Hip-Hop's heritage is rich and vast, even in the days before music videos and major label deals became the norm. There's a tendency to focus on the foundational aspect of rap's early days, but the artistry is evident in the production of labels like Enjoy and Sugar Hill, and also in the lyricism of the first emcees to make rap records.
In the mid-1980s, the success of artists like Run-D.M.C. and Def Jam Records broke down the mainstream doors for Hip-Hop. But the artform and the music itself had firmly established a standard for artistry and a generation of emcees embodied that standard.
Here are our picks for the 10 dopest emcees before 1984.
DLB of the Fearless Four
One of the most noteworthy members of one of Hip-Hop's most vastly underappreciated crews, DLB's humor and everyman approach to storytelling make him an early example of the "relatable guy" rapper. And his verses on "Problems" are a great showcase for personalized storytelling. Some of the best of the era.
Spicer's distinct storytelling proved to be an indelible part of the ever-evolving art of emceeing. Setting a bar for latter stars like Slick Rick, Spicer's brand of smoothed-out, pop culture referencing storytelling was his trademark from early hits like "Super Rhymes" and latter moments like "Dollar Bill, Y'all."
Mighty Mike C of The Fearless Four
Mike C is one of the more underrated rhymers in any rap era. A cornerstone of Fearless Four singles like "Problems" and "Dedication," he used unusually dexterous cadences and helped develop a certain amount of introspection in early Hip-Hop songs.
The rapper who understood sex appeal and street talk and embraced both from Day One, Spoonie Gee was both a solo star and member/affiliate of The Treacherous Three, and Gee's imprint on rappers is undeniable. His early, minimalist recordings like "Love Rap" for Enjoy made him a star, and his references to everything from flashy cars to prison make him a groundbreaker.
Yes, he was Hip-Hop's first major star. Yes, he was the first on a major label. And yes, he also produced more than a few rap classics. But Kurtis Blow also laid the foundation for rappers with commercial appeal. Blow's mastery of hooks and slick talk made him the biggest name in rap's early days as an industry.
Sha Rock of the Funky Four+One
The Funky Four + One was one of the most all-around talented of the early emcee crews, and Sha Rock was the standout. The "Plus One" in the group was the most distinct; Sha Rock's nimble wordplay caught the attention of future stars like Mike D of the Beastie Boys and D.M.C. of Run-D.M.C., both of whom would later cite her as a major influence.
The art of moving the crowd with fresh rhymes is epitomized in Busy Bee. And the man known as Busy Bee Starski is the template on which battle rap has been built. Bee has always had a knack for humorous wordplay and high energy stage presence, two hallmarks of emceeing. And as one of the highlighted stars in Wild Style, he became one of the most high profile "street rappers" of his era.
Kool Moe Dee of the Treacherous Three
Lyricism makes a quantum leap forward with Kool Moe Dee. The Treacherous Three made inventive wordplay the norm for a generation of emcees who'd begun with party chants. And Moe Dee has always been the most nimble, the most dextrous and the most influential. Even before he became a solo star.
His legacy is cemented. His body of work is inextricably tied to Hip-Hop as an artform. Melle Mel's style and unapologetic cockiness made him the breakout star and the cornerstone of Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five. Mel's brashness is a hallmark of any great emcee and Melle Mel is the damn blueprint.
Grandmaster Caz of The Cold Crush Brothers
His storytelling set a standard. His wit set him apart. Grandmaster Caz's is a rapper's rapper, an emcee who truly defined what it means to be top tier in the artform. Caz's ghostwriting of "Rapper's Delight" is only one example of how he's shaped the art of rhyming from the very beginning; one listen to his final verse during the Cold Crush performance at The Dixie in Wild Style and it's obvious he has always been on another level.