You remember where you were — don’t you? When you first heard it? That unmistakable sound. That boom-bap of the Roland TR-808. That syrupy bass. That MC with something to say, too urgent for song.
I do, anyway.
Picture it: PBS, 1986. Reading Rainbow. Run-DMC drops in on Levar Burton prior to a telling of Abiyoyo—a South African folktale recanted by American folk prophet Pete Seeger. They perform their Raising Hell megahit “My Adidas.”
I gaze in wonder. I listen. I forget about my Honey Nut Cheerios. What on Earth is this?
I was just a preschooler but already a bit of a nuisance with my rhythmic table-pounding and pot-and-pan banging. From that point forward, I became a much greater nuisance. I had to keep hearing what discovered me. I became a convert, a beat vessel.
See, you never forget your first love. I found mine early, and never questioned it. While I’d open up my relationship to explore jazz, rock, bossa, reggae, French touch, and others, I stayed committed. Hip-hop was everything; beats and rhymes were life.
I was 4 when hip-hop found me, but hip-hop was already 14. While music chronology is far from an exact science, and rap and hip-hop loosely existed as concepts and in practice even further back, historians have coalesced around a symbolic birthdate and origin story for the art form: August 11, 1973, at DJ Kool Herc’s Back to School Jam at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in The Bronx. This year, Herc’s Jam turns 50.
University of Virginia professor of hip-hop A.D. Carson explains that Herc “invented ‘the break’ [the foundational hip-hop beat] by using two turntables and two copies of the same album to extend a song’s instrumental, typically highly percussive, portion.”
According to Carson, Herc would then grab the mic and start signifying in rhyming fashion, or playing “the dozens”—a kind of insult-slinging back-and-forth forerunner to battle-rapping—over his breaks. At the Back to School Jam, it all came together. By the end of the 1970s, rap reached radio. By 1986, Run-DMC topped the charts.
Of course, in my house and at my tender age, hip-hop was deemed inappropriate. No rap on the radio; no MTV on the air; no baggy jeans in my wardrobe.
The Low-End Theory got me out of bed; It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back slapped me to attention. When the time came to learn an instrument in school, you know damn well I chose the drums.
Still, hip-hop was inescapable; the era’s brightest stars—DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, Eric B and Rakim, LL Cool J, Queen Latifah, Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, and a handful of others—were household names. They’d crossed over into network TV, Newsweek, film soundtracks, and Pepsi ads.
I listened in secret—headphones, sick home from school, certain friend’s houses. Sure, there were cusswords and gangsters, but no more than in any Scorsese film. (Also not allowed until my mid-teens.) My white friends hated it. Politicians demonized and tried to censor it. Yet the Beastie Boys got rock-radio airplay.
Hip-hop felt dangerous to me, too, but not in any sort of menacing sense—it was raw and tantalizing. An adrenaline rush for the ears. The Low-End Theory got me out of bed; It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back slapped me to attention. When the time came for me to learn an instrument in school, you know damn well I chose the drums.
And I’d sit behind the drum kit and play the beat from “Paid In Full”—you know the one—that kept looping deep within my limbic system. The song’s iconic sample cribs from a break in the 1974 song “Ashley’s Roachclip” and it is possibly the most sampled track in the history of recorded music. I drummed it in my basement, on intermissions during jazz band practice, and on my desk at school while dreaming about playing the drums.
All the while, I’d try and build bars in the shower, scanning for rhymes and alliterative words to formulate freestyles no one would ever hear. Those were just for me. While I’d later go on to a long, forgettable career as a singer-songwriter, I wasn’t about to rap; I was more Eric B. than Rakim. For that, we should all be thankful.
In retrospect, there’s something profound about that throughline from African folklore to hip-hop, as mediated by the man who played Kunta Kinte in the 1977 blockbuster limited series Roots. Black is not hip-hop, but hip-hop is Black. It is oral tradition; Afro-futurist philosophical text; a rebel yell; a language of the unheard.
And unquestionably, totally, uniquely, American.
As Gil Scott-Heron opined in verse 2 of Bicentennial Blues:
The blues was born on the American wilderness
The blues was born on the beaches where the slave ships docked
Born on the slave man’s auction block
The blues was born and carried on the howling wind
The blues grew up a slave
The blues grew up as property
The blues grew up in Nat Turner visions
The blues grew up in Harriet Tubman courage
The blues grew up in small town deprivation
The blues grew up in big city isolation
The blues grew up in the nightmares of the white man
The blues grew up in the blues, singing of Bessie and Billie and Ma
The blues grew up in Satchmo’s horn, on Duke’s piano and Langston’s poetry, on Robeson’s baritone
The point is that the blues has grown
See, it had to be American for all the reasons Gil wrote better than I ever could. You can replace the word “blues” and the lyrics read the same. Blues became R&B became soul became funk became hip-hop. You can trace that lineage all the way back and feel it evolve all the way forward. Hip-hop is an expression—forged in struggle, delivered in celebration. It’s the kettle whistle of a lidded culture. Eventually, the steam escapes. You can’t help but hear it.
And it just kept expanding—up from the streets, across state lines, into clubs, onto the air, into white boardrooms and living rooms, out of America, and even back to Africa. It spawned bounce, drill, crunk, trap, g-funk, boom-bap, grime, and hyphy.
The masses didn’t just warm up to hip-hop; hip-hop swallowed us whole. It transcends music and weaved its way into the very fabric of global culture.
Hip-hop even crossed over into rock in forms both breathtaking (Rage Against the Machine) and boneheaded (Limp Bizkit). It’s also grafted onto jazz, EDM, baroque pop, classical, folk, reggae, dancehall, bhangra, and mbalax.
On Spotify, you can hear raps in Spanish, French, Wolof, Korean, Arabic, Hindi, Croatian, and even in Indigenous languages right here in America. The masses didn’t just warm up to hip-hop; hip-hop swallowed us whole. It transcends music and weaved its way into the very fabric of global culture.
Related: The Legend of the Biggie Belt
And with the whites and the world very much immersed in the hip-hop ecosystem, there are always new questions to ask and answer about appropriation vs. appreciation, artistic ownership, who can say what or be where, and the power dynamics and proper context regarding who has access and who deserves credit and compensation.
That said, you could make a convincing case that hip-hop has become America’s greatest export, full stop. More than jazz, baseball, basketball*, Jersey Shore, the military-industrial complex, the Internet, or capitalism itself. It’s the national art form and the national treasure. It’s the public record and a lingua franca. You cannot honor America without also honoring hip-hop.
*basketball — technically invented by a Canadian
I have loved food and drink til both took years off my life. I've loved women and sports teams who’ve both broken my heart. Yet hip-hop has always been there for me and rarely let me down—Christ, Kanye… what happened, man?—for too long.
It is an endless scroll, housing statements of beguiling excellence (Illmatic), depth (To Pimp A Butterfly), immediacy (“California Love”), complexity (A Short Story About a War), delight (Juvenile’s entire NPR Tiny Desk concert), and power (the mere continued existence of both Jay-Z and Beyoncé).
Hip-hop isn’t perfect—like everything else, it wears all the hallmarks and bugaboos of the last century’s worth of art and commerce, sometimes on its lyric sheet or in the names on the liner notes, almost always in how the industry and culture chew up its talent and spits out their bones once the meat’s been carved. Still, all that fades away while the record spins.
But complexities and criticism are part and parcel with just about anything. Gaze long enough into the sun and you go blind; stare long enough into the abyss and you’ll lose the will to live.
Hip-hop is the anti-abyss. It’s pure, organic, spontaneous, and uncomplicated—both an element and a compound. Glass bottle cane sugar Coca-Cola on wax. The pep-talk hyping you up against your challenges, struggles, and haters. The soundtrack to your day, year, decade, and life. Maybe it was made for you. Maybe, if you’re like me, it wasn’t—but you’re thrilled it exists anyway.
And if you hear something and it doesn’t strike you, don’t worry. You can always dig deeper into the crates, find something completely different, or go on sample hunts for the original. The best of it always comes around again, like that spunky Tom Tom Club instrumental rejoining us in 2022, this time with Big D**k Energy.
I shrieked in pleasure when Dr. Dre brought out Snoop, Mary J., Kendrick, 50, and Em at that SoFi Stadium Super Bowl halftime last year. I smiled during the grab-a-beer-and-you’ll-miss-it Tupac tribute piano hook to “I Ain’t Mad At Cha”.
I know—hip-hop is Black and I most assuredly am not, and who’s to say whether it actually worked as a halftime show or lightning-round concert, but it felt like a reunion of old friends from long ago. Twenty overstuffed minutes of celebratory nostalgia, barnstorming the world’s biggest stage and reminding us all of how far the culture has come, how far it can go, and how much we’ve heard but still need to listen.
In a way, that joy-gasm marks an easy bookend to the initial rush provided by Run-DMC on Reading Rainbow. For me, hip-hop sounds how youth feels—and I ain’t that young anymore. Not all the time, anyway.
“Can’t stop/won’t stop” wasn’t just a mantra, it was a promise kept.
The drum set’s long gone. Ice Spice is for our kids. I’m 40. Hip-hop is 50. Dr. Dre’s pushing 60. Those numbers never count backward, and one day we’ll all stop adding to them, but they’re all badges of honor.
They—they being anyone, ACAB includes censors, station directors, label execs, and crotchety old cultural watchdogs—tried to kill hip-hop in its infancy, and it’s never too long till the knives come back out. Every couple of years, some sadsack op-ed writer tries to read hip-hop its last rites: White people do that to Black art, young people do that to old art forms, and the proletariat always revolts when the bourgeoisie co-opts their nice things. Alas, the party’s still jumping—“can’t stop / won’t stop” wasn’t just a mantra, it was a promise kept.
Hip-hop lives because it's irrepressible. It’s not music you listen to with your ears, or even with your mind. You can think about hip-hop (and I do, often!), but it’s really just something you feel. Something that moves you.
It’s music you listen to with your full body. You dance, nod, pump your fist, and make that “ooooooh!” face when Tyler switches up the backing track mid-verse or Vince Staples unloads a TKO zinger on the back end of a brutal couplet.
Each time, you’re reminded of the first time you fell in love—when you were young and the world was big and it all felt so daunting, so all you could do was scream “F**k the police!” and enter the church of the 36 Chambers. Wu-Tang is for the children, but it is also forever. In a nutshell, that’s what hip-hop is, too: Forever young yet always evolving—from a basement in the Bronx to the slums of Shaolin to god’s ears. Long may it reign.
Yes, hip-hop is 50… and it sounds damn good for its age. It’s here for a good time, for a long time, and for all time—the beat don’t stop till the break of dawn. Let’s pray that the sun is just setting.