The 10 Most Influential Folks in Hip-Hop History
From entrepreneurs to DJs and rappers. These artists represent the culture of Hip-Hop and embody black excellence.
It took way too long to convince the world at large that hip-hop was more of a legitimate art-form than simply “retards attempting poetry,” and the trio from Hollis, Queens, were no doubt the main pioneers in that regard. After releasing a stream of critically acclaimed albums, all the while schooling the world on fashion, the previously exclusive club of heavy metal guitarists on MTV became Run’s House. After permanently embedding their Adidas footprints on the globe to the tune of a groundbreaking $1.6 million endorsement deal, the group pulled a game changer collaborating with Aerosmith and essentially birthed mainstream hip-hop. Although Jam Master Jay was tragically murdered in 2002, the group was formally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009. The first rap group to bring home a platinum plaque and get a major endorsement deal.
Regardless of how you feel about Hov, the man really started from the bottom and managed to mold himself into a multi-millionaire. Next to the phrase “Renaissance Man” in the dictionary there is a picture of Jay-Z (hopefully with a scantily-clad Beyonce by his side). Shawn Carter couldn’t get a record deal when he first started, so with the help of Dame, Biggs, and Irv Gotti, he created Roc-A-Fella records, and ascended to the heights of rap stardom by sampling the movie Annie with the smash single “Hard Knock Life.” Scores of successful summers followed suit, and now Jay-Z is regarded by many as one of the greatest rappers of all time– not to mention an extremely shrewd businessman, or business, man ! In his 2011 book, Decode, Jay speaks about how young executives get hype for board meetings by listening to “Public Service Announcement” from The Black Album. Jay showed that a former Marcy Projects hustler could climb the corporate ladder, most recently with his sports agency Roc Nation Sports.
It may be shocking to hear this, but before Ice Cube made critical hood classic cinema like Friday and Barbershop, he was a rapper– and one of the greatest I might add. Just as Walter Kronkite’s frank reporting about Vietnam informed an otherwise ignorant nation of the horrors of war, Ice Cube’s raps (and the raps he wrote for NWA) exposed the world to the gritty everyday reality of living in Compton. His post-NWA work like AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted and Death Certificate Cube spoke fearlessly about the racial prejudices of American society in the form of musical masterpieces. Nowadays some ignorant people regard Cube as a sell-out because he has elected to expand his artistic horizons, but anyone that has the mistaken notion that Cube isn’t one of the most influential rappers to black culture needs to immediately study their tape of NWA.
Although there were examples of strong black female voices in hip-hop before the arrival of Lauryn Hill (Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, etc.) the former Refugee proved to be leaps and bounds above her talented predecessors. Even though Pras and Wyclef had skills on the mic, mostly everyone tends to agree with the notion that the princess was the one most were checking for. This feeling only magnified when Ms. Hill released one of the finest albums of all time in 1998, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, proving with songs like “Doo Wop (That Thing),” “Lost Ones,” and “Ex-Factor” that what she spit had the power to uplift and heal. Not only did Hill become the first black woman to secure 10 separate Grammy nominations, but the first woman period. To the misfortune of us all, she decided to take a hiatus almost immediately about her magnificent solo debut. Hill resurfaced in the early 2000s with an incredible MTV Unplugged performance, featuring new material like “The Mystery of Iniquity” which Kanye would “sample” for his smash hit “All Falls Down,” on College Dropout. Even if Lauryn decides never to release another project, her place as one of the most influential female artists is firmly established.
Yo! Bum Rush The Show is the title of Public Enemy’s first album, and it couldn’t be more fitting. Although previously rappers had made conscious material, nobody ever came close to doing it with the sheer tenacity of Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Professor Griff, and the rest of PE. On the heels of their debut album, the group released what many refer to as the greatest hip-hop record ever made with 1988’s “It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back”. In terms of lyrical content, it’s a bit of an understatement to say that Chuck D didn’t mince words, because the songs featured on the album are along the lines of what Malcolm X would create if he were an emcee, especially “Black Steel In The Hour of Chaos.” Their 1990 follow-up Fear of a Black Planet continued in the same vein, with the singles “911 is a Joke” and “Fight The Power,” the latter of which provided the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s magnum opus, “Do The Right Thing”. We will not get into “Flavor of Love,” but the group’s strikingly consistent catalogue and fearless lyrics make them unarguably one of the greatest and most influential hip-hop groups of all time.
There are some artists that simply transcend whatever music genre they come to prominence, and in terms of hip-hop, there is no single artist that represents this phenomenon more than 2pac. Mired in controversy for the entirety of his career, 2pac was able to touch on issues plaguing African-Americans while at the same time crafting some of the greatest party anthems to date. In terms of being a role model for young black males, 2pac’s actions were not always the most sound, but his voice arguably did more to heighten the collective self-esteem of oppressed, impoverished minorities the world over. However, 2pac was not only a talented musician, but a great poet The Rose That Grew From Concrete as well as a great actor (“Poetic Justice, Juice, etc.). When one looks through the vast catalogue of 2pac’s art, it seems almost impossible that a man was able to create so much poignant content in a mere 25 years. Since his demise, great hip-hop artists have come to fruition, but there will never be another quite like ‘Pac.
Just like Lauryn Hill took the work of her predecessors to the next level, Rakim’s dynamic way of reciting rhymes ultimately led to the creation of Illmatic– an album that is the true definition of perfect. From the tone-setting sample from the film Wild Style on “Genesis” to the braggadocio rhymes of “It Ain’t Hard To Tell,” Nas’ debut album provided a perfect blend of realistic storytelling and a level of lyricism fans were not accustomed to. Even though the “Takeover” version of Jay-Z would dare to differ, Nas kept the fire ignited throughout his career, with only a few creative stumbles along the way. While most artists seem to lose that fire when they hit a certain age, Nas has shown no signs of slowing down as his critically acclaimed latest effort Life is Good attests to.
The legendary founder of Hip-Hop’s crown jewel Def Jam, Russell Simmons co-founded the iconic label with college friend Rick Rubin. Together the two went on to build a powerhouse of some of Hip-Hop’s Greatest Names such as LL Cool J, Public Enemy, EPMD, and the legendary Roc-A-Fella Records. Russell Simmons later went on to pave the way for entrepreneurship in Hip-Hop by starting Phat Farm fashions and Baby Phat with wife Kimora Lee and even financial service companies like the Rush Card. Today Russell volunteers his time penning New York Times Best Sellers, and voicing awareness to promote voting within the black community and financial freedom. Russell Simmons is the ambassador for Hip-Hop all around the world.
The originator of breakbeat Djing and also one of the first to introduce and revolutionize turntables in Hip-Hop. Afrika Bambaataa (or Kevin Donovan) was heavily influenced by the black liberation movement and civil rights which would later serve as a staple in his music and bring social commentary to the black community. A former gang member, Afrika Bambaataa turned a negative into a positive, leaving his gang background behind to become a musician and using his influence to spread positivity. Bambaataa helped launch the careers of Fab Five Freddy, Run DMC, and the Rock Steady crew among others. Afrika Bambaataa single handedly created 2 of the four key elements in Hip-Hop – DJing and breakdancing.
DJ Kool Herc
Often regarded as the originator of Hip-Hop in 1973, the Jamaican born DJ started Hip-Hop August 11th, 1973. Kool Herc decided to throw a party at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue where Grandmaster Caz, Grandmaster Flash, Busy Bee, Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Red Alert, Sheri Sher, Mean Gene and KRS-One would show up to perform. The famous party from then on influenced a cultural movement which would later serve as a platform for urban youth to overcome all odds within their communities and use the power of music to craft a way of life. Today Kool Herc still DJs and also acts as an ambassador for Hip-Hop educating people on the history of Hip-Hop and it’s significance. The famous 1520 Sedgwick Avenue also serves as a New York landmark being called “the birthplace of Hip-Hop”.