Top 10 Rappers of All Time

Rap and hip hop are cultural phenomena that have been with us for 30+ years. Not too long ago, it was new on the scene, cutting through old clichés with raw depictions of street violence, ghetto scenes, tales of poverty and abandonment, and celebrations of marijuana culture, all of which enraged the aging parental generation, which made it all the more alluring for people of all persuasions to just eat it up.

Though rap and hip hop are still comparatively young when stacked up against blues and jazz, there have been a number of standout artists throughout the years, pushing boundaries or introducing innovative new concepts that challenged the accepted notions of the genre. These are the top 10 rappers of all time, and what made them outstanding pioneers.

10. Grandmaster Flash

Even though Flash isn’t likely to make many contemporary lists of the top 10 rappers of all time, he’s important in many ways to the state of hip hop and with his many innovations. A few things Grandmaster Flash can be credited with inventing and contributing are scratching, creating beats from four-measure samples of big band and brass music, and appropriating the title “Master of Ceremonies” (or M.C.) for the first time in the scene. Grandmaster Flash oversaw the transformation of black music from the popular funk, Motown, and soul of the 70 to the urban, street-flavored preamble to hip hop of the early 80s, and was the first hip hop and rap inductee into the American Rock n Roll Hall of Fame.

9. Rakim

One half of the seminal golden age of hip hop duo Eric B. & Rakim, Rakim is credited with being among the first to take hip hop into an edgier direction, taking the torch from the likes of the much more tame Sugar Hill Gang and Run-D.M.C. Eric B. & Rakim’s 1987 album Paid in Full is considered legendary in hip hop circles, and was voted greatest hip hop album of all time by MTV in 2006. Rakim is considered one of the greatest rhyme lyricists of all time and is a common presence on lists of top 10 rappers of all time.

8. Kanye West

A highly-controversial but unforgettable and innovative hip hop figure, Kanye West, atop being a lyricist, rapper, and songwriter, has transcended the usual bounds of hip hop personality to become a larger-than-life cultural phenomenon in and of himself. He is a multimillion-selling platinum artist and has left an indelible mark on the industry.

7. Ice Cube

The first of two N.W.A. alumni on this list of top 10 rappers of all time, Ice Cube was a prominent fixture of the beginning of the golden age of hip hop with his participation in the proto-gangsta rap project N.W.A. Ice Cube is distinct for his tenor-bass rapping voice, adding a starkness to his images of police brutality and gang culture in South Central L.A. Ice Cube went on to have a very successful solo career thereafter, and along with his other N.W.A. contemporaries, is widely considered to be one of the greatest of all time.

6. Snoop Dogg

Snoop needs no introduction to those who know anything about rap and hip hop. Snoop stood out in the early 90s (when he was known as Snoop Doggy Dogg) with his slender and suave appearance, and his smooth vocal intonations that were a little higher-pitched than a lot of rappers at the time, but appearances with the likes of Dr. Dre and Tupac added a distinct contrast to their gruffer and starker rhymes. Snoop is also credited with being one of the first rappers to praise weed smoking in mainstream music.

5. Jay-Z

Another fixture of lists of the top 10 rappers of all time, and well deserved, Jay-Z brought hip hop with a decidedly urban New York City sensibility out of the Bronx and onto the streets of continental New York. Jay-Z’s unexaggerated, down-to-earth depictions of street life outside of the violence and strife of gang culture projected his music to a larger audience in the 90s, and his beats lent themselves to easy club jams (“Can I Get A…” and “Hard Knock Life” being standout examples). Outside of rap, Jay-Z is politically active, advocating for clean water in Africa and arranging meetings with former U.N. General Secretary Kofi Annan.

4. Dr. Dre

What list of top 10 rappers of all time would be complete without Dr. Dre? The second alumnus of the illustrious, pioneering, and highly controversial collective N.W.A. on this list, Dr. Dre branched out, like Ice Cube, with a successful solo career after N.W.A., releasing the seminal album The Chronic in 1992, considered another one of Hip hop’s all-time greats. Dr. Dre took several years off in the 90s to produce several highly popular acts like Blackstreet and discovering Eminem, returning in 2001 with The Chronic 2001 (which featured an appearance by the aforementioned Eminem). Since then, Dre has become a prominent producer and entrepreneur, launching the Beats by Dre brand, dedicated to manufacturing quality audio-listening equipment that boasts high levels of fidelity.

3. Notorious B.I.G. (aka Biggie Smalls)

Popping in the bronze spot of this list of top 10 rappers of all time is Notorious B.I.G. A looming, rotund figure, Biggie became known as the kingpin of the East Coast in the coastal rap wars of the late 90s. He was known for his depictions of childhood growing up in Harlem, and his struggle to turn his life into a rags-to-riches story. Biggie Smalls died in 1997, at the peak of his career and popularity, when he was gunned down. Since then, several of his songs were released posthumously, becoming smash hits.

2. Tupac Shakur (2Pac)

The runner-up spot in the list of the 10 rappers of all time goes to the romantic bad boy of the golden age of Hip hop and a true legend. Tupac Shakur was the nemesis to Biggie Smalls in the West and East Coast rivalry (although there is also record of them being quite cordial), and he brought California rap into the mainstream with four-on-the-floor beats that were listenable and danceable, but a mainstream lyricist was only half his story. Tupac was a product of the California ghettos, but his approach was an optimistic and hopeful one, prompting change out of the violence of ghetto culture by encouraging his communities to make radical changes for the better through health and education. Hip hop’s shining knight fell when Shakur was killed in a drive-by shooting in 1997.

1. Eminem

At the peak position of the top 10 rappers of all time, Eminem’s entry is extremely polarizing and controversial, but he has arguably taken hip hop over many more boundaries than any mainstream rap artist. He took horror-inducing shock rap into more homes than any other, with graphic depictions of rape, violence, incest, drug addiction, and suicide while simultaneously mastering several different rhyming techniques and writing memorable rhymes with vibrant imagery packed with wordplay. What makes Eminem stand out the most is being able to boast being the highest-selling rap artist of all time at 155 million albums and countless number one singles worldwide.