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The Definitive “Top 5 Hip Hop Groups” Discussion

By April 3, 2009Music, Podcasts, Premiere

Back again with another one! The Top 5 MCs post sparked some interesting discussion both on and off the site. This week, I try to tackle the Top 5 Hip Hop groups. My approach this week is about the same as last time.

Again, this was a pretty difficult topic  to tackle. Not as difficult as the last, but still required some though. Here’s what I went by:

  1. I had to think of it more in terms of my “favorites” than in terms of “best”. There is no way that anyone will ever agree on “best” because it’s solely based on opinion.
  2. I disqualified “collectives” who did not meet my definition of “groups”. For example, D.I.T.C.was never really billed as a group, just a collection of individuals. For this same reason, (and possibly to the dismay of many), I will not include Wu-Tang on this list because they are essentially a collective of artists under one banner. If you want to debate this, ask RZA. He’s said it himself.
  3. Instead of definitive songs, I had to go with albums this time. I’ll even try to explain why I chose the albums.

Just like last time, I’ll also include the names of some groups who may have just missed my Top 5, and the reasons why. I still hold them in high regard, but I had to narrow it to my fave 5.

So feel free to discuss, argue, or whatever. This isn’t a scientific poll. These are personal opinions. I encourage you to share yours as well.

And with that, here’s the list (in no particular order):

1. A Tribe Called Quest: This is an absolutely biased entry into the list, but they’re still justified in being here. A Tribe Called Quest is my favorite music group of all time – any genre. Feels good to say that. In my opinion, they were topically one of the more versatile groups that have come around. They could flip anything from party vibe (“Can I Kick It”); to a love poem (“Electric Relaxation”); all the way down to serious sociopolitical discussion (“Sucka Nigga”) and make it entertaining the whole time. What drew me to them was the consistency of quality music within their albums – which were largely devoid of filler. To this day, I can listen to their first 3 albums all the way through without skipping once. Think of how many groups you know that have 3 consecutive albums with such low skippage material. To me, they were the perfect combo of lyrics and music, with emphasis on the music. They infused jazz as well as or better than anyone at the time. Lyrically, they were witty enough to give you plenty of “A-HA” moments, but not so complex and cryptic that people had to focus  to understand them. In terms of sequencing their albums and giving them steady flow, they were maybe second to Dr. Dre. I won’t bore you with all my stanning on them… i’m obviously very biased, but you’ll have to live with it.

Definitive album(s) – The Low End Theory, Midnight Marauders: Don’t ever ask me to choose between these two albums; you’ll get frustrated. I just can’t (won’t) do it. The Low End Theory is a perfect album to me. Midnight Marauders took “perfect” and perfected it even more. Low End was the first album that literally brought tears to my eyes. By the time I made it to “Jazz (We’ve Got)”, I was a mess. I’m a grown man and very secure in my manhood, so I can admit this. I had a bootleg demo of Midnight before it dropped, and still bumped the retail version as if I’d never heard it. Both of these albums will be in my top 5 albums discussion. Be warned.

1a. De La Soul: Yes, i’m cheating. Sue me. But I like De La for most the same reasons that I cut for Tribe. De La is the steak; ATCQ is the sizzle. Tribe may have had more endearing songs, but De La is what hip hop should have grown up to be. De La was me. I lived in what would have been considered the suburbs at the time, but the kids around me wanted so desperately to fulfill “street dreams”. I had no desire to do so. I was perfectly comfortable with being a nerd. Never wanted to be “hood”. I valued brains over brawn. De La Soul was unashamedly normal. No, not normal – they were themselves. Not caricatures or exaggerations of themselves. That has been and will always be a refreshing quality in musicians. 3 Feet High and Rising challenged me to decipher their unique language, but also felt like a testament of who I was at the time. De La Soul Is Dead taught me that you can be who you are without taking yourself so seriously. The list goes on from there. And they’re still getting it done! 20 years later (damn i’m old!), and I still look forward to hearing what they have to say. Oh – I can’t forget – with Prince Paul in tow, they created the greatest album skits of all time. I don’t even listen to skits or interludes in albums now. If you can’t make them as good as De La did, just cue up the next song. Don’t waste your time.

Definitive album – Buhloone Mindstate: Much shorter than the 2 albums that came before it, but possibly the most poignant. It seemed like a dark and brooding time for them, but it was still an album that I could empathize with. They poured out their souls (no pun intended) all over these songs.

2. Run DMC: The first superstar group of rap. You might even argue that without them, the other groups on this list wouldn’t be here. They are often credited with being the guys that brought rap into the mainstream. No, not the Sugarhill variety. They were admittedly “street”, but were accepted into the homes of the MTV generation. They proved to the world that hip hop was not a fad. Were they the first rappers to star in their own movies? (Krush Groove, Tougher Than Leather). Their collaboration with Aerosmith was a rap / rock fusion that predated the fame that Kid Rock or Limp Bizkit ever received from doing the same. They had a call-and-response chemistry on stage that shamed the other crews whose members just kind of stood around and took turns rapping. They had arguably the world’s greatest DJ at the time, and put on a show like no other. They were my favorite group until Tribe came along. By the way – according to Wikipedia,  here’s a list of their firsts:

  • A #1 R&B charting rap album
  • The first major rap act to appear on American Bandstand (the Sugar Hill Gang appeared on the program in 1981)
  • The first rap act to chart in the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 more than once
  • The first rap artist with a top 10 pop charting rap album
  • The first rap artist with RIAA-certified gold, platinum, and multi-platinum albums
  • The first rap act to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine
  • The first rap act to receive a Grammy Award nomination
  • The first rap act to make a video appearance on MTV
  • Signed to an athletic product endorsement deal (Adidas)

Definitive album – Raising Hell: “Peter Piper”. “My Adidas”. “You Be Illin”. “Dumb Girl”. “Walk This Way”. Done.

See also – Beastie Boys, EPMD: They took Run DMC’s momentum and garnered a ridiculous amount of success from it. First group of white guys to do it big in rap. They may have sold more than Run DMC, but you have to give it up to the architects. EPMD also made their mark. They may have even made more “classic” albums than Run DMC. But it’s RUN DMC, man…

3. Outkast: Dirty South stand up! They made me proud to live below the Mason-Dixon line. But I have an admission to make: a friend of mine let me hear an early incarnation of “Player’s Ball”, a much more Christmas-ey version. I thought it was one of the worst things that i’d ever heard. A year later, I saw the video on TV and was surprisingly intrigued  by the more polished result. Hooked. Being from the South, I was already used to the Geto Boys and UGK, who were incorporating a lot of the same musical elements that Outkast infused in their music, but these dudes could simply rhyme their asses off. While most other rappers were deep into street stories at the time, Outkast came across as the dudes down the street who would sit with you to drink and smoke, but could philosophize with the best of them. On the surface, 3000 and Big Boi seem like polar opposites, but have a synergy that instantly makes them more interesting than almost anyone else. Better than anyone, they have redefined themselves with each album and have taken risks that only they can pull off. After cementing success with the first two albums, they spread their wings creatively with Aquemini, then took it over the edge with “Bombs Over Baghdad”, the lead single for Stankonia. “B.O.B.” opened them up to the widest audience that they’d had up to that point.  Speakerboxxx / The Love Below wa a bold attempt at a largely untried concept – packaging together two solo albums in a single release. I don’t have much to say about Speakerboxx, but The Love Below was a surprisingly brilliant album. This was a hip hop album? Yes. From a southern group who had been called “slow” and “‘Bamas” by their northern counterparts? Yes. Because of their legacy, I even forgive them for Idlewild. I see what they were trying to do with it. I’m not mad. Will they ever record together again? They say yes, but I have to see it to believe it. If and when they do, it’s over for everybody else.

Definitive album – ATLiens: Arguably their best album. Actually, not even arguable. Discuss amongst ourselves.

See also – Goodie Mob: You know what? I may have liked Still Standing more than I did ATLiens at the time. Goodie was the De La to Outkast’s ATCQ. They put me on my ass with some of the topics that they put into song form. It all just ended a little prematurely. They should have been the stuff of legends. And then there was World Party

4. N.W.A.: Hardest. Group. Ever. I don’t care if half of them were in college a the time. Hardest group ever. Period. “Gangsta” rap might not be accepted today if it were not for them. There would be no Snoop, Pac, Eminem, 50, Jay-Z, Biggie, Lil Wayne, etc, without the influence of N.W.A. They were being watched by the FBI and labeled as potential terrorists. That’s infinitely more gangsta than any skinny jeans wearing pseudo-thug pretending to make “trap music”. THEY MADE AN ALBUM CALLED NIGGAZ 4 LIFE. You couldn’t do that back then. Their best rapper and original producer broke away from the group and each went on to put their footprints on history’s neck. Are you kidding? They were unashamedly offensive, but only to those who didn’t understand the grim reality of what was happening in Innercity, USA. This was the fallout of Reaganomics in the face of America. They embody the most illustrative example of urban struggle in this country. Hardest. Group. Ever.

Definitive album – EFIL4ZAGGIN: Easily in my Top 5. Possibly the best concept album in rap history. They took the word “nigga” and made that bitch tap out.

See also – nobody. There hasn’t been, and never will be, another NWA. Nobody can do what they did today without making it seem like a gimmick. Besides, everything that they did to shock us back then is so commonplace now that we’re desensitized to it.

5. Public Enemy: May have provided some of the most enduring social comentary in the history of rap music. Also watched by the FBI. Militant, but not recklessly militant. Chuck D had some shit on his mind, to say the least. They gave it to you as straight talk – no fancy verbiage or metaphorical posturing. That’s what scared people. In early years, their backdrop of sound was helmed by the legendary Bomb Squad, who also propelled Ice Cube’s solo career. They have been the social conscience of hip hop since Yo Bum Rush the Show. I can’t really tell you more about them than you already know. If they’re not somewhere in your top 5, then you and I are probably not friends.

Definitive album(s) – It Takes A Nation of Millions…,  Fear Of A Black Planet: “Fear” could be my favorite, but I cannot discount the influence of “It Takes”.

See also – nobody. Don’t even try.

Next week – Top 5 Hip Hop albums


Founding member of K-OTIX / The Legendary KO. Unheralded jack of all trades. Spends most of his time these days creating moving pictures and writing some of the best material he's ever written. Likes dogs. Cats - meh.


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