8 Who Really Matter in the World of Rap

Soren Baker writes about hip-hop for Calendar

The turnover in rap is so fast that many artists are gone before you have a chance to learn much about them. But there is a core of artists who have established themselves in the late ‘90s as the commercial elite. They are the ones who, either through their own work or their production of other artists, set the tone in the $1-billion-a-year rap world. Here’s a critical guide to this Elite Eight.


Aside from amazing marketing skills, the best thing this New Orleans native has going for him is timing. He and the other artists on his No Limit Records label connect strongly with rap fans through their convincing tales of ghetto despair--the same approach that earlier propelled such major rap acts as N.W.A. and Tupac Shakur to stardom. Those acts were much more compelling storytellers, and if they were going head to head with Master P, it’s doubtful that he would be on top. But they’re not around anymore, and in their absence he has usurped the field, incorporating many of their lyrical slants into his story lines. Beyond marketing and message, his beats have an infectious, bouncy, rowdy edge.



If Master P tries to present himself as a brother from the ‘hood who retains his street ties, Combs (left) comes on as the star his fans want to be. Combs’ music relies heavily on sampling--his most popular songs have essentially replayed instrumentals from big ‘80s hits. The stable of artists on Combs’ Bad Boy label--such as Mase and the LOX--echo their leader’s lavish, materialistic themes. The late Notorious B.I.G. is the only one who went beyond that limited scope. Even with Combs’ predictable production and mediocre guest raps, B.I.G. became one of the most universally respected rappers, helping thrust Combs into the spotlight. Nonetheless, Combs stands on his own merit, as evidenced by his success producing Mariah Carey, LL Cool J, Brian McKnight and SWV, among others.


Besides being one-third of the Fugees, Wyclef Jean has become one of hip-hop’s most sought-after producers and guest rappers. “The Carnival,” his 1997 album, spawned the successful singles “We Trying to Stay Alive” and “Gone Till November.” Recently, he’s supplied catchy, radio-friendly hits for Destiny’s Child, John Forte, Pras Michel and Canibus. Like Combs, Wyclef relies heavily on sampling, but he is much more musically inclined, adding his own guitar playing and other original instrumentation to his work.



Best known for his work with club-oriented acts such as Usher, Dru Hill and Da Brat, Dupri (above) keeps crowds moving with his addictive, light-hearted compositions and easily digestible raps. Constant innovation keeps the Atlanta resident from establishing a signature sound. One thing is for sure: Dupri makes music to dance to. His new solo album, “Life in 1472 (The Original Soundtrack),” which features hip-hop heavyweights Too $hort and DMX, has already had two smash singles: “Money Ain’t a Thing” and “The Party Continues.”


This L.A. rap star jolted the hip-hop world in the late ‘80s as a member of N.W.A., possibly the most influential rap group ever. Its 1988 album “Straight Outta Compton” introduced the overtly profane, violent and aggressive gangsta rap subgenre to mainstream audiences. With several multimillion-selling solo albums and a number of film roles to his credit, Ice Cube (left) remains as fiery as ever. Never one to hold his tongue, he has kept in the spotlight with highly opinionated work with the Westside Connection (a group including Mack 10 and WC), soundtracks, guest spots and his film debut as a writer-director, “The Players Club.”



Unconcerned about the number of chart-topping hits from his rivals in the Elite Eight, DJ Premier rules the underground scene, producing the gritty, mesmerizing records Combs and his colleagues will eventually sample. His knack for blending dusty drum patterns, bold horn selections, unfathomable sound effects and slippery scratching is deeply admired by hip-hop purists. Much more selective in choosing his projects than the others on this list, DJ Premier wins with quality rather than quantity. Nonetheless, he’s produced gems for the Notorious B.I.G., Rakim and Jay-Z--all of whom have enjoyed far greater commercial success than Gang Starr, the highly regarded group Premier heads with rapper Guru.


After once virtually running New York rap, the Wu-Tang Clan’s ace producer has fallen on slack times, being surpassed by Combs, Wyclef and DJ Premier in vying for the title of the city’s hottest rap producer. After delivering masterful albums from the Wu-Tang Clan, Method Man, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Raekwon, Genius/GZA and Ghostface Killah, the RZA suffered his first creative “failure” with the Clan’s “Wu-Tang Forever,” which many fans viewed as a watered-down version of the group’s earlier work. Subsequent releases from Wu-Tang affiliates Cappadonna, Killah Priest and Killarmy failed to recapture the raw brilliance of the Staten Island group’s initial recordings. The Clan’s faithful yearn for its return to the grimy street sound and sentiments that established it as hip-hop front-runners.



Like the RZA, Dr. Dre has been in a slump lately. His projects since leaving Death Row Records--from a 1996 compilation of artists from his Aftermath label to his LL Cool J duet that was featured in the “Bulworth” soundtrack--were all met with critical and commercial indifference and did not match his overwhelming, funk-inspired work with Snoop Dogg, N.W.A., Eazy-E and the D.O.C. However, Dre’s forthcoming solo album and upcoming projects from King T and Eminem could reestablish the former N.W.A. member as one of the genre’s hottest producers. Time, and sales, will tell.