The road to being a successful rapper isn’t always a linear one. That’s a fact rappers who became famous for something outside of rapping can attest to.
Back when she was first becoming famous around 2014 or 2015, Cardi B was known primarily for the outsized personality she showcased in her humorous Instagram videos. After parlaying that attention to a spot on Love & Hip Hop: New York in 2015, she dropped her debut mixtape, Gangsta Bitch Music, Vol. 1, in February of 2016, and the legend of Cardi B The Rapper began.
Drake and Kanye West also made waves without being known as rappers first. Drizzy was a star of a popular Canadian teen soap opera before he dropped his So Far Gone mixtape and began his road to rap stardom in 2009. For Kanye, he’d been trying to be a rap star for years prior, but his first experiences with fame came as a result of producing music for rap stars across the industry between 1996 and 2003. By the time he dropped his debut album, The College Dropout, in 2004, though, everything had changed for good and he was recognized as a stellar MC, who also produced.
These are just a few rappers who got famous for doing something outside of rap. Throughout history, there have been many artists like this, each with different stories about their journey to rap stardom.
Today XXL, takes at 12 Artists Who Got Famous Before Becoming Rappers. Check out all the surprise career turns and dream-unlocking for yourself below.
Before there was the 6ix God, there was Wheelchair Jimmy, a character Drake played on the teen soap opera, Degrassi: The Next Generation. Jimmy Brooks was a high school student who played on his school’s basketball team—safe to say he’s better than Drizzy was in real life. Playing the role, Drake was part of the series’ most dramatic moment when a student shot his character in the back as revenge for a cruel prank Brooks had nothing to do with.
Drizzy held down the role of Jimmy Graham from 2001 to 2008, and by the time he finished up with the show, the Canada native was just months away from dropping his breakout mixtape, So Far Gone, in 2009. Needless to say, Drizzy’s seriously leveled up since then.
Actor and Comedian
Childish Gambino first grabbed a degree of the national spotlight in the entertainment world as part of New York University’s improvisational comedy group, Derrick Comedy in the 2000s. From there, actor-comedian-writer Tina Fey hired him to be a writer on the NBC comedy series 30 Rock in 2006. By 2009, he’d delved into the world of TV when he earned a spot as a cast member on NBC’s comedy Community. He’d been rapping and releasing mixtapes for years by this point, but he didn’t release his debut album until he unloaded Camp in 2011.
Two years before dropping “Bodak Yellow” in 2017, Cardi B was a hot topic on social media and earned a few viral moments for her role as a cast member on Love & Hip Hop: New York. Cardi first gained fame by uploading a series of hilariously honest videos to Instagram and her Vine account in 2013. In 2015, she joined Love & Hip Hop and became known as one of the show’s feistiest personalities. The next year, she dropped her debut mixtape, Gangsta Bitch Music, Vol. 1.
Being the son of Will Smith means you’re almost guaranteed to be famous. This was the case for Jaden Smith, a rapper who first gained fame as the son of the Fresh Prince and then as an actor. Jaden made his film debut when he co-starred as Will Smith’s son in 2006’s The Pursuit of Happyness. Then, Jaden followed in his rapping dad’s footsteps in 2012, when he dropped The Cool Cafe: Cool Tape Vol. 1, his first mixtape.
Nick Cannon got his first taste of real fame as a cast member on Nickelodeon’s sketch comedy series All That back in 1998. After appearing on 33 episodes of that series, Cannon, who had originally been part of a rap group in the late 1990s before joining All That, eventually stepped away from the show and re-immersed himself in the rap game. By 2001, he was on songs with Lil Romeo. By 2003, he’d dropped multiple solo singles as he appeared in more big-screen movies.
Danielle Bregoli, otherwise known as rapper Bhad Bhabie, first shot to fame as a troubled teen making an appearance with her mother on the Dr. Phil Show in 2016. With her defiant attitude and knack for effortless disrespect, she quickly became a meme after the September 2016 appearance. The joke “Catch me outside, how ’bout that,” was sparked by Bhad Bhabie’s threat to her mother on the TV show. In September of 2017, she signed a multimillion-dollar deal with Atlantic Records before dropping songs and music videos that have accumulated tens of millions of streams online.
Reality TV Star
Cardi B isn’t the only rapper to have become famous for being a reality TV star first. Before she was getting attention for dropping bars and even holding her own on a Tory Lanez diss track, DreamDoll was part of two reality TV series. First, she was a member of Oxygen’s Bad Girls Club, a reality TV series she joined in July 2016. A year later in 2017, she joined Love & Hip Hop: New York. That same year, she made her way into rap when she dropped her debut EP, Life In Plastic.
For Kanye West, rap was always the end game—at least throughout the middle part of his career. However, he was also a talented producer, so between 1998 and 2003, he was much more famous for being a superstar beatmaker who produced for the likes of Jay-Z, Beanie Sigel, Talib Kweli and more than he was an MC. By the time he dropped his debut album, The College Dropout, in 2004, this had officially changed as he immediately established himself as a viable rap star.
Riz MC had been rapping since he was a teenager, but it was the world of acting that first propelled him to stardom. In February of 2006, he made his big-screen film debut with The Road to Guantánamo, a movie about three men who were unjustly detained in Guantánamo Bay after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S. Since then, Riz MC, born Riz Ahmed, has appeared in at least 22 film and TV productions. Riz dropped his debut album, Microscope, in January of 2011.
By the time Shaquille O’Neal was a freshman at Louisiana State University (LSU) in 1990, he was a clear-cut national superstar. When he was drafted to the Orlando Magic in the 1992 NBA Draft, he was even more famous. While he dedicated most of his time to basketball, Shaq was also an avid rap fan and rapper himself. In October of 1993, he turned his casual rapping into something more professional with the release of his debut album, Shaq Diesel. The LP went platinum, solidifying Shaq as a legitimate rap star.
Between 2018 and 2020, DDG dropped two EPs, Take Me Serious and Sorry for the Hold Up, and a debut album, Valedictorian, solidifying himself as an actual rapper. As his fans know, though, he first became famous for being a YouTube creator who uploaded funny videos of himself traveling and doing a bunch of other things. He started doing those videos in 2014, and racked up a significant following of over 1.5 million YouTube subscribers. At one point, he was even making $30,000 per month being a YouTuber.
Dame D.O.L.L.A.—otherwise known as NBA superstar Damian Lillard—became an NBA player before he launched an actual rap career. Since 2016, he’s dropped The Letter O, Confirmed and Big D.O.L.L.A., three rap albums that have been met with positive reception. Four years prior, he was drafted in 2012 to join the Portland Trail Blazers, where he has helped his team secure some big wins and earn major accomplishments as an athlete. This year, he scored his third 60-point outing of the season, joining Wilt Chamberlain as the only two players in league history to have such games three times in a single season.