The next few posts I’ll be writing are all inspired by Chris Rock’s recently released movie, Top Five. It’s a great and introspective film, which pays homage to many things such as the old vs. the new, the evolution of black humor, the many tricks and contradictions that black men tread when they become famous, as well as the conflicts of being considered a comedian while struggling to get out of that specific pigeon-hole. One of the most glaring influence felt throughout the film was Woody Allen’s self-inspection and conflict shown in his masterpiece Stardust Memories. Like Rock’s character, Woody Allen felt like everyone enjoyed his comedies while eschewing his more serious work. But, this is not a post about film.
This is a post about Rap music, and one of the topics discussed in the film is the various characters’ top five rappers and rap groups. While watching the film I kept asking myself the same question. Who are my top five MC’s of all time? I can’t tell you because I’m a partial judge who’s been listening to rap music ever since I was a little boy running through the streets of Tel-Aviv in the early 1980’s. Like myself, most Hip-Hop fans have grown up and gone through maturation or other forms of catharsis. If you asked me five years ago my list might have been different. If you asked me ten years ago the list would have been different as well. So, instead of pointing out five, with a sixth person for clean-up duty, I decided to categorize my top five rappers. Each post will give a list of the top five while I’ll try to stretch the categories to the far ends of the rap multiverse. So, without further ado, and much blabbed, I give to you my favorite top five rappers who have passed away. I’ll also add a sixth person of my personal taste. Also, as a note I know that there are plenty of rappers out there who deserve to be on the list, but I wasn’t such a huge fan. So, mad props to Biggie and Tupac, but they were never on my top five. Anyway, enjoy my list!
1. Too Poetic (AKA The Grym Reaper) from the Gravediggaz – Many rappers have their own niche, gimmick, and bag full of tricks at their disposal. The main ingredient for all MC’s is how they use their voices. At their best they could craft their distinct rapper voices. Poetic had that voice, and it was first heard in the opening track of the Gravediggaz debut album, 6 Feet Deep.
I think we were all mystified with this album. Although it dropped in 1994 amidst the rise of the Wu-Tang dynasty, it was crafted in 1991 through 1992. At first listen it catches you off guard when the intro drops. The mist begins to settle, followed by the screams, and cryptic words heard saying, “And just when you thought it was over”……”now comes the Gravediggaz” and then he jumps in like a bat out of hell, screaming…
“Beware! Four figures appear through the fog,Yeah, Gravediggaz cut like sword…AHHHHH, Fear makes ya brain go numb, You ain’t got a clue where the gods come from, I told myself to exist and then I fled over, Millions of sperm cells and I found the egg, No luck or mere chance, I came to enhance represent and get open as a vent.”
And that was just the opening salvo as he comes back to bite hard after Frukwan’s verse by rhyming,
“Mixing gravy pays my rent for the day, Some hate the image that I must portray, Critics say, “Go to Hell,” I go, “Yeah Stupid motherfucker I’m already here,” Frustrated, mentally aggravated, To be the rebel that society created, I’m good most times but when I’m foul then I’m flagrant, Living in the shadows like a government agent.”
The way he used his voice to personify the dread, fear, and anger gives the album its full breadth. Unlike the other members of the group Poetic was the odd man out, being the only unheard MC from the past or present in 1991. Prince Paul and Frukwan were both part of the rap band Stetsonic Fame, and Paul also produced De La Soul’s first three albums. Although he was somewhat new on the scene the RZA had also been heard with his first single for Tommy Boy Records as Prince Rakeem. However, Poetic had never really been heard until now.
The way he uses his voice can create levity amongst more shady situations. On the fourth track, “Defective Trip (Trippin’),” he weaves us through a defective trip while scheming a blowjob. The best part about his verse is the way he uses his tone in order to bring humor to a serious topic.
One of the best tracks displaying his talents is his sparring with the Rzarecter on “2 Cups of Bloods.” The best part about the track is the delivery. The RZA and Poetic go back and forth boasting some deadly metaphors. The dynamism and sheer talent between the two brings it to such a state of existentialism and dread. Poetic drops lines like,
“As you decipher the tricks of a viper, Swine is lethal!….is evil!, I am original, we can build upon, The ill form, and keep all your brain cells warm.”
“Dead stinkin’ rotten, you braincells forgot in, The past, you had your bumba raas pickin’ cotton, Now ya hate ya knotty hairstyles, I guess you figure the texture too wild, Child.”
Poetic pushed along with the group, even though the second, The Pick, The Sickle and the Shovel, and third, Nightmare in A-Minor, albums paled in comparison to the first. The third album was released posthumously because Poetic passed away in July of 2001 due to colon cancer. I guess you’re really ready for the grave yard tour! RIP.
2. Big Pun (AKA Big Pun, Big Dog Punisher, and born Christopher Lee Rios) – It was one of my best friend’s, Puerto Rican Paul!!! Big Ups Purchase days!, who first put me on to the genius who was Big Pun. Pun came out of nowhere, at first guest starring on fellow New Yurican tracks like Fat Joe and the Beatnuts. He then broke out with his seminal freshman album Capitol Punishment. Beside his enormous size, and oversized personality, he was a massive presence on the microphone. The way he whizzed through words, spitting them out like coal embers spewing from his mouth at break neck speed. The amazing thing about his rhymes is that they all wrapped around these riddles and storylines, that at times were lost to the listener after only one sitting.
One example is his remake of the classic Dre and Snoop collaboration “Deep Cover,” but remade for Pun and Fat Joe. In the end of Pun’s first verse he just plays with the metaphors with such finesse by spitting,
“Dead in the Middle of Little Italy little did we know, That we riddled some middleman who didn’t do diddly.”
He has this bravado, personified by his 550 plus frame, and more so by his lyrical swagger. He then kills it with his last verse spitting with defiance,
“Fuck peace, I run the streets with no compassion, Puerto Ricans known for slashing catching niggas while they sleeping, No relaxing, keep your eyes open, sharp reflexes, Three techses in the jeep Lexus just in case police test us, Street professors, Terror Squad, ghetto scholars, Full-a-clips mob, inflicts the fear of God when the metal hollers, Better acknowledge or get knocked down until I’m locked and shot down, Heather B. couldn’t make me put my Glock down.”
Pun broke down many doors and has the status of being the first Latino rapper to reach platinum status, all on the strength of his debut album Capitol Punishment. He demolished, no pun !?! intended, the competition while piggy backing on the great Latino MC’s of the past like Kid Frost, Mellow Man Ace, Cypress Hill, The Beatnuts, and Fat Joe. There are many stellar songs on his debut, but the first song catches the full wreck he’s about to unleash.
As the strings play, thanks to a sample from a Henry Mancini composition, you hear Prodigy’s words wringing clear, “I gave you fair warning, beware!” And then Pun unleashes the fury spitting,
“What you thought punk? Shit was sweet now you can’t sleep, Gotta keep your eyes open wide and hide your face from the streets, I’m like the beast with a warrant, far from a law man, Gave you fair warning, now you on the stairs falling, I’m calling out any rapper that I doubt, smack em in the mouth, Throw em in the yoke. Boom! Then I knock em out, No doubt, Freddie Foxxx files, Twenty-shot auto Glock, blaow Benny Blanc Puerto Rock style, With a twist of black and I’m proud, twist your cap and I’m out, Sleep with the fish-dips for yapping loud, What’s happening now, niggas is hard as hell but they Gargamels, Picking on the smallest victim gives them heart to kill, My squad is real and holds it down the hardest regardless, Besides of the largest we polish the floor with the rawest hardcore artists, Flawless victory and niggas can’t do shit to me, Physically, lyrically, hypothetically, realistically, I’m the epitome of catching wreck, catch you when you cash your cheque, Smash you when you pass then jack you for your fucking Lex, Nothing less than the best if the squad did it, Hard-headed niggas better beware and fear like God said it.”
Wow! That was a lot of detail and chock full of assonance and metaphors, while sprinkled with pop culture references ranging from Carlitos Way to the Smurfs. While weaving these words together he manages to demolish any opponent through the sheer dread of attempting to battle this behemoth of a rapper. He not only delved in lyrical assassinations, both on his solo tracks and guest appearances, but he also had quite a wit and a sizable sense of humor. One of my personal favorites that shows his playful humor is the track “Nigga Shit” from his second, and sadly last, album Yeeeah Baby.
The song is an ode to the culture that he took part in, and is very thankful for its acceptance. It also presents that Latinos live under the same dreadful conditions alongside blacks in this country. Wether the Bronx or East L.A. these two cultures became mixed and cohesive, but with tensions as well. It’s a short song with only one verse, but that verse is golden going down memory lane for all of us who delved in that type of shit, and still do. He drops it spitting,
“That nigga shit, smokin weed with my moms, That nigga shit, Slingin D and Heron, That nigga shit, no love for the cops, That nigga shit, gettin my dick sucked with my pops, That nigga shit, gettin drunk with my Twinz, That nigga shit, swearin to God I’ll never drink again, That nigga shit, gettin drunk again, That nigga shit, three days in the pen, That nigga shit, talkin loud at the flicks That nigga shit, fried rice and rib tips, That nigga shit, lookin fresh with no ends, That nigga shit, beatin on my sister’s boyfriends, That nigga shit, yellow tape and white sheets, That nigga shit, whoopin my kid’s ass in the streets, That nigga shit, Iverson crossover, That nigga shit, cheese doodles grape soda, That nigga shit, playin in the last car on the train, That nigga shit, hot sauce on everythang, That nigga shit, nugget gold in the 80’s, That nigga shit, iced out in the 90’s, That nigga shit, shoot the place if you play me, That nigga shit, Pun to run til they find me.”
He uses three words for the set-up and then fills in the gaps with the happenstance for all of us on the lower socio-economic wrung. If anybody intimately experienced some of this so-called “nigga shit” then you can understand the humor and homage Pun pays to the culture. Although he tried many times to lose the weight he reached the maximum at his death of almost 700 pounds! He suffered a heart attack on February 7th, 2000 while staying at a White Plains hotel. Paul and I were attending Purchase College so we were close in proximity. It was a sad day, but due to his amazing talent he will always be considered one of the best rappers of all time.
3. Charizma (Born Charles Hicks) – The first time I heard Charizma was his track aptly titled “My World Premiere” from the classic mix tape “The World Famous Beat Junkies Vol. 1 helmed by the great DJ Babu with some help from JRocc. The mix dropped around 1996 – 1997, and unfortunately he died three to four years earlier. However, the sheer magnitude of his rhymes over this hardcore beat is mesmerizing. It’s just one straight shot verse, but it cuts with precision. This is the song that spawned such great lines like, “It’s not my birthday but I’m pulling cards” and “When I didn’t have a mic I rapped on headphones.”
Hailing from the West Coast, California to be exact, he eventually met Chris Manak, who we all know better as Peanut Butter Wolf head of Stones Throw Records, and they began recording. Charizma was the rapper and Peanut Butter made the beats. They recorded a few songs, but most of them never saw the light of day until after his death. His life was cut short due to a car jacker who shot Charizma dead on December 16th, 1993. Fortunately for all hip-hop historians Peanut Butter would eventually release all these recordings in 2003 with the full length Big Shots album. Throughout the album you realize how gifted he was, and how he seemed to bounce off the music with his slip and sliding rhymes. One great example of this is his great cut, “Red Light, Green Light.”
The video is great because the into shows Charizma’s playful charm. His opening lines start it all out on the path to the stratosphere. He rhymes,
“Tic-tac-toe, ah here we go, Red means stop and green light means go, Common sense dropped cause I truly love the hip-hop, (beatboxing) I even like to beatbox”
He explains the structure by rapping that it’s following the red light, green light game through his rap. He then continues with his love for hip-hop, and even drops a hint by dropping Common’s name, who did the song “I Used to Love H.E.R.” Throughout the song he plays with the structure while spitting hot fire. He ends his second verse with,
“Have a bubble bath and then let the dopeness begin, So bump, bump the loop in your mob car, no we don’t roll jeeps, We roll the mob cause on the westside of the street, And let your car feel the heat.”
The album is full of great songs, but my personal favorites are the last few tracks that project his cunning speed and wit on the Mic. The last four songs, “Charizma What,” “Fair Weathered Friend,” “Soon to be Large,” and “Pacin’ the Floor,” blend so well into each other. The beats perfectly compliment Charizma’s pace, while he bobs and weaves his words so magically. Last example is some of his words from the closing track “Pacin’ the Floor.” The track is a throw back old school joint with a basic beat, scratching and bass line, as Charizma goes on the attack.
This song is a bottled version of the essence of hip-hop. His death had a huge impact on Peanut Butter, but thankfully he trudged along and started one of the best independent Hip-Hop record labels, Stones Throw. It was Charizma’s song “My World Premiere” that was the first release, hence why I heard it on a mix tape in 1996. He also bonded with an old school MC who lost a close family member by the name we know as MF Doom. Thank G-d for Charizma.
4. Subroc (Born Dingilizwe Dumile, brother of Daniel Dumile AKA MF Doom and a member of KMD) – Talking about Doom in the last paragraph, let’s shine a light on his first group KMD (Kausing Much Damage or A positive Kause in a Much Damaged society). They were scoped out by MC Serch of 3rd Bass making their debut on the classic track “The Gas Face.” From then on they forged their own style, along with their muslim upbringing, while being signed to Elektra records in the late 1980’s. Although Subroc wasn’t as prevalent on their debut album, Mr. Hood, he was mostly responsible for inserting such diverse samples from television shows and other obscure recordings including a series of samples from a language instruction tape. This was a decade before DJ’s like Kid Koala and DJ Vadim used these samples at their leisure.
Subroc’s brother, Zev Love X, and the third member Onyx were far more prevalent on the album. But he had a chance to shine on a track aptly titled “Subroc’s Mission.”
In a recent post about the making of KMD’s second album Black Bastards Zev/Doom admits that Subroc became far more confident and brash with his rhymes. Some of his best work is on the second album, and here’s a snippet or two of that masterpiece. The album was far more contentious and racially candid due to the album cover depicting a hanging sambo character. The Dumile brothers produced the entire second album, and on tracks like ” It Sounded Like a Roc,” “Plumpskinzz (Oh No I Don’t Believe It!),” and my personal favorite “Gimme” Subroc devours the mic. Check out some of his rhymes on the melodic “Plumpskinzz,”
Originally this was a full song, but was cut into two parts for the album with Zev Love on the first and Subroc on the second. Subroc has a nice flow spitting lines like,
“But always fix fat drums in the batter
They say you must, must share a little plum
I say, “With that idea kid, you’re dumb”
I play the role, play the role, kinda shy
And keep the concept to unbutton the fly
The question, my oh my, any left for thy shore?
I pick fresh fruit, plus vick ’em galore
Raw as can be, I can be much more adore
My sweet gift shot like Quickdraw McGraw,”
Simple yet right to the point. He goes extra ballistic on my favorite “Gimme,”
He drops great morsels throughout the track like,
“Well welcome me back like my man Kotter, If not, I’ll leave ya flat broke nada, Cause I gotta keep my style flexin’ like areobic, Gimme elbow room I’m crazily claustrophobic” and “Touch it, it’s up your rear, I hear a sequence, gimme so I can tell a tattle-teller, Now shut your mouth while I speak it accapella, I’m the yellow maraca medium brown tone, I do what I feel cause child I’m grown, Gimme no cologne I rock oils, Gimme a lot of looten, I still won’t straighten my nappy coils.”
Like Charizma, these are just words on an electronic page. You need to listen to the delivery because his voice plays along with the beat in order to give it more personality. He also ends the track with a funny phrase. After chanting “Check the Clock” he finishes by saying, “Now get on your knees next to my balls and BOX!”
Unfortunately after completing most of the album Subroc was killed by being struck by a car while attempting to cross the treacherous Long Island Expressway. His life was cut short, and like Peanut Butter Wolf, Zev Love X took his brother’s death very hard. However, he would be reincarnated as MF Doom, and would eventually work on Stones Throw under the guise of Madlib and Peanut Butter. Strangely enough both his and Charizma’s death have brought amazing incarnations in the world of hip-hop.
5. MCA (Born Adam Yauch) member of the Beastie Boys along with Adrock and Mike D. – MCA along with the other two members of the Beastie Boys have been around for decades. Ever since they broke out they never got that much respect due to being the first white rap group to sell millions of records. They were also the first rap group to be featured on Spin magazine’s cover, much to Harry Allen’s chagrin. It is problematic that they were the first featured when there was a history of great rappers and rap groups who were all black. However, you can’t hold it against them because of their skin color. They also had a litany of rhymes that hit the mark, while using the old school formula by being performing in the call and response style with each other. Instead of the newer formula of a verse, chorus, verse, etc. they interweaves their rhymes around each other’s words and cadences. MCA has quite a trajectory when it comes to his rhymes. He went through quite the catharsis when exploring the content of his words. The early material was crass, boorish, misogynistic, violent, and offensive to many listeners. Just check out his opening remarks on the track “The New Style” from the debut album Licensed to Ill,
MCA rips into it spitting,
“Four and three and two and one (What up!), And when I’m on the mic – suckers run (Word!), Down with Adrock and Mike D. and you ain’t, And I got more juice than Picasso got paint, Got rhymes that are slick, I’m not surprised you’re on my dick,”
Funny and mischievous, but the first album was solid and chock full of entertainment and debauchery. They would eventually leave Rick Rubin and Def Jam for California, Capitol records, and a collabo with the Dust Brothers who would produce their most genius and underrated album Paul’s Boutique. It’s an amazing group effort as most songs don’t allocate verses to each member. Rather, they bob and weave off of each other’s words in such a precise manner. One track that had more of the standard formula was “3-Minute Rule.” On it each shines in his own way, and this is MCA’s contribution,
“Roses are red, the sky is blue, I got my barrel at your neck, so what the fuck you gonna do, It’s just two wheels and me, the wind in my eyes, The engine is the music and my nine’s by my side, Cause you know Y-A-U-C-H, I’m taking all emcees out in the place, Takin’ life as it comes, no fool I am, I’m goin’ off, gettin’ paid, and I don’t ask why, Playin’ beats on my box, makin’ music for the many, Know a lot of def girls that’ll do anything, A lot of parents like to think I’m a villian, I’m just chillin’, like Bob Dylan, Yeah I smoke cheeba, it helps me with my brain, I might be a little dusted but I’m not insane, People come up to me and they try to talk shit, Man, I was making records when you were suckin’ your mother’s dick.”
Nice, poetic and vicious, which are antics they were rhyming about. However, they would keep on maturing, getting back to the drawing board, and picking up their instruments again. But they still dropped some heavy beats and mean verses on their third album Check Your Head. Aside from the great collage of Jimi Hendrix that would end up being the unreleased version of the track “Jimmy James,” one of my favorites is “Pass the Mic.”
The track begins with MCA belting out some nice verses while preparing the next member for his introduction. He spits,
“If you can feel what I’m feeling then it’s a musical masterpiece, If you can hear what I’m dealing with then that’s cool at least, What’s running through my mind comes through when I walk, True feelings are shown from the way that I talk, And this is me ya’ll, I emcee ya’ll, My name is MCA and I still do what I please, And now I’d like to introduce what’s up? I’ll pass the mic to D for a fist full of truth.”
Nice, solid and to the point. As I wrote earlier MCA, along with the rest of the group, matured through out his career and made it very apparent by commenting on the status of women. On their fourth album’s first track “Sure Shot.”
The Beastie Boys were heavily influenced by Rick Rubin, and he pushed their offensive taste through what they said about excess. This excess meant plenty of beer and women. They also had quite a stage show displaying women in bikinis on stage who would dance in cages, while a large blow-up phallus was flailing behind them. This would all change, and MCA’s lyric is the strongest refutation of their past debauchery and offensive behavior. He rhymes on the track that,
“I want to say a little something that’s long overdue, The disrespect to women has got to be through, To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends, I want to offer my love and respect to the end.”
It’s a beautiful statement of a man who’s grown up to be a responsible adult. It’s unfortunate that these types of rhymes are still very rare as the rap game has gotten far more misogynistic towards women in the rhymes. Unfortunately MCA passed away in May of 2012, followed by an announcement from Mike D. that the Beastie Boys were done. We can always go back to the prolific recordings made by the group, and you can always feel the beautiful camaraderie between them. MCA said it beautifully on their single “Alive,” which was released for their boxed-set.
“Mike and Adam have got my back, You bring the mics and we’ll bring the raps, Turn on the PA and rock your shack, Don’t smoke cheeba, can’t stand crack.”
6. Last but not least is the man, the myth, who was mentioned by Nas on the track “Where are They Now.” He allegedly staged his death in order to beat a bid, but the news sources were wrong on that account. News reports had to dig further into the fact that he in fact passed away in February of 2013. Who am I talking about? Tim Dog!!! Coming up from the Bronx and making guest appearances on tracks by the Ultramagnetic MC’s, he’s considered one of the hardest rappers in the history of the game. When the West Coast was on its rise to prominence, which was heralded by all the many hip-hop magazines, trades, and other mediums, Tim Dog didn’t like it to say the least. That’s why he dropped one of the most scathing west coast diss tracks ever. It was aptly titled, “Fuck Compton.”
He just tears it apart with rhymes like,
“Oh shit motherfuckers step to the rear and cheer, Cause Tim Dog is here, Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty, And talk about a bullshit city, Talking about niggas from Compton, They’re no comp and they truly ain’t stomping,”
Although the track is directed as N.W.A. this was a pre-east coast vs. west coast spat. He claims that it was made out of frustration, rather than a personal axe to grind with the group. However, he makes sure to call them all out by name,
“(Why you dissing Eazy?), Cause the boy ain’t shit, Chew him with tobacco, and spit him in shit, I’ll crush Ice Cube, I’m cool wit Ice-T, But NWA ain’t shit to me, Dre beating on Dee from Pump it Up, Step to the Dog and get fucked up, I’m simplistic, imperialistic, idealistic, And I’m kicking the ballistics.”
He’s taking straight shots at the group, which was on top by this point. He also calls out Dr. Dre and the messy incident where he beat up Dee Barnes. This incident has been addressed again, most notably on Eminem’s track “Guilty Conscious” from his debut album, which was produced by Dre.
Tim Dog’s debut, containing the single “Fuck Compton” and other notable tracks like “Step to Me,” was titled Penicillin on Wax. These tracks were hardcore, in your face, grit along with the standard heavy drums, and break neck speed of a New York style rap song, circa the early 1990’s.
On “Step to Me” he kills it with more treacherous words,
“Step to me if you’re ready for a beatdown
Swift wit my hands, I don’t fuck around
I’m laying out MC’s in a sec
I’ll get wreck and break your muthafucking neck
Who can step to me from Compton
None them rappers cause I’m still stomping
So bail in your best MC’s
Another great hard-hitting track, and arguably one of the hardest rap songs of all time, is titled “The Dog’s Gonna Get You.”
The beat is thrust into your ears as Tim demolishes the mic spitting,
“Pick ’em up, pick ’em up, pick ’em up
Pick of another wack punk then stick ’em up, vick ’em up
Suckers get in my way
I don’t play, so you’re gonna get slayed
You wanna come and come and come and come
Come on bum and come and get some
You know who the fuck I am?
Goddamn! Gimme a hand
I’m the man, I’m the man, I’m the man
With a lyrical hardcore plan goddamn,”
You can just feel the rage as he wails, grunts, and snarls bringing the fear into your heart, cause the Dog’s gonna eat you alive. Another great track that further describes Dog’s M.O. is “Bronx Nigga” where he describes looking for a stick up kid, finding him, and shooting his ass dead!
Tim Dog dropped six albums, two with the great and bizarre Kool Keith (who’ll be on a future top five list), but his debut solidified his legacy as one hard motherfucker. RIP Tim Dog.
So there we have it, my top five (with a sixth as clean-up) MC’s who are gone, but not forgotten. I agree that leaving Biggie, Tupac, Big L and others off the list is sacrilegious. I can already hear the screams of revulsion flying in my direction. These rappers were extremely skilled, but the guys on my list meant a lot to me personally. I also hope that if you didn’t know now you know, who they are. Listen to my suggestions and hopefully it will open up your scope on the history of rap music.
Until the nest list, Peace
#TimDog #MCA #Subroc # BigPun #Charizma