How do you tell the story of 50 years of hip-hop?

Hip-hop is a wonderfully centerless tangle of pieces that is everywhere even if it’s not always entirely visible.

It is a fount of constant innovation and a historical text ready to be stolen. It is a continuation of the rock, soul and jazz traditions, while clearly loosening their cultural hold. It’s evolving more quickly than ever – new styles appear annually, or faster, doubling the genre’s potential. And it has an impact that goes beyond music: Hip-hop has been woven into television, film, fashion, advertising, literature, politics, and countless other corners of American life. It is a lingua franca, which is impossible to avoid.

It is too vast to fit under a single tent, or be confined to a single narrative. The genre is gigantic, non-linear and violent. It has its own internal disagreements and misunderstandings, and the stakeholders are sometimes friends and collaborators, and sometimes they look at each other warily.

So when trying to catalog hip-hop in its entirety, it only makes sense to base it on a cacophony. The package that accompanies this article does just that, collecting oral accounts from 50 titans of the genre over the past five decades. The number is important. It’s an acknowledgment that at age 50—mild fiction, but more on that later—hip-hop is vast, fruitful, enthralling, multilingual, and a source of an endless wellspring of narratives. Its completeness cannot be captured without stretch and ambition. Many voices need to be heard, and they won’t always agree.

Side by side, there are style innovators, crossover stars, regional champions, and small-market celebrities. There are those who insist on their primacy and see themselves as a center of gravity, and those who are proud students of the game and understand their place in the broader artistic arc of hip-hop. There are those that are universally recognized, and they are known mainly by experts. There are provocateurs and analysts. Reverend and spoiler. Some even play with the limits of what is usually considered rap.

Taken together, these artists form a family tree of this kind, one that highlights bridges between groups that are usually discussed separately, and that highlights the paths that rappers follow – no matter what city they’re from, or what era they found their success. They grapple with similar circumstances, questions, and creative hurdles.

These 50 stories separate hip-hop from countless vantage points: the past forward, and vice versa; underground to the top. less populated regions abroad; Big cities are in the suburbs. They tell the story of a temporary musical movement that laid the foundation for the defining cultural shift of the past few decades.

Fifty years ago, that outcome seemed fanciful at best. In the 1970s, Bronx block parties gave way to nightclubs, and talk DJs laid the groundwork for dedicated presenters to start taking over. He quickly removed the intrusion of capitalism and packaged a part of these live events that was easier to convey: rap music.

Then off to the races. By the mid-1980s, the hip-hop industry was little club but big business, with audiences across the country warmed to the commercial release of recordings from countless New York artists. A wave of soon-to-be international stars has arrived: Run-DMC, LL Cool J, and the Beastie Boys. Hip-hop has become a worldwide counterculture.

By the dawn of the ’90s, it was booming everywhere in this country—the South, the West, and the Midwest—and infiltrating the global mainstream. In the mid-1990s, thanks to the work of Biggie Smalls and Puffy, Tupac Shakur, and Dr. .

In the 2000s, the genre’s center of power shifted south, with the genre thriving (largely out of the scrutiny of major labels) in Miami, Houston, Virginia, Atlanta, and Memphis. 2 Live Crew, Geto Boys, Missy Elliott, Outkast, Three 6 Mafia – each absorbed what was imported from the rest of the country and created new frameworks of language and sound around it. Hip hop has become a widely spoken language with many dialects.

All the while, the genre was expanding, becoming more commercially and inescapably more successful every year. It became indie pop, which in turn broke away from its predecessors: the New York and Los Angeles underground bands of the ’90s. progressive indie scenes in the 2000s; and SoundCloud rap in the 2000s. In the past 20 years, hip-hop has been responsible not only for some of the biggest pop hits of the era — Drake, Kanye West, Jay-Z, and Cardi B — but its templates have become open source for performers in other genres to borrow from what they did and do on a massive scale. wide. Hip hop has become a crucial connection to country music, reggaeton, hard rock, K-pop and much more.

What is remarkable about the histories collected in this package is how no part of this ascent was ever taken for granted. In every era there were obstacles. For each artist, there was the promise of an elusive spectacle. And for all of these rappers, that meant leaning into a new idea of ​​what their version of hip-hop might be, and hoping that ears would meet them in this untested setting.

There is also the matter of Untold History – to read these memories must be constantly reminded of those who are no longer here to share their tales. There is a penal index of deaths before their time just below these stories, a reminder that canons cannot include songs that were never made.

As for the fiftieth anniversary, it is a framework for rest. The date refers to August 11, 1973, when DJ Kool Herc – in the recreation room of an apartment building at 1520 Sedgwick Ave. In the Bronx – mixing two versions of the same album into one smooth beat. This is, of course, one way to think about hip-hop’s big bang moment, but it’s by no means the only one. If you think of rapping as toasting, speaking over pre-recorded music, or speaking in a rhythmic form, hip hop has been around for over 50 years. Just ask The Last Poets, or DJ Hollywood, who would improvise rhymes on the microphone as he spun disco records. There are also, depending on who you ask, others who have previously mixed two of the same record.

But the wisdom and cynicism of trying to carve out a history behind which everyone can stand reflects a much darker and more troubling truth, which is that for decades, hip-hop was seen as disposable, an annoyance, and an aberration. Remembrance and canonization seemed a long way off. For a long time, hip-hop has had to argue for its rightful place in pop music and pop culture, in the face of racial, legal, musical, and beyond hostilities.

Therefore, insisting that a species has a point of origin is really just another way of insisting on its importance, stability, and future. You can wrangle with the specifics – and many do – but not with the intent, which is to ensure that no one ever again loses sight of the genre’s power and influence.

However, hip-hop was never really going anywhere, because no style of pop music has ever been so accommodating and malicious. Hip-hop answers directly to its critics, voraciously consuming and reframing its predecessors. It’s turbulent and immediate, sometimes changing too quickly to stop documenting itself. So here’s a landing place to consider, and a starting point for the next 50 years or so.