It all started with a back-to-school party 50 years ago.
Now, it’s grown to become one of the most popular music genres in the world.
On Aug. 11, 1973, hip-hop was born in the recreation room at 1520 Sedgwick Ave. in the Bronx borough of New York City.
According to the Washington Post, the party was hosted by Cindy Campbell, who enlisted her brother Clive – better known as DJ Kool Herc – to provide musical entertainment.
DJ Kool Herc would blend beats from older records with popular dance songs to create a continuous flow of music, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. He and other hip-hop pioneers – such as Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash – would isolate and extend the break beat, or the part of a dance song where every sound but the drums drop out.
The technique proved successful, and the hip-hop sound began to grow more and more popular, eventually spreading from the predominantly Black, poverty-stricken South Bronx to other parts of the country, and then beyond.
The first successful song to use that method, now known as sampling, was the chart-topping 1979 hit “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang which extended the breakbeat of “Good Times” by disco group Chic and gave rap music its name.
Other pioneers during hip-hop’s early era include Run-D.M.C., LL Cool J, Beastie Boys and Public Enemy, who with their unprecedented lyrical content and never-before-heard sounds brought the genre to a mainstream audience.
Rapping as we know it today traces its roots back thousands of years to West African griots, who were oral historians that would keep traditions alive through musical performances. More contemporary influences include talking blues songs, Black power poetry such as that by Gil Scott-Heron, and the Jamaican style of rhythmized speech known as toasting, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.
Since the 1980s, the genre’s popularity and influence has exploded. Specific regions began to develop their own sounds; gritty street tales over dark beats began to emerge from New York MCs, while their Los Angeles counterparts created smooth hip-hop to listen to with the convertible top down.
Some new rap hubs have emerged as well; Chicago is the birthplace of the up-in-your-face subgenre of drill rap, and Atlanta is vying to become the hip-hop capital of the world with a steady stream of talented MCs emerging each year.
The genre is expanding very rapidly on an international level too, with London in particular serving as the de facto hip-hop capital of Europe. Grime, a mix of jungle, dancehall and hip-hop, is the subgenre most associated with rap in the United Kingdom. The increase in popularity of drill music in the United States has also led to a similar boom in the U.K.
Some consider rap’s glory days to be the late 1980s through 1990s, when Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. were at the forefront of the East Coast-West Coast hip-hop rivalry that peaked when they were killed within six months of each other in drive-by shootings, both of which remain unsolved in 2023. The feud has since died down, but the different regional sounds still remain.
Of course, rap music has not been stranger to controversy over the years. Beginning with the likes of 2 Live Crew and N.W.A. using profanity previously unheard of in music and continuing into the new millennium with violent, suggestive lyrics from Eminem, hip-hop became a way for individuals to express their true emotions to the masses, no matter how many people they might offend in the process.
Fast forward to the present day, and there are all types of rappers from different walks of life attempting to push the genre’s boundaries and create new music for a mainstream audience that only seems to get larger with each coming generation. Hip-hop is a space in music where legends like Jay-Z and Dr. Dre can coexist in harmony with contemporary heavyweights like Drake and Lil Wayne, storytellers like J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar and experimentalists like Travis Scott and Playboi Carti.
Hip-hop’s wide range of sounds and lyrical content make it possible for the genre to be enjoyed by almost everyone, therefore adding to its already massive mainstream appeal.
Today’s hip-hop is vastly different from where it started, and the genre’s entire sound continues to shift each year. What began as an impromptu musical performance at a back-to-school party has evolved into a genre that has not only changed America, but the entire world.