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The History Of Hip-Hop: Beginner’s Guide To Hip-Hop & Rap

Hip-Hop is one of the most diverse and fascinating musical genres out there. Countless artists have created and evolved the genre over the years, and it has come a long way since its violent origins on the streets of the Bronx. 

We’ve put together this comprehensive guide that explains the history of this much-loved music genre, so you can get a flavor of how much it has grown and evolved over the years. Let’s begin with a definition of Hip-Hop, so you know where we’re coming from!

Understanding hip-hop 

Hip-hop is a term that is widely used but often misunderstood and confused with the term rap. It is one of the most popular genres of music on the planet. It refers to a broad body of musical styles that incorporate a deep rhythmic beat and an accompanying rap. 

Very much an Eastside creation, Hip-Hop emerged from the troubled streets of 1970s New York City, where lawlessness, vice, and violence were all too commonplace. 

In the early days, as we explore below, Hip-Hop tracks were produced by Latino, Black, and Caribbean youths in the city, who used the genre to express the real-life struggles they were experiencing on the streets. 

The term ‘Hip-Hop’ is used to encompass the four main pillars of this vast genre: 

  • Rapping
  • DJing
  • Breakdancing 
  • Graffiti 

In the present day, numerous Hip-Hop sub-genres have emerged to help classify the varieties of the genre. But before we get into Hip-Hop today, let’s head back in time to the Bronx, where one of the world’s most beloved musical genres was formed. 

The origins of hip-hop (the Mid 1970s) 

Crediting one group with hip-hop’s birth is difficult, but it’s often an honor bestowed upon the Black Spades, one of the most feared gangs in New York City in the 1960s and 1970s. Hailing from the Bronx, the African-American street gang threw block parties where they introduced a new type of music to the revelers. 

Under the leadership of Afrika Bambaataa, the Black Spades were involved in a turf war in the Bronx at the same time they were producing music. 

Simultaneously, DJ Kool Herc and Cindy Campbell hosted DJ sets in the Bronx and are often credited with giving the genre the impetus it needed to emerge into the mainstream.

In terms of musical production, DJs in the Bronx were inspired to isolate the percussion breaks of the most popular genres – disco, soul, and funk – and they extended the tracks and added improvisation.

This was essentially the birth of the freestyling emcee, who was mainly responsible for introducing the DJs, but often entertained the crowds in breaks between the sets with rap. 

Soon, performers on the streets of the Bronx began rapping over the tracks that the DJs produced, which is how the Hip-Hop genre was formed. 

The birth of the term ‘hip-hop’ (1978)

The pioneers of this new genre on the streets of the Bronx probably didn’t realize at the time that they were about to launch one of the most significant musical trends in history. 

The freestyling, non-conforming youths that hosted block parties didn’t define their music in any particular way, instead of borrowing from the more established genres at the time and creating something new and exciting. 

Until 1978, the term ‘Hip-Hop’ arrived in common parlance. Although sources sometimes disagree, the term is widely credited to Keith’ Cowboy’ Wiggins, a member of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. 

Wiggins incorporated the lyrics’ hip/hop/hip/hop’ into some of his stage performances to mimic the marching of US soldiers. When Wiggins performed alongside established disco artists, he was often ridiculed, and the derogatory term ‘hip-hoppers’ was coined to make light of the band’s performances. 

Little did they know that Hip-Hop would become one of the most popular musical genres on the East Coast in the years to follow. 

The first hip-hop record (1979)

In 1979 – one year after Wiggins coined the term – the first-ever Hip-Hop record was officially released. New Jersey trio Mike Wright, Henry Jackson, and Guy O’Brien, also known as The Sugarhill Gang, released Rapper’s Delight, the first rap single to appear in the top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100. 

The Sugarhill Gang’s record is considered the entry of Hip-Hop into the mainstream and a must have in the record collection. Despite their immense contribution to Hip-Hop, the group never had another hit of the same magnitude, although they went on to enjoy reasonable success in Europe. 

Regardless, their contribution to the spread of Hip-Hop cannot be disputed, and the genre gained a foothold throughout the United States in the decade that followed, as we explain below. 

The spread of hip-hop throughout the United States (1980-1985) 

The 1980s saw Hip-Hop enjoy nationwide recognition, following its isolated origins in New York City. The key theme of Hip-Hop throughout the eighties was that of diversification, as acts added new stylistic and musical elements to their tracks. 

In particular, tracks became more nuanced, with additions including drum kits, metaphorical lyrics, and broader collaborations characterizing the rise of Hip-Hop in the early eighties. 

One of the most significant turning points was Afrika Bambaataa’s release of Planet Funk, the first fusion of Hip-Hop with electro. 

The eighties also saw the arrival of graffiti art and b-boying, two of the four critical pillars of the genre today that were overlooked in the early days of its emergence. 

By 1984, LL Cool J, The Beastie Boys, and Run-DMC had introduced ‘new-school Hip-Hop’ to the masses, which saw the arrival of radio-friendly short songs that contributed to the popularity of the genre in the second half of the decade. 

For many, the eighties split Hip-Hop in two – the old and the new schools, which are revered in equal measure today.

The golden era of hip-hop (1985-1995) 

Following its diversification in the 1980s, the genre increased popularity in the latter half of 1980 and into the nineties. 

This is when so many people worldwide started falling in love with Hip-Hop tracks and saw the emergence of musical legends, including Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg, The Notorious B.I.G, and Public Enemy, a few. 

While many of the characteristics of the new and old schools of Hip-Hop were continued, this era saw the birth of one of the most popular sub-genres to date: Gangsta Rap. 

Previously, the tone, lyrics, and beats of many of the most popular hip-hop songs were similar to funk and soul but with a twist. 

The introduction of Gangsta Rap enabled musicians such as Schoolly D, Ice-T, and rap group N.W.A to explore entirely new themes seen as highly controversial in the mainstream. 

N.W.A’s 1988 release of Straight Outta Compton is widely seen as the birth of Gangsta Rap, and the tracks on the album didn’t leave a lot to be desired! **** the Police and Gangsta Gangsta were exceptionally hard-hitting and transported Hip-Hop into new frontiers. 

One of the founding members of N.W.A – Dr. Dre – became one of the biggest names in Hip-Hop, establishing his place as one of the kings of the industry in the 1990s. 

The commercialization of hip-hop (1995-2000) 

Hip-Hop is seen by many as the defining musical genre of the 1990s, with some classic songs. We are blessed to have so many incredible tracks, and many of the best rap albums of all time were produced in this decade.

The late nineties introduced us to the finest works of Mobb Deep, Public Enemy, Mos Def, and De La Soul. It was also the starting point for Nelly, Timbaland, Puff Daddy, Jay-Z, and Eminem – one of the most unconventional yet best rappers.

1995 was also when the Grammys added a new award specifically for the best rap album. First won by Naughty by Nature, the Fugees, Puff Daddy, and Jay-Z went on to win the prize before the decade was out. 

As the new millennium arrived, Hip-Hop was dominating the music charts worldwide, and Hip-Hop artists were exploring new sub-genres and diversifying their tracks even further. 

Alternative hip-hop (2000-2005) 

At the start of the millennium, Hip-Hop started to change once again, signaling yet another evolution on its journey from the streets of the Bronx to the mainstream. 

Artists like Kanye West, Kid Cudi, Drake, and Outkast fused Hip-Hop with other popular genres, including indie rock, electronic, punk, and jazz.  

Who can forget the release of Numb/Encore by Linkin’ Park and Jay-Z? This exploration of new boundaries and the production of such timeless classics have been dubbed as alternative Hip-Hop and characterized most Hip-Hop releases in the early naughties. 

Contemporary hip-hop (2005 – present)

Welcome to the present day; it’s been a long journey! Since the internet arrived in our lives, the music industry has changed beyond recognition. 

Online streaming services have replaced vintage LPs, and Hip-Hop has once again evolved into something almost unrecognizable to the genre’s pioneers back in the seventies. 

Cardi B, Travis Scott, and 21Savage are some of the most prominent Hip-Hop artists within the contemporary scene. Still, the rise of independent artists has seen Hip-Hop diversify once again into so many sub-genres – far too many to name here! 

Final thoughts

Ultimately, Hip-Hop has enjoyed a rich, diverse, and fascinating history, and the popular music genre is still going strong after forty years! 

We hope you’ve found this chronology helpful and can now impress your friends with the knowledge of Hip-Hop, from Afrika Bambaataa of the Black Spades to Kendrick Lamar!

Kelvin, our design whiz and audio tech aficionado, pens articles on audio, home technology, and hip-hop for Upbeat Geek. With a keen eye on the latest from soundbars to earbuds, Kelvin decodes the tech world for our readers. His love for travel, concerts, and a music-driven creative career underscores his expertise. Kelvin’s writing not only covers the intricacies of audio and home technology but also dives into the vibrant world of hip-hop.

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