From its origins as an outgrowth of block parties in the South Bronx to its current position as the most dominant and commercially viable musical genre, hip-hop has always highlighted the art (and commerce) of turning nothing into something. It’s a big part of what makes it so fun to root for the artists — many have overcome dire circumstances to become megastars who inspire people of all ages and races all over the world.
With perseverance in the face of steep odds in mind, here are three rappers who overcame rough backgrounds to live lavishly at the top.
The story of contemporary Detroit is well-trodden territory now: once the crown jewel of American innovation, it has since fallen on hard times as factories have closed, the city’s economy tanked, and hundreds of thousands of residents have fled.
On “Scrap Or Die,” the penultimate track on his album XXX, Danny Brown’s genre-bending 2011 mixtape, he sketches a vivid portrait of desperation caused by the economic downturn.
Looking at this crib for about a whole month
Family lived there they got put out last month
My uncle sniffing blow while I’m rolling up a blunt
His homie in the basement, smoking crack with my aunt
While Brown stated that the story he tells on the track isn’t directly autobiographical, he paints a lucid picture specific to his surroundings in Detroit, where those suffering from financial instability would steal and sell scrap metal to make ends meet.
Born to teenage parents in Detroit, Brown was one of the four children his father had before he was 20. He grew up in a particularly tough time for the city. “Detroit is really crazy. It was worse back then [regarding violence], but it’s more f*cked up now, economically,” he told Complex in 2012. “When I was a kid, it was a lot more money floating around, so it was just a lot more contract killing.”
Despite the city’s troubles, Brown’s parents did their best to shelter him from the streets. His father, a house DJ, educated him on a diverse array of music and both parents encouraged him to spend most of his time inside so as not to fall victim to the grim outside.
By 18, though, Brown had become a drug dealer, selling crack out of a home he lived in on the city’s east side. A year into that business, police arrested Brown. He spent time in jail but continued his life on the streets after he left, eventually being detained yet again for a marijuana possession charge and violating his probation. Brown subsequently skipped court and spent the next five years on the run. Because any arrest would result in an extended sentence, he eased up on the drug game and spent his time learning how to get into music.
“I had warrants so I couldn’t really slang like that ‘cause I didn’t wanna go to jail. I was broke in the hood,” he told Complex. “I had nothing else, so I just started going back to studying music and trying to become a rapper.”
Eventually, the police incarcerated Brown again, a situation he described as a “breath of fresh air,” resolving to himself that after this particular jail sentence, he would close the crime chapter of his life forever.
During that jail stint, his brother began sending his songs out on the internet, garnering press hits from various blogs, including influential ones at the time like 2 Dope Boyz and NahRight. Before long, those looks helped Brown get noticed by NYC based indie-label Fool’s Gold, who signed him to a deal. The resulting release, XXX, was a hit, landing on numerous year-end best albums list and turning Brown into a highly sought-after commodity.
Nicki was born Onika Tanya Maraj to a financial executive father and a mother who worked in payroll and accounting. On paper, her childhood sounds rosier than the situation many other rappers grew up in, but in reality, it couldn’t be farther from the truth.
“My husband used to get high on cocaine and alcohol and would come home and terrorize the whole family” Minaj’s mother, Carol, said in 2014. “Some nights, while my children were sleeping, my husband would come in intoxicated. He would be very menacing and threaten me, calling me a whole lot of names. My children would sit up in their beds crying and wait it out. He would bring so much fear to them, they wouldn’t know his next move.”
Minaj’s father’s addiction issues dictated every aspect of the family’s home life. At one point, he sold most of their belongings. The violence and terror in the home reached its zenith when Nicki’s father burned down their family home, with her mother still in it.
Minaj immortalized these traumas in “Autobiography,” a gripping early track from her second mixtape, Sucka Free, released in 2008.
Daddy was a crack fiend
Two in the morning, had us running down the block like a track team
When you burnt house down and my mother was in it
How could I forget it?
The pain is infinite
She’s my queen and I ain’t even British
She’s the only reason that I went to school and I finished
She told me I had talent
Got on her knees and prayed for me when I was violent
She saw something in me that
To this day I don’t even know if I can be that
But I’ma die trying
The industry quickly rewarded Minaj’s efforts. In 2007, she signed to Lil Wayne’s Young Money label. Four years later, she made her first appearance on Forbes’ hip-hop Cash Kings list, pulling in an estimated $6.5 million. She has appeared on the list every year since and gone on to establish herself as the most significant female rapper of this millennium.
The Jiggy One, now considered one of rap’s foremost fashion and aesthetic icons, was born in Harlem in harsh surroundings.
When Rocky was 12, police jailed his father on drug charges. A year later, Rocky’s older brother and mentor, Ricky, was murdered while Rocky attended classes up the street.
“He was so tough I thought he was gonna make it,” Rocky told MTV in 2013. “I didn’t think he was gonna pass.”
Ricky’s death had a big impact on Rocky, illuminating the dangers of life too far into the streets. “I never got in [the streets] too deep to the point where I let it get the best of me,” he said. “Everybody’s dream is to make it big with that shit and get out. I didn’t make it big so I got out.”
Times were tough, though, and Rocky’s family struggled. For a time, the family lived in a shelter. Desperate to make ends meet, Rocky began selling crack in the Bronx.
A few years later, Rocky was able to move his family to Elmwood, New Jersey.
By 2007, when he was 19, Rocky linked up with the A$AP Mob, a crew of Harlem-based creatives with a passion for fashion, art, and hip-hop. With the help of Mob co-founder A$AP Yams, Rocky established himself as the group’s frontman and preeminent rapper.
In 2011, Rocky released “Purple Swag.” The song’s disparate regional influences, woozy production, and impossible to ignore video (which, controversially, featured a white girl in gold fronts lip-syncing many of the words to the song, including the n-word) catapulted him from the streets of New York City to instant international recognition.
By the end of 2011, his first year in the spotlight, Rocky had signed a deal worth $3 million with RCA and Polo Grounds Music and started his own label, A$AP Worldwide. By 2013, Rocky was sniffing around the Forbes‘ hip-hop Cash Kings list, pulling in an estimated $5 million. He became a regular on the list in 2016, earning an estimated $14.5 million, primarily through live shows and a litany of high-end endorsements.