Back once again with the ill behavior – in this instance, the Internet’s favorite content – a listicle! As we near the 50th anniversary of Hip-Hop, here are another ten artists that we wanted to celebrate, because, quite frankly, there are countless people within the culture that have had a significant impact without being recognized sufficiently. So let’s skip the introduction (because that happened four weeks ago) and get right to it. Happy birthday Hip-Hop! Get these guys a glass of your finest…
French is a beautiful language, particularly on the ear, so it’s no surprise that French hip-hop began to make inroads into English-speaking audiences’ radars in the mid-1990s. The terribly named, but hugely important rap crew IAM from Marseille in the south of France, played a transformative role in shaping the genre’s landscape in Europe. The eloquence of emcees Shurik’n and Akhenaton was in some ways a Wu-Tang cousin operating across the pond, instead calling upon ancient Egypt rather than Chinese martial arts, and it was no surprise when collaborations occurred between the Wu and IAM. Their third album, “L’ecole du micro d’argent” went platinum and is a landmark hip-hop album, and if you don’t understand French it still boasted enough accessibility in its song structure and hook choices. Producers Imhotep and Kheops continue to be underappreciated, and you could easily just bump IAM’s material, just for the beats.
2. Princess Superstar
You can’t move for ditzy Barbie dolls and uncut lyrics from ladies spitting bars these days, but it wasn’t always this way. Lil’ Kim rightfully receives plaudits for her impact, but the likes of Iggy Azalea, Nicki Minaj and Kreayshawn owe plenty to Princess Superstar, best known for her hit 2001 single “Bad Babysitter”. Collaborations with Kool Keith and The Herbaliser lend her most popular material credence, but her discography is littered with all sorts of musical heavyweights. Pioneers like Todd Terry, Arthur Baker and Grandmaster Flash don’t work with just anybody, and while I personally find her style a little grating on the ear, you can’t deny Princess Superstar made an impression. Her advocacy for LGBT rights as an openly bisexual artist, years before it became accepted in hip-hop circles, only further highlights her legacy.
Thanks to YouTube, rap battles are now a globally successful platform for lyricists to flex their pen-game. However, there was a time before YouTube (believe it or not!) when rap battles took place online – over at RapMusic.com to be precise. Before SoundCloud, there was SoundClick, which hosted independent, DIY artists who uploaded music to their website, and a name you’d frequently see topping the Hip-Hop charts was DZK’s. His style was complex enough to cater to rap nerds, yet carried a technically precise flow and delivery you’d expect to hear from a studio artist, and his battles with names like Warbux and Nimrod were legendary in the early 2000s. This underground following did catch the ear of Canibus, who put him on his 2010 album “Melatonin Magick” – only to go and diss Eminem. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Em was checking for these “netcees” back then when Hip-Hop online was a bit like the wild west. DZK, and the whole RapMusic battle scene was a part of the culture that is largely forgotten but influenced thousands of listeners at the time. DZK, more than most.
Speaking of battle rap, we should recognize someone from the era when 8-Mile had put the art into the mainstream consciousness. Names like Iron Solomon, Thesaurus, and particularly Jin are important to the scene, but I feel like Illmaculate is the main name I still see involved, decades later. He’s a workhorse in a sport full of thoroughbreds, yet never lost his own dedication to the craft. Highly respected as a clever, witty lyricist, his battles have served as benchmarks for aspiring battle rappers, and his innovative approach to rap battles has inspired others to push the boundaries further. Perhaps too far, whereby we now have writers obsessing over-elaborate, multi-layered rhyme schemes that can sound like recitals, rather than entertaining altercations. Illmaculate, particularly in that 2002-2005 period, was part of a class that took rap battles global, with an emphasis on written bars that maintained the showmanship of freestyle rhymes.
5. Delinquent Habits
Mention Latin Hip-Hop pioneers, and you’ll likely be talking about Cypress Hill, Big Pun, or perhaps Kid Frost. However, Delinquent Habits made a name for themselves in 1996, with their single “Tres Delinquentes” (selling a MILLION copies) and I recall them being all over MTV by the time their second album emerged in 1998. They may have lacked the continued relevance of a Cypress Hill, but the way they blended their heritage with a boom-bap style felt like the natural continuation of B-Real and Sen Dog, while they were off appeasing a more mainstream demographic. Salute to Kemo The Blaxican, Ives Irie, and O.G. Style.
6. Prince Paul
Stetsasonic. De La Soul. Gravediggaz. Chris Rock. Souls of Mischief. Prince Paul has produced and/or been a member of these groups, and I mention Chris Rock because I learned today that Paul received a Grammy for his work on Chris’ 2006 comedy album “Never Scared”. Yet, it’s his Hip-Hop productions that will be his biggest legacy, having worked on numerous De La Soul albums when they were at their most prominent, before parting ways and crafting highly-rated albums as part of Handsome Boy Modelling School, and solo albums like the superb 1999 effort “A Prince Among Thieves”. His catalog is crazy, and he’s one of the most important producers in Hip-Hop history.
7. Suga Free
Obviously, there’s nothing sweet about Suga Free’s style of rap, overloaded on pimp-talk and West Coast gangsta stereotypes, you’d think his outlandish misogyny has dated poorly. And yet, he’s as entertaining today as he was when he broke through in 1997 with DJ Quik, providing an over-the-top caricature of the G-funk sound. Familiar to anyone who has listened to Snoop Dogg albums, he’s an underrated emcee still capable of delivering comically savage verses, with the smooth charisma of his contemporaries Butch Cassidy and Kokane. Many of this list have made an impact or influenced the industry, but Suga Free is just one of the unique characters only Hip-Hop can serve up, and he’s ultimately, impossible to replicate.
8. DJ Krush
I miss albums that were crafted as cinematic experiences. Pieces of art you can soak up over the course of an hour – the type of music you’d often receive from a DJ Shadow or Pete Rock. Hell, instrumental Hip-Hop just doesn’t hit like it used to, and DJ Krush emerged from Japan in the 1990s to make a significant impact on not just Hip-Hop, but DJ culture overall. The most successful of Japan’s Hip-Hop exports thirty years ago, his music benefitted from not being restricted by the Japanese language to Westerners’ ears, but also by being multi-layered, atmospheric soundscapes that often utilized jazz in new and interesting ways. He put a lot of people onto Japanese music through his frequent collaborations with Japanese artists, but also built a reputable brand for exceptional Hip-Hop albums, that went on to influence a generation of Japanese producers.
9. Brotha Lynch Hung
Pioneers of horrorcore rap didn’t tend to come from the West Coast, a scene more associated with posturing gangsters, smoked out stoners or alternative “thinking man’s Hip-Hop”. Violent imagery, spooky stories and low-budget videos all brought Brotha Lynch Hung a mystique that bolstered his style of street narrative with a nastier aesthetic. In 1995, his “Season of Da Siccness” album was shocking and it continues to pack a punch considering this was pre-Internet, in the era of video nasties. Remarkably, its aged well, luring you in with its accessible production (that Lynch produced and mixed himself) and he eventually found a record label in Strange Music that suited his style of dark, harmonious rap.
Over in the UK, Wiley’s controversial behaviour in recent years has taken the shine off of one of the most important artists of his generation. Growing up as an emcee on the pirate radio scene when Drum and Bass and Garage were popular in the late 1990s, his work with Pay As U Go and Roll Deep are pivotal for the success of Grime, which ultimately usurped UK Hip-Hop and became the UK’s Hip-Hop, in many ways. His hit single “What Do You Call It?” even addressed the transition from Garage to Grime, while club classics like “Wearing My Rolex” and “Too Many Men” are synonymous with a good night out in the 2000s. JME and Skepta took the baton and ran with it, but without Wiley, it’s questionable whether Grime would have blown up as quickly as it did.
Next week, we complete the list of fifty artists we wanted to celebrate as part of Hip-Hop’s 50th birthday. Stay tuned, and thanks for the continued support of RapReviews.com, as we approach our own 25th anniversary.