The Best L.A. MCs of All Time

The arrival of a new Kendrick Lamar album on April 14 has us thinking about the Compton MC’s place in L.A.’s storied hip-hop history. To that end, The Dowsers’ Sam Chennault, Mosi Reeves, and David Turner convened to determine this list of the city’s greatest-ever rappers—and compile a playlist of their hottest moments on the mic.

5. Vince Staples

Two decades after Snoop Dogg emerged from Long Beach, another sharp-tongued and witty rapper arrived to lead a new generation. Through a loose Odd Future affiliation, Vince Staples surfaced in 2014 with the harsh screech and wailings that powered his single “Blue Suede.” While he’s charming and humorous off the mic, on record Vince holds nothing back, touching upon issues of gang violence, racial injustice, and the burden society places on blackness. That weight might be why, on 2014’s “Fire,” he casually admits, “I’m probably finna go to hell anyway.” — David Turner 

4. Earl Sweatshirt

Earl Sweatshirt’s career has been defined by absence. His 2010 debut mixtape, Earl, matched themes of adolescent obsession, neurosis, and bravado with a preternatural sensitivity to language, resulting in a statement of dysfunction startling for its casual violence, Rubik’s Cube rhyme schemes, and childish misogyny. Shortly thereafter, Earl’ parents forced him into exile, banishing him to boarding school in Somoa, and making Early a cause-du-jour for his crew, the zeitgeist-peddling pranksters Odd Future. For a while, the world’s best rapper was a 17-year-old sharing a bunk-bed in a tiny island state in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. When Earl re-appeared, releasing 2013’s bleary Doris, he was heralded rap’s prodigal son, but while he lost the problematic rape fantasies, he sounded impossibly fragile. The title of his follow-up, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, underlined this reluctance, and many felt Earl would become hip-hop’s Henry Darger, a talented and idiosyncratic artist content to spin polysyllabic rhymes of post-adolescent ennui in anonymous L.A. basement studios. Hopefully, that won’t be how he’s remembered—he’s only 23, and his story is far from over. — Sam Chennault

3. Ice Cube

Ice Cube was arguably the first great Los Angeles MC to win over New York’s notoriously finicky rap aesthetes. As the Jheri-curled knucklehead capable of both observing and (musically) partaking in the gangsta madness of his native Compton, and then connecting those images to a wider socio-political context, Ice Cube brought a lyrical deftness that still resonates to this day. Case in point: The popular rap blog 2dopeboyz.com recently conducted a poll of the best diss song of all time. The winner? Ice Cube’s “No Vaseline.” — Mosi Reeves

2. Snoop Dogg

In 1993, Snoop Dogg released his debut album, Doggystyle, which furthered the nihilistic mission statement he introduced the previous year on Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. Though he was only 22 years old at the time—and was seemingly concerned only with how much weed he could smoke and how many parties he could throw—Snoop had a prematurely aged, raspy flow that perfectly complemented Dre’s ingenious reworking of ’70s and ’80s funk and soul. But in the 2000s, Snoop’s partnership with Pharrell—which yielded the rapper’s first No. 1 single, “Drop It Like It’s Hot”—showed how his cool demeanor could also shine over minimalist Neptunes production. And when Snoop teamed up with Charlie Wilson on “Peaches N Cream” for his 2015 album, Bush, it was a reminder of how his love of funk has guided his entire career. — David Turner 

1. Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick Lamar represents the new perspective of L.A. hardcore rap: loyal to the streets, but not defined by them. As an MC, he’s a virtuoso who is capable of speeding up and slowing down a verse’s rhythm, changing the cadence mid-speech, and shifting tones. Lyrically, he writes about the whole of the black experience as it is lived physically and spiritually. His music is conceptually ambitious, almost to a fault—it sounds like a man whose brain is perpetually stuck in high gear. But it’s a burden that he seems happy to accept. — Mosi Reeves

Honorable mentions: 

YG

DJ Quik

Busdriver

Aceyalone

Kurupt