When Did You Fall In Love With Hip-Hop? Celebrating 50 Years of Black America’s Cultural Domination
“So, when’d you fall in love with hip-hop?” Many recognize this quote from the 2002 award-winning film Brown Sugar as the resounding question asked by Sidney “Sid” Shaw, the fictitious editor-in-chief of XXL magazine, played by Sanaa Lathan. Whether you chose to interpret the question literally or metaphorically, there is no denying its cultural impact. For the last 50 years, hip hop and its culture have not just dominated global airwaves - it has redefined the element of cool, catapulted generations of Black artists and tastemakers to heights unimaginable, and raised the consciousness of the interests of various marginalized communities to the tune of $7.7 billion dollars… and counting.
Kool Herc. Afrika Bambaataa. The Sugarhill Gang (Wonder Mike, Big Bank Hank, Master Gee). Kurtis Blow. Run-D.M.C. (Run, DMC, Jam Master Jay). Spoonie Gee. The Treacherous Three (Kool Moe Dee, Special K, LA Sunshine). The Cold Crush Brothers. Melle Mel (Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five). Kurtis Blow. DJ Hollywood. Jean Grae. The Sequence (Angie Stone, Cheryl The Pearl, Blondie). T La Rock. Whodini (Jalil Hutchins, Ecstasy, Grandmaster Dee). Boogie Down Productions (KRS-One, D-Nice, Scott La Rock). Lady of Rage. LL Cool J. Slick Rick. Big Daddy Kane. Ice-T. Kurtis Blow. Eric B. & Rakim. Biz Markie. Doug E. Fresh. Yo-Yo.
While many tie the early beginnings of hip-hop to 1979 – when Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” was released, the first hip-hop record ever created that also happened to gain widespread popularity – it was several years earlier when the genre originated. It was back on August 11, 1973, when Clive “DJ Kool Herc” Campbell, a Jamaican-born American, was in the Bronx djing a back-to-school party for his younger sister. While there, he introduced a djing concept called the Merry-Go-Round. According to the PBS documentary series History Detective, “ [DJ Kool Herc] extended an instrumental beat (breaking or scratching) to let people dance longer (break dancing) and began MC'ing (rapping) during the extended breakdancing… [This] helped lay the foundation for a cultural revolution.”
“I said a hip-hop, the hippie to the hippie, the hip hip a hop, and you don't stop,” begins "Rapper's Delight" by The Sugarhill Gang, the first rap song to hit the radio. The new sound was as experimental as it was familiar, taking much of its influence from popular Black American musical practices and genres that had existed for ages. The earliest iterations of hip-hop evolved from the jazz, be-bop, and disco sounds by manipulating the instruments via state-of-the-art technology that was widely available to consumers for the first time ever. When coupled with new DJing techniques such as scratching, beat mixing, and DJ Kool Herc’s Merry-Go-Round (that extended percussion breaks), these early drum machines and samplers allowed for a breakthrough in music that had never been seen before. Once you added the witty vocals – a mashup of African, Jamaican, and Black-American traditions including Call and Response, The Dozens, patois, and Jazz Poetry – all with the aim of colorful storytelling, modern-day rapping was born.
Beastie Boys (Mike D, MCA, Ad-Rock). N.W.A (Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, MC Ren, DJ Yella). Public Enemy (Chuck D, Flavor Flav). Roxanne Shanté. MC Lyte. Salt-N-Pepa (Salt, Pepa, DJ Spinderella). Stetsasonic (Prince Paul, Daddy-O, Delite, Wise, Frukwan, Bobby Simmons, DBC). EPMD (Erick Sermon, Parrish Smith). Marley Marl. MC Shan. Nice & Smooth (Greg Nice, Smooth B). Ultramagnetic MCs (Kool Keith, Ced Gee, Moe Love, TR Love). Dana Dane. Kool G Rap. DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince. Heavy D. Kid 'n Play (Kid, Play). Mantronix (Mantronik, MC Tee). Queen Latifah.
By the time the 80s rolled around, and with it the crack epidemic and accompanying war on drugs, hip hop saw a quick ascent. The eloquent wordsmiths waxed poetic, spitting their lived experiences into the global echo chamber of their microphones. "It's like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from going under," rapped Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, "The Message.” No topic was off limits - absentee parents, the rising AIDS death toll, hustling on street corners, various abuses with our society’s youngest and most vulnerable identified as the victims, racism, police brutality, and incarceration - and these early purveyors of the craft cemented their status as disruptors of not only the music industry but culture and the element of “cool” just alike. Their rhymes had an international reach and impact, as faithful as the American concrete jungles that birthed them.
During this time, a palpable separation of rapping from hip hop occurred, the former describing the literal skill of rhyming and wordplay, juxtaposed against the latter’s impact on the culture. One could no longer ignore the very real influence of rapping within the culture. All it took was one witty lyric co-signing a beloved item or brand, and overnight it would be sold out. “Crossing over” no longer applied solely to music genres. Once Run-DMC signed their seven-figure Adidas partnership in 1986, other rappers and corporations quickly followed suit. “My Adidas touch the sand of a foreign land, With mic in hand, I cold took command,” the trio raps on “My Adidas.” Seemingly overnight multi-million dollar brand deals were popping up across all sorts of industries and brands.
Tupac Shakur. The Notorious B.I.G. Jay-Z. Nas. Eminem. Snoop Dogg. Wu-Tang Clan (RZA, GZA, Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God, Masta Killa, Ol' Dirty Bastard). Outkast (Andre 3000, Big Boi). Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes. DMX. Foxy Brown. Mobb Deep (Prodigy, Havoc). Busta Rhymes. Lil Kim. Common. LL Cool J. Rah Digga. A Tribe Called Quest (Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Jarobi White). Cypress Hill (B-Real, Sen Dog, DJ Muggs). The Fugees (Wyclef Jean, Lauryn Hill, Pras Michel). Eve.
Over the course of the last several decades, the seven-figure deals have grown into the hundreds of millions and, most recently, even the billions. “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man,” raps Jay Z on Kanye’s “Diamonds Are Forever.” LL Cool J collaborated with Troop, Notorious BIG, and Coogi struck gold after he heavily promoted their handknit sweaters, and Queen Latifah partnered with the mega beauty and cosmetics company Covergirl. More recently, Travis Scott and McDonald’s struck a unique meal deal that generated millions, Lil Wayne found a home with BAPE, and both Pharrell Williams and Kanye picked up deals at Adidas, where Run-DMC left off.
Kanye West. Lil Wayne. 50 Cent. Ja Rule. T.I. Ludacris. Drake. Kendrick Lamar. J. Cole. André 3000. Lupe Fiasco. Talib Kweli. Missy Elliott. Cam'ron. Da Brat. Nelly. Jadakiss. Fabolous. Rick Ross. Young Jeezy. MF DOOM. Travis Scott. Future. Chance the Rapper. A$AP Ferg, A$AP Rocky. Tyler, The Creator. Childish Gambino. Mac Miller. Nicki Minaj. Logic. Meek Mill. Earl Sweatshirt. Noname. Big Sean. Vince Staples. Rapsody. Pusha T. Wiz Khalifa. 21 Savage. Young Thug. Denzel Curry. Anderson. Paak. Schoolboy Q. Freddie Gibbs. Aesop Rock. Joyner Lucas. Big Freedia. Cardi B. Megan Thee Stallion.
As true as the brownstone stoops and soapbox platforms, it got its gritty start; hip-hop is as much an ode to the love of the streets and hustle culture as it is a proclamation of love. Whether it be loyalty or respect, at the root, hip-hop stems from a love of the people and culture. In spite of the naysayers and pedestrian rap players who proclaim otherwise, you can’t ignore the strong community ties, familial commitments, and the pursuit of one’s forever love. As LL Cool J proclaimed to the world, “I'm looking for a love that's deep and everlasting… I want a love that's strong and can withstand any storm… I need love to lift me up when I'm feeling down." Tupac boldly questioned in “Keep Ya Head Up” a few short years later, “I wonder why we take from our women, why we rape our women, do we hate our women? I think it's time to kill for our women, time to heal our women, be real to our women." More recently, Drake acknowledged, "I ain't worried 'bout a label, just as long as we're together. Baby, you're my refuge; let me cater to you forever."
While the true value and impact of hip hop – culturally, monetarily, and globally – can never be adequately quantified, the best estimates place the number close to $20 billion. What began as a refuge for our society’s forsaken and largely ignored demographics has evolved into a marketplace where Black hip-hop culture is the top commodity that many from the culture are celebrating and profiting from. While no institution is perfect, hip hop has evolved to become a haven where Black people, including their culture and experiences, are elevated to a class all their own.
“Today was like one of those fly dreams,
Didn't even see a berry flashin' those high beams.
No helicopter lookin' for a murder,
Two in the mornin', got the Fatburger;
Even saw the lights of the Goodyear Blimp,
And it read, "Ice Cube's a Pimp!" (yeah).
Drunk as hell, but no throwin' up,
Halfway home, and my pager's still blowin' up;
Today, I didn't even have to use my AK,
I gotta say it was a good day.” - Ice Cube