(February 13, 2023).  The celebration of hip-hop’s 50th anniversary is fully underway as various institutions commemorate the milestone this year. 

First, the Grammys celebrated last Sunday (Feb. 5) with a 14-minute medley featuring live performances by some of the greatest legends of the genre.  

And now two of the music industry’s most important trade publications—Billboard and Vibe magazines—have pooled their resources to come up with what they collectively consider the 50 greatest hip-hop MCs of all time!

Actually, they’ve been rolling out their combined ranking ten spots at a time since January, and it culminated last week with the revelation of the top ten.

Spoiler alert: Jay-Z is ranked the No. 1 MC of all time by Billboard and Vibe.

The joining of forces of the music industry’s leading trade publication (Billboard) and one of the first (but not the first) magazines ever devoted solely to hip-hop (Vibe) brings two elements to the table. 

First, Billboard’s chart data, which pundits have historically dismissed as being the sole indication of a rapper’s (or anyone’s) place in music lore, provides the stats on an artist’s public consumption.  While Billboard’s charts provide more objectivity, presumably because they measure the public’s willingness to listen to and fork out dollars for an artist’s product, it’s hard to ignore the influence that labels’ marketing techniques have historically had on those numbers.

Vibe, on the other hand, brings with it a bit of the street cred that Billboard lacks.  This is the case even though the more hip Vibe, which has chronicled some of hip-hop’s most pivotal moments like the emergence of gangsta rap and the East Coast-vs-West Coast wars of the 1990s, didn’t get its start until 1993–twenty years into hip-hop’s existence—and was founded by jazz/pop/R&B producer Quincy Jones, who was already 60 years old at the time, and a guy named David Salzman.

But it was Vibe’s editors and journalists who had their ears to the ground and covered the rises and falls of some of hip-hop’s greatest latter-day legends, including many that populate the below Top 50 list, whether or not they had mega chart success in Billboard

The combo of Billboard and Vibe (although, arguably, The Source might have been a more credible partner) is purportedly designed to eliminate some of the subjectivity associated with lists like these.

Billboard, in its announcement of the all-time chart, even stated “it took a lot of deliberation and deep discussion to reason our way to what we believe is a well-thought-out, authentic list that reflects hip-hop’s foundational pioneers, evolutionary trailblazers and contemporary mainstays” before acknowledging its own subjectivity and inviting the debate to begin.

Already there’ve been reactions—mainly negative ones—as would be expected for any rankings where opinions are involved (let’s face it, Billboard and Vibe didn’t use any algorithms or special formulas to come up with this ranking).  This list was a decision by committee, likely arrived at by vote or consensus at best, or executive decision at worst.

But fans and artists alike have complained. For instance, turn-of-the-century rapper Ja Rule quickly expressed his disappointment with being excluded (in his defense, he did have several big hits for about four years running and was at one point dominating the Billboard charts like no other act).

Ja’s omission, as well as that of The Game, who has stated he considers himself one of the GOATs, is certain to turn some heads, especially with so many other post-Y2K rappers adorning the list, including Rick Ross, Gucci Mane, J Cole, Drake and The Game’s nemesis 50 Cent.

Ja Rule isn’t the only rapper speaking out against the rankings. The legendary Ice Cube, who did make the Top 50 (at No. 18), blasted Billboard in an interview (obtained from TMZ) last week for “not being hip-hop” and stated that (Billboard’s) opinion didn’t matter (“it’s an irrelevant list”), particularly after he was informed that fellow west coast legend Too $hort also did not make it.

It’s worth noting that Cube’s interviewer did not mention Vibe magazine’s role in trying to help legitimize the chart. 

Judging by the number of comments (and laugh emojis) posted on social media where the Billboard/Vibe rankings have been posted, fans are also picking apart this list.  Of course, Billboard didn’t help its cause when one of its first social media posts touting the rankings featured a pic of Nikki Minaj with a caption celebrating her top-10 (and No. 1 female) status.

Not that Nikki doesn’t have a good case for being No. 1 among female rappers, but the top-10 overall ranking—and the accompanying Billboard announcement—scream of patronizing Minaj or female rappers in general.

But that is the tough row that hip-hop documenters and historians have to hoe for an industry that has traditionally marginalized, misogynized and largely one-dimensionalized women since the genre’s existence, only to then turn around and try to elevate their status in commemorative rankings like this one.

Merely being on the top-50 list is flattering, but being in its top 10?  That’s elite status.  One has to wonder what the conversations were (and who was in the room) when the final decision was made to place Minaj above names like ‘80s rap god Rakim and—love him or hate him—the mercurial Ye (formerly Kanye West).

Sadly, there are only six women on this list of 50.  All of them—Nicki, Missy Elliott, Lauryn Hill, Lil’ Kim, Queen Latifah and MC Lyte—are considered important and worthy, but this blogger can’t help but wonder how many more there might have been if female MCs had been given more respect over the past half-century, or if they had been allowed to flourish beyond the highly sexualized content they’re mostly known for today. If Cardi B—even in her short six years in the game—had rapped about deeper, more conscious topics (on the level of say, Lauryn Hill), she surely would’ve been on this list.

Another glaring female omission is Salt-n-Pepa, the pioneering rap trio consisting of two MCs, neither of whom were given a nod here, and their DJ Spinderella.  It’s likely because Billboard/Vibe couldn’t decide which of the two rappers—Cheryl “Salt” James or Sandra “Pepa” Denton—to include in a list that notably only gives nods to individual MCs from groups, and only one per group, with the exception of NWA (both Cube and Dr. Dre are listed). 

This means that people like Rev Run (Joseph Simmons) got the nod over his partner-in-rhyme Darryl McDaniels (there’d be no Run without DMC); Chuck D is the sole rep from Public Enemy; Q-Tip (of A Tribe Called Quest) was included at the expense of his late group mate Phife Dawg; and Scarface made it to the exclusion of his former Geto Boys colleagues (Willie D. and Bushwick Bill).

Could a case be made for both Salt AND Pepa being on this list?

On a different tip, Eminem is the only white rapper listed (at No. 5).  There’s no Vanilla Ice (thankfully), who had one of the biggest-selling rap albums of all time, or the Maryland-based, bi-racial rapper Logic, even though a case could be made for including the latter.  Logic has had three Billboard No. 1 albums and four more that reached the top five; a much larger haul than more than half the rappers that did make the list).

Eminem’s placement at No. 5 is also somewhat dubious, as many of his fans (and even some objective hip-hop heads) consider him to be the greatest MC alive (he’s certainly the highest-selling rapper of all time, although Jay-Z has had more No. 1 albums).  A higher rank for Eminem is certainly not totally out of the question.

But not having the Detroit legend at No. 1 likely avoids an even bigger controversy.  Can you imagine the backlash that Billboard and Vibe would have created had they ranked Eminem at the top of a list comprised only of Black artists below him?

Every No. 1 rap album listed in chronological order: See this exclusive list of every hip-hop album to top the Billboard 200.

And getting back to Jay-Z, his No. 1 ranking is likely influenced by his fourteen Billboard chart-topping albums as well as his longevity in the game (although many hip-hop heads agree his greatest work occurred at the beginning of his career, including his first, non-chart-topping LP, 1996’s Reasonable Doubt). 

The ranking of Jay-Z at No. 1 and Nas at No. 3 means that both New York rappers—who emerged in the 1990s—rank above Tupac and Biggie, fellow ‘90s legends who place at Nos. 4 and 6, respectively, and who are largely considered the two greatest rappers of that decade.  Clearly, their untimely deaths stunted their legacies as both rap icons arguably would’ve finished even higher had they survived the ‘90s.

Of course hip-hop in its entirety might have hit different had Tupac and Biggie lived.

We might not have seen the 2000’s emergence of southern hip-hop or trap music, both of which are represented on the Billboard/Vibe list, or the circumstances that have allowed relative newcomer Kendrick Lamar—whose first full album was released in 2011–to become the most celebrated hip-hop artist (17 Grammy wins; five No. 1 albums—all platinum or better) this side of Jay-Z.

Kendrick Lamar ranks at a surprising, but not-so-surprising No. 2 on this list, placing higher than 48 other rappers who have ALL been in the game longer than him, which speaks to Lamar’s immaculate flows and gritty rhymes but also is a sad testimony about the quality of other newish rappers out there (no other MCs that have emerged in the 2010s or later made the list).

Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN album

On the geographic front, Lamar is one of seven California-based rappers in this top 50 (and they comprise the West Coast’s entire make-up).  

Meanwhile, New York (23) and neighboring New Jersey (3) rappers combine to make up more than half the MCs on this best-of ranking.  The south—Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and we’ll throw in Texas here—accounts for eight rappers, while the rest are spread between Illinois, North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Toronto (Drake, who was considered eligible due to the list’s inclusion of all rappers from the North American continent, is the only non-American ranked).

The North American stipulation meant that  another classic rapper, the legendary Slick Rick (who hailed from the U.K.), was automatically excluded.

So did Billboard/Vibe get it right or even come close?  Frankly, this blogger doesn’t believe it’s possible to come up with a completely objective ranking of the best MCs of all time.  The attempt by these two magazines to remove some of the subjectivity by combining Billboard’s data and the expert opinions of Vibe’s editors is noble, but it’s like mixing oil and water…and it still boils down to one thing: opinion.

I’ve posted the list below for your quick perusal, but am interested in your reactions to the rankings.  Feel free to comment in the space at the bottom of the article or in any of the social media feeds where the article is posted.

Here it is:

Rank MCHome state (career-based)Decade of emergence
1Jay-ZNew York1990s
2Kendrick Lamar California 2010s
3NasNew York 1990s
4TupacCalifornia 1990s
5EminemMichigan 1990s
6The Notorious B.I.G.New York1990s
7Lil WayneLouisiana 1990s
8DrakeToronto 2000s
9Snoop DoggCalifornia 1990s
10Nicki MinajNew York 2000s
11Kanye West (Ye)Illinois 2000s
12André 3000Georgia 1990s
13RakimNew York 1980s
14LL Cool JNew York 1980s
15J ColeNorth Carolina2000s
16Scarface Texas1990s
1750 CentNew York 2000s
18Ice CubeCalifornia 1980s
19Missy Elliott Virginia 1990s
20Big Daddy KaneNew York1980s
21DMXNew York 1990s
22Ghostface KillahNew York 1990s
23Kurtis BlowNew York 1970s
24KRS-OneNew York 1980s
25Method ManNew York 1990s
26Big PunNew York 1990s
27Q-TipNew York 1990s
28Black ThoughtPennsylvania 1990s
29Pusha TVirginia 2000s
30Lauryn Hill New Jersey 1990s
31Lil KimNew York 1990s
32T.I.Georgia 2000s
33Busta Rhymes New York 1990s
34Chuck D (Public Enemy)New York 1980s
35FutureGeorgia 2000s
36Yasin Bey (formerly Mos Def)New York1990s
37CommonIllinois 1990s
38Gucci ManeGeorgia 2000s
39Ludacris Georgia 2000s
40Dr. DreCalifornia 1980s
41E-40California 1990s
42RedmanNew Jersey1990s
43Bun BTexas2000s
44Queen Latifah New Jersey1980s
45Ice-TCalifornia 1980s
46JadakissNew York 1990s
47MC LyteNew York1980s
48Melle MelNew York 1980s
49Rev Run (Run-DMC)New York1980s
50Rick RossFlorida2000s

Billboard’s explains: You can see the top-50 rappers list, as well as Billboard’s justification for each artist’s ranking, by clicking this article.

Hip-hop historologist DJRob (he/him/his) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

You can also register for free (below) to receive notifications of future articles.

By DJ Rob

Your thoughts?