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Hip-Hop History: From Golden Age To Digital Age, And The Rappers Who Led The Way
In Depth

Hip-Hop History: From Golden Age To Digital Age, And The Rappers Who Led The Way

Hip-hop history is as twisted as DNA. From its rise in the Bronx to its future online, it has been a vital force for half a century.

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Hip-hop? Well, that’ll never last. When rap burst into the public consciousness at the start of the 80s, many seasoned observers saw it as a an inevitably limited craze: why, those guys didn’t even sing. Turns out nobody cared about that. What they wanted was a beat and a rhyme to reflect modern times. The music provided the perfect soundtrack to the 80s and 90s, when individual voices had to speak loudly to be heard amid the rapid changes in society. Hip-hop has long since been recognised as a massive societal phenomenon and a dazzling artistic endeavour, and its stars have gone on to light up Hollywood, fascinate us on TV, and become hugely wealthy and influential business figures. Hip-hop has given young women the chance to express themselves in ways that were unthinkable when it first emerged; it’s commented on the evils of modern life, and it still resonates right across the cultural landscape. Oh, and it also rocks you to the bone. Hip-hop’s development is the story of a music that has shaped itself and commented on its progress and current status even as it was being made. There are many variants of rap and too many figures who helped build it to cram them all into this hip-hop history, but there is only one hip-hop. And one thing is certain: hip-hop don’t stop.

Listen to the This Is Hip-Hop At Fifty playlist here.

The birth of hip-hop: The 70s

In the beginning was the word. The spoken word. It had been a part of music in America since plantation workers beat out rhythms that slavers feared, condemned, could not comprehend. Their music was a voice and a beat; handclaps, a drum. Far from primitive, it was sophisticated; it gave birth to the blues, to gospel, to jazz; to swing, rhythm’n’blues and bebop; to soul and funk. Each of these was built on the bedrock of the beat, no matter how complex the sweetenings might be. And each was condemned in turn: swing would supposedly turn the daughters of the middle-classes into cocaine-crazed flappers; R&B was the devil’s music; funk was grits and gruntin’. The birth of hip-hop would be no less controversial.

In the mid-70s, kids started taking the mic and talking over records at block parties in the areas of New York City where Manhattan sophisticates, happy to be seen doing dreadful dances at the sort of clubs that refused admission to Black people, would never dare to tread. “Why, have you heard this new rap music? It’s hardly music at all, my dear. They just talk over records.” But rap had always been there in the background, be it Cab Calloway talking jive, or Solomon Burke, Millie Jackson, Isaac Hayes or Bobby Womack recording monologues that explained the feelings behind their songs. Wanda Robinson delivered lonely loft musings. Gil Scott-Heron’s poetic brainpower fuelled state-of-the-nation observations. James Brown warned about King Heroin. The Last Poets just plain warned… Black communities were attuned to it all: speaking over sound was a way of life for some. But it took a related musical culture to provide the necessary stimuli to initiate the birth of hop-hop, and it was embodied by Clive Campbell, a Bronx, NYC, record spinner who gloried in the name of DJ Kool Herc.

Last night a DJ saved my life: Kool Herc and the first hip-hop party

Herc was born in Kingston, Jamaica, a city with more sound systems per square mile than human ears can calculate. He grew up listening to the ska, rocksteady and soul music that floated through the air in Kingston, and witnessed the local heroes – toasters or MCs – who roused the crowds with rhyming couplets uttered over the tunes the DJs – selectors – placed on the decks. Sir Lord Comic, Count Machuki, King Stitt, King Sporty and more could not only drive dancers into a frenzy, they worked it to outcompete rivals, helping to make their sounds rule their area.

Though Kool Herc was just seven when his parents moved the family to the Bronx, he’d absorbed enough of Jamaican musical culture to enable him to think differently to his North American neighbours. Besides which, The Bronx had its own more modest reggae culture, so Herc was aware of developments in Jamaican music such as the rise of the supreme toaster U-Roy, in 1970, and the birth of dub, which was built on the bare foundations of rhythm. When Herc first DJed, at an 11 August 1973 party he co-promoted with his sister, Cindy, at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, in Morris Heights, his feel was already different to other local spinners. He played raw street funk, but his emphasis was on the rhythm, which, at further parties, then at nearby Cedar Park, and then into nightclubs, he extended by mixing two, then three records together on twin record decks, utilising the breakdowns (“breaks”) that were common in funk tunes, when the track was reduced to its essence: the beat.

The first hip-hop records: Enter The Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash

Herc was soon confident enough to show off his “merry-go-round” of looped beats which would give dancers many glitch-free minutes of segued funk, and he acquired some MCs, notably Coke La Rock, who had been alongside Herc at that first party, and Theodore Puccio; further members of the crew became known as The Herculoids. But, more importantly, Herc’s fanbase included guys who would become crucial figures in spreading the rap message: Grandmaster Flash, who took the DJ style to the next level, and Afrika Bambaataa, whose Universal Zulu Nation became influential and added a more conspicuous dose of Black consciousness to the concept even as the music adopted a more disco and electronic-infused sound.

Pretty soon, street-conscious record labels sensed possibilities. Sylvia Robinson, of Sugar Hill Records, put together a group called The Sugarhill Gang, whose debut single, Rapper’s Delight, was the first breakout hit of the genre, making the US Top 40. But it was not necessarily the first modern hip-hop record – that accolade probably goes to established funkateers The Fatback Band, whose King Tim III (Personality Jock) was released a few weeks earlier, in August 1979, and featured rapper Tim Washington.

Other companies, such as Winley and Enjoy, also released rap records, including the debut by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, who shifted to Sugar Hill and released what was then regarded as an outrageously advanced breakbeat-built single, the seven-minute The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel, in 1981. Some of the breaks on the record were originally unearthed by Kool Herc. His revolution had begun – and it would be televised, eventually. However, Herc remained in the Bronx, referred to as a legend but never given the chance to record until later in life.

Hip-hop’s golden age: The 80s

Hip-hop exploded in the 80s, an era known as the music’s “Golden Age”. Every kid in every urban area was thrilled with a genre that didn’t require a musical instrument or a singing voice: most homes contained a record deck back then. Turntablism, scratching and rapping were just part of the story.

Other disciplines became synonymous with the hip-hop life: Graffiti offered a visual style; human beatboxing surfaced, voices impersonating funky drummers and scratching; breakdancing, which began with Bronx kids showing off their acrobatic skills to breaks, became key moves. Street fashion, worn by B-boys and B-girls – the “B” derived from “breaks” – developed, too, from baseball caps to sneakers, and garments bearing designer labels. But rap had difficulty selecting its own label; Bambaataa’s drum-machine-driven, Kraftwerk-influenced sound held sufficient sway over the music of the early 80s for a genre named “electro” to be applied. Eventually “hip-hop” stuck, often attributed to Man Parrish’s 1982 electro smash Hip Hop Be Bop, though the term was heard on record at the dawn of the music, in Rapper’s Delight.

Electro talents came and went. Each made a contribution: Newcleus; Ramellzee and K-Rob; Hashim; Davy DMX; The Packman. Fans of the music remember their tunes, even if their moments in the spotlight were brief. But hip-hop had not yet been codified, so almost anyone could grab a piece of the action. Pianist Herbie Hancock, a jazz star for two decades, found a youthful audience with his scratchy synth instrumental Rockit. Former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren mashed hip-hop and country music, and his former charge, John Lydon, duetted with Bambaataa.

Sensing the music needed to get double serious, Melle Mel, fronting Flash’s Furious Five, stepped up to deliver heavy tunage in White Lines and The Message, the latter of which remains a pinnacle for early hip-hop political lyricism. But even as they released their landmark records in 1982, their disco-funk clothing and apparent maturity made The Furious Five appear a little outdated. The way was clear for a youth takeover, and it came in the shape of three kids from Hollis, Queens, NYC, whose arrival in 1983 was a breath of fresh air: Run-DMC.

Kings of rock: Run-DMC race to the top

Joseph “Run” Simmons, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels and their DJ, Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell, rapidly blossomed into the new face of hip-hop. They’d united at a jam in their local park and, under the guidance of Run’s older brother, Russell Simmons, landed a deal with Profile Records, which released their first single, It’s Like That. It was as raw as a lion’s dinner, but did contain a message. On the flip, Sucker MCs made an early entrant in the diss record stakes. Marking the generational shift, Kurtis Blow, one rap’s first stars, co-mixed the record.

Run-DMC’s self-titled debut album went gold without troubling the US Top 50: singles such as Rock Box, King Of Rock and You Talk Too Much were sold straight to the kids, not the pop market. A record endorsing the trio’s footwear, My Adidas, led to a commercial tie-in with the sportswear company, a path numerous other rappers have since taken. The group finally bust the charts wide open with Walk This Way, a rebuild of an Aerosmith hit which featured that band’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry. TV station MTV then started putting hip-hop videos on its playlists, a crucial selling tool. Run-DMC had established that the pop chart could accept a hip-hop act with a proper career.

Hip-hop don’t stop: from novelty to serious art form

All the same, for a time, hip-hop was riddled with curiosities. The Roxanne saga kicked off with UTFO’s Roxanne Roxanne single. Roxanne Shante, a talented teenage lyric-spitter from Queens’ Queensbridge projects, made Roxanne’s Revenge in reply, and all hell bust loose. Another rapper, tagged The Real Roxanne, weighed in with The Real Roxanne, and more than 30 answer records were released, including such classy material as Roxanne’s Real Fat and Roxanne Is A Man.

Both Roxanne Shante and The Real Roxanne went on to make great records that weren’t riding any kind of bandwagon. But the music business still sold hip-hop as a passing fad, as the success of some of the lighter records by otherwise heavyweight talents made clear. The Fat Boys, formerly known as Disco 3, introduced some of the wider world to beatboxing, but the music biz had them cover The Twist. Whistle’s Just Buggin’ (1985) and Lovebug Starski’s Amityville (House On The Hill) (1986), which followed the spooky lead given by early stars Whodini, were both sold as amusing one-offs, whatever the artists’ intentions. Even the brilliance of Doug E Fresh & The Get Fresh Crew’s The Show was obscured by its success with a pop audience. Doug and Slick Rick’s delivery was dope: ask later hip-hop heroes such as Digital Underground, De La Soul and Snoop Dogg, who were all influenced by the track.

Hip-hop as message music: Public Enemy bring the noise

The mid-80s also saw microphone masters who could never be marketed as novelties, but who broke big anyway. Among them was Eric B & Rakim, a duo which matched one of the greatest turntablists with one of the most pivotal voices in hip-hop. Their records, such as Eric B Is President, I Know You Got Soul and Paid In Full, were increasingly successful and exciting, and their innovative use of sampling technology delivered seamless gripping grooves, over which Rakim delivered his super-dry, utterly distinctive stanzas. A slew of hot labels sprung up, among them Def Jam, Sleeping Bag, Tommy Boy, Profile, Warlock, Cold Chillin’, Wild Pitch and Tuff City, advancing the cause of new heroes such as LL Cool J, Beastie Boys, EPMD, Just Ice, Stetsasonic, Gang Starr, Biz Markie, Heavy D & The Boyz, Big Daddy Kane and numerous more. Among the strongest of acts to arrive at this time was a crew focused intently on rap as a message music: Public Enemy.

Formed by former college mates Chuck D and Flavor Flav in the mid-80s, Public Enemy gave it to listeners hardcore, with lyrics about the Black experience in the tradition of The Last Poets and The Message; an uncompromising sound built by their producers, The Bomb Squad; plus Terminator X’s hot turntablism and pronouncements from “Minister Of Information”, Professor Griff. Flav’s amusing interjections helped keep the group’s tracks approachable.

Chuck and The Bomb Squad had honed their chops producing records for True Mathematics and Kings Of Pressure, and it all came together on their own records. Public Enemy’s debut album, Yo! Bum Rush The Show, was acclaimed by music critics, who reviewed it like it was a rock record. Their music was noisy, brash, unabashed, but it was not rock. It drew on Black roots, sampling funk and soul classics, bringing the party as well as the noise, and it made sense that Chuck D later declared Run-DMC’s classic Raising Hell his favourite album. Amid constant media controversy, the band released two unalloyed classics of their own in It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back and Fear Of A Black Planet, and, by 1990, they were a major touring attraction.

Alternative hip-hop: De La Soul and rap’s rising consciousness

Public Enemy was not the only bum-rushed show in town. In 1988, an unheard-of New York trio, The Jungle Brothers, released Straight Out The Jungle, an album with a downbeat, wryly witty, deeply funky approach. Issued on the indie label Idlers, it was a cult item, better known in Europe than the US. The Jungle Brothers’ playful but rootsy attitude made them precursors of the next big breakout act, De La Soul, whose 3 Feet High And Rising was released in 1989, the group’s record label declaring it “the event of the century”.

Branded the hippies of hip-hop, Gorillaz’s future rap collaborators of choice fused funk, soul and pop beats with great lyrics and delivery, scatty humour and a naïve swag, encouraged by their mentor, Prince Paul of Stetsasonic. Tunes such as Plug Tunin’, Say No Go and Jenifa (Taught Me) became as emblematic of the era as any other. The Jungle Brothers’ major breakthrough should have followed; they released the dazzling Done By The Forces Of Nature on Warner in 1989, but market forces kept the group at cult level.

This brand of music would eventually come to be known as alternative hip-hop. A posse of associated artists, including Queen Latifah, The 45 King, Lakim Shabazz, Black Sheep and Naughty By Nature, all made fresh debuts, meeting varying responses. Even more downbeat, A Tribe Called Quest made jazzy beats popular, and The Roots, Digable Planets and, most notably, the now fully-realised Gang Starr took the same path. Arguably the ultimate artist utilising jazz, even if many fans perhaps did not appreciate the basis of his beats, was Nas, whose 1994 debut album, Illmatic, set a stratospheric standard. Hip-hop’s “Golden Age” was an embarrassment of riches: Boogie Down Productions, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Just Ice, Masta Ace, Marley Marl, KMD, LL Cool J, UMCs… every week, the 80s and early 90s revealed rap talent to thrill the heart, soul and mind. This era of hip-hop history has too many legends to mention.

East Coast versus West Coast: The 90s

Every city had its own rap scene: it would have been crazy to imagine that all the action in the US was solely occurring on the Eastern seaboard. The West Coast scene was focused, with exceptions, on Los Angeles, and the music had roots there that dated back to pioneering rappers Watts Prophets, who formed in 1967.

Modern LA hip-hop began to surface through party DJs, and among the first acts to cause a stir was World Class Wreckin’ Cru, who delivered a mélange of rap and R&B and were popular enough to gig in the UK. Among their number was DJ Yella and Dr Dre, who’d go on to form N.W.A with Eazy-E and a brilliant lyricist known as Ice Cube, from another group, CIA. Meanwhile, way north, Sir Mix-A-Lot was attempting to stir interest in his Seattle spitting skills; an early breakthrough was Square Dance Rap, a minor UK hit in 1986, but he honed his style into something harder-edged, culminating in his 1992 US No.1, Baby Got Back.

Gangsta rap takes over: N.W.A and the strength of street knowledge

The key figure in the development of the West Coast style was Ice-T, a former soldier and hustler who’d named himself after the author Iceberg Slim. After several false starts, Ice-T, inspired by Philadelphia’s early master of gang lyrics, Schoolly D, hit his stride with the single 6 In The Mornin’ (1986), which described Los Angeles thug life. This style had legs, and Ice-T pursued it with Somebody Gotta Do It (Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy) and I’m Your Pusher, plus the albums Rhyme Pays (1987) and its follow-up, Power (1988).

Fortified by Ice Cube’s acerbic lyrics and Eazy-E’s genuine street knowledge, N.W.A emerged fully gangsta, and their 1988 debut, Straight Outta Compton, was a smash wherever rap was loved. Another figure who sold records aplenty was Too $hort, a Los Angelean living in Oakland who delivered hits about street life and pimping.

Across the Bay, a totally different, often comedic brand of hip-hop was developed by Digital Underground, whose debut album, Sex Packets (1990), delivered the hits The Humpty Dance and Doowutchalike. Within their ranks was the man who, in the early 90s, would become the biggest West Coast solo hip-hop legend of all, Tupac Shakur. Respect is due to Cypress Hill, too, not only for their records but for DJ Muggs’ supervision of House Of Pain’s mega-hit, Jump Around, one of the few singles heard as often as the biggest West Coast hip-hop hit of the 90s, Coolio’s Gangsta’s Paradise. In the meantime, Dr Dre of N.W.A became one of rap’s major figures, a brilliant businessman and fabulous talent-spotter, crucial in the rise of Eminem and Snoop Dogg.

The East rises again: Bad Boy Biggie hypnotises the world

The East Coast didn’t take the West Coast’s rise lying down. From the moment N.W.A began to ship records by the tonne, the East started to snipe, sometimes literally. Tim Dog, one of Ultramagnetic MCs’ extended crew, released the fierce Fuck Compton in 1991; this stinging N.W.A diss was just the start. Rival labels Death Row (primary artists: Tupac, Dr Dre, Snoop Dogg) and Bad Boy Records (The Notorious B.I.G, label head Puff Daddy, Faith Evans) became locked in a face-off, escalated – not necessarily intentionally – by the release of Biggie’s landmark cut, Who Shot Ya?, which Tupac took as a taunt after he’d been shot and robbed in the lobby of a recording studio. The beef ended after the unsolved drive-by killings of both label’s two biggest artists, the superb story-weaver 2Pac and the freestyling master Biggie, whose murder occurred just weeks prior to the release of his landmark second album, the all-too-prophetically titled Life After Death. Hip-hop had lost two of its greatest talents, apparently from a feud.

Hip-hop had been built on repurposing old grooves, but when copyright lawsuits began to proliferate in the wake of the success of 3 Feet High And Rising, rappers sought more traditional methods of making their music, creating their own beats in the studio. That required a bigger budget, and artists turned to the major labels to provide it. Hence Atlantic Records, with its rich tradition in R&B and soul music, became a stronghold for the next Black stars, distributing Bad Boy Records, and the acclaimed entertainer Busta Rhymes tied his Flipmode imprint to Elektra for his first four albums, charting massively as he did so. Busta’s When Disaster Strikes became one of the biggest-selling hip-hop records of the mid-90s.

Biggie’s discovery, Lil’ Kim, hit big from the get-go with the rude talking yet accessible Hard Core album, which shipped nearly 80,000 copies in its November 1996 week of release. A year later, Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott launched her solo career with Supa Dupa Fly, which sold and sold and sold, and represents its time perfectly. These artists had the nous to ensure their time at the top was not a flash in the pan: hip-hop was mainstream now. Endless possibilities emerged, with one hit act spawning many more, as the rise of Wu-Tang Clan made clear: led by production genius RZA, the group was not only massive in its own right, it was the launching pad for numerous hit solo careers, such as those of Ol’ Dirty Bastard (Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version), Method Man (Tical) and GZA (Liquid Swords). Ol’ Dirty Bastard wasn’t the only one who liked it raw – in a musical sense, at least: Wu-Tang retained credibility while selling records by the truckload.

The South got something to say: The 2000s

Since the US South was the home of soul and the birthplace of funk, it was perhaps curious that hip-hop, influenced by both genres, took time to take root in the Southern states. It had been there all along, but record labels didn’t sign artists from the “Third Coast”. The second half of the 80s proved that was an error. Miami’s 2 Live Crew hit big across 1986 and 1987, on local label Luke, resulting in a gold disc for their debut album, The 2 Live Crew Is What We Are. The group’s lewdittude was massively popular across several albums, assisted by numerous well-publicised tangles with the “obscenity police”. Their fourth album, Banned In The USA (1990), was the first to bear a “Parental Advisory” sticker, the biggest “Buy me!” advert ever devised. Equally tough for concerned parental ears to take was Houston’s Geto Boyz, who combined stone-cold pimpin’ lyrics and horror rap with serious material about police brutality. Their gang paranoia classic, Mind Playing Tricks On Me, was one of the bleakest and greatest rap lyrics ever to hit the US Top 30.

Early 90s Southern rap wasn’t entirely stereotypically nastay. Atlanta’s Arrested Development rejected gangster lyrics for an Afrocentric cultural perspective on songs such as Tennessee (which sampled Prince’s Alphabet St. on its way to the top of Billboard’s Hot R&B Singles chart), Mr Wendal and the unique Children Play With Dirt. Though very different, hints of their style lingered in fellow Atlanta breakout stars OutKast, whose 1994 debut, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, brought many ears to the depth and potential of Southern hip-hop for the first time. By the 2000s, major labels were fighting to sign to artists from the South and watching them fly: Houston’s Paul Wall and Mike Jones, for example; the former shot straight to No.1 in the Billboard chart in 2005, with his debut, The People’s Champ, and the latter’s opening salvo, Who Is Mike Jones?, also broke big that year.

Trap music pioneer Gucci Mane, Young Jeezy, crunk developer Lil Jon, and the celebrated Ludacris came out of Atlanta to rock hip-hop and beyond. From Virginia came Missy Elliott and her producer, Timbaland, plus the Pharrell Williams-led Neptunes team. Bun B proved Houston still shook long after Geto Boyz’s prime. The incredibly productive Lil Boosie, aka Boosie Badazz, came out of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to release more than a dozen albums across the 2000s, despite spending five years in jail during that time. New York’s renamed P Diddy sensed further potential, and signed 8Ball & MJG out of Memphis to Bad Boy, via a new subsidiary, Bad Boy South. Boyz N Da Hood, Gorilla Zoe and Yung Joc were also on the roster – the latter’s 2006 debut, New Joc City, shot to platinum status. The South was every bit as powerful as both hip-hop’s traditional coastal strongholds. But the power was passing to the people, too, and Yung Joc provided an example of the path they would take.

The blog era: The 2010s

Affordable programmable drum machines powered electro in the early 80s; the late 80s were driven by cheap sampling technology. In the 2010s, the means of distribution was handed to the creators, as social media and video-sharing sites brought huge audiences straight to an artist’s chronic-fumigated crib.

Yung Joc’s It’s Going Down was proof that snap, a spare, underproduced-sounding division of hip-hop, had massive potential, and it could be built with basic equipment. Hip-hop’s history entered a new phase, with the likes of Flo Rida, TI (aka TIP), and 2DopeBoyz rattling from every iPad and smartphone while not necessarily shipping a huge amount of physical product. The title of Soulja Boy’s 2007 debut album spoke volumes: Souljaboytellem.com.

Whether these artists sold heaps of plastic or not, stars were made. Fans loved Wiz Khalifa (Black And Yellow, See You Again); the sadly short-lived Mac Miller brought a chilled, deceptively uncomplicated vibe on satisfying albums such as GO:OD AM and The Divine Feminine; Meek Mill’s emotionally complex, musically sparing Amen (featuring Drake) somehow made an acquisitive lifestyle chime with religious sentiment; Washington, DC-based Wale scored with a series of massive albums across the 2010s, including his double shot of Billboard No.1s, The Gifted and The Album About Nothing. Curren$y ensured there was a place for alternative hip-hop, his glorious The Stoned Immaculate making No.8 in the 2012 US chart. The ultimate modern artist labouring under the double-edged “alternative” tag is also wildly successful: Kendrick Lamar’s conscious and intelligent music has drawn critical acclaim, matched by massive album sales.

In the meantime, the superstars of 2000s rap followed the path established by Dr Dre and P Diddy in turning themselves into more than just musicians: Jay-Z, Drake, Lil Wayne, J Cole and the like are also businessmen and brilliant manipulators of the media, and use their status to try to change things, such as J Cole putting a roof over the heads of single mothers in his home town of Fayetteville, North Carolina.

The future is female: The 2020s and beyond

Hip-hop’s ubiquity since the 80s has led to any number of genres and subgenres utilising what the music’s founding fathers brought us. Crunk, G-funk, Horrorcore, Miami Bass, Mumble Rap, Brit Garage, Nerdcore… you name it. Grime has made British stars of Dizzee Rascal, Wiley, Lethal Bizzle, Kano and Stormzy; drill has been reviled by the same country’s authorities, who blame it for gang violence. But the founding fathers who begat all this were not exclusively fathers. Remember Millie Jackson, Wanda Robinson in pre-hip-hop days; Sugar Hill’s The Sequence; Roxanne Shante and MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, Salt’n’Pepa, Foxy Brown and Monie Love, Yo-Yo, Tairrie B, the soulful Lauryn Hill? They got their message across when everything in rap music seemed weighted against them and a woman’s place was modelling lingerie while a male artist drooled over them in a promo video. But “the future is female” may be more than a slogan when it comes to hip-hop.

The borders between R&B and hip-hop were always ill-defined, and remain fluid. Young women are as likely to listen to rap as sweeter sounds, and numerous artists represent. Pioneering names among the best female rappers, Missy Elliott and Lil’ Kim, are still around, though neither have released the huge stack of albums their longevity in the business might suggest: their modus operandi has changed, and guest spots on other artists’ tracks and multimedia work keep them in the spotlight.

A heap of competing female superstars have come for their piece of the pie, among them Cardi B, who reversed the usual route by becoming a TV reality star before she was a rap superstar, changing the game with her debut album, Invasion Of Privacy. Amid outrageous sexual flirtation, the super freaky Nicky Minaj boasts about her “samurai mind”. Houston’s Megan Thee Stallion – who teamed up with Cardi B for the internet-breaking anthem WAP – was raised to take the mic as a second-generation MC, and made her name through freestyle battles posted online. She survived being shot, a grim event covered on her debut album, 2020’s Good News, released the year Time magazine named her one of the world’s most influential people.

California’s Saweetie bust out with Icy Girl, rapidly followed by her debut album, High Maintenance; but nobody would have to maintain her, as she was doing it herself, landing cosmetics contracts and launching jewellery labels alongside issuing a slew of EPs and successful albums. Stretching the boundaries of hip-hop, Maryland’s Rico Nasty adopted the term “sugar trap” for her music and rode to fame on a series of hot mixtapes that saw her signed to Atlantic. Some call her punk-rap, others rap-metal; she just does whatever she feels, citing inspirations as diverse as Joan Jett, David Bowie and Rihanna, and you can perhaps hear pieces of them and a whole heap more on her 2020 album, Nightmare Vacation. On a different track, Rico’s labelmate Lizzo has been living the dream ever since the release of her third album, 2019’s Cuz I Love You. As the best Lizzo songs – Juice, My Skin, About Damn Time – have made clear, celebrations of body positivity have been long overdue in hip-hop.

We are a long way from The Sugarhill Gang. Regrettably, any short hip-hop history such as this one will overlook some pivotal artists, but their influence persists: hip-hop’s progress has been as twisted as a strand of DNA, but all of rap’s genetic material lingers in Cardi B’s or Kendrick Lamar’s work. A music that does not move on must die, and hip-hop, condemned as a gimmick in the 80s, is as vital as ever. The word is still with us.

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