To say that New York City represents the beating heart of hip-hop would still be a huge understatement. Sure, some of your favourite rappers might hail from other cities, but it’s safe to say that just one NYC district alone has probably shaped more of America’s most talented artists than perhaps anywhere else on earth.
Even hip-hop fans who have never been to the Big Apple feel like they know it inside out still and that’s all thanks to rappers from New York like Nas, JAY-Z and countless others who have brought the City of Dreams to life in their rhymes.
To definitively rank New York’s hip-hop talent would be a foolhardy endeavor. After all, fans can’t even decide who’s best when it comes to just Tupac and Biggie. Pitting them against other legends who came either before or since renders such a task nigh on impossible. Instead, we’re here to celebrate the strengths and talents of New York’s finest on an equal footing, so join us as we explore why the city’s rap elite are so special and why they’ll always have a foothold in the hip-hop hall of fame.
Big Daddy Kane
Before he went on to mentor JAY-Z, Big Daddy Kane foreshadowed hip-hop’s willingness to experiment with genre by combining R&B sex appeal with street-ready rhymes. Many of his peers have commended the Brooklyn star’s near flawless technique and even though he didn’t stay on top for long, Kane’s best music is still up there with the very best that hip-hop has to offer.
Best Album: Long Live The Kane
Busta’s outlandish visuals set him apart back when he first roared onto the scene in the mid 90s, but focusing purely on his larger-than-life persona still does him a disservice. Along with those now iconic videos directed by Hype Williams, Busta Rhymes should also be celebrated for those machine gun rhymes that blew the competition away, showing off a verbal dexterity that still remains unmatched even now.
Best Album: ELE (Extinction Level Event): The Final World Front
Long before Hova recorded his chart-topping single with Alicia Keys, Jay-Z has always channeled an Empire State of Mind in his music, cementing him as the one true King of New York City. While much has changed since he first rapped about his hard knock life on the streets of Brooklyn, it’s impossible to deny how much the patriarch of rap’s First Family has changed hip-hop for the better – and it’s hard to imagine anyone else outlasting his legacy either, as not only one of the best rappers from New York but the whole world.
Best Album: The Blueprint
LL Cool J
Given how many records he’s smashed, it’s clear that the ladies aren’t the only ones who love LL Cool J and it’s easy to see why. Not only was he one of the first rappers to ever cross over and enjoy mainstream success, but LL has also proved naysayers wrong time and time again, coming back fighting every time the critics count him out. At this point, we’re pretty sure that ‘LL’ stands for ‘longevity’ x2 and don’t be surprised if he’s still impressing the ladies long after most of your favourite rappers have retired.
Best Album: Mama Said Knock You Out
Standing at around 5 feet tall, it might be easy to underestimate the pint-sized Brooklyn rapper, but to do so would be a huge mistake. Hip-hop has a long history of objectifying women, but on Lil’ Kim’s debut album and every record since, the original Queen Bee flipped the script on its head, defying gender expectations while empowering women everywhere. It’s fair to say that hip-hop hasn’t been the same since Kim first went Hardcore and today’s female rappers owe her a huge debt.
Best Album: The Naked Truth
Mos Def / Talib Kweli
Sure, we might be cheating a bit here, but it’s hard to talk about the impact of Mos Def without mentioning his on/off Blackstar partner Talib Kweli and vice versa too. Together, the legendary pair helped form a new wave of “socially conscious” hip-hop that smartly steered away from gangsta rap in favor of more universal themes. These in turn created the blueprint that would go on to influence superstars like Kanye West and therefore the entire industry as a whole. It’s about time that these extremely intelligent lyricists were given more credit.
Best Album: Black On Both Sides / Eardrum
It’s been years since Nas boldly declared that hip-hop is dead and although the street prophet’s claim has since proved unfounded, it’s safe to say that Nasir’s impact will continue to be felt right up until the genre’s final days. Few other artists can pull you into their world so effortlessly and with his intelligent musings on New York life and African identity, it’s easy to see why Nasir is widely regarded as a poet of the highest caliber.
Best Album: Illmatic
The Notorious B.I.G.
Notorious doesn’t even begin to cover the legacy Christopher Wallace left behind when he died at the age of 24. Since then, the controversy that surrounds his death has sometimes overshadowed the music itself, but make no mistake about it. With just two albums under his belt, The Notorious B.I.G. cemented himself as one of the best storytellers the industry has ever seen and everyone working in hip-hop today does so under his considerable shadow.
Best Album: Ready To Die
Hip-hop has always been intrinsically political, but Public Enemy were the first rappers to define themselves explicitly through their ideology, promoting a powerful, pro-black stance that revolutionized African-American representation in the media. By rewriting the rules of rap in this way, the Long Island group empowered disenfranchised listeners who longed to see their experiences reflected back at them in the music they love.
Best Album: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
For hip-hop historians, almost every aspect of NYC rap can be traced back to Rakim’s mesmerising flow on the 1987 album Paid In Full, which helped give birth to an entire genre of music. If the Long Island star had retired right after dropping this Eric B collab, he would still be hailed as a legend who changed the game forever. Luckily for us, Rakim didn’t stop there and went on to release plenty more acclaimed albums of his own, solidifying his influence in the industry even further.
Best Album: Paid In Full
The influence of Run D.M.C. will forever be unparalleled thanks to the extraordinary number of firsts they accomplished for hip-hop. Not only were they the first rap artists to appear on MTV and receive a Grammy nomination, but they were also the first to earn gold, platinum and multi platinum certifications for their work. Although their impact is often overlooked these days, no one can ever take those achievements away from them.
Best Album: Raising Hell
With their fourth album, Very Necessary, The First Ladies of Rap and Hip Hop sold over 7 million copies and even today, this remains the highest-selling album by a female rap act in history. It’s not just about the sales though. Together, Salt (Cheryl James), Pepa (Sandra Denton), and DJ Spinderella (Deidra Roper) also forged a path of empowerment for women that continues to be felt today, encouraging female artists to express themselves with nuance beyond whatever box men try to force them into.
Best Album: Very Necessary
If imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, then Slick Rick must be feeling pretty smug these days. As one of the most-sampled hip-hop artists ever, the man often referred to as ‘hip-hop’s greatest storyteller’ has become part of countless other stories over the years, helping artists from a range of genres to top the charts. Although the British-born star didn’t move to America until the age of 11, Rick’s innovative form of storytelling has since become synonymous with New York and just last year, he finally received his long overdue street sign on the Bronx Walk of Fame.
Best Album: The Great Adventures of Slick Rick
Despite becoming such a prominent figure in West Coast rap, Tupac Shakur was originally born in Harlem and even went by the name ‘MC New York’ before adopting the 2Pac moniker. Like his rival, The Notorious B.I.G., Tupac was taken before his time, but before he went, the rap prodigy helped elevate hip-hop into a complex, multi-faceted art form with his imitable flow and swagger.
Best Album: All Eyez on Me
Whether they’re together or apart, the Staten Island collective better known as the Wu-Tang Clan are regularly hailed as the best hip-hop group of all time. Nine members strong (before ODB lost his life), the clan found power in their individual voices, crafting unique personas and a complex narrative which helped kickstart a whole new renaissance in New York hip-hop.
Best Album: Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers