This year kicks off the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, a diasporic collaboration that started in the Bronx, but became a global phenomenon. It’s still a young genre but it has a layered and interesting history that dates back to West African oral traditions. In West Africa, stories were told in the form of singing and chanting to teach lessons and pass stories on to new generations. Once slave colonies were established in the Americas via the forced labor of kidnapped Africans, the slaves continued oral traditions through work songs. Work songs were a way to pass time, but also to communicate a variety of messages, from how to get to freedom to mocking masters and overseers, and more. In short, work songs set the foundation of popular Black-created music. In America, there was gospel, then blues, country, jazz, and soul, and those genres set the foundation for the emergence of hip-hop in the late 70s.
Hip-Hop has been through a lot in 50 years. The genre has expanded, gone global, and been made over multiple times. Some even say it’s dead but no matter what your opinion about hip-hop is, one thing we can all agree on is that it’s a genre with a story to tell and we should keep the facts alive. Here are 10 books that tell the story of how hip-hop came to fruition. This list isn’t exhaustive so let us know what you would have added to the list in the comments.
1. Hip Hop America by Nelson George
Nelson George is a writer, cultural critic and TV producer. The New York native is one of the first journalists to start covering hip-hop in its infancy. Hip Hop America chronicle’s George’s journey as a witness to the rise of hip-hop’s elements like DJ’ing, break dancing, graffiti, mc’ing and beatboxing.
2. Ladies First: Revelations of a Strong Woman by Queen Latifah
Queen Latifah is one of hip-hop’s foremost voices, especially when it comes to women in the game. She is one of the early rappers who set the blueprint for career expansion, going from rapper to actress and entrepreneur. This book is part autobiographical and part inspirational as she talks about how she overcame some dark times on the way to success.
3. When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip Hop Feminist Breaks It Down by Joan Morgan
The thing about hip-hop is it’s a political movement too. There’s a lot to be said about how the genre came to be. The youth who created it were living in dire conditions during a time in NYC when it was falling apart. Women are often ignored in that equation but of course, they were there too, and Joan Morgan applied her brilliant mind to examining the complexities of what it means to be a woman who loved hip-hop but from a post-Civil Rights, feminist perspective.
4. Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey by Bill Brewster
DJ culture is an important part of hip-hop culture. Kool Herc is credited with making some groundbreaking contributions to DJ culture which is at the center of hip-hop, but the art and history of DJ’ing runs back before the 70s. This book is a good read for anyone interested in DJ culture’s rise from the first record played on the radio to how the DJ shaped the music industry and pop culture in general across a variety of genres.
5. The Motherlode: 100+ Women Who Made Hip-Hop by Clover Hope
Hip-hop has long been dominated by men but there were always women in the mix playing with the big boys. This book highlights several power players who have shaped the music and the culture from Roxanne Shante to Nicki Minaj and more, by profiling each of these women and their career breakthroughs.
6. Sweat the Technique: Revelations on Creativity From The Lyrical Genius by Rakim
It’s only right that Rakim, the god MC, largely considered one of the greatest and most influential foundational mc’s of all time would have an autobiography. This book is all about process. You get the backstory on Rakim’s upbringing but he also drops gems about how he created some of his most impactful rhymes.
7. God Save the Queens: The Essential History of Women in Hip-Hop by Kathy Iandoli
Most books about hip-hop history focus primarily on men. However, this book pays tribute to women in hip hop from its early days to the 21st century, exploring issues of gender, money, sexuality, violence, body image and more.
8. Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation by Jeff Chang
This book is all about the genre’s history with a focus on its social and cultural impact. The story told here is based on original interviews with DJs, b-boys, rappers, graffiti writers, activists, gang members and pioneers like DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Chuck D, Ice Cube and more.
9. I Make My Own Rules by LL Cool J
LL Cool J, the man who coined the phrase “GOAT,” an acronym for “Greatest Of All Time,” has had a massive impact on shaping hip-hop culture, especially with regard to how MC’s command the mic. LL is another rapper who has served as a blueprint for some of the greatest in the genre. Here, he tells his story about how he survived childhood abuse growing up in Hollis, Queens, and became an icon.
10. Chuck D Presents This Day in Rap and Hip-Hop History
Chuck D, Hip-Hop icon and co-founder of Public Enemy, wrote this as a definitive history of hip-hop through his eyes. As an insider, he breaks down the life he lived and the culture he helped to build.