By most accounts, hip-hop has a specific birthplace – so specific, in fact, that it has a street address: 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, the Bronx, New York. Here, on 11 August 1973, DJ Kool Herc debuted what would come to be one of the foundations of hip-hop: in an attempt to draw out the percussive 'breaks' in popular funk and soul records, he began performing with not only one but two turntables, elongating these sections for a crowd hungry to dance.
Herc, along with a number of other New York DJs, gradually finessed the technique, and soon they had perfected what we now know as 'breaking'. Just like that, the foundations of a revolutionary new genre were laid.
Read on to follow the history and evolution of the genre, through Red Bull's extensive archive of lectures and conversations.
Where it all began
Many of the most important traits of hip-hop had long been present in other music of black origin, and particular in the long lineage of sound system music. Boasting, chatting, and rudimentary rapping had been a major part of reggae and dancehall since the middle of the century, and its antecedents can be traced back even further, to the griot musicians of West Africa. But in 1970s New York, buoyed by Herc's innovation, these longstanding traditions and techniques took on a life of their own. Soon there were a handful of key DJs and early MCs making an impact in New York clubs, particularly in The Bronx. As Public Enemy's Chuck D explained in a Red Bull lecture: "The whole key," he says, "[was] to get into the clubs. The DJs that were excelling in the clubs were Eddie Cheever and DJ Hollywood. They just totally dominated the club scene." [listen to Chuck D at 14.05]
Meanwhile a number of mobile DJs played outdoor parties across Long Island, building dedicated fanbases who would follow them around as they popped up for each event. As Chuck D says: "[In] The Bronx and Brooklyn, a lot of people waited for things to come to them. In Long Island, you had to go and check it out. You drove there because you wanted to find that jump-off. These are some of the things that are underrated [in the history of hip-hop]." Artists like Grandmaster Flash ran hugely popular park parties, and by the end of the decade youth culture across the entire New York metropolitan area was under the spell of hip-hop. Chuck again: "From January 1978 to October 1979, when the first rap record came out, I can't explain to you the intensity of rap music and hip-hop. It was headed to a place where nobody expected it to go." [listen to Chuck D at 17:39]
That first rap record was, of course, the 1979 single Rapper's Delight, from the Sugarhill Gang. Although other records had incorporated rapping, Rapper's Delight was the first single to bring hip-hop to a mainstream audience. Playing on hits from Chic and Love De-Luxe, the track took disco and turned it inside-out. Its release was a watershed moment for hip-hop: the single broke the Top 40 in the States, and suddenly America was introduced to this radical new music.
By the beginning of the 1980s, hip-hop was in its ascendence. The sound had spread beyond New York, and was now popular in clubs across North America. In studios, though, technology was one of the major factors in hip-hop's development during the decade. In 1980 instrument manufacturer Roland released the TR-808, a programmable drum machine that helped to forge the genre's signature sound. Just as important was the advent of sampling - the production technique most synonymous with hip-hop. The sampling technique saw producers cut and rework snippets or passages of existing music, reinterpreting them and giving them a new context within hip-hop. The 1981 Grandmaster Flash track The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash And The Wheels Of Steel was the first release made up entirely of sampled instrumentals, and it opened the floodgates for a creative revolution in music production.
Rise of the new school
Hip-hop soon mutated, and within just a few years the 'new school' was dominant. Run-DMC and Beastie Boys exemplified this tendency, adopting a sharper sonic palette and lyrics characterised by a combination of braggadocio and arch social observation. Beastie Boys became hip-hop's first true mainstream crossover stars, topping the Billboard chart with their debut album Licensed To Ill and helping to build the foundation for Def Jam, now one of the most important labels not only in hip-hop but in popular music in general.
During the 1980s, MCing became supercharged with a wild new creativity. Artists like Rakim and KRS-One turned rapping into a true artform, with the depth and inventiveness of a serious literary project. That project began to truly bloom in the mid-'80s with the beginning of what became known as the 'golden era', birthing records such as Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back and Erik B & Rakim's Paid In Full that remain talismans of rap culture.
Meanwhile a new sound was brewing, and it would come to dominate hip-hop – and catalyse an international moral panic. In 1986 Ice-T released the single 6 In The Mornin, and with it announced the arrival of a new subgenre: gangsta rap. In a 2017 Red Bull lecture the artist explained his outlook on lyricism, which marked a dramatic and combative turn within hip-hop. "The game isn't always a win situation. All my friends in the penitentiary, all of them dead; I know there's a B-side to this game. So my thing was, if I'm gonna talk about the streets, I'm gonna show you both sides of it." [listen to Ice-T at 14.27]
Ice-T's chequered young adulthood involved tragedy, violence, and loss, and he laid out those experiences frankly in his verses. He also drew inspiration and encouragement from the second wave artists; as he said in his lecture, witnessing the scale of a Run-DMC production was a formative moment. [listen to Ice-T at 32:22] With the reception of 6 In The Mornin', Ice saw a glimpse of success on that scale, but he also became a figurehead for music that attracted violent condemnation from the US government and some pressure groups.
The fury of those organisations was stoked by the release of Cop Killer, a single from Ice-T's project Body Count, that told the story of an aggrieved man enacting revenge on a police force that had repeatedly brutalised him. Perhaps the most enduring record from that period, though, is N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton, an album that is now a byword for political militancy in popular music. As well as fanning the flames of anger amongst American law enforcement, tracks like Fuck Tha Police helped to position Los Angeles as a new centre of gravity for hip-hop, rivalling the historically dominant New York.
The following decade saw some of hip-hop's greatest achievements. In New York, Public Enemy's Fear Of A Black Planet established a new high-water mark for militancy and experimentation in popular music while also enjoying enormous commercial success. Meanwhile Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), the 1993 album from Staten Island's Wu-Tang Clan, set the template for the combative hardcore style. The record is characterised by dirty, aggressive production, and lyrics that are as likely to reference martial arts or comics as they are street experience, pieced together in a disorienting patchwork through which the listener is encouraged to follow multiple threads.
As Raekwon said in a 2011 Red Bull lecture, their unique style was born of their environment. "All that was natural. We're a combination of all boroughs, all in one. Staten Island had their own flow. All we did was be a part of our environment to the fullest. We were still kids, we were still going to school. Our rhymes are just from cats in the neighbourhood. They were party doctors. We were young students watching them come inside the rec room and seeing how they put their flow together." [listen to the Wu-Tang Clan at 7.30]
Just a few months after the release of 36 Chambers, a young rapper from Queensbridge began work on his debut album. Nas was a star from the very beginning, and everyone involved in the recording of what became Illmatic was well aware that they were involved in something special. DJ Premier, who handled much of the production on the record, explains: "Every time Nas went into the booth he was like, 'Y'all come in here with me', and there were like ten or 15 of them in the booth. And if you listen to all the records we did, you hear them in the background because they're all in the booth. Passing blunts around, just gathering around to see Nas spit." [listen to DJ Premier at 1.09.50]
Q-Tip, who produced standout track One Love, continues: "When we had the session, he brought his book in and he just started spitting. He spit it in the room first for everybody. There must have been about ten of us in there. And he spit that shit and the room was silent, and the speakers were rocking. It was crazy. It was just right. It was one of those perfect sessions." [listen to Q-Tip at 52.30] Illmatic's densely-constructed lyrics marked a return to the literary accomplishments of earlier rappers like Rakim. Its stories of drug violence and heartbreaking tragedy are delivered with the freewheeling poeticism of great jazz performers, and the record is still closely studied today.
Way out west
On the West Coast, meanwhile, the now-solo ex-N.W.A. member Dr. Dre released The Chronic, an album that is now considered amongst the finest hip-hop records ever made. The Chronic introduced the world to G Funk, the style pioneered by Dre, based around funk-indebted production and languidly delivered but hard-hitting lyrics. Snoop Dogg, who appears throughout The Chronic, rapidly became a major star in his own right, and he became a lynchpin of LA's Death Row Records, the label established by Dre, Suge Knight, and N.W.A. collaborator The D.O.C.. By the middle of the decade Death Row was the unassailable lynchpin of the West Coast scene, thanks in no small part to the stratospheric success of its star artist Tupac Shakur.
But Death Row remained constantly dogged not only by headline-grabbing gossip and controversy, but also by serious and frequent criminality on the part of its management and artists. Violent confrontations were commonplace, and the label increasingly defined itself through a bitter feud with its New York rivals, particularly Bad Boy Records, founded by Sean Combs and home to The Notorious B.I.G.. The personal rivalry between Shakur and Biggie was at the heart of that feud, the public face of which was a string of furious diss tracks. Eventually, perhaps inevitably, Death Row was at the heart of a bloody tragedy: in September 1996 Shakur was the victim of a drive-by shooting, just a few hours after a confrontation with a member of a New York gang. The rapper died in hospital six days later. Six months after Shakur's death The Notorious B.I.G. suffered the same fate, shot in a drive-by in Los Angeles by an assailant whose identity remains unknown.
By the early 2000s popular music was more or less dominated by hip-hop. Rap achieved a degree of cultural penetration that would have seemed unthinkable just two decades previously, with artists like Eminem and 50 Cent enjoying a stranglehold on the airwaves and music TV (and, in Eminem's case, triggering a relitigation of the moral panics that had dogged previous generations of rappers). Some of the genre's leading figures transcended their roles as pure musicians and became firmly embedded in the culture at large; during these years Jay-Z became as much a brand and businessman as he was a rapper, for example, while Sean 'Diddy' Combs was listed in Forbes' 2002 rankings of 40 entrepreneurs under 40.
By this time, hip-hop had extended far beyond the confines of New York or California. There were thriving scenes in cities like Atlanta, Georgia, which had for some time been the epicentre of Southern rap. In Virginia, meanwhile, the young duo Clipse released their debut album Lord Willin' in 2002. The record was produced by The Neptunes, the world-conquering production duo made up of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, and its combination of street-savvy lyricism and alien but immensely catchy beats guaranteed its position as a bonafide hit. After nine months of intensive touring, Grindin', the lead single from the album, took off. As Clipse's Pusha T said in a 2018 Red Bull lecture: "Grindin' was a phenomenon. We'd just done the video, and everyone was doing the dance – little girls were doing the dance from round our way. It was definitely the lunch table beat of every cafeteria. And the streets had spoken. They understood exactly what we were talking about. It was a hard sell initially. But then you'd have this guy from the streets like….'Hey, and y'all from Virginia? This is different.' And then the beat – this chaotic beat with only like seven sounds in it. It was like, what is this? It was a lot of things that came together and made a great record." [listen to Pusha T at 15:50]
Beyond Grindin', Lord Willin' also set the path for the increasing convergence of hip-hop and other forms of popular music, particularly r'n'b. Clipse soon featured on tracks from the likes of Justin Timberlake and Kelis, a feat that Pusha attributes directly to The Neptunes. "They were the darling producers. They were super-producers. They owned 51% of the charts at that time, so 51% of the chart got to be street records and they got to be chart records." [listen to Pusha T at 17.42] Soon, thanks in no small part to the extraordinary prowess of The Neptunes, this merging of 'street' and 'pop' was the defining trend in contemporary music.
Outside of the charts, new underground hip-hop scenes were also flourishing. Jay Dilla, previously of Detroit trio Slum Village, had helped to define both alternative hip-hop and neo-soul with a series of productions beginning in the early '90s, and 2006's Donuts, a collection of lo-fi instrumentals released just days before his premature death, has now become a key touchstone for artists as diverse as Flying Lotus, Robert Glasper and Kendrick Lamar.
In 2002 New Yorker El-P, already a stalwart of the alternative scene through his work with Company Flow, released his solo debut Fantastic Damage, drawing inspiration from both the political militancy of artists like Chuck D and the smoked-out sci-fi with which the producer-MC was so enamoured. El-P's later album I'll Sleep When You're Dead enjoyed comparative commercial success, and his solo catalogue is now considered a cornerstone of the alternative hip-hop movement. Later, in 2013, El-P founded Run The Jewels with Atlanta's Killer Mike, and the pair are now amongst the most critically lauded hip-hop artists working today.
For many rap diehards, though, perhaps the most important voice of post-2000s hip-hop isn't even American – he's British. Daniel Dumile was born in London, before moving as a child to Long Island and, following a series of bruising early encounters with an unreceptive music industry under the name Zev Love X in the group KMD, he relocated to Atlanta in the late '90s. There he assumed a new persona: the mask-wearing anti-hero MF Doom.
By 2004 he'd finally had a commercial breakthrough with Madvillainy, a collaboration with producer Madlib. The album's free-wheeling, hypnagogic lyrics seem to exist at the intersection of fable and brutal real experience, while employing extraordinarily complex patterns of rhyme and cadence that have made Doom the subject of fascination not 'just' as a rapper but also as a major literary figure. "I came with a different lyrical style, I tried to really make it distinctly different from the Zev Love X character, the way you would with characters in a book… A different strategy," said Doom in a 2015 RBMA lecture. "A lot of the experiences in KMD, doing videos and everything… we got a taste of that, and how it could backfire on you. You know, it kind of made me go back and regroup." [listen to MF Doom at 1.01.30]
There were similarly important strides made by other alternative hip-hop artists during the period, with huge commercial success enjoyed in particular by OutKast with their 2003 double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. It was Kanye West, though, who emerged from the decade victorious. His 2007 chart battle with 50 Cent (with West's Graduation and 50 Cent's Curtis released in the same week) marked a turning point for hip-hop in which the alternative tendency ended the reign of gangsta.
West, of course, went on to become a totemic figure in contemporary music, gradually moving away from the straight-up grooves of Graduation before arriving at the visionary experimentation of Yeezus, produced alongside Rick Rubin. But Kanye's importance extends far further than his own records; through his imprint G.O.O.D. Music (run in association with Def Jam) West has also been responsible for a significant proportion of the most acclaimed rap records of the last two decades. Included in that slate was the debut solo album from Pusha T. As he explains, Kanye was already a serious fan of Pusha's earlier work: "[Streetwear designer] Don C's birthday gift to Ye was Clipse coming to perform Hell Hath No Fury in its entirety at the Louis Vuitton store in New York. Ye was a heavy, heavy Clipse fan." [listen to Pusha T at 29.10]
When they eventually sat down together in a studio, Pusha explains there was a dramatic change from his previous sessions with The Neptunes. "[It was a] totally different work environment to what I'm used to with Pharrell and Chad. You walk in the studio, and there's a sign that says "No phones, no cameras, no computers, no laptops." Everything Mobb Deep, everything Wu-Tang, everything Jay-Z. It was closed off, and very focused. Working with Pharrell and Chad you've got video games on, you've got the TV on, you're listening to everything [and] that might spark something. [But] Ye is just laser-focused. It's musicians around, just great people around." [listen to Pusha T at 30.05]
Today, hip-hop's position as the dominant form in contemporary music is more or less unchallengeable. It's not simply that rap dominates the charts (although it often does) – hip-hop's tenets have now been comprehensively absorbed into virtually every other genre. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that hip-hop now is popular music. In the four decades since Kool Herc's back-to-school party, hip-hop has utterly reshaped contemporary culture.
Now watch an interview with sampling genius Madlib.