The musical pairing of Blu (born Johnson Barnes) and Exile (born Aleksander Manfred) has become a quintessential asset to West Coast hip-hop ever since they first joined forces in 2007. The Los Angeles-based pair first met in the mid-2000s, while Blu, a rapper beginning to cut his chops in the underground hip-hop scene, was acting as a hype man for a handful of groups, including Slum Village, Platinum Pied Pipers, and Exile’s group, Emanon. Blu was soon connected to Exile, through a personal introduction from Emanon’s other member, Aloe Blacc, and the rest soon became history. Exile—a producer/DJ known for his laid-back soulful beats, as well as for his work with Jurassic 5, Mobb Deep, and Kardinal Offishall—was a perfect fit with Blu, whose style as a rapper has been praised for his flawless delivery, his conscious rhymes and his ability to resonate with a diverse audience.

The duo earned widespread recognition and acclaim with the release of their 2007 debut studio album, Below the Heavens, with the group quickly garnering the attention of the alternative hip-hop scene and finding themselves at the center of articles discussing the year’s best releases. Their highly anticipated follow-up, Give Me Flowers While I Can Smell Them, arrived in 2012, with the project’s release being delayed so that Blu & Exile could make sure they were happy with the audio quality. Although the duo has only blessed fans with two formal releases to date, they remain a beloved fixture in underground hip-hop, as well as have furthered their legacies with their own respective solo careers.

Blu

Johnson Barnes, better known by his moniker “Blu,” is an emcee from Los Angeles, California. Growing up, due to his stepfather’s influence as a pastor, Blu was exposed to gospel and Christian rap as a child, with gangsta rap coming into the picture as he got older. He began working as a hype man for artists like Slum Village, Steve Spacek, and Platinum Pied Pipers before trying his own hand at rapping. Inspired by Common, Blu began transitioning from freestyling to writing songs, with some of his earliest recorded material dating back to 2003. He signed with independent label Sound in Color in 2004, and shortly thereafter was introduced to his collaborator, producer Exile. With his debut album, Below the Heavens, arriving in 2007, he was met with praise in the media, being named “Rookie of the Year” by HipHopDX. He followed with a handful of collaborative projects, including The Piece Talks with Detroit rapper-producer Ta’Raach, and Johnson&Jonson with producer Mainframe. In 2009, he signed with Warner Bros. Records. That decision would inevitably be short-lived, as Blu left two years later and echoed his decision by releasing what would have been his major label debut, NoYork!, independently. In addition to his work as a solo artist, Blu also is known for being part of a duo alongside producer Exile, with their first release, Below the Heavens, being hailed by XXL as “one of 2007’s most celebrated hip-hop releases.” With an ever-growing discography, Blu is highly regarded for his conscious lyricism and appetite to collaborate with others.

Black Moon a trio backronymed as Brothers who Lyrically Act and Combine Kickin Music Out On Nations is composed of members Buckshot, 5ft and DJ Evil Dee (of Da Beatminerz). The group got it right on the first try, with their 1992 debut single “Who Got Da Props?” bubbling in the underground before going on to chart on the Billboard Hot 100. With the guidance of DJ Chuck Chillout, the group signed a deal with Nervous Records, resulting in their first studio album, Enta da Stage, being released in 1993. The full-length debut was met with critical acclaim, selling over 350,000 copies and has since stood the test of time, with many hailing the work as a classic. Despite garnering early success with their first release, the group disbanded for a handful of years, in part due to an ongoing legal battle regarding the licensing rights of their name. Later picking up where they left off in 1999 and finding a new home at Duck Down Records, Black Moon released their anticipated follow-up War Zone, a project that went on to receive positive reviews but wasn’t able to match the sales of their eminent debut. Continuing the habitual routine of taking a hiatus in-between projects, as the group members went on to establish their own individual careers and endeavors, Black Moon later re-joined forces in 2003, releasing their third studio album, Total Eclipse. The Brooklyn-bred trio later confirmed in 2011 that another album was officially in the works, with the details surrounding the speculated release still remaining a matter of mystery.

Biz Markie (born Marcel Theo Hall on April 8, 1964) is a hip-hop jack-of-all-trades as a DJ, beatboxer, and rapper. In 1989, he released his biggest hit Just a Friend Platinum record that peaked at #9 on the Billboard charts with an equally iconic video. Since then, the image of Biz Markie sitting at a piano dressed as Mozart is seared into hip-hop’s collective memory forever. After his collaboration with rapper Roxanne Shant, “Def Fresh Crew,” the burgeoning beatboxer and jokester joined the hip-hop group, Juice Crew. During this time, the famous moniker Clown Prince of Hip Hop came to be. Before his crossover single, Just a Friend, Biz’s debut album Goin Off featured classics Vapors and Making the Music with Your Mouth, Biz which predominately displayed the rapper’s humor and beatbox talents. Finally, in 1991 his album I Need a Haircut became a landmark when it resulted in a lawsuit for using an unauthorized sample on a track titled “Alone Again.” The case led to a ruling that required all samplings preapproval by copyright owners changing the hip-hop world forever. In the 2000s, Markie ventured into the TV world joining the cast of Celebrity Fit Club, Nick Canon’s Wild ‘N Out, with appearances on the children’s Show Yo Gabba Gabba! In 2016, Markie joined the “I Love the 90s” Tour alongside Kid n’ Play, Salt n’ Pepa, Coolio, and many others. That same year he reunited with the Juice Crew for shows in the East Coast. Currently, Biz Markie DJs all over the world.

The Beastie Boys were a Grammy Award winning hip-hop group, comprised of Michael “Mike D” Diamond, the late Adam “MCA” Yauch, and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz. The trio was one of the longest-lived rap groups worldwide, and is credited by Billboard as the biggest-selling rap group.

Prior to their formation in 1981, Mike D played in a hardcore punk band named the Young Aborigines, which also featured three other members. After some experimentation with hip-hop and lineup changes that swapped out two members for Yauch and Horovitz, the name changed to The Beastie Boys, and they fully transitioned to being a hip-hop group with the regional hit, “Cooky Puss.” During this time, Ad-Rock was also in a punk band called The Young and The Useless, whose performances piqued the interest of a then young intern named Russell Simmons.

In 1983, the group ended up hiring then-NYU student, Rick Rubin, to DJ their live shows. Rubin would soon start producing records and coincidentally form Def Jam Recordings with classmate Russell Simmons. The Beastie Boys were offered an official record deal.

Following a string of successful singles and tours with Madonna, Run DMC, and more, their debut album Licensed to Ill was released in 1986 via Def Jam. It became the best selling rap album of the ‘80s, and the first rap album ever to hit Number One on the Billboard 200. They left Def Jam soon after, and their next six albums were released via Capitol Records.

In April of 2012, The Beastie Boys were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The following month, Yauch lost his battle to cancer, and the decision to no longer release music as The Beastie Boys was made, out of respect for the late member.

To date, The Beastie Boys have sold 26 million units in the U.S. and 50 million worldwide.

Hailing from Harlem, Big L (born Lamont Coleman) covered an impressive amount of musical ground despite being tragically murdered in a drive-by shooting months before his 25th birthday. He began rapping at the age of 12, first cutting his teeth by freestyling against anyone willing in his neighborhood. After his first group, Three the Hard Way, shortly disbanded in 1990 due to a lack of enthusiasm and the temptations of the streets, Big L turned to his music as a way to Rise above the difficult circumstances his rough environment was fostering. That same summer, Big L met Lord Finesse at an autograph signing at a record shop and freestyled for him. That fateful meeting later grew into the young rapper’s first notable appearance on a record. In 1995, he released his debut album Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous, while beginning to make a wave in the underground hip-hop scene. In 1998, he formed his own indie label, Flamboyant Entertainment, self-releasing one of his most renowned singles “Ebonics.” Although his life was cut short a year later passing away at 24 from fatal gunshot wounds Big L’s legacy was left in good hands. His manager Rich King released the rapper’s second studio album, The Big Picture a project that was eventually certified gold as well as three other posthumous albums comprised of previously unreleased material. Over the years, countless tributes have been organized honoring the rapper’s memory, with many agreeing that he was one of the most underrated and ferocious lyricists of the ’90s.

Brother Ali (born Jason Douglas Newman) is a famed rapper and community activist hailing from the Midwest. Ali is praised as one of Rhymesayers Entertainment’s most esteemed voices for the majority of the past two decades. Born with albinism, the emcee first began rapping at age eight. As a teenager, he relocated to the Minneapolis area with his family, and at age 15, he converted to Islam and changed his name to “Ali.” Years later, his demo Rites of Passage found its way onto the radar of the newly established Rhymesayers collective, who promptly signed the emcee to their imprint and released the rapper’s self-produced debut as a cassette-only album. Joining the crew at the now-defunct Scribble Jam in 2000, Brother Ali became a finalist at the fest’s annual emcee competition.

In 2003, Brother Ali released Shadows on the Sun, with production by Ant of Atmosphere fame and included a song (“Forest Whitiker”) that spoke of his experience with albinism. After releasing his Champion EP in 2004, the rapper went through a difficult divorce, during which he struggled for custody of his son. He later put his hardships into his music, teaming up with Ant once again for 2007’s The Undisputed Truth, with the project marking his first entry into the Billboard 200. Two years later, Brother Ali released Us (once again produced entirely by Ant) and was met with universal acclaim. His fifth studio effort, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, was produced by Jake One and arrived in 2012. Most recently, Brother Ali teamed up with Ant for 2017’s introspective All the Beauty in This Whole Life. With his politically charged lyricism and ability to draw from his personal life to inspire others, Brother Ali remains a beloved mainstay in underground hip-hop.

Like many other members of his class, veteran emcee Bumpy Knuckles (born James Campbell and commonly known as Freddie Foxxx) has successfully secured longevity in the rap game by consistently overcoming hardships and reinventing himself along the way. First getting his start at the age of 10, the Long Island-born recording artist became enamored with emceeing after winning his first battle as a teenager. Utilizing the alias “Freddie C,” he made his debut on wax in 1986 with the group Supreme Force, along with Cool Cee and Easy E, with the collaborative track “You Gotta Come Out Fresh / Handling Things.”

That same year the now legendary Eric B. was looking for a rapper to collaborate with him, and unfortunately Foxxx missed the meeting—losing the opportunity to fellow New Yorker, Rakim. As a result of this infamous twist of fate, tensions grew between the two rappers that would span for decades. Eric B., however, remained on good terms with Freddie—even producing his 1989 full-length debut, Freddie Foxxx is Here. Following his solo debut, Foxxx parted ways with MCA (his label at the time) to join Queen Latifah’s Flavor Unit crew.

Epic Records later shelved his 1993 LP, Crazy Like a Foxxx, after promotional copies leaked, with the album later seeing a 2008 release through Fat Beats. He also made his first foray into acting during this time, appearing in the 1993 films Who’s the Man? and Philadelphia. Despite building a loyal following and boasting collaborations with the likes of Naughty by Nature, Gang Starr, M.O.P., and D.I.T.C.’s O.C., Foxxx didn’t have much luck with major labels—inspiring him to begin his own imprint Kjac. His self-released sophomore project, 2000’s Industry Shakedown, marked his first utilizing the moniker Bumpy Knuckles, with the alter ego being born after a fan commented on the parallel between his boxing skills and his oft-intense temper. The record featured production from DJ Premier, Diamond D., and Pete Rock, and fired away lyrically at the evils of the music industry. The project moved over 200,000 copies.

The next decade marked an especially fruitful time for Foxxx’s career. In addition to squashing his beef with Rakim, he also released a variety of albums, including Konexion (2003), Poetry / Gangsta’s Again (2003), the re-release of Crazy Like a Foxxx (2008), Music from the Man Vol. 1 (with Jesse West, 2010), Royalty Check (with KRS-One, 2011), Lyrical Workout (with Statik Selektah, 2011), Kolexxxion (with DJ Premier, 2012) and Ambition (with Statik Selektah, 2012). During the five-year hiatus between full-lengths, he released an onslaught of mixtapes, as well as made guest appearances on projects from MF Doom, Akrobatik and John Cena (for the entertainer’s WWE-released album, 2005’s You Can’t See Me). In 2006, Foxxx was heavily involved with the WWE’s SmackDown! vs. Raw 2006 soundtrack, producing each of the hip-hop tracks on the album in addition to contributing as an emcee. Most recently, Foxxx appeared on MC Eiht’s 2017 album Which Way Iz West.

First forming in 1997, Black Star is a duo composed of members Mos Def (now Yasiin Bey) and Talib Kweli. While Black Star has only released one studio album  (1998’s Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star) to date, their influence as a group remains impactful to hip-hop—focusing on modern-day trials and tribulations navigating through America as two men of color.

Their debut deviated from the cookie-cutter themes dominating mainstream rap at the heart of the “Shiny Suit Era.” Instead, Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star focused on a celebration and intelligent examination of Black culture—with “Thieves in the Night” inspired by author Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eyes, and “Brown-Skinned Lady” challenging Western ideals of beauty. Their two singles “Definition” and “Respiration” featuring Common, remain hip-hop classics, produced by none other than Hi-Tek.

Following their first release, the members of Black Star went on to pursue their own solo careers. They have remained close collaborators for upwards of two decades, with speculation consistently surrounding a reunion project. In 2006, Mos Def and Talib Kweli appeared in the film Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, even creating a new song for the soundtrack, “Born & Raised.”

In 2011, Black Star reunited to perform new material on the Colbert Report, with their Madlib-produced track “Fix Up” being leaked prior to its official release. The single was accompanied by another release, “You Already Knew,” only furthering the desire for a Black Star sophomore album.

Hailing from Columbus, Ohio, Blueprint is a rapper and producer who helped foster the Midwest’s reputation as an unlikely hub for experimental and esteemed hip-hop. After being introduced to the genre in elementary school through his cousin, Blueprint began freestyling in high school and later elevated his interest in hip-hop while attending Wittenberg University. After meeting fellow lyricists Inkwell and Manifest—who would later all go on to form the crew the Greenhouse Effect—Blueprint began cultivating his talents and participating in open mics, emcee battles, and talent shows, including the 1996 Columbus Hip-Hop Expo.

As he began garnering attention with Greenhouse Effect (currently known as Greenhouse, consisting of Blueprint and Illogic), Blueprint founded the imprint Weightless Recordings in 1999. Following the release of the crew’s first self-released project, the Up to Speed EP, Blueprint began producing for the likes of Vast Aire, Murs, and Aesop Rock. In 2001, he began working with DJ/producer RJD2, using the group name Soul Position. After the release of the Unlimited EP and 8,000,000 Stories LP with RJD2 via Rhymesayers Entertainment, Blueprint shifted gears and began crafting his first full-length albums: The Weightroom (2003) and Chamber Music (2004). A year later, he made his debut as a solo artist on Rhymesayers with the release of 1988.

For his 2011 self-produced solo release, Adventures in Counter-Culture, Blueprint’s creativity led him to reinvent his sound entirely, drawing influences from rock, electronic, and hip-hop alike. With over a decade’s worth of original material under his belt—including nine solo LPs, several projects with RJD2 and a vast array of guest appearances—Blueprint is renowned for his versatility, his distinctive voice, and his boundless creativity.