It’s time once again to shine the light on ten more artists that made a mark on the music industry, but more importantly, pushed hip-hop forward. These aren’t ranked in any order but are designed to celebrate their contributions to the music and the culture.
1. DJ Cam
I first became aware of DJ Cam thanks to his collaborations with Guru and DJ Premier, but his legacy extends beyond the predictable boom-bap imitators now seen across Europe. In a way, France’s DJ Cam helped open those very doors, along with his compatriots IAM and MC Solaar. His catalog is thirty years deep at this point, and with jazz, trip-hop, hip-hop, and soul all rolled up into one smooth style, Cam remains a widely respected producer, and remixer, bringing that hip-hop touch to every level of artist he’s worked with. 1995’s solo project “Substances” is a classic of the genre, while 2011’s “Lost & Found” injects much-missed jazz. Few do it better and for this long.
In hindsight, 1994 was probably the worst year to try and burst onto the hip-hop scene as an emcee in New York City. Nine (a nightmare for SEOs) had a dope single in “Whutcha Want?” and a gruff style that is essentially Akinyele without the gimmick, but it was his eye-catching artwork from 1995’s “Nine Livez” that would catch my attention, flicking through the CD racks all those years ago. His impact was arguably limited, and he’s featured in this list almost as the quintessential 90s emcee that was a part of any hip-hop head’s collection, but rarely gets discussed thirty years later. Those in the know will be aware that he was originally a part of Deuces Wild, under the moniker ‘Ricochet’. The crew also featured Centipede and a certain Funkmaster Flex. Nine did re-emerge with 2009’s “Quinine” and 2018’s “King” alongside the Snowgoons.
3. Funkmaster Flex
Speaking of Flex, it’s easy to take for granted Hot 97’s most famous name as someone many now associate with viral rap freestyle videos. Thirty years ago, Flex was a pioneering figure in the hip-hop mixtape scene, making the most of his high-profile position as New York’s leading DJ. The series he’s most known for, simply called “The Mixtape”, had four installments and each went Gold (500,000+ units) which is crazy when you consider they were largely freestyles interspersed between popular hip-hop singles released years earlier. This was in an era where radio was crucial for a rapper’s success, and his explosive personality (and sound effects) went on to influence a generation.
Canadian hip-hop is often unfairly overlooked, although, to my European ears, it’s difficult to tell the difference from the American counterparts. Swollen Members blew up in the land of maple syrup at the turn of the millennium, while also being a driving force behind the rise of underground hip-hop, with crews like Jurassic 5 and Dilated Peoples. The crew consisted of Rob the Viking, Prevail, and Madchild. The latter is probably the most famous of the three, with a distinctive voice and a heavily tattooed look that puts Post Malone to shame. With the initials ‘MC’, his best attributes remain his brutal honesty and his emotional availability, utilizing his battle-rap skills to shift between sharp wordplay and tales of his battles with addiction. Let’s not forget that Swollen Members remain the second-best-selling hip-hop artists from Canada, behind some guy called Drake.
5. Chino XL
Name a better rapper than Chino XL. Hell, even lethal lyricists like Eminem and Black Thought would be reluctant to get on a track with Chino, and only a select few have survived. Much like Madchild, it’s difficult to not be intimidated by what Chino XL represents. Musclebound with a monstrous presence, his mastery of the metaphor is perhaps what he’s most renowned for, something Tupac took personally back in 1996. The fact that he’s just dropped a new album 27 years later, and has not lost any of the vitriolic passion for murdering a beat only confirms he’s one of the best rappers to ever step to the microphone. However, he can also turn his hand to serious topics, such as parenthood and loss, while also applying his advanced writing skills to them to generate powerful songs.
6. JT the Bigga Figga
Now a legendary figure in the Bay Area, JT the Bigga Figga is probably remembered more for his entrepreneurial escapades than his career as a dope emcee. Releasing a number of enjoyable, if straightforward albums throughout the 1990s, his hit single “Game Recognizes Game” became prophetic as he went on to discover The Game, releasing his first mixtapes through JT’s Get Low Recordz label. He’s worked with everyone in the Bay Area, and revisiting his catalog in 2023, I reckon he’s pretty underrated and has plenty of dope tracks with Messy Marv, E-40, B-Legit, et al.
This website has built an identity over the last 25 years as a reputable voice for rap fans, putting people on to dope hip-hop records as best we can. For me, I discovered J-Live, Little Brother, and Binary Star thanks to glowing reviews I would read on the sly, during IT lessons. K-os is another artist I probably wouldn’t have heard of otherwise if not for reviews of his albums. Granted, K-os has a library that’s more musically diverse than the aforementioned fan favorites, but as a staple of Canadian hip-hop that has worked with artists ranging from Kaytranada to Barrington Levy, Nelly Furtado to Kardinall Offishall, K-os albums are renowned for their musicality, accessibility, and lyrical authenticity. It’s must-listen hip-hop, and he remains a highly respected figure in hip-hop history, Canada or otherwise.
8. MC Breed
Instrumental in putting the Midwest region on the map, Michigan’s MC Breed blew up in 1991 with “Ain’t No Future in Yo’ Frontin'”. He struggled to remain relevant to the masses, despite working with Tupac in 1993 (“Gotta Get Mine”), and carving out a strong partnership with Too Short toward the end of the 1990s. 1994’s “Flava Uv Phony” is unbelievably catchy, proving Breed had the chops for music you’d stroll by in your car to, although you could argue the world had moved on from this style by the mid-90s. Breed unfortunately passed away in 2008, but his impact on hip-hop will not be forgotten.
9. Dan the Automator
Much like his production partner Prince Paul, Dan the Automator is a God amongst men as far as legacies go in hip-hop. The brilliant Handsome Boy Modelling School projects aside, Dan has crafted classics with Del tha Funkee Homosapien (“Deltron 3030”) and Kool Keith (“Dr. Octagonecologyst”), but his biggest success came as part of Gorillaz, the animated supergroup that took the world by storm in 2001 with their self-titled debut, which Dan produced. There aren’t many that can match the 1996-2001 run of Dan’s, and he deserves to be celebrated more for his contributions, particularly considering the wide spectrum of output he has under his belt.
You can’t really celebrate the person Michael Tyler, better known as Mystikal, because he’s had numerous legal issues and charges including rape that don’t seem to go away. But in the late 1990s, Mystikal was a leading contributor to the rise of the so-called Dirty South. Even before his hit singles took over the world, Mystikal’s energetic style ensured his name was etched in New Orleans’ history books, with 1995’s menacing “Here I Go” (which became a catchphrase for him) going down a treat with rap fans. For many though, it’s his music with The Neptunes that took him to the next level. “Danger” and most famously, “Shake Ya Ass”, meant a #1 album, something very few rappers can claim. Legal issues have since put an end to his career, meaning he never really had the opportunity to fall off. But at the time, a Mystikal verse was like hearing a wild animal unleashed in the studio, you never knew where he would take you.
Next week we’ll revisit yesteryear once more, for another ten artists that have contributed significantly to hip-hop’s history.