Hip-hop is a wondrous and centerless tangle, ubiquitous even if not always totally visible.
It is a fount of constant innovation, and a historical text ripe for pilfering. It is a continuation of rock, soul and jazz traditions, while also explicitly loosening their cultural grip. It is evolving more rapidly than ever — new styles emerge yearly, or faster, multiplying the genre’s potential. And it has impact far beyond music: Hip-hop is woven into television and film, fashion, advertising, literature, politics and countless other corners of American life. It is lingua franca, impossible to avoid.
Mr. Caramanica goes on to walk the reader through hip-hop’s many eras. He starts with the early years in the Bronx, when few of the genre’s pioneers could have imagined that they were laying what he calls “the foundation for the defining cultural shift.”
Fifty years ago, though, that outcome seemed fanciful at best. In the 1970s, Bronx block parties gave way to nightclubs, and talking D.J.s laid the foundation for dedicated M.C.s to begin taking over. Soon, the intrusion of capitalism removed and packaged the part of these live events that was the easiest to transmit: rapping.
Then it was off to the races. By the mid-1980s, the hip-hop industry was a small club but big business, as audiences around the country were primed by the commercial release of recordings from countless New York artists. A wave of soon-to-be-global stars arrived: Run-DMC, LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys. Hip-hop became worldwide counterculture.
By the dawn of the 1990s, it flowered everywhere in this country — the South, the West, the Midwest — and seeped into the global mainstream. In the mid-90s, thanks to the work of Biggie Smalls and Puffy, Tupac Shakur and Dr. Dre, Bad Boy and Death Row, it became the center of American pop music, despite resistance from those convinced rock was destined to forever reign supreme.
Into the 2000s, the genre’s power center shifted from the coasts to the South, where the genre was flourishing (largely away from the scrutiny of the major labels) in Miami, Houston, Virginia, Atlanta and Memphis. 2 Live Crew, the Geto Boys, Missy Elliott, Outkast, Three 6 Mafia — each had absorbed what was being imported from the rest of the country and created new lingo and sonic frameworks around it. Hip-hop was becoming a widely shared language with numerous dialects.
All the while, the genre was expanding, becoming more commercially successful and inescapable with each year. It became centrist pop, which in turn spun off its own dissidents: the New York and Los Angeles undergrounds of the 1990s; the progressive indie scenes of the 2000s; and the SoundCloud rap of the 2010s. In the past 20 years, hip-hop has been responsible not only for some of the biggest pop music of the era — Drake, Kanye West, Jay-Z, Cardi B — but its templates have become open source for performers in other genres to borrow from, which they did, and do, widely. Hip-hop became a crucial touch point for country music, for reggaeton, for hard rock, for K-pop and much more.