In his recent movie Top Five Chris Rock displayed for the entire world one of the greatest ice-breaking conversation pieces known to man. I have found that the question is one of the surest means to engage my students in a relaxed banter. As a professor, I personally believe that there needs to be some rapport beyond the classroom if I am to truly mentor a young person. And this question is a brilliant ice-breaker.
I have always found it interesting to listen to the responses that one gets to the question of, ‘who are the five greatest emcees’ of all-time?’ My students are often stunned at how I laugh at their selections, mainly because it reveals so much of who they are, whom they identify with, and what they enjoy in their leisure time. There is seemingly no end to the ‘top five’ lists that can be created. To my students chagrin, I rarely answer this question myself, at least not in a definitive way, as my ‘top five’ changes as new emcees prove their lyrical worth and push others into the background, rap music is after all a competitive sport at times.
As an individual who believes in passing on traditions, I smiled uncontrollably when my twelve-year-old son, who I proudly state is a De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest fan, along with several other African-American youth sat across the dinner table from me and asked, ‘So who are your top five?’ Although I attempted to avoid the question, the youth assembled around that table seemed extremely interested in my answer. So considering there was really no escape from the query, I gave them my ‘top five’, a list that I hoped was balanced historically and geographically; one of the problems I have with other people’s ‘top five’ lists are that they often contain emcees’ from the same era or region, a situation that always causes me to ponder if you were not number one in your era or geographical region, how can you be considered one of the ‘top five’ of all-time. I listed my ‘top five’ for my attentive audience in the following manner.
- Rakim: Although this selection should not need any explanation, I have found that many of today’s Hip-Hop heads have never really listened to the God emcee. There are a host of moments on the mic that prove that Rakim deserves the top spot in every top five for his lyrical content, not to mention his flow, quite possibly my favorite occurred in his famed recording, I Know You Got Soul. During his incredible flow on this recording, Rakim stated, “I start to think and then I sink into the paper, like I was ink. When I’m writing, I’m trapped in between the lines. I escape, when I finish the rhyme. I got soul.” This quote sits on the wall of my study next to a James Baldwin quote. Enough said, Rakim is the greatest emcee EVER.
- Scarface: I place Mr. Brad on this list because he was the South for the longest time. Prior to the So So Def explosion, prior to UGK’s explosion, all the South had on a national level was Houston Texas based rap group the Geto Boys. However, it was Scarface that weaved lyrical stories that were multi-layered and politically poignant such as My Block and My Mind Playing Tricks on Me.
- Tupac: The reason that ‘Pac makes my ‘top five’ is due to his multi-dimensionality that allowed for him to embody and simultaneously display the beauty and scars that make the Black existence so compelling. ‘Pac expressed for the world that to be black in America meant for one to always be perched on the edge of ‘the best of times and the worst of times’ with songs such as Trapped, Until The End of Time, and Ambitionz as a Ridah
- Big K.R.I.T. (King Recognized In Time): There are times when Hip-Hop Culture in general, Rap Music in particular, must go through a cleansing, almost a reorientation when things have gotten so outrageous. It is at those times that the Rap God’s bless this world with a unique voice that proves to be compelling beyond measure. Big K.R.I.T. is that voice. I challenge anyone who understands the power of words and concepts to engage K.R.I.T. in an attentive manner. You will most certainly not be disappointed with cuts such as Something, I Gotta Stay, Meditate, and The Vent.
- NAS: I refer to NAS as ‘the bridge’ not because he is from Queens Bridge, rather this young man serves as the bridge that ensured that rap would continue down the path of lyricism. During the ‘golden age of hip-hop’ there was great consternation regarding if the next generation would be able to extend the level of lyricism that greats such as KRS-ONE, Chuck D, Ice Cube, and Grand Verbalizer Funkin Lesson Brother J had set. And then Illmatic came out. The rest is history.
After completing my ‘top five’ I expected for the youth intently listening and actually writing down my list to sigh and retreat back to their respective areas as they had just heard the definitive word from the God professor, I could not have been more incorrect. They looked at me with an inquisitive look and began to issue questions such as, “So no Tribe Called Quest?” “No KRS-ONE?” “Biggie didn’t make it?” “No Drake?” I responded with a “Heck no!!!!!” to that one. “No Wiz Khalifa? No Kendrick Lamar?” “No Queen Latifah? No MC Lyte” I just shook my head and pledged to staunchly standing beside my ‘top five’.
As these children rose from their seats and continued to shout out the names of emcees, I smiled. Because I was certain that the tradition of Hip-Hop Culture and having a ‘top five’ would most certainly make it through another generation. And I must tell you, that realization made my day.
However, I do have one question for you. What is your ‘top five?’ Please feel free to share it; I guarantee you that I will find flaws in it, just as I know that you found flaws in mine.
James Thomas Jones III
© Manhood Race and Culture 2015