Since its inception, Hip Hop has set the tone for the culture’s hottest fashion, beats, lyrics and the world of music overall. Additionally, it’s given fans artists who have proven to stand the test of time.
In 2023, as people celebrated the pioneers who paved the way for the beloved genre, Hip Hop’s 50th birthday festivities served as a reminder that the OGs who laid the groundwork not only still have an impact on the industry, but look good while doing so.
Here are some of Hip Hop’s finest emcees who are only getting better with time.
1. LL Cool J
Born James Todd Smith, this Queens rapper is one of the forefathers of Hip Hop and the first to showcase the genre’s ability to crossover into the mainstream. During his rise in the mid-1980s, the “I Need Love” emcee quickly took over the game thanks to his lyrical prowess, dynamic stage presence and not to mention his undeniable charm (his name doesn’t stand for Ladies Love Cool James for no reason).
Moreover, outside of the music, LL Cool J proved that Hip Hop does indeed age well. He branched out to entertainment as an actor starring in hit shows like “In The House” and “NCIS.” LL has also had quite a film career as the lead in movies like Deliver Us From Eva, Last Holiday, In Too Deep and a host of others.
2. Queen Latifah
Queen Latifah walked so a lot of today’s female rappers could run. Born Dana Elaine Owens, when she arrived on the scene in the late 1980s, her breakout project, All Hail The Queen, was a catalyst for empowering and socially conscious lyrics from women in rap.
As a pioneer, the New Jersey native carved a lane of her own in a mostly male-dominated industry, challenging stereotypes while serving as a symbol of strength and authenticity along the way. Beyond music, she is also the queen of rom-coms, starring in hit films like Last Holiday,Just Wright, Brown Sugar, The Perfect Holiday and more.
Moreover, she is royalty to not only the culture, but the entertainment realm as well. She also always keeps a fresh hairdo (Queen never had a single hair out of place unless it was for a character in a role). Remarkably, as she gracefully ages, Queen Latifah continues to radiate beauty and confidence, redefining societal norms and inspiring generations with her unwavering elegance and timeless allure.
3. Method Man
Method Man, born Clifford Smith, stands as a luminary within the realm of Hip Hop, leaving an indelible imprint on the genre’s history. He quickly rose to prominence as one of the founding members of Wu-Tang Clan in the early 1990s, using his distinct voice, intricate rhymes and impeccable stage presence to woo the hearts of many.
As a solo artist, Method Man is a force, yet he still has produced iconic hits through his collaborations, whether with the aforementioned group created by RZA, or alongside his longtime friend Redman. Today, he continues to be a staple in the industry thanks to his ability to tap into the world of acting. His portrayal of power-hungry attorney Davis MacLean in the “Power” franchise has landed him an NAACP Image Award, but if you ask the internet, he also gets the prize as one of the culture’s finest men, and he’s only getting better with age.
4. MC Lyte
MC Lyte, born Lana Michelle Moorer, catapulted to prominence in the late 1980s, making a groundbreaking impact on the Hip Hop scene. Her debut album, Lyte as a Rock, released in 1988, showcased her exceptional lyrical prowess and solidified her status as yet another trailblazing force in a male-dominated genre.
Thanks to hits like “Paper Thin” and “Cha Cha Cha,” MC Lyte not only established herself as a formidable rapper but also paved the way for future female artists. What’s more, she’s a voice acting queen and has used that talent to collaborate with corporate brands like Nike, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and more.
5. Will Smith
Long before he was known as one of the best actors of our time, Will Smith hit the scene as a charismatic and versatile artist, initially rising to fame as one-half of the rap duo DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince in the late 1980s. Smith brought a different flavor to the genre and broke barriers when he became the first rap act to win a Grammy for the duo’s hit single “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”
Transitioning seamlessly from music to acting, Smith achieved monumental success in blockbuster films, solidifying his status as one of Hollywood’s leading actors. His ability to navigate multiple entertainment realms showcased the diversity within Hip Hop culture and contributed to its widespread acceptance. At age 55, the I Am Legend actor continues to showcase that Black truly does not crack.
Yo-Yo, born Yolanda Whitaker, is a pioneering figure in Hip Hop, renowned for her impactful contributions. Rising to prominence in the early 1990s, Yo-Yo’s assertive and socially conscious lyrics set her apart.
With hit tracks like “You Can’t Play with My Yo-Yo” and collaborations with notable artists, she became a prominent voice for female empowerment in Hip Hop. Beyond her music career, Yo-Yo has delved into acting and activism, using her platform to address social issues. She is also quite the chef, with her own cooking show airing on aspireTV.
7. André 3000
André 3000, the enigmatic and innovative artist born André Benjamin, has left an indelible mark on the landscape of Hip Hop and music at large. As one-half of the iconic duo Outkast, alongside Big Boi, André 3000 emerged in the early 1990s, bringing a distinctive Southern flavor and a unique blend of funk, soul and Hip Hop to the forefront.
Not only did he prove the South had something to say during his takeover of the genre with his close friend, André 3000 became a fashion icon, bringing his flair and style to the music industry and beyond.
Salt-N-Pepa, composed of Cheryl “Salt” James and Sandra “Pepa” Denton, not only pioneered the rap space but have also gracefully aged, embodying timeless beauty. In the late 1980s, they shattered gender norms and became icons with hits like “Push It” and “Shoop.” Over the years, their evolution has been marked by not just musical influence but also an enduring elegance.
As trailblazers who opened doors for many of the female artists the world adores today, Salt-N-Pepa continue to inspire, proving that beauty transcends time and that their impact on both rap and cultural standards is an everlasting legacy.
9. Big Boi
As the formidable and dynamic artist born Antwan Patton, Big Boi has etched an enduring legacy in the tapestry of Hip Hop and the broader musical spectrum. As one portion of the legendary duo previously mentioned, he and André 3000 burst onto the rap scene in the early 1990s, bringing a distinct Southern essence into the mainstream. His mastery of rhymes, versatile flow and stylish demeanor distinguish him as a pioneering force in the industry.
Beyond the musical realm, Big Boi has explored acting, demonstrating his multifaceted artistic abilities through films like ATL, Idlewild, Who’s Your Caddy and a host of others.
Nas, the venerable and timeless wordsmith, has profoundly shaped the trajectory of Hip Hop, leaving an enduring imprint that only deepens with time. His insightful lyricism and approach to unifying the culture even landed him a spot in the Library of Congress through his classic debut album, Illmatic. As the years unfold, Nas continues to evolve gracefully, and he looks good while doing so.
What’s more, the icon’s artistry continues to be a force in the industry and his latest works showcase a seasoned finesse, where each verse is not just a reflection of his journey but a testament to his enduring relevance. Nas, like a fine wine, only grows richer with age, captivating listeners with the wisdom embedded in his verses and reaffirming his position as a loyal figure in the ever-evolving landscape of Hip Hop.
11. Roxanne Shanté
Roxanne Shanté radiated enduring beauty and was a force in Hip Hop, coming in the game strong by infamously calling out her male counterparts for battle rap. Her bold and groundbreaking presence challenged norms in hits like “Roxanne’s Revenge.”
As a vanguard for female artists, Shanté’s journey reflects not just musical influence but also an unwavering elegance that has matured with time. Her legacy as an artist is timeless as she defied conventions, and continues to inspire and look good while doing so!
JAY-Z, the iconic and influential mogul of the rap game, has left an indelible mark on the landscape of Hip Hop and the world at large. Born Shawn Corey Carter, he stands as one of the genre’s most successful and enduring figures. JAY-Z’s witty bars, combined with his entrepreneurial acumen, have caused him to transcend to a status that extends far beyond music.
From his early days in Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects to becoming a billionaire businessman, JAY-Z’s journey is the epitome of the American Dream. His groundbreaking album Reasonable Doubt marked the beginning of a prolific career, with subsequent releases showcasing his lyrical dexterity and keen insights into culture and society. Beyond the mic, JAY-Z’s ventures into fashion, streaming services and philanthropy have solidified his impact as a cultural icon.
As the self-proclaimed “pitbull in a skirt,” Eve entered the rap game during the late 1990s gaining notoriety for hits like “Who’s That Girl” and “Let Me Blow Ya Mind.” A fearless storyteller, the Philadelphia native’s approach through lyrical assassination and her fierce style set her apart from peers, allowing Eve to leave a lasting impact on the history of Hip Hop.
Ultimately, she hung up her mic for scripts as she ventured into the world of television with her own hit sitcom “Eve,” which aired on UPN. Moreover, she also tapped into the hosting space as a regular on CBS series “The Talk.” Beyond entertainment, Eve also served as a catalyst for evolution after letting go of her infamous paw print tattoos.
Jadakiss, the gritty and articulate wordsmith hailing from Yonkers, New York, has etched his name into the annals of Hip Hop as a dedicated lyricist and revered figure. Born Jason Phillips, Jadakiss rose to prominence as a member of The LOX and the iconic Hip Hop collective Ruff Ryders.
Known for his distinctive raspy voice and sharp, street-savvy lyricism, Jadakiss has consistently delivered impactful verses that resonate with authenticity. His solo debut album, Kiss Tha Game Goodbye, further solidified his reputation as a formidable artist. Throughout his career, Jada has collaborated with industry heavyweights, showcasing his versatility and earning respect for his unwavering dedication to the craft.
15. Da Brat
Da Brat, born Shawntae Harris, is celebrated for her bold and unapologetic style. Emerging in the early 1990s, she quickly made her mark with a unique flow and distinctive voice. Hits like “Funkdafied” and “Give It 2 You” solidified her status in the game and crowned her the first solo female rapper to achieve platinum status, but her impact extends far beyond her musical accolades.
When she arrived on the scene, Da Brat combatted stereotypes for women emcees, ensuring that people focused on the lyrics rather than her appearance. But don’t get it twisted, she’s one of the most beautiful women to rock a mic. With a career marked by resilience and innovation, Da Brat remains an iconic figure who has taken on a new role as of late – she’s a mother.
16. Ice Cube
Born O’Shea Jackson, Ice Cube initially rose to fame as a founding member of the groundbreaking rap group N.W.A., where his raw lyricism and socially conscious rhymes garnered national attention. Beyond his contributions to the iconic Straight Outta Compton album, Ice Cube’s solo career soared with albums like AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted and Death Certificate, solidifying his reputation as a formidable lone artist. His unapologetic and thought-provoking lyrics addressed societal issues and resonated with audiences.
Beyond the music, Ice Cube seamlessly transitioned into acting, not only starring in films like Boyz n the Hood and the Friday series but also being responsible for putting pen to paper to write the movies. As a multifaceted artist, entrepreneur and advocate, Ice Cube’s impact extends beyond music, leaving an enduring legacy in both Hip Hop and popular culture. His influence persists as he continues to shape and contribute to the evolving narratives of music and entertainment.
17. Foxy Brown
Inga DeCarlo Fung Marchand, also known as Foxy Brown, rose to stardom during the mid-1990s, captivating audiences with her raw lyricism and commanding stage presence. She became a symbol for ladies owning their power while looking good and tearing up the mic.
With a groundbreaking debut album, Ill Na Na, Foxy Brown solidified her status as one of the most influential female rappers early on in her career, and she is still the blueprint for many of today’s women thanks to her influence on the culture, not only through music but style and fashion as well.
18. Busta Rhymes
Busta Rhymes, whose given name is Trevor George Smith Jr., first gained prominence as a member of the pioneering group Leaders of the New School before embarking on a successful solo career. His unparalleled energy and rapid-fire delivery set him apart, making him a standout figure in the Hip Hop landscape. Busta’s debut album, The Coming, introduced his signature style, characterized by intricate rhyme patterns and a larger-than-life persona.
Throughout his career, he has consistently pushed creative boundaries, collaborating with artists across genres and delivering memorable performances — not to mention some of the culture’s most prolific music videos. Busta Rhymes’ impact also expands to visual aesthetics and fashion, where his influence has been widely acknowledged.
Common, born Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr., stands as a venerable figure in the realm of Hip Hop, known for his socially conscious themes, amazing wordplay and overall visibility as an artist. He first emerged in the early 1990s with his debut project, Can I Borrow a Dollar?,which marked the beginning of a career filled with intellectual depth and poetic expression.
Additionally, his collaboration with renowned late producer J Dilla on Like Water for Chocolate showcased a seamless fusion of jazz and Hip Hop, earning critical acclaim. Another rapper who has evolved across the entertainment industry as a whole, Common has carved a lane of his own in cinema through his performances in movies like Selma and John Wick: Chapter 2. With an influence extending far beyond film, he also showcased his talents as a thespian on Broadway through “Between Riverside and Crazy.” Common also continues to be a respected voice advocating for social justice and cultural progression.
Nelly, born Cornell Iral Haynes Jr., emerged as a charismatic and chart-topping force in Hip Hop during the early 2000s, bringing a distinct St. Louis flavor to the genre. With his debut album Country Grammar, Nelly achieved massive commercial success, showcasing his melodic flow and unique blend of rap, R&B and pop influences.
Beyond his musical accomplishments, Nelly seamlessly crossed over into acting and entrepreneurship. His foray into fashion with the clothing line Vokal and into the energy drink market showcased his versatility as a businessman. Nelly became a cultural phenomenon, breaking barriers and garnering widespread appeal.
Christopher Brian Bridges, known to the world as Ludacris, continues to be a force in both Hip Hop and pop culture. Renowned for his animated delivery, iconic wordplay and ability to take visuals to great heights, Ludacris broke onto the scene in the early 2000s after working on the Atlanta airwaves as a radio personality.
The “What’s Your Fantasy” rapper quickly became a dominant force with his major label debut, Back for the First Time, and the timeless track “Southern Hospitality.” Known for his clever punchlines and humorous yet sharp lyricism, Ludacris brought a distinctive style to the rap landscape, and the same rings true for his acting career.
He’s appeared in blockbuster films like Crash and the Fast & Furious franchise. His crossover success showcases a multifaceted talent that transcends the boundaries of Hip Hop. Additionally, Ludacris has made significant contributions as a philanthropist, particularly in the field of education, displaying a commitment to making a positive impact on communities.