10 Greatest Emcees Of All Time
Posted In: emcees, hip hop, jay-z, list, nas, rakim, Top Ten
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It’s the age-old debate for hip hop fans–who are the greatest MCs of all time? Every music publication and website has listed their nominees for the title–so I can understand if hip hop heads are saturated with this kinda stuff.
But is that gonna stop Stereo Williams from submitting his ‘official’ list? Of course not.
So these are the Ten Greatest Emcees according to yours truly. Now–as always, there are a few disclaimers. This list focuses on lyricism, and the rappers listed were all picked and ranked according to technique, wordplay, influence and creativity. This list isn’t focused on things like album quality, hit songs, longevity, etc. This list is about an emcee’s legacy strictly on the art of emceeing–not their overall artistic legacy. So apologies to 2Pac fans–he’s a legend, and one of the greatest hip hop artists of all time, but he just wasn’t strong enough skills-wise to crack the Top Ten. Will that be enough to avert the angry emails I know I’m gonna get for not including the most beloved rapper ever? Probably not. Nevertheless, here they are…
“No bogus hocus pocus/I bring back to focus/Skills if you notice/My position is lotus/Now quote this: MC’s are just hopeless/Thinkin’ record sales make them the dopest…”
His groundbreaking years with Boogie Down Productions featured the most influential and inspired music “The Teacha” ever released, but it was his solo years in the 1990s that truly showcased Kris Parker’s lyrical virtuosity. One of the most dexterous and bombastic emcees of all time–and you want NO parts of him in a battle.
Recommended Rhymes: “Step Into A World (Rapture’s Delight),” “Rappaz R. N. Dainja,” “Wannabemceez”
“Boy, don’t make me put my grown man shoe in you/And I’m sorry, Father–for any wrongdoing doin’ You/I cause dogs barkin’ and the girls sigh/Here to present myself as the sparkle of the world’s eye…”
Often heralded as the greatest storytelling emcee of all time, MC Ricky D is also one of the funniest. For fifteen years, he spun dark-but-humorous narratives of everything from youth violence to explicit sex to romance. The influence of his cooler-than-thou rhyme style is evident in everyone from Snoop Dogg’s laid-back drawl to Jay-Z’s conversational spittin’.
Recommended Rhymes: “I Run This,” “Lick the Balls,” “The Moment I Feared”
“Slim Shady: brain dead like Jim Brady/I’m a M80/You Lil’ like that Kim lady/I’m buzzin, Dirty Dozen, naughty rotten rhymer/Cursin at you players worse than Marty Schottenheimer…”
Marshall Mathers is sick rhymer. Period. Capable of hilariously over-the-top and twisted jokes while also proving his abilities to drop line-after-line of ‘what did he just say?’-level quips, Eminem is one of the best. As he’s gotten older, his skills have only become sharper.
Recommended Rhymes: “Role Model,” “Just Don’t Give A Fuck,” “Til I Collapse”
“Boy come on, get with this/Cause you can’t diss this/I’m burnin yo’ ass like syphilis/A fast brother–you’re just a lover with a sore hand/I freeze emcees just like Frosty the Snowman…”
Ridiculously gifted and influential, the gruff-voiced rhymer from Queens practically invented East Coast street rap as it came to be known in the 1990s. His forte as both a dark and vivid storyteller and a stunningly nimble battle rhymer has made him one of the most respected in the game. Even if mainstream audiences continue to sleep on his gifts.
Recommended Rhymes: “Kool Is Back,” “Play It Again Polo,” “Road to Riches”
“Through the lights cameras and action, glamour glitters and gold/I unfold the scroll, plant seeds to stampede the globe/When I’m deceased, by then the beast arise like yeast/To conquer peace/Leaving savages to roam in the streets…”
Nasir Jones, in many ways, is a hybrid of Kool G Rap’s aggressive street hop and Rakim’s calculated consciousness. The Queensbridge legend was heralded as hip hop’s savior when he debuted, and its easy to see why. Nas has a gift for lyrical technique, storytelling, and an observational style that made his debut album Illmatic an instant classic. The definitive East Coast emcee for a generation of rap fans.
Recommended Rhymes: “The Message,” “The World Is Yours,” “Rewind”
“To the death of us, me and my confidants–we shine/You feel the ambiance, y’all niggas just rhyme/By the ounce, dough accumulates like snow/We don’t just shine–we illuminate the whole show…”
His crossover success and worldwide fame today overshadows the fact that Jay-Z was and is one of the most clever and influential emcees to ever rhyme. His flow never sounds forced, and that conversational approach has been adopted by a generation of emcees. He’s a wizard of witty wordplay, with his clever Jayisms having been absorbed by hip hop fans the world over.
Recommended Rhymes: “Dead Presidents II,” “22 Twos,” “Moment of Clarity”
“My mind warps and bends/Floats the wind, count to ten/Meet the twin, Andre Ben/Welcome to the lion’s den/Original skin, many men comprehend/I extend myself–so you go out and tell a friend…”
The ‘artsier’ half of Outkast is one of the most creative and original emcees in the history of hip hop. Blessed with a knack for slightly off-kilter wordplay, an observational wit that’s pretty much peerless and a flow that really has no precedent in the game, the man born Andre Benjamin seems to effortlessly toss off verses that make every other rapper seem unimaginative and lazy. In many ways, he’s become the Rakim of the 2000s: a legendary emcee who’s status and acclaim has only grown in the wake of his extended silence.
Recommended Rhymes: “Millennium,” “Da Art of Storytellin’ Parts I & II” “Chonkyfire”
“Knowledge of self, degree of twenty-one after/Peace in the name of I self lord and master/I come to teach and preach and reach each/With the speech–every leecher I’ll impeach/Drop science and build with math/And the deaf, dumb and blind’ll feel the wrath…”
King Asiatic, Nobody’s Equal. Big Daddy Kane has been many things as a rapper; an excellent showman, a ladies man, an elder statesman. But first and foremost, Kane is an emcee par excellence, with a speedy delivery that doesn’t overshadow the fact that punchline-for-punchline, he’s one of the best to ever do it. Another rapper who’s reputation as a battle rhymer is well-deserved.
Recommended Rhymes: “Set It Off,” “Wrath of Kane,” “It’s A Big Daddy Thing”
“Conscience of ya nonsense/In ’88, I sold more powder than Johnson and Johnson/Tote steel like Bronson, vigilante/You wanna get on son, you need to ask me/Ain’t no other king in this rap thing/They siblings/Nothin’ but my chi’ren/One shot–they disappearin’…”
His feud with 2Pac and tragic demise have seemingly overshadowed one undeniable fact: The Notorious B.I.G. could R.H.Y.M.E. Biggie’s wit, dexterity, storytelling and uncanny eye for vivid details remain unparalleled. Heavily influenced by Kool G Rap, Biggie nonetheless brought his own knack for humor and dark realism to his rhymes; while also being one of the most recognizable and rhythmic emcees of his or any other era. Never recorded a weak verse.
Recommended Rhymes: “Unbelievable,” “Kick In the Door,” “I Got A Story To Tell”
…and who’s the greatest emcee of all time? It should be obvious. The 18th Letter. The Master. The “R.” The Jimi Hendrix of Rhymers.
“Just when things seemed the same/And the whole scene is lame/I came and reign with the unexplained for your brain–til things change/They strain to sling slang/I’m trained to bring game/History that I arranged/Been regained by King James…”
Obviously, his influence has been well-documented. He still represents the greatest quantum leap forward the art of emceeing has ever seen. He expanded the pallete of what a rapper could do with rhymes, both in terms of technique and subject matter. But Rakim’s status as an innovator sometimes overshadows the fact that he is a brilliant rhymer–as compared to any generation of emcees. Technically complex and nuanced, subtly conscious, dead serious and more versatile than many fans give him credit for, he is more than just the archetype for modern emceeing–he’s the gold standard.
Recommended Rhymes: “Follow the Leader,” “Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em,” “The 18th Letter (Always & Forever)”
And there they are…
Honorable Mentions: Raekwon, Big Punisher, Ras Kass, Cee-Lo Green, Black Thought, Eightball, Common, Yukmouth, LL Cool J, Jadakiss, Mos Def, Lauryn Hill, Posdnous, Kurupt, Big Boi, Masta Ace, Redman, Ghostface Killah, Treach, D.O.C., Pharoahe Monche, Prodigy, 2Pac, Talib Kweli, Kool Moe Dee, Jeru Da Damaja, Lupe Fiasco, Bizzy Bone, Jean Grae