Hip-hop moments that shook the world

From Kool Herc spinning in the Bronx to Jay-Z blinging in the mud, Matilda Egere-Cooper counts down the flash points that turned hip-hop from a marginalised inner-city culture into a global phenomenon

Sunday 07 August 2011 00:00 BST
Solo star: Lauryn Hill walked away with a record haul of five Grammys
Solo star: Lauryn Hill walked away with a record haul of five Grammys (Getty Images)

It wasn't meant to last. When hip-hop emerged in the 1970s, it aspired simply to capture the sentiments, camaraderie and frustrations of inner-city New York. Yet, refusing to give in to early prophecies that it would come and go, the genre continues to thrive 35 years on, spilling over from music into art, fashion, TV and film. How Hip Hop Changed the World, a new documentary airing this week on Channel 4, will examine the story of the movement and how it has influenced pop culture – but for those who don't know their hips from their hops, here's a quick primer of the 10 most notable moments in the genre's history.

The birth of a new art form (1970s)

Hip-hop DJs in the early 1970s were defined more than anything by their technique, captivating funk fans in a way never before ventured – and their way was led by Jamaican-born spinner Kool Herc in the Bronx. He discovered a way to emphasise the "break" (the part of a record where the kick drum is most prominent) to get inner-city kids on the dance floor at his parties, and used this point to mix one song with another, with the help of two turntables. Throw in his "rapping" – rhythmic announcements that later became the sole job of the master of ceremony, or MC – and you have the revolutionary birth of hip-hop music.

Over the years, DJs such as Grand Wizard Theodore and Grandmaster Flash developed further techniques, their particular contribution being to popularise "scratching" (moving a record back and forth on the turntable). Becoming entertainers in their own right, they paved the way for the culture of the superstar DJ epitomised by Pete Tong and Paul Oakenfold in the 1990s.

Alongside the music, a new form of street dance emerged. Encouraged by the DJs' breakbeats, young "breakdancing" African-Americans and Latinos were christened "b-boys" and "b-girls" for their style of frenetic, acrobatic movement. In 1984, a film called Beat Street hit cinemas across the US, earnt a screening at Cannes, and made groups such as the New York City Breakers and Rock Steady Crew household names. The influence of their style of dance can still be seen – from the triumphs of George Sampson and London street crew Diversity in winning Britain's Got Talent, to the choreography of dance flicks such as Step Up.

Graffiti writers also found themselves crossing over into the subculture. It was the rebellious nature of the music that resonated with these artists, as many took to graffiti as an act of social protest. The artist, poet and Warhol protégé Jean-Michel Basquiat was at the forefront of the movement, famously spraying his tag SAMO© across New York City, and together with the pioneering Lee Quinones took writing from the street into galleries. They also worked with fellow artist Fab Five Freddy on graffiti-ing the sets of music videos for the post-punk band Blondie.

By 2000, hip-hop graffiti had rubbed off on the commercial world, as artists were commissioned to produce spray-canned ads for businesses such as McDonald's, Adidas and Sony – and you only have to look at the London 2012 logo to see that classic hip-hop graffiti continues to inspire.

These four key elements, DJing, MCing, breakdancing and graffiti, had merged to become the four pillars of hip-hop – and popular culture would never be the same again.

'Good times' are here again (1979)

A song that single-handedly sums up the spirit of hip-hop music, "Rapper's Delight" was an instant party-starter. Based around a remix of "Good Times" by R'n'B band Chic, it was the first official hip-hop record to become a commercial hit. Its tongue-twisting lyrics – "I said a hip, hop, a hippie, a hippie to the hip hip hop, and you don't stop" – and funky groove were created by the Sugar Hill Gang after they heard "Good Times" at a party and spontaneously freestyled over it. Chic member Nile Rodgers later heard the Gang's version at another party and threatened to sue, before settling out of court and allowing the 15-minute song to make it to number three in the UK. The practice of sampling has never gone away in rap circles – only nowadays artists are a little more careful in getting clearance from the originals' writers.

Run-DMC Walks the walk (1986)

In the early 1980s, a young trio from Queens, New York, were determined to get in on the burgeoning hip-hop phenomenon – but rather than follow in the colourful, funky style of their predecessors, these guys were determined to raise hell with arrogant rhymes and a machismo too fascinating to condemn. Joseph "Run" Simmons, Darryl "DMC" McDaniels and DJ Jason "Jam Master Jay" Mizell had already crowned themselves the Kings of Rock long before they decided to rework Aerosmith's 1975 single "Walk This Way". The single, accompanied by a memorable video in which the two bands clashed while rehearsing in conjoined studios, was an instant hit. Making the top five in the pop charts, it helped make Run-DMC the first hip-hop superstars – bringing an endorsement deal with Adidas in the process – and gave way to a new rap-rock genre.

Amazon Music logo

Enjoy unlimited access to 70 million ad-free songs and podcasts with Amazon Music

Sign up now for a 30-day free trial

Sign up
Amazon Music logo

Enjoy unlimited access to 70 million ad-free songs and podcasts with Amazon Music

Sign up now for a 30-day free trial

Sign up

It was a genre given an immediate boost by Licence to Ill, the debut hip-hop record of raucous frat-hoppers Beastie Boys, which came out at the end of the year. It won the dubious honour of a Rolling Stone headline proclaiming, "Three Idiots Create a Masterpiece", and became the first rap album to go to number one on the Billboard charts. A generation of artists, from Limp Bizkit to Kid Rock, was taking note.

Public enemy bring the noise (1987)

Run-DMC might have given hip-hop fans a lesson in scowling raps, but it was Public Enemy who took the scene's vocal bravado and made it political. Inspired by the Black Power Movement of the late 1960s, the Long Island collective – comprising Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Professor Griff, DJ Lord, the S1W and Terminator X – wanted to use hip-hop as a tool for social change. Their rebellious intent was signified by their logo – a b-boy in the centre of a sniper's crosshair – and musically, the production by their in-house crew the Bomb Squad was rowdy, accompanied by lyrics that bordered on hostile. Not that they cared; once frontman Chuck D declared hip-hop as the "Black CNN", they wanted not only to raise awareness, but point fingers too. The cover of their 1987 debut Yo! Bum Rush The Show was tagged with the line "The Government's Responsible", and their 1988 follow-up It Takes a Million To Hold Us Back was so raw with its black nationalist sentiments and style that it's been hailed by many as the greatest rap record of all time.

Another type of political rap was later to rise on the west coast – but where Public Enemy highlighted criminality in their neighbourhood, the likes of Ice-T, NWA and later Snoop Dogg and Tupac were to glorify it.

it's all coming up daisies (1989)

De La Soul's debut album 3 Feet High and Rising was integral to what is now affectionately known as the "Daisy Age" of hip-hop, a direct response to the angsty climate created by Public Enemy. This was hip-hop for hippies, centred on good times, creative culture, humour, peace, harmony and pleasant politics, combining pop, R'n'B and even country music to get its point across.

Once De La Soul – made up of high-school friends Posdnuous, Trugoy the Dove and Maseo – became popular, they aligned themselves with other like-minded rappers as part of the Native Tongues collective. This included Jungle Brothers, female MCs Monie Love and Queen Latifah, and A Tribe Called Quest, another group that earnt critical acclaim. A Tribe Called Quest didn't realise the k same commercial success as De La Soul, but over the years, they emerged as musical pioneers who inspired other alternative acts, from Arrested Development to Outkast, to continue to break boundaries.

The battle turns ugly (1996-1997)

Rap battles – where two MCs try to outdo each other with rhymes and wordplay – were meant to be fun. But when two of the biggest rappers of the 1990s became what many believed were casualties of the decade's east coast/west coast rap war, it immediately raised questions as to how far MCs would go.

Tupac Shakur, a revolutionary-inspired rapper based in California, and the Brooklyn-born Notorious BIG were both acclaimed flagship acts for their labels – Suge Knight's Death Row Records in LA and P Diddy's Bad Boy Records respectively – and at one point were friends. Yet a rivalry began after Shakur accused BIG and Diddy of being behind an attempt on his life in 1994, when he was robbed and shot. BIG took to the mic and recorded "Who Shot Ya?" to plead his innocence, but Shakur's camp saw it as an insult and, provoked by Knight, Shakur recorded his own scathing response with the song "Hit 'Em Up".

The war was further inflamed in the media, which inspired rap fans – and rappers such as Snoop Dogg – to take sides, and in 1996, Tupac was shot six times and killed in Las Vegas. Six months later, BIG was killed in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles. Both murders remain unsolved. The deaths caused the coastal beef to quickly fizzle out; the pair are now regarded as hip-hop heroes for their musical impact – and hip-hop battles have since been restricted to wax.

Lauryn busts the glass ceiling (1999)

After experiencing success with political hip-hop outfit the Fugees, Hill followed a long line of superstar lady rappers who dismissed any suggestions that women couldn't make it in hip-hop. Artists such as Queen Latifah, Salt-N-Pepa and MC Lyte all enjoyed major hits in the US in the 1980s and 1990s, but it was Hill who, more than a decade later, walked away with a record haul of five Grammys, the most for a female recording artist at the time, for her solo album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. A heartfelt insight into her life, it featured a mix of rapping and singing, and showed how she had graduated from merely being "that girl in the Fugees" to a solo star.

"My mum and dad bought that [album] for me and I remember sitting and listening to it and I was like, 'I want to write music like this,'" says singer Jessie J in How Hip Hop Changed the World. "I felt like I was in her world." The impact of the record would go on to influence a number of female artists in the UK, from Ms Dynamite to Estelle, who also adopted her sing-rap style.

The real slim shady stands up (1999)

Before Eminem appeared, white rappers were rarely taken seriously in the predominantly black scene, not least due to the commercial success of the flamboyant Vanilla Ice in the early 1990s. But at the turn of the new millennium, Marshall Mathers III, aka Eminem, emerged as a controversial rapper from Detroit who was not only incredibly talented but also brought something new to hip-hop music, with his hilariously dark tales and rapid rhyme style.

Better still, he was endorsed by one of the most respected producers in the industry, Dr Dre of NWA. Following the 1999 release of his debut single "My Name Is" – with a politically incorrect video to match – Eminem's major-label debut, The Real Slim Shady LP, debuted at number two on the US Billboard chart, won a Grammy for Best Rap album, and has since sold more than nine million units worldwide. "There was nobody who would say at the time that they didn't think he was that good," says the producer Mark Ronson in the Channel 4 documentary. "When he came around no one had ever done the things [he did] with words and twisted phrases and his cadence and how fast he could rap and you could hear every rhyme." More than 10 years later, Eminem continues to weigh in on the charts and popular culture – his Recovery was the bestselling album in the US in 2010 and earnt him another Grammy.

So solid blings it (2001)

When hip-hop crossed over the Atlantic and found its feet in the UK, it was an instant hit among the youth – the only problem being that the early British protagonists rapped in American accents, making it difficult for the UK to establish its own identity. A group called London Posse remedied that in the late 1980s, spitting lyrics in their own twang, and in the years that followed, hip-hop hybrids such as drum'n'bass, jungle and trip-hop emerged to define the British scene. Then came garage music, and along with it, So Solid Crew, who not only represented the frustration of inner-city London kids, but borrowed the sensibilities of New York collectives such as Wu-Tang Clan, with their taste for bling and the fast life.

The group scored a number one hit with the single "21 Seconds" in 2001, followed by three top 10 singles. Taste-makers hailed them as a "national phenomenon" and all seemed to be going well – until various members suffered run-ins with the law, and the authorities were quick to shut down their raucous shows, for fear that they were inciting and glorifying violence in their songs.

Though the crew have yet to regain the infamy and success of their former years, they've been credited with opening the doors for UK rappers to have commercial success, from Dizzee Rascal to Tinie Tempah and Tinchy Stryder.

Jay-Z rocks Glastonbury (2008)

Someone should have warned Noel Gallagher that if you challenge an accomplished rapper to a duel, they'll not only accept, but proceed to verbally annihilate you. When Glastonbury's Michael Eavis recruited the New York rapper to headline his main stage in 2008, Gallagher echoed the sentiments of many hardcore Glastonburians when he said, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it... Sorry, but Jay-Z, I'm not fucking having him at Glastonbury."

The rapper, who at this point was yet to make his mark on the mainstream UK market, took the cynics to task by delivering a triumphant show. Coming out on stage to Oasis's "Wonderwall" with a guitar in hand, he raised a metaphorical finger to Gallagher and proceeded to show that hip-hop could ebb its way into a culture that honoured rock first. Three years on and Jay-Z has firmly cemented himself in the British consciousness – while rappers including Tinie Tempah, Chipmunk, Ghostpoet and Wu-Tang Clan played Glastonbury this year.

'How Hip Hop Changed the World' airs at 10.25pm on Friday on Channel 4

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in