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Listen To GRAMMY.com's 50th Anniversary Of Hip-Hop Playlist: 50 Songs That Show The Genre's Evolution
In celebration of hip-hop’s 50th anniversary, listen to GRAMMY.com's playlist of essential hip-hop releases. This crash course on the genre’s worldwide cultural impact shows the evolution of hip-hop culture over 50 songs.
If hip-hop is a monument to American imagination and expression, you can trace it story by story. Since its inception in 1973, the genre’s development can be traced era by era, region by region and scene by scene.
GRAMMY.com’s published hip-hop essentials lists leading up to the present, but this playlist is the culmination.
To mark hip-hop’s 50th anniversary, press play on the playlist below, or head to Amazon Music, Spotify, Apple Music and Pandora for a crash course in this quintessential stateside artform — further proof of the genius of Black American music.
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GRAMMY Rewind: Watch Baby Keem Celebrate "Family Ties" During Best Rap Performance Win In 2022
Revisit the moment budding rapper Baby Keem won his first-ever gramophone for Best Rap Performance at the 2022 GRAMMY Awards for his Kendrick Lamar collab "Family Ties."
For Baby Keem and Kendrick Lamar, The Melodic Blue was a family affair. The two cousins collaborated on three tracks from Keem's 2021 debut LP, "Range Brothers," "Vent," and "Family Ties." And in 2022, the latter helped the pair celebrate a GRAMMY victory.
"Wow, nothing could prepare me for this moment," Baby Keem said at the start of his speech.
He began listing praise for his "supporting system," including his family and "the women that raised me and shaped me to become the man I am."
Before heading off the stage, he acknowledged his team, who "helped shape everything we have going on behind the scenes," including Lamar. "Thank you everybody. This is a dream."
Press play on the video above to watch Baby Keem's complete acceptance speech for Best Rap Performance at the 2022 GRAMMYs, and check back to GRAMMY.com for more new episodes of GRAMMY Rewind.
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How 1994 Changed The Game For Hip-Hop
With debuts from major artists including Biggie and Outkast, to the apex of boom bap, the dominance of multi-producer albums, and the arrival of the South as an epicenter of hip-hop, 1994 was one of the most important years in the culture's history.
While significant attention was devoted to the celebration of hip-hop in 2023 — an acknowledgement of what is widely acknowledged as its 50th anniversary — another important anniversary in hip-hop is happening this year as well. Specifically, it’s been 30 years since 1994, when a new generation entered the music industry and set the genre on a course that in many ways continues until today.
There are many ways to look at 1994: lists of great albums (here’s a top 50 to get you started); a look back at what fans and tastemakers were actually listening to at the time; the best overlooked obscurities. But the best way to really understand why a single 365 three decades ago had such an impact is to narrow our focus to look at the important debut albums released that year.
An artist’s or group’s debut is their entry into the wider musical conversation, their first full statement about who they are and where in the landscape they see themselves. The debuts released in 1994 — which include the Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready to Die, Nas' Illmatic and Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik from Outkast — were notable not only in their own right, but because of the insight they give us into wider trends in rap.
Read on for some of the ways that 1994's debut records demonstrated what was happening in rap at the time, and showed us the way forward.
Hip-Hop Became More Than Just An East & West Coast Thing
The debut albums that moved rap music in 1994 were geographically varied, which was important for a music scene that was still, from a national perspective, largely tied to the media centers at the coasts. Yes, there were New York artists (Biggie and Nas most notably, as well as O.C., Jeru the Damaja, the Beatnuts, and Keith Murray). The West Coast G-funk domination, which began in late 1992 with Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, continued with Dre’s step brother Warren G.
But the huge number of important debuts from other places around the country in 1994 showed that rap music had developed mature scenes in multiple cities — scenes that fans from around the country were starting to pay significant attention to.
To begin with, there was Houston. The Geto Boys were arguably the first artists from the city to gain national attention (and controversy) several years prior. By 1994, the city’s scene had expanded enough to allow a variety of notable debuts, of wildly different styles, to make their way into the marketplace.
The Rap-A-Lot label that first brought the Geto Boys to the world’s attention branched out with Big Mike’s Somethin’ Serious and the Odd Squad’s Fadanuf Fa Erybody!! Both had bluesy, soulful sounds that were quickly becoming the label’s trademark — in no small part due to their main producers, N.O. Joe and Mike Dean. In addition, an entirely separate style centered around the slowed-down mixes of DJ Screw began to expand outside of the South Side with the debut release by Screwed Up Click member E.S.G.
There were also notable debut albums by artists and groups from Cleveland (Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Creepin on ah Come Up), Oakland (Saafir and Casual), and of course Atlanta — more about that last one later.
1994 Saw The Pinnacle Of Boom-Bap
Popularized by KRS-One’s 1993 album Return of the Boom Bap, the term "boom bap" started as an onomatopoeic way of referring to the sound of a standard rap drum pattern — the "boom" of a kick drum on the downbeat, followed by the "bap" of a snare on the backbeat.
The style that would grow to be associated with that name (though it was not much-used at the time) was at its apex in 1994. A handful of primarily East Coast producers and groups were beginning a new sonic conversation, using innovations like filtered bass lines while competing to see who could flip the now standard sample sources in ever-more creative ways.
Most of the producers at the height of this style — DJ Premier, Buckwild, RZA, Large Professor, Pete Rock and the Beatnuts, to name a few — worked on notable debuts that year. Premier produced all of Jeru the Damaja’s The Sun Rises in the East. Buckwild helmed nearly the entirety of O.C.’s debut Word…Life. RZA was responsible for Method Man’s Tical. The Beatnuts took care of their own full-length Street Level. Easy Mo Bee and Premier both played a part in Biggie’s Ready to Die. And then there was Illmatic, which featured a veritable who’s who of production elites: Premier, L.E.S., Large Professor, Pete Rock, and Q-Tip.
The work the producers did on these records was some of the best of their respective careers. Even now, putting on tracks like O.C.’s "Time’s Up" (Buckwild), Jeru’s "Come Clean" (Premier), Meth’s "Bring the Pain" (RZA), Biggie’s "The What" (Easy Mo Bee), or Nas’ "The World Is Yours" (Pete Rock) will get heads nodding.
Major Releases Balanced Street Sounds & Commercial Appeal
"Rap is not pop/If you call it that, then stop," spit Q-Tip on 1991’s "Check the Rhime." Two years later, De La Soul were adamant that "It might blow up, but it won’t go pop." In 1994, the division between rap and pop — under attack at least since Biz Markie made something for the radio back in the ‘80s — began to collapse entirely thanks to the team of the Notorious B.I.G. and his label head and producer Sean "Puffy" Combs.
Biggie was the hardcore rhymer who wanted to impress his peers while spitting about "Party & Bulls—." Puff was the businessman who wanted his artist to sell millions and be on the radio. The result of their yin-and-yang was Ready to Die, an album that perfectly balanced these ambitions.
This template — hardcore songs like "Machine Gun Funk" for the die-hards, sing-a-longs like "Juicy" for the newly curious — is one that Big’s good friend Jay-Z would employ while climbing to his current iconic status.
Solo Stars Broke Out Of Crews
One major thing that happened in 1994 is that new artists were created not out of whole cloth, but out of existing rap crews. Warren G exploded into stardom with his debut Regulate… G Funk Era. He came out of the Death Row Records axis — he was Dre’s stepbrother, and had been in a group with a pre-fame Snoop Dogg. Across the country, Method Man sprang out of the Wu-Tang collective and within a year had his own hit single with "I’ll Be There For You/You’re All I Need To Get By."
Anyone who listened to the Odd Squad’s album could tell that there was a group member bound for solo success: Devin the Dude. Keith Murray popped out of the Def Squad. Casual came out of the Bay Area’s Hieroglyphics.
This would be the model for years to come: Create a group of artists and attempt, one by one, to break them out as stars. You could see it in Roc-a-fella, Ruff Ryders, and countless other crews towards the end of the ‘90s and the beginning of the new millennium.
Multi-Producer Albums Began To Dominate
Illmatic was not the first rap album to feature multiple prominent producers. However, it quickly became the most influential. The album’s near-universal critical acclaim — it earned a perfect five-mic score in The Source — meant that its strategy of gathering all of the top production talent together for one album would quickly become the standard.
Within less than a decade, the production credits on major rap albums would begin to look nearly identical: names like the Neptunes, Timbaland, Premier, Kanye West, and the Trackmasters would pop up on album after album. By the time Jay-Z said he’d get you "bling like the Neptunes sound," it became de rigueur to have a Neptunes beat on your album, and to fill out the rest of the tracklist with other big names (and perhaps a few lesser-known ones to save money).
The South Got Something To Say
If there’s one city that can safely be said to be the center of rap music for the past decade or so, it’s Atlanta. While the ATL has had rappers of note since Shy-D and Raheem the Dream, it was a group that debuted in 1994 that really set the stage for the city’s takeover.
Outkast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik was the work of two young, ambitious teenagers, along with the production collective Organized Noize. The group’s first video was directed by none other than Puffy. Biggie fell so in love with the city that he toyed with moving there.
Outkast's debut album won Best New Artist and Best New Rap of the Year at the 1995 Source Awards, though the duo of André 3000 and Big Boi walked on stage to accept their award to a chorus of boos. The disrespect only pushed André to affirm the South's place on the rap map, famously telling the audience, "The South got something to say."
Outkast’s success meant that they kept on making innovative albums for several more years, as did other members of their Dungeon Family crew. This brought energy and attention to the city, as did the success of Jermain Dupri’s So So Def label. Then came the "snap" movement of the 2000s, and of course trap music, which had its roots in aughts-era Atlanta artists like T.I. and producers like Shawty Redd and DJ Toomp.
But in the 2010s a new artist would make Atlanta explode, and he traced his lineage straight back to the Dungeon. Future is the first cousin of Organized Noize member Rico Wade, and was part of the so-called "second generation" of the Dungeon Family back when he went by "Meathead." His world-beating success over the past decade-plus has been a cornerstone in Atlanta’s rise to the top of the rap world. Young Thug, who has cited Future as an influence, has sparked a veritable ecosystem of sound-alikes and proteges, some of whom have themselves gone on to be major artists.
Atlanta’s reign at the top of the rap world, some theorize, may finally be coming to an end, at least in part because of police pressure. But the city has had a decade-plus run as the de facto capital of rap, and that’s thanks in no small part to Outkast.
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How Native Tongues Expanded Hip-Hop With Eclectic Sounds & Vision
In the late '80s and early '90s, the New York-based collective Native Tongues encouraged hip-hop to expand and shift. Their attitude had a significant impact on hip-hop and, later, mainstream pop.
When people fondly refer back to hip-hop’s golden age, they are talking about hip-hop’s adolescence — an experimental era when no idea was too risky, no innovation too bold, no boundary too established to be broken. This period between the mid 1980s and mid '90s saw hip-hop’s elders transported into new directions as the culture transitioned into the capitalist mainstream.
It is impossible to document this golden era without acknowledging the contributions of the Native Tongues. The New York-based collective — whose core members included now household names such as the Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest, Queen Latifah, De La Soul and Monie Love — played a pivotal role in reshaping the cultural landscape of both hip-hop and jazz in the mainstream. As a whole, the Native Tongues opted for a more introspective and bohemian approach to their lyricism and melodies.
The Jungle Brothers’ Mike Gee, DJ Sammy B and Baby Bam led the wave with an Afrocentric philosophy. Their 1988 debut album Straight Out the Jungle, set the vanguard of fusing hip-hop with jazz elements. "Black is Black" is perfectly representative of the first tendrils of what would become the canonical Native Tongues sound: an almost whimsical approach to with race relations and social commentary in America, structured with a boom-bap drums and an impressive array of samples (Gil-Scott Heron, Prince, Kool & The Gang). At the opening beats, Q-Tip introduces himself, going "I’m from A Tribe Called Quest" — a harbinger of the yearslong future association as part of the most influential young collectives of the '90s.
Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad of Tribe were classmates of the Jungle Brothers in the lower Manhattan high school Murray Bergtraum, and began collaborating as classmates. With additional members Jarobi White and the since departed Phife Dawg, the quartet — and occasional trio — had an impressive five album run: People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1989), The Low End Theory (1991), Midnight Marauders (1993), Beats, Rhymes and Life (1996), and The Love Movement (1998). Each release featured a panoply of inspired and progressive approaches to hip-hop, with lyrics and intricate rhyme schemes that ranged from pensive to cheekily adolescent; production drew influence from jazz, bossa nova, rock, and everything in between.
"Check the Rhime" of the classic Low End Theory is exemplary of their dexterity and appeal. Couplets that are deceptively laid back yet remarkably complex — seamlessly veering from discussing capitalism to general braggadocious flair — while the beat integrates everyone from Minnie Ripperton to a Scottish funk & R&B.
De La Soul rounded out the core groups at the heart of Native Tongues. The Long Island-based trio — Kelvin "Posdnuos" Mercer, Vincent "Maseo" Mason Jr, and the late Dave "Trugoy The Dove" Joliceur — played with a colorful and eclectic approach to their jazz tinged sound and visuals (their debut album declared it the age of the DA.I.S.Y. (Da Inner Sound, Y'all) ). De La Soul were unafraid to lean into a sense of whimsy with songs like "Transmitting Live from Mars," which sampled the Turtles while integrating a looped French lesson. Unfortunately the result would be precarious: the Turtles sued and won for using their sample, setting a dangerous precedent for the industry.
It would not be the end of De La Soul's legal troubles in the industry. Due to negotiations and disputes with Tommy Boy Records, most of De La Soul’s discography was not available on streaming and younger generations. That is, until March 2023, when De La Soul regained the rights to their releases under the label.
Rounding out the Native Tongues are Newark's Queen Latifah and London’s Monie Love (the only non-New Yorkers in the core crew). Each artist is a pioneer in not just hip-hop’s consciousness space, but leaders for women in the industry. Latifah and Love’s "Ladies First" is an example of their dual function in the collective as chroniclers of both women's and Black issues. The hit record confronted feminist themes and women’s liberation with punch, verve, and dizzying rhyme patterns; the music video addressed trans-continental Black struggles including the plight of South African racial apartheid. The song was an embodiment of the Native Tongues spirit.
There was never an official dissolution to the Native Tongues; rather, fractures, regroupings and internal conflicts that stopped the collective's momentum in the mid-'90s. Combined with the rise of Bad Boy Records and a new style of hip-hop star.
Yet as the years progressed, there would be multiple extended members that would be affiliated with the Native Tongues movement — Black Sheep, Black Star, Brand Nubian, the Beatnuts, Leaders of the New School, the incomparable J Dilla — showcasing the impact the Native Tongues’ craft and approach had on '90s hip hop. That influence extends to present day, with popular artists such as Tyler, the Creator and Pharrell crediting the Tongues’ renegade spirit in their own journeys as individuals, rappers, and producers.
The Native Tongues shifted the myopic perspectives of what people believed hip-hop could, would and should be; their influence encouraged hip-hop to expand, shift and impact the mainstream pop world. The collective's legacy remains as a reminder to ignore narrow-minded criticisms of hip-hop culture (and sound) as a single narrative.
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How DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince Created The Ultimate Prototype For The Producer/Rapper Duo
Ahead of their much-anticipated reunion on the CBS special "A GRAMMY Salute to 50 Years of Hip-Hop," take a look at the groundbreaking ways DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince bolstered the power of the hip-hop duo.
There were plenty of rapper/DJ duos before DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. Most notably, T La Rock & Jazzy Jay released the influential 1984 single "It's Yours," Def Jam's first release as a rap label run by Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons. There was Mantronix, consisting of MC Tee and producer Kurtis Mantronik, who had their first hit with "Fresh Is the Word" a year later. Well before that, '70s hip-hop pioneer Kool Herc was a DJ known for getting the party started with rhymer Coke La Rock.
But the Philadelphia duo of Jeffrey Townes and Will Smith went beyond their predecessors in several important ways, and set up a prototype of the rapper/DJ — or, as music-making techniques changed, rapper/producer — combination that would explode in the years following their success.
By the time Jeff and Will (and their third member, beatboxer Ready Rock C) released their first single in 1986, duos were a thing in pop music: Soft Cell, Erasure, Eurythmics. The prominence of musical pairs would continue to grow over the next few years, largely because of technology.
As a 1987 Philadelphia Inquirer article headlined "Pop’s New Dynamic Duos" pointed out, "The electronic age has yielded not only a new kind of music, via synthesizers, sequencers, drum machines, digital audio computers, hardware and software, but it has also spawned a new kind of group: duos in which one [person] sings and the other pushes buttons."
This division of labor — one person on music and one on lyrics — worked perfectly in hip-hop, a genre that came out of parties where a DJ spun records and someone on a mic hyped up the crowd. But when it came to DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, unlike some of their predecessors, it was clear they were a team: Not only were they co-billed, but the DJ's name came first.
That's largely because Jeff was the virtuoso. While Will had the movie-star chemistry and funny stories, Jeff was the music obsessive and the innovative record-spinner who implemented new techniques — most notably, the robotic-sounding "transformer" scratch, which Will takes credit for naming in his 2021 memoir.
And Jeff was the one who proved his hip-hop bona fides by defeating all comers and being crowned the best DJ in the land at the 1986 New Music Seminar. It's a scene that rightfully opens up the very first episode of Smith's new podcast, a good indication of exactly how important that battle was to Will, Jeff and the entire hip-hop world at the time. (You can listen to Jeff's winning routines here).
Explore More Of "A GRAMMY Salute to 50 Years of Hip-Hop"
Putting Jeff's name first in the pairing made sense in a number of ways: not only was he unimpeachably credentialed and respected, but the order itself was also a nod to the DJ's primacy in the origins of hip-hop, and in the group's home city of Philly. Whether all of those ideas were consciously considered in how they named themselves or not, they were all there in how the duo was considered.
The equality of members was emphasized from the very beginning in their music, too. Sure, their first single was the wacky, I Dream of Jeannie theme-quoting story-song "Girls Ain't Nothing But Trouble." But their second was a tribute to "The Magnificent Jazzy Jeff."
They kept that balance throughout their early career as a group. Their second album, He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper, had it throughout — in its title, and especially in its songs.
The record marked another pivotal moment for rap, as it was the genre's first double album. The first two sides had plenty of Will's stories ("Parents Just Don't Understand"; "A Nightmare on My Street"), but sides C and D — billed as a "Bonus Scratch Album" — belonged almost entirely to Jeff.
Whether it was Will and Jeff's success, the overall prominence of duos across genres, or just something in the water, within a few years of DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince getting their start, co-billed DJ/emcee duos were pretty much everywhere. There was Eric B & Rakim, whose first single came out the same year as Will and Jeff's, and Cash Money & Marvelous, who released their first single one year later.
We also can't forget L.A.'s entry into the sweepstakes, Rodney-O & Joe Cooley, whose 1987 single "Everlasting Bass" was the city's pre-gangsta rap anthem. X-Clan compatriots Unique & Dashan came out in 1989 and, like Rodney-O and Cooley, billed the rapper first. DJ Chuck Chillout & Kool Chip had limited releases as a team — one single and one album to follow it up — but they made an impact regardless. By the dawn of the 1990s, the equally billed DJ/rapper duo was a hip-hop trope.
It was a format that would morph over the years. First, into groups like Gang Starr, which consisted of a rapper and a DJ/producer subsumed under a single entity name. Later, into MF DOOM's album-length producer collaborations like Madvillainy (Madlib) and The Mouse and the Mask (Danger Mouse). And even today, into rapper/producer pairings like Drake and Noah "40" Shebib, 21 Savage and Metro Boomin, or The Alchemist and essentially everybody in the world.
Without DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, the world might not have paid so much attention to all of these efforts. If there's one thing that Jeff and Will showed us, it's that in rap music or anywhere else, there's real power in teamwork.
DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince will reunite as part of "A GRAMMY Salute To 50 Years Of Hip-Hop," which will air Sunday, Dec. 10, from 8:30 to 10:30 p.m. ET and 8 to 10 p.m. PT. Tune in on the CBS Television Network, and stream live and on demand on Paramount+.