How Political Hip-Hop Has Evolved Over Time - Trapital (2023)

Political hip-hop music is everywhere, but it doesn’t feel that way to mainstream fans. That disconnect is a reflection of hip-hop’s progression and the ever-changing media landscape.

How Political Hip-Hop Has Evolved Over Time - Trapital (1)K. Dot and President Obama in the Oval Office in 2016 (Vimeo via VIBE)

In the late 80s and early 90s, rappers relied on their music to voice the struggles of black America. Public Enemy’s Chuck D famously called rap the ‘Black CNN.’ Most of the social issues that impacted hip-hop artists weren’t reflected accurately in mainstream media. And hip-hop itself wasn’t respected as an artform. Thus, the fight for rap’s relevancy and the fight for social justice were intertwined. “Fight the Power” was a call to action. A voice for the underrepresented. A validation of culture.

Hip-hop now has more of that credibility it once sought after. Social media has amplified the voice of those that Public Enemy and others advocated for. Rap’s biggest stars also have access to platforms that were once unattainable. And truthfully, there’s more political hip-hop music and activism than ever before. Childish Gambino, Rapsody, J. Cole and others have released critically-acclaimed music to share their beliefs with the world.

But mainstream hip-hop fans still feel like political hip-hop is lacking. There’s a stark difference between perception and reality. That disconnect stems from how political rap is both consumed and delivered in our changing media landscape.

Today’s artists maximize their voice

Last month, Cardi B took to Instagram to explain why she doesn’t release songs about serious subjects. From Instagram (@iamcardib):

“I rap about my pussy because it sounds like that what’s people wanna hear. When I did ‘Be Careful’ I heard mad shit in the beginning, like ‘what the fuck is this?’ So I’m like aight, if that ain’t what people wanna hear, I’m gonna rap about my pussy again.

Second of all, there’s a lot of female rappers that be rappin’ they ass of, don’t talk about their pussy, don’t talk about gettin’ down and dirty, and y’all don’t be supporting them.”

Gotta love the raw delivery, but someone had to say it. Cardi went onto name Rapsody, Tierra Whack, and others who don’t get the support they deserve. Her comments were initially directed at Jermaine Dupri’s criticism of women in hip-hop, but her comments apply to political rap too. Can you imagine if Cardi B released a song about her adoration for FDR? Even if the song was fire, it would get hated on by her fans, Fox News, and everyone in between.

Instead, Cardi relies on other channels for activism. Earlier this month, she interviewed presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. The Bronx rapper gathered questions from her fans to ask the Vermont Senator in a 1-1 chat:

Bernie x Cardi B

She maximized her impact by leveraging different platforms for different audiences. This is a topic I recently spoke about in an episode of the Trapital Podcast. Moody Jones—head of digital at EMPIRE—talked about the need for artists to be consistent across platforms, but be cognizant of the unique differences across media. Cardi’s followers on Facebook are not necessarily the same folks who follow her on Instagram.

The same is true with companies. The first step is to demonstrate consistency across the brand. The second step is to adjust tactics to cater to different audiences. Each platform caters to a different type of person. If a company launches a podcast, that podcast will reach a slightly different audience than its IGTV clips will.

In hip-hop’s golden age, those outlets weren’t available. Remember, Chuck D was known as a politically-conscious rapper. Meanwhile, Cardi is a mainstream artist who occasionally delves into politics. But despite Chuck D’s interest in political discourse, he could have never landed an interview with Ronald Reagan or Michael Dukakis. They would have called up the secret service if the Public Enemy frontman got near either of them.

Today’s biggest stars have access that was once unprecedented. If one of hip-hop’s superstars makes a politically-minded record–with all the other options available– its because they truly want to release a record. It’s a subtle difference that has heightened the expectations of the artform.

In 2004, Diddy interviewed then U.S. Senate candidate Barack Obama during MTV’s Vote or Die campaign. Also, a 34-year old Diddy called 42-year old Obama a ‘kid’. Classic Diddy.

The underlying themes don’t get discussed

Political hip-hop has shifted in a few ways. First, today’s rappers who focus on political music (e.g. Killer Mike) have much smaller followings than their predecessors. Mike’s group Run the Jewels has a passionate following, but it lives on the outskirts of mainstream rap. Second, today’s rappers have a wider range of political opinions and criticisms (e.g. Lupe Fiasco calling President Obama a terrorist or Chance the Rapper’s ‘black people don’t have to be Democrats‘). Third, and most importantly, when today’s political rap songs go viral, the discussion is usually centered around critiques of the music itself.

Songs like “Fight the Power” received criticism too, but the underlying issues were also discussed. Today’s songs rarely start the proverbial “serious discussion about race” that they intend to.

To be fair, some of the criticism is warranted. Songs like Macklemore’s “White Privilege II” had little chance to succeed. The intent was there, but the impact was off. Joyner Lucas’ “I’m Not Racist” music video was even more problematic. Its underlying takeaway (that racism can be solved with a hug…? what the hell?) was torn apart so much that there’s a YouTube compilation video of all the negative reactions to the polarizing music video. It was Kendall-Jenner-Pepsi-commercial levels bad!

But even Childish Gambino’s “This is America”—which received both acclaim and criticism—didn’t spark a true conversation about its themes. The conversation centered around the video’s graphic scenes. Its deeper themes were treated like easter eggs in a Marvel movie, not conversation starters. Despite its intent, “This is America” legacy lives in a vacuum surrounded by the broader issues it wanted to raise.

When today’s fans ask for political rap, they want albums like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. But there’s only so many Kendrick Lamars. To Pimp a Butterfly might seem fairly recent, but a lot’s changed since that album dropped in March 2015. That project came at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. There was an unspoken call to action for someone like Kendrick to speak on. And despite the respectability politics behind that album, and many of Kendrick’s beliefs, it still filled that void for many.

Hip-hop media has also changed considerably since 2015. Today, Kendrick can deliver his message via visual albums, documentaries, or other media. He can also build partnerships with companies to take action.

There’s a natural progression of what’s possible for hip-hop’s activism. Most artists can communicate their desired message through songs, videos, and social media. Once the artist gains power, that message can be amplified through documentaries, op-eds, interviews, etc. And after that, the biggest artists have the power to build the partnerships, initiatives, and businesses to act on their desired change:

How Political Hip-Hop Has Evolved Over Time - Trapital (2)

This is the evolution, but I hesitate to call it a progression. Artists who ‘communicate’ shouldn’t feel obligated to move toward ‘amplify’ or ‘build’. It’s a reflection of what’s possible.

What the future holds

Jay Z’s career reflects this evolution. In 2003, Jay Z relied on songs like “99 Problems” to share perspective on racial profiling. As Jay gained power, his access grew. In 2016, he releases short-form video ‘The War on Drugs is an Epic Fail‘ for the New York Times. And earlier this month, he partnered with the NFL to support social justice. The NFL-Roc Nation deal has plenty of issues—as I covered both here and here—but it still reflects hip-hop’s potential as a change agent for the issues it wants to resolve.

While hip-hop collectively has more access than ever, the strongest channels are still reserved for the stars. Recent albums like Joey Bada$$’ All Amerikkkan Bada$$ and Rapsody’s Eve have communicated their political messages well and received strong praise. Music is still the primary channel for them to communicate their issues now, but that may change as their careers progress.

As hip-hop grew in power, it lost its covered underdog status. The rebellious position drove Public Enemy’s persona. Even Kanye West’s “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” statement in 2005 reflected the sentiment at the time. But in today’s culture, hip-hop is less of an underdog than it was back then. And in today’s media environment, an artist ‘speaking out’ hardly captures headlines. Songs like YG and Nipsey Hussle’s “Fuck Donald Trump” don’t surprise anyone. Eminem’s anti-Trump cypher was a story for a couple of days, but folks largely forgot about it soon after.

When the shock value is gone, cultural relevance can often go with it. It’s a shame. Today’s artists have put in some best work to date that speaks on these issues. But for both better and worse, hip-hop is in a very different place.

How Political Hip-Hop Has Evolved Over Time - Trapital (3)

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How has hip-hop changed and evolved over time? ›

Hip hop dance as we know it today evolved from three underground dance styles: b-boying, locking, and popping. It then fused with the ideas and choreographic elements of jazz dance to create a hybrid dance form. Eventually break dancing came up. The 1980s witnessed the inclusion of synthesizer technology into hip-hop.

When did hip-hop become political? ›

Political hip hop is a subgenre of hip hop music that was developed in the 1980s as a way of turning hip hop into a form of political activism.

How is hip-hop political? ›

Hip-hop has always been political, as the essence of rap was about highlighting injustices that were/are happening in communities in which people have felt neglected. However, educating rap fans on the importance of elections shows how far the influence of hip-hop culture can reach.

How did hip-hop rap develop over time? ›

Origins: Early hip-hop music saw its roots in the 1970s in the New York City borough of the Bronx. It started as a collaboration among intersecting groups of Black, Latinx, and Caribbean American youth at block parties—community gatherings that featured DJs playing soul and funk music.

What is the evolution of hip hop? ›

Hip-hop dance began during the late 1960's and early 1970's, originally inspired by the movements of African dancing, and flourished as a new style of dance performed on the street for the people. Hip-hop incorporates aspects of modern dance, tap, and swing, integrating music and complex movements to form artistry.

Why has hip-hop changed so much? ›

The rappers from back then to now have drastically changed because of the era that we are living in now. The environment is another factor that plays into the making of hip hop music. For instance, in this generation today, young kids are rapping and it's easier for them to access the resources for making the music.

What is the political rap movement? ›

In hip hop music, political hip hop, or political rap, is a form developed in the 1980s, inspired by 1970s political preachers such as The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron. Public Enemy were the first political hip hop group to gain commercial success.

What was the first political hip hop song? ›

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released the first well-known sociopolitical rap song in 1982 called "The Message", which inspired numerous rappers to address social and political subjects.

What is the difference between political hip hop and conscious hip hop? ›

Throughout the 80s, political hip-hop decried socio-economic and cultural issues like police brutality, political apathy, poverty and unemployment, proposing militant solutions. At the same time, conscious rap became a means to dissuade people from crime and violence as a response to the struggles of urban living.

Is hip-hop inherently political? ›

Since its earliest days, hip-hop has been inherently political – a powerful vehicle to deliver messages society needs to hear. Through the spoken word, its MCs have often conveyed the politics of hip-hop even more directly than those of their rock and folk predecessors.

How has hip-hop impacted society? ›

The intersection of these four elements also generated a cultural revolution that rapidly spread across the globe. The global influence of hip hop culture has shaped music styles, fashion, technology, art, entertainment, language, dance, education, politics, media, and more.

Which hip-hop group was known for their politically charged music? ›

Public Enemy Biography

Formed on Long Island, New York, in 1986, they are known for their politically charged music and criticism of the American media, with an active interest in the frustrations and concerns of the African American community.

What influenced hip-hop to start? ›

The richness of African American and diasporic cultures, the mix of vocal techniques and storytelling traditions from those cultures, and the fluidity and ease with which early rap artists moved among musical styles all combined to launch a new form of expression for young men and women in New York City in the 1970s, ...

How did the style of hip-hop develop? ›

Hip hop as both a musical genre and a culture was formed during the 1970s when block parties became increasingly popular in New York City, particularly among African American youth residing in the Bronx.

Why was hip-hop developed? ›

Hip-hop emerged in part, as a reaction to the socio-economic conditions in Black and Brown neighbourhoods. The culture was broad and not just about the music; beatboxing, DJing, street art, graffiti, dancing, braids, hairstyles all emerged as part of hip-hop culture.

When did hip hop evolve? ›

The elements of Hip Hop came together in the Bronx borough of New York City. It was the early 1970s and times were tougher than usual for the poorer parts of urban America. From a whole lot of nothing—and a whole lot of imagination—Hip Hop took form.

Who made hip hop evolution? ›

Banger Films

When did the hip hop revolution start? ›

The rise of new technologies — such as synthesizers, samplers and drum machines — in the 1980s ushered in a new style of music, personified in bands like Duran Duran or the Eurythmics. But then hip-hop exploded into the mainstream in the 1990s, sparking the biggest music revolution in 50 years.

Who changed hip hop the most? ›

Grandmaster Flash is credited with helping pioneer hip-hop DJing. While Grandmaster Flash was perfecting the scratching technique invented by Grand Wizzard Theodore, Grandmaster Flash also developed the backspin technique and the punch phrasing.

How is modern hip hop different from old hip hop? ›

The main difference between old school hip hop and new school hip hop is in the beats. Old school hip-hop typically has 2-3 beats laid on top of each other with simple, easy to understand verbiage. New school hip hop has 6-8 beats per track, ad-libs, and a wide range of edited sounds including re-verb and echo.

How is hip hop relevant today? ›

Furthermore, it has enabled artists the space to mold their music into representations of what they believe to be issues in our society, themselves, or their interests. More importantly, it has connected young people with fundamental ideas of social awareness, and identity, as well as purpose.

Was hip-hop a social movement? ›

Increasing evidence suggests that hip-hop was a social movement fueled by the wrath of historically marginalized youth, primarily of African American heritage, according to a growing corpus of studies.

Why is hip-hop a social movement? ›

In terms of hip-hop, there is an underlying theme of individuality, creativity, and innovation which drives both the musical and choreographic aspects. On its own, hip-hop is an overall black art form, so it has found its way into social movements as a means of communication.

What is the hip hop feminism movement? ›

Hip hop feminism is a sub-set of black feminism that centers on intersectional subject positions involving race and gender in a way that acknowledges the contradictions in being a black feminist, such as black women's enjoyment in hip hop music and culture, rather than simply focusing on the victimization of black ...

How did Public Enemy influence hip hop? ›

More than any other Rap act, Public Enemy are credited with rewriting the rules of Hip Hop, both as a musical form and as a market force. To many, the group's arrival in the late 80s signaled Hip Hop's maturation into a serious art form, while broadening the genre's appeal to white Rock listeners.

Who was the first white hip hop? ›

MC Serch and Pete Nice—along with their DJ Daddy Rich, who is Black—were among the first caucasians to make credible rap music.

What is hip-hop progressive rap? ›

Progressive rap (or progressive hip hop) is a broad subgenre of hip hop music that aims to progress the genre thematically with socially transformative ideas and musically with stylistic experimentation.

What is hip hop and rap and describe how the terms are related? ›

Rap is a rhythmic vocal style often associated with hip hop music. While the word rap is synonymous with hip hop, rap just refers to the vocal performance aspect. Hip hop is a culture that combines rapping, breaking, graffiti writing, and DJing. One can rap and not be a part of hip hop culture.

Does hip-hop have a negative impact on the society? ›

Rap culture promotes negative mindsets and shows younger generations that certain lifestyles are desirable. The development of music has changed drastically throughout the years, increasing profanity, drugs, violence, and much sexual slang invoking an influence on modern youth society.

Which group is considered to be the greatest political rap group of all time? ›

Public Enemy is an American hip hop group formed by Chuck D and Flavor Flav on Long Island, New York, in 1985. The group rose to prominence for their political messages including subjects such as American racism and the American media. Their debut album, Yo!

What societal issues does hip-hop have? ›

Hip hop artists have spoken out in their lyrics against perceived social injustices such as police brutality, poverty, mass incarceration, and the war on drugs. The relationship between hip hop music and social injustice can be seen most clearly in two subgenres of hip hop, gangsta rap and conscious rap.

What were the major influences in hip hop? ›

While Kool Herc was influenced by funk and jazz records, other pioneers such as Grandmaster Flash were influenced by outside sources ranging from reggae to German electronic music. As the new art form emerged many individual artists began rapping over the break dancing songs that DJs played.

How did hip hop change American culture? ›

It redefined ways of social interaction and traditional cultural norms. Even though most hip-hop artists are famous for their anti-social behavior and bad habits like drug abuse, they remain a tool for enhancing social awareness and public expression.

How does society view hip hop? ›

Oftentimes, people allow the stigma surrounding hip-hop to overshadow the power of the music. However, people may be missing the point of the messages that can be expressed through music. Hip-hop can bring awareness to many significant cultural issues such as racism and sexism, while also evoking emotion.

Which group was best known for politicizing rap music in the 1980's? ›

According to AllMusic's biography of Run DMC, the rap group led the way in performing politicized rap, creating music that focused on the hardships of black people living in the projects and slums of urban society. It was at this time that rap started becoming a rebellious genre.

Which group was the most political of the rap acts to emerge during the late eighties? ›

Public Enemy, American rap group whose dense, layered sound and radical political message made them among the most popular, controversial, and influential hip-hop artists of the late 1980s and early '90s.

Who is the most influential rap group of all time? ›


Quite possibly the most influential rap act of all time, Run-D.M.C. defined the shape of hip hop to come when they debuted in 1984.

What historical event caused hip hop to start? ›

Origins of Hip Hop

Faced with a lack of economic opportunity, as well as rising crime and poverty rates, the young people in the Bronx and nearby communities began creating their own kinds of cultural expressions. These forms of expression would come together to form the four pillars of hip hop.

What are two things that make hip hop unique? ›

While there is some debate over the number of elements of hip-hop, there are four elements that are considered to be its pillars: deejaying, or “turntabling”; rapping, also known as “MCing” (emceeing) or “rhyming”; graffiti painting, also known as “graf” or “writing”; and break dancing, or “B-boying,” which encompasses ...

Why did hip hop become so popular? ›

The hip hop genre is so popular because it is more than just a genre, it is a culture that has influenced America since the 1970's. The culture of hip hop has four elements involved in it. The elements are mcing, djing, break dancing, and the art of graffiti. These four elements together make up what we call hip hop.

How has hip hop changed over time? ›

Hip hop dance as we know it today evolved from three underground dance styles: b-boying, locking, and popping. It then fused with the ideas and choreographic elements of jazz dance to create a hybrid dance form. Eventually break dancing came up. The 1980s witnessed the inclusion of synthesizer technology into hip-hop.

What style influenced hip hop? ›

Although hip-hop undoubtedly finds its roots in street life and in some ways, despite its stark contrast to disco, certain aspects of disco influenced it. Major hip-hop artists today recognize DJ Hollywood of Harlem as the first rhythmic rapper, even though he rapped on disco tracks.

Who started trap music? ›

In the early 1990s, rappers UGK, 8Ball & MJG, Three 6 Mafia, Cool Breeze, Kilo Ali, Master P, and Ghetto Mafia were among the first rappers to introduce trap music. In 1992, UGK's “Pocket Full of Stones” was one of the earliest trap records to be released from their major-label debut album Too Hard to Swallow.

What did hip-hop stand for? ›

Hip, which means “in the know,” has been a part of African American vernacular since the late nineteenth century. Hop represents the hopping movement exhibited by hip-hop performers.

Who helped develop hip-hop? ›

The birth of hip hop is believed to date back to Aug. 11, 1973, where DJ Kool Herc, real name Clive Campbell, and his friend hosted a back-to-school party in Bronx, New York. Eighteen-year-old Campbell and his friend Coke La Rock are often referred to as the fathers of hip-hop.

How did hip-hop spread? ›

Not long after its birth in the 70s, hip-hop spread like wildfire across the United States and around the world, with imitation and replication as a central facilitator of this dispersal and cross-pollination of musical and lyrical styles.

How is modern hip-hop different from old hip-hop? ›

The main difference between old school hip hop and new school hip hop is in the beats. Old school hip-hop typically has 2-3 beats laid on top of each other with simple, easy to understand verbiage. New school hip hop has 6-8 beats per track, ad-libs, and a wide range of edited sounds including re-verb and echo.

How technology has changed hip-hop? ›

Several technologies have become symbolic of producing hip hop's famous sound and include the turntable, synthesizer, drum machine, and sampler. These four pieces of equipment were the result of advancements made on the 1877 invention of the first sound recording and playback device, the phonograph.

When did hip-hop evolve? ›

The elements of Hip Hop came together in the Bronx borough of New York City. It was the early 1970s and times were tougher than usual for the poorer parts of urban America. From a whole lot of nothing—and a whole lot of imagination—Hip Hop took form.

What was the evolution of hip hop fashion in America? ›

The origins of hip-hop go back to the 1970s, and the fashion reflected streetwear that kids in the Bronx already had in their possession, like bomber jackets, tracksuits, and sneakers with oversized shoe laces. Puma, Chuck Taylors and Pro-Keds dominated the sneaker scene.

What made hip hop so different to other styles? ›

Hip Hop records are not made like other genres. In Rock, Pop, Jazz, etc., the song and the production are sculpted within the same framework. In Hip Hop the production is often made well before the song is ever imagined.

How did hip hop change in the 2000s? ›

Hip-hop influences also found their way increasingly into mainstream pop during this period mainly the mid-2000s, as the Los Angeles style of the 1990s lost power. In the 2000s, crunk music, a derivative of Southern hip-hop, gained considerable popularity via the likes of Lil Jon and the Ying Yang Twins.

How does hip-hop influence society today? ›

Hip-hop has had an unmistakable influence on Black communities throughout the United States, particularly given that Black performers dominate the music. Furthermore, it has provided a forum for them to speak out against unfair contradictions in society, the government, or the treatment of Black people in this nation.

How the Internet changed hip-hop? ›

Impact of the Internet on Hip Hop | Encyclopedia MDPI. The World Wide Web has changed the genre of hip hop. It has given hip-hop artists the ability to create and share music at incredible rates. Through the constant influx of new music being posted online by artists, new styles and genres of hip hop have been created.

What were the major hip-hop influences? ›

The African American traditions of signifyin', the dozens, and jazz poetry all influence hip hop music, as well as the call and response patterns of African and African American religious ceremonies.

What genre did hip-hop evolve from? ›

Rap as a genre began at block parties in New York City in the early 1970s, when DJs began isolating the percussion breaks of funk, soul, and disco songs and extending them.

How did hip-hop became popular? ›

Rap first came to national prominence in the United States with the release of the Sugarhill Gang's song “Rapper's Delight” (1979) on the independent African American-owned label Sugar Hill. Within weeks of its release, it had become a chart-topping phenomenon and given its name to a new genre of pop music.

Why is hip-hop important? ›

For decades hip-hop has spoken truth to power and challenge the status-quo. Protest and resistance have been common elements of the music, evoking the fight for racial equality and communicating anger at socio-economic conditions that shaped the lives of many Black people.

Who started the hip hop trend? ›

Hip-hop was formed in the culture of the basement parties that took place in the Bronx in New York City. These parties became formalized when the DJs Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and DJ Starski began to play at impromptu parties in parks, streets, and community centers.

Where is this where hip hop evolved as a culture? ›

Hip hop or hip-hop is a culture and art movement that was created by African Americans, Latino Americans and Caribbean Americans in the Bronx, New York City. Hip hop culture is characterized by four key elements: rapping, DJing and turntablism, breakdancing, and graffiti.

When did hip-hop fashion change? ›

1980s. This is when hip-hop fashion went to another level and really started to take form as a genre. At the forefront was Run-DMC with their Adidas tracksuits.

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