On August 11th, 1973, DJ Kool Herc was hired to spin records at a back-to-school block party in the Bronx. He set up two turntables so he could play the same record on both and then mix them in order to extend the drums and percussion to keep the party going. In doing so, he birthed the genre now known as hip-hop. With a Bronx population mix of African Americans, Caribbeans, and Latino youth who were well versed in Jamaican dub music and DJs running sound systems, the setting was perfect for a new evolution in music.

Over the past 50 years, there have been trends, styles, sub-genres, and adaptations to hip-hop that can be explored through the WPPL collection. Here’s a very brief tour through the past 50 years of hip-hop.

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Birth of a Genre (1973-1986)

At the birth of the genre, a few hallmarks were established. The above-mentioned role of the DJ along with Emceeing (MC), sampling, and mixing. Early MCs delivered rhyming speech over the beat, which was often sampled from classic funk and soul records. Those records, of course, were spun by the DJ. A large number of these early hits (The Message, Rapper’s Delight, White Lines, and 8th Wonder) can be found on compilations in the WPPL collection.

Significant Artists: Sugar Hill Gang, Kurtis Blow, Fat Boys, Run-D.M.C., UTFO, and Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five

The Golden Era (1983-1993)

Once the genre had been established, it was time for it to flourish. This became known as the Golden Era of Hip-Hop. It was a period of mainstream success that was characterized by sampling, lyrical wordplay, innovation, and diversity of influence. It was an era of discovery for listeners as each new release pushed the genre in different directions. While Public Enemy leaned into political and social realism with their poetic lyrics, Queen Latifah pushed new boundaries by combining a feminist edge with Afrocentricity.

Significant Artists: A Tribe Called Quest, Queen Latifah, Public Enemy, Eric B & Rakim, De La Soul, Beastie Boys, Big Daddy Kane, L.L. Cool J., Ice-T, and Salt-n-Pepa

Social Commentary I (1990-1999)

Once hip-hop became an established genre; selling millions and millions of records and garnering heavy rotation on radio stations, we got an offshoot of the primary genre with socially conscious artists grabbing the spotlight. These artists continued to experiment with sample-based music but also infused their lyrics with commentary on race, politics, poverty, gun violence, and the environment.

Significant Artists: Nas, Jay-Z, Talib Kweli, Mos Def (Yasiin Bey), N.W.A., 2 Pac, The Fugees, Cyprus Hill, The Coup, Lauryn Hill, and Dead Prez.

East Coast vs West Coast (1991-1997)

East Coast hip-hop style is known for its complex, multisyllabic rhymes over hard-hitting beats that tend to call for active listening over dancing. West Coast hip-hop is known for its laid-back, psychedelic G-funk sound with lyrics that focus on storytelling. While there were public feuds between the coasts, both schools of hip-hop embraced the Gangsta rap aesthetic. Lyrics were aggressive, politically charged, and attacked social and racial injustices. Oddly enough, these new sub-genres also received the most significant amount of air-play (so far).

Significant Artists: Wu-Tang Clan, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Ice-T, Faith Evans, 2 Pac, Mobb Deep, Too $hort, Ice Cube, Tim Dog, Capone-N-Noreaga, Puff Daddy, and The D.O.C.

Southern Crunk Rap (1994-2009)

With the dominance of East and West Coast hip-hop, it was only a matter of time before other regional sounds would surface and vie for the listener’s attention. Southern Crunk Rap emerged as the dominant style with artists in Huston, Atlanta, Memphis, and New Orleans establishing their own music scenes, often using the mix-tape format to establish local and underground followings. Layered keyboard synths, drum machines with a clapping rhythm, heavy basslines, shouting vocals, and the use of the call-and-response chorus helped established Cruck as the up-tempo, club-oriented counterbalance to its coastal counterparts.

Significant Artists: Outkast, Geto Boys, Lil Jon & the Eastside Boyz, Ying Yang Twins, UGK, T.I., Ludacris, Gucci Mane, Big Tymer$, Three 6 Mafia, Master P, 2 Chainz, and UGK.

The New Millenium (1997-2006)

As the calendar changed to the 2000s, hip-hop saw two sub-genres gain mainstream popularity. One of them embraced the braggadocios declarations and materialism-obsessed show-off lyrics of early hip-hop. Artists like DMX, Missy Elliot, and Nelly took over the airwaves, dance floors, and block parties across the country. The other sub-genre saw artists like Eminem, Kanye West, and The Roots take hip-hop in new directions while taking inspiration from the early pioneers. Eminem used minimalist beats (thanks to producer Dr. Dre) and shock-lyrics to grab the listener, Kanye leaned into pitch-shifted samples of classic R&B/Soul songs and The Roots took a decidedly non-sample approach to their jazzy form of hip-hop. The Roots, a 12-member band with a full horn section, never use samples because they play all of their music (and are the current house band for The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon).

Significant Artists: 50 Cent, Ja Rule, Busta Rhymes, Eve, Nelly, Missy Elliot, Eminem, Lil Wayne, Kanye West (Ye), The Roots, Da Brat, Juvenile, and DMX

Social Commentary II (2007-present)

In response to the resurgence of materialism-focused hip-hop and club-banging anthems, it’s not surprising that the next wave was a return to the streets. This era of social commentary hip-hop is focused on philosophy, political ideals, and historic social struggles. It takes inspiration from, and often contains lyrical references to, a number of historical events like the Selma March and the Black Pride/Black Power movements of the 1960s and 70s. As a result, this era saw hip-hop superstar Kendrick Lamar win the Nobel Prize for music with his album Damn. It was the first time a non-classical or jazz recording ever won the prestigious award.

Significant Artists: Kendrick Lamar, Lupe Fiasco, Rapsody, Joey Bada$$, Common, Nipsey Hustle, J. Cole, Logic, Schoolboy Q, and Big K.R.I.T.

The Alternative Era (2002-present)

With easier distribution via the Internet and music streaming apps, hip-hop has seen a renaissance in the Alternative sub-genre. Often looked at as a reaction to the musical and lyrical content of mainstream hits, Alternative hip-hop is characterized by artists and groups that refuse to conform to stereotypes of gangsta rap, crunk, party rap, and club anthems. Instead, these artists blur musical lines and draw from genres as diverse as punk, pop, rock, jazz, metal, soul, reggae, and even folk.

Significant Artists: M.I.A., Childish Gambino, Tech N9ne, Tyler the Creator, Run the Jewels, Kid Cudi, Anderson .Paak, MF Doom, Atmosphere, Jurassic 5, Danny Brown, Tierra Whack, Brockhampton, L.I.F.T., and nothing, nowhere.

Trap Takes Over (2011-present)

One of the strongest sub-genres in contemporary hip-hop is Trap. The genre dates back to the 1990s but truly broke through to the mainstream in the 2010s when Sicko Mode by Travis Scott spent 30 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The genre draws its name from “trap houses” and the lyrical content tends to focus on drug use and urban violence. Traps signature stripped-down sound; synth drums, complex hi-hat patterns, and snares originated with producer Shawty Redd but has expanded out into the mainstream as far and wide as Lady Gaga and 2NE1 (K-pop).

Significant Artists: Drake, 21 Savage, Cardi B, Travis Scott, Migos, Post Malone, Future, Chief Keef, Fetty Wap, Rae Sremmurd, Young Thug, Young Dolph, Lil Uzi Vert, XXXTentacion, and Lil Nas X.