A Definitive Guide to Understand Hip Hop (For Those of Us Who Wish We Could)

Let me start by saying I do not consider myself in any way to be a 'hip hop head' or any sort of aficionado. I started my hip hop journey at the tender age of 16, but I did not grow up under the influence of Biggie, Tupac, Jay Z or any of the 'Greats' (the closest I came to the 'greats' was having around 6 Eminem albums on my laptop when I was young, strictly due to having an older brother).


Bearing this in mind, I present to you a definitive guide of how to trick your friends and amaze your acquaintances with a seemingly vast knowledge of this most intimidating of genres. Hip hop can be scary, but try to not be afraid - on the surface there is so much to know, but as soon as you crack through it's relatively easy to pretend you know what you're talking about. Hip hop is an all-encompassing culture based on more than a beat and a voice; it is an ebbing and flowing constant that has roots all over the world and a history to match, with substance far beyond the face value of its words. I know, it's a scary thought, but you do not need to be the next Nardwuar (more about him later) in order to appreciate the genre itself. However, you do need to at least know more than 3 songs by The Weeknd and that Drake song you always hear when you're drunk.



Start with the people you already know. Not only will that make it much, much easier for you, but it will also let you acknowledge the current state of the genre, and allow you to create links between it and modern culture. Culture goes around in circles, and genres are no exception.



There are the obvious rappers and hip hop artists that you have most likely heard of (as someone who has access to the internet); artists like Drake, Kanye West, Jay Z and Nicki Minaj are great places to start your learning process. Chances are you already know most of what there is to know about them (#Kanye2020), purely because you cannot log onto any social media without running into some clickbait article featuring what they wore/said/ate/did. That side of hip hop is purely commercial, and therefore relatively unhelpful. Before you can understand the workings behind Kanye's NYFW faux pas, you must understand how Kanye evolved from College Dropout to one of the most famous people in the world. Big task? Tell me about it.


The issue with approaching these artists is that it can be so hard to figure out just where you should start. I recommend going onto the world-wide web (the internet is such a wonderful tool) and Googling each artist's most definitive work - the album that defines that particular artist will surely give you everything you need to understand what they mean to the genre, and to your budding fascination. Plus if you can learn a rap or two of theirs it's super great to bust out at social gatherings.




Kanye West - "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy"

Jay Z - "The Blueprint"

Jay Z/Kanye West - "Watch The Throne"

Drake - "Take Care"

Nicki Minaj - "The Pinkprint"

Eminem - "The Marshall Mathers EP"

Kendrick Llamar - "Good Kid M.A.A.D City"

A$AP Rocky - "Live.Love.A$AP"

Tyler, The Creator  - "Goblin"

Childish Gambino - “Because of The Internet”

Chance The Rapper – “Acid Rap”



If you don't know these artists, learn them fast. If learning about current rappers gives you a focus point, learning the Classics will give you the method behind the madness.


These albums will teach you the foundations that modern day hip hop relies on.  It may be surprising, but hip hop is repetitive - there's only so much you can do within the confines of the genre itself. Ergo, the Classics can be considered the front-runners of the genre – the artists who created the template through which all music within this genre is born. Production techniques and composition processes of early hip hop have shaped basically every mainstream music genre we know and love - and yes, that includes those early 2000s R’n’B jams you pretend you don’t want to dance to.


These albums must be treated as relics, and studied accordingly; just as a scholar will study defining works within their field, so too must we study these historic albums in order to become masters of hip hop.




Dr Dre - "Chronic"

NWA - "Straight Outta Compton"

Nas - "Illmatic”

Big L – “Lifestylez ov da Poor and Dangerous”

Missy Elliot – “Supa Dupa Fly”

Aaliyah – “Aaliyah”

Tupac – “All Eyez on Me"

The Notorious B.I.G. – “Ready To Die”

LL Cool J – “Mama Said Knock You Out”

Beastie Boys – “Paul’s Boutique”

Salt-N-Pepa– “Very Necessary”

Outkast – “Stankonia”

Snoop Dogg – “Doggystyle”

Lil Kim – “Hardcore”

A Tribe Called Quest – “Questlove”

Run DMC – “Raising Hell”




Now the hard part begins. It’s all well and good to know the tracks, but you’re nothing if you don’t know the artists behind them. Getting to know an artist is like unwrapping a present – you can generally make guesses as to what it is (or what they’re talking about), you could most likely be spot on, but you will never know for sure until you open it up and learn what’s really inside the songs they sing. Also, it’s generally pretty fun and something you could do on your birthday.



Remember, blogs are your friends. The best way to get informed is to listen to the people who are informed. There are the obvious websites like Pigeons and Planes, Pitchfork and potentially Complex (if you can be bothered to sift through all of the Kardashian-Jenner posts), but I recommend you dig a little deeper. Youtube, while not necessarily considered a reliable source of information, is generally a good place to go when it comes to learn about artists and their albums. The Needle Drop, and Nardwuar the Human Serviette are two relatively accessible vloggers to start with. The Needle Drop reviews albums in great depth and detail, while Nardwuar is a living legend due to his tell-all interviews with famous artists (which are some of the most well-researched interviews out there).



Youtube – NardwuarServiette, “Nardwuar vs. Kendrick Lamar”

Youtube – TheNeedleDrop, “Kanye West – Yeezus ALBUM REVIEW”



These three steps are all that you need. Really, that’s it. Remember that I am only helping you to build the foundations for your hip hop journey; how you continue to build is up to you. Use this information wisely, be safe, and vote for Kanye.


1 comment

  1. Lorrie 1 February, 2019 at 08:38 Reply

    I’m now not certain the place you’re getting your info,
    however good topic. I needs to spend some time finding out much more or working out more.
    Thanks for fantastic information I was searching for this
    info for my mission.

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