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Celebrating 50 Years of Hip-Hop

What emerged from a simple party in 1973 has evolved into a global cultural movement

spinner image a collage of famous figures from rap and hip hop history
Sean McCabe/Getty Images (27)

It all started on Aug. 11, 1973. An 18-year-old Clive Campbell and his younger sister Cindy hosted a dance party, billed as a back-to-school jam, in the rec room of an apartment complex at 1520 Sedgwick Ave. in the Bronx, New York. (These details are now the stuff of legend.) Clive, who spun records under the moniker DJ Kool Herc, had previously noticed that dancers responded to the instrumental breaks in songs, especially those heavy with bass and drums. So he set up two turntables and artfully switched between them to isolate and extend the “breakbeats,” never losing the rhythm. Hip-hop was born.

Many said it would be a fad, like so many pop-cultural trends before and after. But in the 50 years since that fateful event, hip-hop has entrenched itself in our society.

spinner image the community center on the ground floor of fifteen twenty sedgwick avenue in new york city is known as the birthplace of hip hop
The apartment complex in New York where hip-hop was born.
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I became aware of hip-hop as a college student in late ’70s New York. It was the antithesis of disco glamour. You could wear sneakers and baseball caps and be part of the party. A number of kid-friendly practices (rhyming over a beat, deejaying, break-dancing on cardboard, spray-painting graffiti on walls) coalesced into a coherent culture. As a writer, I watched and documented hip-hop as it grew from a small scene to one with national and international appeal. A huge part of hip-hop’s success is that it’s adaptable, so the music, rhyme style, dances and clothes evolved while remaining true to the culture. Much of modern hip-hop sounds nothing like the old-school beats I heard back in the day. But by remaining a potent medium of youthful expression, hip-hop has stayed contemporary.

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Over the decades, detractors have come after hip-hop. Record industry professionals. African American church groups. Women’s groups. Politicians of both major parties. Yes, at times, much hip-hop has been raw, rude and viewed as a niche expression. But the attacks reaffirmed the value to its fans. While critics disdained its language, there was an unrestrained honesty that spoke to younger people. And hip-hop was an underdog, fighting for respect from the makers of rock, jazz and country. But as the genre became more popular than any other, it eventually influenced all those styles that came before it. You can even hear rapping and trap beats in some country songs today.

VIDEO: Hip-Hop’s Second Act — How Rap Pioneers Are Reinventing Themselves

Just as significant: Hip-hop sells movies, TV series, clothing, alcohol, sneakers, perfume, hair products and brands of every description — and has made billionaires of its sharpest entrepreneurs. (Jay-Z, Rihanna and Sean “Diddy” Combs are among the richest people in the world, from business ventures encompassing more than just songcraft.)

It isn’t only America. Travel to South Korea, Brazil, Poland or South Africa — practically anywhere — and hip-hop scenes proliferate. And it all started at a small party in the Bronx.

Essential playlist

Nelson George lists these as the most important tracks in 50 years of hip-hop.

“Rapper’s Delight,” Sugar Hill Gang

The big bang that took rap from the New York streets to vinyl was masterminded by R&B singer Sylvia Robinson after she heard a rapping DJ at a Harlem club.

“Sucker MCs,” Run-DMC

Over a drum machine and minimal instrumentation, Joseph “Run” Simmons and Darryl McDaniels established an aggressive vocal style that made them rap’s first superstars.

“The Message,” Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five

This socially conscious landmark showed that hip-hop could be about more than party rhymes and breakbeats.

“Fight the Power,” Public Enemy

Spike Lee wanted an anthem to open his movie Do the Right Thing. Chuck D, Flavor Flav and the Bomb Squad production team delivered a sonic assault.

“Ladies First,” Queen Latifah

Latifah, along with Monie Love, made the first great female empowerment track in hip-hop, one that echoes through the culture to this day.

“6 in the Morning,” Ice-T

Ground zero for “gangsta rap,” the tale of a hustler harassed by police established the persona of this MC (later turned actor).

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“Straight Outta Compton,” N.W.A.

This example of “street knowledge” put Compton, California, on the cultural map and introduced Ice Cube, Eazy E and Dr. Dre to the world.

“U Can’t Touch This,” MC Hammer

By repurposing Rick James’ “Super Freak,” the Bay Area MC and dancer made a record that unleashed hip-hop’s pop potential.

“Lost Ones,” Lauryn Hill

This track from the multi-Grammy-winning album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill showcases the lyrical gifts of a versatile performer.

“Juicy,” the Notorious B.I.G.

Inspired by Mtume’s “Juicy Fruit,” Biggie Smalls laced his clever syncopated lyrics over a trademark party-perfect Sean “Puffy” Combs production.

“Deep Cover,” Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg

The theme song from a crime drama introduced Snoop Dogg’s silky flow to the world, while Dre’s ominous production mixed melody and melodrama.

“Dear Mama,” Tupac Shakur

Tupac’s mother, Afeni, was a Black Panther, a crack addict and a survivor. Tupac relates her complex journey with a passion that revealed his poetic soul.

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“Me So Horny,” 2 Live Crew

Using pumping Miami bass rhythms and a sample from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, provocateur Luther Campbell was the ringmaster for this nasty dance-floor filler.

“Trap Muzik,” T.I.

The subgenre this veteran Atlanta rapper named with the track has been a dominant hip-hop style for over 20 years.

“Ni**as in Paris,” Jay-Z and Kanye West

The combination of Jay, the game’s sickest MC, and Kanye, the then-rising MC and producer, resulted in an explosive ode to excess and luxury.

“Amilli,” Lil Wayne

The eccentric thinking, unique voice and off-kilter delivery that made Wayne the center of a vibrant New Orleans hip-hop scene are on full display here.

“Nice for What,” Drake

Using a conversational flow, the gifted Canadian wordsmith and quasi-romantic celebrates a woman making plans for the weekend.

“Bad and Boujee,” Migos

The style of the Migos (Quavo, Takeoff, Offset) and guest Lil Uzi Vert on this hit single impacted contemporary hip-hop lyricism and attitude.

“Bodak Yellow,” Cardi B

This reality-TV-star-turned-MC’s debut single made her ubiquitous on the radio, gossip websites and social media, where her assertive sexuality made her a role model.

“Alright,” Kendrick Lamar

By describing despair and preaching optimism, the agile and ambitious Los Angeles–bred MC composed an anthem for the Black Lives Matter generation.

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