Birth of Hip Hop: The Unsung Heroes

In four decades hip hop has gone from an underground culture to the most-streamed style of music in the world. Biography explores the unsung artists who brought the genre into existence.
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Hip hop is now a fully realized multi-billion-dollar industry, in which top earners make an average of $20 million a year, according to Forbes. In four decades rap has gone from an underground magpie culture that cleverly appropriated its sounds from elsewhere to the most-streamed style of music in the world. It has given a voice to those who were previously voiceless, memorably described as a “black CNN” by Public Enemy’s Chuck D. And its ever-evolving beats and rhymes have sound-tracked parties from the Bronx to Beijing.

Hip hop’s impact has been felt in the worlds of art, academia, politics, sports, fashion and film, running the gamut from the ghetto to the corridors of power. And it remains as vibrant and relevant now as it was 40 years ago — a feat unmatched by any other style of popular music.

The true scale of hip hop is impossible to quantify. The Forbes “Cash Kings” may sit on top of the earnings pile, but there are countless others who have dedicated their lives to the culture. Below are some of those unsung heroes whose creativity and passion has helped to make hip hop what it is today.

Kool Herc: Puttin' Down the Breaks

DJ Kool Herc attends the 'Beat Street' screening, panel and performance hosted by the Tribeca Film Institute at The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture on October 20, 2012 in New York City.

DJ Kool Herc attends the 'Beat Street' screening, panel and performance hosted by the Tribeca Film Institute at The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture on October 20, 2012 in New York City.

The cultural forces that gave birth to hip hop in the 1970s were bigger than any one individual. But if anyone can claim to have opened the floodgates, then it is Clive Campbell.

DJing under the name of Kool Herc, it was Campbell who pioneered the art of mixing “breaks” — the instrumental, percussive segments of records. Using two turntables, he would mix the beginning of the break from one record into the end of the break from another, enabling him to play instrumental-only sets that he called the “merry-go-round.” This became the blueprint for hip hop. His crowd’s wildly energetic response to these came to be known as “breakdancing.” And the rudimentary rhymes and catchphrases (“To the beat y’all, ya don’t stop…”) that Herc and others — notably Coke La Rock — spoke over the top of the breaks at his parties evolved into rap.

Kool Herc’s parties were held in a recreation room at the Bronx projects where he lived — at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue (now officially protected as the birthplace of hip hop). He moved there with his parents and five younger siblings at 13 years old. Before that the family lived in Jamaica, and it was here, as a child, that Herc saw reggae sound-systems with MCs toasting over the beats. The memory inspired him to assemble his own sound-system years later in New York — but instead of reggae he played hard funk by the likes of James Brown and Booker T & the MGs, using the instrumental breaks in a similar way that Jamaican DJs played dubs. He began to experiment with two copies of the same record in 1973, cutting between them to extend the same break.

Other DJs, such as Grand Wizard Theodore, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa would soon copy Herc’s DJing style — and improve the technique. Flash and Bambaataa also took things to the next level by making records rather than just playing them. By the end of the 1970s, Herc’s star had faded. He was stabbed during one of his own parties, reportedly trying to break up a fight, and his career never recovered.

Kool Herc remains a hip-hop legend — his character featured in the Netflix series The Get Down, and he has been namechecked by a long line of rappers including Q-Tip, Nas, Wyclef Jean and De La Soul — but he has never been commercially successful. It was reported in 2011 that he was suffering from health problems relating to his kidneys, but was broke and struggling to pay his medical bills. He still DJs around New York.

Sauce Money: Ghostwriter

Sauce Money Photo

Sauce Money performs at a concert to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Jay-Z's first album, 'Reasonable Doubt' at Radio City Music Hall June 25, 2006 in New York City.

After the brutal murder of Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace in 1997, his friend and mentor, Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, released a Grammy-winning tribute single, "I’ll Be Missing You." The song also featured Wallace’s bereaved wife, Faith Evans, and the R&B group 112. Over a sample of the Police’s "Every Breath You Take," Combs rapped: “When it’s real, feelings hard to conceal/Can’t imagine all the pain I feel.”

But Combs had not written the lyrics by himself. Overcome with grief, he had struggled to find the right words. So he enlisted a ghostwriter, Todd Gaither, aka the rapper Sauce Money. Ghostwriters are taboo in hip hop, where authenticity is paramount, but Combs was in dire straits. Gaither had been encouraged to develop his skills as a writer and rapper by his old friend, Shawn “Jay Z” Carter. As Sauce Money, Gaither had won plaudits for his guest appearance on Jay Z’s debut album, Reasonable Doubt.

Sauce Money grew up with Jay Z in Brooklyn’s tough Marcy Projects, before going on to a sports scholarship at Allen University in Columbia, South Carolina. After graduating he wound up working in the mailroom of a bank — for five years. As soon as he could, he escaped to music.

It was Carter who recommended Gaither to Combs. Gaither had lost his mother a few years earlier, and channeled his grief into the lyrics of "I’ll Be Missing You." “It’s almost like being an actor,” Gaither told the BBC. “Once I became [Combs] I knew what he would want to say to Big in remembrance.”

Sauce Money went on to release one album, Middle Finger U, in 2000 (guests included Jay Z and Puff Daddy). But as hip-hop’s A-list ghostwriter he has made a more lasting impact putting his words into other people’s mouths.

Tony D: White Rapper

Asked to name a white rap pioneer, most people would say Eminem. Or perhaps one of the Beastie Boys circa Paul’s Boutique, or the producer Rick Rubin. Few would volunteer Anthony Depula, also known professionally as Tony D, Harvee Wallbanger and Grand Pubha Tony D — a gregarious, 224-pound Italian-American from the unheralded city of Trenton, New Jersey. Yet Depula was one of the first white artists to win credibility in hip hop.

In the mid-1980s, he was a regular face on Trenton’s local music scene, setting up sound equipment at parties. One night the DJ failed to turn up, so Depula took his place — and launched his career. He bought drum machines from a contact in the Bronx and developed a talent for making beats, releasing the Droppin’ Funky Verses album, which he both rapped on and produced, on 4th and B'way Records in 1991. But he soon became better known as a producer — his face didn’t fit as a rapper in an era when hip hop had yet to recover from Vanilla Ice. Acts Depula worked with included Jazzy Jay, DJ Muggs, the Outsidaz, and — surprisingly to some — Afrocentric groups such as the Poor Righteous Teachers and the YZ, devotees of the Muslim Fivepercent Nation movement.

Depula’s beats were always crisp and clean. He also pioneered a technique of stitching together choruses using snippets from different vocal samples — which artists such as Kanye West and the RZA later explored. “No one was really using samples or loops that had a voice in it until I did that,” Depula told the hip-hop journalist Drew Huge in 2009, only a few months before he died in a car accident, leaving a wife and two young daughters.

Tony D released eight solo albums, but remains best remembered for his work with Poor Righteous Teachers, producing most of the music on their acclaimed first album, Holy Intellect.

Sha-Rock: Lady Killer

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MC Sha-Rock attends the VH1 Hip Hop Honors: All Hail The Queens at David Geffen Hall on July 11, 2016 in New York City.

Known as the “mother of the mic,” Sha-Rock was born Sharon Green in 1962 in North Carolina, but moved to New York during the earliest days of hip hop. Her parents split when she was eight, and Green moved with her three siblings, mom and her mom’s new boyfriend to the Bronx. Surrounded by poverty, drugs and violence, music and dancing offered a chance to have fun — as long as you kept your head. “We used to have to walk over dead bodies and people shooting up the clubs,” she recalled in an interview with Psychology Today in 2016.

By the mid-1970s, Green was a b-girl, breakdancing on the streets and in community centers. At home, her family would play records by James Brown, Millie Jackson and Elvis Presley, and Green became intrigued by the way these artists commanded an audience. It was perhaps inevitable that she would pick up a microphone and combine her fascination with performance and her passion for the vibrant new music culture in the streets.

She joined a Bronx rap group, The Funky 4 + 1. As the only female MC — the “Plus 1” — she had equal status to the others (in an era before female MCs came to be treated as sex objects). They released one of the first disco-rap records, Rappin’ and Rockin’ the House, in 1979. Soon after, they signed to Sylvia Robinson’s Sugarhill Records label. Their 1980 single "That’s the Joint" would be acclaimed by Rolling Stone in 2013 as one of the 50 best rap records of all time. The Funky 4 + 1 became the first hip-hop group to appear on national TV — on Saturday Night Live in 1981, on Debbie Harry’s recommendation — but split in 1983 before releasing an album. Among Sha-Rock’s young fans was Sean “Diddy” Combs and Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, who emulated her reverb-heavy vocal delivery with Run-DMC.

In 2015, Sha-Rock was appointed as a national advisor for the Cornell University Hip-Hop Library Collection. By day she works in law enforcement. “I targeted a career I knew could help me stay out of trouble,” she has said. “I chose it to stay on the right path.”

Tracy 168: Graffiti 'Wild Style' King

It was Afrika Bambaataa who famously defined the “four pillars” of hip hop: rapping, DJing, breakdancing, and graffiti. Tracy 168 was a pioneering force in graffiti (or “aerosol writing” as Bam called it), who created “Wild Style” lettering: the abstract, highly stylized form of graffiti writing characterized by overlapping, hard-to-reproduce letters.

Of Irish, Italian and Puerto Rican descent, Michael Tracy was born in 1958 and grew up opposite the Bronx Zoo. He tagged his first train in 1969 at age 11. “I loved the sense of adventure,” he told the Street Art NYC website. “I envisioned myself as a Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn.” Some of his early work had a political dimension, such as rebelling against the Vietnam War, in which his friends had been drafted.

The early 1970s saw an explosion in graffiti culture in New York, with Tracy at its forefront. The scene was fiercely competitive — whoever produced the largest, boldest and most colorful work won bragging rights. Tracy hit on the idea of incorporating cartoon characters into his pieces “because cartoons live forever,” he told the Subway Outlaws site. “I guess we were all looking for immortality.” He formed Wanted, a crew of 72 leading graffiti writers, and in 1975 developed his Wild Style lettering, which the top Wanted artists all adopted.

To Tracy, the peak graffiti years of the early and mid 1970s were “a beautiful time. We took these dull, boring-looking subways and turned them into something beautiful . . .Everyone was just stuck, so we helped take their minds off the horrors in their life.”

In 1977 he turned his talent to more conventional use, painting storefronts and murals before going on to work for an advertising agency, on accounts ranging from Northern Bathroom Tissue to Tanqueray gin. As mainstream fascination with hip-hop culture grew, he belatedly won recognition from the art world (“Tracy offers an astounding variety of styles,” gushed the New York Times art critic Holland Cotter in 1999, “from 3D to space-age-spiky to Cubistic.”). He has since exhibited in museums and galleries around the world. “The message of the Wild Style is be yourself,” he said in 2016. “Find out what your talent is and get good at it.”

Bob James: Sample Generator

Bob James Photo

Bob James photographed at the Pan Pacific Hotel in Yokohama, Japan in 2004.

Hip-hop’s most-sampled artist is widely thought to be James Brown — whose hard-edged funky beats were practically tailor-made for rappers. But it’s impossible to say for sure, because so many samples are never attributed (so producers and their record labels can avoid paying royalties). However there is another musical James, whose back catalogue has also been widely plundered by producers searching for a perfect beat or sample: the jazz keyboardist and arranger Bob James. His influence on hip hop is less widely known, but no less ubiquitous.

That distinctive cowbell break at the start of Run DMC’s "Peter Piper"? Sampled from Bob James’ "Take Me to the Mardi Gras" in 1975. The opening riff on Warren G and Nate Dogg’s g-funk anthem, "Regulate"? From Bob James’ "Sign of the Times" in 1981. That ominous bassline on Slick Rick’s old-school classic, "Children’s Story"? From an obscure 1974 Bob James album track, "Nautilus" — an atmospheric instrumental that has been sampled hundreds of times by everyone from Eric B & Rakim to Ghostface Killah.

James was born in Missouri in 1939 and studied music at the University of Michigan and Berklee College of Music. He moved to New York in 1962 after being discovered by the legendary Quincy Jones, who signed him to his first record deal with Mercury. James’s debut album, Bold Conceptions, came out the following year. He went on to become a jazz-fusion pioneer, at his most prolific during the 1970s and early 1980s.

He has never had a problem with being sampled by hip-hop producers (that pay royalties). “I have a lot of respect for the architectural aspect of production in hip hop,” he told Noisey in 2013. “I never felt that it was music that just copied and redid what the original composer did. I like the bizarre and unpredictable nature of it.”

Gregory “Sylvester” Coleman: 'Amen Break' Drummer

Chances are you’ve never heard of the 1960s funk-and-soul band the Winstons — or their drummer, Gregory “Sylvester” Coleman. But you will definitely have heard Coleman’s drumming — or at least four bars of it. That is the length of the solo he played in the Winstons’ 1969 song, "Amen Brother." The so-called “Amen break” went on to become the most instantly recognizable six seconds of percussion in music history — making "Amen Brother" the most-sampled song of all time.

Think the opening bars of NWA’s "Straight Outta Compton." Or Mantronix’s "King of the Beats," Lupe Fiasco’s "Streets on Fire," Salt-N-Pepa’s "I Desire." The list goes on (and on). The website Whosampled.com lists more than 2,500 songs that have used the Amen break — the real total is likely to be far higher. It has been widely used in hip hop, but also by everyone from David Bowie to Slipknott. Drum and bass producers in the U.K. sped up the sample. It even appeared on the theme tune for Futurama, Matt Groening’s animated sitcom.

The "Amen Break" is the subject of a documentary by the Brooklyn academic Nate Harrison (you can find it on YouTube). Asked by the BBC to explain the break’s popularity, Harrison said: “There’s something about the groove . . . for me, it’s this perfect blend between something very organic sounding and very robotic-sounding at the same time.”

"Amen Brother" was the B-side of the Winstons’ 1969 single, "Color Him Father" — which won a Grammy for Best Rhythm and Blues Song. At the time, nobody paid much attention to the B-side. A year later, the Winstons — a six-piece band based in Washington D.C. — split up. Despite the single’s success they struggled to get bookings — their racial mix (three members were black, three white) was an issue at the time. Sadly, they never saw any royalties from the Amen break’s subsequent popularity — it was mostly sampled in the 1980s when royalties were still a grey area. A 2015 internet campaign by DJs raised over $30,000 for the Winstons’ lead singer, Richard Spencer. But Gary Coleman, who had played that famous break, was long gone. After struggling with drug addiction he died penniless and destitute in Atlanta in 2006.

Kool G Rap: Mafioso Rapper

Kool G Rap Photo

Kool G Rap (born Nathaniel Wilson) dressed in a denim jacket and a fishing hat, 1990s.

The Notorious B.I.G., Nas, Eminem and Jay Z all owe a debt to the multi-syllabic rhyming skills and gritty narratives of Nathaniel Thomas Wilson, aka Kool G Rap — a titan of “golden age” 1980s hip hop whose modest public profile has never reflected his far-reaching influence.

Wilson grew up in New York in Corona, Queens, surrounded by hip hop culture — he would hear DJs in local parks from the age of nine. He later formed a group, The Rapateers, in 1983, but it failed to take off. After that he began recording with DJ Polo as part of the legendary Queens producer Marley Marl’s Juice Crew. The duo got their first exposure on Mr. Magic’s influential Rap Attack radio-show in 1986. Their debut album, Road to the Riches, came out on Cold Chillin’ Records in 1989. As well as battle raps, it was acclaimed for its lurid tales of organized crime and racketeering — and subsequently credited with starting “Mafioso rap,” an East Coast rival to West Coast gangsta rap. Nas, the Notorious B.I.G. and Jay Z were among those heavily influenced by it. But sales of the album were modest — it peaked at No. 29 on the Billboard R&B/Hip Hop chart.

Their follow-up, Wanted: Dead or Alive, also underperformed in 1990 — though its single "Streets of New York" has been cited by Nas as an influence for his seminal "New York State of Mind." (Wilson helped a young Nas get his deal with Columbia). Wilson also knew Tupac Shakur, through recording in Los Angeles. He recounted to Hip Hop DX magazine how he ended up rolling through L.A. during the 1992 riots with a crew that included Shakur “popping off guns” as the anarchy unfolded.

As well as Mafioso rap, Kool G Rap pioneered multi-syllable rhyming — “multis” in hip-hop parlance — characterized by phrases in which more than one syllable rhymes. Multis have become a hallmark of great rappers. “It’s not like you’re just rhyming ‘might’ and ‘fight’,” he explains in the foreword to Paul Edwards book, How to Rap. “You’re rhyming ‘random luck’ and ‘handsome f***’ with ‘we cop vans and trucks’ — it ain’t just doing the basics, because that’s not ear-catching.”

Kool G Rap remains hugely respected as well as active musically, with an album, Return of the Don, due in 2017. To date he has released seven studio albums, two collaborative albums and 30 singles.

Proof: Greatest Sidekick

Proof Rapper Photo

Proof, part of the group D–12, poses outside the Casa Del Mar hotel in Santa Monica, 2001.

DeShaun Dupree Holton was a childhood friend of Marshall Mathers — a.k.a. Eminem. The pair grew up on the same block near Detroit’s famous 8 Mile Road, which divides the city from the suburbs. As the rapper Proof, Holton showed much promise before losing his life in a nightclub shooting in 2006. He is best remembered as Eminem’s right-hand man, both on and off stage.

Holton was raised by his mom, Sharallene, after his father, McKinley Jackson, left to pursue a career as a music producer. He attended a private school for a spell before enrolling in Osborn High on Detroit’s east side. As a teenager he starred in MC battles in Maurice Malone’s Hip Hop Shop, a clothing store and rap venue. The shop’s cult status drew MCs from across America to participate — including the Notorious B.I.G. and Redman.

Holton and Mathers met when Holton was sitting on a wall outside Osborn High, and Mathers gave him a flyer for a talent show. Soon they were friends —Holton’s mother even took Mathers in when his own mom threw him out during one of their many rows. Holton became a mentor to Mathers, encouraging his smart-mouthed friend to put his wit into his lyrics, and introducing him in Detroit rap battles where Mathers was often the only white face.

In 1995 Proof, Eminem and four other rappers formed the sextet D12, but the project was put on hold when Eminem’s solo career took off soon after.

The D12 eventually released two albums, Devil’s Night (2001) and D12 World (2004). By then, Proof was a fixture at Eminem’s live shows as his hype man.

He released two solo albums, I Miss the Hip Hop Shop (2004) and Searching for Jerry Garcia (2005). But he was gunned down during an altercation at a nightclub on 8 Mile, on April 11, 2006. He was 32 years old. Thousands of mourners turned up to his funeral at Detroit’s Fellowship Chapel.

“He pushed me to become who I am,” Eminem said in tribute. “Without Proof’s guidance and encouragement there would have been a Marshall Mathers, but probably not an Eminem and certainly never a Slim Shady.”

Tim’m T West: Queer Rap Pioneer

The second of nine children, West was born in Ohio and grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas. A childhood stutter led his family to nickname him Tim’m — which has stuck ever since. Surrounded by music as a child, West discovered hip hop as a teenager at Arkansas roller discos — around the same time that he realized his sexuality was different from that of other boys. Education offered an escape from “racist, homophobic, southern, rebel-flag-waving, Klan-boasting Arkansas” — and he went on to study at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, before moving to New York to attend The New School for Social Research.

From there he moved to the West Coast, to study a Ph.D. program in modern thought and literature at Stanford University. It was while he was there that he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1999, at the age of 27. He took a break from his studies to focus on his health, going on to form a queer hip-hop group Deep Dickollective (DDC) with fellow activists Juba Kalamka and Phillip Atiba Goff, coining the term “homo hop.” Proudly pro-black and pro-gay, they became a hit in the underground Bay Area hip-hop and spoken-word communities before eventually disbanding in 2007. He has released six solo albums — most recently ICONography in 2015.

DDC enjoyed a high media profile — and West has featured in a number of documentaries. These have included the New Jack City director Mario Van Peebles’ 2009 short, Bring Your 'A' Game — in which West appeared alongside straight rappers such as Ice Cube and Lupe Fiasco. West has credited DDC for raising awareness of gay black artists in the media. “We had pretty much remained invisible prior to Deep Dickollective, so the effect was far-reaching.”

West’s hip-hop career has run parallel to his work in academia – he has taught at Stanford and at Humboldt State University; and as an adjunct professor of English and Philosophy at Houston Community College. In 2011 he moved to Chicago to be closer to his grown-up daughter, Shannon — he identifies as bisexual — and took a position as a director at the Center on Halsted, an LGBTQ community center. “They know I care about them,” he said of the young people who attend the center. “I hate a lot of the homophobia they have to face in their own neighborhoods.”