Photo: Rebecca Sapp/Stringer via Getty Images
Mogul Moment: How Quincy Jones Became An Architect Of Black Music
In his work, which spans seven decades and counting in the business, Quincy Jones has proved time and time again that Black music is America's music
Ahead of Quincy Jones' appearance at the Inaugural Black Music Collective GRAMMY Week Celebration during GRAMMY Week 2021, GRAMMY.com explores how the producer, composer and arranger built a launchpad for some of the most revolutionary voices in Black American music.
Quincy Jones has the stories of a townful of people put together. He's eaten rats to survive, attended his own funeral and claims to know who actually shot JFK. He can show you a scar on his temple where an icepick nailed him—and another on his hand thanks to a switchblade. In between, he's helped Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, George Benson, Michael Jackson, Donna Summer and scores of others make some of the most beloved music of the 20th century.
All those artists happen to be Black, and Jones understands profoundly their work's vitality to the American fabric. Between working on classic films like 1966's Walk, Don't Run, 1967's In The Heat of the Night and 1969's The Italian Job; producing bubblegum hits like Lesley Gore's "It's My Party"; and co-producing the celebrity smorgasbord "We Are The World," Jones has spearheaded quintessential Black American albums like Ella Fitzgerald’s and Count Basie’s Ella and Basie, Michael Jackson’s Thriller and George Benson’s Give Me the Night.
In his work, which spans seven decades and counting in the business, Jones has proved time and time again that Black music is America's music. For his trouble, he's collected 28 GRAMMY Awards, 80 nominations and a GRAMMY Legend Award. Ahead of his appearance next at the Inaugural Black Music Collective Event, a virtual event focused on amplifying Black voices, during GRAMMY Week 2021, it's worth noting how Jones helped architect Black music throughout his career.
"I believe that a hundred years from now when people look back at the 20th century, they will look at Miles, Bird, Clifford Brown, Ella and Dizzy, among [other] elders as our Mozarts, our Chopins, our Bachs and Beethovens," Jones told NPR's “Fresh Air” in 2001. (He worked or hobnobbed with all five of those Black geniuses.) "I only hope that one day, America will recognize what the rest of the world already has known, that our indigenous music—gospel, blues, jazz and R&B—is the heart and soul of all popular music; and that we cannot afford to let this legacy slip into obscurity, I'm telling you."
That elevation of Black expression is the headline of Jones' life and work. Here's how it became that way.
For Quincy Jones, Music Changed Everything
On March 14, 1933, Jones was born on the wrong side of town during the worst economic downturn in history. "I wasn't born in Bel Air, man. I'm from the South Side of Chicago," he told Dr. Dre in the 2018 Netflix documentary Quincy, citing an area with a history of violence and poverty. "In the '30s, man, during the Depression, damn, you kidding? We lost my mother when I was seven, and my brother and I, we were like street rats." At first, he didn’t have musical dreams, but those of a life of crime: "I wanted to be a gangster 'til I was 11. You want to be what you see, and that's all we ever saw."
With his mother was in and out of mental institutions, Jones and his brother Lloyd stayed at his grandmother's—a former slave’s—house without electricity or running water. According to his 2001 autobiography Q, they were so impoverished that she fed the boys "mustard greens, okra, possum, chickens and rats, and me and Lloyd ate them all."
Jones’ mother, who often sang religious songs, introduced a young Jones to music. "When I was five or six, back in Chicago, there was this lady named Lucy Jackson who used to play stride piano in the apartment next door, and I listened to her all the time right through the walls," Jones told PBS in 2005. Plus, a next-door neighbor, Lucy Jackson, played stride piano next door; Jones kept an ear to the wall.
When Jones was 10, the family moved to Bremerton, Washington. In his early teens, they relocated to Seattle, where Jones caught word of a skinny, Black 16-year-old kid in town with frightening musical talent. "[He] played his ass off. He played piano and sang like Nat 'King' Cole and Charles Brown," Jones remembered in Q. "He said his name was Ray Charles, and it was love at first instinct for both of us."
Despite Charles' blindness, he was utterly self-reliant, renting an apartment, going steady with a girlfriend and shopping, cooking and laundering for himself. His independence and creativity were galvanizing to Jones, illuminating a path he would follow for the rest of his life.
"Ray was a role model at a time when I had few. He understood the world in ways I didn't," Jones wrote in Q. "He'd say, 'Every music has its own soul, Quincy. It doesn't matter what style it is, be true to it.' He refused to put limits on himself."
Soon after, Jones enrolled at Garfield High School, where he honed his craft as a trumpeter and arranger. He earned a scholarship at Seattle University, transferred to Berklee College of Music in Boston, traveled with the future GRAMMY Special Merit Award Honoree Lionel Hampton's band at age 20. From there, he was off to the races.
Of course, Charles went on to live up to his maxim of artistic limitlessness, cross-pollinating R&B, soul, blues, gospel, jazz, and even country music, on 1962's Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. And Jones remained an integral part of his story, writing and arranging "The Ray" for 1957's The Great Ray Charles. Heavy, bluesy and swinging, the tune telegraphs Jones' admiration for The Genius.
Jones Alters Rock ‘N’ Roll
Fast-forward five years: Jones was in the midst of a fruitful stint as a writer and arranger for the Count Basie Orchestra, on albums like 1959's Basie One More Time and 1960's String Along With Basie.
Meanwhile, over in rock 'n' roll, an extinction event had hit. Buddy Holly was dead, Chuck Berry was in prison, Jerry Lee Lewis was in the hot seat for a marriage scandal, and a post-service Elvis Presley was flailing from one lightweight flick to the next. Little Richard, for his part, had become born again and forsaken rock 'n' roll, pivoting to Jesus with 1960's austere Pray Along With Little Richard.
Understanding that his earlier, cat-in-heat hits like "Tutti Frutti" and "Long Tall Sally" had a lot in common with gospel music, Jones lit a fire under Richard by way of 1962's The King of the Gospel Singers, a project he joined via Richard’s old producer Bumps Blackwell.
Over Jones’ revved-up arrangements, Richard sounded less self-righteous and more tapped into the wild, frenzied heart of holy devotion.
Deeper Into Jazz…
Ever since he was a kid, Jones had been a fan of bebop, a harmonically advanced, blisteringly fast form of small-group jazz. The virtuosic trumpeter, composer and educator Dizzy Gillespie was one of the style's principal architects.
Come 1963, and Jones would produce his hero's excellent 1963 album New Wave!. The album braids American mainstays (W.C. Handy's "Careless Love") with bossa nova standards (Antônio Carlos Jobim's "One Note Samba"). As a whole, it provides as effective a gateway as any into Gillespie's innovations in the Afro-Cuban sphere.
...And Soul & Pop
In 1973, Jones produced Aretha Franklin's Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky), which is neither as muscular as her peak work nor as luxurious as '80s albums like Jump To It. Regardless, that in-betweenness—and the strength of its material—makes Hey Now Hey an intriguing look at the Queen of Soul in a state of transition.
At the time, two members of Jones' band were George "Lightnin' Licks" and Louis E. "Thunder Thumbs" Johnson, known as The Brothers Johnson. Jones went on to produce four successful albums for the brothers. Three singles in particular—1976's "I'll Be Good to You," 1977's Shuggie Otis cover "Strawberry Letter 23" and 1980's "Stomp!"—all topped the Hot R&B Charts and remained classic examples of Jones’ contributions to Black music.
Enter Michael Jackson
Around this time, Jones was highly active in film. While working as a music supervisor and producer on 1978's The Wiz, a film adaptation of the Broadway musical of the same name, he was impressed by the precocious co-star Michael Jackson, who had already made waves in The Jackson 5.
After filming wrapped, Jackson told his label, Epic Records, and managers, Freddie DeMann and Ron Weisner, that he wanted Jones to produce for him.
"[T]his was 1977 and disco reigned supreme," Jones wrote in Q. "The word was, 'Quincy Jones is too jazzy and has only produced dance hits with The Brothers Johnson.' When Jackson approached Jones about this, he laid the young singer's anxieties to rest: "If it's meant for us to work together, God will make it happen. Don't worry about it." (In the meantime, Jones produced 1979's funk-soul gem Masterjam by Rufus and Chaka Khan.)
The music the pair made together may prove the existence of a higher power: Jones produced 1979's Off The Wall, 1982's Thriller and 1987's Bad.
"[W]orking with Quincy was such a wonderful thing," Jackson told Ebony in 2007, 25 years after Thriller’s release. "He lets you experiment, do your thing, and he's genius enough to stay out of the way of the music, and if there's an element to be added, he'll add it."
By now, all three albums have been codified into pop culture. "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" could compel a corpse to cut a rug, everyone who's watched TV has seen the "Thriller" video, and the exuberant "The Way You Make Me Feel" can still lift one out of a bedridden depression. Together, the three albums won more than a dozen GRAMMYs and were nominated for a pile of others.
Give Him The Night
While Jackson ascended in the pop world, the jazz guitar great George Benson began singing more and hewing more commercial, with Tommy LiPuma-helmed albums like 1976's Breezin', 1977's In Flight and 1979's Livin' Inside Your Love. In 1980, Jones partnered with Warner Bros. to form Qwest, a subsidiary label that gave him extraordinary creative freedom.
"Much to my luck, he still wanted to make a George Benson record," Benson said in 2014's Benson: The Autobiography. "Let me ask you this: Do you want to go for the throat?" Jones asked Benson. "Quincy, let's go for the throat, baby," he responded. "Let's go for the throat."
The result was 1980's career-making Give Me The Night, which garnered three GRAMMYs at the ceremony that year: Best Jazz Performance, Male for "Moody's Mood"; Best R&B Instrumental Performance for "Off Broadway"; and Best R&B Performance, Male for the title track.
Jones has been wildly active ever since. In 1993, he convinced Miles Davis to take a rare look back at his modal-jazz years with Miles and Quincy Live at Montreaux, recorded mere months before Davis's death. In the ensuing decades, he's produced concerts and TV, given no-holds-barred interviews, and soaked up his stature as a titan in the music industry.
In 2018, when Vulture asked Jones if he could snap his fingers and fix one problem in the country, one word flashed in his mind. "Racism," he responded. "I’ve been watching it a long time—the ’30s to now. We’ve come a long way but we’ve got a long way to go. The South has always been fucked up, but you know where you stand. The racism in the North is disguised. You never know where you stand.
"People are fighting it," he added, with Charlottesville in the immediate rearview. "God is pushing the bad in our face to make people fight back."
America may remain in the thick of a racial reckoning, but all the while, Jones has tirelessly facilitated and championed artists of color. He’s seemingly lived a hundred lifetimes and been a force for good in numberless ways.
But when he brought the best out of his fellow Black American visionaries, that’s when he really went for the throat.
Photo: John Rogers
10 Albums That Showcase The Deep Connection Between Jazz And Electronic Music: Herbie Hancock, Flying Lotus, Caroline Davis & More
Jazz has long stretched the parameters of harmony, melody and rhythm — and when electronic music flows into it, the possibilities are even more limitless.
A year and change before his 2022 death, the eminent saxophonist Pharoah Sanders released one final dispatch. That album was Promises, a meditative, collaborative album with British electronic musician Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra.
Promises swung open the gates for jazz and electronic music's convergence.. Not only was it an out-of-nowhere critical smash, earning "universal acclaim" as per Metacritic; it acted as an accessible entrypoint for the hipster set and beyond.
As Pitchfork put it, "One of the year's most memorable melodies consists of a seven-note refrain repeated, with slight variation, for more than three quarters of an hour." (They declared Promises the fourth best album of the year; its neighbors included Turnstile; Tyler, the Creator; and Jazmine Sullivan.)
Since then, jazz and electronic music have continued their developments, with or without each other. But Promises struck a resonant chord, especially during the pandemic years; and when Sanders left us at 81, the music felt like his essence lingering in our midst.
Whether you're aware of that crossover favorite or simply curious about this realm, know that the rapprochement between jazz and electronic idioms goes back decades and decades.
Read on for 10 albums that exemplify this genre blend — including two released this very year.
Miles Davis - Live-Evil (1971)
As the 1960s gave away to the '70s, Miles Davis stood at his most extreme pivot point — between post-bop and modal classics and undulating, electric exploits. Straddling the studio and the stage, Live-Evil is a monument to this period of thunderous transformation.
At 100 minutes, the album's a heaving, heady listen — its dense electronic textures courtesy of revered keyboardists Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Joe Zawinul, as well as the combustible electric guitarist John McLaughlin. The swirling, beatless "Nem Un Talvez" is arguably Live-Evil's most demonstrative example of jazz meets electronic.
For the uninitiated as per Davis' heavier, headier work, Live-Evil is something of a Rosetta stone. From here, head backward in the eight-time GRAMMY winner and 32-time nominee's catalog — to In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew or Jack Johnson.
Or, move forward to On the Corner, Get Up With It or Aura. Wherever you move in his later discography, plenty of jazz fans wish they could hear this game-changing music for the first time.
Herbie Hancock - Future Shock (1983)
In the early 1970s, Herbie Hancock delivered a one-two punch of fusion classics — 1973's Head Hunters and 1974's Thrust — to much applause. The ensuing years told a different story.
While the 14-time GRAMMY winner and 34-time nominee's ensuing live albums tended to be well-regarded, his studio work only fitfully caught a break from the critics.
However, in 1983, Hancock struck gold in that regard: the inspired Future Shock wittily and inventively drew from electro-funk and instrumental hip-hop. Especially its single, "Rockit" — shot through with a melodic earworm, imbued with infectious DJ scratches.
Sure, it's of its time — very conspicuously so. But with hip-hop's 50th anniversary right in our rearview, "Rockit" sounds right on time.
Tim Hagans - Animation • Imagination (1999)
If electric Miles is your Miles, spring for trumpeter Tim Hagans' Animation • Imagination for an outside spin on that aesthetic.
The late, great saxophonist Bob Belden plays co-pilot here; he wrote four of its nine originals and produced the album. Guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, synthesist Scott Kinsen, bassist David Dyson, and drummer Billy Kilson also underpin these kinetic, exploratory tunes.
The engine of Animation • Imagination is its supple and infectious sense of groove, whether in breakbeat ("Animation/Imagination"), boom bap ("Slo Mo") or any other form.
This makes the drumless moments, like "Love's Lullaby," have an indelible impact; when the drums drop out, inertia propels you forward. And on the electronics-swaddled "Snakes Kin," the delayed-out percussion less drives the music than rattles it like an angry hive.
Kurt Rosenwinkel - Heartcore (2003)
From his language to his phrasing to his liquid sound, Rosenwinkel's impact on the contemporary jazz guitar scene cannot be overstated: on any given evening in the West Village, you can probably find a New Schooler laboriously attempting to channel him.
Rosenwinkel's appeared on more than 150 albums, so where to begin with such a prodigious artist? One gateway is Heartcore, his first immersion into electronic soundscapes as a bandleader.
Throughout, the laser-focused tenor saxophonist Mark Turner is like another half of his sound. On "Our Secret World," his earthiness counter-weighs Rosenwinkel's iridescent textures; on "Blue Line," the pair blend into and timbrally imitate each other.
Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest co-produced Heartcore; it's as unclassifiable as the MC's most intrepid, fusionary works. "This record — it's jazz," Rosenwinkel has said. "And it's much more."
Graham Haynes - Full Circle (2007)
Cornetist, flugelhornist and trumpeter Graham Haynes may be the son of Roy Haynes, who played drums with Bird and Monk and remains one of the final living godfathers of bebop. But if he's ever faced pressure to box himself into his father's aesthetic, he's studiously disregarded it.
Along with saxophone great Steve Coleman, he was instrumental in the M-Base collective, which heralded new modes of creative expression in jazz — a genre tag it tended to reject altogether.
For Haynes, this liberatory spirit led to inspired works like Full Circle. It shows how he moved between electronic and hip-hop spheres with masterly ease, while being beholden to neither. Featuring saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, bassist Shahzad Ismaily, drummer Marcus Gilmore, and other top-flight accompanists, Full Circle is wormholes within wormholes.
Therein, short-circuiting wonders like "1st Quadrant" rub against "Quartet Circle" and "In the Cage of Grouis Bank," which slouch toward ambient, foreboding kosmische.
Craig Taborn - Junk Magic (2004)
Steeped in brutal metal as much as the AACM, the elusive, resplendent pianist Craig Taborn is one of the most cutting-edge practitioners of "creative music." Some of his work resembles jazz, some is uncategorizably far afield.
Strains of electronic music run through Taborn's entire catalog. And his Junk Magic project, which began with his 2004 album of the same name, is a terrific gateway drug to this component of his artistry.
Junk Magic has a haunted toyshop quality; tracks like "Prismatica," "Bodies at Rest and in Motion" and "The Golden Age" thrum with shadowy, esoteric energy.
If these strange sounds resonate with you, 2020's sinewy Compass Confusion — released under the Junk Magic alias — is a logical next step. So is 2019's Golden Valley is Now, an electronics-inflected work of head-spinning propulsion and kineticism.
Flying Lotus - You're Dead! (2014)
Spanning spiritual jazz, devotional music, the avant-garde, and so much more, Alice Coltrane has belatedly gotten her flowers as a musical heavyweight; she and her sainted husband were equal and parallel forces.
Coltrane's grandnephew, Steven Bingley-Ellison — better known as Flying Lotus — inherited her multidimensional purview.
In the late 2000s, the GRAMMY-winning DJ, rapper and producer made waves with envelope-pushing works like Los Angeles; regarding his synthesis of jazz, electronic and hip-hop, 2014's You're Dead marks something of a culmination.
Flying Lotus was in stellar company on You're Dead!, from Kendrick Lamar to Snoop Dogg to Herbie Hancock and beyond; tracks like "Tesla," "Never Catch Me" and "Moment of Hesitation" show that these forms aren't mutually exclusive, but branches of the same tree.
Brad Mehldau - Finding Gabriel (2019)
As per the Big Questions, pianist Brad Mehldau is much like many of us: "I believe in God, but do not identify with any of the monotheistic religions specifically." But this hasn't diluted his searching nature: far from it.
In fact, spirituality has played a primary role in the GRAMMY winner and 13-time nominee's recent work. His 2022 album Jacob's Ladder dealt heavily in Biblical concepts — hence the title — and shot them through with the prog-rock ethos of Yes, Rush and Gentle Giant.
Where Jacob's Ladder is appealingly nerdy and top-heavy, its spiritual successor, 2019's Finding Gabriel, feels rawer and more eye-level, its jagged edges more exposed; Mehldau himself played a dizzying array of instruments, including drums and various synths.
The archetypal imagery is foreboding, as on "The Garden"; the Trump-era commentary is forthright, as on "The Prophet is a Fool." And its sense of harried tension is gorgeously released on the title track.
All this searching and striving required music without guardrails — a marriage of jazz and electronic music, in both styles' boundless reach.
Caroline Davis' Alula - Captivity (2023)
Caroline Davis isn't just an force on the New York scene; she's a consummate conceptualist.
The saxophonist and composer's work spans genres and even media; any given presentation might involve evocative dance, expansive set design, incisive poetry, or flourishing strings. She's spoken of writing music based on tactility and texture, with innovative forms of extended technique.
This perspicuous view has led to a political forthrightness: her Alula project's new album, Captivity, faces down the horrific realities of incarceration and a broken criminal justice system.
Despite the thematic weight, this work of advocacy is never preachy or stilted: it feels teeming and alive. This is a testament not only to jazz's adaptability to strange, squelching electronics, but its matrix of decades-old connections to social justice.
Within these oblong shapes and textures, Davis has a story to tell — one that's life or death.
Jason Moran/BlankFor.ms/Marcus Gilmore - Refract (2023)
At this point, it's self-evident how well these two genres mesh. And pianist Jason Moran and drummer Marcus Gilmore offer another fascinating twist: tape loops.
For a new album, Refract, the pair — who have one GRAMMY and three nominations between them — partnered with the tape loop visionary Tyler Gilmore, a.k.a. BlankFor.ms.
The seed of the project was with BlankFor.ms; producer Sun Chung had broached the idea that he work with leading improvisational minds. In the studio, BlankFor.ms acted on a refractory basis, his loops commenting on, shaping and warping Moran and Gilmore's playing.
As Moran poetically put it in a statement, "I have always longed for an outside force to manipulate my piano song and drag the sound into a cistern filled with soft clay."
The line on jazz is that it's an expression of freedom. But when it comes to chips and filters and oscillators, it can always be a little more unbound.
Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
A Guide To Southern California Hip-Hop: Definitive Releases, Artists & Subgenres From L.A. & Beyond
Hip-hop began in the Bronx, but many of the culture’s most unforgettable moments came from Southern California. In celebration of the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, take a trip through SoCal's rich hip-hop history — from N.W.A. and KDAY, to the Super Bowl.
"The sun rises in the East, but it sets in the West," raps Ice Cube on Westside Connection’s 1996 hit, "Bow Down." Indeed, hip-hop began in the Bronx, New York. But many of the culture’s most unforgettable moments have come from Southern California, a region where young Black and Brown people took to hip-hop soon after the Sugarhill Gang’s "Rapper’s Delight" blew up worldwide.
This guide chronicles some of the region’s many musical peaks, from commanding attention in the late ’80s, to virtually dominating the genre in the ’90s, and eliciting worldwide acclaim in the 21st century and beyond.
A Brief History Of Southern California Hip-Hop
Since the first L.A. hip-hop record in 1981, Disco Daddy and Captain Rapp’s "The Gigolo Rapp," Southern California has generated some of the biggest names in hip-hop history: Ice-T, Eazy-E, N.W.A., Ice Cube, Cypress Hill, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, 2Pac, The Game…everyone knows who the kings of the West Coast are. That legacy has not only made the region a prideful one, but also led to assumptions that "gangsta rap" defines it.
But Southern California has yielded more artistic variety than just street politics, whether it’s poetic lyricists like Kendrick Lamar, brilliantly idiosyncratic producers like Madlib, bracing innovators like Freestyle Fellowship, or unabashedly good-time rappers like Tone-Loc and Tyga.
No matter the form, rap in Southern California is deeply rooted in bluesy funk, soul, and jazz. It’s a complex scene that's often divided by neighborhood affiliation and stylistic differences, yet united by a place everyone calls home. Artists in SoCal are unafraid to make soundtracks for dance floors and family cookouts as well as for cruising through L.A.’s freeway sprawl. That common touch is why the city’s brand of rap music resonates around the globe.
Southern California hip-hop has waxed and waned in national popularity, and its creative and commercial dominance in the 1990s and early aughts, thanks to massive hits such as Dr. Dre’s The Chronic and 2001 as well as 2Pac’s All Eyez on Me, continue to cast a long shadow over the culture. However, you’ll find highlights throughout the past four-plus decades, many of which are recounted here.
Key Moments In Southern California Hip-Hop
1983 - KDAY-FM Goes On The Air: When Texas radio programmer Greg Mack was hired by KDAY-FM 1580 AM in 1983, he decided to turn the station into the first rap station in the country. Early West Coast DJs like Dr. Dre and the KDAY Mixmasters — a group of jocks that included Tony G, Joe Cooley, DJ Aladdin, Battlecat, and others — made the station required listening for fans of the fledgling genre throughout the '80s and early '90s. Decades later, and after returning to 93.5 FM as an old-school hip-hop station, KDAY remains a point of pride for the local community.
1986 - Run-DMC’s Concert Sparks A Riot: While largely forgotten now, the events that unfolded during Run-D.M.C.’s ill-fated August 1986 concert at Long Beach Arena made national headlines. Local Crips and Bloods members fought each other in the stands, leading to injuries, arrests and a lasting stigma that rap shows were a magnet for thuggery. In its wake, city officials around the country barred artists from performing, and required massive insurance premiums for shows to take place. In December 1986, Run-DMC appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone to explain why hip-hop shouldn’t be associated with violence.
1989 - The F.B.I. Sends A Warning To N.W.A: On Aug. 1, 1989, the Federal Bureau of Investigation sent a letter to Priority Records, the distributor for N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton. "Advocating violence and assault is wrong," wrote the official in reference to the group’s protest song, "F— Tha Police." "I believe my views reflect the opinion of the entire law enforcement community." Ironically, the letter had a galvanizing effect when the group’s management leaked it to the press. Critics who were divided over the album’s merits rallied around N.W.A. as free-speech heroes, and it helped make the group one of the most important musical acts in America.
1997 - The Notorious B.I.G. Is Murdered In Los Angeles: When Brooklyn rap legend the Notorious B.I.G. was gunned down after leaving a Soul Train Music Awards afterparty at the on March 9, the public — correctly or not — viewed it as the culmination of an "East Coast vs. West Coast" rivalry between executives at Death Row Records and Biggie’s label Bad Boy Records, as well as retribution for Death Row superstar 2Pac’s murder in Las Vegas the previous fall. Biggie’s still-unsolved murder continues to cast a shadow over the L.A. rap scene, even though it is hardly the only hip-hop region where high-profile crimes have marred its reputation.
2011 - Odd Future Appears On "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon": Tyler, The Creator and Hodgy Beats’s rendition of "Sandwitches" alongside "Jimmy Fallon" backing band the Roots on Feb. 16, 2011 was a veritable youthquake. It not only made Odd Future one of the hottest groups in the country, but also served notice of that younger generation more influenced by online culture than street politics had officially arrived. Few who saw the viral video can forget the sight of Fallon giving Tyler a piggyback ride as Mos Def suddenly appeared out of nowhere, screaming in delight.
2011 – The West Coast Torch Is Passed to Kendrick Lamar: On Aug. 19, 2011, as Kendrick Lamar celebrated the release of his independent album Section.80 at the Fonda Theater (fka as The Music Box), the Game, Snoop Dogg, Warren G, and Kurupt emerged onto the stage. "You’ve got the torch now, you better run with it," said Snoop. Then the rappers embraced Lamar as he broke down in tears and the crowd chanted, "Kendrick! Kendrick!" In the years since the moment was captured on video, Lamar became one of the most important rappers of his generation.
2022 - Dr. Dre And Friends Perform At The Super Bowl Halftime Show: Held at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Super Bowl LVI gave Dr. Dre the opportunity to reminisce on his historic career. As he performed classics like "Still D.R.E." and "The Next Episode" with guests like Snoop Dogg, Bronx R&B singer Mary J. Blige, Detroit rapper Eminem, Queens rapper 50 Cent, Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar, and Oxnard rap singer Anderson .Paak, Dre took viewers on a journey through old-school hip-hop lore and created a joyous tribute to the genre. The widely acclaimed show was subsequently honored three times at the 2022 Primetime Emmy Awards.
Definitive SoCal Hip-Hop Rappers
Ice-T: Los Angeles rapper Ice-T was arguably the first West Coast star who elicited respect from New York tastemakers as a peer and fellow pioneer. Inspired by Philly rapper Schoolly D, his breakthrough single, "6 in the Mornin’," is often cited as the first West Coast reality rap song (although some would argue that Toddy Tee’s "Batteram" precedes it).
His 1987 debut album, Rhyme Pays, was the first to carry a parental warning sticker. Ice-T faced censorship throughout his career, most dramatically when police unions and the NRA targeted him for "Cop Killer," his satirical track with his rock-rap group, Body Count. Now in his 60s and a familiar face on the TV series "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," Ice-T remains a role model for artists who want to make a greater cultural impact than just music.
N.W.A.: As an alliance between DJ/producers Dr. Dre and DJ Yella and rappers Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and MC Ren (early member Arabian Prince left before Straight Outta Compton took off) — N.W.A impressed with their first single, "Dope Man." That led to a 1987 debut compilation for Eazy-E’s Ruthless camp, N.W.A and the Posse. Then, with tracks like "F— the Police," "Gangsta Gangsta," and the surprisingly upbeat radio hit "Express Yourself," Straight Outta Compton made them the most dangerous group in America, and a target of law enforcement as well as the FBI.
After a second album, efil4zaggaN, the group collapsed over financial disputes and interpersonal drama. That’s part of the N.W.A legend, too, as illustrated in the acclaimed, Oscar-nominated 2015 film, Straight Outta Compton.
Snoop Dogg: With his Modelo and Jack in the Box commercials airing nightly, Snoop Dogg is an ambassador for Southern California hip-hop. Discovered by Dr. Dre through Dre’s cousin, rapper/producer Warren G, he debuted with "Deep Cover," where he chanted in a sing-song voice, "’Cause it’s 1-8-7 on an undercover cop!" On his solo album, Doggystyle, he seemed to excel at hit singles like "Gin and Juice" that turned life into a never-ending party full of sticky weed and beautiful women.
In short, he personified how G-funk, a movement that once terrified the music industry, would be eventually mainstreamed into a party open to everyone. No matter one’s age or gender, everyone has a favorite Snoop track, whether it’s old-school favorites like "It Ain’t No Fun (If the Homies Can’t Have None)," club bangers like "Drop It Like It’s Hot," pop cameos like Katy Perry’s "California Gurls," or even bilingual Latin hits tracks like Banda MS’ "Qué Maldición."
Nipsey Hussle: At the time of his murder in 2019, Crenshaw rapper Nipsey Hussle seemed poised to break through to mainstream success. He represented a new era of Southern California rap defined by independent hustle, generational wealth from the ground up, savvy marketing stunts, and unapologetically street-oriented music.
Nipsey began his career in the mid-2000s, slowly rising through sundry mixtape appearances as well as features on albums by 2Pac, Snoop Dogg, and Glasses Malone. He earned national attention when he sold CD copies of his mixtape, Crenshaw, for $100 a pop; Jay-Z himself reportedly bought several. Tracks from his GRAMMY-nominated major label debut, 2018’s Victory Lap, seemed omnipresent at local sporting events. After his death, Nipsey appeared on a posthumous 2019 hit, "Racks in the Middle," with Compton rap singer Roddy Ricch.
Kendrick Lamar: Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar is the region’s crown prince, both blessed and burdened with sustaining West Coast rap tradition. While much of his music grapples with the weight of those expectations, he’s also been extraordinarily successful, scoring No. 1 hits like "Humble," global arena tours, and multi-platinum albums like good kid, m.A.A.d city and DAMN. The latter made him the first hip-hop artist to win the Pulitzer Prize.
One of the most influential and acclaimed artists of his generation, Lamar signifies a new openness among young artists to discussing mental health and self-care, all while dazzling listeners with conceptual complexity and thematic layers. Signed for years to Top Dawg Entertainment, Lamar recently has launched his own company, pgLang, with news about his direction forward still to come.
Cruical Hip-Hop Crews
Lench Mob: When Ice Cube broke from N.W.A. at the end of 1989, Lench Mob became his circle of friends as well as a production company and, eventually, a label imprint distributed by Priority Records.
Early members included Yo-Yo, who scored a major hit with Cube in 1991’s "You Can’t Play with My Yo-Yo." Then there was Da Lench Mob — Shorty, J-Dee, and T-Bone — and "Guerillas in the Mist." And after the 1992 L.A. riots sparked by the Rodney King verdict led to peace treaties among rival gangs in Watts, rapper Kam celebrated with his 1993 hit single, "Peace Treaty." Other associates include Inglewood rapper Mack 10, who scored gold-certified solo albums and joined with Cube and W.C. in the supergroup Westside Connection, and teenage South Central duo Kausion.
Soul Assassins: Originally formed as a publishing company for Cypress Hill as they created their classic self-titled 1991 debut, Soul Assassins eventually became an alliance of artists and one of the most underrated hit-making crews of the 1990s. Its members included House of Pain, authors of the deathless "Jump Around"; Funkdoobiest, who scored the 1993 hit "Bow Wow Wow"; and protégés like the Whooliganz, a duo made of future super-producer the Alchemist and future Hollywood actor Scott Caan; as well as Call O’ Da Wild, the Psycho Realm, and Self Scientific.
The crew’s releases espoused a dusty, psychedelic, and hardcore style distinct from the G-funk sound that defined the decade. In 1997, Cypress Hill producer DJ Muggs launched a series of Soul Assassins compilations that found him collaborating with the likes of Dr. Dre, Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA and GZA, and Mobb Deep.
Likwit Crew: Centered around Compton OG King Tee and Tha Alkaholiks members Tash, J-Ro, and E-Swift, Likwit Crew charted a hardcore middle path between the lyrical experimentations of the rappers associated with vaunted open-mic showcase Good Life Café, and the gangsta funk of Death Row.
Associated acts include Dilated Peoples, who scored at the dawn of the 2000s with the Alchemist-produced "Worst Comes to Worst" and the Kanye West-produced "This Way"; Xzibit, who released two solo albums before joining forces with Dr. Dre for 2000’s platinum-certified Restless; Defari, who released the underrated 1999 album Focused Daily; the Lootpack, and Phil Da Agony.
Project Blowed: For much of the late '90s and aughts, Project Blowed defined subterranean, avant-garde lyricism in Los Angeles. It was not only an event held in Leimert Park, but also a collective and a record label. Aceyalone, rapper and one-time member of pioneering group Freestyle Fellowship, and Abstract Rude — who was briefly signed to the Beastie Boys’ label Grand Royal — were two of its most prominent members. Others were Figures of Speech, which included future film director Ava DuVernay, Medusa the "gangsta goddess," and Volume 10, author of the 1993 hit, "Pistolgrip-Pump."
Odd Future: Formed in 2007, Odd Future became one of the most popular rap crews of their era. Their grungy skate-punk aesthetics, soulful introspection, and youthful fervor helped define the genre-agnostic quality of current hip-hop.
Onetime leader Tyler, the Creator is acclaimed for albums like 2019’s Igor and 2021’s Call Me If You Get Lost. The same goes for Frank Ocean and his two masterpieces, Channel Orange and Blonde. Other members include Earl Sweatshirt, Syd the Kyd — who went on to form the alternative soul group the Internet — Hodgy and Left Brain of Mellow Hype, and Jasper Dolphin, who later joined the Jackass franchise.
Essential SoCal Hip-Hop Releases
N.W.A. - Straight Outta Compton (1988): N.W.A’s landmark Straight Outta Compton is the product of three Compton musicians with years of experience in the L.A. hip-hop scene. Dr. Dre and DJ Yella spent three years as part of World Class Wreckin Cru, the mobile DJ unit and electro group led by Lonzo Williams. South Central native Ice Cube bounced around in various rap acts, notably the trio C.I.A. (Criminals in Action). MC Ren performed locally. The wild card was Eazy-E, a self-admitted drug dealer who didn’t have any musical experience until Dre asked him to rap Cube’s lyrics for "The Boyz-N-The Hood."
The Pharcyde - BizarreRideIIThePharcyde (1992): The Pharcyde’s debut album remains proof that Southern California hip-hop had more to offer than just gangsta rap. Produced by L.A. Jay, the album finds Romye, Imani, Slim Kid Tré, and Fat Lip embarking on a series of wacky, hilarious, and heart-rending adventures over crunchy samples from the likes of Quincy Jones and Jimi Hendrix. The tone ranges from the irreverence of "4 Better or 4 Worse" to the moving introspection of "Passin’ Me By" and "Otha Fish." BizarreRideIIThePharcyde was released a few weeks before Dr. Dre’s The Chronic.
Dr. Dre - The Chronic (1992): With The Chronic, Dr. Dre proved that rappers could make uncompromising, hardcore records and still succeed on the pop charts. Its first single, "Nuthin’ but a G Thang," was a sensation in rap circles and a major crossover hit, reaching the top five on the Billboard charts.
Dre collaborated with new voices like Snoop Doggy Dogg, Warren G, the Lady of Rage, RBX, Tha Dogg Pound — Kurupt and Daz, and singers Nate Dogg and Jewell, all of whom would define West Coast rap in the '90s. Meanwhile, his process of using musicians like Colin Wolfe to interpolate vintage funk sounds helped create what later became known as G-funk.
2Pac - All Eyez on Me (1996): 2Pac came of age as a rapper while living in Northern California's Marin County and Oakland, recording hit singles like "I Get Around" and "Keep Ya Head Up." But after signing to Death Row, he made a double album that posited Southern California as the center of West Coast hip-hop. Certified diamond by the RIAA, All Eyez on Me is an embarrassment of riches, packed with hit singles like "California Love'' and "2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted," beloved deep cuts like "Ambitionz Az a Rider," and collaborations with Method Man & Redman, Snoop Dogg, George Clinton, and many others. It’s a gangsta party that certified him as a rap legend.
Kendrick Lamar - good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012): Lamar’s first major-label album is not only a concept album about growing up in Compton, but also about a young person burdened by the gangsta legacy — for good and ill. His songs poke holes at long-held assumptions about how Black men in Los Angeles should handle life’s complications, from binge drinking in "Swimming Pools (Drank)" to navigating tensions between Crips and Bloods on "m.A.A.d city." His thoughts on spirituality and solitude on "Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe" reflect a new generation of Southern California rappers searching for inner peace while remaining true to their communities.
Notable SoCal Hip-Hop Labels
Ruthless: As the home of N.W.A, Eazy-E’s company hardly needs an introduction. Yet casual fans may not be familiar with the variety of acts that passed through the label in the '80s and '90s. In addition to documenting N.W.A’s tumultuous reign, it put out J.J. Fad’s pop smash "Supersonic," R&B singer Michel’le’s "No More Lies," and the D.O.C.’s platinum-certified 1989 debut, No One Can Do It Better — all in addition to solo projects from Eazy-E and MC Ren.
G-funk architects like Above the Law, Penthouse Players Clique, and Kokane spent time on the label, and it even found space for Jewish hip-hop group Blood of Abraham and an early version of Black Eyed Peas (then known as Atban Klann). Ruthless’ most famous post-N.W.A export is the Cleveland group Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, who sold millions with hits like "Thuggish Ruggish Bone" and "Tha Crossroads."
Delicious Vinyl: In the late '80s, Delicious Vinyl served as a contrast to the reality rap-focused Ruthless Records with pop-rap hits like Tone-Loc’s "Wild Thing," Young MC’s "Bust a Move," and Def Jef’s "Give It Here." Matt Dike, who co-founded the label with Michael Ross, was also a member of production team the Dust Brothers, who played a major role in Brooklyn transplants Beastie Boys’ 1989 masterwork, Paul’s Boutique.
The following decade, Delicious Vinyl’s roster expanded to innovators like the British acid-jazz combo Brand New Heavies, lyrically-minded L.A. quartet the Pharcyde, and New York unit Masta Ace Incorporated.
Death Row: Formed by Dr. Dre after he left N.W.A and Compton entrepreneur Suge Knight, Death Row was one of the most successful — and controversial — record labels of the 1990s. Beginning with Dre’s The Chronic, the label issued several albums that defined the era, like Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle, the Above the Rim soundtrack, Tha Dogg Pound’s Dogg Food, and 2Pac’s All Eyez on Me.
Death Row began to fall apart after Dr. Dre left and 2Pac was murdered in 1996, and Suge Knight was imprisoned on parole violation charges in 1997. The company’s valuable catalog has since changed several hands, with Snoop Dogg and various partners taking control of it last year.
Stones Throw: Originally founded in San Jose, California by DJ/producer Peanut Butter Wolf, Stones Throw relocated to Los Angeles in 2000. That’s when the label hit its stride as a popular indie label, thanks in part to idiosyncratic producer Madlib, who helmed critically acclaimed albums like Quasimoto’s The Unseen and Madvillain’s Madvillainy.
Other Southern California artists who spent time on the roster include Madlib’s brother, rapper/producer Oh No; Oxnard musician Anderson .Paak and producer Knxwledge, together known as NxWorries; Detroit rapper/producer J Dilla, who made Donuts while living in L.A. before his 2006 death; street-rap trio Strong Arm Steady, and Orange County rapper/producer Jonwayne.
Top Dawg Entertainment: Thanks in part to GRAMMY-winning Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar — whose literary and conceptual songwriting pushed hip-hop music to new heights — Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith’s record label is a powerhouse in the music industry. Then there’s New Jersey’s SZA, whose blend of rap-styled flows and R&B vocals make her one of the most innovative of her era.
Other standout acts on Top Dawg include Carson rappers Schoolboy Q and Ab-Soul — who together with Lamar and Jay Rock form the group Black Hippy — Tennessee rapper/singer Isaiah Rashad, Inglewood alternative soul vocalist SiR, and Florida newcomer Doechii.
Subgenres Of SoCal Hip-Hop
Electro: When Southern California hip-hop emerged in the 1980s, the sound of electro dominated. Ice-T began his career with electro tracks like 1983’s "Cold-Wind Madness." Dr. Dre launched his career with the World Class Wreckin’ Cru, and his DJ prowess shined on their single, "Surgery." Pioneering DJ Egyptian Lover — a member of Mobile DJ unit Uncle Jamm’s Army — scored a national hit in 1984 with "Egypt, Egypt."
Other memorable cuts during this era, which lasted roughly from 1983 to the arrival of N.W.A. in the late '80s, include Captain Rapp and "Bad Times (I Can’t Stand It)," which featured production from Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis; Toddy Tee’s "Batteram," and Arabian Prince’s "Strange Life." Rap artists may have abandoned the sound, but it continues to inspire modern-day funk and electronic musicians like Dām Funk, Nite Jewel, and XL Middleton.
G-Funk: Since emerging around 1991 via productions from N.W.A’s Dr. Dre, DJ Quik, Cold 187um and DJ Pooh, G-funk has been the definitive Southern California rap sound — as key to the region’s identity as boom-bap is to New York and trap is to Atlanta. The bass-heavy, funky worm-driven, P-Funk-inspired sound has inspired decades of artists. At its peak in the mid-'90s, it was the sound of stars like Domino, Suga Free, and Warren G. But each new generation seems to find new twists on the sturdy formula, whether it’s The Game and Nipsey Hussle in the Aughts; or, in recent years, YG and G Perico.
Chicano Rap: While often overlooked by the media, Chicano rap — an umbrella term for Mexican Americans who make English and Spanglish-language rap — has deep roots in Southern California. West Coast OG Kid Frost began his career in the mid-'80s before landing a major hit in 1990 with "La Raza." He led a wave of Latin rappers in the early '90s that included A Lighter Shade of Brown ("On a Sunday Afternoon"), Mellow Man Ace ("Mentirosa"), A.L.T. and the Lost Civilization ("Tequila"), and Proper Dos ("Mexican Power").
Of course, Cypress Hill are the most famed Chicano rap group of all, thanks to songs like "Latin Lingo." Later years brought acts such as NB Ridaz ("Down for Yours"), Lil Rob ("Summer Nights"), Lil One, and Mr. Knightowl. On their 1998 debut album, Latin fusion group Ozomatli, scored rap hits like "Super Bowl Sundae" and "Cut Chemist Suite."
Turntablism: Coined by Babu of the Beat Junkies as well as Dilated Peoples, turntablism refers to the art of scratching, mixing, and blending records. An international scene flourished in the '90s and early 2000s — with strongholds in Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area — putting a much-needed spotlight back to DJs, the original creators of hip-hop before rappers took over. Turntablism produced standout artists like D-Styles, J Rocc, Cut Chemist from Jurassic 5, DJ Rob One, Faust & Shortee, and others.
BTS/Beats: "Beats" is a catch-all term for production that incorporates electronic music and rap instrumentals. L.A. producers like the late Ras G, Carlos Niño and Daedelus developed the sound throughout the aughts before it caught fire with the likes of Flying Lotus, TOKiMONSTA, and Knxwledge.
Two major touchstones are Madvillain’s Madvillainy — a one-off pairing between Oxnard producer Madlib and the late New York rapper MF DOOM — and Donuts, which Detroit producer J Dilla made while living in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, the dusty loops that many beat producers employ have inspired music by Earl Sweatshirt, rapper/singer Anderson .Paak, and others.
Rising Hip-Hop Artists From Southern California
03 Greedo: Watts rapper 03 Greedo became a cult sensation on the strength of projects like The Wolf of Grape Street and God Level, and a nakedly honest perspective on gang life augmented by a watery, Auto-Tuned voice. His trajectory stalled when he was imprisoned on trafficking charges in 2018. 03 Greedo was paroled earlier this year, and has said that he plans on making up for lost time.
Maxo: Max "Maxo" Allen parlayed underground notoriety into a major-label deal with Def Jam, which issued his Lil Big Man album in 2019. His second major-label effort, 2023’s Even God Has a Sense of Humor, stands out for his introspective writing, and his fearlessness in exploring life’s meaning and finding solace in family and lovers.
Navy Blue: Former skateboarder Sage "Navy Blue" Elsesser first drew attention with a cameo on Earl Sweatshirt’s lo-fi gem, Some Rap Songs. He subsequently built a following with independent solo albums that emphasized his spiritual-minded lyrics and lo-fi production. After signing to Def Jam, he released the acclaimed Ways of Knowing this year.
Essential Hip-Hop Releases From The 1990s: Snoop Dogg, Digable Planets, Jay-Z & More
In the '90s, hip-hop officially left the underground for full commercial fanfare. During hip-hop's golden age, rappers were multifaceted in their flow and lyrics, creating music that is now legendary.
Three decades ago, hip-hop made a turn from the underground to commercial fanfare. The eclectic sensibilities of the 1980s created space for artists of all stripes, leading to the golden age of hip-hop, and releases that are now considered an integral part of the genre's canon. By the 1990s hip-hop was a chart-topping entity and enterprise, where artists were popularized through streetwear campaigns and brand deals.
In this decade, rappers were multifaceted in their flow and lyrics — whether rugged and hard-spitting, or poetic and fervently expressive. Artists like psychedelic hip-hop group De La Soul, salacious femcee Lil' Kim and Atlanta heavy-hitters Outkast expanded rap’s palette. Beats ranged from synthetic to weighty 808 drum patterns, all which redefined the genre’s 20-year presence.
Hip-hop chronicled truth and fantasy, providing listeners both deeply resonant and vividly divergent soundtrack whose influence continues to be felt. Decades later, records released in the 1990s are legend, and many of them appeared on the 65th GRAMMY Awards stage in a massive tribute to hip-hop.Here are 10 signature albums that bridged the golden age and the digital era of hip-hop.
De La Soul - De La Soul Is Dead (1991)
By 1991, conscious hip-hop pioneers De La Soul were over the "D.A.I.S.Y. Age" introduced on their seminal debut album 3 Feet High and Rising. The Long Island trio, composed of Posdnuos, Maseo and the late Trugoy the Dove jazzed up their sound on sophomore effort De La Soul Is Dead, marking a radical transition from hip-hop "hippies" to earnest rhymesayers.
Posdnous and Trugoy melded simple production (courtesy of Prince Paul) with complex bars on "Pease Porridge," and also explored the traumas of sexual molestation through metaphor on "Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa." Although De La Soul Is Dead received mixed reviews, the LP was one of the first albums to earn a five-mic rating in hip-hop publication The Source. "Still progressing and proud of it, De La has successfully escaped being trapped in the sophomore jinx with grooves that are harder than a brick wall," the throwback review reads.
With De La Soul Is Dead, the group, whose back catalog just arrived on digital music services in March, evaded the dreaded sophomore slump and cemented their place in hip-hop history.
Snoop Dogg- Doggystyle (1993)
After Calvin Broadus — then performing under the moniker Snoop Doggy Dogg — released his breakthrough album Doggystyle, West Coast rap was never the same. Playing on inspirations from classic Blaxploitation films and early funk pioneers, Snoop kept his posture smooth while rhyming over beats from Dr. Dre (who also discovered the Long Beach native), and welcomed fellow then-newcomers like The Lady of Rage, Tha Dogg Pound, Warren G and RBX as features.
Giving listeners "just a small introduction to the G-Funk era," Snoop helped usher in a soul-laden gangsta rap sound that stood in distinct contrast to the East Coast’s grittiness and jazz influence. The iconic "Gin and Juice" and "Who Am I (What’s My Name?)" have long been summertime cookout staples, while the eerie "Murder Was the Case" preceded Snoop being acquitted of murder just three years later. Now a 16-time GRAMMY nominee, Doggystyle marked Snoop’s debut as a hip-hop elite.
A Tribe Called Quest - Midnight Marauders (1993)
Three albums into their career, A Tribe Called Quest didn’t let up on Midnight Marauders. The Queens-bred group, which included Q-Tip, the late Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad (and occasional member Jarobi White) flaunted their lyricism and expansive musical knowledge on the 1993 release, which was navigated by a robotic "tour guide."
Q-Tip and Phife’s wordplay is nimble throughout the album, but truly spotlighted on the Trugoy the Dove-assisted "Award Tour," the amorous "Electric Relaxation" and "The Chase, Pt. II." "8 Million Stories" and "Midnight" were solo moments for Phife Dawg and Q-Tip, respectively, each who had brushed up their penmanship since ATCQ’s 1991 reinvention on The Low End Theory. Both atmospheric and imaginative, Midnight Marauders showcased ATCQ’s range as a progressive hip-hop act.
Digable Planets - Blowout Comb (1994)
Jazz rap trio Digable Planets maintained their cool just one year after winning a GRAMMY Award for Best Rap Performance By A Duo Or Group. In 1994, Ishmael "Butter Fly" Butler, Mariana "Ladybug Mecca" Vieira and Craig "Doodlebug" Irving followed with Blowout Comb, their second and final studio album. With a minimalist approach, Digable Planets trekked through urban and Afrocentric themes soundtracked by live instrumentation and spoken word.
Emotionally stirring and thematic, "Black Ego" saw Digable Planets tackling economic injustices and Black nationalism with nods to Blaxploitation films Cleopatra Jones and Superfly. The group asserted their refusal to go commercial on laidback earworm "Jettin." Seventies slang and references to New York City boroughs floated throughout Blowout Comb, and although singles "9th Wonder (Blackitolism)" and "Dial 7 (Axioms of Creamy Spies)" didn’t chart, the album reintroduced Digable Planets in their most authentic form and reached No. 32 on the Billboard 200.
2Pac - Me Against the World (1995)
With an awareness unrivaled by his contemporaries, Tupac Shakur's penultimate album, Me Against the World, exploredhis complexities. By March 1995, the rapper had served one month in prison on sexual abuse charges, and had used his previous year of freedom to record arguably the most poignant LP of his lifetime.
On the titular track, Shakur examined impoverished Black communities and morbid thoughts of mortality. A sample of Stevie Wonder’s "That Girl" textures "So Many Tears," where 2Pac vocalizes music industry woes, his depression and even predicts an early death. "Dear Mama," (which inspired the FX docuseries of the same name), was 2Pac’s dedication to mother and former Black Panther Party member Afeni Shakur; it became the third song by a rap act to be placed in the Library of Congress.
The latter song and Me Against the World would both earn Shakur his first GRAMMY nominations. While he didn't win, both are masterpieces that signaled the rapper’s coming-of-age.
Jay-Z - Reasonable Doubt (1996)
Jay-Z gave a solid lyrical offering on his 1996 debut. A landmark album on the now-defunct Roc-A-Fella Records, the 14-track Reasonable Doubt brought mafioso and luxury rap into the ring, as Jay-Z gave semi-autobiographical tales of street life.
On "Feelin’ It," the Brooklyn rapper boasts his riches and opulent lifestyle, while the Issac Hayes-sampling "Can I Live" explores the close calls that the hustle brings. Hov’s stream-of-conscious flow highlighted production from the likes of Ski Beatz, DJ Premier and Clark Kent.
Reasonable Doubt predicted Jay-Z’s thriving future without a doubt, as he’s since taken hip-hop’s throne as a coveted 24-time GRAMMY-winning artist (in addition to 88 nominations).
Lil’ Kim - Hard Core (1996)
Brooklynite Lil’ Kim carved out space for risque rap on her 1996 solo breakout Hard Core. Less than six months after the murder of her mentor the Notorious B.I.G., the former Junior M.A.F.I.A. member achieved solo commercial success for her provocative lyricism and appearance. Whereas many of her contemporaries adopted a more androgynous style, Lil’ Kim played up her sex appeal onstage and on record.
The raunchy "Big Momma Thang," which samples 1978 Sylvester deep cut "Was It Something That I Said," shows Lil Kim’s allyship with queer listeners. Lil’ Kim asserted her hood dominance on "No Time," while flaunting her affection for being classily "draped in diamonds and pearls." Although Hard Core was Moderately received, Lil’ Kim’s rap successors —Doja Cat, Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B — would later speak highly of the Queen Bee’s NSFW magnetism. Nearly 30 years later, contemporary women in hip-hop continue to strive for Lil’ Kim’s unapologetic influence.
Missy Elliott - Supa Dupa Fly (1997)
Hip-hop hadn’t witnessed fly until Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott stepped onto the scene. The Virginia-born rapper and singer/songwriter had once been a part of R&B group Sista before partnering with producer Timbaland. The two both wrote and produced almost the entirety of Aaliyah’s 1996 album One In A Million. By the late ‘90s, Elliott’s pen was in demand, giving her the confidence to share her unconventional sound and look as a solo act.
Her 1997 debut, Supa Dupa Fly, redefined what it meant to be a woman in rap. Over Timbaland's bass-thumping production, Elliott went full-on futuristic. She humorously teased her sexuality on the audacious "Sock It 2 Me," while the bouncy "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)" sampled Memphis soul vocalist Ann Peebles with peculiar lyrics like "my finger waves these days, they fall like Humpty."
Two decades before being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and receiving the Black Music Collective's Recording Academy Honors award, Elliott took the rap world by storm. Ahead of its time yet heralded, Supa Dupa Fly and Elliott’s one of a kind style showed the artist’s peers and successors how to be creative anomalies.
Outkast - Aquemini (1998)
The South had something to say on Outkast’s third album Aquemini. The duo of André 3000 and Big Boi asserted their southern charm and immaculate rhyme schemes on the 16-track album that catapulted them to stardom. As the two rappers perfected their individualism, Aquemini also showed 3000 and Big Boi seamlessly meshing their styles together.
More spacey than their sophomore album ATLiens, Outkast doubled up on their down home twang on the funky (but controversial) "Rosa Parks." The two questioned reality from dystopian technology on the surreal "Synthesizer" with P-Funk legend George Clinton. Listeners can visualize a juke joint scene on the reggae-tinged "SpottieOttieDopaliscious," where 3000 and Big Boi intertwine tales of a violent nightclub encounter and a cursed romance.
Aquemini ushered a turn in Dirty South hip-hop, where the region gained national respect for its storytelling, realism and unique flow.
Dr. Dre - 2001 (1999)
Super producer and rapper Dr. Dre brought out the all-stars on his 1999 sophomore solo album 2001. The LP reunited the now seven-time GRAMMY-winner with his prodigies Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Xzibit, Nate Dogg and Kurupt, while ushering in a new age of West Coast rap. Seven years after his groundbreaking debut album The Chronic, the former N.W.A. member was "Still D.R.E."
On the aforementioned track, written entirely by Jay-Z, Dr. Dre flexed his near 15-year impact in hip-hop. "The Watcher" detailed the Compton native reaching music industry plateaus despite paranoia of "a new era of gangstas." Strip club anthem "The Next Episode" harkened back to Dre and Snoop’s "Nuthin’ But A 'G' Thang," while "Let’s Get High" captured a raunchy house party. On 2001, now certified 6x platinum, Dr. Dre was at his most carefree while setting the bar high for a new generation of hip-hop.
Photo: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Remembering Harry Belafonte’s Monumental Legacy: A Life In Music, A Passion For Activism
American icon Harry Belafonte passed away on April 25 at age 96. Throughout his legendary musical and acting career, Belafonte broke barriers and demonstrated a commendable commitment to equality.
An American icon whose outsize influence spanned generations and blazed trails, Harry Belafonte’s death at the age of 96 marks the end of a legendary life and career that shone in not only music, but social issues and the culture at large.
A two-time GRAMMY winner and 11-time career nominee, Belafonte's impact on the Recording Academy has lasted as long as the organization itself. The artist earned a nomination at the first-ever GRAMMY Awards in 1959 for Best Rhythm & Blues Performance (for his album Belafonte Sings the Blues). He’d win three years later for Best Performance- Folk for "Swing Dat Hammer." His other win came in the form of a GRAMMY for Best Folk Recording for An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000, and three of his recordings are in the GRAMMY Hall of Fame.
"Harry Belafonte has made an immeasurable impact on the music community, our country and our world,” says Harvey Mason jr., CEO of the Recording Academy. "Through his music and his activism in the civil rights movement, Belafonte has used his voice to break racial barriers in America since the ‘50s. It’s been an honor to celebrate his influence on our society throughout his impactful career."
Over nearly a century of life, Belafonte left a significant impact that has resonated with common audiences and up to the highest echelons of arts and politics. As news of his passing spread across the world, remembrances, praise and thanks appeared on social media.
Quincy Jones, one of many luminaries celebrating Belafonte's legacy today, remembered, "From our time coming up, struggling to make it in New York in the '50s with our brother Sidney Poitier, to our work on 'We Are The World' & everything in between, you were the standard bearer for what it meant to be an artist and activist."
"He inspired me so much personally," said John Legend, recalling Belafonte’s immense impact. "I learned at his feet basically about all of the great work he’s done over the years, and if you think about what it means to be an artist and an activist he was literally the epitome of what that was." Former President Barack Obama heralded Belafonte as a "barrier-breaking legend" who transformed "the arts while also standing up for civil rights. And he did it all with his signature smile and style."
A Trailblazing Artist Who Never Simply Toed The Line
In a 1998 "American Masters" interview for PBS, Belafonte mused about his life and legacy, noting, "One way or another, the essence of life is, in fact, the journey itself."
If that’s the case, Belafonte’s momentous path from his humble Harlem, New York youth to a successful club act, singing star and champion of equality amounts to an astonishing rise that no other Black artist had ever experienced before. His velvety voice and penchant for singing earworm songs along with a relaxed style endeared him to his initial '50s-era audiences.
Yet Belafonte was no mere one-note easy-listening act; he helped popularize calypso, was essential in bringing folk music to the mainstream, and also successfully recorded blues and even novelty songs. Sometimes his music was bombastic ("Jump in the Line (Shake, Señora)"), while on other occasions deftly understated ("A Hole in the Bucket"). Early hit "Matilda" begins with Belafonte happily whistling. "Hey! Ma-Til-Da," he cooly croons.
Influenced by his nightclub act, Belafonte's 1956 album Calypso was the first LP to sell one million copies — a stunning achievement for a genre not widely heard before. (As a result, the Library of Congress later added it to the National Recording Registry of significant American work.) Calypso was marketed as "not just another presentation of island songs," and its liner notes can be read as a reflection of the often complex role race and fame played in Belafonte's life.
Calypso's "songs [are] ranging in mood from brassy gaiety to wistful sadness, from tender love to heroic largeness," its liner notes read at the time, helping sell a fresh genre to a new audience. "And through it all runs the irrepressible rhythms of a people who have not lost the ability to laugh at themselves."
Throughout his career, Belafonte deftly navigated the line between mainstream hits and songs with a deeper meaning. When it came to recording "The Banana Boat Song" — the instantly recognizable sing-along party tune from Calypso, which originated as a traditional Jamaican folk song — Belafonte told "American Masters" that the song was a "conscious choice." Singing its memorable "Day-o!" refrain was "beautiful, powerful" and "a classic work song that spoke about struggles of the people who were underpaid and the victims of colonialism. In the song, it talked about our aspirations for a better way of life."
Aside from his singing career, Belafonte also dominated Broadway. In 1954, he won a Tony Award for his role in "John Murray Anderson’s Almanac," a musical revue. He also dabbled in film, from his 1953 debut to Spike Lee’s 2018 movie BlacKkKlansman.
He remained humble, if not slightly casual, about his success. "I had no problem being thrust into the world of stardom because I never thought about it," Belafonte told ABC News in 1981. "Nowhere in my boyhood dreams was I thinking one day I’d be in Hollywood, one day I’d be on Broadway, one day I’d be making an album that was successful. I was quite content, as most Blacks were in that period, to practice my artform and hopefully find a constituency somewhere in the world because the larger dream eluded all of us."
A Lifetime Of Activism
As his fame grew, Belafonte’s penchant for activism collided with a fast-changing America that was confronting the oppression of the '50s and reacting to the turbulence of the '60s. As a result, Belafonte's impressive musical legacy will forever be intertwined with his passion for activism.
Belafonte rubbed shoulders with the titans of his time: He attended John F. Kennedy’s inaugural gala (an invitation extended by Frank Sinatra), received inspiration from artist and activist Paul Robeson, he became a face of the civil rights movement alongside close friend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In fact, it was Dr. King who initiated the meeting with Belafonte. "He was coming to New York to speak to the religious community, the ecumenical community at the Abyssinian Baptist Church," Belafonte recalled to "PBS Newshour" in 2018 of their first encounter. "As a young Black artist on the rise [at the time], I began to make a bit of noise on my own terms. I began to violate the codes of racial separation. I understood the evils of racism and rebelled from my youth. He was 24. I was 26."
That confab began a friendship that would help shape the civil rights movement at large. Belafonte participated in the Freedom Rides and March on Washington, and even hosted "The Tonight Show" for a week in 1968 where Dr. King was one of his guests. The singer took King’s assassination as an exhortation, and committed fully to the quest for equity; he remained a passionate activist for decades.
Musically, that passion included an urge to help the plight of people in war-stricken Africa; his idea for a benefit single resulted in "We Are the World." The smash swept the GRAMMYs in 1986, winning Record Of The Year, Song Of The Year, Best Pop Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal and Best Music Video, Short Form. In recent years he founded the social justice organization Sankofa, released the book My Song: A Memoir and was the subject of the documentary Sing Your Song. Last year he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
"(He was a) shining example of how to use your platform to make change in the world," said Questlove on Instagram. "If there is one lesson we can learn from him it is, ‘What can I do to help mankind?’"
He added, "Thank you Harry Belafonte!"