Hip-Hop 50 Years, and Rising Still to the Top

By Timi Ayeni

Hip-Hop has been an influence and an inspiration for many artists and producers and is also acclaimed globally by fans and critics alike. It may be hard to believe that the genre is turning 50 years old. This style of music has always been about beat and rhythm, words and tempo being at its core rather than melodious tunes. Find out more in Hip-Hop 50 Years and Rising Still to the Top

Hip-Hop from its earliest days was all about the beats, rhythms, tempo and words. At its core, it was and always will be a pared-back sound musically.

Hip-Hop was born from the grit and dirt steaming out of the ghettos of New York City. Squaller and filth gave it its authenticity. Starting out in a period of decline for the city itself.

It may be hard to believe that this universal style is now 50 years old. Here we explore hip-hop and its sub-genres through the generations from key visionaries to female rappers including different timelines and key exponents.

So let’s start with who may well be considered the founding father, the man himself.

DJ Kool Herc

Clive Campbell known as DJ Kool Herc is an American DJ who threw the back-to-school jams (party) for his sister Cindy Campbell at 1520 Sedgewick Avenue which became known as the birthplace of the genre. 

Campbell’s announcements and exhortations to dancers would lead to the syncopated, rhymed spoken accompaniment to be now known as rapping.

However, he dubbed his dancers “break-boys” and “fly-girls”, or simply “b-boys” and “f-girls”. According to Herc, “breaking” was also street slang for “getting excited” and “acting energetically”.

Along with Kool Herc, there was Coke La Rock who is often recognised as the first MC in the history of hip-hop to rap as his rhymes were usually shout-outs to friends, but gradually the poetry emerged which cultivated the use of rhymes and syllables in rap.

He originated such phrases as “You rock and you don’t stop,” and “Hotel, motel, you don’t tell, we won’t tell” which was immortalized on the first Sugarhill Gang single “Rapper’s Delight”, although La Rock received no credit from the song. 

It gave young African Americans a voice to let their issues be heard; “Like rock-and-roll, hip-hop is vigorously opposed by conservatives because it romanticises violence, law-breaking, and gangs”. It also gave people a chance for financial gain by “reducing the rest of the world to consumers of its social concerns.”

Timeline of Hip-Hop 

1979-1983 – The Old School Hip-Hop 

Throughout the late 1970s and the early 80s, artists and DJs across America solidified hip-hop’s major elements such as beatboxing, rapping, scratching, and sampling funk and jazz records like James Brown and Rick James. 

Both male and female artists took centre stage. MC Sha-Rock was the first female artist to rap on the microphone during the early days of hip-hop as she was part of a group called “The Funky Four Plus One” which started from 1977 to 1983.

The Funky Four Plus Feel It (The Mexican), 1983

Sugarhill Gang’s iconic track “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979 which samples Chic’s “Good Times” was recognized as the first hip-hop recording to gain widespread popularity as it became a Top 40 hit in the U.S. and saw more success around the world charting in the U.K and Canada. Hip-Hop became mainstream for the first time.

Sugarhill Gang Rapper’s Delight, 1979

Double D and DJ Steinski

Double D and DJ Steinski are a producer duo comprised of Doug “Double D” DiFranco and Steven “Steinski” Stein who achieved critical acclaim in the early 1980s through their series of sampled-based mixes called “The Lessons”.

Double D and DJ Steinski – The Payoff Mix (Lesson 1)  

Double D and DJ Steinski Lesson 1 (The Payoff Mix) 1983

The first lesson record was recorded in 1983 and was released by Tommy Boy Records. Packed with a lot of samples from other records, it was not only funk and disco that were in the record but it was short snippets of songs from Little Richard and The Supremes along with vocal samples from sources of tap-dancing records and Humphrey Bogart films. It was critically acclaimed but never only a few copies were printed because of the amount of sampling.

This time period saw a rising lot of first-time artists in the genre such as Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five as well as Kurtis Blow.

By the mid-1980s, rappers began to draw inspiration from other musical styles such as electronic and rock music. For instance, Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock”, 1982 which samples Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express” and “Numbers” signalled a shift towards diversification and experimentation within hip-hop.

Afrika Bambaataa Planet Rock, 1982

Def Jam Recordings

A major opening of the genre came with record labels who produced and distributed their own artists. Two key labels were Def Jam Recordings and Tommy Boy Records.

Def Jam was co-founded in 1984 by Rick Rubin who created the label in his dormitory room using his loans from his parents whilst at New York University bringing along Russell Simmons as a partner.

Beastie Boys No Sleep Till Brooklyn, 1986

Rubin helped popularize hip-hop by producing records for acts such as the Beastie Boys, Geto Boys, Run-DMC, Public Enemy, and LL Cool J. He has also produced hit records for acts from a variety of other genres, predominantly heavy metal Nu metal and even country. In 2007, Rubin was called “the most important producer of the last 20 years”

Simmons is an American entrepreneur, writer and record executive. As well as co-founder of Def Jam Recordings, he has created the clothing fashion lines Phat Farm, Argyleculture, and Tantris.

LL Cool J I Need a Beat, 1985

Tommy Boy Records

Tommy Boy is an American independent record label that was founded in 1981 by Tom Silverman in his New York apartment with a $5,000 loan from his parents.

The label was an outgrowth of Silverman’s Dance Music Report bi-weekly publication, which spanned 14 years, beginning in September 1978. The artists currently on the label include De La Soul, Africa Bambaataa, Naughty by Nature and others.

Naughty By Nature Hip-Hop Hooray, 1992

1983-1997 – The Golden Age of Hip-Hop 

The early to mid-1980s gave rise to hip-hop’s second wave, also known as new school hip-hop, which saw a departure from many of the older traits. 

New school artists made shorter songs with minimalist, drum machine-led production that often sampled from rock, and party rhymes were replaced with rapped braggadocio and a greater emphasis on socio-political commentary. More stripped back than earlier incarnations, the sound was harder and stronger

New school rappers such as Run-D.M.C were released during this period as their self-titled album became the first hip-hop record to earn an RIAA Gold certification and the music video for the album’s third single, “Rock Box,” released in 1984 was the first rap video played on MTV. 

Run – D.M.C Rock Box, 1984

The group’s popularity and commercial appeal helped to spur the shift away from the genre’s previous influences and opened the door for further experimentation during the 1980s and ’90s that would characterize an era known as the golden age of hip-hop.

Interestingly, there was still a female presence. Salt-N-Pepa, which consisted of Cheryl ‘Salt’ James and Sandra ‘Pepa’ Denton along with DJ Spinderella forged their way through the male-dominated world of rap and hip-hop; built a following, and made statements through their music.

Formed in 1985, Salt-N-Pepa was one of the first all-female rap groups that made a huge impact on the music world by changing the look of hip-hop and being unafraid to talk about previously thought taboo topics. The group had a list of hit singles including: “Let’s Talk About Sex,” “What a Man,” “Shoop,” and “Push It” which were popular and still are today.

Salt-N-Pepa Push It, 1986

This early period saw the rise of MC Lyte who was the first solo rapper to release her own, full-length album, and is still considered one of the pioneers of female rap as she MC Lyte’s Lyte As A Rock which dropped in 1988 and became successful and jumpstarted her career.

MC Lyte Lyte Thee MC, 1988

It was often recognized for the innovation and diversity of sound and overall influence. During this time, rappers’ wordplay became more complex, and songs were a political commentary among struggles in everyday life such as crime, drugs, violence, and the economy. 

Public Enemy Fight the Power, 1989

Samples added to core beats were often wide-ranging sourced from world music to film which was heavily used during the production of the golden age. Because this was such a new musical sound, many albums from the era didn’t have legal clearance of the samples and sometimes got banned.

Towards the end of the ’80s saw the introduction of Gangsta Rap. This new style of rap contained lyrics that often depicted violence and activities related to street gangs, with Los Angeles-based rappers like N.W.A. and Ice-T. It grew into the 1990’s.

1983-2000 – The Conscious Wave of Hip-Hop

While new school and golden era hip-hop artists enjoyed their mainstream successes, conscious rappers such as Nas and Common who both released albums in 1994 worked on a style that was counter to the genre’s most popular forms.

Nas N.Y. State of Mind, 1994

They continued to experiment with sampling and production techniques that rappers used to express their views on a wide variety of topics including race, politics, poverty, and the environment in their music.

Common I Used to Love H.E.R.,1994

This period also brought icons such as De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest who were heavily influenced by jazz.

De La Soul Eye Know, 1989

In contrast to mainstream hip-hop’s tendency toward materialistic or violent subject matter, conscious rap was often seen as a more positive form to spread a message through the listeners to think critically about the world and their surroundings.

A Tribe Called Quest Can I Kick It?, 1990

Queen Latifah is an American Rapper and actress who started her rap debut with the native tongue collective which consisted of De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, Monie Love and many others. She was one of the earliest female rappers in hip-hop as she made a name for herself talking about issues in the lives of black women.

Queen Latifah U.N.I.T.Y., 1993

Songs like “Ladies First” and “U.N.I.T.Y.” released in 1989 and 1993 discussed domestic violence, street harassment, and the need for coalition-building between females and a change.

1991- 1997 – The East vs West 

This period saw the rise of East USA with West USA both producing distinctive sounds and also bringing violence alongside the fierce competition.

Notorious B.I.G Juicy, 1994

This was known as the rivalry between Tupac Shakur from Los Angeles(West Coast) and Notorious B.I.G from New York (East Coast) both released debut albums in 1991 and 1994 as they were beefing with each other as they were locked in a bitter conflict for stylistic dominance which resulted in their untimely deaths in 1996 and 1997.

They were friends and co-artists initially, then they started falling out of friendship due to Tupac being shot in a studio.

2Pac Brenda’s Got a Baby, 1991

Los Angeles and New York City were key cities in the growth of Hip-Hop during this time period. This era saw the release of landmark albums for both artists as well as others like Wu-Tang Clan’s “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) released in 1993 and Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” in 1992.

Wu Tang Clan C.R.E.A.M, 1993

The music from this period was characterized by aggressive, hardcore rap performances and politically charged lyrics that attacked social and racial injustices as the style generated plenty of controversy for its artists, gangsta rap was the most lucrative form of hip-hop during the mid-to-late 1990s.

Dr. Dre Nuthin’ but a “G” Thang, 1992

The Lady of Rage is an American rapper and actress who was pivotal to a number of essential rap movements as she was signed to Death Row Records. Death Row Records was referred to as “the most controversial record label in history”, due to one of the owners Suge Knight’s practice of hiring gang members and gang-related violence.

Lady of Rage’s biggest single to date “Afro Puffs” from the 1994 soundtrack of the movie “Above the Rim” was ranked number 57 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and number 5 on the Billboard US Hot Rap Songs.

The Lady of Rage Afro Puffs,1994

1990 – 2005 – The rise of Southern Rap 

The southern hip scene began to rise as artists such as Ludacris, Three 6 Mafia and OutKast who rose to fame and are nationally and internationally renowned.

Geto Boys Mind Playing Tricks on Me, 1991

Houston’s Geto Boys were the first southern hip-hop group to gain mainstream popularity due in part to their hit “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” which was featured on their 1991 album We Can’t Be Stopped. Texas-bred rappers Pimp C and Bun B of UGK furthered southern rap’s influence in the mainstream through the smash hit “Big Pimpin’” with Jay-Z in 2000.

Jay-Z Big Pimpin, 2000

Many artists came out of record labels set up by Master P, Bryan “Birdman” and Ronald “Slim” Williams. Throughout the ’90s and the ’00s, both released records from both artists such as Silk the Shocker and Juvenile; who released his album “400 Degreez” in 1998.

Juvenile Follow Me Now, 1998

Shawntae Harris – Dupart known as Da Brat is an American Rapper who got her first big break when she won the top prize in a local contest in her hometown of Chicago, Illinois. She met the wildly popular rap duo Kris Kross who introduced her to producer, Jermaine Dupri, who signed Da Brat to his So So Def label. She became one of the first female rappers to speak openly about her life.

Her debut album Funkdafied was released in 1994 and entered the Rap Albums chart at No.11 which went platinum, making her the first female solo rapper to sell one million copies.

Da Brat Funkdafied, 1994

1997-2006 – The Bling Era of Hip-Hop

The bling era brought forth a regression of the old school forms as music from this era placed a greater emphasis on beats rather than the lyrics as they were often focused on braggadocio and materialism whereas, the production was more futuristic as it included tight, R&B styled hooks delivered by popular singers like Ashanti and Mariah Carey as well as pop and soul samples from the 70s and 80s.

It marked a time of great commercial success for rap and its artists, many of whom found themselves topping the charts throughout the decade as the golden era artists remained important figures in hip-hop during this period such as Dr. Dre, who went on to executive produce 50 Cent’s debut album Get Rich or Die Tryin’ which was released in 2003.

50 Cent In Da Club, 2003

The advent of alternative distribution channels and the rise of online piracy led to a decline in album sales, effectively ending hip-hop’s album era and ushering in the beginning of digital downloads and music streaming.

Jay-Z Hard Knock Life 1998

Jay-Z and Kanye West made astounding music together as both artists released solo albums and a collaborative album “Watch the Throne” which was released in 2011.

2004 – now – The Conscious Resurgence of Hip-Hop 

The conscious hip-hop sub-genre reemerged again in the mid-2000s as a timely response to the materialism that defined the bling era as rappers were looking to return to the tradition of rhyming about emotions and personal life experiences. It gained traction with new audiences who had a renewed interest in independent artists as they also benefited from the use of the Internet for music consumption and promotion during this period.

A very prominent artist known in this era was Kendrick Lamar; who released his album “To Pimp a Butterfly” in 2015 along with his highest chart-topping single “Alright”.

Kendrick Lamar Alright, 2015

2006- 2014 – The Blog Era of Hip-Hop 

As the internet created new music distribution channels and record sales began to decline, emerging artists started using new tools to promote their releases and find new audiences for their music. 

At the start of what came to be known as the blog era, rapper Soulja Boy became one of the first artists to harness the power of the internet for music promotion. 

Using social media sites like Myspace and online video services like YouTube and UStream, Soulja Boy effectively marketed his way into a viral hit with “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” which was released in 2007.

Soulja Boy Crank That (Soulja Boy), 2007

During the blog era, music blogs and social media became crucial pathways that allowed artists to reach newer, younger, and wider audiences. 

Musically, hip-hop began to take a more melodic direction during this period as it removed barriers to entry into the music industry for many new artists at the start of their careers, including Drake, J. Cole, and Nicki Minaj, by allowing them to self-publish their songs and offer their projects as free digital downloads.

Nicki Minaj is a Trinidadian American rapper, singer and songwriter who is known for her alter egos, musical versatility and energetic flows and rhymes.

Her early works have been a proving ground and with a new batch of singles under her belt such as “Starships”, “Roman’s Revenge” and “Super Bass” as she has been unstoppable and dominating in the male-led industry.

Nicki Minaj Super Bass, 2010

2006 – now – The Alternative Revival 

While hip-hop artists have always worked in a range of styles that didn’t fit the mainstream, alternative hip-hop reached a critical mass of practitioners in the wake of the blog era. 

Alternative artists pushed hip-hop’s boundaries, shrugging off the genre’s traditional forms and blurring the lines between funk, pop, rock, jazz, soul, and reggae styles. 

Fueled by listeners’ interest in independent artists and the diversification of music distribution channels, alternative hip-hop became increasingly experimental.

Nonetheless, artists and albums from the era had found acceptance and acclaim from far-reaching audiences, including Tyler, the Creator’s horrorcore debut “Goblin” released in 2011.

Tyler, the Creator She, 2011

Lil Kim was an American rapper and singer who was a member of the late Notorious B.I.G’s group “Junior Mafia” from 1994 to 1997 along with Biggie and Lil Cease. She released her debut mixtape which was titled “Ms. G.O.A.T” in 2008 along with an interlude dedicated to women of hip-hop who paved the way before her.

Lil Kim Salute the Women of Hip-Hop (Interlude), 2008

2014 – now – The rise of Trap in Hip-Hop 

Trap music originated in Atlanta and ever since it has become a global phenomenon and continues to inspire and influence artists such as 2 Chainz and Future; who released his single “Mask Off” in 2017.

Future Mask Off, 2017

The production style consists of synthesized drums, complex hi-hat patterns and a few instruments to create its distinctive sound surrounding it along with 808s and autotune. Since 2014, trap has dominated the charts and more artists have released chart-topping singles. 

Megan Thee Stallion is an American rapper who is known for her hit songs “Savage” and “WAP” in collaboration with Cardi B which became an instant classic upon its release.

Megan Thee Stallion Savage, 2020

She first gained attention from her freestyling videos which became viral on Instagram and led to her signing to 300 Entertainment record label in 2018 where she released her debut mixtape “Fever” the following year and her debut EP “Suga” in 2020.

Up-and-coming American Hip-hop act Suave n Thick is releasing its new single ‘Long Distance’ on the 25th of August via Suave n Thick LLC.

Suave’n’Thick’s shared passion for music developed into a deep desire to create their own sound. Growing up in Brooklyn, essentially one of the Hip-Hop capitals of the world, these childhood friends knew they had to create something to contribute to the artistic landscape.

The dynamic duo has previously worked with producers such as Rawsmoov (Juvenile), megaTRONG (MoneyMan) and Strew-B (Soulja Boy), with ‘Long Distance’ being mixed and mastered by Maxime Morin, who has previously worked with the likes of H.E.R and A$AP Rocky.

‘Long Distance’ drips with style and ease which features a delicious funk bass reminiscent of old-school g-funk as the beat and flow give off a distinct Nate Dogg and Warren G vibe

The duo effortlessly combines elements of R&B and Hip-Hop to craft a delectable track with solid storytelling and lyricism, focusing on the feelings we all feel when falling for someone, and how that love grows stronger in their absence.

It’s a song with a little bit of everything for anyone, combining elements of west-coast hip-hop with pop for a dash of mainstream sensibility. Pre-order the album here

Hip-Hop born from pain, anger, and frustration, in dirt-ridden cities, has proved itself to be a genre that is more than sampled rifts spoken words and heavy beats. Its continuing legacy and experimenting with other genres such as pop, R&B and jazz has amalgamated into many splinter styles and it still looks to have many more years of life in it ahead.

Image on left-hand side Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label

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