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Hip hop aficionados, unite! Among the things New York City is well-known for are our rude denizens, Matt Lauer, the statue of Horace Greeley, scragglier members of the Occupy Wall Street movement and of course, our musical contributions to the hip hop world. Rap was born in the South Bronx and in the years since, quality hip hop has lived on in Gotham, with each of the five boroughs giving birth to their own unique sound and heroes. It was last week that a good buddy of mine and I got into a discussion over which borough has produced the best rap music to-date. It’s certainly not clear-cut, and depending on your methodology, I could see an argument for most of the five. In my descriptions, I’ve dropped the names of the biggest rappers and classic albums to come out of each borough. Make sure to have your voice heard in our poll below.
Had this contest been held in 1992, the Bronx may have taken this one in a cakewalk. The borough’s original contributions to hip hop in the days of DJ Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa provided a foundation for the genre. The 80s would see Slick Rick (a transplant from London) drop his classic The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick(1988) and KRS-One’s Return of the Boom Bap (1993) is widely seen as a classic of hip hop’s golden age. Before his solo career, KRS-One was the leader of Boogie Down Productions, which released several classic works, simultaneously stirring up beef with the Marley Marl-led Juice Crew from Queensbridge, ultimately resulting in the murder of BDP’s DJ Scott LaRock. Classic releases from Bronx rappers include Ultramagnetic MCs’ Critical Beatdown (1988), producer-rapper Diamond D’s Stunts, Blunts and Hip Hop (1992) and Showbiz & A.G.’s Runaway Slave (1992). Other notable figures from the Bronx include Big Pun, his doppelganger and long-time associate Fat Joe, along with Funkmaster Flex.
Choice Cuts from the Bronx
Brooklyn is an easy favorite and it’s not hard to see why. Bucktown has spawned its share of great work in the genre. The Beastie Boys have at least 3 albums in the ‘classic’ category, while the Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die (1994) continues to make well-deserved appearances in top 5 of all-time lists. Composed of Yaasin Bey(formerly known as Mos Def) and Talib Kweli, the superstar duo of Black Star’s glorious 1998 debut set a benchmark in the socially-conscious sphere of hip hop. The two have released solo classics in Black on Both Sides (1999) and Reflection Eternal: Train of Thought (2000 w/ DJ Hi-Tek), respectively. Jay-Z falls more on the personality cult of things, but one is still able to see through his pop penchant, revealing glimpses of the skilled wordsmith who dropped Reasonable Doubt (1996) and The Blueprint (2003). But there’s much more to BK than Jay and Biggie’s egos.
The super-group known as the Boot Camp Clik released a number of terrific albums in the mid-90s that continue to garnish praise from hip hop heads today. Enta Da Stage by Black Moon (1993), Dah Shinin’ by Smif-n-Wessun (1995) and Nocturnal by Heltah Skeltah (1996) are all boom-bap classics with the criminally underrated Beatminerz handling production duties. Rapper-producer El-P was the driving force behindCompany Flow’s Funcrusher Plus (1996) and Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein (2001), coupled with two solid records of his own. During the 80s, one of hip hop’s greatest lyricists – Big Daddy Kane – held down the fort, and one cannot forget the strength of the queen, MC Lyte, either. Other Brooklynite rappers worth mentioning include: Busta Rhymes, Fabolous, Foxy Brown, Masta Ace, M.O.P. and Lil’ Kim.
Choice Cuts from Brooklyn
Manhattan is home to the highest volume of commercial property in New York City, and is also the city’s richest and whitest borough. Such a blend — the type that inspires banal depictions of Battery Park on bicycle — doesn’t make for very compelling or rich storytelling. Nonetheless, some of Manhattan neighborhoods north of Central Park have been the launching point for some of hip hop’s stars, like the exposure Kurtis Blow enjoyed in the early-to-mid 1980s. Harlem in particular has proved a breeding ground for big names, including Cam’Ron, Jim Jones, Ma$e, Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs along with up-and-comer A$AP Rocky. The borough’s two top lyricists, in my opinion, are Immortal Technique and the deceased Big L. Their most acclaimed releases remainImmortal Technique’s Revolutionary, Vol. 2 (2003) and perhaps the only bona fide hip hop classic Manhattan has produced, Big L’s Lifestylez Ov Da Poor & Dangerous (1995).
Choice Cuts from Manhattan
Welcome to Queens. Though he has not been a relevant force in hip hop for years, Nas is still responsible for dropping Illmatic (1994), potentially the greatest hip hop album ever. One can’t forget childhood friend AZ either, who takes the prize for ‘Best Rap Guest Appearance’ for his mind-numbing verse on “Life’s a Bitch,” not to mention his acclaimed 1995 debut — Doe or Die. The same Queensbridge projects are the home of Mobb Deep, whose 1995 magnum opus, The Infamous, stands the test of time as one of the best hip hop records ever made.
Of course there’s RUN-D.M.C., who have a string of radio classics to their name. The Juice Crew, led by DJ Marley Marl were dominant in the late 80s. Close associate Kool G. Rap would go on to have a fruitful career of his own, dropping two widely recognized classics with DJ Polo, Wanted: Dead or Alive (1990) and Live and Let Die (1991). When it comes to underrated NYC hip hop, it’s tough to top Organized Konfusion, consisting ofPharoahe Monch and Prince Po. Their classic self-titled (1991) and Stress: the Extinction Agenda (1994) are both standouts.
But what really sets the borough apart is the music of A Tribe Called Quest. Fronted by the legendary Q-Tip, the group became the standard bearers for conscious, jazz-infused hip hop, and the first rap group to really galvanize critics of all stripes. The Low End Theory (1991) and Midnight Marauders (1993) are required listening. Other notable rappers to come from the borough include: Capone-n-Noreaga, Cormega, Ja Rule, Large Professor, 50 Cent.
Choice Cuts from Queens
If we’re going by quality over quantity, or ‘Classic Albums per Capita’, then oft-overlooked Staten Island takes the cake. The Wu-Tang Clan were massively influential pioneers in genre — in lyrics and production. No, not all of the members were from Shaolin, but even the transplants repped the borough as if it was their home and had perhaps the most impressive three-year run of any hip hop group between 1993 and 1996. Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993) is the masterful record that started it all, but it was the solo releases in the years to come that have cemented Wu-Tang’s reputation and unique style among the elite. GZA’s Liquid Swords (1994) andRaekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… (1995) ultimately duel it out for best solo release, but Method Man’s Tical(1994), Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version (1995) and Ghostface Killah’sIronman (1996) are all worth your time and then some, as well. The common theme between all these releases? They were all produced entirely by the RZA.
Choice Cuts from Staten Island
Yes, I am aware this list does not include the many talents from the Greater New York City area. Don’t let that stop you from voting for the NYC borough with the best hip hop though!