Although many people think of rap and hip hop as uniquely modern developments, this genre of music has an amazing and complex history and can be traced back several centuries to the griots, who were the oral historians, storytellers, and general “keepers of knowledge” in many West African cultures. Instead of simply relating a tale in the cadence of everyday speech, many griots used drums and other instruments to provide rhythmic accompaniment to their stories. This remains the basic marker of rap today: a story delivered rhythmically and in rhyme, often accompanied by a percussion beat.
The hip hop and rap that we know and love today developed in the predominantly African American communities in the New York City neighborhoods of Harlem and the Bronx, in the early 1970s. At block parties and house parties across the area, DJs spun funk and soul tunes, whose distinctive beats later became the backbone of the rap genre. In addition, MCs at these parties were building off the Jamaican custom of “toasting,” or speaking over a song to make announcements, boasts, and jibes.
Although no one event can be considered the “birth” of hip hop culture, one event in particular is often cited as representative of the movement’s beginnings: an August 11, 1973, party in the Bronx. At 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, Jamaican-born DJ Kool Herc was at the turntables, entertaining a large crowd with a trick he called the “Merry Go Round.” Already a popular DJ who spun the funk and soul music of the day, he had noticed that many crowds wouldn’t really start dancing to a song until those moments when the vocals and main instruments subsided, leaving a few seconds of isolated drum beats. At the time, DJs typically used two turntables to smoothly transition between songs on two different records. Kool Herc, however, used the dual turntable setup to switch back and forth between the same songs, prolonging the rhythmic drum break that got crowds dancing. This isolated percussion beat is now a classic hallmark of the genre, and Kool Herc’s creative manipulation of a song are also present today in the sampling, mixing, and looping that characterize many hip hop tracks.
It would take less than a decade for hip hop to expand outside of the East Coast urban areas that had incubated it. In 1979, The Sugarhill Gang, a trio out of New Jersey, recorded the first commercially successful hip hop song. Their hit “Rapper’s Delight” sampled bits and pieces of the song “Good Times” by the disco band Chic, and served as an introduction to rap for many radio listeners unfamiliar with the genre. Over the next decade, rap evolved rapidly, with acts like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Kurtis Blow, Run DMC, N.W.A., and Public Enemy gaining popularity. A harder sound characterized the work of many artists, and their lyrics dealt with harsh realities like violence, drugs, and rage, paving the way for the birth of what became known as gangsta rap.
In 1992, Dr. Dre’s album The Chronic and his establishment of Death Row Records in Los Angeles marked a high note for the popularity of both gangsta rap and West Coast rap, and the subsequent West Coast-East Coast rivalry dominated much of commercial rap in the mid-90s. The West Coast was represented by artists like Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg, while Nas, Notorious B.I.G., and the Wu-Tang Clan were three of the biggest names from the East. The 90s also witnessed the making of megastar Jay-Z, and the rise of the Southern-based record labels and the “crunk” sound associated with them.
Since we hit the new millennium, the genre has only continued to evolve, both in the U.S. and elsewhere. Stars like Iggy Azalea, Trey Songz, Nicki Minaj, and countless others are breaking new ground in the genre.