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“Just when you thought all music was starting to sound alike, along came the ‘hip hop’ sound of New York, thrusting the art of rapping into the limelight…. [It] promises to be the most popular music form since rock ‘n’ roll.”

Jet magazine, May 27, 1985

Rap is a diverse musical style that incorporates rhythmic and/or rhyming speech. The term Hip-hop refers to both the backing music in a rap song, and the culture surrounding the music itself.

Just like the Beat Poets of the 50’s delivered their poems accompanied to the ryhtym of bongos, rap is essentially poetry to a beat.

Hip-hop’s origins can be traced back to the South Bronx in the late ’70s. Early hip-hop pioneers delivered spoken rhymes over records, which were spun on turntables, and remixed by live deejays. The music was primarily created by African-American and Latino artists, and was soon popular in all five boroughs.

Bronx group The Sugar Hill Gang recorded the first rap hit, “Rapper’s Delight,” in 1979. The song interpolated a sample of “Good Times” by the disco band Chic. Chic’s Nigel Rogers and Bernard Edwards successfully sued for royalties, and have since been credited as co-writers on “Rapper’s Delight.” Samples from “Good Times” have appeared in numerous hip-hop songs ever since.

The song features the immortal lyrics:

I said-a hip, hop, the hippie, the hippie
To the hip hip hop-a you don’t stop the rock
It to the bang-bang boogie, say up jump the boogie
To the rhythm of the boogie, the beat

“Rapper’s Delight” became a number one hit in America and internationally, and hip-hop culture quickly bloomed. Queens, NY group Run-D.M.C. helped take the music away from its disco and dance roots, and gave it a harder-edged, street-oriented sound.

In 1986, The Beastie Boys, three white, Jewish New Yorkers with roots in punk rock, became the first group to score a no. 1 rap album with Licensed To Ill. As their rowdy hit single “Fight For Your Right (To Party)” penetrated suburban airwaves, debates over rap’s lyrical content and negative influence began to swirl.

L.L. Cool J

Hip-hop lyrics, which can be composed beforehand or “freestyled” off the cuff, often combine bravado with vivid descriptions of street culture and/or wealth. Violence, misogyny and materialistic attitudes were a staple of hip-hop lyrics in the 80’s and 90’s, and are still prevalent today; however, messages of love, perseverance, community, racial equity and social justice are frequently found as well.

When Dr. Dre’s LA rap group N.W.A. released Straight Outta Compton in 1988, it caused an uproar for its raw language and vivid description of crime and ghetto life. The controversy surrounding its release only fueled its popularity. Another rap group, 2 Live Crew, were lambasted for their explicit sexual lyrics on As Nasty As They Wanna Be. Both albums were among the first to contain the RIAA’s Parental Advisory labels on the cover, warning of inappropriate lyrics and themes. 2 Live Crew were taken to court in Florida on obscenity charges, but were acquitted, paving the way for artists of all genres to be “as nasty as they wanna be.”

By contrast, artists like Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff, MC Hammer, and Vanilla Ice scored huge hits while keeping their lyrics and message “clean.” Tone Loc, Digital Underground and Young MC helped expand the genre’s reach and sound with their good-natured singles, and became temporary pop stars. Eventually, harder-edged artists like Naughty By Nature, Snoop Dogg and Puff Daddy began scoring #1 singles. Radio edits, with offensive words replaced by silence or other sounds, became the norm.

The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur

In the late 90’s, lyrical beefs became real life tragedies. New York’s Notorious B.I.G. and Los Angeles rapper Tupac feuded in their music and interviews. The former friends would both be murdered within six months of each other, and while both cases remain unsolved, many believe that their “East Coast / West Coast” musical rivalry resulted in their death.

Acts like Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and Arrested Development expanded the vocabulary of hip-hop, embracing its musicality and adaptability to other genres. They embraced jazz, soul, R&B and reggae influences, and traded in “conscious lyrics” that bordered on abstract poetry. Rap became more melodic and experimental; Jay-Z, a former crack dealer from Brooklyn, became a multi-platinum artist, thanks in part to a clever sample of “It’s A Hard Knock Life” from the broadway musical Annie.

Rock music and rap proved to be a potent combo. The genres were first mashed together in 1986, when hip hop pioneers Run-D.M.C. teamed with hard rockers Aerosmith for a Frankenstein version of “Walk This Way.”

Kid Rock, Limp Bizkit and Rage Against the Machine entered the mainstream as hard rock bands with rapping lead singers. Linkin Park perfected a multi-platinum rock-rap hybrid of music and released an album with Jay-Z. Rappers like LL Cool J and The Roots appeared on MTV’s Unplugged, rhyming over acoustic instruments. The Fugees, Kanye West, and Outkast have all used acoustic guitar to build massive hits, and a white rapper named Everlast briefly popularized acoustic rap.

By 2010, hip-hop music had gone mainstream. Jay-Z became a billionaire record label CEO with his own fashion label, retired from rap, and married music superstar Beyonce. Snoop Dogg went into business with Martha Stewart, coached his kids’ football team for a show on MTV, and released his own brand of legal weed. The Roots, hip-hop’s premiere live band, appear regularly on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, and occasionally on Sesame Street. The hip-hop musical Hamilton was one of the most successful Broadway shows of all time. In 2018, Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar became the first hip-hop artist to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music for the album DAMN. The Pulitzer committee called it “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African American life.”

Hip-hop helped break down the barrier between genres, fostering generations of open-minded music fans. Rappers began collaborating with rock acts, and pop stars began collaborating with rock stars. It was not uncommon to see the Black Eyed Peas working with U2, or Coldplay working with Big Sean. In the 2010s, rock music, pop music, and country music began to resemble each other, thanks in part to hip-hop’s influence on modern pop production.

Beyonce and Jay-Z (Photo: Kevin Mazur)

Today, Hip-hop is the top-selling music genre; chart records once set by the Beatles have long been eclipsed by Eminem and Kanye West.

In his 2021 Rock Hall of Fame induction speech, Jay-Z reflected,

“Thank you, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for this incredible honor. And you know, growing up, we didn’t think we could be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. We were told that hip hop was a fad. Much like punk rock, it gave us this anticulture, this subgenre, and there were heroes in it. When thinking about what I was going to say tonight, these heroes just kept coming to my mind: Rakim and Big Daddy Kane and KRS-One and Chuck D, and, of course, a fellow inductee, LL Cool J. I watch these guys, and they have big rope chains and leather and sometimes even the red, black, and green medallions and whatever they wore, everybody would wear the next day. I was like, ‘That’s what I want to do. I want to be like those guys.’ And so I set out on my journey …”