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date: 25 May 2024

Rap Musicfree

Rap Musicfree

  • Austin McCoyAustin McCoyDepartment of History, University of Michigan


Rap is the musical practice of hip hop culture that features vocalists, or MCs, reciting lyrics over an instrumental beat that emerged out of the political and economic transformations of New York City after the 1960s. Black and Latinx youth, many of them Caribbean immigrants, created this new cultural form in response to racism, poverty, urban renewal, deindustrialization, and inner-city violence. These new cultural forms eventually spread beyond New York to all regions of the United States as artists from Los Angeles, New Orleans, Miami, and Chicago began releasing rap music with their own distinct sounds. Despite efforts to demonize and censor rap music and hip hop culture, rap music has served as a pathway for social mobility for many black and Latinx youth. Many artists have enjoyed crossover success in acting, advertising, and business. Rap music has also sparked new conversations about various issues such as electoral politics, gender and sexuality, crime, policing, and mass incarceration, as well as technology.


  • 20th Century: Post-1945
  • Cultural History
  • Urban History

Rap is the musical practice of hip hop culture that features a vocalist, or master of ceremony (MC), reciting lyrics over a beat. Rap music is an example of what scholars have called polyculturalism, which refers to the notion that various racial and ethnic groups have historically exchanged and borrowed ideas and cultural practices.1 Black and Latinx youth in New York City, many of them Caribbean immigrants, responded to poverty, urban renewal, deindustrialization, and inner-city violence by creating their own cultural practices—throwing parties featuring DJs playing breakbeats, MCs rapping and regulating the crowd, dancers breaking to the beat, and graffiti artists tagging trains and walls.

Historically, rap music and hip hop culture have been a male-dominated realm. Much of rap music performed by men has raised questions about masculinity because of the prominence of sexist, homophobic, and misogynist lyrics. The rap industry also suffers from gender inequities as fewer women have been able to pursue a lengthy career rapping and producing. This has not stopped women from participating despite often vacillating between the margins and center of rap music. This process has led women artists not only to use rap to critique sexism within the culture, but also to contribute to the development of intersectional feminism. Other marginalized groups such as genderqueer people have remained on the margins of the rap industry.

Rap music sparked new conversations about race and authenticity, gender, sexuality, and respectability, social problems such as police brutality, as well as Black and Latinx youth’s relationship to politics, technology, and the economy. In addition, Rap music reflects a running conversation and commentary on authenticity. The questions of who is a “real nigga” and what is “real hip hop” often intersect with masculinity, place and space, and aesthetics.2 Rap also illustrates how inner-city youth repurposed music technology such as record players, records, mixers, and samplers to create a new genre of music. Rappers have also commented on their geographic location and politics, often highlighting racial discrimination and state violence. Critics have raised questions about the violent and misogynistic lyrics contained in rap culture, even going as far as to censor it.

But despite censorship and controversy, rap music is positioned centrally within American popular culture. Rappers have earned Academy Awards and have entered into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Corporations use rap to market products to customers. Rap is featured in movies, television, and on Broadway. Rappers have also leveraged their success into accumulating large amounts of wealth and influence. And since 1973, the culture has spread beyond New York to all regions of the United States and throughout the world. Oppressed youth in places like Ghana, the United Kingdom, and Paris have adopted the cultural form in response to their particular surroundings.

The Birth of Hip Hop Culture and Rap Music, 1973–1979

Hip hop culture was born in a first floor recreation room at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue on August 13, 1973, in Bronx, New York City. Clive Campbell, also known as DJ Kool Herc, spun records for his sister’s party. Staying true to his Jamaican roots, he was known in the Bronx for having the loudest sound system. While Herc played a number of dancehall and funk records, including selections from James Brown’s live albums, his friend Coke LaRock served as the master of ceremony, or the MC. Little did the Campbells know that their party featured several elements—DJ’ing, MC’ing, and dancing—of a new innovative culture.3

While many rap artists and scholars locate the birth of hip hop culture in the United States, the origins of the burgeoning genre was always diasporic and polycultural.4 Hip hop, in part, was the product of the migration of people and culture. The first three prominent DJs were born either in the Caribbean or into an immigrant family. Campbell and the other DJs such as Afrika Bambaataa brought elements of Caribbean DJ culture, such as loud mobile sound systems and “toasting,” which referred to deejays talking over music. Hip hop also drew from other musical genres such as funk, disco, soul, and electronica. DJs sampled this music, which entailed using parts of songs or reinterpreting them.

The breakbeat formed the sonic backbone of rap music. Kool Herc discovered the break while deejaying. Herc noticed dancers enjoyed grooving to the intermittent drum break found within particular songs.5 Deejays also enlisted MCs to assist in regulating the crowd. Emcees engaged the crowd by screaming rhyming catch-phrases and leading chants. Grandmaster Flash discovered the “scratch,” another vital deejay technique that turned the turntable into an instrument. Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa also featured break dancers, many of whom were Puerto Rican and Latino, in their performances.6

Hip hop culture emerged in the context of New York City’s economic restructuring during the 1970s. In that decade, fiscal crisis, deindustrialization, white flight, and urban renewal decimated the Bronx. The South Bronx shed tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs. Forty percent of the industrial sector disappeared. The youth unemployment rate rose to 60%. Urban renewal projects and the construction of the Cross-Bronx Expressway displaced African Americans and Puerto Ricans. Around 60,000 Bronx homes were razed during the 1960s and 1970s.7 The decline of the Black Power movement, the rise of drug markets, and street gangs provided the backdrop for young blacks and Puerto Ricans who sought to make sense of their lives artistically during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Deejays formed the base of hip hop culture during the 1970s. They organized parties and served as the primary artists. By the mid-1970s, DJs Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Afrika Bambaataa dominated the burgeoning hip hop scene. Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, and Herc controlled sections of the Bronx (Figure 1).8

Figure 1. Grandmaster Flash spinning records, 1999.

Photo by Mikael “Mika” Väisänen. Creative Commons License (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Herc played in the nightclubs in East Bronx and in neighborhoods in the West. Grandmaster Flash and his Casanova Crew controlled the South Bronx from 138th to 163rd streets. However, Bambaataa saw hip hop culture as a path out of gang violence and an instrument of black and brown unity.9 Inspired by a trip abroad and the movie, Zulu, Bambaataa formed the Universal Zulu Nation, which would draw from black nationalism and pan-African themes and sought to use hip hop as an organizing tool against gang violence.10

The number of DJs proliferated after the July 1977 blackout in New York City. During the 24-hour power outage, residents looted hundreds of stores and committed almost a thousand acts of arson.11 Stores selling music equipment represented prime targets for many New Yorkers. Consequently, the blackout provided more aspiring DJs and artists greater access to necessary expensive equipment. Even DJ Grandmaster Caz, who performed that evening, admitted to going to the store where he first bought his equipment and taking a mixer.12

Women also helped shape the culture’s founding. In 1977, Sheri Sher and seven other women formed the first all-women rap group, The Mercedes Ladies (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Event flier for a hip hop performance at the Renaissance Ballroom on June 28, 1979. The event featured several notable DJs and rappers, including Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel, and the Mercedes Ladies, an all-woman hip hop group.

Courtesy Cornell University Library Hip-Hop Collection. Hip Hop Party and Event Flyers. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Library, Division of Rare & Manuscript Collections, 2013.

The Mercedes Ladies emerged out of the all-female crews that roamed the Bronx.13The group featured several MCs and DJs: Ever Def, Zena Z, Tracey T, RD Smiley, Baby D, MC Smiley, and DJ La Spank. The group encountered sexist treatment in the industry. Promoters tried to book the group without paying them. The Mercedes Ladies’ attempts to break into the rap industry and to be compensated fairly anticipated the struggles that women artists generally faced.14

Rap music began its transition from moment to commodity in 1979. Before then, hip hop music was merely distributed through taped dance parties.15 Former R&B singer-turned-record executive Sylvia Robinson released the genre’s first record. With her career flailing, Robinson sought to capitalize on the growing rap phenomenon. She and her brother discovered Henry “Big Bank Hank” Jackson, a worker at a local pizzeria. Jackson then recruited two of his friends and formed the Sugar Hill Gang. Shortly after, Big Bank Hank, Wonder Mike, and Master Gee recorded the first rap song, “Rapper’s Delight.”

Rapping over Chic’s “Good Times” instrumental, Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” put rap on record. Clocking in at over fourteen minutes, the song tried to capture the spirit of the original block parties. “Rapper’s Delight” also introduced another tension in rap music that persisted—that of authenticity, what was “real” and what was not. To some DJs and MCs, hip hop could not be captured on record because it was a moment. Also, the Sugar Hill Gang was a manufactured group, while other collectives assembled out of prior relationships and in relation to specific conditions.

In the wake of the success of Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” Robinson signed three more rap groups to record singles, The Funky 4 + 1 (which included a woman, Sha Rock), The Treacherous Three, and an all-women rap group called The Sequence. Robinson’s signings helped pave the way for women artists to record rap music. The Sequence included Cheryl Cook, also known as “Cheryl the Pearl,” Gwendolyn Chisolm, known as “Blondie,” and Angie Brown Stone, who went by “Angie B.” The Sequence released “Funk You Up” in December 1979. The Sequence challenged notions of rap as being thought of as an all-black male domain.16

Rap Music’s First Golden Age, 1980–1991

While rap music’s popularity increased among young African Americans, Latinxs, and whites, rap groups and solo rappers struggled to gain credibility among older black DJs and a skeptical and discriminatory music industry. Yet, hip hop culture eventually expanded into other entertainment forms during the 1980s.

Figure 3. Event flier for a hip hop performance at Walton High School on January 12, 1979. The event featured Grandmaster Flash and members of the Furious Five.

Courtesy Cornell University Library Hip-Hop Collection. Hip Hop Party and Event Flyers. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Library, Division of Rare & Manuscript Collections, 2013.

Rap was featured prominently in movies and documentaries throughout the 1980s. Released in 1983, Style Wars and Wild Style documented the lives of graffiti writers. Krush Groove, starring Blair Underwood as Russell Simmons, comically dramatized the founding of Def Jam Recordings. Rap music was on TV as well. For instance, Yo! MTV Raps migrated from MTV Europe to the United States where it debuted in October 1987.17

Several releases in the early 1980s signaled the greater innovation of rap music. The DJ’s influence decreased while the MC emerged as the focal point. Kurtis Blow’s early success exemplified this development. His hit song, “The Breaks,” was the first rap song to feature a chorus and a theme. The up-tempo disco rap track introduced wordplay as he used “the breaks” to list bad situations and decisions one makes in a daily basis.18 Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force’s “Planet Rock” and the rock band Blondie’s “Rapture” illustrated the polyculturalism of rap music. “Rapture” included a rap verse from Debbie Harry, while the video featured her friend, graffiti artist Fred Brathwaite, also known as Fab 5 Freddy.19 Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force sampled German electronic band Kraftwerk’s “Trans Europa Express” in “Planet Rock,” which tapped into afrofuturist themes.20 Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” illustrated how a socially conscious message could be expressed through rap. The first “reality” rap song, “The Message,” captured the frustration of black and brown folks living in the midst of economic recession, inflation, urban divestment, and Reaganomics.

No group had a bigger impact on hip hop culture during this period than Run-DMC. The Queens-based group consisted of rappers Run, DMC, and DJ Jam Master Jay. Their first single, “It’s Like That/Sucker MC’s,” sold 250,000 copies. Their 1987 Raising Hell sold three million albums. They distinguished themselves from other artists by wearing black leather jackets, black fedora hats, large gold chains, and Adidas sneakers. Run-DMC not only rapped over familiar breakbeats, but also they were the first rap artists to synthesize rap and rock music. Their third single from their 1984 self-titled debut album, “Rock Box,” prominently featured riffs from guitarist Eddie Martinez. In 1986, Run-DMC’s cover of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” and the music video catapulted the group into the mainstream.21

In 1984, Russell Simmons, who also managed Run-DMC, and New York University (NYU) student and producer Rick Rubin, started Def Jam Recordings. They signed the first rap vocalist to cross over into mainstream stardom, a young Queens rapper who went by the name, LL Cool J. LL Cool J released his debut album, Radio, in November 1985. Simmons and Rubin also recruited a quartet of Jewish party-loving-punk rockers—Adam Horowitz, Adam Yauch, Michael Diamond, and drummer Kate Schellenbach—who called themselves the Beastie Boys.22 The Beastie Boys’ debut album, Licensed to Ill, sold more than a million records. Their early catalog featured punk-rock-influenced anthems such as “Fight for Your Right” and the frat boy humor featured in singles like “Hey Ladies.” Despite being one of the few Jewish, if not white, rap acts, the Beastie Boys illustrated how hip hop and punk rock emerged in the same historical, spatial, and political context.23

Some DJs such as Mr. Magic, Kool DJ Red Alert, and DJ Marley Marl became players in the industry. Mr. Magic and Marley Marl found themselves at the center of the genre’s high-profile rap battles during the 1980s. The battle between MC Shan and Boogie Down Productions (BDP) vocalist, KRS One, centered on rap music’s origins. MC Shan claimed in the song, “The Bridge,” produced by Marley Marl, that hip hop began in Queens. KRS One pointed to Kool Herc and Coke LaRock’s parties and Afrika Bambaataa’s Zulu Nation as the progenitors of the culture in “South Bronx.” KRS One effectively won the battle with “The Bridge Is Over” where he rapped over a dancehall track using a Jamaican accent, underlining the historical Caribbean–Bronx connection. Both songs appeared on BDP’s debut album. Criminal Minded. While KRS One and Scot LaRock were the first to pose with guns on their album cover, Philadelphia’s Schoolly D introduced listeners to “gangsta rap” with his song, “P.S.K.: What Does It Mean?”

Figure 4. Rapper Rakim performing in Hamburg, Germany, June 3, 1998.

Photo by Mikael “Mika” Väisänen. Creative Commons License (CC BY-SA 3.0).

It took longer for hip hop culture to take root in California than in New York. Many of the genre’s stalwarts like Dr. Dre and Arabian Prince cut their teeth in Los Angeles’ electronic DJ culture. Also, West Coast rap grew out of the decline of black social movements, street gangs such as the Crips and Bloods, the illicit drug economy, and the war on drugs. Producers such as Dr. Dre created a distinctive sound, which sampled 1970s funk and artists like Parliament Funkadelic. In 1986, Eric “Eazy-E” Wright founded Ruthless Records, which featured the group he and Dr. Dre founded, Niggaz Wit’ Attitude (NWA). NWA included Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, DJ Yella, and MC Ren. Ruthless Records also featured the all-woman group, J. J. Fad, whose platinum-selling album, Supersonic, provided the funding needed to release NWA’s debut album, Straight Outta Compton. NWA’s Straight Outta Compton, made NWA an instant cultural phenomenon. Their brash and vulgar gangsta style appealed not only to black youth, but also to young white men. The group generated controversy with their antipolice brutality song, “Fuck tha Police.” The song prompted the FBI to send a letter demanding they stop performing the song. However, the Los Angeles Police Department’s (LAPD’s) killing of Eula Love in 1979 over a gas bill and their fifteen killings while using chokeholds during the early 1980s supported NWA’s criticisms of policing.24 Yet, while NWA appeared as another source of resistance against state violence, these songs appeared alongside others such as “A Bitch iz a Bitch” and “She Swallowed It,” which contained sexist and misogynistic lyrics. Members of NWA lived out some of these lyrics. For instance, producer Dr. Dre physically assaulted rapper and journalist Dee Barnes in 1991.

During the 1980s, a few women rappers would move from the margins closer to the mainstream. Queensbridge’s Roxanne Shante made a name for herself after confronting the rap group, U.T.F.O., for their song called “Roxanne, Roxanne,” which was about a woman refusing their advances. She responded with “Roxanne’s Revenge,” where she claimed that she had better rap skills and that she would have “fired them” if they worked for her.25 MC Lyte performed songs that captured the lived experiences of black women. The rap group, Salt-N-Pepa, was the first group of women performers to achieve mainstream success. The group included Salt, Pepa, and their DJ, Spinderella. Salt-n-Pepa’s 1987 “Push It” was their breakout single. They commented on various issues of importance for many black women, notably sexism, relationships, and moral panics around sex and sexually transmitted diseases.26

Queen Latifah distinguished herself from other women rappers in the late 1980s by combining black nationalism and feminism in her lyrics. Latifah’s and Monie Love’s “Ladies First” represented the genre’s first black feminist anthem.27 Latifah also spoke out against domestic violence and sexism. Latifah and Salt-N-Pepa illustrated that black women could rap about a number of topics and could control their own image. Latifah’s and Salt-N-Pepa’s success did not preclude black women artists from being marginalized, however. The masculinism and corporatism of the rap industry represented a barrier of entry that many black women struggled to overcome.

Rap Music, Politics, and Sampling in the Late 1980s

Like Queen Latifah, other rap artists and groups turned to black nationalism and racial solidarity as modes of expression. No group exemplified the adoption of black power iconography better than Def Jam signees, Public Enemy. The group ushered in a harder, more intellectual, black nationalistic, version of rap music. Public Enemy included Chuck D, the wacky Flavor Flav, DJ Terminator X, their version of the Fruit of Islam, the Security of the First World (S1W), and the production crew, the Bomb Squad. Their first four albums—Yo! Bumrush the Show, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Fear of a Black Planet, and Apocalypse 91 . . . The Enemy Strikes Black—commented on a range of political issues, including black empowerment, racism in Hollywood, the history of minstrelsy, and police brutality. Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” which appeared on Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing soundtrack, is often recognized as one of the genre’s iconic protest anthems. In the song, Chuck D took aim at America’s cultural icons like Elvis and John Wayne and reminded listeners that those he admired were too radical to be mainstreamed by the media and the state.28 Chuck D saw rap as more than just party and braggadocio music. It was a form through which African American artists could report on their surroundings and communicate politics. Rap music was “the Black CNN.”29

The late 1980s also saw the rise of rap collectives such as the Juice Crew and the Native Tongues. The Native Tongues collective crafted and presented an aesthetic that departed drastically from dominant forms of hip hop masculinity and femininity. Rather than wearing large gold chains, Adidas sneakers, sweatsuits, or Los Angeles Raiders jackets, members of the collective often dressed in Afrocentric garb. The Native Tongues initially consisted of the Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Black Sheep, Monie Love, and Queen Latifah. A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad attended the same high school as Mike G and Afrika Baby Bam, members of the Jungle Brothers. Mike G’s uncle, Kool DJ Red Alert, helped the Jungle Brothers and A Tribe Called Quest establish a foothold in the industry. The Native Tongues’ rap style was playful, yet serious. Rather than the straightforwardness of Chuck D or the in-your-face style of NWA, the collective’s songs often featured pro-black views, albeit subtly.30

Other rap acts, such as Houston’s Geto Boys and the Miami-based 2 Live Crew, were ensnared in the culture wars during the early 1990s. Christian fundamentalist groups criticized the Geto Boys for their explicit lyrics detailing gruesome killings.31 These groups also sought to pressure President George H. W. Bush to ban 2 Live Crew. Politician Jack Thompson claimed that 2 Live Crew violated obscenity laws. He successfully lobbied to get 2 Live Crew’s album, As Nasty As They Wanna Be, banned in Broward County, Florida.32 Luther Campbell and other members of 2 Live Crew were arrested in June 1990 in Hollywood, Florida, for performing songs on their album. They were eventually acquitted of the charges.33 The dispute over obscenity raised the same questions about artistry and the first amendment as the FBI.’s dispute with NWA. Thompson continued his protests against Geto Boys.34

Sampling in hip hop changed as music technology transformed. Rather than just relying on techniques such as using two records and turntables to create a breakbeat, creating pause tapes, producers began using electronic samplers and beat machines such as the SK-1, SP-1200, and the Akai MPC. However, sampling became a point of contention among musicians, critics, and lawyers as artists sought to collect a share of profits. In 1991, Gilbert O’Sullivan sued Biz Markie over using a sample in “Alone Again.” The 1960s rock group, The Turtles, settled with De La Soul for $1.7 million over the rap group sampling “You Showed Me.”35 Some musicians such as Mtume criticized rap producers’ use of sampling. Stetasonic, rap’s first act to perform with instrumentalists, responded by recording “Talking All That Jazz.”36 Disputes over different styles of sampling also generated debates around authenticity within the genre as producers such as Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs would rely more on samples recognized to the mainstream to craft songs.

Hip Hop Goes Mainstream, 1990–1999

Rap music invaded American popular and political culture during the 1990s. By the end of the decade, rap simultaneously grew both more national and more regional. Publications such as The Source, Vibe Magazine, and XXL, as well as television shows such as Yo! MTV Raps and Black Entertainment Television’s Rap City, helped construct what some have called the “hip hop nation.”37 At the same time, regionally based record labels and rap artists developed rap music that was distinct from New York’s and California’s sounds. This decade also saw the proliferation of black-run rap record labels, which were often subsidiaries of larger conglomerates.

Rap intersected with electoral politics during the early 1990s. For a politician such as Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton, confronting hip hop culture represented an opportunity to demonstrate that he would not back down in the face of racial politics. In a conversation about the 1992 Los Angeles uprising with Washington Post journalist, David Mills, activist-rapper Lisa Williamson, also known as Sistah Souljah, wondered whether African Americans would be right to retaliate against white Americans in response to racism and police brutality. Clinton not only criticized Williamson’s comments, but he equated her with white supremacist David Duke at a Rainbow Coalition gathering convened by Reverend Jesse Jackson in 1992. Many in politics labeled Clinton’s criticism of Williamson as the “Sistah Souljah moment,” an instance where a politician demonstrates “political courage” in the face of the excesses of racial politics. Clinton demonstrated that he was willing to stand up to rappers and Jesse Jackson while at a gathering Jackson organized.38

Ice-T’s and Bodycount’s “Cop Killer” thrust rap into debates about the First Amendment, censorship, and policing. In the recorded version of the song, Ice-T referenced the LAPD’s beating of Rodney King. The song depicts Ice-T engaging in a revenge killing of a police officer in response to police violence against African Americans.39 Police organizations, politicians, and other public figures protested Ice-T and Warner Brothers’ refusal to censor the song. Vice President Dan Quayle, Tipper Gore, and Charlton Heston roundly criticized the song. Law enforcement organizations across the country protested.40 The protests worked as stores pulled the record from their shelves. Ice-T took “Cop Killer” off the Bodycount record.41 The response to “Cop Killer” produced a chilling effect on politically charged music as labels began to disinvest in promoting such music and forced artists such as Paris off of the label.42

The Staten Island, New York, group, Wu Tang Clan, revolutionized the rap industry. The nine-member group led by The RZA—GZA/Genius, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon, Ghostface Killa, Method Man, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, U-God, and Masta Killa—announced themselves in October 1992 on the aggressive single, “Protect Ya Neck.”43 The Wu Tang Clan’s contractual arrangement with Loud Records altered the way rap groups interacted with record labels. Their contract allowed The Wu Tang Clan to sign as a collective while providing each member the freedom to sign individual deals with other record companies. The group’s most charismatic member, Method Man, signed with Def Jam Records. Elektra Records signed Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and GZA signed a deal with Geffen Records. Ghostface Killah signed with Epic Records, while Raekwon and Inspectah Deck stayed with Loud Records. The group released five solo albums between the Wu Tang Clan’s first two releases, Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers) in 1993 and Wu Tang Forever in 1997. Each album not only showcased the individual artists’ talents, but they continued to feature the rest of the group.

Lyricists and producers also innovated rap music. Dr. Dre unleashed his debut album, The Chronic, in 1992 after he left Ruthless Records for Suge Knight’s Death Row Records. Songs like the Snoop Doggy Dogg-assisted “Nuthin’ But a G Thang” exemplified the “G-Funk” sound. Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg followed up The Chronic with his debut album, Doggystyle (Figure 5).

Figure 5. SnoopDogg performing on the High Road Summer Tour 2016 at the Molson Canadian Amphitheatre.

The Come Up Show (Canada). Creative Commons License (CC BY 2.0)

Queensbridge’s Nasty Nas, released his debut album, Illmatic in 1994. Some critics refer to Illmatic as the greatest rap album of all time because of the combination of Nas’s poetic rhymes and its sonic backdrop composed by multiple up-and-coming producers such as Main Source member Large Professor, DJ Premier from Gangstarr, A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip, and Pete Rock. Bad Boy Records also released Notorious BIG’s debut album, Ready to Die, which put Notorious B.I.G. and the label at the vanguard of East Coast and New York rap. The album marked the return of the use of blatant samples such as “Juicy,” which sampled Mtume’s “Juicy Fruit.”44

The infamous rivalry between East and West Coast rappers, mainly between Death Row and Bad Boy Records, consumed hip hop during the mid-1990s. The beef allegedly began the night of November 30, 1994 when several burglars ambushed, shot, and robbed Tupac Shakur at Quad Studios while the Notorious BIG recorded inside. Tupac was born in 1971 to Afeni Shakur, a member of the Black Panther Party. Shakur had garnered much notoriety for his rapping and acting before he was convicted of sexual assault. He released two albums, starred in movies Above the Rim and Poetic Justice, and appeared as a guest on The Cosby Show. Tupac was the wild card in the coastal dispute. In an interview with Vibe Magazine before his sentencing, Shakur implicated Sean Combs and the Notorious BIG in the robbery, charges they subsequently denied.45

Tensions between California and New York rappers spilled out in the open in 1995. While on stage at The Source Hip Hop Music Awards, Suge Knight called out Puff Daddy for overshadowing his artists in their videos.46 Puff Daddy took a more conciliatory tone, stating that he was “proud” of Death Row.47 Snoop Dogg’s and Tha Dogg Pound’s “NY, NY,” escalated the rivalry. The song ridiculed New York City, and the video featured a giant Snoop Dogg kicking down the city’s buildings. Queens-based Capone-n-Noreaga, Mobb Deep, and Tragedy Khadafi recorded a response, “L.A., L.A.,” mocking Tha Dogg Pound’s “New York, New York” song and video.

Tupac signed with Death Row Records after Suge Knight posted Tupac’s $1.4 million bail. Soon after, Tupac released the double album, All Eyez on Me, which included the Dr. Dre-produced anthem, “California Love.” He escalated the attacks, claiming to have slept with singer Faith Evans, Notorious BIG’s wife, in the song, “Hit ‘Em Up.” Tupac also targeted other East Coast artists such as Mobb Deep, Nas, Jay-Z, Q-Tip, and De La Soul. The deaths of Tupac and Notorious BIG virtually ended the East Coast–West Coast rivalry. Tupac Shakur was gunned down in Las Vegas in September 7, 1996, and died of his wounds six days later. The Notorious B.I.G. met a similar fate in Los Angeles on March 9, 1997. He was shot while his vehicle was at a stoplight. Much mystery surrounded their deaths. It appeared that Shakur’s death was related to a physical altercation with a gang member the night of his death. In Wallace’s case, it is possible his killing was in retaliation of Shakur’s death, although there is little substantiated evidence linking him, or Sean Combs, to it. Law enforcement failed to solve either murder.

Other rappers sought to position themselves as leading artists in the culture in the wake of Shakur’s and the Notorious B.I.G.’s deaths. Rappers DMX, Jay Z, Nas, and Ja Rule were among those who sought to fill the void left by the two slain artists. Jay Z released a series of critically acclaimed albums on Roc-A-Fella Records, which he owned along with Damon “Dame” Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke. Jay Z earned a taste of the type of commercial success that he would enjoy later on his 1998 album, Hard Knock Life. DMX appeared to capture hip hop’s zeitgeist on songs such as “Ruff Ryders Anthem” on his 1998 debut album, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot. DMX, like Shakur, rapped with intense emotion over dark beats crafted by producers like Swizz Beatz and Dame Grease. He mixed personal tales of hardship with momentary expressions of spirituality. In an unprecedented feat, DMX released his second platinum-selling album, Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, in a single calendar year.

The Resurgence of the Underground, Women Rappers, the South, and Latinx Rap, 1997–2001

The East Coast–West Coast beef provoked a critique from more “conscious” artists, revealing another division within the genre bubbling beneath the surface. These divisions revolved around long-standing debates over cultural authenticity—“real” hip hop versus “commercial” rap—which sporadically sprang up in rap music. Rap artists and groups such as Kool Keith, Xzibit, A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots, The Fugees, Common, Apani B. Fly Emcee, and Mos Def and Talib Kweli mocked and criticized mainstream artists such as the Notorious B.I.G. and Puff Daddy for their violent lyrics, materialism, and striving for more commercial success. De La Soul drew fire from Treach for Naughty By Nature and Tupac Shakur for “Ego Trippin’” and remarks they made on the 1996 album, Stakes Is High, which served as a rebuke of rap’s gangsterism.

Latinx rappers continued to impact the culture as well. Cypress Hill, a West Coast rap group consisting of B Real, Sen Dog, and producer DJ Muggs, was the first Latino group to achieve mainstream success. In 1993, the group released its second album, Black Sunday, which sold more than 3 million albums. The album included their biggest hit single, “Insane in the Brain,” which also sold more than 3 million records. The Queens-based group, The Beatnuts, comprising JuJu and Psycho Les, were fixtures in the East Coast rap underground. Bronx rapper Fat Joe also appealed to underground audiences in the first half of the 1990s, until he discovered another Latino rapper who would push Latinx rap further into the mainstream, Big Punisher (Big Pun). The Beatnuts helped thrust Big Pun into the mainstream when they featured him on their hit song, “Off the Books.” Big Pun released his debut solo album, Capital Punishment, in 1998. The album went platinum, making Big Pun the first Latino solo artist to sell more than a million albums.

During the 1990s, a more diverse group of women rappers emerged, and some moved closer to the mainstream. Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown were affiliated with two of rap’s burgeoning collectives, Notorious B.I.G.’s Junior Mafia and The Firm, which included Nas, AZ, and Nature. Lil’ Kim’s and Foxy Brown’s lyricism and image on songs such as “Crush on You” and “Gotta Get You Home” embodied sexual freedom. The Fugees’s Lauryn Hill, however, presented a complex picture of black womanhood. She did not discard her sexual appeal, but her lyricism on her 1998 album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, proved that she could comment on serious topics such as reproductive freedom while demonstrating that she could hold her own lyrically.48 Hill’s blending of rap, R&B, and soul music paved the way for artists such as Mos Def, Kid Cudi, and Drake to synthesize various musical genres. Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliot was another trailblazer in rap (Figure 6).

Figure 6. Missy Elliot, December 2015.

Atlantic Records. Creative Commons License (CC BY-SA 4.0)

She, along with producer Timbaland, introduced and popularized “bounce,” on her album, Supa Dupa Fly. This sound was characterized by frantic drums, inconspicuous samples, and other futuristic sounds. Elliot presented a black feminism distinct from that of Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown. She challenged beauty standards in her videos and performances, famously wearing a black inflatable body suit.49

Southern rap took off during the 1990s as well.50 Jermaine Dupri’s So So Def Records was among the first southern rap music labels to enjoy mainstream success. However, artists like Outkast and rap labels like No Limit Records created a permanent home for the “dirty south” in hip hop culture. Based in Atlanta, Andre Benjamin and Big Boi adopted the playa persona on their first album. Their name—Outkast—also underscored the group’s outsider status. Outkast seemed to draw from various influences that included P-Funk, Afrika Bambaataa, black southern culture, and the Native Tongues. The group’s style evolved to include lyrical content that extended to afrofuturist themes, black solidarity, spirituality, and mortality. The group also belonged to a collective called the Dungeon Family, named after the studio where they recorded their music, which consisted of the producers Organized Noize, Goodie Mob, Sleepy Brown, Big Rube, the Witchdoctor, and Cool Breeze.51

Master P’s No Limit Records was one of the most successful black-owned and independent rap labels. The label originated from a record store called No Limit that he opened while living in Richmond, California.52 Master P formed No Limit Records in 1994 and moved it to New Orleans. His label featured a small roster of performers in the beginning—him, his wife, Sonya Miller, his brother, Silkk the Shocker, rap producer E-A-Ski, and their group Tru. After selling around 150,000 albums across the South and on the West Coast, Master P and his partners at No Limit signed a distribution deal with Priority Records.53 Backed by the production collective, Beats By the Pound, No Limit Records released fifty albums—selling over 30 million records—which included records from Master P and his brothers, Mia X, Mystikal, and Snoop Dogg, who signed with the label after leaving Death Row Records.

Debates regarding race and authenticity took a different turn during the late 1990s when Detroit’s Marshall Mathers, also known as Eminem, released his debut album, The Slim Shady LP on Dr. Dre’s struggling record label, Aftermath Entertainment. Eminem’s single, “My Name Is” and album launched him and Aftermath into the stratosphere of rap and popular culture. A shock rapper, Eminem’s over-the-top provocative lyrics often aimed at pop stars like Britney Spears and political figures like Tipper Gore and C. Delores Tucker. His violent and misogynistic lyrics attracted the ire of many critics. Eminem’s success raised questions about race and whether or not he was a cultural interloper. Did he represent rap’s version of Elvis Presley, a white performer who so successfully repackaged black cultural practices for mass audiences?54 The answer to the question was more complex. Eminem’s participation in local rap battles earned him the respect of black artists such as Royce da 5’9 and Proof. Eminem’s class position also allowed him to traverse rap music’s color line as well. He rapped about growing up in a single-parent household in an impoverished trailer park in Detroit.55 Eminem built on the success of his first two albums, which included Marshall Mathers LP, by releasing albums with his group of Detroit rappers, D12, and starting his own label, Shady Records. Eminem’s movie, which was loosely based on his experiences seeking acceptance and success in local hip hop culture, 8 Mile, and its soundtrack, propelled him further into the mainstream.

Hip Hop in the 21st Century: Rap Takes Control of the Mainstream

Rap music further embedded itself in popular culture and in the record industry in the 21st century. Corporations such as McDonald’s began using hip hop music as marketing tools. More rappers began partnering with corporations to endorse or create products.

Figure 7. Eminem graffiti mural in Shanghai, China (2012).

Photo by Sabrine Fricke. Creative Commons License (CC BY-SA 3.0).

By the end of the decade, television networks began investing more in rap-themed shows such as Empire, The Breaks, and The Get Down, and Marvel’s Luke Cage. Rap even found audiences on Broadway. Scores of Americans, mostly white and wealthy, have packed the theater to watch Lin Manuel Miranda’s hip hop musical—Hamilton—dramatizing the life of founding father, Alexander Hamilton. Ed Piskor has released a critically acclaimed comic book series based on the history of rap, Hip Hop Family Tree. “Hybrid” artists, such Janelle Monae, Erykah Badu, Childish Gambino, and Kid Cudi blurred the boundaries between the genres as they sung and rapped on their projects.

Even though more women continued to rap, their influence in the genre waned during the 2000s. Lil’ Kim, Missy Elliot, Trina, and the Ruff Ryders’s Eve all recorded albums that enjoyed mainstream success. The Grammy Awards dropped the Best Female Rap category in 2005 due to a decline in the number of mainstream women recording artists. The restructuring of the music industry made women and men more disposable. Instead of investing in artist development, record labels now sought more polished artists who could sell more records at a lower cost. Women artists were disproportionately affected by this development. The cost for labels to not only record albums and produce videos, but to invest in a woman’s upkeep, was more expensive, thus, making her more expendable.56

These struggles have not totally foreclosed success for women. Queen Latifah has successfully crossed over from rap to acting in television and movies. She has also served as a Covergirl model. Young Money’s Nicki Minaj and former T.I. affiliate, Iggy Azalea entered the mainstream during the 2010s with songs like “Fancy.” Like Lil’ Kim, Missy Elliot, and Eve, both artists blended hip hop and catchy pop music. Both artists have endured criticisms over their authenticity, albeit for different reasons. At the 2012 Hot97 Summer Jam Concert, DJ Peter Rosenberg alleged that Nicki Minaj was not “real” hip hop because of her hit, “Starships.” This sparked a controversy as Minaj pulled out of the event arguing that Rosenberg would not advance such claims if she were not a woman performer.57 In 2014, rapper Azalea Banks accused white Australian rapper Iggy Azaelia of cultural appropriation.

Big Pun’s sudden death in 2000 due to a heart attack and respiratory problems appeared to have left a void in Latinx rap. However, New York City radio DJ Angie Martinez embarked on a short, yet rather successful, rap career during the mid- to late 1990s that culminated in the release of two albums, Up Close and Personal in 2001 and Animal House in 2002. Big Pun’s comrade, Fat Joe, enjoyed more mainstream success during this period. Rather than remaining in New York City, Fat Joe moved to Miami and began collaborating with singers, southern rappers, and DJs like R. Kelly, Ashanti, Lil’ Wayne, Rick Ross, and Arab-American turntabalist DJ Khaled. Cuban American rapper, Pitbull, surpassed Big Pun in commercial success in the 2000s. Pitbull named his debut album after the city in which he was born and raised, M.I.A.M.I. Pitbull specialized in recording and performing fast-paced dance music. He forged partnerships with products such as Kodak, Dr. Pepper, and Budweiser, and his music has been featured in NBA advertisements on the ESPN and ABC networks.

Jay-Z continued his mainstream success in the new century. He released The Blueprint in 2001, an album that many critics heralded a classic. The album also included the diss song aimed at Mobb Deep and Nas entitled “The Takeover.” Tensions between Jay-Z and Nas bubbled beneath the surface after Notorious B.I.G.’s death with both artists trading subliminal disses. Jay Z’s “The Takeover” represented the first high-profile rap battle since the East Coast–West Coast feud. Nas returned the favor with his response, “Ether,” that appeared on his 2001 album, Stillmatic. Even though many in the hip hop world considered Nas the winner of the battle, both artists traded lyrical barbs on their follow-up albums. Jay Z announced his retirement from recording upon the release of The Black Album in 2004. Soon after, he parted ways with the other Roc-A-Fella co-owners. Then Def Jam changed ownership and leadership as it briefly employed Jay-Z as its president after the CEOs of his label. The decline of Roc-A-Fella reminded those in the music industry that even the most popular labels could dissolve under the weight of an executive’s ambitions and internal tensions.

Kanye West emerged as one of the most important rap artists of the decade as Roc-a-Fella Records declined. West, a Chicagoan, made his mark with his production on Jay-Z’s The Blueprint. Although West supplied beats for the likes of Roc-A-Fella artists such as Jay-Z and Beanie Sigel, as well as other artists such as Talib Kweli and Scarface, he saw himself as a vocalist. On his 2004 debut album, The College Dropout, West deemphasized tales of drug dealing and violent lyrics embedded in gangsta rap. Yet, West’s lyrics remained materialistic and misogynistic. West also incorporated lyrics about dropping out of college, politics, spirituality, and his struggle to be taken seriously as a rapper. He also bridged generation and stylistic gaps in rap music. West became famous by reinvigorating sample-based production, often relying on soul samples that he chopped and sped up. Kanye’s rap and beatmaking style also drew from the likes of Pete Rock and A Tribe Called Quest. West was the first prominent rapper and producer in the late-1990s and early-2000s to collaborate with both “commercial” and “underground” artists and groups such as Dilated Peoples, Jay-Z, Scarface, Common, and Talib Kweli.

West emerged alongside other producers and groups who took their musical cues from the Native Tongues and other producers such as Pete Rock. Even though Detroit-based producer J. Dilla’s group, Slum Village, released their debut album, Fantastic, Vol. 1, in 2000. J. Dilla, Baatin, and T3 rapped over J. Dilla’s sample-based beats. J. Dilla drew from various genres like soul, jazz, and electronica. Before he succumbed from complications from Lupus, Dilla released Donuts, where he arranged loops of sampled beats in a manner that contemplated mortality.58 North Carolina’s Little Brother also represented a descendant of the Native Tongues. Rappers Big Pooh and Phonte traded rhymes of 9th Wonder’s soul-laced tracks.

The 21st century has represented a golden age for Southern and non-New York City hip hop. In 2000, St. Louis rapper Nelly released Country Grammar, which featured the hit song by the same name. Nelly seemed to draw from Cleveland’s Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony’s melodic delivery. Three 6 Mafia earned the genre its first Academy Award in 2006 for its performance of “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” in the movie, Hustle & Flow.

The popularity of the South’s “trap music” surged in the 21st century.59 Atlanta’s T.I. reemphasized the subgenre during the 2000s. New Orleans’s Lil’ Wayne, and Miami’s Rick Ross also emerged as the South’s biggest solo artists during the 2000s. While T.I released his first album, I’m Serious, in 2001, he did not reach mainstream stardom until the mid-2000s. Cash Money’s Lil’ Wayne released three albums before he was considered one of the genre’s best rappers. Lil’ Wayne solidified his position at the top of the rap industry with his Tha Carter series and his mixtapes. Rick Ross’s persona and hit song, “Hustlin,” raised questions about authenticity in hip hop. Ross adopted the name of drug dealer Freeway Ricky Ross, who admonished the rapper for taking his name. Then, in 2008, evidence of Ross’s past employment as a correctional officer surfaced, raising questions about his legitimacy. However, Ross’s use of his imagination is what made his song, “Hustlin’” and his role as a performer significant.60

Rap Music, Technology, Moguls, and Politics in the 21st Century

The maturation of .mp3 technology and the advent of digital music players such as Apple’s IPod may have been the most consequential advances in the music industry in the 21st century. These developments reordered the industry as they changed the production, distribution, and consumption of rap, and music generally. Record labels and artists struggled to adapt to the burgeoning digital era. While many record labels continued to produce and distribute rap music on compact discs, the advent of the .mp3 and digital music players allowed for consumers to share music across disparate networks on platforms such as Napster. While rappers had to deal with bootleggers and album leaks as far back as the early 1990s, such practices increased as more people could copy compact discs and acquire music digitally.

This change in the market actually boosted the careers of some rappers like 50 Cent, who recorded numerous mixtapes with his group, G-Unit. 50 Cent’s mixtapes were more advanced than those in the past that featured freestyle verses over other artists’ songs. 50 Cent and G-Unit would rerecord other artists’ songs, infusing them with their gangsta style. This method paved the way for artists to sidestep the traditional recording process through labels. They could record new music and release them via mixtapes on their own. 50 Cent’s mixtape productivity launched him to the fore of the rap industry. He caught Eminem’s ear, and Eminem eventually signed him to Shady-Aftermath where he released hit songs such as “In Da Club” and the overwhelming successful Get Rich or Die Tryin’ and The Massacre. 50 Cent turned his mixtape hustle into a record label deal—G Unit Records—with Shady-Aftermath’s parent company, Interscope Records.

Rap artists and executives also became moguls during the 21st century. Dr. Dre and Interscope Records’ Jimmy Iovine invested in Beats headphones, which was subsequently bought by Apple. Jay-Z runs his own entertainment company, Roc Nation, which specializes in music, film, television, marketing, and talent representation. He is also a co-owner of the music streaming company, Tidal. In addition to running Bad Boy Records and a television network, Revolt TV, Combs has established lucrative partnerships with Ciroc Vodka. Dr. Dre’s and Sean Combs’s earnings have pushed northward of $800 million, making them the first rap artists and executives to possibly earn $1 billion.61

Rap groups and soloists emerged during the 2000s to speak out against racism, economic exploitation, mass incarceration, and the war in Iraq. Dead Prez’s Let’s Get Free criticized poverty, the education system, and policing. West Coast rapper Paris teamed up with Public Enemy to record an album calling for greater black solidarity called Rebirth of a Nation, which played upon D.W. Griffith’s white supremacist movie, Birth of a Nation. The X-Clan returned in 2007 with Return from Mecca, which included one of the genre’s most potent songs, simply called “Prison,” which criticized mass incarceration. Latino rapper Immortal Technique spoke out against racism, the corporatization of rap, and the international drug trade on all of his albums: Revolutionary, Vol. 1, Revolutionary, Vol. 2, and The 3rd World. White rapper Macklemore recorded songs about homophobia, white privilege, and police violence. However, the overwhelming success of his and Ryan Lewis’s debut album, The Heist, raised questions about race and authenticity in hip hop. Women rappers like Angel Haze and Detroit-based rapper, Invincible, continued to speak out on political issues in song. Drawing from the city’s history of deindustrialization, Invincible has spoken out against urban disinvestment and gentrification.

Between 2008 and 2016, rap drew inspiration from electoral politics and social movements. Will.I.Am, Jeezy, and Nas recorded songs praising Obama and encouraging Americans to vote. Obama also publicly exhibited his affinity with hip hop culture. In April 2008, he famously brushed his shoulder in response to a criticism from Hillary Clinton. The gesture referenced Jay-Z’s song, “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” that appeared on The Black Album. Social movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter also inspired hip hop artists during the Obama era. Talib Kweli supported Black Lives Matter by participating in the Ferguson October protest in 2015. Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco has recorded songs criticizing the history of settler-colonialism, foreign policy, and mass incarceration. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly features songs such as “The Blacker the Berry” confronting police killings, mass incarceration, and inner-city violence. One song, in particular, however, “Alright,” has become a protest anthem for many Black Lives Matter activists.

Discussion of the Literature

Hip hop studies has expanded in the previous three decades despite academia’s questions regarding its relevance and rigor.62 The number of studies of hip hop culture increased during the 1990s and the 2000s. Tricia Rose’s Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America was among the first theoretical analyses of hip hop culture. Rose analyzed the relationship between technology, political economy, and space in the development of rap music. She also presented analyses of rap music’s relationship between race, gender, and politics. Bakari Kitwana’s The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African-American Culture analyzes the rise of what he defines as the “hip hop generation”—those born between 1965 and 1984—and its relationship to mass incarceration, film, unemployment, and sexism and the gender divide.63 Murray Forman’s and Mark Anthony Neal’s That’s the Joint: The Hip Hop Studies Reader and Jeff Chang’s edited collection, Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop illustrate the breadth of the study of rap music as a field. Chang’s edited collection features various articles on hip hop historiography, aesthetics, authenticity, space, gender, politics, and technology. Chang’s collection also frames hip hop as a cultural movement in the vein of the Black Arts movement.

Many of the rap histories are journalistic. Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation remains the best synthetic history of the genre. Chang contextualizes the emergence of the genre in the Jamaican diaspora and the political, economic, and spatial transformations of New York City. The author uses culture and politics to analyze the development of hip hop culture from 1973 until 2001, ending with an analysis of the corporatization and globalization of rap music at the end of the 20th century. Dan Charnas’s The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop is the first economic history of the genre. In The Big Payback, music executives emerge as the prominent players in the genre’s development alongside pioneering DJ’s and rappers. Ben Westhoff’s Original Gangstas: The Untold Story of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur, and the Birth of West Coast Rap and Dirty South: Outkast, Lil Wayne, Souljah Boy and the Southern Rappers Who Reinvented Hip Hop are the first journalistic histories that shift the focus of rap’s origins to places such as Compton, Los Angeles, the Bay Area, New Orleans, and Atlanta.

Many scholars have focused on analyzing the relationship between hip hop culture, rap music, feminism, and gender. Gwendolyn Pough builds upon black feminist scholars such as Tricia Rose in her book, Check It While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop Culture, and the Public Sphere. Pough illustrates how black women rappers had to “wreck it,” demonstrating great lyrical skill, to carve a space in the predominantly black male rap counterpublic. Due to this struggle, according to Pough, this space becomes a launch point for black feminist thought, pedagogy, and politics. Sociologist Michael Jeffries concentrates on the relationship between rap music and masculinity in Thug Life: Race, Gender, and the Meaning of Hip-Hop. His method is notable because he focuses more on audience than on rappers and other performers.64

Many scholars have been interested in the political potential of rap music and the hip hop generation.65 These texts specifically explore the intersections between hip hop culture and its relationship with traditional politics. The title of S. Craig’s Watkins’s book, Hip Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture, and the Struggle for the Soul of the Movement serves as a rebuke of those critics who claim that hip hop does not contain any politics. Political Scientist Cathy Cohen takes up questions regarding black youth participation in electoral politics and activism, moral panics and respectability politics, and their relationship with Barack Obama in Democracy Remixed. Political Scientist Lester Spence considers the development of hip hop culture in relation to the emergence of neoliberalism. Spence confronts critics of rap music and black culture who claim that it has no political significance. While analyzing the production, consumption, and circulation of rap music, the author identifies the points where rap artists and black culture transmit messages supporting neoliberal logic.

Music critics and journalists have published anthologies analyzing many of the genre’s most notable albums.66 Hip hop journalists Sasha Jenkins, Elliot Wilson, Chairman Mao, Gabriel Alvarez, and Brent Rollins put together Ego Trip’s Book of Rap Lists. This 352-page book features scores of lists exploring the genre’s greatest producers, the best DJs, the greatest rap groups of all time, and “twenty colorful songs about racism.” Journalist Brian Coleman published two volumes of Check the Technique: Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies, which has offered deep analyses of albums from the Beastie Boys, Diagable Planets, Raekwon, Black Star, Eric B. & Rakim, and Ice Cube. Shea Serrano’s The Rap Yearbook analyzes the best rap songs from the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” released in 1979 to Rich Gang’s 2014 “Lifestyle.” Michael Eric Dyson and Sohail Daulatzai edited a collection of essays analyzing every song from Nas’s debut album, Illmatic.

Rappers have also published memoirs documenting their experiences in the hip hop industry.67 Journalist Joan Morgan’s memoir, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: My Life as a Hip-Hop Feminist, interrogates the nuances of black feminism and some of the problematic aspects of hip hop culture. The Roots’ drummer, Questlove, mused about his musical influences and the story of his band’s rise in Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove. He contextualizes The Roots’ career in the development of hip hop culture during the 1980s and 1990s. Wu Tang Clan’s The Rza frames his coming of age story within the lessons he gleaned from his various influences in The Tao of Wu. Jay-Z also published Decoded, which featured the artist’s annotations of some of his most famous verses.

Primary Sources

Harvard University and Cornell University have opened archives containing primary sources. The Cornell Hip-Hop Collection in Ithaca, New York, contains collections from Afrika Bambaataa, journalist Kevin Powell, and Def Jam music executive Bill Adler.68 Harvard’s Hip Hop Archive and Research Institute at the Hutchins Center, Harvard University, features profiles of several hip hop artists and contains 200 vinyl records in their Classic Crates Project. It also includes an extensive bibliography.69 Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois published a collection of rap lyrics in 2010, The Anthology of Rap. This compilation contains lyrics from rap artists from 1978 to 2010. Genius is an annotation website that stores rap verses from thousands of songs. The Original Hip Hop Lyrics Database also contains rap lyrics.70

Links to Digital Materials

Further Reading

  • Chang, Jeff. Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005.
  • Charnas, Dan. The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip Hop. New York: New American Library, 2010.
  • Coleman, Brian. Check the Technique: Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies. New York: Villard, 2007.
  • Coleman, Brian. Check the Technique, Volume 2: More Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies. Everett, Mass.: Wax Facts Press, 2014.
  • Collins, Patricia Hill. From Black Power to Hip Hop: Racism, Nationalism, and Feminism. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006.
  • Dyson, Michael Eric, and Sohail Daulatzai, eds. Born to Use Mics: Reading Nas’s Illmatic. New York: Basic Civitas, 2010.
  • Forman, Murray, and Mark Anthony Neal. That’s the Joint! The Hip-Hop Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 2004.
  • Jeffries, Michael P. Thug Life: Race, Gender, and the Meaning of Hip Hop. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.
  • Jenkins, Sasha, Elliot Wilson, Chairman Mao, Gabriel Alvarez, and Brent Rollins, Ego Trip’s Book of Rap Lists. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999.
  • Kitwana, Bakari. The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2002.
  • Kitwana, Bakari. Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop: Wankstas, Wiggers, Wannabees, and the New Reality of Race in America. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2005.
  • Lipsitz, George. Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music Postmodernism, and the Poetics of Place. New York: Verso, 1994.
  • Morgan, Joan. When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: My Life as a Hip-Hop Feminist. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.
  • Ogbar, Jeffrey O. G. The Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007.
  • Perry, Imani. Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2004.
  • Piskor, Ed. Hip Hop Family Tree. Seattle, Wash.: Fantagraphics Books, 2013.
  • Pough, Gwendolyn. Check It While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop Culture, and the Public Sphere. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2004.
  • Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Nanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 2004.
  • The Rza. The Tao of Wu. New York: Riverhead Books, 2009.
  • Serrano, Shea. The Rap Yearbook: The Most Important Rap Song From Every Year Since 1979, Discussed, Debated, and Deconstructed. New York: Abrams Image, 2015.
  • Spence, Lester. Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip-Hop and Black Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.
  • Thompson, Ahmir “Questlove,” Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2013.
  • Vibe Magazine Staff, Hip-Hop Divas. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001.
  • Watkins, S. Craig. Hip Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture, and the Struggle for the Soul of the Movement. Boston: Beacon Press, 2005.
  • Westoff, Ben. Original Gangstas: The Untold Story of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur, and the Birth of West Coast Rap. New York: Hachette Books, 2016.


  • 1. Robin Kelley, “Polycultural Me,” UTNE Reader, September–October 1999.

  • 2. Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar, The Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007), 5–7.

  • 3. Jeff Chang, Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005), 67–70; Angus Batey, “DJ Kool Herc DJs his first block party (his sister’s birthday) at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, Bronx, New York,” The Guardian, June 12, 2011.

  • 4. George Lipsitz, Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism and the Politics of Place (New York: Verso, 1994), 25.

  • 5. Chang, 79.

  • 6. Dan Charnas, The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop (New York: New American Library, 2010), 18.

  • 7. Chang, 10–14.

  • 8. Ibid., 83.

  • 9. Charnas, 19; Chang, 101.

  • 10. In 2016, the leadership of the Zulu Nation marginalized Bambaataa after activist, politician, and music executive Ronald Savage accused him of sexual assault. The Zulu Nation issued a formal apology to Savage. See Marc Hogan, “Zulu Nation Apologizes to Afrika Bambaataa’s Alleged Sexual Abuse Victims,” Pitchfork, June 1, 2016.

  • 11. Sewell Chan, “Remembering the ’77 Blackout,” The New York Times, July 9, 2007.

  • 12. 99% Invisible and Delaney Hall, “Was the 1977 New York City Blackout a Catalyst for Hip Hop’s Growth?,”, October 16, 2014; Chang, 84.

  • 13. Vibe Magazine Staff, Hip-Hop Divas (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001), 8–9.

  • 14. Vibe Magazine Staff, 9.

  • 15. Charnas, 15.

  • 16. Sasha Jenkins, Elliot Wilson, Chairman Mao, Gabriel Alvarez, and Brent Rollins, Ego Trip’s Book of Rap Lists (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), 30.

  • 17. Charnas, 233.

  • 18. Shea Serrano, The Rap Year Book: The Most Important Rap Song Every Year Since 1979, Discussed, Debated, and Deconstructed (New York: Abrams Image, 2015), 17–20.

  • 19. Charnas, 57.

  • 20. Chang, 92; J. S. Rafaeli, “We Spoke to Afrika Bambaataa about Hip-Hop, Afrofuturism, and ‘Bewitched’,”, October 2, 2014.

  • 21. Chang, 203.

  • 22. Schellenbach’s was marginalized as Horowitz, Yauch, and Diamond concentrated more on producing rap music. Charnas, 134.

  • 23. Austin McCoy, “Fight for Your Right to Party”?: The Politics of Hip Hop’s ‘Funky Ass Jews,’” Another Level, August 17, 2012.

  • 24. Kelley, 184.

  • 25. Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois, eds., The Anthology of Rap (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2010), 283.

  • 26. Tricia Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1994), 151.

  • 27. Chang, 445.

  • 28. Bradley and DuBois, 257.

  • 29. Chang, 251.

  • 30. Eric Thurm, “A beginner’s guide to hip-hop collective Native Tongues,” The Av Club, July 5, 2013.

  • 31. David Mills, “The Geto Boys: Beating the Murder Rap,” The Washington Post, December 15, 1991.

  • 32. Ibid., 393.

  • 33. Steve Hochman, “Two Members of 2 Live Crew Arrested,” Los Angeles Times, June 11, 1990; “The Anatomy of a Crusade,” Los Angeles Times, June 18, 1990.

  • 34. Sara Rimer, “Obscenity or Art? Trial on Rap Lyrics Opens,” New York Times, October 17, 1990.

  • 35. Oliver Wang, “20 Years Ago Biz Markie Got the Las Laugh,” NPR Music.

  • 36. Jeff Mao, “Interview: Mtume on Miles Davis, Juicy Fruit and Donny Hathaway’s Last Recording Session,” Red Bull Music Academy, May 13, 2014.

  • 37. Greg Tate, “Hip Hop Nation,” The Village Voice, January 19, 1988.

  • 38. Charnas, 381; Chang, 394–395; Matt Latimer, “Why There Are No More Sistah Souljah Moments,” Politico, June 24, 2015.

  • 39. Bodycount, “Out in the Parking Lot/Cop Killer Lyrics,” Rap Genius.

  • 40. Chang, 396–399.

  • 41. Charnas, 389.

  • 42. Chang, 399.

  • 43. The Rza, The Tao of Wu (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009), 107.

  • 44. Serrano, 103.

  • 45. Charnas, 474–475.

  • 46. Nadirah Simmons, “Today in 1995: The 2nd Annual Source Awards Makes Hip Hop History,” The, August 3, 2016.

  • 47. Charnas, 475.

  • 48. Lester Spence, Stare into the Darkness: The Limits of Hip Hop and Black Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 1.

  • 49. Noisey Staff, “The Evolution of Timbaland,” Noisey, February 3, 2015; Kat George, “Why Missy Elliot’s feminist legacy is criminally underrated,” Dazed (January 2016).

  • 50. David Mills, “The Geto Boys Beating the Murder Rap,” Washington Post, December 15, 1991.

  • 51. Pitchfork Staff, “Atlanta to Atlantis: An OutKast Retrospective,” Pitchfork, November 5, 2013.

  • 52. Ben Westhoff,The Dirty South: Outkast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers Who Reinvented Hip-Hop (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2011), 118.

  • 53. Charnas, 516–157.

  • 54. Charnas, 522.

  • 55. Jonah Hahn, “The Politics of Race in Rap,” Harvard Political Review, June 8, 2014; [another citation]

  • 56. Austin McCoy, “In Between Cultural Appropriatation, Racism, and Sexism: Azealia Banks and the Erasure of Black Women in Rap,” Nursing Clio, January 29, 2015.

  • 57. Austin McCoy, “Holding it Down For Women: Nicki Minaj and the Problem of Gender Inequity in Hip Hop,” Nursing Clio, July 25, 2012.

  • 58. Jordan Ferguson, Donuts (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014).

  • 59. Christina Lee, “Trap Kings: How the Hip-Hop Sub-genre Dominated the Decade,” The Guardian, August 13, 2015.

  • 60. Serrano, 177.

  • 61. Zack O’Malley Greenberg, “Cash Kings 2016: Hip-Hop’s Highest Earning Acts,” Forbes, September 7, 2016.

  • 62. For a comprehensive bibliography on the history of hip hop, see Andrew Leach, “’One Day It’ll All Make Sense’: Hip-Hop and Rap Resources for Librarians,” Notes, 2d ser., 65.1 (September 2008): 9–37.

  • 63. Bakari Kitwana, The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African-American Culture (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2002), 3.

  • 64. Gwendolyn Pough, Check It While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop Culture, and the Public Sphere (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2004); Michael P. Jeffries, Thug Life: Race, Gender, and The Meaning of Hip-Hop (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2011). Also see Patricia Hill Collins, From Black Power to Hip Hop: Racism, Nationalism, and Feminism (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006).

  • 65. S. Craig Watkins, Hip Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture, and the Struggle for the Soul of the Movement (Boston: Beacon Press, 2005); Cathy J. Cohen, Democracy Remixed: Black Youth and the Future of American Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); Portia Hemphill, “Rebel Without a Pause: Discovering the Relationship Between Rap Music and the Political Attitudes and Participation of Black Youth” (PhD diss, University of Michigan, 2015).

  • 66. Brian Coleman, Check the Technique: Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies (New York: Villard, 2007); Check the Technique, Volume 2: More Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies (Everett, Mass.: Wax Facts Press, 2014); Michael Eric Dyson and Sohail Daulatzai, eds., Born to Use Mics: Reading Nas’s Illmatic (New York: Basic Civitas, 2010)

  • 67. Jay Z, Decoded (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2010); Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2015).

  • 68. “Guide to the Cornell University Library Hip Hop Collection, circa 1975–2008,” Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections Cornell University Library. Ithaca, New York.

  • 69. “Bibliography,” The Hip Hop Archive, Hip Hop Archive and Research Institute at the Hutchins Center, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

  • 70. The Original Hip-Hop Lyrics Archive.