1979: GRANDMASTER CAZ

CREDENTIALS: The first person to DJ and rap simultaneously, raps were stolen for “Rapper’s Delight”

After experiencing one of DJ Kool Herc’s early hip-hop parties for the first time, Bronx-born Curtis Fisher got himself two turntables and a mic and adopted the name Casanova Fly. Hailed as the first to rap and DJ simultaneously, he earned the title Grandmaster Caz and became the standout member of the legendary Cold Crush Brothers, rocking countless park jams, recording singles for the Tuff City label, and battling the Fantastic Five in the seminal hip-hop movie Wild Style.

Yet despite all these accomplishments, Caz’s biggest claim to fame is being the man whose lyrics were jacked by Big Bank Hank for the Sugarhill Gang’s. —Rob Kenner

1980: KURTIS BLOW


CREDENTIALS: “The Breaks”

In 1980 Kurtis Blow wasn’t just the best rapper alive, he was the first rapper to show and prove that a career in rap was even possible. Blessed with a booming, elastic, singsong voice, he became the first MC to sign with a major label in 1979—hot on the heels of the “Rapper’s Delight” phenomenon—and dropped the hit single “Christmas Rappin’.”

He came right back with a self-titled debut album the following year, powered by “The Breaks,” which became the first gold single in rap history. Blow’s exuberant flow on the cut still thrills three decades later. He would continue to be a force in hip-hop, touring the world, producing, and acting, but this was the year when it first came together for him.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Spoonie Gee, Kool Moe Dee, Jimmy Spicer
Harlem native Spoonie Gee’s fresh rhymes on “Spoonin’ Rap” contained the first references to jailhouse life in rap music, including the invaluable advice “Please my brother, don’t drop the soap.” As the standout member of the Treacherous Three, Kool Moe Dee distinguished himself on cuts like “Love Rap,” “New Rap Language,” and “Body Rock.” Brooklyn rapper Jimmy Spicer’s “Adventures of Super Rhyme (Rap)” gave him enough clout to become one of the first artists signed to Russell Simmons’ Rush Management. Simmons would co-produce his future hits “The Bubble Bunch” and “Money (Dollar Bill Y’All).” —Rob Kenner

1981: KOOL MOE DEE

CREDENTIALS: Bodied Busy Bee at the Harlem World Christmas Rappers’ Convention

Long before he became a solo star on the strength of Teddy Riley-produced joints like “Wild Wild West” and “How Ya Like Me Now,” MC Kool Moe Dee was one third of the legendary Treacherous Three, along with Special K and LA Sunshine (not to mention DJ Easy Lee). Born Mohandas Dewese in Manhattan, Moe was a quiet character who channeled his passion into carefully crafted rhymes.

At age 19 he devastated the renowned party rapper Busy Bee Starski at the Harlem World Christmas Rappers’ Convention in a performance that is often cited as the first hip-hop battle. The relentless routine opened with “Come on Busy Bee I don’t mean to be bold/But put that bom-ditty-bom bullshit on hold.” Things only went downhill from there as Moe Dee clowned Busy’s formulaic rhymes and served notice that from this moment forward MCs would have to step up their lyrical game.

1981 also saw the Treacherous Three drop hits like “Feel the Heartbeat” and “Put the Boogie in Your Body,” marking a creative apogee for the trio. Although the group broke up after appearing in the 1984 movie Beat Street, Kool Moe Dee’s career endured until the early ’90s, and he never lost his taste for battling. His long-running feud with LL Cool J inspired some memorable lyrical exchanges.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Love Bug Starski, T Ski Valley, Sha-Rock
When he wasn’t spinning records at Harlem’s Rooftop Roller Rink, Lovebug was laying down raps. His record “Positive Life” with the Harlem World Crew set him head and shoulders above all comp not named Kool Moe Dee. T Ski Valley got his start DJing with the Erotic Brothers Disco and eventually became an MC; his classic 1981 single “Catch the Beat” can still rock any party. Sha-Rock was the not-so-secret weapon of the Funky 4 + 1. Every time she rocked the mic, the feisty Bronx MC outshone her male counterparts. —Rob Kenner

1982: MELLE MEL


CREDENTIALS: “The Message”

If you see modern-day Melle Mel out in New York City rocking a powder blue tuxedo with long tails and calling himself “Muscle Simmons,” you might not suspect that this is the same dude who rhymed the immortal words “Don’t push me, ’cause I’m close to the edge.” Back in 1982 Mel was a member of the Furious Five along with his brother Kidd Creole (Nathaniel Glover), Scorpio (Eddie Morris), Rahiem (Guy Todd Williams), and Cowboy (Keith Wiggins).

When they weren’t ripping park jams and rec centers with DJ Grandmaster Flash, they were dropping hit records like “Super Rappin,'” “The Birthday Party,” and “It’s Nasty (Genius of Love)” for labels like Enjoy and Sugar Hill Records. But when Melle Mel turned his attention to the realities of life in the Bronx during the Reagan era, he created a groundbreaking hip-hop classic called “The Message.”

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Kool Moe Dee, Grandmaster Caz, T Ski Valley
Kool Moe Dee’s rhymes on the Treacherous Three’s “Yes We Can Can” proved that he was still not the one to fuck with. Grandmaster Caz caught wreck on the Cold Crush Brothers joint “Weekend,” and T Ski Valley took it back to his Erotic Brothers Disco days on the NSFW “Sexual Rapping.” —Rob Kenner