Revisiting the Best Rap Rankings from the 100th Issue of “The Source” [January 1998]

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For most of the ’90s, there was really only one hip-hop magazine that truly mattered.

The Source, founded in 1988, was the Hip-Hop Bible.

XXL wouldn’t come along until 1997. Vibe was around, but it focused on R&B as much as hip-hop, if not more. Rap Pages and Murder Dog were in existence, but they didn’t have the reach or influence of “the magazine of hip-hop music, culture & politics.”

While doing some research for my new book (Hip-Hop Scholar available in paperback and Kindle June 27!), I went through some archives and pulled out The Source‘s 100th issue extravaganza. In addition to its regular content, this issue also included a retrospective on everything that had happened in the decade of the magazine’s existence, as well as ranked the best of the best in hip-hop history.

In the introductory editorial letter, all credit is given to Dave Mays and co-founder Jonathan Shecter [a/k/a “Shecky Green”] was completely omitted. In hindsight, that is the the attitude that led to The Source‘s demise.

I remember there was a lot of complaining about the cover because LL Cool J is holding five golden mics on the cover even though none of his albums ever received the coveted rating. At the time, only eight albums had ever received a perfect review: Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted; De La Soul’s De La Soul Is Dead; Brand Nubian’s One For All; Eric B. & Rakim’s Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em; Nas’s Illmatic; The Notorious B.I.G’s Life After Death; A Tribe Called Quest was the only act to have two albums do it: People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm and The Low End Theory.

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There was a section on Unsigned Hype, the column where the magazine featured an promising artist that had not yet secured a record deal. Alumni included DMX, DJ Shadow, Common (Sense), Mobb Deep [then known as Poetical Prophets], The Notorious B.I.G., and Capone-N-Noreaga. Two months after this issue, Unsigned Hype would strike again when it featured a Detroit MC named Eminem.

The ads are amazing. From Master P to E-A-Ski to Columbia House – 11 CDs for a penny!

There were features on Kool Herc, Brett Ratner, and LL Cool J, but the thing that caused the most intrigue and excitement were the rankings.

In the introduction, it is explained that these rankings are based on surveys from around the country – meaning the rankings were not made by the editorial staff of the magazine. I never fully believed that, but I digress.

As far as the results, some were obvious and are still true today – Stretch & Bobbito had the best radio show; Mary J. Blige is the favorite hip-hop/R&B diva; the deaths of 2Pac and The Notorious B.I.G. was the most important moment in rap history – but others were so much a product of the time and, in case you hadn’t realized it, January, 1998 was a loooooooong time ago.

For instance, at the time of this publication, Jay-Z had only released two albums (the classic Reasonable Doubt and the strong but uneven In My Lifetime, vol. 1). Nas had only released two albums (Illmatic and It Was Written) and was coming off the disappointment of The Firm. Eminem had yet to release his debut album. Same for Lil Wayne. Drake was 11 years old. Kendrick Lamar was 10.

Looking back, it’s also clear that as time passes, most people forget their hip-hop history.

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Greatest MC

  1. Rakim
  2. KRS-One
  3. The Notorious B.I.G.
  4. 2Pac
  5. LL Cool J

This was an unimpeachable opinion for a long time. Even without releasing any new music for five years, The R was still considered the greatest to ever touch a mic. Today, I would imagine that rankings would include Jay, Nas, B.I.G., ‘Pac, and a battle for the fifth slot.

Most Influential Rapper

  1. 2Pac
  2. KRS-One
  3. Rakim
  4. Chuck D
  5. LL Cool J

Once again, I think Jay would win this, just because so many rappers came up wanting to replicate his success and impact.

Best Live Performer

  1. KRS-One
  2. LL Cool J
  3. The Roots
  4. Puff Daddy
  5. 2Pac

Of all the things that have changed since this issue was published, the improvement in live hip-hop may be the biggest. Before, most shows were a guy with a mic rhyming over an instrumental with fifty people on the side of the stage. Now, as hip-hop has exploded, many live shows finally compete with other genres.

Best Song

  1. “You Gots to Chill” – EPMD
  2. “The Bridge Is Over” – Boogie Down Productions
  3. “Rock the Bells” – LL Cool J
  4. “The Message” – Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
  5. “Eric B. Is President” – Eric B. & Rakim

Wow. This list would be completely different if a survey was held today. Maybe “The Message” would remain, but I’d guess that “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” and “Juicy” would crack the top five. “Fight the Power” and “Lose Yourself” may also.

Best Album

  1. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back – Public Enemy
  2. Life After Death – The Notorious B.I.G.
  3. Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) – Wu-Tang Clan
  4. The Chronic – Dr. Dre
  5. Illmatic – Nas

This list may stay somewhat similar, though the order may change. What else could make that cut? My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy? Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…?

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Most Overlooked Album

  1. Illmatic – Nas
  2. Do You Want More?!!! – The Roots
  3. Resurrection – Common (Sense)
  4. Word…Life – O.C.
  5. Critical Beatdown – Ultramagnetic MCs

Illmatic certainly isn’t overlooked anymore. With a documentary, a tour, and everyone proclaiming it to be the perfect album, it’s finally received its shine. Time is a funny thing.

Best Producer

  1. Puff Daddy
  2. Dr. Dre & DJ Premier [tie]
  3. RZA
  4. Marley Marl

A prisoner of the time. This survey was taken at the end of 1997, during Puff’s reign, but this is not a good look.

Biggest Biter [Shark Award]

  1. Puff Daddy
  2. MC Hammer
  3. Jermaine Dupri
  4. Snoop Dogg
  5. Foxy Brown

I’m not even sure this would be a question today. The idea of biting isn’t taboo the way it once was.

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Dopest Verse

  1. “Eric B. Is President” – Rakim
  2. “I Ain’t Mad at Cha” – 2Pac
  3. “Verbal Intercourse” – Nas
  4. “Raw” – Big Daddy Kane
  5. “Bring It On” – Pharoah Monche

I think Inspectah Deck’s verse on “Triumph” may get some votes. Maybe Andre 3000’s on “Da Art of Storytellin Part 1.”

Dopest Beat

  1. “The Bridge Is Over” – Boogie Down Productions
  2. “Who Shot Ya” – The Notorious B.I.G.
  3. “Come Clean” – Jeru the Damaja
  4. “Eric B. Is President” – Eric B. & Rakim
  5. “Ain’t No Half-Steppin'” – Big Daddy Kane

“C.R.E.A.M.”? “Shook Ones Pt. II”? Maybe Audio Two’s “Top Billin'”? “All About the Benjamins”? So many possibilities.

Greatest Posse Cut

  1. “The Symphony” – Juice Crew All-Stars
  2. “Self Destruction” – Stop the Violence Movement
  3. “Headbanger” – EPMD f/K-Solo & Redman
  4. “Scenario” – A Tribe Called Quest f/Leaders of the New School
  5. “Live at the BBQ” – Main Source f/Akinyele, Nas & Joe Fatal

I think “The Symphony” still deserves the top spot, but while “Self Destruction” is a classic, it hasn’t aged particularly well. I’d probably add the “Flava in Ya Ear” remix, maybe “Banned from T.V.”

Favorite Album Artwork

  1. People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm – A Tribe Called Quest
  2. Sex & Violence – KRS-One
  3. Doggystyle – Snoop Doggy Dogg
  4. Stress: The Extinction Agenda – Organized Konfusion
  5. ATLiens – Outkast

By artwork, they mean that literally – no pictures. My only thought is that Liquid Swords should be included.

Wackest Song

  1. “Ice, Ice Baby” – Vanilla Ice
  2. “My Baby Daddy” – B-Rock & The Bizz
  3. “Pumps in the Bumps” – MC Hammer
  4. “Too Legit 2 Quit” – MC Hammer
  5. Any Song – Young MC

The Young MC addition seems gratuitous considering “Bust a Move” entered the lexicon and can still get people out of their chairs (“Principal’s Office” wasn’t bad, either). Moreover, I seriously doubt a nationwide survey came up with “any Young MC song” as an answer.

Best Hip-Hop Influenced Film

  1. Wild Style
  2. The Show
  3. Krush Groove
  4. Juice
  5. Beat Street

The hip-hop (influenced) movie has made great strides since 1998. Hustle & Flow, 8 Mile, and Straight Outta Compton would get some votes, as would recent documentaries like Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap and Stretch & Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives.

Greatest DJ

  1. Kid Capri
  2. DJ Premier
  3. Roc Raida
  4. DJ Scratch
  5. Funkmaster Flex

The concept of a DJ has changed so much in the past two decades. Depending on who was surveyed, the answer may be Skrillex, David Guetta, deadmau5, etc. If you’re keeping it strictly hip-hop, does Clue? deserve a spot? (note: his name was spelled “Roc Raider” in the magazine, so some editor messed up.)

There were others – best b-boy crew; best graf artist; but those were the main ones.

It’s interesting to look at these now and think about how far the genre has come and how the same thing would be different today. There would probably be a ranking of the best mixtapes and the greatest MC list would be almost certainly be different.

Time waits for no man, not even Rakim.


Christopher Pierznik’s new book, Hip-Hop Scholar, will be released June 27th. His other eight books are currently available in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Medium, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.

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