Hip-hop is a wonderful, centerless tangle, ubiquitous if not always fully visible.
It is a source of constant innovation and a historical text conducive to theft. It is a continuation of the traditions of rock, soul, and jazz, while explicitly loosening its cultural grip. It’s evolving faster than ever: new styles emerge every year, or faster, multiplying the genre’s potential. And it has an impact far beyond music: Hip-hop is woven into television and film, fashion, advertising, literature, politics, and many other corners of American life. It’s lingua franca, impossible to avoid.
It is too vast to be contained under a single tent or limited to one narrative. The genre is gigantic, non-linear and rebellious. It has its own internal disputes and misunderstandings, and its stakeholders are sometimes friends and collaborators, and sometimes viewed with suspicion.
So when it comes to cataloging hip-hop as a whole, it’s reasonable to lean towards cacophony. The package that accompanies this essay does just that, collecting oral histories from 50 titans of the genre from the past five decades. The number matters. It’s an acknowledgment that at 50, a bland fiction, but more on that later, hip-hop is broad and fruitful, gripping and polyglot, the source of an endless stream of narratives. Its fullness cannot be captured without expansion and ambition. Many voices need to be heard, and they will not always agree.
Side by side, there are stylistic innovators, crossover superstars, regional heroes, micromarket celebrities. There are those who insist on their primacy and see themselves as a center of gravity, and those who are proud students of the game and understand their place in hip-hop’s broader artistic arc. There are those that are universally recognized, and those that are known primarily by insiders. There are shakers and accommodators. The revered and the maligned. Some even play with the boundaries of what is commonly considered to be rap.
Taken together, these artists form a family tree for the genre, one that highlights the bridges between groups that are normally discussed separately and underscores the ways in which rappers, no matter what city they hail from or what era they’re in, They found. their success, they have been dealing with similar circumstances, creative questions and obstacles.
These 50 stories detail hip-hop from countless points of view: past forward and back; the underground upwards; the less populated regions towards the exterior; big cities to the suburbs. They tell the story of an impromptu musical movement that laid the foundation for the defining cultural shift of the last few decades.
Yet fifty years ago, that result seemed fanciful at best. In the 1970s, Bronx block parties gave way to nightclubs, and talking DJs set the stage for dedicated MCs to start taking over. Soon, the intrusion of capitalism removed and packaged the part of these live events that was easiest to broadcast: the rap.
Then he went to the races. By the mid-1980s, the hip-hop industry was a small club but big business, as audiences across the country were primed for the commercial release of recordings by countless New York artists. A wave of soon-to-be-global stars arrived: Run-DMC, LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys. Hip-hop became a global counterculture.
In the early 1990s, it flourished in all parts of this country—the South, the West, the Midwest—and seeped into the global mainstream. In the mid-’90s, thanks to the work of Biggie Smalls and Puffy, Tupac Shakur and Dr. Dre, Bad Boy and Death Row, it became the center of American pop music, despite resistance from those convinced that the rock was destined to reign forever. .
In the 2000s, the genre’s center of power shifted from the shores to the South, where the genre flourished (largely away from major-label scrutiny) in Miami, Houston, Virginia, Atlanta, and Memphis. 2 Live Crew, Geto Boys, Missy Elliott, Outkast, Three 6 Mafia – each soaked up what was imported from the rest of the country and created new lingo and sound frames around it. Hip-hop was becoming a widely shared language with numerous dialects.
Meanwhile, the genre was expanding, becoming more commercially successful and inescapable each year. It became centrist pop, which in turn spawned its own mavericks: the New York and Los Angeles undergrounds of the 1990s; the progressive indie scenes of the 2000s; and SoundCloud rap from the 2010s. Over the past 20 years, hip-hop has been responsible for not only the biggest pop music of the era (Drake, Kanye West, Jay-Z, Cardi B), but that their templates have been made open source so that artists in other genres can borrow, which they did, and do, extensively. Hip-hop became a crucial touch point for country music, reggaeton, hard rock, K-pop, and much more.
What is striking in the stories collected in this package is how no part of that rise has been taken for granted. At all times there were obstacles. For each artist, there was the promise of a scene just out of reach. And for all these rappers, that meant leaning into a new idea of what their version of hip-hop could be, and hoping that ears would find them in this untested place.
There is also the matter of the untold story: to read these memories is to continually remember those who are no longer here to share their stories. There’s a punishing catalog of untimely deaths just below these stories, a reminder that canons can’t include songs that never got made.
As for the 50th anniversary, well, it’s a framework of convenience. The date refers to August 11, 1973, when DJ Kool Herc, in the recreation room of the apartment building at 1520 Sedgwick Ave. in the Bronx, reportedly first mixed two copies of the same album into one breakbeat. continuous. That’s, of course, one way to think about hip-hop’s big bang moment, but by no means the only one. If you think of rapping as toasting, talking over pre-recorded music, or speaking in rhythmic fashion, then hip-hop has been around for over 50 years. Just ask the Last Poets, or DJ Hollywood, who would improvise rhymes into the microphone while playing disco records. There are also, depending on who you ask, others who had previously mixed two of the same album.
But the cunning and cynicism of trying to enshrine a quote that everyone can get behind reflects a darker and more troubling truth, which is that, for decades, hip-hop was perceived as disposable, a nuisance, an aberration. The commemoration and consecration seemed exaggerated. For a long time, hip-hop had to defend its rightful place in pop music and pop culture, facing hostilities racial, legal, musical and beyond.
Insisting that the genre has a point of origin, therefore, is really another way of insisting on its importance, its stability, and its future. You can argue with the specifics, and many do, but not with the intent, which is to ensure that the power and influence of the genre is never again overlooked by anyone.
That being said, hip-hop never went anywhere, because no style of pop music has ever been so adaptable and cunning. Hip-hop responds directly to its critics, voraciously consuming and reframing its antecedents. It is restless and immediate, sometimes it changes so fast that it does not stop documenting itself. So here’s a landing spot to ponder and a starting point for the next 50 years or so.