Rap music was once little more than a minor cultural movement centered around break-dancing and free-styling during formless jam parties engineered by DJs who favored repetitive beats that made it easy to dance for hours on end. Today, it’s the most successful genre of music in the world. The long journey of the genre is fraught with visionaries and one-hit wonders that managed to impact and mold a growing musical force at just the right time to help rap reach its current, near-inescapable prominence. We’re celebrating the colorful history of rap and hip-hop music by looking at six key tracks that helped mold the genre into its current state.
1. “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang
As with all musical genres, it’s difficult to trace the genesis of rap down to one particular song or artists. “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang may not be the first song to feature rapping, but it’s the hit single that introduced rap to much of the listening public. The one-take wonder is a 14-minute powerhouse of wordsmanship that goes far beyond the familiar “hip-hop-a-hippy” scatting chorus, all laid over a beat sampled from Chic that’s aged remarkably well. The recording was engineered by producer Debbie Harry, who sought to commit the energy from New York hip hop/break-dancing events to record, but instead wound up bringing an emerging musical revolution to the Top 40 charts for the first time, though certainly not the last.
2. “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy
An incendiary message so straightforward it could be neatly distilled into three powerful words, Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” was originally written as a theme for Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing but came to embody a rising tide of black disillusionment with modern America. The song embraces all that’s unique about black culture with references to cultural symbols and icons like James Brown, but it’s first and foremost a confrontational call to action that embodies the political significance and perceived danger of rap music in its early days. The song’s impact as an anti-authority anthem was felt around the world, including in Serbia, where it was played repeatedly on a rebel radio station after Slobodan Milošević’s regime forbade them from broadcasting news during an armed crackdown.
3. “Walk This Way” by Run DMC
While working on what is arguably Run DMC’s most influential album Raising Hell, producer Rick Rubin introduced the band members to the music of Aerosmith and suggested they cover one of that band’s most famous hits, “Walk This Way.” Though most of them were initially skeptical, the resulting single and music video became the first hip hop hit to crack Billboard’s top five singles. While hip hop was a powerful cultural movement throughout the ’80s, it took an Aerosmith cover to bring the emerging genre to the attention to so many suburban children who would normally never be exposed to a genre still considered distasteful by many. “Walk This Way”‘s music video collaboration between Aerosmith and Run DMC found the two bands literally breaking through the barrier that separated them, a powerful symbolic image of hip hop’s first foray into the mainstream.
4. “Nuthin’ but a G Thang” by Dr. Dre feat. Snoop Dogg
N.W.A. turned gangster rap into a massive mainstream genre, and one of its members helped the controversial new style find a downbeat groove that defined the genre’s ’90s evolution. This hit from Dr. Dre’s landmark The Chronic LP introduced his protege Snoop Doggy Dogg to the listening public while moving rap away from its dangerous past. Gone are the confrontational, politically-charged lyrics and aggressive beats, replaced by a laidback early version of West Coast G-funk and lyrics that don’t go much deeper than references to localities and weed-smoking. It’s quite the jam, though it might be partially blamed for defanging gangster rap, turning it from a medium for social critique to one for bragging about outlaw lifestyles over irresistibly smooth beats.
5. “Crank Dat (Soulja Boy)” by Soulja Boy
A dance fad just as obnoxious as any other dance fad, the debut single from Mississippi rapper Soulja Boy doesn’t deserve a spot on this list based on its quality. The repetitive track lacks much substance beyond an annoyingly catchy steelpan riff, but it earned a place in history as the first rap song to become a hit based on the strength of its performance on YouTube. It goes without saying the internet is a powerful force in the music industry, but it was difficult to see how it could change things until “Crank Dat” became an overnight phenomenon, inspiring hundreds of other parody, reaction and instructional videos that only added to the song’s ubiquity. The internet gives unsigned rappers a powerful tool to find an audience, and this was the song that proved it — after all, if Soulja Boy can do it, anyone can.
6. “Love Lockdown” by Kanye West
Kanye West is a mediocre rapper and an obnoxious cultural presence, but his talents as a lyricist and especially a producer have made him into one of rap music’s most influential voices. This standout single from his 808s & Heartbreak album is important for a few reasons, including its prominent use of auto-tone to enhance West’s emotive range for this rap ballad. West ventures outside of typical hip hop parameters by incorporating synth-pop and electro influences, a move that’s emboldened other rappers to embrace a new mainstream genre. The song’s openhearted lyrics are also representative of a new atmosphere of rap music, where many of the genre’s biggest names favor songs about heartbreak and personal issues over inner-city concerns.