PHOTO: Santiago Bluguermann/Getty Images
Everything We Know About Kendrick Lamar’s 'Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers' — So Far
The infamously reclusive MC announced his fifth album, 'Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers,' to a flurry of rumors and speculation. GRAMMY.com unearthed seven facts about the record, which drops on May 13.
In a move reminiscent of another famous G.O.A.T., Kendrick Lamar announced to the world that he's back — and arguably better for it. Taking to his personal website, "Pulitzer Kenny" delivered a Michael Jordan-esque press release that marked the arrival of his album next month.
Despite his recluse nature, Lamar remains an undisputed people's champion whose ascent to the upper echelon of hip-hop has been heralded by legends, superfans and the world's elite. In 2015, President Barack Obama said "How Much a Dollar Cost" was his favorite song; a Reddit user compiled an "unofficial Kendrick Lamar content library."
Along with the accolades and multiple imaginative albums, Lamar's mystery has kept fans eagerly awaiting his return — since 2017's DAMN., he has been very, very quiet. Very few artists can maintain such an illusion, and Lamar has made moving in silence into an artform.
And despite his monk-inspired lifestyle, the start of 2022 found Compton Kenny offering us a few bread crumbs that have clued us in on what is next to come. With less than a month away from Lamar's exciting return, GRAMMY.com explores everything we know about his fifth solo studio album — so far.
The Album Is Titled Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, Arriving On May 13
Shortly after the five year anniversary of his last solo studio album, DAMN., the Omega-level MC revealed the title and release date of his fifth project. Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is due to hit all streaming platforms on May 13.
For longtime stans, there has always been a unique meaning behind the titling of Lamar's projects. Good kid, m.A.A.d city was an acronym for "My Angry Adolescence Divided" and "My Angels on Angel Dust," referring to Lamar's childhood innocence. Meanwhile, To Pimp a Butterfly was originally going to be a backronym for TuPac.
Lamar's intentional phrasing behind this latest project looks to be another one taught in college courses. No matter what it may be once released, Mr. Morale and The Big Steppers will be a must-hear event the world cannot wait for.
The Album Marks Lamar's Final Record With Top Dawg Entertainment
In August 2020, the hip-hop world was turned on its axis when Kendrick broke his silence and shared a letter called "nu thoughts" on his personal website. The letter offered a unique insight into the mind of a genre- and game-changing artist, while also learning what was next from the award-winning talent.
"As I produce my final TDE album, I feel joy to have been a part of such a cultural imprint after 17 years," Kendrick wrote. "The Struggles. The Success. And most importantly, the Brotherhood. May the Most High continue to use
Top Dawg as a vessel for candid creators. As I continue to pursue my life's calling."
Lamar's entire catalog of music has been released under the label, since his addition in 2005. And while Top Dawg expressed how much of an "honor and privilege" it had been working with Kendrick for nearly two decades, the latter had shared the "nu thoughts" document via pgLang, a multi-disciplinary media company founded by him and his longtime compatriot Dave Free.
Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, which also has a pgLang stamp on it, feels like a declaration that all future projects from Lamar will come from this new imprint and marks a TDE farewell tour of sorts.
Rock Influences May Be An Element of Mr. Morale
Where good kid, m.A.A.d city represented the best in West Coast hip-hop, and To Pimp a Butterfly merged jazz, funk, and blues, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers has the luxury of being an all-white canvas for listeners. But the forthcoming album isn't without speculation.
In early 2020, Billboard editorial director Bill Werde tweeted that Kendrick was "pulling in more rock sounds" on his fifth album, which boosted rumors that Lamar was going to turn left where other artists had shifted right into trap and drill sounds. And while those rumors have yet to be completely debunked, "family ties," from Baby Keem's The Melodic Blue hints at how lyrically ferocious Lamar is positioning himself ahead of its release.
Knowing how the Compton MC consistently edits himself and his work, there is a good chance that the idea has shifted from a solely rock-tinged effort. Black Panther: The Album — which marked a connection between the artist and the Afrobeats sounds coming from the Motherland — could be an influence that informs the final cut.
Collaborators And Guest Features Remain A Big Secret
Kendrick is no stranger to collaboration. His work with hip-hop legends (Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre), jazz greats (Terrace Martin, Robert Glasper) and funk gods (George Clinton, Thundercat) have given listeners a taste of his experimental vibes. Lamar hasn't shied away from tapping into other sounds; his work with U2 and Imagine Dragons scratched that much-needed rock itch that Bill Werde hinted at a few years ago.
Lamar is playing all potential guests on Mr. Morale close to the chest. One can muse that the likes of Terrace Martin, Snoop Dogg, and Thundercat could appear, but pgLang cohorts like Baby Keem and Tanna Leone may just as easily join as members of the Big Steppers. Or, to prove to the rest of the game that he's still "smokin' on your top 5" without a ghostwriter, he could headline the new album all by himself.
Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers May Involve Themes Of "Love, Loss And Grief"
The hero from Hub City has gone on record to say that he goes "months without a phone," so the news of how much Black life has been lost due to police brutality and systemic racism didn't come filtered through social media. Notoriously, Kendrick has detached himself after a project has dropped to delve into his own thoughts.
In his August letter, Kendrick shared that "love, loss, and grief have disturbed my comfort zone, but the glimmers of God speak through my music and family." He continues, writing, "While the world around me evolves, I reflect on what matters the most. The life in which my words will land next." Sounds like the GRAMMY-winning songwriter will dig deeper into similar themes he explored in his early work like Section.80 and The Kendrick Lamar EP.
There May Be A Vault Of Visuals Ready To Go
The video for "family ties" with Kendrick Lamar and Baby Keem did a lot to invoke tweet-worthy lines like "smokin' on your top 5," and "I am the Omega," but it also highlighted how much the MC was missed.
In summer 2020, internet sleuths began to discover images appearing to show K.Dot in album mode. From sitting at a payphone to videos of him hovering above the ocean on a beach in Los Angeles, Kendrick Lamar (as part of the Little Homies) may already have footage that is just waiting for Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers to call home.
Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers Will Be Performed This Summer
The final weekend of Coachella found Baby Keem back in front of a wild and ecstatic crowd in Indio, Calif. The cousins performed during the Friday night performance, hitting "family ties" and "vent" from 2021's The Melodic Blue, and opened the door for fans to see Kenny in a city near them.
Lamar is already slated to perform internationally in Italy at Milano Summer Festival and the UK at Glastonbury Festival, before returning to the U.S. at Rolling Loud in Miami. All parties are advertising that Kendrick will be performing new music.
Photo: Courtesy of Asha Imuno
Hip-Hop Re:Defined: Watch Asha Imuno Personalize Kendrick Lamar's "i" With A Sparkling New Chorus
Rap newcomer Asha Imuno offers an upbeat cover of Kendrick Lamar's GRAMMY-winning hit "i," one of the many tracks that inspired the sound for Imuno's upcoming project, 'PINS & NEEDLES.'
Growing up in Compton, California, Kendrick Lamar never thought he would see the day he was happy, confident and, most importantly, hopeful. But his lead single from 2015's To Pimp A Butterfly, "i," proves that reality wasn't so far-fetched — even when confronted with gun violence and police brutality.
In this episode of Hip-Hop Re:Defined, rap newcomer Asha Imuno delivers his rendition of "i," which won Lamar both Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song at the 2015 GRAMMYs. Though the original track's groovy instrumental remains, Imuno adds a personal touch to his cover with a new chorus.
"And I love myself/ The world is a ghetto with big guns and picket signs/ And I love myself/ But they can do what they want, whenever they want, I don't mind," he sings. "And I love myself/ He said I gotta get up, there's more to life than suicide."
Imuno is a longtime fan of Lamar, and according to a press statement, his upcoming album, PINS & NEEDLES, was heavily inspired by Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly. On June 14, Imuno released the first single from the debut project, "PUSHING BUTTONS."
Press play on the video above to hear Asha Imuno's uplifting cover of Kendrick Lamar's "i," and check back to GRAMMY.com for more new episodes of Hip-Hop Re:Defined, a limited series celebrating hip-hop's 50th anniversary.
Photo: Steve Jennings/WireImage
7 Unforgettable Sets From Outside Lands 2023: Foo Fighters' Special Guests, Lana Del Rey's Return & A Superhero DJ Shaq
The 15th edition of San Francisco’s foggy summer festival brought the musical heat — and lots of wild surprises.
On Aug. 11-13, Outside Lands returned to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park for the 15th time. The city's premiere multi-day music and food festival attracted approximately 75,000 daily attendees, and promoter Another Planet says that about half of the 225,000 ticket holders live outside the Bay Area.
Though it takes place in the peak of summer, San Francisco in August is relatively cold and nicknamed "Fogust," which may have shocked any of the out of towners who showed up in shorts and barely-there tops.
The mild weather conditions meant that the true heat was left up to the performers to generate, and the more than 90 acts happily delivered. Below, we recount seven of the sets that were worth braving the summer cold to witness.
Shaq Takes Day One Championship
Moonlighting as DJ Diesel, NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal apologized for starting his incredibly surprising set a few minutes late.
"Sorry I’m late, I was just hanging with Steph Curry and Draymond Green," he said, name checking the Golden State Warriors’ star players. He laced his banter with basketball metaphors and later brought out Warriors guard Gary Payton II to play Queen’s "We Are The Champions" in the team’s honor.
After dropping jaws by firing up aggressively, atonal EDM beats, he invited the crush of fans to come up on stage and "party with Diesel" one at a time. His set veered from Guns N Roses to Imogen Heap and he has to be the first DJ to call for a "ladies only mosh pit" while playing Aqua’s "Barbie World."
When he threw a young blonde boy on his shoulders and they both pumped their fists in unison, it was everything — and that’s how a superhero DJs.
Janelle Monáe Celebrates The Fam
With a towering stack of Jamaican sound system-styled speakers, giant beach balls, a towel-waisted band and swimsuited dancers, Janelle Monáe brought the sexy "Black Sugar Beach" and "Lipstick Lover" vibes of her new album The Age of Pleasure to the Lands End main stage, which she last graced in 2018.
Monáe has since come out as nonbinary and greatly expanded her fanbase; at Outside Lands, she dedicated her performance to "my community, the LGBTQIA+ community," saying, "I love you so much. To be Black, to be queer, to be nonbinary, to evolve and to have family like you is a blessing."
Monáe’s natural charisma has only gotten sharper over time, and her dance moves are more infused with the quick steps of the Godfather of Soul James Brown and Prince. Her almost Rockettes-level line choreography with her dancers has leveled up as well.
This year’s Outside Lands also saw the debut of the LGBTQIA+-centric Dolores’ stage, which was powered all weekend by local party crews such as Hard French, Fake and Gay and Oasis. A highlight was Reparations, an all-Black drag show hosted by the incomparable Nicki Jizz, San Francisco’s serial Drag Queen of the Year (according to local publication 48 Hills) who wore a large penis hat that she claimed was true to her actual size. The most overtly queer-friendly edition of Outside Lands was something beautiful to continue and build on in the future.
Kendrick Lamar Brings The Friday Night Light
Last seen rapping to a small but rapturous crowd on a secondary stage at Outside Lands in 2015, Kendrick Lamar has grown immeasurably as a recording artist and live performer. Lamar commanded the Lands End stage, closing the festival’s first night with quietly assertive control and grace in a performance that felt like a rightful graduation. This veritable elder statesman slot has been previously held by major acts like Radiohead, Neil Young With Crazy Horse and Paul McCartney.
His 2022 album Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers featured prominently in the 21-song set, which included leftfield covers of Pusha T’s "Nosetalgia" and The Weeknd’s "Sidewalks." But Lamar knows that people still want to yell their lungs out to earlier cuts like "Swimming Pools (Drank)," "Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe," "m.A.A.d city," "HUMBLE." and "Alright" and he obliged.
Lana Del Rey Swings Back To Twin Peaks
Flower crowns were all the rage when Lana Del Rey made her Outside Lands debut in 2016 at Twin Peaks, the festival’s second largest stage. A new generation has since discovered the singer’s outsize character and vibe, and as the gates opened on Saturday, giddy groups of teenage girls rushed to park themselves at the edge of that very same stage to catch Del Rey’s big return to Golden Gate Park.
This time, Del Rey’s set included a projection that said "God Bless You San Francisco" and a giant swing woven with flowers that flung her into the air while she sang. Her set spanned her classics, like "Video Games" from 2012’s Born To Die, current hits, such as the title track from this year’s album Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd., and a loving cover of Tammy Wynette’s 1968 country hit "Stand By Your Man."
Though she’s revered as an almost otherworldly figure and was an angelic vision in white, Del Rey doesn’t act untouchable in 2023 — in fact, she literally came down and touched some of those fans who waited all day for her.
Foo Fighters Come Out Crooning
"We’ve gotta fit 28 years into two f—ing hours!" Dave Grohl explained early in the Foo Fighters' set. It was a towering goal that they tackled with consummate ease, reaching back to hits such as "Times Like These" and "The Pretender" and showing the continuum through to recent songs like "Rescue."
After playing a few choice riffs of "Enter Sandman," it would have been less of a surprise to see a member of two-time Outside Lands headliner (and Bay Area natives) Metallica join them on stage than who actually came out for a cameo. After flying in from Argentina, Michael Bublé initially pretended to be a regular audience member before going onstage to sing his hit "Haven’t Met You Yet."
The Foo-Bublé connection is fun and surprising: New drummer Josh Freese has also played for the Canadian crooner, and "Haven’t Met You Yet" is part of a medley that the Foo Fighters are doing on tour that is comprised of other bands Freese has supported (including Devo’s "Whip It" and Nine Inch Nails’ "March of the Pigs").
Of course, the late drummer Taylor Hawkins will always be a prominent part of the Foo Fighters and their shows, and they played "Aurora" in his memory. As the park’s Polo Field lit up in violet-colored lights, Grohl’s 17-year-old daughter Violet Grohl also joined to sing three songs with her father, which he said was his absolute favorite thing in the world to do.
"I’m sure I’m embarrassing her right now!" he said.
Gabriels Tributes Tina Turner
"We’re California boys, but this is our first time in San Francisco," shared Gabriels singer Jacob Lusk before turning the Sutro stage into the Church of Outside Lands, and instructing everyone to share some neighborly love.
The Los Angeles band has some meteoric fans: Elton John invited Lusk, whose early resume includes being a former "American Idol" contestant who was in a gospel group with the late Nate Dogg, to sing with him on stage at this year’s Glastonbury. Lusk’s incredible vocal range flexes from baritone to falsetto on a dime, and he frequently takes a step back from the microphone while singing, as if not to overwhelm it.
In a particularly touching moment, Gabriels performed Tina Turner’s "Private Dancer" while a montage of footage of Turner filled the screen.
Megan Thee Stallion Triumphs Over Tragedy
Fog flooded the park as a super snatched Megan Thee Stallion took to the stage in a hot Barbie pink outfit and long red hair, but she blazed through the haze with ground-sweeping twerking and saucy tracks like "Body," "Her," "WAP" and "Big Ole Freak." It was her first performance since Tory Lanez was sentenced to 10 years for shooting her, and she was feeling noticeably buoyant.
"F— all my haters!" she said in the middle of the set. "None of the s— you was doing or saying broke me."
She received nothing but love from the crowd, and she was delighted by a big pocket of "boys" that she saw. Meg truly loves her "Hotties," and even stopped in between songs to sign someone’s graduation cap. A recent grad herself, she is proud of her fans who follow suit.
"Real college girl s—!" she exclaimed.
Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
A Guide To Southern California Hip-Hop: Definitive Releases, Artists & Subgenres From L.A. & Beyond
Hip-hop began in the Bronx, but many of the culture’s most unforgettable moments came from Southern California. In celebration of the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, take a trip through SoCal's rich hip-hop history — from N.W.A. and KDAY, to the Super Bowl.
"The sun rises in the East, but it sets in the West," raps Ice Cube on Westside Connection’s 1996 hit, "Bow Down." Indeed, hip-hop began in the Bronx, New York. But many of the culture’s most unforgettable moments have come from Southern California, a region where young Black and Brown people took to hip-hop soon after the Sugarhill Gang’s "Rapper’s Delight" blew up worldwide.
This guide chronicles some of the region’s many musical peaks, from commanding attention in the late ’80s, to virtually dominating the genre in the ’90s, and eliciting worldwide acclaim in the 21st century and beyond.
A Brief History Of Southern California Hip-Hop
Since the first L.A. hip-hop record in 1981, Disco Daddy and Captain Rapp’s "The Gigolo Rapp," Southern California has generated some of the biggest names in hip-hop history: Ice-T, Eazy-E, N.W.A., Ice Cube, Cypress Hill, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, 2Pac, The Game…everyone knows who the kings of the West Coast are. That legacy has not only made the region a prideful one, but also led to assumptions that "gangsta rap" defines it.
But Southern California has yielded more artistic variety than just street politics, whether it’s poetic lyricists like Kendrick Lamar, brilliantly idiosyncratic producers like Madlib, bracing innovators like Freestyle Fellowship, or unabashedly good-time rappers like Tone-Loc and Tyga.
No matter the form, rap in Southern California is deeply rooted in bluesy funk, soul, and jazz. It’s a complex scene that's often divided by neighborhood affiliation and stylistic differences, yet united by a place everyone calls home. Artists in SoCal are unafraid to make soundtracks for dance floors and family cookouts as well as for cruising through L.A.’s freeway sprawl. That common touch is why the city’s brand of rap music resonates around the globe.
Southern California hip-hop has waxed and waned in national popularity, and its creative and commercial dominance in the 1990s and early aughts, thanks to massive hits such as Dr. Dre’s The Chronic and 2001 as well as 2Pac’s All Eyez on Me, continue to cast a long shadow over the culture. However, you’ll find highlights throughout the past four-plus decades, many of which are recounted here.
Key Moments In Southern California Hip-Hop
1983 - KDAY-FM Goes On The Air: When Texas radio programmer Greg Mack was hired by KDAY-FM 1580 AM in 1983, he decided to turn the station into the first rap station in the country. Early West Coast DJs like Dr. Dre and the KDAY Mixmasters — a group of jocks that included Tony G, Joe Cooley, DJ Aladdin, Battlecat, and others — made the station required listening for fans of the fledgling genre throughout the '80s and early '90s. Decades later, and after returning to 93.5 FM as an old-school hip-hop station, KDAY remains a point of pride for the local community.
1986 - Run-DMC’s Concert Sparks A Riot: While largely forgotten now, the events that unfolded during Run-D.M.C.’s ill-fated August 1986 concert at Long Beach Arena made national headlines. Local Crips and Bloods members fought each other in the stands, leading to injuries, arrests and a lasting stigma that rap shows were a magnet for thuggery. In its wake, city officials around the country barred artists from performing, and required massive insurance premiums for shows to take place. In December 1986, Run-DMC appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone to explain why hip-hop shouldn’t be associated with violence.
1989 - The F.B.I. Sends A Warning To N.W.A: On Aug. 1, 1989, the Federal Bureau of Investigation sent a letter to Priority Records, the distributor for N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton. "Advocating violence and assault is wrong," wrote the official in reference to the group’s protest song, "F— Tha Police." "I believe my views reflect the opinion of the entire law enforcement community." Ironically, the letter had a galvanizing effect when the group’s management leaked it to the press. Critics who were divided over the album’s merits rallied around N.W.A. as free-speech heroes, and it helped make the group one of the most important musical acts in America.
1997 - The Notorious B.I.G. Is Murdered In Los Angeles: When Brooklyn rap legend the Notorious B.I.G. was gunned down after leaving a Soul Train Music Awards afterparty at the on March 9, the public — correctly or not — viewed it as the culmination of an "East Coast vs. West Coast" rivalry between executives at Death Row Records and Biggie’s label Bad Boy Records, as well as retribution for Death Row superstar 2Pac’s murder in Las Vegas the previous fall. Biggie’s still-unsolved murder continues to cast a shadow over the L.A. rap scene, even though it is hardly the only hip-hop region where high-profile crimes have marred its reputation.
2011 - Odd Future Appears On "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon": Tyler, The Creator and Hodgy Beats’s rendition of "Sandwitches" alongside "Jimmy Fallon" backing band the Roots on Feb. 16, 2011 was a veritable youthquake. It not only made Odd Future one of the hottest groups in the country, but also served notice of that younger generation more influenced by online culture than street politics had officially arrived. Few who saw the viral video can forget the sight of Fallon giving Tyler a piggyback ride as Mos Def suddenly appeared out of nowhere, screaming in delight.
2011 – The West Coast Torch Is Passed to Kendrick Lamar: On Aug. 19, 2011, as Kendrick Lamar celebrated the release of his independent album Section.80 at the Fonda Theater (fka as The Music Box), the Game, Snoop Dogg, Warren G, and Kurupt emerged onto the stage. "You’ve got the torch now, you better run with it," said Snoop. Then the rappers embraced Lamar as he broke down in tears and the crowd chanted, "Kendrick! Kendrick!" In the years since the moment was captured on video, Lamar became one of the most important rappers of his generation.
2022 - Dr. Dre And Friends Perform At The Super Bowl Halftime Show: Held at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Super Bowl LVI gave Dr. Dre the opportunity to reminisce on his historic career. As he performed classics like "Still D.R.E." and "The Next Episode" with guests like Snoop Dogg, Bronx R&B singer Mary J. Blige, Detroit rapper Eminem, Queens rapper 50 Cent, Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar, and Oxnard rap singer Anderson .Paak, Dre took viewers on a journey through old-school hip-hop lore and created a joyous tribute to the genre. The widely acclaimed show was subsequently honored three times at the 2022 Primetime Emmy Awards.
Definitive SoCal Hip-Hop Rappers
Ice-T: Los Angeles rapper Ice-T was arguably the first West Coast star who elicited respect from New York tastemakers as a peer and fellow pioneer. Inspired by Philly rapper Schoolly D, his breakthrough single, "6 in the Mornin’," is often cited as the first West Coast reality rap song (although some would argue that Toddy Tee’s "Batteram" precedes it).
His 1987 debut album, Rhyme Pays, was the first to carry a parental warning sticker. Ice-T faced censorship throughout his career, most dramatically when police unions and the NRA targeted him for "Cop Killer," his satirical track with his rock-rap group, Body Count. Now in his 60s and a familiar face on the TV series "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," Ice-T remains a role model for artists who want to make a greater cultural impact than just music.
N.W.A.: As an alliance between DJ/producers Dr. Dre and DJ Yella and rappers Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and MC Ren (early member Arabian Prince left before Straight Outta Compton took off) — N.W.A impressed with their first single, "Dope Man." That led to a 1987 debut compilation for Eazy-E’s Ruthless camp, N.W.A and the Posse. Then, with tracks like "F— the Police," "Gangsta Gangsta," and the surprisingly upbeat radio hit "Express Yourself," Straight Outta Compton made them the most dangerous group in America, and a target of law enforcement as well as the FBI.
After a second album, efil4zaggaN, the group collapsed over financial disputes and interpersonal drama. That’s part of the N.W.A legend, too, as illustrated in the acclaimed, Oscar-nominated 2015 film, Straight Outta Compton.
Snoop Dogg: With his Modelo and Jack in the Box commercials airing nightly, Snoop Dogg is an ambassador for Southern California hip-hop. Discovered by Dr. Dre through Dre’s cousin, rapper/producer Warren G, he debuted with "Deep Cover," where he chanted in a sing-song voice, "’Cause it’s 1-8-7 on an undercover cop!" On his solo album, Doggystyle, he seemed to excel at hit singles like "Gin and Juice" that turned life into a never-ending party full of sticky weed and beautiful women.
In short, he personified how G-funk, a movement that once terrified the music industry, would be eventually mainstreamed into a party open to everyone. No matter one’s age or gender, everyone has a favorite Snoop track, whether it’s old-school favorites like "It Ain’t No Fun (If the Homies Can’t Have None)," club bangers like "Drop It Like It’s Hot," pop cameos like Katy Perry’s "California Gurls," or even bilingual Latin hits tracks like Banda MS’ "Qué Maldición."
Nipsey Hussle: At the time of his murder in 2019, Crenshaw rapper Nipsey Hussle seemed poised to break through to mainstream success. He represented a new era of Southern California rap defined by independent hustle, generational wealth from the ground up, savvy marketing stunts, and unapologetically street-oriented music.
Nipsey began his career in the mid-2000s, slowly rising through sundry mixtape appearances as well as features on albums by 2Pac, Snoop Dogg, and Glasses Malone. He earned national attention when he sold CD copies of his mixtape, Crenshaw, for $100 a pop; Jay-Z himself reportedly bought several. Tracks from his GRAMMY-nominated major label debut, 2018’s Victory Lap, seemed omnipresent at local sporting events. After his death, Nipsey appeared on a posthumous 2019 hit, "Racks in the Middle," with Compton rap singer Roddy Ricch.
Kendrick Lamar: Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar is the region’s crown prince, both blessed and burdened with sustaining West Coast rap tradition. While much of his music grapples with the weight of those expectations, he’s also been extraordinarily successful, scoring No. 1 hits like "Humble," global arena tours, and multi-platinum albums like good kid, m.A.A.d city and DAMN. The latter made him the first hip-hop artist to win the Pulitzer Prize.
One of the most influential and acclaimed artists of his generation, Lamar signifies a new openness among young artists to discussing mental health and self-care, all while dazzling listeners with conceptual complexity and thematic layers. Signed for years to Top Dawg Entertainment, Lamar recently has launched his own company, pgLang, with news about his direction forward still to come.
Cruical Hip-Hop Crews
Lench Mob: When Ice Cube broke from N.W.A. at the end of 1989, Lench Mob became his circle of friends as well as a production company and, eventually, a label imprint distributed by Priority Records.
Early members included Yo-Yo, who scored a major hit with Cube in 1991’s "You Can’t Play with My Yo-Yo." Then there was Da Lench Mob — Shorty, J-Dee, and T-Bone — and "Guerillas in the Mist." And after the 1992 L.A. riots sparked by the Rodney King verdict led to peace treaties among rival gangs in Watts, rapper Kam celebrated with his 1993 hit single, "Peace Treaty." Other associates include Inglewood rapper Mack 10, who scored gold-certified solo albums and joined with Cube and W.C. in the supergroup Westside Connection, and teenage South Central duo Kausion.
Soul Assassins: Originally formed as a publishing company for Cypress Hill as they created their classic self-titled 1991 debut, Soul Assassins eventually became an alliance of artists and one of the most underrated hit-making crews of the 1990s. Its members included House of Pain, authors of the deathless "Jump Around"; Funkdoobiest, who scored the 1993 hit "Bow Wow Wow"; and protégés like the Whooliganz, a duo made of future super-producer the Alchemist and future Hollywood actor Scott Caan; as well as Call O’ Da Wild, the Psycho Realm, and Self Scientific.
The crew’s releases espoused a dusty, psychedelic, and hardcore style distinct from the G-funk sound that defined the decade. In 1997, Cypress Hill producer DJ Muggs launched a series of Soul Assassins compilations that found him collaborating with the likes of Dr. Dre, Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA and GZA, and Mobb Deep.
Likwit Crew: Centered around Compton OG King Tee and Tha Alkaholiks members Tash, J-Ro, and E-Swift, Likwit Crew charted a hardcore middle path between the lyrical experimentations of the rappers associated with vaunted open-mic showcase Good Life Café, and the gangsta funk of Death Row.
Associated acts include Dilated Peoples, who scored at the dawn of the 2000s with the Alchemist-produced "Worst Comes to Worst" and the Kanye West-produced "This Way"; Xzibit, who released two solo albums before joining forces with Dr. Dre for 2000’s platinum-certified Restless; Defari, who released the underrated 1999 album Focused Daily; the Lootpack, and Phil Da Agony.
Project Blowed: For much of the late '90s and aughts, Project Blowed defined subterranean, avant-garde lyricism in Los Angeles. It was not only an event held in Leimert Park, but also a collective and a record label. Aceyalone, rapper and one-time member of pioneering group Freestyle Fellowship, and Abstract Rude — who was briefly signed to the Beastie Boys’ label Grand Royal — were two of its most prominent members. Others were Figures of Speech, which included future film director Ava DuVernay, Medusa the "gangsta goddess," and Volume 10, author of the 1993 hit, "Pistolgrip-Pump."
Odd Future: Formed in 2007, Odd Future became one of the most popular rap crews of their era. Their grungy skate-punk aesthetics, soulful introspection, and youthful fervor helped define the genre-agnostic quality of current hip-hop.
Onetime leader Tyler, the Creator is acclaimed for albums like 2019’s Igor and 2021’s Call Me If You Get Lost. The same goes for Frank Ocean and his two masterpieces, Channel Orange and Blonde. Other members include Earl Sweatshirt, Syd the Kyd — who went on to form the alternative soul group the Internet — Hodgy and Left Brain of Mellow Hype, and Jasper Dolphin, who later joined the Jackass franchise.
Essential SoCal Hip-Hop Releases
N.W.A. - Straight Outta Compton (1988): N.W.A’s landmark Straight Outta Compton is the product of three Compton musicians with years of experience in the L.A. hip-hop scene. Dr. Dre and DJ Yella spent three years as part of World Class Wreckin Cru, the mobile DJ unit and electro group led by Lonzo Williams. South Central native Ice Cube bounced around in various rap acts, notably the trio C.I.A. (Criminals in Action). MC Ren performed locally. The wild card was Eazy-E, a self-admitted drug dealer who didn’t have any musical experience until Dre asked him to rap Cube’s lyrics for "The Boyz-N-The Hood."
The Pharcyde - BizarreRideIIThePharcyde (1992): The Pharcyde’s debut album remains proof that Southern California hip-hop had more to offer than just gangsta rap. Produced by L.A. Jay, the album finds Romye, Imani, Slim Kid Tré, and Fat Lip embarking on a series of wacky, hilarious, and heart-rending adventures over crunchy samples from the likes of Quincy Jones and Jimi Hendrix. The tone ranges from the irreverence of "4 Better or 4 Worse" to the moving introspection of "Passin’ Me By" and "Otha Fish." BizarreRideIIThePharcyde was released a few weeks before Dr. Dre’s The Chronic.
Dr. Dre - The Chronic (1992): With The Chronic, Dr. Dre proved that rappers could make uncompromising, hardcore records and still succeed on the pop charts. Its first single, "Nuthin’ but a G Thang," was a sensation in rap circles and a major crossover hit, reaching the top five on the Billboard charts.
Dre collaborated with new voices like Snoop Doggy Dogg, Warren G, the Lady of Rage, RBX, Tha Dogg Pound — Kurupt and Daz, and singers Nate Dogg and Jewell, all of whom would define West Coast rap in the '90s. Meanwhile, his process of using musicians like Colin Wolfe to interpolate vintage funk sounds helped create what later became known as G-funk.
2Pac - All Eyez on Me (1996): 2Pac came of age as a rapper while living in Northern California's Marin County and Oakland, recording hit singles like "I Get Around" and "Keep Ya Head Up." But after signing to Death Row, he made a double album that posited Southern California as the center of West Coast hip-hop. Certified diamond by the RIAA, All Eyez on Me is an embarrassment of riches, packed with hit singles like "California Love'' and "2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted," beloved deep cuts like "Ambitionz Az a Rider," and collaborations with Method Man & Redman, Snoop Dogg, George Clinton, and many others. It’s a gangsta party that certified him as a rap legend.
Kendrick Lamar - good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012): Lamar’s first major-label album is not only a concept album about growing up in Compton, but also about a young person burdened by the gangsta legacy — for good and ill. His songs poke holes at long-held assumptions about how Black men in Los Angeles should handle life’s complications, from binge drinking in "Swimming Pools (Drank)" to navigating tensions between Crips and Bloods on "m.A.A.d city." His thoughts on spirituality and solitude on "Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe" reflect a new generation of Southern California rappers searching for inner peace while remaining true to their communities.
Notable SoCal Hip-Hop Labels
Ruthless: As the home of N.W.A, Eazy-E’s company hardly needs an introduction. Yet casual fans may not be familiar with the variety of acts that passed through the label in the '80s and '90s. In addition to documenting N.W.A’s tumultuous reign, it put out J.J. Fad’s pop smash "Supersonic," R&B singer Michel’le’s "No More Lies," and the D.O.C.’s platinum-certified 1989 debut, No One Can Do It Better — all in addition to solo projects from Eazy-E and MC Ren.
G-funk architects like Above the Law, Penthouse Players Clique, and Kokane spent time on the label, and it even found space for Jewish hip-hop group Blood of Abraham and an early version of Black Eyed Peas (then known as Atban Klann). Ruthless’ most famous post-N.W.A export is the Cleveland group Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, who sold millions with hits like "Thuggish Ruggish Bone" and "Tha Crossroads."
Delicious Vinyl: In the late '80s, Delicious Vinyl served as a contrast to the reality rap-focused Ruthless Records with pop-rap hits like Tone-Loc’s "Wild Thing," Young MC’s "Bust a Move," and Def Jef’s "Give It Here." Matt Dike, who co-founded the label with Michael Ross, was also a member of production team the Dust Brothers, who played a major role in Brooklyn transplants Beastie Boys’ 1989 masterwork, Paul’s Boutique.
The following decade, Delicious Vinyl’s roster expanded to innovators like the British acid-jazz combo Brand New Heavies, lyrically-minded L.A. quartet the Pharcyde, and New York unit Masta Ace Incorporated.
Death Row: Formed by Dr. Dre after he left N.W.A and Compton entrepreneur Suge Knight, Death Row was one of the most successful — and controversial — record labels of the 1990s. Beginning with Dre’s The Chronic, the label issued several albums that defined the era, like Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle, the Above the Rim soundtrack, Tha Dogg Pound’s Dogg Food, and 2Pac’s All Eyez on Me.
Death Row began to fall apart after Dr. Dre left and 2Pac was murdered in 1996, and Suge Knight was imprisoned on parole violation charges in 1997. The company’s valuable catalog has since changed several hands, with Snoop Dogg and various partners taking control of it last year.
Stones Throw: Originally founded in San Jose, California by DJ/producer Peanut Butter Wolf, Stones Throw relocated to Los Angeles in 2000. That’s when the label hit its stride as a popular indie label, thanks in part to idiosyncratic producer Madlib, who helmed critically acclaimed albums like Quasimoto’s The Unseen and Madvillain’s Madvillainy.
Other Southern California artists who spent time on the roster include Madlib’s brother, rapper/producer Oh No; Oxnard musician Anderson .Paak and producer Knxwledge, together known as NxWorries; Detroit rapper/producer J Dilla, who made Donuts while living in L.A. before his 2006 death; street-rap trio Strong Arm Steady, and Orange County rapper/producer Jonwayne.
Top Dawg Entertainment: Thanks in part to GRAMMY-winning Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar — whose literary and conceptual songwriting pushed hip-hop music to new heights — Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith’s record label is a powerhouse in the music industry. Then there’s New Jersey’s SZA, whose blend of rap-styled flows and R&B vocals make her one of the most innovative of her era.
Other standout acts on Top Dawg include Carson rappers Schoolboy Q and Ab-Soul — who together with Lamar and Jay Rock form the group Black Hippy — Tennessee rapper/singer Isaiah Rashad, Inglewood alternative soul vocalist SiR, and Florida newcomer Doechii.
Subgenres Of SoCal Hip-Hop
Electro: When Southern California hip-hop emerged in the 1980s, the sound of electro dominated. Ice-T began his career with electro tracks like 1983’s "Cold-Wind Madness." Dr. Dre launched his career with the World Class Wreckin’ Cru, and his DJ prowess shined on their single, "Surgery." Pioneering DJ Egyptian Lover — a member of Mobile DJ unit Uncle Jamm’s Army — scored a national hit in 1984 with "Egypt, Egypt."
Other memorable cuts during this era, which lasted roughly from 1983 to the arrival of N.W.A. in the late '80s, include Captain Rapp and "Bad Times (I Can’t Stand It)," which featured production from Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis; Toddy Tee’s "Batteram," and Arabian Prince’s "Strange Life." Rap artists may have abandoned the sound, but it continues to inspire modern-day funk and electronic musicians like Dām Funk, Nite Jewel, and XL Middleton.
G-Funk: Since emerging around 1991 via productions from N.W.A’s Dr. Dre, DJ Quik, Cold 187um and DJ Pooh, G-funk has been the definitive Southern California rap sound — as key to the region’s identity as boom-bap is to New York and trap is to Atlanta. The bass-heavy, funky worm-driven, P-Funk-inspired sound has inspired decades of artists. At its peak in the mid-'90s, it was the sound of stars like Domino, Suga Free, and Warren G. But each new generation seems to find new twists on the sturdy formula, whether it’s The Game and Nipsey Hussle in the Aughts; or, in recent years, YG and G Perico.
Chicano Rap: While often overlooked by the media, Chicano rap — an umbrella term for Mexican Americans who make English and Spanglish-language rap — has deep roots in Southern California. West Coast OG Kid Frost began his career in the mid-'80s before landing a major hit in 1990 with "La Raza." He led a wave of Latin rappers in the early '90s that included A Lighter Shade of Brown ("On a Sunday Afternoon"), Mellow Man Ace ("Mentirosa"), A.L.T. and the Lost Civilization ("Tequila"), and Proper Dos ("Mexican Power").
Of course, Cypress Hill are the most famed Chicano rap group of all, thanks to songs like "Latin Lingo." Later years brought acts such as NB Ridaz ("Down for Yours"), Lil Rob ("Summer Nights"), Lil One, and Mr. Knightowl. On their 1998 debut album, Latin fusion group Ozomatli, scored rap hits like "Super Bowl Sundae" and "Cut Chemist Suite."
Turntablism: Coined by Babu of the Beat Junkies as well as Dilated Peoples, turntablism refers to the art of scratching, mixing, and blending records. An international scene flourished in the '90s and early 2000s — with strongholds in Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area — putting a much-needed spotlight back to DJs, the original creators of hip-hop before rappers took over. Turntablism produced standout artists like D-Styles, J Rocc, Cut Chemist from Jurassic 5, DJ Rob One, Faust & Shortee, and others.
BTS/Beats: "Beats" is a catch-all term for production that incorporates electronic music and rap instrumentals. L.A. producers like the late Ras G, Carlos Niño and Daedelus developed the sound throughout the aughts before it caught fire with the likes of Flying Lotus, TOKiMONSTA, and Knxwledge.
Two major touchstones are Madvillain’s Madvillainy — a one-off pairing between Oxnard producer Madlib and the late New York rapper MF DOOM — and Donuts, which Detroit producer J Dilla made while living in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, the dusty loops that many beat producers employ have inspired music by Earl Sweatshirt, rapper/singer Anderson .Paak, and others.
Rising Hip-Hop Artists From Southern California
03 Greedo: Watts rapper 03 Greedo became a cult sensation on the strength of projects like The Wolf of Grape Street and God Level, and a nakedly honest perspective on gang life augmented by a watery, Auto-Tuned voice. His trajectory stalled when he was imprisoned on trafficking charges in 2018. 03 Greedo was paroled earlier this year, and has said that he plans on making up for lost time.
Maxo: Max "Maxo" Allen parlayed underground notoriety into a major-label deal with Def Jam, which issued his Lil Big Man album in 2019. His second major-label effort, 2023’s Even God Has a Sense of Humor, stands out for his introspective writing, and his fearlessness in exploring life’s meaning and finding solace in family and lovers.
Navy Blue: Former skateboarder Sage "Navy Blue" Elsesser first drew attention with a cameo on Earl Sweatshirt’s lo-fi gem, Some Rap Songs. He subsequently built a following with independent solo albums that emphasized his spiritual-minded lyrics and lo-fi production. After signing to Def Jam, he released the acclaimed Ways of Knowing this year.
Source Images (Clockwise, L-R): Raymond Boyd/Getty Images; Astrida Valigorsky/Getty Images; Kevin Winter/Getty Images for The Recording Academy; Gregory Bojorquez/Getty Images; Paul Natkin/WireImage; Anthony Barboza/Getty Images; JC Olivera/WireImage; Kevin Kane/Getty Images for The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; Clarence Davis/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images; Jason Koerner/Getty Images
50 Artists Who Changed Rap: Jay-Z, The Notorious B.I.G., Dr. Dre, Nicki Minaj, Kendrick Lamar, Eminem & More
In honor of the 50th anniversary of hip-hop this year, GRAMMY.com is celebrating some of the genre's most impactful artists across the decades. From Drake to OutKast, Lauryn Hill to Lil Wayne, these pioneers shaped rap over the past 50 years of hip-hop.
At its core, hip-hop began as a joyful expression, a grassroots community-organizing method, and an outlet to creatively and freely rebel against the socioeconomic turmoil happening across America in the early '70s. The genre's mythical-like origin remains an integral part of American history: From the recreation room of 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, an 18-story apartment building in the South Bronx, New York City, DJ Kool Herc captivated audiences young and old as he commanded the turntables at a birthday party for his sister, Cindy Campbell, while MCs Theodore Puccio and Coke La Rock shouted out rhymes over Herc's instrumental beats.
While there is evidence that foundational elements of hip-hop emerged long before it boomed out of that South Bronx party — listen to Pigmeat Markham's "Here Comes The Judge" from 1968, for example — this momentous day, Aug. 11, 1973, would become known as the origin of hip-hop, with Herc being anointed the genre's founding father.
What began as a local sound and burgeoning scene in the "Boogie Down Bronx" has since evolved into a global movement. Hip-hop today is a powerful, unapologetic force that has influenced every genre of music and impacted every facet of society and pop culture around the world. Over the past five decades, the sound has expanded as a multi-genre invention. The party-starting, feel-good rhymes of the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," the first global rap hit, paved the way for the piercing social commentary and "reality rap" fueling Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five's hit single "The Message," the latter of which can be traced to current-day rap prophets like Kendrick Lamar and Noname.
As the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of hip-hop this year, GRAMMY.com is honoring some of the genre's most impactful artists, producers and creators in our inaugural 50 Artists Who Changed Rap list. Through this wide-spanning list, we are paying tribute to the pioneers, originators and futurists who have shaped hip-hop culture, pushed the artistic boundaries of rap over the past five decades, and continued to evolve the sound into the future.
To be clear, this list is not a ranking of the "best" rappers, nor is it a voting-based compilation of the top-selling artists in hip-hop. Rather, it is meant to serve as a survey of some of the most influential and impactful artists who have shaped rap music and hip-hop culture over the past 50 years.
To help compile our list of these 50 influential artists, GRAMMY.com invited an industry panel of established music veterans, cultural and music journalists, published authors, and music historians, who collectively submitted hundreds of artists suggestions. (See the full list of contributors below.) Based on these initial submissions from our industry panel, the artists comprising the final list, presented below in no ranking order, were selected based on a wide yet loose range of indicators: creative and artistic impact; career evolution and longevity; classic and influential albums; and beyond.
Of course, no one list could ever contain the whole of hip-hop and its ever-expansive reach. Nor could any list of influential rappers be whittled down to a mere list of 50. That's an impossible feat. Rather, our 50 Artists Who Changed Rap list stands as a love letter to some of the culture's defining moments and impactful voices that have helped create a global movement that continues to inspire and ignite future generations from all walks of life.
"As we approach hip-hop's 50th anniversary, it's important to acknowledge all of its accomplishments and the people in it," Len Brown, Senior Project Manager of Awards and Rap, Reggae, and R&B Genre Manager for the Recording Academy, shares. "What was once thought of as a passing fad has become the world's biggest genre despite it being the youngest — all made possible by the ingenious minds that continuously push the boundaries of music. There are countless individuals who got us this far and countless more who'll continue to carry the culture for the next 50 years and beyond."
There is so more to be said about our beloved hip-hop culture. Its history is rich and deep, while its future is still being written by today's leading lights and new, emerging voices revolutionizing rap. Today, we offer you this list as your jump-off to celebrate hip-hop in all its glory as we honor 50 Years of Hip-Hop all year long.
Explore the music from every artist featured in our 50 Artists Who Changed Rap list in an exclusive playlist, curated by longtime GRAMMY.com contributor and hip-hop tastemaker Kevin L. Clark, on Amazon Music, Spotify, Apple Music, and Pandora.
Visit our Rap genre page for more exclusive content and to explore some of the rap's most memorable moments in GRAMMY history across the decades. Continue to visit GRAMMY.com for more exclusive 50 Years of Hip-Hop content throughout the year.
— Kevin L. Clark & John Ochoa
2 Live Crew
All titillating, risqué elements of hip-hop's artistry — hits from Nicki Minaj's "Anaconda" to Cardi B's and Megan Thee Stallion's "WAP" to Sexyy Red's "Pound Town" — owe a sizeable debt to Miami rap quartet 2 Live Crew. As regions in the American West and South first made their presence known in hip-hop during the late 1980s, 2 Live Crew — "Uncle Luke" Campbell, the late Fresh Kid Ice, Brother Marquis, DJ Mr. Mixx — introduced the bottom-heavy Miami bass sound to the culture with their ribald 1986 single, "Throw the D." Pioneering a frat-party climate incorporating stripper-influenced female stage performers and comical, sexually explicit material on The 2 Live Crew Is What We Are (1986) and Move Somethin' (1988), the group soon ran afoul of authorities who deemed their albums legally obscene, becoming the first act to release the first sound recording to be declared obscene.
The first act in music history to release profanity-free, "clean" versions of their albums, 2 Live Crew soldiered through legal battles fighting for their freedom of speech that eventually ruled in the group's favor. In obscenity trials across the early '90s tied to the Crew's hit 1989 album, As Nasty as They Wanna Be, which was ruled obscene and illegal to sell in 1990, the group was ultimately acquitted of the charges, with the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals holding that the music held artistic value, despite its graphic contents. Through these legal cases, 2 Live Crew arose as the unlikeliest champions of freedom of speech, with First Amendment advocates and major artists, including David Bowie, alike defending the group's artistic freedom and protected speech.
A separate legal skirmish, in which the group was sued for copyright infringement over a parody they recorded of Roy Orbison's "Oh, Pretty Woman," made its way to the Supreme Court. The Court held the music as parody and therefore cleared as fair use rather than copyright infringement; this case against 2 Live Crew ultimately established that a commercial parody is covered under fair use laws.
Today, 2 Live Crew albums allow hip-hop a sexual freedom of expression that infuses the work of current acts from Plies to City Girls. — Miles Marshall Lewis
2Pac, born Tupac Amaru Shakur, was born into activism; his mother, Afeni Shakur, and biological father, William Garland, were both Black Panthers. He once famously said, "I'm not saying I'm gonna change the world, but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world," a hip-hop quotable that suggests his influence is still igniting brains for metamorphosis.
Shakur's rap career was incubated by Oakland's Digital Underground, who took him on tour as a roadie and dancer and collaborated with him. DU's politically aware yet party-loving ethos helped inject some fun into Shakur's edge. He'd later define this as "THUG LIFE," standing for "the hate u give little infants f— everyone," an eternal hip-hop mantra, also emblazoned as an iconic tattoo across this torso, that would become highly mimicked by rappers who wished to follow in his footsteps.
Known for working furiously in the studio, Shakur sensed he would die young and he wanted to leave a lot behind. He released four albums between 1991 and 1996: 2Pacalypse Now, Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z…, Me Against the World, and All Eyez on Me. He also left behind enough material for seven posthumous albums — six solo works and one collaborative album with Tha Outlawz. Throughout his discography, he spoke truth to power, rapping about the harsh realities of hood life ("Changes"), female empowerment ("Keep Ya Head Up"), and eternal maternal love ("Dear Mama"). He also knew how to throw down a party anthem as heard on "California Love" and "I Get Around."
The life and legacy of Shakur, who was killed in 1996, continues to be studied and valued in the present. From his never-before-heard appearance in Kendrick Lamar's instant classic, To Pimp A Butterfly, to Dear Mama, an acclaimed docuseries about his relationship with his mom, which premiered in April on FX, Pac's influence will never wane; his recent Hollywood Walk of Fame star unveiling is a testament to that fact. — Tamara Palmer
Queens, New York, native Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson's impact on hip-hop is undeniable — and far-reaching. In a span of roughly 20 years, the rapper has released five successful studio albums, produced a slew of successful television shows, created a record label, G-Unit Records, founded his own cognac brand, and had a hand in other fruitful business ventures. His placement on this list is palpable.
Before his major-label debut, 50's mixtapes, including Guess Who's Back?, flooded the streets and generated a large fanbase that helped aid his breakthrough success. After being discovered by Eminem and signed to Shady/Aftermath Records, 50 worked with legendary producer Dr. Dre to create his blockbuster debut album, Get Rich or Die Tryin' in 2003. A commercial success, going 9x platinum, the seminal album showed audiences 50's lyrical prowess as well as his mainstream crossover reach. 50 Cent's career evolution, talent and success have left an indelible mark that will be seen and felt for generations to come. — Rachel McCain
A Tribe Called Quest
Composed of Q-Tip, the late Phife Dawg, occasional member Jarobi White, and DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad, A Tribe Called Quest helped carve a space for rappers (and rap listeners) with a bohemian bent to their hip-hop aesthetic. Formed by high school friends from Queens, New York, the group established its own unique sound through the use of jazz and rock samples, a practice then unorthodox for hip-hop in the early 1990s. Early on, they helped create a bridge between jazz and hip-hop, two worlds then often seen as distantly disconnected. Legendary jazz bassist Ron Carter, for example, guested on A Tribe Called Quest's seminal sophomore album, The Low End Theory, marking one of the earliest collaborations between jazz and hip-hop musicians.
Widely considered to be masterpieces of the genre, People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990), The Low End Theory (1991), and Midnight Marauders (1993) — their initial trio of albums — established A Tribe Called Quest as mavericks of sound and sonic visionaries.The group's final studio album, We Got It from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service (2016), featured appearances by Elton John and Jack White — exemplifying the group's reputation as genre-inclusive pioneers of alternative hip-hop.
A Tribe Called Quest's Afrocentric, left-of-center, cultural nationalist aesthetic set them apart as iconoclasts, clear antecedents to the likes of OutKast, Kanye West, Tyler, the Creator, and so many others. — Miles Marshall Lewis
Big Daddy Kane
Antonio Hardy, aka Big Daddy Kane, is your favorite rapper's favorite rapper — a skilled, all-around technician with an unrelentingly charismatic appeal. His impeccable '80s styling – replete with velour suits, gold accessories, and a high-top fade — accentuated his innovative rhyme schemes, honed from his time as a battle rapper from Brooklyn prior to linking with Marley Marl's Juice Crew alongside friend and collaborator Biz Markie. His debut single, "Raw," was an underground sensation, introducing a new style of rhyming: quick and in syncopation with complex drum schemes without sacrificing articulation. Long Live the Kane, Kane's first album, is a showcase of his prodigious talents on the microphone: Where "Set It Off" unleashed his array of dizzying rhymes with locomotive speed, "Ain't No Half-Stepping" was a casual stroll through extended metaphors, maximizing the suave and commanding texture of his voice as it lingered on the beat.
Kane was simultaneously a powerful MC and a sex symbol; he would lean into his "loverman" appeal with hits such as his chart-topping "Smooth Operator," a relaxed and polished display of lyrical finesse over a blend of samples including "All Night Long" by the Mary Jane Girls, Isaac Hayes' "Do Your Thing and Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing." Kane succeeded at being the player, lyrical assassin, an Afrocentric rhyme-spitter all in one — a level of dexterity that would influence a number of greats that followed him, from Jay-Z to Eminem to Black Thought to Notorious B.I.G. — Shamira Ibrahim
Chief Keef started his career as rap's Ozzy Osbourne, the most visible figure in a burgeoning scene as exciting as it was controversial. But over the last decade, he has morphed into hip-hop's Brian Eno, making ever weirder projects while retaining something close to A-list name recognition. When Keef emerged in the early 2010s thanks to thundering singles "I Don't Like" and "Love Sosa" and support from stars like Kanye West and 50 Cent, the music industry seemed hellbent on sanding down his edges. The resulting album, 2012's Finally Rich, went platinum, but it gave fans little indication of the auteurist approach that would come to define the rest of Chief Keef's career.
Since eschewing mainstream success, Keef has honed his eccentricities on a series of excellent mixtapes, including Thot Breaker (2017), a delightfully strange project filled with slurred melodies and chirping synths. As one of the chief pioneers of drill, his most palatable impact on rap is perhaps heard across the international drill scenes bubbling up across underground scenes around the world. Without Keef, drill would not be the dominating subgenre in rap it is today. Still just 27, Keef has settled into a role not just as your favorite rapper's favorite rapper, but as one of their go-to producers: He's crafted wonderfully bizarre soundscapes for Lil Uzi Vert, Coi Leray, and YoungBoy Never Broke Again. — Grant Rindner
De La Soul
Completely innovative for their era, De La Soul heralded the entrance of nerdy wunderkinds into a hip-hop culture then full of machismo and blustering bravado. High school friends from suburban Long Island, New York, Kelvin "Posdnuos" Mercer, the late Dave "Trugoy the Dove" Jolicoeur, and Vincent Mason, aka DJ Maseo, debuted as teenagers with 1988's verbally obstruse "Plug Tunin'." A masterful full-length debut, 3 Feet High and Rising (1989), contained a wide-ranging sonic collage of stacked samples and highly diversified snippets of sounds, placing Sly Stone alongside Steely Dan and beyond.
The groundbreaking production style led to a lawsuit by the Turtles, the 1960s rock band who demanded royalties for the use of 12 seconds of their music on the album. A legal decision in the Turtles' favor changed sampling laws forever, but De La Soul kept the innovation coming throughout a catalog of classics, including De La Soul Is Dead, Buhloone Mindstate and Stakes Is High, which is now, thankfully, available on all DSPs to inspire future generations to come. — Miles Marshall Lewis
DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince
"We wanna let everybody know where it's at. It's right here — ‘Yo! MTV Raps.’" The skinny guy in the orange tank top and MTV baseball cap rapping into the camera was still years away from having his own sitcom, and further still from being one of the most bankable movie actors on the planet. But if you happened to be watching the premiere episode of “Yo! MTV Raps” on Aug. 6, 1988, you would see one thing clearly: Will Smith exploded off the screen. The guy was a star.
Will teamed up with the virtuosic DJ Jazzy Jeff, and the group's beatboxer Ready Rock C, back in 1985. By the time of the “Yo!” appearance, they already had two albums under their belt, including He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper (1988). That record, hip-hop's first-ever double album, ensured the group's place in history. Jeff's innovative DJ skills were front and center on songs like "Jazzy's In The House" and "DJ On Wheels," while Will brought his storytelling charm to "Parents Just Don't Understand" and "A Nightmare on My Street." Will's lyrics were funny and universal — you didn't have to be from the Bronx, or even West Philly, to relate to being scared of Freddy Kreuger. Plus, as Ann Carli, then a Jive Records exec, recalls during the "Parents…" video shoot, as quoted in Brian Coleman's indispensable tome, Check the Technique, Vol. 2, "The camera loves him."
From there, it was off to the races. More hit songs, TV and movie stardom, jumping out of planes, and all the rest. But it all started with a rap group that combined two world-class talents into a GRAMMY-winning package that all the world could love. — Shawn Setaro
DJ Kool Herc
Clive "DJ Kool Herc" Campbell is an essential part of hip-hop's origin story. His younger sister, Cindy Campbell, asked him to play at a "Back to School Jam" she organized for Aug. 11, 1973, much like the ones she organized within the 1520 Sedgwick Avenue recreation room. At the party, today considered the day when hip-hop was born, Campbell introduced his "merry-go-round" turntable method in which he isolated the instrumental breakdowns in funk records for the "beat boys" in attendance. Over the next few years, as the legend of the party grew, Campbell established himself as a top DJ in the area, thanks in no small part to a massive sound system he built and the presence of helpers — dancers, fledging MCs and DJs, security — called the Herculoids, named after the Hanna-Barbera cartoon. In 1977, Herc was the victim of a stabbing at a local nightclub, an incident Bronx pioneers believe marked the end of his dominance and allowed rivals to surpass him. However, DJ Kool Herc remains a Promethean figure who sparked the beginning of what would later be known as hip-hop. He's the ultimate reason we're all celebrating 50 Years of Hip-Hop this year. In November, he will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. — Mosi Reeves
Less than 20 years after the 1977 New York City blackout, where Black youth across the boroughs of New York City came upon DJ equipment and found ways to use technology to achieve their dreams, a man named Robert Earl Davis Jr., also known as DJ Screw, used two turntables to fulfill his artistic dreams, while simultaneously establishing Houston a rap capital. When DJ Screw emerged in the 1990s, the predominant rap sound and DJ technique were East- and West Coast-focused. But when DJ Screw introduced his "chopped and screwed" style, his signature DJ technique that slowed records to create pockets for the beats to flow, windows of opportunity opened for rappers across Houston to join the fold.
He created a kaleidoscope, a purple-tinted portal where Southern rappers traveled through region and time to tell their stories. There was not a street or avenue in Houston or the South where chopped and screwed could not be heard from a nearby car or window. He gave Houston and the South an opportunity to be heard within the boisterous noise of bicoastal hip-hop. In the 23 years since his passing, his chopped and screwed sound has been used by the world's greatest entertainers — horror auteur Jordan Peele has used chopped and screwed sounds in scenes and trailers for hit films like Nope and Us — and created an entry point for Houston to achieve worldwide cultural and musical success. All because of one man and his turntables. — Taylor Crumpton
Doug E. Fresh & Slick Rick
Throughout the early 80s, Douglas "Doug E. Fresh" Davis built a reputation for vocal percussion, or "beatboxing," and recorded a few 12-inch singles while collaborating with the likes of Kurtis Blow and others. In 1984, he recruited a teenage MC, Ricky "Slick Rick" Walters, to join Doug E. Fresh & the Get Fresh Crew. In 1985, the group released "The Show / La-Di-Da-Di," a gold-certified 12-inch that highlighted both Fresh's talents as a Master of Ceremonies and Rick's unforgettably British-inflected voice and sly, witty lyrics.
After going their separate ways, the two continued to have a major impact during the early years of rap's golden age. One of hip-hop's great entertainers, Doug E. Fresh scored several hits over the next few years like the spiritually inspired "All the Way to Heaven" (1986), the anti-drug protest "Nuthin'," and "I-Ight (Alright)" (1993). Slick Rick's storytelling prowess and use of off-key vocal harmonies, as showcased on his platinum solo album The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, made him a major influence on subsequent generations of rappers. This year, he received a Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award. — Mosi Reeves
Born Andre Young in Compton, California, Dr. Dre is one of hip-hop's definitive and standard-setting pioneers. Now a veteran DJ, artist and producer, Dr. Dre's public story began as a member of two very different, influential L.A. groups in the '80s: electro stars World Class Wreckin' Cru and gangster rap icons N.W.A; the latter is the subject of a popular 2015 biopic, Straight Outta Compton, and earned Dre international recognition for bringing the reality and struggles of inner-city street life to mainstream America.
Dr. Dre took home the first of his seven GRAMMY wins to date in 1994. That year, he won the GRAMMY for Best Rap Solo Performance for "Let Me Ride" from The Chronic, his groundbreaking, triple-platinum album, which has launched official international Dre Day celebrations every year since its release and helped normalize weed culture around the world. More golden gramophones have followed for his work with Eminem and Anderson .Paak, and he's also been nominated for his productions for Kendrick Lamar, 2Pac, 50 Cent, Gwen Stefani, and more.
Dr. Dre's ear for music has helped him become a billion-dollar entrepreneur as well. In 2006, he and his close business associate, Interscope label head Jimmy Iovine, created Beats Electronics to sell Beats By Dre headphones, which quickly set style and sales trends in the audio technology sector. Eight years later, Apple acquired Beats for a reported $3 billion. But with his GOAT-status secured, Dre didn't stop there. Over the years, he's helped carve the future for the next generation of music minds. He opened a magnet school in South Central's historic Leimert Park and co-founded the Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy at the University of Southern California. At the 2023 GRAMMYs, Dre received the inaugural Dr. Dre Global Impact Award for his innovations and achievements throughout decades-long career. — Tamara Palmer
Who would've thought an actor from the Great White North would end up becoming one of the world's biggest pop culture icons? Drake's role on the popular Canadian teen drama series "Degrassi: The Next Generation" was simply a launching pad for a music career that would not only cross Canadian-American borders, but showcase the true universality of hip-hop. His signature R&B crooning melting over melodic rap beats, which began with his breakthrough mixtape So Far Gone (2009), halted the gangster mentality that ruled hip-hop in the late '00s.
From there, Drake surged as rap's global leader with classics like Take Care (2011) and If You're Reading This It's Too Late (2015). And while not his most acclaimed album, the commercial and international success of his 2016 blockbuster, Views, paired with a thrilling foray into dancehall and Afrobeats proved that he could take hip-hop into different pockets around the globe. He perfected his formula — a mix of tearful emotions, flirtatious loverboy charm, a braggadocio attitude, viral one-liners, and the ability to mold to various cultural sounds — and spun it into gold and platinum success. From currently holding the record for the most Top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 to building his OVO Music empire, Drake still holds the mainstream industry in the palm of his hand to this day. — Bianca Gracie
With his colorful "slanguage" and consummate cool, E-40 has influenced MCs all over the world. The rapper, born Earl Stevens, built his label Sick Wid It through independent record sales, a hustle he learned from his uncle, the soul singer Saint Charles Thurman, who started the first distribution company for Black music in the Bay Area.
That independent strategy inspired like-minded artists to follow E-40's path: make millions on the streets and in the boardrooms. Most prominently, labels such as Cash Money Records and No Limit Records in New Orleans gave him foundational props; Master P started his No Limit Records inside a record store in Richmond, California, before returning to the South. After signing with Jive Records, E-40 released an impressive discography that includes three gold albums and one platinum album.
Continuing to expand his artistry in more recent years, E-40 has released songs and toured as one-quarter of the rap supergroup Mount Westmore alongside Too $hort, Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg. He has parlayed that independent hustle into building his own companies to sell alcoholic spirits and food, now stocked in liquor stores, grocery markets and big box stores like Costco. His debut cookbook, Goons With Spoons, created in conjunction with Snoop Dogg, will be released in November.
A community-minded philanthropist, E-40 has long given back to his communities. In 2023, he donated $100,000 to Grambling University, which he attended, to create the Earl "E-40" Stevens Sound Recording Studio on campus. And his do-it-yourself ethos continues to be seen today in the likes of fellow Bay Area rappers, including LaRussell and Larry June, and the next generation of MCs. — Tamara Palmer
The career of Eminem, born Marshall Bruce Mathers III, is unprecedented. The two biggest rap albums in American history are both his. Out of the 20 rap albums with the largest first-week sales, he has six. He is the best-selling rapper of all time and the best-selling artist of any type in the 2000s.
But sales are only the beginning of the story. For a few years in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Eminem was the center of pop culture. His songs and antics created heated debates, which created even more songs and even more antics, in a feedback loop that grew giant enough to eventually include a still-powerful duet from Elton John and Em the GRAMMYs. Eminem brought the singer with him to perform at the 2001 GRAMMYs ceremony as an implicit answer to charges of homophobia that had been dogging him since he first exploded into the mainstream with controversial lyrics.
Eminem was always more than controversy, though. While his sales, as he was the first to admit, were boosted by his race, his skill level was never at issue. His blazingly technical raps were in service of a captivating life story. Before he was rhyming about reporters and politicians reacting to his contentious raps, he was spitting about being at "rock bottom" — depressed, hopeless, and struggling to get by. If there were something that fans of all backgrounds could relate to, it was not giving a f—. — Shawn Setaro
Eric B. & Rakim
One of the greatest hip-hops duos ever, Long Island duo Eric B. & Rakim symbolized hip-hop music at its most refined. Thanks to his late-'80s recordings with DJ/producer "Eric B." Barrier, William "Rakim" Griffin is often mentioned as the greatest MC of all time. His relaxed vocal presence, subtle use of Five Percenter Nation teachings, storytelling prowess, and ability to weave complex ideas into accessible lyrics have been mimicked by countless others. Considered an essential artifact of hip-hop's late-80s golden age, Paid in Full, the duo's 1987 debut album, is packed with hits like "Eric B. Is President," "My Melody," "I Know You Got Soul" — which popularized the use of James Brown samples in rap records — and "Move the Crowd."
Their second album, Follow the Leader (1988), marked a new peak in Rakim's lyrical abilities, while Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em (1990) was one of the most anticipated albums of the era. Before the group split and Rakim embarked on a solo career, they released Don't Sweat the Technique, which has recently achieved new popularity due to its use on television and in film. — Mosi Reeves
Atlanta had a major resurgence in the 2010s — and Future led the charge. A Dungeon Family member, he used Auto-Tune to create a dreary version of trap blues as he warbles about addiction, depression, manipulative relationships, and heartache. He solidified his legacy in 2015 when he unleashed a string of projects: the Beast Mode and 56 Nights mixtapes, the chopped-not-slopped DS2 album, and the What a Time to Be Alive collaborative mixtape with Drake, which highlighted Future's brilliant chemistry with rap's current titans. The onslaught of music spun a dark cloud over the rap genre, giving the green light for male rappers to be just as emotional as they are vengeful. Future's hot streak continues to this day: He's experimenting with new genres, including pop star collaborations with Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift; churning out hits, most recently the GRAMMY-winning "Wait For U" with partner-in-music Drake; and still confidently wearing his broken heart on his sleeve. — Bianca Gracie
Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five
As one of many who followed in DJ Kool Herc's wake, Joseph "Grandmaster Flash" Saddler is a key innovator in the art of DJing, particularly in the way he mixed records and expanded on scratching, a technique first invented by Grand Wizzard Theodore. In the late 1970s, he assembled the crew of MCs who became the Furious Five and who would go on to release several classic hip-hop records: Keith "Cowboy" Wiggins, who is credited with the first use of the phrase "hip-hop," Melvin "Melle Mel" Glover, Mel's brother Kidd Creole, Guy "Raheim" Williams, and Eddie "Scorpio" Morris.
In 1979, the group recorded "Superrappin'," which many consider the first "real" Bronx hip-hop record. They then released several popular 12-inches that culminated in "The Message" (1982), a watershed moment in rap's development into a full-fledged musical artform. Meanwhile, Grandmaster Flash created "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel," a showcase for his historic DJ skills that's considered the first turntablism record. In 2007, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five became the first hip-hop group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2021, the group received a Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award. — Mosi Reeves
Though Tracy "Ice-T" Morrow wasn't the first L.A. rapper to make a song about street life — he prefers the term "reality rap" instead of the mainstreamed moniker "gangsta rap" — he was arguably the most important. After a few years in the electro scene, marked by a performance in the 1984 film Breakin', Ice-T's "6 in the Mornin'," a vivid tale about a young hustler slanging dope and avoiding cops, made a huge local impact; it continues to influence rap artists to this day. In 1987, he became the first West Coast rapper to release an album on a major label with the gold-certified Rhyme Pays. By the time of his second album, Power (1988), Ice-T was widely considered the top solo rapper on the West Coast, while The Iceberg (Freedom of Speech..Just Watch What You Say) (1989) saw him expanding into social commentary and hard-rock experiments. His fourth album, O.G. Original Gangster (1992) introduced Body Count, a pioneering heavy metal/rap band that predicted the rise of rap rock. — Mosi Reeves
Watch: Hip-Hop History On Full Display During A Star-Studded Tribute To The 50th Anniversary Of Hip-Hop Featuring Performances By Missy Elliott, LL COOL J, Ice-T, Method Man, Big Boi, Busta Rhymes & More | 2023 GRAMMYs
Inimitable in sound and rhyme, Detroit's own James Yancey, also known as J Dilla, is respected around the world as "your favorite producer's favorite producer." A beloved and highly esteemed songwriter, producer, rapper, and drummer, he is a great influence on some of hip-hop's most diverse voices across the decades and to this day.
As a member of Slum Village, Dilla would quietly lace beats from his mother's basement for the likes of A Tribe Called Quest ("Find A Way"), Erykah Badu ("Didn't Cha Know"), MF DOOM ("Gazzillion Ear"), and countless others. Umpteen tributes on tracks and in concerts and from groups such as NxWorries (consisting of Anderson .Paak and Knxwledge), television programs (Cartoon Network's Adult Swim), and institutions (Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture) harken to his significant contribution to this thing we love called hip-hop.
Considered one of the greatest creatives in hip-hop history, J Dilla made innovative use of sound and imagination by employing real-time rhythms that may better translate as "a vibe" for listeners. He is directly responsible for bridging the soul and the sonic that distinguish rap as one of the most inventive art forms in recent history. Proving that his energetic beats matched his rhymes, Dilla's legacy continues to inspire and resonate within the hip-hop community today, and on hip-hop's milestone anniversary, his innovations and impact prove to be immortal, too. — Kevin L. Clark
Born Shawn Corey Carter in Brooklyn, New York, Jay-Z has made an indelible mark on hip-hop culture over three decades by marrying superlative lyrical creativity with an acute business acumen. Storming the gates of the record industry as co-owner and marquee artist of the independent Roc-a-Fella Records label, Jay-Z released the seminal Reasonable Doubt — a debut that instantly placed him among the top rappers of the 1990s. A consistent release schedule of unforgettable material, including Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life, The Blueprint, The Black Album, and 4:44, created summertime classics for a whole generation while establishing him as one of the greatest rappers the culture has ever produced.
Jay-Z occupies a unique space in hip-hop as both a billionaire mogul and a rapper consistently recognized as one of the art form's all-time most talented. His stakes in various entrepreneurial ventures — the music streaming platform Tidal; the entertainment agency Roc Nation; the 40/40 Club sports lounge — lend as much to his legacy as his one-time rivalry with Nas, which resulted in hip-hop's most notorious battle between livi de ng MCs to date. His marriage to Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, one of the most iconic pop performers of the modern era, has also produced artistic contributions — see their joint album, Everything Is Love — as well as an enduring symbol of Black excellence. — Miles Marshall Lewis
The son of storied music executive Micheal Mauldin, Jermaine Dupri has contributed to hip-hop as a producer, songwriter, and executive. Most importantly, the GRAMMY winner, who started dancing for the likes of Diana Ross and Whodini, helped cultivate Atlanta into the rap capital it is today.
As the founder of So So Def Records, Dupri helped make Kris Kross and Lil Bow Wow hit-making teen heartthrobs in a music genre that leaned on more adult personas; he also played a major role in helping Da Brat become the first female rapper to go platinum. Even today, his time as an executive producer of the reality competition series The Rap Game gave way to the eventual rise of next-gen rapper Latto. That doesn't even count collaborations that have reached nearly every corner of hip-hop, including classics with Jay-Z, UGK, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Snoop Dogg, and more.
Dupri's legacy in hip-hop can also be heard in the musical bridge connecting rap and R&B. He's written and produced hit albums for Mariah Carey, Usher, Xscape, Jagged Edge, and countless more, his contributions furthering the bond between the two genres. — Ural Garrett
Where do we even begin? From producing some of the greatest rap songs of the 2000s as Jay-Z's protégé to emerging as one of the most critically and commercially successful rappers of all time, Kanye West might be the most important musician of the 21st century — genre irrelevant. His ability to toggle between incisive commentary ("All Falls Down," "Heard 'Em Say"), all-time braggadocio ("Can't Tell Me Nothing," "Power"), and wry humor ("Gorgeous," "Otis") made his every verse an event, and his blockbuster albums consistently showcased an expert sense of talent curation. In the early 2010s, when West made a hard pivot from the maximalism of his magnum opus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010), to the industrial brutality of Yeezus (2013), he showed the kind of fearlessness that truly great artists possess, as he continued to push boundaries even in the face of skepticism.
The last several years of the Kanye West experience have been difficult and disturbing for many music fans. He's praised Adolf Hitler and made antisemitic comments, only to seemingly walk it all back, in a trollish fashion, albeit. A generational talent who has evolved his creative legacy in more ways than one, West's impact on music is clear and undeniable. Has he gone from industry iconoclast to outright outlier? Who's story is it to tell? But any attempt to wrap your mind around the first half-century of hip-hop history, and music in general, must include a reference to Kanye, whose DNA will be present in rap music for the next 50 years, at least. — Grant Rindner
In retrospect, Kendrick Lamar's renowned verse on "Control" might be better described as a manifesto rather than a call to war. After name-dropping nearly a dozen of the hottest rappers of the time, including the likes of Drake and J. Cole, Lamar challenges, "What is competition? I'm tryna raise the bar high. Who tryna jump and get it?" Ten years and one legendary career later, Lamar's three minutes of rhymes come off as less of a widespread diss and more of a statement of intent.
The Compton native went on to reach heights hip-hop had never seen before. In 2018, the 17-time GRAMMY winner won the Pulitzer Prize for DAMN., an achievement once described as "a watershed moment … and a sign of the American cultural elite's recognition of hip-hop as a legitimate artistic medium."
Still, despite such momentous contributions to the genre and culture at large, pinning down Lamar's direct influence on hip-hop really makes you stop and think. Perhaps that difficulty stems from the fact that so much of what makes Lamar great is his ability to combine the top traits of those who came before him. Whether it be channeling the narrative superpower of Nas on good kid, m.A.A.d city, the powerful social commentary of 2Pac on To Pimp A Butterfly, or the vulnerability of Jay-Z on tracks like "Mother I Sober," Lamar's biggest impact on hip-hop may just be the fact that he indeed raised the bar high for rap while embodying those who laid its foundation. — Taj Mayfield
A standard-setter who foreshadowed the international success of hip-hop, Kurtis "Blow" Walker is the genre's first superstar. Of his notable achievements, he became the first rapper to sign a major label deal (with Mercury Records) and the first to go gold via his 1980 single "The Breaks," which is recognized as one of the greatest hip-hop songs of all time and remains his signature calling card.
Blow's enormous influence on the culture is directly tied to his ability to expand the boundaries of hip-hop and foster talent within and beyond his creative circles. His early DJ on the road was Joseph Simmons, who was nicknamed "Run, the Son of Kurtis Blow" and who later carved his own iconic career as one-third of the hip-hop trio Run-D.M.C. Blow and Run-D.M.C. starred in the 1985 movie Krush Groove, a fictional story that parallels that of New York label Def Jam Recordings, making Kurtis Blow essentially the first famous face in hip-hop to cross over into Hollywood.
In the mid-'90s, Blow became a radio DJ and hosted "The Old School Show" on Los Angeles radio station, Power 106. He was also ordained as a Christian minister, co-founded Hip-Hop Church, and released faith-based albums with his group, Kurtis Blow and the Trinity. Proving that hip-hop can coexist with gospel, Blow's spiritual-inspired music helped expand the audience for Christian music across genres and audiences. — Tamara Palmer
Ms. Lauryn Hill
With a pen in her hand, a song in her heart, and a story to tell, Ms. Lauryn Hill elevated hip-hop for the better during the '90s. Hill's work expertly blurs the lines between genres, often fusing doo-wop-flavored harmonies and '70s R&B with hip-hop swagger and the airiness of neo-soul. A Jersey native and member of the iconic rap group the Fugees, she became a household name after the international breakout success of her debut solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998). The project sees the musician exploring themes of love, heartbreak and family through a personal lens with universal impact. A commercial and critical success around the world, the album won the GRAMMY for Album Of The Year in 1999, making Hill the first-ever rap artist to win that category. To this day, she counts eight GRAMMYs, the most of any woman in hip-hop.
Hill's melodic rap technique and artistic versatility have inspired acts across genre lines in the years since, from Drake to Lin-Manuel Miranda, who credits several elements in his Broadway hit "Hamilton" to her art. — J'na Jefferson
Don't let her petite frame fool you: Lil' Kim has been larger than life since her 1994 debut as a member of Junior M.A.F.I.A. and mentee of the Notorious B.I.G. The Brooklyn native unlocked a next level for female rap with her 1996 debut solo album Hard Core. Even before the world heard the album, her seductive pose on the cover itself signaled a shift: It was time for women to take the lead. Hit singles like "No Time," "Crush on You" and "Not Tonight (Ladies Night Remix)" established the rapper's signature raunchy lyrics and guttural tone, flipping the male-dominated, often misogynistic genre on its head as she reclaimed her sexuality. She also knows how to command respect, spitting ferocious bars on songs like Diddy's "It's All About the Benjamins" and Mobb Deep's "Quiet Storm (Remix)" alongside her male counterparts.
A bonafide hip-hop icon, Lil' Kim's influence spans generations and industries. A muse for countless rising female rap stars and designers like Versace and Marc Jacobs alike, she carved a safe space for Black women in the often exclusive, white- and male-dominant fashion and music industires. Her sartorial choices, as eye-popping as her naughty rhymes, still give next-gen female rappers like Baby Tate, GloRilla, and Cardi B the Queen Bee-confidence to exude the same sense of sexual liberation she pioneered in rap in the '90s. Her path in both music and fashion have made her one of rap's most impactful voices with an undeniable legacy. — Bianca Gracie
Lil Uzi Vert
Despite being a relatively new major player in the game, Lil Uzi Vert is an undeniable needle-mover in hip-hop. If that influence is hard to pin down, it's because Uzi has somehow made the existence of a quirky, emotional, rock-inspired rapper a common thing in 2023.
Similar to other breakout stars of the SoundCloud rap era who came up with them, including Lil Peep, XXXTentacion and Juice WRLD, Lil Uzi Vert brought their unadulterated self into their music. The result? A steady flow of evocative, genre-defying hits and deep cuts. From anthems like "XO TOUR Lif3" (2017) to "Rehab," a standout track off their recently released Pink Tape, the 27-year-old Philadelphia native consistently wears their heart and inspirations on their sleeve. Years worth of quality music coupled with their unwavering authenticity have forever broadened the horizons of hip-hop, making way for many future Lil Uzi Verts. — Taj Mayfield
There are two distinguishable eras in rap history: before Tha Carter and after Tha Carter. Lil Wayne, who's impact on the evolution of the genre is immeasurable, has taken rap to rare heights and forever changed its influence in and from the South. With an undeniable and almost insurmountable work ethic, New Orleans' native son has delivered infinite memorable moments that have spanned decades. From his show-stealing turns with Cash Money's the Hot Boys to his chart-decimating hits like "A Milli" to his genre-defining Tha Carter album series, Weezy F. has lived up to his reign as the "Best Rapper Alive" for decades.
Boasting a deep appreciation for the culture, Wayne willed a layer of intuition and imagination that pushed rap to the next level. With a strength tougher than Nigerian hair, his impression can be heard throughout every era of modern hip-hop, from his own musical family tree with Young Money (Drake, Nicki Minaj) traced through to next-gen superstars (Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole).
Otherworldly, diverse, and an omnipresent influence in today's scene, Lil Wayne has been a blessing to rap, consistently pushing the game and growing the culture in immeasurable ways. — Kevin L. Clark
LL Cool J
There were rap albums before LL Cool J's Radio. But the genre was still largely singles-driven, and the albums then were usually stuffed with the hits, some filler, and a few unique experiments. It was Radio that turned the rap album into a work of art and kick-started the genre's golden age.
LL was nothing if not versatile. He put out iconic singles like "I Need a Beat" and "Rock the Bells." His genre-shifting music videos, such as "Around the Way Girl," "Hey Lover," and the seminal classic, "I Need Love," added breadth to the male-dominated industry. And his show-stopping appearance in the film Krush Groove aided in turning the young MC into a king from Queens.
He also set yet another trend: the "don't-call-it-a-comeback" comeback. After releasing two killer albums, LL dropped Walking With A Panther in 1989. While it was a commercial success, Panther was shunned by hip-hop artists and fans at the time, due to its mainstream crossover appeal, and LL was deemed over by the hip-hop community, out of touch with a conscious, Afrocentric age of the time. Barely into his 20s, it seemed his time was up. And then, he had rap music's first major comeback — lyrical protestation notwithstanding. Mama Said Knock You Out was a return to form that set LL Cool J up for a lifelong career in music, TV, movies, and even that whimsical song about his shark-fin-like hat. — Shawn Setaro
Thanks to songs like "Thizzelle Dance" and "Feelin' Myself," Vallejo rapper Andre "Mac Dre" Hicks was the pied piper of hyphy, an innovation marked by bouncy bass and skittering funk rhythms. It dominated the Bay Area throughout the 2000s and remains a key component of the region's distinctive hip-hop scene.
Mac Dre's career dated back to 1989 with the local hit "Too Hard for the F—in' Radio." But in a case that made national headlines, he was arrested and convicted for allegedly being involved in bank robberies — his supporters continue to claim his innocence — and became the first rapper to make music, Back N Da Hood, while imprisoned. (He recorded his vocals over the phone.) When he finally returned to rap in the late '90s, he began refining his idiosyncratic style using P-funk tones and a droll and witty vocal tone. As expressed through songs like "Get Stupid" and "Not My Job," it was a style that eventually shook up the world and led to the foundation and popularization of the hyphy movement.
Unfortunately, Mac Dre didn't get to witness the peak and great success of his music, which was ultimately used in television and film as well as at sporting events. His unsolved killing in 2004 happened just as he seemed poised for a national breakthrough. — Mosi Reeves
The history of hip-hop is dotted with great business minds, but it's rare that someone's boardroom acumen proved so strong that their run of multiplatinum albums and smash singles feels entirely secondary. Such is the case with Master P, the New Orleans native who founded No Limit Records and, along with Cash Money's sibling duo of Bryan "Birdman" and Ronald "Slim" Williams, changed the paradigm of the rap mogul forever. In 1995, P partnered No Limit with Priority Records in a deal that saw him cover the brunt of the creative costs in exchange for greater creative control and backend profits.
He broke through as an MC with Ice Cream Man and Ghetto D, albums that served more as showcases for the No Limit collective than P himself. Ceding the showier roles and technical flair to collaborators like Silkk the Shocker, Mia X and Mystikal, Master P brought a kind of brute force charisma that's easy to see working for him wheeling and dealing behind the scenes. No Limit has evolved into an entity where pioneers like Mia X can celebrate women in hip-hop, while P continues to expand the empire through winning partnerships (Snoop Cereal) and new offerings (Rap Snacks) that created the reason this music industry owes gratitude to Master P. — Grant Rindner
Though she may not always receive the fanfare of her more mainstream cohorts, MC Sha-Rock changed the hip-hop ecosystem forever when she hit the booth in the late '70s. Largely considered to be the first female rapper, Sha-Rock, known as the "Mother of the Mic," helped pave the way for every woman rapper on this list — and beyond. Though she has B-girl origins, the South-Bronx-bred spitter showcased her raw talent and confidence behind the mic. As a member of Funky 4+1, her natural charisma and ability established the blueprint for the future of women in rap. Though Funky 4+1 was the first hip-hop group to appear on national television, it wasn't until the '80s when women rappers began to break through on an international scale. You can thank Sha-Rock for first opening that door, shattering the glass ceiling, and ushering in a gender breakthrough that's helped women dominate rap today. — J'na Jefferson
Explore More: Ladies First: 10 Essential Albums By Female Rappers
Whether fans tuned into MF DOOM or aliases such as Viktor Vaughn or King Gedorah, the rapper/producer born Dumile Daniel Thompson offered some of the most memorable art found in hip-hop.
A London native transplanted to Long Island, New York, Dumile began his career as Zev Love X, forming the group KMD with his brother DJ Subroc. But after Subroc's sudden death and their record label's refusal to release their album, Zev Love X went on hiatus — and returned as MF DOOM, donning a mask to combat the music industry's corruption. He built a prolific catalog inspired by comic books, cartoons, and the absurdities and mundanities of life, creating worlds that brimmed with vibrant wordplay. His husky voice, conversational flow, and impossibly intricate rhyme schemes comprised his calling card, along with equally absurd references and unpredictable punchlines.
DOOM earned a rep among indie rap's best in the early 2000s, but he became a rap deity with Madvillainy, the album that smartly paired him with producer Madlib's collection of obtuse jazz and TV samples that were just as mercurial. The record elevated DOOM's iconography and solidified him as one of rap's most distinctive creators ever, with fans and other MCs alike paying reverence. — William E. Ketchum
In the late '90s, thin was "in" and hypersexualized female rappers became commonplace. But a big woman with big talent — and an even bigger patent-leather blowup suit — snuck in to extinguish these industry standards, becoming the people's champ and an undisputed icon in the process. Missy Elliott's pleasingly off-kilter brand of bravado is marked by eye-catchingly creative music videos, like the aforementioned, star-making "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)," entertaining performance techniques, and next-level beats crafted by her and her longtime friend and fellow Virginian, Timbaland. She's created works of art that have stood the test of time, allowing her to see and receive her flowers while she can still smell them: During GRAMMY Week 2023, Missy received the Recording Academy Global Impact Award at the Recording Academy Honors Presented By The Black Music Collective event; later this year, she will become the first woman rapper inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. By dismantling boundaries, Missy Elliott paved the way for hip-hop artists to be unapologetically themselves. — J'na Jefferson
Dubbed the "world's most dangerous group," gangsta rap pioneers N.W.A put Compton, California, on the map in the late '80s with their provocative music and a name that embodied their unflinching bravado: N—z With Attitudes.
At the time, acts like Public Enemy, Kool Moe Dee, LL Cool J, and Eric B. & Rakim dominated the airwaves, with songs about everything from love, partying and lyrical prowess to race and politics. However, few were as overly explicit and provocative as the rising stars from the West Coast who disrupted the industry with the release of their hard-hitting debut album, Straight Outta Compton, in 1988.
With a stacked lineup consisting of Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, DJ Yella, Ice Cube, and MC Ren, the L.A. natives rapped about gang violence, police brutality, street life, and hood experiences. They were accused of demeaning women and glorifying violence and drug use, and as their music continues to stoke controversy as hip-hop lyrics in court proceedings are subject to debate today, N.W.A's provocative debut resonates to this day through new generations of fans. While the group would go on to sell millions of records and produce three superstar solo acts, their timeless album and its definitive protest anthem, "F— tha Police," cemented their place in the pantheon of hip-hop, forever changing the culture and the world at large with its powerful message. The emotionally charged song offers a scathing critique of systemic inequality that reflects the frustrations that marginalized communities harness for the discrimination they continue to face decades after the track dropped.
While their tenure was short-lived, N.W.A's paradigm-shifting music inspired a slew of acts that would leave their own stamp on the culture, including 2Pac, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, the Game, and DJ Quik. — Desiree Bowie
A perennial member of every hip-hop lover's top five rappers of all time lists, Nas inherited the crown of rap's greatest golden-age wordsmiths upon releasing his 1994 debut album, Illmatic, which helped establish the legend's nearly 30-year stellar reputation for MCing. Son of jazz cornetist Olu Dara, Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones grew up in the Queensbridge housing projects in Queens, New York, also the home of fellow hip-hop luminaries like Roxanne Shanté and producer Marley Marl. During a period when the hip-hop aesthetic seemed forever redirected to the West Coast, Nas helped refocus attention back on New York City, the birthplace of the culture.
Following the killings of both 2Pac and the Notorious B.I.G., concerns rang out when a long-simmering rivalry between Nas and Jay-Z went public on diss tracks like "Ether" (2001) and "Takeover" (2001). Defying the worst of expectations, their war of words eventually morphed into both a professional relationship — Nas signed to Def Jam in 2006 with Jay-Z as the label's then-president — and creative bond, with the duo releasing a joint song, "Black Republican," in 2007). On a recent string of collaborations with producer Hit-Boy — including the GRAMMY-winning King's Disease (2020) — Nas has helped alter expectations around career longevity in hip-hop. — Miles Marshall Lewis
The Neptunes — the production duo powered by the genius of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo — changed the sound of late-'90s and early-2000s hip-hop, jump-starting and transforming the careers of countless artists across every genre imaginable in the process.
After getting their start with New Jack Swing pioneer Teddy Riley, the Neptunes made a name for themselves by producing N.O.R.E.'s "Superthug" and Ol' Dirty Bastard's "Got Your Money" as well as albums for Clipse and Kelis.
The start of their hip-hop takeover can, perhaps, be traced to 2000, when they produced Jay-Z's "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)." The song, which features Pharrell's memorable voice on the hook, became Hov's first No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop chart.
The hit also caught Britney Spears' attention, prompting her to enlist the Virginia Beach duo to write and produce "I'm A Slave 4 U," which marked a major turning point in her mature, new sound. The Neptunes also helped Justin Timberlake craft a new sound and image, producing much of his debut solo album, Justified.
The duo's off-kilter, funk-influenced sound made them sought-after — and heavily imitated — producers for much of the aughts. Some of their 2000s hits include "Hot in Herre" by Nelly, "Drop It Like It's Hot" by Snoop Dogg, "Money Maker" by Ludacris and "Milkshake" by Kelis. Pharrell also helped usher in the era when producers came to the forefront of the spotlight, rapping and singing in songs and appearing in music videos for the artists they produced.
Counting four GRAMMY wins, the pair won Producer of the Year in 2003 and Producer of the Decade in 2009 at the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Awards. In 2022, the Neptunes were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, a distinction that proves just how much they changed the sound of the culture and music as a whole. — Victoria Moorwood
Nicki Minaj rewrote the rules of hip-hop through her unparalleled rhyming ability, an arsenal of flows, a collection of character-driven voices, and crossover success. As a result, she single-handedly elevated female rap in the mainstream in the 2010s. Her reign came during a time when hip-hop was still considered to be a male-dominated terrain. Nonetheless, she proved female rappers can keep up with the boys, though she regularly surpassed them in skill level. Her genre-bending hits showcase her versatility, and her writing and performance talents make her one of the hottest commodities in music. She not only took risks, she made hits: Counting 132 entries, Nicki Minaj holds the record for the most Billboard Hot 100 hits by a woman rapper. Thanks to Nicki Minaj — or Nicki Lewinsky, Nicki the Ninja, you know what it is — a new generation of female rap superstars gained the courage to make their own magic. — J'na Jefferson
The Notorious B.I.G.
Christopher "Biggie Smalls" Wallace, aka the Notorious B.I.G., is a titan in hip-hop history, a wordsmith whose lyrical potency is intensified by the brevity of his career. Wallace's gravitas — in physical stature and in reputation — belied his youth; as a Jamaican-American who grew up in Brooklyn's Clinton Hill neighborhood, bordering Bedford-Stuyvesant at the height of the crack era, he spent his early years navigating the threshold between civilian life and street life and brought those complexities to his songwriting and vivid storytelling. With the guidance of Sean Combs — who then went by the moniker Puff Daddy – Wallace quickly went from "Unsigned Hype" in The Source magazine to Bad Boy's marquee artist, crashing onto the charts in 1994 with his debut album, Ready to Die, at just 21 years old.
The album is a balance of massive, radio-friendly singles with quasi-autographical, introspective records that are bracing in their emotional range and attention to detail: For every "Juicy," "Big Poppa," and "One More Chance," there's "Warning," "Gimme the Loot," and "Suicidal Thoughts." In each track, Biggie played with the morphology of words and rhyming cadences at will, stretching vowels and contracting them to a staccato-like delivery with the proficiency of a jazz musician. Wallace's cinematic approach to rapping became his signature. He would form the crew Junior M.A.F.I.A. in this image, crafting records such as "Get Money" and "Player's Anthem" — songs as entertaining as they were illustrative that also introduced the world to the force of nature that was Lil' Kim.
His posthumous second album, presciently titled Life After Death (1997), is a sprawling double album replete with gangster epics such as "Somebody's Gotta Die," "N—s Bleed," and "What's Beef?" Released sixteen days after his killing in 1997, Biggie's mainstream crossover singles hit like a tidal wave. The chart-topping singles, "Mo' Money, Mo' Problems" and "Hypnotize," launched the patented Bad Boys formula of the renowned Hitmen production team into the stratosphere, eventually inspiring the likes of Kanye West and others to speed up soul samples to achieve similar success. Wallace's own vocals — heavy and lush, with the ability to glide like butter via a cascade of internal rhyme schemes — still sound as fresh today as they did when the project initially released to critical acclaim on March 25. And despite the tragic coda that cut short the life of this king from Kings County, the Notorious B.I.G.'s narrative prowess remains eternal.— Shamira Ibrahim
When OutKast's André 3000 proudly proclaimed "the South got something to say" at the 1995 Source Awards, the Atlanta rapper and his creative partner, Big Boi, had no idea of the significance those words would have on rap music today. At the time of their 1994 debut, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, the South was regarded as country, "backwards," and behind the times. Those words, a whistleblow, could've been misinterpreted by white and rural communities that these artists and their regions were not deemed "hip-hop." Hip-hop was cool, coastal, and cosmopolitan — not country. Yet, André 3000 and Big Boi did not mind being regarded as country; in fact, they embraced it.
Their music and Southern hip-hop overall incorporated the stylings of blues and gospel. Their delivery had a twang to it. They were not here to duplicate East Coast or West Coast hip-hop. They were on a mission to give young, Black, working-class people in the South something to say. Although based in Atlanta, their perspectives and reflections on Black life in the South took root in states across the region. Eventually, they became the leaders of the Southern hip-hop scene. So, when the duo won the GRAMMY for Album Of The Year, for Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, at the 2004 GRAMMYs — almost 10 years after their declaration at the Source Awards — the South was not only respected in hip-hop, but it became a contender for its rightful title. — Taylor Crumpton
One of the most profound and prolific groups in hip-hop's storied history, Public Enemy continues to be studied and applied to moments impacting music and culture today. Once Chuck D and Flava Flav connected with Terminator X and the Bomb Squad, the ethos and foundational tenets upon which hip-hop was founded — peace, love, unity, and having fun — finally came into realization. Their boom merged with the bap of the streets to showcase the reasons why hip-hop's culture should not only be championed but cherished — never allowing history to be erased or revised.
Members would go on to leave their imprint all over the then-burgeoning sound coming out of America. From producing Bel Biv Devoe's triple-platinum album, Poison, to contributing to one of the defining hip-hop albums of the 1990s, Ice Cube's AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, Public Enemy has resonated through time as thought-proving and spark-inducing revolutionaries of sound that still challenge people to know that loud is not enough. — Kevin L. Clark
The Roots' longevity and artistic creativity have made a lasting impact on hip-hop. Illadelph's own are trailblazers of the genre, pioneers of a distinctive, alternative sound that combined rap with live instruments, conscious lyrics and jazz-influenced beats.
The Roots have not been afraid to tackle important topics and challenge societal norms: The video for their song "What They Do," off their third album Illadelph Halflife, mocks stereotypes seen in the music industry. Their most successful album, Things Fall Apart, is a nod to Chinua Achebe's critically acclaimed book by the same name. The album originally had five different covers, one of which features teenagers running from police during the Civil Rights Movement era. The stark black-and-white image, alongside the album's themes, provided an artistic cohesion and political poignancy that solidified the group's impactful message.
All told, the Roots have 14 studio albums under their belt. Aside from music, the group's career evolution spans various ventures, including publishing (Black Thought's upcoming memoir, The Upcycled Self), music festivals (the annual Roots Picnic festival), and film (Questlove's GRAMMY-winning Summer of Soul). Not to mention mainstream TV: The Roots also hold down late night as the house band for NBC's "The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon." The group's unique sound and its expression of pressing issues solidify the Legendary Roots Crew as important game-changers. — Rachel McCain
Historically, hip-hop has always been heralded as a young person's sport — and perhaps no one exemplifies that archetype better than Queensbridge's Roxanne Shanté. At merely 14, the upstart member of the Juice Crew led one of hip-hop's first rap beefs, responding to the U.T.F.O.'s (Untouchable Force Organization) "Roxanne Roxanne" with the searing "Roxanne's Revenge." Where U.T.F.O. detailed the saga of a woman who rejected their overtures, Shanté rebutted with a sharply constructed counternarrative, freestyling a story from the viewpoint of Roxanne being pestered by inadequate suitors who paled in comparison to her MC skills.
While the initial response made her famous, it would be her unflappable ability to hold her own in the flood of response tracks that would cement her legacy as a battle rapper and recording artist. Tracks such as "Queen of Rox (Shanté Rox On)" and "Bite This" would extend her victory streak against U.T.F.O. and the bevy of opponents who stepped up to the plate as the city raced to cash in on the so-called "Roxanne Wars." When KRS-One crudely attacked her in "The Bridge is Over" — in which he declared, "Roxanne Shanté is only good for steady fucking" — she rebutted on "Have a Nice Day": "Step back, peasants, popping all that junk/Or else BDP will stand for Broken Down Punks/'Cause I'm an all-star just like Julius Erving/And Roxanne Shanté is only good for steady serving." Not only was Shanté able to best the guys at their own game, but she also made a point to embarrass their misogynistic attacks while doing so. Further etching her impact on rap, this legacy would echo through the ages to be reflected in the likes of Megan Thee Stallion and Noname, even finding a spiritual namesake in Nicki Minaj's 2010 single, "Roman's Revenge." — Shamira Ibrahim
With two MCs (Joseph Simmons, aka Run, and Darryl McDaniels, aka D.M.C.), one DJ (Jason Mizell, aka Jam Master Jay), and a whole lot of Adidas, Run-D.M.C. became one of hip-hop's earliest music and style ambassadors to the world. It only took a few years after their 1984 debut for fans across the globe to know about their New York hometown of Hollis, Queens.
In 1986, Run-D.M.C. collaborated with Aerosmith on a new version of the Boston rock act's 1975 cut "Walk This Way." The unexpected, groundbreaking pairing became a No. 4 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. MTV put the song's music video, which shows the two groups literally smashing down walls, in heavy rotation and positioned the rappers as the genre-bending superheroes they're still seen as today, as their GRAMMY Hall Of Fame induction attests.
Before there were hip-hop categories at the GRAMMYs, Run-D.M.C. was nominated for Best R&B Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal at the 1987 GRAMMYs for their 1986 album, Raising Hell. After releasing seven albums and starring in the seminal hip-hop movies Krush Groove and Tougher Than Leather, Run-D.M.C. became the first rappers to receive the Recording Academy's Lifetime Achievement Award, an honor they received in 2016.
After surviving decades of the world insisting that hip-hop was a fad that would fade away, the natural course of Run-D.M.C. was cut short when Jam Master Jay was killed in his Queens, New York, recording studio in October 2002. Unforeseen violence cut the band's physical life short, but Run-D.M.C. remains an immortal mainstay in the pantheon of hip-hop history, a blueprint for countless rap tandems, and an essential part of the culture. — Tamara Palmer
There is no one quite like Scarface when it comes to this rap game. An innovator in rap subgenres like horrorcore and gangsta rap, he is one of hip-hop's most poignant storytellers and pioneers. Both as a member of the legendary Geto Boys — one of the most successful Southern hip-hop groups at a time when the spotlight was focused on East Coast and West Coast rap — and as a solo artist, he proved to be a last of a dying breed. His signature songs, like "I Seen a Die," off the five-mic, Source-certified classic album, The Diary, proved to listeners that there were more layers and depths to experience in rap.
As both a commercial chart-topper — his 1997 album, The Untouchable, reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart — and the ear of the streets nationwide, Scarface helped establish Houston as a certified rap capital and an early hotbed for innovative independent record labels. Beloved by fans, students of hip-hop and critics alike, 'Face has showcased what it means to craft a complete body of work that stands exemplary above its predecessors. He is one of the best at making the mood move within the melody. Beyond his platinum- and gold-certified album successes, he also excelled at mixing business acumen with artistic vision: As president of Def Jam South in the early 2000s, he helped foster the career of Ludacris and other rising Southern rappers. Today, his continued influence reaches modern veterans like the Game and next-gen stars like Isaiah Rashad alike. — Kevin L. Clark
Few music artists have showcased the versatility and decades-long career evolutions of prolific multihyphenate Snoop Dogg. Hailing from from Long Beach, California, his rap career took off in 1992 when his stepbrother Warren G, of "Regulate" fame, gave one of his mixtapes to Dr. Dre. Fresh off his stint with N.W.A, Dre recognized the young rapper's potential and invited him to the studio — where he was laying down tracks for The Chronic — for an audition. Snoop seized the moment and conquered: He's featured on 11 of the classic album's tracks, including the prolific hit single that would skyrocket him into the mainstream, "Nuthin' but a 'G' Thang."
Still going strong decades later, the influential rapper has sold more than 37 million albums worldwide and has dropped 19 studio albums and countless cross-genre collabs. Snoop's laid-back persona and distinctive West Coast slang have become hallmarks of his music career. His expansion into other business and artistic pursuits, which include films, fast-food takeovers, and TV shows with lifestyle guru Martha Stewart, and impact on his community are among the main reasons he's maintained cultural relevance across three decades.
While his list of musical achievements is staggering, Snoop's greatest contribution to hip-hop lies in his ability to authentically infuse elements of his life into non-musical spaces. By simply staying true to himself, the legendary rapper has helped to further legitimize hip-hop as an art form with global impact and recognition, simultaneously influencing the music industry and people across international borders.
And he's even left his mark on the English language. Using his signature "izzle" style (e.g., "fo shizzle" meaing "for sure"), which originated in Northern California and was popularized by Bay Area rap acts like E-40 and 3X Krazy, Snoop has created a slew of catchy and memorable phrases. This rap "slanguage" development helped innovate distinct rap styles and solidified his place as an evolutionary icon. — Desiree Bowie
Soulja Boy made a lasting impact on hip-hop culture with his very first single. As one of the first in a wave of artists who used internet culture to market themselves directly to fans, the Chicago native created rap's first true internet sensation with "Crank That (Soulja Boy)." The song — fueled by simplistic lyrics, a catchy beat, and an inescapable hook — skyrocketed throughout the global internet via its complementary viral dance. Subverting the label-to-audience pipeline, Soulja Boy capitalized on tools like YouTube and MySpace to propel his popularity and connect with new listeners directly. Millions watched the song's music video on YouTube, where it has amassed more than 556 million views to date, and shared it widely on social media.
The innovative formula worked: "Crank That (Soulja Boy)" topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart for several weeks, set a record for the most digital downloads ever with more than 3 million units sold, and secured a GRAMMY nomination for Best Rap Song at the 2008 GRAMMYs.
Soulja Boy proved one-hit-wonder naysayers wrong. His second album, iSouljaBoyTellem, delivered 2000s classics like "Kiss Me Thru the Phone" featuring Sammie and "Turn My Swag On," while his grassroots tactic ushered in a new era of fan engagement and user-generated content, creating a formula still used by internet-savvy, next-gen artists like Lil Nas X and the wider music industry to market hip-hop hits today. — Victoria Moorwood
Virginia native Timbaland spent the mid- to late-'90s cultivating an experimental sound that blended futuristic drum patterns with unique sampling techniques. When he wasn't pushing sonic boundaries for R&B artists like Aaliyah and Ginuwine, the four-time GRAMMY winner proved his creativity could extend to hip-hop as well.
There isn't a better example than his legendary run of genre-busting albums produced for fellow Virginian trailblazer Missy Elliott, including Supa Dupa Fly, Da Real World, Miss E… So Addictive, and Under Construction. Timbaland even helped usher in the country rap subgenre thanks to his production work on the hip-hop/bluegrass fusion album Deliverance from Bubba Sparxxx. Eventually, he would expand far and wide across genres to create mega-hits with pop artists ranging from Nelly Furtado to Justin Timberlake. Between that time, he continued working with legendary rappers, including LL Cool J, Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, Ludacris, Lil' Kim, and many more.
Throughout the years, he's worked on multiple classic albums, which have garnered Album of the Year GRAMMY nominations, including Beyoncé, Timberlake's Justified and FutureSex/LoveSounds, The Diary Of Alicia Keys, and Elliott's Under Construction. Timbaland was also nominated for Producer Of The Year, Non-Classical at the 2008 GRAMMYs.
Now, Timbaland is making quality production easily available to aspiring artists and producers through his BeatClub service, showcasing how indispensible and intergenerational the creative mind of Timothy Mosley is to the culture. — Ural Garrett
Wu-Tang Clan was one of rap's seminal groups, both for their impact in the booth and in the boardroom. Enter The 36 Chambers, their 1993 debut album, saw superproducer RZA unite nine of the most unique personalities in rap ever for a lightning-in-a-bottle explosion. The crew traded nimble-footed bars and pro-Black philosophies over a discordant combination of rugged beats and samples from martial arts flicks, with each voice and rhyme style completely different from the last. But after their call to arms, they revolutionized the game with their business empires: The Wu was the first group to have its members sign solo deals with varying labels.
From there, they brought new meaning to the term divide and conquer: RZA, GZA, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon, U-God, Ghostface Killah, Method Man, Cappadonna, and Masta Killa would each go on to drop classic records over the years, all of them earning varying spots in the rap hall of fame. In subsequent decades, they'd reunite on occasion to duplicate the group magic in new and creative ways.
After that, changing the game just became part of the Wu-Tang Clan playboook. Clothing lines, video games, TV shows — you name it and the Wu tried it, and likely surmounted it. In 2015, they created Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, a single-copy album that was sold off in an auction to a pharmacy exec for more than $1 million dollars … before that exec was arrested and imprisoned, with the record being seized by the government in the process. Oh well. Wu-Tang Clan has made history plenty of times, and before all is said and done, they'll likely do it again. — William E. Ketchum III
The below is a list of artists who we'd like to celebrate in addition to the artists featured in our 50 Artists Who Changed Rap list. Submitted by our industry panel, these honorable mentions have impacted hip-hop in ways that are immeasurable.
The Hot Boys
Three 6 Mafia
The artists featured on GRAMMY.com's 50 Artists Who Changed Rap list were compiled from artist submissions submitted by an industry panel of rap experts, which includes:
Andrew Barber, Owner, Fake Shore Drive
April Reign, Senior Advisor for Entertainment & Media, Gauge
Carl Chery, Creative Director, Head of Urban, Spotify
Datwon Thomas, Editor-In-Chief, VIBE
Jeff Weiss, Editor, Passion of the Weiss
Jeff and Eric Rosenthal, Co-owners, ItsTheReal
Justin Hunte, music360 journalist, BTSN
Justin Tinsley, Senior Sports and Culture Reporter, Andscape
Kathy Iandoli, Author of ‘God Save The Queens: The Essential History of Women In Hip-Hop’ and co-author of ‘Lil' Kim's The Queen Bee’
Kevin L. Clark, Subject To Change LLC, Producer / The Recording Academy/GRAMMY.com, Contributing writer
Mankaprr Conteh, Cultural Journalist and Rolling Stone Staff Writer
Meka Udoh, Co-founder, 2DopeBoyz / Ingrooves Music Group
Miles Marshall Lewis, Author
Naima Cochrane, Music & Culture Journalist
Roderick Scott, Vice President, Marketing Strategy, Republic Records
Shaheem Reid, Legendary journalist
Shamira Ibrahim, Culture writer & critic
Shawn Setaro, Freelance Writer and podcaster
Sowmya Krishnamurthy, Author of ‘Fashion Killa: How Hip-Hop Revolutionized High Fashion’
Ural Garrett, Freelance Journalist
William E. Ketchum III, Music & Culture Journalist
Yoh Phillips, Documentarian/music journalist, Rap Portraits
Zini Tahsini, Hip-Hop Editorial Programmer, Apple Music
GRAMMY.com's 50 Artists Who Changed Rap list was conceived and developed by:
John Ochoa: Managing Editor of Digital Media for the Recording Academy
Len Brown: Senior Project Manager of Awards and Rap, Reggae, and R&B Genre Manager for the Recording Academy