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Top 10 live hip-hop performers



Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Last week, Kendrick Lamar’s “The Big Steppers” Tour became the highest-grossing rap tour in music history. On the heels of this news, LL Cool J and Rock The Bells announced “The F.O.R.C.E. Live” tour, taking the all-star round-robin performance format of this year’s hip-hop Grammy tribute from city to city.

For decades, hip-hop’s reputation for churning out great live experiences is either hit or miss. On one hand, rap shows carry a stigma for being bland and underdeveloped, with artists rapping over their songs with the vocal track playing underneath them while 20 of their closest friends join them on stage.

On the other hand, great hip-hop acts set the bar high during its formative years. Groups like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the Cold Crush Brothers, the Funky Four + One, and Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force were all well-oiled machines that could rock a crowd until the early morn’.

These groups took cues from the outstanding Black American music tradition of several sources, be it the Afrofuturism of Parliament and Earth, Wind and Fire, the ferocious, tight soul of James Brown, or the big band dance hall aesthetics of Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton. Here are theGrio’s top 10 best live hip-hop performers.

10. Run DMC

2002 MTV Video Music Awards - Show Run DMC
Run DMC and Jam Master Jay on stage at the 2002 “MTV Video Music Awards” on Aug. 29, 2002, at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. (Photo by Scott Gries/ImageDirect.)

Hip-hop is in stadiums today because of Run DMC. The trio from Hollis, Queens, brought the loud, intense stage presence from the New York clubs to big arenas by the mid-1980s. Adorning their Black fedoras, gold rope chains and Adidas with no shoelaces, Run DMC and Jam Master Jay incorporated rock ‘n’ roll theatrics like lasers and massive stages to a wider audience.

9. Public Enemy

Public Enemy theGrio.com
Rappers Flavor Flav and Chuck D of Public Enemy perform onstage at the 2009 “VH1 Hip Hop Honors” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)

Public Enemy was less party music and more Black Panther Party music. Even so, the Long Island rap group’s stage show was unlike any seen before. Chuck D spitting his socially conscious rhymes, with Flavor Flav hyping him up with his trademark clock around his neck, proved a perfect yin and yang. Add S1W’s marching routines and Terminator X rocking the turntables, PE gave the crowd a show they would never forget.

8. Queen Latifah

2020 NBA All-Star - Taco Bell Skills Challenge
Queen Latifah performs during “State Farm All-Star Saturday Night” on Feb. 15, 2020, at the United Center in Chicago. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Queen Latifah is one of the best rappers of her generation and one of the most versatile Black artists we’ve seen. She can spit in a cypher with the best of them, then turn in Oscar-nominated film acting gigs. As far as her performance skills, she’s equally dynamic. She will go from delivering her hip-hop classics like “Ladies First” and “U.N.I.T.Y.” to singing selections from the American Songbook backed by a full orchestra.

7. Doug E. Fresh

Doug E. Fresh speaks at the “Dionne Warwick Gala for Bowie State University” on March 31, 2023, at Cafe Milan in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for Bowie State University)

If you think of all the great performers in hip-hop from the 1980s, odds are Doug E. Fresh schooled them. He lives up to his moniker as rap’s “Best Entertainer,” not just because of his performance prowess but because he aided in the stage shows of countless hip-hop acts, like Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie and members of Bad Boy Records. His endless youthful energy and enthusiasm on stage bring the crowd to its feet, and his peerless beatboxing keeps them there.

6. Missy Elliott

Missy Elliott`
Missy Elliott performs onstage on Aug. 26, 2019, during the “2019 MTV Video Music Awards” at Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images)

Missy Elliott is arguably the greatest hip-hop artist ever. She checks every box, from rapping, singing, writing, producing and dancing. She brings all her attributes to the stage, including the progressive visuals from her music videos. Her performances bring her videos’ futuristic elements and surprises to a live audience, setting her apart from nearly all other live shows by female rap acts.

5. Busta Rhymes

BET Awards 2021 - Show
(Left to right) Spliff Star, Busta Rhymes, Method Man, and Swizz Beatz perform onstage at the “BET Awards 2021” on June 27, 2021, at Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles. (Photo by Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for BET)

Busta Rhymes probably takes pride in his live show more than any other aspect of his career. He brings his uncanny animated character to the stage at every show. From “The Arsenio Hall Show” with A Tribe Called Quest and Leaders of the New School in 1991 to being backed by an orchestra at Carnegie Hall this winter, Busta is high octane from start to finish, leaving the crowd sweating nearly as much as him.

4. Kendrick Lamar

Lollapalooza Buenos Aires 2019 - Day 3
Kendrick Lamar performs during the third day of “Lollapalooza Buenos Aires 2019” on March 31, 2019, at Hipodromo de San Isidro in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo by Santiago Bluguermann/Getty Images)

Kendrick Lamar has steadily been separating himself as the greatest rapper of the 21st century. While part of that has to do with his acclaimed albums like “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” and “To Pimp a Butterfly,” many of them concern his performing techniques. Lamar uses pyrotechnics, pre-edited video projections, and elaborate lighting to engulf the audience in an experience.

3. LL Cool J

The Alliance For Children's Rights 31st Annual Champions For Children Gala
LL Cool J attends The Alliance For Children’s Rights “31st Annual Champions for Children Gala” on March 15, 2023, at The Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images)

They say the best performers only need a microphone and a spotlight. LL Cool J embodies this ideal to a T. For over three decades, the Queens MC has proven that he can deliver to his audience with just him and his music. That will be enough, thanks to his mountainous vocals, excellent breath control and unwavering charisma. His landmark performance on “MTV Unplugged” in 1991 showed the world that he was among the best live rappers ever live.

2. Kanye West

Kanye West thegrio.com
Kanye West performs Sunday Service during the 2019 “Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival” on April 21, 2019, in Indio, California. (Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images for Coachella)

Fans will remember Kanye West for pushing the envelope, particularly at that stage. West is the best for synthesizing elements of other genres and artistic disciplines into a live presentation. His “Glow in the Dark” tour had a live band and followed the narrative of a lost space traveler. His “Yeezus” tour put a mountain into a stadium and had him bowing before Christ. His “Saint Pablo” tour elevated him on a floating stage as the crowds moshed below him.

1. Big Daddy Kane

Big Daddy Kane performs onstage during BuzzFeed’s “#TBT Night” on Jan. 25, 2018, at Mastercard House in New York City. (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Mastercard)

It’s one thing to be great at something. It’s another thing to sustain that greatness. Big Daddy Kane is the most outstanding live performer in hip-hop history, not just because he was terrific in his prime, but because he’s still amazing more than 30 years in. With Doug E. Fresh and Biz Markie tutelage, Kane also pulled from R&B acts like James Brown and the Famous Flames and Patti LaBelle to form a stage show that combined the raw passion of a hip-hop show with the soulful precision and grace of a 1960s soul revue. Kane remains unstoppable, whether with his dancers and a DJ or backed by a full band.

Matthew Allen is an entertainment writer of music and culture for theGrio. He is an award-winning music journalist, TV producer and director based in Brooklyn, NY. He’s interviewed the likes of Quincy Jones, Jill Scott, Smokey Robinson and more for publications such as Ebony, Jet, The Root, Village Voice, Wax Poetics, Revive Music, Okayplayer, and Soulhead. His video work can be seen on PBS/All Arts, Brooklyn Free Speech TV and BRIC TV.

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