The Evolution of Hip Hop: From Its Roots to Mainstream Dominance


Hip hop has developed into one of the most significant musical genres and cultural influences in the world, moving from the street corner to the global stage. The creative and cultural phenomenon known as hip-hop has affected everything from politics to fashion. Hip-hop music is one of the primary expressions of this culture. Learn about important moments in the history of hip hop and its swift rise to prominence.

What is Hip Hop?

Hip-hop dance performance

Hip hop is a cultural movement that embraces several forms of art in addition to music. There are four key elements that define hip hop culture. The initial four fundamental concepts of hip hop were DJing/turntablism, MCing/rapping, B-boying/breaking, and visual/graffiti art. Additionally, these modes of expression have developed into new subcultures that have left a lasting impression.

How did Hip Hop get its name?

There are several theories as to where the name “hip-hop” originated. The most well-known one, however, features Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five rapper Keith (“Keef Cowboy”) Wiggins. The rapper made a reference to a friend who had enlisted in the military by saying hip/hop/hip/hop while mimicking the sound of soldiers marching. According to some reports, Wiggins collaborated on the term with Kevin (“Lovebug Starski”) Smith. Hip-hop was subsequently made popular through music, particularly the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.”

Characteristics of Hip Hop

Strong, rhythmic beat

Hip-hop music is most strongly unified by a steady beat. It moves the song along smoothly and provides a backdrop for the vocal delivery, whether it’s quick and forceful or sluggish and laid back. The majority of hip-hop beats aren’t just straightforward drum beats; rather, beat-making is a complex and diversified art form that gives rise to other songs and sounds.


Rapping is the primary vocal technique used in most hip-hop songs; it is a rhythmic, typically rhymed sort of chant that interacts with the beat. The spoken word, singing, autotune, and ad-libs are further vocal techniques.


In a hip-hop song, a “break” is a prolonged period of percussion; DJ Kool Herc is credited with creating the idea of a break and promoting dancing (also known as “breakdancing,” “breaking,” or “b-boying”) during these musical measures. Breaks are frequently used in contemporary hip-hop tracks to pay homage to the genre’s origins or to promote dancing.

History of Hip Hop

People dancing hip-hop


The Bronx neighborhood of New York City was the starting point of early hip-hop music in the 1970s. It began as a cooperative effort by overlapping Black, Latinx, and Caribbean American youth groups during block parties, which were neighborhood events where DJs played soul and funk music. They’re frequently credited as the first producers of contemporary hip-hop and rap music.

The following NYC DJs started experimenting with different techniques during parties, including longer percussive breaks called “breakbeats”, turntable techniques, scratching, freestyle, and improvised vocals based on Jamaican “toasting”:

  • DJ Kool Herc
  • Grand Wizzard Theodore
  • Grandmaster Flash
  • Afrika Bambaataa.

Expansion through the US

Rapper’s Delight, a song by the hip-hop group Sugarhill Gang that peaked at number 40 on the US Billboard charts in 1979, is today regarded as the first hip-hop hit and established hip-hop as a legitimate genre.


Hip-hop was in vogue in the 1980s. Numerous musicians started introducing fresh concepts to the genre, including as the use of drum kits—especially the 808—complexer sampling techniques, metaphorical rap lyrics, and more extensive collaboration with other genres like electro music. Hip-hop also gained popularity abroad in the 1980s, particularly in the UK, Japan, and Australia. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” was among the notable tracks. This style focused on drum machine rhythms, minimalism, shorter songs (which were more radio-friendly), and socio-political criticism.

New School hip-hop

In 1984, numerous hip-hop albums—especially from performers Run-DMC, LL Cool J, and the Beastie Boys—introduced what became known as “new school hip-hop.” The late 1980s and early 1990s were the golden period of hip-hop, in which numerous performers experienced tremendous public success while bringing significant advances with each new record. These musicians transitioned away from the party rhymes and funk influences of “old school hip-hop.”

The Golden Era

Gangsta rap, a subgenre that focused on the way of life of inner-city teenagers and was popularized by performers like Schoolly D, Ice-T, and N.W.A., gained popularity at this time. Other notable musicians during this time includes:

  • The Notorious B.I.G.
  • MC Hammer
  • Boogie Down Productions
  • Snoop Dogg
  • Nas
  • A Tribe Called Quest
  • Big Daddy Kane
  • Tupac Shakur
  • Public Enemy


Hip-hop gained popularity in the late 1990s and gave rise to a number of well-known performers, including Lil Wayne, Timbaland, Nelly, Puff Daddy, Jay-Z, Ja Rule, DMX, Eminem, and 50 Cent. The Best Rap Album award was introduced to the Grammys in 1995, and it was originally given to Naughty by Nature.

Alternative Hip-hop

Many musicians used more overtly punk, jazz, indie rock, and electronic influences throughout the 2000s. Some of the notable or emerging musicians at this time include:

  • Outkast
  • Kanye West
  • MF Doom
  • 2 Chainz
  • Gucci Mane
  • Juicy J
  • The Roots
  • Kid Cudi
  • Mos Def
  • Drake
  • Aesop Rock
  • Kendrick Lamar
  • Gnarls Barkley

Contemporary Hip-hop

At the turn of the century and into the contemporary era, the growth of online distribution and streaming services led to an explosion of artists, mixtapes, and experimentation. Some of the artists that have become well-known in recent years are as follows:

  • Waka Flocka Flame
  • Cardi B
  • Future
  • Migos
  • Travis Scott
  • Megan Thee Stallion
  • 21 Savage
  • Lil Uzi Vert

Hip Hop as a Global Phenomenon

Breakdancing on concrete floor

Despite the genre’s own internal challenges, hip-hop’s influence throughout the world kept growing. Born in London, raised in her family’s native Sri Lanka, and trained as a graphic designer, M.I.A. wrote politically radical lyrics that are set to musical tracks that are drawn from wildly diverse sources around the world. M.I.A. is one example of the cross-cultural reach of hip-hop in the early 21st century. The strain that dominates in modern-day Britain is grime, a music style that drew on inspirations from dancehall, house, and drum and bass to create a distinctively British sound that was, at least in part, a response to American trends. 


It’s important to understand the lengthy history of hip hop. Since it first emerged in the 1970s, this cultural movement has seen a significant amount of change and development. What began as a modest effort to establish a safe space for young people of color in New York City has expanded into a global phenomenon. Hip hop has been a powerful influence in shaping culture all around the world up until this point.