Numerous books have been written about the origins of hip-hop and its evolution from an underground phenomenon to a global force. While its growth since the 1990s had been well-documented, here are some notable events from hip-hop’s formative first two decades.
1970: The self-titled debut by New York’s The Last Poets is released. The spoken-word-with-music album signals the rap-fueled hip-hop revolution to follow.
1973: At an Aug. 11 Brooklyn house party, DJ Kool Herc creates the break-beat, a foundational element in hip-hop. He did so by playing the same two records on two side-by-side turntables, and alternating back and forth between them, to create a drum-fueled rhythmic loop. He will be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on Nov. 3.
1975: DJ Grand Wizzard Theodore invents scratching — a staple for hip-hop DJs — by accidentally moving the needle back and forth on a vinyl record. By doing so, he helped transform turntables into instruments that could provide rhythmic and melodic elements. For good measure, he also devised the needle drop, a method used by DJs to drop the needle onto the exact beginning of a song, rather than cuing it up on the record.
1979: The Sugarhill Gang’s song “Rapper’s Delight” is the first hip-hop song to become a national Top 40 hit and to use “hip-hop” in its lyrics: “Hip-hop, hippie to the hippie, to the hip-hip-hop and you don’t stop.” The song, which sampled the bass line from Chic’s 1979 disco hit, “Good Times,” was available in three versions that ranged from nearly 15 minutes to just under four.
1980: Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks” becomes a Top 5 R&B hit and is the first hip-hop song to earn gold record certification for sales of more than 500,000. His 1979 song, “Christmas Rappin’,” was the first hip-hop song released by a major record label. Also in 1980, the Lionel Richie-led group The Commodores had Blow open a tour for them, marking the first national concert trek by any hip-hop act.
1981: Blondie’s “Rapture,” which is half-sung and half-rapped by the band’s lead vocalist, Debbie Harry, becomes the first hip-hop-oriented song to top the national pop single charts. The video for “Rapture” features cameos by hip-hop pioneer Fab 5 Freddy and the then-little-known graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. It was among the videos aired during MTV’s first day of broadcasting, Aug. 1, 1981.
1982: “Wild Style,” the first feature film about hip-hop, is released. It features Fab 5 Freddy, Grandmaster Flash, The Cold Crush Crew and other pivotal early movers.
1983: Run-D.M.C.’s debut single, “It’s Like That/Sucker MCs,” ushers in a new, drum machine-driven era in hip-hop, while the video for the song earned airplay on MTV. The single has now sold more than 5 million copies worldwide. Also in 1983, Los Angeles-based KDAY becomes nation’s first radio station to adopt an all-hip-hop format.
1985: The New York trio The Fat Boys’ partnership with the Swatch watch company makes them the first hip-hop act to sign a corporate endorsement deal. Many more have followed.
1986: Run-D.M.C. teams with Aerosmith for “Walk This Way,” a seminal, hip-hop-meets-hard-rock mash-up. It becomes a worldwide sensation, thanks to the song’s classic video.
1988: N.W.A.’s debut, “Straight Outta Compton,” sells more than 500,000 copies, becoming the first gangsta-rap release to earn that designation. The group’s co-founder, Dr. Dre, performed as part of the 2022 Super Bowl halftime show. Fellow N.W.A. charter member Ice Cube has become a force as a film actor, screenwriter and director.
1989: Before he became a TV sitcom star and Oscar-winning actor, Will Smith was a rapper who performed as The Fresh Prince and recorded with DJ Jazzy Jeff. The duo’s innocuous 1989 song, “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” won the first Best Rap Performance Grammy Award.