Written By: Charlie Lowe
Ever since I became a fan of Hip Hop music, many years ago, it became apparent very early on that I preferred the ‘Group’ over the ‘Individual’. It might just be down to the fact that the very first Hip Hop artists I listened to on a major basis were The Beastie Boys and Run-DMC, or maybe it was down to the versatility multiple MCs provide, with differing styles, differing delivery and differing content constantly changing the dynamic of a track in its short runtime. Whatever the reason, the group always prevails.
So, out of love for the genre and also to celebrate the recent release of 'Straight Outta Compton' The N.W.A biographical drama, I thought it a good time to compile a list of Hip Hop groups past and present, both mainstream and underground, that should be known, loved, respected and enjoyed.
A ground rule before going forward is to base these groups on number of members. In this case to be considered a group it needs to consist of three or more members. Two members is a duo, not a group, so don't attack me for leaving out the likes of Gang Starr, Mobb Deep, Organized Konfusion and Jedi Mind Tricks, among many others. Also, EPMD, though regularly accompanied by a DJ, have gone through three in their time together, so I decided to consider them a duo (Most people do anyway) Besides, duos is a list for another time.
I’ve also decided to stick to US groups only. This list was originally supposed to be a single list of ten but it quickly spiralled into two lists of fifteen. (There's a heck of a lot out there to choose from). Including groups from across the world would have just gotten ridiculous. Again, Hip Hop groups from outside the US is another list for another time. So have no fear.
This is simply a list of favourites in which placement on said list means nothing, this isn’t a count down from worst to best, and I'm not saying one group is better than the other.
Right, with everything made clear, let’s get stuck into the world of the Hip Hop group.
What would a Hip Hop Groups list be without the Wu-Tang Clan? Arguably the greatest group of all time and easily one of the most influential. Wu's debut album 'Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)' released in 1993 is undoubtedly a classic and an important landmark in music, introducing the world to their brilliantly creative and imaginative wordplay and delivery, as well as RZA’s timeless production, with each member a genuine powerhouse, as proven by the fact that Ghostface Killah's 'Ironman', Method Man’s 'Tical', Ol' Dirty Bastard’s 'Return To The 36 Chambers', Raekwon’s 'Only Built 4 Cuban Linx' and GZA’s 'Liquid Swords' are all considered classic and important solo efforts. It's impossible to venture through anything Hip Hop related and not find a well respected beat or verse put together by a Wu-Tang member. RZA, GZA, Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God, Masta Killa, Cappadonna and Ol' Dirty Bastard. Each name a legend of Hip Hop for a reason.
The Artifacts first album 'Between A Rock And A Hard Place' released in 94 easily stands alongside other golden era releases at the time. With production from the renowned Buckwild and T Ray of the Soul Assassins crew, MCs Tame One and El Da Sensei alongside DJ Kaos paid homage to the elements of Hip Hop culture such as graffiti artistry and street MCs, and made a name for themselves with their energetic flow, clever wordplay and effortless delivery. After a second album the group split and both Tame One and El Da Sensai went on to build successful solo careers for themselves. However, the three members will always be highly regarded for their work on ‘Between A Rock And A Hard Place’ which remains a much loved, well respected and heavily sampled classic amongst those in the know.
KMD was the now legendary MF Doom's first group. MF Doom (at the time known as Zev Love X) formed the group alongside his brother DJ Subroc and MC Rodan. Rodan left the group soon after its formation and Onyx the Birthstone Kid was brought in to replace him. Their first album 'Mr Hood' released in 1991 featured regular interludes with the character Mr Hood created from samples of a school language tape cut together to form conversations with members of KMD. The album discussed black empowerment and racism with a light hearted feel, as evidence by heavy sampling of childrens tv shows to form the beats. The group's follow up 'Black Bastards' is widely considered a musical and lyrical classic filled with creativity and a fun sense of humour throughout. However, the album, completed in 1993, wasn't released until 1998 due to issues with its front cover (The character of Mr Hood being lynched) and the untimely death of DJ Subroc a week after recording was finished. As a result, ‘Black Bastards’ has since garnered the rare title of 'Lost Classic'.
Of all the acts to emerge from the independent Hip Hop scene Jurassic 5 can easily be considered the most popular. The distinct heavy jazz, soul and funk influenced beats expertly put together by resident DJs Cut Chemist and DJ Nu-Mark combine perfectly with the unique and recognisable delivery of MCs Chali 2na, Akil, Zaakir and Marc 7 who regularly combine their voices in harmony creating a sound and an appeal which has given them huge popularity outside the world of Hip Hop as well as within. Jurassic 5 have released multiple critically acclaimed albums in their time together, the most successful being 'Power In Numbers' released in 2002 and 'Quality Control' released in 2000. Although the group split back in 2007 they continue to tour together, performing in front of sell-out crowds all over the world.
Public Enemy made a name for themselves with their hard hitting, politically charged, anti-establishment content, regularly pointing out the difficulties of the black community at the time. Their early work in the late 80s and early 90s is hugely important with the group’s second album 'It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back', released in 1988, considered a landmark in music and one of the greatest recordings in Hip Hop history. Public Enemy was the first group to base their entire identity around their political stance, something other rappers and groups had only touched on in the past, and their hard hitting production was uniquely heavy and powerful encouraging the crossover between rap and heavy metal to create rap metal. Chuck D has remained among the most recognisable voices in the genre, and Public Enemy is widely considered one of the most influential groups of all time.
Main Source’s debut album 'Breaking Atoms' was highly regarded at the time of its release back in 1991 and has since received retrospective acclaim, now rightly considered one of the most influential albums in Hip Hop history. MC/Producer Large Professor took centre stage, with his masterful production the real reason ‘Breaking Atoms’ is so important. Intricately layered with expert sampling of jazz, soul and other genres, among rich soundscapes with multiple effects, Large Professor laid the foundations for production techniques now widely the norm. And let’s not forget the fact a certain rapper named Nas made his debut on the classic track 'Live At The Barbeque'. Anyone considering themselves a Hip Hop connoisseur should understand 'Breaking Atoms' is an essential part of any genuine collection.
A Tribe Called Quest
Between 1990 and 1998 A Tribe Called Quest released five albums, with their second and third, 'The Low End Theory' and 'Midnight Marauders', widely considered out and out classics and hugely influential releases. Pioneers of alternative Hip Hop alongside the likes of De La Soul, Tribe were integral in cultivating and paving the way for jazz, soul, funk and reggae influenced Hip Hop over the traditional bass heavy, hardcore, gangsta influenced Hip Hop which was becoming hugely popular at the time. With an easy listening feel, and equally easy listening subject matter, their music kept alternative Hip Hop alive and well, and cemented the group’s name among the most influential and pioneering.
Consisting of Kno, Deacon the Villain, Natti and briefly Mr. SOS, CunninLynguists are well known for their poetic, soulful and sometimes beautiful lyricism along with their equally stunning and solid production, with multiple releases receiving deserved critical acclaim. MC/Producer Kno is one of the most consistent producers around, with interlude beats which easily outshine full tracks from other producers. Every CunninLynguists release is always lauded for its intricate production and both sophisticated, deep and cleverly satirical wordplay. CunninLynguists remain a unique and powerful force in Hip Hop music and a genuine hidden gem waiting to be discovered.
Company Flow are legends of the independent scene with their debut album 'Funcrusher Plus' released in 1997 widely recognised as one of the most groundbreaking and important releases in Hip Hop music. The now hugely influential MC/Producer El-P's production remains incredibly original and deeply infectious with a complex style thus far untouched by any of his peers. The group’s word play was also equally unique, mixing clever and confrontational lyricism with highly original rhyme patterns. Many journalists and critics believe the release of ‘Funcrusher Plus’ singlehandedly started a movement that would establish a new era in the Hip Hop world and would influence many major artists.
De La Soul
De La Soul's debut album ‘3 Feet High and Rising’ is consistently placed on 'greatest albums' lists and is rightly considered a masterpiece of hip hop music. Released in 1989, amidst the rise of gangsta rap, 3 Feet delivered a bubble of upbeat, feel-good and brilliantly produced jazz, soul and funk inspired music from regular producer Prince Paul which was much needed at the time. Still going strong to this day, De La Soul are pioneers of their craft and remain a highly important part of Hip Hop music, proving that playful wordplay and a hint of humour will always have a place amongst a genre that can sometimes overflow with bravado and aggression.
Formed back in 1997 by MCs Copywrite, Camu Tao, Jakki Da Motamouth and Tage Future, alongside DJ/Producer RJD2, MHz Legacy (known as MHz back then) have become a well respected group in the underground, not just for their work as MHz but because every member has since cemented themselves among the most prolific artists on the scene. Their first album 'Table Scraps', which is more a compilation of 12" singles and B-sides then an actual album, is a hidden classic and some of the most slept on material in Hip Hop, with impressive head-nodding production and imposing battle-style lyricism and delivery throughout. Camu Tao, whose influence and style remains entirely unique and important, passed away in 2008 and the group remained inactive until 2011, reforming and renaming themselves MHz Legacy in honour of Camu, they released their first studio album, the self-titled 'MHz Legacy' in 2012, and stuck true to their original identity, all be it, with verses now on older and wiser shoulders. The album is unique in that it features never before heard Camu Tao verses and is undoubtedly a stronger release for it.
Souls Of Mischief
Released in 1993, Souls Of Mischief’s debut album '93 'til Infinity' is recognised as one of the best albums of the 90s. Comprising A-Plus, Phesto, Tajai and Opio with production handled by A-Plus, Domino, Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, Casual and Jay Biz, '93' til Infinity' had a wide reaching soundscape of ear pleasing beats from Boom Bap to Jazz and Funk, coupled with the 4 MCs tag team style lyricism and original rhyme schemes, the album is most well known for its title track '93 'til Infinity', which is quite simply a beautiful piece of music and a genuine Hip Hop classic up there with some of the best single Hip Hop tunes of all time. Part of the well respected Hieroglyphics crew and still releasing quality material to this day, Souls Of Mischief’s '93 'til Infinity' is considered the most focused and complete work to come out of the Hieroglyphics collective to date.
The Pharcyde is best known for their debut album ‘Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde’ released in 1992, which received acclaim for its eccentric, humorous and light-hearted content alongside jazz fuelled beats. The release was key in establishing an alternative Hip Hop scene on the West Coast during a time dominated by G-funk and gangsta releases. Bizarre Ride II possessed innovation and lyrical gymnastics on a level unheard before, with the playful delivery of the groups MCs matched by edgy and inventive production. Though later releases never achieved the classic status of their debut, the group has offered up multiple classic tunes which remain deeply grounded in The Pharcyde ethos of originality, expression and plain old fun.
The Fugees are one of the most recognisable names in Hip Hop. The silky smooth vocals of Lauren Hill alongside the accomplished delivery of Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel perfectly accompanied their music which was heavily grounded in Hip Hop, Soul and especially Reggae. The groups second album 'The Score' released in 1996 became a multi-platinum hit and remains one of the bestselling Hip Hop albums of all time producing multiple classic tunes that have become iconic of the 90s, such as 'Killing Me Softly', 'Ready Or Not' and the amazingly infectious 'Fu-gee-la'. Even though the group unofficially split in 1997 to pursue solo careers and never really came back together, the sound of the Fugees has remained as recognisable as their name and they have rightly cemented themselves as one of the all-time greats, not just in Hip Hop but in music.
The Beastie Boys
Ironically seen as a gimmick with the release of their frat boy style debut album 'Licensed To Ill' back in 1986, by the time of the groups break up in 2014 following the untimely death of MCA The Beastie Boys had become one of the most essential and respected Hip Hop groups in history. 'Licensed To Ill' is widely considered a classic and an important step forward for both White Rap Music and Rap Music as a whole, but it was the groups follow up 'Paul's Boutique' released in 1989 which would become a highly influential landmark album in Hip Hop, all be it a commercial flop at the time. Composed almost entirely of samples, apart from the boy’s distinct vocals, the album pioneered cutting & pasting production techniques and the sampling of not only music, but film, tv and everything in between, single-handedly laying the foundations in which all Hip Hop production would be built for years to come. This inventiveness would span every Beastie release with every album sounding vastly different to the last. Be it electronic, drum machine, alternative, jazz-funk, hardcore-punk or rap rock, The Beastie Boys would inspire and influence many artists of many genres, and have rightfully garnered worldwide acclaim and recognition for it.
Choice Tracks - Fight for Your Right, Shadrach, Sabotage, So Watcha Want, Intergalactic, Paul Revere, Looking Down The Barrel Of A Gun, Root Down, Brass Monkey, Jimmy James, Sure Shot, Hey Ladies, The New Style, Ch-Check It Out, Body Movin', Off The Grid
There you have it, the first part of this extensive list is complete. Here's to hoping you agree with what you've seen so far and maybe you've even discovered something new.
Make sure you check in next Friday for Part Two!
Keep those eyes Pear Shaped.