The 1995 Source Awards are remembered as the night that exploded Hip-hop?s East Coast-West Coast rivalry. At the time, New York and Los Angeles, along with their surrounding regions, were the only areas considered worthy of the ?Mecca of Hip-hop? label, having spent the previous decade influencing the genre?s overarching sound, along with breeding the most popular rappers alive. Essentially, every Hip-hop territory between the coasts was deemed irrelevant.
During the show, Death Row?s Suge Knight and Snoop Dogg traded verbal barbs with Bad Boy Records founder P. Diddy, igniting the already-bubbling beef. With all eyes focused on the battle for coastal supremacy, no one was prepared for an up-and-coming Hip-hop hotbead to announce its presence on the game?s biggest stage. Of the fifteen awards handed out that night, OutKast was the only winner not from the Coasts, with the Atlanta duo winning the award for Best New Artist.
When OutKast took the stage to accept their award, the pro-New York crowd was already riled up from Suge and Snoop?s comments. Under a cascade of boos, Andre 3000 forced the majority of Hip-hop to acknowledge that they?d been sleeping on an entire region.
?But it?s like this, though? I?m tired of folks ? you know what I?m sayin? ? closed minded folks. It?s like we got a demo tape and don?t nobody wanna hear it. But it?s like this. The South got somethin? to say. That?s all I got to say.? ? Andre 3000, 1995 Source Awards
Andre 3000?s statement would prove to be a prophecy. Two years later, the deaths of Tupac and Biggie shifted Hip-hop?s landscape. While Jay-Z and Nas helped New York guard the throne into the early ?00s, the West Coast?s diminished influence, combined with Atlanta?s ascendance, forced Hip-hop to take the ATL seriously. Following OutKast, Atlanta churned out some of the decade?s most popular MCs, most notably, T.I., Ludacris, and Young Jeezy.
Atlanta?s influence expanded during the early part of this decade, as Gucci Mane, Waka Flocka Flame, 2 Chainz, and B.O.B entered Hip-hop?s upper echelon. It wasn?t until recent years, though, that Atlanta became the undisputed epicenter, with ?trap-rap? developing into the most popular sub-genre, while a new generation of hometown stars came to prominence ? Migos, Young Thug, Rich Homie Quan, and Trinidad James; as well as the hottest producers in the game: Mike Will Made-It, Metro Boomin, London On Da Track, and Zaytoven. The city?s position of power shows no signs of slowing down, with Atlanta possessing four of the biggest rappers in Hip-hop?s newest generation ? Rae Sremmurd, Lil? Yachty, 21 Savage, and Playboi Carti.
For a Hip-hop Mecca with such an endless collection of legendary MCs, it?s necessary to filter through the one-hit wonders, along with the rappers who peaked quick before fizzling out, in order to arrive at an accurate top-ten. Specifically, four factors were used to settle on the ten rappers worthy enough to be included in Atlanta?s ruling class: musical and cultural influence; commercial success; mainstream popularity; and the height and length of their peak.
Considering six of the following ten guys peaked during this past decade, it?d be fair to say I?m blind to recency bias. I can assure you that?s not the case. Although these MCs peaked in recent years, their transcendent success, at such an early point in their careers, no less, proves that they should have a longer-lasting influence than many of their predecessors who were left off the list. Then again, it shouldn?t come as a surprise that Atlanta?s greatest rappers have broken out during our current era, since this is, in fact, the city?s absolute Apex.
Before we get started, let?s pour one out for the following ten rappers who just missed the cut. Of the ten, four are considered the forefathers of Atlanta?s Hip-hop scene (Kilo Ali, MC Shy D, Pastor Troy, & Cee-Lo). Although they charted the path for their hometown successors, none of them resonated outside the region. Three others (Young Dro, Yung Joc, & Gorilla Zoe) achieved overnight success by way of huge singles ? ?Shoulder Lean?, ?It?s Goin? Down?, and ?Hood Nigga? ? before becoming one-hit wonders.
Further, Lil? Jon and Soulja Boy became household names following unmatched mainstream success, while also introducing the ?Crunk? movement and one of the biggest dances of the 21st century (?Crank Dat Soulja Boy?), respectively, yet neither star was able to sustain their newfound popularity.
The last honorable mention is Jermaine Dupri. It seems irresponsible to cut him from the list, considering he created the greatest ode to a hometown in Hip-hop history (?Welcome to Atlanta?). Although his fingerprints are all over the last twenty years of Atlanta?s music scene, whether in a producing or label-head capacity, Dupri?s foray on the mic isn?t worthy enough to be considered one of the ten greatest.
Without further ado, the ten all-time greatest rappers from Atlanta.
Apex (2010): Waka?s debut album, Flockaveli, peaks at #6 on the Billboard 200, spawning the rap-anthem-of-the-year ?Hard in Da Paint.?
Fresh off signing his first record deal with Gucci Mane?s 1017 Brick Squad, Waka Flocka came to fame with his breakthrough single ?O Let?s Do It? in 2009. Although the track was promising, its initial buzz fizzled out quickly, providing no indication of the subsequent tornado that was approaching. On May 13, 2010 ?Hard in Da Paint? was released, sending shock-waves throughout hip-hop. Waka?s forceful energy was undeniable, encapsulating an aggression that the genre hadn?t seen since DMX. Immediately, it became rap?s most inescapable anthem. On his debut album, Flockaveli, Waka further established his bombastic sound, most notably, with ?Grove St. Party? and ?Snakes in the Grass.? By the end of 2010, Waka Flocka had successfully revived ?gangsta rap.?
#9 ? Quavo
Apex (2017): Culture tops the Billboard 200, as ?Bad and Boujee? transcends hip-hop and becomes one of the biggest songs of the decade.
On the heels of the Migos? transcendent 2017, hip-hop fans have been obsessed with ranking the members (Quavo, Takeoff, & Offset) in terms of their individual mic-skills. While the trio has always displayed a balance of power on their group offerings, over the last year Quavo?s guest spots have separated him from his group-mates. Since June 2016, Quavo has featured on twenty singles, eight of which have been certified Platinum while peaking inside the top-ten of Billboard?s Hot Rap Songs chart. Over this period, Quavo showcased his crossover potential by collaborating with a unique collection of artists ? specifically, Mary J. Blige, Sean Paul, Katy Perry, Major Lazer, and Liam Payne. Most importantly, though, Quavo proved he could out-rap anyone with his verse on Kanye?s 2016 posse cut ?Champions?, alongside 2 Chainz, Gucci, Big Sean, Travis Scott, Yo Gotti, and Designer, no less. In the opening seconds, Quavo delivers a spectacular 15-second verse that sets the stage. Despite it?s length, it?s easily the song?s best verse.
#8 ? Young Thug
Apex (2015): Over a six-month period, Thugger released Barter 6, Slime Season, & Slime Season 2.
Just as it?s gone for many rappers who?ve blown up this decade, Young Thug became a star on the heels of a popular mixtape. Unlike many of his generational peers, though, music critics, rather than a cult-like fan base, were most responsible for the speed in which Young Thug ascended. In February 2013, he released his fourth mixtape, 1017 Thug. Seemingly overnight, critics from every respected media outlet praised Young Thug?s unprecedented artistry, calling him one of hip-hop?s most promising young talents. In June 2014, Birdman paired Young Thug with Rich Homie Quan, creating the most unlikely smash-hit in recent history. I don?t remember the first time I heard ?Lifestyle?; nor do I recall if I recognized how quickly it became inescapable. But by the end of the summer, the track wasn?t only the biggest hip-hop song of the moment, but also pop music?s most recognized tune. Looking back at the pop-culture event that was ?Lifestyle?, it?s hard to say if an Atlanta rapper has ever reached the pop-star status that Thug found himself in.
#7 ? Future
Apex (2015): During a three-month period, Future has two Platinum-selling projects top the Billboard 200 ? DS2 and What a Time to Be Alive.
After amassing a loyal following with his emotionally dark mixtapes, Future went pop. It looked like the right move, as his first two albums ? 2012?s Pluto and 2014?s Honest ? were comprised of hit-songs that received continuous airplay. Future established an RnB-hybrid niche for himself in mainstream music, yet something felt forced. Following his break-up with longtime girlfriend, Ciara, Future locked himself in the studio. By the Spring of 2015, he had released three full-length mixtapes over the previous five months. The tapes? overarching mood was nothing like the sound responsible for making him a household name. Instead, he tapped into the dark place that his career was built on. It culminated with that summer?s DS2. In a hip-hop landscape dominated by the three-headed monster that is Drake, Kanye, and Kendrick, Future was able to claim the throne, if only for a moment.
#6 ? Gucci Mane
Apex (2009): The State vs. Radric Davis tops Billboard?s Hip-hop Albums chart, with three singles peaking inside the top-five of Billboard?s Hot Rap Songs chart (?Wasted?, ?Lemonade?, & ?Spotlight?).
Mumble rap became an epidemic in the past year, with hip-hop?s hottest up-and-comers, most notably, Migos, Lil? Yachty, Lil Uzi Vert, and 21 Savage, embodying a style in which deciphering what the hell they were saying was half of the listener?s experience. As it became an inescapable discussion, fans attributed this style to Future and Chief Keef. They?re missing the mark. Without Gucci?s unlikely rise at the end of the ?00s, it?s impossible to imagine a world comprised mumble rappers. More importantly, Gucci charted the path for Atlanta?s current hip-hop regime. You have to remember that by the late ?00s, the previous generation ? OutKast, T.I., Ludacris, & Young Jeezy ? were close to, if not well past their prime. To understand his influence, all you have to do is look at the biggest rappers this decade. In them, Gucci?s presence is unmistakable.
#5 ? 2 Chainz
Apex (2012): Based on a T.R.U Story goes Platinum and tops the Billboard 200, while ?No Lie? tops the Billboard Hot Rap Songs chart.
?Mercy? was a watershed moment for an entire generation of hip-hop fans. Following exceptional verses from Big Sean, Pusha T, and Kanye, no one would?ve faulted 2 Chainz for simply holding his own. It only took three seconds for Chainz to announce his arrival. By the time he uttered ?Coupe the color of mayonnaise?, the song was his. Over ten bars, Chainz spit punchline after punchline, with each one more quotable than the last. In the span of one verse, he kick-started his solo career, ascended into superstardom, and produced a once-in-a-generation hip-hop moment. From there, we witnessed one of the greatest heat-checks in rap history. Three months later, Chainz had a Platinum-selling number-one album, along with three chart-topping singles (?No Lie?, ?I?m Different?, & ?Birthday Song?). Chainz? solo success solidified his staying power, but it was a run of guest spots which cemented his legacy. In the 18 months that followed ?Mercy?, Chainz featured on 11 Platinum-selling singles. When he claimed to charge $100k for a verse, it was hard not to believe him.
Apex (2001): Word of Mouf goes 3x Platinum and tops the Billboard 200, with three singles peaking inside the top-five of Billboard?s Hot Rap Songs chart (?Move Bitch?, ?Rollout?, & ?Area Codes?).
Although OutKast accomplished commercial success in the late ?90s, they were defined, first and foremost, by their creativity and lyricism. This made Ludacris Atlanta?s first rapper turned pop-star. From 2000?04, he released four albums which combined to sell 10-million copies; had thirteen singles peak inside the top-ten of Billboard?s Hot Rap Songs chart; and featured on another six top-ten songs. Essentially, he was one of the most commercially successful rappers without having a ?classic? album. And it?s not like his chart-topping hits were soaked with an overarching pop sound. Instead, they embodied a brashness that became representative of the ATL.
#3 ? Young Jeezy
Apex (2005): Lets Get It: Thug Motivation 101 goes Platinum and tops the Billboard 200, while ?Soul Survivor? tops the Billboard Hot Rap Songs.
In 2003 and 2004, Atlanta?s sound reverberated throughout mainstream music, with OutKast, Ludacris, T.I., and Lil? Jon transcending rap to become true crossover stars. This group?s overwhelming presence in hip-hop makes Young Jeezy?s subsequent ascent improbable. In the summer of 2005, though, he became not just the face of Atlanta, but also the most popular rapper in the game. With his debut album, Thug Motivation 101: Let?s Get It, Jeezy became the South?s answer to 50 Cent ? a raw street disciple equipped with a natural rasp that was undeniable. Like 50, Jeezy?s narrative was grim, yet you wouldn?t know it by his exuberance. He told stories of drug-dealing through a lens too triumphant to be morbid. We?ve defined this hip-hop decade by the trap-sound influenced by Future, Metro Boomin, & Migos, when in fact, Jeezy is the pioneer.
#2 ? T.I.
Apex (2006): King goes 2x Platinum and tops the Billboard 200, as ?What You Know? tops the Billboard Hot Rap Songs.
Despite achieving widespread critical acclaim with his first two albums (2001?s I?m Serious & 2003?s Trap Muzik), T.I. was operating in Ludacris? shadow. Just when 2004?s Urban Legend catapulted him to stardom, T.I. was back being Atlanta?s second-in-command following Young Jeezy?s metioric rise in 2005. The following year, his self-proclaimed ?King of the South? title was no longer arguable. With his fourth album ? King ? T.I. struck the perfect balance between pop and the streets, accompanied by his biggest song to-date ?What You Know.? Yet, we tend to underrate T.I.?s legacy, in part because he was never considered the best-rapper-alive, since his prime coincided with Lil? Wayne and Kanye?s. Maybe he isn?t on their level, but it?d be irresponsible to consider him on par with Ludacris and Young Jeezy. Matched against those two, T.I.?s legacy is far superior. He has four classic albums to Ludacris? one (at best); while having five platinum-selling albums to Jeezy?s two. When it comes to the best solo careers in Atlanta hip-hop history, T.I. is unparralleled.
#1A & 1B? Andre 3000 & Big Boi
Apex (2000): Stankonia goes 4x Platinum, while ?Ms. Jackson? tops the Billboard Hot 100.
OutKast is the reason the aforementioned nine rappers exist. They were the first southern hip-hop act to break the coastal stranglehold. Further, they paved the way for concious rap at a time when the genre was controlled by gangsta rap. When it comes to the GOAT conversation, Andre 3000 is almost always included, while Big Boi is tossed aside as if he was a side-sick. Yes, I give Andre the nod as the 1A to Big Boi?s 1B, but it?s much closer than the public makes us believe. And yet, you can?t discuss one without the other, making it impossible to sit here and not touch on their success as a duo. Their debut, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, introduced the world to Southern hip-hop; ATLiens illustrated their artistic growth; Aquemini pushed the limits of what we consider hip-hop, while becoming the first Southern LP to be awarded the Source? perfect five-mic rating; Stankonia cemented the duo as one of the best hip-hop acts, group or individual, of all-time; While their careers culminated with Speakerboxxx/The Love Below ? the only hip-hop album to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year, and the best-selling album in hip-hop history. Atlanta?s hip-hop scene, better yet, Atlanta, begins and ends with OutKast.