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40 years of hip-hop as told by those who were there

Jesse Kinos-Goodin

Hip-hop is officially 40 years old.

On Aug. 11, 1973, the foundations of the genre were born at a house party in the Bronx, N.Y., setting the stage for what today is a cultural and social powerhouse — although that hasn't always been the case. Below, we look at 20 of the most important moments in the growth of the genre, as told by those who experienced it first-hand. 

Kool Herc and the birth of hip-hop

DJ Kool Herc is credited with developing the blueprint for rap music by focusing on the break, a moment on a record where the band breaks down into a percussion section. "You could tell where the breaks were — it’s a dark groove,” he told NPR.

Herc noticed that the break caused the highest number of people to get down, so at a house party in the Bronx on Aug. 11, 1973, he played breaks together for five minutes in what he called the “merry go round.” Incorporate rhyming over the break, which he also helped develop, and you have the foundations of rap. It’s why he’s called the founding father of hip-hop. Below, listen to the song that started it all.

(Source: NPR)

Gil Scott-Heron, the reluctant forefather

The influence of musician and poet Gil Scott-Heron on hip-hop cannot be underestimated, even if in the past he has criticized rap music. “I don’t know if I can take the blame for it,” he once told The Daily Swarm. His style of reciting poetry over mostly percussive music, as on 1970’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” below, garnered him the title of the godfather of hip-hop. Whether he liked the genre or not, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single rapper that doesn’t cite him as an influence.  

(Source: The Daily Swarm)

Grandmaster Flash on finding the break

Despite not actually playing on the track for which Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five are best known (1982’s “The Message”), as a DJ, Flash’s innovations, techniques and ability to find the perfect break on a record helped push the genre forward. "When the drummer had a solo or a slight accompaniment with just the bassist or just the trumpet or whatever, anything other than that was the whack part," he once said. "So the key was to never go into the whack part."

(Source: NPR)

Kool Moe Dee sets the bar for battle rap

Harlem, 1981. Kool Moe Dee is hosting the Harlem World competition, which sees a boastful Busy Bee claiming he can beat anybody on the mic, including Moe Dee. What follows is one of the greatest lyrical take downs on record, which sets the tone for all battle rappers to follow. All Busy Bee can manage is to yell “shut up” on the mic as Moe Dee eviscerates him in front of the crowd.

"He did his thing and I got on next. He had no idea what was coming," Moe Dee said of the legendary takedown.

(Source: Return of the Boombap)

Afrika Bambaataa brings the electro-funk

Bambaataa’s influence goes far and wide, from his early days in the '80s to founding the Universal Zulu Nation to his association with the Native Tongues and the conscious hip-hop movement (more on that later). But it was 1982’s “Planet Rock” that introduced electro-funk, which you can still hear not only in rap music, but all music today. “The potential of hip-hop was there. We wanted to take it somewhere else for the people. It paid off,” he said.

(Source: CBC Music)

Run-D.M.C.’s Adidas

Still one of the best known rap groups, Queens, New York’s Run-D.M.C. not only kicked off the first wave of "new school" rappers, but also began what today is a major component of rap music — endorsements. When they asked a crowd at Madison Square Garden in 1986 to hold their Adidas up in the air, and they did, corporations everywhere listened.

"Run-DMC at the Garden and I remember bringing the head of Adidas and Run says, hold your sneakers in the air, and everybody held up their shell toe Adidas," Def Jam's Russell Simmons remembers of the moment. "That was the beginning of the endorsement process."

(Source: NPR)

Public Enemy fights the power

It’s hard to imagine hip-hop without Public Enemy, who shifted attention away from materialism to include a more political message. It’s even crazier to think that had Rick Rubin, the co-founder of Def Jam Records, not hounded Chuck D to convince him to make an album in 1986, it may never have happened.

"I called him every day for six months," Rubin said of the chase, which finally led to a meeting. "And he comes in, and he’s like, 'I’m willing to do it under these terms: it’s called Public Enemy. It’s a group. It’s more like the Clash than a rap group, and it’s me and Flavor Flav, and Griff and Hank are involved.” And I said, “Whatever you want to do is fine.”

(Source: The Daily Beast)

Big Daddy Kane defends sampling

Where would hip-hop be without the ability to sample other records, in turn taking something old, whether it was funk, soul, jazz, rock — anything, really — and making something new? Granted, it’s nice to get paid for those samples, which hasn’t always been the case, but either way, Big Daddy Kane’s 1988 song “Young, Gifted & Black” sums it up perfectly:

"If we didn't revive and bring back the live
old beats that we appreciated ... you wouldn't survive.
You'd be another memory to us,
Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust."

Jazzy Jeff and Will Smith boycott the Grammys

Today, an awards ceremony without rap music wouldn’t be much of an awards ceremony, and yet there was a time where it was relegated to the non-televised portion of the Grammys. That was, until Jazzy Jeff and Will Smith took a stand in 1989 when they won the first best rap performance award for "Parents Just Don't Understand."

"Me and Will sat down knowing that this is the first time rap has been here, that this is huge, and we mapped out what we wanted to do," Jazzy Jeff said of the move. "We decided to boycott the Grammys.” 

(Source: HipHopDX)

Maestro on sticking to your vision

An unfortunate aspect of Canadian hip-hop is that it always seems as if there is only room for one rapper to excel outside of our borders. Maestro Fresh Wes, known as the godfather of Canadian hip-hop for being the first to blow up internationally with 1990’s "Let Your Backbone Slide," has always recognized this. “What does that say for us?” he's said. “You gotta really try and do something. Yeah I get it, it’s really not that easy to be original … but it’s really not that hard.”

(Source: Toronto is Awesome)

The Native Tongues and the conscious rap scene

The Jungle Brothers, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest were the first groups to refer to themselves as the Native Tongues, which eventually included acts like Queen Latifah and Black Sheep.

"It came at a time when most people were yelling on records," the Beastie Boys' MCA said. "They represented this other movement where the beats were more laid back and the rhyming style was more laid back. It was a different approach and it was cool to see the whole Native Tongues thing."

Musically, they offered a stark contrast to the gangster rap that dominated the genre, focusing on positivity, Afro-centricity and unity, and absolutely loved jazz samples. ATCQ’sThe Low End Theory is still considered one of the most important rap albums made, and stands as a testament to a new sound that would define a huge segment of '90s rap.

(Source: Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest)

KRS-One teaches respect

Before KRS-One could call himself the “teacher,” a name still used to refer to him now, the Boogie Down Productions MC had to prove it. How? In 1992, he rushed the stage where Prince Be of P.M. Dawn was performing, who earlier had criticized KRS-One in Details magazine, saying, “KRS-One wants to be a teacher, but a teacher of what?"

After throwing P.M. Dawn from the stage, KRS-One and co. proceeded to perform “The Bridge is Over,” which you can listen to below. “A teacher of what? I'm a teacher of respect,” KRS-One told USA Today, adding that he had a hit list, and “whoever dissed me in the past is on it." His "hits" would come in rhyme form.

(Source: USA Today)

Big Daddy Kane on hip-hop’s most famous freestyle

Let the record show that before they became known as mortal enemies, 2Pac and Biggie were friends, and it was B.I.G. that invited Pac to the Big Daddy Kane show at Madison Square Garden in 1993. Two greats taking turns on the mic in what is now regarded as the most famous freestyle in hip-hop history.

“We all just spit that night and went at it, and [Mister] Cee was recordin’ it,” Kane said of the performance, which you can hear below. “I’m glad he did too, because of all the drama that ended up happening between them, at least you get to hear them together, havin’ fun on somethin’.”

(Source: HipHopDX)

Ghostface Killah on the importance of Nas’s Illmatic

When a young rapper by the name of Nas dropped Illmatic in 1994, it changed everything. A true street poet with a gift for vivid lyricism and virtuoso flow, the Queensbridge, N.Y., rapper’s debut album put East Coast rap back on the map, and set the bar for all hip-hop albums to follow.

“When I used to listen to Nas back in the days, it was like, ‘Oh shit! He murdered that.’ That forced me to get my pen game up,” the Wu-Tang Clan’s Ghostface Killah said of the album. As a testament to its strength, Illmatic is still considered by many to be not one of the best, but the best rap album ever made.  

(Source: HipHopDX)

Rakim on what Tupac brought to rap

Just seven months before his untimely death, California rapper Tupac Shakur released All Eyez on Me in 1996, one of the most highly regarded and best-selling hip-hop albums not just of the ‘90s, but of all time. Today, Pac’s influence, whether it’s his flow, his gift for storytelling or his lyrics that brilliantly combine everything from gangster life to more personal and emotional subjects, can still be heard everywhere. If any rapper deserved to be honoured in hologram form, no matter how cheesy it may have seemed, it’s Pac.

“Tupac brought that fire, that intensity, without sacrificing his lyrical content,” Rakim, a legendary rapper in his own right, says. “He was showing you could still rep the street and stay hard, while showing emotion and talking about things at a higher level.”

(Source: XXl Magazine)

The Rascalz on why they refused their 1998 Juno Award

Almost 10 years after Jazzy Jeff and Will Smith protested the lack of exposure for hip-hop on the Grammy Awards broadcast, B.C.’s the Rascalz publicly refused their 1998 Juno win for rap recording of the year for the very same reason.

"It feels like a token gesture towards honoring the real impact of urban music in Canada," rapper Misfit said. The next year they would win again for “Northern Touch” and would accept the award during the televised broadcast, where it belonged.

(Source: Ottawa Citizen)

Questlove on the rise of Kanye West

His personality makes it easy to dislike him, but his gift as a producer and an MC will forever cement Kanye West’s position in the hip-hop canon. With his 2004 debut album,The College Dropout, West proved you could blend conscious hip-hop with blatant materialism, braggadocio with vulnerability, all while simultaneously appealing to the masses and the hip-hop heads.

Watching West play Dave Chappelle’s Block Party with a marching band escort in 2004, the Roots’ drummer Questlove (at the time still a go-to producer for many conscious rappers), felt like he was literally watching the sea change.

“I remember … thinking to myself, ‘Oh, I see. This is where I get off.’ I saw the rest of the plot stretched out before me. Kanye was going to be the new leader, and I was fine with that,” Questlove candidly writes in his memoir, Mo' Meta Blues.

Kardi on how Canada has room for more than one big rapper

“My whole career hasn’t just been about exposing me, but exposing my city. It makes me mad that … as soon as [Drake]’s number one, they try to put [us] against each other. That’s crazy to me. It ain't doing nothing positive for my city.”
— Kardinall Offishall

When Drake blew up, there’s no doubt he forced people to look at Canadian rap closer than they ever did, even considering the success of Maestro and Kardi before him. Maybe it was because he was signed to Lil Wayne’s Cash Money roster; maybe it’s because he was also a former child actor on Degrassi; maybe it was because he also sang. Or maybe it was all of the above? Regardless, as Kardi points out, Canada’s rap scene is far bigger than just Drake, and with so much talent, it’s about time we make room for more than just one Canadian rapper at the top.

(Source: Vibe)

Snoop Dogg on Kendrick Lamar being next

Before Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar released the critically acclaimed good kid, m.A.A.d city, he was already crowned as the king of West Coast rap, literally. Snoop Dogg and the Game surprised the young rapper at a concert, seen below, and christened him right there in front of the crowd — all before Lamar would even release his heralded major label debut.

"I love Kendrick Lamar, I love his success, I love his story, his hustle,” Snoop said. “Standing for something and being his own, tryin' to hold this thing up as far as the West Coast and now we got somebody that can really run with it from a young perspective and put a different point of view."

Luckily for Snoop, he put his strength behind the right man, as Lamar’s gift for storytelling, not to mention his beautifully crafted debut album, has made him the hottest rapper in the game, and not just on the West Coast.

(Source: MTV)

Chuck D on the Canadian hip-hop identity

“There was a time where Toronto artists started out very honest because hip-hop was honest,” Chuck D, fan and friend of Maestro (who gets a shout out in the liner notes of Public Enemy’s 1990 album, Fear of a Black Planet), explained. “U.S. hip-hop was backed by a certain point of view and those that were dissatisfied with how they could not launch out of Canada and be more known, they started to mimic the U.S. too much. Then they returned to their roots of just being honest with it, and that’s been a big thing for Canadian hip-hop.”

(Source: CBC Music)

Follow Jesse Kinos-Goodin on Twitter: @JesseKG.