After treading cautiously through the realm of hip-hop for nearly four decades, the Recording Academy has embraced the genre wholeheartedly in its most prestigious categories for the 60th Grammy Awards, which take place Jan. 28. The recognition is long overdue. Hip-hop has shaped music and culture worldwide for decades. In this ongoing series of stories, we track the rise, present and ever-more influential future of hip-hop.
THE CEREMONY FOR the 60th Grammy Awards is still two weeks away, but already music’s biggest TV night has made history.
For the first time, hip-hop artists dominate the majority of nominees chosen in the academy’s top categories, including record, album and song of the year.
But that sound you’re hearing isn’t champagne corks popping in celebration. It’s exasperated sighs that the Recording Academy only just discovered what the rest of the entertainment industry noticed back in the flip-phone era: Hip-hop, once an outlier, is now the status quo.
From Broadway’s “Hamilton” to Hollywood’s “Straight Outta Compton” to television’s “Atlanta,” hip-hop’s broad influence on American pop culture has defied countless predictions that a nervous white mainstream would never fully embrace a trend born out of the urban black experience.
Consider hip-hop’s television takeover. Today, rappers are not only backing films about the black experience, but they are creating, producing and starring in top-rated cable and network series and breaking out of music categories at film and television award shows.
Hip-hop is the soundtrack of at least one, probably two generations now. … It’s part of everything … and everyone under the age of 40.
AS JAHSEH ONFROY TURNED 19 early last year, his rap career hit a new peak.
The Florida native’s homespun brand of hip-hop had already attracted a fierce cult following and the attention of major labels as his single “Look at Me” blew up. The lo-fi track with blistering (and unprintable) lyrics had clocked Soundcloud and Spotify plays by the millions, sending it up the Top 40 based almost entirely on its number of streams.
When a spat with superstar Drake, who was accused of co-opting the rhythm of “Look at Me,” put the single on mainstream radars, Onfroy — who performs as XXXTentacion (that’s “X -X -X -Ten -Tah -See -Ohn ”) — found himself the face of a movement of Soundcloud rappers disrupting hip-hop.
But instead of celebrating his cultural moment with friends and fans, he was sitting behind bars in Broward County Jail, charged with multiple felonies for allegedly beating and strangling his then-pregnant ex-girlfriend in 2016. Onfroy, who pleaded not guilty, has also been accused of false imprisonment and witness tampering and faces up to 30 years in prison.
And yet, like many rappers before him, Onfroy found that being jailed didn’t hurt his career. His fame skyrocketed after his release on bail in March.
He collaborated with Diplo and Noah Cyrus. Shows across the country sold out. And his melancholy debut album, “17,” put out by Empire Distribution, reached No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart. Co-signs from ASAP Rocky and Kendrick Lamar (“Listen to this album if you feel anything. raw thoughts,” Lamar told his nearly 10 million Twitter followers) added to his surging popularity. . . . .
By October the rapper had scored a distribution agreement reportedly worth $6 million between his own imprint and Caroline Records, which is part of Capitol Music Group, home to artists such as Sam Smith, Katy Perry, Mary J. Blige and Beck. It was the same month that allegations of sexual harassment were made public against Harvey Weinstein, breaking open the #MeToo movement. Would the cultural reckoning happening in Hollywood and the media affect the rise of XXXTentacion and other emcees facing serious charges?
All this stuff is coming out about Harvey Weinstein and Hollywood guys, but in the hip-hop community it’s just put under the rug.
Jay-Z had big hits before "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)," his playful 2000 single that pleads with a woman for "that funk, that sweet, that nasty, that gushy stuff."
There was "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)," which sampled the musical "Annie" and reached No. 15 on Billboard's Hot 100. And there was the sleek "Can I Get A…," which drove 1998's "Rush Hour" soundtrack to platinum sales.
But it was arguably "I Just Wanna Love U," with its danceable groove and its chorus sung in a goofy yet cool falsetto, that turned the once-gruff Jay-Z into a cuddly mainstream pop star. And behind that transition was Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, known then as the Neptunes, the production duo who over the next decade would go on to help redefine hip-hop's sound — and propel its reach into R&B and pop.
Williams and Hugo, two proud music nerds from Virginia Beach, spent the 2000s working as the Neptunes with virtually anyone they wanted to, from the Clipse to Busta Rhymes to Britney Spears. They also had a freewheeling side project, N.E.R.D before Williams embarked on a successful solo career. (That goofy yet cool falsetto? That was his.)
By 2016, Williams had become so ubiquitous — having won Grammys, scored an Oscar nomination and hit No. 1 on his own with the secular-gospel jam "Happy" — that somebody thought it would be a good idea for him to produce an album by the country group Little Big Town.
But rather than pursue whatever other wacky offers came his way after that, Williams unexpectedly reformed N.E.R.D with Hugo and their childhood friend Shae Haley to make a record that reflects the political and social upheaval of the last 18 months — and shows these adventurers are still devoted to exploring fresh territory.
"No_One Ever Really Dies" ... is a furious response to the election of President Trump, to police shootings of unarmed black men, to the malfeasance of corporations.
With their skittering grooves and their preference for original sounds over recognizable samples, Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, as the production duo the Neptunes, helped remake hip-hop’s sonic identity in the late 1990s and early 2000s. (See related story: “They Redefined Hip-hop's Sound, Now Chad Hugo and Pharrell Have Put Out a N.E.R.D Response to Trump.”) But they’re hardly the only producers responsible for such a shift. Here are five evolutionary leaps from the genre’s history.
The Notorious B.I.G., “Mo Money Mo Problems”
This exuberant club track came out a few months after the Notorious B.I.G. was killed in March 1997. But “Mo Money Mo Problems,” produced by Puff Daddy and Stevie J, also represented the birth of the classic Puff Daddy m.o., in which he’d “take hits from the ’80s,” as he put it in a later song, and make it “sound so crazy.”
The song that took the West Coast’s so-called G-funk sound fully into the mainstream, “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” used a radically laid-back beat.
A GUST OF RED confetti dusted thousands of bodies lost in the feverish bounce that was Migos' set on opening night of the Rolling Loud Festival in San Bernardino on Dec. 16.
The Atlanta trio's barrage of brain-rattling trap anthems capped a day that had already seen impressive sets from Lil Yachty, Jaden Smith, Playboy Carti, Ski Mask the Slump God and Gucci Mane in the hours before.
Arriving in Southern California for the first time since debuting in Miami two years ago, the two-day blowout underscored hip-hop's position as the most dominant force in pop music with a deeply stacked lineup of chart-toppers, underground rap talent and buzzy acts percolating on the internet.
Nielsen Music confirmed what pop radio and streaming figures already knew: Hip-hop was being consumed more than any other genre and with hip-hop dominating this year's Grammy nominations and inspiring a spate of film and TV projects, Rolling Loud offered a potent, and important, showcase of how far the genre has evolved in just the last few years.
Jay-Z [became] the first emcee to top Coachella's bill, and rappers have headlined nearly every year since.
HEAVING MOSH PITS. Vocalists with candy-colored hair and gender-bending jewelry, who stage-dive into crowds of shrieking young fans. Lyrics about chemical indulgences and all-night partying, with guitar-streaked ballads of regret, lost love and nihilism.
Welcome to the new hip-hop festival.
“Rappers are the new rock stars. If you want high-energy concerts with crazy mosh pits, you find that at rap shows today,” says Tariq Cherif, co-founder of the roving Miami-based hip-hop festival Rolling Loud.
“It’s guys in tight jeans wearing chokers and crazy hair,” adds Rolling Loud co-founder Matt Zingler. “It’s way more appealing than a DJ.”
Zingler’s last point — about rappers supplanting DJs — may hold an answer to a question that has bedeviled the festival business since the rise of American EDM.
With a new wave of hip-hop utterly dominant on streaming platforms, a genre once shunted to the sidelines of festivals or overpriced bottle-service clubs may finally be coming into its own as a festival phenomenon.
I’ll bring up the top streaming songs...and it goes ‘Hip-hop, hip-hop, pop-R&B, hip-hop, hip-hop, hip-hop. It dominates the top of the charts.
OF THE MANY BIG BANGS that have transformed rap over the decades, N.W.A’s “Straight Outta Compton” is one of the loudest.
It was a sonic Molotov cocktail that ignited a firestorm when it debuted in the summer of 1988. Steered by Dr. Dre and DJ Yella’s dark production and Ice Cube and MC Ren’s striking rhymes, then brought to life by Eazy-E’s wicked charm, the record fused the bombastic sonics of Public Enemy’s production with vicious lyrics that were revolutionary or perverse, depending on whom you asked.
The world hadn’t heard anything like it before. Radio stations and MTV refused to add the title song to their playlists. Critics didn’t get it, couldn’t see past the language, or, worse, refused to acknowledge it as music. Politicians even launched attacks, going to great lengths to condemn the music and its creators.
The 2018 Grammy nominations are overdue acknowledgment that hip-hop has shaped music and culture worldwide for decades. With the launch of this ongoing series, we track its rise and future.
N.W.A were to hip-hop what the Sex Pistols were to rock — and really, what’s more punk than having a name that dared to be spoken or written in full, and music that incensed a nation?
Everything in the world came after this group. ... We changed pop culture on all levels. Not just music. We changed it on TV. In movies. On radio. Everything.