As the birthplace of hip hop and rap, not many other cities have birthed so many amazing rappers. From humble beginnings in The Bronx to a worldwide powerhouse, rap and hip-hop are here to stay.
Let’s celebrate the premier rap talent in New York and learn more about the best New York rappers of all time.
The Notorious B.I.G.
While it’s always a heated debate, The Notorious B.I.G. always comes up when other rappers talk about the best NY rappers. Born and raised in Brooklyn, Biggie broke onto the scene in the early 90s.
After joining Bad Boy Records, The Notorious B.I.G. had several successful releases, including “Big Poppa” and “Hypnotize.” Unfortunately, his career ended abruptly during a drive-by shooting in 1997.
A lyrical genius, Nas hit it big with his debut album, “Illmatic” in 1994. Fans praise Nas’s ability to create poignant and poetic raps about life on the street.
Nas’s rhymes are just as impressive today as they were on his first release. He’s also a controversial musician and started feuds with other famous rappers, including Jay-Z.
Constantly on music critics’ top ten lists, Nas earns a spot on our list of best New York Rappers.
Arguably the most successful New York rapper, Jay-Z is more than just a rapper. Between founding Roc-A-Fella Records and Rocawear, Jay-Z went from street rapper to multi-billionaire CEO.
His lyrical skills are just as impressive as his entrepreneurial skills. With thirteen studio albums and twenty-four Grammy awards, Jay-Z is an icon of the hip-hop industry.
If you ask many famous rappers who their favorite peer is, Rakim is often on the list. Along with his partner Eric B., their album “Paid in Full” gained the honor of greatest hip hop album of all time by MTV in 2006.
Rakim was one of the first artists to use advanced rhyming techniques in the 1980s. He also was one of the first rappers to develop their rhymes through writing instead of improvisation. This new style quickly took off, and many other rappers cite Rakim as the inventor of flow in hip-hop.
No NYC rapper list is complete without Wu-Tang Clan members. But which Wu-Tang Clan rapper is the best? Method Man has a unique sound, delivery, and flow that sets him apart from the rest of the Wu.
Highlights on “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers” include C.R.E.A.M and Protect Ya Neck. Method Man was also the first member to release a solo album and started a successful solo career with his debut, “Tical,” in 1994.
Kool G Rap
One of the best Queens rappers, Kool G Rap, is considered one of the most influential rappers of the 1980s. Kool G Rap teamed up with DJ Polo in 1986. From here, the duo found critical and commercial success on their debut album, “Road to Riches.”
Kool G Rap used complex rhyming techniques and multisyllabic rhyming during his songs. He also pioneered using street and hardcore content on tracks.
The second Wu-Tang member to grace our list, Ghostface Killah combines storytelling and a fast-paced rhyming flow to create a unique sound. With his success with Wu-Tang Clan, Ghostface Killah released thirteen studio albums over his long career.
Critics cite Killah as one of the greatest storytellers of all time, and he’s often at the top of many other best MC lists.
KRS-One found fame in the 80s with Boogie Down Productions. After the murder of Scott La Rock, KRS-One went on to a successful solo career.
Known for his politically charged and controversial lyrical content, KRS-One has a long history of fighting for his community. KRS-One was also one of the first rappers to incorporate Jamaican styles into his rhyming flow.
Starting as teens in Queens, Prodigy and Havoc formed the duo Mobb Deep. Their first release, “The Infamous,” was certified gold months after release. Their follow-up, “Murda Muzik,” was also a success.
Mobb Deep blended smooth beats with gritty and grim vocals about life in the ghetto. Prodigy also added conspiratorial content in his rhymes.
Unfortunately, Prodigy’s career was cut short due to an illness related to sickle cell in 2000.
Big Daddy Kane
As part of the golden age of hip hop, Big Daddy Kane is one of the greatest MCs. While many rappers during the era used slower beats, Kane enjoyed rhyming over faster dance-friendly beats. He’s credited with pioneering fast rhyming during this time.
Right from his debut release, “Long Live the Kane,” Big Daddy Kane dominated other MCs of the era.
The Beastie Boys
Originally a hard-core band, The Beastie Boys found their true calling as rappers in the 1980s. After the local success of their comedy record, “Cookie Puss,” the trio transitioned to hip hop.
Joining up with Def Jam records, The Beastie Boys released “License to Ill” it was the first rap album to top the Billboard 200.
The trio uses a call-and-response rhyming technique for most of their songs. They’re also pioneers of sampling, and “Paul’s Boutique” is often cited as one of the most complex sampled albums ever recorded.
As the frontman of Public Enemy, Chuck D pushed political and socially conscious rap to the forefront of the industry. He has a dark and resonant vocal presence on every record. As soon as you hear his voice, you know you’re listening to a Public Enemy Record.
Public Enemy released their debut album, “Yo! Bum Rush the Show,” in 1987. While it was a commercial success, many radio stations found the content controversial and banned the album due to the racially charged lyrics. Over the years, those critics were wrong, and Public Enemy is one of the most critically acclaimed artists of all time.
The first commercially successful rapper was Kurtis Blow. His first single, “The Breaks,” was the first certified gold rap song.
Kurtis Blow signed to Mercury in 1979 and became the first rapper to sign to a major record label. While Kurtis Blow might not reach one billion views on YouTube, he’s one of the most important MCs in hip hop.
As hip-hop went mainstream, DMX was there for the ride. His first album, “It’s Dark and Hell is Hot,” was an instant hit in 1998. After his initial success, DMX recorded several gold albums and had several Grammy nominations.
DMX used dark and aggressive beats combined with tough and street-centric lyrics. This combo worked perfectly and propelled DMX to superstardom in the late 90s.
Unfortunately, DMX found trouble with the law and drugs throughout his late career. He passed away in 2021.
One of the most influential artists in the indie hip-hop scene, El-P has produced and rhymed on some of the most important records in hip-hop history. Throughout the 90s and 2000s, El-P worked with Aesop Rock, Mr. Lif, Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, and many other artists.
In 2013, El-P joined forces with Killer Mike to form Run the Jewels. The duo went on to find massive success on their debut album.
El-P uses a harsh and aggressive rhyming style. He also uses complex metaphors, wordplay, and pop culture references.
If it wasn’t for MTV and Run D.M.C, rap might have never made it out of the hood. The trio includes rappers MC Run, D.M.C, and DJ Jam Master Jay. They were pioneers of a new hip-hop sound that offered commercial viability to the musical genre.
Run D.M.C was one of the first groups to move away from disco and funk influences. Instead, they incorporated rock, hard beats, and aggressive rapping to engage their fans.
GZA is the oldest member of the Wu-Tang Clan and is their spiritual leader. Along with the eight other members, Wu-Tang Clan delivers some of the most original rap songs of all time.
GZA uses complex stories that are often about science and philosophy. His rhymes are incredibly diverse. A study of rappers’ lyrical content found GZA has the second-largest vocabulary of any MC or rapper.
In the early 90s, Q-Tip was at the forefront of a revolution in hip-hop. As a member of A Tribe Called Quest, the group used jazz and smoothed-out beats for the songs.
Lyrically, Q-Tip tells socially conscious stories through introspective lyrics. He also uses a subdued and mellow delivery of his rhymes. Between the jazz influences and lyrics, A Tribe Called Quest created a unique style of hip-hop that many can’t reproduce.
Raekwon the Chef
Raekwon joined the Wu-Tang Clan for their debut album. Along with his Wu-Tang releases, Raekwon has had a successful solo career and has released seven albums since the 1990s.
Raekwon is a storytelling MC. He’s known to switch styles, flow, and flavor during his verses. The group credited this recipe to him and donned the name “The Chef” to Raekwon.
One of the best Brooklyn rappers, Mos Def, found success after teaming up with Talib Kweli and forming Black Star. The duo released their first album, “Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star,” in 1998.
Mos Def uses rap to discuss social and political causes. As Black Star, the duo spoke out on police brutality, inequality, and environmental consciousness.
Style-wise, Mos Def’s style is poetic and can change flow from fast to slow between bars.
From an early age, Jadakiss knew he’d be one of the best New York rappers. Starting at twelve, Jadakiss impressed Ruff Ryders and Bad Boy Records with his skills. His first release came as part of the group, The Lox. After several albums with The Lox, Jadakiss went on to a successful solo career.
Jadakiss has a confrontational rap style and a NY swagger to his rhymes. He’s also known for his incredible adlib and freestyle ability.
LL Cool J
One of the most versatile MCs of the golden age of hip hop, LL Cool J has to be on any list of best New York rappers. From gangster rap to love songs, LL Cool J can do it all.
LL Cool J started to find success after signing with Def Jam in 1984. His debut album, “Radio,” was an instant classic. He went on to win two Grammys over his career and was the first rapper to receive Kennedy Center Honors.
Big Pun started his career in underground rap but quickly made a name for himself and is now known as one of the best Bronx rappers. Pun released his first album, “Capital Punishment”, in 1997.
He found commercial success after remixing his song “I’m Not a Player.” The remix featured singer Joe and used danceable beats to propel the song up the charts.
While not a pop star, Masta Ace is one of the most iconic rappers. Ace uses raw lyrical styles that deliver an underground vibe. Since 1989, Masta Ace has created the hip-hop styles we hear today.
Masta Ace often rhymes about the ills associated with commercial hip-hop, gangster rap, and the recording industry.
Busta Rhymes burst onto the scene as part of the group Leaders of the New School. Their appearance on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario” showed their expertise in hip-hop and sparked a new rhyme style. After several guest appearances, Busta Rhymes released his first solo album, “The Coming,” in 1996.
Busta Rhyme’s style is very distinct. It’s hard, fast, energetic, and hypnotizing. He’s always animated, and his booming voice dominates any track.
Are you ready for a story? If so, Slick Rick is the one to deliver it. During the 80s, Rick pioneered a storytelling style of rhyming that many rappers imitate.
Slick Rick found success originally as part of The Get Fresh Crew but went on to solo success in 1986. He released “The Adventures of Slick Rick” in 1986. The album is incredibly influential and one of the most sampled records in history.
As a founding member of Wu-Tang Clan, Inspectah Deck was also a successful solo artist. He’s also a prolific producer and is responsible for many of the most famous beats on Wu-Tang albums.
As an MC, Deck offers an intricate vocabulary and flawless rhyme patterns. He’s also adept at using a variety of flows during his performances.
Arguably the most famous female rapper of all time, Nicki Minaj is also an adept and influential rapper. She’s also one of the best Queens rappers. Minaj hit it big on her third mixtape, “Beam Me Up, Scotty.” Here, she teamed up with megastars, including Kanye West, Drake, and Lil Wayne.
Minaj uses a variety of voices, alter egos, and speeds during her performances to set her apart from other rappers.
Hailing from Harlem, Big L was influential in the underground NY hip-hop scene. He was known for his freestyle rhymes, storytelling, and punchline-style delivery. Big L also created the rap genre, horrorcore, in 1992.
After several demos, Big L landed a deal and released his debut album, “Lifestylez Ov Da Poor & Dangerous,” in 1992. Unfortunately, Big L’s career ended after a drive-by shooting in 1999.
As a founding member of Ultramagnetic MCs, Kool Keith helped pioneer hip hop during its golden age. He also went on to a successful solo career and released eighteen albums since 1996.
Lyrically, Kool Keith spoke in abstracts and often used profane humor. Many of his tracks feature explicit vocals and sexual content. He coined the style “porncore.”
Founding member of the Lox, Styles P is a prolific rapper and producer. He’s released fourteen solo albums and worked with D-Block and Ruff Ryders.
Styles P delivers a gritty production, crafty sampling, and smooth vocals that create a new sound and style of rap.
A king in the conscious hip-hop scene, Talib Kweli is an iconic rapper. Along with Mos Def, the duo created Black Star and instantly gained stardom. Since then, Kweli is still producing and MCing some of the best rap songs.
Kweli often uses his lyrics to promote his political positions and to fight oppression. His songs often confront police brutality and racial stereotypes.
Lil’ Kim paved the way for many of today’s most famous female rappers. Her lyrical skills competed against the best New York rappers and propelled her to stardom.
Often raunchy, Lil’ Kim showed women they could join hip-hop royalty. Her debut album burst onto the scene in 1996 and went double platinum. From there, her career has been a string of successful solo and collaborative projects.
Hailing from Queens, Pharoahe Monch rose to prominence after his first release, “Internal Affairs,” in 1999.
Monch is best known for intelligent raps that use intricate rhyming techniques and deep lyrics. He’s often praised for his eloquent freestyle rhymes as well.
Monch created a new vocal style that let him perform despite his asthma. The breath control technique changes his delivery and makes his style unique.
50 Cent found instant success after his first commercial release. He’s gone on to sell over thirty million records and won a Grammy Award.
Inspired after meeting Jam Master Jay, 50 Cent found his footing and new rapping style. His big breakthrough came after meeting Eminem and signing a deal with Money Management Group.
Musically, 50 Cent creates dance-friendly tracks with gangster and ghetto themes. Production of his tunes often uses elements from EDM and other genres.
A Freestyle expert, Canibus found fame in the 90s thanks to his expert skills. He released his debut album, “Can-I-Bus,” in 1998.
Over the years, he released fifteen studio albums. While he has a massive discography, Canibus is better known for his freestyling and battle rapping.
No one could deliver a rhyme like Biz Markie. Bursting onto the commercial scene with his hit, “Just a Friend,” Markie is often referred to as the Clown Prince of Hip Hop.
Markie was an expert lyricist but also excelled at beatboxing. He also showed his singing skills on his biggest single, “Just a Friend.” While pop critics consider him a one-hit-wonder, rap experts know Biz Markie was one of the best MCs of all time.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Buckshot started his rapping career in the early 90s. He formed the group Black Moon and released his first single, “Who Got Da Props,” in 1992.
Along with Black Moon, Buckshot also works with Boot Camp Clik. He’s also worked extensively with 9th Wonder and KRS-One since the 1990s.
As a founding member of A Tribe Called Quest, Phife Dawg will go down as one of the most influential rappers in history. You feel his style and influence on every track by this iconic rap group.
Phife Dawg often fought against machoism and posturing in his lyrics. Tribe’s songs also confronted racial stereotypes and other politically charged issues. Unfortunately, Phife Dawg’s career ended after passing away in 2016.
CL Smooth delivered the lyrics for the rap duo Pete Rock & CL Smooth. The duo helped pave the way for the golden age of hip-hop.
CL Smooth took full advantage of Pete Rock’s jazzy and slick beats. The songs felt different than the gangster rap of the era.
Like Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown was at the forefront of the female hip-hop revolution. She released her debut alum, “Ill Na Na,” in 1996. The release went platinum, and Foxy Brown was a superstar.
Brown uses raunch and sexy lyrics to create seductive and provocative songs. Foxy Brown’s tracks are custom-made for any dancefloor.
Along with his partner in crime, Puff Daddy, Mase helped define the sound of NYC rap in the 90s. The duo combined dancefloor-friendly beats and hip and sexy lyrics to create some of the most iconic rap songs of the era.
Mase used melodic rhyming that gave his songs dancefloor appeal.
Fat Joe made a name for himself as a prolific MC before his pop crossover hits in the 2000s. He released his first studio album in 1995. On his third album, Fat Joe found his flow and reached the top ten on the Billboard 200.
His lyrical skills feature dual languages as he’ll speak both English and Spanish during his verse. Combined with a smooth and seductive voice, Fat Joe was bound for hip-hop stardom from the start.
As part of the hip-hop collective Boot Camp Click, and a member of Heltah Skeltah, Sean Price pioneered a creative and underground hip-hop sound from his home in Brooklyn.
Price’s rhymes and beats are critically acclaimed, and he established his persona as a force on the underground in the early 2000s. Price’s career ended after an untimely death in 2015.
Hailing from Harlem, Cam’ron hit the rap scene in the mid-1990s. He quickly found success and received his first gold record in 2000.
Cam’ron’s tracks have pop sensibilities, making them accessible to a wider audience. Still, his rhymes relate to the street and inner city as well.
While Puff Daddy is remembered more for his production and as the founder of Bad Boy Records, Puff Daddy also MCd many of the biggest hits of the 90s.
His rapping skills netted Combs three Grammy Awards and twelve nominations. His rhymes were influential in creating the NY 1990s hip-hop style that was a stark counterpart to gangster rap.
Men dominated rap in the early years. That didn’t stop MC Lyte from rocking the mic. In the 80s, MC Lyte proved she could rhyme and flow the best.
Lyte often used mid-tempo beats that gave her songs a smooth yet aggressive sound. Her lyrics often fought against stereotypes, sexism, and misogyny in hip-hop.
As part of the duo Gang Starr, Guru created iconic hip-hop songs for the ages. The group formed in 1987 and released its first few records to minimal attention.
In 1993, things changed for the duo. Gang Starr released a string of three albums that revolutionized the NY sound. Their songs had commercial and underground appeal thanks to Guru’s dramatic and smooth flow.
Over the years, Fabolous has proved he’s a versatile and adept rapper. Whether Fabolous is singing a love song or MCing a gangster track, Fabolous can do it all.
Fabolous released his debut album, “Ghetto Fabolous,” to critical and commercial acclaim in 2001. His versatility works well with other artists. He’s used this skill to collaborate with many other artists, including Pharrell, Ashanti, and Ne-Yo.
One of the best Bronx rappers, Lord Finesse, started his career as a founding member of Diggin’ in the Crates Crew.
During the 1990s, Finesse released three solo albums and several other collaborative efforts. He also performed the vocal samples on Fatboy Slim’s hit, “The Rockafeller Skank.”
Many critics think AZ is the most underrated rapper of all time. The longtime partner of Nas, AZ is featured on “Illmatic.” After his recordings with Nas, AZ signed a record deal with EMI Records in 1994.
Since then, AZ has released nine albums to critical acclaim. He’s known for his dark and gritty lyrics that match the grimness of the track's beats.
Havoc joined forces with fellow Brooklyn rapper Prodigy to form Mobb Deep in 1992. The duo is notorious for creating a new and unique sound on their tracks.
As well as rhyming, Havoc is a prolific producer and produced all of Mobb Deep’s tracks. He’s also worked with countless stars, including Eminem, Nas, 50 Cent, and Mariah Carey.
While technically a duo, EPMD was at the forefront of the hip-hop explosion in the 80s. Eric Sermon and Parrish Smith formed EPMD in 1987.
Instead of using disco breaks, EPDM incorporated funk and rock beats for their songs. This gave the songs a harder edge that worked with their grittier lyrics.
From Instagram influencer to one of the most influential musicians in the world, Cardi B is the only woman to win the Grammy for best rap album.
Cardi B fuses multiple genres in her songs, including Latin music, trap, R&B, and gangster rap. She has a nimble rhyme flow that works in almost any genre of music. She’s known for an uncompromising and raw lyrical set.
While he was born in England, MF Doom moved to NY and sparked a revolution in underground hip hop. You’ll recognize Doom by his iconic metal mask that resembles the villain, Dr. Doom, from Marvel Comics.
Over a thirty-year career, Doom’s lyrical skills are hard to beat, and he is one of the most respected lyricists of all time. His raps often focused on philosophical themes, comic books, and metaphysics. He delivered the lyrics in a smooth and loose style.
Ol’ Dirty Bastard
One of the most controversial Wu-Tang members, O’ Dirty Bastard, was one of the best East Coast rappers. Outspoken and wild, Ol’ Dirty delivered his rhymes with a raspy and gnarly voice.
Unfortunately, his eccentric behavior and lifestyle led to his death in 2004.
Born and raised in Queens, Roxanne was one of the first and most prominent female rappers of the golden age of rap.
Roxanne recorded her biggest hit, Roxanne’s Revenge,” when she was fourteen. She also excelled at freestyle rap and often beat top NY MCs in battles throughout her career.
Top New York Rappers, Final Thoughts
New York is the home of hip-hop and many of the most famous rappers. Moreover, it’s remained a hotspot for rising talents over the years. We hope this list has reminded you of some of the greats and introduced you to new ones to add to your playlist.