Hip Hop's Social Consciousness & Alternative Hip Hop: Hip Hop At 50

As hip hop reached a worldwide audience, artists focused on political and social issues, with the goal of raising awareness and sparking societal change through their music.

Hip hop continued to expand its sonic palette. Alternative hip hop was eclectic and experimental – overlaying introspective, humorous, and often satirical lyrics on top of a soundtrack infused with rock, jazz, funk, and soul. Artists like De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and Digable Planets innovated by using live instrumentation, intricate musical arrangements, and a wide range of pop culture samples, from Richard Pryor’s standup to Civil Rights speeches, to the music of Schoolhouse Rock

De La Soul Artist Biography (c. 1989)Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

De La Soul artist biography

De La Soul’s debut album, 3 Feet High and Rising, was a commercial and critical success, hailed as an alternative hip hop masterpiece. It parodied materialism in hip hop culture, made use of self-deprecating humor, and included samples from children's music to doo wop to country.

"Eye Know" video (1989) by De La SoulRock & Roll Hall of Fame

"Eye Know" video

De La Soul official music video for "Eye Know" from their debut album 3 Feet High and Rising.

Prince Paul Notebook (1988)Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Prince Paul notebook cover

Executive producer Prince Paul (Huston) wrote production notes in this notebook during the recording of De La Soul’s debut album, 3 Feet High and Rising. “The De La guys and I all went to school together,” Prince Paul recalled. 

Prince Paul Notebook (1988)Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Prince Paul notebook, interior page

Prince Paul heard De La Soul's demo and took it, overdubbed it, added other samples, and rearranged it. "I played it for them, and they were like, ‘Oh, that’s crazy.’ It’s such an odd record... For the touchy radio world back then to play that record is when I knew I won.”

As hip hop reached a worldwide audience, artists used their voice to focus on political and social issues, with the goal of raising awareness and sparking societal change. Artists like Public Enemy, KRS-One, Queen Latifah, and Mos Def crafted socially conscious lyrics that confronted racism, poverty, police brutality, and inequality, and forced a dialogue about these topics into the mainstream. It was direct, blunt, and spoke the truth about American life while educating hip hop’s newest fans.

Yo-Yo Jacket (1991) by Design by Kim BakerRock & Roll Hall of Fame

Yo-Yo jacket

Yo-Yo made her debut on Ice Cube’s 1990 track “It’s a Man’s World,” going toe to toe in a lyrical battle of the sexes and taking female rap empowerment to a new level. Yo-Yo founded the Intelligent Black Women’s Coalition, a group committed to the education of young Black women.

"Tennessee" (1992) by Written by Speech and Recorded by Arrested DevelopmentRock & Roll Hall of Fame

Arrested Development, "Tennessee"

In 1993, Arrested Development was the first hip hop artist to win the Best New Artist GRAMMY and their soulful, spiritual single “Tennessee” won for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group. Their uplifting, Afrocentric music  was a hit that helped to popularize Southern hip hop.   

A Tribe Called Quest (1991) by Photographer Joe GrantRock & Roll Hall of Fame

A Tribe Called Quest

A Tribe Called Quest were the most commercially successful group to come out of the Native Tongues collective: a group of hip hop artists known for positive, uplifting, Afrocentric lyrics, as well as unique samples, resulting in jazz rap and alternative hip hop. 

Busta Rhymes Coat (1996)Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Busta Rhymes jacket

Rapper/actor Busta Rhymes got his start with Leaders of the New School, a Long Island crew who were part of the Native Tongues collective. The Leaders toured with Public Enemy, and Rhymes found breakout success after being featured on A Tribe Called Quest’s 1992 hit “Scenario.”

Lauryn Hill Tour Jacket (1999)Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Lauryn Hill tour jacket

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill earned 10 GRAMMY nominations and won five awards – Best New Artist, Best R&B Song, Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, Best R&B Album, and Album of the Year. Hill became the first female artist to earn that many nominations and awards in one night.

Lauryn Hill Top (c. 1999) by Design by Barbara BuiRock & Roll Hall of Fame

Lauryn Hill outfit

"I think [The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill] as a whole communicates my personality, it is the culmination of my experiences, the sum total of what I had gone through... It might have been a little scary at first. Because whether I sink or swim, it was all on me," Hill recalled.

"Doo Wop (That Thing)" video (1998) by Lauryn HillRock & Roll Hall of Fame

"Doo Wop (That Thing)" video

Official music video for Lauryn Hill's debut solo album "Doo Wop (That Thing)" from The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. It debuted at Number One on the Billboard 200 chart and remained the only solo song by a female rapper to debut at Number One for nearly a quarter century after.

Public Enemy (1987) by Photographer Lloyd NelsonRock & Roll Hall of Fame

Public Enemy

Public Enemy’s social justice mission to “Fight the Power” and “Bring the Noise” transformed the way America and the world listened to hip hop. Their music is unabashedly pro-Black, encapsulating the social tensions, anger, and racial divisions felt by Black America.

Chuck D of Public Enemy on rock and hip hop (2012) by Rock & Roll Hall of FameRock & Roll Hall of Fame

Chuck D of Public Enemy on rock and hip hop

Chuck D of Public Enemy reflects on the connections between rock and hip hop.

Terminator X of Public Enemy Technics Turntable (1981) by TechnicsRock & Roll Hall of Fame

Terminator X of Public Enemy turntable

A masterful technician on the turntables, Public Enemy DJ Terminator X (born Norman Rogers) created a sound that set the group apart from their peers. Queen, Black Flag, Ohio Players, and James Brown were among the artists sampled by Terminator X.

“Fight the Power” Released on the Album Fear of a Black Planet (1990)Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

"Fight the Power"

Public Enemy’s political anthem and powerful call to action “Fight the Power” was based on the 1975 Isley Brothers song of the same name. PE revisited the song in 2020 to address the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Nina Pope, and countless others.

Chuck D of Public Enemy on creating "Fight the Power" (September 15, 2020)Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Chuck D of Public Enemy on creating "Fight the Power"

2013 Inductee Chuck D of Public Enemy is joined by current artist and bandmate Jahi to discuss the creation of "Fight the Power," released in 1989.

"Fight the Power" (2013) by Rock & Roll Hall of FameRock & Roll Hall of Fame

Public Enemy performing "Fight the Power"

Public Enemy performs "Fight the Power" at the 2013 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony.

Chuck D of Public Enemy Jacket by Design by Chalk LineRock & Roll Hall of Fame

Chuck D of Public Enemy jacket

“No one has been able to approach the political power that Public Enemy brought to hip-hop,” stated Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys. PE's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet stand among the greatest politically-charged albums of all time.

The next evolution in hip hop, hardcore rap, took the social consciousness of alternative hip hop and turned it into political activism.

Rock Hall EDU is the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame's online portal and resource guide for teachers and parents offering free lesson plans, artifact images, and materials, videos,  playlists, and writing prompts all designed by Rock Hall Education staff.

Rock Hall EDU celebrates the sound and experience of youth culture across generations with Hip Hop's 50th Anniversary Collection. Use this collection to explore some of the top hip hop names over the style's first 50 years, and then go beyond Inductees and seek the newer sounds of artists like Kendrick Lamar and Lizzo. Kick back and keep things old-school, and investigate how scratching, playing a song's break, dynamic lyrics, and keen business sense contributed to hip hop's unique sound.

Credits: Story

The Hip Hop At 50: Holla If Ya Hear Me exhibit opened at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on June 30, 2023.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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