When talking about the history of hip-hop and how much different places have contributed to this rich history, Harlem is oftentimes overlooked and not properly talked about. This is always a common mistake made by hip-hop historians and custodians.
However, apart from having a rich musical/artistic culture and a reputation as a vibrant, commercial and “fly” borough that knows how to make money, Harlem is also sophisticated and highly significant when it comes to hip-hop.
Harlem as a borough has always been widely known and commended for its high degree of cultural diversity and for having quite a significant impact on New York’s pulse of hip-hop.
It is the home to the historic Audubon Ballroom which also happens to be the site of the assassination of the legendary Malcolm X on February 21, 1965. This makes Harlem not just important to hip-hop history, but also to black history and the civil rights movement in America.
It is also home to the famous Harlem World Entertainment Complex. It has birthed legends like DJ Hollywood, The Magnificent 7, The Harlem World Crew, B Fats, Doug E. Fresh, Teddy Riley and The Treacherous 3 and many other amazing hip-hop acts to ever grace the world and American hip-hop scenes.
In this article, we will present to you 15 top Harlem rappers you should start listening to. Also, even if you are not a fan of hip-hop, it is still cool you know these fantastic rappers to ever come out of one of the most iconic places in America.
About the Harlem Rap Scene
Harlem, located in Manhattan, New York City, has produced numerous talented rap artists who have significantly contributed to the genre.
Harlem has a long-standing musical tradition, and its rap scene emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, alongside the rise of hip-hop culture in New York City. During this period, Harlem became a hub for artistic expression and creativity, fostering the growth of rap music.
The neighbourhood’s cultural diversity and unique experiences influenced Harlem rap artists’ lyrical content and style, distinguishing them from the broader hip-hop landscape.
Harlem has produced many influential rap artists, including Tupac, ASAP Rocky, ASAP Ferg, P. Diddy, and more. Some recent hits from artists associated with the Harlem rap scene include ASAP Rocky’s “Praise the Lord (Da Shine),” ASAP Ferg’s “Plain Jane,” and Dave East’s “No Hook.”
The Harlem rap scene has made significant contributions to the global hip-hop culture. The unique experiences and perspectives of Harlem artists have shaped rap music’s lyrical content, fashion, and overall aesthetic.
Harlem’s influence can be seen in the broader hip-hop community by adopting certain slang, fashion trends, and musical styles popularized by artists from the neighbourhood.
Next, the neighbourhood’s rich cultural heritage and ongoing creative energy create a dynamic environment for rap artists to thrive in and explore.
Harlem continues to nurture emerging talent and provides platforms for artists to showcase their skills through local performances, open mic nights, and collaborations within the community.
The Hip Hop Hall of Fame Café & Museum Gallery was set to open in Harlem in 2021, aiming to contribute to the revitalization of the neighbourhood and the city’s hip-hop culture.
This establishment could serve as a hub for hip-hop enthusiasts and artists, contributing to the growth and visibility of the rap scene in Harlem. If you talk about trends, more and more women rappers are emerging out of Harlem.
Sonically, a prominent aspect of the current sonics of Harlem is the fusion of traditional hip-hop and rap elements with modern trap and drill sounds.
Artists from Harlem often incorporate hard-hitting beats, booming basslines, and aggressive flows into their music, drawing inspiration from the energetic and gritty nature of the streets.
Furthermore, Harlem has a rich history in jazz and soul music, and these influences can still be found in the current sonics of the neighbourhood.
Artists like BJ The Chicago Kid and Melii, who hail from Harlem, incorporate soulful melodies, smooth vocals, and live instrumentation into their music, paying homage to the legacy of jazz and soul deeply rooted in the neighbourhood’s cultural fabric.
In recent years, there has also been a growing presence of alternative and experimental sounds coming out of Harlem.
Artists such as Sheck Wes and Wiki have embraced a more unconventional approach to music, incorporating punk, rock, and electronic elements into their work. This experimental spirit adds a fresh and boundary-pushing dimension to the current sonics of Harlem.
Additionally, the Afrobeat and dancehall genres have made their mark on the Harlem music scene, with artists like Jidenna infusing their music with infectious rhythms, Afro-centric melodies, and global influences.
These sounds reflect the cultural diversity and global interconnectedness that define modern Harlem. Lastly, it has been the birthplace of numerous important hip-hop events and cyphers. One notable event is the “Uptown Cypher,” a platform showcasing talent.
15 Top Harlem Rappers
No list of hip-hop legends is complete without this name. Tupac Amaru Shakur, also known as 2Pac, was born in East Harlem, New York City, and his musical career primarily developed on the West Coast, particularly in Los Angeles.
Being a community rapper, Tupac rose to prominence in the early 1990s as a rapper, actor, and activist. His music encompassed powerful and thought-provoking lyrics that addressed social issues such as racism, violence, and inequality.
Tupac’s impact on the rap scene was profound, as he brought a unique blend of raw emotion, storytelling, and charisma to his performances.
His debut album, “2Pacalypse Now,” showcased his unfiltered perspective on urban life and garnered attention for its controversial themes. Subsequent albums, including “Me Against the World” and “All Eyez on Me,” solidified his status as one of the greatest and most influential rappers ever.
Although Tupac’s career was tragically cut short in 1996 when he was fatally shot, his legacy as a Harlem-born artist remains. He left an indelible mark on hip-hop culture, inspiring generations of artists with his introspective and socially conscious lyrics, and his impact on the genre continues to resonate today.
2. A$AP Rocky
If you’re a Gen-Z, there’s no way you would not have heard of A$AP Rocky. Born Rakim Athelaston Mayers, A$AP is an American rapper, songwriter, and music producer.
He gained prominence as part of the hip-hop collective A$AP Mob, which originated in Harlem, New York City.
Rocky’s unique style and artistry quickly caught the attention of the music industry, and he established himself as a leading figure in contemporary rap.
Rocky’s music blends various genres and subgenres, including hip-hop, trap, and alternative rap, with a distinct fashion-forward aesthetic. His debut mixtape, “Live. Love. ASAP,” released in 2011, garnered critical acclaim and showcased his versatility and lyrical prowess.
He released his debut studio album, “Long. Live. A$AP,” in 2013, which received commercial success and further solidified his reputation as a talented rap artist.
Known for his fashion sense, Rocky has also significantly impacted the fashion industry, collaborating with renowned brands and designers. His style, influenced by streetwear and high fashion, has gained him recognition as a fashion icon.
3. Puff Daddy (P. Diddy)
Born November 4, 1969, in Harlem, New York City, Puff Daddy has significantly impacted the music industry and popular culture. Sean Combs is popularly known by various stage names such as Puff Daddy, P. Diddy, and Diddy, and is an American rapper, record producer, entrepreneur, and media mogul.
Combs began his career as a talent director at Uptown Records, where he helped launch the careers of artists like Mary J. Blige and Jodeci.
In the late 1990s, he established his record label, Bad Boy Entertainment, which became a major force in the hip-hop and R&B scenes. Combs’ debut album, “No Way Out” (1997), spawned hit singles like “I’ll Be Missing You” and earned him a Grammy Award.
Combs has released several successful albums as an artist, showcasing his talent for combining catchy hooks with energetic production.
Beyond his music career, Combs has ventured into various business ventures. He has launched successful clothing lines, such as Sean John, and has been involved in producing films and television shows.
Combs is also known for his philanthropy, supporting causes like education and healthcare and advocating for social justice.
Cam’ron (real name: Cameron Ezike Giles), a rapper, actor, and entrepreneur, emerged as an artist in the 1990s as a member of the rap group Children of the Corn alongside fellow Harlem rappers Mase and Big L.
Cam’ron’s solo career took off in the early 2000s with the release of his critically acclaimed album “Confessions of Fire” (1998), which showcased his witty lyricism and storytelling abilities.
He gained further commercial success with the release of his album “Come Home with Me” (2002), which featured the hit singles “Oh Boy” and “Hey Ma.”
Known for his flamboyant fashion sense and infectious charisma, Cam’ron became an influential figure in hip-hop and popular culture. His subsequent albums, including “Purple Haze” (2004) and “Killa Season” (2006), solidified his reputation as a unique and trendsetting artist.
Cam’ron’s music often explores themes of street life, hustling, and the gritty realities of urban environments. His clever wordplay and playful rhymes, delivered with his distinct voice and flow, have endeared him to fans and garnered him a dedicated following.
Beyond music, Cam’ron has ventured into acting, appearing in films like “Paid in Full” (2002) and “Killa Season” (2006), which he also directed and wrote.
He has also made entrepreneurial moves, launching successful ventures such as his line of clothing called Dipset USA and his record label, Diplomat Records.
Cam’ron’s impact on hip-hop culture, particularly in Harlem, is undeniable. He has left a lasting legacy with his unique style, memorable music, and entrepreneurial ventures, solidifying his position as a respected figure in the rap community.
5. Big L
“I am so ahead of my time, my parents haven’t met yet…” With catchy and amusing punchlines like this, Big L was known for his exceptional wordplay and intricate rhyme schemes.
Big L came into existence on May 30, 1974, in Harlem, New York City, and rose to prominence in the 1990s as a member of the hip-hop collective Children of the Corn alongside fellow Harlem rappers Cam’ron and Mase.
Big L’s lyrical prowess was evident from an early age, and he gained a reputation as one of the genre’s most skilled and talented lyricists. His debut album, “Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous” (1995), showcased his technical skills and garnered critical acclaim.
Known for his sharp wit and gritty storytelling, Big L’s lyrics often touched upon themes of street life, violence, and urban struggles. Tracks like “Ebonics” and “Put It On” exemplified his ability to paint vivid pictures through his rhymes.
Tragically, Big L’s promising career was cut short when he was fatally shot in 1999 at 24. However, his impact on the rap scene and influence on subsequent generations of artists cannot be overstated.
6. Immortal Technique
Dance with the Devil, penned by Immortal Technique, is one of the most influential songs in the history of hip-hop that every hip-hop head has heard. The rapper is known for its socially conscious lyrics, politically charged themes, and fierce delivery.
Born on February 19, 1978, in Lima, Peru, Immortal Technique moved to Harlem, New York, at a young age and became deeply involved in the underground hip-hop scene.
Immortal Technique’s music is characterized by his sharp and thought-provoking lyricism, tackling poverty, racial inequality, institutional corruption, imperialism, and social injustice.
He addresses these issues unapologetically and aggressively, often offering perspectives and insights that challenge mainstream narratives.
His debut album, “Revolutionary Vol. 1” (2001), gained attention for its uncompromising content and critical examination of American society.
Immortal Technique’s independent and grassroots approach to his music allowed him to maintain creative control and deliver uncompromising messages that resonated with audiences seeking socially conscious rap.
As a founding member of A Tribe Called Quest, Q-Tip’s unique flow, smooth delivery, and introspective lyrics became signatures of the group’s music.
He showcased his talents as a rapper, producer, and songwriter and played a significant role in crafting the group’s jazz-infused, socially conscious sound. Hits like “Can I Kick It?,” “Bonita Applebum,” and “Check the Rhime” exemplify Q-Tip’s innovative approach to rhyming and his ability to blend catchy melodies with insightful verses.
Q-Tip’s solo career has also been notable. He released his debut solo album, “Amplified,” in 1999, which featured the hit single “Vivrant Thing.” His solo work allowed him to explore his artistic versatility further, experimenting with different musical styles and collaborations.
Subsequent albums, such as “The Renaissance” (2008) and “Kamaal/The Abstract” (2009), showcased Q-Tip’s growth as an artist and his ability to adapt to evolving musical landscapes.
Beyond his music, Q-Tip has contributed to the entertainment industry as an actor and producer. He has appeared in films like “Poetic Justice” (1993) and “She Hate Me” (2004) and has produced for various artists, including Nas and Kanye West.
Q-Tip’s impact on hip-hop extends beyond his accomplishments. A Tribe Called Quest’s influence on the genre and its ability to blend jazz and rap elements left a lasting impression on subsequent generations of artists.
Q-Tip’s contributions as a rapper, producer, and visionary have solidified his status as a respected figure in hip-hop, and his creative legacy continues to inspire and shape the genre to this day.
8. Kurtis Blow
Kurtis Blow blew up in the music scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s with his breakthrough hit single, “The Breaks” (1980).
The song’s catchy hooks, energetic delivery, and socially conscious lyrics propelled it to become one of the first certified gold rap records. It showcased Blow’s ability to blend funk, soul, and disco elements into his rap music.
Kurtis Blow’s impact on hip-hop extended beyond his music. He was one of the first rap artists to sign with a major record label, Mercury Records, and released several albums throughout his career. His other notable tracks include “Christmas Rappin'” (1979), “If I Ruled the World” (1985), and “Basketball” (1984), which became an anthem for the sport.
As an influential figure in hip-hop’s early days, Kurtis Blow also played a significant role in breaking down barriers to rap music’s acceptance and commercial success. He was the first rapper to sign a recording deal with a major label, helping to legitimize the genre and pave the way for future artists.
9. Juelz Santana
LaRon Louis James, better known as Juelz Santana, is a rapper, songwriter, and actor, and was a member of the rap group The Diplomats (also known as Dipset) alongside Cam’ron, Jim Jones, and Freekey Zekey.
His distinctive voice, charismatic delivery, and energetic flow made him stand out as an artist. He gained popularity with his mixtapes, including “Final Destination” and “Back Like Cooked Crack,” which showcased his lyrical ability and street-oriented storytelling.
In 2003, Santana released his debut solo album, “From Me to U,” which featured the hit single “Dipset (Santana’s Town).” He continued to make waves in the rap scene with his appearances on Diplomats’ albums, particularly on tracks like “Hey Ma” and “Oh Boy,” which became chart-topping hits.
Known for his fashion-forward style, Santana became a trendsetter, influencing urban fashion and popularizing brands like Reebok’s “S. Carter” sneakers. His distinctive bandana headband and flamboyant wardrobe choices became his signature look.
While Santana’s musical output slowed down in the following years, he remained active in the industry, released mixtapes, and collaborated with other artists. However, legal issues and personal challenges impacted his career trajectory.
10. Jim Jones
Joseph Guillermo Jones II, also known as Jim Jones, is a member of the hip-hop group The Diplomats (also known as Dipset) alongside Cam’ron, Juelz Santana, and Freekey Zekey.
Jim Jones played a significant role in the success of Dipset, contributing to the group’s distinctive sound and style. Known for his gritty lyrics, raspy voice, and captivating ad-libs, Jones became known as “Capo” within the group.
His solo career took off with the release of his debut album, “On My Way to Church” (2004), which featured hit singles like “Certified Gangstas” and “Baby Girl.”
Jones further solidified his solo success with albums like “Hustler’s P.O.M.E. (Product of My Environment)” (2006), which spawned the chart-topping single “We Fly High.” His music often reflects his experiences growing up in New York City, touching upon street life, hustling, and the struggles of urban environments.
Beyond his music career, Jim Jones has ventured into various business endeavours. He founded his record label, ByrdGang Records, and has been involved in fashion, including launching his clothing line, Vampire Life.
11. Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock
Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock were an American hip-hop duo known for their hit song “It Takes Two,” released in 1988. The duo consisted of rapper Robert Ginyard, known as Rob Base, and DJ Rodney “Skip” Bryce, known as DJ E-Z Rock.
Their energetic and infectious style of rap and production made them a memorable presence in the late 1980s hip-hop scene.
“It Takes Two” became their signature song, blending hip-hop and dance music elements. The track’s catchy samples and lively beats, along with Rob Base’s confident delivery, propelled it to commercial success and helped it become a classic in the genre.
The song’s influence is still felt today, as numerous artists sampled and referenced it. Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock released their debut album, also titled “It Takes Two,” which featured other tracks such as “Joy and Pain” and “Get on the Dance Floor.”
While they achieved notable success with their initial release, subsequent albums matched a different level of commercial impact.
Despite not reaching the same mainstream success as their breakout hit, Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock’s contribution to hip-hop and their influence on the dance music crossover must be noticed. “It Takes Two” remains a timeless party anthem and a testament to their talent as artists.
Ma$e, a rapper, songwriter, and minister, initially gained prominence in the mid-1990s as a hip-hop group “Harlem World” member and later as a solo artist.
Born on August 27, 1975, in Jacksonville, Florida, Ma$e moved to Harlem, New York City, where he would become closely associated with the neighbourhood.
Ma$e’s distinctive flow, catchy hooks, and laid-back delivery helped him establish a successful solo career. He signed with Bad Boy Records, led by Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, and released his debut album, “Harlem World” (1997), which featured hit singles like “Feel So Good” and “What You Want” with Total.
Known for his slick wordplay and smooth demeanour, Ma$e brought a unique style to the rap scene. His music often centred on street life, success, and relationships. His sophomore album, “Double Up” (1999), continued his commercial success with singles like “Get Ready” and “Breathe, Stretch, Shake.”
However, amid his rising fame, Ma$e abruptly left the music industry in 1999 to pursue a religious path.
He became a pastor and focused on his ministry, temporarily stepping away from his music career. Ma$e made a brief comeback in the mid-2000s, releasing the album “Welcome Back” (2004), which yielded the title track as a hit single.
Ma$e has experienced various shifts in his musical direction and personal endeavours throughout his career.
He has dabbled in acting, appearing in films such as “All About the Benjamins” (2002), and has made sporadic returns to the music scene, collaborating with other artists.
13. Dave East
Born on June 3, 1988, in Harlem, New York City, Dave East, the rapper, gained recognition for his mixtapes and strong presence in the hip-hop scene.
Dave East’s lyrical prowess and raw delivery quickly caught the attention of both fans and industry insiders. He gained significant buzz with his mixtapes, such as “Black Rose” (2014) and “Hate Me Now” (2015), which showcased his ability to seamlessly blend introspective lyrics with vivid street narratives.
In 2016, East signed to Def Jam Recordings and released his major-label debut mixtape, “Kairi Chanel,” which further solidified his reputation as a skilled lyricist. He has since released several projects, including the critically acclaimed album “Paranoia: A True Story” (2017) and its follow-up, “Paranoia 2” (2018).
Known for his storytelling ability, Dave East often draws from his own experiences growing up in Harlem, offering a glimpse into the realities of street life, the impact of poverty, and the struggle for success.
His music is characterized by his vivid descriptions, intricate wordplay, and strong delivery. In addition to his music career, Dave East has also ventured into acting, making appearances in films like “Beats” (2019) and television shows like “Wu-Tang: An American Saga.”
This transition has showcased his versatility and ability to expand his artistic reach beyond music. Dave East’s impact on the rap scene continues to grow as he solidifies his status as one of the prominent voices of his generation.
With his compelling storytelling, skilful wordplay, and dedication to authenticity, he has garnered a dedicated fan base and earned the respect of his peers in the industry.
14. Kool Moe Dee
Kool Moe Dee, whose real name is Mohandas Dewese, is an influential rapper, actor, and trailblazer in hip-hop’s early years. His journey to fame began as a member of the influential rap group, The Treacherous Three during the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The group’s live performances and innovative rap style garnered attention. Kool Moe Dee’s contributions on tracks like “Body Rock” and “Feel the Heartbeat” showcased his rapid delivery and lyrical dexterity.
His solo work highlighted his talent for crafting clever rhymes and tackling social issues, solidifying his position as one of the early pioneers of conscious rap.
Kool Moe Dee also gained notoriety for his legendary rap battles, most notably his encounters with LL Cool J. These verbal showdowns demonstrated his fierce competitive spirit and cemented his reputation as one of the premier lyricists in the rap landscape.
15. ASAP Ferg
ASAP Ferg, aka Darold D. Brown Ferguson Jr., got into the limelight as a musical artist with his debut single, “Work” (2012), which became an anthem for his gritty and relentless work ethic. The song showcased his aggressive delivery, catchy flow, and command of listeners’ attention.
That led to the release of his debut album, “Trap Lord” (2013), which received positive reviews for its diverse sound and Ferg’s charismatic presence.
Known for his versatility, ASAP Ferg incorporates various musical influences into his work, blending trap, hip-hop, and EDM elements. His music often explores street life, resilience, and personal growth, with tracks like “Shabba” and “Plain Jane” becoming popular hits.
ASAP Ferg’s fashion sense and visual aesthetics have also played a significant role in his career. He has collaborated with major fashion brands, showcased his artwork in galleries, and developed a unique personal style that has made him a fashion icon within the hip-hop community.
In conclusion, Harlem’s contribution to hip-hop history cannot be underestimated. It possesses a rich musical and artistic culture, impacting the genre in New York City and beyond.
Harlem intertwines black history, civil rights, and historic landmarks like the Audubon Ballroom. Legendary acts from Harlem, like DJ Hollywood and Teddy Riley, have left an indelible mark.
The neighbourhood’s diversity and creative energy foster a thriving environment for rap artists. Moreover, Harlem’s influence extends globally, shaping the hip-hop community and introducing new styles.
Artists like Tupac, ASAP Rocky, and Puff Daddy have achieved commercial success and continue to inspire many young artists and fans. With its cultural heritage and upcoming establishments, Harlem remains a vital hub for hip-hop, ensuring an enduring legacy.