After reading Q-Tip’s tweets “educating” Iggy Azalea on the history of hip-hop, I felt the need to examine the question, “Can hip-hop’s history be as clear-cut as a socio-political movement created by New York youth in the 70s?” The Big Payback: The History of The Business of Hip-Hop by journalist Dan Charnas is the most in-depth analysis on hip-hop culture to date. His years of research and love of hip-hop help to answer this question.


In the early 20th Century, Blacks from the South migrated North to New York to escape poverty and oppression. Southern Blues mixed with the new city culture gave rise to a music craze called Jazz. Jazz became the original “Black” music adopted by Whites and was soon promoted via White-owned entertainment channels. During this same time, Harlem saw the rise of the first all-Black civil rights institutions: Urban League, NAACP and the Universal Negro Improvement Association. New York in the 1920s became the epicenter for the Harlem Renaissance and the new Black America.

“Rap” or “slick talk” came way before Sugar Hill Gang. Rapping is a form of creative communication in Black communities that dates back to the days of slavery. In the 1940s, “Jockey Jack” Gibson or “Jack the Rapper” was one of the first radio DJs to rap on-air between playing RnB hits.* During this time White youth began listening to Black radio stations and consuming RnB records in large quantities. Black culture was now not only penetrating into White culture, but White households.

“This was how radio DJs, Black and White, sparked the cultural desegregation of young America. The rhythm-and-blues/rock-and-roll revolution formed the soundtrack to the civil rights era, and many of the White children who grew up loving Black music in the 1950s became supporters of the Black liberation movement in the 1960s.”*

While White youth were consuming Black music – and major record labels were still steering clear of Black artists – Jewish and Black entrepreneurs began establishing independent record labels in the 1950s. As more White youth consumed Black music, radio stations were forced to desegregate the airwaves. Unfortunately as the popularity of Black music grew, Black-owned independent record labels were acquired by major labels, like Columbia and Warner Bros.

By the 1970s, club DJs like DJ Hollywood were spinning at newly established discos in Harlem. These DJs began perfecting the craft using two turntables to mix beats and keeping the crowd live with catchy MCing. These early innovators gave rise to the new generation of young MC/DJ hybrids, like DJ Kool Herc, Coke la Rock and DJ Flash. These youngsters took the party from the discos to the streets. This spawned the first community-based, anti-violence promoters like Zulu Nation. Soon to follow were the first b-boys and b-girls who formed breaking crews, and the first graffiti artists who used their artistic skills to illustrate this new street culture.

Meanwhile, the first exploit of this new street culture was conducted in the late 1970s by the Black record label, Sugar Hill Records (aptly named after the affluent neighborhood in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance.) Sugar Hill Records Co-Owner and former disco queen Sylvia Robinson was on the hunt to capitalize on the new rap craze. Three rappers from New Jersey were selected to play the part as the Sugar Hill Gang. “Rappers Delight” was not only the first rap song to be played on the airwaves, but the first rap song to rank on national and international pop charts. A much lesser known accolade, Sylvia Robinson enshrined herself in hip-hop history the very first hip-hop producer.

Along with becoming the largest independent label in the nation, Sugar Hill Records quickly became known as vultures in the industry, putting profit over the rights of Black artists. Sylvia Robinson even release the first rap song boasting high fashion, money and cars in “It’s Good to be the Queen”.

By the 1980s, as hip-hop seeped through the airwaves and onto the television screens of mainstream America, a divide in this new street culture began to take shape. There were those who sought to commercialize it, and those who felt it was their duty to preserve it’s organic identity.

“Soon, figures like Bambaataa and Brathwaite began using the term “hip-hop” to distinguish themselves from disco and to name an entire street culture that had, until then, been nameless. To them, hip-hop comprised four disparate but related activities—MCing, DJing, breaking (or break dancing), and graffiti writing.”*

There were Blacks and Whites on both sides who would rage this war of  hip-hop vs. rap and underground vs. mainstream for the next 30 years.

By the late 1980s,  there was an explosion of independent record labels. Macola Records and Def Jam (with acts like NWA and Public Enemy) were instrumental in leading to the dissemination of political Black America onto community radio stations (including KDAY and KMEL) and television screens (including Yo! MTV Raps). These independent labels offered a platform for talented hip-hop artists, Black and White, to get recognized and paid for their own personal styles and diverse perspectives on hip-hop culture.   

By 1990, “The Voice of the Rap Music Industry” or The Source – founded in 1988 by two Harvard students David Mays and Jonathan Shector – became the first magazine to specifically promote independent record labels and the diverse pool of hip-hop artists. When asked how he felt about two White students from Harvard running a rap magazine, KRS-One simply said, “I know who you’re talking about. You shouldn’t point the finger at them and ask why are they doing that. You should point your finger at yourself and say, ‘Why aren’t I doing that?’”* This poignant quote by one of the most respected emcees at the time made one thing clear: Hip-Hop in the 80s had evolved into a complex ecosystem rich with biodiversity. That was all about to change in the 90s.

Hip-Pop was born in 1990 when major record labels Capitol Records and SBK/EMI pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the marketing efforts of MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice (the rap persona of Vanilla Ice sold to SBK for $325k.) CEMA – the distributor for both labels – made $1M per day off the sales of Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em and To the Extreme.*

Hip-hop’s vision captured the imagination of a nation, and its self-made prosperity attracted the attention of major corporations. But corporate America was now trumpeting its own vision for hip-hop. Whether it be Vanilla Ice or Volume, America would never be able to hear the real thing through all the noise.”*

Once hip-hop was considered to be part of pop music, oddly enough more radio stations began playing artists like Public Enemy, LL Cool J and A Tribe Called Quest. For a minute, it appeared authentic hip-hop culture (long considered too Black for mainstream radio) had averted being pushed out of the limelight by corporate America. Yet this embrace of diverse hip-hop artists by mainstream America wouldn’t last long. Specifically, corporate America would set out to do what Sugar Hill Records had done 10-years earlier, define a commodified version of hip-hop culture for the masses and exploit Black artists.

The 1989 merger of Warner Communications and Time, Inc. formed a new behemoth in the media industry, Time Warner. Time Warner record labels began purchasing rap artists for larger sums than indie labels could afford.  “The major labels had been signing more rap acts every year, driving up the price of talent. Where indies might offer $20,000 for an album, the majors sometimes offered several times that amount.”* At the same time, artists signed to major labels were receiving $1 or less per record sold under a major label. In the words of Dr. Dre: “Bottom line: We ain’t doing this shit to send out no messages. We in this shit to get paid.“

By the end of the 1990s, the four biggest music conglomerates (Warner Music, EMI, Sony/BMG, and Universal Music Group) controlled about 70 percent of the music market worldwide, and about 80 percent of the music market in America. By packaging and selling a commodified version of hip-hop culture, these new conglomerates became the Monsanto of the hip-hop industry. The organic ecosystem filled with authentic artist biodiversity was exchanged for a monoculture of what corporate America viewed as hip-hop. All others were weeded out and pushed underground.

Many within the hip-hop community refer to this transition in the hip-hop industry as the ‘death of hip-hop’. Female hip-hop artists were most effected by the corporate takeover. In the 80s and early 90s artists like: Roxanne Shante, Queen Latifa, MC Lyte, and Salt N’ Pepa, were all strong female voices within the hip-hop industry. By 1995 there began a shift of female artist identity within the industry, from female empowerment to hyper-sexualization. The strong, conscious female emcee presence within the industry began to fade with the emergence of the sexualized female rapper.

With the mass disappearance of female emcees in the hip-hop industry, the Grammy’s removed the best female rap categories from their show in 2005. In the mid to late 90s and carrying on into today, if a female emcee has any chance of making it into the mainstream industry, she has to first align herself with an already established male rapper.

The 2012 ABC News article, ‘Before Niki Minaj, These 8 Female MCs Ruled’, clearly shows how mainstream America views female hip-hop artists.  Seven of the eight descriptions highlight an affiliation with a male rapper or an all male rap crew in the industry. It’s no surprise that Iggy Azalea’s rise to stardom is largely attributed to T.I.

If we take issue with the lack of artist diversity and loss of authenticity in mainstream hip-hop, should we blame the artist? Should we blame corporate America? Should we blame ourselves for supporting this industry? Should we hate on Iggy Azalea for using hip-hop to get paid like Dre? Before we answer these questions we should reflect on the complex ecosystem that is hip-hop culture:

The first DJs to innovate the use of turntables were in discos, not on the streets of Brooklyn.

The first record label to exploit rap was named after an affluent Black neighborhood in Harlem and managed by a Black couple.

The first magazine to critically analyze and promote independent hip-hop music was established by two White students from Harvard.

The very first rap song about money, clothes and cars was recorded by the very first hip-hop producer, Sylvia Robinson, a Black woman.

Dr. Dre was the first to publicly admit he was using the hip-hop industry to get paid, not to promote Black political ideas.

Whether you’re a hip-hop elitist who listens to only indie artists, or someone who thinks Pitbull is the greatest rapper alive, hopefully this article has helped you understand that hip-hop’s history is not an all encompassing “Black socio-political movement” as Q-Tip states. Hip-Hop’s early founders and their ideas of what hip-hop culture meant are just as diverse as current artists who are ditching mainstream and promoting their individual brands online. But this is for another conversation. 


*Charnas, Dan (2010-12-07). The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop. Penguin Group.