Hip-hop has never been more popular than it is today, but many fans probably still wouldn’t know who Aubrey Graham is, even though they stream his songs every day.
Going back to the early days of rap music, stage names have been a huge part of its culture. Even many of the most popular rappers to ever hold a microphone have kept their real names a mystery, preferring to use a name that’s typically much cooler sounding than the one given to them at birth.
There have been some notable rappers that have performed under their birth names — like Tupac Shakur, Kanye West and Missy Elliott — but they are much more the exception than the rule. We’ve tracked down the real names of some of the most popular rappers in history, and you may be shocked by how unique some of them are — while in other cases, you’ll completely understand why they opted for a stage name.
Real Name: Belcalis Almánzar
How could anyone not like Cardi B? Born Belcalis Almánzar, this lifelong New Yorker exploded onto the hip-hop scene in 2017 with the smash “Bodak Yellow” and has been a consistent hitmaker ever since. She came up with the name Cardi B as a spin on a nickname friends gave her growing up. Her sister’s name is Hennessy, so friends used to call the future rapper “Bacardi,” which she turned into Cardi B.
“No one calls me Belcalis except for my family, my mother and my daddy,” she told Wendy Williams.
Real Name: Shawn Carter
Hip-hop icon Jay-Z has not kept his actual name a secret. In 1999, he released an album called, “Life and Times of S. Carter,” and he’s used his name for other projects, including his 2018 collaboration with wife Beyoncé, when the pair performed simply as the Carters. He has also put his name on his own charitable organization, the Shawn Carter Foundation, which helps low-income kids get an education. As for how he got his stage name, Jay-Z’s nickname coming up was “Jazzy,” so he made it a little more unique.
Real Name: Aubrey Drake Graham
Arguably the most popular rapper on the planet today, Drake had a different career in entertainment lined up before he started rhyming. In his native Canada, teenager Aubrey Graham was an actor, appearing in dozens of episodes of the teen show, “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” starting in 2001. When he switched to hip-hop in 2007, he went with his middle name, Drake, as his stage name.
Real Name: Marshall Mathers III
Another rapper who didn’t exactly keep his real name hidden is Eminem. The hip-hop icon used his birth name in the title of his most popular album, 2000’s “The Marshall Mathers LP,” and used it again for the 2013 record, “The Marshall Mathers LP 2.” His stage name came, in a roundabout way, from his actual initials, because when he first started rapping as a teen in Detroit, it was under the name M&M, before he changed it to the more memorable Eminem in 1995.
Real Names: Kiari Cephus (Offset), Qavious Marshall (Quavo), Kirsnick Ball (Takeoff)
We’re going to give you three for the price of one here. Migos is arguably the most popular hip-hop group of the past decade, and the trio raps under the stage names Offset, Quavo and Takeoff. Offstage, Offset (Kiari Cephus) and Takeoff (Kirsnick Ball) are cousins and Quavo (Qavious Marshall) is the latter’s uncle. It’s unclear how they each came up with their own names, but the group’s name, Migos, is both an abbreviation of the Spanish word “Amigos” and a reference to drug activity in their native Georgia.
Real Name: Khalif Brown (Swae Lee), Aaquil Brown (Slim Jxmmi)
It might sound like one person’s name but Rae Sremmurd is the name of a popular hip-hop duo that’s made up of real-life brothers Khalif and Aaquil Brown, also known as Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi. The “Black Beatles” pair got their odd-sounding group name from their frequent producer, Mike Will Made It, who owns a production company called Ear Drummers. The name Rae Sremmurd is simply Ear Drummers spelled backward.
The Notorious B.I.G.
Real Name: Christopher Wallace
One of rap’s most legendary figures, The Notorious B.I.G. actually had to change his original stage name after a lawsuit. Christopher Wallace first rapped under the name Biggie Smalls, which was the name of a character in the 1975 movie, “Let’s Do It Again.” But he was sued to drop the name by the film’s rights owner and changed his persona to The Notorious B.I.G. in time for his first album, 1994’s “Ready to Die.”
Real Name: Nasir Jones
Another one of the greatest rappers to ever write a rhyme, Nas stuck close to his own given name when it came time to choose a stage name. Nas is simply a shortened version of his own first name, Nasir. At first, he used the stage name “Nasty Nas,” a nickname he still uses, but simply went by Nas for his 1994 debut album, “Illmatic.”
Real Name: Onika Maraj
Nicki Minaj has about as many alter egos as any rapper in history — including her own stage name. Minaj’s name at birth was Onika Tanya Maraj, which is plenty memorable on its own, but she apparently never liked the name. Her friends called her Nicki growing up, and when she signed one of her first record deals, the guy from the label thought her name should be Minaj, so she went with it even though she apparently doesn’t love that name, either.
“I’ve always hated it,” she told The Guardian of her stage name.
Real Name: Austin Post
He’s one of the most in-demand rappers today, and Post Malone’s stage name is very similar to his real one. Born Austin Post, the rapper obviously just moved his last name out front for his stage name. But how did he get Malone? According to the man himself, Post Malone got it from a rap name generator online. That’s a new one!
Real Name: Dwayne Carter Jr.
So, how does a guy named Dwayne end up rapping under the name Wayne? It’s actually kind of a sad story. Dwayne Carter Jr. has said he decided to drop the “D” from his name because his father, for whom he’s named, abandoned him and his mother when he was an infant, so he wanted to distance himself from the man. As far as the “Lil’” part goes, Wayne stands at just 5 feet 5 inches tall.
Real Name: Jacques Webster II
For as dull as the name Travis Scott may sound, you might think it was this “Sicko Mode” rapper’s real name — but you’d be wrong. Houston kid Jacques Webster chose the average-sounding stage name as a tribute to a family member he admired.
“My uncle’s name is Travis,” Scott told Grantland in 2014. “He was like my favorite uncle.” The last name “Scott” also came from the same uncle, because that was his nickname.
Real Name: Nayvadius Wilburn
While Future’s parents didn’t give him the name at birth, his given name, Nayvadius, is still pretty awesome. The “Mask Off” rapper owes his stage name to a friend and mentor in the musical collective he first broke in with, Atlanta’s Dungeon Family. Future has said the name was given to him by Dungeon Family’s G-Rock, who called him “the future” of the group. That’s pretty inspiring!
Real Name: Kendrick Lamar Duckworth
Kendrick Lamar is another rapper who stuck close to his birth name when it came time to choose a stage name, opting to simply drop his last name, Duckworth, and go with his first and middle names. But he didn’t always rap under the name Kendrick Lamar. For the first few years of his career, the Compton, California, native performed as K-Dot, which is a nickname he still references sometimes in his lyrics.
Real Name: Carlton Douglas Ridenhour
Let’s be honest, Carlton Ridenhour doesn’t exactly sound like the kind of guy who would light a stage on fire with his rhymes. But Chuck D is exactly that guy. The Public Enemy frontman got his stage name simply from his own nickname and middle initial. Before Chuck D became one of the hardest-hitting rappers alive, he studied graphic design in college and hosted a late-night college radio show, where he first used his eventual stage name as his DJ name.
Real Name: William Drayton Jr.
Chuck D’s partner in crime from Public Enemy, Flavor Flav met his counterpart when they worked on that aforementioned college radio show together on Long Island. As for his unique name, Flavor Flav says Chuck D gave it to him, but it was a new version of a nickname he already had: Flavor Freak. That name came from his childhood, when Flavor Flav apparently had a habit of overdoing it with Life Savers candy and soda.
Real Name: Calvin Broadus Jr.
In his decades as a hip-hop legend, Calvin Broadus has had many stage names, including Snoop Doggy Dogg, Snoop Lion and, simply, Snoop Dogg. The way he got the most constant part of his names is actually pretty sweet. As a kid, he loved to watch the old “Charlie Brown” cartoons, and his mom actually started calling him “Snoopy” because he loved the dog character so much.
Real Name: Andre Young
One of the true pioneers of modern rap — and possibly the wealthiest man to ever make a living in hip-hop — Dr. Dre has mentored and worked with many people on this list. He came up with his stage name in the mid-‘80s when he was first getting his start as a DJ. The “Dr.” part was a tribute to his favorite basketball player growing up, “Dr. J.” Julius Erving, while the “Dre” part was simply a shortened version of his actual name.
Real Name: O’Shea Jackson Sr.
This is another stage name that goes all the way back to childhood. O’Shea Jackson got his iconic name, Ice Cube, from his older brother — and it wasn’t meant as a term of endearment. The rapper told Stephen Colbert in 2017 that, when he was 13, he used to try to talk to his brother’s girlfriends, which made his brother threaten him with a unique act of violence.
“I’m gonna slam you in the freezer,” Cube remembered his brother saying. “When they pull you out, you’re gonna be an ice cube.”
Real Name: Yasiin Bey
Rapper and actor Mos Def has been known by a few names during his acclaimed career, but he was born Dante Smith and changed his legal name to Yasiin Bey after retiring his stage name in 2011. Of his stage name, Bey said to Rolling Stone that “it’s a name that the streets taught me, a figure of speech that was given to me by the culture and by my environment.” The name Mos Def is shorthand for “most definitely.”
Real Name: Jermaine Cole
This one doesn’t take a lot of detective work to figure out. “Crooked Smile” rapper J. Cole got his stage name from a simple abbreviation of his real name, Jermaine Cole. But he didn’t always want his rap moniker to be so basic. In the early days of his career, J. Cole performed under the names Blaza and Therapist, but thankfully changed his name in time for his 2007 debut mixtape, “The Come Up.”
Real Name: Curtis Jackson III
One of the most memorable stage names in recent rap history belongs to Curtis Jackson, aka 50 Cent. The rapper and television producer lifted that name from a Brooklyn gangster who was well known when he was growing up. When that man died, 50 Cent took the name for himself as a tribute to his memory. He definitely hasn’t kept his real name a secret, using it in the credits of some of his acting projects and even calling his 2007 album “Curtis.”
Chance the Rapper
Real Name: Chancelor Bennett
Another name that doesn’t exactly sound like one that would torch the hip-hop charts is Chancelor Bennett. The Chicago rap hero got his stage name simply by shortening his first name and tacking on his job title at the end. Why bother to include “The Rapper,” you ask? Chance told GQ it was out of pure pride for his choice of work.
“You should be proud to say, ‘I’m a rapper,’” he said.
Real Name: William Roberts II
This is another stage name that most people probably assume is the rapper’s actual name, but Rick Ross was actually born William Roberts II. The “Stay Schemin’” rhymer, like 50 Cent before him, took his stage name from a real-life gangster. This one came from “Freeway” Ricky Ross, a famous cocaine dealer from 1980s Los Angeles. The actual Rick Ross sued the rapper to stop him from performing under his name, but the judge ruled in the rapper’s favor, citing the First Amendment.
Real Name: André Benjamin
While he mostly prefers to go by his birth name, André Benjamin, these days, Outkast fans know him best as André 3000 or simply “Three Stacks.” The acclaimed Grammy-winning entertainer started out simply rhyming under the name Andre for Outkast’s first few albums in the mid-‘90s. In 2000, he added the “3000” to his name and, while he’s never explained it himself, it’s been reported that it was meant to separate himself from Dr. Dre.
Real Name: Antwan Patton
Antwan Patton has been known by many names in his career — including Sir Lucious Left Foot, Daddy Fat Sacks and General Patton — but Big Boi is his most lasting call sign. Ironically, Big Boi isn’t all that big. He stands at just 5 feet 6 inches tall. Maybe his name comes more from his larger-than-life persona and the massive size of his vocabulary, which has been on display ever since his debut in the 1990s with Outkast.
Real Name: Radric Davis
Sometimes he goes by “Guwop” but Radric Davis is most commonly known as Gucci Mane. The acclaimed rapper and best-selling author picked up his stage name from a long line of others that used it in his family. In his 2017 autobiography, Gucci Mane wrote that his grandfather first had that nickname after falling in love with Gucci-brand clothing while fighting in Italy during World War II. After that, several other relatives, including Gucci Mane’s father, had the nickname before it was passed to him.
Real Name: Lonnie Lynn
Rapper-turned-actor Common’s birth name is Lonnie Corant Jaman Shuka Rashid Lynn, so you can understand why it might be easier to use a stage name. When he first started rapping, his stage name was Common Sense for his first few albums. The Oscar-winning songwriter was forced to shorten it to Common after a band that performed under the name Common Sense sued him.
Real Name: Trevor Smith Jr.
Busta Rhymes and Flavor Flav have something unique in common: Chuck D gave them both their stage names. Chuck mentored a young Travis Smith early in his career, and suggested he call himself Busta Rhymes. The nickname was inspired by Minnesota Vikings wide receiver George “Buster” Rhymes, who was a star player at the time. At first, Busta said he hated the name but quickly grew to love it and has said Chuck D “was like my father.”
Real Name: Rakim Mayers
ASAP Rocky exploded onto the hip-hop scene in 2011 and has been dropping acclaimed records ever since. The stage name chosen by Rakim Mayers is certainly memorable, and the first part of it doesn’t mean what you probably think it does. “ASAP,” in this case, stands for “Always Strive And Prosper,” while the latter part is just a nickname spun off his actual first name. Rocky isn’t the only performer who uses the ASAP initials at the start of his name; others in the collective include “Plain Jane” rapper ASAP Ferg.
Real Name: Cameron Thomaz
Another stage name that certainly stands out from the pack is Wiz Khalifa. Cameron Thomaz just doesn’t have the same memorable ring! The Pittsburgh-based rapper got his name from family members. He has said “Wiz” was his nickname growing up because he was a talented kid, while his grandfather gave him the name “Khalifa,” which is Arabic for success.
Real Name: Christopher Bridges
When Chris Bridges was working as a radio DJ in Atlanta, he worked under the name “Chris Lova Lova” for a time. Thankfully, he changed his stage name to the much cooler Ludacris in time for his 1998 debut album. The rapper-turned-actor got his stage name from a derivation of the word “ludicrous,” which is certainly one way to describe his lyrics.
Real Name: Earl Simmons
One of the hardest rhymers to ever do the job, DMX was the name chosen by Earl Simmons, who was born with no middle name. The rapper lifted his stage name from the DMX drum machine made by Oberheim, which was a classic used by artists including non-rappers including Rod Stewart and New Order.
Real Name: Sir Robert Bryson Hall II
Logic was born with a name that makes him sound more like royalty than a young rapper raised in Maryland. When Sir Robert Bryson Hall II started his rap career, he wanted to make music that “challenges the mind.” So, he went with the stage name Psychological. After working under that name for a short period of time, he shortened it to Logic in time for his acclaimed 2010 mixtape, “Young, Broke & Infamous.”
Real Name: Reminisce Mackle
Formerly a member of the rap group the Terror Squad, New York native Remy Ma’s stage name is pretty close to what you’d find on her driver’s license. Her real name is Reminisce Mackle, but that’s her married name, which she didn’t get until 2008, well after her rap career was underway. For the first few years of her career, her stage name was Remy Martin, after the French cognac brand.