Sometimes, debating Hip Hop can be just as contentious as debating religion or politics. Typically, the debates center around Top MCs or Rappers of All Time – most conversations never touch on underrated artists. With that in mind, I decided to highlight them – and what better time to it then during Black Music Month? Hopefully this will spark some healthy debate. When I started to write this piece I only wanted to write about five artists. But, after listening and researching a crazy amount of MCs, I realized how many MCs were vastly unappreciated. I forced myself to stop my list at 15. It wasn’t easy. Without further ado let’s roll out this list and let the debate begin…
It doesn’t matter if this list was in a certain order, he would still be number one…and by a long shot. Redman has been on the scene since joining EPMD’s Hit squad in the early ‘92. His energy and witty rhymes have spanned over 7 albums, two classic collaborative albums (with his partner and crime Method Man) and a Def Squad crew album in ‘98. Classic rhymes on tracks such as “I Can’t Wait”, “Tonite’s The Night”, and “How High” are just a few examples of how and why he made this list.
For a long time Bun B stood in the shadow of the late, great Pimp C, but when Pimp C was incarcerated in 2002, Bun B took the torch and started to prove his lyrical stature. Bun B has not only been an ambassador for southern hip hop, but a notable asset to hip hop as a whole. He has consistently been dropping albums and great guest appearances, even after the death of Pimp C in 2007. It’s been rumored that Jay-Z changed/add a verse on “Big Pimpin” because of how great Bun B’s verse was on the song. Go listen to Bun B on “Murder” and see his under-appreciated greatness.
As the only guest appearance on Nas’ classic album “Illmatic” (“Life is a Bitch”) and one of the only MCs who has kept up with Nas bar for bar on endless tracks, this Brooklyn MCs (many people think he was from Queens) methodical flow and timing is 2nd to none. His stories and hustla lingo set to a relaxed beat is something many people haven’t appreciated. AZ has dropped consistent albums on the major and independent level over the last 15+ years. Tracks such as “Sugar Hill”, “Gimme Yours”, and “Just Wanna Be There” are a few examples of why he made this list.
Twista, for about a 10 year period, was one MC that other MCs would be scared to put their tracks – but they still wanted him to take their song to the next level. This Chi-town legend never got appropriate props and pub because of long-term label issues with Atlantic records. Twista personified the essence of fast rap so much so that at one time he held the Guinness Book of World Record for “Fastest Rapper”. He consistently represented for Chicago anytime he could. He was rumored to be signing with every major label of over the last 15+ years (Rockafella, Bad Boy, Murder Inc., G-Unit, Young Money, etc). Classic songs such as “Overnight Celebrity”, “Emotions”, his verse on Kanye West’s “Slow Jams, and on Jay-Z’s “Is That Your B***h” are a few reasons why he made this list.
When people talk about legendary group Outkast Andre 3000 is always at the forefront of the conversation…they neglect to mention Big Boi and his lyrical prowess. Big Boi, over the span of Outkast’s career, has improved the most as an MC. He showed his own on Speakerboxx and as many guest features throughout the last 10 years. People don’t really see the ATL native as a lyrical juggernaut, but after hearing him over tracks such as “Ghetto Musick”, “Hollywood Divorce”, and “General Patton” you can’t deny that maybe people have been sleeping on him.
Royce Da 5’9
When someone says that a MC is a beast on the mic they are probably talking about Detroit’s Royce Da 5’9. Grinding hard and consistency? Royce has personified that. Even with an estranged relationship from Eminem Royce created his own avenue and lane. He took on the group D12 (who is six members) by himself on the track “Malcolm X” and lyrically thrashed all of them. Royce was able to put himself in a position to create the super group of unheralded MCs Slaughterhouse (which includes Joe Budden, Crooked I, and Joel Ortiz respectively). He would later reconnect with Eminem and recreate their group Bad vs. Evil. Royce unleashes his lyrical beast on tracks such as “Microphone”, “Writerz Block”, and “Boom”.
The only female to be on this list and definitely for good reason – when most people are arguing about who is better between Lil Kim and Nicki Minaj, Jean Grae is showing her skills in the realm of all MCs, not just women. Combining her around-the-way girl persona with sick lyrics has made her a staple in hip hop for over 15 years. Recently she’s gotten more shine from her signing and collaborating with Talib Kweli and his BlackSmith’s imprint. Ask any true Hip Hop fan about Jean Grae and almost everyone will say she is beyond underrated.
This MC will probably be one of the biggest surprises on this list, but anyone who’s listened and paid attention to the consistency of this Kansas City native will understand why I had to add him. He’s been one of the kings of the underground, figuratively and literally. If you’ve never seen a Tech N9ne show you will not understand the energy and pandemonium that it entails. Tech N9ne has a whole different style and presence that many would call weird, but if you can get past some of his antics you will see how much of a great MC he is. His rap fire lyrics have always been respected but never given their due. On track such as “Questions”, “Like I Died”, and “He’s A Mental Giant” he shows how his rapid fire lyrics and punch lines got him on this list.
Long time member of Tha Dogg Pound, Kurupt has been a west coast staple since he came on the scene on Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” album. The late Notorious B.I.G. is quoted as saying this was the only MC he feared lyrically. It says a lot that one of the best rappers of all-time wouldn’t want to battle you. Sometimes people neglect to look at Kurupt’s whole catalog of work. Kurupt was always the lyrical ace in hole for Death row records back in the 90s. Remember “New York, New York” where Kurupt single-handedly ripped the city of NY apart (while Snoop kicked over the buildings). The track wasn’t just a diss song but an exercise of rhyming and flow. Many people may not remember how Kurupt went at DMX and JA Rule (before it was cool to) on “Calling Out Names”. Kurupt is definitely a lyricist that gets slept on.
One-half of the collaborative group Black Star (w/ Mos Def aka Yasiin Bey), Talib has probably been the most consistent artist over the last 15 years. From working with Hi-Tek, Res (as Idle Warship), Madlib and including his solo work, Talib Kweli has been consistent lyrically an with dropping albums. Talib Kweli has been a part of 10 different projects and has not disappointed. His stage show is just as strong as his album work. Admittedly, when Black Star first came out in 98 I was more drawn to Mos Def, but Talib has proven that he is the MC that deserves a mention. His work speaks so much for itself that I don’t even feel the need to list some of his top songs.
Phonte is one-third of the defunct group Little Brother and half of the alternative hip hop group Foreign Exchange. Personally, he’s one of my favorite MCs. Not just because he can rhyme but because of the introspective thought that he places in his in songs that doesn’t come off cheesy or emo. Phonte is the everyday man’s rapper because his subject matter is something that every man thinks about and or goes through. He mixes comedy and intellectual thought in his verses and is an MC that embraces his southern roots – he’s proved that not all southern rap is about trappin and crunk music. He shows all aspects of a person and not just one lane.
Lead vocalist of the legendary group The Roots, Black Thought is not really brought up as a dope MCs. Lost in the mix of The Roots being a band – people forget how much of a lyricist Black Thought really is. The voice for one of the most heralded bands in history of music, Black Thought has been weaving cataclysmic rhyme schemes for almost 20 years. He’s an MC who can ride a beat like no other. Think about how much talent it takes for an MC to deliver great rhymes within a band format. Tracks such as “Do You Want More”, “What They Do”, and “The Seed 2.0” are just a few examples of Black Thoughts lyrical genius
Member of The Lox and D-Block affiliate, Jadakiss has always seemed like he’d take his game to the next escalon, but never could reach it. Starting out with Bad Boy (during their shiny suit regime) they didn’t get the push they needed when The Lox went to Ruff Ryders. Eventually this would hinder Jada from getting the shine for his lyricism that he deserved. Jadakiss, bar for bar, is one of the best to do it – especially on songs such as “Blood Pressure”, “Knock Yourself Out”, and “Why”.
The MC portion of the duo Gang Starr is long been a pillar in hip hop. The late Guru, with his monotone rhyme style, was something that was unique to hip hop. Guru had the ability to perfect rhyme over DJ Premier’s production, which infused many elements of Jazz and bebop. Guru is forgotten during discussions about Hip Hop because he didn’t necessarily overwhelm you with his rhymes…he just knew how to make his laid back voice match perfectly with the beat. In his JazzMatazz series he was able to display the influence that Jazz had on hip hop. How can you not go crazy when you hear Guru come on classics such as “Mass Appeal”, “Full Clip”, or “You Know My Steez”?
This Slum Village member and Detroit MC has laid the groundwork for being included on this list because of his consistent dynamic rhyme form. When Elzhi joined Slum Village he was the reason it stayed alive after J.Dilla left to focus on production and Baatinleft for personal reasons. Elzhi picked up the torch and kept Slum Village a relevant entity in hip hop. Elzhi, on the solo side, has been able to match bar for bar with some of the best MCs. He’s known just as much for his solo projects as he is with Slum Village. His project Elmatic, a play on Nas’ classic album Illmatic, is one of the most creative and original hip hop covers.
After I finished this list I truly realized the vast number of under-appreciated MCs. So many that I’m thinking I’ll revisit this again in the future. But for now, I hope this helps these brothas and sista get some shine. Check out their music if you haven’t had the chance to appreciate their timeless rhymes.