Since breaking into the mainstream in the early 80’s, rap has really supplanted rock ‘n’ roll as the music of choice for most young people. Once considered exclusive to African American audiences, hip hop has transcended every corner of the world.
Its extreme popularity reflects its diversity; rappers touch on any and every subject from politics, finances to even religion. Let’s break down the top 10 rappers of all time in terms of albums sold.
10. The Notorious BIG
Biggie is often named as one of the top emcee’s of all-time if not the best of all-time in lists even 20 years after his untimely death at the age of 24. What’s even more amazing is that he still cracks the top ten on this list despite only releasing two albums in his lifetime. He still left a gigantic imprint on the genre and music as a whole.
He had bars and probably the best flow of any rapper ever. There’s nothing small about the rapper whose original moniker was Biggie Smalls. Because that name also belonged to another rap artist — styled after a famous street hustler from Brooklyn — Biggie aka Christopher Wallace took on another name before the release of his debut album — the Notorious BIG.
In a tale straight out of Shakespeare, Wallace was gunned down in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles, which occurred six months after the death of his former friend and eventual enemy Tupac Shakur. The two were thick as thieves earlier in their lives but feuded after 2Pac was shot 5 times outside a studio in Manhattan.
The West Coast rapper accused Biggie of being responsible for the attempt on his life. Their feud would have gloomy consequences; it became the biggest and most well-known beef in rap history. Their murders remain unsolved to this day.
Christopher Brian Bridges, better known as the rapper Ludacris, was probably the most consistent and popular rapper — behind Eminem — after the millenium. Probably the best known single rapper associated with the “Dirty South” movement — with fellow list-mates OutKast — Ludacris was actually born in Champaign, Illinois.
He moved to Atlanta when he was nine years old. Luda started out as a DJ at Atlanta’s top hip-hop station, Hot 97.5. This allowed him to make enough contacts in the then booming hip hop scene in ATL to get his demo in the right hands at the right time.
Debuting on the Timbaland beat “Phat Rabbit,” the song got him a record deal with Def Jam around 1998. His first album, titled Incognegro, didn’t sell well but was repackaged and sold as Back for the First Time that same year (2000) after “Phat Rabbit” blew up in multiple countries.
The singles “Southern Hospitality” and “What’s Your Fantasy” helped his repackaged debut album reach number four on the Billboard 200 chart. Striking while the iron was hot, he then released his sophomore album Word of Mouf and the rest is history. The lead single “Roll Out (My Business),” produced by Timbaland, made Luda a household name.
Expanding into acting roles — namely in the Academy Award winning Crash and the Fast and the Furious franchise — Luda made the Forbes list for top Hip Hop act multiple times. He has sold a staggering 15 million albums in North America alone.
Thanks to his incredible flow and often comedic style, he’s been a mainstay of the hip hop game for the better part of 20 years now. While his best years are clearly behind him, a lot of Southern rappers have Luda to thank for their success.
8. MC Hammer
Perhaps outside of DMX — and Biggie and Tupac — there is no better cautionary tale in the hip hop game than MC Hammer. The Bay Area legend, who was close friends with Tupac and even signed to Death Row Records at the time of Pac’s death, Hammer took the rap game and music industry by storm in the late 80’s andearly 90’s.
Coming right before Gangsta Rap took over, Hammer made rap music that everyone could love. It wasn’t lyrical but very catchy. He infamously made and lost over $30 million dollars in a short period of time.
Hammer spent tons of money on houses and cars and bled more by placing over 100 people on his personal payroll — in an attempt to help out as many people as he could from his old neighborhood. One of his closer friends told a story about how Hammer would hear that a certain person was having a hard time and would hire them as a “dancer”, and if they couldn’t dance they’d just be paid to stand on the stage.
Like Grunge killing Hair Metal, Gangsta Rap changed rap forever and Hammer was perhaps the most famous casualty beside Vanilla Ice. Dropping the “MC” in his moniker, a revamped Hammer had a platinum album adopting the more laid back, funk-influenced West Coast “gangsta” production. Tupac wrote many of songs on that album.
However, after Tupac died, he left Death Row and his career petered out.
Speaking of cautionary tales, after the death of Tupac and Biggie, there was a gigantic void left in the rap game. The two men that stepped in to fill the void were Jay-Z and DMX, both from New York, but completely different.
While Jay followed in B.I.G.’s footsteps — rapping about possessions and really having a mafioso style — DMX was all about hardcore street life and dealing with his inner demons.
In short, Jay was the smooth rapper while DMX was the rapper that spoke from the heart and kept it real. While the two were rivals, they never feuded. They even got together for one of the most successful rap tours of all time in the Hard Knock Life tour in 2000. At his peak DMX’s work ethic made him one of the most sought after rappers of his time.
He, 2Pac and Future are the only rappers to have ever released two number one albums in the same year.
But while Jay is arguably still on top, DMX has been arrested many times. He’s had a long and public struggle with addiction and mental health. He hasn’t made relevant music in years. Despite all that, there’s no denying that X was a pioneer in the rap game.
There was a time where everything that Nelly touched turned into gold. After Eminem, during the early 2000’s, Nelly was perhaps the biggest rapper in the game. He earned that because of sheer will. He hailed from St. Louis, a city that was essentially a wasteland on the hip hop map and turned it into one of the hotspots in the game.
Nelly broke onto the scene with his debut album Country Grammar in 2000. Popularizing a type of flow that’s been hard to replicate since, Nelly helped show that St. Louis had a style and slang all of its own. He helped the members of his group, the St. Lunatics, drop an album and earn varying degrees of success along the way.
Nelly rapped about a lot of hardcore content. It almost cost him his record deal at Universal after higher ups deemed it “too negative.” Luckily for Nelly, Universal and rap fans, Nelly got his deal and ended up dropping a lot of great, genre-bending music — even dabbling with country music at one point.
OutKast was one of the best hip hop group of all times. Along with the Ghetto Boys, Andre 3000 and Big Boi helped put the South on the map in the 90’s, when rap was strictly an East and West coast thing. Coming out of Atlanta, they succeeded not by copying others but by forging their own path.
Part of the Dungeon Family — literally a basement recording studio in one of their producers’ mother’s basement — Andre “Andre 3000” Benjamin and Antwon “Big Boi” Patton met when they were 16 years old, both attending an arts high school in Atlanta.
They helped popularize a Southern Style that had heavy funk and soul influences. They had some legitimate classic albums in the 90’s like Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, ATLiens and Aquemini.
They hit their home run with the double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below — two solo projects rolled into one — which sold over 10 million albums thanks to the massive hits “Hey Ya” by Andre 3000 and “I like the Way You Move” by Big Boi.
While they’ve experimented with careers in acting, they are better together than apart. They have reunited in recent years for shows but there hasn’t been any new music as a duo. Regardless of whether or not they ever record together again, there’s no doubt that the South wouldn’t have blown up like it did, when it did, if not for OutKast.
There’s a reason many rappers today name Andre 3000 as not only one of the best rappers of all time but THE greatest rapper of all time.
4. The Beastie Boys
Formed in 1981, it may surprise many that the Beastie Boys are even on this list considering they predated the gigantic explosion of hip hop into the mainstream and never changed their sound to accommodate what was popular.
Despite being known as one of the most influential hip hop groups of all time, the Beastie Boys actually formed as a four-piece hardcore punk band called the Young Aborigines in 1978. After experiencing some success with their debut single, Cooky Puss, the group made a full transition to hip hop and released their debut album License to Ill that same year.
Considering they were relatively new to the genre, it was pretty amazing as that album is still considered a classic. From 1986 to 2004, Adam Keefe “Ad-Rock” Horovitz, Adam Nathaniel “MCA” Yauch and Michael Louis ” Mike D” Diamond released seven platinum albums and are known as one of the longest lasting hip hop acts of all time.
While their style remained the same for most of their career the beats they selected went from more of a punk/rock feel in the 80’s to a more trippy/psychedellic feel in the 90’s to a return to their roots and a musical expansion in the 00’s.
MCA died from cancer of one of his saliva glands in 2012, one month after the group was to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The third rap group to earn that honor after Run D.M.C. and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Shortly thereafter, the Beastie Boys broke up out of respect for MCA.
The Boys have sold over 50 million albums worldwide and helped show that rap could be as diverse as any other form of music. They were one of the first groups to focus on international political incidents with their Free Tibet concerts. It raised the ire of entire nations like China. It’s safe to say that these three fought for their right to party, and won.
3. Tupac Shakur
At one point in time that Tupac Shakur was the highest selling rap artist ever. Thanks to the fact that he had an incredible work ethic that has yet to be replicated, Pac recorded so much music was because he was constantly either getting arrested or getting sued and that cost him a lot of his money and time.
He always felt like he was playing catch-up and even died broke, according to his mother — who recently passed away. The best testament to that fact is that there are still anywhere from 50-100 unreleased Tupac songs. He released more albums after he died than he did while he was alive — and he released five albums in his life.
Despite the fact that he died over 20 years ago, his music sounds as relevant and important today as it did then. That’s because he made a broad range of music. From the political, to music that focused on uplifting women, to music that focused on degrading women to songs about his enemies to literal songs about Hennessy, Tupac was an incredible talented and intelligent artist.
He died way too young — he passed away in 1996 at the age of 25 — despite his fixation on his death. He’s this generation’s Elvis — although some would give that title to Eminem — in that his death shocked and devastated many to the point where some don’t want to believe that he’s actually dead.
Since the death of his close friend and obvious influence, The Notorious B.I.G., there really hasn’t been a rapper as consistent as Jay-Z, especially over his first ten or so “Summers.” Known for dropping a new album every summer, Jay-Z went from a rapper who was known for his quick flow to a more casual, laid back “mafioso” flow.
Perhaps because of his longevity, Jay is often mentioned as the greatest rapper of all time alongside the likes of Tupac, Biggie, Eminem and Nas. It was a battle with the latter that produced two of the most famous diss tracks of all-time.
Besides his ability to put together consistently amazing albums, Jay is perhaps most well known for his incredible business acumen — and his marriage to the Queen Bey herself, Beyonce. No rapper has been as successful in the business world as Jay — beside perhaps Dr. Dre. The two are now rap billionaires.
The founder of Roc-a-Fella Records and side businesses like Roc-a-Wear, he’s expanded his portfolio with Tidal and even partial ownership of the Brooklyn Nets. There’s no denying that Jay Z picked up the baton that was left when Biggie and Pac vanished.
He’s every rapper’s role model. While he could’ve very well ended up behind bars early in his career — for selling drugs or stabbing a record producer for leaking his album — he’s kept his nose clean and focused on his talents.
Eminem has been so successful that he is actually the largest selling musician of this century. Eminem very well could’ve still been leading this list had he retired or died after his best friend Proof’s untimely death. The tragedy deeply affected Marshall Mathers’ physical and mental health.
After the diamond-selling albums The Marshall Mathers LP and the Eminem Show, Em cleaned up his act and came back with a vengeance going diamond again with the album Recovery. It showed a new side to the rapper that people hadn’t seen before.
If you were to ask every rapper on this list who they believe is the most technically sound, diverse and talented rapper they’ve either worked with or want to work with it’d be Eminem. He can freestyle, he can rhyme fast, he can rhyme slow, he can even produce some amazing beats.
The best example of his prowess comes from the song Renegade, which appeared on Jay-Z’s classic album The Blueprint. On that song — on a beat Eminem produced — Slim Shady went toe to toe with Jay-Z — or even outclassed him according to Nas.
It proved to most everyone that the white boy wasn’t just a guy who made catchy first singles dissing pop stars. While he may not be as famous as he was in the early 00’s, when nearly everything he did blew up to the point that he won an Oscar for best original song for ‘Lose Yourself’, he’s still a beast in the game.
Slim is capable of destroying your favorite rapper with a guest verse or creating a classic song when the mood strikes. That’s why Eminem is your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper — and why he’s the top selling artist of all-time!