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No idea's original. Hip-hop is a 39-year-old musical genre, and at this globalized stage of its evolution, we can trace the appeal of so many contemporary rappers back to a few, crucial wellsprings of inspiration. With hi-speed Internet having demolished regional boundaries and stylistic distinctions, at least within the U.S., influences migrate with the quickness. Atlanta trap star Gucci Mane is a patron saint of Chicago's drill scene. Drake is Lil Wayne's protégé and a huge UGK stan. Nicki Minaj, despite her abundance of unique quirk, occasionally channels the Notorious B.I.G. ("Four Door Aventador") and KRS-One ("Monster"). Danny Brown, from Detroit, cites UK grime godfather Dizzee Rascal as his definitive role model.
Even the very best contemporary rappers are, for the most part, elevating the style and ideas of generations that preceded them. Here we take a look at 20 rappers who are influencing the rest of contemporary hip-hop.
20. Ice cube
Ice Cube’s role as the outspoken and aggressive young rapper in the Straight Outta Compton documentary only scratched the surface of the legacy he’s left for newer generations. His bluntness on the topics of today live on with the new age of West Coast rappers such as Vince Staples, who also speaks candidly about the unchanged relationships between young black males and the police even today. Today’s rappers aren’t just influenced by Cube’s rambunctious “I don’t give a fuck” attitude, but also his vivid storytelling abilities. Kendrick Lamar and Dom Kennedy are just a few new age rappers who excel at not only spitting the lifestyle of a typical West Coast citizen on wax, but doing it with the same brutal honesty and sometimes dark humor that Cube shared with audiences on “Today Was a Good Day.” Time will tell if any rapper will have his entrepreneurial spirit, or acting accolades, but one thing is for sure: He has left a lasting mark on West Coast rap. —Justin Davis
19. snoop dogg
After LL Cool J's crossover insurgency in 1990, Snoop Dogg was the second-ever solo rap megastar. As a suave but initially awkward Long Beach Crip, Snoop provided a crucial fusion of chart-topping party anthems ("Gin and Juice," "Who Am I?") and severe, streetwise realism ("Little Ghetto Boy," "Murder Was the Case") that first foreshadowed the rise of 2Pac, E-40, and Jay Z, and then eventually influenced everyone from Mac Miller and Wiz Khalifa to Vince Staples and Meek Mill. Since 1992, Snoop has flirted with a variety of styles and regional influences—remember No Limit Snoop?—with the result being that hip-hop now globally reflects Snoop, the mirror, himself. Smokers, killers, pimps, dealers, and even the wavy white girls: Damn near every successful rapper of this century is indebted to Snoop Dogg's ambidextrous pop precedent. —Justin Charity
18. waka flocka flame
It’s a rare occasion when a protégé breaks away from a mentor and becomes his or her own force in hip-hop. Under the guidance of Gucci Mane, Waka Flocka Flame took what made Gucci a star (his innovative delivery, his song concepts, and his ability to create signature ad-libs) and pushed the boundaries by taking his music to the extreme. While Waka isn’t the most lyrically dexterous MC, he’s taken elements of ATL crunk and infused aggression to establish his sound as boisterous, rowdy, and fun. Thanks to Virginia producer Lex Luger, Waka’s bombastic and ominous direction, as demonstrated in heady anthems “Bustin’ at ’Em” and “Hard in da Paint,” opened doors for Ca$h Out, Peewee Longway, T-Wayne, and Rico Richie to impact younger listeners with their inescapable singles. To this day, Waka is still breaking down walls, where he’s going full-on EDM on side projects and working with newer talents like Keith Ape to help bring together rap’s melting pot of tastes. Plus, not any rapper can announce they’re running for president in 2016 and get the response he’s gotten from his fans. Squad! —Eric Diep
Simply put, there isn’t a rapper who the late Tupac Shakur hasn’t influenced. While there is a contingent of young fans who love to slander him on Twitter, 2Pac is still one of the most brutally honest and undoubtedly human rappers of all time. His contradictions and personality have been studied and emulated by some of the greats, and he has helped troubled artists such as Lil Boosie and 50 Cent find a muse to draw from in their paranoid and violent raps. 2Pac’s mid-career jail stint and subsequent heel turn proved to be the formula for a lot of rappers today, as the bad press can turn a moderately warm buzz into a fever pitch of hype (see: Meek Mill’s release in late 2014). 2Pac was never the greatest rapper, but he was always one of the greatest personalities in the game, a quality that newer rappers are still trying to capture. —JD
Is there a rap group more synonymous with the success of Dirty South hip-hop than OutKast? At a time when East Coast/West Coast feuds were still the dominant topic in hip-hop, OutKast emerged as a funky, futuristic alternative from the American South. While niche artists like Houston’s the Geto Boys and Miami’s 2 Live Crew first put Southern rap on the radar, it wasn’t until the mega-success of OutKast that the third region of hip-hop was taken very seriously. From there, with OutKast’s native Atlanta as its epicenter, the scene began to take off in a huge way. Nowadays, it seems like the region can’t stop producing hitmakers, whether it’s Rich Gang’s Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan, radio-friendly trappers like Migos and 2 Chainz, or rap/country hybrid artists like Yelawolf. Non-Southern rappers like A$AP Rocky, French Montana, and a fake-accented Iggy Azalea have also risen to prominence in part due to the Southern-flavored nature of their music. Even the outer space/aliens trope explored by everyone from Lil Wayne to Future can find some of its roots in OutKast’s ATLiens. All of this came from Andre 3000 and Big Boi moving Southern rap from the periphery of hip-hop to the mainstream. —Chris Mench
15. max b
We are living in the era of the Boss Don Biggavel. Future, Fetty Wap, Drake? All of this rapper-slash-singer shit that's been poppin' off lately is due to the man known as Charley Wingate. Max B wasn't the first to do it by any means; the list of rappers who also sang on their tracks before him is long. However, one can argue he ushered in the popularization of the act. The Silver Surfer provided the ultimate wave for French Montana and his sworn enemy Jim Jones. Both artists benefited from collaborating with Max. Montana got his deal because of the work he did alongside his former partner, and Jimmy's marginal hit "Ballin" and his best album, Harlem: Diary of a Summer, happened with the help of Max's pen. To quote Roc Marciano: "The fans can have Drake, but the streets have Max." —Angel Diaz
While hip-hop has long been a big genre, nobody has redefined quite how big a rapper can be better than Eminem. The Detroit native rocketed to fame off the back of his 1999 smash The Slim Shady LP and never looked back. Since then he’s become the first rapper to win an Academy Award, the first to win the Best Rap Album Grammy for three consecutive projects, the first with two diamond-certified songs, the most-streamed artist of all time, and the list goes on. In fact, Eminem is one of the most highly cited influences for artists (both in and out of the hip-hop world) today. You can hear Eminem in the angry confrontations of Hopsin and Tech N9ne (and honestly most of Strange Music’s roster), and the crazed babblings of Danny Brown and Nicki Minaj’s alter-ego Roman Zolanski. Em’s massive success also brought hip-hop to a wider (and whiter) audience than ever before. For better or worse, the everyman rhymes of successful white rappers like Macklemore, Yelawolf, Mac Miller, and even rap-influenced pop star Ed Sheeran probably owe a lot to his diversifying of hip-hop. —CM
13. mf doom
You're a producer that's a rapper? Or a rapper that's a producer? Doom did that. The underground legend is still selling old beats from the instrumental tapes he dropped in the early '00s. Doom's metal fingerprints are all over this game. Kanye got the idea of keeping his best for himself from Madlib, J. Dilla, and MF Doom, a.k.a. the holy trinity of producer/rappers. And Doom's quirky rhyme style can be heard in the raps of Earl Sweatshirt and Mac Miller. Action Bronson raps about food? Well, Doom has an entire album dedicated to the practice, complete with cooking show skits. He is easily one of the most creative artists of our time. I would say Madlib, Doom, and Havoc are three producers who have the capability of flipping known samples in ways other beatsmiths can’t. It’s uncanny. Kanye is the best rapping producer? Ha! Go home, listen to Doom, fast for three days, and reflect. —AD
12. three 6 mafia
The late DJ Screw of Houston rightfully receives so much explicit credit for the popularity of screwed vocals, purpled doors of perception, and whatnot. But O.G. Memphis clique Three 6 Mafia (plus Juicy J's younger brother, Project Pat) pioneered the cultish chants and vaguely satanic fight songs that preceded and clearly inspired rappers like Rocky (e.g., "M's") and Future (e.g., "Trap Niggas") and producers like Mike WiLL Made-It ("23"), Chief Keef ("Faneto"), and Young Chop ("Feds Listenin"). Sometimes leisurely, sometimes rough-and-tumble, but always dark, Three 6 Mafia (and Memphis, generally speaking) were Houston's crucial co-conspirators in the promotion of haziness and promethazine zen as hip-hop's prevailing aesthetic. And as for hip-hop's libido: Grace Jones recently accused Nicki Minaj (among others) of biting her zany '80s modeling style, but I think both Nicki and Lil Wayne, as songwriters, are more so (respectfully) indebted to O.G. hip-hop dominatrix Gangsta Boo, who made Akinyele sound like Bow Wow. —JC
11. soulja boy
Love him or hate him, Soulja Boy made a ton of strides as a teenage rapper before he could legally buy booze. At 16, the Atlanta-bred artist self-produced and self-published “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” online, a song that he made at his dad’s house in Batesville, Miss., which led to a worldwide dance craze, a major label deal with Interscope, and millions of ringtones sold (back when it was cool). After that, Soulja Boy continued schooling the rap game on how to use the Internet and become a viral sensation—Myspace, YouTube, Twitter, Vine, Tumblr, Instagram…you name it. His ability to market himself as a brand and flood the digital space with his music has paved the way for Odd Future, RiFF RAFF, Yung Lean, Bobby Shmurda, and more to adopt his strategy for their own voices. As for Soulja’s musical style these days, it’s a mix of ATL’s trap sound with his unique swag, but don’t be quick to call him irrelevant just yet. He’s still keeping the mixtape circuit hot, while simultaneously making everyone wish they owned a Soulja Board.—ED
10. lauryn hill
It’s hard to overstate the impact of Lauryn Hill’s 1998 hip-hop classic The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. The album blended soul, jazz, hip-hop, and pop elements into a beautifully coherent sound, laced it with catchy hooks and verses of deep personal confessions, and still managed to be accessible to the casual music consumer. It netted Lauryn Hill millions in album sales and even snagged hip-hop its first ever Album of the Year Grammy. There’s probably no one who has done more for multidimensional women in hip-hop that Ms. Hill, a fact that everyone from Nicki Minaj to Azealia Banks should be thanking her for. The former Fugees frontwoman’s solo debut certainly set a new standard for rap women, and even for rap in general, but its influence extends far beyond the genre walls of hip-hop. It’s hard to imagine the rise of conscious artists like Lupe Fiasco or Kendrick Lamar without her, but it’s equally as hard to picture widespread success for minimalist, soulful singers like Adele, Amy Winehouse, and even FKA twigs without Lauryn paving the way. Even Kanye West credits his success in part to Miseducation. With one album, Lauryn changed the game. —CM
09. lil b
"Remember me, the one you got your whole style from?" Lil B the Based God might as well have been the one to say that line to all of rap, and so it was. On the seventh day, the Based God rested as he watched rappers name songs after celebrities and try to make themselves into memes. Snoop Dogg, Jay Z, Drake, and Kanye West are the only ones who have successfully done the latter. But only Snoop, and, one can argue, Drake embraced meme culture. This is the future, and Lil B spearheaded it. Rap and the Internet are one now. Lil B is like the invisible white man in the clouds making all of this possible. He can teach a class on how to stay relevant without being relevant. Not too many take him seriously as a rapper, and that is understandable and warranted. But you damn well better take him seriously as an artistic icon in the digital age. Brandon follows a million people on Twitter, made 100-plus Myspace pages when that site was a thing, put curses on two NBA players, thrust himself into the presidential race when he endorsed Bernie Sanders, is the first rapper to adopt a tabby cat, and lectured at prestigious universities about love and positivity. Lil B is the undisputed King of Internet Rap. —AD
Your boy took Kanye's big one-off emo moment, ran with it, and nothing was the same. Rappers rhyming, and sometimes even crooning, about their feelings has always been a thing, but not on such an appealingly narcissistic and consistent level the way they have in this post-So Far Gone world. But purists can't even really use his singing as a crutch, not when he's out here bodying lyrically. With each album comes at least one new phrase that's instantly added to the contemporary pop culture lexicon before being used to death. One feature from Drake has a 95 percent guaranteed success rate of boosting your song and/or album, in some cases your career—these days it's turned into a fun guessing game deciding which bubbling banger from an up-and-comer will get the Drake stimulus package. Sometimes all that's needed is tangible evidence of Drake's interest: see Dej Loaf and "Try Me." And the rap community literally watched his beef with Meek Mill play out with bated breath, resulting in a diss song that's become borderline inescapable in the club. A ghostwriting scandal has only made his next moves even more highly anticipated, while together with his cohorts Oliver and 40, he and his OVO artists craft a distinctive sound that's slowly monopolizing rap production. The reign is only just beginning. Take care. —Frazier Tharpe
07. the notorious b.i.g.
The Notorious B.I.G. wasn’t playing when he called himself a rap phenomenon. When Christopher Wallace hit the scene in 1993, there were very few people who could keep up with the Bed-Stuy wunderkind. He managed to at once embody the eternal struggle of those overlooked by a system made to protect them and the flashiness of someone who zipped right out as soon as they could. He did this by never leaving the harshness of the world behind. It’s difficult to do this, as you can imagine. Biggie’s not considered the best for no reason. His deft ability to effortlessly weave stories while coining new phrases that made an imprint on your mind like a Rhino on a memory foam mattress is enviable. It’s a talent many have sought to replicate. Take a look through Rap Genius and you’ll find more than a handful of rappers past and present who have lifted B.I.G.’s words to fit their narrative. And it’s not just Jay Z. Here are 30 rappers who have stolen lines from “Juicy.” And that’s just one song! In addition to the lyrics, Biggie implanted a sense of self-affirmation that is still alive and well today (remember: sky is the limit), and he made songs that speak to the ladies and to the streets in equal measure. Oh, and then there's the flow. Forceful, nimble, and smooth as fuck. It's the part of Biggie's game that's been copied nearly more than his actual bars. The thing about phenomenons is that they usually change the course of history. That's exactly what Biggie did. —Damien Scott
Since the mid-2000s, Texas has been the Mecca of some of the most lasting stylistic tropes in rap. The glorification of cars and the love/hate relationship with promethazine that has been a staple of the new generation of rap within all regions, but perhaps the most lasting export from the Lone Star State is Port Arthur duo UGK. The tandem of Bun B and the late Pimp C not only put the word “trill” front and center, but made it cool to use live instrumentation in rap records. Pimp’s true genius was his knack for being a perfectionist: He dedicated his production style to using organs and live instruments under thoughtful and boastful raps, much like artists like Big K.R.I.T. do today. Infusing jazz, soul, and sometimes gospel elements to rap music has served as a blueprint for artists like Drake, A$AP Rocky, and Rick Ross, who recreate Pimp and Bun’s penchant for hard-hitting rhymes over soulful riffs. UGK may have stayed underground, but their legendary brand of “country rap tunes” still captures an audience in the present. —JD
Jay Z might have tried to snatch the King of New York crown with The Blueprint, but the blueprint for The Blueprint will always be Nas’ seminal classic Illmatic. Credited with nearly singlehandedly reviving the New York rap scene, Illmatic is still regarded as one of the best rap albums ever made. It ushered in the era of multi-producer albums and the resurgence of East Coast gangsta rap, and raised the bar of lyricism for everyone in the game. Those most directly influenced were the big NYC rappers who would emerge in Illmatic’s wake, artists like the Notorious B.I.G., Puff Daddy, and Jay Z, as well as hardcore acts like Mobb Deep. But the soundscape and subject matter that Nas put forth is still the gold standard that influences New York hip-hop today. From Joey Bada$$ to Action Bronson to Troy Ave, New Yorkers are still looking to Mr. Jones for inspiration. Beyond Illmatic, Nas’ career has had some ups and downs, but one has to look no further than Stillmatic’s “Ether” and the great Nas/Jay Z feud of the early 2000s to see what a good hip-hop beef really looks like. Drake and Meek Mill should take some notes. —CM
04. jay z
Don't let these fair-weather, short-term memory funny boys fool you. Jay Z isn't some Old no one respects anymore who should've hung it up two or three albums ago. He is indeed still the God MC, which is to say, your favorite (mainstream-aspiring) rappers would love to mold their careers in his image. But beyond showing us just how far hip-hop could take it—it being your personal brand, influence, and net worth—keeping things focused squarely on rap, Jigga man still runs this shit. Everything from strategic features as a way to remain musically relevant even in the absence of new material and the Machiavellian way with which he approached beef, to how he even attacked R&B guest features with ferocity and ultimately the way he deftly managed to make decidedly mainstream-appealing music while remaining lyrically adept. Basically, everything Drake, the undisputed Hottest Rapper Right Now, is doing, he learned from the Book of William H. And that pure fact will always outweigh any, say, art-rap slander guys like Aubrey try and throw his way. Getting a Jay Z feature has become a coveted rite of passage and/or co-sign for your favorite rapper to join the A-list. See: "Light Up," Kendrick's excitement over the "Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe" remix, or J. Cole's public plea to get a verse on his debut. As he once famously told Angie Martinez, "I got a lot of sons out there." I'll be the first to say I'm anxiously awaiting for him to flex on them at least one more time. —FT
03. lil wayne
Once the second-most divisive rap star of his generation—trumped only by Soulja Boy in this regard—Lil Wayne marked the South's total secession from New York's sense of what gifted rapping must sound like, an ideal that senior delegates T.I. and Bun B technically entertained, for the most part, before Weezy came for Jay Z's throne. 20 years ago, you couldn't have imagined synth hip-hop ballads like "Trap Queen," "Lifestyle," or "Try Me" even existing, much less climbing the Hot 100; not until "Lollipop" set the precedent in 2008. Weezy's Carter II/Drought 3/Carter III run reformatted the mixtape economy and hip-hop's general principles of technique, as channeled by contemporary trappers and "weirdo rappers" alike. Even Kendrick Lamar cites Lil Wayne as an influence, though the traces are more apparent in Drake, Nicki Minaj, Young Thug, Future, and A$AP Rocky. —JC
02. gucci mane
Gucci Mane, who has been incarcerated on federal gun charges since 2013, has become a thing of Atlanta hip-hop tradition, where the new generation pays tribute to their one and only Trap God, even when he’s not here to influence on his own. Gucci has such an expansive catalog, extending from his albums to his mixtapes that continuously fed the streets, that he redefined what it meant to be a rapper in the late 2000s and how to crossover into the mainstream through authenticity and realness. Without Gucci, Chief Keef wouldn’t feel comfortable enough to experiment with his sound, making pop country songs after notoriously making the drill scene popular. Without Mr. Zone 6, Mike WiLL Made-It (“Gucci Mane slayed it” for a real throwback) wouldn’t be the superproducer he is today, embracing the next talents (Rae Sremmurd, Two-9) and having an incredible run with Future. Without Big Guwop, the likes of 2 Chainz, Migos, Young Scooter, Young Thug, and Waka Flocka Flame wouldn’t be the household names they are now. In short, Gucci Mane is ATL’s icon, a legend in the making with so much more to offer in his career. Once he’s out, there’s no telling what will happen next. —ED
01. kanye west
“Can we get much higher?” That’s the question posed on the intro to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the album we here at Complex believe to be Kanye’s magnum opus. It’s a work as twisted as it is beautiful and purposeful—three descriptors that could describe Ye’s entire catalog. But to answer the question: *Kanye shrug.* It’s yet to be seen if rap can ascend past the musical and cultural peaks reached by Kanye West. This is the guy who worked his way from Common and No ID’s annoying lil man to ghostproducing for Puffy’s Hitmen to one of Roc-A-Fella’s secret weapons to the guy who, for a moment, bridged mainstream and underground, to the most influential person rapping (or singing) verses into Pro Tools. The guy Chris Rock called “the most interesting guy that ever picked up a mic.” The guy who refers to himself as a god. If you look at rap in 2015 and don’t see Kanye embedded in the beats, rhymes, and life, you must be looking at a completely different genre, because Kanye Omari West is the most influential rap artist of all time.
When talking about rap influence, it used to be that you fell into two camps: You were either a clever rhyme spitter who could weave meaningful anecdotes with ease, much like Nas and Biggie, or you wore your heart and aggression on your sleeve and made music that hit like a blunt instrument, like 2Pac. West embodies both ideals. He’s not the most gifted MC of all time, but he’s rapped a bunch of lines that have become modern parlance. When he felt rapping couldn’t properly convey the emotions broiling inside of him, he released an album of him mostly singing. Without Kanye, we would have no Drake, no J. Cole, no Chance the Rapper, rappers who have internalized the outsider ethos to make music everyone jams to. You want to know why a lot of rap today bears little resemblance to what Rakim practiced? Or why a guy like Fetty Wap can rule the Hot 100 but is for some reason still considered hip-hop? It’s because of Kanye West. Not only did he bridge the mainstream and underground by putting Jay Z on a song with Talib Kweli, he bridged genres by showing that artists could do whatever the fuck they felt like doing as long as they felt the groove.
And that’s just music.
Let’s not even get into fashion. Look at what rappers were wearing before Kanye West came along, and look at what passes for acceptable fashion now. You can thank Kanye and his pink Polos, tight jeans, and “ultra Travolta” style for allowing rappers to feel as if whatever they felt was cool, was, well, actually cool. Drake once rapped, probably as a subtle jab to Ye, “And I’m the only one who's still known for the music.” Sure, a case could be made for that. But when you’re truly influential, truly a monumental force, everything you do is analyzed and examined for possible repurposing: every rhyme you say, every step you take, every word you utter, every garment you wear, every face you make, every shoulder you shrug. Does it get much higher? Nah. —DS