Chief Keef recently posted a Mt. Rushmore Of Hip-Hop on his Instagram. The photo positioned himself, Kanye West, Lil Wayne, and Drake as the four most influential artists in hip-hop. The polarizing post may have rankled hip-hop traditionalists who grew up with Jay-Z, Nas, Tupac, and other golden era stalwarts, but there’s a generation of young millennials and Generation Z-ers who look up to Kanye, Drake, and Wayne, as the artistic pillars of their hip-hop experience. Keef’s reclusiveness has impeded his access to the household-name stature of the previous artists, but the underground king has inspired a flourishing scene of so-called “mumble rappers.”
Observing his post made me realize that segmenting the decades starting in 1978 is actually a perfect — if numerically awkward — way to annex eras of hip-hop history. 1988, 1998, and 2008 all serve as notable demarcations of hip-hop history.
Each of those years brought significant events that were culminations of trends that had, in most cases, been building in previous years. The musical projects, music business developments, and overall cultural occurrences of each of those years helped steer the next decade of hip-hop, and they all occurred right before the turn of a decade.
Let’s go way back to 1988. Hip-hop was in its infancy and was still seen as a fad by most so-called musical purists. By the mid-80’s, many artists had begun to break up the monotony of flashy, braggadocious rap that deified the DJ and touted their own supremacy. The emphatic, one-bar-at-a-time flow of like Sugar Hill Gang and Kurtis Blow was being shown up as obsolete by the rapid-fire flows of artists like Rakim, who eschewed simplistic rhyme structures for assonant masterpieces.
Rappers like KRS-One, Kool G Rap, and Big Daddy Kane advanced the craft of MCing to a supreme art. They inspired then-aspirants like Nas, Jay-Z, Biggie and Big Pun, who later out-rhymed and out-slicked the competition with their rhymes. Albums like Rakim’s Follow The Leader and Kane’s Long Live the Kane exhibited hip-hop’s intriguing artistic potential — and their nationwide impact also demonstrated that hip-hop wasn’t just a New York thing.
Though West Coast trailblazers like King Tee and Ice T deserve their credit as West Coast pioneers, it was NWA’s incendiary Straight Outta Compton that spread like wildfire and set a cultural standard for West Coast hip-hop. If Ice-T’s work was the birth of gangsta rap, Straight Outta Compton was the subgenre’s first sprint. From the moment Dr. Dre spit, “you are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge,” to open the album, the listener was taken on a ride through the gang-riddled Compton streets, which the audience quickly learned were just as treacherous — if not worse — than their own hometowns. Cube, Eazy, and Dre rapped first-person, hyperbolic, narratives of LA gang culture that vicariously thrilled young, suburban listeners and formed the basis of all gangsta rap to come.
The project wasn’t just about shooting down busters, however. With songs like “Straight Outta Compton” and “F*ck The Police,” NWA vocalized the fury people across Black America felt when realizing the previously-glamorous crack era was becoming a full-on epidemic, and abusive cops were using the so-called “War On Drugs” as an excuse to treat the communities they patrolled like it was 1888 instead of 1988.