Hip-Hop Turns 50: All the World Grooves to the DIY Beats From the Bronx


Hip-hop legend LL Cool J with boombox and a Kangol hat, circa 1985. Photo: Janette Beckman/Getty Images

Dismissed by sceptics in its nascence as a passing trend, unintelligible and lacking musicality or artistic merit, hip-hop is celebrating its golden anniversary this year. Originating inside African American and Latino communities in New York City’s Bronx neighbourhood in the early 1970s, this grassroots musical style has grown into a multibillion-dollar enterprise reigning over popular music charts and fusing itself into global culture’s collective consciousness. 

Earlier this year, both the Junos and Grammys staged retrospective 50th anniversary performances, with vets and newcomers collaborating to mark the milestone. And this summer, many of the genre’s biggest names — and oldest performers — are touring, including LL Cool J (55), Queen Latifah (53) and Snoop Dogg (51). From Aug. 7 to Aug. 13 in Toronto, the annual Manifesto of music arts and culture hosts a week-long lineup of celebratory events, headlined by Canadian rap dean Saukrates and Ethiopian Eritrean rapper Aminé of Oregon. 

Also in August, CBC Music’s radio show The Block will mark the five decades by airing 50 stories over 50 days, with each episode focusing on an artist, event or significant moment in hip-hop history, wrapping up on Aug. 11. That series is certain to feature stalwarts of Canadian hip-hop including Michie Mee, Maestro Fresh Wes, Dream Warriors, Choclair, Kardinal Offishall — along with, of course, Spotify’s most-streamed artist of all time, Drake.

Hip-hop’s beginnings can be traced back to an August rec room party thrown by Jamaican-born DJ Kool Herc in the Bronx, in 1973. Using a mixing technique borrowed from Jamaican dub music, Herc put the same record on two turntables, alternating between them, and in the process, lengthening the percussive instrumental section known as the “breakbeat.”


Photos: The Godfather of hip-hop DJ Kool Herc, NYC, 2009 (WENN Rights Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo); Insets, from left: The Message (CBW/Alamy Stock Photo); Missy ‘Misdemeanor’ Elliott in 2002 (Gregory Bojorquez/Getty Images); The Timberland work boot (dnaveh/Getty Images); Boyz in the Hood (Everett Collection, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo)


This extended time gave partygoers more opportunity to get creative on the dance floor, and gave Herc space to speak or chant over the records in the tradition of Jamaican toasting. Herc named those dancers “b-boys” and “b-girls” — break boys and break girls — who would become the precursors of an athletic style of street dance called breakdancing or breaking (which will debut as a new Olympic sport at the 2024 Summer Games in Paris). 

Released in 1979, Rapper’s Delight played a pivotal role in pushing hip-hop into the global sphere. The nursery rhyme style party record by the Sugarhill Gang was the first commercially successful and crossover rap single. The catchy, playful song popularized the phrase hip-hop and, with its use of R&B band Chic’s disco-soul hit Good Times, showcased the production technique of sampling. Initially a magnet for copyright litigation, sampling later became a lucrative revenue stream for older artists whose recordings were borrowed and reinterpreted: musicians like Nile Rogers, James Brown and George Clinton. Sampling, along with the use of drum machines, gave hip-hop its revolutionary sound. 

Grandmaster Flash’s The Message, a song about poverty and crime, was a pivotal tune that didn’t chart well in the U.S. when it was released in 1982, but foretold the impact hip-hop would have as social commentary, via the likes of Public Enemy, KRS-One, Common and Kendrick Lamar, all of whom used their music to lambaste the authorities and systems that marginalized Black and poor people. 

By the 1990s, hip-hop had become a massive commercial and cultural success story. Artists like Tupac Shakur, The Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z became cultural icons, while groups like the Hot Boys (New Orleans) and OutKast (Atlanta) showcased regional diversity. Hip-hop permeated other forms of media, with films like Boyz n the Hood, Menace II Society and Belly allowing rappers turned actors like Ice Cube and Method Man to expand their talents and bank accounts. Acting has been so lucrative for LL Cool J that this summer marks the long-married father of four’s first arena tour in 30 years. From liquor brands to clothing lines, rappers are on the seven-figure track — with Diddy and Jay-Z having joined Forbes’ billionaire rankings. 

Hip-hop is now recognized as poetry and afforded academic respect for its witticisms, rhythmic cadence and intricate wordplay, so much so that Toronto Metropolitan University offers a course on Drake, and Harvard now houses the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute. Terms “bling bling,” “diss,” “mo’ money, mo’ problems,” “fo’shizzle” and “booty call” have become a part of everyday conversation. And the musical Hamilton, which blended historical narrative with the vibrant energy of rap, revolutionized theatre, won Tonys, Grammys and a Pulitzer, and grossed over $1 billion globally. 

Hip-hop has had an indelible role in fashion, propelling street style to the runway: gold doorknocker earrings and rope chains; Adidas Superstar sneakers with laces removed; baggy, low hanging pants; do-rags; sports jerseys; and Timberland boots. In 2005, the NBA’s mandating of a “business casual” dress code that outlawed, among other items, visible neck jewelry and low-slung jeans, was seen as an attack on Black players and hip-hop culture.  

As much as hip-hop was lauded, it was also criticized for lyrics that were lewd, homophobic, materialistic and encouraged violence: the popularity of gangsta rap was blamed for an East Coast/West Coast rivalry that culminated in the murders of Shakur and B.I.G. And, despite the prominence of executives like Sugar Hill Records founder Sylvia Robinson, who produced both Rapper’s Delight and The Message, as well as rappers Queen Latifah, Salt-N-Pepa and Lauryn Hill, misogyny permeated the scene. Women were referred to as “bitches,” “hoes” and “chickenheads”; videos featured barely clad models and dancers, spawning the term “video vixens.” Some of the women said they found those roles empowering, and current stars Nicki Minaj, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion trade unapologetically on “bad bitch” stripper imagery, sparking debate about agency and body positivity. 

At 68, DJ Herc peaked long before hip-hop’s big paydays, but he still holds bragging rights. Widely regarded as a founding father of hip-hop, he will be welcomed into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in the Musical Influence Award category this fall. Missy Elliott will also take the stage, to become the first female rapper inductee.  

A version this article appeared in the August/Septmeber 2023 issue with the headline ‘Hip Hop Turns 50’, p. 22.