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Master Class: Tracing the distinct phases of hip-pop

Da’Shan Smith

 // Aug 9, 2018

Artist // YouTube

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.


Last month, the question “why do black people love Paramore so much?” became a brief topic of conversation after someone uploaded a video of a guy rocking out alongside the punk pop group. My answer, “‘Airplanes’ by B.O.B. featuring Hayley Williams,” not only generated a series of likes, but also lead to this write-up in our column exploring black-rooted music genres.

For a while, I’ve been wanting to write about the genre of hip-pop, considering how prevalent it is in shaping today’s music scene. I don’t know if it was the 20th anniversary of Mariah Carey’s Butterfly back in September 2017, or the "SHEther" aftermath reminding us of how hip-pop can derail rap reputations, but for a while I wanted to explore a genre that’s one of the most controversial, successful chartwise, and eye-opening of the race, gender, and class politics that often afflict rap.

Welcome to REVOLT’s Master Class on hip-pop.


This lesson starts with the words of Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, as she would helm Mariah Carey the “birther of hip-pop.” On December 18, 1995, Columbia Records released a hip hop-centric remix of Carey’s “Fantasy.” Thanks in large part to the pop song’s infectious sample of Tom Tom Club’s 1981 post-disco gem “Genius of Love,” the original version, which had been released in September, became only the second song to debut atop the Billboard Hot 100.

Being the first single from a female artist to accomplish that feat, “Fantasy” also spent an additional seven weeks in the chart’s summit. Then came Diddy and Bad Boy Records flipping shit for the better, with the chanteuse suggesting a guest appearance from Wu-Tang Clan’s Ol Dirty Bastard. “Fantasy” received a new life and the rest is music history.

But before that narrative continues, it’s important to actually dissect the term “hip-pop,” as well as clarifying the case for Mariah Carey’s actual pioneering role in the genre.

Whenever we add “pop” to any musical equation—especially to hip-hop—all hell breaks loose, and the rules of a genre we thought we once knew rapidly disintegrate. The genre of pop is defined as music intentionally meant for worldwide commercial success and accolades, by the means of catchy choruses, trademark hooks, and simplified lyrical structure. Pop music is not meant to offend, but rather play it safe and by the rules of current musical trends.

The genre of hip-pop has three branches that successfully conjoin the two parent genres. The first being pop-leaning songs from rappers (known as pop-rap); the second, songs from pop artists featuring a rapper or vice versa; and the final, songs where the pop artist raps as well as sings.

In 1979, “Rapper's Delight” from the Sugarhill Gang became hip-hop’s commercial breakthrough, as the song’s chorus informed a wider, global audience about the musical artform. Sylvia Robinson, the song’s producer and label’s record executive, is known as the “Mother of Hip Hop,” but we could take it a step further and say she had a hand in establishing pop-rap.

With the entity of hip-hop receiving late recognition in the mainstream, other labels hoped to make an impact similar to Sugar Hill’s, but more monumental. The winner of that race would be Kurtis Blow, the first commercial rapper signed to a major label, selling gold-certified singles, including 1980’s “The Breaks.” And Profile Records released the first hip-hop album to be certified gold, Run-D.M.C.’s 1984 self-titled debut.

In terms of pop-rap, Rick Rubin and Def Jam Records had the secret weapon, a 17-year-old Kangol hat-wearing and boombox-toting emcee from Queens named LL Cool J. On November 18, 1985, LL Cool J dropped his debut album Radio, aptly titled after the object depicted on the album cover.

A year later, LL Cool J became the first rap artist to perform on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand—the Top 40 pop equivalent (and inspiration) to Soul Train. After LL Cool J delivered his boombox ode, “I Can’t Live Without My Radio,” Clark marveled in the fact that “this album [Radio] is gooolllddd…,” acknowledging one of hip hop’s first commercially successful albums to push 500,000 copies in the US. This moment instantly transformed LL Cool J into hip hop’s “First Pop Rapper.”

The youthful energy of LL Cool J was the key to Radio’s appeal. With pop always on the hunt for the freshest trends, lingo, and potential (if not already) sex icons and eye candy, the emcee fit the bill perfectly. In addition to that, Radio brought about a sonic shift in hip-hop as it embraced the new school, condensing the long drawn out elements of the "Rapper’s Delight’s" that preceded it. As 80s hypebeast street culture and b-boy attitudes became hip-hop’s latest wave—countering the emerging gangsta rap exhibited in Schoolly D’s “P.S.K. What Does That Mean?”—pop adopted some of those antics and vice versa.

In summer of 1986, Run-D.M.C. embarked on their Raising Hell Tour with LL Cool J, Whodini, and the Beastie Boys as opening acts. The trio noticed white audience members attending their shows in Cyndi Lauper, Steven Tyler, and Madonna-looking droves. Run-D.M.C. had been reaping the benefits of Raising Hell’s signature cuts “My Adidas”—which emphasized fashion brand endorsing—and “Walk This Way”—the groundbreaking arena rock-meets-turntable-rap collab with Aerosmith. Of course their respective videos found their way on MTV, adding more to the pop conversation.

While the streets were familiar with their black musical icons, they were enthralled by the rowdiness of NYC’s Beastie Boys, the white brethren of Run-D.M.C. A year prior, the former punk band-turned-rappers opened for Madonna’s The Virgin Tour. That played a part in expanding their popularity before the release of their debut studio album, Licensed To Ill. Singles “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)” and “No Sleep till Brooklyn” launched the LP to the Billboard 200 album chart’s summit position, becoming the first rap one to do so.

Because of their defiant attitudes, Run-D.M.C. and Beastie Boys were criticized, alongside gangsta rappers such as N.W.A and Ice T, for bringing an element of hard-hitting danger to pop; their concerts were notorious for violent outbreaks. This started reflecting a bit more on the pop charts: “Fight For Your Right” being the Beastie Boys' last Top 20 hit until 1998’s “Intergalactic,” and Run-D.M.C. never reaching that region again after “Walk This Way.” On the opposite end, LL Cool J further capitalized off his debonair heartthrob archetype that America first fell in love with, embracing pop’s affinity for romance. In 1987, he released his sophomore follow-up Bigger and Deffer. Rap ballad “I Need Love” became his first Top 20 hit on the Hot 100 and a No. 1 on its genre’s chart.

By the late 80s into the start of the 90s, hip-hop was not only shaping the sound of its Golden Age but also adding wild experimentation and social messaging to pop, for better and worst. Salt-N-Pepa became the first hip-hop girl group to earn a platinum selling album, as 1986’s Hot, Cool and Vicious boasted their signature single “Push It.” The duo’s brand of raunchy innuendoes and unwavering sexuality revolutionized unapologetic feminism in rap—eventually leading to more hit singles like 1991’s “Let’s Talk About Sex.”

While the pop charts spoke loudly about hip-hop’s staying presence, critics attempted to dismiss the artform as a fad. The harsh realities of black struggle—juxtaposed by the feel-good joy of black pride— displayed on hip-hop records became a bit overbearing for strictly pop fans. As a result, rappers wanting to make top dollar through multi-million record sales, tons of MTV and radio spins, international touring, and endorsements, went the route of implementing aspects of comedy (Biz Markie’s “Just A Friend”), sex-baiting rock riffs (Tone Lōc’s No. 2-peaking “Wild Thing”), and dance trends (Young MC’s “Bust A Move,” and the kickstepping “Rollin With Kid-N-Play”) to their music and personas to ease tension.

But trying to tame the beast took its toll on hip-hop, which EPMD calls out on 1992’s pop-rap spoof “Crossover.” Ironically signed to Def Jam—the masterminds behind the early success of LL Cool J—Erick Sermon, the Green-Eyed Bandit, checked the industry with “Changed up they style, from jeans to suits and / Thinking about a pop record, somethin' made for the station / For a whole new relation-/ Ship of a new type of scene / To go platinum and clock mad green / AKA, a sellout, the rap definition”, while Parris Smith eulogized “The rap era's outta control, brothers sellin' their soul / To go gold, going, going, gone, another rapper sold / (To who) To pop and R&B, not the MD / I'm strictly hip-hop, I'll stick to Kid Capri.” Smith even warns that selling out hip-hop meant sacrificing serious artistry and ultimately losing fans.

Although no one is directly called out on “Crossover”—that Brand Nubian reference is not towards the group—there were some culprits in the midst of experiencing what the song prophesied. Vanilla Ice’s name alone represented full awareness of how being a white artist could be successfully beneficial in the world of hip-hop—if cards were played right (see: the discography of Marky Mark Wahlberg).

Initially released as Hooked in 1989, Ice's debut album, To The Extreme, received a major label push in 1990. It resulted in the No. 4-reaching lead single “Play That Funky Music” (which modeled after hardline golden-aged hip-hop) and the Queen-sampling, chart-topping signature “Ice Ice Baby.” The album ended up at No. 1, being his only to chart on the Billboard 200 to date.

MC Hammer also fell in the pit of nostalgic, few-hit-wonders of pop-rap. Months prior to Vanilla Ice’s official debut in 1990, MC Hammer released his third studio album Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em. “U Can’t Touch This” immediately became a 90s staple for the harem pants look he bounced in and the snarky confidence displayed over a Rick James sample. “Pray” implemented elements of Christian rap, pushing the single to No. 2. The LP managed to become the first rap record to sell 10 million copies, subsequently being certified diamond by the RIAA.

The LL Cool J effect of being cool-for-pop meant hip-hop songs tonally started to become more laidback and easygoing in the vein of “I Need Love” and “Ice Ice Baby.” From PM Dawn’s “Christina Applegate, you gotta put me on” name drop in “Set Adrift On Memory Bliss” to kiddy-boppers Kriss Kross making the crowd want to “Jump” while wearing backwards jeans, pop-rap continued hitting No. 1 on the charts due to its effortless inclusion for all and influencing of teenage pop culture. It even stemmed some early examples of alternative hip-hop such as Arrested Development’s “Mr. Wendal” and “Tennessee.”

As the 90s music scene started to push back against censorship, street-oriented hip-hop had reconstructed the narrative of pop once again. The commercial success of Dr. Dre’s “Nuthin’ But A G Thang,” Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice,” The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy,” Tupac’s “California Love,” and Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” proved that rap songs could still maintain bars and respect for lyricism while modeling after the conventions of pop song structure. While Left Eye gave Mariah Carey credit for birthing hip-pop, she sort of neglected her own prior influence with TLC, particularly with the critical acclaim of “Waterfalls.”

With pop-rap’s rich history prior to Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy,” it also wouldn’t be fair to say that Mimi is the birther of the pop star collabing with a rapper. It’s still up for debate which recording acts deserve the honors of breaking the concept in the mainstream. Some point to Melle Mel rapping the bridge on Chaka Khan’s “I Feel For You” (1984), while others contend that Jodi Watley’s “Friends” (1989) collab with Eric B. & Rakim set the template for how we know features today. There are some pop purveyors that would classify those moments as R&B though, instead mentioning Paula Abdul’s 1989 chart-topper “Opposites Attract” featuring the cartoon rapping and dancing MC Skat Kat.

Regardless, Carey should be credited as the trendsetter and overall tastemaker who revolutionized the movement in pop. Bored by her safe cookie cutter image, and knowing there was more to her artistry then belting vanilla hits in whistle register, the chanteuse deflowered herself from pop by embracing the rap music she loved. The “Fantasy” remix foreshadowed Carey’s brightest contribution to the industry, making the hip-pop collab a standard. So much of a standard, that it’s best to analyze the scene’s trends and remaining pioneers that followed “Fantasy,” with Mariah Carey’s own signature collabs working as markers.

“Fantasy” served as a transition and precursor for the hip-hop direction of Carey’s upcoming sixth studio album, Butterfly. Her magnum opus LP contained a sample of Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones” on “The Roof,” and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony rapping on “Breakdown.” The album opens with “Honey,” which was produced by Diddy, where he’d moniker her “MC” for obviously punny reasons.

If there’s one rapper and producer who should be credited for changing the negative stigma associated behind pop-rap success it would be none other than Diddy. Responsible for both the “Juicy Fruit” sample idea in Notorious B.I.G.’s hit and a muse behind Carey’s hip-hop transformation, the mogul showed there was no problem with getting that pop dough—as long as you kept the music authentically black. His farewell message to The Notorious B.I.G., “I’ll Be Missing You,” reigned supreme on the Hot 100 for 11 weeks. From there, his following singles and discography made pop-rap synonymous with velour luxury and ultimately overcame initial reservations from old heads.

Speaking of new millennium pop-rap, we can’t forget another legend: Will Smith. Starting out as the Fresh Prince alongside DJ Jazzy Jeff in the 80s, the rapper flexed his fly, family-approved grooves, peaking at No. 12 with “Parents Just Don’t Understand” (1988) and No. 4 for “Summertime.” Along the lines of Kid-N-Play, the rapper would eventually fuse his acting career, creating one of the greatest sitcom theme songs (and West Philadelphia anthems).

Growing older, Smith became the box office force we know him to be now—and a father shedding his younger Fresh Prince persona. In 1998, he won a rap Grammy for the title track of the Men In Black film. That song was included on his debut studio album, Big Willie Style, alongside his No. 1 staple “Gettin’ Jiggy wit It.” The following year, he channeled the start of the Y2K era with Willennium, which included “Wild Wild West, the theme song for his action comedy of the same name. Featuring Dru Hill and Kool Moe Dee, the song also went No. 1. Smith’s dominating presence in pop-rap led to a series of slime-filmed cameos at Nickelodeon’s Kids Choice Awards, and the 2005 block party hit “Switch.”

In 1999, Mariah Carey’s “Heartbreaker” included the craftsmanship of two giants: JAY-Z and DJ Clue. By this point, genres were taking over pop, becoming the new version of it. Hip-pop collabs started to really mean R&B and hip-hop duets. DJ Clue’s series of mixtapes and Desert Storm compilations brought them to the streets first. JAY-Z and DJ Clue not only helped Mariah earn another No. 1, they played a part in Mya’s cult favorite “Best of Me Pt II.”

JAY-Z enjoyed pop success with “Big Pimpin’,” “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem),” and explored a facet of pop-rock called nu metal. Headed by the likes of Korn, Kid Rock, and Limp Bizkit, the subgenre of nu metal combined hip-hop with all the alternative forms of metal and indie pop. In 2004, the rapper linked up with Linkin Park for the collaborative EP Collision Course which included a mashup of his “Encore” and their “Numb.”

Mariah Carey’s “Heartbreaker” music video starred her in a movie theatre and an action flick, a seeming nod to cinema’s influence on hip-pop. Lil’ Kim would become the first gangstress emcee to receive pop collab success with Moulin Rouge’s “Lady Marmalade” remake, alongside Mya, P!nk, and Christina Aguilera. The latter pop star got Stripped with features from Lil’ Kim and Method Man on her crossover LP. Following Lil’ Kim was Eve with Gwen Stefani ("Let Me Blow Your Mind"). Missy’s “Work It” would also fall under the umbrella of pop-rap.

By the time Mariah Carey released her “Loverboy” remix, “I Know What You Want,” and “Boy (I Need You)” between 2001 and 2003, the affectionate thug archetype popularized by Tupac in the 90s became essential to pop-rap. Ja Rule was the collab maestro, rotating between Jennifer Lopez and Ashanti. Nelly’s Country Grammar (2000) experimented with rapping and singing over country-influenced instrumentals, helping the record go diamond. 50 Cent ended Ja Rule’s reign after a feud, his diamond-certified debut album Get Rich or Die Tryin’ taking over where the latter left off. The lead song, “In Da Club,” had a catchy chorus that pushed the song to No. 1 on 2003.

50 Cent’s mentor Eminem also made a mark with pop-rap. 1999’s Slim Shady LP introduced the major label world to the next big white rapper (with an absurdly sardonic sound), who would go down to be considered one of hip-hop’s overall best. “My Name Is” became a theme song popular enough to also control MTV airwaves. Eventually, his collab with Dido would coin the term of an obsessive pop fan, “Stan,” on 2000’s diamond-selling The Marshall Matters LP.

In the period of 2004 to 2006, DJs and producers started making their presence more visible on the pop-rap scene. Lil Jon brought crunk, most notably on Usher’s “Yeah!” Timbaland had a producing streak with Nelly Furtado and Justin Timberlake, even collabing with them to make a pop diss track towards Scott Storch, Prince, and Fergie, “Give It To Me.” Speaking of Fergie, her work with The Black Eyed Peas (“Where Is The Love”) and separately as a solo star under the guide of Will.I.Am (“Fergalicious”) helped her capture a slew of Hot 100 No. 1s. Even Carey would revitalize her own comeback with The Emancipation of Mimi, engineered by Jermaine Dupri.

When Carey released a remix of “I’ll Be Lovin’ You Long Time” featuring T.I. in 2008, hip-hop had been undergoing the transformation as we know it today. By that point, viral dances helped make rap more pop with the hits “Laffy Taffy,” “It’s Goin’ Down,” and “Crank Dat.” T.I. himself had become the go-to featured rapper, working alongside Justin Timberlake (“My Love” and “Dead and Gone”) and the next queen of hip-pop collabs, Rihanna (“Live Your Life”).

T.I.’s all-star released “Swagger Like Us” featured the hook of M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes,” JAY-Z (who by the time of his Blueprint III would continue influencing pop-rap), Lil Wayne, and Kanye West. Lil Wayne’s charttopping with “Lollipop” and Kanye’s groundbreaking 808 & Heartbreaks made rappers synonymous with pop stars. Their contributions of Auto-Tuned singing over rap beats broke the ice, proving how acceptable it was for artists to interchangeably execute both styles.

Lil’ Wayne’s Young Money affiliate of Cash Money Records became the pop-rap hub. Drake ushered in the new wave of talent easily finding crossover success. Nicki Minaj would eventually be criticized for how she used the genre. As she said upon the release of 2017’s “No Frauds,” “we make hit records”—a statement that counters EPMD’s “Crossover” sentiment. If making pop records meant more cash, Minaj and Drake were unashamed of how they attributed and breathed that fortune.

Nicki’s rise in pop-rap coincided with the EDM movement that grazed pop. The Black Eyed Peas capitalized off that as well, and so did some Asian acts including Far East Movement’s “Like A G6” and PSY’s viral YouTube hit “Gangnam Style.” Pitbull, who had earlier made his name with reggaeton influenced pop-rap, became a larger household name thanks to his EDM transition. On the pop side, Ke$ha popularized the white-trash pop aesthetic (first minted by Eminem) with her country-twanged rapping. Flo-Rida also contributed to the made-for-college-ragers music scene that EDM pop-rap fronted.

In the 2010s, a pushback towards the success of white rappers created further backlash towards pop-rap. Macklemore’s win at the Grammys over Kendrick Lamar for Best Rap Album rubbed people the wrong way, as they also questioned Iggy Azaela’s ability to rap after her monumental success with “Fancy.” She had been seen as the active competitor to Nicki Minaj, who herself had released “Anaconda” which sampled Sir Mix-A-Lot’s 1992 hip-pop staple “Baby Got Back.”

Seeing how elements of rap enjoyed the most success on the all-encompassing pop charts, singers were their own rappers as well. Who leads that in terms of pop artists would be Rihanna and Beyoncé, particularly due to the growth of trap&B. Trap&B and EDM’s interception in pop meant bars from Lady Gaga (“Poker Face”), Juicy J’s resurgence in the mainstream (Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse”), Maroon 5’s continued use of trap rappers for collabs (“Payphone” with Wiz Khalifa), and Justin Bieber, with Miley Cyrus, transitioning into adulthood. All of this could be credited to Debbie Harry spitting over 1981’s “Rapture,” the first pop song with rap vocals to reach No. 1 on the Hot 100.

Today, pop-rap is still present and somewhat of a norm despite continued criticism. Trap—mainly with the wave of the youngest stars—has benefited from the characteristics of pop-rap, as those elements have helped propel No. 1 hits (Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles” or Drake’s “In My Feelings.” And by the looks of Cardi B’s history-making (including a so-far No. 3-peaking feature on Maroon 5’s “Girls Like You”), the genre of hip-pop is here to stay for a while.


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