Yes, 2023 marks the 50th anniversary of hip hop and a plethora of artists have announced gigs to celebrate, including Run-DMC, who are headlining New York’s Hip Hop 50 Live concert, alongside Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, Eve, Trina, Lil Kim and more on ‘the day it all began’, 11th August.
Examine the evolution of hip hop through half a century, from the Bronx in the 70s to its global reach and influence on 21st century music culture, social justice, fashion and more.
The Origins of Hip Hop
Who first started hip hop? New York City’s Afrika Bambaataa became known as ‘the Godfather’.
A pioneering DJ and music producer, he organised block parties in the Bronx during the late 1970s. Forming Universal Zulu Nation to keep the city’s youth away from gang life, drugs and violence, it encouraged peace and unity through DJing, breakdancing, rapping and visual art – which Bambaataa categorised as the ‘four elements’ of hip hop.
The Universal Zulu Nation’s motto was, ‘Peace, Love, Unity and Having Fun’ and hip hop culture emphasised community, peace, wisdom, freedom, justice, love, unity, responsibility, respect for others and respect for self. Bambaataa recognised music’s power as a strategy for clearing the barriers that divided people, whatever their backgrounds. As KRS-One later proclaimed, ‘Rap is something you do; hip hop is something you live’.
What Are the 5 Elements of Hip Hop?
MC-ing (which is short for ‘Master of Ceremonies’) goes under a few names, from lyricism to rapping.
When hip hop started in the late 1970s, the MCs’ job was to introduce DJs at block parties – and hype up the crowd. They began to talk in time to the beat, and then to bring in rhymes, giving birth to rap.
A Tribe Called Quest explained the background to the term in the liner notes for their 1993 album, Midnight Marauders:
‘The use of the term MC when referring to a rhyming wordsmith originates from the dance halls of Jamaica. At each event, there would be a master of ceremonies, who would introduce the different musical acts and would say a toast in the style of a rhyme… The term MC continued to be used by the children of women who moved to New York City to work as maids in the 1970s. These MCs eventually created a new style of music called hip hop, based on the rhyming they used to do in Jamaica and the breakbeats used in records. MC has also recently been accepted to refer to all who engineer music.’
In Yes Yes Y’all, an oral history of early hip hop, Grandmaster Caz describes how MC-ing evolved: ‘Different DJs started embellishing what they were saying. I would make an announcement this way, and somebody would hear that and they add a little bit to it. I’d hear it again and take it a little step further ’til it turned from lines to sentences to paragraphs to verses to rhymes.’
In 1979, a trio of MCs rapped over the break from Chic’s ‘Good Times’ – the result was The Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight,’ rap’s first hit. MCing and rapping went from sideshow to main event as one of hip hop’s essential elements.
In hip hop, B-boying – also known as breaking – is dancing. The term was coined by Kool Herc, who was a DJ for Bronx block parties – they used spinning (power) moves, footwork and freeze to dance to the break part of the music.
The style was invented in the early 1970s by African American and Latino Americans in New York’s South Bronx – the five original ‘core’ moves were: top rock, footwork, back rock, freezes and power moves.
90s breaking was brought to the fore by Rock Steady Crew – and as DJs invented new ways to elongate their records’ break beats, the dancers were given more time to invent and experiment – introducing backspins and windmills.
Beat boxing may have taken a bit of a back seat to rapping, but it was a crucial part of the early hip hop scene – in the early 80s, beatboxers would back up rappers when drum machines were unaffordable.
It’s a form of vocal percussion, where you create sounds with your mouth, tongue, lips, nose and throat: you’re essentially a musical instrument.
Who was the original beatbox pioneer? The artist most frequently cited is Doug E. Fresh, whose mid-80s single ‘The Show/La Di Da Di’ showcased his skills and introduced a mass of showmanship, especially for his stage shows.
For beatboxing, the main percussion sounds you need to be able to finesse are a kick-drum (a ‘p’ sound), high-hat (a ‘th’ sound) and the small snare drum (a ‘kuh’ sound). ‘New school beatboxing’ includes more musicality – bringing in elements such as dubstep, and with a focus on flow and speed.
The original form of DJing was done to loop drum breaks using turntables to make the ‘break’ last longer. This changed music drastically as it gave B-boys the beats to break to, and for MCs to rap to.
Rappers may have taken the more front and centre place in hip hop, but the innovators of scratching, cutting, backspins and needle drops provided the foundations for them to build on.
Pioneers included Grandmaster Flash and mixtape king DJ Clue, but it was DJ Kool Herc who got there first, hosting a Back to School Jam with his sister in 1973. At the party, Herc unveiled a technique called ‘The Merry Go Round’, playing breaks back-to-back.
Hip Hop Graffiti
As hip hop was all about making a new type of music expressing messages about everyday life, graffiti was the extension of that through art. Hip hop graffiti started with tags – making your presence felt in the city and stamping your individuality on it – and first emerged in the late 60s in New York and Philadelphia.
One of its early big names, Cameron ‘Grandmaster’ Flowers, who was also making music, described the earliest incarnations of graffiti as, ‘just, “Here’s my name. Look at how many times I’ve written it. Look at how many places you might see me from one end of town to the other”’. Graffiti artists would spray their name, and perhaps a street number – fast, to avoid the police.
The 70s saw more media attention and more competition, with ever-increasing and more complex tags – and in the 80s, graffiti stepped into fine art circles with the landmark MoMA show, ‘New York/New Wave’ placing works by Warhol and Mapplethorpe alongside up-and-coming Jean-Michel Basquiat.
The Rise of Hip Hop in the 1980s
Historyofthehiphop.com marks the 1980s as a period of diversification, as hip hop music developed more complex styles. Grandmaster Flash’s ‘The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel’ from 1981 was a single consisting entirely of sampled tracks, while Afrika Bambaataa’s ‘Planet Rock’ from 1982 fused hip hop with electro.
Drum machines such as the Roland 808 came to the fore (hence ‘808 beats’) and hip hop’s lyrical content evolved too, with influential single ‘The Message’ by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five a pioneering force for conscious rap.
The so-called ‘new school of hip hop’ originated in 1983/84, with Run DMC and LL Cool J in New York City. Their tracks featured more socio-political commentary, as well as drum machines and rock influences. New school artists’ tough, cool, street attitude was a contrast with the genre’s earlier funk and disco-influenced sound.
The decade saw hip hop spreading outside of the US, from the UK to Japan, Australia and South Africa. Plus, shorter tracks were more radio-friendly, and by the middle of the decade, hip hop had hit the mainstream and was commercially successful – the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill became hip hop’s first Billboard No. 1 album in 1987.
And hip hop was making its presence felt in pop too, with Blondie’s ‘Rapture’ and ‘Christmas Wrapping’ by new-wave band The Waitresses both featuring rap as early as 1981.
In 1983, the movie Flashdance featured a B-boying and popping sequence, which helped B-boying to cross over and become a global craze and gave rise to breaking movies such as Breakin’ and Beat Street.
Hip Hop’s Golden Age
From around 1986-95, hip hop went through a period of unprecedented creativity. As part of mainstream culture but, crucially, not bound by the restrictions of major labels, rappers and producers explored every avenue of beat production, flow and lyrical topics, together with sampling from a huge range of old records. It was a time, according to Rolling Stone, ‘when it seemed that every new single reinvented the genre.’ MTV’s Sway Calloway commented, ‘the thing that made that era so great is that nothing was contrived. Everything was still being discovered, and everything was still innovative and new.’
The pre-eminent artists of the period were LL Cool J, Slick Rick, the Jungle Brothers, Run DMC, Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys, Eric B. & Rakim, Salt-N-Pepa and Queen Latifah, together with A Tribe Called Quest’s more dreamy beats. Themes of Afrocentricity and political militancy were fused with experimental music and eclectic sampling.
Hip hop production became more dense; rhymes and beats were faster and KRS-One and Chuck D pushed ‘message rap’ towards Black activism. Social issues such as drug use, crime and violence, religion, culture and the state of the US economy were a response to the effects of American capitalism and former President Reagan’s conservative political economy.
The ability to sample from a wide range of sources meant that producers and DJs didn’t need formal music training or to be able to play an instrument – just a good ear. Samples came from jazz, funk and soul to rock ‘n’ roll – Paul’s Boutique, the Beastie Boys’ second studio album, drew from over 200 individual samples.
Allmusic described the golden age as, ‘characterised by skeletal beats, samples cribbed from hard rock or soul tracks, and tough dis raps… rhymers like Chuck D, Big Daddy Kane, KRS-One, Rakim and LL Cool J basically invented the complex wordplay and lyrical kung-fu of later hip hop.’
Golden age artists were consistently pushing boundaries, releasing albums marked out by their unprecedented stylistic fluidity.
The Evolution of Hip Hop in the 1990s and 2000s
Spawning megastars such as Snoop Dogg, 2Pac and Eminem, 90s hip hop marked the point when the music emerged from the suburbs and the underground and took over the world.
The West Coast was on the rise, with LA natives NWA’s 1988 debut, Straight Outta Compton kick-starting gangsta rap, which detailed street violence in an uncompromising, explicit style.
NWA’s Dr. Dre formed Death Row Records with Suge Knight, and issued his stratospherically popular debut album, The Chronic, at the tail-end of 1992. His G-Funk style – which smoothed gangsta rap’s jagged edges into a more radio-friendly form – heralded a succession of hugely successful records, including Snoop Dogg’s debut in 1993, Doggystyle, which entered the Billboard charts at No. 1.
West Coast hip hop in the 90s usurped the East Coast as rap’s dominant force, with its stars becoming part of the mainstream. That’s not to say that new East Coast acts weren’t breaking through – Wu-Tang Clan’s groundbreaking debut, Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers and Notorious BIG’s Ready to Die heralded a new, grittier era.
West Coast/East Coast Beef
The bi-coastal rivalry, however, led to tragedy. In 1995, one of LA’s biggest stars, 2Pac, was shot whilst in New York, the day before being found guilty of sexual assault. While in prison, he accused Sean Combs and Notorious BIG, among others, of being behind the shooting. Being in prison didn’t stop him being one of the most bankable acts in music: Me Against the World reached No. 1, and double album All Eyez on Me confirmed him as one of hip hop’s most singular voices.
2Pac and Notorious BIG were both killed in drive-by shootings – the latter’s posthumously-released Life After Death album went on to become the best-selling hip hop album of all time. Hip hop was forced to do some soul searching; Sean Combs, aka Puff Daddy’s career took off following two benefit singles. Biggie’s protégé, Jay-Z, also took a new route to cross over into the pop market with 1997’s In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, which catapulted him to superstar status.
The other seismic shift? When Dr. Dre abandoned Death Row to set up his new stable, Aftermath Entertainment, he signed Detroit rapper Eminem. His 1999 album, The Marshall Mathers LP, cemented hip hop as a globally dominant genre.
Southern Hip Hop
Southern hip hop – aka Southern rap, South Coast hip hop or dirty south – was another subgenre that emerged in the Southern US, particularly Atlanta, New Orleans, Houston, Memphis and Miami.
Houston’s Geto Boys were among the first hip hop artists from the Southern states to gain widespread popularity and by the mid-90s, Atlanta had become a centre for Southern hip hop, with Outkast awarded Best New Artist at the 1995 Source Awards. Major southern stars who emerged by the early 2000s included Ludacris, Lil Jon, Young Jeezy, Rick Ross, Lil Wayne and Three 6 Mafia. From October 2003 through to December 2004, the No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 pop chart spot was held by a Southern artist for 58 out of 62 weeks.
The Current State of Hip Hop
From the turn of the century, hip hop had to deal with the advent of digital downloading, in line with every other music genre. However, its influence on global youth culture could be seen in even massive boy bands such as Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC drawing on its sounds and styles.
Eminem became perhaps the world’s biggest pop star when 8 Mile, the loosely autobiographical film in which he starred, topped the box office in 2002 and ‘Lose Yourself’ won the Oscar for Best Song.
50 Cent achieved multiplatinum status with 2003’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’, but there’s an argument to be made that in the 21st century, the music became a producers’ medium. Timbaland, Swizz Beatz and the Neptunes became household names – was Nas right to title his 2006 album Hip Hop is Dead?
Many of the OG stars, such as Ludacris, LL Cool J, Ice Cube and Queen Latifah, segued into acting careers, whilst Snoop Dogg headlined rock festivals alongside Bruce Springsteen (not to mention becoming the face of the Just Eat ads). Jay-Z went from performing artist to label president, head of a clothing line and club owner. Kanye West, originally one of Jay-Z’s producers, emerged as one of hip hop’s most polarising characters.
Hip Hop’s Cultural Significance
Decades before Black Lives Matter became a global movement, hip hop artists had been broadcasting those same systemic injustices plaguing Black America – hip hop artists in the 80s were the voice of the streets.
Chuck D told ABC News that ‘When [Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s] ‘The Message’ came out, there was nothing like it. Nothing. Ever. Like that. So the change, it came overnight.’ For Chuck D, the track’s title meant, ‘pay attention to the words of hip hop instead of just the beat.’
NWA’s ‘F-k Tha Police’ in 1988 was a bombastic anthem against police brutality which outraged white America; the massive rise in police violence against the Black community in recent years points to it being ahead of its time.
On Kanye West’s The College Dropout, Jay-Z took up the baton of the civil rights movement, when he rapped about his family’s history:
‘I get down for my grandfather who took my mama/Made her sit in that seat where white folks ain’t want us to eat/At the tender age of 6, she was arrested for the sit-ins/And with that in my blood I was born to be different.’
Lauryn Hill, five decades after famed author and activist James Baldwin said, ‘To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost, almost all of the time’, affirmed his sentiment in her 2012 track, ‘Black Rage’:
‘Black rage is founded on blatant denial/ Squeezing economics, subsistence survival/ Deafening silence and social control/ Black rage is founded on wounds in the soul.’
Lil Baby released ‘Bigger Picture’ after the death of George Floyd and the racial protests that followed. The anthem demanding a stop to police brutality garnered more than 65 million audio and video streams in its first two weeks. Lil Baby said the proceeds would benefit organisations like the National Association of Black Journalists, the attorneys for the family of Breonna Taylor, the Black Lives Matter movement and The Bail Project.
Hip hop’s cultural impact reaches far and wide; one of the decade’s most talked-about musicals, Hamilton, which tells the story of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, was originally a hip hop concept album in composer Lin Manuel Miranda’s head.
And beyond music, hip hop is also a major force in fashion.
What started as a way to showcase local trends, like Bronx streetwear such as bomber jackets, tracksuits and sneakers with oversized shoelaces, has become a global phenomenon, generating billions. Run-DMC kick-started the hip hop/fashion hook-up when they wore classic white Adidas sneakers. Their manager suggested a song about the brand and ‘My Adidas’ heralded the first deal between an activewear brand and a ‘nonathletic’ person or group.
Haute couture wasn’t immune to hip hop’s charms – Daniel ‘Dapper Dan’ Day opened his atelier in 1982; the tailor cut his way to the top by incorporating haute couture labels and silhouettes into streetwear. His iconic fashion status was confirmed by the Gucci-Dapper Dan collection, released in 2019.
Virgil Abloh, who died in 2021, was an American fashion designer who started off designing luxury streetwear, and eventually became artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear collection. His design aesthetic bridged streetwear and luxury clothing and his career also took in designing album art for artists including A$AP Rocky, Lil Uzi Vert, Kanye West’s Yeezus and Pop Smoke, and directing videos, including A$AP Rocky’s ‘Fashion Killa’ and Kanye West’s ‘Runaway’.
As well as name-dropping high fashion brands in their lyrics, many hip hop artists have branched out into owning their own labels. Tyler, The Creator runs Golf Wang, while Pharrell Williams has two clothing lines, Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream. Kanye West’s Yeezy is consistently one of the most talked-about hip hop artist-owned brands, but let’s not forget Jay-Z’s Rocawear.
Hip Hop Is Here to Stay
So, there’s your whistle-stop tour through 50 years of hip hop. Latin music may be gradually taking over the charts, but when you’ve got icons like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Mary J. Blige, Kendrick Lamar and 50 Cent smashing it at the Super Bowl Halftime show and Missy Elliott and DJ Kool Herc being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, you know that hip hop is still a global force.
Want to learn more about hip hop? Check out our deep dives on the bestselling hip hop albums; the hip hop movies to watch as part of your celebrations and some iconic hip hop soundtracks, plus discover the influential women of hip hop.
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