Photo: Joey Vitalari
ZHU Talks New Rave-Ready Album 'DREAMLAND 2021,' Being Inspired By Hyphy Music & Asian Americans Finally Being Heard
ZHU's third album, 'DREAMLAND 2021,' is a tribute to returning to the dancefloor that invokes a dark, sweaty warehouse rave and features support from Channel Tres, Yuna, Tinashe and more
Back in the summer of 2014, a driving, moody deep house earworm called "Faded" crept into our ears, swiftly becoming an inescapable bop around the world. It topped charts around the world—including hitting No. 1 on Billboard's Dance Club Songs chart—and made the then-mysterious singer/producer ZHU a star of the global dance scene and a GRAMMY-nominated artist.
Since his big debut, the artist born Steven Zhu in 1989 in San Francisco, California, has demonstrated his dexterity as a vocalist, producer, remixer, and collaborator, keeping mainstream dance music interesting and innovator. He's worked with Skrillex, SOFI TUKKER, Bob Moses, TOKiMONSTA and Majid Jordan, to name a few.
ZHU's third album, DREAMLAND 2021, released April 29 on Astralwerks, is a tribute to returning to the dancefloor, invoking a dark, sweaty warehouse rave, featuring support from Channel Tres, Yuna, Tinashe and more. GRAMMY.com caught up with the "Zhudio54" artist ahead of the immersive, powerhouse new album's release to learn about how it came together and what he thinks the future of dance music will look like. He also shares what the response to "Faded" felt like for him, the influence of growing up in the Bay Area on his music and Asian Americans' ongoing struggle against racism.
Let's start with the new album. Can you take us inside the dream of DREAMLAND 2021?
Yeah. For me, I think I've evolved quite a bit in the last couple of years sonically and just in my craft. I think from the beginning, people didn't really know maybe all the different assets musically that I was able to put in audio format because, even up to a couple of years ago, people didn't know that my voice was on the records or that I had written some of this or that.
This record definitely allows people to peep more into more of the whole 360 perspective of my music—from the production, to the vocals, to the features, to the different sonic landscapes. I'm pretty excited to let people get a taste of it.
Not unlike the last album, there are a lot of awesome collabs on this one—including Channel Tres, Yuna and Tinashe. How did you choose who to bring into the mix on this one?
Everything, honestly, that I do, it's just been pretty organic. I think getting in the studio with an artist always leads to either the best or worst. [Laughs.] I think with electronic music too, it's a lot of times we'll just send stuff out [to collaborators] and you never know what you're going to get back. But I really make it a point to craft the songs and the way I think the mood and direction goes. For this record, working with each artist was great. They all wanted to be on it and it was all pretty organic.
Were the collaborations all remote or were you able to meet up in person with anyone?
I recorded everybody's vocals at my studio. The Yuna song ["Sky Is Crying"], her and I had written an earlier version of it a long time ago and I randomly stumbled upon it one day. I was like, "This song is really great, I want to put in a club." So, I redid the song and sent it to her and we finished this version of that record pretty much this year.
What was it like working with each of them?
Everything has been fast. I mean, I don't really do more than one or two takes on anything. I feel like if you're not going to get it with instinct it's not—I don't look at it as filmmaking, where you have like seven, 12, 50, 100 takes. Music is emotion first, so if it doesn't make you feel something immediately, then I usually go away from it and come back later. Or it just comes out and it's there.
And obviously, there's a lot of refining process but I've been trying more and more to keep things rolling and not as super-polished, pristine, because I want the character as well.
It's pretty easy to say this album will sound really good on a dancefloor and any kind of big-speakers situation. What do you think raving in the hopefully not-too-distant future will look like?
I think people are ready and I think when people get that taste of the feeling, they're going to go crazy. They've been starved and they're going to feast.
Do you think it's going to happen this year?
Raving? Yeah, definitely.
Almost everything was shut down, but we've never had clubs and events close to this degree ever, really. Do you think it's going to lead to a new wave of dance music or that there's going to be a new underground sound? Obviously, things are going to be different, but what does it look like in your head?
Yeah, I mean, I think the people who are in it for the music are going to survive and the people who are in it just for the cash lifestyle, they probably found an alternative. Sonically, and from an underground perspective, I think it's bigger than ever. And you have people all across the world being able to access sounds and sets and know about artists that you could never have 20 years ago unless you were crate-digging or something like that.
I think it's going to go back to being kind of a purist genre, but everybody wants to experience it. So, I think we'll have a second boom, kind of a Renaissance phase for dance music and I think it just needs to be authentic and it's going to grow pretty quickly.
And for you, as a DJ/producer, what does the energy of the dancefloor feel like from that perspective?
I think a lot of dance music has been pretty geared towards streaming and radio in the past decade. I'd like to see more dancefloor-focused and groove-focused stuff. But again, with that said, I'm also not inhibited to just four-on-the-floor and having to create something that is just super 124 [BPM], all-night-long stuff.
You're actually returning to the stage very soon with your DREAMROCKS shows [at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado]. What are you most looking forward to about having an audience again?
I'd say to feel it again. Everybody is looking at the future of having these shows, but it's not the same until you really get onstage and it sets in. Right now, we're just talking about it, but talking about it does nothing until you actually get up there and really get in that moment and understand, "What am I performing now?"
It's been over a year and a half, and just to get that spark and get that kind of connection again with the fans is really the first step for me because I don't like talking about making music. I just make it.
Looking back a little bit, what did the massive success of the GRAMMY-nominated single "Faded" feel like for you back in 2014?
That was the beginning of everything. It was such a gargantuan first record that I think the expectations for me have been [high]. After that, I was like, let me just go create bodies of work and really allow people to enter this world that I built, instead of trying to chase hits and trying to replicate and manufacture the same sh*t over and over again.
I really tried not to let ["Faded"] be the metric of what I was doing, even though that was responsible for probably the biggest record released and then charting and blowing up and being in all these countries instantaneously, that I've experienced.
Did you have any idea that it would take off like that?
Nope, but I always just knew that people had a reaction to the record. I just didn't know that 60-plus countries would all be playing it. And that I would hear it in person, in some place in a distant country that I didn't even knew played my records.
Going a little further back, how did your experience growing up in the Bay Area, attending raves as a teen, inspire you to start making dance music yourself?
Yeah, when I grew up, I think a lot of the culture initially was hip-hop and the hyphy movement that was going on in the Bay Area, [led by] E-40 and other [rappers]. And it was this era, there was a swagger, there was a Bay Area kind of lingo, there was a Bay Area pace of life, a way you'd drive. It's hard to explain unless you grew up in that era there.
A lot of the beats for those hip-hop records were super simple. They weren't super complicated, like sampled Kanye [West] beats or like [old-school] New York hip-hop. At that time, it was very simple, just 808s, synths, and everybody just dance. It wasn't necessarily story-telling, lyrical aficionados. It was "Let's bounce with the cars, have a good time."
I think that influenced a lot of electronic music of that period of time too, in which people just wanted to just have some slappers. And I try to keep that in mind all the time, to try to not over-complicate stuff, to simplify things to where people can just really feel the rhythm around the world, in every single country. Everybody knows how to move their body regardless of if they can understand the lyrics.
When you were younger and going to raves, was there a moment when it clicked, like, "Oh, I can do this. I can make electronic music"?
Yeah. In the beginning, there was a Haight-Ashbury scene, which was a lot more kind of indie [music], like jam bands and rock, with rock clubs. And they had raves in the Cow Palace, which was huge. It was a lot of trance going on at that time, and very deep, elevator house music going on.
I didn't really realize until I was a little bit older, probably 19 or so. It was in the middle of a show and I had this realization that 10,000 people were just staring at one person playing music, and that was enough, that was the future. It didn't need to be eight people up there playing instruments. It was one person doing it. I had a sudden realization like, "Why isn't that me?" and that began the curiosity.
That was a very transitional period in San Francisco's history, before all the tech people came in. It was very much music- and art-driven, from everything to bands, to hip-hop, to DJs.
It seems like it still had a bit more of that lingering '70s vibe. Not so much anymore.
Nah. I mean, there would be Sundays in [Golden Gate] Park, were you'd go rollerblading and there'd be drum circles. There were just more artists there, but then everybody left.
This past year has been so much, a lot of darkness, a lot of unfortunate violence in addition to the pandemic. And it's all especially impacted communities of color. How do you think as a country, as people, we can better support and protect the Asian American community?
For the first time, the Asian American people spoke up and were heard and had a voice. In the last 10 years, I don't really remember where there's been significant, overwhelming support from other people solely on Asian American issues. And I think people now realize that America, in 2021, is made up of a lot of different types of people.
And most of these people have lived here for at least a generation, and they grew up at the same high schools, eat the same food, listen to the same music, they just have different skin color. They don't, especially for Asian Americans who grew up here, really identify with the native country that they're from because they didn't grow up there, but at the same time, they look like people that grew up there.
And you have this expectation of living in both worlds and carrying two burdens. And obviously, there's so many Asian countries and each one has their own unique culture. So it's hard to just generalize all that. But being in America, you are just generalized.
Yeah. That's such a good point, that it really has been an accumulation—it's not like racism against Asian Americans just popped up last year.
No, it hasn't. It's been around since any Asian person has come over, from Chinese people to Japanese people, and back to the Chinese Exclusion Act [in 1882] and Japanese internment camps during World War II.
The good thing is people are talking about it now and they can do their own research and they can go dig a little further. I don't really expect other people necessarily to fully understand, but I think if they're willing to listen, then that's already the first step.
What's your biggest hope for this year?
I think that without live events—everything from sports, to concerts, to just being able to go to city gatherings like San Francisco's Bay To Breakers [race and parade]—people need to see other people doing things that they enjoy. Then, it won't so distant and categorizing different types of people, because at these shows you get to meet new people who like the same things and then you have a personal connection with them. You get to learn about their stories, you get to experience things with them and it makes you much more open to different things.
And I think all the energy stored up, from not being able to release it, has caused people to channel it in other ways, some positive, some negative. If you can't mosh at a show, you're going to go mosh protest, if can't go trip super hard at a rave, you're going to do it elsewhere, you know what I mean? So, at least there will be a place for people to know that there's other people that are similar to them, and I think that's a big, positive thing no matter what. Bad things happen all the time, but knowing other people go through it with you is probably one of the most comforting things.
Photos: Antoine Flament/Getty Images; Amy Sussman/WireImage; Santiago Felipe/GettyImages; Ki Price; Rosie Cohe; Edward Cooke; Mauricio Santana/Getty Images
15 Must-Hear Albums This September: Olivia Rodrigo, Kylie Minogue, James Blake & More
Get your fall playlist ready. From pop blockbusters to the return of rock icons, check out 15 genre-spanning albums dropping in September.
With summer almost in the rear view, it’s time to welcome the first must-hear albums of the fall season. With the onset of chillier days comes a genre-spanning array of new music — from R&B sensation Jorja Smith to indie-rock maestro Mitski.
September's first big release comes from rock royalty the Pretenders, who return at the top of the month with their twelfth studio album, Relentless. The following week, pop firebrand Olivia Rodrigo will reveal GUTS, the feverishly anticipated follow-up to her 2021 debut, SOUR.
Rodrigo shares a release date with star-studded company, including disco queen Róisín Murphy, dance veterans the Chemical Brothers, shapeshifting singer/songwriter James Blake, and soul newcomer Jalen Ngonda. Elsewhere in the month, there’s something for all tastes, from the pop-rock reawakening of Demi Lovato to the noodly electronics of Animal Collective.
As we gear up for a season packed with musical highs, we’ve put together a handy guide to the 15 must-hear albums dropping in September 2023.
The Pretenders - Relentless
Release date: Sept. 1
For a band that released its debut album in 1979, the Pretenders still sounds remarkably vital 44 years on. Led by iconic songwriter and frontwoman Chrissie Hynde, the band is back in full force this September with the appropriately titled Relentless, which follows 2020’s on-form Hate for Sale.
The Pretenders announced their twelfth LP with a rousing-yet-poetic lead single, "Let the Sun Come In," and the album closes with an intriguing collaboration with Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood on strings.
"I think anyone in a band is constantly questioning if they should keep going," Hynde said of the album’s title in a statement. "It starts as a youthful pursuit and eventually, it makes you wonder, why am I doing this? It’s the life of the artist. You never retire. You become relentless."
Speedy Ortiz - Rabbit Rabbit
Release date: Sept. 1
Philadelphia rock quartet Speedy Ortiz has kept fans waiting five long years for a new LP, having released their pop-inflected Twerp Verse back in 2018. This September, the band returns with Rabbit Rabbit, its first album on mercurial frontwoman Sadie Dupuis’ label, Wax Nine.
To record Rabbit Rabbit, Speedy Ortiz jumped between two locations steeped in rock lore: Rancho de la Luna in Joshua Tree and Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, Texas. The band has already shared a few songs so far, including the spiky "You S02" and the crunching, cathartic closer "Ghostwriter." The album also opens with a song called "Kim Cattrall."
"I turned 33 while writing this album, a palindrome birthday and a lucky number associated with knowledge," Dupuis said in a statement. "I wanted to mark how I was making better choices as I got older, letting go of heedless anger even when it’s warranted."
Olivia Rodrigo - GUTS
Release date: Sept. 8
As far as breakout albums go, Olivia Rodrigo’s SOUR was about as good as it gets. Powered by the stage-setting singles "drivers license" and "deja vu," the album dropped in May 2021 as a balm for dark pandemic days. Coming in at a lean 34 minutes, SOUR was all killer, no filler— and went on to pick up Best Pop Vocal Album at the 2022 GRAMMYs, alongside Rodrigo’s wins for Best Pop Solo Performance ("drivers license") and Best New Artist.
With Rodrigo now a bona fide pop superstar, she’s readying her second album, GUTS, for a buzzy September drop. Lead single "vampire" arrived back in June with a lush, swelling sound (producer Dan Nigro makes several appearances on GUTS) and score-settling lyrics that cut like a knife. Rodrigo followed this strong return with "bad idea right?," a gleefully fun throwback to the pop-punk and grunge that soundtracked her teens.
In an interview with the New York Times ahead of GUTS, Rodrigo enthused about embracing crunchy guitars and big emotional swings: "\[I\] always loved rock music, and always wanted to find a way that I could make it feel like me, and make it feel feminine and still telling a story and having something to say that’s vulnerable and intimate."
James Blake - Playing Robots In Heaven
Release date: Sept. 8
Following 2021’s acclaimed Friends That Break Your Heart, which featured guest turns from the likes of SZA, JID and Monica Martin, James Blake is stripping it back to basics on his sixth studio album, Playing Robots Into Heaven.
This time around, the etherally-voiced singer has seemingly gone back to the electronic roots of his earlier works that emerged as part of the UK’s post-dubstep scene.
With no featured guests, the tracklist includes the already-released singles "Big Hammer," which is all chopped-up samples and low-end frequencies, and "Loading," which recalls the vocal manipulations of the producer’s self-titled debut LP. Blake also shared the ambient title track, which will close the album in perfect contemplation.
Jalen Ngonda - Come Around and Love Me
Release date: Sept. 8
Growing up outside of Washington, D.C., Jalen Ngonda was immersed from an early age in soul music, courtesy of his music-obsessed father. Fast forward to 2023, and Ngonda is himself a talented soul artist signed to the revered Brooklyn indie label Daptone Records.
The singer's debut album, Come Around and Love Me, features lushly arranged singles "If You Don’t Want My Love" and "Just Like You Used To," which showcase his timeless vocal prowess.
The Chemical Brothers - For That Beautiful Feeling
Release date: Sept. 8
On their ninth album, 2019’s No Geography, UK electronic duo the Chemical Brothers sounded thrillingly energized. Now, after weathering a global pandemic, the veteran producers return with their tenth studio outing, For That Beautiful Feeling.
The album features a new version of the duo’s cautiously hopeful 2021 release, "The Darkness That You Fear," alongside the propulsive, classically-Chems single, "No Reason," and collaborations with indie darling Beck and French singer/songwriter Halo Maud.
The duo is set to follow the album in October with a career-spanning retrospective book, Paused in Cosmic Reflection, that’ll have fans clamoring.
Demi Lovato - REVAMPED
Release date: Sept. 15
Already an experienced master of reinvention, Demi Lovato is continuing her rock era with REVAMPED 5. On last year’s Holy Fvck, the pop chameleon wholeheartedly embraced hard rock and pop-punk, including collaborations with Yungblud, Royal & the Serpent and Dead Sara.
While touring Holy Fvck, Lovato also played heavier versions of her earlier songs, and discovered her fans loved it. This inspired her to re-record rock versions of ten songs from past albums, including Demi and Confident, which are now brought together on REVAMPED.
On the evidence of early singles like "Heart Attack (Rock Version)" and "Sorry Not Sorry (Rock Version)", the latter featuring Guns N Roses shredder Slash, Lovato is relishing the chance to rock out.
Mitski - The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We
Release date: Sept. 15
Back in July, ever-inventive singer-songwriter Mitski sent a voice memo to fans via her newsletter. "Hi, this is Mitski, and I’m at Bomb Shelter Studios in Nashville, where we recorded my new album that’s coming out," Mitski revealed. "It’s called The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We, and its first single is coming out on Wednesday."
That beautifully elegiac first single "Bug Like An Angel" suggests a heart-rending album to come from one of the boldest voices in indie-rock. The single also features a surprising (and powerfully effective) appearance from a 17-person choir that’s likely to appear elsewhere on The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We. As Mitski teased in a statement, "This is my most American album."
NEEDTOBREATHE - CAVES
Release date: Sept. 15
Following 2021’s Into The Mystery and its country-rock crossover hit, "I Wanna Remember," featuring Carrie Underwood, Christian rock troupe NEEDTOBREATHE returns with their ninth album, CAVES.
As documented in an intimate making-of video, the GRAMMY-winning band assembled in a house overlooking the majestic mountains of Utah to begin writing the album, which they completed while on the road with OneRepublic.
"We always believed we could make a record that would feel at home on the world’s biggest stages," the band wrote in a statement announcing CAVES. "It was important to us to prove that we could. This is the most ambitious record we’ve made in a really long time."
Kylie Minogue - Tension
Release date: Sept. 22
Thanks to the runaway viral success of her dance-pop earworm "Padam Padam," 2023 has already been a triumphant year for Australian pop veteran Kylie Minogue. Released in May, the single went on to vie for song of the summer status, powered by countless dance videos on TikTok and its warm embrace as a Pride anthem.
Buoyed by her surprise chart hit, Minogue will release her sixteenth studio album, Tension. As suggested by the glossy cover art, and the presence of producers such as Oliver Heldens and Biff Stannard, Minogue is ready to reclaim her electro-pop crown.
"I started this album with an open mind and a blank page," Minogue said in a statement. "Unlike my last two albums, there wasn’t a 'theme.' It was about finding the heart or the fun or the fantasy of that moment and always trying to service the song."
Bakar - Halo
Release date: Sept. 22
Acclaimed British artist Bakar will help kick off the month in style with his second album, Halo. The sophomore release is billed as a sonic counterpart to his genre-hopping 2018 mixtape, BADKID. Like that breakout release, Halo is set to blend indie, punk and hip-hop, with Bakar’s beguiling voice at front and center.
Ahead of a busy summer jumping between festival stages, Bakar dropped a mood-lifting single, "Alive!," accompanied by a music video featuring the artist bringing traffic to a standstill (for real) in Central London.
Animal Collective - Isn't It Now?
Release date: Sept. 29
Following 2022’s Time Skiffs, experimental pop four-piece Animal Collective returns with its most expansive album to date. With a total runtime of 64 minutes, Isn’t It Now? will explore a rich sonic palette, as suggested by the layered and hypnotic single, "Soul Capturer."
Co-produced, mixed and recorded with GRAMMY-winning producer Russell Elevado, Isn’t It Now? reportedly finds each band member digging deep into their current musical whims — such as multi-instrumentalist Panda Bear focusing more on drumming.
The centerpiece of the album is "Defeat," a 22-minute epic that captures Animal Collective at its most exploratory.
Jorja Smith - Falling or Flying
Release date: Sept. 29
As one of the brightest stars to emerge from the UK in the past decade, Jorja Smith has already put together an accomplished discography. Following her 2018 debut, Lost & Found, and 2021’s three-track EP, Be Right Back, Smith will release her most complete artistic statement to date.
Like her previous releases, the singer’s long-awaited second album, Falling or Flying, will connect the dots between soul, R&B, UK garage and house, with a song for every mood and situation.
"This album is like my brain,” Smith said in a statement. “There’s always so much going on but each song is definitely a standstill moment." So far, Smith has given us two standout singles — the garage-tinged "Little Things" and the more contemplative "Try Me" — so anticipation is sky high.
TINASHE - BB/ANG3L
Release date: TBD
While it’s yet to lock an official release date, the hype is building for Tinashe’s sixth studio album, BB/ANG3L — her first under a new deal with GRAMMY-winning hitmaker Ricky Reed’s record label, Nice Life.
"I’ve enjoyed stripping back layers of aesthetic fluff, smoke & mirrors, and white noise to get down to the core of myself," the alternative R&B star said of the album in a statement.
On lead single, "Talk to Me Nice," Tinashe’s indelible smoky vocals are offset by skittering, seductive production from hip-hop beatmaker Scoop DeVille and electronic artist Nosaj Thing. Follow-up single "Needs" is another undeniable bop, setting the stage for a standout album.
(G)I-DLE - HEAT
Release date: Oct. 15
Prolific K-pop girl group (G)I-DLE is set to release its first English language project, HEAT.
HEAT follows the group’s 2022 debut album, I Never Die, which opens with the pop-punk-influenced single, "TOMBOY." While little has been revealed about HEAT, the project comes via the Asian market-focused U.S. music company 88rising and South Korean label Cube Entertainment, and will showcase the songwriting prowess of group leader Jeon So-yeon.
(G)I-DLE has released one single from HEAT so far — the highly polished synth-pop love song, "I DO" — and the anticipation has K-pop fans feeling giddy.
Photo: Scott Legato/Getty Images
A Guide To Bay Area Hip-Hop: Definitive Releases, Artists & Subgenres From Northern California
Bay Area hip-hop has had a few moments to shine on the main stage, but has largely grinded independently for decades. On the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, learn how "the whole damn Yay" fits into this global culture — and how it stands out.
The San Francisco Bay Area is a geographically and culturally diverse region of Northern California whose music scene has influenced the world. There is a lot more territory to Northern California, but the more than 7.5 million people who live in the Bay are crucial to the state's music scene.
While the Summer of Love and associated boom of rock and psychedelia in the 1960s might be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of the sounds of San Francisco, the Bay has long been a source of creative, boundary-breaking hip-hop music and culture. The region's nine counties are where many definitive hip-hop acts were raised and became inspired to create.
Major labels largely ignored Bay Area artists at the beginning of hip-hop's golden age. However, that lack of attention allowed for wider creative freedom and a bevy of distinctly Bay Area sounds.
As hip-hop celebrates half a century of soundtracking the world, it’s a good time to learn how this part of the West Coast fits into this global culture — and how it stands out. Listen to Spotify playlist below or visit Amazon Music, Pandora and Apple Music to learn more about the Bay Area's bountiful hip-hop culture.
A Brief History Of Bay Area Hip-Hop
The Bay Area's first local commercial rap release came in 1981 via Motorcycle Mike’s "Super Rat." But the world wouldn’t become seriously acquainted with Bay Area rappers until the early ‘90s, when MC Hammer told everyone what they couldn’t touch.
Some of the most notable releases tap into the region's educated and aware, activist-oriented, health-focused lifestyle. The Bay also knows how to party, and the funky musicality of the region — from Sly and the Family Stone to Con Funk Shun (whose member Felton Pilate produced some of MC Hammer’s early works) — have been a strong influence on hip-hop culture nationwide.
However, the Bay Area rap music scene is historically distinguished by reality-based work that sometimes alludes to criminal activity — including violence, murder, drug dealing and sex trafficking — and details rough times.
The intermingling between the fictional world of music and criminal realities has led rap lyrics to be used against defendants in criminal cases around the country. In the '90s and early aughts, prominent rappers such as Sacramento’s C-Bo and Vallejo’s Andre "Mac Dre" Hicks were jailed for their lyrics, which detailed crimes and had anti-police and governor sentiment.
New state legislation is setting a national example for such work to be inadmissible in court. In September, with the support of popular Bay Area rappers E-40 and Too $hort, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the Decriminalizing Artistic Expression Act to restrict the use of rap lyrics in criminal proceedings. (The Recording Academy is also involved in a federal effort to limit the use of lyrics in court.)
Several high-profile murders and deaths altered the trajectory of burgeoning careers, casting a question mark about the unrealized potential of some of the Bay Area’s brightest artists. This unfortunate list includes the 1996 Las Vegas murder of Tupac Shakur — who spent formative years being educated and recording in the Bay Area — and Mac Dre, the progenitor of the region’s hyphy culture who was shot to death in Kansas City in 2004 and still reigns as the Bay Area’s biggest posthumous figure. Pittsburg’s Dominick "The Jacka" Newton is another revered figure supported heavily by Northern California who was killed in Oakland in 2015. In 2021, Stephen "Zumbi" Gaines from Zion I died in an Oakland hospital; his death was ruled a homicide, yet no criminal charges have been filed and his family called to continue the investigation in 2022.
Bay Area hip-hop has had a few moments to shine especially bright in the eyes of the world, but the local scene has kept grinding in and out of the mainstream spotlight. Sporadic attention and contracts from the major record labels throughout the years meant that the Bay Area rap scene generally needed to continue to be sustained independently.
In the pre-streaming era, record stores such as Amoeba Music in San Francisco and Rasputin Music (which had several locations at its height) sold thousands of copies of albums and mixtapes from local artists on their own. Too $hort and E-40’s DIY business model would influence Southern rap moguls like Percy "Master P" Miller, who started his No Limit Records in Richmond, California, and Bryan "Baby" Williams of New Orleans’ Cash Money Records.
For decades, there was an absence of prolonged label and distribution support from the traditional music business centers of Los Angeles, New York City and, later, Atlanta. A significant shift began when EMPIRE Distribution opened in San Francisco in 2010, making the city a power player in the international music industry.
While the San Francisco Bay Area may not be the biggest name in the national hip-hop conversation, its underdog status is a point of pride and reason for continued creativity. In 2023, hip-hop artists, producers and businesspeople keep an eye on the Bay for lyrical, linguistic, music, dance and style trends.
Definitive Artists In Bay Area Hip-Hop
MC Hammer: Stanley Burrell’s evolution from young bat boy for the Oakland Athletics and growing up connected to the streets, to becoming the GRAMMY-winning and Billboard-charting pop superhero MC Hammer is the Bay Area’s first international hip-hop success story. He’s the only rapper from Northern California who had his own Saturday morning cartoon (Hammerman) on ABC — an epic achievement in the early '90s, when weekend programming for kids was still a household phenomenon.
He was the first to work with major brands like Taco Bell and Sprite in an era when hip-hop didn’t have the attention of corporate America, like it does now. VH1 aired a biopic in 2001 and A&E commissioned a family reality series in 2009. There’s even a Hammer doll made by the toy company Mattel.
Digital Underground: Helmed by Gregory "Shock G" Jacobs and Ronald "Money-B" Brooks, Oakland’s mischievous party rap crew Digital Underground flirted with various Billboard singles and albums charts throughout the '90s and released six albums until Jacobs' untimely passing in 2021.
The self-described "Sons of the P" drew from the well of the Parliament-Funkadelic world, sampling and interpolating George Clinton’s best-known riffs, ad-libs and freewheeling thoughts. Digital Underground’s two top 40 hits include "Kiss You Back" and "The Humpty Dance," the latter nominated for Best Rap Performance By A Duo Or Group at the 1991 GRAMMYs. "The Humpty Dance" introduced the character of Humpty Hump, which was another of Jacobs’ alter egos, but the group pretended like they were different people, sometimes enlisting Jacobs’ own brother to help further the prank on stage.
Tupac Shakur: Shock G and Money-B took a young Tupac Shakur under their wings, bringing him on tour as a roadie and dancer in 1990 and producing songs on his 1991 debut album 2Pacalypse Now. Shakur recorded half of his sophomore album in the East Bay, and later signed to Los Angeles labels Interscope and Death Row.
His mother, Afeni Shakur, reconnected with the Bay Area in the last years of her life and passed away on her houseboat in Sausalito, not far from Marin City, where Tupac lived in his high school years. History hasn’t viewed him as a strictly Bay Area artist, but the region is a crucial architect of his career.
Too $hort: Though he was born in Los Angeles and moved to the East Bay in his youth, Todd Shaw’s Too $hort character is synonymous with Oakland, its pimp culture and being the first to sell custom mixtapes on the streets. He turned his "out the trunk" ethos into a decades-long deal with Jive Records.
Despite threatening to retire in the mid-'90s, Too $hort continues to make music to add to his discography, which includes six platinum-selling albums, three gold albums and the enduring hyphy anthem "Blow The Whistle." He has collaborated with many rappers, including Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G., and on "Bossy," a top 20 hit for Kelis. Shaw represented the Bay Area at the 2023 GRAMMYs' tribute to hip-hop, and told PEOPLE that he was "really glad to be a part of it."
E-40: Like Too $hort, E-40 (Earl Stevens) parlayed his independent record hustle into a contract with Jive Records that yielded gold and platinum-selling singles and albums. Both essentially created a playbook that was cited and followed by Southern labels such as No Limit and Cash Money. E-40’s storytelling prowess and gift for slanguage is delivered with impressive speed, and continues to influence MCs all over the world. He’s as deft at crafting party-starters like his hyphy hit "Tell Me When to Go" as poignant tales like "Zoom," which describes how life handed him nothing, but he transcended his circumstances to become a leader.
A community-minded philanthropist, he recently donated $100,000 to Grambling University, which he attended, to create the Earl "E-40" Stevens Sound Recording Studio on campus and inspire the next generation of artists. In recent years, he has applied his independent strategies to the food, wine and spirits industries, and will release a cookbook in November.
E-40 and Too $hort have recorded two albums together, and have since formed the northern half of the rap supergroup Mount Westmore, with Los Angeles natives Snoop Dogg and Ice Cube. Stevens will soon have a Bay Area street named after him called E-40 Way in Vallejo — just as Shaw received Too $hort Way in Oakland in December.
Mac Dre: Andre Hicks didn’t have a mainstream career like MC Hammer or Too $hort, but his influence on Bay Area music and culture as a progenitor and propeller of hyphy remains outsized. His music is rooted in the streets, but also party minded and musical, bridging a gap between the rough and serious and happy and intoxicated.
His mother Wanda Salvatto, who is nicknamed Mac Wanda, continued his Thizz Entertainment label after his still-unsolved 2004 murder in Kansas City, Missouri. She has built an extensive discography of posthumous and tribute albums and compilations.
Keak Da Sneak: After making noise in the mid-Nineties Oakland group 3X Krazy and later on his own, the rapper born Charles Kente Williams has earned his spot as a crucial Bay Area music and slang innovator. He’s credited with expressions like "fa sheezy," "yadidimean" and hyphy, the latter a contraction devised to describe his hyperactive tendencies.
"I don’t think they know, that’s my word," he proclaims in the chorus of his quick-moving 2005 party hit "Super Hyphy." In 2017, Keak Da Sneak was shot eight times by an unknown assailant at a gas station in Richmond, California. Though he’s been using a wheelchair ever since, he remains active in the local scene, recently appearing at DJ and podcaster Dregs One’s History of Bay Area Hip-Hop day party in San Francisco.
Definitive Bay Area Hip-Hop Releases
Too $hort - Life Is…Too $hort (1988)
As a rapper and character, Too $hort has transcended generations of Bay Area hip-hop fans, but the old-schoolers will still point to his fifth album, which broke him out of the region thanks to support in the form of a 1989 re-release from Jive Records. It delivers the bawdy, pimp boasting raps that he’s known for, but Life Is… also shows his less-known talents for keyboard and drum programming.
MC Hammer - Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em (1990)
MC Hammer’s third album Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em spent almost five months on top of the Billboard 200, and he is the only rap artist from Northern California to win GRAMMY Awards. With their hooky Rick James and Prince samples, respectively, the album’s hit singles "U Can’t Touch This" and "Pray" set a production standard that has been relied on pretty much ever since — whether in the most popular songs of P. Diddy’s Bad Boy Records catalog in the 1990s, or today’s social media hits by Latto and Coi Leray.
In 1991, Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em was nominated for Album Of The Year, and he took home three golden gramophones for Best Rhythm & Blues Song and Best Rap Solo Performance for "U Can’t Touch This" and Best Music Video - Long Form.
Digital Underground - Sex Packets (1990)
DU’s platinum-selling debut album may be the Bay Area’s greatest concept rap album, a lascivious romp assisted by imaginary sexual enhancement pills years before Viagra was invented. Songs like "Freaks of the Industry," "Doowutchyalike" and "The Humpty Dance" brought fun and levity to the streets and households across America.
"The Humpty Dance" was not only a top 20 pop hit and a No. 1 rap single; its undulating groove formed the backbone of countless pop, rap, R&B and drum and bass songs that later sampled it. Even the Spice Girls couldn’t resist using it for their 1996 song "If U Can’t Dance."
2Pac - 2Pacalypse Now (1991)
The majority of Tupac Shakur’s first two albums were made in the Bay Area: He recorded all of 2Pacalypse Now and half of his sophomore album Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z… at Starlight Sound in the East Bay city of Richmond. 2Pacalypse Now shows how a descendent of the Black Panther Party reflects his history for the '90s.
He worked with local producers — including Digital Underground’s Shock G, Raw Fusion and Big D The Impossible — on early anthems like "Brenda’s Got a Baby," "Trapped" and "If My Homie Calls." Though his posthumous discography is long, he would go on to release just two more albums before his murder in 1996: Me Against the World and the GRAMMY-nominated All Eyez on Me.
Del the Funky Homosapien - "Mistadobalina" (1991)
When he was a little kid, Del the Funky Homosapien designed the three-eyed face that became the logo of his Hieroglyphics crew and a worldwide symbol of Bay Area rap. "Mistadobalina," which he produced with Boogiemen and his cousin Ice Cube, was his breakout song. His confident and fun flow drew people into the Hiero world — which now includes an annual festival in Oakland — and it still sounds timeless.
RBL Posse - "Don’t Give Me No Bammer Weed" (1992)
The biggest group to come from San Francisco’s tough Hunters Point neighborhood and score a major label record deal, RBL Posse is best remembered for this ode to smoking quality cannabis from their debut album A Lesson To Be Learned. Members Hitman and Mr. Cee were both victims of gun violence, but their sonic calling card remains a local anthem.
N2DEEP - "Back to the Hotel" (1992)
Vallejo is most often associated with Mac Dre and E-40, but the city also birthed N2DEEP, the Latinx group that brought the sax-heavy rap song "Back to the Hotel" to No. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100. This song was everywhere in 1992, and has been due for a renaissance of appreciation.
Souls of Mischief - "93 ‘til Infinity" (1993)
Friends of Del the Funky Homosapien and fellow Hieroglyphics crew members, A-Plus, Opio, Phesto and Tajai are Souls of Mischief. "93 ‘til Infinity" remains their inspiring signature song, resonating sonically and lyrically across generations. The track has been sampled dozens of times by artists like J. Cole, Big K.R.I.T. and Tyga.
The Conscious Daughters - Ear to the Street (1993)
Released by Priority Records — the Los Angeles label that introduced venerable acts such as Funkadelic, N.W.A. and EPMD to the world — Ear to the Street gave a national platform to two smooth and streetwise rappers from Oakland who happened to be women: CMG (Carla Green) and the late Special One (Karryl Smith, who passed away in 2011). Their debut album, and especially its breakout single "Somethin’ to Ride to (Fonky Expedition)," are still requisite car listening in the Bay Area.
Spice 1 - 187 He Wrote (1993)
Though he collaborated with Shakur, Spice 1 is still one of the more underrated and under the radar of the old-school gangster rappers. This sophomore album features production by Too $hort and local legends Ant Banks and E-A-Ski, as well as guest spots by E-40 and Compton’s MC Eiht. 187 He Wrote topped the R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and No. 10 on the Billboard 200 chart.
Luniz - "I Got 5 On It (Bay Ballas Vocal Remix)" (1995)
Almost 30 years since its release, this ode to smoking weed by Oakland rappers Yukmouth and Numskull still makes frequent appearances at Bay Area events and clubs. The Bay Ballas Vocal Remix, which features E-40, Richie Rich, Spice 1, Dru Down, Shock G, hogged all the attention back in the day and is still the version to play.
DJ Shadow - Endtroducing (1996)
The mysterious DJ and producer mixed at the nucleus of the SoleSides crew, which later became the Quannum Projects label and includes vital Bay Area artists like Blackalicious, Lyrics Born and Lateef The Truthspeaker. Shadow’s debut album Endtroducing is a masterpiece of instrumental hip-hop.
Hieroglyphics - 3rd Eye Vision (1998)
Oakland’s Hieroglyphics is made up of solo MCs and groups who have created some of Bay Area rap’s most vaunted songs. The first of three crew albums, the stellar arrangement and song selection on the 22-track 3rd Eye Vision, which refers to their three-eyed logo and spotlights each individual’s talents, keeps it in the conversation 25 years since its release.
Blackalicious - "Alphabet Aerobics" (1999)
A stunning feat of linguistic excellence by the late rapper Gift of Gab (who tragically passed away in 2021 after receiving a kidney implant the year before), "Alphabet Aerobics" pushes rhymes of increasing complexity from A to Z. It’s a textbook of how to MC in one track.
Mystic - Cuts for Luck and Scars for Freedom (2001)
Mandolyn Wind Ludlum is best known as Mystic, a singer, rapper and educator from Oakland whose debut album sounds as fresh as when it was released in 2001. Cuts for Luck was re-released 10 years later in large part to the lead single "The Life" and "W," a duet featuring Fresno rapper Planet Asia that was nominated for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration at the 2002 GRAMMYs.
Charizma & Peanut Butter Wolf - Big Shots (2003)
Murdered in 1993, South Bay rapper Charizma never got the chance to see where his talent would take him. Big Shots was not released until 2003, but his flows on songs like "Methods" and "Jack the Mack" are timeless. Peanut Butter Wolf —a San Jose native producer and close friend of Charizma — moved his record label Stones Throw to Los Angeles and keeps Charizma's legacy alive.
Mac Dre - Treal TV DVD and Soundtrack (2004)
Thanks to the continuation of his Thizz Entertainment record label after his 2004 murder, Mac Dre’s posthumous discography is extensive, but a DVD released when he was alive is perhaps the most coveted release in the collection. Treal TV has a cult following for its casual depiction of his everyday life, car collection and live footage of him performing songs such as "Thizzelle Dance," which also appears on Dre’s 2002 album Thizzelle Washington.
There’s also a CD soundtrack version of Treal TV featuring various artists and associates; a second volume of Treal TV was released in 2006 and includes footage of Mac Dre on the road in Hawaii.
Mistah F.A.B. - "Super Sic Wit It" (2005)
With his Dope Era clothing store and frequent community events, Oakland’s Mistah F.A.B. has been an entrepreneurial and philanthropic leader in the scene since he turned out hyphy club and radio hits like "Super Sic Wit It." The high energy song for car sideshows helped him score a major label contract.
E-40 - My Ghetto Report Card (2006)
E-40’s many albums have consistently good arrangement and a narrative arc of storytelling, and My Ghetto Report Card represents him at the crest of a second wind that floated him into greater international recognition. Produced by Lil Jon, the lead single "Tell Me When to Go" landed at No. 35 on the Billboard Hot 100 and remains one of the big hits of the hyphy era.
Atlanta’s king of crunk produced seven additional songs on the album, including "White Gurl" featuring UGK and Juelz Santana and "U and Dat" featuring T-Pain and Kandi, while Bay Area standard-setter Rick Rock and E-40’s son Droop-E rounded out the production duties.
The Coup - Pick a Bigger Weapon (2006)
The Coup represented the revolutionary side of Oakland with razor-sharp intellect and furiously funky beats. Pick a Bigger Weapon was released by Epitaph Records, a label known more for rock than rap music, and includes collaborations with Jello Biafra of Dead Kennedys and Tom Morello from Rage Against The Machine. Frontman Boots Riley has made forays into film and streaming TV, most recently with the comedy series "I’m a Virgo." The Coup’s late DJ, Pam The Funkstress, was selected by Prince to open some of his final shows.
Zion I - "Tech $" (2017)
Oakland’s Zion I has long reflected on the changes and realities of the Bay Area in their music. Nowhere does this resonate the most as it does on "Tech $," which details displacement and gentrification as it was literally happening to the late MC Stephen Gaines, who was known as Zumbi and Baba Zumbi. The accompanying music video shows him moving his family out of their house and out of the area.
Stunnaman02 - "Big Steppin’" (2021)
Perhaps the biggest local rap song to come out of the pandemic, San Francisco rapper Jordan "Stunnaman02" Gomes even got the city’s mayor to do the song’s infectious associated dance, which KQED calls "a trend that rhythmically mimics the act of bench pressing."
Bay Area Hip-Hop Subgenres & Styles
Bay Area rap can be educated, activist, party-starting and gangster — and sometimes all on the same track. There’s a distinct pride in the scope and the range of subject matter and sonic aesthetics in the region. Achieving uncategorizable moments is wonderful, but everyone seems to love big, trunk-rattling bass.
There’s always been nuance within these major styles — for example, music that could blanketly be called gangster could also be subdivided into general topic styles such as pimping and drug dealing, and even small subgenres like mobb music — which was coined to describe a particular sinister and gritty sound characterized by even heavier basslines more than the lyrical content.
Turntablism: In the '90s Bay Area DJs with mobile party and technical battle circuit experience contributed significantly to the development of turntablism. With the help of the Return of the DJ compilation series from San Francisco’s Bomb Hip-Hop Records, turntablism became an international style of using and manipulating record players like musical instruments to record original works. With talents such as Shortkut, DJ Disk, DJ Apollo, DJ Flare, D-Styles, Qbert and Mix Master Mike, local crew Invisibl Skratch Piklz won world battle championships and inspired countless fans to become DJs. Mix Master Mike has toured extensively with Beastie Boys, Metallica and Cypress Hill.
Hyphy: The aughts ushered in the music, linguistic and car subculture called hyphy, bringing in quicker tempos ready for popping pills and "going dumb" on the dancefloor. Too $hort would criticize the abuse of MDMA in his 2006 hit "Blow the Whistle," but most of hyphy’s hits revel in ignorance — and Mac Dre certainly touted the benefits of ecstasy when he was alive.
Almost 20 years since hyphy’s ascent and this is thought of as a sort of golden era of Bay Area hip-hop, a time when the world’s attention was facing west. Hyphy songs have been sampled in more contemporary contexts (as Saweetie used "Blow the Whistle" for 2020’s "Tap In"), and the subject is a common one used to evoke an uplifting nostalgia.
Based: Brandon "Lil B" McCartney formed the rap group the Pack while attending Berkeley High School, and their 2006 cult hit "Vans" led to an album deal with Jive Records. After leaving the Pack, Lil B single-handedly propagated an unedited and free associative style he called based, dubbing himself the Based God. He was the first in the area to use social media sites and apps to become an early meme, which he supported with a large quantity of songs and videos.
Rising Bay Area Rap Artists
The next generation of artists leading the future of the Bay Area is tapping into the technological prowess of the region while furthering traditions of musical innovation and philanthropic goals. While Bay Area rap has long been male-dominated, the future may be more balanced.
Larry June: Ten albums deep, Larry June is not exactly new to this, but he’s the San Francisco artist who is currently breaking through to the world with his album Spaceships on the Blade. Northern California’s healthy, organic lifestyle is a popular topic for June, who eats well, owns a boba shop and is showing his fans the benefits of consistent, hard work.
P-Lo: After years producing for the Bay Area’s HBK Gang artists as well as national stars such as Wiz Khalifa and Yo Gotti, P-Lo’s status as a solo artist is on the rise with his 2022 album STUNNA. His 2022 collab with Larry June, "Doing Good," is a uplifting banger
Lil Kayla: Born and raised in San Francisco, 24-year-old Lil Kayla is signed to Atlantic and repping for the 415 on her freestyles, singles and 2022 album Young & Turnt. "I’m about to do it for my city," she said in a May interview with Lil Blood TV. "I’m gonna be the one to do it, 'cause everybody else, they get it and they leave and they don’t come back. I’m not going nowhere."
LARussell: Born LaRussell Thomas, Vallejo’s LARussell has harnessed social media to spread his sharp rhymes, as well as his social message. He donates money to allow his community to enjoy restaurant meals they may not otherwise be able to afford. Freestyles for Sway and the Breakfast Club and his album I Hate When Life’s Going Great have solidified his name outside the region.
MacArthur Maze: Teamwork makes the dreamwork, and there’s hope that MacArthur Maze, the Oakland collective of MCs and producers led by Golden State Warriors DJ D Sharp, will help usher in a fresh era of working together for the creative good in the Bay Area, as evidenced on the new group album Blvck Saturday.
Su’Lan: This Richmond-based duo describe themselves as having "pretty girl swag with a hood twist" flip old crunk and hyphy hits into fresh new favorites on their debut album Forever Da Gang.
TotogangzMau: A female Samoan rapper from East Palo Alto, TotogangzMau is showing lyrical greatness and melodic hooks out the gate on autobiographical songs like "Grow Up."
Notable Northern California Neighbors
The Bay Area’s sky high rents and home prices have steadily driven residents to the Central Valley, which includes cities like Modesto, Stockton and California’s capital city of Sacramento, and effectively stretched the geographical and sociological boundaries of the region.
Sacramento produced a bounty of homegrown gangster rappers. The most notable are C-Bo, a 2Pac collaborator who was jailed in 1998 for his anti-police and governor lyrics; Marvaless, a woman who debuted with C-Bo and went on to release several solo albums and collaborations with Bay Area rappers Messy Marv, Husalah and The Jacka; and Mozzy, a contemporary star from the Empire Distribution crew. The region also claims Saweetie, the "Icy Girl" who has been endorsed by McDonald’s and is signed to Warner Records; she grew up in the East Bay city of Hayward before moving to Sacramento.
After a spate of violent incidents at major hip-hop concerts led Oakland to ban rap shows for a year in 1989, the Bay Area’s biggest cities developed a reputation for being averse to the genre. Sacramento, Stockton and Modesto have served as more consistent markets for a number of Bay Area rappers, especially those with more violent or drug-related content.
Source Images (Clockwise, L-R): Raymond Boyd/Getty Images; Astrida Valigorsky/Getty Images; Kevin Winter/Getty Images for The Recording Academy; Gregory Bojorquez/Getty Images; Paul Natkin/WireImage; Anthony Barboza/Getty Images; JC Olivera/WireImage; Kevin Kane/Getty Images for The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; Clarence Davis/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images; Jason Koerner/Getty Images
50 Artists Who Changed Rap: Jay-Z, The Notorious B.I.G., Dr. Dre, Nicki Minaj, Kendrick Lamar, Eminem & More
In honor of the 50th anniversary of hip-hop this year, GRAMMY.com is celebrating some of the genre's most impactful artists across the decades. From Drake to OutKast, Lauryn Hill to Lil Wayne, these pioneers shaped rap over the past 50 years of hip-hop.
At its core, hip-hop began as a joyful expression, a grassroots community-organizing method, and an outlet to creatively and freely rebel against the socioeconomic turmoil happening across America in the early '70s. The genre's mythical-like origin remains an integral part of American history: From the recreation room of 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, an 18-story apartment building in the South Bronx, New York City, DJ Kool Herc captivated audiences young and old as he commanded the turntables at a birthday party for his sister, Cindy Campbell, while MCs Theodore Puccio and Coke La Rock shouted out rhymes over Herc's instrumental beats.
While there is evidence that foundational elements of hip-hop emerged long before it boomed out of that South Bronx party — listen to Pigmeat Markham's "Here Comes The Judge" from 1968, for example — this momentous day, Aug. 11, 1973, would become known as the origin of hip-hop, with Herc being anointed the genre's founding father.
What began as a local sound and burgeoning scene in the "Boogie Down Bronx" has since evolved into a global movement. Hip-hop today is a powerful, unapologetic force that has influenced every genre of music and impacted every facet of society and pop culture around the world. Over the past five decades, the sound has expanded as a multi-genre invention. The party-starting, feel-good rhymes of the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," the first global rap hit, paved the way for the piercing social commentary and "reality rap" fueling Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five's hit single "The Message," the latter of which can be traced to current-day rap prophets like Kendrick Lamar and Noname.
As the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of hip-hop this year, GRAMMY.com is honoring some of the genre's most impactful artists, producers and creators in our inaugural 50 Artists Who Changed Rap list. Through this wide-spanning list, we are paying tribute to the pioneers, originators and futurists who have shaped hip-hop culture, pushed the artistic boundaries of rap over the past five decades, and continued to evolve the sound into the future.
To be clear, this list is not a ranking of the "best" rappers, nor is it a voting-based compilation of the top-selling artists in hip-hop. Rather, it is meant to serve as a survey of some of the most influential and impactful artists who have shaped rap music and hip-hop culture over the past 50 years.
To help compile our list of these 50 influential artists, GRAMMY.com invited an industry panel of established music veterans, cultural and music journalists, published authors, and music historians, who collectively submitted hundreds of artists suggestions. (See the full list of contributors below.) Based on these initial submissions from our industry panel, the artists comprising the final list, presented below in no ranking order, were selected based on a wide yet loose range of indicators: creative and artistic impact; career evolution and longevity; classic and influential albums; and beyond.
Of course, no one list could ever contain the whole of hip-hop and its ever-expansive reach. Nor could any list of influential rappers be whittled down to a mere list of 50. That's an impossible feat. Rather, our 50 Artists Who Changed Rap list stands as a love letter to some of the culture's defining moments and impactful voices that have helped create a global movement that continues to inspire and ignite future generations from all walks of life.
"As we approach hip-hop's 50th anniversary, it's important to acknowledge all of its accomplishments and the people in it," Len Brown, Senior Project Manager of Awards and Rap, Reggae, and R&B Genre Manager for the Recording Academy, shares. "What was once thought of as a passing fad has become the world's biggest genre despite it being the youngest — all made possible by the ingenious minds that continuously push the boundaries of music. There are countless individuals who got us this far and countless more who'll continue to carry the culture for the next 50 years and beyond."
There is so more to be said about our beloved hip-hop culture. Its history is rich and deep, while its future is still being written by today's leading lights and new, emerging voices revolutionizing rap. Today, we offer you this list as your jump-off to celebrate hip-hop in all its glory as we honor 50 Years of Hip-Hop all year long.
Explore the music from every artist featured in our 50 Artists Who Changed Rap list in an exclusive playlist, curated by longtime GRAMMY.com contributor and hip-hop tastemaker Kevin L. Clark, on Amazon Music, Spotify, Apple Music, and Pandora.
Visit our Rap genre page for more exclusive content and to explore some of the rap's most memorable moments in GRAMMY history across the decades. Continue to visit GRAMMY.com for more exclusive 50 Years of Hip-Hop content throughout the year.
— Kevin L. Clark & John Ochoa
2 Live Crew
All titillating, risqué elements of hip-hop's artistry — hits from Nicki Minaj's "Anaconda" to Cardi B's and Megan Thee Stallion's "WAP" to Sexyy Red's "Pound Town" — owe a sizeable debt to Miami rap quartet 2 Live Crew. As regions in the American West and South first made their presence known in hip-hop during the late 1980s, 2 Live Crew — "Uncle Luke" Campbell, the late Fresh Kid Ice, Brother Marquis, DJ Mr. Mixx — introduced the bottom-heavy Miami bass sound to the culture with their ribald 1986 single, "Throw the D." Pioneering a frat-party climate incorporating stripper-influenced female stage performers and comical, sexually explicit material on The 2 Live Crew Is What We Are (1986) and Move Somethin' (1988), the group soon ran afoul of authorities who deemed their albums legally obscene, becoming the first act to release the first sound recording to be declared obscene.
The first act in music history to release profanity-free, "clean" versions of their albums, 2 Live Crew soldiered through legal battles fighting for their freedom of speech that eventually ruled in the group's favor. In obscenity trials across the early '90s tied to the Crew's hit 1989 album, As Nasty as They Wanna Be, which was ruled obscene and illegal to sell in 1990, the group was ultimately acquitted of the charges, with the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals holding that the music held artistic value, despite its graphic contents. Through these legal cases, 2 Live Crew arose as the unlikeliest champions of freedom of speech, with First Amendment advocates and major artists, including David Bowie, alike defending the group's artistic freedom and protected speech.
A separate legal skirmish, in which the group was sued for copyright infringement over a parody they recorded of Roy Orbison's "Oh, Pretty Woman," made its way to the Supreme Court. The Court held the music as parody and therefore cleared as fair use rather than copyright infringement; this case against 2 Live Crew ultimately established that a commercial parody is covered under fair use laws.
Today, 2 Live Crew albums allow hip-hop a sexual freedom of expression that infuses the work of current acts from Plies to City Girls. — Miles Marshall Lewis
2Pac, born Tupac Amaru Shakur, was born into activism; his mother, Afeni Shakur, and biological father, William Garland, were both Black Panthers. He once famously said, "I'm not saying I'm gonna change the world, but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world," a hip-hop quotable that suggests his influence is still igniting brains for metamorphosis.
Shakur's rap career was incubated by Oakland's Digital Underground, who took him on tour as a roadie and dancer and collaborated with him. DU's politically aware yet party-loving ethos helped inject some fun into Shakur's edge. He'd later define this as "THUG LIFE," standing for "the hate u give little infants f— everyone," an eternal hip-hop mantra, also emblazoned as an iconic tattoo across this torso, that would become highly mimicked by rappers who wished to follow in his footsteps.
Known for working furiously in the studio, Shakur sensed he would die young and he wanted to leave a lot behind. He released four albums between 1991 and 1996: 2Pacalypse Now, Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z…, Me Against the World, and All Eyez on Me. He also left behind enough material for seven posthumous albums — six solo works and one collaborative album with Tha Outlawz. Throughout his discography, he spoke truth to power, rapping about the harsh realities of hood life ("Changes"), female empowerment ("Keep Ya Head Up"), and eternal maternal love ("Dear Mama"). He also knew how to throw down a party anthem as heard on "California Love" and "I Get Around."
The life and legacy of Shakur, who was killed in 1996, continues to be studied and valued in the present. From his never-before-heard appearance in Kendrick Lamar's instant classic, To Pimp A Butterfly, to Dear Mama, an acclaimed docuseries about his relationship with his mom, which premiered in April on FX, Pac's influence will never wane; his recent Hollywood Walk of Fame star unveiling is a testament to that fact. — Tamara Palmer
Queens, New York, native Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson's impact on hip-hop is undeniable — and far-reaching. In a span of roughly 20 years, the rapper has released five successful studio albums, produced a slew of successful television shows, created a record label, G-Unit Records, founded his own cognac brand, and had a hand in other fruitful business ventures. His placement on this list is palpable.
Before his major-label debut, 50's mixtapes, including Guess Who's Back?, flooded the streets and generated a large fanbase that helped aid his breakthrough success. After being discovered by Eminem and signed to Shady/Aftermath Records, 50 worked with legendary producer Dr. Dre to create his blockbuster debut album, Get Rich or Die Tryin' in 2003. A commercial success, going 9x platinum, the seminal album showed audiences 50's lyrical prowess as well as his mainstream crossover reach. 50 Cent's career evolution, talent and success have left an indelible mark that will be seen and felt for generations to come. — Rachel McCain
A Tribe Called Quest
Composed of Q-Tip, the late Phife Dawg, occasional member Jarobi White, and DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad, A Tribe Called Quest helped carve a space for rappers (and rap listeners) with a bohemian bent to their hip-hop aesthetic. Formed by high school friends from Queens, New York, the group established its own unique sound through the use of jazz and rock samples, a practice then unorthodox for hip-hop in the early 1990s. Early on, they helped create a bridge between jazz and hip-hop, two worlds then often seen as distantly disconnected. Legendary jazz bassist Ron Carter, for example, guested on A Tribe Called Quest's seminal sophomore album, The Low End Theory, marking one of the earliest collaborations between jazz and hip-hop musicians.
Widely considered to be masterpieces of the genre, People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990), The Low End Theory (1991), and Midnight Marauders (1993) — their initial trio of albums — established A Tribe Called Quest as mavericks of sound and sonic visionaries.The group's final studio album, We Got It from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service (2016), featured appearances by Elton John and Jack White — exemplifying the group's reputation as genre-inclusive pioneers of alternative hip-hop.
A Tribe Called Quest's Afrocentric, left-of-center, cultural nationalist aesthetic set them apart as iconoclasts, clear antecedents to the likes of OutKast, Kanye West, Tyler, the Creator, and so many others. — Miles Marshall Lewis
Big Daddy Kane
Antonio Hardy, aka Big Daddy Kane, is your favorite rapper's favorite rapper — a skilled, all-around technician with an unrelentingly charismatic appeal. His impeccable '80s styling – replete with velour suits, gold accessories, and a high-top fade — accentuated his innovative rhyme schemes, honed from his time as a battle rapper from Brooklyn prior to linking with Marley Marl's Juice Crew alongside friend and collaborator Biz Markie. His debut single, "Raw," was an underground sensation, introducing a new style of rhyming: quick and in syncopation with complex drum schemes without sacrificing articulation. Long Live the Kane, Kane's first album, is a showcase of his prodigious talents on the microphone: Where "Set It Off" unleashed his array of dizzying rhymes with locomotive speed, "Ain't No Half-Stepping" was a casual stroll through extended metaphors, maximizing the suave and commanding texture of his voice as it lingered on the beat.
Kane was simultaneously a powerful MC and a sex symbol; he would lean into his "loverman" appeal with hits such as his chart-topping "Smooth Operator," a relaxed and polished display of lyrical finesse over a blend of samples including "All Night Long" by the Mary Jane Girls, Isaac Hayes' "Do Your Thing and Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing." Kane succeeded at being the player, lyrical assassin, an Afrocentric rhyme-spitter all in one — a level of dexterity that would influence a number of greats that followed him, from Jay-Z to Eminem to Black Thought to Notorious B.I.G. — Shamira Ibrahim
Chief Keef started his career as rap's Ozzy Osbourne, the most visible figure in a burgeoning scene as exciting as it was controversial. But over the last decade, he has morphed into hip-hop's Brian Eno, making ever weirder projects while retaining something close to A-list name recognition. When Keef emerged in the early 2010s thanks to thundering singles "I Don't Like" and "Love Sosa" and support from stars like Kanye West and 50 Cent, the music industry seemed hellbent on sanding down his edges. The resulting album, 2012's Finally Rich, went platinum, but it gave fans little indication of the auteurist approach that would come to define the rest of Chief Keef's career.
Since eschewing mainstream success, Keef has honed his eccentricities on a series of excellent mixtapes, including Thot Breaker (2017), a delightfully strange project filled with slurred melodies and chirping synths. As one of the chief pioneers of drill, his most palatable impact on rap is perhaps heard across the international drill scenes bubbling up across underground scenes around the world. Without Keef, drill would not be the dominating subgenre in rap it is today. Still just 27, Keef has settled into a role not just as your favorite rapper's favorite rapper, but as one of their go-to producers: He's crafted wonderfully bizarre soundscapes for Lil Uzi Vert, Coi Leray, and YoungBoy Never Broke Again. — Grant Rindner
De La Soul
Completely innovative for their era, De La Soul heralded the entrance of nerdy wunderkinds into a hip-hop culture then full of machismo and blustering bravado. High school friends from suburban Long Island, New York, Kelvin "Posdnuos" Mercer, the late Dave "Trugoy the Dove" Jolicoeur, and Vincent Mason, aka DJ Maseo, debuted as teenagers with 1988's verbally obstruse "Plug Tunin'." A masterful full-length debut, 3 Feet High and Rising (1989), contained a wide-ranging sonic collage of stacked samples and highly diversified snippets of sounds, placing Sly Stone alongside Steely Dan and beyond.
The groundbreaking production style led to a lawsuit by the Turtles, the 1960s rock band who demanded royalties for the use of 12 seconds of their music on the album. A legal decision in the Turtles' favor changed sampling laws forever, but De La Soul kept the innovation coming throughout a catalog of classics, including De La Soul Is Dead, Buhloone Mindstate and Stakes Is High, which is now, thankfully, available on all DSPs to inspire future generations to come. — Miles Marshall Lewis
DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince
"We wanna let everybody know where it's at. It's right here — ‘Yo! MTV Raps.’" The skinny guy in the orange tank top and MTV baseball cap rapping into the camera was still years away from having his own sitcom, and further still from being one of the most bankable movie actors on the planet. But if you happened to be watching the premiere episode of “Yo! MTV Raps” on Aug. 6, 1988, you would see one thing clearly: Will Smith exploded off the screen. The guy was a star.
Will teamed up with the virtuosic DJ Jazzy Jeff, and the group's beatboxer Ready Rock C, back in 1985. By the time of the “Yo!” appearance, they already had two albums under their belt, including He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper (1988). That record, hip-hop's first-ever double album, ensured the group's place in history. Jeff's innovative DJ skills were front and center on songs like "Jazzy's In The House" and "DJ On Wheels," while Will brought his storytelling charm to "Parents Just Don't Understand" and "A Nightmare on My Street." Will's lyrics were funny and universal — you didn't have to be from the Bronx, or even West Philly, to relate to being scared of Freddy Kreuger. Plus, as Ann Carli, then a Jive Records exec, recalls during the "Parents…" video shoot, as quoted in Brian Coleman's indispensable tome, Check the Technique, Vol. 2, "The camera loves him."
From there, it was off to the races. More hit songs, TV and movie stardom, jumping out of planes, and all the rest. But it all started with a rap group that combined two world-class talents into a GRAMMY-winning package that all the world could love. — Shawn Setaro
DJ Kool Herc
Clive "DJ Kool Herc" Campbell is an essential part of hip-hop's origin story. His younger sister, Cindy Campbell, asked him to play at a "Back to School Jam" she organized for Aug. 11, 1973, much like the ones she organized within the 1520 Sedgwick Avenue recreation room. At the party, today considered the day when hip-hop was born, Campbell introduced his "merry-go-round" turntable method in which he isolated the instrumental breakdowns in funk records for the "beat boys" in attendance. Over the next few years, as the legend of the party grew, Campbell established himself as a top DJ in the area, thanks in no small part to a massive sound system he built and the presence of helpers — dancers, fledging MCs and DJs, security — called the Herculoids, named after the Hanna-Barbera cartoon. In 1977, Herc was the victim of a stabbing at a local nightclub, an incident Bronx pioneers believe marked the end of his dominance and allowed rivals to surpass him. However, DJ Kool Herc remains a Promethean figure who sparked the beginning of what would later be known as hip-hop. He's the ultimate reason we're all celebrating 50 Years of Hip-Hop this year. In November, he will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. — Mosi Reeves
Less than 20 years after the 1977 New York City blackout, where Black youth across the boroughs of New York City came upon DJ equipment and found ways to use technology to achieve their dreams, a man named Robert Earl Davis Jr., also known as DJ Screw, used two turntables to fulfill his artistic dreams, while simultaneously establishing Houston a rap capital. When DJ Screw emerged in the 1990s, the predominant rap sound and DJ technique were East- and West Coast-focused. But when DJ Screw introduced his "chopped and screwed" style, his signature DJ technique that slowed records to create pockets for the beats to flow, windows of opportunity opened for rappers across Houston to join the fold.
He created a kaleidoscope, a purple-tinted portal where Southern rappers traveled through region and time to tell their stories. There was not a street or avenue in Houston or the South where chopped and screwed could not be heard from a nearby car or window. He gave Houston and the South an opportunity to be heard within the boisterous noise of bicoastal hip-hop. In the 23 years since his passing, his chopped and screwed sound has been used by the world's greatest entertainers — horror auteur Jordan Peele has used chopped and screwed sounds in scenes and trailers for hit films like Nope and Us — and created an entry point for Houston to achieve worldwide cultural and musical success. All because of one man and his turntables. — Taylor Crumpton
Doug E. Fresh & Slick Rick
Throughout the early 80s, Douglas "Doug E. Fresh" Davis built a reputation for vocal percussion, or "beatboxing," and recorded a few 12-inch singles while collaborating with the likes of Kurtis Blow and others. In 1984, he recruited a teenage MC, Ricky "Slick Rick" Walters, to join Doug E. Fresh & the Get Fresh Crew. In 1985, the group released "The Show / La-Di-Da-Di," a gold-certified 12-inch that highlighted both Fresh's talents as a Master of Ceremonies and Rick's unforgettably British-inflected voice and sly, witty lyrics.
After going their separate ways, the two continued to have a major impact during the early years of rap's golden age. One of hip-hop's great entertainers, Doug E. Fresh scored several hits over the next few years like the spiritually inspired "All the Way to Heaven" (1986), the anti-drug protest "Nuthin'," and "I-Ight (Alright)" (1993). Slick Rick's storytelling prowess and use of off-key vocal harmonies, as showcased on his platinum solo album The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, made him a major influence on subsequent generations of rappers. This year, he received a Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award. — Mosi Reeves
Born Andre Young in Compton, California, Dr. Dre is one of hip-hop's definitive and standard-setting pioneers. Now a veteran DJ, artist and producer, Dr. Dre's public story began as a member of two very different, influential L.A. groups in the '80s: electro stars World Class Wreckin' Cru and gangster rap icons N.W.A; the latter is the subject of a popular 2015 biopic, Straight Outta Compton, and earned Dre international recognition for bringing the reality and struggles of inner-city street life to mainstream America.
Dr. Dre took home the first of his seven GRAMMY wins to date in 1994. That year, he won the GRAMMY for Best Rap Solo Performance for "Let Me Ride" from The Chronic, his groundbreaking, triple-platinum album, which has launched official international Dre Day celebrations every year since its release and helped normalize weed culture around the world. More golden gramophones have followed for his work with Eminem and Anderson .Paak, and he's also been nominated for his productions for Kendrick Lamar, 2Pac, 50 Cent, Gwen Stefani, and more.
Dr. Dre's ear for music has helped him become a billion-dollar entrepreneur as well. In 2006, he and his close business associate, Interscope label head Jimmy Iovine, created Beats Electronics to sell Beats By Dre headphones, which quickly set style and sales trends in the audio technology sector. Eight years later, Apple acquired Beats for a reported $3 billion. But with his GOAT-status secured, Dre didn't stop there. Over the years, he's helped carve the future for the next generation of music minds. He opened a magnet school in South Central's historic Leimert Park and co-founded the Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy at the University of Southern California. At the 2023 GRAMMYs, Dre received the inaugural Dr. Dre Global Impact Award for his innovations and achievements throughout decades-long career. — Tamara Palmer
Who would've thought an actor from the Great White North would end up becoming one of the world's biggest pop culture icons? Drake's role on the popular Canadian teen drama series "Degrassi: The Next Generation" was simply a launching pad for a music career that would not only cross Canadian-American borders, but showcase the true universality of hip-hop. His signature R&B crooning melting over melodic rap beats, which began with his breakthrough mixtape So Far Gone (2009), halted the gangster mentality that ruled hip-hop in the late '00s.
From there, Drake surged as rap's global leader with classics like Take Care (2011) and If You're Reading This It's Too Late (2015). And while not his most acclaimed album, the commercial and international success of his 2016 blockbuster, Views, paired with a thrilling foray into dancehall and Afrobeats proved that he could take hip-hop into different pockets around the globe. He perfected his formula — a mix of tearful emotions, flirtatious loverboy charm, a braggadocio attitude, viral one-liners, and the ability to mold to various cultural sounds — and spun it into gold and platinum success. From currently holding the record for the most Top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 to building his OVO Music empire, Drake still holds the mainstream industry in the palm of his hand to this day. — Bianca Gracie
With his colorful "slanguage" and consummate cool, E-40 has influenced MCs all over the world. The rapper, born Earl Stevens, built his label Sick Wid It through independent record sales, a hustle he learned from his uncle, the soul singer Saint Charles Thurman, who started the first distribution company for Black music in the Bay Area.
That independent strategy inspired like-minded artists to follow E-40's path: make millions on the streets and in the boardrooms. Most prominently, labels such as Cash Money Records and No Limit Records in New Orleans gave him foundational props; Master P started his No Limit Records inside a record store in Richmond, California, before returning to the South. After signing with Jive Records, E-40 released an impressive discography that includes three gold albums and one platinum album.
Continuing to expand his artistry in more recent years, E-40 has released songs and toured as one-quarter of the rap supergroup Mount Westmore alongside Too $hort, Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg. He has parlayed that independent hustle into building his own companies to sell alcoholic spirits and food, now stocked in liquor stores, grocery markets and big box stores like Costco. His debut cookbook, Goons With Spoons, created in conjunction with Snoop Dogg, will be released in November.
A community-minded philanthropist, E-40 has long given back to his communities. In 2023, he donated $100,000 to Grambling University, which he attended, to create the Earl "E-40" Stevens Sound Recording Studio on campus. And his do-it-yourself ethos continues to be seen today in the likes of fellow Bay Area rappers, including LaRussell and Larry June, and the next generation of MCs. — Tamara Palmer
The career of Eminem, born Marshall Bruce Mathers III, is unprecedented. The two biggest rap albums in American history are both his. Out of the 20 rap albums with the largest first-week sales, he has six. He is the best-selling rapper of all time and the best-selling artist of any type in the 2000s.
But sales are only the beginning of the story. For a few years in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Eminem was the center of pop culture. His songs and antics created heated debates, which created even more songs and even more antics, in a feedback loop that grew giant enough to eventually include a still-powerful duet from Elton John and Em the GRAMMYs. Eminem brought the singer with him to perform at the 2001 GRAMMYs ceremony as an implicit answer to charges of homophobia that had been dogging him since he first exploded into the mainstream with controversial lyrics.
Eminem was always more than controversy, though. While his sales, as he was the first to admit, were boosted by his race, his skill level was never at issue. His blazingly technical raps were in service of a captivating life story. Before he was rhyming about reporters and politicians reacting to his contentious raps, he was spitting about being at "rock bottom" — depressed, hopeless, and struggling to get by. If there were something that fans of all backgrounds could relate to, it was not giving a f—. — Shawn Setaro
Eric B. & Rakim
One of the greatest hip-hops duos ever, Long Island duo Eric B. & Rakim symbolized hip-hop music at its most refined. Thanks to his late-'80s recordings with DJ/producer "Eric B." Barrier, William "Rakim" Griffin is often mentioned as the greatest MC of all time. His relaxed vocal presence, subtle use of Five Percenter Nation teachings, storytelling prowess, and ability to weave complex ideas into accessible lyrics have been mimicked by countless others. Considered an essential artifact of hip-hop's late-80s golden age, Paid in Full, the duo's 1987 debut album, is packed with hits like "Eric B. Is President," "My Melody," "I Know You Got Soul" — which popularized the use of James Brown samples in rap records — and "Move the Crowd."
Their second album, Follow the Leader (1988), marked a new peak in Rakim's lyrical abilities, while Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em (1990) was one of the most anticipated albums of the era. Before the group split and Rakim embarked on a solo career, they released Don't Sweat the Technique, which has recently achieved new popularity due to its use on television and in film. — Mosi Reeves
Atlanta had a major resurgence in the 2010s — and Future led the charge. A Dungeon Family member, he used Auto-Tune to create a dreary version of trap blues as he warbles about addiction, depression, manipulative relationships, and heartache. He solidified his legacy in 2015 when he unleashed a string of projects: the Beast Mode and 56 Nights mixtapes, the chopped-not-slopped DS2 album, and the What a Time to Be Alive collaborative mixtape with Drake, which highlighted Future's brilliant chemistry with rap's current titans. The onslaught of music spun a dark cloud over the rap genre, giving the green light for male rappers to be just as emotional as they are vengeful. Future's hot streak continues to this day: He's experimenting with new genres, including pop star collaborations with Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift; churning out hits, most recently the GRAMMY-winning "Wait For U" with partner-in-music Drake; and still confidently wearing his broken heart on his sleeve. — Bianca Gracie
Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five
As one of many who followed in DJ Kool Herc's wake, Joseph "Grandmaster Flash" Saddler is a key innovator in the art of DJing, particularly in the way he mixed records and expanded on scratching, a technique first invented by Grand Wizzard Theodore. In the late 1970s, he assembled the crew of MCs who became the Furious Five and who would go on to release several classic hip-hop records: Keith "Cowboy" Wiggins, who is credited with the first use of the phrase "hip-hop," Melvin "Melle Mel" Glover, Mel's brother Kidd Creole, Guy "Raheim" Williams, and Eddie "Scorpio" Morris.
In 1979, the group recorded "Superrappin'," which many consider the first "real" Bronx hip-hop record. They then released several popular 12-inches that culminated in "The Message" (1982), a watershed moment in rap's development into a full-fledged musical artform. Meanwhile, Grandmaster Flash created "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel," a showcase for his historic DJ skills that's considered the first turntablism record. In 2007, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five became the first hip-hop group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2021, the group received a Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award. — Mosi Reeves
Though Tracy "Ice-T" Morrow wasn't the first L.A. rapper to make a song about street life — he prefers the term "reality rap" instead of the mainstreamed moniker "gangsta rap" — he was arguably the most important. After a few years in the electro scene, marked by a performance in the 1984 film Breakin', Ice-T's "6 in the Mornin'," a vivid tale about a young hustler slanging dope and avoiding cops, made a huge local impact; it continues to influence rap artists to this day. In 1987, he became the first West Coast rapper to release an album on a major label with the gold-certified Rhyme Pays. By the time of his second album, Power (1988), Ice-T was widely considered the top solo rapper on the West Coast, while The Iceberg (Freedom of Speech..Just Watch What You Say) (1989) saw him expanding into social commentary and hard-rock experiments. His fourth album, O.G. Original Gangster (1992) introduced Body Count, a pioneering heavy metal/rap band that predicted the rise of rap rock. — Mosi Reeves
Watch: Hip-Hop History On Full Display During A Star-Studded Tribute To The 50th Anniversary Of Hip-Hop Featuring Performances By Missy Elliott, LL COOL J, Ice-T, Method Man, Big Boi, Busta Rhymes & More | 2023 GRAMMYs
Inimitable in sound and rhyme, Detroit's own James Yancey, also known as J Dilla, is respected around the world as "your favorite producer's favorite producer." A beloved and highly esteemed songwriter, producer, rapper, and drummer, he is a great influence on some of hip-hop's most diverse voices across the decades and to this day.
As a member of Slum Village, Dilla would quietly lace beats from his mother's basement for the likes of A Tribe Called Quest ("Find A Way"), Erykah Badu ("Didn't Cha Know"), MF DOOM ("Gazzillion Ear"), and countless others. Umpteen tributes on tracks and in concerts and from groups such as NxWorries (consisting of Anderson .Paak and Knxwledge), television programs (Cartoon Network's Adult Swim), and institutions (Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture) harken to his significant contribution to this thing we love called hip-hop.
Considered one of the greatest creatives in hip-hop history, J Dilla made innovative use of sound and imagination by employing real-time rhythms that may better translate as "a vibe" for listeners. He is directly responsible for bridging the soul and the sonic that distinguish rap as one of the most inventive art forms in recent history. Proving that his energetic beats matched his rhymes, Dilla's legacy continues to inspire and resonate within the hip-hop community today, and on hip-hop's milestone anniversary, his innovations and impact prove to be immortal, too. — Kevin L. Clark
Born Shawn Corey Carter in Brooklyn, New York, Jay-Z has made an indelible mark on hip-hop culture over three decades by marrying superlative lyrical creativity with an acute business acumen. Storming the gates of the record industry as co-owner and marquee artist of the independent Roc-a-Fella Records label, Jay-Z released the seminal Reasonable Doubt — a debut that instantly placed him among the top rappers of the 1990s. A consistent release schedule of unforgettable material, including Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life, The Blueprint, The Black Album, and 4:44, created summertime classics for a whole generation while establishing him as one of the greatest rappers the culture has ever produced.
Jay-Z occupies a unique space in hip-hop as both a billionaire mogul and a rapper consistently recognized as one of the art form's all-time most talented. His stakes in various entrepreneurial ventures — the music streaming platform Tidal; the entertainment agency Roc Nation; the 40/40 Club sports lounge — lend as much to his legacy as his one-time rivalry with Nas, which resulted in hip-hop's most notorious battle between livi de ng MCs to date. His marriage to Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, one of the most iconic pop performers of the modern era, has also produced artistic contributions — see their joint album, Everything Is Love — as well as an enduring symbol of Black excellence. — Miles Marshall Lewis
The son of storied music executive Micheal Mauldin, Jermaine Dupri has contributed to hip-hop as a producer, songwriter, and executive. Most importantly, the GRAMMY winner, who started dancing for the likes of Diana Ross and Whodini, helped cultivate Atlanta into the rap capital it is today.
As the founder of So So Def Records, Dupri helped make Kris Kross and Lil Bow Wow hit-making teen heartthrobs in a music genre that leaned on more adult personas; he also played a major role in helping Da Brat become the first female rapper to go platinum. Even today, his time as an executive producer of the reality competition series The Rap Game gave way to the eventual rise of next-gen rapper Latto. That doesn't even count collaborations that have reached nearly every corner of hip-hop, including classics with Jay-Z, UGK, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Snoop Dogg, and more.
Dupri's legacy in hip-hop can also be heard in the musical bridge connecting rap and R&B. He's written and produced hit albums for Mariah Carey, Usher, Xscape, Jagged Edge, and countless more, his contributions furthering the bond between the two genres. — Ural Garrett
Where do we even begin? From producing some of the greatest rap songs of the 2000s as Jay-Z's protégé to emerging as one of the most critically and commercially successful rappers of all time, Kanye West might be the most important musician of the 21st century — genre irrelevant. His ability to toggle between incisive commentary ("All Falls Down," "Heard 'Em Say"), all-time braggadocio ("Can't Tell Me Nothing," "Power"), and wry humor ("Gorgeous," "Otis") made his every verse an event, and his blockbuster albums consistently showcased an expert sense of talent curation. In the early 2010s, when West made a hard pivot from the maximalism of his magnum opus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010), to the industrial brutality of Yeezus (2013), he showed the kind of fearlessness that truly great artists possess, as he continued to push boundaries even in the face of skepticism.
The last several years of the Kanye West experience have been difficult and disturbing for many music fans. He's praised Adolf Hitler and made antisemitic comments, only to seemingly walk it all back, in a trollish fashion, albeit. A generational talent who has evolved his creative legacy in more ways than one, West's impact on music is clear and undeniable. Has he gone from industry iconoclast to outright outlier? Who's story is it to tell? But any attempt to wrap your mind around the first half-century of hip-hop history, and music in general, must include a reference to Kanye, whose DNA will be present in rap music for the next 50 years, at least. — Grant Rindner
In retrospect, Kendrick Lamar's renowned verse on "Control" might be better described as a manifesto rather than a call to war. After name-dropping nearly a dozen of the hottest rappers of the time, including the likes of Drake and J. Cole, Lamar challenges, "What is competition? I'm tryna raise the bar high. Who tryna jump and get it?" Ten years and one legendary career later, Lamar's three minutes of rhymes come off as less of a widespread diss and more of a statement of intent.
The Compton native went on to reach heights hip-hop had never seen before. In 2018, the 17-time GRAMMY winner won the Pulitzer Prize for DAMN., an achievement once described as "a watershed moment … and a sign of the American cultural elite's recognition of hip-hop as a legitimate artistic medium."
Still, despite such momentous contributions to the genre and culture at large, pinning down Lamar's direct influence on hip-hop really makes you stop and think. Perhaps that difficulty stems from the fact that so much of what makes Lamar great is his ability to combine the top traits of those who came before him. Whether it be channeling the narrative superpower of Nas on good kid, m.A.A.d city, the powerful social commentary of 2Pac on To Pimp A Butterfly, or the vulnerability of Jay-Z on tracks like "Mother I Sober," Lamar's biggest impact on hip-hop may just be the fact that he indeed raised the bar high for rap while embodying those who laid its foundation. — Taj Mayfield
A standard-setter who foreshadowed the international success of hip-hop, Kurtis "Blow" Walker is the genre's first superstar. Of his notable achievements, he became the first rapper to sign a major label deal (with Mercury Records) and the first to go gold via his 1980 single "The Breaks," which is recognized as one of the greatest hip-hop songs of all time and remains his signature calling card.
Blow's enormous influence on the culture is directly tied to his ability to expand the boundaries of hip-hop and foster talent within and beyond his creative circles. His early DJ on the road was Joseph Simmons, who was nicknamed "Run, the Son of Kurtis Blow" and who later carved his own iconic career as one-third of the hip-hop trio Run-D.M.C. Blow and Run-D.M.C. starred in the 1985 movie Krush Groove, a fictional story that parallels that of New York label Def Jam Recordings, making Kurtis Blow essentially the first famous face in hip-hop to cross over into Hollywood.
In the mid-'90s, Blow became a radio DJ and hosted "The Old School Show" on Los Angeles radio station, Power 106. He was also ordained as a Christian minister, co-founded Hip-Hop Church, and released faith-based albums with his group, Kurtis Blow and the Trinity. Proving that hip-hop can coexist with gospel, Blow's spiritual-inspired music helped expand the audience for Christian music across genres and audiences. — Tamara Palmer
Ms. Lauryn Hill
With a pen in her hand, a song in her heart, and a story to tell, Ms. Lauryn Hill elevated hip-hop for the better during the '90s. Hill's work expertly blurs the lines between genres, often fusing doo-wop-flavored harmonies and '70s R&B with hip-hop swagger and the airiness of neo-soul. A Jersey native and member of the iconic rap group the Fugees, she became a household name after the international breakout success of her debut solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998). The project sees the musician exploring themes of love, heartbreak and family through a personal lens with universal impact. A commercial and critical success around the world, the album won the GRAMMY for Album Of The Year in 1999, making Hill the first-ever rap artist to win that category. To this day, she counts eight GRAMMYs, the most of any woman in hip-hop.
Hill's melodic rap technique and artistic versatility have inspired acts across genre lines in the years since, from Drake to Lin-Manuel Miranda, who credits several elements in his Broadway hit "Hamilton" to her art. — J'na Jefferson
Don't let her petite frame fool you: Lil' Kim has been larger than life since her 1994 debut as a member of Junior M.A.F.I.A. and mentee of the Notorious B.I.G. The Brooklyn native unlocked a next level for female rap with her 1996 debut solo album Hard Core. Even before the world heard the album, her seductive pose on the cover itself signaled a shift: It was time for women to take the lead. Hit singles like "No Time," "Crush on You" and "Not Tonight (Ladies Night Remix)" established the rapper's signature raunchy lyrics and guttural tone, flipping the male-dominated, often misogynistic genre on its head as she reclaimed her sexuality. She also knows how to command respect, spitting ferocious bars on songs like Diddy's "It's All About the Benjamins" and Mobb Deep's "Quiet Storm (Remix)" alongside her male counterparts.
A bonafide hip-hop icon, Lil' Kim's influence spans generations and industries. A muse for countless rising female rap stars and designers like Versace and Marc Jacobs alike, she carved a safe space for Black women in the often exclusive, white- and male-dominant fashion and music industires. Her sartorial choices, as eye-popping as her naughty rhymes, still give next-gen female rappers like Baby Tate, GloRilla, and Cardi B the Queen Bee-confidence to exude the same sense of sexual liberation she pioneered in rap in the '90s. Her path in both music and fashion have made her one of rap's most impactful voices with an undeniable legacy. — Bianca Gracie
Lil Uzi Vert
Despite being a relatively new major player in the game, Lil Uzi Vert is an undeniable needle-mover in hip-hop. If that influence is hard to pin down, it's because Uzi has somehow made the existence of a quirky, emotional, rock-inspired rapper a common thing in 2023.
Similar to other breakout stars of the SoundCloud rap era who came up with them, including Lil Peep, XXXTentacion and Juice WRLD, Lil Uzi Vert brought their unadulterated self into their music. The result? A steady flow of evocative, genre-defying hits and deep cuts. From anthems like "XO TOUR Lif3" (2017) to "Rehab," a standout track off their recently released Pink Tape, the 27-year-old Philadelphia native consistently wears their heart and inspirations on their sleeve. Years worth of quality music coupled with their unwavering authenticity have forever broadened the horizons of hip-hop, making way for many future Lil Uzi Verts. — Taj Mayfield
There are two distinguishable eras in rap history: before Tha Carter and after Tha Carter. Lil Wayne, who's impact on the evolution of the genre is immeasurable, has taken rap to rare heights and forever changed its influence in and from the South. With an undeniable and almost insurmountable work ethic, New Orleans' native son has delivered infinite memorable moments that have spanned decades. From his show-stealing turns with Cash Money's the Hot Boys to his chart-decimating hits like "A Milli" to his genre-defining Tha Carter album series, Weezy F. has lived up to his reign as the "Best Rapper Alive" for decades.
Boasting a deep appreciation for the culture, Wayne willed a layer of intuition and imagination that pushed rap to the next level. With a strength tougher than Nigerian hair, his impression can be heard throughout every era of modern hip-hop, from his own musical family tree with Young Money (Drake, Nicki Minaj) traced through to next-gen superstars (Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole).
Otherworldly, diverse, and an omnipresent influence in today's scene, Lil Wayne has been a blessing to rap, consistently pushing the game and growing the culture in immeasurable ways. — Kevin L. Clark
LL Cool J
There were rap albums before LL Cool J's Radio. But the genre was still largely singles-driven, and the albums then were usually stuffed with the hits, some filler, and a few unique experiments. It was Radio that turned the rap album into a work of art and kick-started the genre's golden age.
LL was nothing if not versatile. He put out iconic singles like "I Need a Beat" and "Rock the Bells." His genre-shifting music videos, such as "Around the Way Girl," "Hey Lover," and the seminal classic, "I Need Love," added breadth to the male-dominated industry. And his show-stopping appearance in the film Krush Groove aided in turning the young MC into a king from Queens.
He also set yet another trend: the "don't-call-it-a-comeback" comeback. After releasing two killer albums, LL dropped Walking With A Panther in 1989. While it was a commercial success, Panther was shunned by hip-hop artists and fans at the time, due to its mainstream crossover appeal, and LL was deemed over by the hip-hop community, out of touch with a conscious, Afrocentric age of the time. Barely into his 20s, it seemed his time was up. And then, he had rap music's first major comeback — lyrical protestation notwithstanding. Mama Said Knock You Out was a return to form that set LL Cool J up for a lifelong career in music, TV, movies, and even that whimsical song about his shark-fin-like hat. — Shawn Setaro
Thanks to songs like "Thizzelle Dance" and "Feelin' Myself," Vallejo rapper Andre "Mac Dre" Hicks was the pied piper of hyphy, an innovation marked by bouncy bass and skittering funk rhythms. It dominated the Bay Area throughout the 2000s and remains a key component of the region's distinctive hip-hop scene.
Mac Dre's career dated back to 1989 with the local hit "Too Hard for the F—in' Radio." But in a case that made national headlines, he was arrested and convicted for allegedly being involved in bank robberies — his supporters continue to claim his innocence — and became the first rapper to make music, Back N Da Hood, while imprisoned. (He recorded his vocals over the phone.) When he finally returned to rap in the late '90s, he began refining his idiosyncratic style using P-funk tones and a droll and witty vocal tone. As expressed through songs like "Get Stupid" and "Not My Job," it was a style that eventually shook up the world and led to the foundation and popularization of the hyphy movement.
Unfortunately, Mac Dre didn't get to witness the peak and great success of his music, which was ultimately used in television and film as well as at sporting events. His unsolved killing in 2004 happened just as he seemed poised for a national breakthrough. — Mosi Reeves
The history of hip-hop is dotted with great business minds, but it's rare that someone's boardroom acumen proved so strong that their run of multiplatinum albums and smash singles feels entirely secondary. Such is the case with Master P, the New Orleans native who founded No Limit Records and, along with Cash Money's sibling duo of Bryan "Birdman" and Ronald "Slim" Williams, changed the paradigm of the rap mogul forever. In 1995, P partnered No Limit with Priority Records in a deal that saw him cover the brunt of the creative costs in exchange for greater creative control and backend profits.
He broke through as an MC with Ice Cream Man and Ghetto D, albums that served more as showcases for the No Limit collective than P himself. Ceding the showier roles and technical flair to collaborators like Silkk the Shocker, Mia X and Mystikal, Master P brought a kind of brute force charisma that's easy to see working for him wheeling and dealing behind the scenes. No Limit has evolved into an entity where pioneers like Mia X can celebrate women in hip-hop, while P continues to expand the empire through winning partnerships (Snoop Cereal) and new offerings (Rap Snacks) that created the reason this music industry owes gratitude to Master P. — Grant Rindner
Though she may not always receive the fanfare of her more mainstream cohorts, MC Sha-Rock changed the hip-hop ecosystem forever when she hit the booth in the late '70s. Largely considered to be the first female rapper, Sha-Rock, known as the "Mother of the Mic," helped pave the way for every woman rapper on this list — and beyond. Though she has B-girl origins, the South-Bronx-bred spitter showcased her raw talent and confidence behind the mic. As a member of Funky 4+1, her natural charisma and ability established the blueprint for the future of women in rap. Though Funky 4+1 was the first hip-hop group to appear on national television, it wasn't until the '80s when women rappers began to break through on an international scale. You can thank Sha-Rock for first opening that door, shattering the glass ceiling, and ushering in a gender breakthrough that's helped women dominate rap today. — J'na Jefferson
Explore More: Ladies First: 10 Essential Albums By Female Rappers
Whether fans tuned into MF DOOM or aliases such as Viktor Vaughn or King Gedorah, the rapper/producer born Dumile Daniel Thompson offered some of the most memorable art found in hip-hop.
A London native transplanted to Long Island, New York, Dumile began his career as Zev Love X, forming the group KMD with his brother DJ Subroc. But after Subroc's sudden death and their record label's refusal to release their album, Zev Love X went on hiatus — and returned as MF DOOM, donning a mask to combat the music industry's corruption. He built a prolific catalog inspired by comic books, cartoons, and the absurdities and mundanities of life, creating worlds that brimmed with vibrant wordplay. His husky voice, conversational flow, and impossibly intricate rhyme schemes comprised his calling card, along with equally absurd references and unpredictable punchlines.
DOOM earned a rep among indie rap's best in the early 2000s, but he became a rap deity with Madvillainy, the album that smartly paired him with producer Madlib's collection of obtuse jazz and TV samples that were just as mercurial. The record elevated DOOM's iconography and solidified him as one of rap's most distinctive creators ever, with fans and other MCs alike paying reverence. — William E. Ketchum
In the late '90s, thin was "in" and hypersexualized female rappers became commonplace. But a big woman with big talent — and an even bigger patent-leather blowup suit — snuck in to extinguish these industry standards, becoming the people's champ and an undisputed icon in the process. Missy Elliott's pleasingly off-kilter brand of bravado is marked by eye-catchingly creative music videos, like the aforementioned, star-making "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)," entertaining performance techniques, and next-level beats crafted by her and her longtime friend and fellow Virginian, Timbaland. She's created works of art that have stood the test of time, allowing her to see and receive her flowers while she can still smell them: During GRAMMY Week 2023, Missy received the Recording Academy Global Impact Award at the Recording Academy Honors Presented By The Black Music Collective event; later this year, she will become the first woman rapper inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. By dismantling boundaries, Missy Elliott paved the way for hip-hop artists to be unapologetically themselves. — J'na Jefferson
Dubbed the "world's most dangerous group," gangsta rap pioneers N.W.A put Compton, California, on the map in the late '80s with their provocative music and a name that embodied their unflinching bravado: N—z With Attitudes.
At the time, acts like Public Enemy, Kool Moe Dee, LL Cool J, and Eric B. & Rakim dominated the airwaves, with songs about everything from love, partying and lyrical prowess to race and politics. However, few were as overly explicit and provocative as the rising stars from the West Coast who disrupted the industry with the release of their hard-hitting debut album, Straight Outta Compton, in 1988.
With a stacked lineup consisting of Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, DJ Yella, Ice Cube, and MC Ren, the L.A. natives rapped about gang violence, police brutality, street life, and hood experiences. They were accused of demeaning women and glorifying violence and drug use, and as their music continues to stoke controversy as hip-hop lyrics in court proceedings are subject to debate today, N.W.A's provocative debut resonates to this day through new generations of fans. While the group would go on to sell millions of records and produce three superstar solo acts, their timeless album and its definitive protest anthem, "F— tha Police," cemented their place in the pantheon of hip-hop, forever changing the culture and the world at large with its powerful message. The emotionally charged song offers a scathing critique of systemic inequality that reflects the frustrations that marginalized communities harness for the discrimination they continue to face decades after the track dropped.
While their tenure was short-lived, N.W.A's paradigm-shifting music inspired a slew of acts that would leave their own stamp on the culture, including 2Pac, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, the Game, and DJ Quik. — Desiree Bowie
A perennial member of every hip-hop lover's top five rappers of all time lists, Nas inherited the crown of rap's greatest golden-age wordsmiths upon releasing his 1994 debut album, Illmatic, which helped establish the legend's nearly 30-year stellar reputation for MCing. Son of jazz cornetist Olu Dara, Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones grew up in the Queensbridge housing projects in Queens, New York, also the home of fellow hip-hop luminaries like Roxanne Shanté and producer Marley Marl. During a period when the hip-hop aesthetic seemed forever redirected to the West Coast, Nas helped refocus attention back on New York City, the birthplace of the culture.
Following the killings of both 2Pac and the Notorious B.I.G., concerns rang out when a long-simmering rivalry between Nas and Jay-Z went public on diss tracks like "Ether" (2001) and "Takeover" (2001). Defying the worst of expectations, their war of words eventually morphed into both a professional relationship — Nas signed to Def Jam in 2006 with Jay-Z as the label's then-president — and creative bond, with the duo releasing a joint song, "Black Republican," in 2007). On a recent string of collaborations with producer Hit-Boy — including the GRAMMY-winning King's Disease (2020) — Nas has helped alter expectations around career longevity in hip-hop. — Miles Marshall Lewis
The Neptunes — the production duo powered by the genius of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo — changed the sound of late-'90s and early-2000s hip-hop, jump-starting and transforming the careers of countless artists across every genre imaginable in the process.
After getting their start with New Jack Swing pioneer Teddy Riley, the Neptunes made a name for themselves by producing N.O.R.E.'s "Superthug" and Ol' Dirty Bastard's "Got Your Money" as well as albums for Clipse and Kelis.
The start of their hip-hop takeover can, perhaps, be traced to 2000, when they produced Jay-Z's "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)." The song, which features Pharrell's memorable voice on the hook, became Hov's first No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop chart.
The hit also caught Britney Spears' attention, prompting her to enlist the Virginia Beach duo to write and produce "I'm A Slave 4 U," which marked a major turning point in her mature, new sound. The Neptunes also helped Justin Timberlake craft a new sound and image, producing much of his debut solo album, Justified.
The duo's off-kilter, funk-influenced sound made them sought-after — and heavily imitated — producers for much of the aughts. Some of their 2000s hits include "Hot in Herre" by Nelly, "Drop It Like It's Hot" by Snoop Dogg, "Money Maker" by Ludacris and "Milkshake" by Kelis. Pharrell also helped usher in the era when producers came to the forefront of the spotlight, rapping and singing in songs and appearing in music videos for the artists they produced.
Counting four GRAMMY wins, the pair won Producer of the Year in 2003 and Producer of the Decade in 2009 at the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Awards. In 2022, the Neptunes were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, a distinction that proves just how much they changed the sound of the culture and music as a whole. — Victoria Moorwood
Nicki Minaj rewrote the rules of hip-hop through her unparalleled rhyming ability, an arsenal of flows, a collection of character-driven voices, and crossover success. As a result, she single-handedly elevated female rap in the mainstream in the 2010s. Her reign came during a time when hip-hop was still considered to be a male-dominated terrain. Nonetheless, she proved female rappers can keep up with the boys, though she regularly surpassed them in skill level. Her genre-bending hits showcase her versatility, and her writing and performance talents make her one of the hottest commodities in music. She not only took risks, she made hits: Counting 132 entries, Nicki Minaj holds the record for the most Billboard Hot 100 hits by a woman rapper. Thanks to Nicki Minaj — or Nicki Lewinsky, Nicki the Ninja, you know what it is — a new generation of female rap superstars gained the courage to make their own magic. — J'na Jefferson
The Notorious B.I.G.
Christopher "Biggie Smalls" Wallace, aka the Notorious B.I.G., is a titan in hip-hop history, a wordsmith whose lyrical potency is intensified by the brevity of his career. Wallace's gravitas — in physical stature and in reputation — belied his youth; as a Jamaican-American who grew up in Brooklyn's Clinton Hill neighborhood, bordering Bedford-Stuyvesant at the height of the crack era, he spent his early years navigating the threshold between civilian life and street life and brought those complexities to his songwriting and vivid storytelling. With the guidance of Sean Combs — who then went by the moniker Puff Daddy – Wallace quickly went from "Unsigned Hype" in The Source magazine to Bad Boy's marquee artist, crashing onto the charts in 1994 with his debut album, Ready to Die, at just 21 years old.
The album is a balance of massive, radio-friendly singles with quasi-autographical, introspective records that are bracing in their emotional range and attention to detail: For every "Juicy," "Big Poppa," and "One More Chance," there's "Warning," "Gimme the Loot," and "Suicidal Thoughts." In each track, Biggie played with the morphology of words and rhyming cadences at will, stretching vowels and contracting them to a staccato-like delivery with the proficiency of a jazz musician. Wallace's cinematic approach to rapping became his signature. He would form the crew Junior M.A.F.I.A. in this image, crafting records such as "Get Money" and "Player's Anthem" — songs as entertaining as they were illustrative that also introduced the world to the force of nature that was Lil' Kim.
His posthumous second album, presciently titled Life After Death (1997), is a sprawling double album replete with gangster epics such as "Somebody's Gotta Die," "N—s Bleed," and "What's Beef?" Released sixteen days after his killing in 1997, Biggie's mainstream crossover singles hit like a tidal wave. The chart-topping singles, "Mo' Money, Mo' Problems" and "Hypnotize," launched the patented Bad Boys formula of the renowned Hitmen production team into the stratosphere, eventually inspiring the likes of Kanye West and others to speed up soul samples to achieve similar success. Wallace's own vocals — heavy and lush, with the ability to glide like butter via a cascade of internal rhyme schemes — still sound as fresh today as they did when the project initially released to critical acclaim on March 25. And despite the tragic coda that cut short the life of this king from Kings County, the Notorious B.I.G.'s narrative prowess remains eternal.— Shamira Ibrahim
When OutKast's André 3000 proudly proclaimed "the South got something to say" at the 1995 Source Awards, the Atlanta rapper and his creative partner, Big Boi, had no idea of the significance those words would have on rap music today. At the time of their 1994 debut, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, the South was regarded as country, "backwards," and behind the times. Those words, a whistleblow, could've been misinterpreted by white and rural communities that these artists and their regions were not deemed "hip-hop." Hip-hop was cool, coastal, and cosmopolitan — not country. Yet, André 3000 and Big Boi did not mind being regarded as country; in fact, they embraced it.
Their music and Southern hip-hop overall incorporated the stylings of blues and gospel. Their delivery had a twang to it. They were not here to duplicate East Coast or West Coast hip-hop. They were on a mission to give young, Black, working-class people in the South something to say. Although based in Atlanta, their perspectives and reflections on Black life in the South took root in states across the region. Eventually, they became the leaders of the Southern hip-hop scene. So, when the duo won the GRAMMY for Album Of The Year, for Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, at the 2004 GRAMMYs — almost 10 years after their declaration at the Source Awards — the South was not only respected in hip-hop, but it became a contender for its rightful title. — Taylor Crumpton
One of the most profound and prolific groups in hip-hop's storied history, Public Enemy continues to be studied and applied to moments impacting music and culture today. Once Chuck D and Flava Flav connected with Terminator X and the Bomb Squad, the ethos and foundational tenets upon which hip-hop was founded — peace, love, unity, and having fun — finally came into realization. Their boom merged with the bap of the streets to showcase the reasons why hip-hop's culture should not only be championed but cherished — never allowing history to be erased or revised.
Members would go on to leave their imprint all over the then-burgeoning sound coming out of America. From producing Bel Biv Devoe's triple-platinum album, Poison, to contributing to one of the defining hip-hop albums of the 1990s, Ice Cube's AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, Public Enemy has resonated through time as thought-proving and spark-inducing revolutionaries of sound that still challenge people to know that loud is not enough. — Kevin L. Clark
The Roots' longevity and artistic creativity have made a lasting impact on hip-hop. Illadelph's own are trailblazers of the genre, pioneers of a distinctive, alternative sound that combined rap with live instruments, conscious lyrics and jazz-influenced beats.
The Roots have not been afraid to tackle important topics and challenge societal norms: The video for their song "What They Do," off their third album Illadelph Halflife, mocks stereotypes seen in the music industry. Their most successful album, Things Fall Apart, is a nod to Chinua Achebe's critically acclaimed book by the same name. The album originally had five different covers, one of which features teenagers running from police during the Civil Rights Movement era. The stark black-and-white image, alongside the album's themes, provided an artistic cohesion and political poignancy that solidified the group's impactful message.
All told, the Roots have 14 studio albums under their belt. Aside from music, the group's career evolution spans various ventures, including publishing (Black Thought's upcoming memoir, The Upcycled Self), music festivals (the annual Roots Picnic festival), and film (Questlove's GRAMMY-winning Summer of Soul). Not to mention mainstream TV: The Roots also hold down late night as the house band for NBC's "The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon." The group's unique sound and its expression of pressing issues solidify the Legendary Roots Crew as important game-changers. — Rachel McCain
Historically, hip-hop has always been heralded as a young person's sport — and perhaps no one exemplifies that archetype better than Queensbridge's Roxanne Shanté. At merely 14, the upstart member of the Juice Crew led one of hip-hop's first rap beefs, responding to the U.T.F.O.'s (Untouchable Force Organization) "Roxanne Roxanne" with the searing "Roxanne's Revenge." Where U.T.F.O. detailed the saga of a woman who rejected their overtures, Shanté rebutted with a sharply constructed counternarrative, freestyling a story from the viewpoint of Roxanne being pestered by inadequate suitors who paled in comparison to her MC skills.
While the initial response made her famous, it would be her unflappable ability to hold her own in the flood of response tracks that would cement her legacy as a battle rapper and recording artist. Tracks such as "Queen of Rox (Shanté Rox On)" and "Bite This" would extend her victory streak against U.T.F.O. and the bevy of opponents who stepped up to the plate as the city raced to cash in on the so-called "Roxanne Wars." When KRS-One crudely attacked her in "The Bridge is Over" — in which he declared, "Roxanne Shanté is only good for steady fucking" — she rebutted on "Have a Nice Day": "Step back, peasants, popping all that junk/Or else BDP will stand for Broken Down Punks/'Cause I'm an all-star just like Julius Erving/And Roxanne Shanté is only good for steady serving." Not only was Shanté able to best the guys at their own game, but she also made a point to embarrass their misogynistic attacks while doing so. Further etching her impact on rap, this legacy would echo through the ages to be reflected in the likes of Megan Thee Stallion and Noname, even finding a spiritual namesake in Nicki Minaj's 2010 single, "Roman's Revenge." — Shamira Ibrahim
With two MCs (Joseph Simmons, aka Run, and Darryl McDaniels, aka D.M.C.), one DJ (Jason Mizell, aka Jam Master Jay), and a whole lot of Adidas, Run-D.M.C. became one of hip-hop's earliest music and style ambassadors to the world. It only took a few years after their 1984 debut for fans across the globe to know about their New York hometown of Hollis, Queens.
In 1986, Run-D.M.C. collaborated with Aerosmith on a new version of the Boston rock act's 1975 cut "Walk This Way." The unexpected, groundbreaking pairing became a No. 4 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. MTV put the song's music video, which shows the two groups literally smashing down walls, in heavy rotation and positioned the rappers as the genre-bending superheroes they're still seen as today, as their GRAMMY Hall Of Fame induction attests.
Before there were hip-hop categories at the GRAMMYs, Run-D.M.C. was nominated for Best R&B Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal at the 1987 GRAMMYs for their 1986 album, Raising Hell. After releasing seven albums and starring in the seminal hip-hop movies Krush Groove and Tougher Than Leather, Run-D.M.C. became the first rappers to receive the Recording Academy's Lifetime Achievement Award, an honor they received in 2016.
After surviving decades of the world insisting that hip-hop was a fad that would fade away, the natural course of Run-D.M.C. was cut short when Jam Master Jay was killed in his Queens, New York, recording studio in October 2002. Unforeseen violence cut the band's physical life short, but Run-D.M.C. remains an immortal mainstay in the pantheon of hip-hop history, a blueprint for countless rap tandems, and an essential part of the culture. — Tamara Palmer
There is no one quite like Scarface when it comes to this rap game. An innovator in rap subgenres like horrorcore and gangsta rap, he is one of hip-hop's most poignant storytellers and pioneers. Both as a member of the legendary Geto Boys — one of the most successful Southern hip-hop groups at a time when the spotlight was focused on East Coast and West Coast rap — and as a solo artist, he proved to be a last of a dying breed. His signature songs, like "I Seen a Die," off the five-mic, Source-certified classic album, The Diary, proved to listeners that there were more layers and depths to experience in rap.
As both a commercial chart-topper — his 1997 album, The Untouchable, reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart — and the ear of the streets nationwide, Scarface helped establish Houston as a certified rap capital and an early hotbed for innovative independent record labels. Beloved by fans, students of hip-hop and critics alike, 'Face has showcased what it means to craft a complete body of work that stands exemplary above its predecessors. He is one of the best at making the mood move within the melody. Beyond his platinum- and gold-certified album successes, he also excelled at mixing business acumen with artistic vision: As president of Def Jam South in the early 2000s, he helped foster the career of Ludacris and other rising Southern rappers. Today, his continued influence reaches modern veterans like the Game and next-gen stars like Isaiah Rashad alike. — Kevin L. Clark
Few music artists have showcased the versatility and decades-long career evolutions of prolific multihyphenate Snoop Dogg. Hailing from from Long Beach, California, his rap career took off in 1992 when his stepbrother Warren G, of "Regulate" fame, gave one of his mixtapes to Dr. Dre. Fresh off his stint with N.W.A, Dre recognized the young rapper's potential and invited him to the studio — where he was laying down tracks for The Chronic — for an audition. Snoop seized the moment and conquered: He's featured on 11 of the classic album's tracks, including the prolific hit single that would skyrocket him into the mainstream, "Nuthin' but a 'G' Thang."
Still going strong decades later, the influential rapper has sold more than 37 million albums worldwide and has dropped 19 studio albums and countless cross-genre collabs. Snoop's laid-back persona and distinctive West Coast slang have become hallmarks of his music career. His expansion into other business and artistic pursuits, which include films, fast-food takeovers, and TV shows with lifestyle guru Martha Stewart, and impact on his community are among the main reasons he's maintained cultural relevance across three decades.
While his list of musical achievements is staggering, Snoop's greatest contribution to hip-hop lies in his ability to authentically infuse elements of his life into non-musical spaces. By simply staying true to himself, the legendary rapper has helped to further legitimize hip-hop as an art form with global impact and recognition, simultaneously influencing the music industry and people across international borders.
And he's even left his mark on the English language. Using his signature "izzle" style (e.g., "fo shizzle" meaing "for sure"), which originated in Northern California and was popularized by Bay Area rap acts like E-40 and 3X Krazy, Snoop has created a slew of catchy and memorable phrases. This rap "slanguage" development helped innovate distinct rap styles and solidified his place as an evolutionary icon. — Desiree Bowie
Soulja Boy made a lasting impact on hip-hop culture with his very first single. As one of the first in a wave of artists who used internet culture to market themselves directly to fans, the Chicago native created rap's first true internet sensation with "Crank That (Soulja Boy)." The song — fueled by simplistic lyrics, a catchy beat, and an inescapable hook — skyrocketed throughout the global internet via its complementary viral dance. Subverting the label-to-audience pipeline, Soulja Boy capitalized on tools like YouTube and MySpace to propel his popularity and connect with new listeners directly. Millions watched the song's music video on YouTube, where it has amassed more than 556 million views to date, and shared it widely on social media.
The innovative formula worked: "Crank That (Soulja Boy)" topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart for several weeks, set a record for the most digital downloads ever with more than 3 million units sold, and secured a GRAMMY nomination for Best Rap Song at the 2008 GRAMMYs.
Soulja Boy proved one-hit-wonder naysayers wrong. His second album, iSouljaBoyTellem, delivered 2000s classics like "Kiss Me Thru the Phone" featuring Sammie and "Turn My Swag On," while his grassroots tactic ushered in a new era of fan engagement and user-generated content, creating a formula still used by internet-savvy, next-gen artists like Lil Nas X and the wider music industry to market hip-hop hits today. — Victoria Moorwood
Virginia native Timbaland spent the mid- to late-'90s cultivating an experimental sound that blended futuristic drum patterns with unique sampling techniques. When he wasn't pushing sonic boundaries for R&B artists like Aaliyah and Ginuwine, the four-time GRAMMY winner proved his creativity could extend to hip-hop as well.
There isn't a better example than his legendary run of genre-busting albums produced for fellow Virginian trailblazer Missy Elliott, including Supa Dupa Fly, Da Real World, Miss E… So Addictive, and Under Construction. Timbaland even helped usher in the country rap subgenre thanks to his production work on the hip-hop/bluegrass fusion album Deliverance from Bubba Sparxxx. Eventually, he would expand far and wide across genres to create mega-hits with pop artists ranging from Nelly Furtado to Justin Timberlake. Between that time, he continued working with legendary rappers, including LL Cool J, Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, Ludacris, Lil' Kim, and many more.
Throughout the years, he's worked on multiple classic albums, which have garnered Album of the Year GRAMMY nominations, including Beyoncé, Timberlake's Justified and FutureSex/LoveSounds, The Diary Of Alicia Keys, and Elliott's Under Construction. Timbaland was also nominated for Producer Of The Year, Non-Classical at the 2008 GRAMMYs.
Now, Timbaland is making quality production easily available to aspiring artists and producers through his BeatClub service, showcasing how indispensible and intergenerational the creative mind of Timothy Mosley is to the culture. — Ural Garrett
Wu-Tang Clan was one of rap's seminal groups, both for their impact in the booth and in the boardroom. Enter The 36 Chambers, their 1993 debut album, saw superproducer RZA unite nine of the most unique personalities in rap ever for a lightning-in-a-bottle explosion. The crew traded nimble-footed bars and pro-Black philosophies over a discordant combination of rugged beats and samples from martial arts flicks, with each voice and rhyme style completely different from the last. But after their call to arms, they revolutionized the game with their business empires: The Wu was the first group to have its members sign solo deals with varying labels.
From there, they brought new meaning to the term divide and conquer: RZA, GZA, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon, U-God, Ghostface Killah, Method Man, Cappadonna, and Masta Killa would each go on to drop classic records over the years, all of them earning varying spots in the rap hall of fame. In subsequent decades, they'd reunite on occasion to duplicate the group magic in new and creative ways.
After that, changing the game just became part of the Wu-Tang Clan playboook. Clothing lines, video games, TV shows — you name it and the Wu tried it, and likely surmounted it. In 2015, they created Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, a single-copy album that was sold off in an auction to a pharmacy exec for more than $1 million dollars … before that exec was arrested and imprisoned, with the record being seized by the government in the process. Oh well. Wu-Tang Clan has made history plenty of times, and before all is said and done, they'll likely do it again. — William E. Ketchum III
The below is a list of artists who we'd like to celebrate in addition to the artists featured in our 50 Artists Who Changed Rap list. Submitted by our industry panel, these honorable mentions have impacted hip-hop in ways that are immeasurable.
The Hot Boys
Three 6 Mafia
The artists featured on GRAMMY.com's 50 Artists Who Changed Rap list were compiled from artist submissions submitted by an industry panel of rap experts, which includes:
Andrew Barber, Owner, Fake Shore Drive
April Reign, Senior Advisor for Entertainment & Media, Gauge
Carl Chery, Creative Director, Head of Urban, Spotify
Datwon Thomas, Editor-In-Chief, VIBE
Jeff Weiss, Editor, Passion of the Weiss
Jeff and Eric Rosenthal, Co-owners, ItsTheReal
Justin Hunte, music360 journalist, BTSN
Justin Tinsley, Senior Sports and Culture Reporter, Andscape
Kathy Iandoli, Author of ‘God Save The Queens: The Essential History of Women In Hip-Hop’ and co-author of ‘Lil' Kim's The Queen Bee’
Kevin L. Clark, Subject To Change LLC, Producer / The Recording Academy/GRAMMY.com, Contributing writer
Mankaprr Conteh, Cultural Journalist and Rolling Stone Staff Writer
Meka Udoh, Co-founder, 2DopeBoyz / Ingrooves Music Group
Miles Marshall Lewis, Author
Naima Cochrane, Music & Culture Journalist
Roderick Scott, Vice President, Marketing Strategy, Republic Records
Shaheem Reid, Legendary journalist
Shamira Ibrahim, Culture writer & critic
Shawn Setaro, Freelance Writer and podcaster
Sowmya Krishnamurthy, Author of ‘Fashion Killa: How Hip-Hop Revolutionized High Fashion’
Ural Garrett, Freelance Journalist
William E. Ketchum III, Music & Culture Journalist
Yoh Phillips, Documentarian/music journalist, Rap Portraits
Zini Tahsini, Hip-Hop Editorial Programmer, Apple Music
GRAMMY.com's 50 Artists Who Changed Rap list was conceived and developed by:
John Ochoa: Managing Editor of Digital Media for the Recording Academy
Len Brown: Senior Project Manager of Awards and Rap, Reggae, and R&B Genre Manager for the Recording Academy
Photo: Astrida Valigorsky / Getty Images
Channel Tres' Ascension: How The Compton Producer & Rapper Found Himself Through House Music
Channel Tres discusses his new EP, 'Real Cultural S—,' his love of Teddy Pendergrass, and glowing up as you grow up.
It's about damn time Compton-bred singer, rapper, producer, DJ Channel Tres is recognized and celebrated for the superstar he is.
His latest body of work, the Real Cultural S— EP, dropping on Feb. 24, is just the chance to do so. It includes the jubilant lead singles "6am" and "Just Can’t Get Enough," the latter featuring the perfect use of a Teddy Pendergrass sample, plus three new tracks.
But Tres has long demonstrated his star power with confidence, with 2022 being his biggest year yet. He dropped the palate-cleansing refresh, an eclectic mixtape of vibey instrumentals that showcase his skills as a producer and as an artist unwilling to be boxed in. In March, he offered the clubby Acid / Ganzfeld two-tracker, and followed by the sassy "hollaback b*tch" with Mura Masa and Shygirl. The single "No Limit" provided a fitting anthem for the ascending star, and marked Channel Tres' signing to RCA Records.
The "Topdown" artist also brought back his captivating live show, with more dancers, fresh bedazzled 'fits, and a sleek stage design across the country in 2022. He made his Coachella debut and tore up other big festivals like New York's Governors Ball and San Francisco's new Portola Fest. He sold out three nights in a row in his hometown, at Los Angeles' Fonda Theater in December.
An in-demand collaborator, Tres is regularly tapped by a wide range of dance and pop artists including Tove Lo, SG Lewis, Honey Dijon, TOKiMONSTA, Duke Dumont, Polo & Pan, and Flight Facilities to bring his infectious grooves and swagger to their tunes. In 2021, Tres' fire collabs included Polo & Pan’s "Tunnel" and Duke Dumont’s "Alter Ego."
Channel Tres has come a long way since his 2018 debut — the still fresh-as-ever "Controller" — but he's also become more grounded in the process of his glow up. GRAMMY.com first sat down with Channel Tres in 2019 to discuss his Isaac Hayes-nodding Black Moses EP, which he followed up with 2020's "Weedman" and his sunny, timely pandemic mixtape, i can't go outside, featuring Tyler, The Creator and Tinashe.
GRAMMY.com sat down with Channel Tres once again — this time at Bloom & Plume, a Black-owned coffee shop in Los Angeles — diving deep into his new EP and how he found his musical voice.
On the EP opener "Sleep When Dead," you talk about people not vibing with your sound or the beats you're making, and then making the decision to be yourself. Can you speak to finding your musical voice?
I was just referring to my early years of making music. I started off as a producer. My style was always a little left of center…because of not knowing music and not knowing certain things. I think that's sometimes the best creatively, because you're not following form, you're not following any rules, you're just creating from a very, very pure place. And I'm still like that. But now I know more about music, so everything's more in shape and I know how to achieve certain things.
I grew up with a lot of people critiquing me and around a lot of very talented musicians. The era was really rap heavy and there weren't many Black artists exploring different genres; you were kind of taught to just do one thing. But I've always been somebody who just does what I want, instead of doing what people want me to do. So, I would be in rap sessions and be like, "Let me just play this weird beat." There were times I walked into sessions and would be kicked out because I wasn't where I am now.
That gave me the motivation to work harder. Nas says, "Sleep is the cousin of death." It's not a really healthy thing to be on, but at the time, I equated sleep to being lazy or not being able to get things done. In my younger years, I would stay up a lot. Now, I sleep more and I'm pretty healthy. But "Sleep When Dead" is just kind of a figure of speech: work hard until you get to achieve goals.
I was self-taught at first, but then I went to school when I was 21 and I got classically trained.
Did you find a mentor at a certain point, or was it about finding that mentor inside of yourself?
I found all my mentors on YouTube; I'm a product of YouTube university. I would watch beat videos and take classes online. And then once I was in school, I had teachers teaching me things musically. I would study Hit-Boy. I got to tour with Anderson .Paak early on — when I was DJing for Duckwrth we opened for him, and every time I would get [time with Anderson], I would ask him hella questions, and then I would watch him.
I'm a sponge. If I'm around somebody that has something I want or is just really good at things, I watch and I learn. I'm always like that. The world can teach you a lot. Nobody has to be your mentor directly, but if you put yourself around good people, you learn things.
On "Just Can't Get Enough," you sample Teddy Pendergrass — how did that song come together? Did you start with the sample first, or the mood?
It started off as a love story. I was going through something in my love life, and I just imagined this realm of getting married and exploring a life with someone and how that feels. And how when you're in love with somebody, you just can't get enough of them.
The Teddy Pendergrass sample came because I was studying him. He was a ladies' man, and performance-wise, I was studying him a lot. He was a good inspiration. Teddy is just a big inspiration, as far as how he conveyed emotion in his vocals. And with Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, he was the lead singer but the group wasn't named after him. I can relate to that; doing all this work and not getting the recognition. But when he stepped out, he stepped out and it was time.
Do you have a favorite Teddy Pendergrass song?
It's not his song, but It's from the Blue Notes; "The Love I Lost" is one of my favorite songs.
"6am" is a super fun song, and the music video directed by Tajana Bunton-Williams is also super fun, with '70s inspired fits and artsy parking garage shots. What was the vision for that video?
The vision for that was simple, to look cool. I grew up with my great grandparents and when it was Easter Sunday, we got to wear suits, everybody got dressed up. I miss that energy. I don't really go to church anymore, and my great grandparents have passed away.
I feel like I stepped away from that for a while and now my style is maturing again. I'm going back to my roots of how my great grandfather dressed, and how people took pride in what they were wearing. I wanted to do that in a music video and get that feeling again of Easter Sunday or something, but also just sexy. I just wanted to get the fellas together and dance and show we're happy. Growing up, it was always a woman thing to be like that and enjoy yourself, but I feel as we're getting better in society [that's changing]. We all have masculine energy and feminine energy and that's what makes us beautiful as people.
As I'm growing up, I'm realizing that none of [those gender expectations] matter; I can make my life the way I want it. I use videos and different things to explore that. Also, I used to think low of myself, to where I didn't want to dress up because I thought I'm not cuter than the next person. You know, that insecurity. So now, it's like, nope, we're gonna make this a big deal.
My grandma loves the song.
"Chucks" with Terrace Martin is such a perfect melding of your sounds and vibes. How did you two link up and how'd the song come together?
I knew about Terrace since 2009, 2010, just from being from L.A. He was one of my inspirations back then. We linked up maybe a couple years ago, he just DMed me and we made a relationship over that. I met up with him to work on his  album Drones. I wrote a song four years before that called "Drones" and I played it for him. I was like, "Bro, you're on the same f—ing frequency." And then we wrote the song "Tapped" for Drones. After that, we were just really cool.
And "Chucks" came from a session I had with Ty Dolla $ign. (Ty is credited as a co-writer and co-producer of the track.) Ty and I made the track and Ty played it for Terrace, and Terrace put horns and his vocoder on it and made it his, and hit me up and asked to put it out.
These dudes are my idols, so it's always trippy for me. I'm like, Damn, I'm just working with these dudes casually now.
Do you usually reach out to people? Or do you wait for people to reach out to you?
I try to read the vibes. Some things come to me, and then some things, if I push for it, it'll come. I just try to follow my intuition on certain things. Some people are really busy….So I'm not a tough person, like, "You got to get back to me." I believe in the universe and connections; things happen when they're supposed to.
I love when connections and collaborations feel like synergy and like they're supposed to come together, rather than me forcing it. My collaborations usually work because it just flows.
How do you foster your relationship with your intuition, especially when you're super busy or there's a lot going on?
I mean, a lot of it is breathing. Not making rash decisions, taking time. If I feel uneasy, I just completely disconnect from it, and go to sleep [before deciding] or I say, "Just give me a second" and think some stuff out. And working out and listening to audiobooks and reading stuff; filling yourself up with things that help you. You are what you eat, you are what you listen to, you are a lot of the things that you put inside yourself.
The more I fuel myself with positive things and different things that can help me, the more I see that my spirit and my mind is able to filter out bulls—, or suss out things. It's just about spending time with yourself, and learning what triggers you or learning what's going on and looking at past things that have happened, and where your intuition has led you and using that as guidance.
It's been really rad to witness your ascension in music; becoming an in-demand collaborator and selling out three nights at The Fonda. How has the glow up felt for you?
It feels like it's confirmation that if you put the work in, you will get the results. Also, all the stuff I went through before in life, a lot of it is starting to make sense. If I didn't have those situations, I don't know if I would have gotten here or even been able to handle the success.
I'm really grateful. I want to use my platform to help people and spread love and spread that energy. I've gotten there because of all the things I've been through. And now I'm like, How can I help the next person in life, give back to my community and help my family? I can really build a business on the mindset I have now. So, everything comes when it's supposed to.
Real Cultural S— was initially going to be an album. Why did you choose to release it as an EP?
I just felt like, conceptually, I wasn't ready. I started playing the songs on tour. It just felt like it was right for this to be the EP before the first album. I use EPs to get ready conceptually, and to get better. To put a body of work together is a lot of work. I just grew past these songs and it was unexpected for the tour to be so good. I was like, "Oh man, I gotta write on this energy now, where I'm at now and prepare for the next stage.
I got signed, and I have more collaborators I can work with; my relationships are getting stronger with other people that I would love to be on my album. Now, I have access to that, so I can make this process a little more special and document the new mindset I have.
Those songs [on Real Cultural S—] were made between COVID and between me finding myself again. That process got me right here, now. So, it's like, let me make a project on this feeling, this vibe.
What does it feel like when you're on stage?
You just blank out. It's like playing a basketball game. You just lay out all the practice and let all the things you've been doing take over. And then you read the crowd and enjoy.
You coined your music Compton house. If you're describing it to someone, what elements are central to it?
It's just music, it's just me. I'm from Compton and I happen to make dance music. I'm not really a genre type person. I don't think anybody cares. If it sounds good, it sounds good.
I've dabbled in house music, and I make a lot of things. House is a genre that allows you to be you. For me, it's not a [specific] BPM, it's [about] being who you are. I like to put Compton on everything because that's where I'm from. It's just me being who I am, over music.
Would you say it's about the mood or the vibe or just if it sounds good, versus claiming that you're house or Compton house?
Yeah, I don't claim any genre. I like to make people dance, and I like to make people feel good. It is what it is.
I didn't think about it, I was just happy. If it becomes accessible to more of a broader crowd because of them, great. I hope more people listen to my music. We own this music, we don't own anything here. It's all open, it's an open playing field.
I'm grateful that people explore and want to do different things and push the needle. I love Beyoncé's album. I love Drake's album a little bit. I didn't really care, it's just music to me. I don't own any genre. I found house music when I was 20 and I just explored it.
After you got into house music, is that when you started finding your sound and style?
No. I think house music just made me want to be myself more, to explore my sexuality, the way I dress, even what type of parties I like to go to. Now I'm like, "Yo, if ain't nobody dancing, I don't want to be there." At first it was about going to the club and looking good, trying to get somebody's number. Now I'm Shazaming songs, listening to what the DJ's playing, like, Oh my god, they mixed this with that record.
House music made me appreciate a party, a good DJ and mixes, and it helped me free myself from the constricting ideas I had about music.
What are your biggest goals or intentions for this year?
My biggest goal is to just become a better human. Learning how to be more of service, more respectful, more loving, and learning how to love myself better in different ways. Also, to get better at music, performing and production.
I was watching a video of Beyoncé yesterday, she was directing her show and telling her team how they need to get this right. [I want to] be more proactive in that way, to allow my ideas to come to life and to let the people around me know what I want. And being okay with that, knowing that I have the power to advocate for myself and my art.