The most important year in (Music) History

Music has been at the forefront of style and change in society for centuries. It is the longest running form of mass public consumption….well, next to religion. So, when something comes along that utterly disrupts the entire craft of pop culture, we tend to take notice.

Where does this lead? Well, rap music of course. With the epic biopic of NWA’s rise to fame just around the corner, I feel it is now time to talk about why their talent, skills and overall presence could quite possibly be the most vital aspect of our modern pop culture.

On June 22, 1991, Billboard announced a new album had surpassed Out of Time, by R.E.M., to become the most popular in the country. It was Niggaz4life, by N.W.A., which had debuted the previous week at number 2 and sold nearly a million copies in its first seven days. Billboard had published an album chart for 45 years, but this marked a historic week: It was the first time that a rap group claimed the top spot on the Billboard 200.

For several years, music historians have considered this, the consecration of rap on mainstream music charts, the watershed moment in modern music, marking the death of hard rock and the dawn of a period where hip-hop has merged with several genres, including country, dance, and even alt-rock, to become the modern sound of pop.

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It’s something to reach back in time and take the temperature of astonished music critics in the early 1990s. Some contemporary music experts worried that hip-hop was one genre too many, and the diversity of pop music would shatter the very idea of a mainstream. David Samuels, writing in The New Republic in 1991, described rap to the magazine’s readers as if it were a particularly complicated new entry in an officious encyclopedia:

“Hip-hop,” the music behind the lyrics, which are “rapped,” is a form of sonic bricolage with roots in “toasting,” a style of making music by speaking over records. (For simplicity, I’ll use the term “rap” interchangeably with “hip-hop” throughout this article.)

Why did rap’s emergence seem so sudden on the charts? And why did this all happen in 1991?

After all, “Rapper’s Delight,” by Sugar Hill Gang, the first radio hit that contemporaries considered hip-hop, was released 12 years prior, in 1979. Rick Rubin founded Def Jam Records in 1982. Run-D.M.C. released King of Rock and performed in Live Aid in 1985, and the Beastie Boys came out with Licensed to Illin late 1986. The first music show dedicated to rap, the perfectly-named “Yo! MTV Raps,” debuted in 1989, and some historians look back on the program as the baptism of hip-hop as a mainstream genre. “Hip-hop did not just appear out of the blue [in 1991],” said Matthias Mauch, a co-author of the paper. “We see a rising trend towards less chord-orientated sound a few years earlier.”

But for chart-watchers and Top 40 radio listeners, rap clung to the fringes until the early 1990s. It might have gotten its critical boost from an unlikely ally: Billboard’s statistical method. (I promise this is an interesting story about methodology, perhaps the only one I know.)