50 Defining Moments in Hip-Hop History


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Hip-hop is turning 50 this month! If you were there in the beginning, could you have ever imagined that it would make it this far? If you were born into a world where hip-hop existed, does it surprise you that there was a time, not long ago, when the genre didn’t exist? 

Either way, one thing everyone should agree on is that while the genre is still fairly young, 50 years is enough time to have a lot of documented history. In fact, there have been so many changes with hip-hop throughout the years that it is now taught in certain colleges and universities, there are several books and documentaries about it and it is still undergoing changes for better or worse. One of the biggest takeaways is that it is important to keep documenting what is new in the culture, while also celebrating milestones that got us here in the first place. Hence, AURN presents 50 defining moments in hip-hop history. This list isn’t exhaustive, it is just a glimpse of how one of the most impactful cultures in the world came to be. 

1. Rappers Turning Blogger, Vlogger and Reality TV Star

In the early 2000s, putting yourself out there online was dismissed as being for the so-called nerds, backpackers and even weirdos. It was also frowned upon to do reality TV unless you were ready to admit that you were considered a has-been. But things change quickly and these days, even veteran rappers are giving their takes on culture, and exploiting their lives for all to see, for better or for worse. 

2. Rappers Boycott the Grammys in 1989

DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince winning Hip-Hop’s first Grammy award for their sophomore release, He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper, was a historical yet bittersweet moment. The always outdated recording academy refused to televise the achievement causing the Westside Philadelphia born and raised duo to boycott the award show along with Salt N Pepa, Russell Simmons, LL Cool J, and others. It was a way for rappers to establish that their art also mattered. 

3. The Deaths of BIG and 2Pac

The tragic loss of hip-hop’s most prolific artists does not age better with time. It was senseless then, now, and forever, but it made hip-hop journalists examine the role that journalism plays in fanning the flames of drama. Both Pac and Big have been so impactful that there are still documentaries made about their lives over 20 years later. 

4. The Debut of Sugar Hill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight

Hip-Hop was born in South Bronx, but its first hit song was from three Jersey dudes rhyming over a popular disco record. Purists at the time might have frowned upon it, but the song’s impact marked the culture’s introduction from the streets to the outside world and the establishment of hip-hop in the recording business. 

5. DaBrat Becomes The First Female Solo Artist To Go Platinum

DaBrat, fresh out of Chicago, made an imprint with slick rhyming and irresistible funk beats that became the album known as Funkafied. She did it during a time when Chicago hadn’t yet established its footing in hip-hop on a mainstream level and as a woman at that.

6. Old Dirty Bastard’s Wu-tang Speech at the Grammys

If you ever feel unappreciated at your  job, watch Ol’ Dirty’s legendary 1998 interruption speech at the Grammys. ODB’s rant about dressing up in a suit to not win, emphasized by his “Wu-Tang is for the children” line, will make you feel seen. 

7. Three 6 Mafia Wins an Oscar

Every Black History Month, we should be reminded that Memphis rappers who call themselves Three-6 Mafia won an Oscar for writing a song about pimpin. 

8. Rappers Become Movie and TV Stars 

People didn’t take rap seriously when it first started but in the early 90s, more and more rappers began establishing themselves as serious actors. Seeing one’s favorite rapper doing a televised cameo as themselves is one thing, but to see them acting in a film or writing scripts became a staple in hip-hop. A majority of the first wave of rappers’ roles were reasonably decent, with Queen Latifah, Tupac, Will Smith and even LL Cool J undertaking performances that resonated so true with audiences that their characters and movies became classics. 

9. Kool Herc Throws a Back to School Jam 

On August 11, 1973 at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, Kool Herc and his sister Cindy Campbell threw a back to school jam in their building. Hip-hop had been burgeoning before then but that’s the moment that is historically considered the birth of hip-hop as a culture, gave a voice to future generations, and impacted the world. 

10. The Rise of Death Row records

Dr. Dre’s The Chronic album captured the sound of the 1992 LA riots and introduced the G-Funk era of West Coast rap all-stars such as Snoop Dogg, Lady of Rage, Daz, and Kurupt. Death Row Records provided controversial reality rap that sometimes transferred to real life and became the genesis of when keeping it real goes wrong. 

11. The 1995 Source Awards: Suge Knight and Andre 3000’s Speeches

Andre’s “The south got something to say,” became a rallying call to what was to come as far as the south’s domination in hip-hop, while Suge’s “Come to Death Row,” became a lesson in what should have never been. 

12.  The Rise of Cash Money and No Limit Records

These two labels not only heard Andre 3000’s call but also answered it with hit records, sold-out concert arenas, and classic anthems since the 99 and the 2000s. 

13. Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation Wins Album of the Year

Nearly a decade after Will Smith boycotted the Grammys, hip-hop owned the night when L-Boogie took home the Grammy’s top award.

14. Nicki Minaj Ushers in a New Era For Women in Hip-Hop

Nicki Minaj attends The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute benefit gala celebrating the opening of the Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between exhibition on Monday, May 1, 2017, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

By 2009, Nicki Minaj was established as a rapidly rising star in hip-hop, but her verse on Kanye West’s “Monster” the following year signaled to non-believers that Nicki Minaj’s decade of dominance was only just getting started. She held her own against a bevy of greats and shook up the world. 

15. Kendrick Lamar Wins a Pulitzer Prize  

Kendrick was and will always be an MC’s MC who never needed an award as validation. However, receiving a Pulitzer Prize for his third album DAMN is a reminder to whoever never thought hip-hop would make it this far, that we made it. 

16. Hip-Hop Inspired Clothing Lines

Fashion is a natural part of hip-hop so the most logical progression was rappers and other people who are fans of the culture, launching their own clothing lines. Brands like FUBU, Baby Phat, Enyce, Sean John and more established that hip-hop’s dominance transcends music. 

17. KRS One and Chuck D Launch the First Hip-Hop Union 

Everyone deserves proper healthcare, no matter what they do for a living and hip-hop is no exception. The genre has been around long enough to have senior pioneers who deserve proper health care and financial stability at minimum for their billion dollar contributions to the culture. That’s why KRS One and Chuck D established the first hip-hop union, The Hip-Hop Alliance. It’s a 501 (c3) non-profit organization with the intention to promote fair wages, fair royalties, and health and retirement benefits for artists, in 2022. 

18. The Universal Hip-Hop Museum Launches in the Bronx

The future launch of the Universal Hip-Hop museum, located in the Bronx, is a highly anticipated dream for hip-hop heads and historians everywhere. Groundbreaking took place in 2021, but the museum is scheduled to officially open in 2024. 

19. Verzuz  

The birth of Verzuz during the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic was the gift that kept us united, joyful, and sane as we watched our favorite artists go head to head, not as a battle of appreciation. The world was familiar with live streaming prior to Verzuz and other quarantine time DJs doing digital sets, but there was something special about seeing our favs celebrating their music. It also forced social media sites to step their tech up to be able to better support artists who were taking advantage of live streaming their music. 

20. Nas vs Jay Z

The battle of Nas and Jay-Z is one of hip-hop’s greatest and most debated battles. Both MCs also created a blueprint to showcase competitive skills only on wax. The entire drama was a saga set for a hip-hop soap opera with Prodigy, who was on Nas’ side, as collateral. If you’ve ever heard the concept of “putting something on the Summer Jam Screen,” just know that it started with this beef where Jay-Z posted a picture of as a child in his dance recital days. Obviously, so not gangsta. 

21. Salt N Pepa Debut 

Prior to Salt N Pepa, a lot of the women who were rapping shied away from embracing their sexuality in their lyrics and how they dressed. Salt N Pepa kicked those doors wide open with sex positive raps, safe sex raps, and overall no fear when it came to wearing tight clothes and showing off their curves while also reminding the world that they also didn’t play. 

22. Jay-Z “Retires” 

When Jay-Z announced that The Black Album would be his last, it felt like the first time a rapper voluntarily left the game. Hip-hop fans struggled with what life would be like without Hov, whose reign had reached what seemed like its peak, but he couldn’t stay away for too long. He continued to do guest verses and eventually began releasing albums again. 

23. The First Hip-Hop Tour Takes Place

In 1982, The New York City Rap Tour became the first international hip-hop tour. It featured some of the times brightest lights such as Afrika Bambaataa, Fearless Four, The Rock Steady Crew, and more. They started in NYC and also traveled to cities like Paris and London. 

24. The Dee Barnes and Dr. Dre Incident 

The failure of hip-hop to rally behind Dee Barnes after she credibly accused Dr Dre of assaulting her should have served as a lesson about the rampant misogyny in hip-hop and how abusers are often protected. However, it didn’t. Dr. Dre avoided jail time and the general attitude was often that Dee Barnes must have done something to deserve what happened to her. We saw the same script play out during Tory Lanez’s trial for shooting Meg the Stallion. One would hope that after 50 years of loyalty from Black women, the culture would erase its disrespect towards them, but instead it continues to ignore their abuse and shame their existence. The next 50 years have got to be better. 

25. Jay Z Headlines Glastonbury.

Jay-Z made history as the first rapper to headline Glastonbury, but the real moment that made the event extra memorable was when Jigga trolled Oasis by performing one of their songs titled “Wonderwall” on guitar, followed by “99 Problems.” What had happened was, the group’s frontman, Noel Gallagher, criticized Jay-Z for being the event’s headliner, and so, Jay-Z did what he knows how to do: murder his competition via lyrics. 

26. T-Pain Changes Hip-Hop’s Sound With Auto-Tune

T-Pain credit by True Skool. Strictly for editorial use. No copyright infringement intended.

Auto-Tune was invented in the 70s, but in the early aughts, T-Pain showed hip hop what its possibilities could be. He was so good at it that literally everyone wanted to have the same sound, and you know what happens with trends, they become too much too fast and it gets annoying. It got so prevalent that Jay-Z tried to kill it with “Death of Auto-Tune” and for a second, it seemed like it worked, but it didn’t. Because Auto-Tune is still everywhere.  

27. Lil Nas X Makes Grammy History 

Lil Nas X performs “Old Town Road” at the BET Awards on Sunday, June 23, 2019, at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

Lil Nas X made history by becoming the first openly gay rapper to be nominated for a Grammy in top categories such as Record of the Year, Album of the Year and Best New Artist. 

28. Run DMC Changes Brand Marketing For Hip-Hop

The rap group Run DMC poses at the 31st annual Grammy Awards in New York City on March 2, 1988. From left, Joseph “Run” Simmons, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, and Jason Mizell “Jam Master Jay.” (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Run DMC became some of the first rappers to have an endorsement deal in hip-hop. Their 1986 song, “My Adidas” signaled to the rest of the world just how seriously people in hip-hop were about sneakers. It also caught the attention of Adidas executives who went into partnership with the rap trio, thus highlighting the potential that rappers had as influencers, before the concept was cool. 

29. Style Wars airs on PBS

Style Wars is one of the first hip-hop documentaries to air on broadcast TV. It aired on PBS in 1983 and focused on the burgeoning hip-hop scene in New York City. However, what also made it stand out was that it emphasized graffiti, which wasn’t always covered as much as other elements of hip-hop and often vilified by the city’s politicians. 

30. Krush Groove Premieres in 1985

Krush Groove is loosely based on the story of how Russell Simmons co-founded Def Jam Records. It is not the first movie about hip-hop, but it helped to usher in a genre of hip-hop films and TV such as The Disorderlies, House Party, and more. 

31. Video Music Box

VJ Ralph McDaniels changed the game with Video Music Box. He documented the culture and gave rappers a platform for their videos in the early 80s before MTV was checking for hip-hop.  It set the foundation for later shows on other networks such as for Yo! MTV Raps, 106 and Park, Rap City, and more. 

32. Ton Loc Goes Platinum

Tone Loc made history with “Wild Thing,” the first rap single to go platinum. It was released in 1988, peaked at number two on the Billboard Hot 100 the following year and took off after that.

33. 2 Live Crew Censorship Lawsuit 

Not everyone was a fan of 2 Live Crew’s raunchy music. In 1990, their album, As Nasty as they Wanna Be was the first rap album to be declared legally obscene by a federal judge in Florida. The group was even arrested for performing songs from the album in public venues, and record store owners also faced legal ramifications for selling their music. However, this eventually led to a landmark court case where the ruling was in favor of 2 Live Crew’s music. The case made it to the Supreme Court who said their music was protected under free speech and established the parental advisory sticker. 

34. The Rocksteady Crew is Formed

You can’t talk about hip-hop without talking about break dancing, and the Rocksteady Crew were some of the best to ever do it. Founded in 1977, the crew consisted of JoJo, Jimmy Dee, Easy Mike, and P-Body. They were the culture’s pioneering b-boys and the rest is history. 

35. Big Pun Goes Platinum

Big Pun, a Bronx native of Puerto Rican heritage, became the  first latin rapper to go platinum in 1998 with his debut album, Capital Punishment. 

36. Kurtis Blow Goes Gold

Kurtis Blow, one of hip-hop’s first stars, became the first rapper to go gold with his 1980 single, “The Breaks.” 

37. Streaming Changes Hip-Hop

The rise of the digital age flipped the music industry upside down. It started with illegal downloads through websites like Napster and LimeWire that nearly destroyed the music industry. But by the mid-2000’s, the industry got a grip and figured out how to monetize streaming through legal services like Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal and more. Streaming has changed hip-hop in a variety of ways but one of the most positive ways is that it allows more artists, people who probably wouldn’t get radio play, to be discovered and make money from their music. 

38. Logic’s Suicide Song

Suicide references can be found in verses here and there throughout hip-hop but Logic changed the conversation. In 2017, he released “1-800-273-8255,” which is the suicide hotline, and dedicated the song to people who felt like they didn’t have the will to live.  Actual research has shown that the song has helped to save hundreds of lives. 

39. Marly Marl Discovers Sampling

Sampling is the basis of hip-hop production, and Marly Marl is the one who made it possible by playing around with records and techniques in the late 1970s. 

40.  Yo! MTV Raps Debuts

MTV was criticized for not showing music videos of Black artists. They were famously called out by David Bowie but eventually got with the times. When Yo! MTV Raps premiered in1988 it seemed like maybe the message was getting through that Black music, especially hip-hop was here to stay.

41. Def Jam Records is Established

Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons founded Def Jam in 1983 in Rick Rubin’s dorm room at NYU. It wasn’t the first hip-hop label, but it became one of the most iconic. Def Jam established a legacy by introducing the world to some of hip-hop’s most impactful and game-changing artists. 

42. The Source Magazine is Founded

Hip-hop had been written about in newspapers since its early days. However, The Source Magazine became one of the first magazines dedicated solely to documenting hip-hop in the late 1980s. It began as a college newsletter but expanded into a full blown business. It is one of the longest running hip-hop magazines ever and its inception set the standard for hip-hop journalism. 

43.  The Black Arts Movement Soft Launches Hip-Hop

There are lots of debates about how hip-hop started and the truth is, it is not a straight forward progression. There are a variety of artistic movements that date as far back as slavery that contributed to the creation of hip-hop. You can look at work songs, the blues and other forms of Black music and art expression born out of ancient griot traditions from Africa and trace those elements to the eventual creation of hip-hop. There’s also the Black Arts Movement, which was established in the mid to late 60s. It was a collection of Black creatives and intellectuals that included Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, the Last Poets and more, who used poetry and spoken word set to music to speak on social issues. The latter poets are the fore mothers and fathers of hip-hop. 

44. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five are Rock and Roll

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five became the first rappers inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. Not many rappers have been inducted since then, and that is a shame given that hip-hop draws some inspiration from rock and roll and other Black-created genres like the blues, jazz, and soul music. 

45. Irv Gotti Beats the Feds

The feds have a 98% conviction rate. They are often believed to target rappers and in 2003, they targeted Murder Inc, a record company that dominated music in the early 2000s. They accused Murder Inc founder Irv Gotti and his brother of money laundering but after a two year legal battle, Irv Gotti and his brother were exonerated, a surprising rarity. 

46. Hype Williams Videos Shook Up Hip-Hop Visuals

Hype Williams made some epic videos in the late 90s. He worked with a variety of artists including Missy Elliott, Busta Rhymes, Puff Daddy and more to create unique story boards and videos that no one had ever seen before. However, his epic lighting, particularly on dark skin, became one of the most iconic features in his visuals. 

47. The Battle of the Roxannes

There are many beefs of note in hip-hop, but the Battle of the Roxannes thrusted teenage rap prodigy Roxanne Shante front and center. She took on grown men and anyone else who wanted the smoke for the sake of establishing her name. 

48. The Fat Boys Team Up With Swatch

A year or two before Run DMC teamed up with Adidas, you had the Fat Boys who were down with Swatch. The brand featured a slew of commercials that featured original music from The Fat Boys. 

49.  Queen Latifah Reigns Supreme

Queen Latifah arrives at the World Premiere of “Girls Trip” at the Regal L.A. Live on Thursday, July 13, 2017, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP)

Queen Latifah has a lot of groundbreaking moments under her belt. Her third album, Black Reign, became the first solo album by a woman to go gold in 1993. In 2006, she became the first female rapper to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and in April 2023, she became the first woman to join the national recording registry with All Hail the Queen. 

50. Missy Elliott Gets Songwriter Props

Missy Elliott poses in the press room with the Video Vanguard award at the MTV Video Music Awards at the Prudential Center on Monday, Aug. 26, 2019, in Newark, N.J. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

The powerhouse quadruple threat became the first female rapper inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2019. 

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