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5 songs, 5 decades: A hip-hop at 50 playlist

Missy Elliott performs at the 2015 Pemberton Music Festival. (Jeff Lombardo/Invision/AP)
Missy Elliott performs at the 2015 Pemberton Music Festival. (Jeff Lombardo/Invision/AP)

This is a collaborative playlist. Email us at letters@hereandnow.org and tell us what songs we missed and why.

Hip-hop has permeated nearly every facet of popular culture since its inception 50 years ago. As we celebrate five decades of the iconic genre, we’re looking back at some of the tracks that defined each decade leading up to now.

In hindsight, it seems like a no-brainer that hip-hop had staying power in the music world — it’s been popular for as long as many people can remember. But when it first started in the 1970s, most people thought it was just a fad.

“It was looked at as a genre without legs to make it this far,” says journalist Ivie Ani. “It wasn’t looked at as something that we’d be celebrating 50 years later.”

Public opinion of hip-hop changed when it started to bleed into popular music. Ani notes the first instance of mainstream success in popular music was Run-DMC’s 1986 collaboration with Aerosmith, “Walk This Way.” While Aerosmith catapulted Run-DMC to the rock and pop scene, Run-DMC introduced Aerosmith to a younger generation of listeners.

“This song significantly changed pop music. Not just hip hop,” Ani says. “I think that people began to look at hip hop on the same heavyweight music stage as rock and roll music when this song came out.”

As hip-hop continued to evolve, it enveloped more than just the music sphere. Fashion became integral to the genre. Music bled into the sports world, with songs by artists like Missy Elliot blasting through stadiums before games. The 2010s saw artists like Kanye West and Nicki Minaj rise to prominence, pushing hip-hop to new heights but also harkening back to genre staples like homages to New York and posse cuts like 2010 hit “Monster.”

“Rappers have so much influence on our lexicon, our fashion, and other genres,” Ani says. “Rappers are the biggest stars in the world still.”

5 songs from 5 decades playlist

  • 1970s — “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang


Watch on YouTube.

  • 1980s — “Walk This Way” by Run-DMC and Aerosmith


Watch on YouTube.

  • 1990s — “Juicy” by The Notorious B.I.G.


Watch on YouTube.

  • 2000s — “Work It” by Missy Elliot


Watch on YouTube.

  • 2010s — “Monster” by Kanye West, Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj and Bon Iver.


Gabrielle Healy produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Catherine Welch. Grace Griffin adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.