Best New Hip-Hop

History of Hip-Hop Culture

Created by African Americans, Latino Americans, and Carribean Americans, hip-hop (both as a musical genre and as a culture) was born in the block parties of the Bronx in the 1970s. Hip-hop culture popularized and represents 4 main art forms (referred to as pillars) including rapping, DJing, graffiti, and break dancing. The musical genre can be broken into 3 phases: old school, new school, and 21st century. Here at We Are: The Guard, we want to bring you the best new indie hip-hop artists, who combine the historic elements of the genre with new innovations.

Old School

Old School hip-hop refers to hip-hop music created between 1970 and the mid 80s. Throughout this period, the genre began to reach commercial success. Thanks to a few key players, some of the defining hip-hop elements were born during the old school period.

DJ Kool Herc is known as one of the originators of breakbeat DJing, rapping, and breakdancing.  With Bronx clubs struggling with gang violence, and other clubs in the city catering to a disco crowd, the teenagers of the Bronx attended parties at DJ Kool Herc and his sister, Cindy’s apartment. Breakbeat samples percussion or instrumental breaks to create new beats. With a two-turntable set up, he was able to play 2 copies of the same record to elongate and manipulate the break. He would speak over the break, instructing dancers who he referred to as break boys and break girls. By doing so, DJ Kool Herc began many of the DJing techniques and hip-hop dance trends that have defined the genre. While he did not see commercial success, artists including GrandMaster Flash took on his techniques.

As a teenager, Grandmaster Flash learned from DJs like Kool Herc and eventually started experimenting, ultimately creating his own techniques. Grandmaster Flash built on Kool Herc’s breakbeat technique by utilizing headphones. While on turntable played the break, he would search for the break on the other record with headphones and switch when the first break ended. This technique is called backspin. He also created a technique called punch phrasing, where he would use a mixer to isolate short fragments of music, such as a horn section, and rhythmically add it over the main beat. While he did not invent scratching, Grandmaster Flash perfected the technique and ultimately changed the role of the DJ: He didn’t just play records, he used them to create new, live music on the spot.

By the end of the 70s, The Sugarhill Gang released the first rap song to become a top 40 hit. Rapper’s Delight opened the door to commercial success for the hip-hop genre.

New School

The mid-1980s marked the beginning of the new school era for hip hop music. Defined by artists like LL Cool J, Run-D.M.C., and the Beastie Boys, hip-hop began to reach new audiences. Rappers like LL Cool J and Public Enemy changed the content of rap lyrics from party songs to exploring themes of romance and political commentary. The Beastie Boys popularized digital sampling, and a new hip-hop movement formed on the west coast with top albums like Straight Outta Compton. Artists including Tupac, Notorious B.I.G., Diddy, and The Wu-Tang Clan helped the genre become the best selling genre in the US.

21st Century

In the 2000s, hip-hop continued to innovate, with new figures and styles coming to the forefront. Artists like Eminem, Dr. Dre, Nelly, Jay Z, OutKast, and Kanye West rose to popularity during this time. In the early to mid 2000s, hip-hop album sales began to decline. Journalists speculate that this drop in sales, however, was not due to a lack of interest in the genre, but due to illegal downloads and streaming. At this point, society began to question the monetary value of music. As physical CDs were no longer essential, free means of listening became available to consumers. As a result, however, it became easier than ever for musicians to get their music out to the public. Specifically on Soundcloud, rappers surged in popularity, eventually leading to radio play. Some of the biggest artists to come out of Soundcloud include Post Malone, Lil Uzi Vert, Bryson Tiller, and Trippie Redd. In the late 2010s, hip-hop entered a new golden age and surpassed rock as the most popular genre in the US.

Hip-Hop Subgenres

Over the years, subgenres of hip-hop emerged. Based on the original 4 pillars, but adding new innovations, snap, trap, crunk, and bounce music were created.

Crunk originated in the late 1990s-early 2000s in Memphis, Tennessee eventually migrating and gaining popularity in Atlanta. The word crunk is derived from the phrase “cranked up,” which describes being excited. Crunk combines elements of bass music and call and response. Snap music describes a lighter, chill version of crunk.

Bounce music is from New Orleans and is identified by its high energy, hip-hop dance, call and response lyrics, whistling, synths, and drum machines. When hurricane Katrina hit, many bounce artists were forced to evacuate to Texas, including Big Freedia. These artists continued to perform and create, growing a new resurgence for the genre in Houston. The genre is still widely popular in the south and has been incorporated into different styles of rap.

While trap music resurged in the late 2010s, it has been around since the 1990s. Trap music can describe hip-hop that utilizes quick hi-hats, heavy bass, a half time feel, a monophonic drone, and dark themes. The subgenre originated in Atlanta and was coined trap in response to the music coming out of trap houses (places where drugs are sold). With artists like TI and Lil John at the forefront, trap music became very popular. Throughout the early 2010s, the genre’s popularity expanded thanks to artists like Future and Chief Keef. The genre returned again in 2015 with Fetty Wap’s Trap Queen.

Social Activism in Hip-Hop

Throughout history, black people have used music to describe the times (ex. Mississippi Goddam, Say It Loud), and Gil Scott-Heron is credited with continuing this oral tradition into hip-hop. Gangsta rap specifically, and hip-hop as a whole, get lumped in with a culture of violence, unjustifiably so. Gangsta rap often describes the social and political environment, as well as the violence surrounding urban communities. As said by Scotty Morris to the New York Times, “In some respects, rap music and violence seem to go hand in hand…But it’s not the music itself, it’s the environment. Violence was here long before hip-hop.”  This could lead to a whole other discussion about systematic and environmental racism in the US, but I’ll leave that for another day. Many political hip-hop songs address racism in the United States like Childish Gambino’s This is America, Where Is The Love? by the Black Eyed Peas, and How Can We Be Free? By Tupac. To all who say that protest songs are dead: They’re not. They just don’t sound like the folk music of the 1960s. Protest songs are loud and clear, they’re just in hip-hop.