One year ago, I took on the challenge of ranking the best rap and R&B artists of the past 20 years. Today, we wrap up the list. But first, go back and check out past installments:
Our massive project concludes with a look at the best rap groups in hip-hop history. Sure, rap groups are few and far between these days, but they were once a staple of hip-hop. In fact, this list was originally just going to count down the top 10 groups but there were so many glaring omissions that I extended the list to 20. Plus, I wasn’t in the mood to hear y’all fussin’ about your faves not making the cut. Also, I had planned to compile two separate lists: One of rap groups, and another for rap duos. But I felt like that was splitting hairs.
So consider this list the best of the best.
As always, for those of you ready to complain about your favorites being left off my list, here’s how the list was compiled: Rankings were determined by lyrical skill and creativity, sales success and overall impact on the industry and music culture. These aren’t just Edd’s favorites, they’re the best hip-hop has to offer.
Rap started with an MC and a DJ. That tradition has grown into rap duos and groups that redefined pop culture. Here are the groundbreakers.
Honorable Mentions: Salt-N-Pepa, Clipse, Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force, Three 6 Mafia, The LOX
Albums: One for All (1990); In God We Trust (1993); Everything Is Everything (1994); Foundation (1998); Fire in the Hole (2004); Time’s Running Out (2007)
Edd said: Brand Nubian certainly weren’t commercial juggernauts but that never seemed to be their goal. In fact, it was quite the opposite — Brand Nubian was all about raising the collective consciousness of listeners. Their teachings defined their legacy.
Albums: Soul Food (1995, gold); Still Standing (1998, gold); World Party (1999, gold); One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show (2004); Age Against the Machine (2013)
No. 1 singles: “Cell Therapy” (1995, rap)
Edd said: The soul of Southern rap, no pun intended, is embodied by the four men of Goodie Mob. Their brutally honest portraits of Southern life defined a region.
Albums: Too Hard to Swallow (1992); Super Tight (1994); Ridin’ Dirty (1996, gold); Dirty Money (2001, gold); Underground Kingz (2007, gold); UGK 4 Life (2009)
Edd said: Pimp C and Bun B have always been hip-hop royalty in Houston, but by the late 90s, their legend grew beyond Southern borders. Their influence can be heard in nearly every high-profile Southern spitter today.
Albums: Blunted on Reality (1994); The Score (1996, 6x platinum)
No. 1 singles: “Killing Me Softly” (1996, R&B)
Edd said: From underdogs to kingpins, the Fugees rose from the concrete of New Jersey to worldwide prominence. Their unique fusion of reggae, soul and hip-hop became their signature sound, catapulting their sophomore album The Score to legendary status. Sadly, their implosion deprived us of future classics.
Albums: 3 Feet High and Rising (1989, platinum); De La Soul Is Dead (1991, gold); Buhloone Mindstate (1993); Stakes Is High (1996); Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump (2000); AOI: Bionix (2001); The Grind Date (2004)
No. 1 singles: “Me Myself and I” (1989, rap and R&B)
Edd said: Innovators. Always thinking outside the box, De La is credited with being the first group to use skits as album breaks. The trio popularized jazzy samples, creating an alternative form of hip-hop that ruled the early ’90s. Their debut is considered a rap treasure, and their later works were just as strong.
Albums: Strictly Business (1988, gold); Unfinished Business (1989, gold); Business as Usual (1990, gold); Business Never Personal (1992, gold); Back in Business (1997, gold); Out of Business (1999, gold); We Mean Business (2008)
No. 1 singles: “Gold Digger” (1991, rap); “Crossover” (1992, rap)
Edd said: Hip-hop’s most prominent businessmen, Parrish Smith and the “Green-Eyed Bandit” Erick Sermon pioneered the East Coast rap sound with their smooth lyrics and funky samples. After enduring a nasty breakup in the mid-90s, they jumped back in the game right where they left off, inspiring a new generation of East Coast lyricists.
Albums: No More Mr. Nice Guy (1989); Step In the Arena (1991); Daily Operation (1992); Hard to Earn (1994); Moment of Truth (1998, gold); The Ownerz (2003)
No. 1 singles: “Take It Personal” (1992, rap)
Edd said: Hip-hop’s foundation was built on simple premise of MC and DJ. Gang Starr was the epitome of that combo. Guru was always a solid lyricist, but when he was backed by the heralded sounds of DJ Premier, those lyrics hit another level. The union has produced some of the game’s most memorable tracks.
Albums: Faces of Death (1993); E. 1999 Eternal (1995, 5x platinum); The Art of War (1997, 4x platinum); BTNHResurrection (2000, platinum); Thug World Order (2002, gold); Thug Stories (2006); Strength & Loyalty (2007, gold); Uni5: The World’s Enemy (2010); The Art of War: World War III (2013)
No. 1 singles: “Tha Crossroads” (1996, rap, pop and R&B)
Edd said: Remember the first time you heard Bone? Their melodies were intoxicating; their rapid-fire delivery was mind-boggling. To this day, no group — or individual rapper — has matched their soulful harmonies and tongue-twisting wordplay. They are a once-in-a-lifetime group.
Albums: Making Trouble (1988); Grip It! On That Other Level (1989); The Geto Boys (1990); We Can’t Be Stopped (1991, platinum); Till Death Do Us Part (1993, gold); The Resurrection (1996, gold); Da Good Da Bad & Da Ugly (1998); The Foundation (2005)
No. 1 singles: “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” (1991, rap)
Edd said: Yes, the Geto Boys are credited with introducing the rap world to Scarface, one of the best to ever touch a microphone. But as a unit, they’re equally potent, holding the Southern banner high long before more notable names began to shine.
Albums: Criminal Minded (1987); By All Mean Necessary (1988, gold); Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hip Hop (1989, gold); Edutainment (1990, gold); Sex & Violence (1992)
Edd said: When your favorite rappers “beef” today over catfights in the club, I just shake my head and listen to “The Bridge is Over,” one of hip-hop’s first battle records. BDP began their careers as one of the most hard core groups in the game, but after the death of Scott la Rock, the group became more focused on teaching than threatening. That evolution made KRS-One a hip-hop icon and BDP one of rap’s most important groups.
Albums: The Message (1982); On the Strength (1988)
Edd said: While they didn’t have very many albums on their resume, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five helped create the template for 80s hip-hop. Their socially conscious messages still ring as loudly today as they did in 1982.
Albums: Organix (1993); Do You Want More?!!!??! (1995); Illadelph Halflife (1996); Things Fall Apart (1999, platinum); Phrenology (2002, gold); The Tipping Point (2004); Game Theory (2006); Rising Down (2008); How I Got Over (2o10); Undun (2011); …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin (2014)
Edd said: If you think these guys are just a talk-show backup band, you’re long overdue for a hip-hop history lesson. The Roots have been one of rap’s most enduring acts, with poet laureate Black Thought spewing social consciousness over lush instrumentals. They’re one of the best bands of all time, no matter the genre.
Albums: People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990, gold); The Low End Theory (1991, platinum); Midnight Marauders (1993, platinum); Beats, Rhymes and Life (1996, platinum); The Love Movement (1998, gold)
No. 1 singles: “Check the Rhime” (1991, rap)
Edd said: The late 80s-early 90s have long been considered rap’s “golden age,” and arguably the final shining stars from that era were the Tribesmen. While West Coasts acts glorified gangsta culture, and later East Coast acts were obsessed with money and fame, Tribe sat comfortably in the middle, addressing relatable, real-word issues and encouraging listeners to just be themselves.
Albums: Licensed to Ill (1986, diamond); Paul’s Boutique (1989, 2x platinum); Check Your Head (1992, 2x platinum); Ill Communication (1994, 3x platinum); Hello Nasty (1998, 3x platinum); To the 5 Boroughs (2004, platinum); The Mix-Up (2007); Hot Sauce Committee Part Two (2011)
Edd said: The legacy of the Beastie Boys has been criminally overlooked in recent years, but make no mistake — if not for them, hip hop would not be what it is today. They were products of an era when rap was edgy, revolutionary, and downright fun. They also were rap’s first cash cows, with their debut selling 10 million copies.
Albums: Yo! Bum Rush the Show (1987, gold); It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988, platinum); Fear of a Black Planet (1990, platinum); Apocalypse 91 … The Enemy Strikes Black (1991, platinum); Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age (1994, gold); There’s a Poison Goin’ On (1999); Revolverlution (2002); New Whirl Odor (2005); Rebirth of a Nation (2006); How do You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul? (2007); Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear On No Stamp (2012); The Evil Empire of Everything (2012)
No. 1 singles: “Fight the Power” (1989, rap); “911 is a Joke” (1990, rap); “Can’t Truss It” (1991, rap); “Shut ‘Em Down” (1991, rap)
Edd said: Hip-hop’s origins started in house parties, but its destiny was to be a voice for social change. For decades, Chuck D’s poignant lyrics resonated with the blunt realities of black life. It may be commonplace now, but when PE blasted American icons like Elvis Presley and in favor of their own heroes, it was shockingly controversial. PE became the face of counter-culture, charting a new course for hip-hop.
Albums: Paid in Full (1987, platinum); Follow the Leader (1988, gold); Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em (1990, gold); Don’t Sweat the Technique (1992)
No. 1 singles: “Don’t Sweat the Technique” (1992, rap)
Edd said: Rakim is one of the greatest lyricists of all time. Anyone who argues that fact is just too young or too naive to know any better. His delivery was DECADES ahead of its time — his DNA is in the flow of nearly every high-profile rapper on the airwaves today. With Eric B at his side, Rakim fathered generations of lyricists.
Albums: Straight Outta Compton (1988, 2x platinum); Niggaz4Life (1991, platinum)
No. 1 singles: “Alwayz Into Something” (1991, rap)
Edd said: When uninitiated music critics hear the word “rap,” they immediately think “gangsta.” NWA is the reason for that. Their violent, brutal tales of 90s street life became a cultural phenomenon, bringing the realities of the streets into suburban America. Their run at the top was brief, but highly influential.
Albums: Run-DMC (1984, gold); King of Rock (1985, platinum); Raising Hell (1986, 3x platinum); Tougher Than Leather (1988, platinum); Back from Hell (1990); Down with the King (1993, gold); Crown Royal (2001)
No. 1 singles: “Down with the King” (1993, rap)
Edd said: My introduction to rap was seeing a Run-DMC poster on my cousin’s bedroom wall. And I’m sure I’m not the only one. Run-DMC was the bridge between early party rap and its later, more hard core sounds. But along with great music, you can’t deny their impact on pop culture — the Adidas shoe deal, success on the pop charts, and much later, reality TV fame. Run-DMC paved the way for rap’s commercial acclaim.
Albums: Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik (1994, platinum); ATLiens (1996, 2x platinum); Aquemini (1998, 2x platinum); Stankonia (2000, 4x platinum); Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (diamond); Idlewild (2006, platinum)
No. 1 singles: “Player’s Ball” (1993, rap); “Elevators (Me & You)” (1996, rap); “Ms. Jackson” (2000, rap, pop, and R&B); “Hey Ya!” (2003, pop); “The Way You Move” (2003, pop and rap)
Edd said: OutKast’s not only the best-selling rap group of all time. And individually, they’re not just two of the most creative rappers of all time. Their calling card is making a career out of doing the impossible — steamrolling through all limitations like a runaway train. Their evolution has been astounding — from Southern corner boys to fiery preachers to intergalactic pimps to off-kilter pop singers, their limitless imaginations have allowed them transcend rap. It’s almost as if they’ve created their own genre — they’re Southern, East Coast, and neo-funk all at the same time.
Albums: Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993, platinum); Wu-Tang Forever (1997, 4x platinum); The W (2000, platinum); Iron Flag (2001, gold); 8 Diagrams (2007); A Better Tomorrow (2014)
Edd said: The Wu isn’t the highest-selling group of all time, nor is their entire body of work flawless. But what they’ve become is the gold standard for hip-hop groups. They’re like rap’s X-Men: nine MCs with distinctly different personalities uniting for the greater good. They’ve produced classic rap records, launched a half-dozen successful solo acts, become synonymous with pop culture and almost single-handedly revived the East Coast rap scene in the mid-90s. Individually, the Wu are great, but they will always be synonymous with unity. That makes them the greatest rap group of all time.
Who did I miss? Let me know in the comments.