The hip-hop culture has changed a lot over the last 40 years or so, and I think it's important to recognize the major players who have catalyzed those changes and been critical to the development of the genre. The best of the best have influenced hip-hop through their nuanced styles, techniques, or distinct ways of incorporating various topics into their music. When I try to think of artists who really have changed the game the problem that I come across is that there are so many ways to define these changes. One could bound an analysis of such artists by decade, geography, gender, sub-genres or types of hip-hop, trends, production, etc etc. While I'm hoping to tackle those areas of development within the genre in the future, I think it makes sense to start out on a broader scale by simply looking at some of the most influential hip-hop artists that have arisen since the culture's conception.
When trying to come up with this little compilation I came up with two questions for myself: 1) which artists can one find in nearly every hip-hop head's iTunes library? And 2) which artists influenced and laid the groundwork for the many who followed and continue to pursue artistry in the genre today? I ended up with a list of five artists, whose beginnings in hip-hop start as early as 1985, including some we've lost and some from whom we're still waiting on new albums. Each is understood as having attained commercial success however, for the most part, they are not thought of as having sold out or compromised their original passion for the art in search of fame or money. This list is roughly in chronological order based not on when a collective form or when an artist first started recording, but rather the time when their commercial success started to match their growing fanbase.
A Tribe Called Quest
First on this list are the artists who make up A Tribe Called Quest. Formed in 1985, Tribe is made up of Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, although it also included Jarobi White from 1988-1990 and since they reformed, as well as Consequence from 1993-1998. Their first album entitled People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm was not received extremely well when it was first released, although it's home to "Can I Kick It?" and "Bonita Applebum" so I wonder if it wasn't just a little bit ahead of its time. The release of The Low End Theory in 1991 continued to slowly build up their fan base and allowed Q-Tip and Phife Dawg to capitalize on the chemistry between one another. In 1993 Midnight Marauders was released as their highly anticipated third album, and with tracks like "Electric Relaxation" it was apparent that Tribe had been hard at work. As their fastest selling album, Midnight Marauders went platinum within just two years of its release. Check out the black and white video shot for "Electric Relaxation" above, during which Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and Muhammad kick it in a diner for the majority of the song. Marauders was followed by Beats, Rhymes and Life in 1996, which achieved similar success by 1998, although its content is considered darker and in response to East-coast West-coast rivalries going on at the time.
After releasing their final album in 1998 entitled The Love Movement, A Tribe Called Quest called it quits as the members pursued solo careers. In my opinion, the guys of Tribe have what it takes to be successful individually, however when they come together they bring in that hip-hop banter that plays up each other's strengths and brings out a playful sound that makes you just want to kick it with them. For example, I love Q-Tip's "Vivrant Thing" and I'm looking forward to Phife's second album because on his first solo endeavor he worked with producers like Hi-Tek and Fredwreck, although I can't help but miss the distinct Tribe sound with their well-placed use of sampling and jazzy influences. In 2006 the group officially reunited and has since played several sold out concerts, however I'm keeping my fingers crossed for the release of a sixth album that they supposedly still owe to Jive Records.
The second group to make the list is a renowned collective referred to as the Wu-Tang Clan, which is comprised of RZA, GZA, Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God, Masta Killa, and the late Ol' Dirty Bastard. Formed in 1992, the chaotic structure of the group is often looked at as the source of Wu Tang's success, and if you think about it each member was eccentric in his own right, yet each knew his place. Instead of inter-group battles for the limelight, Wu Tang focused on the battle within the genre for the #1 spot, which many think they've accomplished. Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers) was the first album released by the Clan in 1993 with such singles as "Protect Ya Neck," "C.R.E.A.M." and "Method Man." It really helped to bring their hardcore sound and raw MCing abilities to the forefront of the genre. In 1997 they released their second studio album entitled Wu Tang Forever, which ended up being a Grammy nominated, multiplatinum album. Again, they showed that they didn't have to play by the rules when they dropped "Triumph," the album's nearly six-minute single, which features each MC but no chorus.
In the early 2000's they released The W and Iron Flag with less hype than the first two, and in November of 2004 tragedy struck when Ol' Dirty Bastard died at age 35 of a drug overdose. Above you can watch the music video for the 1993 single "Protect Ya Neck" and revel in the nostalgia of men simply rapping their hearts out to crowds of friends and fans and completely immersing themselves in their Wu Tang personas. Personally, it's hard to get past 36 Chambers, but I think it's one of those things where they came out so incredibly strong and were so owning of their identity that it's a hard album to top. Wu Tang Forever is probably the only other album that comes close, although The W has its moments with tracks like "Gravel Pit," for example. The collective is supposedly dropping an album this year, and because hip-hop has come a long way since 1993 I think it will be really interesting to see whether/how these guys can hang with the millennial rappers they've inspired.
Next up in my list of game-changing hip-hop artists is the late Tupac Shakur, more commonly referred to as 2Pac. In 1991 Shakur released 2pacalypse Now as his debut album, which boasted a very underground appeal with its less than perfect production and socially critical/politically conscious lyrics. Considering that his mother and aunt had strong activist ties to the Black Panthers it makes sense that Pac would utilize the political influences on his life as part of his rapping career. His second album was entitled Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. and with its very West Coast vibe, Shakur mixed his political convictions with the tones of gangsta rap and the brightness of the urban 90's. This 1993 album showcased his increasing commercial success with singles such as "Holler If Ya Hear Me," (the video of which can be seen above) "I Get Around," and "Keep Ya Head Up." In 1995 2Pac released what some think of as the quintessential Pac album entitled Me Against the World. The album and its first single "Dear Mama" were both nominated for Grammy's that year and it also spent four straight weeks on the Billboard 200's #1 spot.
After serving almost a year in jail, Shakur was released in late 1995 and by February of 1996 he released the double album All Eyez on Me, which is regarded as a '90s hip-hop classic. On the album he collaborated with the likes of Snoop Dogg, Method Man, and Dr. Dre and dropped hits like "Ambitionz Az A Ridah," "California Love," and "How Do U Want It," going five times platinum in just two months. All Eyez on Me was the last album to be released before Pac was shot four times and subsequently died in early September of 1996. One reason I know that 2Pac is a hip-hop legend is found in the fact that the number of posthumous albums released is actually double that of the solo ones released while he was alive. In November 1996, under his developing alter ego Makaveli, The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory dropped with a much darker and emotional tone than his previous albums, one that was probably even more pronounced because the hip-hop community's wounds were still fresh from losing the legend only two months before. At the end of the day, we simply aren't done with 2Pac yet as eight posthumous albums have come out ranging from collections of his greatest hits to compilations of previously recorded, unreleased tracks. 2Pac put out so much material without fear of taking different approaches, simply wearing his soul on his sleeve whether it revealed romantic vulnerability, aggressive/violent intentions, or just a simple desire to party and that's what I love about 2Pac--R.I.P.
The next artist who has seriously changed the hip-hop game is Shawn Corey Carter, otherwise known as Jay-Z. In addition to rapping, Jay-Z used to be the CEO of Def Jam and is one of the founders of Roc-A-Fella Records, the independent label he started with Damon Dash and Kareem Biggs in 1995. It was through this label that he made his debut with Reasonable Doubt, a well-received album both critically and popularly. He followed that up with In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 although its higher production value made some fans question whether or not he was solely in pursuit of mainstream appeal and commercial success. Yet 1998 would bring about Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life, his most commercially successful album and the bearer of such staples as "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)" and "Can I Get A..." which features Amil and Ja Rule. Vol. 3... Life and Times of S. Carter followed in December of 1999 debuting at number one on the Billboard 200 chart and ushering in the "Big Pimpin" start that Jay would make in the new millennium. In the wake of such commercial success, 2001 saw yet another victory for Jay-Z in the form of The Blueprint. Released on 9/11, the album was overshadowed by tragedy somewhat, however what's fascinating to me is that the album was completed in just two weeks, the lyrics taking Jay just two days. As far as collaborators go, Eminem is the only rapper featured on the album ("Renegade"), though it was also a major achievement for Kanye West who was responsible for the production of several songs on the album, including the hit "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)."
It feels redundant to continue talking about this man's success, but that just seems to be an essential ingredient in each and every one of his albums. Seriously, he holds the record for most number one albums by a solo artist on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart at 12. Suffice it to say, The Blueprint2: The Gift & The Curse brought us "'03 Bonnie and Clyde," The Black Album debuted the classics "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" and "99 Problems," and with Kingdom Come and American Gangster's success in between, the 2009 release of The Blueprint 3 showcased "Empire State of Mind," "Young Forever," and "Run This Town." Cut to last year and we have another genius collaboration with Kanye West that resulted in the dramatic and distinctive album entitled Watch the Throne. At the end of the day, I don't think that Jay-Z has sold out at all, I just think that he is one of the smartest men in hip-hop and that he has played his career extremely well. He knows the formula for success, but more importantly, he knows how to execute it without sounding repetitive and while embracing with open arms all the ways in which the genre has evolved. For the fun of it, the Jay-Z video included above is for his very first single "I Can't Get With That," and serves to put into perspective all of the ways in which he's evolved over the past twenty years.
Lastly, my list comes full circle with the inclusion of Eminem. Em started out in the rap game by trying to make music with some amateur hip-hop groups and by showing his skills at freestyle battles in Detroit. In 1996, he released his debut album entitled Infinite, but other than fortifying his underground rep and proving that a white kid could hang in a game otherwise predominantly run by African-American artists, it didn't meet with much success. It wasn't until collaborating with Dr. Dre for the release of The Slim Shady LP in February of 1999 that Eminem stunned critics and catalyzed his commercially successful hip-hop career. "My Name Is" let everybody know that he literally "Just Don't Give a Fuck" if people thought he was offensive or controversial, as long as they knew who he was and that he planned on ripping the genre a new one. The success continued for Slim with the May 2000 release of The Marshall Mathers LP, which was also executively produced by Dr. Dre and included the singles "The Real Slim Shady" and "Stan." His fourth, and I think my favorite album, The Eminem Show, was released in 2002 and earned him his third Grammy in four years for "Best Rap Album."
Although the 2004 release of Encore met with commercial success, Eminem doesn't seem as present to me on that album in comparison with his others, and the judges for the Grammy's seemed to agree because it was his only major studio album that didn't win a "Best Rap Album" award. After a five-year hiatus he released Relapse in 2009, and even though it won two Grammy's and performed really well on the charts, I wanted more out of Eminem after waiting for so long. That being said, Recovery impressed me across the board from dope guests like Lil Wayne to bringing back that raw talent in short, powerful tracks like "Despicable." I think that Recovery also showed how Em has been maturing throughout his rap career without losing the abrasiveness that so characterizes him. Also, last summer he finally put out an album through Bad Meets Evil, his hip-hop project with Royce Da 5'9" which is called Hell: The Sequel and hit #1 on the Billboard 200 charts.
In no way do I think this list covers all of the amazing artists and producers who have contributed to the genre, but when forced to narrow down those who I think have changed the hip-hop game in lasting ways, these are the people I came up with.
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"Ye judge after the flesh; I judge no man."
~Jesus, John 8:15