Photo: Marc Grimwade/WireImage
Lighters Up! 10 Essential Reggae Hip-Hop Fusions
Rap and reggae took divergent paths from their shared sound system roots, yet have fused throughout the decades. Read on for 10 songs that showcase the connection between hip-hop and reggae, and listen to GRAMMY.com's playlist.
When 12-year-old Clive Campbell, a.k.a. DJ Kool Herc, migrated with his family from Kingston, Jamaica to the Bronx in 1967, he brought with him a love of his island’s music and an understanding of the best way to experience that music: at a sound system dance.
The Jamaican sound system began quite humbly with a single turntable and a hand-built amplifier in the late 1940s, then expanded to include two turntables, a crossfader mixer, massive assemblages of speakers, a selector who chooses the records and an emcee that hypes up the crowd with rhymes. As the popularity of sound system dances expanded, the selectors’ need for exclusive music to attract large crowds and trump their opponents in heated clashes gave birth to Jamaica’s prolific recording industry, as well as the development of ska, rocksteady and reggae music.
In New York Herc experimented with audio equipment purchased by his father in an attempt to maximize their sound. Playing records in between the band’s sets, Herc noticed dancers were most responsive to the songs’ instrumental breaks. In a technique he called the merry-go-round, Herc utilized two turntables and a mixer to alternate between dual copies of the same record to prolong the instrumental grooves.
On Aug. 11, 1973, Herc’s sister Cindy held a back-to-school jam in the recreation room of their Bronx apartment building at 1560 Sedgewick Ave.; Cindy charged a modest admission to raise funds to buy new clothes. Herc played the music and his good friend, Bronx native Coke La Rock, took up the mic to shout out his friends and catchy rhythmic slogans over the records’ instrumental breaks — just like Jamaican emcees or deejays had done on Kingston’s sound systems in the previous decade.
Word of the party, and Herc’s groundbreaking techniques spread quickly. Soon, others began imitating what Herc and Coke La Rock were doing, adding their own flourishes, which ushered in a new musical movement. Hip-hop wouldn’t have developed as it did without Herc’s pioneering efforts, or the adaptations he made to the Jamaican sound system template.
From their shared sound system roots, rap and reggae, took divergent paths. Fifty years after hip-hop’s birth, it’s one of the most streamed genres in the world; reggae has yet to attain commercial recognition commensurate with its widespread influence (notwithstanding Bob Marley’s global acclaim). Nonetheless, ongoing hip-hop and reggae conversations on record have yielded some great moments in popular music.
Whether its rappers chatting Jamaican Patois, dancehall deejays spitting bars with "Yankee" inflections or American and Jamaican artists collaborations, the connection between hip-hop and reggae runs deep. Click on the Amazon Music playlist above, visit the Recording Academy’s Spotify, Pandora, and Apple Music pages, and read on for a chronological look at 10 songs that have brought together hip-hop and reggae.
The Fat Boys - "Hardcore Reggae" (1985)
"Hardcore Reggae" is a lighthearted yet sincere tribute to reggae and one of the earliest reggae/rap fusions by Brooklyn’s Fat Boys, Prince Markie Dee, Buff Love and (the sole surviving member) Kool Rock-Ski. Taken from their 1985 album The Fat Boys are Back "Hardcore Reggae" reached No. 52 on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop chart.
Over a bass-heavy reggae rhythm, the Fat Boys shout out a litany of reggae artists including Bob Marley (who died in 1981) and Peter Tosh, who was fatally shot two years after this song’s release. The song’s video features the Fat Boys starring in a western The Good, The Fat and the Hungry that also includes New York based reggae greats the late Denroy Morgan, (father of the sibling reggae band Morgan Heritage) Sammy Dread, Welton Irie and Mikey Jarrett.
Buff Love captures the essence of 1980s dancehall toasting (rolling ad libbed syllables, punctuated by shouts of "right" and/or "ribit") and concludes the homage to Jamaican music with the simple rhyme, "the people is fresh/ the music is ok/ we rapping to the beat called hardcore reggae."
Shinehead - "Who The Cap Fit" (1986)
Any list of hip-hop/reggae songs would be incomplete without Shinehead, a pioneer in blending the genres. Born in England, raised in Jamaica and living in the Bronx for many years, Shinehead’s impressive roster of reggae-rap mashups throughout the 1980s and 1990s undoubtedly inspired many Jamaican deejays forays into rapping and rappers attempts at reggae.
Bronx rapper KRS-One introduced many hip-hop heads to dancehall with the classic diss track "The Bridge Is Over" (which featured Jamaican-accented delivery and a rhythmic interpolation of Super Cat’s 1984 dancehall hit "Boops") — but the legendary artist said he was influenced by Shinehead.
Over the bassline taken from an early digital dancehall riddim called Tempo, Shinehead uses the hook from Bob Marley’s 1974 track "Who The Cap Fit" to address everything from "political chess games and bureaucratic red tape/worldwide genocide all the things we hate," to "terrorism, racism and all sorts of schisms/not enough work and overcrowded in prisons." There are American emcees who deejay and Jamaicans that rap, but few can vacillate between vocal styles with the astonishing skill Shinehead possesses.
Super Cat and Heavy D - "Dem No Worry We" (1992)
The 1990s were a significant decade for dancehall’s breakthrough beyond the Caribbean diaspora. Several Jamaican artists were signed to major labels, and hip-hop collaborations and remixes became essential tools in marketing the music in America and expanding the popularity of Jamaican hits.
Jamaican rapper Heavy D had already released three platinum selling albums by 1992, so his collaboration with Super Cat undoubtedly brought greater attention to the Jamaican dancehall "don dada" who had recently signed to Columbia Records.
Heavy D listened to Jamaican deejays toasting in Patois before he moved to New York and started rapping, so there’s a natural chemistry between Heavy and Cat as they trade playful Patois boasts that are crowned by Heavy’s barrage of mesmerizing, scatted improvisations. Essentially a dancehall party record, "Dem No Worry We" stands as one of the era’s very best.
Ini Kamoze - "Here Comes the Hotstepper" (1994)
Producer Salaam Remi, who excelled in fusing hip-hop breakbeats with dancehall’s syncopated rhythmic patterns, remixed several hit songs for reggae stars including Shabba Ranks ("Twice My Age") and Super Cat ("Ghetto Red Hot"); his most successful, a remix of sing-jay Ini Kamoze’s "Here Comes the Hotstepper," topped the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks in December 1994.
Remi chops up an eclectic range of samples into an irresistible hip-hop pulse that’s dominated by the drum and funky bassline from Taana Gardner’s 1981 dance/R&B hit single "Heartbeat." Kamoze, the self-proclaimed "lyrical gangster," lays down a swaggering Jamaican accented rap. As "Here Comes the Hotstepper" ascended to No. 1 in the U.S. (and several other countries) a bidding war ensued and Kamoze signed to Elektra Records. Disillusioned with the lack of remuneration, he walked away from that deal after releasing just one album.
In 2022, videos posted on TikTok with the hashtags #hotstepper and #herecomesthehotstepper featuring people dancing to the song earned millions of views and "Here Comes the Hotstepper" entered the R&B/Hip-Hop Digital Song Sales chart, nearly 30 years after its initial release.
Foxy Brown feat. Spragga Benz - "Oh Yeah" (2001)
From the "most critically acclaimed rap bitch in the game," Brooklyn’s Foxy Brown asserts her supremacy in the male dominated rap world and dares "one of y'all rappin' chicks" to mention her name.
Teaming up with her then-boyfriend Jamaica’s Spragga Benz on this 2001 rap reggae nugget, the intro to "Oh Yeah" samples Toots Hibbert’s classic "54-46 Was My Number" and Bob Marley’s "Punky Reggae Party." A booming bassline underscores each of Foxy’s tough edged rhymes as she reps for the streets: "I respect the rap game, but I don't f— with rap bitches, I'm speakin’ from my heart/It's not that I'm too good, I'm just hood."
Spragga punctuates Foxy’s lines with the resounding, catchy chorus, "oh yo yo yo" as heard in the live versions of Bob Marley’s "Get Up Stand Up," which the reggae icon co-wrote with fellow original Wailer Peter Tosh.
Damian Marley & Nas - "Strong Will Continue" (2010)
Several tracks on Damian Marley and Nas’ Distant Relatives — a sprawling musical odyssey that explores the genres’ shared African ancestry beyond their sound system roots — merit ranking on a best of reggae/hip-hop list, but the motivational "Strong Will Continue" has a slight edge.
The track begins with a stark, rhythmic pulse akin to a heartbeat, building to a soldierly cadence overlaid with strings, keys and other flourishes. Damian’s emphatic vocals then offer persuasive encouragement: "When the Armageddon start get dread/a lot of weak heart go weep and moan/only the strong will continue, do you have it in you/‘cause we’ve got a journey to go." Throughout, their incisive lyrics and distinctive blistering vocals consistently complement one another but Nas asserts his dominance on the song’s final verse.
Shifting from generally inspirational lyrics to musings on his own life (including his acrimonious, costly divorce from singer Kelis), the Queensbridge rapper wonders if Kelis cheated on him, complains about the monthly alimony payments and fears his life has "taken a turn to the Louis XIII life, twisted and mangled sort of Bruce Lee life." It’s a riveting passage and the music returns to a heartbeat that sparsely frames Nas’ astounding flow.
Snoop Lion feat. Mavado & Popcaan - "Lighters Up" (2013)
Snoop Dogg's Rasta guise, Snoop Lion, generated understandable skepticism when he announced his reggae project Reincarnated. He earned outright ridicule after proclaiming that he was Bob Marley incarnate. Just before the album’s release, Bunny Wailer, then the only surviving member of the original Wailers and prominently featured in the Reincarnated documentary, "excommunicated" Snoop from Rastafari, citing "fraudulent use of Rastafari personalities and symbolism."
Despite the surrounding mayhem, Reincarnated is a solid pop reggae effort. One of its best tracks is the catchy hip-hop jam "Lighters Up," featuring the innovative brass embellishments of Jamaica’s Tivoli Gardens Drum Corp, with dancehall artists Mavado and Popcaan each taking a verse. Their presence on the track is significant, and belies a complicated history.
Popcaan was a protégé of now incarcerated dancehall superstar Vybz Kartel who was in a bitter feud with Mavado. Their dispute initially played out on an exchange of diss tracks, then escalated into violence between the respective artists’ camps and their fans, which eventually warranted intervention by Jamaica’s prime minister. Despite Mavado’s words on the first verse "Link up with me, all enemies" and Popcaan proclaiming "unity is the strength" on the third, the two Jamaican artists don’t acknowledge each other (or their battle) within the song’s lyrics or video. The dancehall artists’ icy exchanges thawed somewhat the following year and Mavado was featured on the remix of Popcaan’s "Everything Nice." However that truce was short-lived and the feud, which accelerated again in early 2016, continues today.
Kendrick Lamar feat. Agent Sasco - "The Blacker the Berry" (2015)
"The Blacker the Berry" is Kendrick Lamar’s remarkable, complex expression of outrage towards racist white America and his own hypocrisy for crying over the death of Trayvon Martin then gangbanging and killing a man "blacker than me."
Kendrick angrily poses profound societal questions over a track that’s an impeccable blend of hip-hop, rock and soul with a jazzy outro. Jamaica’s Agent Sasco — considered among dancehall’s most astute lyricists — underscores Kendrick’s sentiments with his raspy, thunderous, Patois-tinged vocal hook, providing a historical context that resonates whether you’re from the Caribbean or America: "I said they treat me like a slave, cah' me Black, woi, we feel a whole heap of pain, cah' we Black… imagine now, big gold chains full of rocks/How you no see the whip, left scars pon' me back/ But now we have a big whip parked pon' the block."
Kabaka Pyramid -"Kabaka vs Pyramid" (2016)
Kabaka Pyramid’s hip-hop influences run as deep as his reggae/dancehall inspirations. Prior to making his name as a reggae sing-jay, the 2023 GRAMMY winner pursued a career as a rapper. His ability to easily shift between rapped verses and Patois-chanted lyrics with optimal dexterity is highlighted on the clever "Kabaka vs. Pyramid," a battle track from his 2016 Accurate mixtape, produced by Major Lazer’s Walshy Fire.
In this skirmish, Kabaka is the Jamaican deejay and Pyramid is his hip-hop alter ego. Over the beat from the Notorious B.I.G.’s classic "Gimme The Loot" (where Biggie rapped in two voices, as himself and his younger self) each persona makes their case for vocal preeminence: Pyramid tells Kabaka "you realize your whole style is rap, posing as a reggae artist, hiding the fact." Kabaka retorts, "you only vex because when me deejay mi badda dan any flippin’ rapper ‘pon the planet where mi stand upon."
Who won the battle? That’s hard to say, "but we the same person so pull it up and replay."
Runkus - "Taxi: Zion" (2022)
The current generation of young Jamaican music makers have transformed decades of hip-hop/reggae blends, collabs and samples into innovative, genre-less sonics. An outstanding example from that progressive soundscape is "Taxi: Zion," by Jamaican sing-jay/songwriter/musician/producer Runkus.
Produced by British radio host Toddla T, "Taxi: Zion" is a heartfelt tribute to Runkus’ close friend, aspiring artist France Nooks, who was fatally stabbed by a taxi driver (Nooks’ voice is sampled on the track). Fluidly crisscrossing a six-minute kaleidoscopic collage of boom bap hip-hop, pulsing reggae basslines, sleek R&B and crackling dancehall beats, Runkus raps, sings and deejays with dizzying speed, asking Nooks about reggae heroes in heaven ("do you see Garnet in garments of Silk sing by the fireplace?") offers complicated considerations on seeking revenge ("we used to walk with patience now we walk with a slug") and doubting his convictions ("I lost my faith the day you met your fate"). The song is the impressive result of tradition meeting revolutionary ideas, which parallels the creation of reggae and hip-hop.
Photo: Courtesy of Asha Imuno
Hip-Hop Re:Defined: Watch Asha Imuno Personalize Kendrick Lamar's "i" With A Sparkling New Chorus
Rap newcomer Asha Imuno offers an upbeat cover of Kendrick Lamar's GRAMMY-winning hit "i," one of the many tracks that inspired the sound for Imuno's upcoming project, 'PINS & NEEDLES.'
Growing up in Compton, California, Kendrick Lamar never thought he would see the day he was happy, confident and, most importantly, hopeful. But his lead single from 2015's To Pimp A Butterfly, "i," proves that reality wasn't so far-fetched — even when confronted with gun violence and police brutality.
In this episode of Hip-Hop Re:Defined, rap newcomer Asha Imuno delivers his rendition of "i," which won Lamar both Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song at the 2015 GRAMMYs. Though the original track's groovy instrumental remains, Imuno adds a personal touch to his cover with a new chorus.
"And I love myself/ The world is a ghetto with big guns and picket signs/ And I love myself/ But they can do what they want, whenever they want, I don't mind," he sings. "And I love myself/ He said I gotta get up, there's more to life than suicide."
Imuno is a longtime fan of Lamar, and according to a press statement, his upcoming album, PINS & NEEDLES, was heavily inspired by Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly. On June 14, Imuno released the first single from the debut project, "PUSHING BUTTONS."
Press play on the video above to hear Asha Imuno's uplifting cover of Kendrick Lamar's "i," and check back to GRAMMY.com for more new episodes of Hip-Hop Re:Defined, a limited series celebrating hip-hop's 50th anniversary.
Photo: Steve Jennings/WireImage
7 Unforgettable Sets From Outside Lands 2023: Foo Fighters' Special Guests, Lana Del Rey's Return & A Superhero DJ Shaq
The 15th edition of San Francisco’s foggy summer festival brought the musical heat — and lots of wild surprises.
On Aug. 11-13, Outside Lands returned to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park for the 15th time. The city's premiere multi-day music and food festival attracted approximately 75,000 daily attendees, and promoter Another Planet says that about half of the 225,000 ticket holders live outside the Bay Area.
Though it takes place in the peak of summer, San Francisco in August is relatively cold and nicknamed "Fogust," which may have shocked any of the out of towners who showed up in shorts and barely-there tops.
The mild weather conditions meant that the true heat was left up to the performers to generate, and the more than 90 acts happily delivered. Below, we recount seven of the sets that were worth braving the summer cold to witness.
Shaq Takes Day One Championship
Moonlighting as DJ Diesel, NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal apologized for starting his incredibly surprising set a few minutes late.
"Sorry I’m late, I was just hanging with Steph Curry and Draymond Green," he said, name checking the Golden State Warriors’ star players. He laced his banter with basketball metaphors and later brought out Warriors guard Gary Payton II to play Queen’s "We Are The Champions" in the team’s honor.
After dropping jaws by firing up aggressively, atonal EDM beats, he invited the crush of fans to come up on stage and "party with Diesel" one at a time. His set veered from Guns N Roses to Imogen Heap and he has to be the first DJ to call for a "ladies only mosh pit" while playing Aqua’s "Barbie World."
When he threw a young blonde boy on his shoulders and they both pumped their fists in unison, it was everything — and that’s how a superhero DJs.
Janelle Monáe Celebrates The Fam
With a towering stack of Jamaican sound system-styled speakers, giant beach balls, a towel-waisted band and swimsuited dancers, Janelle Monáe brought the sexy "Black Sugar Beach" and "Lipstick Lover" vibes of her new album The Age of Pleasure to the Lands End main stage, which she last graced in 2018.
Monáe has since come out as nonbinary and greatly expanded her fanbase; at Outside Lands, she dedicated her performance to "my community, the LGBTQIA+ community," saying, "I love you so much. To be Black, to be queer, to be nonbinary, to evolve and to have family like you is a blessing."
Monáe’s natural charisma has only gotten sharper over time, and her dance moves are more infused with the quick steps of the Godfather of Soul James Brown and Prince. Her almost Rockettes-level line choreography with her dancers has leveled up as well.
This year’s Outside Lands also saw the debut of the LGBTQIA+-centric Dolores’ stage, which was powered all weekend by local party crews such as Hard French, Fake and Gay and Oasis. A highlight was Reparations, an all-Black drag show hosted by the incomparable Nicki Jizz, San Francisco’s serial Drag Queen of the Year (according to local publication 48 Hills) who wore a large penis hat that she claimed was true to her actual size. The most overtly queer-friendly edition of Outside Lands was something beautiful to continue and build on in the future.
Kendrick Lamar Brings The Friday Night Light
Last seen rapping to a small but rapturous crowd on a secondary stage at Outside Lands in 2015, Kendrick Lamar has grown immeasurably as a recording artist and live performer. Lamar commanded the Lands End stage, closing the festival’s first night with quietly assertive control and grace in a performance that felt like a rightful graduation. This veritable elder statesman slot has been previously held by major acts like Radiohead, Neil Young With Crazy Horse and Paul McCartney.
His 2022 album Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers featured prominently in the 21-song set, which included leftfield covers of Pusha T’s "Nosetalgia" and The Weeknd’s "Sidewalks." But Lamar knows that people still want to yell their lungs out to earlier cuts like "Swimming Pools (Drank)," "Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe," "m.A.A.d city," "HUMBLE." and "Alright" and he obliged.
Lana Del Rey Swings Back To Twin Peaks
Flower crowns were all the rage when Lana Del Rey made her Outside Lands debut in 2016 at Twin Peaks, the festival’s second largest stage. A new generation has since discovered the singer’s outsize character and vibe, and as the gates opened on Saturday, giddy groups of teenage girls rushed to park themselves at the edge of that very same stage to catch Del Rey’s big return to Golden Gate Park.
This time, Del Rey’s set included a projection that said "God Bless You San Francisco" and a giant swing woven with flowers that flung her into the air while she sang. Her set spanned her classics, like "Video Games" from 2012’s Born To Die, current hits, such as the title track from this year’s album Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd., and a loving cover of Tammy Wynette’s 1968 country hit "Stand By Your Man."
Though she’s revered as an almost otherworldly figure and was an angelic vision in white, Del Rey doesn’t act untouchable in 2023 — in fact, she literally came down and touched some of those fans who waited all day for her.
Foo Fighters Come Out Crooning
"We’ve gotta fit 28 years into two f—ing hours!" Dave Grohl explained early in the Foo Fighters' set. It was a towering goal that they tackled with consummate ease, reaching back to hits such as "Times Like These" and "The Pretender" and showing the continuum through to recent songs like "Rescue."
After playing a few choice riffs of "Enter Sandman," it would have been less of a surprise to see a member of two-time Outside Lands headliner (and Bay Area natives) Metallica join them on stage than who actually came out for a cameo. After flying in from Argentina, Michael Bublé initially pretended to be a regular audience member before going onstage to sing his hit "Haven’t Met You Yet."
The Foo-Bublé connection is fun and surprising: New drummer Josh Freese has also played for the Canadian crooner, and "Haven’t Met You Yet" is part of a medley that the Foo Fighters are doing on tour that is comprised of other bands Freese has supported (including Devo’s "Whip It" and Nine Inch Nails’ "March of the Pigs").
Of course, the late drummer Taylor Hawkins will always be a prominent part of the Foo Fighters and their shows, and they played "Aurora" in his memory. As the park’s Polo Field lit up in violet-colored lights, Grohl’s 17-year-old daughter Violet Grohl also joined to sing three songs with her father, which he said was his absolute favorite thing in the world to do.
"I’m sure I’m embarrassing her right now!" he said.
Gabriels Tributes Tina Turner
"We’re California boys, but this is our first time in San Francisco," shared Gabriels singer Jacob Lusk before turning the Sutro stage into the Church of Outside Lands, and instructing everyone to share some neighborly love.
The Los Angeles band has some meteoric fans: Elton John invited Lusk, whose early resume includes being a former "American Idol" contestant who was in a gospel group with the late Nate Dogg, to sing with him on stage at this year’s Glastonbury. Lusk’s incredible vocal range flexes from baritone to falsetto on a dime, and he frequently takes a step back from the microphone while singing, as if not to overwhelm it.
In a particularly touching moment, Gabriels performed Tina Turner’s "Private Dancer" while a montage of footage of Turner filled the screen.
Megan Thee Stallion Triumphs Over Tragedy
Fog flooded the park as a super snatched Megan Thee Stallion took to the stage in a hot Barbie pink outfit and long red hair, but she blazed through the haze with ground-sweeping twerking and saucy tracks like "Body," "Her," "WAP" and "Big Ole Freak." It was her first performance since Tory Lanez was sentenced to 10 years for shooting her, and she was feeling noticeably buoyant.
"F— all my haters!" she said in the middle of the set. "None of the s— you was doing or saying broke me."
She received nothing but love from the crowd, and she was delighted by a big pocket of "boys" that she saw. Meg truly loves her "Hotties," and even stopped in between songs to sign someone’s graduation cap. A recent grad herself, she is proud of her fans who follow suit.
"Real college girl s—!" she exclaimed.
Photo: Andersen Ross Photography Inc
The 10 Most Controversial Samples In Hip-Hop History
The use of samples has influenced artists and DJs for decades. It's also been fodder for lawsuits and ire — read on for 10 of the biggest sampling controversies in hip-hop, from 2 Live Crew and the "Amen Brother" break, to Young Nudy.
Hip-hop would not exist without sampling. Over its 50 years of existence, rappers, producers, and DJs have taken old music and made it new again, remixing and reinterpreting the creativity of previous generations and folding it into the culture of today.
But not everyone is flattered when a rapper samples their song. The history of hip-hop is rife with legal battles over unauthorized samples — from the genre’s early wild west days to the modern era. Some of these controversies have had lasting implications for the entire industry.
Below, we take a look at some of the most controversial samples in hip-hop.
Sugarhill Gang – "Rapper’s Delight" (1979)
Before "Rapper’s Delight," hip-hop was predominantly a live art form. Rappers rarely recorded and preferred to perform for a live audience, improvising freestyle raps over funk and soul records spun by DJs. The use of samplers and drum machines was not yet widespread. Nevertheless, Sylvia Robinson, a singer and studio owner who wanted to take advantage of the trend. She assembled rap group the Sugarhill Gang and invited some studio musicians to record a sound-alike version of the instrumental from Chic’s "Good Times" for them to rap over.
The song hadn’t even reached the charts yet — though it would become the first hip-hop song to breach the Billboard Top 40 — before Nile Rodgers of Chic heard an early version at a club in Manhattan. Ironically, several members of the Sugarhill Gang as well as Fab Five Freddy had joined the band onstage at a show weeks earlier to freestyle during "Good Times." Rogers didn’t take kindly to the song being knocked off, and he and Chic bassist Bernard Edwards immediately threatened legal action, with a settlement leading to them being credited as co-writers.
The song broke hip-hop into the mainstream, but it also set the stage for many similar cases of producers asking for forgiveness rather than permission and facing the consequences.
Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force - "Planet Rock" (1982)
Another example of "sampling without sampling," "Planet Rock" wasn’t a straight re-recording of an earlier song like "Rapper’s Delight." After witnessing the popularity of songs by Kraftwerk in New York’s nightclubs, producer Arthur Baker and DJ Afrika Bambaataa decided to fuse the German group’s electronic music with hip-hop.
"Planet Rock" fuses the beat from "Numbers" with the melody from "Trans-Europe Express," with Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force rapping above, but Baker recreated both with his own instruments. They never asked permission from Kraftwerk, however, and when the band reached out to Tommy Boy Records, the label decided to give them a dollar for every copy sold, raising prices to recoup the cost.
The song birthed a genre, electro, and influenced everything from Detroit techno to Miami bass. Years later, Kraftwerk sued another musician over unauthorized sampling, a case that went all the way to Germany’s highest court in 2016.
The "Amen" Break (recorded 1969)
When Washington, D.C.-based soul band the Winstons recorded "Amen, Brother," they couldn’t have predicted the seven-second drum break played by Gregory Coleman would go on to become one of the most iconic, oft-replicated sounds in music.
And yet that’s exactly what happened: After being included in drum break compilations such as Ultimate Breaks and Beats designed for DJs to loop and sample, the "Amen Break" made its way into iconic hip-hop songs from N.W.A. ("Straight Outta Compton"), Mantronix ("King of the Beats,"), 2 Live Crew ("Feel Alright Y’all"), and eventually even the "Futurama" theme song. But the break really exploded in the UK, where British dance music producers, who needed faster tracks for the exploding rave movement, sped the break up. They chopped it until "Amen Brother" was barely recognizable, with other famous breaks like "Funky Drummer" and "Think" getting similar treatment.
Jungle, and its splinter genres drum and bass, and breakcore, resulted, and the breakbeat revolution it unleashed now influences modern pop acts such as PinkPantheress and NewJeans. According to WhoSampled, "Amen, Brother" has been sampled in 6,174 songs, which may be a low estimate.
As the saying goes, however, revolution eats its children. Gregory Coleman, the Winstons drummer who originated the break, never saw a cent of royalties from any of it. He was homeless at the time of his death in 2006, and according to Winstons bandleader Richard Lewis Spencer he had no idea the break had made such an impact. Spencer himself has run hot and cold on the break’s impact, sometimes calling its use plagiarism, but he at least was able to make some money from it: As the last living member of the Winstons, he received $37,000 from a 2015 GoFundMe campaign aimed at repaying some of the lost royalties before he died in 2020.
Biz Markie - "Alone Again" (1991)
In the late '70s and throughout the 1980s, hip-hop flourished creatively as a result of creative sampling. Producers such as Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad created records filled with dozens of samples — a collage-like approach that would influence artists like DJ Shadow and the Avalanches. And yet in 1991, a lawsuit over an uncleared sample threatened to snuff out the entire art form.
Biz Markie, famous for comedic songs such as "Just A Friend," had been dragged into federal court along with Warner Bros. Records for using a portion of "Alone Again (Naturally)," a nearly-forgotten pop song from the ‘70s by Gilbert O’Sullivan. The case was a disaster for Markie and for creativity in general. The court ruled that because the label had reached out to the sample copyright holders, who withheld permission to use the song, and then released it anyway, they were guilty of blatant and willful copyright infringement.
The defense’s argument that unauthorized sampling was widespread in the music industry was rebuffed by Judge Kevin Duffy. In his ruling — which opens by quoting the biblical commandment "Thou Shalt Not Steal" — Duffy wrote that: "The defendants...would have this court believe that stealing is rampant in the music business and, for that reason, their conduct here should be excused."
Markie was ordered to pay $250,000 in damages and referred to (but never charged by) a criminal court on grounds of theft, reeking of racist paternalism. Yet the primary upshot of the decision — that any unapproved sample constitutes copyright infringement — was even more damaging, creating a chilling effect across hip-hop that prevented artists from making full use of the practice’s creative potential. Warner Bros. took the song off Markie’s album, and the rapper famously titled his next record All Samples Cleared!
2 Live Crew - "Pretty Woman" (1989)
Is Luther Campbell, the don dada of Miami bass maestros 2 Live Crew, smarter than the entire Warner Bros. legal team that bungled the "Alone Again" case? Judging by the fact that he managed to drag an uncleared sample case from a much more famous artist than Gilbert O’Sullivan all the way to the Supreme Court — and win — the answer is yes.
Like Biz Markie, 2 Live Crew had asked permission to use a sample – in this case "Oh! Pretty Woman" by Roy Orbison – and was rejected. Perhaps this came as a result of their less-than-family-friendly reputation, as the group had been in and out of the headlines fighting obscenity charges over best-selling album As Nasty As They Wanna Be. Nevertheless, they released the song anyway, and when Orbison’s label eventually sued, Campbell came up with a clever defense: fair use.
Campbell declared the 2 Live Crew song, "Pretty Woman," was a parody of Orbison’s original, and therefore the sample constituted a legal fair use. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which reversed an earlier appeals court ruling that said the song couldn’t have been a fair use because of its commercial nature. They also agreed with the initial federal district court ruling that said the 2 Live Crew song was not similar enough to Orbison’s to constitute wholesale infringement.
Jay-Z feat. UGK - "Big Pimpin" (2000)
Hov ended up regretting some of the sexist lyrics on this collab with Houston’s Bun B and Pimp C, but the reason he and Timbaland ended up in court over "Big Pimpin" was a contentious sample. The producer had already forked over $100,000 to sample "Khosara Khosara" by Egyptian composer Baligh Hamdi, but this wasn’t enough for Osama Ahmed Fahmy, Hamdi’s nephew.
Citing the Egyptian legal concept of "moral rights," Fahmy claimed in a 2005 lawsuit that the song was unlicensed because Jay-Z and Timbaland had failed to ask permission from Hamdi’s heirs. The suit was left in legal limbo for years before a California judge finally let Fahmy proceed, by which point Linkin Park had also been pulled in due to a mashup of "Big Pimpin" with their single "Papercut." During his testimony four years later, Jay-Z declared he had been unaware that there was even a sample in the song, saying "Timbaland presented me with a track. I didn’t even think about there being a sample."
The case was finally settled in 2018 when an appeals court upheld the original summary judgment in favor of Jay-Z, by which point the song was nearly 20 years old.
Kanye West - "Blood On The Leaves" (2013)
Quite a few of the samples used on Yeezus, Kanye’s incendiary, famously-rushed 2013 album, ended up being unauthorized. West fielded lawsuits from Hungarian prog rock band Omega (sampled on "New Slaves") and the Ponderosa Twins Plus One (sampled on "Bound 2") for using their music without permission. But it was "Blood on the Leaves" which attracted the most attention for its brazen (and fully authorized) appropriation of Nina Simone’s cover of "Strange Fruit," originally made famous by Billie Holiday.
That a famous anti-lynching anthem was used by a mega-famous rapper to decry the materialism and excess rife within hip-hop might have ruffled a few feathers — some conservative critics even argued it was an anti-abortion song — but the song received almost universal praise.
Robin Thicke ft. T.I. and Pharrell - "Blurred Lines" (2013)
True, "Blurred Lines" is not exactly a hip-hop track, but it does feature two rappers, and while not exactly a sample, Robin Thicke and Pharrell’s much-too-liberal "borrowing" of Marvin Gaye’s "Got to Give it Up" changed the music industry irreparably. Certainly, the song was hugely controversial, opening up a pre-#MeToo discourse over its objectification of women and glorification of rape culture that ultimately led to bans. But it was the similarities to Gaye’s song, flaunted by Willams and Thicke in the press, as well as a preemptive legal action against the Marvin Gaye estate, that had a more lasting, damaging impact.
Williams had argued in his initial complaint against the Gaye family that their claim was not based on specific musical elements, but on the face value similarity of the two songs. However, a jury ruled unanimously in favor of the family. The case essentially rewrote the legal precedents of musical copyright law overnight, broadening the scope by which a song might be considered infringement. Thanks to the "Blurred Lines" suit, a musician may live in fear of legal predation simply because their new song sounds vaguely similar to one from 30 or 40 years ago.
Meanwhile, massive investments are being made into older music, partially to make up for this creative chilling effect.
Juice WRLD - "Lucid Dreams" (2017)
There’s nothing particularly incendiary about the plaintive guitar sample from Sting’s "Shape of My Heart" that forms the backbone of Juice WRLD’s emo rap hit. When producer Nick Mira revealed that Sting had taken 85 percent of the rights for the song, however, it became a demonstration of how sampling has become a way for established artists to exploit newer talent.
It also attracted a lawsuit from pop-punk band Yellowcard, who cited similarities to their track "Holly Wood Died." Juice WRLD himself downplayed the situation, saying "There’s always more money to be made." The suit was later dropped after the 21-year-old rapper’s tragic early death in December 2019.
Young Nudy feat. Playboi Carti - "Pissy Pamper" (aka "Kid Cudi") (2019)
One of the most successful unreleased songs in recent memory is also a cautionary tale for keeping leaks under control. The song originally entitled "Pissy Pamper" was a Pi’erre Bourne-produced track originally meant for Sli’merre, his collaborative mixtape with Young Nudy.
With its prominent use of a loop from "Tasogare" by Japanese singer Mai Yamane (best known to anime fans for "Cowboy Bebop" ending theme), the track regretfully never made the record due to sample clearance issue. But somehow, a leaked file made its way onto Spotify, where its killer component, an evocative "baby voice" verse from Playboi Carti at the peak of pre-Whole Lotta Red hysteria.
The rest is history: internet memes, reuploads with Nudy’s parts removed, and so on. Thanks to social media, the song is a generational touchstone that shouldn’t legally exist.
Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
A Guide To Southern California Hip-Hop: Definitive Releases, Artists & Subgenres From L.A. & Beyond
Hip-hop began in the Bronx, but many of the culture’s most unforgettable moments came from Southern California. In celebration of the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, take a trip through SoCal's rich hip-hop history — from N.W.A. and KDAY, to the Super Bowl.
"The sun rises in the East, but it sets in the West," raps Ice Cube on Westside Connection’s 1996 hit, "Bow Down." Indeed, hip-hop began in the Bronx, New York. But many of the culture’s most unforgettable moments have come from Southern California, a region where young Black and Brown people took to hip-hop soon after the Sugarhill Gang’s "Rapper’s Delight" blew up worldwide.
This guide chronicles some of the region’s many musical peaks, from commanding attention in the late ’80s, to virtually dominating the genre in the ’90s, and eliciting worldwide acclaim in the 21st century and beyond.
A Brief History Of Southern California Hip-Hop
Since the first L.A. hip-hop record in 1981, Disco Daddy and Captain Rapp’s "The Gigolo Rapp," Southern California has generated some of the biggest names in hip-hop history: Ice-T, Eazy-E, N.W.A., Ice Cube, Cypress Hill, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, 2Pac, The Game…everyone knows who the kings of the West Coast are. That legacy has not only made the region a prideful one, but also led to assumptions that "gangsta rap" defines it.
But Southern California has yielded more artistic variety than just street politics, whether it’s poetic lyricists like Kendrick Lamar, brilliantly idiosyncratic producers like Madlib, bracing innovators like Freestyle Fellowship, or unabashedly good-time rappers like Tone-Loc and Tyga.
No matter the form, rap in Southern California is deeply rooted in bluesy funk, soul, and jazz. It’s a complex scene that's often divided by neighborhood affiliation and stylistic differences, yet united by a place everyone calls home. Artists in SoCal are unafraid to make soundtracks for dance floors and family cookouts as well as for cruising through L.A.’s freeway sprawl. That common touch is why the city’s brand of rap music resonates around the globe.
Southern California hip-hop has waxed and waned in national popularity, and its creative and commercial dominance in the 1990s and early aughts, thanks to massive hits such as Dr. Dre’s The Chronic and 2001 as well as 2Pac’s All Eyez on Me, continue to cast a long shadow over the culture. However, you’ll find highlights throughout the past four-plus decades, many of which are recounted here.
Key Moments In Southern California Hip-Hop
1983 - KDAY-FM Goes On The Air: When Texas radio programmer Greg Mack was hired by KDAY-FM 1580 AM in 1983, he decided to turn the station into the first rap station in the country. Early West Coast DJs like Dr. Dre and the KDAY Mixmasters — a group of jocks that included Tony G, Joe Cooley, DJ Aladdin, Battlecat, and others — made the station required listening for fans of the fledgling genre throughout the '80s and early '90s. Decades later, and after returning to 93.5 FM as an old-school hip-hop station, KDAY remains a point of pride for the local community.
1986 - Run-DMC’s Concert Sparks A Riot: While largely forgotten now, the events that unfolded during Run-D.M.C.’s ill-fated August 1986 concert at Long Beach Arena made national headlines. Local Crips and Bloods members fought each other in the stands, leading to injuries, arrests and a lasting stigma that rap shows were a magnet for thuggery. In its wake, city officials around the country barred artists from performing, and required massive insurance premiums for shows to take place. In December 1986, Run-DMC appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone to explain why hip-hop shouldn’t be associated with violence.
1989 - The F.B.I. Sends A Warning To N.W.A: On Aug. 1, 1989, the Federal Bureau of Investigation sent a letter to Priority Records, the distributor for N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton. "Advocating violence and assault is wrong," wrote the official in reference to the group’s protest song, "F— Tha Police." "I believe my views reflect the opinion of the entire law enforcement community." Ironically, the letter had a galvanizing effect when the group’s management leaked it to the press. Critics who were divided over the album’s merits rallied around N.W.A. as free-speech heroes, and it helped make the group one of the most important musical acts in America.
1997 - The Notorious B.I.G. Is Murdered In Los Angeles: When Brooklyn rap legend the Notorious B.I.G. was gunned down after leaving a Soul Train Music Awards afterparty at the on March 9, the public — correctly or not — viewed it as the culmination of an "East Coast vs. West Coast" rivalry between executives at Death Row Records and Biggie’s label Bad Boy Records, as well as retribution for Death Row superstar 2Pac’s murder in Las Vegas the previous fall. Biggie’s still-unsolved murder continues to cast a shadow over the L.A. rap scene, even though it is hardly the only hip-hop region where high-profile crimes have marred its reputation.
2011 - Odd Future Appears On "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon": Tyler, The Creator and Hodgy Beats’s rendition of "Sandwitches" alongside "Jimmy Fallon" backing band the Roots on Feb. 16, 2011 was a veritable youthquake. It not only made Odd Future one of the hottest groups in the country, but also served notice of that younger generation more influenced by online culture than street politics had officially arrived. Few who saw the viral video can forget the sight of Fallon giving Tyler a piggyback ride as Mos Def suddenly appeared out of nowhere, screaming in delight.
2011 – The West Coast Torch Is Passed to Kendrick Lamar: On Aug. 19, 2011, as Kendrick Lamar celebrated the release of his independent album Section.80 at the Fonda Theater (fka as The Music Box), the Game, Snoop Dogg, Warren G, and Kurupt emerged onto the stage. "You’ve got the torch now, you better run with it," said Snoop. Then the rappers embraced Lamar as he broke down in tears and the crowd chanted, "Kendrick! Kendrick!" In the years since the moment was captured on video, Lamar became one of the most important rappers of his generation.
2022 - Dr. Dre And Friends Perform At The Super Bowl Halftime Show: Held at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Super Bowl LVI gave Dr. Dre the opportunity to reminisce on his historic career. As he performed classics like "Still D.R.E." and "The Next Episode" with guests like Snoop Dogg, Bronx R&B singer Mary J. Blige, Detroit rapper Eminem, Queens rapper 50 Cent, Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar, and Oxnard rap singer Anderson .Paak, Dre took viewers on a journey through old-school hip-hop lore and created a joyous tribute to the genre. The widely acclaimed show was subsequently honored three times at the 2022 Primetime Emmy Awards.
Definitive SoCal Hip-Hop Rappers
Ice-T: Los Angeles rapper Ice-T was arguably the first West Coast star who elicited respect from New York tastemakers as a peer and fellow pioneer. Inspired by Philly rapper Schoolly D, his breakthrough single, "6 in the Mornin’," is often cited as the first West Coast reality rap song (although some would argue that Toddy Tee’s "Batteram" precedes it).
His 1987 debut album, Rhyme Pays, was the first to carry a parental warning sticker. Ice-T faced censorship throughout his career, most dramatically when police unions and the NRA targeted him for "Cop Killer," his satirical track with his rock-rap group, Body Count. Now in his 60s and a familiar face on the TV series "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," Ice-T remains a role model for artists who want to make a greater cultural impact than just music.
N.W.A.: As an alliance between DJ/producers Dr. Dre and DJ Yella and rappers Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and MC Ren (early member Arabian Prince left before Straight Outta Compton took off) — N.W.A impressed with their first single, "Dope Man." That led to a 1987 debut compilation for Eazy-E’s Ruthless camp, N.W.A and the Posse. Then, with tracks like "F— the Police," "Gangsta Gangsta," and the surprisingly upbeat radio hit "Express Yourself," Straight Outta Compton made them the most dangerous group in America, and a target of law enforcement as well as the FBI.
After a second album, efil4zaggaN, the group collapsed over financial disputes and interpersonal drama. That’s part of the N.W.A legend, too, as illustrated in the acclaimed, Oscar-nominated 2015 film, Straight Outta Compton.
Snoop Dogg: With his Modelo and Jack in the Box commercials airing nightly, Snoop Dogg is an ambassador for Southern California hip-hop. Discovered by Dr. Dre through Dre’s cousin, rapper/producer Warren G, he debuted with "Deep Cover," where he chanted in a sing-song voice, "’Cause it’s 1-8-7 on an undercover cop!" On his solo album, Doggystyle, he seemed to excel at hit singles like "Gin and Juice" that turned life into a never-ending party full of sticky weed and beautiful women.
In short, he personified how G-funk, a movement that once terrified the music industry, would be eventually mainstreamed into a party open to everyone. No matter one’s age or gender, everyone has a favorite Snoop track, whether it’s old-school favorites like "It Ain’t No Fun (If the Homies Can’t Have None)," club bangers like "Drop It Like It’s Hot," pop cameos like Katy Perry’s "California Gurls," or even bilingual Latin hits tracks like Banda MS’ "Qué Maldición."
Nipsey Hussle: At the time of his murder in 2019, Crenshaw rapper Nipsey Hussle seemed poised to break through to mainstream success. He represented a new era of Southern California rap defined by independent hustle, generational wealth from the ground up, savvy marketing stunts, and unapologetically street-oriented music.
Nipsey began his career in the mid-2000s, slowly rising through sundry mixtape appearances as well as features on albums by 2Pac, Snoop Dogg, and Glasses Malone. He earned national attention when he sold CD copies of his mixtape, Crenshaw, for $100 a pop; Jay-Z himself reportedly bought several. Tracks from his GRAMMY-nominated major label debut, 2018’s Victory Lap, seemed omnipresent at local sporting events. After his death, Nipsey appeared on a posthumous 2019 hit, "Racks in the Middle," with Compton rap singer Roddy Ricch.
Kendrick Lamar: Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar is the region’s crown prince, both blessed and burdened with sustaining West Coast rap tradition. While much of his music grapples with the weight of those expectations, he’s also been extraordinarily successful, scoring No. 1 hits like "Humble," global arena tours, and multi-platinum albums like good kid, m.A.A.d city and DAMN. The latter made him the first hip-hop artist to win the Pulitzer Prize.
One of the most influential and acclaimed artists of his generation, Lamar signifies a new openness among young artists to discussing mental health and self-care, all while dazzling listeners with conceptual complexity and thematic layers. Signed for years to Top Dawg Entertainment, Lamar recently has launched his own company, pgLang, with news about his direction forward still to come.
Cruical Hip-Hop Crews
Lench Mob: When Ice Cube broke from N.W.A. at the end of 1989, Lench Mob became his circle of friends as well as a production company and, eventually, a label imprint distributed by Priority Records.
Early members included Yo-Yo, who scored a major hit with Cube in 1991’s "You Can’t Play with My Yo-Yo." Then there was Da Lench Mob — Shorty, J-Dee, and T-Bone — and "Guerillas in the Mist." And after the 1992 L.A. riots sparked by the Rodney King verdict led to peace treaties among rival gangs in Watts, rapper Kam celebrated with his 1993 hit single, "Peace Treaty." Other associates include Inglewood rapper Mack 10, who scored gold-certified solo albums and joined with Cube and W.C. in the supergroup Westside Connection, and teenage South Central duo Kausion.
Soul Assassins: Originally formed as a publishing company for Cypress Hill as they created their classic self-titled 1991 debut, Soul Assassins eventually became an alliance of artists and one of the most underrated hit-making crews of the 1990s. Its members included House of Pain, authors of the deathless "Jump Around"; Funkdoobiest, who scored the 1993 hit "Bow Wow Wow"; and protégés like the Whooliganz, a duo made of future super-producer the Alchemist and future Hollywood actor Scott Caan; as well as Call O’ Da Wild, the Psycho Realm, and Self Scientific.
The crew’s releases espoused a dusty, psychedelic, and hardcore style distinct from the G-funk sound that defined the decade. In 1997, Cypress Hill producer DJ Muggs launched a series of Soul Assassins compilations that found him collaborating with the likes of Dr. Dre, Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA and GZA, and Mobb Deep.
Likwit Crew: Centered around Compton OG King Tee and Tha Alkaholiks members Tash, J-Ro, and E-Swift, Likwit Crew charted a hardcore middle path between the lyrical experimentations of the rappers associated with vaunted open-mic showcase Good Life Café, and the gangsta funk of Death Row.
Associated acts include Dilated Peoples, who scored at the dawn of the 2000s with the Alchemist-produced "Worst Comes to Worst" and the Kanye West-produced "This Way"; Xzibit, who released two solo albums before joining forces with Dr. Dre for 2000’s platinum-certified Restless; Defari, who released the underrated 1999 album Focused Daily; the Lootpack, and Phil Da Agony.
Project Blowed: For much of the late '90s and aughts, Project Blowed defined subterranean, avant-garde lyricism in Los Angeles. It was not only an event held in Leimert Park, but also a collective and a record label. Aceyalone, rapper and one-time member of pioneering group Freestyle Fellowship, and Abstract Rude — who was briefly signed to the Beastie Boys’ label Grand Royal — were two of its most prominent members. Others were Figures of Speech, which included future film director Ava DuVernay, Medusa the "gangsta goddess," and Volume 10, author of the 1993 hit, "Pistolgrip-Pump."
Odd Future: Formed in 2007, Odd Future became one of the most popular rap crews of their era. Their grungy skate-punk aesthetics, soulful introspection, and youthful fervor helped define the genre-agnostic quality of current hip-hop.
Onetime leader Tyler, the Creator is acclaimed for albums like 2019’s Igor and 2021’s Call Me If You Get Lost. The same goes for Frank Ocean and his two masterpieces, Channel Orange and Blonde. Other members include Earl Sweatshirt, Syd the Kyd — who went on to form the alternative soul group the Internet — Hodgy and Left Brain of Mellow Hype, and Jasper Dolphin, who later joined the Jackass franchise.
Essential SoCal Hip-Hop Releases
N.W.A. - Straight Outta Compton (1988): N.W.A’s landmark Straight Outta Compton is the product of three Compton musicians with years of experience in the L.A. hip-hop scene. Dr. Dre and DJ Yella spent three years as part of World Class Wreckin Cru, the mobile DJ unit and electro group led by Lonzo Williams. South Central native Ice Cube bounced around in various rap acts, notably the trio C.I.A. (Criminals in Action). MC Ren performed locally. The wild card was Eazy-E, a self-admitted drug dealer who didn’t have any musical experience until Dre asked him to rap Cube’s lyrics for "The Boyz-N-The Hood."
The Pharcyde - BizarreRideIIThePharcyde (1992): The Pharcyde’s debut album remains proof that Southern California hip-hop had more to offer than just gangsta rap. Produced by L.A. Jay, the album finds Romye, Imani, Slim Kid Tré, and Fat Lip embarking on a series of wacky, hilarious, and heart-rending adventures over crunchy samples from the likes of Quincy Jones and Jimi Hendrix. The tone ranges from the irreverence of "4 Better or 4 Worse" to the moving introspection of "Passin’ Me By" and "Otha Fish." BizarreRideIIThePharcyde was released a few weeks before Dr. Dre’s The Chronic.
Dr. Dre - The Chronic (1992): With The Chronic, Dr. Dre proved that rappers could make uncompromising, hardcore records and still succeed on the pop charts. Its first single, "Nuthin’ but a G Thang," was a sensation in rap circles and a major crossover hit, reaching the top five on the Billboard charts.
Dre collaborated with new voices like Snoop Doggy Dogg, Warren G, the Lady of Rage, RBX, Tha Dogg Pound — Kurupt and Daz, and singers Nate Dogg and Jewell, all of whom would define West Coast rap in the '90s. Meanwhile, his process of using musicians like Colin Wolfe to interpolate vintage funk sounds helped create what later became known as G-funk.
2Pac - All Eyez on Me (1996): 2Pac came of age as a rapper while living in Northern California's Marin County and Oakland, recording hit singles like "I Get Around" and "Keep Ya Head Up." But after signing to Death Row, he made a double album that posited Southern California as the center of West Coast hip-hop. Certified diamond by the RIAA, All Eyez on Me is an embarrassment of riches, packed with hit singles like "California Love'' and "2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted," beloved deep cuts like "Ambitionz Az a Rider," and collaborations with Method Man & Redman, Snoop Dogg, George Clinton, and many others. It’s a gangsta party that certified him as a rap legend.
Kendrick Lamar - good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012): Lamar’s first major-label album is not only a concept album about growing up in Compton, but also about a young person burdened by the gangsta legacy — for good and ill. His songs poke holes at long-held assumptions about how Black men in Los Angeles should handle life’s complications, from binge drinking in "Swimming Pools (Drank)" to navigating tensions between Crips and Bloods on "m.A.A.d city." His thoughts on spirituality and solitude on "Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe" reflect a new generation of Southern California rappers searching for inner peace while remaining true to their communities.
Notable SoCal Hip-Hop Labels
Ruthless: As the home of N.W.A, Eazy-E’s company hardly needs an introduction. Yet casual fans may not be familiar with the variety of acts that passed through the label in the '80s and '90s. In addition to documenting N.W.A’s tumultuous reign, it put out J.J. Fad’s pop smash "Supersonic," R&B singer Michel’le’s "No More Lies," and the D.O.C.’s platinum-certified 1989 debut, No One Can Do It Better — all in addition to solo projects from Eazy-E and MC Ren.
G-funk architects like Above the Law, Penthouse Players Clique, and Kokane spent time on the label, and it even found space for Jewish hip-hop group Blood of Abraham and an early version of Black Eyed Peas (then known as Atban Klann). Ruthless’ most famous post-N.W.A export is the Cleveland group Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, who sold millions with hits like "Thuggish Ruggish Bone" and "Tha Crossroads."
Delicious Vinyl: In the late '80s, Delicious Vinyl served as a contrast to the reality rap-focused Ruthless Records with pop-rap hits like Tone-Loc’s "Wild Thing," Young MC’s "Bust a Move," and Def Jef’s "Give It Here." Matt Dike, who co-founded the label with Michael Ross, was also a member of production team the Dust Brothers, who played a major role in Brooklyn transplants Beastie Boys’ 1989 masterwork, Paul’s Boutique.
The following decade, Delicious Vinyl’s roster expanded to innovators like the British acid-jazz combo Brand New Heavies, lyrically-minded L.A. quartet the Pharcyde, and New York unit Masta Ace Incorporated.
Death Row: Formed by Dr. Dre after he left N.W.A and Compton entrepreneur Suge Knight, Death Row was one of the most successful — and controversial — record labels of the 1990s. Beginning with Dre’s The Chronic, the label issued several albums that defined the era, like Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle, the Above the Rim soundtrack, Tha Dogg Pound’s Dogg Food, and 2Pac’s All Eyez on Me.
Death Row began to fall apart after Dr. Dre left and 2Pac was murdered in 1996, and Suge Knight was imprisoned on parole violation charges in 1997. The company’s valuable catalog has since changed several hands, with Snoop Dogg and various partners taking control of it last year.
Stones Throw: Originally founded in San Jose, California by DJ/producer Peanut Butter Wolf, Stones Throw relocated to Los Angeles in 2000. That’s when the label hit its stride as a popular indie label, thanks in part to idiosyncratic producer Madlib, who helmed critically acclaimed albums like Quasimoto’s The Unseen and Madvillain’s Madvillainy.
Other Southern California artists who spent time on the roster include Madlib’s brother, rapper/producer Oh No; Oxnard musician Anderson .Paak and producer Knxwledge, together known as NxWorries; Detroit rapper/producer J Dilla, who made Donuts while living in L.A. before his 2006 death; street-rap trio Strong Arm Steady, and Orange County rapper/producer Jonwayne.
Top Dawg Entertainment: Thanks in part to GRAMMY-winning Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar — whose literary and conceptual songwriting pushed hip-hop music to new heights — Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith’s record label is a powerhouse in the music industry. Then there’s New Jersey’s SZA, whose blend of rap-styled flows and R&B vocals make her one of the most innovative of her era.
Other standout acts on Top Dawg include Carson rappers Schoolboy Q and Ab-Soul — who together with Lamar and Jay Rock form the group Black Hippy — Tennessee rapper/singer Isaiah Rashad, Inglewood alternative soul vocalist SiR, and Florida newcomer Doechii.
Subgenres Of SoCal Hip-Hop
Electro: When Southern California hip-hop emerged in the 1980s, the sound of electro dominated. Ice-T began his career with electro tracks like 1983’s "Cold-Wind Madness." Dr. Dre launched his career with the World Class Wreckin’ Cru, and his DJ prowess shined on their single, "Surgery." Pioneering DJ Egyptian Lover — a member of Mobile DJ unit Uncle Jamm’s Army — scored a national hit in 1984 with "Egypt, Egypt."
Other memorable cuts during this era, which lasted roughly from 1983 to the arrival of N.W.A. in the late '80s, include Captain Rapp and "Bad Times (I Can’t Stand It)," which featured production from Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis; Toddy Tee’s "Batteram," and Arabian Prince’s "Strange Life." Rap artists may have abandoned the sound, but it continues to inspire modern-day funk and electronic musicians like Dām Funk, Nite Jewel, and XL Middleton.
G-Funk: Since emerging around 1991 via productions from N.W.A’s Dr. Dre, DJ Quik, Cold 187um and DJ Pooh, G-funk has been the definitive Southern California rap sound — as key to the region’s identity as boom-bap is to New York and trap is to Atlanta. The bass-heavy, funky worm-driven, P-Funk-inspired sound has inspired decades of artists. At its peak in the mid-'90s, it was the sound of stars like Domino, Suga Free, and Warren G. But each new generation seems to find new twists on the sturdy formula, whether it’s The Game and Nipsey Hussle in the Aughts; or, in recent years, YG and G Perico.
Chicano Rap: While often overlooked by the media, Chicano rap — an umbrella term for Mexican Americans who make English and Spanglish-language rap — has deep roots in Southern California. West Coast OG Kid Frost began his career in the mid-'80s before landing a major hit in 1990 with "La Raza." He led a wave of Latin rappers in the early '90s that included A Lighter Shade of Brown ("On a Sunday Afternoon"), Mellow Man Ace ("Mentirosa"), A.L.T. and the Lost Civilization ("Tequila"), and Proper Dos ("Mexican Power").
Of course, Cypress Hill are the most famed Chicano rap group of all, thanks to songs like "Latin Lingo." Later years brought acts such as NB Ridaz ("Down for Yours"), Lil Rob ("Summer Nights"), Lil One, and Mr. Knightowl. On their 1998 debut album, Latin fusion group Ozomatli, scored rap hits like "Super Bowl Sundae" and "Cut Chemist Suite."
Turntablism: Coined by Babu of the Beat Junkies as well as Dilated Peoples, turntablism refers to the art of scratching, mixing, and blending records. An international scene flourished in the '90s and early 2000s — with strongholds in Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area — putting a much-needed spotlight back to DJs, the original creators of hip-hop before rappers took over. Turntablism produced standout artists like D-Styles, J Rocc, Cut Chemist from Jurassic 5, DJ Rob One, Faust & Shortee, and others.
BTS/Beats: "Beats" is a catch-all term for production that incorporates electronic music and rap instrumentals. L.A. producers like the late Ras G, Carlos Niño and Daedelus developed the sound throughout the aughts before it caught fire with the likes of Flying Lotus, TOKiMONSTA, and Knxwledge.
Two major touchstones are Madvillain’s Madvillainy — a one-off pairing between Oxnard producer Madlib and the late New York rapper MF DOOM — and Donuts, which Detroit producer J Dilla made while living in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, the dusty loops that many beat producers employ have inspired music by Earl Sweatshirt, rapper/singer Anderson .Paak, and others.
Rising Hip-Hop Artists From Southern California
03 Greedo: Watts rapper 03 Greedo became a cult sensation on the strength of projects like The Wolf of Grape Street and God Level, and a nakedly honest perspective on gang life augmented by a watery, Auto-Tuned voice. His trajectory stalled when he was imprisoned on trafficking charges in 2018. 03 Greedo was paroled earlier this year, and has said that he plans on making up for lost time.
Maxo: Max "Maxo" Allen parlayed underground notoriety into a major-label deal with Def Jam, which issued his Lil Big Man album in 2019. His second major-label effort, 2023’s Even God Has a Sense of Humor, stands out for his introspective writing, and his fearlessness in exploring life’s meaning and finding solace in family and lovers.
Navy Blue: Former skateboarder Sage "Navy Blue" Elsesser first drew attention with a cameo on Earl Sweatshirt’s lo-fi gem, Some Rap Songs. He subsequently built a following with independent solo albums that emphasized his spiritual-minded lyrics and lo-fi production. After signing to Def Jam, he released the acclaimed Ways of Knowing this year.