Credit: Harmony Gerber/Getty Contributor
RZA’s Constant Elevation: From Wu-Tang to 'Kill Bill,' The Rapper/Producer Discusses His Creative Process And History Ahead Of Bobby Digital Reprise
“RZA has a certain responsibility ... Bobby Digital offered escapism,” rapper/producer RZA tells GRAMMY.com. Ahead of his new album as Bobby Digital, 'Saturday Afternoon Kung Fu Theater,' the multi-hyphenate discusses his artistic evolution.
Artists who’ve stretched their careers past the unimaginable often come full circle; at no point do they ever really lose the foundations that moved them to begin with. Robert Diggs — known as the RZA — is having one of those full-circle moments. After founding a record label and clothing brand, creating comic books and soundtracking Hollywood hits, today he admits: “Now, I can get back to my foundational love that started it all, which is and will always be, hip-hop.”
Diggs’ — a.k.a. Zig-Zag-Zig Allah, a.k.a. Prince Rakeem, a.k.a. the RZArector (among his many monikers through the decades) — career began through homespun demos with cousins and neighborhood friends in Staten Island. RZA’s supreme mathematics with the Wu-Tang Clan were well known by 1994, when Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) forever changed rap with uncanny ballistics not seen before or since. As Wu-Tang’s visionary, RZA famously masterminded their record deals and single-handedly produced all the vaunted material; his group mentality aiding everyone’s collective ascension.
RZA then transcended Shaolin, landing in Hollywood to oohs and ahs in the late ‘90s, where he scored Jim Jarmusch’s meditative film Ghost Dog: Way Of The Samurai. Yet it wasn’t until 2012’s The Man With The Iron Fists — a film produced by Quentin Tarantino starring Russell Crowe which RZA co-wrote and directed — that he felt he’d finally arrived. “My evolution to manhood began with that film,” he tells GRAMMY.com.
“At that point I became a master. It took me many years but I really felt like I evolved into the artist I am today after that project.” His voice now a bit dustier, but RZA’s energy and enunciation rings familiar. “I felt like I could run a small country after that.”
In 1998 he once again emerged solo, this time as Bobby Digital — a character and concept album woven with fantastical tales over fewer sampled beats, creating an atmosphere that was equal parts Blaxploitation and futuristic street narrative. Hearsay tells us that a Bobby Digital film was even in the works, though it never materialized and remained the final word regarding the Digital persona — until recently.
After 20 years, RZA has boomeranged to Bobby Digital with Saturday Afternoon Kung Fu Theater, out March 4. Bobby Digital’s return pays homage to the Shaw Brothers — Hong Kong’s largest film company, operating for an astounding 86 years, with almost every notable kung fu ever made film under their banner — while evolving the album’s namesake character. GRAMMY-nominated producer DJ Scratch nails the sample palette, creating an epic undertone of kung fu dialogue and sound effects.
Reprising the Digital the character gave RZA a sense of liberation. “It was freeing just rapping and spitting verses all over,” he says. “It was fun trying to match my words to the vibe of the beats and just using all kinds of different cadences again.”
From his pre-Wu days, to the making of “C.R.E.A.M.”, to his production epoch, and his celebrated film work, GRAMMY.com demystifies and unpacks the many histories that orbit one Robert Diggs.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I want to start at the beginning and move forward: While “Protect Ya Neck” was the first single, “C.R.E.A.M.” likely introduced Wu-Tang to many and still resonates. What comes to mind when you think of it today?
“C.R.E.A.M.” was a song that actually took three four different evolutions before it became final. At one time it was called “I’m On Some S<em></em>t.” And later on, there was a version with just me and Ghostface. Then, later there was a version with just Raekwon and [Inspectah] Deck. That one was called “Lifestyles Of The Mega Rich” and it was 12 minutes long. [Laughs]
When we got the deal to make [36 Chambers], I wanted to use it because I knew that the beat was special. I knew that the vibe between Raekwon’s voice and Deck’s voice was the best. But as we was doing it, it just seemed like something else had to happen.
We needed a hook. And so at the time, the best person to do hooks was Method Man. He was a melodic member of the crew and was always very witty with his hooks. I was like, “Yo, I need a hook for this” and he was casual about everything and came back with “C.R.E.A.M. get the money. Dolla dolla bill.”
We touched on “C.R.E.A.M.” but does RZA have a favorite Wu-Tang song?
I don't know, my favorite changes. But recently I've just been really impressed with the way I did “Bring Da Ruckus.” I used a CD skipping as my horn. Even to me, that sounds like I really was innovative back then.
I was trying to complete a story…and it made sense to me that I needed a horn. While I was looking for samples, the CD started skipping so I sampled that sound. Then I slowed it down and it became the tata tata tata tata tata that you hear. So the orchestration of this song and how it came together finally means a lot to me. I’m just really impressed to think of my young mind being able to compose that without even knowing what a C chord was.
As the producer of Wu-Tang Clan, what an embarrassment of riches to have those MCs to produce for.
Each member had something unique and I knew them all. They all knew each other but I was the denominator; I did demos with all of them. There’s a demo with just me and Ghostface. There’s a demo of Dirty and GZA and so on. Some of these tapes go back to when I was 12.
When [my debut solo project] Prince Rakeem happened, I had a little record deal and felt like I understood the industry a little bit. Even then I was like, “The best talent my ears have heard are homies that I've been doing demos with my whole f<em></em>*ing life!” So I went and told execs that we got something different and that we had that Wu-Tang slang. Bong bong.
Do you mind sharing your decision to leave high school? What was your family’s reaction?
To keep myself motivated, I just wanted to record and record. That's why I dropped out of school.
I don't think I ever made this public, but it was my mom that actually signed me out of school. At first I was just absent so much that they’d send people to our house. And my mother said she was gonna do whatever I wanted; I told her I just wanted to do music. So she drove me up to the school and the lady asked us, “You sure you want to do this?” I was 16 years old at the time and my mom signed me out, and I went for it.
Thanks for that. What strikes you now looking back on that transitional stage in life?
I came in as this young man that had his heart and energy focused on writing songs and making music. The problem that I had, though, was nobody believed in me as a producer.
Acclaimed producer Easy Mo Bee produced your first released material during your Prince Rakeem era. Tell us about your early development and how that impacted you as a young producer.
I may have had like a hundred beats at that point. And a hundred ain't enough to be at the master level. I was making these beats with the Roland and a 4-track Yamaha. I didn’t even have a sampler; I would just scratch in samples live. I met Easy Mo Bee with his brother and they had an SP 1200 and were killing it. I was just enamored by that. I saw that machine and didn’t know what it did and Mo Bee would just make a beat right in front of me. Mo was dope. I would to go to his house a lot. I wanted him to produce my whole album, and he gave me a couple tracks. I couldn't afford him at the time. [Laughs]
We’d be remiss to not mention your Gravediggaz project with Prince Paul, 1994’s 6 Feet Deep. Looking back, do you think you guys invented “horrorcore?” And please touch on Paul’s importance for us.
We never wanted to call it “horrorcore.” That was a title that the writers started calling it. But I do think we definitely pioneered it. Nobody else was doing it in front of us. You could give credit to The Geto Boys too, like “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” or “Mind Of A Lunatic.” They were pretty dark, but it wasn't spiritually dark like us.
Prince Paul is a producer who brought skits to the whole album format for hip-hop. His creativity was there before all of us. Paul was definitely a pioneer on interludes and being able to add abstractness. He made Gravediggaz happen. His choices were just different.
You have a new Bobby Digital project out soon, but I want to talk about the first one, Bobby Digital In Stereo. What did this allow you to do that was different from the RZA?
RZA has a certain responsibility, so I had to protect that persona. Bobby Digital offered escapism for me. I was in the studio smoking and drinking and I just had this insight that the whole world's gonna be digital. I felt like I became a digital being around that time. Whatever combination of drugs I had that night, I did more. And did it again. I remember I couldn’t feel my hands! And then I thought of my birth name, which is Robert Diggs, Bobby Digs. So I knew I had to be Bobby Digital.
Production wise, it had less samples, more strings and keys. What are your thoughts when you look back on that era of your production?
I didn’t want to do RZA anymore. Thinking back, I think it helped open up the fact that hip-hop could be electronic music and not only sample based. Maybe more kids got Triton keyboards after that instead of samplers. I still wasn't musically trained like I am now. What I love about the album in particular and its vibe, is that I was bold and tried weird s<em></em>*. With the new Bobby Digital, I wanted to bring it back and be positive about everything.
On My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Watch The Throne, you worked with Kanye, who like yourself both raps and produces. What was that experience like and did you have any takeaways?
Working with him was great because Ye has the ability to bring a lot of energy and people together to create. He was the first artist that I met personally that treated his project like how a boxer prepares for a fight. The regimen of him and his crew and all the dedication to that moment of creativity. I had never seen that before.
When Wu did it, we were all sort of at the studio and we were all dedicated, but it wasn't scheduled. For us, the studio was like a clubhouse, it’s where you’re going. But with Kanye, the scenario was that the team would get up and eat breakfast together. Then do something recreational together and another activity. But at 4 o'clock we’re all going to be at the studio.
I want to move to your film work. There’s Afro Samurai and of course the scores for both Kill Bills. Touch on Tarantino and describe your mind state when scoring a film versus production.
Artists sometimes come together and I think it’s destiny. Our relationships come out of a love for art. With Tarantino, we’re just both big kung fu heads and our friendship started by watching movies. He’d call and say, “I'm in town, come over. I got this film.”
With scoring a movie, you lose your freedom. You’re there to complement the story and as well as have a story to tell through music. It’s more trial and error. Once your brain gets the process, it all makes sense. I had a scene where the music started right when the girl in the scene opened her eyes. It was very subtle. It was magic. You need to communicate to the audience as the composer.
Let’s touch on directing The Man with Iron Fists. You grew up on kung fu films. Was it hard to take all your influences and not make a 5-hour kung fu epic?
The first cut of the film was over three hours! But to be real with you, Dave, and to be real with your readers, I’ll tell you how I put out art. You need three things: inspiration, imagination and aspiration. All of those words, there's an action to it. There's an internal spirit and movement. All these things are important.
I was just so happy that I was able to share this with the world. It was the most difficult artistic expression I had ever done to date. It was the greatest challenge of my life. And when I finished it, I became a full-blown artist and a full-blown man. I truly believe that.
When it comes to films, what inspires you most: scoring, acting or directing? And what do you exactly mean by it helped you “evolve?"
Directing is the greatest because as a director, you have all the control. I wrote, directed, acted and scored it. My signatures were on everything. Moviemaking is the most expensive form of art creation. It is your responsibility to protect everybody's interest and money and time and still tell a story while doing it. And that's why I said I became a full-blown man because after that. To me, it was almost the epitome of artistic creation. But now, I can get back to my foundational love that started it all, which is and will always be hip-hop.
Photo: Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Nothing To F With: How 'Enter The Wu-Tang' Established One Of The Greatest Rap Groups Of All Time
In 1993, Staten Island's Wu-Tang Clan laid the ground for hardcore hip-hop acts to follow. Their weapon of choice: 'Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)' — a debut LP with an outsized impact on hip-hop and the trajectory of its members.
In the early 1990s, hip-hop was on the verge of being its broadest.
Hip-hop had grown far beyond its origins in the Bronx, as acts like Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, and De La Soul drew listeners outside New York’s five boroughs. Elsewhere, a legion of MCs from L.A., the Bay, and the South were cementing their legacies.
Amidst the plethora of sonic riches of hip-hop's golden age, Staten Island’s Wu-Tang Clan stands out. Comprised of lyrical spartans GZA, Method Man, Raekwon, Masta Killah, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, later Cappadonna, U-God, master producer RZA, and the late, charismatic force Ol’ Dirty Bastard, the group laid the ground for hardcore hip-hop acts to follow.
Their weapon of choice: 1993’s Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) — which celebrates 30 years on Nov. 9. Enter The Wu-Tang sparked a new brand of hardcore, gritty street rap that transported listeners with its dark sonic landscape.
Filled with martial arts and comic book references, loogie-spitting posse cuts, and mystifying street tales, Enter The Wu-Tang drew audiences to the borough of "Shaolin." The album's darkly-brewed beats and mixes had an amateurish charm, but all nine tracks were laced with RZA’s early musical wizardry and ear for ominous, hard-hitting instrumentals.
For every musical or budgetary limitation, Enter The Wu-Tang boasted some of the best lyrical assaults the genre has ever heard. Now-classic songs like "Da Mystery of Chessboxin’" and "Protect Ya Neck" and conjured visions of the Shaolin streets, and added to New York’s stronghold on the genre.
Unlike the more socially conscious and jazz-influenced sounds of New York rap at the time, the influential album was marked with soundbites from kung-fu flicks and sped up soul samples with an eerie, grudgeful echoe. Among the gallery of inspiring cuts, "C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me)" features a sample of the Charmels’ 1967 song "As Long As I’ve Got You."
Despite the group’s size, every member had a stand out moment on the project. And most, with the exception of Masta Killa, have several. Method Man goes full nuclear on his self-titled track, Raekwon and Ghostface show early flashes of their collaborative magic on "Can It All Be So Simple," and the infectious charm of Ol' Dirty Bastard runs wild on "Protect Ya Neck."
The album was off-kilter in design, but Wu-Tang carved a path for hard-edged acts to follow. The album even inspired New York instrumental soul group El Michels Affair, which released their own version of the album, Enter The 37th Chamber, in 2007 in echo of the legendary beats sampled on Wu-Tang's the classic project.
Since its release, Enter The Wu-Tang has sold more than 3 million records and landed on countless all-time best album rankings. As of June 2023, the album is at the No. 27 spot on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Of All Time list. For its relatively short length, Wu-Tang Clan's debut has had an outsized impact on hip-hop — both in terms of influence and the trajectory of its members.
With Enter The Wu-Tang and their subsequent releases, Wu-Tang cornered the rap market in the 1990s. Before Wu-Tang, there were no other notable rap acts from Staten Island. While Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and the Bronx held most of the industry’s grip, Wu-Tang helped blaze the path for acts outside of those regions to flourish.
While groups like Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, N.W.A. and Run-D.M.C. are certainly influential, the star power within Wu-Tang is unique. Between the group’s debut and follow-up album Wu-Tang Forever — which was nominated for Best Rap Album at the 1998 GRAMMYs — GZA, Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Ol' Dirty Bastard, and others released critically acclaimed solo albums.
Method Man even received a Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group GRAMMY for Tical’s "I'll Be There For You/You're All I Need To Get By" at the 1995 GRAMMYs. Outside the accolades, Raekwon’s Only Built For Cuban Links and Ghostface’s Ironman lit up the New York streets in 1995, and GZA’s Liquid Swords remains one of the more acclaimed outings from the group’s more withdrawn characters.
While some were more commercially successful than others, they all added to the group's influence and arguably proved its distinction for best rap group of all time.
Method and New Jersey legend Redman brought their comedic chops to the big screen in How High. The pairing was like a hip-hop Cheech and Chong, and the film went on to become a cult weed movie classic. Like Meth, RZA and other members appeared in TV shows and films for decades.
In 1995, Wu-Tang Clan established the apparel brand Wu Wear, one of the first artist-inspired lines in music history. It opened the doors for hip-hop culture in retail, and inspired a global interest in Wu-Tang's simple, raw style. The group and the apparel line helped usher in the militant street style of the era, complete with baggy jeans, oversized t-shirts, Timberland boots, durags, gold fronts, sports jerseys, and puff jackets.
As the group grew in popularity, the members joined forces with business partner Oliver "Power" Grant and opened four Wu Wear stores across the country, including one on Victory Boulevard in Staten Island. The line was carried by retail giants such as Macy’s and renamed Wu-Tang Brand in 2008, and Grant discontinued the Wu-Wear line. But after RZA joined hands with Live Nation Merchandise, the brand was relaunched in 2017.
The cult interest in Wu-Tang's image continued. In 1999, Powers developed a video game centered on the group, called Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style. The 3D fighting game for PlayStation featured characters based on the group members’ stage personas and mirrored the martial arts themes in their music. They also provided voiceover work and music contributions to the four-player game.
Other artists followed Wu-Tang's blueprint in the decades since the group debuted. Acts like Mobb Deep, Nas, the Notorious B.I.G. and others adopted the hardcore rap style mastered by Wu-Tang — but none harnessed the same manpower or presence as the group over the decades. But the 2010s saw the re-emergence of rap supergroups.
In Harlem, the Diplomats and ASAP Mob captured the same collaborative and entrepreneurial spirit of Wu-Tang, but with a more varied musical approach. Out West, the Tyler, The Creator-led Odd Future surpassed the 11-member group in scale, but their work and impact haven’t matched that of the Staten Island collective.
The closest to mirror Wu-Tang was Pro Era, which adopted the classic, boom-bap sound of the '90s. The mega group also pursued an assortment of branding and entertainment ventures, and one of the group’s founders, Joey Bada$$, even played Inspectah Deck in the Hulu biographical series "Wu-Tang: An American Saga." The group’s presence also inspired future Staten Island products like Killarmy, G4 Boyz, and Cleotrapa.
Given the group’s accolades and cultural impact in the decades since their debut, it’s true: "Wu-Tang Clan ain’t nothing to f— with." Its members have redefined longevity in rap by continuing to have a hand on the pulse of popular culture, both in music, film, TV, and entertainment. Few other groups have matched their successes, and as the collective continues to etch its path, there’s no telling how many more barriers they will break.
Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016
Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.
Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.
A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.
This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system.
"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."
He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.
"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.
To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood."
Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at GRAMMY.com every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes.
Photos: Larry Busacca/Getty Images; Kevin Winter/Getty Images for The Recording Academy; Brian Ach/Getty Images for Something in the Water; Kimberly White/Getty Images for Hennessy; Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images; Bob Berg/Getty Images; Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images; Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
A Guide To New York Hip-Hop: Unpacking The Sound Of Rap's Birthplace From The Bronx To Staten Island
The culture and art of hip-hop would not exist if not for NYC. Take a trip through Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island to learn how hip-hop developed sonically by the borough.
New York is indisputably the birthplace of hip-hop, but which of the city's five boroughs has dominated the genre continues to be a spirited debate among its scholars and natives.
The "Boogie Down" Bronx is the origin point of hip-hop history. It’s here Clive Campbell a.k.a. DJ Kool Herc threw a rec room party in 1973 that put hip-hop as we know it in motion. The city's northernmost borough is the home of groundbreaking artists from OGs Grandmaster Flash and Slick Rick, to contemporary stars including Cardi B.
Manhattan also plays a role in hip-hop’s evolution as a playground where rappers intermingled with punks, rockers and the thriving art scene throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s. Elements of each of these developing artforms culminating in the music of the Beastie Boys. And because he is so often referred to as a West Coast rapper, it’s easy to forget Tupac Shakur was born in Manhattan.
Staten Island is, of course, home to the one and only Wu-Tang Clan and its diverse cosmology. Even the suburbs can boast major contributions — Long Island is the home of Public Enemy and Erik B & Rakim; head north of the Bronx to Westchester County, and you'll enter the home of the late rapper DMX.
What’s clear when we look at each borough, is that the culture and art of hip-hop would not exist if not for New York. Without the contributions,style and unique cultures of neighborhoods within Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and Staten, the artform would not have developed into the juggernaut it is today. Press play on the Amazon Music playlist below — or visit Spotify, Pandora and Apple Music — to take an auditory tour of the best of the boroughs.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, hop on the train and travel from borough to borough for its unique history and sounds.
As you examine the breadth of NYC hip-hop, you’ll find artists with a deep and complex relationship with the city. Biz Markie, for example, was born in one area of the city, raised in another, and claimed membership to a crew for a whole other borough. His story, and that of others who deserve many flowers, demonstrate that while hip-hop can be dissected by region and subway line, it’s the Big Apple's density, multiculturalism, an urban innovation that has made it arguably one of America's greatest art forms.
Mass immigration from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic in the 1950s made the Bronx the first majority Black and Latino borough in NYC by the mid-'70s. It’s not a coincidence that the Bronx was also woefully unserved by the city government, resulting in bleak economic conditions.
"Kids with little or no resources created something out of nothing," the Funky Four Plus One’s MC Sha Rock told ABC News said of hip-hop's origins. "No matter what was going on around us in New York City at the time, we looked forward to the park jams."
These jams featured breakdancing, DJs mixing, and MCing — all key elements of hip-hop that emerged from house parties and underground venues into a city-wide consciousness. "Hip-hop wasn't called hip-hop in the ‘70s, was called 'going to the jams,'" Sha Rock continued.
A few years before the park jams took off, DJ Kool Herc’s August 1973 rec room party put hip-hop as we know it on the map. Herc took classic records and popular hits, broke down the beats, and invited MCs to chime in over them invoking the Jamaican style of delivery, talking or chanting, usually in a monotone melody, over a rhythm known as "toasting" in reggae.
In 1975, the Bronx Boys Rocking Crew (or TBB) fostered another element of hip-hop when they organized late night tagging sessions. These young graffiti artists brought the color and life of their borough to the rest of the city, as painted subway trains provided moving canvases and controversy.
By the time the park jams were happening, some graffiti crews had expanded into competitive dance. With moves drawn from martial arts, gymnastics, and modern dance, "breaking, popping, and locking" would see b-boys and b-girls become as important as music to hip-hop as an art form. Breaking as an art has continued to flourish and will soon be an Olympic sport.
The borough would go on to boast Kool Keith, KRS One, Big Pun, Fat Joe, and Cardi B, among many others, as acts who have innovated the Bronx’s place in hip-hop culture. The borough is now home to the Universal Hip-Hop Museum and will host events at Sedgwick and a 50 Years of Hip-Hop concert at Yankee Stadium.
In 1990, Brooklyn was New York’s Blackest neighborhood, with 73.1 percent of its Black residents native born. The previous decade had seen Brooklyn rappers rise to prominence in hip-hop, by the end of the 1990s the world’s ear was tuned into Brooklyn.
Known for his use of three turntables, Cutmaster DC's early tracks "Brooklyn's in the House" and "Brooklyn Rocks the Best" were the first to mention Brooklyn as a force in hip-hop music. These early '80s tracks also featured DC's pioneering technique of cutting breaks over Roland TR-909 beats, a marked moment for hip-hop's technical advancement.
Combining speed, style and humor, few would influence hip-hop's syncopation and cadence like Big Daddy Kane. In their 2012 list of The Greatest Hip-Hop Songs of All Time Rolling Stone called Kane "a master wordsmith of rap's late-golden age and a huge influence on a generation of MCs." Within a few years Brooklyn flow would be redefined by the slow deliberative annunciation of the Notorious B.I.G., whose delivery would become one of the most interpolated in rap history.
The styles of both would be emulated and refined by a young Brooklyn rapper named Shawn Carter. The artist later known as Jay-Z attended George Westinghouse High School in downtown Brooklyn, where his classmates included Busta Rhymes, Biggie and DMX — all of whom would play a critical part in the evolution of rap’s delivery styles.
The borough wasn’t only a boys club. MC Lyte, Foxy Brown, and new rappers like Young MA continue to put Brooklyn on the musical map.
The largest Borough by area, Queens boasts the Guiness World Record for most languages spoken and gained the nickname "The World’s Borough" for its diverse population. Whereas Bronx hip-hop was derived from Black American and Caribbean cultures, Queen’s hip-hop samples the world. While the 1970s saw the Bronx give birth to hip-hop, the 1980s saw the eastern borough of Queens mature the art form.
Queen’s hip-hop history has roots in two specific areas: the Queenborough Projects and Hollis. The Queensboro Projects, a.k.a. "The Bridge," were one of the few unsegregated projects in New York. It was also home to Marley Marl, who accidentally discovered sampling while working on a Captain Rock record as a studio intern in the early ‘80s.
"I was actually trying to get a riff off of a record. I made a mistake and got the snare in there before the sound came," he recounted to NPR. "The snare sounded better than the snare that I had from the drum machine when I was popping it…I was like, "Hold up!" This will enable me to take any kick and a snare from any record that people love and make my own beat." Marls’ use of the 808 pulse to trigger different samplers was revolutionary, and he would become a pioneer for his ability to blend sampled and 808 drum sounds.
Marl’s contribution would extend beyond the technical. As a member of the Juice Crew, he brought the voice of 14-year-old Roxanne Shanté to the world. She created a new lane for women in rap as well as the blueprint for the diss track on the seminal "Roxanne's Revenge."
About a half hour east on the F Train in Hollis, Queens, brothers Joseph and Russel Simmons (a DJ and promoter respectively) founded Run-D.M.C. with friends Darryl Mc Daniels and Jason Mizell. Run-D.M.C.'s sound featured a synchronized, aggressive delivery over simple but memorable rock hooks and beats. Later, the group established Def Jam Records, the label that would prove rap could sell millions of records to Top 40 audiences and bring rap to the mainstream as the first rappers to be featured on MTV.
As valuable as the musical contributions of Run-D.M.C are, they are equally vital to the development of fashion as an element of hip-hop. Street style, as it would come to be known, is born in Queens: Kangol hats, unlaced Addias, Carzal frames, and thick gold chains are now as synonymous with hip-hop as beats and samples. Today, fashion is so central to hip-hop, and vice versa, that New York's FIT Museum recently held an expansive exhibit on hip-hop style.”
Complex proclaimed Nas’ Illmatic "set off a seismic shift in rap geopolitics" and added that the 1994 record "galvanized Queensbridge hip-hop and by extension East Coast rap as a whole." His introspective and poetic approach to writing is credited for bringing the best out of his contemporaries and inspiring next generation rappers like Killer Mike and Kendrick Lamar, challenging them to meet his lyrical bar.
Though "The Fly Borough" is the most densely populated, the majority of its hip-hop history is concentrated in the northern Manhattan neighborhood of Harlem.
Home of the legendary Apollo Theater, the neighborhood was well rooted in Black music when World War II vet Bobby Robinson opened Bobby’s Records in 1946 — one of Harlems’ few Black owned businesses at the time. The record store would evolve as would Robinson’s involvement in music. He would become a producer and label head whose 1970 imprint Enjoy Records released music by hip-hop's earliest innovators, including Grandmaster Flash, the Treacherous Three, and Doug E. Fresh. The label would also feature Master Don, whose signature use of a "Funk Box" percussion synthesizer and its crispy digital hi hat is still heard in trap music today.
Harlem was also home to Dapper Dan, the first designer to "borrow" designer goods and modify them with hip-hop flair. His boutique operated from 1982-1992 and was essential to the merging of luxury brands and hip-hop culture. Although brands like Gucci first sued for copyright infringement, they eventually saw the value of hip-hop's branding power on high end fashion sales. In 2018, Dapper Dan and Gucci collaborated on a capsule collection.
Also during this ‘80s culture boom, three high schoolers from Manhattan applied the ethos of punk rock to the emerging street sounds of hip-hop.
The Beastie Boys began by pirating rap, self-admittingly "Rhyming and Stealing" for their 1986 Def Jam debut License to Ill, and went on to forge a new lane for the medium. They broke all the rules of sampling and production with their seminal Paul’s Boutique, which Rolling Stone noted is often dubbed "The Sargent Pepper of hip-hop" and lauded for its layer sampling technique. In their ranking of Paul’s Boutique Consequence of Sound wrote, "Paul’s Boutique sat at a finish line waiting for the rest of the world to catch up."
While the outer Boroughs would enjoy most of the attention musically throughout the '90s and 2000s, the 2010s would see Harlem again centered in hip-hop with the arrival of young rappers like Azealia Banks and the ASAP Mob collective.
RZA, GZA, Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God, Masta Killa, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard and later Cappadonna would find success as both a group and as solo artists. infiltrating the "big six" 1990s major record labels by design. You can also hear the influence of RZA on modern acts like El Michels Affair, which draws inspiration from Wu-Tang's melodic take on instrumentation and released two albums of instrumental soul covers of Wu-Tang Clan songs.
Their impact would go far beyond music however. Hip-hop biographer Will Ashon recounted Wu’s influence on fashion, noting that the group were part of a trend of simplification.
"Their whole modus operandi was to present themselves as real and unmanufactured, so their clothing choices had to reflect this. The rawness and directness of the music was supposed to be echoed in the rawness and directness of their clothing. They were a big part of the early 1990s move towards baggy and oversized clothes. Huge combat trousers or sweatpants, Timberland boots, hoodies, puffas, do-rags, gold fronts and so on. A ‘street soldier’ look."
As you’d expect, Wu’s presence looms large over future Staten Island artists, including G4 Boys and Killarmy. New artists like Cleotrapa, a spicy, no-holds-barred femme rapper, also counts Wu-Tang as an influence and is helping define Staten’s next chapter.
The history of the intersection of New York City and hip-hop culture is as big and diverse as the city itself. We could only touch on a handful of artists and creators in this piece, but the topic has been explored at length in books like Cant Stop Wont Stop by Jeff Chang and The Come Up: An Oral History of the Rise of Hip-Hop. Documentaries on hip-hop can be found on almost all streaming platforms Netflix’s notable Hip-Hop Evolution and Ladies First: The Story of Women in Hip-Hop.
Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
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
The landmark performance honoring the genre’s diverse history featured performances from a long line of hip-hop’s powerful history, from Run-DMC to LL COOL J, Salt-N-Pepa, Missy Elliott to Future.
With hip-hop marking half a century of powerful contribution to the music world in 2023, the 65th GRAMMY Awards proved the ideal opportunity to honor the genre’s storied legacy.
At the 2023 GRAMMYs, an unimaginably deep lineup of contributors to that tradition graced the stage, drawn from a wide swath of hip-hop’s history — from progenitors to today’s up-and-coming stars, from the East Coast boom to the swagger of the Dirty South, performing hits and cult classics from throughout the decades. On a constantly shifting stage with a bevy of backup dancers, the Recording Academy's tribute to hip-hop seemly had the entire Crypto.com arena on their feet.
As the performance’s curator Questlove put it on the red carpet, it was a "family reunion." After an introduction from LL COOL J, the Roots set up shop behind the performers, while Black Thought narrated the massive lineup’s spread across three acts.
“I founded Rock The Bells to elevate the creators of Hip-Hop culture and to make sure the timeless stories were told correctly. This performance gave us the opportunity to honor the music of the last 50 years and further uplift the culture, in line with the proud work we are doing through RTB,” LL COOL J said about the special tribute in a statement to GRAMMY.com “The process of working with Questlove and the GRAMMY producers was truly a joy. I’m deeply inspired that I was able to help bring together this incredible and iconic group of artists to the stage on Sunday. This special moment will sit with me for a long time to come.”
The performance’s first act comprised legends from hip-hop’s early days, the arena thrilled by the likes of Grandmaster Flash and Run DMC, and absolutely exploding when Chuck D & Flavor Flav hit the stage for "Rebel Without a Pause," the Public Enemy members getting Lizzo and Adele swaying together.
After a quick transition, LL and Black Thought helped the stage transport into the late ‘80s and ‘90s, bringing together the likes of De La Soul, Geto Boys’ Scarface, and Ice-T, with Jay-Z rapping along with Method Man from his table in the audience. But this second section of the performance also included two of the biggest eruptions of the night. The first came in the form when Busta Rhymes recreated his incredibly nimble flow from "Look at Me Now"; the tribute’s second act ended with Missy Elliott, the legend blitzing through snippets and samples of a variety of hits complete with a full dance crew.
The third act then entered the ‘00s with Nelly’s "Hot In Herre", swirling forward into the present from there. Rising star GloRilla thrilled the young crowd with "F.N.F. (Let’s Go)" (nominated this evening for Best Rap Performance), injecting even more adrenaline into the mix. And with LL COOL J surrounded by a blend of artists drawn from across the decades, the entire arena roared in celebration of these incredible 50 years, leaving a certainty that the next 50 will be even stronger.