Hip hop culture has influenced American lifestyle since it was "introduced" in the mid-70s in New York. It has changed our music, our fashion, our vocabulary, our idea of success, and our way of life...especially for African-American children, myself included, growing up fully during the hip-hop explosion during the '80s, '90s and now '00s.
That said, I've written a lengthy, if not comprehensive, history of hip hop. Regardless of your liking or disliking of current rap music, this is a must-read if you don't know who DJ Kool Herc, Big Daddy Kane or Lupe Fiasco are.
A Hip-Hop History Lesson
DJ Kool Herc is considered the “pioneer of hip hop” because he brought the dancehall influences of his Jamaican childhood to Bronx, New York in the mid-1970s. As early as 1973, Herc would throw parking lot parties playing music with huge speakers in the backseat of his car. Eventually others caught on and by the late ‘70s and turn of the decade, Grandmaster Flash and The Sugarhill Gang, of “Rapper’s Delight” fame were notable hip hop artists in New York.
Based on the success of “Rapper’s Delight” and following Blondie’s “Rapture” and Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust”, hip hop was starting to catch mainstream attention. By this point in the early 1980s, hip hop was well established in New York and had expanded to the streets of Los Angeles. Break dancing, rapping, graffiti (and to a lesser degree beatboxing) were the major tenets of the hip hop culture at this time. Fashion followed suit with jumpsuits, Kangol hats, Shell top adidas, and other trends that have influenced fashion for years since.
Just around the time MTV and BET were working out their early-year kinks, hip hop was getting ready for primetime and a young entrepreneur and his Jewish friend were ready to capitalize on the opportunity. With the creation of Def Jam Records by Russell Simmons and producer Rick Rubin, Run-DMC quickly rose to pop fame. The group consisting of Joseph “Run” Simmons who was Russell’s younger brother, his best friend Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, and later the addition of DJ Jason Mizell, a.k.a. Jam Master Jay), released three albums from 1984 to 1986, including the smash hit album ‘Raisin’ Hell’ which featured the hit single and remix of Aerosmith’s “Walk this Way”. The album sold over 3 million copies and cemented hip hop’s place in popular music.
Further bolstering Def Jam’s success were the rise of hip hop’s first white rappers, a group called Beastie Boys. Their 1986 album “License to Ill” went five time platinum after being the first-ever hip hop album to go #1 on the Billboard chart and earned them a touring gig with Madonna before going on their own world tour with tracks like “Fight For Your Right to Party”.
Ladies Love Cool James, or LL Cool J, was another Def Jam artist to usher in hip hop to the mainstream. The young Queens native was Def Jam’s first official signing and he didn’t disappoint. His 1985 album ‘Radio’ launched a career with Def Jam that remains today, 12 albums later (his 13th album, tentatively titled ‘Exit 13’ will be out this winter). His female-geared tracks “I Need Love” and “’Round the Way Girl” weren’t popular amongst the hardcore rap fans who expected songs like “I’m Bad” and “Mama Said Knock You Out”, but rapping to the women has always been LL’s bread and butter.
By this time, another young rapper from Philadelphia called the Fresh Prince was bringing a pop feel to hip hop. Will Smith, who turned down the opportunity to attend M.I.T., and his DJ friend “Jazzy Jeff” Townes rose to fame on the pop strength of songs like “Girls Ain’t Nothin’ But Trouble” and “Parents Just Don’t Understand”, which also earned the duo a Grammy, making Will Smith the first Grammy-winning rap artist.
Grammys, platinum albums, and MTV’s Yo! MTV Raps and BET’s Rap City were popular programs showcase hip hop music. Just when it seemed hip hop was making the full transition into pop phenomenon, a few lyrical masters hit the scene to help make sure hip hop had some artistic stature as well.
KRS-One’s 1987 debut ‘Criminal Minded’ introduced the voice of the rapper commonly known as “the teacher” because of his education-themed songs. His song “South Bronx” was the battle track directed at Queens-natives Marley Marl and MC Shan who led the Juice Crew, which also featured notable rappers Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, and Kool G Rap. Kane would later go on to solo success in 1998 with his debut album ‘Long Live the Kane’ featuring the classic track “Ain’t No Half-Steppin”.
Also in the later ‘80s, Rakim’s ‘Paid in Full’ album with DJ Eric B. received critical acclaim when it was released that same year and many continue to consider Rakim to be the greatest rap lyricist of all time. Also in ’87, Public Enemy - led by politically-charged rapper Chuck D and hypeman Flavor Flav - released ‘Yo! The Bum Rush Show’ to critic’s delight.
However, the emergence of several artistically gifted and critically acclaimed hip hop artists was met with the full emergence of “gangsta rap” with a South Central Los Angeles group called N.W.A., short for Niggaz With Attitude. The combination of Easy-E, Dr. Dre, DJ Yella, MC Ren, D.O.C., Ice Cube, and Arabian Prince and Krazy Dee (both would leave before NWA’s peak) would go on to record ‘Straight Outta Compton’ which went three times platinum and introduced America to street-life and anger like never before.
Counter-balancing the anger-infused songs of groups like NWA were the hip hop party and melodic tracks by New York’s newest hip hop innovators, known as the Native Tongues crew. Led by the 1988 debut success of Long Island-based trio De La Soul (‘3 Feet High and Rising’) and the 1989 follow-up by another trio called A Tribe Called Quest (‘People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm’), hip hop had new voices. Queen Latifah also came out of this hip hop crew and her debut, ‘All Hail the Queen’, was commercially successful as well. The success of these artists coincided with the growing success of Source magazine, started by Harvard students David Mays and Jon Schecter in 1988. Source quickly became the go-to hip hop publication and it’s “5 Mic” designation certified an album as a classic. Many of the aforementioned albums by Run-DMC, LL Cool J, Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Big Daddy Kane, Eric B. and Rakim, KRS-One, N.W.A. and both De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest earned this designation.
However, with the decline of New York-based rappers like Rakim, Kane, Run-DMC, and KRS-One, NWA jumpstarted the West Coast takeover of rap music. The only concern was that hip hop was left in New York and gangsta rap would become the new norm. By the early ‘90s, Ice Cube had launched a successful solo career, Dr. Dre finagled his way out of his contract with NWA and Easy E to move to Death Row Records and join newly-signed rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg.
With the commercial success of artists like MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice, West Coast rappers felt the need to continue showing America that rap music wasn’t all dance and gimmick. Just around this time, Ice Cube’s solo career was flourishing and rappers like Will Smith were crossing over into TV and film, landing Cube a role in the John Singleton 1991 film ‘Boyz in Da Hood’ which would jumpstart a new era in black cinematography by displaying ghetto life in places like Compton and Long Beach.
The following year, Dr. Dre’s masterpiece ‘Chronic’ hit stores and instantly became a rap classic with songs like “Nuthin’ But a G Thang” and “Let Me Ride” rising up the charts and helping the album sell millions of copies. In 1993, Snoop’s ‘Doggystyle’ nearly matched ‘Chronic’ with its album sales with chart-topping songs like “Gin and Juice”. The East Coast, especially New York, resented the high profile of West Coast rap and envied the millions they were seeing Dr. Dre, Snoop and Ice Cube making on a music form they felt they owned and built.
The East Coast retaliated with a slew of classic, critically if not all commercially successful, albums. From 1993 to 1996, several new New York artists gained notoriety for vivid street tales and a mixing the jazz-influenced style of Rakim with the syncopated flow of Big Daddy Kane. First it was Raekwon and Ghostface Killah, two members of the newly-formed Wu-Tang Clan, which featured nine rappers. With their 1993, debut ‘Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’ Rae and Ghostface, along with Method Man, established lengthy careers in rap and influenced an entire generation of up-and-coming rappers.
Among those influenced were Jay-Z, a former student of Big Daddy Kane’s, Nas, a friend of A Tribe Called Quest’s frontman Q-Tip, Notorious B.I.G., who was signed to Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs’ Bad Boy label, Mobb Deep, also from Queens natives like Nas, and Busta Rhymes, who was a part of Leaders of the New School and featured on the A Tribe Called Quest party-track “Scenario”.
Immediately following the success of Wu-Tang, was the success of Nas who was seen as the “next great thing from New York”. With Rakim-like poetic delivery, Nas elevated any beat he rapped on, even when they were produced by the best producers of the time including Q-Tip, Heavy D, MC Serch, Pete Rock (“The World is Yours”) and DJ Premier. His debut, ‘Illmatic’, was an instant classic but failed to do well commercially. Mobb Deep’s ‘The Infamous’ album was also designated a classic album, with its hit song “Shook Ones Part II” which is long-considered the mid-90s rap anthem.
Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace., started rapping just years earlier, and met Sean Combs, a young executive from Uptown Records (which had success with R&B acts such as Mary J. Blige) was looking for a young talent to start a new label on his own. Combs convinced B.I.G. to quit the drug game just in time to capitalize on his talents and record ‘Ready to Die’, which went on to multi-platinum and “5 Mic” status with hits like “Big Poppa” and “One More Chance”. Many considered B.I.G. the best rapper ever from that point on. Last of this New York group was the energetic Busta Rhymes whose “Woo-Hah! Got You All in Check” rose up the charts in 1996 and launched a still-going career of chart success.
Although some regional groups such as Houston-based Geto Boys, Bay Area rapper E-40 and Miami-based 2 Live Crew gained popularity amongst rap fans, it wasn’t the early-to-mid ‘90s that rap fully began spreading its tentacles beyond the Coasts. In 1994, Chicago’s Common experienced both success and resentment (from Ice Cube) for his single “I Used to Love Her (H.I.P.H.O.P.)” which talks about the history of hip hop and its artistic and creative downfall due to gangsta rap. Also in 1994, Outkast’s debut ‘Southernplayalisticadillacmusik” was dropped and earned recognition from true hip hop fans around the country, although it wasn’t until their follow-up ‘ATLiens’ dropped in ’96 that the group started getting wider national attention. Along with Jermaine Dupri, who produced Kriss Kross and Da Brat, Outkast - backed by Organized Noise and Goodie Mob - helped put Atlanta on the music map.
With hip hop’s arms spreading through the budding success of rappers all around the country, the overall success and growth of the music form still came down to the traditional battle of East Coast vs. West Coast. Unfortunately, these battles materialized themselves into the voices and lyrics of two popular rappers: B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur, who had previously befriended the Brooklyn rapper.
Tupac had already experienced success from his first three studio albums ‘2Pacalypse Now’, ‘Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z’ and ‘Thug Life Volume 1’. Songs like “Brenda’s Got a Baby” and “I Get Around” demonstrated the contradictory themes that would highlight Tupac’s career. Also, Tupac was a budding actor, having starred in captivating roles in the 1992 film ‘Juice’ and the 1994 film ‘Above the Rim’. Tupac, however, still focused on his fast-rising rap career, at least until he was shot five times in 1994. After several legal run-ins, Tupac began serving a prison stint, and from jail his ‘Me Against the World’ album hit #1 on the Billboard chart. Fueled with conspiracy theories about his shooting, both in his head and in the media, and the continued star status of B.I.G. and Puff Daddy, Tupac was released from prison and joined Death Row Records where label owner Suge Knight was already made famous for hanging Vanilla Ice out of a balcony to force a pay-off for his “Ice Ice Baby” success.
With label owners Suge Knight and Puff Daddy taking jabs at each other, their respective rapper friends joined the fray. Tupac’s ‘All Eyez on Me’ and B.I.G.’s ‘Ready to Die’ took shots at each other’s credentials, consummating in an industry-wide East vs. West battle for rap music’s supremacy. The battle was short lived, but it survived long enough to lead to the shooting deaths of both Tupac (Sept. 7, 1996 in Las Vegas) and B.I.G. (March 9, 1997 in L.A.). Hip hop, from that point on officially died according to some critics, while others contend the music form had already been lost and rap music had formally taken over with the murders of two rap legends.
With hip hop music on the decline, highlighted by the breakup of A Tribe Called Quest, and the end of an era with West Coast rap, New York was back on top. Only this time, there were no guns involved in the battle for the throne. Instead, two friends - Jay-Z and DMX - put the music form on their backs and shared the load in the latter part of the ‘90s. Jay-Z’s 1998 “Hard Knock Life” and 1999 “Big Pimpin” were pop chart successes and DMX’s debut album ‘It’s Dark and Hell is Hot’ went on to sell four million copies on the strength of his single “Get at Me Dog”. The two would later co-headline the Hard Knock Life Tour, which was the first major rap tour since the Def Jam heyday in the late ‘80s.
While Jay-Z and DMX brought unique talents to the lyrical platform, it was their beatmakers - lead by Timbaland, Swizz Beats - who followed Dr. Dre and legendary Nas and Notorious B.I.G.-producer DJ Premier by raising the profile of the producer in making a hit album. Perhaps, more than anyone else, Puff Daddy benefited from this new transition since he was credited with having produced albums for dozens of artists even when it was not him, but one of his dozen or so “hit makers” who actually did the work. Puff Daddy’s ‘No Way Out’ album made the most of this producer-friendly environment, along with the death of his best friend, B.I.G.
Jay-Z and DMX were the kings of rap, but they weren’t alone at the top of the charts. New Orleans crashed the coastal party with the success of Juvenile ‘400 Degreez’ and Cash Money group Hot Boyz, which featured a young Lil’ Wayne who has since gone on to a mildly-successful solo career. Master P’s No Limit Records were also part of the onslaught of New Orleans-based hit records. And back in New York, the Latin rap scene exploded with the success of Fat Joe protégé Big Pun’s debut ‘Capital Punishment’.
Not to be forgotten, Dr. Dre returned to the production throne with his third album ‘Chronic 2001’ which featured his renewed collaboration with Snoop Dogg and more work from his most recent chart-topping artists protégé, Emimen. A white rapper from Detroit, Eminem stormed the scene with his debut ‘The Slim Shady LP’ taking jabs at Britney Spears, N*Sync and other pop acts of the day. “My Name Is” quickly rose up the charts of Total Request Live, the latest video show on MTV that helped push rap even further into the mainstream.
Following the continued success of Dr. Dre, several producers continued raising their profiles. The 2000s can be considered the “producer era” in rap music history with Timbaland, Swizz Beats, Pharrell and the Neptunes, Lil' Jon, and Kanye West all dropping solo albums after years of success as producers for popular rappers including Snoop Dogg, Jay-Z, St. Louis-based Nelly and Atlanta-based Ludacris, who both became chart-topping regulars in the decade with their respective 2000 debuts, ‘Country Grammar’ and ‘Southern Hospitality’.
Another development of the early 2000s was the rapper-singer collaboration, which is not new to hip hop (LL Cool J did a song with Boyz II Men in the mid-90s), but greatly expanded in recent years. Ja Rule rose to fame on the strength of his songs with singers Jennifer Lopez, Ashanti and Christina Milian. His fancy for rapper-singer collaborations also drew the ire of fans and other rappers, including the up-and-coming rapper 50 Cent, who was shot nine times and nearly died in 2000. Regardless, rap-sung collaborations have grown to the point of requiring the Grammys create a new award category, and nearly every rap album features a song of this sort. Jay-Z’s relationship with Beyonce is but an example of the growing relationship between rap and R&B music.
With producers having little to no obligation to produce for one particular artist, the 2000s have seen the enhanced role of collaboration and fostering of “camps” of rapper friends. As for the collaboration, this is most notable with production albums by the likes of Atlanta’s Lil’ Jon, Virginia natives the Neptunes led by Pharrell, and Timbaland (also from Virginia) whom have all showcased their production skills on albums featuring all the popular rappers of the last decade. The “camps” concept is evident with the launching of rap’s current stars, 50 Cent, Kanye West, and T.I.
50 Cent, discovered by Run-DMC’s Jam Master Jay, which is a strange circle-of-life type of story when one considers 50’s near-death experience in 2000 mirroring Tupac’s story and Jay’s 2002 death which came just months before 50’s debut album ‘Get Rich or Die Tryin’ went on to sell over 10 million copies in 2003 through Dr. Dre and Eminem’s joint-venture to sign the Queens rapper and create an offshoot label, G-Unit Records. The Game, Young Buck, and Lloyd Banks are other artists whom have experienced success while signed to G-Unit. The Game has since left G-Unit after the multi-platinum success of his 2005 debut ‘The Documentary’ led to a feud between himself and 50; the departure is discussed in “Doctor’s Advocate” on his 2006 follow-up of the same name.
Chicago-based producer Kanye, influenced by the Native Tongues crew and New York producers like DJ Premier, was able to raise his profile by aligning himself with Jay-Z, and hip hop acts such as fellow Chicago native Common, whom he would later help to gain his first major taste of commercial success with ‘Be’ in 2005. Singer-songwriter John Legend of “Ordinary People” Grammy-fame has also joined Common on Kanye’s label, G.O.O.D. Music, while Kanye himself remains on Jay-Z’s Rocafella Records. Recently, Pharrell, Kanye, and fellow Chicagoan Lupe Fiasco, whose 2006 ‘Food & Liquor’ won over critics, if not millions of fans, have joined to form a group that will feature their collaborative efforts.
In closing, the ‘80s saw the introduction of hip hop to the nation, the ‘90s saw the expansion of hip hop’s step-brother rap, and the 2000s have been about the enhanced role of the rapper-executive, regional allegiance (and collaboration) and the importance of the producer. Hip hop and rap are permanently married, but one can only hope they are the type of couple that grows more similar with each passing year. There are plenty of skeptics.
Noteworthy events of the still-unfinished decade include the battle and reconciliation of Jay-Z and Nas, Jay-Z’s ascension to CEO of Def Jam Records, a aforementioned battle between 50 Cent and The Game, the continued success of Atlanta, and other Southern rappers, and the “scratch my back” collaborative environment of rap and R&B these days.
Perhaps intentionally I saved my mention of Atlanta-rapper T.I. for last because his career demonstrates the current trend and trajectory of rap music. He started out on the mixtape circuit rapping tales of drug trade and life on the streets that also made 50 Cent popular in the early part of the decade, then earned himself a label deal only to end up in jail during its peak (‘Trap Musik’) much like Tupac before him.
After his release from jail, T.I. quickly aligned himself with the top producers, rappers, and singers of the day on his platinum albums ‘Urban Legend’ and ‘King’ which featured The Neptunes, Mannie Fresh, Just Blaze, Nelly, and Jamie Foxx. He had a notable battle with Houston rapper Lil’ Flip and has had lyrical run-ins with both Lil’ Wayne and Ludacris. He’s been featured on hit songs with Destiny’s Child (“Soldier”) and Justin Timberlake (“My Love”), won Grammys, started himself a movie career (‘ATL’ and the upcoming Denzel-Crowe flick ‘American Gangster’), and befriended Will Smith and Jay-Z along the way.
Now, you can see T.I. in Chevy commercials with Dale Earnhardt, Jr., his songs are featured on ESPN (“Big Things Poppin”), his friends are having success (Young Dro’s “Shoulder Lean”), and he’s earned himself the “King of the South” title he proudly boast on his records. It’s only proper that his latest album has a track called “Help is Coming” which states “I got the game on lock, it ain’t gonna stop/say hello to the man that could save hip hop”.
Not bad for a guy that grew up in the ghetto, tried to make it 'up' as a drug dealer, ended up serving prison time, and has since become one of the most notable artist today.
Hip hop and rap music, like the yin/yang concept of T.I.’s current chart-topping album T.I. vs. T.I.P., is constantly at odds with itself, but at the end of the day they still need each other.