50 years of hip-hop: from the roots to the future

“Cash Rules Everything Around Me, C.R.E.A.M., get the money, dolla’ dolla’ bill, y’all!” 

While many people think of this famous line as a glorification of capitalism and “grind culture,” it’s actually the reflections of a prisoner named Raider Ruckus, a close friend of Method Man, a member of the iconic rap group Wu-Tang Clan. At the time of writing this hook for the song “C.R.E.A.M.,” Method Man was a 21-year-old Black man struggling to avoid prison, police murder, gun violence, addiction and an early grave. At its root, the line is a somber acknowledgment of the domination of money, capital, the pursuit of wealth over the lives of young Black people in the boroughs of New York City. 

Upon deeper examination, the lyrics of the verses of the song written by rappers Raekwon and Inspectah Deck are actually an advanced criticism of capitalist culture, exposing the misery, stress, and sense of hopelessness that it imposes on the youth who grow up under capitalism in America. The misinterpretation of hip-hop is a key theme throughout the history of this genre. As it turns 50, the world is reflecting on hip-hop, examining its roots, trajectory, and potential impact on the future of our society.

Culture is, perhaps, the product of this history just as the flower is the product of a plant. Like history, or because it is history, culture has as its material base the level of the productive forces and the mode of production. Culture plunges its roots into the physical reality of the environmental humus in which it develops, and it reflects the organic nature of the society, which may be more or less influenced by external factors.

Amilcar Cabral, National Liberation and Culture (1970)

Hip-hop is an art form born in the heart of New York City, bridging the stories and the musical traditions. Its four main elements of rapping or “MCing”, break dancing, DJing, and graffiti have reached every corner of the world, from Los Angeles to London to Gaza to Tokyo to Johannesburg. According to Spotify, hip-hop accounted for nearly a quarter of all of the company’s streams globally with more than 400 million users around the world listening in 2023. For people who grew up in the 1990’s or later, hip-hop can feel like a permanent staple that has always existed as a mainstream genre. But hip-hop, like any phenomenon, has a genesis in a particular time period led by particular oppressed communities living under particular conditions.

What are the roots of hip-hop? What made hip-hop arguably the musical style which spread across the world the fastest? Why is hip-hop so concentrated with anti-police and anti-government lyrics compared to other genres? Why has it faced state repression and also generated billions of dollars?

“How we stop the Black Panthers? Ronald Reagan cooked up an answer

You hear that? What Gil Scott was hearin,’ when our heroes and heroines got hooked on heroin”

-Kanye West, “Crack Music” (2005)

To understand hip-hop, we have to start in the era before its birth: the late 1960s and the early 1970s. The conditions for much of Black America in major cities were the same problems of the “ghettos” today — hunger and malnourishment, unemployment and exploitation, violence and police terror. The struggles against racism, war, sexism and homophobia were igniting the souls of millions. Rebellions exploded in the inner cities across the country from 1964 to 1968. This was a time of major organized struggle in the country, where groups like the Black Panther Party, the Black Liberation Army, SNCC and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers took the Black liberation movement in the direction of explicitly revolutionary politics. These movements moved millions to think and act in new ways, with new comprehensions of the social and political system of this country.

Beyond the borders of the United States, the world was ablaze with revolutionary movements calling for socialism, national liberation and the end of imperialist devastation. Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Ethiopia, Iran, Nicaragua, Chile, Afghanistan and many other countries threw off the shackles of imperialism in the 1970’s.

This historical background is what ignites the violent, systematic suppression of the world’s movements. The CIA, FBI, U.S. military, and all of their proxy forces ignited a new phase of global class war using dirty tools like COINTELPRO in the United States and bombing campaigns abroad. It was the war on the Black liberation movement that laid the seeds for an era of intense repression where freedom fighters and organized struggle were forced underground.

“Remember Bronx River, rolling thick with Kool DJ Red Alert and Chuck Chilllout on the mix

When Afrika Islam was rocking the jams, and on the other side of town was a kid named Flash”

-KRS-One, “South Bronx” (1986)

August 11, 1973, is known as the birth of hip-hop when DJ Kool Herc hosted a party in the South Bronx. From this genesis, artists like Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five, the Zulu Nation, Boogie Down Productions, The Sugar Hill Gang, and countless other DJs and MCs helped turn hip-hop from a fad to a large-scale cultural phenomenon. From there, the 1980s and 1990s saw a rise in popularity not only in New York, but across the country and the world, turning hip-hop from a niche New York City phenomenon to a genre with international impact and its own legends, myths and history.

One point must be clear: There is no single narrative on hip-hop’s history. Debates around the questions of the greatest rapper, the most significant region, the best era, what counts as “conscious rap,” and even what counts as “hip-hop,” rage on in societies across the world.

However, what is clear is that hip-hop was born in the belly of the beast at a definite point of origin: the South Bronx.

The neoliberal assault of the 1970s hit the South Bronx like a hammer, leading to deteriorating public services, like school budgets, public safety, sanitation and fire protections. “The Bronx is Burning” became a saying to refer to the devastating number of fires in the neighborhood, which led to kids growing up surrounded by rubble, ash and smoke as families lost their possessions and their lives. Out of the ashes, the youth of the South Bronx created a music style that mixed the rapping and spoken word traditions of Black America, the moves of Puerto Ricans dancing to Afro-Cuban rhythms like mambo, and the technological and rhythmic innovations of Jamaican DJs and their sound systems.

With no instruments or band programs due to cuts in public education, the youth turned the turntables into instruments of their own. With no power or generators due to a failing energy grid, they would plug sound systems into street lamps. Out of a crumbling education system, hip-hop created a new form of poetry that was adaptable not only to English, but to all languages. Hip-hop was born out of the rebellion fomented by the long-standing neglect of the needs of poor kids in the South Bronx, which made the perfect formula for youth in other boroughs, other cities and eventually other countries to relate to the themes and struggles of the rappers.

The lyrical content of the past 50 years of hip-hop is filled with the experiences, dreams, imaginations, hopes, passions, fears, concerns and anxieties of generations of young, working-class people. Naturally, there is a wide range of subjects covered — from fun to the politics, from uplifting to demeaning. While some point to a particular era as the “most conscious” — typically older forms of rap from the 1980s or 1990s — all eras had their own internal struggles between more and less “conscious” subject matters, often depending on the artist’s mood, the social movements at play and the desires of the corporations backing them. 

But truthfully, it’s deeper than just an era or an artist being rigidly defined as “conscious” or “not conscious,” because the truth is that any given artist can weave across the spectrum in even an individual song. In the same song, a 26-year-old Jay-Z can go from referencing the Soviet Union in one line, to the trauma of witnessing a friend being shot in Uptown Manhattan, to lines about Lexuses and presidential watches.

“Filled with materialistic thoughts of cars and gold, things you just bought, drugs people sold

But I’mma rise like a tower, telling all the people that it’s time to devour

You see, the future that we’re living is ours, because knowledge, it is power”

-Queen Latifah, “Knowledge is Power” (1991, from the movie House Party)

The all-out assault on the movement led to a break in ideological continuity and popular consciousness. This was a purposeful attack in the battle of ideas, where the ruling class did its best to sever the ties between the organizers from the liberation movements of the 60s and 70s and the youth of today. With fierce brutality, they shattered and fractured the movement into small pieces, but organizations have continued to fight to put the pieces back together. 

Hip-hop’s history can carry lessons from this previous era to the youth of the time, passing a torch down the generations for those who couldn’t live to see the previous peaks of people’s power. Tupac Shakur was an outspoken son of the Black Panther movement and an organized communist in his youth, who kept consistently anti-capitalist and revolutionary lyrics at the heart of his work during his short career before his assassination in 1996. He kept the spirit of the movement alive in songs like White Man’z World, which references political prisoners from Ruchell Magee to Geronimo Pratt, and Panther Power, which is an all-out criticism of the American Dream and education system.

Pioneering rap crews like Digable Planets, The Coup, Black Star and Dead Prez, directly promoted the political struggles for Black liberation, the freedom of political prisoners and socialism. There were also groups such as Eric B. and Rakim, A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots, Brand Nubian, Poor Righteous Teachers and Wu-Tang Clan, who represent other ideologies such as Afrocentrism, the Nation of Islam, the Nation of Gods and Earths (or Five Percent Nation). All of these groups rejected white supremacists norms of music and speech, each seeking to advance the pursuit of knowledge within Black America so that the community can understand its role in society. Even with different conclusions and political trajectories, these groups and similar rappers help represent the wide range of radical ideologies present within the Black community.

Ayy, dawg, that label is that slave ship, owners got them whips and rappers is slaves

-Dead Prez, “It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop” (2000)

There is no doubt that the capitalist class has seen hip-hop as somewhere between a threat and a cash cow, depending on the artist and the time period. Hip-hop exists in a duality: both as an industry that helps generate billions for music executives — and fractions of that for its artists — and a thriving culture of people who do it because they love the art. In fact, it exists more as a spectrum with many artists getting involved for some of both reasons — passion and money. 

However, even as the number of “rich” artists increases, the exploitation of these artists never lightens up as the virtually all-white top executives of the music industry rake in billions in profit each year. The fact that there is still a de facto apartheid system within hip-hop complicates quick categorizations of rappers who reach $1 million net worth or more as “no longer oppressed” or “part of the bourgeoisie,” especially when estimates are often flimsy and not as they appear on paper.

With many rappers achieving multi-millionaire status, and two reaching billionaire status, many are quick to discount all musical contributions of an artist because of their capitalist aspirations or for opening their own music labels or other businesses. However, like any class, the bourgeoisie has internal strata and fault lines, which are formed in part by the white supremacist character of U.S capitalism. The “Big Four” companies that own 85% of the music industry, Sony Pictures Entertainment, EMI, Universal Music Group, and Warner Brothers Music Group — all with white owners and many Black artists— vastly outweigh any of the independent labels which form the other 15%.

While both are engaging in the system of capitalism using the rules of exploitation and maximizing profits, it would be a mistake to completely dismiss rappers like Jay-Z (worth $2.5 billion) as “the same as” the richest man in the world, Elon Musk (worth $227 billion), even if they both crossed the $1 billion threshold. While Jay-Z narrowly survived a dangerous life in Marcy Projects and built his wealth through drug dealing, rapping and building a business in the white-dominated entertainment industry against extreme odds, Elon Musk’s father owned an emerald mine on stolen land in Zambia and he has lived an entirely privileged life. 

On one hand, Jay-Z’s business ventures have led to severe negative consequences, such as gentrification of working-class neighborhoods in Brooklyn, support for elite politicians and exploitation of workers who make products that his companies sell. On the other hand, his lyrics and the lyrics of many of his peers have laid a foundation of political consciousness for countless Black, poor and oppressed working-class youth in the United States who didn’t have a political organization, a teacher or a parent who could guide them through serious political education. In summary, Jay-Z truly exemplifies the contradictions of hip-hop, an art form built in conditions of capitalist decay that has given poor Black youth both the opportunity to climb out of poverty and the opportunity to destroy themselves and their communities in the process.

This distinction does not mean that one type of exploitation is excused while another isn’t. However, for a serious Marxist analysis, it is important to distinguish a white capitalist who leads the charge of imperialist aggression and destruction of the planet from a Black capitalist who has relatively little control of the economy and forces of production in the entertainment industry. In the words of Vladimir Lenin, “Insofar as the bourgeoisie of an oppressed nation fights the oppressor, we are always, in every case, and more strongly than anyone else, in favor, for we are the staunchest and the most consistent enemies of oppression. But insofar as the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation stands for its own bourgeois nationalism, we stand against it.”

As socialists, we fight for the liberation of oppressed nations and the end of economic exploitation, which can even mean that breaking into an industry dominated by an oppressor nation has both radical and reactionary qualities. “Knowing our enemy” requires us to acknowledge the scale of their crimes and act accordingly.

In the same year, even a “rich” rapper like Young Thug can go from being a multi-millionaire record label executive to a prisoner facing RICO charges. With the epidemics of violence and drug addiction in the rap industry, the genre has a high concentration of talented artists dying young, and the list grows far too quickly. Murders of rappers like Scott La Rock, Stretch, Tupac Shakur, Yaki Kadafi, Notorious B.I.G. and Big L made hip-hop feel like a warzone in its first 30 years. More recently, Nipsey Hussle, Pop Smoke, Mac Miller, King Von, Young Dolph, PnB Rock, Takeoff and Juice WRLD all died in quick succession over just the past five years, each death traumatizing millions of youth who grew up listening to them and respecting their musical contributions. The only way to honor these senseless losses and stop the funerals in hip-hop is with mass movements that can stop violence in the community, heal the mental and physical wounds of Black America and the working class, and lead us toward a revolutionary culture that uplifts rather than destroys.

“We are hip-hop. Me, you, everybody, we are hip-hop. So hip-hop is going where we’re going. So the next time you ask yourself ‘where is hip-hop going?’, ask yourself ‘Where am I going? How am I doing?’ ‘til you get a clear idea.

So if hip-hop is about the people, and the hip-hop won’t get better until the people get better, then how do the people get better?

-Yasiin Bey, “Fear Not of Man” (1999)

While hip-hop is currently the subject of mass cultural discussion due to the 50th anniversary, this method of analysis can be used to dissect all forms of culture. In the words of Claudia de la Cruz, “In order for us to effectively intervene and move people’s hearts and minds towards our class interests, we need to be able to know where the mental terrain of our people is.” She adds that we also need to be able to “study the mechanisms that have been utilized by the ruling class for that purpose.”

Even if today we see a relatively low number of political references in mainstream hip-hop, it doesn’t mean that the culture is dead or can’t be salvaged. Every day, rappers outside the mainstream challenge this notion with powerful lyrics that reflect on the social movements and political consciousness of today. Tools like digital software for music production and Soundcloud, YouTube and other streaming services for music distribution have opened up the ability to make and record hip-hop for millions of youth who didn’t have access to these technologies in past decades. Hip-hop will become that which we, the working class, the people’s movements, the socialists and communists, the national liberation fighters, and the union organizers, make it. A cultural revolution that exemplifies the pro-people values that we want to see in music, movies, television and theater can only be achieved in coordination with a political revolution. In the words of de la Cruz, “Art and culture are not a substitute for organized struggle, but rather it is at the heart of organized struggle.”

The elites say that hip-hop isn’t music or doesn’t require talent, but hundreds of millions of people know that it is a never-ending spring of creativity and energy. Detractors say that hip-hop is worthless, but the people know that it is essential. Critics have said hip-hop is dead, but hip-hop lives. Fifty years is only the beginning, and the work of keeping it alive through the turbulent times we are facing will take the constant revolutionizing of our hearts, our minds and our society as a whole.

Watch the 3-part class series hosted by PSL New York City and Justice Center en el Barrio below:

Attend the PSL’s 50th anniversary celebration in New York City!

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