So, what is hip hop music?
Hip hop is more than music. It’s a culture that was cultivated within inner cities of the United States but has become a worldwide powerhouse, influencing modern music and generations to come.
In this guide, we’ll cover everything you ever wanted to know about the history, genre, and culture of hip hop music.
From the instruments to the lyrics, we’ll look into what hip hop music is.
Definition: What is Hip Hop Music?
Are you looking for a hip hop music definition?
Hip hop is a musical genre from the inner cities of the United States. In the 1970s in New York City, African-Americans, Jamaicans, and Latinos combined rhythmic drum beats, DJing, and rapping to create a new and unique musical genre.
Rappers usually provide the vocals in hip hop songs. These musicians use a rhythmic vocal technique over the music of a song. Instead of instruments, the backing music tracks come from a DJ playing records and performing turntablist techniques.
Hip hop songs combine a variety of other genres, such as R&B, funk, disco, and dub, and can even sometimes include spoken word.
Hip Hop Music Characteristics
Hip hop music has unique characteristics that differentiate it from pop, R&B, and rock music.
While some hip hop songs will have singing and backing vocals, the MC is the lead vocalist on a hip hop track. The MC uses a rhyming vocal technique called rapping instead of singing.
Rap has since splintered into many different subgenres and styles since the early years of hip hop.
DJing and Turntablism
The DJ is just as important to a hip hop song as the MC. DJs originally used two vinyl turntables and a mixer to loop records and extend the length of the break inside a track.
This birthed turntablism, and DJs quickly learned how to use a turntable as a musical instrument. DJs began scratching records to create brand new sounds that revolutionized modern music.
Thanks to the original DJs, the looping of key samples of a track is now a key component of countless modern pop and hip hop songs.
Compared to a drum kit, drum machines were relatively inexpensive during the early years of hip hop. This made them an ideal alternative for inner-city kids who wanted to make music. The sound of the original Roland TR-808 is now iconic thanks to the rap pioneers of the 1980s.
Other drum machines that impacted hip hop production included the Roland TR-909, E-MU SP-1200, and Akai MPC.
Samples and Looping
The lack of instruments didn’t stop hip hop’s earliest musicians. All you needed to make a hip hop track was a turntable, a classic record, and a sampler. These young pioneers revolutionized the music industry by sampling the best parts of their parent record collection and creating new music with the samples.
No musical genre was safe from sampling as aspiring DJs found grooves in old funk, soul, rock, and jazz records. Some of the most sampled artists of all time include James Brown, The Winstons, and Lyn Collins.
Many hip hop musicians didn’t have the money to afford a drum machine or a DJ setup. Musicians learned how to mimic the sounds of the most popular drum machines with their mouths. Beatboxers used varying techniques to simulate an entire drum kit by using their vocal cords.
9 Examples of Hip Hop Music
Hip hop is an incredibly diverse musical genre. While it is a younger musical style, it quickly grew into a worldwide powerhouse. Below we’ve highlighted nine examples of hip hop music — you will find music from the last 40 years of hip hop evolution here.
“Rapper’s Delight” – The Sugarhill Gang
Arguably the first hip hop track to reach pop audiences, “Rapper’s Delight” was released in 1979 by The Sugar Hill Gang. The song uses Chic’s addictive hook from “Good Times” to keep the listener dancing and mesmerized throughout the song.
Clocking in at over 14 minutes, the original 12” record provided every member of The Sugarhill Gang plenty of time to showcase their MCing skills.
“Walk This Way” – Run DMC featuring Aerosmith
It wasn’t until the 1980s that hip hop began to get noticed by mainstream and pop radio. Thanks to MTV, RUN DMC’s video for “Walk This Way” opened the floodgates for rap artists and musicians.
Sampling Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way”, the song crossed over and saw rock and hip hop fans lining up at record stores to buy a copy. The song also revitalized Aerosmith’s career, which faltered in the early 80s.
“Push It” – Salt & Peppa
Not to be outdone by men, “Push It”was one of the first major all-female hip hop tracks to break through to the mainstream. Salt and Peppa as MCs, with their DJ Spinderella, showed that women can produce popular hip hop music, as well.
“Push It” offers a seductive dance song that is upbeat and fun. While suggestive, Peppa insists that it is not a sexual song and the phrase “push it” could mean anything.
“The Next Episode” – Dr. Dre featuring Snoop Dogg, Kurupt, Nate Dogg
In the late 90s, Dr. Dre and west coast rap dominated the hip hop industry. “The Next Episode” was one of Dr. Dre’s biggest hits and solidified Snoop Dogg as a major player in the hip hop industry.
Known as one the greatest hip hop producers of all time, Dr. Dre used David McCallum’s track, “The Edge”, perfectly for “The Next Episode”.
“Juicy” – The Notorious B.I.G.
Bad Boy Records, which the Notorious B.I.G. was a part of, dominated East Coast hip hop. Thanks to his lyrical genius, he used a smooth and seductive rap style to dominate the charts in the 90s.
“Juicy” is no exception. The song is a history of his life and how much he has gained as a rapper. Backing samples — provided by Spoonie Gee and The Rubber Band — add to the seductive sound of this track.
“Lose Yourself” – Eminem
Often heralded as the greatest rapper of all time,“Lose Yourself” might be Eminem’s magnum opus. Featured in the movie 8 Mile, the song parallels Eminem’s struggle to make it as a rapper.
“Lose Yourself” is an anthem for anyone who’s wanted to give up but couldn’t — emphasizing the idea that no matter how hard things may be, people can work as hard as they can to have the opportunities to succeed in life.
“Stronger” – Kanye West
Kanye West masterfully samples Daft Punk in his release “Stronger”. The samples and rap blur the lines between French house, EDM, and hip hop flawlessly.
West used the lyrics of “Stronger” to vent out his frustrations and to show that you need to stay strong to survive adversity. This is best displayed in the refrain as West paraphrases Friedrich Nietzche.
“XO Tour Lif3” – Lil Uzi Vert
Pushing the Emo Rap genre forward, Lil Uzi Vert hit the charts with his song “XO Tour Lif3”.
The song uses a combination of airy elements and lo-beats to produce its distinct backing music.
Throughout the song, Vert looks back at the sadness in his life, including suicidal thoughts, drug addiction, and failed relationships.
“Alright” – Kendrick Lamar
Inspired by a trip to South Africa, “Alright” is a story about hardship. After seeing how hard the struggle is there, it inspired him to write this record. Lamar’s line “everything will be alright” is a proclamation to anyone who’s working through a tough moment in their life.
The song uses jazz-influenced samples similar to other popular artists such as A Tribe Called Quest and The Roots. Combined with a few tonal changes, “Alright” is a unique and masterful example of hip hop music.
5 Top Hip Hop Musicians
Over the past 50 years, countless musicians shaped the hip hop community and its music. Below are five of the most respected rappers in the industry. Each of these musicians had a major impact on subsequent hip hop musicians and every modern rapper or producer.
The Notorious B.I.G.
Born Christopher Wallace, The Notorious B.I.G. had a monumental impact on hip hop music. As the focal point of the east coast rap scene during the golden age of rap, Biggie Smalls made gangsta rap sexy and seductive.
Working along with Bad Boy Records, Biggie revolutionized the NYC rap scene and gangster rap. His tracks used seductive samples that helped blur the line between R&B and gangster rap.
Classic tracks like “Juicy” and “Big Poppa”stood the test of time and are still regularly played for fans of hip hop music from around the world.
Unfortunately, Biggie’s life abruptly ended at the age of 24 after a drive-by shooting in 1997.
Eminem is one of the most successful and critically acclaimed rappers of all time. He’s also been known to smash racial barriers in the hip hop industry. His global success is also second to none, selling over 220 million records.
His first major release, The Slim Shady LP, showed his lyrical skills and rhyming technique. Since then, Eminem grew into one of the most respected lyricists of our time and often tops many “Best Rapper of All Time” lists.
Tupac found commercial and critical success after his move to the west coast. Here joined the West Coast Hip Hop scene and pushed gangster rap to the forefront of pop music. Shakur was also known for producing conscious rap songs during his career.
A prolific artist, Tupac starred in several films in the 90s, including Juice and Poetic Justice. Unfortunately, Shakur’s life and his feud with East Coast Hip Hop ended his life early. And just like Notorious B.I.G., Shakur was murdered in a drive-by shooting in 1996.
One of the most prolific female rappers, Missy Elliot showed that women can be an important part of the hip-hop industry. As a singer, songwriter, and producer, Elliot dominated the hip hop charts in the late 90s and 2000s.
Known as the Queen of Rap, Missy sold over 30 million records and won 4 Grammy Awards. She’s also the first female rapper inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Kendrick Lamar burst onto the hip hop scene with his debut album, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, in 2012. Since then, he is often heralded as one of the most influential artists of his generation.
One of the most awarded hip-hop artists of all time, Lamar won 13 Grammy Awards and a Pulitzer Prize.
Lamar’s diverse musical style helps him stand out in today’s flooded hip hop markets. While you’ll notice the West Coast influence in his work, Lamar incorporates so many different genres that it can be hard to pin down his style. You can expect jazzy tunes, soul, spoken word, danceable tracks, and more while listening to a Kendrick Lamar album.
The History of Hip Hop Music
Where did it all begin? Hip hop is a relatively new music genre compared to rock, pop, country, and disco. Let’s learn more about the history and origins of hip hop music.
The Origins of Hip Hop in the 1970s
NYC and its melting pot community sparked the revolution that we know as hip hop. DJs like Kool Herc, Disco Wiz, and Grandmaster Flash hosted block parties in the Bronx throughout the 70s.
Here, DJs played a mix of disco, funk, Jamaican dub, and soul records. They used two record players and a mixer to extend the break of the record. All the while, MCs would rap over DJs.
Hip hop was an underground artform until 1979 when the Sugarhill Gang released their single, “Rapper’s Delight”. This was the first hip hop single to see commercial and crossover success. Thanks to its inspiring sampling of Chic and the clever rapping of the Gang, “Rapper’s Delight” became an overnight classic hip hop song.
Old School Hip Hop in the 1980s
The early 80s gave hip hop home in nightclubs around the country. The electronic sound and samples on hip hop tracks were a perfect match for late-night parties in NYC, LA, and other cities.
The earliest old-school hip hop tracks have their roots in disco and often sampled the most popular disco songs of the era. By the mid-80s, artists began to expand and diversify their sounds.
Pioneers like Afrika Bambaataa and Marly Marl improved hip hop production techniques and began using classic drum machines and samplers to create the beats for the biggest tunes of the era.
Rappers also upped their game during the 80s. From Rakim to KRS-One, rap became poetry. These artists revolutionized rap, flow, and technique, creating a huge impact on every rapper who followed.
New School Hip Hop and MTV
The mid-1980s changed everything for hip hop. During this time, hip hop artists like RUN DMC, LL Cool J, Public Enemy, and the Beastie Boys broke through the charts and into mainstream pop culture.
Many of the biggest tracks and albums of the decade can be traced back to one producer — Rick Rubin. Rubin made a monumental impact on hip hop music during the 80s. Along with Russel Simmons, their label Def Jam Recordings got hip hop music played everywhere.
MTV started airing videos during this time, as well. With little play on public radio, Def Jam was happy to provide the start-up with new videos. Thanks to MTV play and their mainstream appeal, The Beastie Boys were the first rap artist to have a number 1 hit in the Billboard charts.
The Golden Age of Hip Hop
Hip hop was finally ready to grow in the late 80s. During the golden age of hip hop, the genre grew by leaps and bounds. Artists took liberties and diversified their sounds and tracks. This experimenting gave birth to many of today’s subgenres of hip hop.
Here, you saw artists like A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Gang Starr, and Public Enemy rise to prominence. The songs had intricate lyrics fused into a variety of musical themes. Hip hop finally received critical praise during this time, as well. Public Enemy’s album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, is lauded as one of the greatest albums of all time.
As the 90s grew closer, gangster rap burst onto the scene. Within NYC and LA, an East Coast – West Coast feud emerged.
On the west coast, NWA released Straight Outta Compton, and it changed music forever. The protest album lit a spark, and hip hop was never the same again. After NWA, we saw superstars like Tupac, Snoop Dogg, and Dr. Dre dominate the hip hop scene.
NYC and the rest of the east coast were busy, as well, during the golden age. Albums from the Wu-Tang Clan, the Fugees, NAS, and The Notorious B.I.G. were necessary to listen to for many hip hop fans.
During this time, hip hop expanded its reach outside of New York and California. Atlanta, Houston, Chicago, and Detroit eventually began to see success in the hip hop world.
Hip Hop Takes over the World
By the late 90s, hip-hop musicians saw massive crossover success. Led by Jay-Z, Puff Daddy, Timbaland, and Lil’ Wayne, rap and hip hop became commercially accepted. By 2000, hip hop began to dominate the airwaves of pop radio.
Hip hop musicians dominate the charts now, and artists like Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, and Jay-Z sell millions of records. Pop stars started to take notice and often incorporated hip hop elements and raps into their songs to appeal to larger audiences during this time.
Trap and Mumble Rap
Recently, trap and mumble rap have dominated the scene. Artists like Lil Nas X, Future, and Juice Wrld appeal to a new generation of hip hop fanatics.
While the genre is controversial with older rappers, these new artists are pushing music and hip hop into new directions. Pop artists like Katy Perry, The Weeknd, and Beyonce have been quick to add trap and mumble tracks to their albums.
Many trap and mumble rap artists found success through streaming services. Artists during the 2000s began releasing their music directly online. YouTube, Soundcloud, and Spotify helped artists like Lil Xan, Lil Pump, and XXXTentacion gain superstar status without a major record label deal.
Where is Hip Hop Music Now?
Since its start in the Bronx, hip hop has splintered into a wide range of genres. It is popular worldwide, allowing countless musicians to add their unique style and elements to the genre. A quick review of a list of hip hop genres will show that there are hundreds of sub-genres to listen to.
What started as a local underground music scene quickly grew into a worldwide powerhouse by the 2000s. Where will the sound go from here?
While old school and gangster rap will always have a special place in hip hop, today’s artists are branching out into new sounds.
Trap, emo rap, and mumble rap are incredibly popular currently. Hip hop musicians are also embracing EDM sounds, vaporwave, lo-fi sounds, and country music. The Weeknd’s latest release, Dawn FM, takes advantage of vaporwave, synth-wave, and new wave musical stylings.
Alternative hip hop artists like Atmosphere, Aesop Rock, and Run the Jewels are also pushing hip hop into new directions and revolutionizing lyrical techniques.
On the worldwide front, grime music is growing in popularity in the UK, and Asia has seen an explosion of hip hop artists.
As you can see, hip hop artists continue to break boundaries and transform the sound of the genre. No musical style is off-limits for modern hip hop musicians.
What is Hip Hop Music? Final Thoughts
From its beginnings in NYC block parties to becoming the most influential musical genre, hip hop has a long history. The genre has gone through growing pains and come out on top.
Hip hop continues and will continue to evolve and thrive with today’s young musicians and shows no signs of slowing down.