It was never going to be easy. Over the past few months, a bunch of Noisey staff, journalists, artists and friends of Noisey who know their music have sat together to bash out a list of the greatest UK MC talent of all time. The results are going to be revealed in a top 30 countdown this week, running through the pioneers, grafters and the odd enigma who've pushed the limits of British skills on the mic – and that's across grime, UK hip-hop, rap and more.
There are some here who've taken their sound overseas, others who've inspired their local scene, and some who've hopped from one genre to the next with little regard for being boxed in. But everyone featured on the list has some combination of skill and influence that helped them pick up the most votes – even if we had to do a bit of shouting to get there.
We're celebrating homegrown talent all week. And as such, we're not just commending great MCs in the traditional sense – lyrical flow, wordplay, freestyle skills – but bigging up those who've created a legacy, stamped in a cultural mark or paved the way for the new breed.
- This is a list based on the votes (and compromises) made by our panel;
- We're not saying it's "correct" or definitive;
- This isn't a popularity contest;
- And it's over to you to weigh in with what you think on social media, in the pub or wherever you tell people your opinions.
Here's our full countdown, including everyone from Ghetts and Wretch to MIA and General Levy.
THE GREATEST UK MCs: 1 – 30
There are very few musicians who can say they've given birth to a scene, carried it through the growing pains, refused to let go during the dark years, and emerged on the other side triumphant and 11 solo albums deep. Yet here Wiley is: not only as an artist and originator in his own right, but as someone who, in one way or another, provided a path to a majority of the acts who make up the grime scene, from Skepta to Chipmunk to Dizzee Rascal.
2. Dizzee Rascal
To some, Dizzee might not go down as the rapper with the best songs or even the most likeable character in a scene packed with caricatures. But he is the pioneer, who wrote two great albums more than a decade ago and helped a generation fall in love with a genre. In this game that's exactly what legendary status is – fans still listening in, decades later, and still praying to hear a few more bars at the end of a verse.
His voice is one of the hardest grime has to offer. It has the power to cut through the air in a room like a fire alarm, his bars direct and spiritual. His trajectory over the last decade or so has had its ups and downs, but ultimately he's found an equilibrium that suits him, operating at a level of focus and self-believe that makes him appear almost untouchable, while also rooted firmly in reality.
4. Mike Skinner
He is the Wordsworth of monotonous occurrences, the Gainsborough of the smoking area, the Attenborough of the habitats of nameless faces. But above all, he is Mike Skinner – honest to his own life and story, even on those latter albums. There is no other British artist like him.
5. Ms Dynamite
Along with Sweet Female Attitude, Kele Le Roc, Romania Johnson and So Solid Crew's Lisa Maffia, Ms Dynamite helped put UK garage on the map – and its sound was distinctly female-fronted. But the more she evolved, Ms Dynamite also blazed a trail to wider fame at a time where female solo artists have rarely managed to break out within their scene, let alone break America, and helped open the door for women to walk through after her.
In all instances Kano's strived for the unconventional from the very beginning – adamant on doing his thing, not veering into pop when the mainstream pricked up its ears in the early 00s, and operating beyond the one-liners that tend to occupy grime's biggest hits (not that he isn't perfectly capable of knocking those out of the park too, like Babe Ruth in Adidas sliders).
Coming through on pirate radio, where he performed nearly every week at its heady peak, his gift as an MC is a fierce blend of wit and provocation. From shooting for fake Gs on "Punch in the Face" to taking down industry wankers on "Integrity," his bars are as searing as they are laugh-out-loud hilarious.
8. Roots Manuva
In a way, he slipped into the mould set by acts like the Stones or Led Zeppelin: picking up an American genre and reshaping it to fit his own world. With roots in boombap-era rap and the soundsystem culture that thumped through his childhood neighbourhood, he bloomed into an experimental artist – always with a sense of humour – who's never stopped innovating. Yes, he may have a catchphrase shouted at him in the street every now and then but he's left a deeper mark on both British culture and music than that.
She is an anti-popstar. A tireless activist. A radical provocateur. An anti-fashion style icon. She subverts everything a female musician is expected to be and everything a rapper has ever been, and it's within the crevices of these facets that her legacy has grown, almost without us noticing, like a twisted piece of ivy. MIA is one of the UK's greatest MCs because there is nobody else like her.
10. D Double E
Put simply, D Double E is a grime MC's final form. He has bags of technical ability and bars for days. Bars that resonated with generation after generation of grime fans due to his ability to detail what was on their doorstep in a way they had never heard before; bars that harnessed dark humour, wordplay and kitchen-sink cultural references; bars all delivered with the nonchalant swagger of someone who knows he's the very best at what he does.
11. Rodney P
Starting out in the 80s, the man born Rodney Panton launched into his career as a member of London Posse. He'd go on to support NWA, Mick Jones' Big Audio Dynamite and set up his very own Riddim killa label, leaving his mark as one of the early MCs who pulled dub and reggae influences into his brand of UK rap.
"During the culturally conservative mid 90s of Brit Pop," wrote music journalist John Doran, "Tricky represented what it was actually like to be British and living in a city. As his music, fashion, entire aesthetic and philosophy was the product of embracing culture clash - we needed him then to kick against the pricks, as much as we need him back now." Watch Doran's British Masters interview with him below:
14. Swiss (So Solid Crew)
16. General Levy
The self-described "six-foot rastaman" went from ragga in his early days, to falling out with the jungle scene in the early 90s and ending up as part of an Ali G punchline thanks to his infamous feature on M Beat's "Incredible". "Wicked, wicked junglist massive" has become "one of those refrains that you know before you hear," wrote Sam Willis for THUMP, "a sound plugged into our collective consciousness like the riff in Deep Purple's 'Smoke On The Water' and the booming chortle of Brian Blessed."
17. Lethal Bizzle
One of the original drum 'n' bass MCs, Skibadee debuted his explosive flow in the mid-90s and basically hasn't stopped since. "I have built my success on always being one step ahead of the rest," he's said. "My career has spanned an amazing 15 years, from the very birth of drum 'n' bass, through to its current status as one of the biggest music genres of the day."
20. Wretch 32
21. Stevie Hyper D
In his relatively short lifetime, Stevie Hyper D managed to not only come up in the drum 'n' bass, jungle and house worlds but informally earn the title of the inventor of double-time MCing. The Next Step, his posthumous 1999 d'n'b album, is considered one of the genre's first major releases. He died in 1998, aged just 30, leaving behind a legacy that would go on to help proper drum 'n' bass into the mainstream years later.
23. P Money
24. Stormzy Stormzy's become grime's golden child. In the past handful of years, the guy's won two MOBOs, had his track "Shut Up" certified gold, and has performed on stage with Kanye at the BRITs – all before releasing a debut album. But, more than that, Stormzy introduced classic grime culture to a broad British audience who may not have been aware of it previously, and for that, he'll go down in history.
26. Big Narstie
Big Narstie; king of #base and grime's spirit guide, has been around since day one, and during that time, he's helped bring back the flavour of UKG with Craig David, released some of the greatest freestyles of all time, and is the only human in history to have given us grime covers of Britpop classics. He's essentially a one-man creative machine, getting involved in all the fun shit that grime has ever blessed us with, and becoming a national treasure in the process.
People who've never bought an Akala album have probably watched a viral Facebook video of him spitting truth about colonialism, sat on an evening news programme panel. Others may have seen him read his poetry live. Or there's a chance they've seen watched Charlie Sloth lose it completely over Akala's legendary first Fire in the Booth. He's given new depth to the term "conscious rap" in the UK, using his knowledge as a historian to reflect on British society and the wider world, without being anywhere close to a bore about it.
RIP our mentions.