A subject often discussed in rap circles it the question of who are the G.O.A.T.s? The Greatests Of All Time? Go on youtube, look on the internet, you’ll find a bajillion articles and interviews with everyone from fans to industry insiders to rappers themselves discussing or debating favorites, usually in the context of being asked to name their “Top Five.” That was even the inspiration for the title of Chris Rock’s critically-acclaimed film in 2014.
But one thing I’ve noticed that when people, including myself, make these list they tend to focus on solo rappers. But there were a lot of really great rappers who spent all or most of their careers as a member of a group. Like Eminem has often cited Treach as an underrated rapper, and thinks that’s because Treach is mainly remembered as part of Naughty By Nature. Well, I thought I’d do something a little different than the norm and list my Top 5 favorite rap GROUPS.
Note that my criteria are simply the groups with the most songs that I’ve enjoyed during my lifetime. I’m not necessarily trying to decide the most “lyrically skilled” rappers or anything like that, these are just simply the ones I like the most. And I’m from Gen X, so it’s probably not a surprise that all of these groups originated in the 1980’s, I didn’t plan that but when I thought about whom I’d pick, well, this is how it turned out.
Yeah, I’m getting old.
So, without further ado, let’s start with #5:
The name is supposed to be an abbreviation for UnTouchable Force Organization. The group originally consisted of 4 members, the rappers Doctor Ice (Fred Reeves), The Kangol Kid (Shiller Shaun Fequiere), and EMD/Educated Rapper (Jeffrey Campbell) and their DJ MixMaster Ice (Maurice Bailey). This group is surprisingly underrated, in my opinion, they’re not talked about or remembered as well as some other groups from that era. But I feel like they automatically deserve Hall of Fame status because of the legacy they created with the release of their first single, ROXANNE, ROXANNE in 1984.
This song went “viral” before going viral was a thing. With no internet, and rap music still in its relative infancy (even most Black radio stations in the country didn’t play rap music at the time). This song sparked over two dozen answer records, starting with Roxanne Shante’s ROXANNE’S REVENGE. It was crazy, for a while there it seemed like every other week a new song was being released by some little no-name rapper or rap group trying to get in on the craze. Roxane’s Sister, Roxanne’s Parents, Roxanne’s A Man, and on an on. It was wild.
But this group, backed by the RnB band Full Force, who produced their albums, had a lot more great songs and were very good rappers. One of the things that was unique about their music was that Full Force would often change the beat of a song during each rapper’s verse. I remember my friends and I talking about how we thought that Doctor Ice always seemed to get the best beats in each song. The fact that they also projected distinct personalities also helped each member stand out and their voices flowed well with each other. Also unique was that The Kangol Kid was also a talented singer (& songwriter, as he would go on to write and produce for other groups), and they would include a song with him singing on each album.
For some reason, EMD (I’ve read conflicting reports that say he was in drug rehab or that there were immigration problems, as he was a British citizen) didn’t join the group on their second album SKEEZER PLEEZER (although he appears on one song PICK UP THE PACE, which was recorded for the KRUSH GROOVE film. He returned for their third album LETHAL (which had the group team up with Thrash Metal band Anthrax on the title track, in a blatant attempt to copy Run-DMC’s success with Aerosmith). But their last two albums were forgettable. Nevertheless, at their peak, this group was incredible.
The First Ladies of Hip-Hop. Cheryl James as SALT and Sandra Denton as PEPA, with their DJ SPINDERELLA who was originally Latoya Hanson on their first album but then replaced by Deidra Roper who fullied the role in all of their subsequent albums and tours and continues to use that name to this day, although James and Denton kicked her out of the group last year.
You could say that this group partially owes its existence to UTFO, as their first song was an answer record undoubtedly inspired by the Roxanne Roxanne craze. They were recruited to record THE SHOWSTOPPA, an answer to the classic rap song THE SHOW, by Doug E. Fresh & The Get Fresh Crew. While it didn’t have the same impact as Roxanne’s Revenge, it did get them a record deal, and their debut album HOT, COOL, AND VICIOUS sparked the hits I’LL TAKE YOUR MAN, MY MIC SOUNDS NICE, TRAMP and their mega-smash PUSH IT, which lead to the album going platinum, making them the first female rap act to do so.
The funny thing is, I don’t recall it ever being an issue that they were women. I remember some interview early on with them, where one of them said that they didn’t want to be “the female Run-DMC” they wanted to “the next Run-DMC”, or something like that. The point being that they were just rappers as far they were concerned. And, really, that’s how we saw them. I think it’s because rap was still so new, even among friends of mine who loved the music they still assumed that it was a fad that would die out in a few years, that we didn’t have any preconceived notions about whether women could do it or not.
And their success streak continued, with their next album going Gold, their third album going Platinum, and their fourth album going 5 times Platinum. The ladies were on top. Hits from LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX to NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS to WHATTA MAN, with vocal group EN VOGUE, are still classics. They were superstars in the genre, and I’d argue that they were predecessors for vocal groups like TLC and THE SPICE GIRLS, with their distinctive looks and personalities. They also mastered the art of being sexy without being overtly sexual.
Honestly, even all these years later, I don’t know if any modern female rappers can hold a candle to this group.
I don’t know what I can say about this group that hasn’t already been said by much better writers than myself. I was a fan of theirs from the beginning, starting with their debut album YO! BUM RUSH THE SHOW! which I think I bought just because it was from DEF JAM, so I figured it must be hot. But of course, they really broke through with their second album IT TAKES A NATION OF MILLIONS TO HOLD US BACK, which included the ultimate pro-Black anthem FIGHT THE POWER. Following in the footsteps of early rap hits like THE MESSAGE and WHITE LINES, Public Enemy added socially conscious messages to their music to create radio-friendly hits that also made you think about the world and your place in it. It’s literally because of this group and their songs that I started learning about Malcolm X and other aspects of the Civil Rights struggle that weren’t taught in school.
TERMINATOR X (Norman Rogers), and PROFESSOR GRIFF (Richard Griffin) were early members, but it was the two-man combination of CHUCK D (Carlton Douglas Ridenhour) and FLAVOR FLAV (William Drayton Jr.) that defined this group (and, in my opinion, without those two they’re not “Public Enemy”). Chuck’s powerful voice spread the knowledge while Flavor was the ultimate hype-man making sure you got the point. An overlooked classic is their 1994 album MUSE SICK N HOUR MESS AGE, which takes on the destructive behaviors in the Black community that were being promoted by gangsta rap at the time. Unfortunately, it couldn’t fight the rising trend in rap at the time and was overlooked. They came back somewhat 4 years later with the soundtrack album HE GOT GAME, which was much better than the Spike Lee movie that it came from. In between those two albums, Chuck D released a solo album, AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MISTACHUCK, which showcased some of his best lyrical skills to date. Chuck actually seemed to improve as a rapper as he got older, but unfortunately, fewer fans were paying attention at that point. They left Def Jam and continued to release albums independently, and I kept buying many of them, and am still a fan to this day.
ADAM HOROVITZ (KING AD-ROCK), MICHAEL DIAMOND (MIKE D) and ADAM YAUCH (MCA). I’ve been thinking of this list for a while and I didn’t originally have this group on it, because over the decades I kind of stopped thinking of them as a “rap group,” they just became a “music group” to me, and that speaks to their creativity and musical gross. But I recently read Diamond and Horovitz’s co-autobiography BEASTIE BOYS BOOK and last weekend I watched their BEASTIE BOYS STORY documentary on Apple TV and it reminded me of how many great songs they had that I loved, and most of them are rap songs.
Much like Salt N Pepa, the Beasties benefited from the fact that the genre was so new, so there wasn’t much controversy about White guys rapping back then. Of course, it also helped that they were on DEF JAM RECORDS and being managed by Russell Simmons, so the same guys who brought us Run-DMC and LL Cool J brought the Beastie Boys to it, so that was a helpful co-sign that immediately made them cool. As actual rappers they were average at best, but they made up for it in attitude and their willingness to experiment.
Their debut album LICENSE TO ILL was like a nuclear bomb, it blew up everywhere. We couldn’t get enough of their hits like THE NEW STYLE, BRASS MONKEY, PAUL REVERE, and FIGHT FOR YOUR RIGHT. But in retrospect, the Beasties seemed like they were the template for what would be considered a gimmick group. Basically, one-hit wonders, and the lack of success of their long-awaited follow-up album PAUL’S BOUTIQUE seemed to bear that out. I’ll admit at the time that that album confused and disappointed me, as well. Although now, all these years later, I recognize the brilliance in it.
But the group bounced back with CHECK YOUR HEAD, giving us hits like SO WATCHA WANT and PASS THE MIC, and then ILL COMMUNICATION contained the rock smash SABOTAGE, but also the dope rap collaboration with Q-Tip: GET IT TOGETHER. Then 4 years later they drop HELLO NASTY featuring the song INTERGALACTIC. It was amazing, in an era where even the hottest rap acts would fall out of favor about 3 albums, these guys just kept going and dominating the charts.
What I loved so much about this group is their willingness to experiment. They were fans of all types of music and weren’t afraid to mix them together. I was talking to my brother last night about them and said the Beasties are basically what he and I would be like if we’d been musicians growing up, as we also always like a wide variety of music, and wouldn’t have wanted to be limited to doing any one type of it. Rock, Pop, RnB, rap, country, dance, let’s just do whatever we feel like doing at the time. That was the Beastie Boys’ attitude, and it worked.
And for the number one slot on my list, there’s really no question who it would be:
RUN, DMC, AND JAM MASTER JAY. Joe Simmons, Daryle McDaniels, and Jason Mizell. The Kings from Queens. They weren’t the first rap group or rap act to achieve success on the charts, but they really are the ones who made the genre mainstream. They were the first true rap STARS, they were up there with the likes of Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Prince in their heyday. Their impact on me and my friends at the time cannot be understated. Shoot, I’ve written before about the time I was stopped by a cop for WALKING WHILE BLACK, that day I was walking to a park to sit down and read a short biography about Run-DMC.
From the minute I first heard the opening beats to their debut single SUCKER MC’S I was hooked. And with the release of their self-titled debut album bringing us the hits IT’S LIKE THAT, HARD TIMES, AND ROCK BOX, there was no turning back. Their second album KING OF ROCK, with that searing title track, cemented them as icons, and this was followed by appearances in the film KRUSH GROOVE and then their third album RAISING HELL, which included the legendary WALK THIS WAY remake, which revitalized Aerosmith’s career.
And individually they were both extremely good rappers. As I was saying in the beginning, I think because everyone just thinks of them in the context of this duo that they don’t get mentioned in the conversation about who the greatest rappers are. But I think both of them are contenders for GOAT status.
Then came the creative missteps, their fourth album TOUGHER THAN LEATHER was decent, and contained the hit RUN’S HOUSE, which would much later become the title of Joe Simmons’ reality TV series, but the movie that they made in that name was straight garbage. Their 5th album BACK FROM HELL had some good songs, as they switched musically from rock to New Jack Swing, but I remember noticing how they were suddenly cursing in every song, which felt like them trying to appeal to the newer gangsta rap fans. They never returned to their creative or commercial heights after that, in particular, I’d say it’s a tragedy that they were never able to capitalize on the rap/rock hybrid trend that was spawned in the late 90’s/early 2000’s by acts like Kid Rock, Rage Against The Machine, Korn, and Limp Bizkit, but their place in history was already set. Every rap group that has come after them is basically building on the foundation of the House that Run-DMC built.
So that’s my top 5. Honorable mentions go to NWA, Digital Underground, Grandmaster Flash/Melle Mel & The Furious Five, De La Soul, and Whodini.