Readers of this long-running website will likely be aware that hip-hop is approaching its 50th birthday. I don’t think any other genre of music comes together to celebrate anniversaries, but that’s primarily because hip-hop is a relatively modern invention. It’s also a cultural phenomenon that has gone on to become pop(ular) music – ain’t nobody celebrating heavy metal’s birthday.
In that respect, hip-hop has more in common with religion than a category of music. Fans constantly argue over who is the greatest, and the media surrounding hip-hop is more often interested in the personalities than it is in the art. Emcees are regularly referred to as “gods” and “kings” (or “queens”). It started as a party, then blossomed into a movement, then an industry juggernaut. It has pushed boundaries for music overall, whether it be freedom of speech with 2-Live Crew, the switch to online distribution (DJ Drama), or the recent drive toward AI-generated rap – hip-hop has achieved a lot in fifty years. It has transformed the world, quite frankly.
But as August 11th approaches, I expect to see countless articles published paying respects to the usual suspects. How Run-DMC were the first rap superstars, or how MC Hammer went platinum. There’ll be the inevitable Eminem articles, or even what Drake has done in the last decade. Predictable. Boring. That’s not very hip-hop. So over the next five weeks, let’s put the spotlight on some of the underappreciated rappers, DJs, producers, and industry contributors that have had a significant impact on the rise of hip-hop over the last fifty years. Put some respeck on their names…
1. Busy Bee
Before your Chuck Ds and Eazy-Es, rappers weren’t afraid to spell out the letters in their names. Two prominent emcees from the early years in hip-hop were Kool Moe Dee and Busy Bee (or Busy Bee Starski). The former is perhaps mostly known these days for his battle with LL Cool J, but his battle with Busy Bee back in 1981 is widely considered a pivotal moment, legitimizing rap battles as both an art form and a crucial addition to an emcee’s repertoire. Battles have been key throughout hip-hop, whether it be Ice Cube vs. NWA, Biggie vs. Tupac, or Eminem vs. his mom, none have been as instrumental as Busy Bee’s performance over forty years ago. He did go on to have a rap career outside of the stage too, releasing singles on Sugar Hill Records, before debuting in 1988 with his album “Running Thangs”.
2. Schoolly D
Philadelphia’s Schoolly D is often credited with creating the earliest gangsta rap song “P.S.K. What Does It Mean?”, back in 1985. Melle Mel and Duke Bootee had found success three years earlier with the iconic track “The Message”, highlighting the reality of life in the ghetto but it was Schoolly D’s breakout hit (and only hit, to be honest) “P.S.K.” that opened the doors for vivid, often explicit depictions of life as a gangster. It paved the way for N.W.A. and Ice-T, who admittedly had more star-power and talent than D, yet the continued dominance of rapping about life as a felon, and the unfiltered nature of street rap, all goes back to Schoolly D. Much like Busy Bee, he did have a shortlived recording career, but was promptly ousted by the rise of west coast gangsta rap and it’s more palatable G-funk aesthetic.
3. Tim Westwood
Rightly mocked for the caricature (and creep) he became, Tim Westwood is a living embodiment of hip-hop’s impact on the white man. Yet, before the famed “Westwood freestyles” and BBC radio show he landed in the 1990s, Westwood was a DJ in the late 1970s, playing reggae. As he discovered audiences demanded more hip-hop, and the scene started to grow globally, he went into the 1980s as a hip-hop DJ on pirate radio. His shows were much more civil than the warfare he unleashed in the 2000s, no doubt influenced by his friend Funkmaster Flex, but his ability to remain relevant through four decades is unmatched. Few DJs can claim to have been around since the birth of hip-hop, and I don’t think any have had the impact Westwood has had outside the U.S. during the 1980s and 1990s.
4. Tony D
Not to be confused with the successful battle rapper of the same name, Tony D was an Italian-American that was not unfamiliar with a war of words himself. Having produced for Afrocentric groups like Poor Righteous Teachers and YZ, who subsequently beefed with him being on both sides, he carved out a rap career of his own in the early 1990s with mixed results. Often making controversial statements, such as how he invented the style of sampling vocal snippets that RZA and Kanye West would later adopt, or his verbal attacks aimed at 3rd Bass, he remains an important figure in hip-hop history. A credible producer /emcee that was white in the late 1980s was rare, particularly one so closely tied to 5-per-center rap crews, and even though few recall him “Droppin’ Funky Verses” now, he opened doors for those that followed.
5. Fat Boys
The skill of beatboxing may now be just as likely seen on some Simon Cowell-produced talent show than it is a hip-hop record, but Buff Love, Prince Markie Dee and Kool Rock-Ski (The Fat Boys) helped popularize the art form. The trio emerged in the mid-1980s to become one of the most successful groups of their time, providing a sense of humor to a genre that was quickly taking itself seriously. They undoubtedly influenced subsequent light-hearted artists like Biz Markie and RA the Rugged Man, and embraced their overweight appearance, expanding the representation of different body types within a genre already focused on fashion and fat gold chains.
6. Full Force
While Teddy Riley is often credited with introducing the world to New Jack Swing, we must not forget Full Force. Containing members (deep breath) Paul Anthony, Baby Gerry, Bowlegged Lou, B-Fine, and Curt-T-T, they were a group of producers and songwriters that ensured hip-hop’s influence ran through popular music in the late 1980s and early 1990s. James Brown, Patti LaBelle, Backstreet Boys, Rihanna, Black Eyed Peas – their catalog is deep and wide-ranging, but it all started with 1984’s “Roxanne, Roxanne” by UTFO – now a hip-hop classic. They also released their own albums, debuting in 1985 with their self-titled effort “Full Force”. Rick Rubin is now widely known for his lengthy, influential career, but it’s time Full Force started getting a similar level of props.
7. King T
A West Coast rap pioneer, King T remains a legendary figure in hip-hop for the careers he has helped nurture. Mentoring Ice-T, discovering Tha Alkaholiks, and putting on Xzibit are all important additions to the culture, but it’s easy to overlook how good King T is as an artist. His debut album, 1988’s “Act A Fool” is an early example of gangsta rap fusing funk with hip-hop, and is widely regarded as a classic, but projects like “IV Life” and his work with Dr. Dre, as well as his work on Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas with his mentee Young Maylay, have all contributed to Compton’s dominance on hip-hop throughout the 1990s and 2000s.
8. DJ Mark The 45 King
DJs were crucial, vital even, to any successful hip-hop record back in the 1980s. As hip-hop went global and relied on emcees to be the stars, it didn’t stop The 45 King from dropping one of, if not THE, most famous breakbeat in hip-hop with “The 900 Number” in 1987. I’m more familiar with the DJ Kool version from 1996 – “Let Me Clear My Throat” – but if that wasn’t enough, The 45 King went on to be a key component in numerous famous rappers’ careers. He produced for Flavor Unit, including Queen Latifah, but also gave Jay-Z his crossover moment in “Hard Knock Life” (1998), and Eminem’s too with “Stan” (2000). It’s not just the fact he stepped up and provided classics, but the versatility displayed too. None of those three sound similar, and while he now can be found touring the world DJing to thousands rather than producing #1 singles, he must be celebrated as another key part of hip-hop’s fifty-year history.
It’s easy to see why two self-confessed middle-class white men from England are often overlooked in hip-hop discussions, which are traditionally dominated by American voices. Coldcut’s impact shouldn’t be overlooked though, Matt Black and Jonathan More were pioneering DJs that mastered the art of the remix decades before P. Diddy babbled over the same beat and called it a remix. Their remixes often incorporated elements of hip-hop, electronic beats, and innovative production techniques, contributing to the evolution of remix culture within the genre. Queen Latifah, Roots Manuva, and perhaps most notably, Eric B & Rakim, but it’s the name Ninja Tune that will ultimately be their legacy. An independent label based in London, it’s continued to promote artists that push experimental music with hip-hop at its core: DJ Vadim, Young Fathers, and Blockhead all spring to mind. It all starts forty years ago with Coldcut, when tastemakers were key, but also had exceptional taste.
Kurtis Mantronik and MC Tee, better known as Mantronix, will be a familiar name to fans of a certain vintage. For those of us in our younger years (thirties is young isn’t it?), Mantronix remains an essential part of the 80s educational journey one must embark on. Back when hip-hop was in its infancy, electronic music, much like rock, was an unavoidable influence on its emergence, and few albums personified the use of drum machines and sampling techniques better than Mantronix’s first few. 1985’s “The Album” is heralded as a classic of the genre and was huge in Europe; their work during the late 1980s remains hugely influential to hip-hop. Their biggest hit is probably 1990’s “Got To Have Your Love”.
Next week, we’ll count down ten more names in hip-hop that have earnt an invite to hip-hop’s 50th birthday.