From The Sugarhill Gang to Kendrick Lamar, 50 years of hip-hop - in 12 songs

Looking back on five decades in which the genre left an indelible mark on arts and culture

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Fifty years on and hip-hop is still rocking the block.

From initial beginnings at house parties in New York City in 1973, the genre known for its playful, potent wordplay and innovative musical accompaniments is arguably now the most popular sound of today.

Transforming the lives of generations of African-American artists born in economically disenfranchised communities, the genre attracted fans the world over with anthems speaking to local concerns.

Such is its creative and social impact, it is officially acknowledged as a cultural treasure in the US.

Kendrick Lamar won the 2017 Pulitzer in Music for album Damn, while 12 other albums are archived in the Library of Congress.

These include De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising and Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet.

The Grammy Awards celebrated the genre’s 50-year anniversary last month and the Universal Hip-Hop Museum, backed by some of the genre's most illustrious names, will open in New York in 2024.

Despite the plaudits and institutions, hip-hop’s enduring legacy remains the vibrant collection of songs speaking to all aspects of the human experience.

Below is that cherished history told in 12 tracks.

1. Rapper’s Delight by The Sugarhill Gang (1979)

The New York crew exemplified the burgeoning genre's tongue-twisting wordplay.

Rappers Delight was hip-hop's first hit when it cracked the top 40 of the US Billboard Hot 100 chart. The track's influence is still felt across all aspects of the craft.

2. The Message by Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five (1982)

Hip-hop's exploration of social justice stems from this powerful song.

At the time, the genre established itself on the US charts with minor hits, such as The Breaks by Kurtis Blow and Planet Rock by Afrika Bambaataa.

The Message took their bouncy energy and married it with hard-hitting lyricism detailing the desperation of inner city poverty.

The Message helped lay the foundations for socially conscious artists, from Public Enemy and NWA to Kendrick Lamar, to continue the message for decades to come.

3. Straight Outta Compton by NWA (1988)

If The Message had Grand Master Flash and The Furious Five surveying the urban jungle as observers, in Straight Outta Compton Los Angeles group NWA are the fierce protagonists of the action.

From the brutally propulsive production by Dr Dre and gritty wordplay by Ice Cube, Eazy-E and MC Ren, the song widely formed the genesis of subgenre gangsta rap (alongside other tracks, such as 1986's 6 in the Morning by Ice-T) and set the stage for a wave of uncompromising artists recording unvarnished street tales in the studio.

4. Check the Rhime by A Tribe Called Quest (1991)

With gangsta rap causing controversy in the US, a soulful and meditative take on the genre also took shape.

Check the Rhime, the lead single from New York's A Tribe Called Quest’s seminal album The Low End Theory, combines avant garde jazz and soul music elements with introspective lyricism.

Rappers Q-Tip and the late Phife Dawg trade verses full of inspired wordplay and metaphors that champion the value of knowledge while staying street smart.

5. NY State of Mind by Nas (1994)

The literary qualities of hip-hop are expressed in this revelatory track by Nas.

Taken from his ground-breaking debut album Illmatic, Nas is ruminative in NY State of Mind as he processes the pros and cons of life spent on society’s margins.

An ominous piano loop from DJ Premiere shadows Nas while he observes subjects, sights and sounds without judgment.

This track is a sonic snapshot of an unforgiving city.

6. California Love by Tupac (1995)

Gangsta rap meets pop finesse in this monster hit.

It is also a tale of redemption with rapper Tupac and producer Dr Dre needing an impactful track to establish themselves back on the scene.

For Dr Dre, the success signalled to the industry that he was still capable of conjuring some majestic production outside his former group NWA, while Tupac had lost none of his appeal despite his legal woes.

A hit in the US, Europe and Australia, California Love is the harbinger of hip-hop's eventual rise as a commercial powerhouse.

7. Doo Wop (That Thing) by Lauryn Hill (1998)

Lauryn Hill's debut solo single builds upon hip-hop's female empowerment themes, first recorded by the likes of Roxanne Shante, Queen Latifah and Salt-N-Pepa in the previous decade.

Hill's flow is rugged and impassioned with separate verses addressed to women and men imploring us to raise our standards in relationships and life goals.

Doo Wop (That Thing) was another landmark for hip-hop. It is the first US chart topper recorded by a female rapper — a feat now regularly repeated by the likes of Missy Elliot, Nicki Minaj and Cardi B.

8. Stan by Eminem (2000)

Hip-hop's cinematic flair is exemplified in this masterpiece.

Eminem confounded fans and critics alike when ditching the lewd and outrageous persona of previous hits for a more sombre and harrowing look at obsessive fan culture.

The lyrics, told through the eyes of the artist and an unhinged fan, are so narrative driven they can be read as a short story.

British singer Dido makes a star turn with a haunting chorus and Stan has now become a widely used adjective to describe obsessive or overzealous behaviour.

9. Work It by Missy Elliot (2002)

A creative and technical watershed for the genre, Missy Elliot's single is an a showcase of pioneering electro-fuelled sounds making producer Timbaland a star in his own right.

Work It, featured on Elliot's fourth album, demonstrates why she remains one of the most gifted rappers in the game.

From the various rhyme schemes to quirky slang terms and inflections, her style went on to especially influence Nicki Minaj.

10. Stronger by Kanye West (2007)

Not West's best song, but Stronger represented another seismic evolution in hip-hop.

Its success encouraged artists to incorporate more electronic music into their sounds, a feature now prevalent and keenly heard on Drake’s latest album Honestly, Nevermind.

11. Pursuit of Happiness by Kid Cudi (2010)

Introspective hip-hop songs have been around since the early 1980s.

However, artists like Kid Cudi, and to a certain extent Eminem, dug deep when fearlessly tackling subjects like depression, resilience and mental health.

Pursuit of Happiness is a prime example and, along with parent album Man on the Moon: The End of Day, went on to influence a new generation of artists including Travis Scott, Logic and the late XXXTentacion.

12. Alright by Kendrick Lamar (2015)

Another modern masterpiece, Alright takes us back to the foundations of hip-hop.

It takes the socially conscious reportage of 1982 hit The Message and updates it to survey decaying race relations in the US today.

Alongside other anthems, such as Childish Gambino’s This is America and Jay-Z's The Story of OJ, Lamar and peers show hip-hop remains vital 50 years on.

Updated: February 17, 2023, 6:02 PM