwon (believe it or not).
As soon as they released their first album, they all went and created their own solo projects. Method Man, ODB, and Ghostface Killah made their names as some of the best MC’s in the game. Of course, they all aided each other in their own projects – which effectively made them spinoffs of the larger group. As such, every project released by a Wu-Tang member is an album for the group as well.
It’s pretty remarkable how a group this large could have such amazing musical chemistry. Hell, the Fugees couldn’t stand each other and they only had three members. Regardless, they would be the greatest group if I didn’t include one particular duo…
Recommended Album(s): Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993) and Wu-Tang Forever (1997).
This goes without question. OutKast is the greatest hip-hop act of all time. Andre 3000 and Big Boi went from being Southern Pimps to aliens to the 70’s style P-Funk throwbacks. And of course, they were amazing no matter what they experimented in. This is the only group where I can say they released five classics.
Like Wu-Tang, OutKast had great emcees – both of whom are some of the greatest of all time. Andre 3000 was the better of the two, but make no mistake – Big Boi deserve a whole lot more respeck (to quote Birdman) than y’all normally afford him. His southern twang tinged flow was almost impeccable upon delivery. Boi could rap quick, fast, and in a hurry. The problem is Andre 3000 was so multidimensional as a artist that he could do whatever he wanted and that his light usually shined brighter. He could play instruments, produce, and (at times) sing. I’m somewhat agnostic about his ability to sing – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But his rapping is unquestionably top 10 amongst emcees EVER.
They started off with Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik (1994), which placed Atlanta on the scene in hip-hop. The album was a classic and it played on the imagery and theme of the pimp, most especially conveyed in hit single “Playa’s Ball.” However, their track “Funky Ride,” which featured a digitized voice and an amazing guitar solo, foreshadowed their evolution as artists. They transitioned from pimps in Cadillacs into ballers on spaceships with ATLiens in 1996. This album not only cemented their genius as hip-hop artists, it became one of the more notable pieces of science fiction of that decade.
And then came Aquemini, the weirdest experimental concept album ever. It continued the ATLiens theme of extraterrestrials with the addition of live instruments. They had to balance the demands of gangster rap with that of science fiction. In this sense, it was as if they were traversing multiple worlds as if they would be in outer space. Truly magnificent and, in my eyes, their magnum opus.
Stankonia lead the transition into funk not unlike Parliament-Funkadelic, with the same theme of eroticism, aliens, and afrofuturism. Once again, they were able to change their style and stay fresh and clean for listeners. Then, wanting to release their own solo projects, they created another album that was actually two separate ones – Speakerboxx/The Love Below. It went Diamond and won Grammy’s (including Album of the Year). They had one last album, a sixth, in Idlewild, which served as the soundtrack for the film of the same name.
Well, they had five classics at least.
A lot of diehard fans will ask whether or not they’ll return. Big Boi released an outstanding (and underrated) solo album in Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Destiny six years ago. Three Stacks, just recently, had a one minute verse on Frank Ocean’s Blond and the boy can still spit! But he’s also acting now. So personally, I don’t pay attention to any rumors of a reunion. I’m satisfied that we received multiple classics from these two and so should all of us.
OutKast is on the top of this list because they stayed relevant and changed their style without ever being average. They are excellence personified and they stretched hip-hop from a Player’s Ball towards the limits of outer space and back in time. Much respect to them and everyone else on this list.
Recommended Album(s): EVERYTHING!!! But most especially Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik (1994), ATLiens (1996), and Aquemini (1998).