Almost since the birth of hip-hop music, there have been arguments over who is the best MC. That competition is at the very heart of battle rap. The earliest rhymes were derived either from attempts to liven up the party or boasting about being better than everyone else. The best of the best, of course, did both. Even in the mainstream, most of the genre’s greatest clashes (KRS-One vs. MC Shan; Jay-Z vs. Nas) were about supremacy on record.
Over the decades, there have been countless articles, essays, books, and even documentaries about the greatest rappers of all-time, but the reality is that the overwhelming majority of MC’s are great at one or two things and only decent or even mediocre at everything else. Even the greats have their flaws and weak spots.
So instead of choosing just one, what if you could create the perfect rapper by combining the strongest traits of some of the best to ever grip a microphone in their prime?
What would the Voltron of rap entail?
Voice: Chuck D
A voice to a rapper is a guitar to a guitarist or a baton to a conductor. It is essential to the music. Of all the great sounds on It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet, none were as important as the one coming from Chuck’s throat. The folks over at Wax Poetics said it best: “Chuck D’s voice is the greatest instrument hip-hop has ever had…With its booming authority, though, he ushered in a consciousness, a controlled anger, and a political viewpoint that was desperately needed in a genre…and one that is still sorely missed.”
Every great hip-hop artist has a great flow, regardless of whether they’re from New York (Jay-Z, Nas, Raekwon, AZ), L.A. (Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg, Kurupt), Detroit (Eminem) or Atlanta (André 3000), but if forced to choose one, I’ll take Tip. He can ride any beat, regardless of speed, regional basis, or instrumentation, implementing a flow that seems inhuman. It is relaxed yet on point, melodic but assertive. It is seemingly devoid of both breaths and flaws.
B.I.G. may have been the “rap Alfred Hitchcock,” but Nas is the rap Scorsese, Coppola, Speilberg, and De Palma all rolled into one. His knack for detail is uncanny, creating vivid characters that inhabit dark underworlds and find themselves in dangerous situations. The range of his storytelling is perhaps his greatest gift. He has done it all, from painting pictures of life in the city (“N.Y. State of Mind”) to more cinematic tales of double cross (“Blaze a 50”), gun battles (“Shootouts”), being spied on by the FBI (“Phone Tap” with The Firm), trying to dispose of a corpse (Noreaga’s “Body in the Trunk”) or changing the point of view, telling stories from the perspective of a gun (“I Gave You Power”), recalling the history of hip-hop in a 1930s noir crime caper with an Edward G. Robinson voice (“Who Killed It?”) and even spinning a yarn completely in reverse (“Rewind”). He is not always the hero, either. In his own lyrics, he’s been the victim of abduction (AZ’s “Mo Money, Mo Murder, Mo Homicide”) and even caught his wife cheating on him (“Undying Love”). He’s even dipped his toe into nonfiction waters with “U.B.R. [Unauthorized Biography of Rakim].” Nas’s discography could have its own IMDB page.
There was a time when rapping at 30 was considered laughable and absurd. Thanks to Jay – and a couple of his contemporaries – that is no longer the case. He is approaching 45 and, retired or not, washed up or not, he’s still one of the most important figures in all of music, still able to drop a verse or a hit song just when everyone has written him off. The living embodiment of how hip-hop’s reach and influence have grown over the past twenty years, a career like Jay’s seemed impossible not that long ago.
Who else puts words together like Slim Shady? The answer is no one. There’s no word that cannot be rhymed with eight others, in double- and triple-time, creating a web of words that entangle the listener, such as his complex alliteration on “3 A.M.”: “I’m just a hooligan who’s used to using hallucinogens/Causing illusions again, brain contusions again/Cutting and bruising the skin, razors, scissors and pins.” Personally, one of my favorite underrated lines comes from a 2009 marathon freestyle session on Tim Westwood’s show: “Part Manson, part Hannibal/Part mechanical shark/Throwing animal parts at Scarlett Johansson.” Who thinks of that?
There has been no shortage of incredible lyricists throughout hip-hop history, from Jay-Z and Nas to Lupe Fiasco and Kendrick Lamar. But every great writer’s roots can be traced back to Rakim. He introduced complex rhyme schemes and an expanded vocabulary to a genre that previously had known only simple verses and the most basic of rhymes. Virtually all of the tricks that the greats employ – alliteration, heterographs, assonance, internal rhymes, allusion – were first introduced by The R.
Few artists in any genre have used music as a vessel for emotion like Tupac Shakur. Whatever feeling you may have at any given moment, there is almost certainly a 2Pac song that can serve as the soundtrack, from rage (“Hit ‘em Up”) to nostalgia (“Dear Mama”) to despair (“So Many Tears”) to partying (“How Do U Want It” ) to paranoia (“If I Die 2Nite”) and everything in between, because he put his every sentiment into every rhyme.
Persona: The Notorious B.I.G.
A fat sex symbol. A laidback monster. Funny and ferocious. The Notorious B.I.G. was a study in contrasts. His rhymes were dark yet humorous, the subject matter scary but accessible. His brilliance was in his ability to keep a foot firmly in each world, proven by his mastery of making songs that appealed to both the streets and the radio. Case in point: “Hypnotize” and “Mo Money Mo Problems” were on the same album as “Ten Crack Commandments” and “Long Kiss Goodnight.” He was always the coolest dude in the room.
Punchlines: Big L
The list is endless. “Ask Beavis, I get nothing Butt-Head,” “More keys than a janitor,” “Keep rappers’ hearts pumpin’ like Reeboks,” “I knocked out so many teeth the tooth fairy went bankrupt,” and “Catchin’ more bodies than abortion clinics” are just a few of the L lines that made everyone hit the rewind button.
Range: Lauryn Hill
Lyrics? Dense. Flow? Water. Style? Unique. Voice? Exquisite. Lauryn Hill was the total package. She could do it all and did so at a high level. A decade before Drake, she was the ultimate hip-hop weapon: incredible rhymes and soulful singing with the ability to flip between the two at will. We’ve yet to see another talent like L-Boogie.
The greatest MC ever created has to look the part. Who better than The God? Mid-‘80s Rakim was the definition of hip-hop with the thick, dookie rope chains and relaxed gear.
Influence: Ice Cube
As N.W.A’s main songwriter, he created the lyrics that instigated a letter from the FBI, introduced the world to a new locale – South Central, Los Angeles – and a brand new subgenre – gangsta rap. Then, he went to the other coast and released another groundbreaking record with Public Enemy’s production team, The Bomb Squad. Add in the fact that this summer’s Straight Outta Compton became the highest-grossing music biopic in history, and it’s clear that Cube’s influence is still being felt.
Crew: Wu-Tang Clan
Crews are ubiquitous in hip-hop. Every MC, it seems, has a squad that rolls with him (or her), lending support in the early days and ultimately being repaid with a group album down the line. However, most of these are hangers-on, weed carriers that are fun to chill with, but shouldn’t be given a record deal. The exception to this rule, of course, is Wu-Tang. The original supergroup. Before Westside Connection and The Firm and Hot Boyz and Slaughterhouse, the Wu was a posse of up-and-coming MC’s from various places and backgrounds that, fittingly, formed like Voltron and changed the game. Over two decades later, their impact and influence is still evident.
There you have it – the perfect MC.
Let’s go, Voltron Force!
Christopher Pierznik is the author of eight books, including four on hip-hop, all of which can be purchased in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on numerous sites, including XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, I Hate JJ Redick, and many more. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter and subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter.