As a young kid, everything I learned at the beginning was usually just experiencing what is on the surface. Whether it was learning how to add and subtract, how to write succinct paragraphs, or even learning to tie my shoes, everything learned begins by what is on the surface. Hip-hop or rap music is no different, but what is so dope about rap is that the older you become, the easier it becomes to realize that there is much more to rap subject wise than strip clubs and the money they talk about throwing. Rappers, artists, emcees, however they define themselves, all have a different story to tell if you look beneath the surface.
I am going to highlight a few artists from each region so that the West Coast, South, and East Coast all are discussed, but at the end of this piece there will be a list of all the rappers I think the reader should look at. There are the artists I learned about over the years as I developed a love for rap and hip hop. As the great late rap legend Tupac Shakur said in his song “Hail Mary,” “follow me.”
Growing up as a middle class Caucasian kid in a small town, I was not aware of rap and hip hop until my early teens. My parents were much more into the classic rock and bluegrass of the 1970s and 80s, so my early music tastes were much more towards that genre, along with a little alternative music thrown in. Back then the only hip hop artists I ever listened to were the legends, the mainstream rappers of the mid 2000s (Jay Z, Eminem, and Kanye West to be exact). Those were the three artists that everybody knew, so originally they were the only three I listened to. Obviously these three MCs are legends in each of their own unique ways, but that is just three of the dozens, even hundreds of artists that I had neglected because I simply didn’t know any better. That stayed the same way from 2008 (when I started listening to rap) until 2012 (when I graduated from high school and went to college), really only listening to the top mainstream artists of that time. However, I began to be fascinated with the genre and started to realize that what these three legends were doing was art, poetry, and so much more than just putting words over an instrumental. What these artists were doing was very similar to how we were taught to write poetry; have good metaphors, be creative in your word choice, and most importantly, send a message. Little would I know just how quickly I became addicted to this music, but again, those three were just scratching the very deep surface.
It was the Fall of 2012 that I moved into the dorms at Kent State University with my friend Olum from high school. Like me he had grown up in a middle class family in Kent, Ohio, yet he had a much more vast range of music he listened to than I did. Rap and hip hop music was played frequently in our dorm while watching television or playing video games and with each passing song, each passing artist, I remember asking him the same question repeatedly: “Wow, who’s this dude and why haven’t I heard more of his tracks?” It was there I started learning about the other great rappers besides the three mentioned above. I discovered OGs (original gangsters) like Lupe Fiasco, Nas, Slaughterhouse (all four members), Pusha T, and so many others I could name that had been around for years, but I was blind to who they were and just how clever they were with their wordplay, especially Lupe and Nas, whose lyrics still are difficult to completely decipher to this day. I learned from finding just these artists who had been around for so long that they were branches to other artists, whether they were on the same label or had just been featured on one of their songs.
After I had gone through the OG’s music, I started to find all of the new age artists and groups. I had never heard of Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE) until 2012 when I heard Kendrick Lamar and his album Good Kid M.A.A.D City. I had no clue that TDE had existed since 2007 and was based on the West Coast in California and that they all came from there. From listening to Kendrick I became addicted to the other artist’s music in TDE. That same year Schoolboy Q put out his second project Habits and Contradictions and Ab Soul put out his second project Control System. They fit the criteria I mentioned earlier: Great metaphors, clever word choice, and send a message. At first I just really appreciated their music, but as I looked deeper into it, songs like “Blessed” by Schoolboy Q and “Terrorist Threats” by Ab Soul had very important meanings. Schoolboy Q was telling the story of how he overcame living the gangster life and persevered through it, telling people that they can make it out of the ghetto. Ab Soul was talking about how if gangs would bang together instead of killing each other, they could stand together against the government and have a chance against them in the constant war between cops and gangs. I’m not going to argue about their messages, but both of these artists, along with Kendrick and fellow TDE members Jay Rock and Isiah Rashad, aren’t just creating music for hits, but are also creating awareness on these typically taboo topics.
While there are other West Coast rappers that deserve mention, it’s also important to recognize rappers from the South, which for a long time has produced several great hip hop artists. Ones I learned about as I got more into rap started with Childish Gambino, also known as Donald Glover the actor and writer. The first album I heard of his was actually his latest one, Because the Internet. He fit that profile I was looking for and in listening to him I found other artists (outside of the obvious ones like Lil Wayne, T.I., Andre 3000, etc.) such as Big K.R.I.T., J. Cole, CyHi the Prynce, among many others. The best part about these artists is that each one had a different story. None of them grew up the same way. Childish Gambino was the upper-middle class kid dealing with depression, Big K.R.I.T. grew up in an impoverished area in Mississippi, J. Cole experienced a multi-racial upbringing as a mixed kid in North Carolina, and CyHi grew up on the streets of Stone Mountain, Georgia like Gambino, but his family struggled to make a living so he sold drugs. The diversity of the South shows in the way they each present their music, but they all fit the criteria mentioned earlier and have been successful because of that. Some people might not call Gambino and J. Cole southern artists because they both went to New York City for college, but you can hear it in their lyrics, in their messages, that their roots started in the South.
I was more familiar with the East Coast rappers, but I was still amazed at how many different artists come from this region. The legends are The Notorious B.I.G., Nas, The Wu-Tang Clan, Jay Z, 50 Cent, and so many more that I could name that would take up an entire page. However, those artists are implied and recently there have been several new artists from the East Coast trying to make names for themselves. Ones I have found over the last three years that have really impressed me are artists like Joey Bada$$, A$AP Rocky, and Logic. Both Joey Bada$$ and A$AP Rocky come from New York (Joey from Brooklyn and Rocky from Harlem), but they have very different styles, something that wasn’t often said during the 90’s when many of the best artists came from New York. Joey Bada$$ has a style that seems to sound more like that golden age for New York, but the things he discussed, especially in his latest album B4.Da.$$, are very relatable to present day. Throughout much of this album you get a sense of who he is, a young black man from the streets of Brooklyn whose family struggled to make a living, but now that he has money he understands that he has to be responsible with it and not let it affect who he is as a person. This was very evident in the song “Paper Trail$.” A$AP Rocky is a little more towards the partying music, but in his latest album At.Long.Last.A$AP (A.L.L.A) he was very much more about sending a message and giving the listeners a piece of who he is rather than just talking about money and all the women he’s slept with. This project shows the maturation of Rocky I think. Logic is a little different because he’s not from New York, instead hailing from Gaithersburg, Maryland, a poor town outside of Baltimore where his childhood was spent dealing with drug abusing parents while living in section 8 housing. The first work I ever heard from Logic was his debut studio album, Under Pressure. Throughout this album Logic talks about the pressure of being famous, losing his identity of Bobby (his real name is Robert, but goes by Bobby with friends and family), and trying to sustain success, something he never had as a child. Overall, when it comes to rap and hip hop music, not only does the listener want to be entertained, but also to be told a story, because in the end, rap really is rhythm and poetry at its finest.
Throughout this piece I hope you enjoyed learning about some of the artists I discovered as a teen and my college years. Each of the artists I have mentioned all bring their own unique spin on music to the table and are well worth listening to. Hip Hop is a growing genre and while some people think the Golden Age of rap was in the 80s and 90s, I like to think that the Golden Age for rap is just starting. With all the rappers I’ve mentioned, it’s hard to argue.
List of Rappers/Rap Groups I Personally Think You Should Check Out (alphabetically)
(Star next to artist are my favorites)
Bad Meets Evil* (Eminem and Royce Da 5’9”)
Capone N Norega
Chance The Rapper
Clipse (Pusha T and Malice)
CyHi The Prynce
Machine Gun Kelly
N.W.A (Dr. Dre, Easy-E, Ice Cube, etc.)
Royce da 5’9”*
A Tribe Called Quest
Tyler the Creator