The evolution of hip hop has kept fans on their toes through decades’ worth of gritty lyricism and rhymes. However, the genre’s origin story is sometimes forgotten. Since its beginning over 50 years ago, we’ve seen artists transcend barriers and take music to a new level. Battle rapping was hip hop’s first love child and — as the oldest sibling usually does — has nurtured the younger kids and built a strong lineup of newbies that bring their own unique taste to the table. Kool Moe Dee initially introduced battle rapping to the music industry, but the list of artists below kept the momentum alive.
The rapper and Roc-A-Fella originator we see today is not the JAY-Z we were introduced to in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The New York native took the rap game by storm after starting his career by freestyling in his neighborhood. From there, he began to battle other lyricists in the area. LL Cool J, Busta Rhymes, and Nas were among those who battled JAY-Z and saw his talent firsthand. One of his most popular battles was against DMX in the early ’90s. According to HipHopDX, the two decided to meet in the Bronx at a pool house and spent the battle rapping circles around each other.
2. Meek Mill
Philadelphia’s very own Meek Mill has always stayed true to his roots by battling rappers — like Nagos and Cassidy — who are also from his hometown. In the early 2000s, Meek was spitting rhymes throughout the city as a young teenager before completely plunging into the industry. After years of hard work in the street rap game, he signed to Maybach Music Group under Rick Ross in 2011. Throughout his time at the label, he continued to keep his gritty rap style and clever wordplay, which stem from his time battle rapping.
From rapping in the heart of Detroit to loosely depicting his earlier moments in the rap game in the movie 8 Mile, Eminem built his rap career on battle rapping before making a name for himself in the industry. He even battled fellow Detroit rapper Kuniva in 1996 at a popular clothing store in the area called Maurice Malone. The battle was said to have had back-to-back hits from Slim Shady, which ultimately resulted in a win on his part. Eminem also battled against local rapper Juice in his hometown. Using his success as a battle rapper as leverage, he was able to propel himself forward in his career and work with musical legends like Dr. Dre and 50 Cent through his label called Shady Records.
Even though she is one of the youngest rappers on this list, Latto has shown up and shown out no differently than those who have been in the industry longer than she has. She got her start in rap at 10 years old when she began to freestyle and write her own rhymes. From there, she was able to make a name for herself on Jermaine Dupri’s “The Rap Game,” which highlighted up-and-coming Hip Hop artists who competed with one another for a record deal with So So Def. Battles against Supa Peach, Lil’ Poopy and Young Lyric were just target practice for the teenager as she annihilated every opponent on the show. Latto ended up leaving with a victory from “The Rap Game” at just 16 years old. Though Latto did not sign to So So Def, she was able to start her career as an independent artist before signing to RCA Records in 2020.
Ruff Ryders’ very own DMX started in the rap game with a distinctive hardcore approach, and like many of the artists on this list, he started in New York. Soon after Ready Ron discovered him, X began producing and selling his music in his neighborhood. DMX’s rap legacy within the industry continue to live on through his music.
6. Roxanne Shanté
As one of the trailblazers of female rap, it’s with no surprise that Roxanne Shanté initially started her career with battle rapping. After going against KRS-One in the borough vs. borough battle called “The Bridge Wars,” her rapport in the rap game amplified. This led to her being named one of the first female battle rappers as a teenager. Her song “Roxanne’s Revenge” is well-known as one of the first battle rap songs from a female artist, and its release led to her next rap battle against Sparky D in 1985. Known as one of the earlier rap battles of its time, the battle helped to amplify female voices and hip hop to be taken more seriously. Her artistry and lyricism have continued to inspire many female MCs who followed in her footsteps.
7. Remy Ma
Bronx native Remy Ma is no amateur when it comes to the art of battle rapping. She began battling as a teenager and went up against a number of different MCs. During her come-up, she may have only seen it as a way to make extra cash, but her lyrical skills and delivery put all eyes on her. She garnered enough attention to eventually catch the eye of fellow New York rapper Big Pun who decided to take her under his wing. After Remy signed to SRC Records, she engaged in battle rapping on a higher level. Remy Ma’s most infamous rap battle was with none other than her former rival Lady Luck. During their rivalry in the early 2000s, the rappers battled twice to see who truly deserved to be at the top of the female rap food chain. Remy Ma obliterated her opponent and took home the prize for each battle.
Since her days as a battle rapper herself, Remy Ma launched her own rap league in 2022, which created the first-ever all-female rap battle. The tournament showcased 16 artists going toe-to-toe for a $25,000 cash prize.
After building his craft in high school, Common set his sights on starting his rap career. He decided to join forces with fellow aspiring artists to form the rap group C.D.R. Eventually, Common began his solo career, which benefited from the momentum he gained throughout Chicago from his time in the group. Not too long after his rise to stardom, fellow Chicago artist Ye — formally known as Kanye West — also began to receive recognition in the city for his cadence and rap style. The Ye and Common era was widespread in the Chicago area because the two artists emerged simultaneously in the Hip Hop game. Their battle was legendary. The two faced off during a local Chicago radio station’s broadcast in 1996 and left listeners in awe. Since the friendly battle, the two have released and appeared on various songs together like “Southside,” “They Say” featuring John Legend, and “Jesus Piece” by The Game.
9. Lady Luck
Hailing from New Jersey in the late 1990s, Lady Luck hit the scene in the rap game after initially freestyling on WQHT-FM, a popular radio station in New York. This allowed her to gain recognition and left fans wanting to know more about the emerging star. Her first time freestyling live on the air was only the start of numerous times to follow, which eventually led to her signing to Def Jam Records and working with artists like Method Man, Redman and Busta Rhymes.
10. LL Cool J
As one of hip hop’s most notable artists, LL Cool J has achieved successes throughout his career that all seemingly stemmed from his decision to start making music. Rappers like Kool Moe Dee and JAY-Z were some of the many artists who were put up against the Queens native. The “Luv U Better” artist’s most critically acclaimed battle was with Canibus. The two battled on multiple occasions after beef began between them in 1997 when Canibus took shots at LL Cool J in his song “4,3,2,1.” After much back and forth, the feud eventually settled, though fans still have varying opinions on who won. LL Cool J’s career would expand to the television and film industry along with his music.
11. Busta Rhymes
Known for his fast rhymes and lyrical banter, Busta Rhymes shines brightly as one of hip hop’s fastest lyricists. He also got his start in battle rapping as a teenager. Busta was among many lyricists who emerged from New York, so it was inevitable for him not to have met them before entering the music industry. JAY-Z was one of Busta’s earlier battles that resulted in defeat for the young star. Though this was a loss for Busta, he still gave kudos to Hov for his effort in the endeavor. The young lyricists’ high school memories have come full circle after seeing the two artists succeed over the years. Busta Rhymes is still known for his fast-paced rhymes and high-energy rap style, which can be credited to his years of battle rapping.