Hip hop, at its best, is pure poetry. Floetic. It condenses complex social, political and emotional issues into tight beats and slick verses with affable ease. The school of hip hop has produced many a sharp humanities critic whose experiences we could all learn a thing or two from. They’re not saints – far from it – but a lot of their work rises above the superficial grime that the genre has been dragged through in recent times.

There’s been a lot of hoo-ha about the “death of hip hop” lately. Rest assured – it’s not. So long as there are still artists infiltrating hip hop with conscious lyrical truths, it remains a go. Don’t believe me? Here’s a list of ten self-appointed guardians of hip hop that will breathe life back into your ghetto lovin’ faith.

School of hip hop

School of hip hop


1. Lauryn Hill

Ms. Hill dropped her debut and only solo album – a critically acclaimed hip hop masterpiece – and then promptly disappeared, citing disillusionment with the fame industry. Few rappers have reached her level of incisive, social critique-infused lyricism since.

Girlfriend, let me break it down for you again
You know I only say it ’cause I’m truly genuine
Don’t be a hard rock when you really are a gem
Baby girl, respect is just a minimum


2. Common 

Rapper, Grammy winner, activist, writer, actor and model.  All in a day’s work for the artist who penned one of hip hop’s infamous odes to women. Next to the misogyny of much of mainstream hip hop, it shines as a hark back to when love and respect were sworn by in verse.

If heaven had a height, you would be that tall
Ghetto to coffee shop, through you I see that all
Let’s stick to understandin’ and we won’t fall
For better or worse times, I hope to me you call


3. The Roots

A ragtag collection of multi-talented musicians and a politically-aware lead MC form this group who is unafraid to square hip hop with pressing contemporary issues like racism and poverty.

We uninspired, we unadmired 
And tired and sick of being sick and tired
of livin’ in the hood where the shots are fired 
We dyin’ to live, so to live, we dyin’ 


4. Talib Kweli

An outspoken activist against police brutality, Talib Kweli is known for his distinct fire spitting diatribes and has been, however unwittingly, a poster boy for “conscious rappers” for quite some time now.

Life is a beautiful struggle
People search through the rubble for a suitable hustle
Some people usin’ the noodle, some people usin’ the muscle
Some people put it all together, make it fit like a puzzle


5. Mos Def

You may have seen this quirky rap personality in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Dexter, or even in a short human rights film exposing the force feeding methods used at Guantanamo Bay. When he’s not making public statements out on the street, he’s in the studio emceeing some pretty deep life lessons.

So give thanks,
spread love, proceed.
Not so slow or too swift, God speed.


6. Erykah Badu

While not technically an MC (although the only difference is she mostly sings instead of raps her heart out), Erykah Badu puts the neo-soul into hip hop and is no stranger to controversy that stems from resisting institutional failures such as urban violence, government complacency and abuse of power.

To my folks on the picket line
Don’t stop til’ you change they mind
I got love for my folks
Baptized when the levies broke
We gon’ keep marchin’ on
Until you hear that freedom song


7. Lisa Left Eye Lopes (from TLC)

AIDs, safe sex, empowerment of women and drug addiction – these are just a few of the heavyweight topics female RnB and hip hop group TLC addressed throughout their massively successful career. Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes, the group’s flamboyant rapper, left behind a rich trove of rhymes in the wake of her tragic death and is as musically immortalised as anyone can be.

I seen a rainbow yesterday
But too many storms have come and gone
Leavin’ a trace of not one God-given ray
Is it because my life is ten shades of gray
I pray all ten fade away
Seldom praise Him for the sunny days


8. Nas

He’s been on the block for over two decades and is consistently listed as one of the most commercially successful rapper entrepreneurs around. While he boasts an inflated ego to match the accolades, there’s no denying he has amassed a dense mountain of songs that speak to the harsh realities of growing up in the ghetto.

Watch the company you keep and the crowd you bring
Cause they came to do drugs and you came to sing
So if you gonna be the best, I’ma tell you how,
Put your hands in the air, and take a vow…


9. Damian Marley 

Youngest son of legendary rastafarian Bob Marley, Damian Marley blends reggae with hip hop and holds his own with left of field lyrics censuring the recurrent themes of poverty and crime.

Some of the worst paparazzis I’ve ever seen and I ever known
Put the worst on display so the world can see
And that’s all they will ever show so the ones in the west
Will never move east and feel like they could be at home


10. Lupe Fiasco

Relatively young rapper Lupe Fiasco rounds out this list of essential hip hop. His songs feature more mainstream production, but his arrival on the scene was broadly hailed as a breath of fresh air. Anti-establishment is his go-to theme, and you have to respect a guy who rails against TV addiction.

He just sits, and watches the people in the boxes
Everything he sees he absorbs and adopts it
He mimics and he mocks it
Really hates the box but he can’t remember how to stop, it

Fiona is an impulsive collector of moments. People, places and their stories fascinate her. Having lived, worked and/or travelled on every continent except Antarctica before breathing the last of her first quarter century, she is now chasing the tails of a law degree, some ethereal notion of justice and, above all, the words to make sense of it all.

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