Turning 50 is cause for celebration and reflection, especially for a musical artform critics predicted would be a fad. Hip-hop was once a subculture derived in the Bronx, New York out of desperation, despair, and a desire for fun. Ever since DJ Kool Herc’s August 11, 1973, back-to-school party, long credited as its “birthplace,” hip-hop has stratospherically transcended all expectations—especially those of the artists who helped to establish it as the now multi-billion-dollar inimitable juggernaut.
“I never thought it was my calling,” says Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, one-third of the genre-busting, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-inducted group, RUN DMC, often dubbed the Beatles of hip-hop. “I’m a fan,” he says earnestly. “I see it as the thing that allowed me to be in the same room with [Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five frontman] Melly Mel and [Kool] Moe Dee, and the thing that allowed me to meet [Grandmaster] Caz, not realizing I had to do what I did with RUN DMC to get there.”
With a genuine humility that belies his iconic status, he insists, “I’m just really good in front of crowds, because I’ve been doing it for so long, but I never wanted to be on the stage doing it.” He first realized something big was brewing when RUN DMC joined Kurtis Blow and the Fat Boys on the 1984 Fresh Fest tour, which grossed $3.5 million in its 27-city run. “That’s when I knew, ‘Oh my god, there’s something going on in here that I need to start paying attention to.’”
That tour’s success was an early indicator of hip-hop’s superpowers. From television and film to fashion and beauty, advertising, education, technology, health and wellness, wine and spirits, sports, politics and beyond, hip-hop has indelibly permeated and revolutionized virtually every industry. It has become an undeniably dominant global force unlike any other in modern society.
Nigerian-born, London-raised, Dr. Olajide Williams, Chief of Staff and Professor of Neurology at Columbia University, became enthralled with hip-hop in his early teens. Having grown up listening to acts like The Cure and Bob Geldof, he recalls the life-changing moment a classmate at his elite British boarding school introduced him to hip-hop: “I went to this concert in Brixton Academy, and . . . when I heard RUN DMC on the mic, it was over! I just literally went from pop music to hip-hop, and I never looked back.”
Over the last 15 years, Williams has cultivated partnerships with many of his childhood hip-hop heroes turned “homies,” to use their artistry as an educational tool to amplify health literacy in underserved communities through his New York City-based nonprofit, Hip Hop Public Health, which produced the soundtrack for former First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign.
As big of an enthusiast now as in his teens, he still excitedly remembers the song with which RUN DMC blasted into its London concert. “They came out to ‘Run’s House,’” a boastful single from the group’s 1988 platinum-selling fourth album, Tougher Than Leather. “I was like vertiginous with joy,” Williams infectiously shouts. “It was crazy!”
Speaking our language
For Bronx native Lenny Santiago, RUN DMC offered relatability and a road to his future. “The way they wore fedoras with leather blazers, and jeans, or Adidas tracksuits with sneakers and no laces,” he remembers fondly. “The way they walk[ed], the way they talk[ed] . . . the way they rap[ped], the way they articulated the language of our culture. That is when I fell in love with hip-hop . . . ‘I [didn’t] know what the departments [were], what the different… duties [were] in the music business, but I want[ed] to be involved in THAT!”
Santiago is now senior vice president of artist management at Roc Nation, a record label founded by Brooklyn-born rapper and billionaire business mogul Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter. Santiago unassumingly Zooms in for this interview from a posh Parisian cafe, just hours after deboarding a pristine private Gulfstream jet from Miami. (He’s on a promotional run through Saudi Arabia with multi-platinum-selling, Grammy-award-winning Palestinian-American artist and producer, DJ Khaled, whose career Santiago guides.)
Having humbly risen from street team promo employee to trusted label executive who has worked directly with Jay-Z for the past 30 years, Santiago has earned a front-row seat to countless historic hip-hop moments, including Jay-Z’s multi-year agreement with the NFL to advise on entertainment for mega-events like the Super Bowl, and his formation of the TIDAL global streaming service, built as an alternative to industry dominators Apple and Spotify. Santiago marvels at the genre’s evolution and ubiquity.
“Seeing the culture be so . . . relevant . . . I mean to the world . . . not only [to] kids in middle America . . . kids outside of our communities . . . white kids, and Asian kids, and French kids,” he reflects, then says matter-of-factly, “In so many ways, we’ve crossed the line as Black and brown people . . . .moving over into . . . genres and just positions that were only . . . held by other people before.”
He cites Rihanna, whom, in 2021, Forbes crowned the wealthiest musician in the world, with an estimated net worth of $1.7 billion, second only to Oprah Winfrey as the richest female entertainer. The bulk of her wealth comes from her ownership in the Fenty Beauty brand she launched in 2017, her lingerie company, Savage x Fenty, valued at an estimated $270 million, and earnings from her career as a chart-topping musician and actress.
Rihanna’s mentor and Roc Nation record label founder, Jay-Z, joined the billionaire ranks two years before her, making him the first hip-hop artist to grace the Forbes list, through his music, sports and entertainment ventures and a steadily expanding portfolio including liquor, art, real estate and stakes in companies like Uber.
“Hip-hop is a beautiful display of heart, creativity and perseverance that has become the voice of not only our people, but the world,” muses J. Ivy, a three-time Grammy-nominated, Chicago-born spoken word artist and lead writer of the 2022 Netflix documentary jeen-yuhs about the artist formerly known as Kanye West.
“To go from a genre, an art form, that was thought to be a fad,” Ivy continues, “to the number one music form in the world . . . that, alone, is incredible. To see emcees, like a Jay-Z, like a Kanye… become billionaires . . . to go from the hood to superstardom . . . to see the music studied in universities and colleges all over the world, I mean, it’s really transformed the world.”
Losing our people
For all of its positive impact, in light of artist pressures to satisfy culturally injurious label demands and the staggering increase in violent crimes over the years, many are concerned that hip-hop has strayed perilously far from its purpose of unifying and uplifting. Since 2019, more than a dozen well-known hip-hop artists have been murdered in the United States, from Nipsey Hussle in Los Angeles to Migos member Takeoff in Texas.
“It’s affecting a lot of lives, a lot of families, a lot of communities. And it’s sad to see because, you know, most times, I mean, everybody you name, they young,” laments Ivy, “These are folks that won’t be able to see 30, 40, 50, 80, and won’t be able to see children be born and grandkids be born . . . A lot of genius is being lost, a lot of love lost, a lot of history that will never be written.”
Inner-city gun violence is “this broken record that refuses to stop spinning,” he says. “We need to figure out ways to put the pieces back together and get back to community and get back to love and circle back around the table and break bread and realize that we all are one, and we all are connected.”
DMC says rappers, radio programmers and music industry executives have to more proactively address the problems and become parts of the solutions. “When there was a problem in our communities, every rapper—regardless of their genre or position—would address it in their music,” he recalls. “If there was a shooting, Tribe [Called Quest] would slip it in there, [Tu]Pac would slip [it] in, RUN DMC was slipping it in . . . We all knew our responsible role to address this issue.”
DMC lists artists like Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole and Joey Badass as some of those currently speaking to the issues, but condemns repetitive, imbalanced urban radio playlists for “not playing the important records anymore… that recognize the purpose of our culture,” he says. “Now that we’re successful, it seems like we don’t have to be responsible anymore,” he bemoans. “Hip-hop is a culture. The definition of culture is a way of life, but it seems like we’re only promoting one side of this life that we live.”
While some may argue whether the messages in the music are art imitating life, versus life imitating art, most concur that the condition of the culture is in dire need of repair. Sadly, some artists are depicting the dangers of their everyday lives. “They do have to deal with gun violence,” but “it’s to the point where it seems a little bit deeper, like there’s almost a [corporate] agenda . . . of pushing these certain songs about violence, about hypersexuality, over a [more positive] message,” says Grammy-nominated rapper, Rapsody.
Taking our place
As introspective artists like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole sell out stadium tours and after Lauryn Hill’s diamond-selling debut, Ivy says there’s ample evidence that there’s an appetite for more enlightened consumption. “It’s not that positivity and love can’t sell, because we’ve seen it sell like, so it can be done,” he exclaims. “I would love to see a world where our children were growing up on beautiful music . . . It can be real, it can be raw, it can be all of those things, but . . . music that’s centered in love, and not hate and violence and desire . . . We’ve seen enough death!”
Chuck D, co-founder and frontman of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-inducted group Public Enemy, (whose 1989 hit “Fight the Power” prominently appeared in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing), says many of the ills the culture is experiencing are byproducts of systemic racism and lack of gun control.
Now an elder statesman of the industry at 62, he explains that the biggest difference between hip-hop in 1973 and today “is access to guns,” he says. “A lot of cats came back from military service in Vietnam and figured out a way, how to get a gun, but it wasn’t your average, everyday head getting a gun like that.” From the murders of the civil rights leaders of the 1960s to the murders of today’s rap leaders, Chuck D points out, “98% of the time, the removal of our icons has been from gun violence.”
These broader societal issues, which hip-hop subsequently mirrors, took time to develop, and they’re going to take time to resolve, he believes. “If you have a disaster, your cleanup isn’t going to happen in a day. We’ve had tornadoes and hurricanes rip through our people and culture for the last umpteen amount of years. And first, hip-hop and rap music screamed out as cries for help. A lot of it went unanswered.”
Through his Hip Hop Public Health nonprofit, co-founded by beatboxing pioneer and activist Doug E. Fresh, Dr. Williams aims to be among those stepping up to answer the calls and silence the cries by funding music and other initiatives to help treat the underlying conditions that result in violence, drug abuse and suicide.
“Hip-hop is probably one of the most powerful, cathartic forms of music on the planet, and it has the power to motivate behavior,” he says. He references an article in the British Medical Journal, which credited rapper Logic’s 2017 song “1-800-273-8255” (the suicide prevention hotline) with savings thousands of lives. “And that’s just a tiny little example of the type of power hip-hop can have.”
Furthering the call for hip-hop to have a better overall health plan, in partnership with SAG/AFTRA, Chuck D, Kurtis Blow, KRS-One and Doug E. Fresh have formed a union called the Hip Hop Alliance, which will provide industry-standard protections for proven hip-hop and R&B professionals. At hip-hop’s mid-century mark, Chuck D says it’s long overdue. “Even a plumber got a union,” he says with his characteristic curtness. “Over 50 years, we can stop beating our chests on finally doing some grownup [stuff]. I mean, it’s just what people have to do!”
DMC agrees it’s time for hip-hop to collect what corporate America owes it “We now have to have seats at these tables,” he says. “We now have to be put in the leadership positions of all the entities that we make these billions of dollars for. Why? Not to control [stuff] and take [stuff] from you CEOs and you masterminds and you lawyers in it, no. So that we can take care of our people.”
As the candles are lit, the bottles are popped and the private jet engines are fueled in celebration of all the triumphs of the last five decades, Ivy urges his beloved hip-hop community to stay the course. “We still are those people that have been overlooked and oppressed, and . . . those who have historically been pushed beneath the dirt,” he says. “And here, this music, it has become a seed in that dirt. And it allows us to push through and shine very bright . . . It’s the biggest underdog story ever. And it’s the story we’re still fighting, still writing.”
Happy 50th Birthday, hip-hop! May your future shine even brighter than your past.