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10 Hip-Hop Artists that Changed the Game

Biggie Smalls. Photo Courtesy of cyphermagazine via Flickr.
Biggie Smalls. Photo Courtesy of cyphermagazine via Flickr.

Hip-hop is hands down one of the most prominent genres in the music industry. Most people hear it every day on the radio, in a commercial, or in a store. 

Hip-hop can take on many forms, including DJing, freestyling, gangsta rap, trap, East Coast/ West Coast, contemporary, and, most recently, SoundCloud rap. 

November is Hip-Hop History Month. To celebrate, we’re looking at ten hip-hop artists that have changed the music industry with their careers. 

Whether it’s introducing a new style or perfecting their technique to revolutionize the genre into something no one can ignore. These artists forever left their mark on hip-hop.

Grandmaster Flash

First on our list is Grandmaster Flash, who helped pioneer hip-hop DJing by studying earlier DJs such as Pete Jones, Kool Herc, and Grandmaster Flowers to develop his own techniques. 

Grandmaster Flash developed the backspin technique and punch phrasing while perfecting scratching, invented by Grand Wizzard Theodore. 

His group, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, formed in the South Bronx in 1978. The group included Melle Mel, The Kidd Creole, Keef Cowboy, Scorpio, and Rahiem. 

The hip-hop group started playing at local parties before eventually graduating to venues and beyond. The group signed to Sugar Hill Records two years after forming. 

Two years after that, the group released The Message, which achieved mainstream success for its political and social commentary.

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five is one of the most significant hip-hop groups of all time. In 2007, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame would induct them as the first hip-hop group to win the distinction.

Run-DMC

Run DMC at 363 Oxford Street in 1986. Photo Courtesy of hmv getcloser via Flickr.
Run DMC at 363 Oxford Street in 1986. Photo Courtesy of hmv getcloser via Flickr.

The success of Grandmaster Flash helped the next generation of hip-hop artists such as Public Enemy, LL Cool J, and Beastie Boys. 

One of the best artists to come out of this group in the 1980s is Run-DMC with Joseph “Run” Simmons, Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels, and Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell.

The group, also from New York City, would help lead the culture into “new school hip-hop,” along with the artists mentioned above.  

Run-DMC became the first hip-hop group to do many things for the industry, including being the first to highlight the MC and DJ relationship and the first to achieve a certified Gold and Platinum record. Their 1986 Raising Hell became the first multi-platinum hip hop record. 

MTV and VH1 have named Run-DMC as the greatest hip-hop artists of all time. In 2009, the group would become the second hip-hop inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 

In 2016, the group received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, followed by the Library of Congress inducted the group into the National Recording Registry for being “culturally, historically, or artistically significant.”

NWA

NWA was one of the most influential yet controversial hip-hop groups in music history.

The group, consisting of Arabian Prince, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E,  Ice Cube,  DJ Yella, and MC Ren, would become instrumental in gangsta rap. 

Active in the late 80s and early 90s, their music often consisted of controversial topics such as misogynist, antisemitism, and glorifying drugs and crime, forcing several radio stations to turn them away.

Despite the pushback, the group spoke upon their own experiences of racism and excessive policing, leading them to become a target for authorities. 

Eventually, their legacy would shine through the negativity, and they would become one of the most well-known hip-hop groups in America, with over 10 million records sold. 

On top of the group’s success, several artists would lead highly successful careers of their own, including Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Eazy-E, before his death in 1995. 

After three previous nominations, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame would finally induct NWA in 2016.

Tupac Shakur

By the late-80s and early-90s, hip-hop began to shift from a group setting to individual rappers who spoke about their lives. 

One of the best lyricists to ever do this was Tupac Shakur, otherwise known as 2pac. Born in New York, the rapper would eventually move to the West Coast and become a central figure in West Coast hip-hop. 

Tupac became a symbol of activism with his music by addressing social issues that plagued inner cities. He was one of the first to introduce social issues to the genre when gangsta rap was dominant in the mainstream. 

The rapper released three studio albums before signing with Death Row Records with Marion “Suge” Knight in exchange for Knight posting his bail. 

This relationship would lead to the release of All Eyez On Me and help push Tupac into the middle of a West Coast/ East Coast rivalry. 

Tupac died in 1996 after a drive-by in Las Vegas at the age of 26. Following his death, the Hip-Hop Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame would induct him.

He is one of the best-selling music artists, having sold more than 75 million records worldwide.

Notorious B.I.G. 

Biggie Smalls. Photo Courtesy of cyphermagazine via Flickr.
Biggie Smalls. Photo Courtesy of cyphermagazine via Flickr.

On the other side of this East Coast/ West Coast rivalry was the Notorious B.I.G, otherwise known as Biggie Smalls. 

Christopher Wallace was born in New York City and closely followed the local rap scene, including gangsta rap. 

He made a name for himself by using a laidback lyric delivery of often grim content. In 1993 he signed with Sean “Puffy” Combs for his brand new record label, Death Row Records. 

His debut album, Ready to Die, was met with widespread praise and included “Juicy” and “Big Poppa.” The immediate success landed him as a central figure in the rivalry. 

Six months after the death of Tupac, Biggie was killed in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles. He was only 24 years old. 

The rapper was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2020 and is considered “the most skillful ever on the mic.”

Missy Elliott

By the 1990s, hip-hop was dominated by male rappers. Rappers such as MC Sha-Rock and Lil’ Kim helped introduce women into the hip-hop industry, but Missy Elliott proved they had a place in the scene. 

During this time, women were often found in R&B groups such as The Pointer Sisters, Destiny’s Child, and TLC. Elliott started her career with the R&B girl group Sista before becoming a member of the Swing Mob. 

She started on her own path in 1997 with her debut album, Supa Dupa Fly, which landed at number three on the Billboard 200, the highest-charting debut for a female rapper at the time.

She has won four Grammy’s and has sold over 30 million records in the United States. The accomplishment makes her the best-selling female rapper in Nielsen Music history. 

Elliott has laid the way for countless female artists such as Cardi B, Nicki Minaj, and more. 

Eminem

Eminem. Photo Courtesy of Sebastian Vital via Flickr.
Eminem. Photo Courtesy of Sebastian Vital via Flickr.

Whether or not you’re a new school or old school hip-hop fan, Eminem is a rapper on most people’s radar. 

Eminem helped popularize hip-hop in Middle America by his freestyle lyricism and not-so-common skin tone. 

The Detroit rapper has released several albums as a solo artist and with D12 and Bad Meets Evil. 

In 2002, Eminem was featured in a musical drama called 8 Mile, featuring his song “Lose Yourself.” The song would lead Eminem to become the first hip-hop artist to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song.

After 11 studio albums, he has sold over 220 million records sold, making him one of the top-selling artists.

His global success helped break the racial barriers for the acceptance of white rappers in popular music. 

Jay-Z

Jay-Z at Hove Festival in 2008. Photo Courtesy of NRK P3 via Flickr.
Jay-Z at Hove Festival in 2008. Photo Courtesy of NRK P3 via Flickr.

Another artist still around today, despite the early start in their career, is Jay-Z, otherwise known as Shawn Carter. 

Jay-Z’s impact on the music industry goes beyond his music, although that alone was enough to do so. 

His impact comes from what he could do beyond music, becoming a record executive, businessman, and media proprietor. 

Before all of this, the Brooklyn rapper began his career in the late 1980s, before co-founding Roc-A-Fella Records in 1995 and eventually the CEO of Def Jam Recordings. 

Music alone, he captured the essence of East Coast rap with over 13 solo studio albums, leading him to become one of the world’s best-selling artists with over 125 million records sold. 

Jay-Z has won 23 Grammy’s, the most by a rapper. He also holds the record for the most number one album by a solo artist on the Billboard 200. 

Music aside, he helped cultivate some of the most prominent artists in the music industry, including Kanye West, Rihanna, and J. Cole. 

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Jay-Z as the first solo living rapper, while the Songwriters Hall of Fame inducted him as the first rapper to win the distinction.

Outkast

While the East and West duked it out for who has the best rap game, Atlanta had their own scene coming up. 

One of the best representatives from this area was Outkast, which consisted of Andre “3000” Benjamin and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton. 

The duo began in the late 1980s but quickly gained critical acclaim and commercial success starting in the mid-90s. 

The group popularized Southern hip-hop with blends of Psychedelia, jazz, and techno. 

On top of the different sounds used, many consider Andre “3000” one of the greatest rappers of all time. 

Outkast’s intricate lyricism is matched with memorable melodies and positive messages, making their music memorable amongst fans. 

Their success makes them one of the most successful hip-hop groups of all time, having received six Grammy Awards. 

After six studio albums and a greatest hits album, Outkast has sold over 25 million records. 

Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick Lamar. Photo Courtesy of Dan Garcia via Flickr.
Kendrick Lamar. Photo Courtesy of Dan Garcia via Flickr.

Last on our list is the most recent West Coast rapper to achieve Global Success. 

By the 2000s and 2010s, hip-hop artists from everywhere flooded the world with commercial rap. 

During this time, the world was also transitioning into a digital world where music was much more accessible. 

Lamar released his debut album, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, in 2012, would go on to become certified triple platinum.

Although the Compton-based rapper has only released four studio albums, he is considered the face of West Coast hip-hop. 

So much so that Snoop Dogg, the king of West Coast Hip-Hop, physically passed the torch to the young rapper during one of his concerts. 

Kendrick Lamar has earned many accolades throughout his career, making him one of the most influential artists of his generation. 

The 34-year-old has won 13 Grammy Awards,  two American Music Awards, six Billboard Music Awards, a Brit Award, 11 MTV Video Music Awards, and a Pulitzer Prize for “Humble,” the first time a non-jazz and non-classical album won the award.

Time named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world, while California’s State Senate gave him the Generational Icon Award. 

Joey Reams
Author: Joey Reams

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