While hosting a recreation room party on the west side of Bronx, NY in 1973, DJ Kool Herc– with the blessing of his sister Cindy–took his relationship with soul music to another level. Using two turntables, a heart filled with community love and passion, and the soul records in his vinyl collection, Herc’s innovative caress would extend the instrumental portions of the musical selections he played. These hand-made loops would come to be known as break beats, his signature created to keep patrons dancing. In time young poets would begin reciting their rhymes, or raps, to these breaks. From this relationship hip-hop was born.
Forty years later, hip-hop is one the most acknowledged and beloved musical genres around the world, carried across the globe in backpacks and designer luggage by a number of charismatic artists. While the genre has, and continues to evolve, a number of hip-hop acts have maintained a style relatively similar to the traditional soul sounds Herc echoed to keep crowds dancing in ’73.
In celebration of hip-hop’s momentous milestone anniversary, SoulTrain.com has compiled this list of the Top 40 Most Soulful Hip-Hop Artists! Each selection is based on soulfulness in their lyrics, production, delivery and demeanor.
Who is #1?
38. The Coup
37. Little Brother
36. Tupac Shakur
34. Mos Def
28. Devin The Dude
27. Camp Lo
25. Missy Elliot
24. Kanye West
23. Eric Sermon
22. DJ Quik
21. Black Milk
20. Notorious B.I.G.
19. The Ambassador
18. Heavy D
17. Goodie M.O.B.
16. Geto Boys
15. Slum Village
14. Ghostface Killah
13. Eightball & MJG
11. Grand Master Flash & The Furious Five – The South Bronx, NY-bred pioneers were a hip-hop supergroup. Each member of this Rock n Roll Hall of Fame-inducted tandem represented the essence of a DJ Kool Herc party. Their rhymes, though, spoke to a generation looking for an escape from social turbulence.
10. J Dilla – The late James Yancy had an ear for every element in a soul record with an uncanny knack for plucking the right pieces from it to compliment well-timed lines. A founding member of the group Slum Village, his work with and without them has become the stuff of legends.
9. UGK – Bun B and Pimp C, the Texas native duo known as Underground Kingz, brought a sultry element to grimier hip-hop that has yet to be matched. Though Pimp C passed away in 2007, Bun B continues to represent them well in his solo career.
8. Common – With no music at all one could still feel the soulfulness in Common’s very distinct voice and delivery. The Chicago-born icon worked hard to ascend the ladder reaching hip-hop’s upper echelon. He carried the tradition of classic soul with him the entire way.
7. OutKast – Big Boi and Andre 3000 brought the soulful sounds of the south to mainstream music without ever replacing their paddles. With elements of church hymns, old time spirituals, base music, and blues, this Georgia-raised duo of lyric-driven opposites gave hip-hop an accent all voices could relate to.
6. Del La Soul – Posdnus (aka, Plug One), Dave (Trugoy, aka, Plug Two) and Maseo (aka, Plug Three) made a Grammy-winning career of countering hip-hop’s ever-changing trends–the positive and the negative. The uplifting trio’s dedication to soulfulness is a testament to their name.
5. A Tribe Called Quest – Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Phife Dawg and Q-Tip (and at one-time-or-another-member, Jarobi) captured the imagination of listeners as well as their ear drums. Tip’s and Phife’s rhymes brought an edge to Ali’s smooth, soul-fused production, a relaxed fire that still burns in the hearts and minds of millions.
4. Scarface – A founding member of iconic rap group Geto Boys, Scarface often dared listeners to look deep in the annals of their own soul. His music ominously soul-stirring, Face’s lyrics get you to listen, to think, to feel–a characteristic of many great soul acts including late greats Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye and Isaac Hayes.
3. GURU – One half of hip-hop legends Gang Starr (with DJ Premier), the late Keith Elam had a voice that laid on soulful tracks sometimes better than the drums. He had a presence not easily ignored, and The Gifted One knew exactly what to do once he had even a skosh of your attention.
2. The Roots – There likely exists no soulful sound this Philly-native band cannot replicate or broaden. The legendary Roots own stages; live sets become music spectacles, each one punctuated with dope rhymes, impromptu breakdowns, or both. Their extensive catalog of soulfulness begs to be explored, played at any volume.
1. Pete Rock – The self-proclaimed Soul Brother #1 tops this tremendous list–and rightfully so. Throughout his illustrious career, Pete Rock’s signature sound has remained a beautifully-articulated cursive. From piano keys coupled with crisp snares, to samples of classic or mostly unheard records, each note he forms becomes a love letter to the soul music tradition. In an interview with SoulTrain.com he said, “Growing up we weren’t inspired by the kind of lyrics you hear today. We looked forward to becoming professionals in music. That’s the inspiration we gathered growing up listening [to] 80s rock, 80s R&B, 80s soft rock, the 90s, the 70s…that’s what we ate growing up. That was our meal.”
Born Peter Phillips, the New York native production wizard rose to prominence as part of popular 90s duo Pete Rock & CL Smooth. With their gripping debut single “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)”–today considered by several major publications, including Rolling Stone, as one of greatest songs of all time, the pair immediately established themselves among the greats in the hip-hop genre. And it didn’t take long for Pete Rock’s production to be heralded as masterful.
With this reputation still well intact, Pete Rock stands as a catalyst for the preservation of soul music, tunes that touch the heart and encourage the mind. “I’m still passionate about what I do,” he told SoulTrain.com. “I just turn my head into the music and try to address certain issues. When I do, I talk about something substantial. I’m not talking about how much money I got, how many chicks I’m smashing, or how many cars I got in the driveway. That’s not soul music. You can make fun records to let people know you can be a fun person, but don’t totally ignore what’s going on in this world.
In honor of hip-hop’s 40 year anniversary, Pete Rock’s Soul Brother #1 moniker is self-proclaimed no more. It’s official!
Do you agree? Let us know on Twitter @SoulTrain!
–Mr. Joe walker
“The Word Heavyweight Champion” Mr. Joe Walker, a senior contributor for SoulTrain.com, staff writer for Muskegon Tribune Newspaper, and feature writer for City Locs, is an award-winning entertainment and news journalist and columnist published thousands of times regionally, nationally, internationally, and online. Former Editor In Chief of XPOZ Magazine, his work has graced the pages and covers of Notion Magazine, Kalamazoo Gazette Newspaper, Real Detroit Weekly, and MLive.com. He loves to create, loves that you read. Follow him on Twitter @mrjoewalker, connect with him on Facebook, and also visit ByMrJoeWalker.blogspot.com.