Our tournament rolls on! With fan favorites Outkast, Nas and Snoop Dogg falling in the Sweet Sixteen round, this competition is coming down to hip-hop’s true greats. Will NWA continue their strong run based on their pivotal Straight Outta Compton or will Pac’s catalog of hits set him apart? Which Game Changer has the bigger total Impact, Jay-Z or Run-DMC? These matches and more in this round of Rap Madness, a Hip-Hop Bracketology.
(1) Tupac over (3) NWA
Tupac in some ways was a product of the influence the group he defeated in the last round had on hip-hop. In Public Enemy, we have a Rap group with a hard-core, militant edge both sonically and in image. Their music is considered revolutionary and known for its calls for Black empowerment and sociopolitical themes. Tupac’s music and persona in part fit this bill. The influence and teachings of the Black Panthers come across strongly in much of Tupac’s music as his mother, Afeni Shakur, father Billy Garland, godfather, Geronimo Pratt, and stepfather, Mutulu Shakur were all Panthers. ‘Panther Power’, an early ‘Pac track best captures his Panther prowess. Thus, in many ways he embodied the pro-Black, revolutionary edge Public Enemy brought to Rap music. As we all know however, Tupac, in true Gemini fashion, had a lot of sides to him.
And with that in mind it’s damn interesting that after defeating Public Enemy and their politically charged, revolutionary music to get to the Elite Eight, he draws NWA. In order to advance to the Final Four Tupac will have to defeat another group which undoubtedly influenced him greatly and who’s famous for popularizing an element of hip-hop which he would grow to embody; Gangsta Rap. While Tupac’s music would always carry a strong political message, it was also very gangsta, best captured thematically by the Thug Life ethos he adopted, and musically through his recordings on Death Row Records. NWA’s impact made that possible. While Public Enemy made it popular for a rap artist to be political, NWA’s influence allowed emcees to talk about inner-city struggles as well as to romanticize the gangster fantasy, using very direct and profane language at that. Tupac prided himself on being ‘real’ and part of keeping it real in his mind was the willingness to share whatever was on his mind however he felt it best to say – even if controversial, coarse, violent, and inappropriate to some. For that he can largely thank NWA.
All that said, not unlike his match with Public Enemy, Tupac’s ability to master the strengths of his counterpart and elevate himself into a hip-hop icon result in a victory. He blended hard-core rap tactics with urban politics as well as anyone ever has and did so with a captivating charisma that, hate him or love him, engulfed people. His Panther roots gave him political credibility and his inner-city upbringing gave him street credibility. His tumultuous story, from the brushes with the law, to the rape trial, to the shootings, to his role as the centerpiece of the East West ‘feud’, to the grim circumstances surrounding his as yet unsolved murder resulted in the creation of the Tupac legend. Combine all that with the fact that songs like ‘Dear Mama’ and ‘Brenda’s Got a Baby’ touched us all, ‘Hit ’em Up’ and ‘Bomb First’ made us all marvel at his unrelenting anger towards his adversaries, and ‘California Love’ and ‘I Get Around’ to this day keep us grooving on the dance floor and it’s clear to see why he’s so highly revered even though it’s been nearly two decades since he laid down his final track.
‘Pac built upon what both Public Enemy and NWA brought to the table to become one of the top selling recording artists in history, as well as a fixture of murals, statues, and graffiti paintings across the entire world. He’s even had courses for college credit built around him. Now that’s impact. And as such NWA, despite a juggernaut of combined talents and groundbreaking legacy doesn’t have enough to win this battle, setting up a true clash of the titans between Tupac and Jay-Z in one of our Final Four match-ups. All Eyes On ‘Pac indeed.
(1) Biggie over (3) Beastie Boys
In this round, the Beastie Boys, fresh off the win over Snoop, take their momentum into a borough battle against Brooklyn’s Finest. The Beasties have ridden a strong wave through our tournament, their ingenuity and ability to remain relevant over a long period of time carrying them to victory over some hip-hop greats. So as our tournament winds down to a final few (4, to be exact), how does one judge the Impact of one juggernaut over another? At this point one must match factors against factors and see which ones loom largest.
We won’t rehash the previous analyses here but one of the Beastie Boys’ greatest qualities is their ability to create successful albums (7 multi-platinum), each with a different sound and style, showing growth as an artist possessed by few. In this, the Beasties quite clearly have Biggie beat. While there is growth and progression between Ready to Die and Life After Death, Notorious B.I.G. simply did not have enough time on this planet for his style to evolve over a host of successful albums. And while Life After Death is in rare company with its diamond status, Licensed to Ill from the Beastie Boys also ranks in the top 10 rap albums of all time according to sales.
With all their success, though, the Beasties are not considered in a conversation of top artists of all time. Their style is all their own and their large fanbase is devoted but they never quite reached the ubiquitous level of Biggie’s smooth, natural flow. Biggie is an international hip-hop icon. He and Pac share a similar exclusive status of being recognized around the world and by non-fans of the genre as a symbol for rap. Is this status aided by his untimely death? Perhaps, and he and Pac also share this quality obviously, but in the end, does it matter? In Biggie’s case we are indeed judging his career based on two albums and the limited quantity of material probably has a direct effect on the monstrous sales of those two. But his Impact lasts, with his persona and material from those two albums directly influencing a whole generation of rappers, not the least of which is Jay-Z. His flow is emulated, his smooth, exaggerated gangster tales have become an industry standard, he is your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper. When considering the top song in hip-hop history, at least two of Biggie’s get automatic consideration, his lyrics known by the most casual of fans.
Coming down to the wire in this bout, Biggie’s legacy and emulation of his style have had a greater Impact on artists and fans as a whole. While the Beastie Boys are one of the most successful groups in hip-hop history by many measures, Notorious is more pervasive, enjoyed by ardent and non-fans alike; your mom knows the words to “Juicy”. When it comes down it, most fans would be upset to see the Beastie Boys take down Biggie and that Hero status, coupled with ridiculous album sales and his role as a cornerstone in the most active and tumultuous period in hip-hop history, actually does mean something. Biggie is more than a symbol, he is a Hero to many and with that he takes the Win.
(1) Eminem over (6) Ludacris
I’ll be the first to say it: Eminem has had an easy road in our tournament. Not by design, mind you, but that’s just the way cookie crumbles sometimes. He faced off against two ladies of rap in the opening rounds who, though both important to hip-hop and deserving of their spot in our tournament, could not offer much competition against the best-selling artist in the genre’s history. He then squared off against Big Daddy Kane in the Sweet Sixteen, an artist he himself gives credit for the evolution of his own flow: ‘We was on that same sh*t, that Big Daddy Kane sh*t, where compound syllables sound combined’ (Eminem, Yellow Brick Road). It is Em’s ability to match up vowel sounds, called “assonance” in poetry vernacular, that is one of the marked qualities of his lyrical dominance, a quality he absorbed from Kane. A standard rhyme is comprised of the entire ending syllable, vowel and consonant. With the focus on assonance, Em’s lines become infused with multiple rhymes and a wider array of verbal choices. It is a “looser” rhyme but more complex and Em takes it to another level, often bending vowel sounds to match in ways that are hard to replicate. It seems a stretch to say that Eminem’s lyrics have directly affected their own generation of artists but many draw from Em’s same sources of inspiration and are influenced and encouraged by his lyrical and stylistic dominance.
Ludacris and Eminem are peers, with Luda’s Back for the First Time and Em’s Marshall Mathers LP both dropping in 2000. By this point, Luda had become a champion of the South, following the recent surge of ATL artists and gaining notoriety for his self-released Inconegro which, similar to Eminem’s Slim Shady EP, would get repackaged and released as his major label debut. Luda’s wordplay ability places him in an elite class, and I would conjecture that the “punch line” style exhibited by Lil’ Wayne and Drake is a direct influence from Ludacris. His comical but lyrically precise flow was a breath of fresh air in the early 2000’s to a genre that had largely lost its sense of entertainment and the idea that we are allowed to have fun with this thing of ours. As mentioned previously, Luda is strongly southern, listing Organized Noise, Scarface, Geto Boys and Outkast as some of his biggest influences. His own DTP label has aided the careers of a number of southerners and his association with Timbaland and Missy Elliot is worth noting. Luda is fun and a lyrical pro, a rare, perhaps one-of-a-kind combination.
Then he runs into Eminem and it’s… well it’s not close. We will hold off on singing Shady’s praises in depth until the next round but in squaring off against Luda we see some similar factors: both are lyrical phenoms, both have worked hard to bring along other acts, both have made unique marks on the game. Em simply plays on another level. Two diamond albums, a host of Grammy’s, a hugely successful record label and internet radio station, and consideration in most discussions of the greatest rapper of all time comprise this higher level for Shady. Luda’s heart and scrappy play carry him through the first two quarters but he gets smoked in the second half, losing 110-91.
(1) Jay-Z over (2) Run-DMC
New York New York, stand up! When you talk about rap, the conversation almost always begins with the Big Apple. It’s known as the birthplace of hip-hop and to this day, it’s still renowned for being home to many of the world’s greatest rap talents. The city so dope they had to name it twice is a spectacular battleground for this epic Elite 8 match-up. Arguably the two best of their era and positions (solo, group), Run-DMC goes head-to-head against Jay-Z to see who really runs the town.
This contest is the battle of the game changers. Can you think of two more innovative, trendy, or popular artists this century? It’s bananas how Run-DMC stepped onto the scene in 1981 and effectively changed the hip-hop scene and culture as we know it. From the Adidas shell toes to their party rocking vibe and gold and platinum albums, Run-DMC claimed numerous firsts for the rap genre. Along with the airing of ‘Rock Box’, MTV and Run DMC broke ground with the first major hip hop video and really ushered in the golden age of hip-hop with more visuals, variety and a much wider appeal. This mass explosion certainly paved the way and lent more fame and credibility to such acts as the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J. I mean, Run-DMC even helped revitalize Aerosmith’s career with the uber smash ‘Walk This Way’. This makes the fellas from Hollis pretty incredible and probably the sickest rap group of all time. With their achievements and the assistance they provided to the industry and fellow mates, is there any way Sean Carter could hope to usurp the greatest rap group of all time?
It might be hard for some to believe, but the answer is certainly not hard to find. We can easily figure out how one man might be able to usurp the almighty crew. Jay-Z might not have come out of the gates blazing, but time has proved that his instincts and pacing have been more than on point. Debuting in 1996 with his critically acclaimed project, Reasonable Doubt, later proclaimed a classic, Mr. Carter took the rap game by storm and never looked back. Jay-Z had an ear to the streets never before seen or heard with his cocky, yet laid back jazzy flow that is still captivating and creating to this day. With a solid ten year run that saw him take leadership of the game sonically, culturally, and even somewhat fiscally (with his former Def Jam responsibilities and Live Nation agreements), Jay-Z mastered every sector from artist to businessman. He’s compiled more number one selling albums than any other artist, ever. He has helped change the face and sound of modern day music at a pace that has been blistering and overall beneficial to music as a whole. Couple these achievements with a persona growing into an international spokesman and ambassador for many humanitarian projects and you are staring at Sean Carter, the mogul. Run-DMC still makes us pay respect and party; however, at this point everybody knows Jay- Z runs this town. Hova moves on.