GOAT – Greatest of All Time
If you spend anytime on hip-hop forums around the internet, you are bound to bump into the GOAT question. Who is the GOAT MC? Is Dr. Dre the GOAT producer? What is the GOAT album? Most answers to this question are so subjective as to make them meaningless, so people seem to start coming up with lists of potential candidates. Since any number of candidates could fill the spot, depending on your subjective taste, the GOAT question ends up collating a group of qualified candidates. But, for some reason, whenever people talk about the GOAT hip-hop group, the Nappy Roots are criminally underrepresented, if they are even included.
Now, I’m not arguing that Nappy Roots are the GOAT hip-hop group of all-time (obviously, that’s the Wu-Tang Clan), but given the quality of their music over the last two decades, I think they deserve a spot in the discussion. Right now, they top out at only number 58 on Ranker’s “Best Overall Hip-hop Crew” (I mean House of Pain are ranked at 47, come on!); they aren’t listed on Soul In Stereo’s top 20 groups; they don’t even get a mention on a Genius thread about best rap groups of all time. When you Google “top hip-hop groups of all time” they have room for The Beatles on the scroll on the top of the screen, but Nappy Roots doesn’t seem to make the cut (someone apparently figured this out and took the Beatles out since I took this screenshot, but Nappy Roots still don’t make an appearance).
While Fish Scales is from Georgia, the other three members of Nappy Roots (Skinny DeVille, B. Stille and Ron Clutch) hail from Kentucky, making them by far the most biggest names in hip-hop from the state. They blew up in 2002 with their major label debut, Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz. This album is still why most people know who they are; its three singles (“Awnaw,” “Po’ Folks,” and “Headz Up”) pushed it to #24 on the Billboard 200, #3 on the top R&B/Hip-Hop charts, and it has been certified platinum. But, when you look at the year 2002 in hip-hop music Wikipedia page, guess who isn’t mentioned.
Their second album in 2003, Wooden Leather, featured beats from a young Kanye West, hitmaker David Banner, and the inimitable Lil’ John. It was also their last album with Atlantic, which they left to form Nappy Roots Entertainment Group (N.R.E.G.). Since 2008, they have released four albums with N.R.E.G; the first two charted in the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Charts, but none of their music since 2010 have entered the Billboard Top 200, and their most recent two didn’t even rank on the rap, R&B/Hip-Hop, or independent charts. In fact, this year’s Another 40 Akerz (the follow up to 2015’s 40Akerz Project) isn’t even mentioned on their Wikipedia page.
I have a few theories as to why Nappy Roots has dwindled in popularity, despite the consistently high quality of their music (The 40Akerz Project was one of my favorite releases in 2015).
1) The rise of Atlanta trap
Since Gucci Mane shifted the Atlanta sound (and the sound of most of the south) away from the conscious lyricism of Outkast and towards the auto-tuned stylings of Lil Yachty, lyrical hip-hop from the south has not been in vogue. I’m not saying this as a bad thing; I just think it explains why Nappy Roots have been forgotten in many ways. Perhaps though, given that Big K.R.I.T’s independently released 4eva Is a Mighty Long Time is currently coasting along the top 200 right now, Nappy Roots may be due for a come back.
Having a unique sound can be a blessing and a curse for rap artists. While sometimes uniqueness leads to a whole school of followers who try and emulate your sound (like Young Thug’s influence on the newest generation of Atlanta rappers), other times, uniqueness exposes an artist to the mainstream for just a second, only to show how isolated their sound is (think Kool Keith here). Nappy Roots, unfortunately, seem to fall into this second category here. While their hits were big, they weren’t able to build an entire school of (commercially successful) musicians who are influenced by their style.
3) No solo stand out
While rap groups can be extremely successful collectively, most of them end up with one or two members who really stand out. A$AP Rocky is far and away the most prominent member of the A$AP mob; The Roots have Questlove; and, of course, the Wu-Tang Clan has multiple breakouts, from Method Man to ODB. The rest of these crews arevital parts of the group, and sometimes more technically gifted than those who became more popular, but putting a face on a brand is important for its survival. I couldn’t even name one member of Nappy Roots before I started writing this post. Their big hits often feature someone else (see Anthony Hamilton and Greg Street above), and the two members who left the group (R. Prophet and Big V) have not exactly established themselves prominently in the hip-hop world. I think that their cohesion as a group keeps the ensemble performance tight, but precludes a single member from breaking out as a star.
In the end, I’m not here to argue about the GOAT hip-hop group. Such a question is way too subjective to answer in a blog-post (or anywhere, really). I just think Nappy Roots should have a seat at the table; their name should be in contention. They have a unique and consistent sound that combines southern soulfulness with New York lyricism and mid-west modesty (I’m not including Kanye in that categorization). They have a strong backlist and have worked with some of the biggest names in the industry, and they have been killin’ it for the last two decades. Their two most recent albums were some of my favorites from the last couple years.
But even if no one listens to another one of their songs, they will always have September 16th as “Nappy Roots Day” back in Kentucky.