School of Hip Hop
April 13, 2021 12:34 PM   Subscribe

I'm 50, grew up on rock and roll. I've always liked hip hop, but don't really know my way around it. How to fill this gap?

I listened to the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Run DMC, N.W.A., etc., when they were coming out* but I haven't heard much afterwards, which I take is like all you knew about rock was Chuck Berry and Dick Dale.
Whenever I hear a track I like, I feel the frustration of not being able to contextualize what I'm hearing. Don't know the sub-genres, the groundbreakers, the current expansions.
How to acquire a conceptual and historic framework? A good book on the subject? A short video or series of videos (let's say under 240 minutes total)?

* I also I lived in the Bronx 1973-75 so I was physically close to the birth of the genre
posted by signal to Society & Culture (16 answers total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Netflix has a HH series that's pretty good (there might even be several by now) . the one I saw broke it down by region, Hip Hop Evolution there are 4 seasons by now i think, but you can easily jump in at a point that interests you.
posted by OHenryPacey at 1:15 PM on April 13, 2021 [13 favorites]

It's longer than you asked for, but Hip Hop Evolution on Netflix is exactly this - it covers the history of hip hop, important artists and moments in time, the different sub-genres, how they evolved, the relationships of different cities to different styles, etc. It's super-watchable.

(On preview, I see OHenryPacey made the same recommendation.)
posted by parm at 1:18 PM on April 13, 2021 [4 favorites]

Don't know if it's available on Netflix outside of Canada, but Hip Hop Evolution contains a pretty amazing range of interviews with people starting with DJ Kool Herc and moves across styles/regions/forward through time from there.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 1:19 PM on April 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

I can't imagine there is a perfect resource for this, as there is a lot of time and geography (both literal and stylistic) to cover and so many points of entry. I am watching this thread with interest.

That said, the Wikipedia page Hip-hop albums considered to be influential has a concise list of albums with brief descriptions (until about 2000, when the descriptions drop off). Most of them reference Peter Shapiro's book The Rough Guide to Hip-hop 2, so that might be a decent jumping off point, too.

Frankly, listening to something and using Wikipedia to read up and choose the next artist or album seems like a solid way to go about it. Also using Genius (fka rapgenius).
posted by papayaninja at 1:20 PM on April 13, 2021

Best answer: I thought Shea Serrano's The Rap Year Book was very helpful in grounding myself in hip-hop's history. I burned a set of 3 CDs (more advanced folks would probably use a playlist, but this is what I know and what I can listen to in my car), based on the list of the most influential rap songs released in each year from 1979 to 2014 (book stops after that, because it was published in 2015). There are alternative lists in this book as well, which I haven't gotten to.

Nthing Hip Hop Evolution, as well, which I think was based to some degree on Ed Piskor's amazing graphic novel series Hip Hop Family Tree.
posted by dlugoczaj at 1:40 PM on April 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

Not exactly the comprehensive answer you're looking for, but when I'm feeling like an old man for not understanding the slang or context of a lyric, I use Genius to look up the song.

Most popular hip-hop has solid annotations on their that break it down pretty effectively.
posted by FeralHat at 2:13 PM on April 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Back in the day, old school MC Kurtis Blow "hosted" a couple of "History of Rap" CDs, which are pretty dope. Here's the first volume. I betcha someone has recreated its tracklist on Spotify, eg. ... I just checked, and, indeed, someone has, though I'm not sure how to link to it here (it's an embed code).

One of the things about digging into rap's origins is that, in its very earliest days (which overlap temporally and geographically with your earliest days!), it went largely unrecorded. You will not find any recordings of DJ Kool Herc from 1973, which to me is a tragedy on par with the burning of the library of Alexandria. (Well, maybe not that bad, but still ...)

Quick Googling turned up a Reddit/Soundcloud playlist that collects late '70s rap. Much of it I can vouch for. Good entry point.

As for books, Jeff Chang's Can't Stop Won't Stop is flawed, so not definitive, but still quite good, especially on the early days of rap and hip-hop culture.

I've also always thought that the documentary Rhyme and Reason, about rap history, was underrated, and I encourage you to seek it out. You'll get tons of ideas for playlists from it.

I have a lot to say on this subject but have to run. I'll try to post some other ideas later.
posted by Dr. Wu at 4:39 PM on April 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

There's also The Defiant Ones, which contains a slightly sanitized account of the career of Dr. Dre and Death Row Records (now owned by Hasbro)
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:35 PM on April 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

Listen to the year-by-year mixes from The Rub.
posted by knile at 8:39 PM on April 13, 2021 [6 favorites]

Some of Hip Hop Family Tree by Ed Piskor is still on BB archives...
posted by ovvl at 9:09 PM on April 13, 2021

Great question...I just did some quick googling and I landed on three solid leads.
This feature article on the history of the amazing Yo! MTV Raps! Which lead to this... Yo! MTV Raps documentary
(40 minutes) And lastly this NPR World Cafe piece on The Birth of Rap (30 minutes). I’ll be watching that doc right along with you!
posted by Champagne Supernova at 9:21 PM on April 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: So many thoughts here. Some distinct things:

1. I should say, since the AskMeFi community contributed so enthusiastically, that I posted a question titled "Make me a comprehensive rap music mixtape, 1986 to 2009" back in 2009, and so you could fairly easily pull together a streaming mix that would bring you right up to the point of modern irrelevancy. I posted the final three disc mix on there, and you could stream probably 90% of the songs.

2. For the 1990s, if you looked up well-reviewed rap in the Source, which you can do easily enough, you'd learn a lot about the basic architecture of rap's "golden era." A "Five Mic" review in that decade held a lot of genuine currency for rap fans. Every four or five mic album is worth your time. (Vibe magazine in that decade also had some good writing, and if you're enterprising, you can look up scans of graffiti magazines from the era online, they are available and they have underground rap reviews that mattered to fans.) Later on, picks up the thread--I'm sure you'd learn a lot from their year-end lists.

3. There's also just the basic Mount Rushmore quest. Set your sights on Outkast, Jay-Z through the "Black Album," Kanye West, MF DOOM, Lil Wayne, Scarface, Ice Cube, Tribe Called Quest, and a few other artists, and you'll learn so much! The MF DOOM/Madlib collaboration "Madvillainy" is basically the genre's "Revolver."

4. On conceptual frameworks: I actually think Wikipedia might be your best friend here. After a certain point the history of rap music traces technological developments so closely that it becomes named after them ("ringtone rap," "SoundCloud rap," and so on), and after about 2010 the proliferation of subgenres gets so intense that you may find that you don't need to bother. (Like, if someone wanted to know about rock music, would you say, "You gotta check out yacht rock! Don't forget 90s Power Violence?" Rap music is like that at this point.) Wikipedia's genre tags might be helpful.

5. On regions: look around outside New York. Atlanta, Houston, and New Orleans essentially recreated the genre, but Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle, Philadelphia, Virginia, Florida, these places all matter. If you heard five songs from each city, you'd have so much context. Even now, rap music remains a local concern.

6. A note on the mixtape era. Frequently in the mid-aughts, a rapper's best work would be on mixtapes that weren't released by a label. Like, in the "Carter" era, Lil Wayne was briefly the best rapper alive, but you'd need to hear the mixtapes from 2006-2008 to get the picture. Ditto Clipse between their two big albums, when the "We Got It For Cheap" mixtapes came out. The whole DJ Drama/Gangsta Grillz moment is a good starting point but also just, I don't know, Google "Dat Piff Top Downloads" or something and you'll find treasure.

7. To me the most fun way to discover the "historic framework," as you say, is to identify common lyrics and follow them all the way back to their origin. If you hear the same lyric twice in a rap song, or the same cadence, or whatever, Google it! "I got a letter from the government the other day" in Public Enemy becomes a Tricky song and becomes "I got a letter from the DMV the other day" in Pharcyde as well. It still happens today even though the genre is so all over the place and the artists are referencing lyrics from before they were born.

ONE FINAL POINT: If you don't know the first four De La Soul albums, it would be worth a trip to Discogs or Pirate Bay to find a way to play them for yourself. They can't be streamed, and it's kind of a tragedy; it would be like if as a teenager I couldn't hear the Clash or something.
posted by kensington314 at 10:44 PM on April 13, 2021 [8 favorites]

ONE FINAL POINT: If you don't know the first four De La Soul albums, it would be worth a trip to Discogs or Pirate Bay to find a way to play them for yourself. They can't be streamed, and it's kind of a tragedy; it would be like if as a teenager I couldn't hear the Clash or something.

De La Soul has a YouTube channel and all of their albums are on it.
posted by dlugoczaj at 6:46 AM on April 14, 2021 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: THANK YOU. Amazing answers!
I'm reading through Hip Hop Family Tree while listening to this apparently official soundtrack on youtube.
Highly recommended for anybody with the same interest.
posted by signal at 7:57 AM on April 14, 2021

So not what you asked but KDAY FM for your listening pleasure.

Strongly seconding The Defiant Ones which I've watched like three times. So good.
posted by soakimbo at 10:46 PM on April 16, 2021

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