Welcome to the King of New York, a borough-by-borough breakdown of every rapper who’s worn the crown. Before we dive in, let's lay some ground rules.
Rule No. 2: Three New York rap hotbeds did not make the cut: 1) Staten Island (passing the crown between Wu-Tang members is not entertaining), 2) Long Island (while Strong Island produced four kings in the ‘80s—Rakim, Public Enemy’s Chuck D, EPMD’s Eric Sermon, and De La Soul—the throne has been vacant for nearly 30 years), and 3) Yonkers (DMX, The Lox, and nobody else).
Rule No. 3: The “King of the Bronx/Queens/Brooklyn/Harlem” crown is given to the rapper who owned their respective borough that year based on a combination of three factors: Musical quality, impact on borough, city, culture, and commercial success.
Rule No. 4: A defending king only loses the crown if they a) stop producing quality work, or b) get blown out of the water by another MC; so, just like in boxing, the crown can change hands in the same year—multiple times, at any given point.
Rule No. 5: For the majority of New York MCs, their borough is clear cut—Biggie is from Brooklyn and Nas is from Queens—but several aren’t so cut and dry. To keep things buttoned up, let’s agree on the following: Prodigy and LL Cool J rep Queens (despite spending much of their childhoods in Long Island); Busta Rhymes and Biz Markie rep Long Island (despite being born in Brooklyn and Harlem, respectively).
With all of that being said, let's jump in.
Manhattan’s place in hip-hop history was shaped and nurtured “Uptown,” above 100th Street, in Harlem. A cultural beacon for black America since the beginning of the 20th century, Harlem has produced an endless array of hip-hop superstars over the course of the genre’s history.
Most every rapper who’s hailed from the neighborhood embodies its undeniable swagger, from the polished godfathers of Harlem rap (e.g. Kurtis Blow, Kool Moe Dee, Big L) to their flashy, fashion-forward successors (Ma$e, Cam’ron, and A$AP Rocky). And while Harlem’s stable of hip-hop talent isn’t as vast as The Bronx, Queens, or Brooklyn, there’s no denying that it’s long on quality.
Without further ado, here’s who’s held the King of Harlem Title Belt every year since 1980—the year that saw the rise of the borough’s first superstar rapper.
Kurtis Blow, 1980-81
Coronation: Crafting one of the first big hits in hip-hop history with his 1980 debut single “The Breaks”
Biggest Challengers: Spoonie Gee, Kool Moe Dee
Peak Position in NYC Power Rankings: King of New York (‘80)
The Bronx may have birthed hip-hop, but Harlem boasted the genre’s first superstar, Kurtis Blow. After becoming the first MC to sign with a major label in 1979, Blow dropped his self-titled debut album the following year, en route to scoring the first gold single in rap history, “The Breaks.” And while he would remain a force in the culture for the next decade, 1980 was both Blow’s arrival and peak. He wasn’t just the King of Harlem that year, but also the Best Rapper Alive.
Kool Moe Dee, 1981-92
Coronation: Beating Busy Bee at the Harlem World Christmas Rappers’ Convention
Biggest Challengers: Kurtis Blow, Rob Base
Peak Position in NYC Power Rankings: King of New York (‘81)
Kool Moe Dee burst on the scene in 1981 as one-third of the legendary Treacherous Three, who rose to prominence that year with hits like “Feel the Heartbeat” and “Put the Boogie In Your Body.” That December, the 19-year-old Sugar Hill wordsmith transcended the group to become a star in his own right, when he famously roasted The Bronx’s Busy Bee Starski at the Harlem World Christmas Rappers Convention, in one of the earliest documented rap battles.
After scoring a handful of hits in the early-’80s, though, the Treacherous Three disbanded in 1985, forcing Kool Moe Dee to pursue a solo career. So, like any past-their-prime rapper who’s ever attempted to make a successful comeback, Moe Dee made sure to a) team up with a hot producer (Teddy Riley) and b) start a beef with the most popular rapper on the planet (LL Cool J).
Ultimately, both decisions paid off. Powered by the Riley-produced first single, “Go See the Doctor,” Moe Dee’s self-titled 1986 debut album was a minor commercial success. The following year, 1987, Kool Moe Dee proved he had staying power with the release of his sophomore LP, How Ya Like Me Now.
On the opening title track, he went in on LL Cool J, reminding the Kangol-wearing pretty boy rapper that "Rap is an art and I'm a Picasso...I'm bigger and better, forget about deffer." Sure, it would end badly for Kool Moe Dee—as LL delivered the knockout blow with “Jack the Ripper”—but not before he cemented his status as the first dominant King of Harlem.
Big L, 1992-97
Coronation: His scene-stealing guest spots on a pair of 1992 singles (Lord Finesse’s “Yes You May (Remix),” Showbiz & A.G.’s “Represent”)
Biggest Challengers: Mcgruff, Ma$e
Peak Position in NYC Power Rankings: Top 10 (‘95)
The last three generations of Harlem rap can be traced back to a handful of sites in the northernmost part of Manhattan—Lenox Avenue and 139th Street, the stoops of Harlem Village apartment buildings, the halls of Julia Richmond High School—all of which, at some point or another, served as the place where Lamont Coleman honed his craft in hopes that someday he’d become a star.
In 1992, a 17-year-old Coleman—by then known as Big L—fulfilled prophecy and inked a deal with Columbia. It was a true changing-of-the-guard moment for Harlem, ultimately laying the groundwork for a rap scene that would soon become a breeding ground for talent.
Three years later, in ‘95, Big L dropped his cult-classic debut album, Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous. And from then on, he was not only seen as Harlem royalty but also a potential future king of NYC rap.
Regarding Big L’s legacy, Nas said on MTV: "He scared me to death. When I heard that on tape, I was scared to death. I said, 'Yo, it's no way I can compete if this is what I gotta compete with.'" When the man considered to be the greatest lyricist of his era, if not the best ever, says that about you, it’s safe to say you have what it takes to be the best ever.
Too bad he never got a chance. By the time he was murdered in ‘99, though, 24-year-old Big L had already planted the seeds for a burgeoning rap scene in Harlem, one that would produce a handful of superstars over the next decade—all of them cut from the same cloth as Lamont Coleman.
Coronation: His guest spots on the best-selling rap album of 1997, Puff Daddy’s No Way Out
Biggest Challengers: Big L, Cam’ron
Peak Position in NYC Power Rankings: Top 5 (‘97)
Long before A$AP Rocky came along, Harlem World orbited around another pretty boy rapper, Ma$e. Under the tutelage of Big L, he was Murda Mase, one-fifth of the legendary hip-hop group Children of the Corn, along with neighborhood friends L, Cam’ron, Herb McGruff, and the late Bloodshed. Then, in ‘96, he signed with Puff Daddy’s Bad Boy Records, thus Murda Mase became Ma$e.
At 21, Ma$e exploded into stardom as the replacement star for Puffy following Biggie’s death. With rhymes smooth as butter and charisma as magnetic as Puff’s, Ma$e became the face of the Shiny Suit era, not to mention the King of Harlem and, if briefly, the King of New York.
Polo Perks Is Building a Future From Pieces of the Past
We talk to the Surf Gang artist about microdosing alternative music in his raps.
Mase damn-near ran the entire rap game in ‘97 on the strength of a collection of smash hits. He made a name for himself with a timeless opening verse on The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Mo Money Mo Problems,” before stealing the spotlight that summer on Puff Daddy’s “solo” album, No Way Out, with career-defining features on its back-to-back chart-topping singles “Can’t Hold Me Down” and “Been Around the World.”
That fall, Mase cemented his status as the hottest rapper alive with Harlem World, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Pop and R&B LP charts and would go on to be certified four-times platinum. As for hit singles? Harlem World had plenty, including three Top 10 hits on the Hot 100: “Feel So Good,” “What You Want,” and “Lookin’ At Me.”
Two years later, Mase, only 23, retired at the peak of his powers to become a pastor. And yet, he accomplished more in three years than most rappers achieve in a lifetime: From 1996 to 1999, as a lead or featured artist, Mase had six Billboard Hot 100 Top 10 singles and five US Rap No. 1 singles.
Black Rob, 2000-02
Coronation: The release of his debut album, Life Story, which produced a pair of club bangers in “Whoa!” and “Can I Live”
Biggest Challengers: Cam’ron, Loon
Peak Position in NYC Power Rankings: Top 10 (‘00)
Contrary to popular belief, the torch was not passed directly from Mase to Cam’ron. And for as much as some Harlemites will claim that there was a real vacancy on the throne at the turn of the century, we’re not here to honor vacancies. Believe it or not, there was a King of Harlem during this period, if only by default (i.e. because of Big L’s murder + Mase’s retirement). Still, I wouldn’t dare suggest that Black Rob didn’t matter, especially in 2000.
With Bad Boy in a state of panic following the retirement of Mase—along with Puff Daddy’s recent flop, 1999’s Forever—Black Rob parachuted in and saved the day, for Harlem as well as Puff’s label, with two of the biggest songs of the year: his debut single, “Whoa,” a continental club smash that became Bad Boy’s very first hit of the century; and “Can I Live,” one of the best Tunnel Bangers in recent memory.
On the strength of both singles, Black Rob’s 2000 debut album, Life Story, went platinum. And though he wouldn’t score another hit single as a lead artist, Black continued his hot streak the following year by guest starring on a pair of standout cuts—“Bad Boy for Life” and “Let’s Get It”—from Diddy’s third album, 2001’s The Saga Continues.
You can’t rule out the possibility that Black Rob—considering he was the hottest rapper in the Bad Boy camp—was, in fact, the one who penned Diddy’s greatest flex of his rapping career (“Don’t worry if I write rhymes, I write checks”) on “Bad Boy for Life.” Anyway, I digress. Black Rob was the King of Harlem at the top of the century; you can miss me with your “vacancy” talk.
Coronation: Scoring back-to-back top 5 hits with “Oh Boy” and “Hey Ma”
Biggest Challengers: Juelz Santana, Jim Jones
Peak Position in NYC Power Rankings: King of New York (‘02, ‘04)
When Mase abruptly retired in ‘99, Cam’ron was seemingly a shoo-in to snatch the Harlem crown. But then his second album, 2000’s S.D.E., flopped—largely due to label drama—and Cameron Giles, at just 24 years old, was facing a career crossroads. Fortunately, for all of us, his next move was his best move.
Cam left Columbia for The Roc, and in 2002, hit his stride at the perfect time: The NYC throne was up for grabs, with JAY-Z set to retire, Nas past his prime, DMX two years removed from his apex, and 50 Cent a year or so out from grabbing the Best Rapper Alive title belt.
Killa Cam capitalized accordingly with his Roc-A-Fella debut, Come Home With Me. On the back of Top 5 singles “Oh Boy” and “Hey Ma,” the album soundtracked the streets in the summer of 2002, making Cam not only the King of Harlem but the alpha-dog of NYC rap.
From 2002 to 2004, Cam’ron was—aside from Fiddy— the most popular MC in the game. He was coming off back-to-back platinum albums (2002’s Come Home With Me and 2004’s Purple Haze) and had pioneered the Dipset movement, with Juelz Santana and Jim Jones becoming stars in their own right. Only 28 years old, Cam was set to own the 2000s in the same way JAY-Z owned the second half of the ‘90s. Cam, though, failed to capitalize on his hype. Just two years later, 2006’s Killa Season flopped, and he promptly disappeared for a long hiatus.
In hindsight, while Big L remains the forefather of Harlem World, and A$AP Rocky has reigned the longest of any of its kings, there’s simply no denying that Cam’ron—today, tomorrow, and forever—rules the Uptown music scene.
Max B, 2007-11
Coronation: His release from prison and subsequent mixtape run in 2007
Biggest Challengers: Joe Budden, Juelz Santana
Peak Position in NYC Power Rankings: Top 10 (‘09)
Can you name another rapper who’s been as influential yet seemingly unknown to casual rap fans as Max B? I doubt it. Long before he’d become Biggaveli, The Silver Surfer, or Wavy Crockett, Charley Wingate aka Max B got his big break writing songs for Jim Jones’ 2006 album Hustler’s P.O.M.E., including the biggest hit of Jones career, “We Fly High.” You know what happened next.
Max B gets arrested for a botched robbery in September ‘06. His music begins to blow up while he spends the next ten months behind bars: his second tape, Public Domain: Million Dollar Baby Radio, drops that November and becomes the soundtrack of the streets; Public Domain 2: Rise of the Silver Surfer arrives one month later and becomes a movement on its own thanks to standout cuts like “Flash Dance” and “Drop That Top;” and the following February, “We Fly High” climbs to No. 5 on the Hot 100,
By the time Max B was released in June ‘07, he was the hottest rapper on the mixtape circuit and in the underground rap scene—if not on the entire planet. Over the next two years, Biggaveli would stake his claim to the Harlem throne by becoming the most prolific artist in the genre; during a 15-month stretch from March ‘08 to June ‘09, he’d release 10 mixtapes—including instant classics like Million Dollar Baby 2, Public Domain 3, Wavie Crockett, and Coke Wave.
Despite getting sentenced to 75 years in prison in June ‘09, Max B’s influence on the rap game remains strong, and for good reason. Pick any rapper who’s blown up over the past decade—Drake, Wiz, Rocky, Future, Young Thug—and you’ll notice that all of them have been riding the Silver Surfer’s wave.
A$AP Rocky, 2011-present
Coronation: His 2011 breakthrough mixtape Long.Live.A$AP
Biggest Challengers: A$AP Ferg, Dave East
Peak Position in NYC Power Rankings: King of New York (‘12, ‘13)
Seemingly every Harlem MC that’s exploded to stardom has entered the rap game already equipped with a certain it factor, a star-quality that most rappers don’t develop for a few years—if at all. It’s not a coincidence that Harlem is also responsible for some of the biggest fashion icons hip-hop has ever seen: Kurtis Blow (the only rapper that’s ever been able to rock a Jheri curl), Ma$e (see: music videos for “Mo Money Mo Problems” and “Feel So Good”), Cam’ron (all pink everything: leathers, minks, and, most infamously, his Range Rover), and, most recently, A$AP Rocky.
At the dawn of the decade, Harlem’s hip-hop scene was yearning for relevancy in the mainstream. The last rap superstar it produced was Cam’ron, who peaked in the early ’00s, and the last hit single to come out of Harlem World was Jim Jones’ “We Fly High,” in 2007.
Then it all changed in the summer of 2011. That August—nearly a month after the “Purple Swag” video began making its rounds on the internet—A$AP Rocky dropped “Peso.” Within weeks, the song blew across New York City, earning Rocky a level of overnight buzz that no Harlem rapper had seen since Mase’s rise in the late-’90s. Two months later, on Halloween, Rocky dropped his breakthrough mixtape Live.Love.ASAP, and speculation about his potential gave way to concrete proof; Rocky was no longer New York’s buzziest rapper; he was now the hottest MC in all of hip-hop.
By 2012, Rocky was a household name, and the anticipation surrounding his debut album was reminiscent of 50 Cent circa 2002. Following numerous delays, Long.Live.A$AP arrived in January 2013 and debuted at number one, cementing Rocky as the undisputed King of New York.
As for Harlem? He’s reigned for eight years, unchallenged.