How 12 Famous Rappers Picked Their Names


Image credit: Stu Rapley, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

What’s in a rap name? If you’re Kanye West or Kendrick Lamar, you don’t have much explaining to do: You’ve already got a one-of-a-kind tag that rolls off the tongue and boasts incredible nickname potential. (We’re looking at you, Yeezy.) But if your given name was, say, Clifford Smith—no disrespect intended, Method Man—you’d probably want to pick something with a little more punch. Here’s how 12 famous rappers settled on their unforgettable stage names.

1. Jay Z // Real Name: Shawn Carter

The wordsmith-turned-media mogul has his Brooklyn neighbors to thank for his onstage alter ego. “When I was younger, [I was] laid-back, wouldn’t speak out of turn, just a real cool dude,” he once told MTV. “So the older guys, the OGs from around the way, were like, ‘That’s a jazzy little dude.’” He eventually shortened it to avoid associations with those same eccentric older gentlemen: “They had electric blue suits and jheri curls, and, you know, chains with chest hair ... I just took the J and the Z from Jazzy.”

2. Rick Ross // Real Name: William Leonard Roberts II

The larger-than-life Miami native modeled his identity after notorious L.A. drug kingpin Freeway Rick Ross. (Fun fact: Despite rapper Ross’ tendency to boast about his drug dealing prowess, he actually worked as a corrections officer before making it big.) In 2010, the real Freeway Rick Ross—by then a free man, having served 13 years of a 20-year sentence—filed a $10 million lawsuit against Warner Bros. Records, Universal Music and his now-famous copycat for using his name and identity without permission. The judge ultimately dismissed the suit, which he felt wasn’t filed in a timely enough fashion. (Ross had known about Roberts’ use of his name since 2006, but waited until 2010 to seek damages.)

3. Waka Flocka Flame // Real Name: Juaquin James Malphurs

The origins of Waka Flocka Flame’s stage name are guaranteed to give you the warm fuzzies. Growing up, “My cousin and I used to watch [The Muppets],” the Atlanta-born star explained in 2010. His cousin started calling him “Waka,” after Fozzie Bear’s favorite catchphrase. Collaborator Gucci Mane later added a little edge by calling him “Flocka Flame.”

4. Snoop Dogg // Real Name: Calvin Cordozar Broadus, Jr.

The West Coast icon’s pick has equally adorable origins. “As a kid born in the ‘70s, Mom used to put on a TV show called Charlie Brown,” he explained in 2009. “And there was a character on there named Snoopy, and I used to love him to death. My mama said I started to look like him … ‘cause I watched him all the time.” But what about that brief stint as Snoop Lion? During a 2012 trip to Jamaica, a Rastafarian priest “looked me in my eyes and said, ‘No more. You are the light; you are the lion.'” Can’t argue with divine inspiration.

5. Tupac // Real Name: Lesane Parish Crooks

The late rapper was born Lesane Crooks; his Black Panther activist mother, Afeni Shakur, renamed him before his first birthday. Her inspiration: 18th-century Incan revolutionary, Tupac Amaru II, who led an indigenous uprising against Peru’s Spanish colonizers.

6. Notorious B.I.G. // Real Name: Christopher George Latore Wallace

The beloved East Coast star’s original stage name, Biggie Smalls, was an homage to Calvin Lockhart’s character in the Sidney Poitier-directed Let’s Do it Again (1975). But when he discovered that the name was already in use, he decided to play up his stature in a different way, relegating Biggie Smalls to the status of unofficial alias.

7., 8., 9., 10., and 11. The Wu-Tang Clan

Wu-Tang Clan founder RZA (born Robert Fitzgerald Diggs)—whose tag was inspired by the Five Percent Nation’s Supreme Alphabet—says the group chose its name as a tribute to their favorite kung-fu film, 1983’s Shaolin and Wu Tang. “I thought that Wu-Tang was the best sword style,” he told NPR in 2013. “And the tongue is like a sword … I say that we have the best lyrics, so, therefore, we are the Wu-Tang Clan.” Although his cousin, GZA (real name: Gary Grice) was also inspired by his Five Percent Nation religion, the rest of the clan—including Ghostface Killah (Dennis Coles), Method Man (Clifford Smith) and the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard (Russell Tyrone Jones)—named themselves after their favorite kung-fu characters. (ODB's pick comes from the alternative translation of 1981’s An Old Kung Fu Master, Ol’ Dirty and the Bastard.)

12. Childish Gambino // Real Name: Donald Glover

You can thank the internet for Glover’s hip hop alter-ego. As a college sophomore, the rapper and Community star typed his name into a Wu-Tang Clan name generator. As his friends sat around laughing about their results, “I was like, ‘You guys, it’s not funny anymore. This is something big.’ I just really liked it,” he explained during a 2011 talk show appearance. There’s some debate as to which name generator he used. If you visit either and type in “Donald Glover,” they produce the same result—which means that one of the site’s creators has since backcoded his product to make people think it was his creation that gave the world Childish Gambino.