The fifty greatest rap groups of all time
There's something great about a hip-hop group. From the beginning, rap was never intended to be a solo endeavor; it began in cyphers at block parties, and the first established rappers were components of a collective centered around the more important DJ. Even now that the rapper is the star, it's nice to have that change in voice, tone and perspective to give songs and albums depth of character that one MC simply can't provide. Keep reading for the full list of the fifty greatest rap groups of all time.
50. Odd Future Love 'em or hate 'em, Odd Future has reignited the independent hip-hop world in a way not seen in quite a while. Their fans are rabid, possibly literally, so they won't be going anywhere anytime soon, either. Tyler, the Creator, though a mediocre rapper and producer, is a cult-type leader and one of the best visual artists hip-hop has seen since Hype Williams. Musically, Earl is one of the best rhymers today, while Domo Genesis and Hodgy Beats are also solid, Frank Ocean exploded last year with Channel Orange, and Left Brain is an apt producer.
49. People Under the Stairs People Under the Stairs are the only group I've found thus far where I can put the entire discography on shuffle and be content not to skip any songs all the way through. Both Thes One and Double K have a consistent, old-school flow that never really amazes but never disappoints, either. Thes One handles all of the duo's production, and that, too, has reached a high level of consistency, never seeming forced and dependably communicating the laid-back vibe that PUTS fans know so well.
48. Black Moon Stylistically, Black Moon doesn't stand out much from the other acts coming out of New York in the mid-'90s, particularly the Wu-Tang Clan, but that be interpreted as a compliment, because lyrically and sonically at their best, as on Enta da Stage, they can go toe-to-toe with the Wu. They haven't been as consistent as the Wu, though, nor do they have a comparably immense catalogue. Still, their contribution with that one album is enough.
47. Binary Star Binary Star began with a budget of $500. Although it only ended up releasing one full-length original album, Waterworld, which was remixed and remastered to create Masters of the Universe, the duo became a critically acclaimed and essential piece of the Midwest underground. Binary Star reunited to release an EP less than a month ago to celebrate its fifteenth anniversary.
46. Souls of Mischief Souls of Mischief was eventually subsumed into the larger collective Heiroglyphics, and although the two crews are similar in sound and style, Souls should be remembered both for its innovation, without which Heiro could not have existed, and its debut album, 93 'til Infinity, whose title track is one of the best-produced in hip-hop history.
45. Heiroglyphics Seeing a Heiro show is kind of like seeing a cypher on a street corner: The style is free-associative and off-the-cuff, like an off-the-dome freestyle session, but without the inevitable occasional wack line. Though Del tha Funkee Homosapien is the only artist out of Heiro to be successful by himself, the whole group is solid together, having constructed an aesthetic that each member can all be successful in.
44. Das EFX Das EFX has only recently been discovered by the younger generation, thanks in part to numerous references by Dave Chappelle and a great sample of "They Want EFX" by Beautiful Lou for A$AP Rocky's Live Love A$AP mixtape. To the older generation, Das EFX is well known for its unique stiggidy style, which at one point, everybody in the game tried and failed to duplicate.
43. The LOX The LOX, which comprises Jadakiss, Styles P and Sheek Lounge, is one of the more talented ensembles in recent memory. Before each of the members launched solo careers, to varying degrees of success, they were a renowned group known for their cutting realism. They were originally signed to Bad Boy but made waves by launching a widespread "Free the LOX" protest for their release, which eventually worked and allowed them to move to Ruff Ryders before later starting their own label, D-Block.
42. Three 6 Mafia Perhaps more descriptively known as Triple 6 Mafia, this Memphis group is notorious for its amoral themes and dark atmospheres in its early music. Eventually, the members lightened up, sacrificing their blatant wantonness for a more friendly lewdness. The group has seen several rotations in its lineup, but founding member Juicy J remains influential as a producer, hypeman and occasional rapper.
41. Black Star People often forget that before Mos Def and Talib Kweli existed as solo artists, they were together as Black Star, whose self-titled debut was one of the best albums of the year and included the powerful "Thieves in the Night" track, which borrowed themes from Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye. They would almost certainly be higher on the list had they remained together, but their second project, for whatever reason, remains in limbo.
40. Slum Village Slum Village has seen many permutations, and, unfortunately, its two most talented members, the late, great J Dilla and Elzhi, never got the chance to work with each other. As a beatmaker, J Dilla is one of the most influential ever. He had a talent for taking samples way out of context, even fragments of unrecognizable words, stripping them down to their barest emotional state and building an atmosphere around them. Slum Village released its best work, Fantastic, Vol. 2, while Dilla was still known as Jay Dee and before Elzhi was recruited.
39. Jurassic 5 Taking cues from the Cold Crush Brothers, a group from way back, Jurassic 5 is almost like the barbershop quintet of the rap world, the way its members' distinct voices blend together to form a textured sound that's oh-so-pleasant to listen to. The rappers are also skilled individually, lyrically, but especially rhythmically, anchored by Chali 2na's smooth baritone.
38. D.I.T.C. D.I.T.C. -- which stands for Diggin' in the Crates, the practice of unearthing uncommon or unconventional records for sampling -- never got exposure in accordance with its level of talent, but the crew's lineup is a veritable all-star team of '90s talent: Big L, Lord Finesse, Fat Joe, Buckwild, Diamond D. Unfortunately, Big L, arguably the most talented lyricist of the bunch, died before D.I.T.C.'s self-titled debut release, which probably explains how this group didn't absolutely explode.
37. Blackalicious Blackalicious's best known track is rightfully "Alphabet Aerobics," a massively alliterative exercise whose demonstration of breath control is exceeded in impressiveness only by its literary ambition. But Blackalicious is no one-trick pony; thanks to rich and distinctive production by Chief Xcel and technically impressive lyrics by Gift of Gab, Blackalicious has released three equally impressive albums.
36. M.O.P. On one of their skits off of their landmark To the Death album, an interviewer asks M.O.P. if their music promotes positive outlooks among their listeners to which they laugh hysterically and say shortly, "Next question." To M.O.P., limiting the scope of their music to simple positivity would betray the dark, unforgiving world they not only experience, but relish. Their violent tendencies come out not only in their very explicit lyrics, but in their assuming, kinetic voices.
35. Brand Nubian Brand Nubian was one of the first groups to bring the teachings of the Nation of Gods and Earths to prominence in rap music and has since been credited as one of the trailblazers in the "conscious" rap category. Indeed, the group's music focused on gaining a better understanding of self in the face of life's corrupting influences. The controversial teachings of the Nation perhaps limited Brand Nubian's commercial success, but on the other hand, the act's refusal to compromise its beliefs was one of the things that made it so influential.
34. Fat Boys One of Jay-Z's favorite groups (he bemoans their breakup in his hit "The Heart of the City"), the Fat Boys were one of the first rap groups to achieve considerable mainstream success. Their 1987 album Crushin' was one of the earliest rap albums to go platinum, but their commercial success was long and sustained. They also helped popularize the art of beatboxing thanks to Big Buff Love, the Human Beatbox.
33. Whodini Whether you're aware of it or not, you've likely heard some of Whodini's music, even if you haven't heard it directly from the group itself. Whodini is a favorite sample choice by artists from 2Pac to MF DOOM, an appropriate role to play in modern music considering that they were one of the pioneering forces in sampling themselves. Their album Escape is cherished as one of the period's best, including standout tracks "Five Minutes of Funk" and "Freaks Come Out at Night."
32. Ultramagnetic MCs Led by the criminally underrated MC Kool Keith and the hyper-influential producer Ced Gee, the Ultramagnetic MCs released Critical Beatdown, one of the best, most forward-thinking hip-hop albums of the '80s. Still making music well into the 21st Century, the Ultramagnetic MCs are one of the longest running groups in hip-hop, and one of the most well-respected.
31. Camp Lo Camp Lo escapes effective categorization. There was nothing else that sounded very much like their 1997 debut, Uptown Saturday Night. They took cues from A Tribe Called Quest, but they were more flamboyant and had a definite California edge to them, as well. But they never really got their due commercially. They were likely too smart for their own good.
30. Goodie Mob I'm hesitant to say Goodie Mob was one of the first self-aware artists that came out of the Dirty South (a term which they coined) because even hardcore artists like Scarface were intensely self-aware. But along with OutKast, Goodie Mob was one of the first to bring a more introspective self-awareness to the area, as indicated by their full name, "Good Die Mostly Over Bullshit." Their debut, Soul Food, is regarded as a southern classic.
29. The Sugar Hill Gang Ah, the Sugar Hill Gang, the best and worst thing to happen to hip-hop. On the one hand, the act commercialized hip-hop and brought it to a wider audience. On the other hand, the group commercialized hip-hop and brought it to a wider audience. Either way you look at it, the group was massively influential with the single, "Rapper's Delight," as well as "Apache," which employed what would become one of the most used samples in hip-hop, and "Eighth Wonder."
28. Mobb Deep Mobb Deep has had an illustrious career that spanned seven albums and more than a decade, but, really, they'll be forever remembered for a single, legendary song, "Shook Ones, Pt. II," which took an unlikely Herbie Hancock sample and transformed it into a nihilistic anthem. With tracks like "Survival of the Fittest" and "Quiet Storm," Mobb Deep is far from a one-hit wonder, but, at the end of the day, Havoc and Prodigy will remain the arbiters of who is and who is not shook.
27. The Cold Crush Brothers One of the better known crews before hip-hop's golden age, when the form became widely popular, the Cold Crush Brothers were masters of synchronized flow much in the same vein of Jurassic 5, who are undoubtedly influenced by this unheralded group. While many of the earliest hip-hop artists were sloppy rhymers, the Cold Crush Brothers were one of the first groups to take flow seriously, constructing incredibly tight bars that don't sound nearly as dated as they are.
26. Little Brother Little Brother is widely recognized for introducing 9th Wonder, one of the best producers of his generation, but Little Brother's lyrical prowess, especially that of Phonte, must also be recognized. The group first gained mainstream attention for its controversial album, The Minstrel Show, whose single "Lovin' It" could not be played on BET because it was, according to the network, "too intelligent." Not a bad criticism to face.
25. The Fugees Anchored by the impeccable lyricism of Ms. Lauryn Hill, the Fugees (short for refugees) exploded into the collective consciousness with their six times platinum album, The Score. The group was a crossover phenomenon thanks to tracks like "Killing Me Softly," a cover of the song Roberta Flack popularized, which could never have co-existed with the other tracks on most hip-hop releases.
24. Cypress Hill Cypress Hill is loved most, perhaps unfairly, for their unbridled enthusiasm for Denver's favorite plant, but this crew have put out some of the most commercially viable hardcore rap to date, led by B-Real's nasally, agitated voice, effectively toeing the line between rap and rock, which is a feat that produces far more failures than successes to this day. They even went toe to toe with the great Ice Cube and forced a draw.
23. 8Ball & MJG While UGK was making waves in Houston, 8Ball & MJG were using much the same formula with a slightly different, more pimp-centric edge in Memphis. 8Ball & MJG still don't get the credit that UGK (arguably an underrated group themselves) gets, despite being similarly important at the same time. Their first hit album, Comin' Out Hard was like a Pimpology-101 audiobook. The group made music that was streetwise, exciting, grimy and chock-full of personality.
22. Boogie Down Productions Before the tragic death of Scott La Rock, Boogie Down Productions was one of the most potent gangsta rap groups in New York. With "The Bridge is Over" and "South Bronx," the group, led by KRS-One, ignited and promptly finished one of the first rap battles in history. When Scott la Rock died shortly after the release of Criminal Minded, the group changed their focus to one that was more progressive. Now, KRS-One is known as one of the most distinguished teachers in hip-hop.
21. Naughty by Nature Naughty by Nature was one of the few acts that was beloved by both the hardcore rap fans and the mainstream, accomplished with infectious beats and catchy hooks -- as in "O.P.P," which included a sample of the Jackson 5's "A.B.C.," the commercial smash from twenty years before -- that allowed casual fans to enjoy the sound of the music and a lyrical prowess that cemented their status as one of the preeminent rap groups of the time. Their massive appeal led to them taking the first ever Best Rap Album Grammy for Poverty's Paradise.
20. The Pharcyde Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde is a great hip-hop album and almost as good of a comedy album. It does, after all, feature a track consisting entirely of "Ya Mama" jokes and a track of hilarious situations that make you say, "Shit," including almost making it with a cross-dresser. And while these idiosyncrasies made the Pharcyde stand out in the '90s when gangsta rap was the norm, it is the textured production and chemistry between the four members that makes it timeless.
19. Jungle Brothers While A Tribe Called Quest is usually cited as the best example of the jazz/hip-hop hybrid, it was done earlier by the Jungle Brothers, who were similarly inventive with their blending of house music with hip-hop with their track "I'll House You" off their debut Straight Out the Jungle. The Jungle Brothers were a part of the Native Tongues collective alongside De La Soul, both pioneers in the alternative hip-hop movement during rap's Golden Age.
18. Salt-n-Pepa Salt-n-Pepa did more than just give voice to females in a genre that was and still is vastly male, they were a critical force in mainstream hip-hop with singles like "Push It," "Let's Talk About Sex," "Shoop" and "Whatta Man." The two MCs and their also female DJ Spinderella were certainly no circus act; they sported sophisticated flows, minds and content and personality that set them apart at a time when most rappers didn't know what to talk about besides how good they were at rapping.
17. UGK One of the most potent duos to come out of the South, UGK achieved moderate success before the untimely death of Pimp C, a skilled producer and charismatic MC. UGK was worshiped in their hometown Houston and throughout the South and helped pave the way for some of the South's most celebrated and successful rappers like Ludacris and T.I. and current up and comers like Big K.R.I.T.
16. Gang Starr Guru was a relatively ordinary lyricist in his own right -- though he had a good album with Jazzmatazz, Vol. 1 -- but, thanks to one of hip-hop's most innovative and innately talented DJs and producers, Guru's slow flow and positive vibes proved effective across six albums. Preemo's brilliant recontextualization of jazz, funk and soul samples into simple but mesmerizing loops has inspired a new generation of producers, and his work can be found on some of the greatest albums of all time.
15. Bone Thugs-n-Harmony Bone Thugs are probably the most unique group in rap history in that no other group has been successful doing what they do, which is singing and harmonizing at a high level, yet maintaining their credibility as not only hardcore rappers, but ones who are both lyrically gifted and technically vicious. Individuals like Nate Dogg have done it by themselves, but the odds of assembling such a remarkable cast by natural means seems remote.
14. De La Soul De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising was one of the most radically innovative hip-hop albums in history. Supposedly, the original concept for the album was that the three MCs were microphone plugs picking up signals from mars, which explains their "Plug" nicknames, so a creative product was inevitable. The album is also credited with first using skits as album breaks, a practice which has only recently gone out of style. While De La's music is usually fun first and foremost, it has also been socially aware and progressive, best exemplified by tracks like "Stakes is High" and "Itsoweezee."
13. EPMD Erick Sermon and Parrish J Smith were two smooth-talking rappers that, before their first breakup in 1993, released three albums Strictly Business, Unfinished Business and Business As Usual (all of their albums had the word "business" in the title) that helped define hip-hop's sound during the Golden Age in the late '80s and early- to mid-'90s. Their sound followed the languid trajectory set by Rakim's Paid In Full and used funk samples when other rap acts weren't to accentuate that laidback quality.
12. A Tribe Called Quest While the '90s in New York and abound were largely dominated by N.W.A.'s gangsta influence, an alternative voice in hip-hop, led by A Tribe Called Quest, began to stake its own claim, recognizing that radical leftism and hardcore nihilism couldn't possibly represent the entire hip-hop movement. The Tribe spoke to a much more ordinary existence, though not one without meaning, and empowered young people to be themselves and just themselves, because that was interesting enough.
11. Geto Boys Geto Boys were the first group to really, really make waves in the South with an entire generation of MCs emulating their hard-with-a-streak-of-tenderness style. Plus, they introduced Scarface, the greatest individual rapper to emerge from below the Mason Dixon Line. Behind the power of a controversial release, We Can't Be Stopped, and one incredibly powerful single, "Mind Playing Tricks on Me," Geto Boys put Houston and indeed the South on the map for good.
10. The Roots Philadelphia's Roots have been consistently putting out top-tier hip-hop for twenty years now, and while they haven't found overwhelming commercial or pop success, their catalog is impeccable, not only in maintaining a high level of artistic dignity, but providing an up-to-date social commentary on the current sociopolitical landscape with each release. The group's musicality is driven by ?uestlove, music scholar and drummer extraordinaire, and by the impassioned poeticism of MC Black Thought, one of the more underrated lyricists of this generation. With the Roots, you are not only guaranteed an enjoyable listen with each album, you're guaranteed a self-contained experience, one that will challenge you to think and explore mental realms you didn't know existed.
9. Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force Led by Afrika Bambaataa, the architect of the Universal Zulu Nation -- which included other listmembers such as Brand Nubian, A Tribe Called Quest and the Jungle Brothers -- and one of the earliest, most foundational DJs in hip-hop history, the Soulsonic Force fronted a musical movement in hip-hop toward electronic music with tracks like "Planet Rock" and "Looking for the Perfect Beat" that would go on to influence other impactful DJs such as the Egyptian Lover and Kool DJ Red Alert.
8. Beastie Boys Who would have thought the most unlikely rap group, three Jewish boys in a time where a legitimate white rapper was virtually unheard of, would eventually be considered one of the greatest groups in New York's history? The Beasties actually formed originally as a punk band, which was moderately successful, before wisely moving on to rap where they would amass six platinum studio albums, including Paul's Boutique -- a high-concept practice in postmodernism, gathering samples as little bits of nostalgia and arranging them as one would on a shelf in a boutique -- generally regarded as one of rap's best ever albums, despite not being one of the Beastie's top-selling.
7. Public Enemy The idea that hip-hop has always been politically self-aware and only recently has it strayed from that course is often tossed around, but it's not true. Although, in many ways, the birth of hip-hop was fundamentally a political movement, the earliest rappers spoke mostly about partying and self-aggrandizement, save for a few, such as Brother D With Collective Effort and Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five on occasion. Public Enemy was the first seriously political group to garner mainstream attention, which they did in spectacular fashion, releasing multiple gold and platinum albums. P.E. helped make counter-culture part of mainstream culture, and they brought into question the legacy of heroes like John Wayne and Elvis, for instance, in "Fight the Power."
6. Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five Back in the days when the centerpiece of hip-hop was the DJ and not the MC, Flash & the Furious Five were one of the earliest, most essential cogs in the growing hip-hop machine. After the rise of the Sugarhill Gang, with "Superrappin'," the group staked their claim in the blossoming movement. With "The Message," a series of vignettes that painted a dark portrait of the bleak existence in the ghettos of New York, the group was the first to truly realize hip-hop's political edge.
5. N.W.A. If Los Angeles isn't a mecca for rap, it's at least a Medina, and it's all thanks to N.W.A. Although rappers like Too $hort were making good music in California before Ice Cube, Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, MC Ren and DJ Yella took over completely, N.W.A. brought West Coast realities to the American family's kitchen table and force-fed mothers of all kinds the violent tales of street life. N.W.A., which created a culture within a culture, was razor sharp and way ahead of its time.
4. The Wu-Tang Clan More than just creating a free-associative style that would be emulated ceaselessly throughout the '90s and to this very day, the Wu-Tang Clan engineered an aesthetic and model for profitability with only a spiritual guide, the GZA, a mastermind producer, the RZA, and a crew of like-minded individuals whose whole was more than a collection of their parts. Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers is a landmark album that would help recapture the focus of the rap world from the wild West Coast and lead to an outburst of creativity in 1994 with Nas, Mobb Deep and Biggie, signaling an East Coast rebirth.
3. Eric B & Rakim Eric B and Rakim's records sold, but they didn't sell to the level of a Run D.M.C., N.W.A. or Public Enemy, so in that respect, they are a rapper's rap group, widely acknowledged for their immense contribution to the progression of hip-hop amongst critics and their fellow artists. In particular, Rakim has been dubbed the God MC for his innovation with flow -- internal rhyme in particular. Rakim, also a sax player, cites John Coltrane as an influence: "I was trying to write my rhymes as if I was a saxophone player." The phrasing that resulted was the like of which had never been seen, influencing, by proxy if not directly, every MC to come, including the future architects of unconventional flow, Big Daddy Kane, Nas, Eminem, etc.
2. Run D.M.C. Run-D.M.C. made groundbreaking, transformative music that steered rap away from dance-hop like Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock" to a more hardcore sound, which would eventually lead to the gangsta rap that characterized most of the '90s, as well as New York's Golden Age that included EPMD, De La Soul and many other acts on this list. But more than their contributions within hip-hop circles, Run-D.M.C. is credited with many of the firsts that introduced rap to the outside world: the first number one R&B album, the first to land a major endorsement deal (Adidas), the first top ten pop album for a rap group. Run D.M.C. is one of those rare groups whose influence you cannot overstate.
1. OutKast When the Southern midland was stuck with a single recipe for success laid out by UGK and 8Ball and MJG, OutKast and the rest of the Dungeon Family breathed new life into the scene with a soulful introspection that was influenced by New York but was still fully entrenched in the southern style. Since their beginning albums, the duo went on the create some of the most imaginative, cross-genre music in hip-hop, particularly Stankonia, whose track "B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad)" was like a future-shock to the genre.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.