By most accounts, hip-hop has a specific birthplace – so specific, in fact, that it has a street address: 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, the Bronx, New York. Here, on 11 August 1973, DJ Kool Herc debuted what would come to be one of the foundations of hip-hop: in an attempt to draw out the percussive ‘breaks’ in popular funk and soul records, he began performing with not only one but two turntables, elongating these sections for a crowd hungry to dance.
Herc, along with a number of other New York DJs, gradually finessed the technique, and soon they had perfected what we now know as ‘breaking’. Just like that, the foundations of a revolutionary new genre were laid.
Read on to follow the history and evolution of the genre, through Red Bull’s extensive archive of lectures and conversations.
Where it all began
Many of the most important traits of hip-hop had long been present in other music of black origin, and particular in the long lineage of sound system music. Boasting, chatting, and rudimentary rapping had been a major part of reggae and dancehall since the middle of the century, and its antecedents can be traced back even further, to the griot musicians of West Africa.
Meanwhile a number of mobile DJs played outdoor parties across Long Island, building dedicated fanbases who would follow them around as they popped up for each event. As Chuck D says: “[In] The Bronx and Brooklyn, a lot of people waited for things to come to them. In Long Island, you had to go and check it out. You drove there because you wanted to find that jump-off. These are some of the things that are underrated [in the history of hip-hop].”
That first rap record was, of course, the 1979 single Rapper’s Delight, from the Sugarhill Gang. Although other records had incorporated rapping, Rapper’s Delight was the first single to bring hip-hop to a mainstream audience. Playing on hits from Chic and Love De-Luxe, the track took disco and turned it inside-out. Its release was a watershed moment for hip-hop: the single broke the Top 40 in the States, and suddenly America was introduced to this radical new music.
By the beginning of the 1980s, hip-hop was in its ascendence. The sound had spread beyond New York, and was now popular in clubs across North America. In studios, though, technology was one of the major factors in hip-hop’s development during the decade. In 1980 instrument manufacturer Roland released the TR-808, a programmable drum machine that helped to forge the genre’s signature sound.
Just as important was the advent of sampling — the production technique most synonymous with hip-hop. The sampling technique saw producers cut and rework snippets or passages of existing music, reinterpreting them and giving them a new context within hip-hop. The 1981 Grandmaster Flash track The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash And The Wheels Of Steel was the first release made up entirely of sampled instrumentals, and it opened the floodgates for a creative revolution in music production.
Rise of the new school
Hip-hop soon mutated, and within just a few years the ‘new school’ was dominant. Run-DMC and Beastie Boys exemplified this tendency, adopting a sharper sonic palette and lyrics characterised by a combination of braggadocio and arch social observation. Beastie Boys became hip-hop’s first true mainstream crossover stars, topping the Billboard chart with their debut album Licensed To Ill and helping to build the foundation for Def Jam, now one of the most important labels not only in hip-hop but in popular music in general.
During the 1980s, MCing became supercharged with a wild new creativity. Artists like Rakim and KRS-One turned rapping into a true artform, with the depth and inventiveness of a serious literary project. That project began to truly bloom in the mid-’80s with the beginning of what became known as the ‘golden era’, birthing records such as Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back and Erik B & Rakim’s Paid In Full that remain talismans of rap culture.
The fury of those organisations was stoked by the release of Cop Killer, a single from Ice-T’s project Body Count, that told the story of an aggrieved man enacting revenge on a police force that had repeatedly brutalised him. Perhaps the most enduring record from that period, though, is N.W.A.‘s Straight Outta Compton, an album that is now a byword for political militancy in popular music. As well as fanning the flames of anger amongst American law enforcement, tracks like Fuck Tha Police helped to position Los Angeles as a new centre of gravity for hip-hop, rivalling the historically dominant New York.
The following decade saw some of hip-hop’s greatest achievements. In New York, Public Enemy’s Fear Of A Black Planet established a new high-water mark for militancy and experimentation in popular music while also enjoying enormous commercial success. Meanwhile Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), the 1993 album from Staten Island’s Wu-Tang Clan, set the template for the combative hardcore style. The record is characterised by dirty, aggressive production, and lyrics that are as likely to reference martial arts or comics as they are street experience, pieced together in a disorienting patchwork through which the listener is encouraged to follow multiple threads.
Way out west
On the West Coast, meanwhile, the now-solo ex-N.W.A. member Dr. Dre released The Chronic, an album that is now considered amongst the finest hip-hop records ever made. The Chronic introduced the world to G Funk, the style pioneered by Dre, based around funk-indebted production and languidly delivered but hard-hitting lyrics. Snoop Dogg, who appears throughout The Chronic, rapidly became a major star in his own right, and he became a lynchpin of LA’s Death Row Records, the label established by Dre, Suge Knight, and N.W.A. collaborator The D.O.C.. By the middle of the decade Death Row was the unassailable lynchpin of the West Coast scene, thanks in no small part to the stratospheric success of its star artist Tupac Shakur.
But Death Row remained constantly dogged not only by headline-grabbing gossip and controversy, but also by serious and frequent criminality on the part of its management and artists. Violent confrontations were commonplace, and the label increasingly defined itself through a bitter feud with its New York rivals, particularly Bad Boy Records, founded by Sean Combs and home to The Notorious B.I.G.. The personal rivalry between Shakur and Biggie was at the heart of that feud, the public face of which was a string of furious diss tracks.
Eventually, perhaps inevitably, Death Row was at the heart of a bloody tragedy: in September 1996 Shakur was the victim of a drive-by shooting, just a few hours after a confrontation with a member of a New York gang. The rapper died in hospital six days later. Six months after Shakur’s death The Notorious B.I.G. suffered the same fate, shot in a drive-by in Los Angeles by an assailant whose identity remains unknown.
By the early 2000s popular music was more or less dominated by hip-hop. Rap achieved a degree of cultural penetration that would have seemed unthinkable just two decades previously, with artists like Eminem and 50 Cent enjoying a stranglehold on the airwaves and music TV (and, in Eminem’s case, triggering a relitigation of the moral panics that had dogged previous generations of rappers). Some of the genre’s leading figures transcended their roles as pure musicians and became firmly embedded in the culture at large; during these years Jay-Z became as much a brand and businessman as he was a rapper, for example, while Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs was listed in Forbes’ 2002 rankings of 40 entrepreneurs under 40.
By this time, hip-hop had extended far beyond the confines of New York or California. There were thriving scenes in cities like Atlanta, Georgia, which had for some time been the epicentre of Southern rap. In Virginia, meanwhile, the young duo Clipse released their debut album Lord Willin’ in 2002. The record was produced by The Neptunes, the world-conquering production duo made up of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, and its combination of street-savvy lyricism and alien but immensely catchy beats guaranteed its position as a bonafide hit. After nine months of intensive touring, Grindin’, the lead single from the album, took off.
Outside of the charts, new underground hip-hop scenes were also flourishing. Jay Dilla, previously of Detroit trio Slum Village, had helped to define both alternative hip-hop and neo-soul with a series of productions beginning in the early ’90s, and 2006’s Donuts, a collection of lo-fi instrumentals released just days before his premature death, has now become a key touchstone for artists as diverse as Flying Lotus, Robert Glasper and Kendrick Lamar.
In 2002 New Yorker El-P, already a stalwart of the alternative scene through his work with Company Flow, released his solo debut Fantastic Damage, drawing inspiration from both the political militancy of artists like Chuck D and the smoked-out sci-fi with which the producer-MC was so enamoured. El-P’s later album I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead enjoyed comparative commercial success, and his solo catalogue is now considered a cornerstone of the alternative hip-hop movement. Later, in 2013, El-P founded Run The Jewels with Atlanta’s Killer Mike, and the pair are now amongst the most critically lauded hip-hop artists working today.
For many rap diehards, though, perhaps the most important voice of post-2000s hip-hop isn’t even American – he’s British. Daniel Dumile was born in London, before moving as a child to Long Island and, following a series of bruising early encounters with an unreceptive music industry under the name Zev Love X in the group KMD, he relocated to Atlanta in the late ’90s. There he assumed a new persona: the mask-wearing anti-hero MF Doom.
There were similarly important strides made by other alternative hip-hop artists during the period, with huge commercial success enjoyed in particular by OutKast with their 2003 double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. It was Kanye West, though, who emerged from the decade victorious. His 2007 chart battle with 50 Cent (with West’s Graduation and 50 Cent’s Curtis released in the same week) marked a turning point for hip-hop in which the alternative tendency ended the reign of gangsta.
Today, hip-hop’s position as the dominant form in contemporary music is more or less unchallengeable. It’s not simply that rap dominates the charts (although it often does) – hip-hop’s tenets have now been comprehensively absorbed into virtually every other genre. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that hip-hop now is popular music. In the four decades since Kool Herc’s back-to-school party, hip-hop has utterly reshaped contemporary culture.
Now watch an interview with sampling genius Madlib.