What began as a New York City youth movement in the 1970s has gone on to become a global phenomenon. The first rap records were released 40 years ago, born out of a do-it-yourself urban culture where DJs replaced bands and kids expressed themselves by crafting raucous rhymes to flow over the records’ beats. Now many of the genre’s pioneers are in their 50s and 60s and, having launched a music revolution, have set their sights on other fields—film, TV, business, even the ministry—and conquered those as well. Like it or not, you can’t ignore it: Hip-hop is the most popular music in America. Believe the hype.
Hip-Hop, or rap, grew outside the music establishment and was not embraced as “real music” for years. It emerged in the ’70s and ’80s as a positive, empowering voice for working-class African Americans at a time when many were struggling economically and dealing with the rise of a drug epidemic. People latched on to rap because of its sonic force. The songs had power. And the rappers stepped onstage wearing clothes that looked like what people in the audience were wearing.
Where R&B, with a few exceptions, had been about love and focused on melody, hip-hop was all about being cool and loving rhythm—the underlying beat and the rapper’s voice, which became another line of rhythm in the mix. It was new, audacious and cocky. For inner-city black audiences, early rap seemed like a realistic depiction of their world, and they appreciated the no-holds-barred look at their streets. As white audiences discovered rap, they found it thrilling, too; like a movie, it was a visit to another world. And like rock ’n’ roll, and blues and R&B and soul before it, hip-hop followed the tradition of much of America’s popular music—invented by black musicians for black audiences, then crossing over to a wider market. Plus, the early superstars were larger-than-life characters: LL Cool J, Run-DMC, Public Enemy.
Hip-Hop has developed into a rich musical culture, thanks to those pioneers, with performers worldwide now showing off the complexity of their rhymes, their diction and their sense of rhythm. The music dominates the pop charts, is studied in universities and often wins the top Grammy Award categories—even a Pulitzer Prize, for Kendrick Lamar, in 2018. And hip-hop has also provided the foundation for hugely successful careers in other fields.
- Hollywood: Will Smith, 51, is one of the top box office draws of all time, but some 30 years ago, he was a skinny Philadelphia kid rapping about how his parents just didn’t understand. Queen Latifah, 49, has appeared in about 40 films, plus had a lead role on the sitcom Living Single and a daytime talk show. She was even a CoverGirl model. She got her start, though, throwing down rhymes, including on her gold album Black Reign. Ice-T, 61, played a detective on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit for two decades, yet his career began in gangsta rap and thrash metal; some police groups once condemned the pointed commentary in his music.
- Business: Jay-Z, 50; Dr. Dre, 54; and Sean “Diddy” Combs, 50, are among the richest musicians in the U.S., with estimated net worths at or approaching $1 billion. Hip-hop offered them a path to success, from humble beginnings to stardom behind the mic, to business empires that include fashion lines, electronics, technology and liquor brands.
- Media: Snoop Dogg, 48, who rose up through the West Coast gangsta rap scene of the ’90s, hosts a network game show and a cooking program with Martha Stewart. LL Cool J, 51, an early rap star who is an actor, too, has been host of the Grammy Awards five times and programs a hip-hop channel on SiriusXM satellite radio.
To make it in rap, you had to be smart and strong, entrepreneurial and savvy enough to navigate an industry full of sharks. And you had to create a big persona that was still authentic to you. So, moving to the screen or boardroom is not that surprising. “I think that people who were able to make that transition did so because they were basically acting,” says music critic Nelson George. “As people get older, I would say what they’re actually doing is manifesting other parts of themselves that didn’t fit the hip-hop mode.”
HIP-HOP ARTISTS IN THE ROCK & ROLL HALL OF FAME
- Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, inducted 2007
- Run-DMC, 2009
- Beastie Boys, 2012
- Public Enemy, 2013
- N.W.A., 2016
- Tupac Shakur, 2017
On August 11, 1973, Kool Herc, an 18-year-old DJ who had grown up in Jamaica (the island nation, not the neighborhood in Queens), hosted a “Back to School Jam” in the rec room of the building where his family lived in the Bronx. He charged admission because he wanted to make some money so his younger sister could get new clothes for school, and he also served as the entertainment. Herc talked into the microphone, saying little rhyming phrases over the beats. That’s it—the origin of hip-hop.
In the ’70s, rap caught hold in the Bronx and then spread throughout New York City, mostly through parties in public parks. A DJ could create the music by mixing records together on two turntables, no band needed. Eventually, MCs (masters of ceremonies) took over the rapping duties from DJs. Over time, the raps became longer, more clever and more intricate, which inspired more sophistication. It was a hypercompetitive culture that demanded that rappers try to outdo one another—you had to rhyme quickly, you had to find rhyming combinations no one had heard before, you had to rap over the beat in a way that made you sound like another drum within the mix, and you had to say things that made the crowd cheer or think or lose their minds. It became a game in which rappers battled to see how well they could tell stories through rhyme, to earn respect in their community.