Is there any tired discussion more central to hip-hop then which emcee holds the title of Greatest Of All Time?
The constant debate, the plague of the YouTube comment section, the inspiration for too many trash tweets to count—crowning the GOAT MC is a cultural obsession. If you can’t bust out a top five dead or alive off the top of your head, you’re guaranteed a Biggie-sized eye roll from every rap nerd on the planet.
But common as they are and as they stand today, GOAT discussions are incredibly problematic. There’s approximately a 100% chance that the hip-hop community at large will continue to bicker over “who’s the best” until, at least, Tupac comes out of hiding and hops on a Migos remix to settle the debate once and for all. In all seriousness, though, the way we talk about "GOAT” rappers today is a circle-jerk at best, and a slap-in-the-face to history at worst.
For starters, what makes a rapper “great” in the first place? Often the popular accolades are as meaningless as the lists in popular publications when it comes to determining real quality, which makes it damn near impossible for all of us hip-hop-aholics to agree on any set of objective metrics to judge Nas against Jay against GFK against whoever else you think belongs on that pinnacle.
All of these cloudy standards combined with some good ol’ fashioned favoritism has resulted in the same 15 or 20 names dominating the narrative in every discussion. Which is dumb. There are more rappers in the history of hip-hop than samples on a Dilla x Premier mash-up tape, so why should we spend all of our “search for the GOAT” energies barely scratching the surface?
The short answer is, we shouldn't. Below, we make a case for five all-time rappers who have been, by and large, criminally left out of the GOAT debate.
You know that cliché “legends never die”? It turns out that if they live long enough, start dropping more comedy movies than hot albums, and throw their name on just about anything, they, uh, kind of do.
Cube is rap greatness in the flesh, even if his career jumped the shark harder than Lost—which he probably would have taken a role in. Since he’s done such a stellar job of not taking himself too seriously, though, many people have forgotten about his prolific career, above and beyond the N.W.A. hits dramatized in “Straight Outta Compton.”
Know rap, and you know that Cube wrote most of Dr. Dre's early rhymes, as well as a host of lyrics for other N.W.A. members. Post-N.W.A. Cube had undeniably the strongest career of any former group member not named Dre, and in some respects, he even outpaced Compton’s favorite gangsta producer/rapper. Plus, say what you want about the gimmicks and money grabs, Cube is the sole owner of some of the grimiest, most in your face bars ever recorded.
I can forgive Are We There Yet? thanks to AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted and Death Certificate. At the end of the day, the history books will write about Ice Cube as an all-time great figure in hip-hop, and the rest will fade away to obscurity, gathering dust in a VHS library next to Nothing But Trouble. (Don’t Google that or search for it on Netflix. Really, though, don’t.)
If the U.S. population was made up of nothing but Houstonians, Scarface would be sitting at the very top of the game, revered at Nas and Jay levels. From his trailblazing work with the Geto Boys to a lengthy and incredibly consistent solo career, it's a travesty that many newer generation hip-hop fans probably couldn’t spit even one line from Face’s lengthy and incredibly consistent career.
Now as I open up my story / With the blaze of your blunts / And you can picture thoughts slowly / Up on phrases I wrote / And I can walk you through the days that I done / I often wish that I could save everyone / But I’m a dreamer
While Face never quite achieved large-scale commercial success on his own, most, if not all, of your favorite GOAT contenders have jacked or casually borrowed some element of his style, or at the very least rate him as an important inspiration.
And it’s easy to see why: lyrics for days, an ability to translate the violence and hardship of his environment as deftly as he could communicate his inner turmoil and anguish, and an ear for beats that places him head and shoulders over many of his peers from the era whose production hasn’t aged well. He has also outshined nearly every legendary emcee to join him on a track, including 2Pac ("Smile"), Jay Z ("Somehow, Someway") and Nas ("Favor for a Favor").
He's near the top of your favorite's list; leave Scarface off of yours, and ya played yaself.
Amongst hardcore hip-hop heads, Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal is shown plenty of love. But the late emcee's true artistic brilliance is often overshadowed by the equally legendary status of his longtime partner, GOAT contender in his own right, DJ Premier.
You don’t need to look any further than the long-running Jazzmatazz series for evidence of Guru’s unique, independent musical vision. Combine the pure steez of those sessions with the undeniable slickness of just about every line the man has ever spit, and Guru makes his own case for the crown.
Seriously, throw on some headphones and just press play.
I Self Lord and Master shall bring disaster to evil factors / Demonic chapters shall be captured by Kings
Sadly, following his tragic passing in 2010, the veteran MC’s popularity began to fade. Guru isn't a name that is often heard in GOAT discussions but you'll never be wrong if you throw the legend’s hat in the ring.
When commentators often consider rappers like Big Daddy Kane or Rakim as top ten locks, their selections are always just as much about history and legacy as the music. And while her name is never held in the same esteem, MC Lyte has a resume just as strong as any of her male counterparts.
Lyte’s first records stand on a Sugarhill Gang level of historical importance, and in many ways were just as groundbreaking. In an industry still dominated by male artists, and riddled with gender barriers and explicit misogyny, the Brooklyn Beast released the first full-length album ever pressed up by a female rapper way back in 1988.
[The Queen] Nah, that's too corny / [The Sexy] Nah, that gets the guys too horny / [The Best] Now that sounds conceited / But what is true is true, so it has to be repeated
Aside from its historical significance, Lyte As A Rock has got jams for days. Every student of rap history would be wise to study Lyte’s debut for its progressive and revolutionary lyricism. Partially due to her perspective as a woman in the industry, Lyte was rapping about things rappers had never rapped about before, and she always did it with effortless style.
Del Tha Funky Homosapien
Del has cornered his generation's market on All Original Weirdo and for very good reason. Even if you’d never heard his tracks, peep his MC name and it’s obvious Del tha Funky Homosapien is all about taking creative risks.
Throughout his career, that artistic fearlessness has manifested itself in a catalog filled with classics. From the masterfully innovative Deltron3030 to iconic Hieroglyphics crew cuts to a deep solo catalog, Del has put down a dizzying number of rhymes on wax. Each more creative than the last.
When you and your cutty is talkin' shit about me outside / People take pride in what they have no hand in / Sorta like a phantom holographic handsome / But deep inside he want to do what his man done / Just because his peers jeer and and clown / When you're six foot deep no one hears you now / They say were not compatible like deers and cows and owls / So many rules and regulations say you're not allowed
Smooth flows? Original voice? Creative angles? Classic albums? Del’s got it all. Anything I can think of that makes a rapper deserving of a spot in those top-ten or top-five discussions, Del’s been there and done that.
So why doesn’t his name pop up on more GOAT lists? Well, for starters, he's never achieved any mainstream success, so it's hard to appear on the lists of more casual hip-hop fans when those fans have never taken the time to dive into your more underground catalog.
On a broader scale, though, names like Del and Lyte don't appear in GOAT lists, and Cube, Face and Guru don't appear as high up as they should, because we've created a narrow narrative around the GOAT conversation.
Prove me wrong, though. Go ahead and drop a realistic top 5 in the comments below without mentioning Jay, Nas, Pac, Big or Em. If you’re stumped, I'd recommend bumping the five criminally underrated rappers on this list. A deep dive might help you pass out the crown.