About 10 years ago, we sort of stopped talking about how hip-hop was a surprisingly big economic force in America.
The fact that rap and hip-hop are an economic juggernaut is just a given now — it’s the second-most popular music type in America, behind rock (and technically behind “other,” according to Nielsen), and a multibillion dollar industry showing no signs of slowing down.
And that’s the “why” of why someone, in this case, Shea Serrano, would write a book tracking the most influential rap song of every year since 1979, when the genre hit commercial gold with the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.”
The more surprising news is that even if you only recognize a few names on the list, the book works for just about everyone with an interest in music, comics, hilarious writing, and a carefully researched musical archaeology dig that uncovers the origins of trends that are still happening today. Take Kurtis Blow’s 1980 song, “The Breaks,” which Serrano said introduced the idea of a chorus into rap songs.
There are songs that affected society, like “Straight Outta Compton” by N.W.A. and “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy. And there are songs like “Same Love,” by Ryan Macklemore, which brought acceptance of gay love to the rap mainstream.
Serrano said the book includes probably his “favorite rap song of all time,” 2007’s “International Players Anthem” by UGK and Outkast. “It’s just perfect.”
On the other hand, the book’s foreword notes that the most important and influential song in a given year isn’t always the best song, musically. So Serrano said it was a bit of a chore to listen to 2005’s “Gold Digger” by Kanye West over and over.
“I don’t like that song at all,” he said.
As for the economic dominance of rap, Serrano said the music of 1993 and 1994 shifted from hard, angry gangster rap to Dr. Dre’s G-funk sound, which took the roots of gangster rap and made it more fun and accessible. And that, he said, “is when it started to become this economic powerhouse.”
As to the burning rap question of the day — whether Erykah Badu was right to say that Iggy Azalea’s music is definitely not rap — Serrano weighs in with a definitive response, but you’ll have to listen to find out what he said.
There’s a lot happening in the world. Through it all, Marketplace is here for you.
You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible.
Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.