From schoolyard chants to worldwide studios: Hip hop’s evolution
December 16, 2015
Mirror Magazine wrote an article stating: “Hip hop has been named the most influential musical genre to emerge since 1960, beating the British invasion of the Rolling Stones and The Beatles, soul, punk, prog rock, heavy metal, disco and many more in a new study.” The publication took a scientific approach on the matter, using statistics to justify their claim. Regardless, it stands true. Hip hop, as a genre of music, remains popular after emerging 40 years ago. Why? Hip hop changes and adapts in ways that no other genre can. The long evolution of hip hop starts in the 1970s, and continues to revolutionize music today.
Hip hop music began in Bronx, New York. A young man named Clive Campbell emigrated to the Bronx at the age of twelve. Before moving to the U.S., Campbell lived among the dance halls of Jamaica. These dancehalls stood as gathering places where people danced and listened to music. When he got to New York, Campbell started trying to bring the dance hall sound to his community. However, the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway overshadowed his attempts, which displaced thousands of people and created a slum to the south of the expressway.
Campbell quickly turned his attention to the youth. He and his sister began hosting parties in his apartment building’s recreational room. During these back-to-school parties, Campbell, now known as “DJ Kool Herc,”created the framework for hip hop music. He began isolating the instrumental, percussion-heavy parts in popular songs, called “breaks,” and extending them using two turntables. Ideal for parties, these extended breaks allowed DJs and partygoers to create their own chants over the beats. Herc also developed the rhyming style of hip hop by adding little rhymes such as “B-boys, b-girls, are you ready? keep on rock steady. This is the joint! Herc beat on the point.” This became known as emceeing. Also styled as MC, an emcee keeps audiences entertained by creating and performing their own lyrics. These lyrics touch on any subject the MC wants them to.
Surprisingly, spoken-word poets also heavily influenced hip hop. African Americans still faced obstacles after the civil rights movement. Many lived in low-income areas and held minimum wage jobs as servants and maids and all experienced the prejudice against Blacks that still existed in society. Following the creation of street gangs, a portion of the community expressed their frustrations with their socio-economic conditions using violence. On the other hand, a few used poetry to express their pain.
Multiple groups, known as The Last Poets formed in the 1960s from the black nationalist movement: the group that received the most critical acclaim consisted of Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, Umar Bin Hassan, and Abiodun Oyewole. Their first LP, The Last Poets, denounced white oppression as well as civil strife. Critic Jason Ankeny wrote: “With their politically charged raps, taut rhythms, and dedication to raising African-American consciousness, the Last Poets almost single-handedly laid the groundwork for the emergence of hip-hop.” After a performance at Lincoln University in 1969, Oyewole said Gil Scott-Heron asked him after the performance, “Listen, can I start a group like you guys?”
Hip hop eventually moved from the streets of New York to the airways in 1979 with the release of the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.” The 14 minute song became extremely successful, selling over two million copies in the U.S. alone, bringing in $3.5 million for the newly founded Sugarhill Records. Many refer to it as the world’s first hip hop record. In the next year, hip hop continued to diversify into complex subgenres. Artists would take an elements of another recording, and cut it together with other recordings to create a new song. This technique became known as sampling. Grandmaster Flash’s “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” consisted entirely of sampled tracks, combining hip hop with electro music to create electro funk. Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” did the same, establishing hip hop on an international scale. The song received gold status and helped spread hip hop culture to other countries, such as Japan, Australia, and France.
Furthermore, the release of “The Message,” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, created another sub genre known as conscious rap. Also released by Sugarhill Records, “The Message” told listeners about life in a lower income area: “The bill collectors, they ring my phone/And scare my wife when I’m not home/Got a bum education, double-digit inflation/Can’t take the train to the job, there’s a strike at the station,” Melle Mel raps. Other artists sampled and covered “The Message” on various occasions, but no song comes close to the original. Despite the success of these songs, rap began to move in a different direction after the release of Run-D.M.C.’s “It’s Like That.” The song still talked about the poor environment in which the group lived, protesting their conditions and inequality, but instead of the using electro funk beats, the group combined elements of rock with hip hop. This opened the door for the new school age of hip hop, now known as the “Golden Age of Hip Hop.”
After releasing “It’s Like That” and “Sucker MCs,” Run garnered a large fanbase, becoming the first group in their genre to get a gold album with Run-D.M.C., in 1984. While Run received a Grammy nomination and posed for the cover of Rolling Stone, a Jewish hip-hop act from New York City also worked their way up the charts. The Beastie Boys gained attention after their song “Cooky Puss” became popular in underground New York night clubs. Based on a prank call made to Carvel Ice Cream, the success of the song encouraged the Beastie Boys to release an EP titled Cooky Puss. Realizing the power of incorporating rap into their music, the Beastie Boys began to rap in their sets. They hired DJ Rick Rubin, who eventually started producing music.
After teaming up with Russell Simmons, Rubin and Simmons formed Def Jam Recordings, and signed the Beastie Boys immediately. Their second studio album, Licensed to Ill, rocketed to number one on the Billboard charts, where it remained for five weeks. It also became the best selling hip hop album of the 1980s, and the first rap album to go number one on the Billboard charts. Singles such as “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” and “Fight For Your Right” turned into instant hits.
While Run-D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys dominated the charts, artists created another sound called gangsta rap. Evolving from hardcore hip hop, gangsta rap allowed inner-city artists to convey their anger and discuss subjects such as drugs, murder, police harassment, and gang activity without fear of suppression. Since its creation, gangsta rap and controversy have gone hand-in-hand. Politicians and religious leaders often criticize gangsta rap for allegedly promoting crime, violence, and racism, among other things. In response, artists defend the genre by accusing the government of ignoring the issues in their communities. Sister Souljah said “The reason why rap is under attack is because it exposes all the contradictions of American culture …What started out as an underground art form has become a vehicle to expose a lot of critical issues that are not usually discussed in American politics. The problem here is that the White House and wanna-bes like Bill Clinton represent a political system that never intends to deal with inner city urban chaos,” in an interview with journalist Chuck Philips.
While The Golden Age ended in the 90s, rap did not decline. Billboard editor Paul Grein named 1990 as “the year rap exploded.” Public Enemy’s third studio album, Fear of a Black Planet, wowed the public and critics alike. The commercial success of this album contributed to hip hop’s transition to mainstream, as well as the success of MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This.” After N.W.A split in 1991, former member Dr. Dre released his first studio album, The Chronic. This created a style known as G Funk. Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle further developed the style, influencing other artists such as Warren G and Coolio. These albums also perpetuated the west coast versus east coast rivalry. Rappers from both coasts began competing to become more successful than one another. East coast artists, such as Wu-Tang Clan, Nas, and Notorious B.I.G., strived to produce better music than west coast artists such as Ice Cube, Cypress Hill, and 2Pac. The rivalry ended after the murders of 2Pac in 1996 and Notorious B.I.G. in 1997. The murders remain unsolved to this day.
By the late 1990s, the hip hop scene became dominated by artists such as Puff Daddy, Aaliyah, Lauryn Hill, and TLC. The early 2000s welcomed the birth of southern rap, created by rappers such as Outkast, Ludacris, and the Ying Yang Twins. Since its birth, the south has become an epicenter for hip hop. The mid-2000s brought about the rise of Lil Jon and crunk, a derivative of southern rap and dance style. By the 2010s, many popular artists hailed from the south, primarily Atlanta. Rappers such as Gucci Mane, Future, Childish Gambino, Migos, and 2 Chainz topped the charts and, as the New York Times wrote, made Atlanta “hip hop’s center of gravity. However, popular hip hop artists now come from all over. Drake, a rapper from Toronto, Canada, released Nothing Was the Same, an album that sold 1,720,000 copies in the United States.
From simple schoolyard chants over popular songs to complicated raps about society, hip hop has evolved in a way that no other genre has. As the most popular genre of music in the world, it speaks to billions of people every day. GZA once said, “We attack people’s emotions. It’s a real live show that brings out the inside in people. Like I said, intense.” This quote still rings true today.