The 1st Rap Artist to Hit No. 1 on the Billboard Charts
In the 21st century, it’s not unusual for a hip-hop artist to top America’s pop charts, the Billboard Hot 100 (singles) and Billboard 200 (albums). However, when rap groups started showing up on the charts in the 1980s, it was little more than a dream for artists working in the genre.
Case in point: A total of zero (0) rap artists scored a No. 1 single in the ’80s. It wasn’t until Vanilla Ice topped the Hot 100 with “Ice Ice Baby” in November 1990 that rap had its first chart-topper. By then, though, rap had made its mark.
The music’s reign on America’s mainstream charts began with The Beastie Boys, three kids from New York who started out playing punk rock. With samples from Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and The Clash behind them, the Beasties’ rap-rock approach made chart history in 1987.
‘License to Ill’ was rap’s first No. 1 album
In the Beastie Boys Book (2018), you get to hear the story of the legendary band from its two surviving members, Michael Diamond (“Mike D”) and Adam Horovitz (“Ad-Rock”). Along with Adam Yauch (“MCA”), the three went from New York’s underground scene to a 1985 tour opening for Madonna.
But in the chapter “The Song That Changed Everything,” Mike D points out the track that put the Beasties on the map. That was “Hold It Now, Hit It,” which the group released in spring of ’86. On the first day of summer, that cut hit its peak at No. 55 on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip Hop chart.
That might not sound like much of an achievement, but it put the group’s music everywhere — in the clubs, on the radio, and in car stereos all over New York. By the end of the year, the Beasties had released their first album, Licensed to Ill.
When “It’s the New Style” cracked the top 25 of the R&B chart in December, the Beasties were on their way. After a steady climb up the charts, Licensed to Ill bumped Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet to take over No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in March ’87. Rap had officially arrived as an industry force.
Tone Loc followed the Beastie Boys to No. 1 in ’89
After the Beastie Boys broke through with Licensed to Ill, they didn’t go lightly. The record spent seven weeks on top of the Billboard 200, fighting off challenges from Slippery When Wet and U2’s The Joshua Tree for the better part of two months.
“(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party),” the group’s single that had an epic MTV video in high circulation, had carried the Beasties to the top spot. That held as a milestone for the industry all the way through 1988, when no rapper had a No. 1 hit.
In 1989, Tone Loc got rap back on top of the charts with Loc-ed After Dark, another album heavy on electric guitars. After nearly breaking through on the singles chart with “Wild Thing” (a No. 2 hit), Tone Loc bumped Debbie Gibson from the top of the Billboard 200 chart in April. Rap never looked back.