Who Created Hip-Hop?
If you’re a hip-hop fan, chances are your library is stacked with the pioneers of the genre like Jay-Z and Ye. You might even frequent the record store to buy the latest hip-hop albums.
But have you ever paused to ponder how exactly hip-hop started and how it evolved into the global phenomenon it is today?
Depending on whether you ask a hip-hop historian like Jeff Chang or any of the millions of mega fans in the world today, the answer to “who created hip-hop?” will look a bit different.1 But regardless of the exact answer you get, you’ll undoubtedly unearth a story that’s as rich and riveting as the genre itself.
Who Invented Hip-Hop?
Regardless of our ability to name stand-alone hip-hop titans like Kendrick Lamar, Nicki Minaj, or Drake, the truth is that hip-hop has always been a collaborative genre.
So, when was hip-hop created? Hip-hop, at its origins, was a movement even more than a music genre. It started in the 1970s, when three talented deejays from the underground music scene began the serious business of playing with hip-hop music’s possibilities.
DJ Kool Herc
Jamaican-American immigrant Clive Campbell (DJ Kool Herc) was 18 when he joined forces with his sister and created a “Back to School Jam” in his family’s South Bronx apartment. The DJ had already garnered underground fame as a block party deejay. His commitment to bringing the neighborhood together could be seen as a response to the uptick in segregation, poverty, and gang violence in his community.
Entry to the first Jam held on August 11, 1973, cost 25¢ for women and 50¢ for fellas. The theme was breakdancing. If you’d been one of the lucky attendees at hip-hop’s inaugural set, you’d have picked up on three influences that laid the foundation for hip-hop’s evolution:2
Campbell’s spins were inspired by Jamaican dub music. At the heart of his sound was a guitar ramp and two turntables, which blended to form elongated instrumental breakbeats that created continuity between songs.
Called the “Merry Go Round” in deejaying parlance, DJ Kool used extensive percussion to encourage breakers (known as b-boys and b-girls) to keep bopping. These beats would form the heartbeat of hip-hop’s sound and later development.
Call and response
Just as elemental to his signature was DJ Kool’s use of toasting, a call-and-response mode rooted in his Jamaican heritage, where Kool would chant rhythmically over the beat. He’d call out phrases like, “To the beat, y’all!” and “You don’t stop” to buoy the crowd’s momentum.
Lance Taylor, better known as Afrika Bambaata, was another stand-out deejay from the Bronx, NY. Whether DJ Kool Herc inspired the young activist’s signature Elektro Funk or he predated his contemporary remains a hotly debated topic among hip-hop historians.3
But several contributions can be singularly attributed to Bambaata:
- He helped bring the sounds of the South Bronx to a global audience by helming the world’s first-ever hip-hop tour
- With the release of the single “Planet Rock” in 1982, he helped garner respect for the practice of “sampling,” a technique wherein songs from other artists are repurposed and woven into a new track to add layers and dimension
Bambaata was also something of a prophet of peace: He wanted to use hip-hop music as a Trojan horse for a “wage love, not war” mentality.
Like DJ Kool, Bambaata was deeply troubled by the crime and violence corroding the Black American community. An extension of his Universal Zulu Nation enterprise, his version of hip-hop sought to pave a path between political dispossession and the salvific properties of music.4
DJ Kool is typically credited for hip-hop’s backbeat. Still, Joseph Saddler—aka Grandmaster Flash—is recognized for taking hip-hop a step further.
Just some of his contributions include:
- Cutting and mixing
- Spinning records in multiple directions, including counterclockwise
- Needle dropping, which led to “scratching”
- Beat Juggling, or the Quick Mix Theory. In this technique, DJs loop one song by using two identical recordings, creating a lush, layered effect.5
While DJ Kool Herc (who Grandmaster Flash has called one of his heroes) never fully stepped into the commercial limelight, Grandmaster Flash is arguably one of hip-hop’s most famous pioneers.
He formed the group Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five 1978, just a few of whom’s contributions included:
Mega-influential hip-hop songs like “The Message” and “Planet Rock”
Their emphasis on the need for social change. Tracks like “The Birthday Party,” “Freedom,” and “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” distinguished the group as arbiters of both music and peace.7
In 2007, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five became the first hip-hop artists to be inducted into the Rock and Roll of Hame.
Who and What Else Inspired Hip-Hop?
These aforementioned artists—known today as the “Holy Trinity” of hip-hop—launched the then-mint condition sounds that shaped the genre we know today by heart.
But even hip-hop’s originators didn’t exist in a vacuum.
For one thing, each hip-hop artist’s musical, artistic, and even technical sensibilities were influenced by their Caribbean and Jamaican heritage. For another, hip-hop (and its subgenre, rap music) was also influenced by:8
- The Rhythm & Blues (R&B) genre
- West African griots, or traditional storytellers
- Black Power poets like Amiri Baraka and the Last Poets
- Jailhouse toasts
- The dozens, a rapid-fire word game where opponents trade insults
- Other revered deejays in the New York club scene like DJ Hollywood and Eddie Cheever
There was also Coke La Rock, a friend of DJ Kool Herc’s, who is believed to have dropped the first-ever lines of rap when Herc started handing him the mic at block parties. One of his lines, “There’s not a man that can’t be thrown, not a horse that can’t be rode, a bull that can’t be stopped, there’s not a disco that I, Coke La Rock, can’t rock,” is primarily considered the origin point of MCing. To help you fully appreciate and understand the influences of hip-hop and rap or other subgenres, you will need to know the differences between hip-hop and rap and other subgenres.
Tracing the Evolution of Hip-Hop
When electronic music crested the cultural landscape in the 1980s and ’90s, it introduced even more sophistication and nuance to the sounds laid down by hip-hop’s Holy Trinity and their descendants.
The explosive development of technology—with the opening of communications channels and never-before-heard sounds—propelled hip-hop’s foray onto the world stage. One of the seminal songs memorializing hip-hop’s newfound popularity was the Sugarhill Gang’s 1979 chart-topper, “Rapper’s Paradise,” which whisked hip-hop out of the Bronx and made it mainstream.
From there, the hip-hop culture and its bass-heavy music catapulted new voices and sounds recognized today as some of the biggest names in music history. Hip-hop historians chart the genre’s progression by breaking it up into three distinctive, transformative eras.9
The Golden Era
The Golden Era refers to hip-hop’s period of commercialization. Record labels ranging from Def Jam to Tommy Boy started hustling to meet the burgeoning demand for this dizzying new strain of music. This is when some of the most scene-stealing artists, including Chuck D and KRS One, came to dominate the scene.
The New School
The New School roughly started in the mid-’80s, when a fresh generation of musical talent swept hip-hop. Some of the biggest names to redefine the movement were:
By the end of the decade, 90s female hip-hop artists like Queen Latifah were demonstrating to the boys that they, too, had plenty to be vocal about—and were just as gifted at commanding the mic and the crowd.
Meanwhile, N.W.A. erupted onto the scene, giving birth to the subgenre of gangsta rap music, a rawer, darker form that testified to hard-knock life on the streets of Compton, California.
At this time, the infamous West Coast vs East Coast feud broke out between LA’s Death Row Records and New York’s Bad Boy Records. Many believe the smoldering dispute was responsible for the murders of two of hip-hop’s most brilliant and fundamental figures: Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. (or Biggie Smalls).
In the late 1990s, a new wave of hip-hop artists struck out and shook things up, the most popular ones including:
- Lauryn Hill
- Wu-Tang Clan
- P Diddy
The 21st Century
By the turn of the millennium, hip-hop hadn’t just proven that it wasn’t a passing phase—it became arguably the most daring and popular genre in the world. Eminem became a household name, Jay-Z conquered, Ye made waves, and female hip-hop artists like Beyonce, M.I.A., and Nicki Minaj blew up the stage and billboards.
The movement’s massive influence persists today, sparking debates like “who is the greatest rapper of all time?” and the kind of hip-hop music it spurred continues to evolve and electrify—all thanks to that first phenomenal trio of deejays.
Honor Hip-Hop with Victrola
Whether you trace hip-hop’s origins to those first three New York artists or the constellation of influences that formed the crucible of their musical chops, paying homage to hip-hop heritage starts with a single instrument: your own ears.
Pay tribute to the prophets by adding their vinyl albums to your collection. Whether you want to bump to the sounds of N.W.A. or break to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five in your living room, Vitrola’s classic hip-hop records, turntables, and audio equipment has everything you need to jam the night away.
- The New York Times. 'Can't Stop Won't Stop': A Nation of Millions. https://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/04/books/review/cant-stop-wont-stop-a-nation-of-millions.html
- Icon Collective. Hip hip history: from the streets to the mainstream.https://iconcollective.edu/hip-hop-history/
- Forbes. The man who invented hip hop.https://www.forbes.com/2009/07/09/afrika-bambaataa-hip-hop-music-business-entertainment-cash-kings-bambaataa.html?sh=6f71b7d2676d
- HuffPost. Afrika Bambaataa: The History of The Universal Zulu Nation, Hip-Hop, Culture and Electro Funk. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/afrika-bambaataa-the-hist_b_4214189
- Rock the Bells. Grandmaster flash details his early rap days in origins of hip-hop.https://rockthebells.com/articles/grandmaster-flash-details-his-early-rap-days-in-origins-of-hip-hop/
- The Culture Creature. ‘The Message,’ by Grandmaster Flash and the furious five, is the embodiment of new york city’s spirt.https://www.culturecreature.com/grandmaster-flash-the-message-history/
- Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Grandmaster Flash and the furious five.https://www.rockhall.com/inductees/grandmaster-flash-and-furious-five
- Britannica. Hip-hop, definition, history, culture, & facts.https://www.britannica.com/art/hip-hop
- Red Bull. History of hip-hop: how the genre took over the world.https://www.redbull.com/in-en/history-of-hip-hop
- Teach Rock. DJ kool herc.https://teachrock.org/people/dj-kool-herc/