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Hip-hop tracks that changed the world

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(Image credit: Getty Images)

Public Enemy

In its 50 years the genre has helped bring awareness, social change and empowerment. Candace McDuffie explores the ground-breaking records that have made a difference.

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As the world reflects on the cultural significance of hip-hop in the year of its 50th anniversary, the power of its origins are more significant than ever. Chuck D has famously stated that “rap is black America’s CNN”. Despite being subjected to centuries of injustice – including slavery, segregation and systemic racism – black people still found the courage to not just tell their story – but to confront inequality head on. 

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Even though the genre has become synonymous with ferocity and resilience, its start was light-hearted. While DJing a sibling’s birthday party in New York City in August 1973, DJ Kool Herc made the ingenious decision to extend instrumental breaks from other songs, including James Brown’s Give It Up or Turnit a Loose. While the crowd breakdanced, the DJ and his friends got on the mic over various beats and engaged in stage banter that would ultimately evolve into cadenced rhymes. 

The Message

He was only 18 years old at the time, but his innovation would make the world pay attention to how racism and bigotry stifled the wellbeing of black people. Initially, hip-hop music was well received by the mainstream due to the immense popularity of Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight, which eased unfamiliar audiences in with a whimsical style. Sugarhill Gang recorded the track in a single take, with the full-length version more than 14 minutes long.

In 1980, Rapper’s Delight peaked at number 36 on the Billboard Hot 100, making it the first rap song to become a commercial hit. Founded by Sylvia and Joe Robinson, Sugarhill Records, which housed Sugarhill Gang, also produced other hits, including The Message by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. While Rapper’s Delight showcased the light-hearted nature of the culture, The Message stood in contrast as a sobering wakeup call about the plight of black America. 

Roxanne’s Revenge

The song was released in 1982, a year where the national poverty rate was 35.6% for black people – three times more than the white population. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s signature track explicitly revealed this harrowing reality, with lines that detailed New York at its absolute worst. From streets riddled with broken glass and the smell of urine to individuals being forced to scour bins for food, The Message was considered rap’s first conspicuous political anthem. 

Not only was the track lauded as one of the most important songs in the history of rap, it helped Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five become the first hip-hop group to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Audiences were interested in what these storytellers had to say, but despite the song’s undeniable impact and acclaim, rap was noticeably male-centric. In 1984, a 14-year-old girl named Roxanne Shante hailing from Queensbridge projects in Long Island City not only challenged this, but completely flipped it on its head. 

Queens of rap

Entitled Roxanne’s Revenge, the seven-minute freestyle was recorded in just one take, and was a rebuttal to male rap trio UTFO’s track Roxanne, Roxanne. Shante’s Roxanne’s Revenge dominated New York radio, made it to number 22 on the Billboard R&B singles charts, and sparked the “Roxanne Wars” in which her rap peers concocted answer records to Shante’s hit. Those songs, which were released in droves, revealed the sexism that plagued rap music. 

Other women in hip-hop worked diligently to change that, and Shante’s robust presence inspired a new crop of female talent including the illustrious Queen Latifah, whose 1989 single Ladies First was considered hip hop’s first feminist anthem. On the track, which also features British rapper Monie Love, the New Jersey native sings the praises of women – specifically women in rap who were just as talented as their male peers. Queen Latifah’s discography would become synonymous with women’s empowerment, leading her to become the first female rapper to have her music inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry.

Roxanne Shante and Queen Latifah would pave the way for groups like Salt N’ Pepa, who showed that black women could be skilled lyricists while wholeheartedly embracing their sexuality. The boldness of other acts like JJ Fad, Monie Love, and MC Lyte would trickle down to other black women rappers, like Lil’ Kim, Missy Elliott and Megan Thee Stallion. When rap wasn’t reconciling with misogyny, it was affronting oppressive societal structures.

NWA‘s Fuck Tha Police, released in 1988, grappled with the disturbing regularity of police brutality that threatened black youth daily. Its incendiary nature, which included skits of racist run-ins with cops, called out the police. Another one of rap’s most famous and explosive rallying cries is Public Enemy’s Fight the Power. It was written for Spike Lee’s classic 1989 film Do The Right Thing,and quickly became the standout on the movie’s soundtrack. When the group released their third album Fear of a Black Planeta year later, it would feature an extended version of the song.

Public Enemy’s Chuck D, who co-founded the group, was known for lyrically doling out black history lessons while inspiring political consciousness. Fight the Power was inspired by a 1975 Isley Brothers song of the same name and follows this pattern, as the rapper’s indelible baritone recites powerful lines like: “Cause I’m black and I’m proud/ I’m ready and hyped plus I’m amped/ Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps”. Like Do the Right Thing, the track encapsulates the insidiousness of US racism while also serving as a incentivising call to arms. 

Following the 2020 murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, the US would find itself in a series of uprisings that would span the globe. Fight the Power was remixed this same year with artists including Nas, Black Thought, Rapsody, YG and Jahi. Like the 1989 original, the song’s sequel tapped the pulse of a country in peril. And 50 years after its inception, it continues to be the soundtrack of a generation.

Hip-hop culture has permeated every facet of US culture for half a century, and continues to be used as a vehicle for overt and radical expression. Kendrick Lamar’s poetic prowess and descriptive rhymes garnered him a Pulitzer Prize, Cardi B’s unapologetic audacity has made her a household name, and Jay Z rose up from the Brooklyn projects to become rap’s first billionaire. As the art form continues to grow and evolve, rap music will always set trends and be a barometer for what is happening in marginalised communities. But most importantly, it will continue to give its artists the opportunity to speak to the uniqueness of the black experience.

Candace McDuffies 50 Rappers Who Changed the World is published by Hardie Grant.

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