The ten greatest East Coast rappers of all time
The East Coast, particularly New York, is the mecca of hip-hop. It is it's birthplace and still the most reliable source for pure, uncut, unadulterated rap music. Chronicling the great MCs from the region would result in a list of hundreds. Ranking the top ten proves somewhat limiting, but it's also an enjoyable task, comparing old with new and really weighing the merits and weaknesses of each. So while obviously there are more than ten East Coast rappers that deserve to be recognized, these are the ten greatest East Coast rappers of all time.
10. DMX DMX has a reputation for not being a super tactful guy, but his rhymes are just the opposite -- or even if they are a product of the impulsive, drug-fueled DMX that the media knows, they are still somehow laced with the focused sensibility of a true poet. With DMX, there's always that question of just how great he could have become had he stayed clean -- or at least kept his drug habits under control. As it stands, he's still one of the best-selling rappers of all time. His debut, It's Dark and Hell is Hot, showcased his talent for creating both hit singles like "Ruff Ryders' Anthem" and imaginative, compelling stories like "Damien."
9. Big L Big L had an understated, dry sense of humor that pervaded his rhymes, even at their blackest -- if he seemed slightly bemused at the thought of death, it was because he was in a state of permanent shock, "Street Struck," as he termed it. Technically, he was a top-notch rhymer, especially apt at crafting multisyllabic punch lines that were actually funny, unlike the usually masturbatory punchlines of today. Big L's subject matter was not generally high-brow, but he had a very sharp intellect. Although he was murdered before the release of his second album, The Big Picture, his talent was already apparent.
8. Big Pun Big Pun only got the chance to see one of his albums get released, Capital Punishment, but what a release it was, one of the best of the decade. His quick, agile lyrics belied the heavy frame that ultimately killed him. He moved skillfully between words English and Spanish with an ease that showed that he was an adept wordsmith no matter which words he chose.
7. Kool G Rap Around the same time that N.W.A. was popularizing gansta rap on the West Coast, Kool G Rap was engineering the similar but distinct genre of mafioso rap that championed the Scarface lifestyle. Though both gansta and mafioso are situated on the wrong side of the law, while the ganstas drank 40s and got wild, mafiosos indulged in the finer things like expensive champagne, gaudy coats and elegant dining -- along with drug dealing and violence. The mafioso style was later adapted by some of New York's greatest MCs: Jay-Z, the Notorious B.I.G., Big Pun and Ghostface Killah, among others. This aesthetic is reflected in G Rap's ostentatious rhyming style, which often packs several multisyllabic rhymes into a single line.
6. Big Daddy Kane If Big Daddy Kane hadn't already been experimenting with the advanced rhyming patterns he employed on Long Live the Kane and future recordings, he was the first to adapt to Rakim's game-changing flow and suit it to his more aggressive, slightly older school technique, not better seen than on "Ain't No Half Steppin'" from the aforementioned album. Where Rakim's music was pensive and poetic in the classic sense, Big Daddy Kane was more a rapper suited for battle, more dexterous and quick-witted. For a while, it was thought that a battle between Kane and Rakim was imminent, but it never happened. "Rakim is a great rapper, but, you know, he's not a battle rapper," Kane said on the prospect of a battle with the God. "I don't really think that's even competition."
5. LL Cool J LL recorded his first platinum album in 1985 and his latest gold album in 2006. While, in songs like "Rock the Bells" and "Mama Said Knock You Out," his straight up rhyming skill and raw confidence elevates him above the average rapper, his incredible staying power can be attributed to his willingness to make the occasional pop song, which kept his name on the charts, regardless of what type of music was trending. Then, to keep credibility, LL collaborated with rising young MCs whose entry into the industry would be helped by his cosign. LL Cool J was more than just a master of rhyming, he was a master of the game.
4. Jay-Z "I am the Mike Jordan of recording," says Jay-Z in "Show Me What You Got." The comparison is apt both with the early, short-lived retirement and the two distinct peaks of greatness (The Blueprint and The Black Album), following the incredible rookie campaign that was Reasonable Doubt. Jay-Z is noted for never writing verses down, not one, according to him, since the second verse of "Can I Live" on Reasonable Doubt, though he describes recording not as a spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment thing, but as a well organized series of thoughts that just never made it to paper -- that's how well he's internalized the art of rhyming.
3. Notorious B.I.G. Biggie's career was cut short in 1997, just three years after his tragically prophetic debut, Ready to Die was released. The posthumous and appropriately titled Life After Death was a true mafioso-pop album with singles like "Hypnotize" and "Mo Money Mo Problems" receiving massive air time. The album would eventually become one of the very few rap albums to sell ten million copies. Although Big's subject matter is sometimes worn, especially looking back from today, he is a master of flow, storytelling and his powerful confidence and charisma lend his rhymes extra gravitas that can make simple words compelling.
2. Rakim Rakim has been dubbed the God MC for his innovation with flow, particularly internal rhyme. Also a sax player, Rakim 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.
1. Nas Though he is a legend in every rap fan's book, Nas suffers an inescapable qualifier of his own making: the inability to escape the shadow of his legendary debut, which has even led some to label Nas overrated, but the rest of his work is only weak in comparison to his greatest, and it's clear that no rapper could have adequately followed Illmatic because the album remains, to this day, hip-hop's greatest, most perfect treasure. And even if he hasn't made another classic album, per se, Nas has earned plenty of other accolades that would make a lesser rapper's career: His diss track on Jay-Z, "Ether," has become the standard verb for slaying another rapper lyrically; his flow was influential in a way not seen since Big Daddy Kane and Rakim; and his storied career, littered with number one and platinum albums with no glaring weaknesses, is a testament to his consistent greatness. Nas's lyrics reach a poetic depth that few, if any, other rappers have touched.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.