Lest anyone think that I listen to nothing but hard rock (Perish the thought!), today I present my ten favorite voices in rap and hip-hop.
To be clear: I am not talking about the best rappers, nor the best lyricists. The ability to compose and say meaningful and interesting things is an element I considered, but it was not the biggest element in this selection. If it were, then Eminem would be on here, because I think he’s a brilliant writer (Who occasionally writes really dumb and offensive shit) and an amazing rapper. His voice, however, bugs the crap out of me. So he’s not on the list.
Here’s who made my list: people with good tone to their voice, first and foremost. For rap, I actually prefer deeper voices, though not exclusively. I cannot abide nasal voices for rappers, so Cypress Hill, even though I like their music, are out. I still like grit, but I appreciate a smooth tone in a rapper, and so I have both on this list. I admire speed and precision when it comes to rapping, as well as unique and recognizable style. And of course, it has to be good music: so 50 Cent would never make the cut. Sorry, Fitty.
Lastly, I have to note: I am old. I am pretty much the same age as rap itself. I like the rap I grew up with more than the rap today, and so most of this is old school, rather than new school. That’s just how it is. But if anyone wants to suggest a modern rapper with a good voice and musical chops, I’d be interested. But for now, here are my picks.
Chuck D of Public Enemy: My personal favorite. Best lyrics in rap, probably the best voice, and the music is good, too. I think of it this way: Flavor Flav is so bad — so annoying, so completely without talent, his voice so obnoxious — that he drags Public Enemy down: and yet this is still a great band. That’s all Chuck D.
And since I live here, and since this is one of their best, it has to be this song.
Big Daddy Kane:
He’s kind of a putz (Much too much of the egotistical “I’m big pimpin’!” kind of attitude), but you just can’t argue with that voice and the speed and clarity of his rapping.
(Bonus track: these first two together. With Ice Cube just as a filler in between them, and Flavor Flav to annoy you just in the beginning. Big Daddy Kane here gives what may be my favorite 30 seconds of rap music ever, starting at 1:25.)
Dr. Dre: Not really a big fan of gangsta rap, but — nobody does it better. Nobody.
Above the Law’s Cold-187um: I admit that this choice is largely because of this one song, which is one of my all-time favorites; but this guy — also known as Big Hutch — is damn good at this, both sound and flow. I also like that he studied jazz in college. Gangsta.
MCA: I love the Beastie Boys. I always have. I grew up on them — they were the first rappers I liked, and because of them, I kept looking for good rap, unlike so many of my friends that just completely turned away from rap. But I had both Licensed to Ill and Paul’s Boutique memorized, every word, every song. But in terms of voice? It’s all MCA. Mike D is fine, neither good nor bad; AdRock has that damn annoying nasal whine, though it works well with their overall sound. But I loved hearing Adam Yauch. I love this video, too — because it seems just like three friends being goofy together in their basement. Which is pretty much the band’s whole career.
Queen Latifah: I could almost put Queen Latifah on the list for best voices in rock, because her singing is beautiful all by itself; but if not there, she belongs on this list, no question. Amazing talent. Here — she sings on the chorus, too.
Zack de la Rocha: I think Rage Against the Machine is an utterly unique band. More than anything else, I give them credit for recognizing what they could do together, how well they could make this strange mix of rap and heavy metal work. But the only reason — the only reason — they could make it work is Zack de la Rocha. Tom Morello is one of the best and most innovative guitarists in hard rock, and the rhythm section is as strong as any; but without de la Rocha, this is a good hard rock band. With him, they are one of a kind. De la Rocha can stand as one of the instruments, carrying the melody, even without a melody. That is how remarkable his voice is. And he can write about anything, and he can rap perfectly — even when he’s covering someone else’s song. As he does here, with Cypress Hill’s “How I Could Just Kill a Man.” Which is originally performed by two men. Because de la Rocha doesn’t need to breathe. Listen to the live version of this sometime, when he shares the mike with Cypress Hill: the difference in how clear and cutting his voice is, compared to Cypress Hill, says it all.
And the intro is hilarious.
KRS-One: Rapper from Boogie Down Productions from the 80’s. I think he’s a smug bastard — he frequently calls himself The Teacher, and lectures and proselytizes and criticizes everyone, particularly other rappers, though he doesn’t strike me as that enlightened. But he is damned talented.
Busta Rhymes: So this guy’s videos are the weirdest freaking things I’ve ever seen. And his lyrics are frequently the sort of exploitative, racist, sexist, violent rhymes that make people dislike rap. But that grinding voice is inimitable and aggressive and powerful, and his speed is unmatched. If you can handle the weirdness of the little blue demon and the fisheye lens, listen to the fascinating combination of a slow violin melody with a fast beat and lightning fast rhymes.
Shock G: Another band that I loved in my youth; another pair of albums (Sex Packets and the Same Song EP) that I memorized. Which means I was a fan of Tupac before he was big. That’s right. But much more a fan of Shock-G, who led the group and also performed as Humpty Hump. And this is the song that got me. And a great note to end on.