Hip–hop pervades every city in America—it developed in urban environments and remains a strong musical influence there even as it has taken center stage in popular music within the last few decades. Los Angeles has brought us N.W.A. and Kendrick Lamar, Jay–Z and The Notorious B.I.G. came from New York, and Atlanta provided Outkast and T.I., among others. Similarly, Philadelphia has nurtured numerous hip–hop artists who have carved out their place in the upper echelon of the genre. But who among these individuals are the best to come from Philly? Here are the top five rappers repping the City of Brotherly Love:
5. Will Smith
Before he reached international stardom as a sitcom actor and top film star, Will Smith came up through the rap scene. Starting as the MC of the duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince in the late 1980s, Smith built his music career through storytelling rhymes and deft wordplay, while standing out for being profanity–free in a time when coarse language seemed to be an essential part of the genre. With number one anthems such as “Wild Wild West” and “Gettin’ Jiggy wit It” later in his solo career, there’s no denying the lasting impact upon hip–hop from a man born and raised in West Philadelphia.
Leslie “Freeway” Pridgen’s battle rap skills and signature animated delivery have always stood out amongst his fellow Roc–A–Fella Records artists from the 2000s. Just listen to “Two Words,” where he goes toe–to–toe with Kanye West and Mos Def on a series of outstanding verses. Although he’s never been as commercially successful as the other artists on this list, Pridgen’s talent is forever undeniable—hard–hitting releases such as 2007’s Free At Last reflect a mastery of flow with plenty of double entendres and punchlines to boot.
3. Beanie Sigel
As the leading man for the hip–hop group State Property and a central figure during Roc–A–Fella’s dominance of early–2000s rap, Beanie Sigel put out constant bars for half a decade, collaborating with labelmates such as Jay–Z and Freeway to release seminal rap ciphers. Although he’s remained largely out of the picture in the last decade, Sigel’s unique raspy intonation and introspective work set him as one of the trendsetters of his time and a Philly great.
2. Meek Mill
Meek Mill is like fine wine—he keeps getting better and better with each new release. Championships came out this past November and certified his place as the face of Philly rap today. The rapper’s loud, rapid–fire flow is perfect for getting you pumped, but he also adds an incredible political depth to his work, drawing on personal experiences with which many can identify. Whether it be his hit mixtape series Dreamchasers or classic songs like “Dreams and Nightmares” and “Lord Knows,” Mill has Philly’s back and deserves the praise he’s received over the last decade.
1. Black Thought
Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter might be best known these days for his presence on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, but make no mistake—he’s one of the greatest emcees of all time. Even before The Roots became a mainstay on late–night television as the house band for Fallon, they rose to national prominence after being co–founded by Trotter and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson back in the early 1990s. In the last few decades, Trotter’s slick lyricism, and socially–conscious content have fittingly led The Roots to critical and social acclaim, with 11 studio albums as a group, five of which have been nominated for Best Rap Album at the Grammys. Trotter has had a lasting influence on rap itself, and deserves his status as the greatest rapper from Philadelphia.