“To the Hip Hop and You don’t Stop”: A Tribute for the 50th Anniversary of Hip Hop

Today’s blog was written by Dr. Tina L. Ligon, Supervisory Archivist in Augmented Processing at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland

Cover photo: A Great Day in Hip Hop, Harlem, New York, by Gordon Parks, 1998

This year, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the birth of Hip Hop. Rap, a genre of popular music rooted in funk, disco, and soul that encompasses the cultures of Black and Brown people is one part of Hip Hop culture. It tells the stories of joy, sorrow, love, hate, success, struggle, pleasure, and pain. With its beginnings in New York City, the key foundation of Hip Hop (which includes DJing, emceeing, breakdancing, and graffiti art) have spread across the country and the world, and have influenced all aspects of everyday life. Elements of Hip Hop are found in fashion, language, entertainment, pop culture, and even politics. These last five decades saw Hip Hop evolve from house parties in the Bronx to the global stage.

President Barack Obama poses for a group photo with hip hop and R&B artists, producers, and musicians: Onika Tanya “Nicki Minaj” Maraj, Lonnie Rashid “Common” Lynn Jr., Christopher Brian “Ludacris” Bridges, Marianna “Rapsody” Evans, Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, Rakim “A$AP Rocky” Mayers, Khaled Mohamed “DJ Khaled” Khaled, William Leonard “Rick Ross” Roberts II, Timothy Zachery “Timbaland” Mosley, Janelle Monae Robinson, Jermaine Lamarr “J. Cole” Cole, Trevor “Busta Rhymes” Smith Jr., Chancellor “Chance the Rapper” Bennett, Olubowale Victor “Wale” Akintimehin,Talib Kweli Greene, Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean, William Michael “Rakim” Griffin Jr., Kanye Omari West, Terrence “Pusha T” Thornton, and Alicia Keys (NAID 200283703)

It’s like a jungle sometimes. Makes me wonder how I keep from goin’ under.

The Message” – Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, New York City experienced an economic decline similar to that of the Great Depression, which caused the city to cut funding for schools, job training, and the arts. There was an increase in unemployment, violence, drug addiction, and homelessness. Additionally, absentee landlords, particularly in the Bronx, allowed their properties to fall into disarray and would rather let them go up into flames then make repairs. This borough during the mid-1970s, looked and felt like an abandoned warzone. However, the people of the Bronx, whose racial make-up mostly consisted of African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Jamaicans, and others from the diaspora, found innovative means to use these misfortunes to create an art form that would change the world.

Large Apartment Complex “Co-op City” in the Bronx overlooks Municipal Dump. The refuse continues to be piled up in this already overflowing dump. March 1973 (NAID 549752)

On August 11, 1973, Kool Herc and his sister, Cindy Campbell, held a back-to-school party at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx. At this party, Kool Herc tried out a new technique of using two turntables, where he played the same record simultaneously. Using the “merry-go-round” technique, Kool Herc focused on the breaks, the part of the song that emphasized the percussion. He played James Brown’s “Sex Machine,” and the extended version excited the crowd who danced into the night. The attention placed on the bass allowed local b-boys and b-girls to show off their footwork in attempts to outperform each other.

The magic of that party inspired other DJs (disc jockeys) to take the “merry-go-round” technique to another level. In the South Bronx, former gang member Afrika Bambaataa worked to bring peace among other gang members, as well as expose them to the cultures of Africa. He established the Zulu Nation, which consisted of DJs, artists, and dancers, as an alternative to gang life. Also, coming out of the Bronx was Grandmaster Flash, who studied the art of scratching using two turntables. He determined that by marking the break on the album with a crayon, would make a smoother transition without interruption. The innovations of Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash, along with DJ Kool Herc, made them the Godfathers of Hip Hop. Select DJs who made an impact on Hip Hop are: Funkmaster Flex, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Kid Capri, D-Nice, Kool DJ Red Alert, DJ Premier, DJ Screw, Mr. Magic, Spinderella,  Jam Master Jay, DJ Drama, Terminator X, DJ Scratch, and Eric B. to name a few.

“It’s just about ready to do that thingI don’t want no tears, I don’t want no liesAbove all, I don’t want no alibis-This Judge is hip, and that ain’t all”

“Here Come the Judge” – Pigmeat Markham (1968)

In the beginning, emcees played a secondary role to the DJ. Their main purpose was to make shoutouts, give announcements, or to let the crowd know someone’s mama was there looking for them. These emcees were creative on the microphone. The art of performing lyrics over music goes back several decades with the craft being used by preachers, radio DJs, and entertainers. In 1963, boxing great Muhammad Ali recorded the “I Am the Greatest,” album that cemented him as a poetic “trash talker,” and comedian Pigmeat Markham had a lyrical hit with “Here Come the Judge,” in 1968. This song used a rhyming dialogue over a funky drum beat about his legal troubles in a courtroom. The Black Power Era of the late 1960s saw the emergence of poetry groups such as The Last Poets and The Watts Prophets who performed political and social themed poetry over jazzy beats. Spoken word poet Gil Scott-Heron released “The Revolution will not be Televised,” in 1971, which became the blueprint for future Hip Hop songs. Scott-Heron’s smooth lyrics and style used TV shows and commercials of that time, to make a point about Black liberation.

‘Cause I grabbed the mic and try to say, “Yes y’all!” – They tried to take it, and say that I’m too small – Cool, ‘Cause I don’t get upset – I kick a hole in the speaker, pull the plug, then I jet

Microphone Fiend” – Eric B. & Rakim (1988)

The style and flow of emcees varied as much as their lyrical content. By the mid-1980s, emcees and Hip Hop groups took center stage using their microphones to perform songs using storytelling, bragging about themselves, dissing other emcees, or educating others. The content of their lyrics were as vast as the fashions they wore. Select emcees and groups representing the East Coast who made an impact on Hip Hop were: Doug E. Fresh, Eric B. & Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Roxanne Shante, Kool Moe Dee, Kurtis Blow, Jay-Z, L.L. Cool J, Craig Mack, NAS, Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock, Mobb Deep, Run DMC, Wu-Tang Clan, DMX, Heavy D & the Boyz, Big Pun, Slick Rick, Big L, Fat Joe, Fat Boys, Stetsasonic, DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, Junior Mafia, Busta Rhymes, Das EFX, EPMD, Kid ‘n Play, The Lox, Beastie Boys, Biz Markie, Jadakiss, Special Ed, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Camp Lo, and last but not least – the Notorious B.I.G., to name a few.

Blue Ivy Carter’s parents visit the White House, Dec 13, 2013 (NAID 289873112)

Have you ever went over a friend’s house to eat,And the food just ain’t no good?

“Rapper’s Delight” The Sugarhill Gang (1979)

Hip Hop exploded onto the music scene in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. Its popularity quickly spread outside of the Bronx and began to receive its well deserved recognition. “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugar Hill Gang was the first hip hop song to make the Hot 100 list in 1979. Below is a select list of Hip Hop firsts.

  • Kurtis Blow was the first rapper to sign with a major label (Mercury) in 1979.
  • Wild Style (1983) is credited as being the first Hip Hop motion picture
  • Video Music Box was the first music video show dedicated to Hip Hop in 1984.
  • Run DMC was the first to earn a Platinum Album for Raising Hell in 1986.
  • Salt-n-Pepa were the first female rappers to earn Gold and Platinum Albums for Hot, Cool & Vicious in 1986.
  • DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince were the first to win the Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance for “Parents Just Don’t Understand” in 1989.
  • MC Hammer was the first to win a Grammy Award for Best Rap Solo Performance for “U Can’t Touch This” in 1991.
  • Quincy Jones, Big Daddy Kane, Ice-T, Kool Moe Dee, Melle Mel & Quincy Jones III were the first to win the Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group for “Back on the Block” in 1991.
  • Naughty by Nature was the first to win Best Rap Album Grammy Award for Poverty’s Paradise in 1996.
  • Lauryn Hill was the first to win the Album of the Year Grammy Award for a rap album for The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1999.

Yet our best trained, best educated, best equippedBest prepared troops refuse to fightAs a matter of fact, it’s safe to say that they would rather switchThan fight

“Fight the Power” – Public Enemy (1989)

As emcees took center stage, some of them took Hip Hop to another level by educating others on Black and African history, raising awareness of social injustices, and embracing the knowledge of oneself. KRS-One (Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone) and Boogie Down Productions led the Stop the Violence Movement after the untimely death of DJ Scott La Rock. Their efforts led to the “Self Destruction” single in 1989, which was a collaboration of East Coast rappers. By using a militant approach with their stage presence, Public Enemy used their lyrical and hypeman skills to give a political message, especially about racism in America. Several other emcees and groups embraced an Afrocentric vibe with their music. They wore medallions showing the Continent, took African or Islamic names, wore bohemian clothing, and rapped about Black conscientiousness.  Some of these emcees and groups included: A Tribe Called Quest, X-Clan, Brand Nubian, Poor Righteous Teachers, Leaders of the New School, De La Soul, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Queen Latifah, Arrested Development, and The Roots, to name a few.

A woman can bear you break you take youNow it’s time to rhyme, can you relate toA sister dope enough to make you holler and scream

“Ladies First” Queen Latifah, feat. Monie Love (1989)
Queen Latifah with the Obamas hosting “In Performance at the White House: Memphis Soul,” Apr 9, 2013 (NAID 176546950)

Although men played a leading role in the beginnings of hip hop, women made important contributions to the music genre. In the early years, female emcees made their presence known while being disrespected by their male counterparts, but used their platform to let their voices be heard. Their lyrics dealt with issues of love, self-respect, misogyny, sexuality, motherhood, domestic violence, and female empowerment. Select women artists and groups who made an impact on Hip Hop were: MC Sha-Rock,  MC Lyte, Salt-N-Pepa, Queen Latifah, Monie Love, Lady of Rage, Oaktown’s 3.5.7., Roxanne Shante, Missy Elliot, Eve, Lil’ Kim, Bahamadia, J.J. Fad, Foxy Brown, Lauryn Hill, Trina, Da Brat, MC Trouble, Rah Digga, and Yo-Yo, to name a few.

6 ‘n the mornin’ police at my doorFresh Adidas squeak across the bathroom floor

“Six ‘n the Morning” – Ice-T (1986)
The 2014 Celebrity All Star Game with Snoop Dogg (NAID 146150721)

Hip hop spread across the country with the style and content varying from region to region. During the late 1980s, West Coast rappers used their music to tell stories about their daily experiences with gang life, poverty, racism, the crack epidemic, and police brutality. Their lyrics were raw and unapologetic. Select artists and groups representing the West Coast who made an impact on Hip Hop: were N.W.A., Ice-T, The D.O.C., Too Short, Yo-Yo, MC Hammer, Digital Underground, Coolio, Mack 10, Cypress Hill, E-40, DJ Quik, The Coup, Warren G., Dogg Pound, Luniz, LA Dream Team, House of Pain, Pharcyde, Tone Loc, Suga T, Xzibit, Sir Mix-a-Lot, Snoop Dogg, and last but not least Tupac Shakur, to name a few.

All the players came from far and wideWearin’ afros and braids, kickin’ them gangsta rides

Player’s Ball” – OutKast (1994).

In the mid-1990s, the Dirty South emerged to represent its down home culture of Cadillacs, soul food, Black college life, roller skating, adult clubs, and other everyday life experiences of Black southerners. Within the South, there are different sounds and vibes to fit the desires of each city. The Hip Hop styles in the South are Miami’s bass; Atlanta’s shake music; Houston’s chopped and screwed; Memphis’ crunk; and New Orleans’ bounce. Select artists and groups representing the South who made an impact on Hip Hop were: Geto Boys, 2 Live Crew, OutKast, Master P, Rick Ross, David Banner, Goodie Mob, Project Pat, Gangsta Boo, Nappy Roots, Mystikal, T.I., Three 6 Mafia, UGK, Lil Wayne, Mike Jones, Juvenile, Petey Pablo, Lil Jon, Mia X, and Ludacris, to name a few.

2 Live Crew, with Luke (far right), ca. late 1980s

Do you hear me, do you feel me? We gon’ be alright

“Alright” – Kendrick Lamar (2015)

Hip Hop continued to flourish into the 21st century. Today, its influence is found in every aspect of daily life. It is a multi-billion dollar industry, with many hip hop artists owning clothing lines, record labels, and liquor brands, branching out into acting, and hanging out with former US presidents and even Martha Stewart.

  • First Oscar for Best Original Song: Eminem, “Lose Yourself” from 8 Mile (March 23, 2003)
  • First Rappers inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (March 12, 2007)
  • First Pulitzer Prize for Music: Kendrick Lamar, DAMN (2018)
  • First Rapper inducted into the Song Writers Hall of Fame: Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliot (2019)

Select artists who represent the future of hip hop are: Kendrick Lamar, Anderson.Paak, J. Cole, Chika, Megan Thee Stallion, Nicki Minaj, Drake, and Cardi B.

“Rap is something you do, Hip Hop is something you live.”



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