10 hip-hop artists who changed the game

Hip-hop is arguably one of the most important genres in the music industry. Most people hear it every day on the radio, in an advertisement or in a store.

Hip-hop can take many forms including DJing, freestyle, gangsta rap, trap, east coast / west coast, contemporary rap, and more recently SoundCloud rap.

November is Hip-Hop History Month. To celebrate, we take a look at ten hip-hop artists who changed the music industry with their careers.

Whether it’s introducing a new style or honing their technique to revolutionize the genre into something no one can ignore. These artists have forever marked hip-hop.

First on our list is Grandmaster Flash, who helped pioneer hip-hop DJs by studying past DJs like Pete Jones, Kool Herc, and Grandmaster Flowers to develop their own techniques.

Grandmaster Flash has developed the technique of backspin and punch phrasing while perfecting the scratch, invented by Grand Wizzard Theodore.

His group, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, formed in the South Bronx in 1978. The group included Miss Mel, The Kidd Creole, Keef Cowboy, Scorpio and Rahiem.

The hip-hop group began performing at local parties before eventually graduating to venues and beyond. The group signed to Sugar Hill Records two years after its formation.

Two years later, the group comes out The message, who achieved mainstream acclaim for his political and social commentary.

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five are one of the most important hip-hop groups of all time. In 2007, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted them as the first hip-hop group to win the distinction.

Run DMC at 363 Oxford Street in 1986. Photo courtesy of hmv getcloser via Flickr.

The success of Grandmaster Flash has helped the next generation of hip-hop artists such as Public Enemy, LL Cool J, and Beastie Boys.

One of the best artists to come out of this group in the 1980s was Run-DMC with Joseph “Run” Simmons, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels and Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell.

The group, also from New York, would help bring the culture into “new school hip-hop”, with the artists mentioned above.

Run-DMC became the first hip-hop group to do a lot of things for the industry, including being the first to highlight the MC and DJ relationship and the first to achieve a certified Gold and Platinum record. Their 1986 raise hell became the first multi-platinum hip hop record.

MTV and VH1 named Run-DMC as the greatest hip-hop artists of all time. In 2009, the group would become the second hip-hop inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

In 2016, the group received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, followed by the Library of Congress which inducted them into the National Recording Registry for its “cultural, historical or artistic significance”.

NWA was one of the most influential but controversial hip-hop groups in the history of music.

The group, made up of Arabian Prince, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, DJ Yella and MC Ren, would play a pivotal role in gangsta rap.

Active in the late ’80s and early’ 90s, their music was often comprised of controversial topics such as misogyny, anti-Semitism, and the glorification of drugs and crime, forcing several radio stations to turn them down.

Despite the hindsight, the group spoke of their own experiences of racism and excessive police, leading them to become a target for authorities.

Eventually their legacy will shine through negativity and they will become one of America’s best-known hip-hop groups, with over 10 million records sold.

In addition to the group’s success, several artists had their own highly successful careers, including Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Eazy-E, before his death in 1995.

After three previous nominations, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame would finally induct NWA in 2016.

In the late ’80s and early’ 90s, hip-hop began to shift from a group setting to individual rappers talking about their lives.

One of the best lyricists to ever do this was Tupac Shakur, otherwise known as 2pac. Born in New York, the rapper would eventually move to the West Coast and become a central figure in West Coast hip-hop.

Tupac became a symbol of activism with his music by addressing the social issues plaguing downtown areas. He was one of the first to introduce social issues to the genre when gangsta rap was dominant in the mainstream.

The rapper released three studio albums before signing with Death Row Records with Marion “Suge” Knight in exchange for his bail being paid by Knight.

This relationship would lead to the release of All eyes on me and help push Tupac into the midst of a West Coast-East Coast rivalry.

Tupac died in 1996 after a stint in Las Vegas at the age of 26. After his death, the Hip-Hop Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted him.

He is one of the best-selling musical artists, having sold over 75 million records worldwide.

Biggie Smalls.  Photo courtesy of cyphermagazine via Flickr.
Biggie Smalls. Photo courtesy of cyphermagazine via Flickr.

On the other side of that East Coast / West Coast rivalry was the Notorious BIG, otherwise known as Biggie Smalls.

Christopher Wallace was born in New York and has followed the local rap scene closely, including gangsta rap.

He made a name for himself using relaxed lyric delivery with often dark content. In 1993, he signed with Sean “Puffy” Combs for his brand new label, Death Row Records.

His first album, Ready to die, received widespread praise and included “Juicy” and “Big Poppa”. The immediate success allowed him to become a central figure in the rivalry.

Six months after Tupac’s death, Biggie was killed in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles. He was only 24 years old.

The rapper was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2020 and is considered “the most skillful of all time at the microphone.”

In the 1990s, hip-hop was dominated by male rappers. Rappers like MC Sha-Rock and Lil ‘Kim have helped introduce women to the hip-hop industry, but Missy Elliott has proven they have their place on the scene.

During this time, women were often featured in R&B groups such as The Pointer Sisters, Destiny’s Child, and TLC. Elliott started her career with R&B girl group Sista before joining the Swing Mob.

She started her own path in 1997 with her debut album, Supa Dupa Fly, which landed third on the Billboard 200, the tallest debut album for a female rapper at the time.

She has won four Grammy’s and sold over 30 million records in the United States. This feat made her the best-selling rapper in Nielsen Music history.

Elliott paved the way for countless female artists such as Cardi B, Nicki Minaj and many more.

Eminem.  Photo courtesy of Sebastian Vital via Flickr.
Eminem. Photo courtesy of Sebastian Vital via Flickr.

Whether or not you’re a fan of new school or old school hip-hop, Eminem is a rapper on most people’s radar.

Eminem helped popularize hip-hop in Central America with his freestyle lyricism and not-so-common skin tone.

The Detroit rapper has released several albums as a solo artist and with D12 and Bad Meets Evil.

In 2002, Eminem was featured in a musical drama called 8 miles, with his song “Lose Yourself”. The song would lead Eminem to become the first hip-hop artist to win the Oscar for Best Original Song.

After 11 studio albums, he has sold over 220 million records, making him one of the best-selling artists.

His worldwide success helped break down racial barriers for the acceptance of white rappers into popular music.

Jay-Z at the Hove Festival in 2008. Photo courtesy of NRK P3 via Flickr.
Jay-Z at the Hove Festival in 2008. Photo courtesy of NRK P3 via Flickr.

Another artist still present today, despite the start of his career, is Jay-Z, otherwise known as Shawn Carter.

Jay-Z’s impact on the music industry goes beyond his music, although that is enough on its own.

His impact came from what he could do beyond music, becoming a record director, businessman and media owner.

Prior to all of this, the Brooklyn rapper began his career in the late 1980s, before co-founding Roc-A-Fella Records in 1995 and eventually CEO of Def Jam Recordings.

Music alone, he captured the essence of East Coast rap with over 13 solo studio albums, leading him to become one of the world’s best-selling artists with over 125 million records sold.

Jay-Z has won 23 Grammy’s, the most by a rapper. He also holds the record for most solo artist albums on the Billboard 200.

Aside from music, he has helped cultivate some of the music industry’s most prominent artists, including Kanye West, Rihanna, and J. Cole.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Jay-Z as the first living solo rapper, while the Songwriters Hall of Fame inducted him as the first rapper to win the accolade.

As East and West fought over who has the best rap game, Atlanta had its own scene ahead.

One of the best representatives of this region was Outkast, made up of Andre “3000” Benjamin and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton.

The duo started in the late 1980s, but quickly achieved rave reviews and commercial success from the mid-1990s.

The group popularized southern hip-hop with mixtures of psychedelia, jazz and techno.

In addition to the different sounds used, many consider Andre “3000” to be one of the greatest rappers of all time.

Outkast’s complex lyricism is paired with memorable tunes and positive messages, making their music memorable for fans.

Their success makes them one of the most successful hip-hop groups of all time, receiving six Grammy Awards.

After six studio albums and one hit album, Outkast has sold over 25 million records.

Kendrick Lamar.  Photo courtesy of Dan Garcia via Flickr.
Kendrick Lamar. Photo courtesy of Dan Garcia via Flickr.

Last on our list is the most recent West Coast rapper to achieve global success.

In the 2000s and 2010s, hip-hop artists everywhere flooded the world with commercial rap.

During this time, the world was also in transition to a digital world where music was much more accessible.

Lamar released his first album, Good kid, MAAD City, in 2012, would become triple platinum certified.

Although the Compton-based rapper has only released four studio albums, he’s considered the face of West Coast hip-hop.

So much so that Snoop Dogg, the king of West Coast Hip-Hop, physically passed the torch to the young rapper during one of his concerts.

Kendrick Lamar has received numerous accolades throughout his career, making him one of the most influential artists of his generation.

The 34-year-old has won 13 Grammy Awards, two American Music Awards, six Billboard Music Awards, one Brit Award, 11 MTV Video Music Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for “Humble,” the first time a non-jazz and non- the classic album won the award.

Time named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world, while the California State Senate awarded him the Generational Icon Award.