Dead or Alive All Time: Criteria

by Dan O

Someone you love must be bumped. The work demands it.

I don’t respect your top MC’s list of all time if its all cats from the 80’s or all cats from the 90s. Its too easy to decide what you liked at twenty-two and never let go of it. I’ve had lots of different greatest MC’s of all time because I have a duty to allow new information to inform me. This year and last year we’ve all been looking at one another and declaring “What a year for hip hop?!” after a few years of that we have to re-evaluate who is an all time and where they sit. Artists like billy woods, E L U C I D, Quelle Chris, Roc Marciano, Ka, Mick Jenkins, AKAI SOLO, Cities Aviv have built undeniable bodies of work that must be considered. No longer how much you value the albums of Yasiin Bey he has four solo albums and saying that every one of them is top notch is…beyond too kind. Quelle already has six solo albums and the run from Being You is Great, I Wish I Could Be You More Often through Deathfame is up there with anyone’s best run of solo albums. Someone you love must be bumped. The work demands it.

As we are holding newer names against older our criteria become critical. I just wanted to dedicate some time purely to that criteria as I am going though this process all the time. I’m so deeply impressed with the releases of artists right now I need to place them, so I need to do it responsibly.

1. Must have 2 personal classic albums-old heads are always yelling at each other about whether something is REEEAALLLYYY a classic. Let’s put that nonsense aside. All I mean by this distinction is providing an album (longer than 21 minutes) that is so well individually crafted and immaculately executed that no one else could have done it. Individually crafted means your particular vision, it’s not just a well-executed album, its an amazing album that can’t be duplicated and isn’t a duplicate of someone else. Something that will live on as YOURS.

2. Groups don’t count with more than 1 emcee– I just can’t bring myself to compare a Tribe Called Quest album to a Boldy James album. Tribe is a mixture of voices, obviously led by Q-Tip, but just ask Pusha T…being in a group is different. Now you might ask “what about Gangstarr, that’s a group but the group is Primo and Guru.” All Gangstarr work counts based on the one lead voice but if your making an all time case for Q Tip you are making it based on The Renaissance, Amplified, and Kamaal The Abstract.  You want to count Tribe’s work count it on your top 5 dead or alive best groups list. The two are separate for me.

3. Potential is a valid evaluative step–  Let’s talk about Big L. Depending on how many posthumous albums you count most of us see L having 2 albums (The Big Picture and Lifestylez ov Da Poor & Dangerous) both are clearly important enough to count as personal classics and put L in the mix. So putting L’s career against someone like Cities Aviv who has ten total releases between mixtapes and albums becomes odd. How do you compare the two? You have to look at skill set to envision what you think would have been. This isn’t just the case with death, Slick Rick had loads of legal trouble that put his career off course. He has four albums that are great but my favorite is his last album (The Art of Storytelling from 1999) and I hate that we didn’t get to hear more. Could Slick Rick have adapted as times changed? Hell yes. Listen to him on Auditorium on The Ecstatic album. Slick Rick wasn’t just a storyteller but a master of hooks, a durable voice who could wrap around any melody. I can’t ever let him fall too far. Some get mad at how Biggie haunts Jay-z’s legacy stating Jay has done things Biggie would never have been able to do. Not really, if you look at it in terms of skill set. Jay doesn’t have any skills that Biggie Smalls was missing. Biggie was a killer in verses fully capable of giant-sized pop jams and as production styles grew the pure intelligence Biggie had in terms of song construction would have carried him forward. ‘Biggie would have fallen off’ as a narrative doesn’t make much sense if you listen to Life After Death. Factoring in potential is how we make sure we aren’t penalizing people for being assassinated.

4.Interesting is my lyrical standard– I’ve been to some boring shows from some deep thinkers. I’ve been to some amazing shows from lifestyle rappers turning up. Move the crowd is the standard point blank. The way to bypass all this debate is to let interesting be the standard. Curren$y is interesting on Pilot Talk 1 through 3. El-P is interesting on all four solo albums. How interesting is each? How well do each maintain that necessary element of fascination? That’s where the fun begins.

5.What’s more important the MC at their best or at their worst-Redman is the example here. At his best Red a top 5 all time talent everyone knows the importance of the first three albums. The problem is Red has too many albums I never even finished because they sucked so hard. So what is more important to consider? Are we judging these giant talents against one another at their best? The other option is knocking them down based on how bad they were at their worst? Both options feel unfair to me. I don’t want to put Redman over someone like woods who carefully crafts his music so that it never sucks but I don’t want Red at the bottom of the list behind consistent well-mannered people who he would destroy on tracks. This meter is necessarily always moving. The discussion forces an equation factoring in the junk while valuing the giant sized runs of these great artists.

May your list be vibrant and filled with variation.

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