So You Want to Listen to Hip Hop: A Lens for Black History



Hip Hop music has taken over as one of the most popular genres in the world, but its popularity can erase the unsung pioneers of each era. The genre, dating back to DJ Kool Herc releasing “Back To School Jam” on Aug. 11, 1973 in the rec room of his building in the South Bronx, is now heard around the world. But the rise in popularity threatens to overshadow the history of young Black men and women across the U.S. who had no idea that their bars would turn into packed tours and a life of fame. While its entire legacy cannot be easily summarized, these four categories can help break down some of the most influential contributors to rap’s legacy. This list is a compilation of the underappreciated yet historic rap songs that continue to inform the artists of today, honoring hip hop as Black history.


“Scenario” by A Tribe Called Quest (1991)


A Tribe Called Quest's alternative and energetic style makes their songs more hype than today’s 808-filled rap. With a spectacular outro by Busta Rhymes — the only non-member of the group featured on the song — audiences can hear the best of Tribe and the talents of their peers.

“The Next Movement” by The Roots (1999)

Philadelphia’s #1 rap crew may go under the radar for the mainstream hip hop fan, but lead MC Black Thought’s skills place him on many of the best rappers all time lists. Although this song does not capture his multitude of skills, it is a great introduction to the talents of the Roots crew.

“Da Art of Storytellin’ (Pt. 1)” by OutKast (1999)

André 3000 and Big Boi’s experimental style and Southern roots have produced some of the most captivating stories in rap music. This song — as well as “Da Art of Storytellin (Pt. 2)” — demonstrates the unique capabilities this collaboration brings to the table.

“Self Destruction” by Stop The Violence Movement (1989)

Hip Hop and social justice have always gone together, and “Self Destruction” unified the rap community after the alleged murder of Boogie Down Production DJ, Scott La Rock. The song brings together all of the great old and new school rappers of the East in a piece dedicated to ending gun violence.

Female Artists:

“The Jump Off” by Lil Kim (2003)

Lil Kim laid much of the groundwork for the powerful women breaking records today. She set the standard, and “The Jump Off” shows why.

“I Wanna Be Down” by Brandy, MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, Yo Yo (1994)

Women in rap have produced hits for years and this track features four of the best and brightest. The flirty riffs, beautiful singing, and rhyming heard in “I Wanna Be Down” set off Brandy’s R&B stardom.

“Pass Da Blunt” by Missy Elliot (feat. Timbaland) (1997)

Missy Elliot and Timbaland played a crucial role in the expansion of rap beyond the East Coast versus West Coast rivalry. The Virginia natives incorporate reggae elements in this track, pushing music production forward with their innovation.

“Uknowhowwedu” by Bahamadia (1996)

Bahamadia produced some of Philadelphia’s best rap music in her heyday, but many do not know that her LP was the first to be co-produced and entirely written by a woman, Antonia D. Reed. Her trailblazing and sonic creativity cannot be forgotten.

East Coast:

“It Ain’t Hard to Tell” by Nas (1994)

Nas’s “Illmatic” can be found on any hip hop fans' all time albums list, but “It Ain't Hard to Tell” has layers often left undiscovered. His lyricism remains unparalleled and his storytelling prowess pushed the genre forward.

“Eric B. Is President” by Eric B. & Rakim (1987)

Rakim reigns as a hip hop great left underappreciated by Gen Z. Featuring one of the most recognizable first bars in rap history, there is no way to forget about this Long Island duo.

“Ain’t No Half -Steppin’” by Big Daddy Kane (1988)

Big Daddy Kane is another underrated star of the Golden Age of Hip Hop. Kane is a pure example of the MCs that once defined hip hop’s rise and this song exemplifies his lyrical greatness.

“Ten Crack Commandments” by The Notorious B.I.G. (1997)

While Biggie remains one of the most recognizable rappers of all time, his legacy cannot be summarized in just his top hits. This track provides a closer look into the psychology of those in the drug game.

West Coast:

“Express Yourself” by N.W.A (1989)

When N.W.A faced the FBI in a battle against censorship in rap music, the group responded with a diss to rappers that censor themselves for airtime paired with a music video commenting on the policing of Black men in America.

“Runnin’” by The Pharcyde (1995)

Produced by the late great Detroit producer J Dilla, the South Central rap group paints a vibrant picture of how young men deal with bullying and asserting themselves in an unkind world.

“Mind Playing Tricks On Me” by Geto Boys (1991)

While the Geto Boy hail from Houston, Texas, no guide to hip hop would be complete without the group’s #23 Billboard hit. Sampling the great Issac Hayes’s “Hung Up On Me Baby,” the track has a jazz groove while sharing the mental stressors of gang life.

“The Humpty Dance” by Digital Underground (1990)

This Oakland group was one of the first to emerge from West Coast Alternative music. The late Shock G’s iconic character Humpty Hump rhymes in this joke-filled classic.

—Staff writer Marley E. Dias can be reached at