1987: RAKIM

CREDENTIALS: Paid in Full

On Kendrick Lamar’s “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” remix featuring Jay Z, the Compton native speaks of “trying to be the God MC.” Of course he knows full well that the title will always belong to Rakim Allah, who married unprecedented lyrical and rhythmic sophistication with Five Percent Nation philosophy to become a supernova within the hip-hop cosmos.

By 1986 the 18-year-old former high school quarterback had recorded “Eric B Is President,” an awe-inspiring ode to his DJ that introduced the R’s fully formed style: a relaxed but relentless flow coupled with never-before-seen lyrical precision and metaphysical depth. That single got him signed to Island Records, and in 1987 Eric B. & Rakim released their classic debut, Paid in Full.

More than just a rapper, Rakim proudly proclaimed himself to be a writer. Not only were his lyrics simply too complex to be freestyles, but he broke down his meticulous methodology in his songs like “My Melody”: “I’m not a regular competitor, first rhyme editor/Melody arranger, poet, etcetera….” Elsewhere in the song he goes further: “I wouldn’t a came and said my name and run some weak shit/Puttin’ blurbs and slurs and words that don’t fit/In a rhyme, why waste time on the microphone?/I take this more serious than just a poem/Rockin’ party to party, backyard to yard/I tear it up y’all and bless the mic for the gods.”

“We knew Rakim was the terse ninja Miles to Chuck D’s booming and prolix Coltrane,” wrote Greg Tate. “Or maybe that was the Buddha to Chuck’s revolutionary Jesus.” Rakim kept critics reaching for superlatives as he and Eric B. returned in ’88 with their sophomore album, Follow the Leader, but by that time there was so much dazzling innovation going on in hip-hop that others laid claim to the title of Best Rapper Alive. Or maybe it just felt that way because Rakim’s otherworldly artistry had taken him to the furthest reaches of the cosmos, where light and sound take longer to reach planet earth and mere mortals can only do their best to play catch up as they follow the leader.

Rakim’s influence remains enormous. Not only was he A$AP Rocky’s namesake, it’s impossible to imagine Nas making Illmatic without inspiration from the God MC. Perhaps he put it best on “My Melody” when he said, “I’m No. 1, competition is none/I’m measured with the heat that’s made by sun.”

HONORABLE MENTIONS: KRS-One, LL Cool J, Kool Moe Dee
Just in case the title of Boogie Down Production’s debut album, Criminal Minded, didn’t get the point across, KRS-One and Scott LaRock posed on the front cover with enough artillery to stage a coup d’etat. The album brought a new militancy to hip-hop, as well as crack-era verite lyrics on brain-scalding songs like “9MM Goes Bang” and “P Is Free.” Soon after BDP’s debut album, Scott LaRock would be murdered in the Bronx while trying to mediate a street dispute, leaving KRS to soldier on and rebuild the crew.

On his sophomore album for Def Jam LL Cool J came back Bigger and Deffer. And while his B-boy snarl was impressive on “I’m Bad” and his DJ got busy on “Go Cut Creator Go,” it was the groundbreaking hip-hop ballad “I Need Love” that positioned him for a new phase in his career and reaffirmed why Ladies Love Cool J.

That same year old-school veteran Kool Moe Dee proved he had staying power when he linked with producer Teddy Riley for the biggest-selling album of his career, How Ya Like Me Now, which saw the veteran MC revitalized by Riley’s New Jack Swing drum patterns. On the strength of this success, he would become the first rapper to perform on TV during the Grammy Awards. —Rob Kenner

1988: SLICK RICK


CREDENTIALS: The Great Adventures of Slick Rick

Goddamn, 1988 was a good year for hip-hop. Too good, really. Or at least too good to distil for a list like this. So many great voices emerged, saying so many compelling, literally world-changing, genre-shifting things. But only one of them said it the slickest. And his name was Rick. Slick Rick. Or MC Ricky Dee, the Ruler if you’re not into the whole brevity thing.

In 1988, the English expat—who’d achieved notoriety three years prior as a member of Doug E Fresh’s Get Fresh Crew, performing raps on the classic 12″ “The Show” b/w “La Di Da Di”—released his platinum debut, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, and vaulted himself to rap’s pole position (no Magic City). Though Rick had been an obviously able lyricist on his earlier work, and stood out thanks to his English accent, the mix of intricate and often hilarious narratives with stone-cold shit talking that he unleashed on the LP was absolutely unprecedented.

His stories were rich, oscillating between cartoons with morals, like “Children’s Story,” and ridiculous slices of life, like “The Moment I Feared.” And his swag? He had so much swag it would make you want to kill yourself. Or at least “Lick the Balls,” as he invites all crab rappers to do on the song of the same name. Perhaps most groundbreaking, though, was his introduction to hip-hop of the alter ego on the NYC nightclub classic “Mona Lisa,” in which he suggests that Slick Rick and MC Ricky Dee are separate people. This archetype would be explored at length by acolytes like Redman, Biggie Smalls, Eminem, and even T.I.

And so, despite the almost slapstick silliness of the LP, which, on the heels of Public Enemy dropping their pivotal It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (interestingly also produced by the Bomb Squad) gave it a remarkably dated feel, there is simply no denying that when TGAOSR dropped on May 2, 1988, no one on earth could outrap Slick Rick.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Chuck D, Ice Cube, Big Daddy Kane
1988 was Public Enemy’s year. There is no way around it. It Takes a Nation of Millions exploded louder than a bomb and changed the direction of rap for at least three full years after its release. But it wasn’t all about Chuck D. It was about the idea. It was about the group. It was about the message. It was about the noise. And yes, Chuck brought all of the above. Chuck has one of the greatest voices in rap history. But still, despite all of the accolades you can give him during that period, he just wasn’t the top lyricist.

Ice Cube also punched listeners in the face that year on N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton. He barreled over the tracks with force and passion, and proved that people outside of New York could compete. That said, what his rhymes had in chutzpah they lacked in polish or depth.

And then there was Big Daddy Kane. Emerging from Marley Marl’s Juice Crew, the Brooklyn MC had a smooth confidence as he nonchalantly spit the most intricate bars he could write. His first album only teased his greatness, but his ascent was obvious. And impending. —Noah Callahan-Bever

1989: BIG DADDY KANE

CREDENTIALS: It’s a Big Daddy Thing

Before Jay Z and Biggie Smalls, Brooklyn’s Finest was Big Daddy Kane. In fact, the Bedford-Stuyvesant native, born Antonio Hardy, was more than just an influence on both of these future Best Rapper Alive title holders. Kane’s DJ, Mr. Cee, recorded Biggie’s first demo, which got him written up in the “Unsigned Hype” column of The Source, which in turn brought him to the attention of Puff Daddy. And during the early 1990s, Jay Z and Positive K toured with Kane, performing during his costume changes.

Unfortunately, while Biggie and Jay Z remain household names to most rap fans, BDK’s prodigious lyrical skills have been somewhat obscured by the mists of time. A master of syncopated speed rap, Kane got his start in ’84, writing rhymes for his friend Biz Markie and later joining Marley Marl’s Juice Crew, releasing his debut single, “Raw,” on Cold Chillin’ Records in 1987. His 1988 album, Long Live the Kane, included the smash single “Ain’t No Half Steppin’,” and that same year he killed his verse on Marley’s legendary posse cut “The Symphony.” But it was Kane’s follow-up album, It’s a Big Daddy Thing, that cemented his status as a bonafide hip-hop icon. On cuts like “Smooth Operator,” the tall, dapper, dark-skinned MC, sometimes known as Count Macula, made the ladies melt like Hershey’s kisses in a microwave.

The album’s standout cut was the faster-paced “Warm It Up Kane” on which King Asiatic Nobody’s Equal lets loose a fusillade of rapid-fire repartee that left no question who was the best rapper alive at that moment: “Come get some you little bum/I take the cake and you can’t get a crumb/From the poetic, authentic, superior/Ultimate and all that good shit.” Yes, Kane could rap circles around anybody, making rival MCs “tumble and stumble, in a rumble just crumble.” Best of all he could do all this and then add “I’m still calm and humble”—or at least relatively humble, all things considered.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Chuck D, the D.O.C., Kool G Rap
A year after the phenomenal impact of It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back Public Enemy kept the pressure on with “Fight the Power.” The incendiary soundtrack cut proved that Chuck D had lost none of his power to get pulses pounding and transform rap music into a political force.

Texas native the D.O.C. was blessed with one of the greatest voices in hip-hop, which he first deployed with the Fila Fresh Crew, and later with N.W.A. His debut album on Ruthless Records, Nobody Does It Better, marked a high point in a career that was tragically derailed when an automobile accident damaged his voice, although his pen game remained strong and he wrote rhymes for Death Row during The Chronic era.

Another contender for the title that year was the Juice Crew’s hardest hard-rock, Kool G Rap, whose album with DJ Polo, Road to the Riches, was one of the less celebrated gems of that amazing year. No matter what Jay Z says, there was nothing quite like hearing G Rap in his prime. —Rob Kenner
1990: ICE CUBE

CREDENTIALS: AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted

Soon after his acrimonious split with N.W.A, O’Shea Jackson, better known as Ice Cube, knew he had to make a solo album. At first he reached out to Dr. Dre, who reportedly wanted to work with him, but Eazy-E and Ruthless Records boss Jerry Heller nixed that idea. So Cube linked with the Bomb Squad—the production team behind Public Enemy—who delivered the high-energy funk while Cube dug deep into his lyric books and created a classic.

The rhymes on AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted went beyond gangster life and dug into the underbelly of American apartheid. This was the record that predicted the L.A. riots two years before they happened. There is also a lot of talk about “selling out” and a tension between mainstream pop culture and hip-hop that now feels anachronistic but was obviously a very real concern at the time. (Though the star of family-friendly flicks like Are We There Yet? appears to have made peace with those issues now.) The album received almost no radio play and still went platinum because Cube was talking that shit the streets needed to hear.

Hip-hop was going through labor pains. A rebirth was at hand, another quantum leap that would rewrite all the rules yet again. The ’90s would see G-funk becoming pop music, Bad Boys wearing shiny suits, and rock dealers rising to become America’s new Rockefellers. But on May 16, 1990, rap was still underground rebel music. And at this moment in time “The Nigga Ya Love to Hate” was the most important rapper on the planet.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: LL Cool J, Chuck D, Grand Puba
After the first misstep of his young career—an ill-advised album called Walking With a Panther—LL Cool J linked with Marley Marl and started rhyming like he had a chip on his shoulder. “Don’t call it a comeback!” he roared on “Mama Said Knock You Out,” and on “The Booming System” Cool J erased all doubts that he was still hard as hell.

Meanwhile Fear of a Black Planet saw Chuck D urging his audience to “Fight the Power” and even encouraging them with songs like “Brothers Gonna Work It Out.” It was PE’s last masterpiece, a glory to behold.

At the same time Brand Nubian brought Five Percent Nation mathematics back to the forefront of hip-hop, and none did it more effectively than the effervescently slick-tongued Grand Puba, who had also been the standout of his last group, Masters of Ceremony. After the triumphant album All for One, he parted company with Lord Jamar and Sadat X, but when they were together they were louder than a bomb. —Rob Kenner

1991: Q-TIP

CREDENTIALS: The Low End Theory, “Groove Is in the Heart,” “Don’t Curse,” “A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays,'” “Come on Down”

It had been clear from his first verses on the Jungle Brothers debut in 1988 that Q-Tip had a remarkable, unique voice, and important things to say. But two years later, on A Tribe Called Quest’s admittedly awesome debut, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, the outfit’s offbeat attire and quirky (“I Left My Wallet in El Segundo”) to occasionally goofy (“Ham and Eggs”) subject matter obscured the acknowledgement of Tip’s lyrical prowess.

That all changed in 1991, though. Stripped of the costumes, ATCQ’s sober (in sound, if not in creation) sophomore effort, The Low End Theory, thrust Q-Tip to the epicenter of hip-hop. He slowed down the BPMs and introduced the jazz, funk, and soul loops that would define East Coast hip-hop until the Puffy era. He complemented these more delicate grooves with clean, loud, and exquisitely differentiated engineering courtesy of Bob Power that turned even Dr. Dre’s head, who admitted years later that he competitively studied the sonics of TLET while crafting The Chronic. A-B test TLET against De La Soul Is Dead, or any other contemporary release, at the same volume to hear the difference.

But far and away, the most impressive part of The Low End Theory was Q-Tip’s rapping. Where he had swung in the pocket, moving with music on the first album, Tip now used made strong declarative statements (“Back in the days when I was a teenager / Before I had status and before I had a pager…”) to create competing, complementary rhythms. And he did it while conjuring thoughtful word pictures (“You could find the Abstract listening to hip-hop / My pops used to say, it reminded him of be-bop / I said, ‘well daddy don’t you know that things go in cycles / The way that Bobby Brown is just ampin like Michael'”), using subtle, poetic strokes, that articulated his life and point of view as a 21-year-old emerging star.

The ground he broke lyrically—with timeless phrases like “Industry Rule #4080″—and rhythmically—with the introduction of the mislabeled “the Big Sean ‘Supa Dupa’ flow (“Minds get flooded, ejaculation”)—has inspired everyone from Nas to Kanye West to Drake. Neither a tough guy nor a sucker, Q-Tip’s confident delivery, genuine sentiment, and undeniable musicianship could not be denied by intellectuals or gangstas, leading to countless guest appearances and beat placements. And this appeal was not lost on him, either, as he broke it down quite simply on “Verses From The Abstract:” “Women dig the voice, brothers dig the lyrics / Quest the people’s choice, we driving for the spirit.” Universal adulation in hip-hop is practically an oxymoron, but in 1991 Q-Tip enjoyed an embrace that almost no other rapper has, before or since.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Scarface, Treach, Dres
The Geto Boys had been Southern flag bearers for years, but in 1991 Scarface thrust himself to the front of the conversation, releasing both the GB’s classic We Can’t Be Stopped and his solo debut, Mr. Scarface. Songs like WCBS’s defining masterpiece “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” and Mr. Scarface’s title track made it abundantly clear that ‘Face had more than just tough talk and gangsta tales to offer: He had concepts and stories. But yeah, he’d punch you in the fucking mouth, too.

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, Treach set trends with Naughty by Nature’s debut. The braided MC flipped syllables at rapid-fire pace and put pop polish on the jibberish Jaz-O and Jay Z had been spitting. A style icon, Treach also set aesthetic trends, and weaned hip-hop off of Kane’s snappy suits to more utilitarian work wear and jerseys.

And though his acclaim would be short-lived, Astoria, Queens, rapper Dres demonstrated able lyricism and a hilarious sense of humor on Black Sheep’s October ’91 debut, A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing. Coming from an everyman perspective, not unlike his fellow Native Tongue-er Q-Tip, Dres made up for his lack of hardcore credentials with nimble rapping and gut-busting jokes about his (apparently) legendary swordsman status. —Noah Callahan-Bever