CRITERIA FOR GREATEST EMCEES EVER
First of all, I’m not listing any of these in order. It’s pointless. Too many of these guys have reached an elite status to the point where they’re all just incredibly gifted and putting numbers on them only makes it appear like one is that much better than the other. So, because of that, I’m not claiming any of the greatest to be THE GREATEST, but rather, all of them are worthy of the title to some degree.
First up is delivery. The word is defined as an act to convey. To take it from one place to another. So, in the craft of emceeing, delivery refers to how the rapper takes his words from mouth to microphone. It’s a combination of the sound of their voice, inflection and tone. Some would confuse this with flow but they’re wrong. That’s another element of rapping that makes up the art of emceeing. This list is solely about delivery, so make sure to forget about lyrics, flow or any other parts of emceeing you may think a particular rapper lacks. These are the top delivery MC’s of all time.
I hope nobody reads this and makes one of those ridiculous faces like I don’t know what I’m talking about. Old school, new school or whatever your hip hop tastes may be, there is no denying Tupac’s incredibly harmonious and commanding delivery. When ‘Pac was on the mic, everyone knew. He stepped up and took every beat hostage and had his way with it. It didn’t matter whether the song was slow or fast, thoughtful or gangster, Tupac always came hard. There’s really not much more to add other than the fact that ‘Pac, without a doubt, had one of the greatest emcee deliveries of all time.
Sorry to put these two one after another just like everyone else but it’s pretty much inevitable here as their feud was party sparked because both rappers were incredibly gifted. That both had an amazing and distinctive delivery made the rivalry even better because their songs were always put down with authority. While Biggie didn’t come quite as hard as his west coast rival, his laid back but melodic delivery was sometimes almost beautiful to listen to. Just hear him flip it on Notoriouis Thugs or his remix of Goin’ Back to Cali and just enjoy how good his voice sounds over a beat. Biggie was notorious but his delivery was silky.
It’s a mid-western voice that sometimes seems like it’s being rapped through his nostrils but you can’t knock the power of Em’s delivery. While it can sound whiny, his sound hooks you in right away especially since it’s usually coming at you like a machine gun. Not many fast rappers can sound good because it can come off sounding like psychobabble but not Eminem. It’s not my preference or the sound I enjoy but when he’s on the mic, I’m listening and just about everyone else is too. What’s fascinating is that he’s always sounded “white” as a rapper, a definite no-no in hip hop. However, Em is one of the few rappers that made sounding white sound really good.
Bone Thugs & Harmony
Okay, so it’s a whole group but they all deserve recognition equally (although Bizzy Bone is probably the best). Quite possibly the only emcees to be wildly successful because of their delivery, Bone Thugs’ songs will live on forever because they’re close to impossible to duplicate. They were the first rappers to give us the sing-song delivery, something most of us hadn’t heard until they came along. Many have tried to replicate this style but almost all have failed. You’re almost getting a soul performance along with your hip hop whenever Bone Thugs comes on and that would seem crazy if they didn’t sound so damn harmonious doing it.
I had to put Dose One right after Bone Thugs for a specific reason: listen to one, then listen to the other and tell me there’s not some similarities in their deliveries. That Dose is from Cincinnati while Bone Thugs come from Cleveland might be an indication of that particular style of delivery being central to the mid west. However, Dose’s delivery is weirder and more ambient, a fresh sounding voice that never fails to impress. Me and some friends saw him perform a few times and he sounded on stage precisely as he does in his recorded tracks. That’s worth mentioning since so many emcees have their voices altered and mixed to the point where their real delivery sounds terrible. With Dose, that’s not the case and there’s no way to argue how unique and distinctive this Cincy emcee’s delivery is.
He comes hard with authority. That’s the best way I can explain the impact of Cube’s delivery in his songs. While not as versatile as Tupac, they shared the ability to command every one’s attention when they were rapping. Cube was one of the first platinum solo gangsta rappers in hip hop, and was also known for great lyrics as well as thought-provoking subjects on current issues. There was an obvious anger in his voice but that translated to a ferocity that gave his rapping strength and substance. And after more than twenty years in hip hop, it’s not just luck that Cube has remained a stable in the culture. His first three solo albums, along with many tracks he did while with NWA, remain classics to this day.
Say what you want about Redman but you always knew when he was rapping. I remember when he first hit the scene with “Time For Some Aksion” and everybody immediately wondered who was spitting out this madly unique delivery. It was filled with east coast grit and came with a grimy attitude that fit Redman’s personality perfectly. It’s a wild delivery, one with a lot of spunk, fire and quirkiness but it also seems to come out of Redman’s mouth like a semi-automatic weapon, in short, hard spurts. What I always admired about Redman was that he wanted you all to know whenever he was rapping and managed to succeed without neglecting his oddness.
The truth is, Eazy Duz itt. It’s too bad he’s dead because here’s an emcee with a delivery many of today’s rappers could learn from. His high-pitched voice matched his diminutive stature, but that didn’t matter because the presence of his delivery was gigantic. Behind those black Locs, his Raiders hat and a long jheri curl, Eazy came with perhaps the most recognizable voice of any emcee at the time, he was also the easiest NWA member to pick out in a song. That he looked and sounded tiny didn’t matter because the delivery carried the weight of a legacy that has lived on forever. His first album, Eazy Duz It, is still one of the greatest and most distinctive solo albums in gangsta rap history and it’ll be hard to ever supplant the amount of clout his delivery had.
I still remember my friends and I trying to mess around by doing our best Aesop impressions but his delivery is one of the hardest to mimic. My favorite thing about him is that he’s always sounded like he’s making up words on the spot but it’s consistently fresh to listen to. There’s also no denying that New York bred toughness in each of his words, always sounding like he’s delivering his verses from some dark back alley in the grimiest part of the Big Apple. Sure, Aesop is hard to understand but there’s a distinction in his delivery that can’t be overlooked.
If there’s one thing Chuck D did great as an emcee, it was hitting the mic like his life depended on it. With Chuck, there was also this urgent, powerful voice that told you to listen, and listen now. There was a reason Flava Flav was the hype man and “other rapper” because there was no way he could ever command the attention that Chuck D could. I still think his best performance comes on Shut ‘Em Down where his start to the opening verse still gives me goosebumps today. Whether you want to or not, Chuck D makes you listen when he’s on the mic.
It’s hard to immediately let someone know how much of a pimp you are, but Too Short always had that in him. He doesn’t even need to utter one “bitch” or “ho” before you know, for a fact, this guy is a pimp. He’s always been so mellow and easy with his delivery that you wonder whether he just kind of stopped by and dropped a rhyme for the hell of it. It’s that casual approach to his voice that sets him apart from other emcees who consider themselves pimps or hustlers. One of Oakland’s finest remains one of the better deliveries in hip hop.
Possibly the silkiest delivery of them all, Scarface sounds so smooth on the microphone that sometimes he doesn’t even bother to rhyme. Yeah, it sounds that smooth. My favorite verse he ever dropped came on the Geto Boys’ “Damn it Feels Good to be a Gangsta” and this part in particular, is still my favorite just because of how he says it in the simplest of words:
Real gangsta-ass niggas don’t talk much
All ya hear is the black from the gun blast
And real gangsta-ass niggas don’t run for shit
Cuz real gangsta-ass niggas can’t run fast
Del tha Funkee Homosapien
I always like writing his full rap name because it’s one of the most idiosyncratic of all time. Del, however, has been known for his delivery since the moment he was on the map. It’s what always separated him apart from every other emcee to this day, a wild array of tones in his voice that sound like the microphone has been taken over by an alien. You hear him and instantly say: he sounds interesting. But in a really good way. He’s a great emcee to listen to and remains one of the biggest influences for west coast underground rappers to this day. One of his greatest strengths was how he changed the intonations of his voice according the beat. It’s also another big part of what makes Del a phenomenal emcee.
The philosopher still always makes me think of Boogie Down Productions’ “My Philosophy”, one of his most well known songs. Where guys like ‘Pac and Cube made you aware of their presence with aggression, KRS made you want to pull up and chair and hear what he had to say. It’s thought provoking, discussing a wide variety of subjects with the insight of a street professor. There’s a wisdom you have to credit him with, and it’s in his voice, in every verse, from BDP on to his solo career. His verses are delivered to you like a lesson plan and you listen, knowing damn well you’re going to learn something from KRS.
You can sweat Snoop on anything you want rap wise but you can’t ever knock the delivery. Where Scarface may be the silkiest, Snoop might be the funnest. When Snoop starts rapping, everyone wants to hang out and party. Even with his stories of the gangsta life, Snoop isn’t as intimidating and he is cool. His voice matches his pothead personality, something that’s obvious in his super laid back delivery. The best thing about Snoop’s voice is it sounds as if he’s rapping to you as a friend that’s hanging out and smoking a joint with him. Then again, maybe that’s exactly what he wanted all along.
Method Man, without a doubt, is the king of grime when it comes to emcee delivery. But with Meth, you get smooth grime, an easy-going delivery that still sounds like it comes from the sewers. “Bring the Pain” is a great example of quintessential Method Man, especially the beginning of the opening verse, but his best sounding song to me is “The Riddler” off the Batman 3 soundtrack. The way his voice sounds to that beat is awesome and his fluid delivery is worth listening to on this track as well as many others. His voice was also a huge asset for the Wu-Tang Clan, probably a big reason they had Method Man be the first solo album to drop from the legendary group.
Don’t take this the wrong way but Nas always sounded like a teenager to me and still does, even after all of these years. Maybe it’s his smallish frame that gives him a less-than-intimidating voice but it’s how good the man made it sound that can’t be denied. A lot of emcees have tried copying his quick, urgent delivery but all of them just sound redundant. Nobody can truly mimic Nas’s voice because it’s too distinct, too good, too Queensbridge. That hard NYC accent can be heard distinctly in his vocals, a classic hardcore New York MC telling tales from the hardcore Queensbridge projects. I think part of what makes him so great is that his voice isn’t intimidating even when his verses depict scenes of urban misery. it doesn’t instill fear so it makes it easy to listen to and hear what he has to say.
One of the most original deliveries ever belongs to none other than Busta Rhymes. He sounds as if Dr. Seuss and the Cookie Monster joined forces to create a new form of emcee. His voice is a constantly fluctuating sound of words uttered in grunts, grumbles and roars. Busta’s delivery is not soft on the ears and he’s never apologized for it nor should he have to but even with though is vocalizations is gruff, it always sounds fun. And while Busta Rhymes is not the greatest ever, he’s probably the zaniest.
Gift of Gab
When he hits the mic, you listen. You listen because of his presence but also because of what it sounds like coming from his mouth. Gift of Gab is a big man and his delivery is even bigger. The deep tenor of hip hop has an almost operatic voice, one that sounds as beautiful as it does powerful. It’s an insult when I hear people who don’t understand hip hop and say all rappers sound the same. It’s hard to knock some of the great lyricists over the history of hip hop but a good voice will lock a listener in before great lyrics. While Gift of Gab has both, he’s excellent at changing his delivery according the sound of the beat. That’s an amazing gift to have as an emcee and people don’t give it enough credit. Gift of Gab, like many others on the list, is a great example of that.
Perhaps it’s his association with one of the greatest hip hop ensembles in history, but The Roots’ Black Thought is a great emcee. Philly’s finest has a voice that’s a sweet blend of the rugged Philadelphian streets and a classic old school rapper. More a soulful emcee, Black Thought’s delivery comes from a genuine passion for the history of hip hop and live instruments. It’s always a pleasure to hear the streets of Philadelphia in his voice, especially since it’s not the hardcore vibe you may expect from a Philly kid but the smoothness of his rap sound is what made songs like “What They Do” so great. His voice is that of his style, a coffee house rapper that lights poets and writers on fire because he’s always rapped in their voice. Still one of the few emcees that has a somewhat soft delivery with a lot of power.
Big Daddy Kane
Before all these wannabe playas came trying to show their prowess with the ladies, Big Daddy Kane had already been doing it for over a decade. Unlike many of our current emcees, Daddy Kane sounded damn good rhyming. His delivery was smooth but deep. He always came with this laid-back demeanor in his voice like he was rapping in a robe and that’s probably because he was. On top of that, as fluid as he was, Kane was one of the originators of fast rap, something that’s a lot harder to achieve when you’re a silver-tongued emcee. Listen to the Brooklyn bred rapper today, and it’s amazing how far ahead of the game his delivery really was. There’s also no doubt when you listen to him why he had such a hold on the ladies, his voice almost sounding as if it was born from a bass.
The voice of Black Moon was always a cool one, an icy voice that chilled you. Buckshot’s delivery made you want to close your eyes and just nod your head to music so you could listen to his words. The most significant thing about Buckshot’s voice, however, is that it sounds like it was made from honey. The richness of his sound is what perked up the ears of hip hop enthusiasts all across the nation when Black Moon released their first album, Enta Da Stage, in 1993. The honey-voiced Buckshot remains synonymous with Black Moon and Boot Camp Clik to this day.
You didn’t think I’d leave the legendary Rakim off the greatest delivery emcees list, did you? Don’t put to much stock into the fact that he’s close to the bottom of the post as it doesn’t mean anything numbers-wise. Besides, you don’t need me explaining how good Rakim’s voice was. It was one of the first, unique deliveries in hip hop, that huge presence on the microphone that so many of us can still recognize and remember as the force behind Eric B. and Rakim. It’s hard to imagine anyone discussing Rakim’s delivery without the mention of his most famous song ever “Paid in Full” but that’s such a great blueprint for emcees, especially in how Rakim forces you to freeze and listen to him. It also goes without saying how many rappers over the course of history tried to mimic Rakim’s jazzy voice because of how much it resonated but nobody has, nor will they ever have, Rakim’s great delivery.
Of course, I had to put some lady rappers on here as well. In hip hop, female emcees will always struggle with being in a the shadows of their male counterparts and, unfortunately, it’s no difference in regards to delivery. Latifah, however, delivered with power. She rapped, you listened. It’s as if she always delivering from a podium to a crowd of millions, adamant on getting her point across with the sound of her voice. She also sounded like the last broad you ever wanted to mess with, her delivery coming off like a female freight train in its force. I hear some of the female emcees today and there’s nothing there to separate them from one another. The fact that she has a more demanding delivery than most male emcees definitely earns Queen Latifah major props
Perhaps the greatest female emcee of all time, there’s a reason for the lofty title. That delivery meant business. It was rough, gruff and in your face, and straight from the streets of Brooklyn. Her voice hit hard, grasping the beat and giving you a sound you could easily distinguish from anyone else. And, even if it’s not exactly delivery-related, Lyte is one of the first female emcees to write up a dis song to rival Antoinette back in late 80′s. Demanding our utmost attention, MC Lyte also grabbed us with her uncensored, unapologetic delivery, showing tons of prowess with her outstanding voice.