The Evolution of Hip-Hop to Rap

Drawing by Jiaqi Zhou


Drawing by Jiaqi Zhou

“I said a hip hop, Hippie to the hippie, The hip, hip a hop, and you don’t stop, a rock it”

Sound familiar? The lyrics made airwaves in 1979 when The Sugarhill Gang released, “Rapper’s Delight.”

It was the first major hip-hop song to make the transition from park jams, DJ turntables and Local MC battles in Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and other ghettos in the east coast to mainstream airwaves.

Since the arrival of the first slave ships in the 17th century, music in all its forms has been central to the Black American history experience

The role of melody as tool of survival, expression and rebellion  is rooted in the violent history of slavery, reconstruction and Jim Crow. It’s a rich tradition found in gospel, folk, blues, jazz R&B and arguably most famously in rap and hip-hop.

In 1987, Chuck D, the lead of  the explicitly political rap group, Public Enemy, said, “Rap is Black America’s CNN.”

Hip-hop formed out of the same strain of struggle and survival. The genre was created by inner-city, primarily black, youth across New York. Though, the universal focus of hip-hop on uplifting the community led to it quickly involving Puerto Rican influences also present in the same dilapidated though communally lively ghettos as many Black Americans.

These youths were called B-Girls and B-Boys and incorporated graffiti artists, DJ’s, like Funkmaster Flex, Pete Rock,  MC Lyte and Afrikka Bambaattaa with fast paced  story-like rhythms first famously captured by  Slick Rick da Ruler.

 It was founded in  systematically created ghettos with prime focus on engaging  in social justice via the traditional means of music used for centuries. But this time, it involved  an unexpected blend of spoken word poetry, D.C. based go-go music, funk, jazz and dance which over time, has evolved into what we now generally call Rap.

But what is Rap? What is Hip-Hop? Does it matter? The words hip-hop and rap are used synonymously today. However, the debate started  in the mid 1980’s as the music became more popular – though still heavily stigmatized – in the mainstream.

Krs-One and DJ Scott La Rock were a duo making upBoogie Down Production. They were one of the first groups to  distinctively drop the funk based rhythms in exchange for more jazz based sounds. They would later influence groups like De la Soul, Tribe Called Quest and Digable Planet.

La Rock was murdered a few months after the release of their debut album, Criminal Minded (1987) but  Krs-One has continued to be a politically active artist and commentator. He himself identifies as continuing in the tradition of hip-hop – even if it wasn’t in the most traditional sense and said the distinction laid in the fact that, “Rap is something you do, Hip-Hop is something you live.”

The genre has become internationally popular and is no longer the music uniquely owned by youths of underground rebellion.

Skepta dominates a uniquely British bred genre  known Grime. Komy in blends Moroccan, American and French influence. In France and Belgium, Stromae has created an electronic-classical synth sounds while MHD’s is staking influence in a genre known as Afro-trap – the blend of West African sounds with the grittiness of Atlanta trap music. There isn’t a place on Earth where the influence of Rap can’t be found.


Even within America, the genre has branched a million ways. In the mid-80’s, hip-hop retained strong elements of its earliest roots but as the decade ended and entered the 90’s  distinctive styles began to form. Groups like N.W.A. epitomized gangsta rap and G-Funk. Alternative, jazz based  rap was captured by Arrested Development and Pete rock & CL Smooth. Outkast became the first group to put Atlanta on the map as a epicenter of rap culture. Women like Missy Elliot, Queen Latifah, Lil’ Kim and the duo, Salt N’ Pepa were making the strongest presence known.

There are criticisms to be had. The more fun-focused, sarcastic  albeit political nature of the earliest hip-hop records in the 1970’s  were more focused on social justice. That is the inherent core of hip-hop, to address real issues with a new form of music made from the oppressed for the masses. However, because of its relatability and its easy access – afterall all someone really needed was drum  (or a bucket ) a group of people, a turntable  and their voice – hip-hop attracted anyone who felt unseen, unheard and wanted a revolution in a time of post-political upheaval of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War.

Rap is a general subfield of hip-hop and rap itself has become a never ending web of intersectional sounds, ideas and unheard voices  Unlike previous decades, DJ’s and Producers today are generally more behind the scenes – not part of the center movement as they were in the golden age of hip-hop. Rap is far more personality and lyrically based than the earliest day well – beats matter but the rhymes, and whose spitting them, matter far, far more.

The bing rap of the 2000’s is often seen in the mainstream and many of the top 40 artists are as far removed from issues which formed hip-hop in the first place. But artists like Jon Connor, Kendrick Lamar,  NoName and Vic Mensa are actively addressing the same social inequities  like their predecessors did 40 years ago.

Whether you call it rap or hip-hop – at the core it has always been about Black survival throughout history.


Siona Peterous. Photo by Julie TrippSiona Peterous
Siona is a senior majoring in political science with a concentration in international relations and a double minor in media studies and Arabic and Middle Eastern studies. She is heavily influenced by her family’s immigrant background and often writes about the intersection of politics with identity. Siona is an advocate for grassroots activism and political movements, and her dream job involves multimedia-based investigative journalism. She has a plethora of life goals but is only focusing on two right now: learning as many languages as possible and perfecting her Instagram aesthetic.

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