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How Hip-hop Works

Modern Hip-hop

Kanye West and Queen Latifah
Mathew Imaging/FilmMagic
Kanye West and Queen Latifah at the 59th Primetime EMMY awards

While Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, Afrika Bambaataa and some of the other hip-hop pioneers were hitting the recording studios in the 1980s, a new guard of hip-hop artists started to appear. Hip-hop was crossing boundaries, making appearances in new wave and punk music. Both Blondie's "Rapture" and The Clash's "The Magnificent Seven" incorporated hip-hop stylings. Run-D.M.C. melded rap with hard rock. Artists like LL Cool J, Whodini, and The Beastie Boys created a variety of hip-hop music.

The industry changed along with the sounds. Sugar Hill Records, the premier label of hip-hop, died, but Def Jam Records and other hip-hop labels moved in. Female rappers like Salt-N-Pepa, Queen Latifah and MC Lyte broke the gender line, making it easier for female artists to come like Mary J. Blige and Lauryn Hill. Black Nationalism took center stage in Public Enemy's lyrics. The soundscape of hip-hop expanded from New York and the northern East Coast to the West Coast. In 1988, hip-hop made TV -- MTV that is -- with the new show, "Yo! MTV Raps." About a year later, rap videos could be seen throughout the day on MTV.

Artists like Schoolly D, Ice T, N.W.A. and Snoop Doggy Dog (now just Snoop Dog) brought gangsta rap to the scene. As gangsta rap gained widespread popularity, the original hope of hip-hop's message got lost in the mix. Gangsta rap glorified gang violence, poverty and the insidious drug trade rather than denouncing them. Misogyny reigned supreme as women were objectified and depicted as "bitches and hos." For example, according to N.W.A.'s gangsta rap hit "Gangsta, Gangsta," "life ain't nothing but bitches and money."

Alongside the gansta-themed stylings were artists more interested in socio-political statements and black pride, while others still were just about entertaining rhymes and good dance music. Some of the popular hip-hop artists during this time were: Wu Tang Clan (and its subsequent soloists Ghostface Killah, Masta Killa, Method Man, Ol' Dirty Bastard and RZA), Tupac Shakur (2Pac), N.W.A. (and its subsequent soloists Eazy-E, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre), Warren G, Sir Mix-a-Lot, KRS-One, Cypress Hill, and Mos Def.

Music Sales 2006
Although hip-hop is decidedly popular throughout the United States, according­ to the 2006 Consumer Profile released by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), rock and country beat out hip-hop -- at least by official sales records. Here's the overall breakdown:

Rock 34 percent
Country ­13 percent
Rap/Hip-hop 11.4 percent
R&B/Urban 11 percent
­Other 7.3 percent
Pop 7.1 percent
Religious 5.5 percent
Children's 2.9 percent
Jazz 2.0 percent
Classical 1.9 percent
Oldies 1.1 percent
Soundtracks 0.8 percent
New Age 0.3 percent

[source: RIAA]

Meanwhile, other sub-genres like progressive rap, Miami bass, New Orleans bounce, snap music, rap-metal (or rapcore) and crunk made the scene. Many of these came not from the northern East Coast or the West Coast, but from the southern United States. Perhaps one of the first groups from the south to gain mainstream acclaim is 2 Live Crew (think of the hit single "Me So Horny"). Some other southern artists include: the Geto Boys, Arrested Development, OutKast, David Banner, Ludacris, Mystikal, TLC, Timbaland, Lil John and the East Side Boyz, and Missy Elliot.

Today, hip-hop music is still going strong. Several artists who found their footing in the 80s and 90s are still prolific, selling CDs and singles alongside artists who appeared in this century, such as Eminem, 50 Cent, Busta Rhymes, Juelz Santana, Akon and Nelly.

And the message of the music just might be changing again -- or at least expanding to include more than materialism, violence and the objectification of women. Darryl McDaniels (formerly of Run-D.M.C.) said this in a TIME interview:

    This past decade it seems like hip-hop has mostly been about parties and guns and women. That's fine if you're in a club, but from 9:00 a.m. till I went to bed at night, the music had nothing to say to me. So I listened to classic rock.

­Kanye West brought him back from his rock reverie with the song "Jesus Walks." On hearing the song for the first time, McDaniels said, "I thought, "This song is about everything! This feels alive!" [source: Tyrangiel].

Next, we'll look at how hip-hop has inspired movement.