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McHenry High School's student-written and -edited newspaper

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McHenry High School's student-written and -edited newspaper

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Review: 50 years, 50 rappers

2023 marks the 50th year of the rap genre. Who are the most influential names in the genre?
Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times / TNS
From left, Eminem, Mary J. Blige, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg perform during halftime of Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium on Feb. 13 2022, in Inglewood, California.

2023 marks the 50 year anniversary of the most listened to genre in America. Born in clubs and DJ booths in The Bronx in New York City, rap has changed and evolved in many ways over those 50 years. 

With many voices, many beats, and thousands of albums and singles, who are the 50 most influential artists, producers, and figures of the genre? Who has changed it the most? Who’s inspired those after them?


50. Lil B

Pioneer of the “cloud rap” subgenre along with frequent collaborator Clams Casino, Lil B is credited for being one of the first rappers to use SoundCloud as a primary distribution method.


49. Lupe Fiasco

Lupe Fiasco is praised highly for his lyrical skill and unique subject matter, often rapping about struggles, love, and life. His metaphors, primarily, are renowned.


48. Big Pun

One of the biggest (literally and figuratively) hardcore rappers, utilizing the boom bap genre to its fullest ability, and known for deep cut, classic, “Capital Punishment.”


47: Run The Jewels

The duo of Killer Mike and El-P work as gatekeepers for the modern underground scene. Their self-titled “Run The Jewels” series provides typical hip-hop, introspective rap, and experimental songs that hip-hop-heads appreciate.


46. Big L

A New York icon that was taken too soon, Big L used the dusty and dark roots of the genre in New York to form a unique sound, and masterful flow that none match.


45. Mos Def

Now known as Yasin Bey, Mos Def contributed to the growth of the conscious rap genre– known for his commentary on political issues, and the black experience.


44. Ludacris

A southern staple, Ludacris was an undeniable pillar for the popularization of trap music, and his southern drawl also contributed to the rise in notoriety.


43. Common

Another thoughtful entry, Common, known for his classic album “Be” is another rapper focused on life and its many complications, which would inspire a lot of younger talents that we will be seeing later in the list.


42. Nelly

As Midwest rap experienced a boom period in the mid 2000’s, Nelly was one of the core faces. The St. Louis native had serious radio play which aided in the subgenres rise to prominence.


41. Twista

Having “flow” before Twista meant going along with the beat smooth and clean. Having “flow” after Twista meant fast, jarring, articulate machine gun cadence, with his quick wordplay inspiring an entire city in Chicago, and further, the whole genre.


40. Metro Boomin

One of the younger entries on the list, Metro Boomin is inarguably the brightest shining producer in the modern era, with collaborations with 21 Savage, The Weeknd, and Future– all staples of the current visage of rap.


39. Earl Sweatshirt

Earl, along with his collective Odd Future, would make underground rap cool in the early 2010’s, and while he’s not the most popular of his clan, Earl’s persistence to stick with the experimental scene leaves him as one of it’s leaders.


38. J. Cole

The face of conscious rap in the modern rap scene, J. Cole’s lyricism is arguably unmatched in an era dominated by trap music, and the way he weaves social, and philosophical dilemmas into his tracks is equally as enigmatic.


37. Tyler, The Creator

Not far from his Odd Future compatriot, Tyler only ranks higher for his transition from hardcore experimental rap to R&B and other sub genres. As well his taste for fashion and design has brought a new wave of artists in the genre who put a serious importance on image and brand.


36. Lil Kim

While women in rap have existed since it’s inception, New York rapper Lil Kim was one of the first to do the 90’s gangster style of rap that we know today. Her voice and vulgarity would pave the way for women in rap to say exactly what they want to say, and often, to be even more hardcore than the men.


35. Busta Rhymes

Busta Rhymes took the speed of Twista and cranked it to 11. His deep voice and cadence would make a listener expect a more downtempo flow, but his unique choice to go fast made him enigmatic in the genre, and he would even more influence the lyricism and fast flow than Twista did.


34. DMX

While rap had been an aggressive genre before DMX, nobody did it better than he did. The energy that only he had not only produced some of the most recognizable songs, but also inspired artists after him to experiment with delivery. 


33. Timbaland 

One of the great producers of the genre, Timbaland is also credited for bridging the gap between rap and pop, with his collaborations with R&B artists such as Aaliyah, and rap staples like Jay-Z showing that the genres could cross and make magic.


32. Nicki Minaj

Undoubtedly the most popular female rapper, she, more than any of the revolutionaries before her, showed to a wider audience that women could do it just as well as the men. Her flow and delivery is one of the most unique in the game and undoubtedly she’s a master of her craft.


31. Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick Lamar has been considered the voice of a generation. His album “To Pimp A Butterfly” is often in the conversation of best album of all time with it’s amazing jazz production, social commentary, and artistic experimentation. Kendrick is a visionary and is often multiple steps ahead in the evolution of the genre than his fellow artists.


30. Missy Elliot

Missy Elliot is another rapper that cleared the way for women in the genre, but to her credit, her beats and enigmatic way of delivering her lines inspires everyone in the game, not just women.


29. Kid Cudi

With the conversation of mental health in the rap genre becoming ever more prevalent, one man can be credited for inspiring it. Kid Cudi was not the very first to tackle topics like anxiety and depression in hip-hop, but he did so in a way that would reach nearly every artist in the genre after him.


28. Soulja Boy

While it hurts to put Soulja Boy on the list it’s worth saying it’s not for his talent. It is, however, for being one of the first artists in the genre to use the internet as a distribution platform. So, while Soulja Boy is definitely not the brightest star, it’s worth noting how he changed marketing strategy.


27. 50 Cent

50 Cent burst onto the scene in 2003 with one of the greatest rap albums of all time, “Get Rich Or Die Trying.” This album served as an introduction to the faces that would define the early 2000’s, that being 50, Eminem, and Dr. Dre. He also started the “club” movement in the genre with this album.


26. Drake

Undoubtedly the biggest pop star out of the rap genre, the work that Drake has done popularizing rap music is undeniable. As much flack as he gets for being a “radio rapper”, he still does keep a pulse on the genre, and he has numerous classic albums under his belt. As well, despite his ongoing career, artists are already citing him as a serious influence.


25. J. Dilla

Non rap-heads may not recognize this name, but J Dilla is one of the most influential producers in the genre. He was a pioneer of soul sampling and jazz production in rap which still shows itself in modern production to this day.


24. Jay Z

Rap started in New York, and if any voice represents New York the most it’s Jay Z. His influence in the genre is only rivaled by his intelligence in business. His influence, I feel, is shown most in how those inspired by him are putting emphasis on building themselves as a brand, not just as a rapper.


23. T.I.

Trap is by far the most popular sub-genre in rap right now, and without T.I., trap would not be what it is today. He was by far the first big trap artist, and the domino effect is felt all across the 2010’s and now early 2020’s.


22. Future

Right ahead of the trap inventor is the one responsible for the modern evolution of trap. The melodic delivery, hooks, even writing methods: all Future’s style. Arguably, Future has had more influence on the current rap landscape, period.


21. Notorious B.I.G

During the 1990s, rap was more competitive than it has ever been, and the birthplace of rap was at risk of being overshadowed. New York needed a voice, and from this need emerged Notorious B.I.G. His flow and writing ability is enough to get him on this list, but his place in the genre’s history even further cements it.


20. Wu Tang Clan

While all the individual members of the Wu Tang Clan (of which there are 10) could have made this list, their impact is better measured by their work as a unit. Acting as the Staten Island voice in the East Coast scene set them apart from the rest, and that was not all. The first big posse in rap is also responsible for pioneering the dark, boom bap, experimental sample style of underground New York.


19. Ice Cube

In the 80’s rap was still upbeat, funky, and best described as radio friendly. However, when NWA burst onto the scene, that all changed. Their main writer, Ice Cube, would be the voice of the gangster rap movement, and in his solo career would further progress the genre.


18. Tribe Called Quest

On the other hand, jazz rap also thrived in the early-1990s with A Tribe Called Quest. The mellow, good vibes, provided an alternative. Tribe is a key example of raps versatility, one of its key strengths. There’s something for everyone and Tribe is one of the main reasons for that.


17. Run DMC

The popularization of rap outside of its New York birthplace can be credited to Run DMC. The duo has made some seriously popular songs and presented rap as a marketable genre, which was a key step in it being accepted by American radio.


16. Kanye West

The ever controversial and ever problematic Kanye West was once just an up-and-coming producer. Rappers who seem to be far away from Kanye in style even credit him as an inspiration, like Lil Uzi Vert. His soul sampling and writing topics of family, love, and loss is one thing, but with every record it seems that Kanye invented or revolutionized a new subgenre for rap, and that makes him a must-mention.


15. The Neptunes

The production duo of Chad Hugo and Pharell Williams have ushered in a new age of producing prowess. Artists who have pushed the genre to new heights like Tyler, The Creator, have sung the praise of these two extensively, and Pharell especially is still kicking as one of the genres biggest musical geniuses.


14. Nas

Nas can arguably be credited with making the first truly perfect album in the genre, that being “Illmatic.” His work served as proof that rap could be art– that it was art, and that was an important step in the right direction for the game as a whole.


13. LL Cool J

If we are talking about popularizing the genre, only a few surpass LL Cool J. The most well known MC of the 1980s made hip-hop far more marketable and less a New York exclusive, and that was crucial to raps evolution in sound and notoriety.


12. Lauryn Hill

Genre bending, paving the way, and being different; all qualities of those who made this list, and if anyone embodies it most its Lauryn Hill. Her proficiency in both rap and R&B made her a key player in the rap game, and in a time where the genre was more male dominated than ever, spoke out on behalf of female MCs across the nation.


11. Outkast (Andre 3000 and Big Boi)

The first voices to come out of the southern rap scene, Andre and Big Boi were the first to do a lot of things. They wrote about numerous topics, did double albums, had hazy and funk inspired production — all things out of the norm for the era of rap they came up in. Despite this, they made a name for themselves and the south as a whole, paving the way for artists like J.I.D., Lil Wayne and others.


10. Snoop Dogg

Snoop Dogg is the greatest example of a businessman, with numerous ventures in entertainment outside of music. That being said, the 1990s West Coast style would be nothing without Snoop.



Often referred to as “your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper,” the metal masked MF DOOM is a production and writing genius. I have used the word “enigmatic” a few times thus far but nobody matches DOOM in uniqueness. He proves to young rappers that being different does not mean you cannot be successful, and that making art can take priority over making money.  


8. Rick Rubin

You do not have to be an instrumentalist to be a musical genius and Rick Rubin proves that. As one of the most well traveled producers, his method of opening the artists mind to creative avenues they had not realized is something that has given way to significant progress in musical experimentation, not even just in rap, but in music in general.


7. Tupac Shakur

Rap in the 90’s was a genre that looked outward. Anger and violence against the machine was often a topic, but rarely did it look inward. That was, before Tupac. He wrote masterpieces like “Changes,” and “Keep Ya Head Up,” that looked at cultural issues more deeply. That being said, he also did societal commentary, and like nobody else before or after him. Tupac was not a rapper, he was a poet, and that seriousness is something that artists after have aspired to have.


6. DJ Kool Herc

The unsung inventor of rap, DJ Kool Herc did it like nobody else. As a DJ in New York, he realized at the block parties he attended that people took a particular liking to the drum breaks in songs. So he decided to extend them, which gave a platform for the first MCs to start writing and performing their poetry. The culture starts with him.


5. Eminem

Breaking into the top five is a name you have probably been looking for throughout the whole list. Eminem’s praise and popularity has been done to death, but it is simply impossible to ignore the work he did by using controversy to make rap huge. It is because of Eminem that rap is able to reach the wide audience that it does.


4. Lil Wayne

Our first member of the rap-influence Mount Rushmore is Lil Wayne. Wayne is undoubtedly the visionary of rap as it is today. His students like Drake and Nicki Minaj speak for themselves. Mixtape culture, face tats, even the “Lil” moniker — it all came from Weezy.


3. Rakim

While not the most popular, Rakim is given proper respect by rappers new and old. Before Rakim, flows were simple. Rappers would go with the cadence of the 4 beats, and do nothing more, but Rakim was not satisfied with that. He had unique timing and that opened the door for everyone after him to experiment.


2. Dr. Dre

Dre, undoubtedly the most iconic rap producer of all time, and one of the biggest name-makers in the genre, is the roots of the genre. He built NWA, he built Tupac and Snoop Dogg, he built Eminem and 50 Cent, and he built Kendrick Lamar. Every square inch of the genre has been influenced by Dre. Without his beats and his business savvy, the genre would lose numerous huge names.


1. Eazy E

Eazy-E was never the most technical rapper. He did not have the most unique flow or poetic wordplay, but what he did have was an image. Eazy-E was the “rapper” that everyone thought of in the 1990s. He invented gangster rap, the first real signs of what rap has become today: real people making music about real issues. Without Eazy-E there is no Drake, Kendrick, or Cole. There is no Tyler, there is no Eminem, there is no Snoop, and there is no Nas. There is no rap as we know it if not for the real life of Eric Wright that inspired the music by Eazy-E. 

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