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Revisiting 'The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill': Why The Multiple GRAMMY-Winning Record Is Still Everything 25 Years Later
Lauryn Hill will celebrate her magnum opus with a series of anniversary performances throughout the summer, including at the Roots Picnic June 3-4. Ahead of the show, GRAMMY.com examines how Hill's only solo album continues to impact music and womanhood.
By the time she released The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1998, singer and rapper Lauryn Hill had already scored two GRAMMY Awards for her work in the hip-hop trio Fugees. Her debut solo album — and only one to date — generated another seven wins, including Album Of The Year and Best R&B Album, which brought rapping to the mainstream in a way previously unseen. And in a male-dominated genre, this feat was achieved by a strong woman.
"This is crazy, ‘cuz this is hip-hop music!" Hill exclaimed when Whitney Houston presented her with the golden gramophone for Album Of The Year at the 41st GRAMMY Awards in 1999.
Hill set a number of records with Miseducation: The lead single "Doo Wop (That Thing)," released two weeks before the album, immediately went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and Hot Rap Songs chart. As a woman solo artist, she set long-held records for both charts with "Doo Wop (That Thing)." The album also entered the Billboard 200 chart in the top position, which no other debut from a woman had achieved before.
Miseducation contains 16 songs and is over 77 minutes in length — a long album by modern standards, yet fitting for Hill’s magnum opus. The album features guest appearances by Carlos Santana ("To Zion"), Mary J. Blige ("I Used to Love Him") and D’Angelo ("Nothing Even Matters"), bringing listeners back to the classroom for interludes where Hill schools the world on what a vanguard looks like.
And Lauryn Hill was at the vanguard in many ways. Several women who were popular in mainstream hip-hop at the time favored scantily clad outfits and scandalous lyrical content, but Hill projected the opposite in songs about love, faith, fortitude and empowerment. Throughout Miseducation, Hill talks to God and to the world, while simultaneously issuing warnings for those who have mistreated her.
Twenty-five years later, Miseducation still sounds vibrant, alive and current. That’s a testament to how influential Hill’s work continues to be not only in popular music, but in pop culture and womanhood — especially for Black women and single mothers.
"I think the piece as a whole communicates my personality, it is the culmination of my experiences, the sum total of what I had gone through at a certain point in my life," Hill told The Guardian in 2013. "To me it's like driving in a storm, it's hard to see where you're going. You're just praying to get out of it. But once you get out of it, you can look back and say; ‘Oh man, thank god!’ Give thanks, 'cos that's what I came out of. That's what that album feels like to me."
"Doo Wop (That Thing)," "Ex-Factor" and "Everything Is Everything" were each accompanied by masterful music videos that showed Hill as a woman who transcends the ages.
Speaking To Women
For women who were faithful hip-hop fans despite a prevailing tide of misogyny and death, as well as those facing single motherhood, Miseducation demonstrated a positive and empowered way forward. Instead of catering to the male gaze, the songs spotlight the joys and the struggles of women with rugged beats and lyrics that highlight her pure skill as an MC.
"Lost Ones" asserts her split from Fugees with the bravado of the best wordsmiths, while "I Used to Love Him" with Mary J. Blige samples the very macho "Ice Cream" by Wu-Tang Clan rappers Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Method Man and Cappadonna. And songs such as "Doo Wop (That Thing)" and "To Zion" showcase her powerful abilities as a singer, a potent accompaniment to her rhymes.
"Lauryn was a breath of fresh air, a hope and — unrealistically — a solution to what was wrong with hip-hop and its representation of women at the time," Joan Morgan, author of She Begat This: 20 Years of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, said in a 2018 interview with VIBE. "I think people hold dear to it as a really exciting possible moment of change, which in some ways wore itself out and in some ways didn’t. It does more work than just an album…It’s like running into an old friend that you don’t necessarily keep in touch with all the time, but one you have really fond memories of."
"It wasn’t until much later that I realized how many women and girls were changed by the album," Thembisa S. Mshaka, who worked as the senior advertising copywriter for Sony Music during the album’s release, told Okayplayer. "I was shocked to learn how many of the women I’d meet throughout my career still had point-of-purchase flats of the cover, or posters, or ads ripped from magazines like Honey and VIBE on their walls. Lauryn was that role model for the hip-hop generation that Diana Ross was for the Motown generation."
Hill immediately faced monumental pressure from fans and the music business to produce more music after Miseducation. She later shared that the squeeze was taking a toll on her art.
"I had to step away when I realized that for the sake of the machine, I was being way too compromised," she explained in a 2006 interview with ESSENCE. "I had to fight for an identity that doesn’t fit in one of their boxes. I’m a whole woman. And when I can’t be whole, I have a problem. By the end I was like, I’ve got to get out of here."
Though fans keep hope alive, Hill has never released another album, which makes Miseducation even more significant with the passage of time.
"People need to understand that the Lauryn Hill they were exposed to in the beginning was all that was allowed in that arena at that time," she continued to ESSENCE. "There was much more strength, spirit and passion, desire, curiosity, ambition and opinion that was not allowed in a small space designed for consumer mass appeal and dictated by very limited standards."
Hill gave Miseducation her everything, and while she hasn’t released more albums, she has performed songs from the album live countless times over the years. She keeps the material fresh for herself by constantly creating new arrangements, tempos and vibes for the songs, and fans will be able to check that out when she celebrates the 25th anniversary of the album with special performances of the work at Roots Picnic in Philadelphia (June 3-4), Wolf Trap near Washington, D.C. (June 9), Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, IL (June 17) and ESSENCE Festival in New Orleans (June 29-July 3).
"People can be disappointed that we haven’t had more music from her, but I don’t know if they can blame her or be angry," Morgan added in her VIBE interview. "We’re not entitled to another album — I think audiences forget that," she remarks. "You can’t be angry with someone because they only gave you one of what you wanted."
Responding To Persisting Controversy
A 1998 lawsuit filed against Hill by Johari Newton, Tejumold Newton, Vada Nobles and Rasheem Pugh alleged that the star didn’t credit their musical contributions to Miseducation. The suit was settled out of court, but accusations outside the legal arena have persisted over the years.
In 2018, Hill posted a written response to pianist Robert Glasper’s claims that she uses work from others without crediting them. In it, she acknowledged that it took the work of others to bring her vision to life, but asserts that she is the nucleus, and that she hired musicians to execute her specific ideas.
"The album inspired many people, from all walks of life, because of its radical (intense) will to live and to express Love," she countered in the response, which was posted to Medium. "I appreciate everyone who was a part of it, in any and every capability. It wouldn’t have existed the way that it did without the involvement, skill, hard work, and talents of the artists/musicians and technicians who were a part of it, but it still required my vision, my passion, my faith, my will, my soul, my heart, and my story."
A quarter century later, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill remains timeless. It has been prominently sampled by major artists who followed, including Drake, Cardi B, Lizzo, H.E.R. and J.Cole. The beauty of this iconic album is that it may well spark the brain of the next musician who will make as much of an impact on music and humanity.
Photo: Anthony Barboza/Getty Images
'The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill': 25 Facts About The Iconic Album, From Its Cover To Its Controversy
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the solo album by the Fugees star, GRAMMY.com digs into how Lauryn Hill's monumental LP was made and the impact on popular music that followed.
Fugees singer and rapper Lauryn Hill has been celebrating the 25th anniversary of her album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill all summer, with special performances at high-profile festivals across the country, including Roots Picnic in Philadelphia and ESSENCE Festival in New Orleans. Soon, she'll embark on a 17-date world tour, co-headlining with Fugees on the dates that take place in the United States.
Released on Aug. 25, 1998, Miseducation was Hill's debut solo album and only one to date. Decades later, it remains a touchstone and high watermark for hip-hop and R&B, helping to redefine both genres. Hill and her opus are still influencing artists today, from Lizzo to Drake.
Keep the party going with 25 facts about the album and its impact, from what the cover art was originally supposed to look like, to the current Mayor who appeared as the narrator, and the book to read for all the Miseducation tea.
Miseducation Is The First Hip-Hop Record To Win Album Of The Year
In 1999, Hill became the first woman to earn five GRAMMYs in one night. Her wins included Best New Artist, Best R&B Album and Album Of The Year. (To date, she has won eight GRAMMYs and received 19 GRAMMY nominations in total.)
"This is crazy, 'cuz this is hip-hop music!" Hill exclaimed when Whitney Houston presented her with the golden gramophone for Album Of The Year, which no other hip-hop album had done before. Outkast's Speakerboxx/The Love Below, which won in 2004, is the only other hip-hop album to win the prestigious category.
The Album Was Recorded In Bob Marley's Home
Bob Marley's legendary Tuff Gong Studios in Jamaica — which also happened to be his home — is the most prominent of the three places where Miseducation was recorded.
"We recorded in New York, Miami, and at Hope Road in Jamaica," the album's sound engineer Gordon "Commissioner Gordon" Williams recalled to Okayplayer in 2021. "To be in Bob Marley's house created a landscape for magic. Stephen Marley was the one who invited us to come in. I had to organize the equipment that had to be brought to Jamaica, and we had to make sure it could work as a museum when we weren't recording."
Hill Kept Everything Raw On Purpose
Hill and Commissioner Gordon worked to create a sound that's deliberately raw. As she told Rolling Stone in 2008, "I don't like to use compressors and take away my textures, because I was raised on music that was recorded before technology advanced to the place where it could be smooth.
"I wanna hear that thickness of sound," she continued. "You can't get that from a computer, because a computer's too perfect. But that human element, that's what makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I love that."
Hill's Personality And Experiences Are In The Songs
On the album, Hill shares her struggles as a young Black mother who has been through turbulent relationships on songs such as "Ex Factor" and "Forgive Them Father," an honesty that's still relatable and appreciated 25 years later.
"I think the piece as a whole communicates my personality, it is the culmination of my experiences, the sum total of what I had gone through at a certain point in my life," Hill said in a 2013 interview with The Guardian. "To me it's like driving in a storm, it's hard to see where you're going. You're just praying to get out of it. But once you get out of it, you can look back and say; 'Oh man, thank god!' Give thanks, 'cos that's what I came out of. That's what the album feels like to me."
Her Label Didn't Love Some Of The Early Versions
Miseducation went through a few iterations before it was ultimately finalized for release, and her label (Ruffhouse/Columbia Records) reportedly was unimpressed with the first work that they heard.
"Lauryn and her mom took [early versions of] her album to Sony Records and they said, 'This is coffee table music. What is this s—? Coffee table music," Rohan Marley, the father of Hill's children, told Rolling Stone in 2008. "She took her s— and walked outta there."
The Album Made Chart History In The United States
Miseducation landed in the top spot on the Billboard 200 in the first week of release. The Score, Hill's 1996 album with Fugees, was also a No. 1 hit, but it didn't debut in that position. Her feat set a record for the first unaccompanied female solo rapper to debut at No. 1 on the all-genre albums chart. (To this day, she remains one of only five female rappers to achieve the feat; the other four are Foxy Brown, Eve, Nicki Minaj, and Cardi B.)
It Was An International Hit, Too
Like The Score, Hill's solo album was a major success internationally. Miseducation appeared in the top 20 on pop and R&B charts all over the world, including No. 1 in Canada and Ireland, as well as on the UK R&B Albums chart.
"Doo Wop (That Thing)" Is A Two-Time Billboard Record Breaker
As a woman solo artist, Hill set long-held records for singles with "Doo Wop (That Thing)," which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and Hot Rap Songs chart. Miseducation also set a record for being the first album by a woman to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
The Album Also Set A Sales Record
Guinness Book of World Records notes that the album's first-week sales of 422,624 copies set a record for female artists at the time. Though that's still an astonishing opening week figure, Hill's record was later broken by Adele when she sold 3.38 million copies of her album 25.
A Book Inspired The Title…
In a 2013 interview with The Guardian, Hill cited Carter G. Woodson's 1933 book The Mis-Education of The Negro as an inspiration.
"The title of the album was meant to discuss those life lessons, those things that you don't get in any textbook, things that we go through that force us to mature," she said. "Hopefully we learn. Some people get stuck. They say that what doesn't kill us makes us stronger, and these are some really powerful lessons that changed the course and direction of my life."
…And A Book Now Examines Its Impact
In 2018, author Joan Morgan, the program director of NYU's Center for Black Visual Culture, released She Begat This: 20 Years of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill on Atria Books. Morgan beautifully combines interviews with Black authors and activists such as dream hampton, Tarana Burke and Michaela Angela Davis with her own experience, and how they all found resonating messages within the album.
"I loved Miseducation, at least as much as the nineteen million or so folks who've bought it since 1998," she wrote. "I'd even go as far as to say I probably loved it more than every mofo in those governing bodies that bestowed it with seventeen cumulative Billboard, American Music, Grammy, and MTV awards. Why? Because I was one of the score of hip-hop-loving and/or pregnant women who swore the album was soundtracking her life."
The Narrator Is Now The Mayor Of A Major City
The teacher heard talking with students on Miseducation's interludes, is voiced by Ras Baraka, now the longtime Mayor of Newark, NJ. At the time of Hill's album, Baraka, who is the son of the famous poet and activist Amiri Baraka, was well known in the community.
"I was running for councilman in Newark and was also an eighth grade teacher," Baraka revealed to Rolling Stone in 2008. "I was just about to take two of my students home and Lauryn called and asked if I could come up to her house in South Orange. There were chairs set up in the living room and a bunch of kids were there. She told me she wanted to discuss the concept of love. There was a blackboard and I wrote the letters 'LOVE' and we just went into the whole discussion."
The Album Cover Was Almost Shot At Hill's High School
Photographer Eric Johnson and Hill went to her alma mater, Columbia High School in South Orange, New Jersey, to shoot pictures of her for the album cover.
"I always wanted to shoot photos that people would really connect with," Johnson told Okayplayer in 2021. "I wanted to create something that was chic, but that regular people could identify with as well."
But instead of using one of those raw photos, Hill ultimately decided on the carved desk cover art that fans know, which is based on an image that Johnson took of her face.
Miseducation Was Released In Four Different Physical Formats
Released in a pre-streaming era, Miseducation dropped on cassette, CD, minidisc and record. There is even a rare limited edition album made with orange-colored vinyl. (It's now available on all major streaming platforms.)
There Are Two Hidden Tracks
The vinyl version of the album and select international editions include two songs that aren't listed on the cover: "Tell Him" and "Can't Take My Eyes Off You," a cover of Frankie Valli's Sixties standard. (Though today, the songs aren't hidden — they're widely available on streaming services.)
"Can't Take My Eyes Off of You" Was In A Movie
Hill's rendition of "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You" was first in a Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts movie called Conspiracy Theory that came out in 1997 — which is the reason the song ended up on the album.
"It was originally recorded for [the soundtrack for the movie] Conspiracy Theory and ended up on the radio, became popular, and that's how it ended became a bonus track," Commissioner Gordon explained to Rolling Stone.
Carlos Santana Guest Stars On "To Zion"
When Santana played guitar on Hill's song about her son Zion, he fulfilled one of her childhood dreams. He weaves his instrument delicately and masterfully around a marching drum beat and the vocals of Hill and her background singers.
"I used to write music, you know, write songs over [Santana's] guitar playing when I was a little kid," Hill told MTV News in 1999. "I had all his records and I would play 'Samba Pa Ti' on [the] 'Abraxas' album and just write rhymes and songs on top of it. So I knew Carlos way before he knew me."
Her Duet With Mary J. Blige Samples Wu-Tang Clan
Hill and Mary J. Blige's duet "I Used to Love Him" samples a hook from "Ice Cream," a song released in 1995 by rapper Raekwon featuring his fellow Wu-Tang Clan members Cappadonna and Method Man. The track's title also calls back to another '90s rap star, as it's a play on Common's 1994 song "I Used to Love H.E.R.," an acronym for Hip-Hop in its Essence is Real.
A College-Aged John Legend Played On "Everything Is Everything"
John Legend was attending the University of Pennsylvania when he got the opportunity to meet Hill through a mutual friend. After he played piano and sang a Stevie Wonder song for her, she invited him to contribute to Miseducation.
"Lauryn said, 'Why don't you play on this record we're working on right now? And it was 'Everything is Everything," he said in a 2013 interview with Yahoo!
The song became a Top 40 hit, and Legend scored some bragging rights at school. "I went back to college and I was the man after that," he joked.
A Subtle Salute To House Music Hides In The Lyrics
Though Miseducation is a hip-hop work that doesn't sonically veer into house music, Hill winks at a foundational classic from the dance music genre on the album. When she says, "Jack ya, jack ya, jack ya body" in "Every Ghetto, Every City," she is referencing the 1986 club anthem "Jack Your Body" by Chicago DJ/producer Steve 'Silk' Hurley.
New Ark's Lawsuit Over The Album Raised Questions
In late 1998, the music collective New Ark (guitarist Johari Newton, pianist Tejumold Newton, drum programmer Vada Nobles and songwriter Rasheem "Kilo" Pugh) sued ill, alleging that their work on Miseducation was not properly credited. The lawsuit was reportedly settled for $5 million in 2001, but accusations outside the legal arena have persisted for years.
In 2018, Hill posted a written response to pianist Robert Glasper's claims that she uses work from others without giving credit. In it, she acknowledged that it took the work of others to bring her vision to life, but asserts that she is the nucleus, and that she hired musicians to execute her specific ideas.
"The album inspired many people, from all walks of life, because of its radical (intense) will to live and to express Love," she countered in the response, which was posted to Medium. "I appreciate everyone who was a part of it, in any and every capability. It wouldn't have existed the way that it did without the involvement, skill, hard work, and talents of the artists/musicians and technicians who were a part of it, but it still required my vision, my passion, my faith, my will, my soul, my heart, and my story."
"Ex-Factor" Made Its Way Into Two 2018 Rap Hits
Hill's "Ex-Factor" was sampled in two different pop hits that were both released in April 2018. Drake's "Nice For What" topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart, while Cardi B's "Be Careful" peaked at No. 11; both achieved higher chart success than the original, which stalled at number 21.
Lizzo took Inspiration From "Doo Wop (That Thing)" In 2022
Teaming up with Mark Ronson, Lizzo interpolated (aka replayed) melodies from Hill's hit "Doo Wop (That Thing)" on "Break Up Twice." The song appears on Lizzo's second album, Special. She's also performed covers of the original track on tour.
The Album Set Another Record 23 Years After Its Release
In 2021, Guinness Book of World Records noted that Hill became the first female rapper to reach RIAA Diamond certification for selling 10 million copies of Miseducation. Not only has no other female rapper achieved the feat since, but Hill is in rare company: the only other rappers to reach Diamond status for an album are Eminem, OutKast, Notorious B.I.G., 2Pac, Beastie Boys and MC Hammer.
Hill Announced A World Tour To Celebrate The 25th Anniversary
On Aug. 22, the star announced a 17-date world tour celebrating the 25th anniversary of her monumental solo album. Fugees will co-headline the U.S. stops, which begin in Minneapolis on Sept. 8.
"The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is and was a love song to my parents, my family, my people, my musical and cultural forebears, my teachers, my loves, my Creator," Hill said in a press release. "I wrote love songs and protest songs— (still love songs) about the subjects and interests that inspired and moved me. I was confident that what inspired me would resonate with an audience that had been led to believe that songs of that kind could only live in the past.
"I loved music, I loved people, I truly felt grateful to God for my life, and genuinely blessed to have a platform where I could share wisdom and perspective through music," she added. "I felt a charge to challenge the idea that certain kinds of expression and/or certain kinds of people didn't belong in certain places. I loved showing what could work or happen provided there was imagination, creativity and LOVE leading the way."
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
Photo: Al Pereira/Getty Images/Michael Ochs Archives
Ladies First: 10 Essential Albums By Female Rappers
As the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, GRAMMY.com honors the women who blazed the boundless — and euphonious — trails we still travel on.
By the 1970s, the dichotomies of opulence and post-industrial destitution were stark. Gunshots, abandoned buildings and fires marred many New York City streets. However, in the midst of the city’s tumult, the extended instrumental section of a song played at a back-to-school party forever changed the landscape of music.
That now-infamous party is where hip-hop was fathered by trailblazing DJ Kool Herc, at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx. However, the event itself was the idea of his sister, Cindy Campbell. If it weren’t for her party, we would have never experienced MCing over a song's breaks, which evolved into the cultural phenomenon we now know as rap.
Female MCs have been integral to hip-hop’s musical melange from its inception, beginning with pioneer (and Mother of the Mic) MC Sha-Rock. Over the decades, audiences have been Funkdafied listening to Supersonic sounds, while still Down to Earth. We’ve been blessed with Da Baddest Bitch and even been "Conceited." We’ve sung along to My Melody, experienced Necessary Roughness and if you don’t know, You Better Ask Somebody.
And while all female rappers deserve their flowers for breaking barriers, there are a few women who deserve grandiose gardens dedicated to their accomplishments. After all, if it were not for them walking first, other women would not have been able to (be) fly.
This year, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, we can’t forget to celebrate the female MC’s who blazed the boundless — and euphonious — trails we still travel on.
This list below spans the genre’s humble beginnings, from hip-hop’s "Golden Era," which bore witness to the majority of these historic album drops, to the present day. With the exception of one album, nine of the albums listed are debuts.
Salt-n-Pepa - Hot, Cool & Vicious (1986)
Salt-n-Pepa’s debut album Hot, Cool & Vicious was one of the first rap albums by an all-female group. With its confident and carefree lyrics and seductively sanguine beats, the album features many hit songs such as "My Mic Sound Nice" and "Tramp." However, there is one song on the album that ruled the dancefloor and became one of their breakout hits: "Push It."
Donning gold rope chains, bamboo earrings, custom leather jackets and red boots, Salt-n-Pepa’s commanding stage presence–and fashionable style–was on full display in the video for “Push It.” The subtly suggestive song provided sex appeal alongside an arresting, uptempo beat. Although the original version of "Push It" was on the album, its remix, with its iconic instrumental intro, was added to the album in 1987. The song, which was nominated for the Best Rap Performance GRAMMY, was certified platinum in 1988 and has gone on to become one of the group’s top hits.
The album resonates today because universal appeal and ubiquitous sound still captures a wide audience. It has since elevated the presence of women in the game and still empowers listeners with topics that are still very relevant, such as feminism. Its debut marked a shift from predominantly male-driven narratives found in hip hop at the time, and opened the doors for female-centered storytelling. As such, their impact in the industry has not gone unnoticed. In honor of the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, Salt-n-Pepa performed at the 2023 GRAMMYs.
Hot, Cool & Vicious served as a blueprint for future female MCs as it encouraged women to express themselves without apology. Its commercial success garnered mainstream appeal that fortified the album as an important memento of hip-hop’s beginnings. Ultimately, Salt-n-Pepa are pioneers who paved the way for future female rappers, such as those subsequent on this list.
MC Lyte - Lyte as a Rock (1988)
Lyte as a Rock is the first full solo album released by a female rapper, and debuted when MC Lyte was only 17. Lyte’s cadence is robust throughout the album, which demonstrated her ability to MC on songs such as "10% Dis" and the title track "Lyte as a Rock." The album also showed listeners that the rapper would not shy away from important issues that encapsulated the ‘80s. The album's lead single, "I Cram to Understand U (Sam)," detailed drug addiction by personifying cocaine.
Lyte as a Rock’s standout song, "Paper Thin," was written by MC Lyte in her early teens and details infidelity in a relationship. The video features the artist taking the subway after getting a bad feeling her partner was cheating on her. She leaves her perplexed friends (and her "bad Jetta") to board the train, finding her lover in the arms of other women. The distinct, punchy beat on the song’s introduction is layered with samples from music icons Al Green ("I’m Glad You’re Mine") and Prince ("17 Days").
A few years after her album’s debut, in 1994, MC Lyte went on to break history as she became the first female rapper to be nominated for the Best Rap Solo Performance GRAMMY Award.
Lyte as a Rock is a breakthrough album that paved the way for solo female MCs to shatter stereotypes and show audiences they are as competent as their counterparts. It resonates with the experiences of young women across time periods and encourages unapologetic assertiveness–especially when it comes to addressing cardinal issues.
Queen Latifah - Black Reign (1993)
Long before she became an award-winning actress, Queen Latifah made waves in the music industry. Black Reign, which was certified gold in 1994, is Queen Latifah’s third and most successful album. The album cover features a brooding, blurred image of Latifah yelling–and its track list proves she had a few things to say. Popular songs on the album include "Just Another Day" and the chartbusting hit "U.N.I.T.Y."
The song "U.N.I.T.Y." is elegantly assertive and serves as a call to arms for women against insolence from men. Its dreamy, melodious intro features a saxophone sample from Houston-based jazz group the Crusaders. Due to the song’s powerful message, it often was played on the airwaves uncensored. The video, which begins with a brief tribute to the artist’s late brother, visits different scenarios where women are disrespected — and highlights how they combat the disrespect.
The success of U.N.I.T.Y. earned Queen Latifah a GRAMMY for Best Rap Solo Performance. In 2023, she performed at the GRAMMYs in honor of hip-hop’s 50th anniversary.
Black Reign showcases the importance of female empowerment, as well as Queen Latifah’s versatility as an artist. The messages throughout the album have continued relevance to present-day matters, such as gender equality and social justice. Overall, Black Reign showed audiences that female rappers can use their platforms to demand change.
Lil’ Kim - Hardcore (1996)
Lil’ Kim’s debut album Hardcore has lived up to its namesake due to its carnal content and staunch lyricism. The album features hits such as "No Time" featuring Sean "Diddy" Combs, and "Big Momma Thang" featuring rappers Lil’ Cease and Jay-Z. Although the provocative album was bold for the time period, it sparked crucial conversations that are still very germane. Hardcore impugned gender norms and highlighted struggles female MCs faced in the industry–and beyond.
Musically and stylistically, Hardcore has inspired a generation of female rappers. From flow to fashion, Kim’s influence in the industry is immeasurable. Since her debut, almost everything about the Queen Bee has been emulated–from her love of high-end fashion to her provocative and controversial promo poster for Hardcore.
The album cover shows Lil’ Kim surrounded by bouquets of roses, confidently and suggestively posing on a bear-skinned rug. The album’s sexually explicit lyrics pushed boundaries and made listeners take notice of Kim's bravado — and her bars. In 2001, Hardcore was certified 2x platinum.
The song "No Time" is the only one on the album to achieve gold status. However, one of the more memorable cuts on the album is "Crush On You" with Lil’ Cease. The looped, synthesized piano featured on the song’s beat was sampled from Jeff Lorber’s jazz song "Rain Dance." While the album version of the song features the late Notorious B.I.G. on the chorus, Kim’s appearance on the track brings synergy.
The video for the hit single gives a nod to the movie The Wiz, and features colorful scenes where everyone’s outfits match the different dancefloors. Lil’ Kim is no exception, as her outfits (and wigs) also correspond to the colors, making the video utterly unforgettable.
Hardcore was a commercial success that challenged industry expectations of female MCs. Largely, the album proved to be pivotal, and Kim’s aptitude helped establish herself as a force in the industry, even beyond hip-hop. For example, later on in her career, Lil’ Kim earned a Grammy for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals for "Lady Marmalade."
The iconic album celebrated sexuality in a unique way the music world had not seen previously, and ultimately paved the way for women to be unapologetic about their self expression. As such, the impact Hardcore had in 1996 can still be felt–and seen–today.
Foxy Brown - Ill Na Na (1996)
Exactly one week after Lil’ Kim dropped her platinum selling debut, then 17-year-old Brooklynite Foxy Brown dropped her seminal album Ill Na Na. The sultry album had a slew of hits, including "I’ll Be" featuring Jay-Z and club anthem "Get Me Home" featuring R&B group Blackstreet. Additionally, the title track featured Wu-Tang Clan’s Method Man. The album also featured production from R&B great Teddy Riley and Trackmasters.
Foxy Brown's pairing of smooth R&B elements and hip-hop heavyweights proved to be successful; roughly three months after its debut, the album went platinum. It became one of the fastest albums by a female rapper to reach such a status at that time. The album was re-released in 1997, with the addition of the hit song "Big Bad Mamma" with R&B group Dru Hill. The song landed on the soundtrack to the movie How to Be a Player. The album’s breakout song "I’ll Be" heavily samples R&B duo Rene and Angela Winbush’s ‘80s tune "I’ll Be Good." It is the only song on the album to achieve gold status.
Ill Na Na’s style of sexually explicit lyrics and luscious lyricism followed in the footsteps of her predecessors. The rapper also embraced her sexuality, which further solidified the new level of female empowerment for women in hip-hop that was being incubated in the ‘90s. However, Foxy’s form is clearly her own, and her candor and confidence provide a melodious texture to the album’s tracks.
Ill Na Na is among the important vestiges of 1990s hip-hop, as its elements have a continued impact on modern audiences and rappers alike. The album’s release and success during a time when women were beginning to rise in rap helped sequester any notions of female MCs being fleeting ideas in the industry.
Missy Elliot - Supa Dupa Fly (1997)
Missy Elliot’s debut album, Supa Dupa Fly, redrew rap boundaries with its campy lyrics over salient beats. It also showed audiences that female MCs can be found beyond the borders of the Tri-state area. The album, which was recorded in a mere two weeks, features hits such as "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)" and "Beep Me 911" featuring R&B group 702 and rapper Magoo. Supa Dupa Fly also contained the chart-topping song "Sock it 2 Me," with fellow female rapper Da Brat. The video for the track features Lil’ Kim, and shows the three rappers fighting robotic monsters in space.
Songs on the album were a blend of R&B, funk and rap, paired with anomalous beats that are still easy to dance to. Artists such as Ginuwine and the late Aaliyah were among those featured alongside Elliot. Although the album is now revered as groundbreaking in many ways, Elliot was not aware how much of an impact it would have as time went on.
The innovative album embraced creativity and celebrated eccentricity. For example, one of the most memorable visuals from the album is the oversized inflatable, iconic black suit Missy wore in the video "The Rain." The suit and song lyrics brought a more playful feel to the genre and showed the versatility of female rappers to viewers and listeners alike. The song, which was produced by her close friend Timbaland, samples Ann Peeble’s "I Can’t Stand the Rain."
Supa Dupa Fly empowered women to be confident and independent, and also challenged tradition. The album pushed the perimeter of hip-hop, especially for female MCs. For one, the album embraced Afrofuturism, visually and lyrically. Songs like "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)" and “Sock it To Me” provided audiences with a sci-fi element that inspired future MCs to adopt similar looks and sounds.
Supa Dupa Fly was certified platinum in September 1997, a mere two months after its July 1997 debut. Since its release, Missy has gone on to win four GRAMMY Awards. In early 2023, Missy, alongside other trailblazing female rappers, performed at the GRAMMYs in honor of hip-hop’s 50th anniversary. This November, she will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Lauryn Hill - The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998)
The accolades for the blockbuster debut solo album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill by Fugees frontwoman Lauryn Hill, are endless. The album, which had minimal features by other artists, was certified gold by the RIAA only a mere two weeks after it debuted, and in 2021, the album was certified Diamond. It is the first album by a female rapper to achieve the prestigious honor.
Hill manages to balance her bars with sensuous R&B crooning, showcasing her range and versatility, while her smooth lyrics remain weighty and cognizant. Many of the tracks on the album became singles: "Ex Factor," "Doo Wop (That Thing)," "Lost Ones," and "Everything is Everything." The video for "Doo Wop (That Thing)" featured side-by-side scenes of New York City in 1967 and 1998, with everyone styled for both time periods. The song’s lyrics call for men and women to watch out for those who are only about "that thing," which Hill details in dedicated verses.
Songs on the album covered universal themes, such as loss and love. For example, the song “To Zion” is a heartfelt letter penned to Hill’s son, which details the struggles she faced becoming pregnant at the height of her career. Additionally, in between each track are small interludes that can only be found if one listens to songs in continuity. The captivating sounds Hill’s storytelling captured make that easy for listeners to do, which helped the album reach a wide-ranging audience. Thus, the album garnered critical acclaim and pushed its accolades epically into the stratosphere.
In 1998, Miseducation became the highest selling debut album of any female rapper–and any female artist of other genres. Hill again made history by becoming the first solo female rapper to win a GRAMMY; the album was nominated for 10 golden gramophones and Hill took home five. Hill also became the first woman (and rapper) to have the most GRAMMY Award nominations in one night. The awards she won included Album of the Year, which was the first time a rapper had ever won the award. Twenty-five years later, her debut album is still among the best selling albums of all time.
The success and sound of Hill’s album still resonates today, ultimately showing audiences the power of the female MC and the importance of female-driven narratives.
Eve - Let There Be Eve…Ruff Ryders’ First Lady (1999)
Eve wrote all the songs on her debut, Let There Be Eve…Ruff Ryders’ First Lady. The Philly native’s pen proved to be solid, as the freshman album produced a slew of hits, such as "Gotta Man” and "Love is Blind" featuring Faith Evans. Debut single “What Y’all Want” feat. Nokio from Dru Hill was produced by Ruff Ryders’ Swizz Beatz, who also produced most of the songs on the album.
At the time of Eve’s album’s release, Ruff Ryders was an already established, popular rap collective from Yonkers, whose roster included notable rappers such as the late DMX and The Lox. Just like her trademark paw print tattoos, Eve stood out, as she was the only female on the label. The unique position earned her the title of First Lady.
Let There Be Eve showcased Eve’s lyrical prowess and versatility. Songs like “Philly, Philly” featuring fellow Philly rapper Beanie Sigel showed audiences that Eve could hold her own on the mic. On the bold "Ain’t Got No Dough," the rapper teamed up with Missy Elliot to deliver a catchy and conspicuous track. The album eventually went 2x platinum.
The album covered important themes, such as domestic violence. For example, the video for "Love is Blind" features a woman who is in an abusive relationship. Eve plays the role of the friend who advises the woman to leave before it is too late–although the friend sadly dies at the hands of the boyfriend. The cautionary tale Eve illustrates–both visually and lyrically–is touching and powerful, and still resonates today.
Let There Be Eve provides a strong female perspective that feels personal at times. The album was a cardinal shift from male-dominated narratives and reminded female listeners the importance of speaking on salient issues. It served as a capstone of rap albums released by female MCs in the ‘90s, and was a signpost as hip-hop entered the new millennium.
Nicki Minaj - Pink Friday (2010)
The chartbusting debut album Pink Friday by Queens native Nicki Minaj produced a multitude of hits: "Super Bass," "Your Love," and "Check It Out" with will.i.am, just to name a few. The album also featured appearances by Eminem, Drake and Natasha Bedingfield.
Pink Friday showcases the full gamut of Minaj’s lyricism — a balance of sweet (and spicy) for all to savor — while highlighting her versatility and pushing the parameters of the genre. Songs on the album are a blend of rap, pop, and R&B; a few tracks showcased her singing abilities. Additionally, the genre blending allowed the album to appeal to a more wide-ranging audience. Most of the tracks became radio favorites, and by 2016, Pink Friday was certified 3x platinum; it was the second highest selling debut album by a female rap artist. Since her musical debut, Nicki Minaj has been nominated for 10 GRAMMY Awards.
The Pink Friday album cover features Minaj styled as a doll with exaggerated features. In many ways, the design is a nod to Barbie — from the way the work "pink" is stylized, to Minaj’s overemphasized legs stretching the length of the album cover. In a way, the cover is symbolic of Nicki’s bold, confident persona.
The hit song "Moment 4 Life," features Minaj’s labelmate Drake, and details cherishing a moment of triumph. The timbre of its introduction is soft and bright, and begins with a modernized twinkle. The warm sound also ties into the music video’s fairytale concept, which shows Minaj as a fairy godmother–and royal figure.
Pink Friday provides listeners with diverse and unique tracks and tackles various relatable issues. Its success and innovation are influential and the album–as well as Nicki herself– have inspired a slew of rappers. Pink Friday ultimately embraces where female MCs have been–and shows audiences the endless possibilities of where they can go.
Cardi B - Invasion of Privacy (2018)
All of the songs (yes, every single one) on Cardi B’s blockbuster debut album Invasion of Privacy have become certified platinum — the only album in history to receive such acclaim. Featuring hits such as "I Like It" and "Bodak Yellow," Invasion boasts tracks that are raunchy, confident and strong, a nod to her pioneering predecessors.
The sultry, yet assertive, video for the Bronx native’s song "Bodak Yellow," which boasts 1 billion views, primarily features Cardi in a desert in Dubai. Throughout the video, she sports various looks — and even sits next to a cheetah. Cardi’s lyrical authority shines through, as the song confidently explores the glamor of luxury fashion, sexual prowess and of course, "making money moves." The single became the first song by a female rapper to be certified diamond, demonstrating just how far women in hip-hop have come.
Cardi again made history when Invasion of Privacy was nominated for two GRAMMYs: Album Of The Year and Best Rap Album. She went on to win the award for Best Rap Album, making her the first solo female artist to do so.
Invasion of Privacy is pivotal, as it incorporates influences from many aforementioned essential albums. Its success showcases the overall importance of women in hip-hop and helps to open doors for future female MCs to tell their stories–and blaze new, boundless trails for us to travel on.
Photo: Taylor Hill/Getty Images for Live Nation Urban)
8 Exciting Sets From The 2023 Roots Picnic: Usher, Lil Uzi Vert, Lauryn Hill & More
From a surprise reunion of the Fugees, to a special appearance by Eve and Jazmine Sullivan, the 2023 Roots Picnic brought heat and hype across multiple stages. Read on for the festival's most exciting performances.
For 15 years, The Roots have gathered the music’s brightest and fastest-rising talents to perform in Philadelphia for their annual Roots Picnic, and this year’s lineup was nothing short of star-studded.
After kicking off the weekend with Dave Chappelle’s comedy show at the Wells Fargo Center on Friday, the action moved to the Mann Center in Fairmont Park where fans witnessed surprise crew reunions, unexpected cameos, and a taste of the Las Vegas strip across three performance stages.
On Saturday, legendary rap group State Property reunited for the first time in years, Lil Uzi Vert rocked out with the Park Stage crowd for his third picnic appearance. Supported by the Soulquarians, legends the Isley Brothers and Roy Ayers lit up the Park stage. Lauryn Hill closed out day two by commemorating her GRAMMY-winning album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and bringing out Pras and Wyclef Jean for a Fugees reunion.
Sunday featured high-powered performances from soulful songstress Ari Lennox, former Ruff Ryders first lady Eve, and the devastating femmes of South Florida, the City Girls. Philly’s own DJ Drama drew out home-grown talents like D-Surdy, Armani White, and Bronx legend Fat Joe on the Presser stage.
To close out the weekend, Usher brought the magic of his Vegas residency to West Philly for a string of era-defining hits in the twilight of the festival. Read on for some of the most captivating moments and exciting sets from the 2023 Roots Picnic.
GloRilla Shines In Roots Picnic Debut
GloRilla | Kayla Oaddams/Getty Images
Unapologetic rebel GloRilla may have just one EP under her belt, but her growing fandom came alive during her Roots Picnic performance.
The Presser Stage crowd swooned along with femme-empowering smashes like "Phatnall," as well as more provocative songs like "Nut Quick" and "Lick or Sum." Legions of newly single fans screamed the lyrics to crunk hit "F.N.F. (Let’s Go)."
Big Glo kept the momentum going at high speed, loosening the relatively stiff crowd. And while Cardi B wasn’t present for her part in "Tomorrow 2," GloRilla brought out an energized and visibly pregnant Chrisean Rock for a twerk-worthy cameo.
GloRilla truly embraced her rowdy nature and southern charm, which has helped her earn garner recognition from her peers and even notch her first GRAMMY nod for Best Rap Performance.
Usher Brings Sultry And Sin To The City, With A Few Special Guests
Usher and Black Thought perform | Taylor Hill/Getty Images for Live Nation Urban
Before Usher had even closed out the festival, radio and podcast personality Charlamagne and comedian Jess Hilarious talked about wrapping up their own event early to snag a close seat to watch the R&B star in action.
Though decades into his musical career, Usher hasn't missed a step. Dressed in leather, the eight-time GRAMMY winner delivered his classic, slow-burning album cuts and glossy radio hits under the glimmering lights of the open air Park stage.
Usher put on an electrifying performance that covered hits from various eras in his catalog. Songs like "Love in This Club," "U Don’t Have to Call," and "Lil Freak" had Sunday’s crowd staring in awe, even for those looking to get ahead of the departing traffic. He also brought The Roots on stage before Philly natives Jazmine Sullivan, Eve and Black Thought joined the singer to perform "U Got Me."
Lauryn Hill (And Some Famous Friends) Took The Crowd Way Back
Wyclef Jean, Lauryn Hill, and Pras Michel of the Fugees | Taylor Hill/Getty Images for Live Nation Urban
Lauryn Hill’s reputation precedes her. Some fans joked about her tardiness — or even potential absence — but the legendary vocalist arrived about 30 minutes past her scheduled set time and put on a performance that was met with shockwaves of cheers.
Hill's headlining performance coincides with a big milestone: the 25th anniversary of her groundbreaking album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. "Even though it's been 25 years, everything is still everything," she told the enlivened crowd.
She performed tracks from the masterful GRAMMY-winning album, including "Everything Is Everything" and "When It Hurts So Bad," but perhaps the biggest surprise throughout the weekend was the reunion between her, Pras and Wyclef Jean. The trio came together as the Fugees to perform hits "Ready Or Not" and "Killing Me Softly" for a spirited celebration of the group’s 1996 album The Score.
"We’re out here doing 25 years of Miseducation. But there’s another 25 years we didn’t do a couple of years ago because of COVID," Hill said of the group’s project. The group closed out with "Fu-Gee-La," with Hill switching from her soothing alto to her "L-Boogie" persona of old, bringing the joyous crowd to its knees.
City Girls Bring The Twerkers Out To Play
The City Girls brought headliner energy to Sunday’s picnic, with JT and Young Miami inciting a twerkathon with hot summer girl anthems like "Act Up" and "Do It On The Tip" playing out center stage.
The Miami duo kept the energy high with on-stage twerk moves, pulsating hits like "Twerkulator," and efforts to draw out the crowd’s inner act-bad attitude by screaming: "If you’re a bad bitch, say, ‘Hell, yeah!’" And by the end of the group’s performance, fans were left with a racing heartbeat or sweating from the constant flow of high-powered hits and go-get-him-girl records.
Lil Uzi Vert Knows What The City Wants
Lil Uzi Vert | Taylor Hill/Getty Images for Live Nation Urban
Now in their third appearance since 2016, Philly native Lil Uzi Vert took to the Park stage on Saturday, bringing enough bass and adoring screams that could be heard across Fairmont Park.
"I ain’t going to do too much talking. Let’s do it," they said to the roaring crowd. While Lil Uzi’s voice occasionally drowned in a song’s instrumental, their effortless magnetism and signature shoulder roll dance brought excitement to the growing crowd.
The rumblings of hits like "444+222" and "Sauce It Up" rang in fans’ ears, and songs like "Money Longer," and the Diamond-selling smash "XO Tour Llif3" nearly turned portions of the crowd into mosh pits. Lil Uzi’s performance came to a welcomed halt when fans were invited to the stage to dance to the massively popular "Just Wanna Rock," which has become an unofficial anthem in their hometown. "I’m in the city, this they s—." Fans pulled out their phones as the rap star capped off the set with the viral hit.
Lucky Daye Drips In Allure
Only a year removed from his breakthrough album, Candydrip — a genre-drifting and soul-stirring project riddled with pop and R&B hits — Lucky Daye has risen to star status. And with songs like "Real Games" and "Late Night," it’s easy to be drawn to the New Orleans-born artist.
While initially draped in glimmering red garments, it didn’t take the artist long to strip down (well, shirtless, that is), and render impassioned vocals over the cheers and screams of his admirers. He dove into songs across his various albums and fell to his knees to deliver a burningly passionate rendition of "F—kin’ Sound" before the 37-year-old vocalist exited the Mann’s amphitheater stage.
Ari Lennox Conjures Soul In Comforting Fashion
Ari Lennox | Taylor Hill/Getty Images for Live Nation Urban
It’s unclear if Ari Lennox still has plans to step away from the touring circuit for good, but if her Sunday evening performance is any indication, her presence would be sorely missed. The "Shea Butter Baby" vocalist conjured every fragment of her soulful and poetic artistry, bringing vibes despite having a slight cold.
The DC-born R&B singer danced to the flowy breeze setting over the stretched-out crowd while singing favored tracks like "New Apartment," as well as "Waste My Time" and "Pressure" from last year’s Age/Sex/Location. Lennox encouraged fans to close their eyes and sway their hips, and many raised drinks as Lennox’s soothing voice and sultry lyrics wrapped around their bodies.
Busta Rhymes And Eve Come To Devastate
Spliff Star and Busta Rhymes | Taylor Hill/Getty Images for Live Nation Urban
Joined by The Roots’ Black Thought, Busta Rhymes and Spliff Star tore down the Park stage, even with distracting audio woes hindering the early part of their set. Shot mic or not, Busta’s lion-like voice could be heard from yards away as he spewed the lyrics to "Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See" and A Tribe Called Quest’s "Scenario" to a cheering audience.
Eve arrived during the latter part of the DJ J. Period curated set. The former First Lady of Ruff Ryder burst onto the stage and held her own alongside the fellow hip-hop heavyweights. As she swayed the crowd with songs like "Tambourine" and her verse on the late DMX’s "Ruff Ryders Anthem (Remix)," it harkened back to her days as a lyrical wild card in the early 2000s before she ventured into acting and hosting gigs.