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Pioneers of Rap

In honor of LL Cool J’s birthday today, we wanted to knock you out with a look back at some of the seminal rap artists who seared the genre into America’s consciousness and changed the course of the music industry forever.

LL Cool J photo via Getty Images

LL Cool J circa 1988 (Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

It’s no doubt that hip hop has changed a lot since the early days of rap. Back in the early 80s, it would have been impossible to imagine a rap album being considered for mainstream awards, that one of the genre’s foremost artists is a Wilhelmina Model from Australia, and that LL Cool J (who turns 47 this month) would have a recurring role on a crime show. Before the world of Twitter and gangster rap, hip hop was simply an underground movement, where hoards of unknowns, many New Yorkers, ground out whatever music they could on rudimentary recording equipment. Here are a few of the pioneers who helped make the genre what it is today.

The Sugarhill Gang

Although the hip-hop scene began in New York, one of its earliest pioneers, The Sugarhill Gang, came from across the Hudson River in Englewood, New Jersey. Michael “Wonder Mike” Wright, Henry “Big Bank Hank” Jackson, and Guy “Master Gee” O’Brien released “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979 and it became an anthem in dance clubs everywhere for the next year. More than just a novelty, the track became the genre’s first Top 40 hit on Jan. 5, 1980.

Grandmaster Flash

If you’re a fan of the long drum breaks and record scratching, you can thank Joseph Saddler, a.k.a. Grandmaster Flash, the Bronx-based D.J. who helped develop those innovations in the late 70s and early 80s. Propelled by his background in electronics and his father’s extensive record collection, Grandmaster Flash transformed DJ’ing into a mind-thumping form of crowd control, by popularizing the musical techniques that became signature sounds for the genre.

Run-D.M.C.

Although rap began to occupy more and more airwaves in the 80s, it was Run-D.M.C. who made the genre part of pop culture. Emblazoned in gold chains and Adidas sneakers, the group made the music accessible to a new demographic: white suburban males. Run-D.M.C. hailed from Hollis, Queens and was founded in 1981 by Joseph Simmons, Darryl McDaniels, and Jam Master Jay. Their aggressive style, tinged with rock, not funk, set them apart from their predecessors and signaled a new age of hip hop — an authentic urban style that used shorter tracks more suitable for the radio.

Public Enemy

If Run-D.M.C. used rock to bring rap to the masses, Public Enemy used sirens and booming invectives to try to pull it back. Started in Long Island, New York in 1982, the group consisted of Chuck D, Flavor Flav, DJ Lord, The S1W group, Khari Wynn and Professor Griff . The self-described “Prophets of Rage” gained popularity in the mid- to late-80s, helping usher in the “Golden Age” of hip hop with their themes of Afrocentricity and militancy.

LL Cool J

Raised by his grandparents in Queens, New York, James Todd Smith spent his teen years making DJ tapes in his basement. His work got the attention of record company Def Jam, which released his first single when he was just 16. “I Need a Beat” sold 100,000 copies under his stage name, LL Cool J (which was an abbreviation of Ladies Love Cool James). In 1986, he appeared on the television show American Bandstand — the show’s first hip hop act ever. It turned out LL was a natural in front of the camera. The Brooklyn native would soon appear in such films as Wildcats (1986) and Toys (1992) and star in the sitcom In The House. He is one of the genre’s first stars to cross over and become a regular fixture in film and TV.

Beastie Boys

One of rap’s greatest pioneers came in the unlikely form of three white upper-middle class punk rockers: Mike D., MCA, and Adam Horovitz. The Beastie Boys, which was formed in the early 1980s, released their seminal album Licensed to Ill in 1986. It was the first rap album to reach number 1 on the Billboard charts and has sold more than 9 million copies. After their initial image as party-obsessed frat boys, the group has continued to evolve into funk and psychedelic electronica, yet they’ve always retained their hallmark bratty lyrics and pop culture references.