Black Thought Names His Top 5 Rappers, Says It ‘Has Always Revolved Around My Foundation'

The Roots leader looked to 1980s hip-hop pioneers as the "foundation" of his dexterous wordplay.

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Black Thought recently gave props to the hip-hop legends who came before him.

The Roots co-founder dropped his memoir The Upcycled Self: A Memoir on the Art of Becoming Who We Are last month, and in giving tribute to the rhymers who were foundational to his skillset, Black Thought recently spoke to HipHopDX about his top five MCs.

“My Top 5 has always revolved around my foundation,” he told the outlet. “What I’m about and so much of what I do — my style of storytelling — is in honor of that from which we came, that from which I came; so it’s always a nod to the foundation in that way."

He continued, “If I’m Black Thought and the reason I call myself Black Thought has something to do with the painter’s palette and the colors that go into — all the different nuance that goes into creating even the color black, then my Top 5, seven, 10 is going to represent my primary colors.”

Listing off his "primary colors," the Philadelphia native named Kool G Rap of the Juice Crew, who he says is "timeless" and has “expansive vocabulary, like the breadth of knowledge that he was able to incorporate into his storytelling.”

“I could kick Kool G Rap’s rhymes, from ‘Poison’ or ‘Men at Work’ or ‘Road To Riches’ forever — and these are songs that are already 35 years old,” Black Thought added.

Also making the list was Kool G Rap's fellow New York wordsmith, Big Daddy Kane, who the Cheat Codes rapper called “the antithesis to a G Rap.” “Big Daddy Kane was far more stylistic than technical, or just as stylistic as he was technical, and he was smooth, right? He was a smooth operator,” Black Thought shared.

Taking the third spot on Black Thought's list was Rakim, who reigned in the 1980s and early 1990s with DJ Eric B. According to Black Thought, who considered Rakim to be a "Shakespearean type" like Kool G Rap and Kane, Rakim “was the first one who was fearless enough to say, ‘I’m not gonna rap the way everybody else is rapping.'”

Public Enemy frontman Chuck D also made Black Thought's top five for his socio-political messages and attention-grabbing cadence, naming It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back as one of his favorites.

“I was nine or 10 or however old I was when that stuff came out — maybe I was a little older. But yeah, it was still impactful in a huge way and Chuck D felt like a superhero," Black Thought recounted. "I felt like, 'Wow,' like that was my first time I heard somebody rapping that felt like, oh, this is what a superhero talks like, you know, if a superhero was to rhyme.”

Concluding Black Thought's roundup was LL Cool J, the solo breakout star of Def Jam Records and an artist whom The Roots performed with throughout The F.O.R.C.E. Live tour over the summer. Black Thought became an instant fan of LL in the '80s when he was a teenager, catching an audio of him performing at local Philly club After Midnight.

“That one LL freestyle influenced me and so many of my friends and what we do in such a huge way just because we were able to again, see just that representation — to see ourselves in somebody so young, who was in such a position of power and who was moving almost, you know, regally, like in regal grace. LL was the royal chief rocker but he was 16 years old, and he moved like a seasoned veteran," Black Thought said.

Of course, Rakim, LL and Big Daddy Kane have taken spots on Complex's year-by-year Best Rappers Alive, Every Year Since 1979 rundown, with the aforementioned emcees, along with Kool G Rap and Chuck D being ranked on our 50 Best New York Rappers of All Time list. We've also shown love to the emcees across the pond in our Best British Rappers of All Time list.

The best rappers of every year. From 1979 to now.


— Complex (@Complex) February 27, 2021
Twitter: @Complex



— Complex Music (@ComplexMusic) August 11, 2023
Twitter: @ComplexMusic

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