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Hip-hop is a musical genre distinguished by a strong, rhythmic beat and a rapping vocal track. The genre began in New York City in the 1970s as a cultural exchange among Black, Latino, and Caribbean youth and has since grown to become one of the most popular music genres in the United States.
Many hip-hop artists claim to have changed the game, but the roots of that change can be traced back to hip hop’s early days. Yes, there have been many more game-changing artists in the 1990s and 2000s (which we’d love to include in a future list), but these five early hip hop pioneers created and grew the culture into a global phenomenon that we still enjoy today.
Hip Hop Pioneers That New Black Rappers Should Study and Why
In 1993, “Protect Ya Neck” became a hit single without a hook or a chorus. This “cypher” of 9 MCs rapping their verses was groundbreaking, but its success helped them land a game-changing deal with Loud Records, where they signed as a group and were allowed to sign with other labels as solo artists. The Wu-Tang Clan wasn’t just a group of musicians. It was also a revolutionary plan to open the music industry to hip hop, which was outside of the mainstream in the 1990s.
In the late 1980s, Public Enemy became the first political hip-hop group. Songs like “911 is a joke” and “Fight the Power” created a new form of social expression, speaking about injustices and lack of power. In 2005, “Fight The Power” was preserved in the National Recording Registry for “culturally and historically significant” sound recordings. Public Enemy transformed hip-hop, expanding its sonic vocabulary while raising the stakes for the music’s social impact.
Salt-N-Pepa’s 1987 debut album “Hot, Cool & Vicious” became the first rap album by a female act to go gold and platinum. In 1995, Salt-N-Pepa won a Grammy for Best Rap Performance by a Group, and Queen Latifah won a Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance, becoming the first female hip-hop act to win Grammy Awards. These wins paved the way for female rappers to break into the industry.
In 1986, Run-DMC’s 3rd album, “Raising Hell,” gave the hip-hop industry many “firsts.” It was the first hip-hop album to go platinum (and multi-platinum), the first to be nominated for a Grammy, and although their 1984 song “Rock Box” is credited as the first rap-rock song, “Walk This Way” with Aerosmith brought rap-rock to the masses.
In 1986, Rakim made lyricism an art form. His opening verse on “Eric B. Is President” immediately made the more simplistic rhyme patterns of Run-D.M.C. and LL Cool J feel old school. The complex rhyme patterns and flow of top-tier lyricists like Jay-Z, Lil Nas-X, Kendrick, and Eminem can be traced back to this moment, which sets the stage for many new-upcoming rappers with a much more complex flow.