Hip-hop at 50: 7 Essential Listens to Celebrate Rap’s Widespread Influence

Howard Manly, The Conversation; Jamaal Abdul-Alim, The Conversation; Matt Williams, The Conversation; Molly Jackson, The Conversation, and Nick Lehr, The Conversation

On the evening of Aug. 11, 1973, DJ Kool Herc attended a block party in the South Bronx. Armed with two record players and a mixer, he created an extended percussive break while others rhymed over the beats. Hip-hop was born.

Well, that’s the origin story, although pinpointing the birth of a genre is never going to be an exact science. What is undeniable, though, is that in the 50 years since that event, hip-hop has evolved, grown, and influenced nearly every aspect of modern U.S. culture – from dance, theater, and literature to visual arts and fashion.

But at the heart will always be the music. Leading up to the landmark anniversary, The Conversation reached out to hip-hop academics – it is a scholarly pursuit, too – to help provide context on how the genre has transformed modern culture, not just in the U.S. but around the world. Below is a selection of the resulting articles, introduced by a key track featured in their writing.

1. ‘Rapper’s Delight’ – The Sugarhill Gang

No history of hip-hop would be complete without this 1979 track by The Sugarhill Gang. But along with being an old-school classic, it also kick-started hip-hop’s global expansion.

As Eric Charry, a music professor at Wesleyan University, explained, within months of its being released, versions of “Rapper’s Delight” were being recorded in Brazil, Jamaica, Germany, and the Netherlands. Within a year or so, the song’s DNA had spread to Japan and Nigeria.

“It marked the beginning of the globalization of rap music and the broader hip-hop culture in which it is embedded, which includes deejaying, break-dancing and graffiti-tagging,” Charry wrote. But this global spread created what Charry described as a paradox: “The Black American urban culture that birthed rap and hip-hop makes up its very fabric. But so does the core idea of representing one’s own experience and place.”

This led to questions of authenticity that global rappers have contended with ever since, with some digging into their own local culture to square the circle.

2. ‘Planet Rock’ – Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force

Despite building on samples and influences from the past, hip-hop as a genre has always pointed forward – as this 1981 track from Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force exemplifies. “Planet rock” also forms part of a tradition in which rappers lean on Afrofuturism – a mix of science fiction, politics, and liberating fantasy – to “inform their lyrics and their look,” as Roy Whitaker, a scholar of Africana philosophy of religions at San Diego State University, explained.

“Hip-hop artists influenced by Afrofuturism have long been aware that American society made many Black, Indigenous, and other people of color feel different – less than human, or even like aliens – and expressed this through their art. And like socially conscious hip-hop, Afrofuturism has always had a political element,” Whitaker wrote, noting the influence that Afrofuturism pioneers such as musicians Sun Ra and George Clinton and science fiction novelist Octavia Butler had on rap artists from Public Enemy and OutKast to Kendrick Lamar.

“All in all, Afrofuturism counsels marginalized peoples to reassess past wounds and present injustices while reassuring them that there are possible futures where they can feel they belong,” Whitaker concluded.

3. ‘Stan’ – Eminem, featuring Elton John

OK, this is a live performance from the 2001 Grammy Awards show and not a recorded track – though Eminem did release a version of “Stan” featuring British singer Dido a year earlier. But it was a pivotal moment in rap history: Eminem dueting with pop royalty Elton John underscored how hip-hop by the beginning of the 21st century had been accepted by the mainstream music industry. Moreover, it came at a time when Eminem was deemed deeply controversial because of his use of anti-gay slurs in his tracks. Yet here he was being embraced – both figuratively and physically – by one of the world’s most famous openly gay men. The moment forms part of hip-hop’s evolution on LGTBQ issues that University of Richmond sociologist Matthew Oware detailed in his article. He noted that rappers are now having discussions over LGBTQ+ issues and apologizing for hateful speech in their earlier lyrics.

As rap music hits its 50th anniversary, “it is increasingly embracing challenges to – and debates about – homophobia,” Oware wrote. “That is, hip-hop has evolved to the point where anti-gay rhetoric invites condemnation from members of the culture. It is still present in some rap lyrics – as indeed is true of all genres, from pop to country – but hip-hop is changing because of more progressive cultural views and greater LGBTQ+ representation.”

4. ‘You Came Up’ – Big Pun

While hip-hop’s origins lie in Black American communities, Latino culture is also deeply woven into its story: from pioneers like Kid Frost and Big Pun to Bad Bunny, one of the most-streamed artists making music today. The genre was “my first love,” wrote Alejandro Nava, a religious studies professor at the University of Arizona. “Hip-hop had its finger on the pulse of Black and brown lives on the frayed edges of the Americas, lives like my father’s and his father’s before him.”

Big Pun, for example – raised in the South Bronx by his Puerto Rican family – alerted the world that “Latins goin’ platinum was destined to come.” Big Pun’s rhymes “spilled off his tongue in torrents of alliteration and assonance, rarely pausing to take a breath or gulp, as if he didn’t require as much oxygen as other humans,” Nava recalled.

From coast to coast, young Latinos “embraced hip-hop as an ingenious instrument of self-expression,” asserting their place in American culture – and often calling for social change.


THE CONVERSATION US launched as a pilot project in October 2014. It is an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community, delivered direct to the public. Our team of professional editors work with university and research institute experts to unlock their knowledge for use by the wider public. We aim to help rebuild trust in journalism. All authors and editors sign up to our Editorial Charter. All contributors must abide by our Community Standards policy. We only allow authors to write on a subject on which they have proven expertise, which they must disclose alongside their article. Authors’ funding and potential conflicts of interest must also be disclosed. Failure to do so carries a risk of being banned from contributing to the site. The Conversation started in Melbourne Victoria and the innovative technology platform and development team is based in the university and research precinct of Carlton. Our newsroom is based in Boston but our team is part of a global newsroom able to share content across sites and around the world. The Conversation US is a non-profit educational entity.​

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