Picking a “Top 5, dead or alive” of anything is always thrilling. Trying to encapsulate an entire genre, artist’s career or subsection of culture into just five entries is the kind of needlessly restrictive task that enthrals us at Hip Hop Hero. Picking out our Top 5 rap groups of all time, however, left us a little wary.
That’s not because we’re without options, quite the contrary. It’s because there are too many options to choose from. There are any number of groups that have formed and disbanded through the golden ages of hip hop, and that’s without classifying supergroups or ensembles as fleeting rap groups. However, below, we think we’ve nailed it down to the five most significant rap groups of all time.
Let us first address the elephant in the room. There are too many incredible groups in the hip hop world not to upset anyone with our list. The facts are, with only five entries to fill, picking out a list of participants that leaves everybody happy is impossible. So let us quickly list off some of the fantastic, groundbreaking and consistently brilliant rap groups that haven’t made the cut.
If you came to this list to see Run DMC take the top spot, then you will be sorely disappointed. The pioneering Superstar-wearing hip hop icons don’t break our top five. The same can be said for another influential group from the 1980s in Public Enemy, with Flava Flav and Chuck D just missing out.
Equally disappointing is the exclusion of Mobb Deep and their visceral rap sound, as well as Eminem’s D12 and New York’s own Beastie Boys. De La Soul, Geto Boys, Cypress Hill, Odd Future, Brockhampton, The Fugees and Three 6 Mafia also miss out. Given the high calibre of artists who didn’t make the cut, it’s worth reminding ourselves how great the artists that have taken the top spots really are.
Below, we’ve pulled together our five favourite rap groups of all time.
Five best rap groups of all time:
5. A Tribe Called Quest
Formed in New York’s St Albans back in 1985, A Tribe Called Quest have enjoyed a rollercoaster of fame and appreciation over the years. At first, Phife Dawg, Q-Tip, Jarobi White and Ali Shaheed Muhammad struggled to make their ascent in the hip hop world. However, the group’s 1991 jazz-influenced album Low End Theory would ensure they hit the big time.
Buoyed by huge hits like ‘Can I Kick It’, the group enjoyed a successful decade in the 1990s as the world’s premier alternative hip hop group before breaking up in 1998. Enjoying solo careers, they would eventually reform and are now finding more and more fans as conscious rap once again grabs a foothold.
4. Eric B and Rakim
There has never been a more perfect partnership than Eric B and Rakim. The rapping duo were the perfect meeting of man and machine as MC Rakim’s innate talent for rhyming met its match in Eric B’s dizzying DJ skills. It not only made for some killer records like Paid in Full and Follow The Leader but offered some inspiration for the finest rappers of the modern-day.
Often regarded as the crown jewels of the golden generation, the group wouldn’t last long but their mark on hip-hop will be burned on the genre forever. If some duos rely on one half more than the other, Eric B and Rakim is certainly the most balanced act on our list.
Smooth as butter and twice as rich, Eric B and Rakim should offer every listener, either first time or seasoned, the kind of emulsifying hip-hop fats that only make speakers smile.
Eminem, Jack Harlow, Big Sean and countless others all look to Andre 3000 and Big Boi as one of the finest musical pairings of all time. Though the group found mainstream success with their massive hit ‘Ms. Jackson‘ the Atlanta duo had been enthralling audiences for years, having formed the group in 1992 while still in high school.
Managing to provide a safe space between classic hip hop production and a new wave of polished up pop beats, Andre and Big would become the hottest property on the market with the turn of the millennium. But perhaps their greatest trick was being able to please everybody all of the time, keeping old heads bopping and new feet tapping. The band are way more than ‘Hey Ya’ and if you needed proof then just search ‘Outkast reunion’ and see the countless posts, year on year, month on month and week on week from their fans, begging the duo to reconnect.
As of now, Andre 3000 and Big Boi seemed determined to remain an ethereal act. However, we can only hope that, soon enough, they will return with their renegade brand of soulful hip-hop. An avant-garde pop sound, the duo broke out of the hip-hop mould to become worldwide stars without borders. Six albums and a concept film have proven over the years that, they’re the best of the best.
It has to be said that many of the artists who have filled the lower positions of our top five list have a far better discography than N.W.A. The Compton group, comprised of Eazy-E, Dr Dre, Ice Cube and MC Ren, may not have the musical mettle that the other entries on the list do, but what they lack in creative output they more than makeup with cultural significance.
In a world before Soundcloud, Bandcamp and Youtube meant that artists were able to express themselves to the masses at the touch of a button, N.W.A. managed to achieve the monumental feat of pushing a lyrical style that was confrontational, shocking and most importantly true to the real-life around them right into the heart of the mainstream.
Barely 60 seconds into their standout debut album Straight Outta Compton Ice Cube exclaims “AK-47 is the tool, don’t make me act the motherfuckin’ fool”. For those struggling to get by in crime-ravaged areas of the state, right under the nose of the apathetic millionaires of Hollywood, the record was musical documentation of a whole class’s searing anger. The album works as a glowing reminder of their culture-shifting power. There may well be better groups out there, but nobody can match the fork in the road N.W.A. gave us all.
1. Wu-Tang Clan
Wu, as they say, is life. It’s hard to underestimate just how important the Wu-Tang Clan were to the evolution of hip hop as we know it today. Concepts like ‘hardcore hip hop’ and ‘posse cuts’ had been firmly established within the genre. Still, the late 1980s East Coast hip hop world was populated mainly by alternative groups like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, groups that were softened and more palatable.
Meanwhile, out in Compton, California, a new group brought a harder, more aggressive, and more streetwise version of hip hop into the mainstream. To call N.W.A. controversial would be underselling it: this was a group whose most famous song was a direct attack on the police and got them a disapproving letter from the FBI as well as causing chaos and riots whenever they rolled into town. Never before had anyone in hip hop inspired so much zeal, fueled so much public rage, and attracted so much wanted and unwanted attention. The future of hip hop was now on the West Coast, and so began a footrace to be the most authentic group possible. Wu-Tang Clan have a rich history but a richer discography.
The Wu-Tang Clan didn’t need to prove their authenticity to anybody. They were a collection of friends and family members from the Stapleton Houses projects of Staten Island; the Wu created their own world of ‘Shaolin’, complete with violent altercations, drugs, chess, and kung fu references. Stepping into their debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) felt like stepping into an alternate universe, with its murky production and radical verses that found nine MCs, all bringing a different style to the fore. This is the eternal appeal of Wu.