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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Hip Hop’s Surprising, Never-Ending Evolutions

The most, and least, surprising fact of hip hop’s golden jubilee is its longevity. It wasn't supposed to last this long, but survival was its only option. From a Bronx dance floor in August 1973, hip hop was born: a union of rhyme, beat, and beating heart. The genesis of everything that followed begins there. It was the dawn of a raging decade and only a handful of years after Black Americans won the right to vote. With the first record scratch—a moment of pure fate on the part of DJ Kool Herc—hip hop announced what it was about: the attempt to be more than.

Hip hop refused to back down. Its presentation was a kaleidoscope of style and earned self-worth, and because hip hop is often a story of regional loyalties, I first came to it through Southern California rap radio, listening to 92.3 The Beat and Power 106 on lazy afternoons, hypnotized by everything I heard. The hydraulic funk of Dr. Dre. The limber lyricism of Snoop Dogg. Before it became something you could wear, hip hop was who you were. It was where you were from.

Hip hop represented you, and in turn you represented it back. So you rebelled. You shouted “Fuck the police.” You asked “Can I kick it?” You wondered if your mind was playing tricks on you, but no, it wasn’t. Hip hop was the real thing. It was heroic arcs and legendary beefs. It was passions and pitfalls. Their stories were your stories. Hip hop was where you found more of yourself, where you forged confidence. It was a posture. Hip hop was an attitude.

As it grew from Run-DMC and Queen Latifah to Wu-Tang, OutKast, and 1998’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, hip hop animated every facet of pop culture. It was fashion and fashionable. It was in your face. It was indulgent. It was television. It was Belly and Boyz in the Hood.  It was what you read about in Vibe. It was Suge Knight dissing Puffy for being “all in the videos” at the 1995 Source Awards. It was prime-time news. It was international. It was everywhere. Hip hop was how you defined cool. And cool was what everyone wanted.

Hip hop's evolutions are as expansive and surprising as its sound. Its universe extends from Missy Elliott and her interdimensional izzy izzy ahhs to Pharrell’s alien production beds and Too Short’s trunk-percolating parables. Hip hop is the smooth hustle of Jay-Z. It is the Detroit soul of J Dilla. The southern stomp of Young Jeezy. Hip hop is DMX, Eve, and the whole Ruff Ryders crew. Hip hop’s constant evolutions are what sustain it. Its evolutions are what keep it ahead, what keep it young and drive its curiosity.

As technology was domesticated post-Y2K and the internet expanded in every direction, borders disappeared entirely. Hip hop was no longer an exclusive US product shipped abroad. It was a worldwide voice. It was from and for everyone. It streamed on Napster as cassette tapes and CDs died out. It was readily shared via MP3 files. Hip hop communicated through blogs, podcasts, and chunky zip folders. “Technology killed the DJ star,” Questlove told WIRED in 2014, as hip hop matured into its forties. “Or maybe technology has actually created the DJ star.” It was evolving quicker than one could keep up with. Hip hop gives and just as easily takes.

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There was no identity it wouldn’t adopt as its own. Hip hop was UGK as much as it was Odd Future. It was Cam’ron and Cardi B, Slum Village and Crime Mob. It was Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. It was Trina. It was Nicki Minaj. With time, hip hop learned to wear different sexualities and religions through Young MA and Lil Nas X. Hip hop became a multi-hyphenate force.

And that force was undeniable. Hip hop inhaled jazz, rock, and Latin influences along the way, waterfalling like emerald Matrix code across the internet, gushing endlessly into a world that didn’t always love it back. Then and now, there is no lid for hip hop’s sound, no cage for its platinum growl.

Today, its autonomy is concrete, its reputation and reach unparalleled. Hip hop extends from Palo Alto to Park Avenue to Prague, from classrooms to Capitol Hill. Its origin an eternal wellspring of creative life. Hip hop is an encyclopedia of language and imagination. It is its own algebra, clear and cryptic, deeply personal and yet democratic. Hip hop is a bedrock of pop culture, always at the cusp. It is the prologue for what’s next, for who’s got next. Hip hop is a star maker and star breaker. Hip hop is 50 but still has youth on its side, because the genre is as it always was: sheer invention. It’s like Lauryn Hill said—ready or not, hip hop happens.

For a genre defined equally by loss and success, hip hop is still here. How, you ask? Because its reach is galactic. Its influence eternal. Even now, at 50, what can’t hip hop do or be?

Hip hop has a stubborn will to live and live loud. Momentum is the genre’s greatest resource. Its uncompromising spirit is why we listen, why we love it. Hip hop is a sound, a people, and a culture that doesn’t know how to stop—and why would it want to? Fifty years on, hip hop excites as a story of surprising, curious evolutions. It is a timeline with no clear end, only new uncharted origins.

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