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A Guide To Southern California Hip-Hop: Definitive Releases, Artists & Subgenres From L.A. & Beyond
Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre in 1993

Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

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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.

GRAMMYs/Aug 9, 2023 - 05:19 pm

"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. 

Listen to the Spotify playlist below or visit Amazon Music, Pandora and Apple Music for an auditory accompaniment to this guide to the best of the region.

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.

How 1994 Changed The Game For Hip-Hop
Notorious B.I.G. in Brooklyn, 1994

Photo: Clarence Davis/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

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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.

GRAMMYs/Feb 13, 2024 - 05:22 pm

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.

Read more: A Guide To Texas Hip-Hop: Definitive Releases, Artists & Events

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. 

Read more: A Guide To Bay Area Hip-Hop: Definitive Releases, Artists & Subgenres From Northern California

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." 

Read more: A Guide To Southern Hip-Hop: Definitive Releases, Artists & Subgenres From The Dirty South

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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2024 GRAMMYs: Jay-Z Receives Dr. Dre Global Impact Award
(L-R) Jay-Z and Blue Ivy at the 2024 GRAMMYs.

Photo: VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images

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2024 GRAMMYs: Jay-Z Receives Dr. Dre Global Impact Award

Alongside his daughter Blue Ivy, Jay-Z accepted the Dr. Dre Global Impact Award at the 2024 GRAMMYs with an inspiring speech.

GRAMMYs/Feb 5, 2024 - 03:37 am

Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter became the second-ever recipient of the Dr. Dre Global Impact Award for his many achievements across a career that has spanned decades.

A 24-time GRAMMY winner and 88-time nominee, Jay-Z was presented the Global Impact Award after being introduced by host Trevor Noah.

With his daughter Blue Ivy at his side onstage, Jay-Z first joked that his latest golden gramophone is no longer needed as the "gold sippy cup" like the one he won in 2014.

He then delivered a powerful speech that touched upon hip-hop's history, discussing its struggle to get recognized by the Academy and his own decision to boycott the show in 1998. He also thanked Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg for opening up opportunities for himself and other East Coast Rap artists and encouraged artists to keep pushing.

"You gotta keep showing up. Just keep showing up until they give you all those accolades you feel you deserve, until they call you genius, until they call you chairman, until they call you the greatest of all time. Feel me?"

The Dr. Dre Global Impact Award was first awarded at the 2023 GRAMMYs to its namesake, Dr. Dre. Revisit his speech here.

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GRAMMY Rewind: Dr. Dre Takes Home The Inaugural Global Impact Award, Named In His Honor, In 2023
Dr. Dre at the 2023 GRAMMYs.

Photo: Timothy Norris / FilmMagic / Getty Images

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GRAMMY Rewind: Dr. Dre Takes Home The Inaugural Global Impact Award, Named In His Honor, In 2023

In homage to Dr. Dre's trailblazing achievements in music, the Recording Academy presented the first-ever Dr. Dre Global Impact Award at the 2023 GRAMMY Awards ceremony — to the rapper himself.

GRAMMYs/Jan 26, 2024 - 04:07 am

Dr. Dre has proven that an artist's job can go far beyond writing lyrics and performing at venues. In his nearly 40-year career, he has founded his own record label, Aftermath Entertainment, co-founded Beats Electronics, endowed the USC Jimmy Iovine and Andrew Young Academy, and much more.

To celebrate his massive achievements, the Recording Academy and Black Music Collective created the Global Impact Award, named in his honor. Relive the moment Dr. Dre accepted the inaugural gramophone in this episode of GRAMMY Rewind.

"I know everybody in here probably knows this already, but this is the 50th anniversary of hip-hop," Dr. Dre said at the beginning of his speech. "Make some noise for hip-hop!"

In his eyes, one of the most rewarding parts of his work is the collaboration. "Assembling a team with talented artists, engineers, and musicians with gifts different from mine and who shine in ways that I don't have been both inspiring and crucial to my success," he recalled. 

"I'm extremely grateful to all of those who have comprised that team over the years, and I would not be here accepting this award without their contribution."

Before heading off the stage, Dr. Dre gave one encouraging message to the next wave of music's changemakers: "What I love about this award is that it uses my name to inspire the next generation of producers, artists, and entrepreneurs to reach for their greatness and demand that from everybody around you. Never compromise your vision. Pursue quality over quantity. And remember everything is important."

Watch the video above for Dr. Dre's complete acceptance speech for the Dr. Dre Global Impact Award at the 2023 GRAMMYs.

Check back to GRAMMY.com for more new episodes of GRAMMY Rewind, and be sure to tune into the 2024 GRAMMYs on Sunday, Feb. 4, airing live on the CBS Television Network (8-11:30 p.m. LIVE ET/5-8:30 p.m. LIVE PT) and streaming on Paramount+ (live and on-demand for Paramount+ with SHOWTIME subscribers, or on-demand for Paramount+ Essential subscribers the day after the special airs).

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GRAMMY.com’s 50th Anniversary Of Hip-Hop Coverage: A Recap
A tribute to the 50th anniversary of hip-hop at the 2023 GRAMMYs

Photo: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

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GRAMMY.com’s 50th Anniversary Of Hip-Hop Coverage: A Recap

The Recording Academy’s celebration of hip-hop’s 50th anniversary included televised events and captivating interviews. Check out the wide range of articles and features produced by GRAMMY.com commemorating this musical milestone.

GRAMMYs/Dec 28, 2023 - 02:51 pm

When we look back at the Recording Academy’s 2023, the 50th anniversary of hip-hop will loom exceptionally large.

The ongoing celebration permeated every facet of the world’s leading society of music professionals this year, from the 65th Annual Awards Ceremony in February to the special airing of "A GRAMMY Salute To Hip-Hop" in December — a dense, thrillingly kaleidoscopic televised tribute to the breadth of this genre.

One major accompaniment to this was coverage of the genre’s legacy via GRAMMY.com, the editorial site run by the Recording Academy. If you haven’t been keeping up, we’ve got you covered. Here’s a highlight reel of the work GRAMMY.com published in honor of the 50th anniversary of hip-hop.

We Profiled Rising Stars

From Lola Brooke to Tkay Maidza, GRAMMY.com engaged in comprehensive in-depth interviews with artists who are at the forefront of shaping the future of hip-hop, and held a roundtable discussion about exactly what the next 50 years might look like. 

We Published Conversations With Legends

DJ Kool Herc and Questlove, who have played unquestionable roles in hip-hop’s continuing evolution, spoke to GRAMMY.com about their profound and abiding connections to the idiom.

The Contributions Of Women Were Highlighted

Without the inspired vision of countless women, hip-hop would not be what it is today. The "Ladies First" segment, which kicked off "A GRAMMY Salute To Hip-Hop" featuring Queen Latifah, Monie Love, and MC Lyte, among other lady greats with Spinderella as DJ, was an ode to this. 

In acknowledgment of female trailblazers in a world dominated by men, GRAMMY.com wrote about teen girl pioneers, women behind the scenes, a revealing Netflix doc, and women artists pushing the genre forward in 2023, from Ice Spice to Lil Simz.

We Revisted Hip-Hop’s Biggest Releases

From Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) to Jay-Z’s The Black Album to Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy, GRAMMY.com dove deep into the core hip-hop canon. We also broke down the genre’s development decade by decade through the 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s, 10s, and 20s, with a focus on classic albums from each era.

Listen To GRAMMY.com's 50th Anniversary Of Hip-Hop Playlist: 50 Songs That Show The Genre's Evolution

We Criss-Crossed The Country

GRAMMY.com’s series of regional guides — from the Bay Area and SoCal, to Texas and the Dirty South, to D.C. and NYC highlight hip-hop’s diversity of culture and sound.

We Went International

Although hip-hop is a quintessentially American phenomenon, its impact, appeal, and influence has spread worldwide. The international appetite for hip-hop was showcased in coverage of Latinx and Argentinian rappers to know, as well as five international hip-hop scenes to know: France, Nigeria, Brazil, South Africa, and England.

We Explored Hip-Hop’s Larger Impact

Hip-hop is more than a sound. It’s a culture that permeates almost every sector of life. Showcasing this effervescence, GRAMMY.com ran pieces about the evolution of hip-hop’s influence on educational curriculum worldwide, as well as its biggest fashion and style moments.

We Covered On Stage Celebrations

"A GRAMMY Salute To 50 Years Of Hip-Hop," the two-hour special that aired in December on CBS and is available on demand on Paramount+ represented a culmination of the Recording Academy’s 50th year anniversary celebration.

Revisit the 2023 GRAMMYs’ hip-hop revue, and check out a recap of "A GRAMMY Salute" with photos, a rundown of all the performers and songs and coverage of the Black Music Collective’s Recording Academy honors in February.

It Didn’t Stop There…

Notable coverage also included the evolution of the mixtape, 11 Hip-Hop Subgenres to Know and 10 Binge-worthy Hip-Hop Podcasts, as well as a breakdown of Jay-Z’s Songbook and Snoop Dogg’s discography.

For everything GRAMMY.com and all things hip-hop — including our rap-focused run in the GRAMMY Rewind series — visit here.

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