meta-scriptBustin' Out With D.C. Go-Go: How DMV Hip-Hop Grew From A Unique Local Sound |
celebration of go-go music in washington, d.c.
A woman at a community celebration for the signing of a bill designating go-go music as D.C.'s official music in 2020

Photo: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images


Bustin' Out With D.C. Go-Go: How DMV Hip-Hop Grew From A Unique Local Sound

When hip-hop emerged in Washington, D.C. and the surrounding areas of Maryland and Virginia, every song, album, and artist had a go-go reference. Read on for a comprensive guide to the genre and how go-go music influenced the many sounds of DMV hip-hop.

GRAMMYs/Oct 4, 2023 - 01:42 pm

When hip-hop began to emerge in Washington, D.C. and the surrounding areas of Maryland and Virginia, every song, album, and artist had a go-go reference. Read on for a history of the genre and how it influenced the many sounds of DMV hip-hop.

In 1987, Salt-N-Pepa's "My Mic Sounds Nice" became an instant favorite in clubs and radio stations across America. Built around a sample of Grover Washington Jr.'s "Mister Magic," the go-go beats were a clear call to the other place producer Hurby "Luv" Bug the song’s producer, was a clear call – down I-95 in Washington, D.C. 

Salt-N-Pepa weren't the only New York City based hip-hop act to incorporate go-go beats. In fact, the majority of club and radio friendly songs of the 1980s had some linkage to D.C.'s homegrown sound. Yet down in the capital city, D.C. clubs largely favored go-go over the emerging sounds of hip-hop — and that dissonance would give rise to a unique sonic palette in the city. 

When hip-hop began to emerge in the DMV — the district. D.C. and the surrounding areas of Maryland and Virginia — every song, album, and artist had a go-go reference. As a result, DMV hip-hop had a unique musical center that differentiated it from hip-hop from other regions. The future of hip-hop in the DMV would be inextricably linked to go-go for the rest of time.

Bustin' Loose: Creating The D.C. Sound Of Go-Go 

Before hip-hop, there was go-go. Known for its high-spirited live instrumentation and boisterous call and response, the post-funk, percussion-heavy music was born in the Black neighborhoods of a then-majority Black Washington, D.C. in the early to late 1970s. Heralded by young people, who created and innovated on the genre, the sound evolved into a movement.

Despite sharing a similar origin story to hip-hop, go-go was always the preferred sound of D.C. Go-go’s history predates that of hip-hop music by nearly 10 years. 

By 1965, go-go’s self-professed godfather, Chuck Brown, fused what he had learned as a supporting guitarist for soul artists including Jerry Butler, and joined the Los Latinos band  in 1965

Because of that band – and others –  playful melodies, percussion and interactive performances, go-go spread throughout the city and its surrounding suburbs. Go-go became the voice of Chocolate City, a name given to the District of Columbia because of its abundance of Black residents.

Similar to many genres born from the call and response tradition, go-go needed a bandleader or, in its case, "a talker." And Chuck Brown emerged as the one to take the culture forward. 

Brown, affectionately known as the Godfather of Go-Go, became the face of the genre. While a member of the band Los Latinos, Brown developed an awareness and love of the Latin percussion groves, prominent in the band’s repertoire. His incorporation of those grooves, along with James Brown influence, and African-inspired drum patterns combobulated into a distinctive sound. As the band would play, Brown would break the song down through segmented patches of percussion and call response, over time, this would become known as his signature. 

Over time, the band’s name changed from Los Latinos to the Soul Searchers, signed to a national label and released their debut album, We The People, in 1972. The album’s title track ushered in a series of hits followed by "Blow Your Whistle" on their sophomore album Salt of the Earth, and "Bustin' Loose," a gold-charting 1979 single, which became a go-go classic. Alongside Experience United (E.U.), Rare Essence and Trouble Funk, the band laid the foundation for go-go’s success in the hip-hop age.

As hip-hop developed in the 1980s,  Junkyard Band, a go-go band composed of Black youth, started to gain success on a local and national level. The group was featured in two films: 1983’s D.C. Cab and 1988’s Tougher Than Film. The latter film, directed by music producer Rick Rubin and starring Run D.M.C., was not the first time a Simmons has been involved with the go-go scene.

Fascination with go-go only grew, drawing interest beyond the DMV. Between 1983 and 1984, record executive Russell Simmons and artist Russell Simmons hired E.U. to play drums on two releases: "Party Time" by Kurtis Blow and "Slave to the Rhythm" by Grace Jones.  In 1984, Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers released "We Need Some Money," one of the first records to be described as Brown rapping. Two years later, Junkyard Band signed to Simmons and Rubin's Def Jam Recordings and released their debut LP, The Word/Sardines. Rubin, a penchant for the region’s sound, used the drums from "Drop the Bomb," the title track from Trouble Funk’s 1982 album on  the Beastie Boys' 1986 debut, Licensed to Ill.

Rubin and Simmons were not the only ones interested in go-go. Spike Lee was exposed to go-go at the 9:30 Club. His first exposure, the reaction of Howard University students to EU’s performance of "Da Butt," resulted in the director hiring the band to produce a song for the soundtrack of his next film School Daze. The 1988 single achieved success on the pop and R&B Billboard charts. 

Hip-Hop Begins To Show Up In D.C.

As the decade progressed, hip-hop and go-go continued to interact with each other, but their paths remained separate and parallel. Hip-hop was described as "bamma. Uncultured, uncool, some New York s—," by D.C. residents. 

"Stone Cold Hustler" — the 1987 debut single from rapper D.C. Scorpio — was the first attempt at a combination of hip-hop and go-go. and changed perceptions about hip-hop in the region.

In 1988, D.C. Scorpio battled then-burgeoning local rapper Fat Rodney at Marty’s Chapter III, a music venue in Southeast D.C. (A further sign of hip-hop and go-go integration, Rodney also performed alongside popular go-go acts Rare Essence and Junkyard Bard at local venues.)

The duo represented two sides of the region’s burgeoning rap scene: Scorpio backed by a record label, Rodney backed by the streets.

"Bustin Out," Rodney's posthumous 1989 release, was the second attempt at the incorporation of hip-hop and go-go. Ultimately, the song succeeded at pushing D.C. hip-hop forward.

However, as D.C.’s national hip-hop standing rose, its national profile was severely hindered.

The record breaking number of homicides in D.C. resulted in a new classification for Chocolate City: murder capital. Then-Mayor Marion Barry was arrested in an FBI sting operation; the city became known as an "important node" in the drug transportation network along the East Coast.  

Music followed suit. Shortly after Rodney’s death in 1989, Rare Essence oriented themselves towards predominant R&B sound. Junkyard Band took a hiatus from music. EU also adopted a heavy R&B sound.

Local Universities And Scenes Push Hip-Hop Forward

While some of the biggest names in go-go and hip-hop experienced a personality crisis,  the seeds planted by early hip-hop adopters took root at D.C.'s many universities. 

"Dusk till Dawn," a student radio show at the University of Maryland,  featured music from local rappers. Asheru and Blue Black convened on the grounds of University of Virginia, eventually resulting  in the formation of the Unspoken Heard collective, and later Seven Heads Entertainment. The campuses of Virginia State and Virginia Union universities served as the feeding groups for the Boogiemonsters, a hip-hop group composed of Mondo McCann, Vex Da Vortex, Myntric, and Yodared.  

A few musicians from the go-go scene achieved some success at this time. In 1991, Stinky Dink released "One Track Mind" on Luke Records, a Miami-based record label started by Dr. Luke of 2 Live Crew. Sam The Beast, a rapper from Charlottesville, Virginia released "Knock Some Boots'' on Atlantic Records in the same year. 

A hip-hop movement was also growing along the U Street Corridor. Venues like the Station of the Union bar in North West D.C., Kaffa House and Bar Nun became incubator spaces for emerging rappers.

Opus Akoben, a three member group composed of Kokyai, Sub Z, and Black Indian came into being in 1994; Kokyai and Sub-Z knew of each other through their involvement in the burgeoning hip-hop scene of the U Street Corridor. Black Indian, then a teenager, joined the group on an European tour, where they were well received.

The three rappers were also involved in Freestyle Union, a cypher workshop hosted by hip-hop activist, educator and fellow emcee Toni Blackman and Monty Taft at the area's 9:30 Club. Founded in 1994, Freestyle Union was  a creative space for emcees interested in the art of lyricism, activism, and storytelling. 

For as much as conscious hip-hop was a cultural movement in D.C. and elsewhere, the city’s history with party-friendly and go-go inspired rap records was not entirely forgotten.

"The Water Dance," a 1994 single from DJ Flexx encapsulated that youthful spirit. The song quickly spread throughout the D.C. area, stretching outside the Mid-Atlantic to Atlanta and Philadelphia. Two years later, D.C. had another party anthem with DJ Kool’s "Let Me Clear My Throat" (its title taken from a line on Licensed to Ill), which topped dance charts in the United States and abroad.

DJ Kool was not the only D.C. area musician with a hit on the Billboard charts. Nonchalant, a rapper affiliated with the city’s open mic scenes found success with "5 O’Clock," a 1996 single from her debut album Until the Day, that charted on the Hot 100, R&B/Hip-Hop, and dance charts. The single was an amalgamation of producers from the scene along with production from DJ Young Guru, a regular of the scene and student at Howard University.

Silence Falls On The District As Major Labels Look Away

In the new millennium, hip-hop had begun its ascent into broader pop culture. And, finally, had begun to find its footholding in Chocolate City.

D.C. youth were determined to be heard on a national and international stage. And the labels were eager too. Union Records signed 3LG, a socially conscious hip-hop group. RCA Records signed Questionmark Asylum, a four member group. The Album, their debut release, was highly acclaimed with "Hey Lookaway" and "Get With You" as stand outs. 

On the more aggressively criminalized front, by 1998, Tommy Boy Records signed Section 8 Mob, a D.C. hip-hop group founded in 1992 under the name Section. 

By the spring of 2000, both movements were gaining steam. 

Black Indian — a favorite of both conscious and street rappers — released Get 'Em Psyched!!, his debut album on MCA Records. Eventual U Street area legends Asheru & Blue Black's Soon Come was released in 2001 and was heralded as an underground hip-hop classic.

Small and independent record labels were cognizant of movements borne by day in many of the city’s hotbeds of rising crime and by night in the city’s opulent downtown nightclubs  – oftentimes rivaling those in other rap capitals of the era. 

Of note, Storm The Unpredictable, a local rapper who received a distribution deal with H2Pro/Orpheus/EMI, earned positive response for his 2003 album Amalgamation, but at that time, major record labels had shifted their interests towards burgeoning rap scenes in Atlanta, Houston, Memphis and more.

A New Wave Of Hip-Hop In D.C.

It wasn’t until the blog era of the mid-to late 2000s — an unprecedented period of online music discovery and exploration —that rappers from D.C. received another look from major record labels. 

A return to the collegiate, intellectual vibe of the U Street corridor in the 1990s highlighted the era. The era’s hipster aesthetics placed D.C, rapper Wale in conversation with rappers from around the country. His 2006 release "Dig Dug," made in remembrance of  Ronald "Dig Dug" Dixon, the lead percussionist of go-go group  Northeast Grooves, was an auditory emblem of hometown pride and  an early indicator of how he would incorporate go-go into hip-hop. 

The success of "Dig Dug" began to change perceptions of D.C. as a hip-hop town, not a go-go town that engages in hip-hop. Local radio stations were bombarded with requests to play "Dig Dug"  and Wale later  received the D. C. Metro Breakthrough Artist of the Year Award at WKYS's Go-Go Awards.

At the top of the year, producer Mark Ronson hired Wale for his UK tour and  placed Wale on a remix on Lily Allen’s "Smile." Ronson later brokered a production deal for the artist with his company Allido Records, produced Wale's 100 Miles & Running mixtape , and performed alongside him at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2007.The true pinnacle of his success was his 2008 deal with Interscope Records, which was  the result of a war between Def Jam, Atlantic Records, and Epic Records. Wale was now the face of D.C. hip-hop. 

Wale was not the only artist garnering attention for his musical innovations. Tabi Bonney, a D.C. native, received video play for "The Pocket," his debut single. Born in Togo, but raised in the District, his contribution to the local hip-hop scene was the introduction of Afro-funk elements, inspired by his father Itadi Bonney

His presence opened go-go, a cultural production of Black D.C., to a global Black audience and brought another dimension to the regional sound. Like Wale, Bonney tapped  the local and growing hip-hop culture to create music that felt truly like himself. "On Jupiter," a track from The Summer Years, a 2011 mixtapes, places him not only in conversation with his father’s musical legacy but his own. 

In the early aughts, the U Street corridor continued to serve as an incubator for the region’s artists and musicians. Spaces like the Up and Up, an open mic that started at Bowie State University, but found a home at Liv Nightclub in D.C. became a third space for artists like Gods’illa. The Diamond District, a three person rap collective of XO, yU the 78er, and Oddisee appeared on the scene with "Streets Won’t Let Me Chill," and In The Ruff, their 2009 debut album. 

With the increased visibility of the media and savviness of Internet culture, artists of this era were marketed as being from The DMV. An abbreviation that stands for the District, Maryland, and Virginia. The origins of the name are highly contested. 

According to The Washington Post, the DMV moniker has three origin stories. The first states the moniker was created by 20 Bello, a local rapper who ran the-now defunct website DMV Underground; the second says local promoter Dre All Day in the Paint created the term in 1995, and local radio stations and DJs picked it up from him; the third story says local rap group Target Squad made the term as a sign of unity amongst the regional rap community. Regardless of which story rings true, the term like "The Dirty South '' for rappers under the Mason Dixon Line, consolidated rappers from D.C. and its surrounding areas, to be able to compete against other established hip-hop scenes. 

Right before the start of the 2010s, Wale released Attention Deficit,his debut studio album. With singles such as "Chillin" with Lady Gaga, "World Tour" with Jazmine Sullivan, and "Pretty Girls" with Gucci Mane and Weensy of Backyard Band, a go-go band, Wale was on his way towards being a national success. That year, he earned a coveted position on the XXL Freshmen Class. 

If 2009 was the year of hipster rap in D.C, 2010 belonged to the streets. It had been decades since the city’s underground had a visible presence in hip-hop, and the coming of Fat Trel felt like an opportune time for them to be heard. A native of Northeast D.C, Trel drew from several rap lineages: gangsta rap, battle rap, and lyricism rappers like Scarface. His witted delivery made him stand out amongst his peers. 

His 2010 mixtape No Secrets netted singles "Cremate Em" and "Patron In My Cup" (which samples DJ Class’ Baltimore club hit "I’m The S—") . Produced by The Board Administration, an independent record label started by Wale and marketing executive Greg Harrison, No Secrets became one of the most popular mixtapes in the region. Further, the association aligned Wale with the renaissance of street hip-hop in the D.C. In return, Fat Trel and his group The Slutty Boyz had the backing of an up and coming star. 

Born and raised in Southeast D.C., Shy Glizzy's authenticity and unabashed descriptions of the intricacies of the neighborhood made him a rapper to watch out for. He entered entered the hip-hop scene in 2011 with No Brain, and was named by Complex as "10 New DMV Rappers To Watch Out For" in 2012.

Yet it was "3Milli", a 2012 diss track towards Chief Keef, that placed him on a national stage. He also dissed Fat Trel on "Disrespect the Tech," a 2012 release which resulted in a years long beef between the two rappers. 

As decade hit its midpoint, Fat Trel left The Board Administration to join Wale at Maybach Music Group, a record label imprint founded by Rick Ross. Wale left Introscope to sign with MMG in 2011. Shy Glizzy was selected to be a part of the XXL Freshmen Class for 2015. Yet it was 2014 that served as a changing of the guard for hip-hop in the DMV.

Under the noise of Wale’s success, a new crop of unconventional rappers had emerged. Logic, a biracial rapper, born tin Rockville, Maryland, had been steadily growing his profile online. When he signed to Def Jam Recordings in 2013, he had accumulated millions of views on YouTube, critically received mixtapes, and a spot on the XXL Freshmen Class of 2013. Logic represented  a new generation of rappers born and raised in the DMV, who drew from external influences in their music, not local. 

Another who used the Internet to avert regional perceptions was Rico Nasty. In 2016, she began to upload songs on SoundCloud and YouTube. Within months, the songs received millions of views and garnered her placements on series like "Insecure" and multiple best-of lists

Her music, self described as "sugar trap,"is equal parts soft, vulnerable, poetic, and vengeful, aggressive, frantic, and rough, with influences from Avril Lavigne and Joan Jett. Early tracks like "Smack A Bitch" and "Poppin" indicated her expressive range as an artist. The incorporation of alter egos and her domineering stage presence granted her entry into the fashion world, where she walked for Gypsy Sport, and participated in Volume 2 of Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty fashion show. 2019’s Anger Management, her surprise collaborative mixtape with frequent collaborator Kenny Beats, made several best-of lists. 

As hip-hop in the DMV enters a new decade, and hip-hop celebrates its 50th anniversary, one thing is certain: D.C. is a hip-hop town. 

Musicians like Beau Young Prince, who emerged during the mid to late 2010s, are starting to hit their stride in the 2020s. "Let Go," his song on the Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse soundtrack, garnered him a GRAMMY nomination. Cordae's first album, Lost Boy, received two GRAMMY nominations. 

Xanman, a 23-year-old rapper, whose extended family played with Chuck Brown and Roberta Flack, is racking up millions of venus on YouTube and selling out shows. Xanman’s energy is matched by his counterparts NoCap and YungManny. Another musician who appeared in the 2010s, but found a second wind in the 2010s is Maryland rapper Foggieraw. His interpolation of Alicia Keys’ "You Don’t Know My Name" on his song titled "Psalm 62," has caught the attention of the artists and racked millions of views on Instagram and TikTok. The Prince George County rapper has received praise from Anderson. Paak and SZA, as well being featured in Spotify’s Frequency campaign: a program that spotlights regional sounds and their rappers. 

The DMV’s rap scene has evolved on the back of underground-to-mainstream hits that have either raised consciousness or the roof, plus celebrated street-earned wealth or platinum-selling success. Whether the up and coming artists are old to the DMV and new to the general public, there is a wealth of diversity in hip-hop coming out of the District, Maryland, and Virgina. 

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A black-and-white photo of pioneering rap group Run-DMC

Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images


'Run-DMC' At 40: The Debut Album That Paved The Way For Hip-Hop's Future

Forty years ago, Run-DMC released their groundbreaking self-titled album, which would undeniably change the course of hip-hop. Here's how three guys from Queens, New York, defined what it meant to be "old school" with a record that remains influential.

GRAMMYs/Mar 27, 2024 - 03:49 pm

"You don't know that people are going to 40 years later call you up and say, ‘Can you talk about this record from 40 years ago?’"

That was Cory Robbins, former president of Profile Records, reaction to speaking to about one of the first albums his then-fledgling label released. Run-DMC’s self-titled debut made its way into the world four decades ago this week on March 27, 1984 and established the group, in Robbins’ words, "the Beatles of hip-hop." 

Rarely in music, or anything else, is there a clear demarcation between old and new. Styles change gradually, and artistic movements usually get contextualized, and often even named, after they’ve already passed from the scene. But Run-DMC the album, and the singles that led up to it, were a definitive breaking point. Rap before it instantly, and eternally, became “old school.” And three guys from Hollis, Queens — Joseph "Run" Simmons, Jason "Jam Master Jay" Mizell, Darryl "D.M.C." McDaniels — helped turn a burgeoning genre on its head.

What exactly was different about Run-DMC? Some of the answers can be glimpsed by a look at the record’s opening song. "Hard Times" is a cover of a Kurtis Blow track from his 1980 debut album. The connection makes sense. Kurtis and Run’s older brother Russell Simmons met in college, and Russell quickly became the rapper’s manager. That led to Run working as Kurtis’ DJ. Larry Smith, who produced Run-DMC, even played on Kurtis’ original version of the song.

But despite those tie-ins, the two takes on "Hard Times" are night and day. Kurtis Blow’s is exactly what rap music was in its earliest recorded form: a full band playing something familiar (in this case, a James Brown-esque groove, bridge and percussion breakdown inclusive.)

What Run-DMC does with it is entirely different. The song is stripped down to its bare essence. There’s a drum machine, a sole repeated keyboard stab, vocals, and… well, that’s about it. No solos, no guitar, no band at all. Run and DMC are trading off lines in an aggressive near-shout. It’s simple and ruthlessly effective, a throwback to the then-fading culture of live park jams. But it was so starkly different from other rap recordings of the time, which were pretty much all in the style of Blow’s record, that it felt new and vital.

"Production-wise, Sugar Hill [the record label that released many key early rap singles] built themselves on the model of Motown, which is to say, they had their own production studios and they had a house band and they recorded on the premises," explains Bill Adler, who handled PR for Run-DMC and other key rap acts at the time.

"They made magnificent records, but that’s not how rap was performed in parks," he continues. "It’s not how it was performed live by the kids who were actually making the music."

Run-DMC’s musical aesthetic was, in some ways, a lucky accident. Larry Smith, the musician who produced the album, had worked with a band previously. In fact, the reason two of the songs on the album bear the subtitle "Krush Groove" is because the drum patterns are taken from his band Orange Krush’s song “Action.”

Read more: Essential Hip-Hop Releases From The 1970s: Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Flash, Sugarhill Gang & More

But by the time sessions for Run-DMC came around, the money had run out and, despite his desire to have the music done by a full band, Smith was forced to go without them and rely on a drum machine. 

His artistic partner on the production side was Russell Simmons. Simmons, who has been accused over the past seven years of numerous instances of sexual assault dating back decades, was back in 1983-4 the person providing the creative vision to match Smith’s musical knowledge.

Orange Krush’s drummer Trevor Gale remembered the dynamic like this (as quoted in Geoff Edgers’ Walk This Way: Run-DMC, Aerosmith, and the Song that Changed American Music Forever): “Larry was the guy who said, 'Play four bars, stop on the fifth bar, come back in on the fourth beat of the fifth bar.' Russell was the guy that was there that said, ‘I don’t like how that feels. Make it sound like mashed potato with gravy on it.’”

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It wasn’t just the music that set Run-DMC apart from its predecessors. Their look was also starkly different, and that influenced everything about the group, including the way their audience viewed them.

Most of the first generation of recorded rappers were, Bill Adler remembers, influenced visually by either Michael Jackson or George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic. Run-DMC was different.

"Their fashion sense was very street oriented," Adler explains. "And that was something that emanated from Jam Master Jay. Jason just always had a ton of style. He got a lot of his sartorial style from his older brother, Marvin Thompson. Jay looked up to his older brother and kind of dressed the way that Marvin did, including the Stetson hat. 

"When Run and D told Russ, Jason is going to be our deejay, Russell got one look at Jay and said, ‘Okay, from now on, you guys are going to dress like him.’"

Run, DMC, and Jay looked like their audience. That not only set them apart from the costumed likes of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, it also cemented the group’s relationship with their listeners. 

"When you saw Run-DMC, you didn’t see celebrity. You saw yourself," DMC said in the group’s recent docuseries

Read more: 20 Iconic Hip-Hop Style Moments: From Run-D.M.C. To Runways

Another thing that set Run-DMC (the album) and Run-DMC (the group) apart from what came before was the fact that they released a cohesive rap album. Nine songs that all belonged together, not just a collection of already-released singles and some novelties. Rappers had released albums prior to Run-DMC, but that’s exactly what they were: hits and some other stuff — sung love ballads or rock and roll covers, or other experiments rightfully near-forgotten.

"There were a few [rap] albums [at the time], but they were pretty crappy. They were usually just a bunch of singles thrown together," Cory Robbins recalls.

Not this album. It set a template that lasted for years: Some social commentary, some bragging, a song or two to show off the DJ. A balance of records aimed at the radio and at the hard-core fans. You can still see traces of Run-DMC in pretty much every rap album released today.

Listeners and critics reacted. The album got a four-star review in Rolling Stone with “the music…that backs these tracks is surprisingly varied, for all its bare bones” and an A minus from Robert Christgau who claimed “It's easily the canniest and most formally sustained rap album ever.” Just nine months after its release, Run-DMC was certified gold, the first rap LP ever to earn that honor. "Rock Box" also single-handedly invented rap-rock, thanks to Eddie Martinez’s loud guitars. 

There is another major way in which the record was revolutionary. The video for "Rock Box" was the first rap video to ever get into regular rotation on MTV and, the first true rap video ever played on the channel at all, period. Run-DMC’s rise to MTV fame represented a significant moment in breaking racial barriers in mainstream music broadcasting. 

"There’s no overstating the importance of that video," Adler tells me. vIt broke through the color line at MTV and opened the door to a cataclysmic change." 

"Everybody watched MTV forty years ago," Robbins agrees. "It was a phenomenal thing nationwide. Even if we got three or four plays a week of ‘Rock Box’ on MTV, that did move the needle."

All of this: the new musical style, the relatable image, the MTV pathbreaking, and the attendant critical love and huge sales (well over 10 times what their label head was expecting when he commissioned the album from a reluctant Russell Simmons — "I hoping it would sell thirty or forty thousand," Robbins says now): all of it contributed to making Run-DMC what it is: a game-changer.

"It was the first serious rap album," Robbins tells me. And while you could well accuse him of bias — the group making an album at all was his idea in the first place — he’s absolutely right. 

Run-DMC changed everything. It split the rap world into old school and new school, and things would never be the same.

Perhaps the record’s only flaw is one that wouldn’t be discovered for years. As we’re about to get off the phone, Robbins tells me about a mistake on the cover, one he didn’t notice until the record was printed and it was too late. 

There was something (Robbins doesn’t quite recall what) between Run and DMC in the cover photo. The art director didn’t like it and proceeded to airbrush it out. But he missed something. On the vinyl, if you look between the letters "M" and "C,", you can see DMC’s disembodied left hand, floating ghost-like in mid-air. While it was an oversight, it’s hard not to see this as a sign, a sort of premonition that the album itself would hang over all of hip-hop, with an influence that might be hard to see at first, but that never goes away. 

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Baby Keem GRAMMY Rewind Hero
Baby Keem (left) at the 2022 GRAMMYs.

Photo: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images


GRAMMY Rewind: Watch Baby Keem Celebrate "Family Ties" During Best Rap Performance Win In 2022

Revisit the moment budding rapper Baby Keem won his first-ever gramophone for Best Rap Performance at the 2022 GRAMMY Awards for his Kendrick Lamar collab "Family Ties."

GRAMMYs/Feb 23, 2024 - 05:50 pm

For Baby Keem and Kendrick Lamar, The Melodic Blue was a family affair. The two cousins collaborated on three tracks from Keem's 2021 debut LP, "Range Brothers," "Vent," and "Family Ties." And in 2022, the latter helped the pair celebrate a GRAMMY victory.

In this episode of GRAMMY Rewind, turn the clock back to the night Baby Keem accepted Best Rap Performance for "Family Ties," marking the first GRAMMY win of his career.

"Wow, nothing could prepare me for this moment," Baby Keem said at the start of his speech.

He began listing praise for his "supporting system," including his family and "the women that raised me and shaped me to become the man I am."

Before heading off the stage, he acknowledged his team, who "helped shape everything we have going on behind the scenes," including Lamar. "Thank you everybody. This is a dream."

Baby Keem received four nominations in total at the 2022 GRAMMYs. He was also up for Best New Artist, Best Rap Song, and Album Of The Year as a featured artist on Kanye West's Donda.

Press play on the video above to watch Baby Keem's complete acceptance speech for Best Rap Performance at the 2022 GRAMMYs, and check back to for more new episodes of GRAMMY Rewind.

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Notorious B.I.G. Biggie Smalls in 1994
Notorious B.I.G. in Brooklyn, 1994

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


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. 

Why 1998 Was Hip-Hop's Most Mature Year: From The Rise Of The Underground To Artist Masterworks

De La Soul, Monie Love & Queen Latifah, The Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest
(From left) De La Soul, Monie Love & Queen Latifah, The Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest

Photos: David Corio/Redferns; Raymond Boyd/Getty Images; Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images


How Native Tongues Expanded Hip-Hop With Eclectic Sounds & Vision

In the late '80s and early '90s, the New York-based collective Native Tongues encouraged hip-hop to expand and shift. Their attitude had a significant impact on hip-hop and, later, mainstream pop.

GRAMMYs/Dec 12, 2023 - 08:40 pm

When people fondly refer back to hip-hop’s golden age, they are talking about hip-hop’s adolescence — an experimental era when no idea was too risky, no innovation too bold, no boundary too established to be broken. This period between the mid 1980s and mid '90s saw hip-hop’s elders transported into new directions as the culture transitioned into the capitalist mainstream.

It is impossible to document this golden era without acknowledging the contributions of the Native Tongues. The New York-based collective — whose core members included now household names such as the Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest, Queen Latifah, De La Soul and Monie Love — played a pivotal role in reshaping the cultural landscape of both hip-hop and jazz in the mainstream. As a whole, the Native Tongues opted for a more introspective and bohemian approach to their lyricism and melodies.

The Jungle Brothers’ Mike Gee, DJ Sammy B and Baby Bam led the wave with an Afrocentric philosophy. Their 1988 debut album Straight Out the Jungle, set the vanguard of fusing hip-hop with jazz elements. "Black is Black" is perfectly representative of the first tendrils of what would become the canonical Native Tongues sound: an almost whimsical approach to with race relations and social commentary in America, structured with a boom-bap drums and an impressive array of samples (Gil-Scott Heron, Prince, Kool & The Gang). At the opening beats, Q-Tip introduces himself, going "I’m from A Tribe Called Quest" — a harbinger of the yearslong future association as part of the most influential young collectives of the '90s.

Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad of Tribe were classmates of the Jungle Brothers in the lower Manhattan high school Murray Bergtraum, and began collaborating as classmates. With additional members Jarobi White and the since departed Phife Dawg, the quartet — and occasional trio — had an impressive five album run: People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1989), The Low End Theory (1991), Midnight Marauders (1993), Beats, Rhymes and Life (1996), and The Love Movement (1998). Each release featured a panoply of inspired and progressive approaches to hip-hop, with lyrics and intricate rhyme schemes that ranged from pensive to cheekily adolescent; production drew influence from jazz, bossa nova, rock, and everything in between.

"Check the Rhime" of the classic Low End Theory is exemplary of their dexterity and appeal. Couplets that are deceptively laid back yet remarkably complex — seamlessly veering from discussing capitalism to general braggadocious flair — while the beat integrates everyone from Minnie Ripperton to a Scottish funk & R&B.

De La Soul rounded out the core groups at the heart of Native Tongues. The Long Island-based trio — Kelvin "Posdnuos" Mercer, Vincent "Maseo" Mason Jr, and the late Dave "Trugoy The Dove" Joliceur — played with a colorful and eclectic approach to their jazz tinged sound and visuals (their debut album declared it the age of the DA.I.S.Y. (Da Inner Sound, Y'all) ). De La Soul were unafraid to lean into a sense of whimsy with songs like "Transmitting Live  from Mars," which sampled the Turtles while integrating a looped French lesson. Unfortunately the result would be precarious: the Turtles sued and won for using their sample, setting a dangerous precedent for the industry.

It would not be the end of De La Soul's legal troubles in the industry. Due to negotiations and disputes with Tommy Boy Records, most of De La Soul’s discography was not available on streaming and younger generations. That is, until March 2023, when De La Soul regained the rights to their releases under the label.

Rounding out the Native Tongues are Newark's Queen Latifah and London’s Monie Love (the only non-New Yorkers in the core crew). Each artist is a pioneer  in not just hip-hop’s consciousness space, but leaders for women in the industry. Latifah and Love’s "Ladies First" is an example of their dual function in the collective as chroniclers of both women's and Black issues. The hit record confronted feminist themes and women’s liberation with punch, verve, and dizzying rhyme patterns; the music video addressed trans-continental Black struggles including the plight of South African racial apartheid. The song was an embodiment of the Native Tongues spirit.

There was never an official dissolution to the Native Tongues; rather, fractures, regroupings and  internal conflicts that stopped the collective's momentum in the mid-'90s. Combined with the rise of Bad Boy Records and a new style of hip-hop star.

Yet as the years progressed, there would be multiple extended members that would be affiliated with the Native Tongues movement — Black Sheep, Black Star, Brand Nubian, the Beatnuts, Leaders of the New School, the incomparable J Dilla — showcasing the impact the Native Tongues’ craft and approach had on '90s hip hop. That influence extends to present day, with popular artists such as Tyler, the Creator and Pharrell  crediting the Tongues’ renegade spirit in their own journeys as individuals, rappers, and producers.

The Native Tongues shifted the myopic perspectives of what people believed hip-hop could, would and should be; their influence encouraged hip-hop to expand, shift and impact the mainstream pop world. The collective's legacy remains as a reminder to ignore narrow-minded criticisms of hip-hop culture (and sound) as a single narrative.

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