A crew is not the same thing as a group, which is an established act with one collective voice (e.g. Wu-Tang Clan, Run-DMC, A Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy, De La Soul, The Roots, Beastie Boys, Fugees, Geto Boys, Goodie Mob, The Lox, etc); rather, a rap crew is a collection of MCs who are affiliated, though are recognized—first and foremost—as solo artists.
Now, while many labels function as crews, not every label can be recognized as such—some contain multiple collectives which do NOT operate as one cohesive unit (e.g. Aftermath was the label through which two separate imprints, a la crews, functioned: Shady and G-Unit); further, while The Diplomats were signed to Roc-A-Fella, Dipset was acknowledged as a completely separate clique.
Before we get to the list, let’s go over a few rules:
Rule No. 1: We’re measuring each year’s contending crews based on a combination of three factors: 1) Commercial dominance, 2) Musical quality, and 3) Cultural impact.
Rule No. 2: The championship belt is given to the rap crew who owned that year with its collective body of work; in other words, no rapper can crown their crew the champ on the strength of their solo success alone.
Rule No. 3: A defending champion only loses the belt if they a) stop producing quality work, or b) get blown out of the water by another crew; so, just like in boxing, the belt can change hands in the same year—multiple times, at any given point.
Without further ado, here’s who’s held the Rap Crew Title Belt every year since 1992—the year that saw the rise of hip-hop’s first superteam.
Death Row, 1992—97
Key Players: Suge Knight, Dr. Dre, 2Pac, Snoop Dogg, Nate Dogg, Kurupt, Daz Dillinger
Essential Projects: Dr. Dre’s The Chronic (1992), Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle (1993), Death Row’s Above the Rim (1994) and Murder Was the Case (1994), Tha Dogg Pound’s Dogg Food (1995), 2Pac’s All Eyez On Me (1996) and The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory (1996)
Several rap dynasties have operated at their peaks longer (see Def Jam, Roc-A-Fella, Cash Money), but no hip-hop powerhouse in the genre’s history has been as dominant as Suge Knight’s empire was at its apex.
From 1992 to 1996, Death Row released seven straight multi-platinum, No. 1 albums: Above the Rim (2x platinum), Murder Was the Case (2x platinum), Dogg Food (2x platinum), The Chronic (3x platinum), Doggystyle (4x platinum), The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory (4x platinum), All Eyez On Me (Diamond).
They weren’t only the most talented and commercially successful label in the rap game, but also the most feared. Its six foot four, 300 pound CEO (Knight) was an ex-bodyguard who didn’t hide his gang affiliations—his office draped in the color red, his dog named Damu (Swahili for “blood”), and his pinky ring outfitted with large diamonds that spelled M.O.B. (allegedly standing for “Member of the Bloods”).
Even worse, its nucleus—while incredibly talented—wasn’t exactly made up of role models: its biggest star had an extensive criminal record and doubled as America’s most controversial artist (‘Pac); its most polarizing figure (Snoop), an alleged member of the Rolling Crips, was charged with first-degree murder while in the process of recording the album that made Death Row the biggest rap label on the planet (his ‘93 debut, Doggystyle); and its seemingly timid superstar producer (Dre) happened to be accused of brutally assaulting a female television journalist.
In other words, the Death Row roster was long on talent and rap sheets, but short on friendly individuals. Nevertheless, they were the first label-turned-dynasty that functioned as a legitimate crew.
Bad Boy, 1997—98
Key Players: Puff Daddy, The Notorious B.I.G., Mase, The Lox, Faith Evans, Total, 112
Essential Projects: The Notorious B.I.G’s Life After Death (1997), Puff Daddy’s No Way Out (1997), Mase’s Harlem World (1997), The Lox’s Money, Power & Respect (1998)
After years of being one-upped by Death Row, Bad Boy finally supplanted its rival in 1997. By assembling an extensive roster of superstar talent, Bad Boy’s success—for the first time ever—wasn’t solely dependent on Biggie. Of course, the label’s dominant run that year did begin with Big’s second LP, Life After Death, which dropped in March, just two weeks after he passed, and sold 690,000 copies in its first week.
From there, the Bad Boy Machine went on a tear unlike anything the genre has ever seen, a hot-streak cresting that summer with the release of Puff’s debut album, No Way Out. The project introduced the world to Bad Boy’s steady stable of stars, including the hottest rookie in the game (Ma$e), the best female rapper alive (Lil’ Kim), an up-and-coming R&B singer (Faith Evans), a Yonkers-based threesome (The Lox), and two R&B acts (112 and Total).
The dominance of Bad Boy in ‘97: Three No. 1 albums (Life After Death, No Way Out, Harlem World) that cumulatively sold more than 23 million copies; four No. 1 singles (“Hypnotize,” “Mo Money Mo Problems,” “I’ll Be Missing You,” “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down”), that altogether spent 22 out of 25 consecutive weeks atop the Hot 100; a pair of hits that peaked at No. 2 on the chart (“It’s All About the Benjamins,” “Been Around the World”); and three additional top-10 singles (“Feel So Good,” “What You Want,” “Lookin’ At Me”).
It’s safe to say that, two years after he became known as the producer who’s “all in the videos, all on the records, dancing,” Puff Daddy got the last laugh.
No Limit, 1998—99
Key Players: Master P, Mystikal, Silkk the Shocker, C-Murder, Mia X, Snoop Dogg
Essential Projects: Master P’s MP Da Last Don, Snoop Dogg’s Da Game Is to Be Sold, Not to Be Told, Mystikal’s Ghetto Fabolous, Silkk the Shocker’s Charge It 2 da Game, C-Murder’s Life or Death, Mia X’s Mama Drama— all of which were released in 1998
Many people tend to talk like Cash Money is solely responsible for establishing New Orleans as a Southern hip-hop hotbed, as if there wasn’t a five-year stretch during the mid-to-late-’90s when No Limit operated as the city’s premier label. And in 1998, millions of their signature Pen & Pixel-designed album covers flew off the shelves, as Master P’s legion of soldiers transcended their region to become the biggest rap crew in the game.
Of the 23 albums No Limit released that year, five went gold and nine went platinum, including three double platinum LPs (Mystikal’s Ghetto Fabolous, Silkk the Shocker’s Charge It 2 da Game, C-Murder’s Life or Death), and a pair of albums that sold a combined eight million records (Master P’s MP Da Last Don, Snoop Dogg’s Da Game Is to Be Sold, Not to Be Told).
Ruff Ryders, 1999—2000
Key Players: DMX, Eve, The Lox, Swizz Beatz, Drag-On
Essential Projects: DMX’s And Then There Was X (1999), Ruff Ryders’ Ryde or Die Vol. 1 (1999) and Ryde or Die Vol. 2 (2000), Eve’s Let There Be Eve...Ruff Ryders’ First Lady (1999), The Lox’s We Are the Streets (2000)
Entering 1998, the two labels that’d owned hip-hop over the past decade were nearing the end of their runs: Death Row was in shambles; Bad Boy was just beginning to come to grips with the loss of its biggest star. As such, hip-hop underwent a restructuring courtesy of DMX, who that year cemented his status as the Best Rapper Alive on the strength of back-to-back No. 1 albums, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot and Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood—released merely seven months apart.
The following year, X completed his takeover. It all started in April ‘99, when Ruff Ryders attempted to capitalize on their star’s breakout success by promoting its collection of talent with the label’s first compilation project, Ryde or Die Vol. 1. Laced with in-house producer Swizz Beatz’ rattling production, the LP introduced the world to DMX’s supporting cast, a roster that included The Lox—who’d recently left Bad Boy and signed aboard—Eve, Drag-On, and others. The album was a commercial success (peaking at No. 1 on the charts), but more importantly, it owned the streets with Tunnel bangers like “Down Bottom,” “Jigga My N***a,” and “Dope Money.”
As a result, the Ruff Ryders effectively ended the Shiny Suit Era with a gritty style that could only be the product of Yonkers—fittingly, a perfect counter to Bad Boy’s Harlem-infused bubble-gum sound.
Moneybagg Yo, Mick Jenkins & Bktherula: Best of the Week
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Key Players: JAY-Z, Beanie Sigel, Memphis Bleek, Freeway, Cam’ron, Just Blaze, Kanye West
Essential Projects: JAY-Z’s The Dynasty: Roc La Familia (2000), The Blueprint (2001), and The Blueprint 2 (2002), Beanie Sigel’s The Truth (2000) and The Reason (2001), Memphis Bleek’s The Understanding (2000), Cam’ron’s Come Home With Me (2002)
At the turn of the century, JAY-Z had yet to assemble a collection of talent that could go toe-to-toe with hip-hop’s reigning crews. Over the preceding three years, Bad Boy, Ruff Ryders, and Cash Money introduced their teams with superb compilation projects; Meanwhile, The Roc struck out with its effort to promote their roster via solo releases, as debut offerings from Memphis Bleek, Beanie Sigel, and Amil failed to move the needle.
In the fall of 2000, Jigga blessed fans with one of the greatest crew albums in hip-hop history, The Dynasty: Roc La Familia. At the time, though it was seemingly inevitable that any project penned by the Best Rapper Alive would be an event, it wasn’t a guarantee that it’d live up to the hype. Nevertheless, the LP delivered on its promise, partly due to JAY-Z’s star power and A-list performances by familiar soldiers, Beans and Bleek, and partly due to the arrival of Roc-A-Fellas next batch of stars (Freeway, Kanye West, and Just Blaze).
And yet, that was just the beginning of The Roc’s reign. Two years later, they possessed a superteam of MCs that remains one of the most talented crews in rap history: the GOAT, JAY-Z, at his creative apex; the hottest rapper alive, Cam’ron, and his legion of Diplomats, which included a rising star in 19-year-old Juelz Santana; a pair of soon-to-be superstar producers, Kanye and Just Blaze; and even a Philly collective consisting of Beans, Freeway, Young Gunz, and Peedi Crakk. If not for internal feuds and Jay’s forthcoming retirement, Roc La Familia would’ve owned the entire decade.
Key Players: Cam’ron, Juelz Santana, Jim Jones, Freekey Zekey, J.R. Writer, Hell Rell, 40 Call
Essential Projects: The Diplomats’ Diplomats Vol. 1-3 (2002) and Diplomatic Immunity (2003), Cam’ron’s Come Home With Me (2002), Juelz Santana’s From Me To U (2003)
The Rap Crew championship belt changed hands four times between 1997 to 2002, from Bad Boy to No Limit to Ruff Ryders to Roc-A-Fella to Dipset. And while their predecessors were arguably more successful (commercially, at least) none were as authentic as The Diplomats. With all due respect to Harlemite rap legends like Kurtis Blow, Kool Moe Dee, Big L, and Ma$e, the mecca belongs to Dipset—forever.
The Harlem collective was in many ways the Wu-Tang Clan of its era— a truly democratic group that valued loyalty above all else. Cam’ron, Juelz Santana, Jim Jones, and Freeky Zekey possessed varying rap styles, larger than life personalities, and movie-star charisma. Of course, the Diplomats were merely the crew; Dipset was the movement.
After signing with Roc-A-Fella in 2002, they catapulted into the mainstream on the back of Cam’ron’s monster album, Come Home With Me, which produced two smash hits in “Oh Boy” and “Hey Ma,” and in turn made Santana a household name. That summer, they revolutionized the mixtape circuit with their joint effort, The Diplomats Vol. 1, before exploding into the mainstream the following year thanks to Diplomatic Immunity, an instant classic album that ushered in the chipmunk soul sub-genre courtesy of the Heatmakerz and Just Blaze.
Key Players: 50 Cent, The Game, Lloyd Banks, Young Buck, Tony Yayo
Essential Projects: G-Unit’s Beg For Mercy (2003) and Get Rich or Die Tryin’ Soundtrack (2005), 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (2003) and The Massacre (2005), The Game’s The Documentary (2005), Lloyd Banks’ Hunger For More (2004), Young Buck’s Straight Outta Cashville (2004), Tony Yayo’s Thoughts of a Predicate Felon (2005)
Heading into 2003, all eyes were on 50 Cent. His come-up was mythical: After getting shot nine times outside of his grandmother’s home, he’s dropped from Columbia Records and blacklisted by the industry. He records song after song after song in a Queens basement and gets hot on the mixtape circuit. One tape lands in the hands of the biggest rapper alive, Eminem, who invites him to come to Los Angeles and meet Dr. Dre. He signs a $1 million record deal, is prominently featured on the 8 Mile soundtrack, and watches his first single, “Wanksta,” climb to the No. 13 spot on the Billboard Hot 100.
So, by the time “In Da Club,”—released as the first single from Get Rich or Die Tryin’ that January—peaked at No. 1 on the Hot 100, you already knew the album would live up to the hype. Arriving in February as the most anticipated debut since Snoop’s Doggystyle, Get Rich debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and sold 872,000 copies to become the biggest opening-week hip-hop debut of all-time (also the then-second biggest first-week sales total for any rap album ever). It was six-times platinum by the end of the year, with another No. 1 hit (“21 Questions”) and a top three single (“P.I.M.P”) to boot. It was a landmark pop culture moment, making 50 both the best rapper and biggest pop-star alive.
From there, Fif continued his hot streak and, to quote 2Pac, “let his homies ride on those bitch-made ass Dipset bitches.” From the jump, G-Unit felt like a dangerous crew and the perfect foil to The Diplomats, both sonically and stylistically. Whereas Dipset kept things light-hearted at times, G-Unit was pure gangsta rap. Released in November 2003, their debut album, Beg For Mercy, moved 390,000 copies in its first week and was certified double platinum by year end. Most impressively, though, 50 was so hot that the respective debuts of Lloyd Banks and Young Buck went platinum the following year.
Key Players: Birdman, Lil Wayne, Drake, Nicki Minaj, Tyga
Essential Projects: Birdman & Lil Wayne’s Like Father Like Son (2006), Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III (2008), and Tha Carter IV (2011), Drake’s So Far Gone (2009), Thank Me Later (2010), and Take Care (2011), Nicki Minaj’s Pink Friday (2010), Young Money’s We Are Young Money (2009)
When Juvenile declared “Cash Money Records taking over for the ‘99 and the 2000,” in the opening seconds of his breakout hit “Back That Azz Up,” it felt like he was simply speaking the inevitable into existence. At the time, Cash Money was at the beginning stages of its dynasty, as Juvenile’s ‘98 classic 400 Degreez begat the following year’s trifecta of Cash Money LPs, B.G.’s Chopper City in the Ghetto, Hot Boys’ Guerilla Warfare, and Lil Wayne’s Tha Block Is Hot, before the label kicked-off the 21st century with Big Tymers’ I Got That Work and the compilation Baller Blockin soundtrack.
But, as the calendar flipped from 2000 to 2001, the dynasty entered a downward spiral as Juvenile and Lil Wayne failed to match the success of their breakthrough albums. It wasn’t until 2004, following back-to-back flops—2000’s Lights Out and 2002’s 500 Degreez— that Lil Wayne was able to re-solidify Cash Money as one of the biggest forces in hip-hop, by way of his fourth studio album, Tha Carter. Over the next few years, Wayne snatched the throne on the strength of an iconic mixtape run, and a trio of classic LPs, 2005’s Tha Carter II, his 2006 collaborative effort with Birdman, Like Father, Like Son, and 2008’s Tha Carter III.
As if this wasn’t enough to cement Cash Money as the premier rap crew of the moment, Lil Wayne began an empire of his own, Young Money. Four years after the label was formed, it entered the zeitgeist in 2009 thanks to We Are Young Money, a compilation album which doubled as an introduction to Wayne’s pair of superstar protégés, Drake and Nicki Minaj.
Led by the Best Rapper Alive (Wayne), the hottest rookie in the game (Drake), and the best female rapper on the planet since Missy Elliott (Minaj), YMCMB was poised to own the 2010s.
G.O.O.D. Music, 2012—14
Key Players: Kanye West, Pusha-T, Big Sean, Kid Cudi, John Legend
Essential Projects: Good Music’s Cruel Summer (2012), Kanye West’s Yeezus (2013), Pusha-T’s My Name Is My Name (2013), Big Sean’s Hall of Fame (2013), Kid Cudi’s Indicud (2013), John Legend’s Love In the Future (2013)
Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Fridays series—a weekly free music release in which the rapper dropped 15 tracks over a four-month stretch between August and December of 2010—was used to promote his magnum opus, 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but in hindsight, it also functioned as the official introduction to his assembled dream team: a mix of breakout stars (Kid Cudi, Big Sean), seasoned veterans (Pusha-T, Common, John Legend), and up-and-coming talents (Cyhi The Prynce, Teyana Taylor).
Less than two years later, G.O.O.D. Music overthrew YMCMB as the hottest crew alive on the strength of the decade’s best posse cut, “Mercy.” Released in the spring of 2012, the track single-handedly generated buzz for the label’s forthcoming compilation album, which only grew with each subsequent offering from Kanye and Co. (“I Don’t Like (Remix),” “New God Flow,” “Clique”). And while Cruel Summer—which arrived that September—failed to live up to the hype, it did enough to transform Kanye’s label into one of the biggest in the business.
G.O.O.D. Music capitalized on its successful run in 2012, by scheduling a big release for each of the last three quarters of 2013: Kid Cudi’s third studio album, Indicud, which arrived in April, was followed that summer by Kanye’s Yeezus (June) and Big Sean’s sophomore effort, Hall of Fame (August), before the label’s latest signee, Pusha-T, dropped his debut solo album, My Name Is My Name, that October.
Black Hippy, 2014—Present
Key Players: Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, Jay Rock, Ab-Soul
Essential Projects: Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly (2015), Untitled Unmastered (2016), DAMN. (2017), Schoolboy Q’s Oxymoron (2013), Blank Face LP (2016), Ab-Soul’s Control System (2012)
Black Hippy arrived on the scene in 2011—a year which saw all four group members drop their debut studio albums—before positioning itself for hip-hop domination in 2012 on the back of ScHoolboy Q’s critically-acclaimed second album, Habits & Contradictions, and Kendrick’s first masterpiece, good kid, m.A.A.d. City. But by the close of 2013, the Compton collective appeared to have been supplanted by A$AP Mob, whose recent rise all but cemented the Harlem crew as the favorite to own the rest of the decade.
Then, in 2014, Black Hippy ended the debate with the release of Q’s Oxymoron. It was the rapper’s first commercial hit—debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and selling 139,000 copies in its first week—which minted ScHoolboy Q a star, and more importantly, proved that Black Hippy was not a one-man ensemble. The LP produced four hit singles (“Collard Greens,” “Studio,” “Man of the Year,” “Break the Bank”), and was certified platinum by the end of the year, thus cementing Kendrick and Q the best tag-team in hip-hop.
Over the next three years, the duo shared the spotlight while taking turns asserting their domination: 2015 belonged to Kendrick, whose second album, To Pimp a Butterfly, debuted at No. 1 and was regarded as the best rap album of the decade; the next year, 2016, saw Q establish his place as the 1B to Lamar’s 1A, by way of the most critically-acclaimed offering of his career, Blank Face LP; then, in 2017, the best rapper alive returned with his third straight masterpiece, DAMN., which doubled as the biggest commercial success in his catalog—after selling 603,000 copies in its first week, the album was certified triple platinum in 2018.
Aside from their pair of superstars, though, Black Hippy’s reign as the best crew in the game is largely due to the performance of its glue guys. Granted, neither Jay Rock or Ab-Soul have a commercially successful LP in their catalog, but in recent years, each has become your favorite critic’s favorite rapper, particularly the former, whose Redemption was regarded as one of the best albums of 2018.
With all four members of Black Hippy operating at their absolute apex, the Rap Crew title belt is theirs to lose.