There is no doubt that Rap has changed the music industry over and over again. We’ve compiled 17 of the most monumental Old School, New School, and 21st-century Hip Hop and Rap moments in the US and beyond.
1. 1980 Sugar Hill’s Rapper’s Delight became the first Rap single on the radio
While Rapper’s Delight was not the first single to feature rapping, it is credited for introducing rap to a world-wide audience. It was the first rap single to hit the billboard top 10 in the US and make it to the billboard Top3 in the UK.
During that time, you couldn’t just walk into a record store and buy a hip hop or rap album. You couldn’t even hear it on the radio. Rap was something you had to experience live in the underbelly of cities and clubs.
2. 1986 Run DMC Walk This Way Featuring Aerosmith
This video depicts two rival bands, Run DMC and Aerosmith, rehearsing and battling it out in the studio simultaneously. Eventually, they break down the walls and begin collaborating.
At this point in their career, Aerosmith needed revitalization, and Run DMC was coming into their own as hip hop superstars. Though the nature of this cover seems goofy at best, neither group was that keen on the collaboration.
Through some drawn-out studio work, the song came together. It is claimed that this song changed the music industry forever, bringing hip hop and rap into the mainstream and out of the underground and publicly breaking down racial barriers in the industry.
Hip-hop had already been using clips of this song to create beats, so in a way, it was bringing the sound full circle as well.
3. 1989 First Rap Grammy Winners DJ Jazzy Jeff and Will Smith
This was the first year that the Grammy’s included an award genre for Best Rap Performance. It took decades for the award show to begin including sufficient categories for the hip-hop and rap genres.
That year the award for Best Rap Performance was created and several of the nominees including winners, Will Smith and DJ Jazzy boycotted attending the awards show. The award was scheduled to be given during an untelevised portion of the show. This was a backhanded slap that the hip-hop and rap industry were not worth being visible or shared nationally.
At this time Rap was still considered a fringe genre, fighting for its place at the Grammy Awards and for acceptance as a respected musical genre. The rise in gangster rap was hitting the west coast, while future stars like Will Smith were taking on the east coast changing the visibility of African American musical artists across the nation.
4. July 1989 Beastie Boys Release Paul’s Boutique
This album started the conversation that determined that the backbone of hip-hop production was not just a viable practice but an art. Artist has been cutting beats and tracks from the mainstream for decades. At first glance, Paul’s Boutique seems no different.
However their intense and unique, almost “over sampling” brought sampling as an art into the foreground as they formed melodic streams of beats into worthy, well-formed tracks overplayed with hilarious and clever vocals. Not only did this help create a culture around the sampling themselves, but it showcased how sampling was in fact music.
5. September 1990 Prince of Bel-Air
It was radical because it was so ordinary, following a common sitcom trope of familiar parents with strong parental values only from the perspective of a wealthy black family. This show helped shape how black characters in film were depicted and represented in the 90s and beyond.
Fresh Prince allowed Americans an unrepresented lens of black families in the 90s as Will continually butts heads with how his family should react to certain situations and events due to the apparent class and racial differences of his past and now present.
This brought the black narrative into living rooms across America under the guise of a traditional sitcom dealing with conventional topics of teen angst, love stories, school, and moral antics, but showcasing and normalizing black culture.
6. 1995 Rise of Cash Money, No Limit, and southern rap
Previously to 1995, rap and hip-hop had been a bi-coastal scene with big players located in either NYC of LA. Cash Money records brought up the southern rapper and placed them into the spotlight with the Hot Boys bringing 15-year-old Lil Wayne into the spotlight and jump-starting his career.
Though already in full swing in New Orleans, the southern rapper voice had never been heard by the general public launching many careers and an entirely new sound for rap music.
7. September 1996 Tupac Murdered
No other artist better demonstrates hip-hop’s hard lines between regional pride and mainstream success, and the struggle to ascend beyond their humble origins while honoring the streets where they were raised.
His music anthems of pride in his past, paired with pride in his gangster life that transformed a criminal into a vision of masculine strength. He redefined the word thug, traditionally meaning a violent person, specifically a criminal, into a positive attribute.
Surrounded in mystery, his death has become legendary. Even in death, 2Pac was able to affect and change an entire genre of music.
8. 1999 The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
Lauren Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill wins the Grammy’s Album of the Year. The first female MC to ever win a Grammy this album, the first female MC to sell over 420,000 copies in its first week, and their first female rap artist to stay at the top of the US Billboard 200 charts for four weeks and the US Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums for six weeks.
She broke boundaries for female artists and snapped the gender divide in rap and hip hop in half across the entire country. This album influenced a whole generation of soulful hip hop artists.
9. 2000 The Real Slim Shady
Eminem’s single The Real Slim Shady came out and hit the Billboard 200 for 100 weeks. It hit number one on the R&B/Hip Hop Albums chart selling 1 million copies.
The controversy in this song and video drove up sales, which is nothing new and precisely the point. However, the song became iconic with an entire generation of the Nation’s youth and helped launch Eminem’s career.
10. 2003 Speakerboxxx – The Love Below – OutKast
This double album symbolizes the marriage and the parting of ways of the two major divisions between rap and hip hop. The Love Below album is notably coined ‘the end of the Gangster Rap era.’ Atlanta based duo Andre 3000 and Big Boi wanted to separate their style from that of crime based gangster rap.
This album spent three weeks at the top of the charts in 2003 and another four in 2004.
11. 2008 Jay Z is First Rapper to Headline Glastonbury
The first rapper to headline the Glastonbury festival was met with some public animosity, most notably from Oasis head singer that rap and hip hop should not be included in a 38-year-old festival that had a history of guitar music.
Jay Z, of course, opened up his set that night with an incredibly sarcastic rendition of Oasis’ hit wonder wall before proclaiming, “I got 99 problems, but a B**** ain’t one” and heading into the number one hit from his Black Album.
Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III had just sold 1 million copies in its first week only three weeks before this performance.
12. March 2010 Lil Wayne Sentence to a Year in Prison
Having just released Tha Carter IV, Lil Wayne, Dwayne Micheal Carter, was sentenced to eight months in Riker Island prison for gun possession charges from 2007. This imprisonment foreshadowed a halt in Lil Wayne’s career that would begin to unfold after completing his sentence.
By the time of his release in 2011, he would be in significant legal battles with Cash Money Label to release him from his contract and allow him to release Tha Carter V.
The long-awaited album would not release seven years of legal battles until September 2018, seven years after its scheduled release in 2011.
His protégés Drake and Nicki Minaj, from the Young Money imprint of Cash Money labels, would go on to make their rise to fame while he was serving his sentence.
13. 2010 Nicki vs. Kanye Album Release
In 2010, Nicki Minaj brought female rappers to the top with the Pink Friday album.
It debuted at No. 2 in December and made its way to No. 1 in its twelfth week at the top of the charts the following February.
Only West’s album outsold Minaj by 150,000 copies that week with Minaj’s Pink Friday selling 375,000 copies. This marked the second-highest sales week by a female hip hop artist since Lauryn Hill’s album in 1998.
14. 2012 Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg surprise summon Hologram Tupac to Perform at Coachella
It is almost tradition for a special guest to take over as headliner at annual music festivals. Still, nothing stole the show as much as Tupac Shakur, who was the most talked-about performer at Coachella 2012, making history fifteen years after his death.
This performance symbolizes that death doesn’t have to be the end of an artist’s relevance.
15. 2014 Maclemore’s Thrift Shop
Macklemore’s Thrift Shop is almost the antithesis of gangster wrap. Not only did this song showcase two white guys singing about their thrift store “come up”, but their claim to fame was a come up in itself.
Like most artists, Macklemore and producer Ryan Lewis started in clubs and bars playing their music. However, they also used Twitter, YouTube, and Tumbler as a fairly new method for getting the word out and gaining a loyal following of their sound.
Macklemore and Lewis used their earnings for their tour to fund their album and hired Warner Music Group to help get their album more radio play, which undoubtedly helped Thrift Shop reach No. 1 on the charts.
Even though their record release wasn’t exactly independently released, it marked a new age in music where artists could gain fame through social media and the internet and find their own way into the industry, essentially discovering themselves instead of a major record label.
16. 2017 YouTube and Streaming Stars Became Eligible for Grammy’s
Before 2017, music had to be made commercially before it could be considered for a Grammy award. All this changed when the Academy finally embraced the changing music scene by deeming recordings Grammy-eligible if they appeared on at least one of the major streaming sites like Apple Music or Spotify.
This change is primarily thought to have come to light due to Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book album, which was streaming only. Though the Grammy’s claim they did not make this inclusion rule for any one artist. However, Chance walked away with three Grammy’s that year, including Best Album of the Year.
17. 2017 Bodak Yello
In October of 2017, Bodak Yello, a single by Cardi B, was the first top 100 single from a solo female MC in almost two decades. Cardi B’s reputation is a notorious one. She’s single-handedly climbed the charts with every single she has released.
Representing female empowerment and ‘take back culture,’ Cardi is paving the way for the future of black women, not just in hip hop and rap, but in the music industry as a whole.
Rap is the Future
We hope you enjoyed this brief jaunt down memory lane as we laid out some of the most notable moments in Rap history. This genre is iconic, ever-changing, and has created space for some of the nation’s most talented artists to embody the American dream. Rap amplifies the voices of our nation and continues to cause major shifts in the culture and politics of the US.
The legacy of rap and hip-hop will continue to break boundaries and silence the old, outdated, diatribes of our current sociopolitical climate for decades to come.