Hip-hop, also known as rap music, is essentially the black version of heavy metal or punk — music that, at the height of its "eeeeeevil" cred, absolutely terrified moral guardians of all stripes, most famously the Parents Music Resource Center. Given its roots in urban African American culture, it's especially known for having been subject to particularly racialized criticisms about how it's responsible for "the decline of black America" and all the social ills affecting the black community.
Hip-hop emerged in New York City in the 1970s, combining Jamaican and West African music traditions with American funk music. While artists like DJ Kool Herc helped pioneer it, it had its greatest creative explosion as a result of the Blackout of '77. During the ensuing riots, a large quantity of high-end DJing equipment was looted, finding its way into the hands of many aspiring musicians in the South Bronx who otherwise could never have dreamed of having such equipment. Suddenly, there was a DJ on every block, and before long, it was breaking into the mainstream consciousness. The Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" is often credited as the first successful hip-hop single, and before long, mainstream artists like Blondie were incorporating rapping and other hip-hop elements into their songs.
The Golden Age
The "Golden Age" of hip-hop is often held as having run from the mid-late '80s to the early '90s, the exact years depending on who's telling the story. Hip-hop as a genre was still just outside the mainstream, but artists like Run-D.M.C., the Beastie Boys, MC Hammer, and Vanilla Ice were having crossover hits. Beneath the surface, rap was spreading quickly beyond New York and across the country. Many subgenres emerged that would lay the foundation for what emerged when hip-hop as a whole eventually did break into the mainstream, from the dance-pop stylings of Salt-n-Pepa to the gangsta rap of N.W.A. to the lyrically-focused raps of LL Cool J.
Having come out of the Reagan and Bush Sr. years and the height of the crack epidemic, some of the rap music of the Golden Age could get very political, and often quite militant. Public Enemy was among the most famous political rap groups, writing songs like "Fight the Power" that called for African Americans to rise up against The Man and institutional racism. They were hardly the only ones taking on political issues in their music; Boogie Down Productions, led by KRS-One, started the Stop the Violence Movement after one of their members, Scott La Rock, was killed in a shooting.
The Golden Age of hip-hop also saw some of the music industry's biggest pre-Napster fights over intellectual property. "Sampling", the recycling and remixing of older songs (either in full or only in snippets), became a major element of hip-hop beats during this time, often to the consternation of the copyright holders of the songs being sampled. The issue eventually came to a head in 1991 with the court case Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records Inc., which required that the artists sampling copyrighted music get the permission of the rights holders to do so. The effect of this wasn't what the copyright holders hoped—instead of paying big bucks to sample songs, many rappers simply replaced sampling with covers of the songs that they would have sampled, meaning that they only had to pay royalties to the songwriter rather than the artist and the label as well.
Gangsta rap (or, when hip-hop became really scary)
In the twilight years of the '80s and the first half of the '90s, rappers like N.W.A, Ice-T, Tupac Shakur, and the Notorious B.I.G. popularized what was known as "gangsta rap", with lyrics about the hustle to survive and the gang wars of the ghettoes. Gangsta rap was viciously uncensored, leading it to be called "reality rap" and "the CNN of the streets" with its depiction of life in the 'hood and what it meant to live there. It was unapologetically lurid and dangerous, with lyrics that voiced militant hostility at whoever was on the rapper's shit list the day he walked into the studio, be they ex-lovers, people who ripped them off, or you personally. The police especially came under fire as symbols of corrupt white power over downtrodden black youth; a number of songs whose lyrics relished in murdering cops were often used as Exhibits A, B, and C by cultural critics who called for a crackdown on rap music. It certainly did its job in making white people aware of that world — often to the point of sheer pants-wetting terror, especially among the older generations. The output of the era is legendary; while the Golden Age was the time when hip-hop evolved and took on most of its defining qualities, the gangsta era is often held to have produced some of the greatest rappers and rap albums of all time, to the point where some count it as the bookend to the Golden Age.
The gangstas had made hip-hop into the new punk rock, which is probably why the phenomenon of the "wanksta" (or, less politely, the "wigger") emerged around this time. White people, from Debbie Harry to Anthrax, had made forays into the hip-hop world for a decade by that point, but it was in the '90s when the interest of young white people in rap music became a cultural phenomenon. With talking heads railing against the gangstas, any teenage boy who sought an escape from his suburban life could start wearing a hoodie and peppering his speech with "street" slang while blasting the latest Dr. Dre record that he knew his parents would hate. By the late '90s, this form of cultural appropriation as a means of youth rebellion would produce white rappers of varying degrees of credibility. Most were stereotyped as middle-class posers, though some (most famously Marshall Mathers, aka Eminem) actually did have the skills and the "ghetto" background to silence their critics.
Lower-class rebel cred wasn't the only thing gangsta rap shared with punk—the two genres were also rich with machismo. The raw, outspoken attitude that characterized gangsta rap meant that it could, and often did, dip into displays of some very retrograde views on women and homosexuals. Even when not being explicit in such sentiments, questioning a foe's sexuality and insinuating that he likes other men was a frequently employed method of dissing them, while women were often presented as either a reward for living "the good life", or gold diggers who would swiftly cheat on them for a richer man. Furthermore, as the genre grew more popular and more controversial, some gangsta rappers were often accused of promoting the lifestyle of the streets, or at least of selling out and presenting an idealized "badass" image of it lifted from gangster movies in order to sell records to suburban white kids and get themselves on the evening news. On the other side, just like grunge around the same time or punk rock in the late '70s, the record industry was starting to pay heed to hip-hop, looking for its most marketable elements to bring to the mainstream while sanding off its rougher edges.
Y2K and beyond
Hip-hop fully entered the music mainstream in the late 1990s, when a new generation of rappers led by the likes of Sean Combs (known by way too many stage names to list), Will Smith, and Jay-Z emerged. The murders of Tupac Shakur in 1996 and the Notorious B.I.G. in '97 brought the rough-hewn lifestyles that the gangstas rapped about into harsh relief and made them seem much too close to home, to both their audiences and to the rappers themselves. What followed was a generation of increasingly pop-influenced hip-hop, with lyrics about making money, partying, and living the good life, while also becoming more introspective and mournful. One of the greatest demonstrations in the shifting state of hip-hop was Combs' debut album (under the name Puff Daddy) No Way Out, which was originally titled Hell Up in Harlem before Biggie's death brought Combs to the conclusion that there was "no way out" of the way things were. Many have called this shift "selling out", but a lot of the pop-rap of the late '90s was just as solidly-written even if it now had a pop sheen and wasn't talking about inner-city struggles anymore.
Meanwhile, hip-hop influence began running in the other direction, spreading to pop music just as it was taking on pop qualities itself. R&B, as a fellow "urban" genre, grew close to the increasingly pop-friendly hip-hop landscape, with rappers showing up on R&B songs while female R&B performers sang the choruses on rap songs and showed up in the videos. The "thug love ballad" became a way for rappers to soften their image and add female fans, while a wave of female rappers like Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliott, and Lil' Kim brought their perspectives into what was then (and still is) a very male-dominated genre. Rock music wasn't immune from hip-hop influence either, with the late '90s seeing the emergence of "nu metal", a genre whose name is still remembered with dread (and more than a bit of "ugh, what were we thinking?") by many Gen-X metalheads and rock fans. Combining a streamlined metal/alt-rock sound with hip-hop production and the aggression of gangsta rap (among many other stylistic influences thrown into the same blender), nu-metal became the "angry white boy" music of the turn of the millennium.
In the 2000s, the genre's center of gravity moved south, to cities like Atlanta, Miami, New Orleans, and Houston that popularized a raunchy "Dirty South" brand of hip-hop that often turned the sleaze up to hair metal levels. From the same region, the genre of "trap music" also emerged as what could arguably be described (though don't quote us on this) as an heir to gangsta rap, once more turning to matters of a criminal nature (particularly drug dealing) for influence.
Today, rappers are the new rock stars. Many pop artists, white and black alike, frequently collaborate with rappers and incorporate hip-hop production into their songs, and many of the biggest pop music producers working today, such as The Neptunes, Timbaland, and Mike Will Made It, got their start in hip-hop. Ice-T, who once did a song called "Cop Killer" with his punk/metal side project Body Count, now plays a detective on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, while Snoop Dogg has become a modern-day Jerry Garcia, Willie Nelson, or Cheech Marin with his almost self-parodic involvement in stoner culture. N.W.A was the subject of a critically-acclaimed biopic in 2015 produced by two of its former members, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, the former now being a successful actor (who's also gone from singing "Fuck tha Police" to playing a cop in several films) and the latter now a billionaire record mogul. From a modern perspective, it can seem ridiculous that this genre was ever threatening.
Hip-hop had a certain... reputation in the '90s, acting as the focus of one of the great moral panics of American history. After heavy metal ceased to be relevant, anti-obscenity groups like the Parents Music Resource Center turned their gaze to that new "ghetto musick" that was getting popular, accusing it of spreading black supremacist ideology, misogyny, and anti-police attitudes and glorifying gang violence. Local governments attempted to ban rap music and prosecute stores that sold it, making it a cause celebre for free speech activists. "Hip-hop culture" became a scapegoat for "law and order" conservatives to use whenever they wanted to explain why African Americans still struggled with poverty and crime. The "inspirational teacher" movie Dangerous Minds in 1995 went so far as to change the true story it was based on in order to have Michelle Pfeiffer's white teacher protagonist use the lyrics of Bob Dylan instead of Public Enemy to reach her students (because what can those kids learn from rap?), something that Roger Ebert grimly noted in his review.
The rappers, for their part, embraced the controversy, knowing that every hysterical complaint meant that more people would seek out that "dangerous" music. The PMRC's "Parental Advisory—Explicit Lyrics" label, aka the "Tipper Sticker" (after PMRC head Tipper Gore), far from being a warning label, instead became a badge of honor that rappers would flaunt on their albums in order to prove their street cred. In fact, one could argue that censorship attempts by the PMRC and others were part of the reason why gangsta rappers got so big in the early-mid '90s rather than remaining a small niche—everyone was talking about them on the news, giving them more publicity than they could've dreamed of and inadvertently turning them into the face of hip-hop. The gangsta wave eventually grew so big that even established non-gangstas like MC Hammer (a previously clean-cut Christian who rebranded himself as simply "Hammer") were switching their sound and image to fall more in line with the new gangsta wave, as not doing so could see their street cred, and with it their success, called into question.
Today, with hip-hop an integral part of the fabric of pop music, few people care anymore outside of the most hardcore white nationalists complaining about hip-hop being the "death" of Aryan culture — and even then, some white-power musicians, particularly in Europe (home to its own rap scenes that aren't as deeply associated with black or otherwise non-white culture), have started co-opting rap music themselves, just as they did rock 'n' roll before it. Nowadays, you're more likely to hear the loudest complaints about "rappers today" coming from old-school hip-hop fans waxing nostalgic over the Golden Age, gangsta rap, or even the pop-rappers of the late '90s, not unlike fans of classic rock (itself once a "threatening" genre) bemoaning how the Beatles, Black Sabbath, Motley Crüe, Nirvana, or Nickelback (depending on the era they're from) spelled the downfall for rock music. If you ever needed a sign of rap's growing acceptance in modern society, there you have it.
Rappers with their own pages
- B.o.B, a one-time star now best known for losing his damn mind
- Greydon Square, the "atheist rapper."
- Immortal Technique, who could be best summed up as the leftist rapper version of Alex Jones
- Jedi Mind Tricks, an even more unhinged version of Immortal Technique
- Tupac Shakur, highly influential rapper whose death has resulted in the craziest conspiracy theories
- Keko, Don. "The Rise of Hip-Hop." Examiner.com, 25 January 2013 (recovered 14 September 2014).
- Hall, Delaney. "Hip-Hop and the 1977 New York Blackout." Panic Narrative, 5 November 2010 (recovered 14 September 2014).
- "Rapper's Delight" by The Sugarhill Gang
- "Rapture" by Blondie
- Green, Tony. "Remembering the golden age of hip-hop." Today Music, 2 August 2004 (recovered 14 September 2014).
- "Fight the Power" by Public Enemy
- "Self Destruction" by the Stop the Violence Movement
- Richards, Chris. "The court case that changed hip-hop—from Public Enemy to Kanye—forever." The Washington Post, 6 July 2012 (recovered 14 September 2014).
- Urban Dictionary: "wanksta" and "wigger"
- Such as Robert "Kid Rock" Ritchie, who grew up as the son of the owner of several car dealerships in the posh Detroit suburb of Romeo, Michigan. To his credit, he did later drop the pretense of being a hardcore rapper... in favor of becoming a Confederate flag-waving, troop-saluting, good ol' boy heartland rocker in the vein of fellow Michigander Ted Nugent, having disowned his rap-rock past. The fact that Gen-X and older white folks are pretty much the only large demographic that still prefers to buy lucrative physical CDs instead of streaming music or purchasing it through iTunes certainly had nothing to do with that creative decision...
- "Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)" by The Offspring. ("You know it's kinda hard just to get along today / Our subject isn't cool, but he fakes it anyway / He may not have a clue, and he may not have style / But everything he lacks, well, he makes up in denial!")
- Scarface especially has such a storied/notorious reputation in the hip-hop community that there's even been a documentary about it. Much (though by no means all) of this fandom, of course, tends to ignore the third act of the film, where the drug lord anti-hero Tony Montana spirals into a cocaine-fueled haze of paranoid machismo that culminates in his violent death.
- Though we will try. Combs went by Puff Daddy from 1997 until 2001, when he changed his stage name to P. Diddy in an attempt to repair his image after an arrest for a weapons charge in December 1999 (he was ultimately acquitted). In 2005, he changed it again to simply Diddy, as he felt that his fans were growing confused over whether to call him Puff Daddy or P. Diddy, and that shortening it would simplify things. (He's still known as P. Diddy in the UK, though, where a London-based DJ who himself had used Diddy as his stage name since 1992 successfully sued Combs over the rights to the name.) On top of that, there's his nickname Puffy, which was common enough that a Japanese pop duo by that name referred to themselves as Puffy AmiYumi in the US in order to avoid confusion. There was also a short-lived hip-hop/R&B group called "Diddy – Dirty Money", composed of Combs, singer-songwriter Kalenna Harper, and singer/dancer Dawn Richard. Confused yet?
- Nostalgia Chick (feat. The Rap Critic): "Will Smith Was a Rapper, Once..."
- Young, Alex. "Rock History 101: Intro to Nu-Metal." Consequence of Sound, 23 January 2011 (recovered 21 September 2014).
- "Cop Killer" by Body Count
- IMDb: Straight Outta Compton (2015)
- Phillips, Chuck. "Appeals Court Voids Obscenity Ruling on 2 Live Crew Album." The Los Angeles Times, 8 May 1992 (recovered 14 September 2014).
- Ebert, Roger. "Dangerous Minds." RogerEbert.com, 11 August 1995 (recovered 14 September 2014).
- Sargent, J. F. and LouAnne Johnson. "6 Bizarre Lies Hollywood Tells When They Base A Movie On You." (#4. Hollywood Will Cut Out The Entire Point Of A Story.) Cracked.com, 6 December 2015 (recovered 6 December 2015).
- "White power hip-hop? Seriously?!" Imagine 2050, 28 August 2008 (recovered 13 April 2016).
- "Neo-Nazi Rap Used as a Recruitment Tool in Germany." Imagine 2050, 1 November 2013 (recovered 13 April 2016).