Photo: Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images
Fight The Power: 11 Powerful Protest Songs Advocating For Racial Justice
From Childish Gambino's "This Is America" to James Brown's "Say It Loud," these racial justice protest anthems demonstrate the ongoing—and still deeply relevant—sound of activism
From the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma to the streets of Ferguson, activism certainly has a sound. Whether it’s the slow hum of Pete Seeger's "We Shall Overcome" or the energetic repetition of YG’s "FTP," when the chants of freedom slow, we often hear an emotional outcry about political issues through music. The current state of unrest in the United States surrounding the violent treatment of Black people and people of color at the hands of police has caused a resurgence of music addressing the current state of affairs directly in lyrics and tone.
As we celebrate Juneteenth (not to mention Black Music Month), a date that signifies liberation for African American people as Gordon Granger announced in Galveston, TX that the enslaved people there were free in 1865, we have to recognize the importance of music when it comes to freedom, protest, survival and celebration in Black culture.
Music has always been deeply rooted in African culture. It only continued after men and women were captured and enslaved in the U.S through the Middle Passage. For slaves, it was a form of communication and later became so much more. That tradition of music has continued over centuries as each new movement—specifically involving the fight for self-love, equality, and fair treatment for Black Americans—creates its own soundtrack.
2020 will see its own host of songs that highlight the times, from Meek Mill’s "The Otherside of America" to H.E.R.'s "I Can’t Breathe," which she recently premiered in her performance for IHeartRadio’s Living Room Concert Series. But before this moment, there were a few of the songs that have been at the center of protest, revolution, and radical political change over the years.
"Say It Loud," James Brown (1968)
Being proud to be Black was almost a foreign concept commercially during this time and James Brown took the lead on empowering Black people all across the world. "Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud," became an affirmation recited far and wide specifically in such a turbulent year as 1968. This was at the height of the Civil Rights movement and the same year Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.
"Comment #1," Gil Scott-Heron (1970)
A poem featured on his debut album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, Heron was challenging the white left-wing student movement. In his estimation, there was no common ground based on what Black people had endured for centuries that college-educated students from the suburbs would understand. The song was later sampled by Kanye West in "Lost In The World" featuring Bon Iver.
"What’s Going On," Marvin Gaye (1971)
Based on the real-life experience of Gaye’s brother who returned from Vietnam with a much different outlook on life, this song asked what was happening in America. This was a turbulent time where Black soldiers were not receiving the same benefits as their white GI counterparts when returning home from the same fight. And much like Scott-Heron, Gaye was exploring the hippie era clash that, to many Black people, didn’t have a real grasp on poverty and systematic racism plaguing the community.
"Fk Tha Police," N.W.A. (1988)
A song met with much discourse including the arrest of N.W.A. members in Detroit during a 1989 tour stop. The group was apprehended following their show after being told by the DPD not to play the song in their set. Unfortunately, not much has changed and streams have skyrocketed amidst global protests for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor more than 20 years later
"Fight The Power," Public Enemy (1989)
The song originally appeared in Spike Lee's "Do The Right" thing, which explored racial tension in a Brooklyn neighborhood and would become Public Enemy’s most popular song to date. Later released on their album Fear of a Black Planet, the song was received with high acclaim including a GRAMMY nomination for Best Rap Performance.
"Changes," 2Pac featuring Talent (1998)
2Pac was seen as both an activist and a young man wise beyond his years, though his career was also marred by controversy and rap beefs. Songs like "Changes" are more representative of the former. Here, Pac was chronicling the fact that things have been the same in Black communities over the years. When listening back, you can hear how poignant his words were over 20 years later.
"Glory," John Legend and Common (2014)
The Oscar-winning song from the original motion picture soundtrack to "Selma" directed by Ava Duvernay came at the epicenter of the country’s most recent unrest. Two years after the death of Trayvon Martin, the song was the perfect bridge from the Civil Rights movement of the '60s depicted in the film into today's current fight for equality.
"Alright," Kendrick Lamar (2015)
To Pimp a Butterfly, Lamar’s sophomore release, was a sharp contrast to the cinematic good kid, m.A.A.d. City but yielded the freedom song of a generation. Crowds at protests and university auditoriums across the country erupted into the song's potent lyrics, "But if God got us then we gon be alright!" The GRAMMY-winning song became the unofficial anthem to the Black Lives Matter movement after the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mich., and Sandra Bland in Waller County, TX at the hands of police.
"F.U.B.U.," Solange (2016)
A nod to the 90s hip hop apparel company, the acronym stands for For Us, By Us. The song appeared on her third studio album A Seat at the Table, her most critically acclaimed and political album to date. Both the song and album highlight Black entrepreneurship, culture, and trauma.
"Freedom," Beyoncé ft. Kendrick Lamar (2016)
This hard-hitting track samples "Let Me Try" by Frank Tirado and comes as a reprieve in the album sequencing but packs a powerful message. The ending also features audio from Jay-Z’s grandmother Hattie White. At her 90th birthday party she explains, "I was served lemons, but I made lemonade"—apropos in the discussion of the American Black experience.
"This is America," Childish Gambino (2018)
Accompanied by a captivating visual directed by Hiro Murai that paired dancing with African influence, and violent yet thought-provoking imagery, Gambino's effort made everyone pay attention. The song garnered the multi-disciplined artist a GRAMMY for "Song Of The Year," and his first No. 1 single while leaving both critics and fans alike in deep conversations about its political symbolism.
Photo: Maarten de Boer
Catching Up With Hank Shocklee: From Architecting The Sound Of Public Enemy To Pop Hits & The Silver Screen
The GRAMMY-nominated hip-hop icon co-founded the group Public Enemy and the production outfit the Bomb Squad. GRAMMY.com spoke with Shocklee about his life in hip-hop, scoring music for film and TV, and his new record label.
Hank Shocklee’s earliest — and most profound — experience with hip-hop was at a roller rink in the Roosevelt neighborhood of Long Island, New York, where Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were performing. A young Shcokleee watched as Flash effortlessly cut, scratched and mixed Pump Me Up by the Washington, D.C. go-go band Trouble Funk, and then saw MC Melle Mel get on the microphone and rap over Flash’s music beds.
Today, we know that turntablism and emceeing are two of the essential elements of hip-hop culture. Back then, in that roller rink, those musical elements were new and raw. Flash and the Furious Five were planting the seeds of a new musical form.
"He cut it so viciously, back and forth, similar to looping now. He was on point," Shocklee, born James Henry Boxley III, told GRAMMY.com. "That seamless integration was mind-blowing. That really was a sight, seeing that. That inspired all of hip-hop. The routine was so tight. There was a synergy. It was almost like a Motown act but with rapping. They single-handedly transformed the rap business into a show."
Shocklee wasn’t interested in rapping, but quickly became interested in the technical aspects of creating hip-hop music. He wanted to tinker with drum machines and synths and make the music that MCs could perform on top of. Shocklee's dreams would later make him a GRAMMY-nominated hip-hop icon.
Shocklee co-founded Public Enemy in the 1980s, creating the group's instantly identifiable, sample-heavy sound. Later, he would found production outfit the Bomb Squad and collaborate with countless MCs and singers, and created music for films like Do The Right Thing, Juice, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, and Straight Outta Compton. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013.
GRAMMY.com caught up with Shocklee over Zoom recently to discuss YE!, the latest film to feature his music, his new record label, hip-hop’s 50th anniversary, and his experiences with Public Enemy and the Bomb Squad.
This year is the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. What does that mean for you, personally?
Hip-hop is one of the things that shaped my life. DJs and producers like Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, the Treacherous Three — they were my heroes coming up. It was about more than just the music itself, it was the participation of the audience. I was a fan. Going to see Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five was life changing.
I also saw Run-D.M.C. at the Garden, I saw hip-hop go from the parks and streets to little clubs, then Madison Square Garden. Back in the day, people said hip-hop was a fad. I watched it grow from its embryo stage, and saw that seed emerge to something greater than anybody could have imagined.
There’s no other music greater than hip-hop. It’s the last genre to be its own, not derivative, complete from the start.
What do you think makes hip-hop unique from other musical genres? What gives it such universal appeal?
Hip-hop is a form of folk music that involves storytelling. People are telling you about their lives in complete sentences and verses. In the early days of hip-hop, there were five verses in a song, which made the song like six or seven minutes long, up to 15 minutes. That fostered its ascent.
Words communicated ideas, and that struck me and all of the people around me. It spoke to a new generation that understood its feelings. The same thing artists rapped about is what we were experiencing. You knew exactly what they were talking about because their stories reflected your stories, so it became like a call and response.
What were your early experiences with hip-hop music and culture?
I listened to early tapes put out by Grand Wizzard Theodore, Busy Bee, DJ Hollywood, and Eddie Cheeba. They weren’t rapping but they mixed rhymes into their segues, so I was following it from that perspective.
I was always a fan of DJ culture. I created my own DJ sound systems. I came at it from the technical end, and then watched it grow.
You were a member/founder of the Bomb Squad, the hip-hop production team behind Public Enemy. What did the very early days of Public Enemy look like?
Chuck D offered to do fliers for my parties; we were both into graphic art. One day, at a party at Adelphi University, there were a bunch of terrible MCs. Chuck came on the mic to make an announcement about a party, and I heard his voice. I was like wow, I want him as my MC. I wanted to transform my DJ outfit into a show.
Chuck came into the studio and started playing around with the [Fred Wesley & the] J.B.’s "Blow Your Head" record, but played the record at 45 RPM instead of 33 so it was faster, something you could breakdance to. Chuck was pausing it, and doing things.
Flavor [Flav] walked in, saying Chuck was a great MC and we need to let people know what time it is! I thought it was a good combination. Chuck made the rhymes and Flavor hyped the record.
In a 2020 interview, you said the idea of Public Enemy was to create angst and discomfort, to shake people up. You believed that everybody was asleep, so the music had to be disruptive, and jar the senses.
Most rap music at the time was sing-songy and happy, more R&B-based, and battle raps. Poverty out here was enormous, and the crack epidemic was decimating families. There was police brutality and quasi-racism. We felt the tension between us and the police. Things were dark for us. We wrote a song for Run-D.M.C. called "God Bless the U.S." but Russel [Simmons] didn't like it. It was too political. So we thought, why don't we try to do it?
Rick [Rubin] called us and said let's do a 12-inch, but we said let's do a whole album. We needed a full album to tell a full story. We did the whole album for about $10,000, and that record got us attention. I wanted to show what PE represented. Other groups were hybrids of musicians and drum machines, so we said let’s ditch all the musicians and just use records and take samples. That got us notoriety.
The Bomb Squad produced music for many other hip-hop artists like Doug E. Fresh, Slick Rick, LL Cool J, and Ice Cube, but also artists in other genres like Chaka Khan and Paula Abdul. How did you apply your hip-hop approach to pop music?
I started doing remixes for Madonna, Janet Jackson, Jody Watley. The idea was to take the hip-hop element and seed it into the R&B culture, and integrate singing with rapping. The Bel Biv DeVoe records…[were] a hybrid scenario, quasi-rap with singing, and we mixed it together so no one knew where the rapping and singing begins and ends.
It was a cool mix of the two. That idea caught fire. It was new and fresh. The idea was to take hip-hop and push it further.
You’ve had a second career scoring music for film and TV. Your music has appeared in Do The Right Thing, Juice, American Gangster, "Star Trek Beyond," "Friday Night Lights," Atomic Blonde, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, "The Simpsons," He Got Game, and more. How did that second career first begin?
[Filmmaker] Ernest Dickerson came to me when he was working on the film Juice. The film was shot in the Bronx, so the question was how do we give these characters a backdrop? This was a prime case to use hip-hop throughout the entire film. Every scene in that movie had a record in it.
But we needed a score to weave the story together but keep the tension going. You couldn't have scenes that were dead. I didn't know anything about how to do it. There were no computers, so I had to figure it out, scene by scene. It took a lot of guesswork.
From that point on, it opened up a whole new world for me. People got used to hearing that kind of sound inside films.
Your latest project is YE!, a short African film trilogy directed by John Oluwole Adekoje, about women who use ancestral memory to reconstruct colonized minds of Black people throughout the diaspora. Can you talk a bit about the film and the music you created for it?
Now with computers, I can line things up quicker! I wanted to create an emotional feel for the film. The director already had the Fela Kuti song "Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am," a tribal funeral song. I took that song and developed the entire score from it.
The idea goes back to Juice. When a director uses music in their film, everybody is vibing off that frequency. It was the same with this Fela song. Let’s clear it, keep it, and develop everything off that, with that frequency, and emotional attachment.
It’s like if you're at a concert and the crowd is going crazy to one song. You can change to a song with the same beat, but will you get the same looks on their faces? Use the main song as a seed to grow everything else from. Get inside the music and figure out a way not to lose the perspective of what the film needs and be true to the song. It's difficult.
What are you listening to right now? What’s in heavy rotation for you, hip-hop or otherwise?
I'm into Dua Lipa, Lizzo, Drake, 21 Savage. I love trap music. I just think we’re in a great time of music in history. Kane Brown, the country singer, you can’t get any better than that right now. There’s great ambient and electronic music, and a revival of synth pop like Boy Harsher.
There's so much music. There's no Top 10 anymore. There was a time when everybody knew what the Top 10 was, now everybody has their own top 10.
You recently launched a new record label, Teknimension, aimed at exploring the intersection between sound, visual, and tech mediums. Can you elaborate a bit?
It's sort of my version of what [George Lucas’ sound reproduction company] THX does. Like, morphing sounds for film, doing soundtracks with it, doing odd things for sounds in music, like ambient stuff, and holistic healing.
The goal is to create more of a sonic and visual palate than a traditional record company. We’re releasing the soundtrack to YE! on this label in early 2024. It will include songs from artists from Nigeria, Atlanta, and songs inspired by the film.
What’s next for you in 2024? What are you looking forward to most?
Staying alive! It’s hard to say. We’re in a time when you have to create everything yourself now. The age of the Internet forces everybody to become their own everything, your own distribution, graphics. It's about putting projects together and then finding a space to put them out in.
It’s hard to pinpoint when anything is happening, and anything can change in a second. It’s sort of like flying by the seat of your pants, but it's been like this my whole life. Things happen when they happen.
Photo: Courtesy of Asha Imuno
Hip-Hop Re:Defined: Watch Asha Imuno Personalize Kendrick Lamar's "i" With A Sparkling New Chorus
Rap newcomer Asha Imuno offers an upbeat cover of Kendrick Lamar's GRAMMY-winning hit "i," one of the many tracks that inspired the sound for Imuno's upcoming project, 'PINS & NEEDLES.'
Growing up in Compton, California, Kendrick Lamar never thought he would see the day he was happy, confident and, most importantly, hopeful. But his lead single from 2015's To Pimp A Butterfly, "i," proves that reality wasn't so far-fetched — even when confronted with gun violence and police brutality.
In this episode of Hip-Hop Re:Defined, rap newcomer Asha Imuno delivers his rendition of "i," which won Lamar both Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song at the 2015 GRAMMYs. Though the original track's groovy instrumental remains, Imuno adds a personal touch to his cover with a new chorus.
"And I love myself/ The world is a ghetto with big guns and picket signs/ And I love myself/ But they can do what they want, whenever they want, I don't mind," he sings. "And I love myself/ He said I gotta get up, there's more to life than suicide."
Imuno is a longtime fan of Lamar, and according to a press statement, his upcoming album, PINS & NEEDLES, was heavily inspired by Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly. On June 14, Imuno released the first single from the debut project, "PUSHING BUTTONS."
Press play on the video above to hear Asha Imuno's uplifting cover of Kendrick Lamar's "i," and check back to GRAMMY.com for more new episodes of Hip-Hop Re:Defined, a limited series celebrating hip-hop's 50th anniversary.
Photo: Steve Jennings/WireImage
7 Unforgettable Sets From Outside Lands 2023: Foo Fighters' Special Guests, Lana Del Rey's Return & A Superhero DJ Shaq
The 15th edition of San Francisco’s foggy summer festival brought the musical heat — and lots of wild surprises.
On Aug. 11-13, Outside Lands returned to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park for the 15th time. The city's premiere multi-day music and food festival attracted approximately 75,000 daily attendees, and promoter Another Planet says that about half of the 225,000 ticket holders live outside the Bay Area.
Though it takes place in the peak of summer, San Francisco in August is relatively cold and nicknamed "Fogust," which may have shocked any of the out of towners who showed up in shorts and barely-there tops.
The mild weather conditions meant that the true heat was left up to the performers to generate, and the more than 90 acts happily delivered. Below, we recount seven of the sets that were worth braving the summer cold to witness.
Shaq Takes Day One Championship
Moonlighting as DJ Diesel, NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal apologized for starting his incredibly surprising set a few minutes late.
"Sorry I’m late, I was just hanging with Steph Curry and Draymond Green," he said, name checking the Golden State Warriors’ star players. He laced his banter with basketball metaphors and later brought out Warriors guard Gary Payton II to play Queen’s "We Are The Champions" in the team’s honor.
After dropping jaws by firing up aggressively, atonal EDM beats, he invited the crush of fans to come up on stage and "party with Diesel" one at a time. His set veered from Guns N Roses to Imogen Heap and he has to be the first DJ to call for a "ladies only mosh pit" while playing Aqua’s "Barbie World."
When he threw a young blonde boy on his shoulders and they both pumped their fists in unison, it was everything — and that’s how a superhero DJs.
Janelle Monáe Celebrates The Fam
With a towering stack of Jamaican sound system-styled speakers, giant beach balls, a towel-waisted band and swimsuited dancers, Janelle Monáe brought the sexy "Black Sugar Beach" and "Lipstick Lover" vibes of her new album The Age of Pleasure to the Lands End main stage, which she last graced in 2018.
Monáe has since come out as nonbinary and greatly expanded her fanbase; at Outside Lands, she dedicated her performance to "my community, the LGBTQIA+ community," saying, "I love you so much. To be Black, to be queer, to be nonbinary, to evolve and to have family like you is a blessing."
Monáe’s natural charisma has only gotten sharper over time, and her dance moves are more infused with the quick steps of the Godfather of Soul James Brown and Prince. Her almost Rockettes-level line choreography with her dancers has leveled up as well.
This year’s Outside Lands also saw the debut of the LGBTQIA+-centric Dolores’ stage, which was powered all weekend by local party crews such as Hard French, Fake and Gay and Oasis. A highlight was Reparations, an all-Black drag show hosted by the incomparable Nicki Jizz, San Francisco’s serial Drag Queen of the Year (according to local publication 48 Hills) who wore a large penis hat that she claimed was true to her actual size. The most overtly queer-friendly edition of Outside Lands was something beautiful to continue and build on in the future.
Kendrick Lamar Brings The Friday Night Light
Last seen rapping to a small but rapturous crowd on a secondary stage at Outside Lands in 2015, Kendrick Lamar has grown immeasurably as a recording artist and live performer. Lamar commanded the Lands End stage, closing the festival’s first night with quietly assertive control and grace in a performance that felt like a rightful graduation. This veritable elder statesman slot has been previously held by major acts like Radiohead, Neil Young With Crazy Horse and Paul McCartney.
His 2022 album Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers featured prominently in the 21-song set, which included leftfield covers of Pusha T’s "Nosetalgia" and The Weeknd’s "Sidewalks." But Lamar knows that people still want to yell their lungs out to earlier cuts like "Swimming Pools (Drank)," "Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe," "m.A.A.d city," "HUMBLE." and "Alright" and he obliged.
Lana Del Rey Swings Back To Twin Peaks
Flower crowns were all the rage when Lana Del Rey made her Outside Lands debut in 2016 at Twin Peaks, the festival’s second largest stage. A new generation has since discovered the singer’s outsize character and vibe, and as the gates opened on Saturday, giddy groups of teenage girls rushed to park themselves at the edge of that very same stage to catch Del Rey’s big return to Golden Gate Park.
This time, Del Rey’s set included a projection that said "God Bless You San Francisco" and a giant swing woven with flowers that flung her into the air while she sang. Her set spanned her classics, like "Video Games" from 2012’s Born To Die, current hits, such as the title track from this year’s album Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd., and a loving cover of Tammy Wynette’s 1968 country hit "Stand By Your Man."
Though she’s revered as an almost otherworldly figure and was an angelic vision in white, Del Rey doesn’t act untouchable in 2023 — in fact, she literally came down and touched some of those fans who waited all day for her.
Foo Fighters Come Out Crooning
"We’ve gotta fit 28 years into two f—ing hours!" Dave Grohl explained early in the Foo Fighters' set. It was a towering goal that they tackled with consummate ease, reaching back to hits such as "Times Like These" and "The Pretender" and showing the continuum through to recent songs like "Rescue."
After playing a few choice riffs of "Enter Sandman," it would have been less of a surprise to see a member of two-time Outside Lands headliner (and Bay Area natives) Metallica join them on stage than who actually came out for a cameo. After flying in from Argentina, Michael Bublé initially pretended to be a regular audience member before going onstage to sing his hit "Haven’t Met You Yet."
The Foo-Bublé connection is fun and surprising: New drummer Josh Freese has also played for the Canadian crooner, and "Haven’t Met You Yet" is part of a medley that the Foo Fighters are doing on tour that is comprised of other bands Freese has supported (including Devo’s "Whip It" and Nine Inch Nails’ "March of the Pigs").
Of course, the late drummer Taylor Hawkins will always be a prominent part of the Foo Fighters and their shows, and they played "Aurora" in his memory. As the park’s Polo Field lit up in violet-colored lights, Grohl’s 17-year-old daughter Violet Grohl also joined to sing three songs with her father, which he said was his absolute favorite thing in the world to do.
"I’m sure I’m embarrassing her right now!" he said.
Gabriels Tributes Tina Turner
"We’re California boys, but this is our first time in San Francisco," shared Gabriels singer Jacob Lusk before turning the Sutro stage into the Church of Outside Lands, and instructing everyone to share some neighborly love.
The Los Angeles band has some meteoric fans: Elton John invited Lusk, whose early resume includes being a former "American Idol" contestant who was in a gospel group with the late Nate Dogg, to sing with him on stage at this year’s Glastonbury. Lusk’s incredible vocal range flexes from baritone to falsetto on a dime, and he frequently takes a step back from the microphone while singing, as if not to overwhelm it.
In a particularly touching moment, Gabriels performed Tina Turner’s "Private Dancer" while a montage of footage of Turner filled the screen.
Megan Thee Stallion Triumphs Over Tragedy
Fog flooded the park as a super snatched Megan Thee Stallion took to the stage in a hot Barbie pink outfit and long red hair, but she blazed through the haze with ground-sweeping twerking and saucy tracks like "Body," "Her," "WAP" and "Big Ole Freak." It was her first performance since Tory Lanez was sentenced to 10 years for shooting her, and she was feeling noticeably buoyant.
"F— all my haters!" she said in the middle of the set. "None of the s— you was doing or saying broke me."
She received nothing but love from the crowd, and she was delighted by a big pocket of "boys" that she saw. Meg truly loves her "Hotties," and even stopped in between songs to sign someone’s graduation cap. A recent grad herself, she is proud of her fans who follow suit.
"Real college girl s—!" she exclaimed.
Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
A Guide To Southern California Hip-Hop: Definitive Releases, Artists & Subgenres From L.A. & Beyond
Hip-hop began in the Bronx, but many of the culture’s most unforgettable moments came from Southern California. In celebration of the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, take a trip through SoCal's rich hip-hop history — from N.W.A. and KDAY, to the Super Bowl.
"The sun rises in the East, but it sets in the West," raps Ice Cube on Westside Connection’s 1996 hit, "Bow Down." Indeed, hip-hop began in the Bronx, New York. But many of the culture’s most unforgettable moments have come from Southern California, a region where young Black and Brown people took to hip-hop soon after the Sugarhill Gang’s "Rapper’s Delight" blew up worldwide.
This guide chronicles some of the region’s many musical peaks, from commanding attention in the late ’80s, to virtually dominating the genre in the ’90s, and eliciting worldwide acclaim in the 21st century and beyond.
A Brief History Of Southern California Hip-Hop
Since the first L.A. hip-hop record in 1981, Disco Daddy and Captain Rapp’s "The Gigolo Rapp," Southern California has generated some of the biggest names in hip-hop history: Ice-T, Eazy-E, N.W.A., Ice Cube, Cypress Hill, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, 2Pac, The Game…everyone knows who the kings of the West Coast are. That legacy has not only made the region a prideful one, but also led to assumptions that "gangsta rap" defines it.
But Southern California has yielded more artistic variety than just street politics, whether it’s poetic lyricists like Kendrick Lamar, brilliantly idiosyncratic producers like Madlib, bracing innovators like Freestyle Fellowship, or unabashedly good-time rappers like Tone-Loc and Tyga.
No matter the form, rap in Southern California is deeply rooted in bluesy funk, soul, and jazz. It’s a complex scene that's often divided by neighborhood affiliation and stylistic differences, yet united by a place everyone calls home. Artists in SoCal are unafraid to make soundtracks for dance floors and family cookouts as well as for cruising through L.A.’s freeway sprawl. That common touch is why the city’s brand of rap music resonates around the globe.
Southern California hip-hop has waxed and waned in national popularity, and its creative and commercial dominance in the 1990s and early aughts, thanks to massive hits such as Dr. Dre’s The Chronic and 2001 as well as 2Pac’s All Eyez on Me, continue to cast a long shadow over the culture. However, you’ll find highlights throughout the past four-plus decades, many of which are recounted here.
Key Moments In Southern California Hip-Hop
1983 - KDAY-FM Goes On The Air: When Texas radio programmer Greg Mack was hired by KDAY-FM 1580 AM in 1983, he decided to turn the station into the first rap station in the country. Early West Coast DJs like Dr. Dre and the KDAY Mixmasters — a group of jocks that included Tony G, Joe Cooley, DJ Aladdin, Battlecat, and others — made the station required listening for fans of the fledgling genre throughout the '80s and early '90s. Decades later, and after returning to 93.5 FM as an old-school hip-hop station, KDAY remains a point of pride for the local community.
1986 - Run-DMC’s Concert Sparks A Riot: While largely forgotten now, the events that unfolded during Run-D.M.C.’s ill-fated August 1986 concert at Long Beach Arena made national headlines. Local Crips and Bloods members fought each other in the stands, leading to injuries, arrests and a lasting stigma that rap shows were a magnet for thuggery. In its wake, city officials around the country barred artists from performing, and required massive insurance premiums for shows to take place. In December 1986, Run-DMC appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone to explain why hip-hop shouldn’t be associated with violence.
1989 - The F.B.I. Sends A Warning To N.W.A: On Aug. 1, 1989, the Federal Bureau of Investigation sent a letter to Priority Records, the distributor for N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton. "Advocating violence and assault is wrong," wrote the official in reference to the group’s protest song, "F— Tha Police." "I believe my views reflect the opinion of the entire law enforcement community." Ironically, the letter had a galvanizing effect when the group’s management leaked it to the press. Critics who were divided over the album’s merits rallied around N.W.A. as free-speech heroes, and it helped make the group one of the most important musical acts in America.
1997 - The Notorious B.I.G. Is Murdered In Los Angeles: When Brooklyn rap legend the Notorious B.I.G. was gunned down after leaving a Soul Train Music Awards afterparty at the on March 9, the public — correctly or not — viewed it as the culmination of an "East Coast vs. West Coast" rivalry between executives at Death Row Records and Biggie’s label Bad Boy Records, as well as retribution for Death Row superstar 2Pac’s murder in Las Vegas the previous fall. Biggie’s still-unsolved murder continues to cast a shadow over the L.A. rap scene, even though it is hardly the only hip-hop region where high-profile crimes have marred its reputation.
2011 - Odd Future Appears On "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon": Tyler, The Creator and Hodgy Beats’s rendition of "Sandwitches" alongside "Jimmy Fallon" backing band the Roots on Feb. 16, 2011 was a veritable youthquake. It not only made Odd Future one of the hottest groups in the country, but also served notice of that younger generation more influenced by online culture than street politics had officially arrived. Few who saw the viral video can forget the sight of Fallon giving Tyler a piggyback ride as Mos Def suddenly appeared out of nowhere, screaming in delight.
2011 – The West Coast Torch Is Passed to Kendrick Lamar: On Aug. 19, 2011, as Kendrick Lamar celebrated the release of his independent album Section.80 at the Fonda Theater (fka as The Music Box), the Game, Snoop Dogg, Warren G, and Kurupt emerged onto the stage. "You’ve got the torch now, you better run with it," said Snoop. Then the rappers embraced Lamar as he broke down in tears and the crowd chanted, "Kendrick! Kendrick!" In the years since the moment was captured on video, Lamar became one of the most important rappers of his generation.
2022 - Dr. Dre And Friends Perform At The Super Bowl Halftime Show: Held at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Super Bowl LVI gave Dr. Dre the opportunity to reminisce on his historic career. As he performed classics like "Still D.R.E." and "The Next Episode" with guests like Snoop Dogg, Bronx R&B singer Mary J. Blige, Detroit rapper Eminem, Queens rapper 50 Cent, Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar, and Oxnard rap singer Anderson .Paak, Dre took viewers on a journey through old-school hip-hop lore and created a joyous tribute to the genre. The widely acclaimed show was subsequently honored three times at the 2022 Primetime Emmy Awards.
Definitive SoCal Hip-Hop Rappers
Ice-T: Los Angeles rapper Ice-T was arguably the first West Coast star who elicited respect from New York tastemakers as a peer and fellow pioneer. Inspired by Philly rapper Schoolly D, his breakthrough single, "6 in the Mornin’," is often cited as the first West Coast reality rap song (although some would argue that Toddy Tee’s "Batteram" precedes it).
His 1987 debut album, Rhyme Pays, was the first to carry a parental warning sticker. Ice-T faced censorship throughout his career, most dramatically when police unions and the NRA targeted him for "Cop Killer," his satirical track with his rock-rap group, Body Count. Now in his 60s and a familiar face on the TV series "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," Ice-T remains a role model for artists who want to make a greater cultural impact than just music.
N.W.A.: As an alliance between DJ/producers Dr. Dre and DJ Yella and rappers Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and MC Ren (early member Arabian Prince left before Straight Outta Compton took off) — N.W.A impressed with their first single, "Dope Man." That led to a 1987 debut compilation for Eazy-E’s Ruthless camp, N.W.A and the Posse. Then, with tracks like "F— the Police," "Gangsta Gangsta," and the surprisingly upbeat radio hit "Express Yourself," Straight Outta Compton made them the most dangerous group in America, and a target of law enforcement as well as the FBI.
After a second album, efil4zaggaN, the group collapsed over financial disputes and interpersonal drama. That’s part of the N.W.A legend, too, as illustrated in the acclaimed, Oscar-nominated 2015 film, Straight Outta Compton.
Snoop Dogg: With his Modelo and Jack in the Box commercials airing nightly, Snoop Dogg is an ambassador for Southern California hip-hop. Discovered by Dr. Dre through Dre’s cousin, rapper/producer Warren G, he debuted with "Deep Cover," where he chanted in a sing-song voice, "’Cause it’s 1-8-7 on an undercover cop!" On his solo album, Doggystyle, he seemed to excel at hit singles like "Gin and Juice" that turned life into a never-ending party full of sticky weed and beautiful women.
In short, he personified how G-funk, a movement that once terrified the music industry, would be eventually mainstreamed into a party open to everyone. No matter one’s age or gender, everyone has a favorite Snoop track, whether it’s old-school favorites like "It Ain’t No Fun (If the Homies Can’t Have None)," club bangers like "Drop It Like It’s Hot," pop cameos like Katy Perry’s "California Gurls," or even bilingual Latin hits tracks like Banda MS’ "Qué Maldición."
Nipsey Hussle: At the time of his murder in 2019, Crenshaw rapper Nipsey Hussle seemed poised to break through to mainstream success. He represented a new era of Southern California rap defined by independent hustle, generational wealth from the ground up, savvy marketing stunts, and unapologetically street-oriented music.
Nipsey began his career in the mid-2000s, slowly rising through sundry mixtape appearances as well as features on albums by 2Pac, Snoop Dogg, and Glasses Malone. He earned national attention when he sold CD copies of his mixtape, Crenshaw, for $100 a pop; Jay-Z himself reportedly bought several. Tracks from his GRAMMY-nominated major label debut, 2018’s Victory Lap, seemed omnipresent at local sporting events. After his death, Nipsey appeared on a posthumous 2019 hit, "Racks in the Middle," with Compton rap singer Roddy Ricch.
Kendrick Lamar: Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar is the region’s crown prince, both blessed and burdened with sustaining West Coast rap tradition. While much of his music grapples with the weight of those expectations, he’s also been extraordinarily successful, scoring No. 1 hits like "Humble," global arena tours, and multi-platinum albums like good kid, m.A.A.d city and DAMN. The latter made him the first hip-hop artist to win the Pulitzer Prize.
One of the most influential and acclaimed artists of his generation, Lamar signifies a new openness among young artists to discussing mental health and self-care, all while dazzling listeners with conceptual complexity and thematic layers. Signed for years to Top Dawg Entertainment, Lamar recently has launched his own company, pgLang, with news about his direction forward still to come.
Cruical Hip-Hop Crews
Lench Mob: When Ice Cube broke from N.W.A. at the end of 1989, Lench Mob became his circle of friends as well as a production company and, eventually, a label imprint distributed by Priority Records.
Early members included Yo-Yo, who scored a major hit with Cube in 1991’s "You Can’t Play with My Yo-Yo." Then there was Da Lench Mob — Shorty, J-Dee, and T-Bone — and "Guerillas in the Mist." And after the 1992 L.A. riots sparked by the Rodney King verdict led to peace treaties among rival gangs in Watts, rapper Kam celebrated with his 1993 hit single, "Peace Treaty." Other associates include Inglewood rapper Mack 10, who scored gold-certified solo albums and joined with Cube and W.C. in the supergroup Westside Connection, and teenage South Central duo Kausion.
Soul Assassins: Originally formed as a publishing company for Cypress Hill as they created their classic self-titled 1991 debut, Soul Assassins eventually became an alliance of artists and one of the most underrated hit-making crews of the 1990s. Its members included House of Pain, authors of the deathless "Jump Around"; Funkdoobiest, who scored the 1993 hit "Bow Wow Wow"; and protégés like the Whooliganz, a duo made of future super-producer the Alchemist and future Hollywood actor Scott Caan; as well as Call O’ Da Wild, the Psycho Realm, and Self Scientific.
The crew’s releases espoused a dusty, psychedelic, and hardcore style distinct from the G-funk sound that defined the decade. In 1997, Cypress Hill producer DJ Muggs launched a series of Soul Assassins compilations that found him collaborating with the likes of Dr. Dre, Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA and GZA, and Mobb Deep.
Likwit Crew: Centered around Compton OG King Tee and Tha Alkaholiks members Tash, J-Ro, and E-Swift, Likwit Crew charted a hardcore middle path between the lyrical experimentations of the rappers associated with vaunted open-mic showcase Good Life Café, and the gangsta funk of Death Row.
Associated acts include Dilated Peoples, who scored at the dawn of the 2000s with the Alchemist-produced "Worst Comes to Worst" and the Kanye West-produced "This Way"; Xzibit, who released two solo albums before joining forces with Dr. Dre for 2000’s platinum-certified Restless; Defari, who released the underrated 1999 album Focused Daily; the Lootpack, and Phil Da Agony.
Project Blowed: For much of the late '90s and aughts, Project Blowed defined subterranean, avant-garde lyricism in Los Angeles. It was not only an event held in Leimert Park, but also a collective and a record label. Aceyalone, rapper and one-time member of pioneering group Freestyle Fellowship, and Abstract Rude — who was briefly signed to the Beastie Boys’ label Grand Royal — were two of its most prominent members. Others were Figures of Speech, which included future film director Ava DuVernay, Medusa the "gangsta goddess," and Volume 10, author of the 1993 hit, "Pistolgrip-Pump."
Odd Future: Formed in 2007, Odd Future became one of the most popular rap crews of their era. Their grungy skate-punk aesthetics, soulful introspection, and youthful fervor helped define the genre-agnostic quality of current hip-hop.
Onetime leader Tyler, the Creator is acclaimed for albums like 2019’s Igor and 2021’s Call Me If You Get Lost. The same goes for Frank Ocean and his two masterpieces, Channel Orange and Blonde. Other members include Earl Sweatshirt, Syd the Kyd — who went on to form the alternative soul group the Internet — Hodgy and Left Brain of Mellow Hype, and Jasper Dolphin, who later joined the Jackass franchise.
Essential SoCal Hip-Hop Releases
N.W.A. - Straight Outta Compton (1988): N.W.A’s landmark Straight Outta Compton is the product of three Compton musicians with years of experience in the L.A. hip-hop scene. Dr. Dre and DJ Yella spent three years as part of World Class Wreckin Cru, the mobile DJ unit and electro group led by Lonzo Williams. South Central native Ice Cube bounced around in various rap acts, notably the trio C.I.A. (Criminals in Action). MC Ren performed locally. The wild card was Eazy-E, a self-admitted drug dealer who didn’t have any musical experience until Dre asked him to rap Cube’s lyrics for "The Boyz-N-The Hood."
The Pharcyde - BizarreRideIIThePharcyde (1992): The Pharcyde’s debut album remains proof that Southern California hip-hop had more to offer than just gangsta rap. Produced by L.A. Jay, the album finds Romye, Imani, Slim Kid Tré, and Fat Lip embarking on a series of wacky, hilarious, and heart-rending adventures over crunchy samples from the likes of Quincy Jones and Jimi Hendrix. The tone ranges from the irreverence of "4 Better or 4 Worse" to the moving introspection of "Passin’ Me By" and "Otha Fish." BizarreRideIIThePharcyde was released a few weeks before Dr. Dre’s The Chronic.
Dr. Dre - The Chronic (1992): With The Chronic, Dr. Dre proved that rappers could make uncompromising, hardcore records and still succeed on the pop charts. Its first single, "Nuthin’ but a G Thang," was a sensation in rap circles and a major crossover hit, reaching the top five on the Billboard charts.
Dre collaborated with new voices like Snoop Doggy Dogg, Warren G, the Lady of Rage, RBX, Tha Dogg Pound — Kurupt and Daz, and singers Nate Dogg and Jewell, all of whom would define West Coast rap in the '90s. Meanwhile, his process of using musicians like Colin Wolfe to interpolate vintage funk sounds helped create what later became known as G-funk.
2Pac - All Eyez on Me (1996): 2Pac came of age as a rapper while living in Northern California's Marin County and Oakland, recording hit singles like "I Get Around" and "Keep Ya Head Up." But after signing to Death Row, he made a double album that posited Southern California as the center of West Coast hip-hop. Certified diamond by the RIAA, All Eyez on Me is an embarrassment of riches, packed with hit singles like "California Love'' and "2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted," beloved deep cuts like "Ambitionz Az a Rider," and collaborations with Method Man & Redman, Snoop Dogg, George Clinton, and many others. It’s a gangsta party that certified him as a rap legend.
Kendrick Lamar - good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012): Lamar’s first major-label album is not only a concept album about growing up in Compton, but also about a young person burdened by the gangsta legacy — for good and ill. His songs poke holes at long-held assumptions about how Black men in Los Angeles should handle life’s complications, from binge drinking in "Swimming Pools (Drank)" to navigating tensions between Crips and Bloods on "m.A.A.d city." His thoughts on spirituality and solitude on "Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe" reflect a new generation of Southern California rappers searching for inner peace while remaining true to their communities.
Notable SoCal Hip-Hop Labels
Ruthless: As the home of N.W.A, Eazy-E’s company hardly needs an introduction. Yet casual fans may not be familiar with the variety of acts that passed through the label in the '80s and '90s. In addition to documenting N.W.A’s tumultuous reign, it put out J.J. Fad’s pop smash "Supersonic," R&B singer Michel’le’s "No More Lies," and the D.O.C.’s platinum-certified 1989 debut, No One Can Do It Better — all in addition to solo projects from Eazy-E and MC Ren.
G-funk architects like Above the Law, Penthouse Players Clique, and Kokane spent time on the label, and it even found space for Jewish hip-hop group Blood of Abraham and an early version of Black Eyed Peas (then known as Atban Klann). Ruthless’ most famous post-N.W.A export is the Cleveland group Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, who sold millions with hits like "Thuggish Ruggish Bone" and "Tha Crossroads."
Delicious Vinyl: In the late '80s, Delicious Vinyl served as a contrast to the reality rap-focused Ruthless Records with pop-rap hits like Tone-Loc’s "Wild Thing," Young MC’s "Bust a Move," and Def Jef’s "Give It Here." Matt Dike, who co-founded the label with Michael Ross, was also a member of production team the Dust Brothers, who played a major role in Brooklyn transplants Beastie Boys’ 1989 masterwork, Paul’s Boutique.
The following decade, Delicious Vinyl’s roster expanded to innovators like the British acid-jazz combo Brand New Heavies, lyrically-minded L.A. quartet the Pharcyde, and New York unit Masta Ace Incorporated.
Death Row: Formed by Dr. Dre after he left N.W.A and Compton entrepreneur Suge Knight, Death Row was one of the most successful — and controversial — record labels of the 1990s. Beginning with Dre’s The Chronic, the label issued several albums that defined the era, like Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle, the Above the Rim soundtrack, Tha Dogg Pound’s Dogg Food, and 2Pac’s All Eyez on Me.
Death Row began to fall apart after Dr. Dre left and 2Pac was murdered in 1996, and Suge Knight was imprisoned on parole violation charges in 1997. The company’s valuable catalog has since changed several hands, with Snoop Dogg and various partners taking control of it last year.
Stones Throw: Originally founded in San Jose, California by DJ/producer Peanut Butter Wolf, Stones Throw relocated to Los Angeles in 2000. That’s when the label hit its stride as a popular indie label, thanks in part to idiosyncratic producer Madlib, who helmed critically acclaimed albums like Quasimoto’s The Unseen and Madvillain’s Madvillainy.
Other Southern California artists who spent time on the roster include Madlib’s brother, rapper/producer Oh No; Oxnard musician Anderson .Paak and producer Knxwledge, together known as NxWorries; Detroit rapper/producer J Dilla, who made Donuts while living in L.A. before his 2006 death; street-rap trio Strong Arm Steady, and Orange County rapper/producer Jonwayne.
Top Dawg Entertainment: Thanks in part to GRAMMY-winning Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar — whose literary and conceptual songwriting pushed hip-hop music to new heights — Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith’s record label is a powerhouse in the music industry. Then there’s New Jersey’s SZA, whose blend of rap-styled flows and R&B vocals make her one of the most innovative of her era.
Other standout acts on Top Dawg include Carson rappers Schoolboy Q and Ab-Soul — who together with Lamar and Jay Rock form the group Black Hippy — Tennessee rapper/singer Isaiah Rashad, Inglewood alternative soul vocalist SiR, and Florida newcomer Doechii.
Subgenres Of SoCal Hip-Hop
Electro: When Southern California hip-hop emerged in the 1980s, the sound of electro dominated. Ice-T began his career with electro tracks like 1983’s "Cold-Wind Madness." Dr. Dre launched his career with the World Class Wreckin’ Cru, and his DJ prowess shined on their single, "Surgery." Pioneering DJ Egyptian Lover — a member of Mobile DJ unit Uncle Jamm’s Army — scored a national hit in 1984 with "Egypt, Egypt."
Other memorable cuts during this era, which lasted roughly from 1983 to the arrival of N.W.A. in the late '80s, include Captain Rapp and "Bad Times (I Can’t Stand It)," which featured production from Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis; Toddy Tee’s "Batteram," and Arabian Prince’s "Strange Life." Rap artists may have abandoned the sound, but it continues to inspire modern-day funk and electronic musicians like Dām Funk, Nite Jewel, and XL Middleton.
G-Funk: Since emerging around 1991 via productions from N.W.A’s Dr. Dre, DJ Quik, Cold 187um and DJ Pooh, G-funk has been the definitive Southern California rap sound — as key to the region’s identity as boom-bap is to New York and trap is to Atlanta. The bass-heavy, funky worm-driven, P-Funk-inspired sound has inspired decades of artists. At its peak in the mid-'90s, it was the sound of stars like Domino, Suga Free, and Warren G. But each new generation seems to find new twists on the sturdy formula, whether it’s The Game and Nipsey Hussle in the Aughts; or, in recent years, YG and G Perico.
Chicano Rap: While often overlooked by the media, Chicano rap — an umbrella term for Mexican Americans who make English and Spanglish-language rap — has deep roots in Southern California. West Coast OG Kid Frost began his career in the mid-'80s before landing a major hit in 1990 with "La Raza." He led a wave of Latin rappers in the early '90s that included A Lighter Shade of Brown ("On a Sunday Afternoon"), Mellow Man Ace ("Mentirosa"), A.L.T. and the Lost Civilization ("Tequila"), and Proper Dos ("Mexican Power").
Of course, Cypress Hill are the most famed Chicano rap group of all, thanks to songs like "Latin Lingo." Later years brought acts such as NB Ridaz ("Down for Yours"), Lil Rob ("Summer Nights"), Lil One, and Mr. Knightowl. On their 1998 debut album, Latin fusion group Ozomatli, scored rap hits like "Super Bowl Sundae" and "Cut Chemist Suite."
Turntablism: Coined by Babu of the Beat Junkies as well as Dilated Peoples, turntablism refers to the art of scratching, mixing, and blending records. An international scene flourished in the '90s and early 2000s — with strongholds in Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area — putting a much-needed spotlight back to DJs, the original creators of hip-hop before rappers took over. Turntablism produced standout artists like D-Styles, J Rocc, Cut Chemist from Jurassic 5, DJ Rob One, Faust & Shortee, and others.
BTS/Beats: "Beats" is a catch-all term for production that incorporates electronic music and rap instrumentals. L.A. producers like the late Ras G, Carlos Niño and Daedelus developed the sound throughout the aughts before it caught fire with the likes of Flying Lotus, TOKiMONSTA, and Knxwledge.
Two major touchstones are Madvillain’s Madvillainy — a one-off pairing between Oxnard producer Madlib and the late New York rapper MF DOOM — and Donuts, which Detroit producer J Dilla made while living in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, the dusty loops that many beat producers employ have inspired music by Earl Sweatshirt, rapper/singer Anderson .Paak, and others.
Rising Hip-Hop Artists From Southern California
03 Greedo: Watts rapper 03 Greedo became a cult sensation on the strength of projects like The Wolf of Grape Street and God Level, and a nakedly honest perspective on gang life augmented by a watery, Auto-Tuned voice. His trajectory stalled when he was imprisoned on trafficking charges in 2018. 03 Greedo was paroled earlier this year, and has said that he plans on making up for lost time.
Maxo: Max "Maxo" Allen parlayed underground notoriety into a major-label deal with Def Jam, which issued his Lil Big Man album in 2019. His second major-label effort, 2023’s Even God Has a Sense of Humor, stands out for his introspective writing, and his fearlessness in exploring life’s meaning and finding solace in family and lovers.
Navy Blue: Former skateboarder Sage "Navy Blue" Elsesser first drew attention with a cameo on Earl Sweatshirt’s lo-fi gem, Some Rap Songs. He subsequently built a following with independent solo albums that emphasized his spiritual-minded lyrics and lo-fi production. After signing to Def Jam, he released the acclaimed Ways of Knowing this year.