Lists can be tricky things in pop culture. They can be outright fire-starters in hip-hop. One person’s Top 5 can be less a matter of taste and more a referendum on their connection to the culture.
When Hardie Grant Books approached Boston journalist Candace McDuffie to author “50 Rappers Who Changed the World,” she never felt it as a weight. The chance to travel through time and assemble a collection of artists she felt were the most influential was a gift.
“It was like 70 originally,” she said. “And it was a no-brainer because I grew up with hip-hop. It’s always playing in the house. I’ve always written about music. But I think people don’t assume that for a woman, that kind of closeness with rap, that comfort, that knowledge. People don’t assume that, but I was like, ‘No, I got this.’ ”
Throughout a career that’s landed her bylines in Rolling Stone, Forbes, Entertainment Weekly, Vibe, and Boston Magazine, McDuffie has learned just how much her perspective matters as a Black woman.
“I feel like with Black people, especially Black women, they expect us to write about our trauma, about racism, our experiences, you know, when it comes to systemic racism and oppression and discrimination and colorism,” McDuffie said. “I write about that stuff regularly, and I don’t mind doing that. But for an entire book, I didn’t want to take that route. Black women are so talented, so diverse. And I wanted to do something that celebrates Black culture that is also fun and upbeat. I wanted something like this.”
From McDuffie’s vantage point, there’s a connection between all corners of hip-hop, from Roxanne Shante’s freestyle with the Juice Crew in the ’80s; to Da Brat becoming the first female rapper to sell a million records and TLC’s Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes waving the flag for rap within the best-selling girl group of all time in the ’90s; to Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, and Megan Thee Stallion taking the baton in the 2000s. The same lines run through Big Daddy Kane and Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar. In her just-released book, and in conversation, McDuffie celebrates how they’re all tied together.
Q. So something very dangerous happens whenever someone starts listing rappers — you’ve seen how Twitter responds to these things. What about it appealed to you? Did you think it would be overwhelming? Is it meant to spark debate?
A. Absolutely. I feel like everybody in this book, you cannot deny their impact, culturally, internationally, locally. I went through the list with my editor. That was the thing. If I go back to it in a year, in five years, will I still feel the same way? Absolutely. I couldn’t get them all. But I feel like everyone who was mentioned or featured in this book has changed hip-hop music in some way, shape, or form.
Q. One of the most interesting things is that none of this was hot-takey. This wasn’t a book full of takes. These are accounts of their careers and their contributions and where they stood. Why was it important for you to choose that tone?
A. For me, I think it’s important to educate people, right? This is the kind of book that you would get younger readers — with illustrations, with the design, the graphics are really bold so you pay attention to it — and they might not know a lot about hip-hop, right? So for me, it’s so important to educate people. A Black woman is the beginning of the book, Da Brat. A Black woman [Queen Latifah] is the end of the book. Da Brat was the first female rapper to sell a million copies of a first album. Queen Latifah was the first rapper to have a star on the Walk of Fame. People don’t know these things, right? They actually made history and changed the game for rappers across the board, female or male. So I think it’s really important for people to know their achievements or accomplishments, how many records they’ve sold, how many Grammy Awards they’ve gotten, how many TV shows they’ve been on. Because Black culture is American culture. I think people try to forget that or pretend that’s not the case. But that was one of the things I wanted to drive across in this book.
Q. What is it like making sure that the story continues to get told?
A. I think it’s a beautiful thing. To not only share the experience, to be able to articulate it, but to do it through music, through creative expression, to talk about the power it has, the agency, the relevance it has. It’s a powerful thing. So I feel so grateful to be a part of it. To talk about the history of hip-hop is to talk about what Black people have been through and are still going through in this country and how we take our suffering and turn it into something wondrous, something profound that will live beyond us.
Q. The book sets a very specific parameter. It’s rappers who changed the world. It’s not “Who’s the best rapper?” “Who’s the best lyricist?” “Who’s the greatest?” When you have that specific of a question, how do you go about answering it?
A. This book, it’s not ranked. There’s no No. 1. Everyone has equal footing with this book, which is really important because all the contributions are so different but so vital and so timely in 2020. It’s so funny because people can talk about the best rappers ever, they get on such a pedestal almost. Like “This is the best rapper ever and you can’t change my mind.” The beauty of music, especially hip-hop, is to enjoy all types of creativity.
Q. With that, I am going to drag you into the depths of all hot takes. Top 5! Go!
A. I’m a recovering Kanye fan. So that’s super painful. He would have been in there if he wasn’t wilding out. So that’s tough. No. 1, Jay-Z. My God, this is so hard. I love Kendrick Lamar so much. I love Lil' Kim. She was raunchy, sexual, unapologetic, beautiful. And she made it OK for a Black woman to be sexy. I really like Lil Wayne a lot. Lil Wayne has to be in there. I have one more left, right?
Q. One more. It’s OK. No judgment.
A. I have Biggie over Tupac, but I’ve seen Snoop Dogg live. I thought he was lip-syncing his own songs, but he wasn’t. He sounds just like the song. Everyone is on point. His live performance is crazy.
Q. All right, Biggie or Pac?
A. Biggie. Biggie, Biggie, Biggie. Can’t you see?
Q. Which region actually has the best sounding music?
A. That’s hard. I think I’d have to go with New York. I’m from New York. Yeah, I think I would go with New York.
Q. If an alien landed right now and asked you what is hip-hop, what album would you give it to explain?
A. Run-DMC’s “Raising Hell.”
Q. Favorite rapper under 25?
A. I do like Lil Uzi a lot. The youth like him. I appreciate his aesthetic. I appreciate what he does.
Q. Favorite rapper over 40?
A. Besides Jay-Z? Still Jay-Z.
Q. Fantasy Verzuz match-up?
A. Did Missy versus Busta Rhymes happen? Because, come on, just the visuals alone.
Q. That’s a good one.
Interview was edited and condensed. Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.