Hip hop music is generally believed to have been started in the 70s. While the earn days of rap were less polished than many of today’s rappers, that raw, gritty and sometimes even off beat early hip hop music is part of what makes it so great.
The following are some of the best 70s hip hop rappers that introduced this newborn genre to the world.
1. DJ Kool Herc
DJ Kool Herc is known as the father of hip-hop. On August 11, 1973, 18-year-old DJ Kool Herc played music for his little sister and her guests at a neighborhood party at their apartment building. The party raised money so his little sister could buy new back-to-school clothes.
During this party, DJ Kool Herc invented what is known as the “break” in hip-hop culture. Using two turntables, a common practice of disco DJs at the time, Kool Herc played the same record on both. Only he switched from the instrumental portions of one song from each album to the other.
The result created a continuous instrumental sound. DJ Kool Herc made rhyming announcements over a microphone while the instrumental music played. In doing so, he invented hip-hop.
2. The Last Poets
The Last Poets emerged in the late 1960s and are considered forerunners of hip-hop music. They formed on Malcolm X’s birthday in 1968 at Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem, New York. They wrote politically charged spoken word poetry called raps to a rhythmic beat. All of their raps focused on social awareness.
The Last Poets achieved success with their self-titled debut album. It successfully broke into the US Top 10 Charts. They frequently appeared on national television shows and in major motion pictures throughout their long careers that still exist to this day. The trio was on President Richard Nixon’s counter-intelligence program in the 1970s.
With hip-hop rising in the mid-80s, The Last Poets are considered influential founders of the movement.
3. Afrika Bambaataa
No hip-hop list of founding members is complete without mentioning Afrika Bambaataa. The son of an activist, Afrika Bambaataa was in the Black Spades street gang. He became a music fan when listening to his mother’s extensive electric jazz and rock music collection. He became a break DJ not long after DJ Kool Herc invented the concept.
In the late 70s, Bambaataa created the Universal Zulu Nation, a group of socially aware rappers, DJs, break dancers, and graffiti artists. He built his notoriety by performing at block parties around the South Bronx. And the Zulu Nation is officially recognized as the first-ever hip-hop organization. The group was founded on November 12, 1977.
4. Grandmaster Flash
Grandmaster Flash and his group, The Furious Five, were the first hop hop group to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He is notable for inventing three hip-hop techniques. They include the backspin technique that turned breaks into endless loops, punch phrasing that isolated short segments of music, and scratching.
The original group included himself, Keef Cowboy, Melle Mel, and Kid Creole. They coined the phrase hip-hop. Grandmaster Flash came up with it after telling a friend he joined the army. He rapped the words hip/hop/hip/hop to a rhythmic beat. Keef Cowboy then began including it into their performances.
5. Grandmaster Caz
Grandmaster Caz is famous for accusing the Sugar Hill Gang of stealing his lyrics for the massive hit song “Rapper’s Delight.” He claimed that his manager Big Bank Hank took the lyrics and used them during his portion of the famous song.
Big Bank Hank admitted this fact later and proved it. During the song, he pointed out that Hank spells Grandmaster Caz’s nickname Casanova Fly. That was never Big Bank Hank’s nickname.
Like many before, Grandmaster Caz was inspired by DJ Kool Herc and his block parties. Caz admitted that he stole his DJ equipment during the 1977 New York City blackout. He is on the 1982 soundtrack to the hip-hop movie Wild Style.
6. Sugar Hill Gang
Speaking of Big Bank Hank, the Sugar Hill Gang is famous for having the first hip-hop song break into the Billboard Top 40. 1979’s “Rapper’s Delight” is the quintessential early hip-hop track. The group was formed in Englewood, New Jersey, even though their name and record label was based on the Sugar Hill, Harlem neighborhood in New York City.
The group re-formed in 1999 and has been touring ever since. They launched their first world tour in 2016 and performed on Jimmy Kimmel Live in 2019.
7. Coke La Rock
Coke La Rock is credited with being the first hip-hop MC. La Rock was with DJ Kool Herc during his first block party in 1973. He began his raps as shout-outs to the crowd. But at later parties, Coke La Rock moved on to speaking poetry.
Coke La Rock improvised his words and invented phrases like “you rock, and you don’t stop” and “hotel, motel, you don’t tell, we don’t tell.” Sometimes coming up with a legendary rap name can be difficult. Coke La Rock said his name came to him one night in a dream.
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8. DJ Grand Wizzard Theodore
The 1970s invented hip-hop. That means almost every artist on this list innovated something. DJ Grand Wizzard Theodore is no exception and is the inventor of the scratch technique, notably the art of the needle drop.
He invented his famous scratch while playing music too loud in his bedroom. His mother entered the room to chastise his loud music. DJ Grand Wizzard Theodore placed his hand on the record to pause it. He accidentally moved in backward and forward in the process, and he loved the sound it made. The rest is history.
9. Funky 4 + 1
Funky 4 + 1 received hip-hop’s first major record deal. The group is also the first rap group to perform on national live television. They received national attention when they performed on Saturday Night Live on Valentine’s Day in 1981.
They also had history's first female MC. Sha-Rock was born in North Carolina but moved to the Bronx, where she immersed herself into early hip-hop culture. MC Sha-Rock is the plus one of the Funky 4 + 1, and her style inspired MC Lyte and DMC from Run DMC. She is first heard on the 1979 single “Rapping and Rocking the House.”
Her style of innovative rapping is known as the echo chamber. The Funky 4 + 1 were invited to go on tour with Blondie, but contractual obligations prevented them from doing so.
10. Lady B.
Not to be left out by history, Lady B. is another female pioneer of 70s hip hop. Lady B., known by her birth name Wendy Clark, began her hip-hop career in 1979 at the WHAT radio station in Philadelphia. That year, she recorded her first single, “To the Beat, Y’all.” The song, and its title phrase, are a staple in hip-hop that persists with no sign of disappearing.
Lady B. is called the Godmother of Hip-Hop and is among the first radio DJs to play rap music outside the New York City scene. In Philadelphia, she helped launch the careers of Will Smith and Soulsonic Force by playing their songs before anyone else in the area.
11. Mr. Magic
Like Lady B., Mr. Magic contributed to the early days of 70s hip-hop with his radio program. John “Mr. Magic” also debuted over the airwaves in 1979. Mr. Magic aired his “Disco Showcase” program during a paid time slot on New York City’s WHBI. Mr. Magic didn’t realize it at the time, but he was airing the first hip-hop radio program.
It wasn’t long before Mr. Magic’s skills moved him to WBLS, where he hosted the first exclusively hip-hop commercial radio program, Rap Attack. Over the years, he would feud with the famous Kool DJ Red Alert for the most popular hip-hop radio show in New York. He would release his single “Magic’s Message (There’s a Better Way)” a few years after his radio debut.
12. DJ Disco Wiz
DJ Disco Wiz collaborated with his friend Grandmaster Caz to form the Mighty Force, one of the earliest crews in hip-hop. He is recognized as the first Latino DJ of hip-hop.
The crew’s original roster included Prince Whipper Whip, the first Puerto Rican/Latino rapper. The Mighty Force are also pioneers of the rap battle scene, where two crews would face off to see which had the better MCs, DJs, and break dancers.
The pairing of Grandmaster Caz and DJ Disco Wiz created hip-hop’s first mixed plate in 1977. A mixed plate is a dubbed recording that combines sound bites, paused beats, and special effects. Later in his career, DJ Disco Wiz also created The Hip-Hop Meets Spoken Wordz – a poetry and hip-hop performance series for up-and-coming Latino talents to get exposure.
13. DJ Hollywood
DJ Hollywood is a radio DJ from Harlem, New York. He created the hip-hop style. Before DJ Hollywood, rappers and MCs rhythm-talked in short, patterned sequences. At the time, this was common practice. DJ Hollywood extended that concept by telling the long, rhythmic stories that hip-hop fans know today.
DJ Hollywood preferred to perform live, so many of his performances do not exist today. However, he did release a single called “Shock Shock the House” in 1980. DJ Hollywood is the first DJ to perform at the Apollo Theater with two turntables. His contribution to hip-hop is immeasurable. He is still performing to this day.
14. The Cold Crush Brothers
The Cold Crush Brothers formed in 1978 from various other groups around the Bronx area. The original line-up included DJ Tony Tone on the turntables. Tony Tone started his career with the Brothers Disco. DJ Charlie Chase, who had a brief career with the Furious Five, joined him. The two joined forces with Easy AD, who left the Asalaam Brothers to join the Cold Crush Brothers.
An underground recording of their rap battle against the Fabulous Five gave the Cold Crush Brothers street cred and catapulted them into the history books.
The group still tours, and they have had a long list of early 70s hip-hop rappers and DJs join the ensemble. Grandmaster Caz, Almighty Kay Gee, and Jerry Dee Lewis were founding members. Previous members included Dot-A-Rock, Mr. Tee, Whipper Whip, Money Ray, and DJ Outlaw.
15. The Treacherous Three
The Treacherous Three knew each other from living in the same neighborhood, attending the same school, or playing basketball in the same city parks. One of the founding members was Kool Moe Dee had had a long career that stretched into the 80s and 90s.
Other original members included DJ Easy Lee, Special K, LA Sunshine, and Spoonie Gee. Gee left the group in the late 70s, but they still appeared as a B-side of one of his solo records.
The group merged rap and rock long before RUN-DMC made it famous. Their song “Body Rock” was released in 1980 and was very popular. The group is known for its fast-rapping style called double-time rapping.
16. Kurtis Blow
Before Eminem was credited with being one of hip-hop’s greatest lyricists, Kurtis Blow had that distinguished honor. He even recorded a song with the Nobel-Laureate-winning and legendary songwriter Bob Dylan. Not even Eminem can claim that accomplishment.
Born in New York and raised in Harlem, Kurtis Blow is the first rapper to be signed to a major record label. He signed with Mercury Records in 1979. His first single, “Christmas Rappin’,” sold over 400,000 copies. It was the first commercially successful rap song in history. Kurtis Blow also helped to launch the careers of legendary rap groups The Fat Boys and Run-DMC.
17. George Clinton
Not only is George Clinton considered one of the pioneers of funk music, but he also inspired hip-hop. His legendary P-Funk style that merged his Parliament group from the 70s with his Funkadelic group also from the 70s created the popular 1990s G-Funk style of rap.
George Clinton began his long career as a staff writer for Motown in the 1960s. In the early 70s, Clinton combined Parliament and Funkadelic to create a sound similar to Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, and Frank Zappa. His funky tracks and beats were never too far from 1790s rappers and their hip-hop block parties. George Clinton has remained active and still does tours.
Top 70s Hip Hop Rappers, Final Thoughts
Pioneering a new genre, hip-hop rappers of the 70s were innovative, creative, and passionate. As the original trailblazers, they helped shape hip hop and continue influencing new generations of artists with their imprint on the music industry.