The Evolution of Rap Music

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A Brief History

On September 16, 1979, the Rap music trio The Sugarhill Gang was formed, and they released their groundbreaking hit, “Rapper’s Delight,” the first Rap song to land in the Billboard Top 40 as a mainstream hit song.  America was baptized into a new mainstream musical genre that has persisted over the years, a movement also called “Hip Hop.”

Digging Deeper

Finding its origins in New York City during the 1970’s, African American and to some extent Latino Americans developed the Rap style of talk music, which has evolved into the wider genre of Hip Hop which includes “beat box” singing, record scratching DJ’ing, break dancing, and distinctive clothing, car decorating and even graffiti. Originally found in the Afro-ethnic neighborhoods and social circles, the Sugarhill Gang’s hit by the rapping trio put Rap squarely on the American (and European) musical map, although the song, “Rapper’s Delight,” only made it to #36 on the charts.  Still, the song has become a notable part of musical history and is highly recognizable by most Americans.  The “Disco” era of music probably contributed to the evolution of Rap.  While The Sugarhill Gang did not make another hit single, they did have some further success in Europe.

As Rap burst into the mainstream, posers such as the group Blondie tapped the genre with their hit song, “Rapture,” though by usual Rap standards the song is pretty lame!  Primarily the purview of African American and Caribbean performers, some White Americans have had remarkable success in the genre, especially Eminem, whose Rap opus, “Rap God,” is this author’s personal favorite Rap song.  (Since you were wondering, the performance of the Fat Boys with Chubby Checker doing a new take on “The Twist” in 1988 would be this author’s second favorite Rap song.  Thanks for asking!)  As with other musical genres, Rap has had its share of one hit wonders, such as MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice.  (Note: Vanilla Ice was the first Rap artist to score a #1 chart hit with 1990’s hit, “Ice Ice Baby.”) The Rap music that started out as an informal mode of self-entertainment and a club phenomenon quickly became a major force in the radio and recording industries.  Some of the biggest music stars today have their roots firmly implanted in Rap/Hip Hop, such as Kanye West, Snoop Dogg, P Diddy, Dr. Dre, Pitbull, Drake, Jay Z and some notable female performers such as Nicki Minaj, Lizzo, Cardi B, Iggy Azalea, Eve, Lil Kim, and Missy Elliott.  (Of course, by naming a few artists we are leaving out many, many highly successful rappers and hip hop artists, so feel free to tell us which ones we should have listed.)

Rap music evolved into various sub-genres, such as the East Coast vs. West Coast styles and conflict, Gangsta Rap, Snap Music, Crunk Music, Glitch Hop, Wonky, Alternative and other styles.  Rap music can vary from spoof-like comedy to seriously dark, violent content, sometimes with misogynistic tendencies.  The frequent dropping of “N”-bombs in some Rap music has also earned some disapproval from many different sources.  Meanwhile, some of the big stars of Hip Hop have branched off into becoming big stars on the movie and television screens as well, such as Eminem, Ice-T, Ice Cube, Queen Latifah, Mos Def and others.  Sadly, Rap has also had a dark side, in which Rappers have somehow created serious animosity amongst themselves, resulting in very public unsavory exchanges and even violence.  The most infamous case of Rap rivalry turning into violent death resulted int the unsolved murders of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. (aka, Biggie Small).

You can be assured Rap has made it to the mainstream by a particular incident in which a line from Outkast’s #1 hit of 2003, “Hey Ya!” which was quoted by Jenna Bush, daughter of then President George W. Bush at the Republican Convention in 2004, when she said her parents would, “Shake it like a Polaroid picture!”

(Special Bonus: The 3rd favorite Rap song of this author is “Baby Got Back,” by Sir Mix-a-Lot in 1992, another mainstream #1 hit that spent a full 5 weeks at the top of the charts.)

Question for students (and subscribers): What is your favorite line from any Rap song? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Reese, Eric. The History of Hip Hop. Eric Reese, 2019.

Serrano, Shea. The Rap Year Book: The Most Important Rap Song From Every Year Since 1979, Discussed, Debated, and Deconstructed. Abrams Image, 2015.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by Russell James Smith of The Sugarhill Gang performing in 2007, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.  This image was originally posted to Flickr by russelljsmith at https://www.flickr.com/photos/48889087714@N01/451422470. It was reviewed on  by FlickreviewR and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.