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‘Ode to Hip-Hop’ reflects on the genre’s journey from the underground to the mainstream

Courtesy book cover image, illustration by Raul Alonzo / Texas Standard

50 years ago this month, the art of hip-hop was brand new, just beginning to take shape.

At the time, the underground art form was dominated by artists like DJ Kool Herc, a DJ who gained notoriety for his “merry-go-round” technique. In the last five decades, the art form has changed with artists like Drake and Megan Thee Stallion dominating the industry.

In a new book called “Ode to Hip-Hop: 50 Albums That Define 50 years of Trailblazing Music,” music journalist and culture critic Kiana Fitzgerald documents the history of the art form and how it went from underground pioneers to become dominated by modern superstars.

She joined Texas Standard to discuss. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

Author Kiana Fitzgerald.
Courtesy of XOA Productions
Author Kiana Fitzgerald.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Could you say a little bit more about hip-hop’s origins? 

Kiana Fitzgerald: Absolutely.

So DJ Kool Herc is kind of at the very beginning of hip-hop’s creation. Of course, things were kind of churning in the early seventies, which is when he kind of started to experiment with his techniques. And as things started to transform, we began to see things kind of deal with more of a sense of permanence.

It wasn’t just like the park jams and the parties that hip-hop started out in. It started to become something that was much more tangible, something that could be held in your hand, in a, you know, a record or anything like that.

» RELATED: Houston celebrates 50 years of hip-hop

You know, when I think of the breakout moment for hip-hop, for some reason I feel like a lot of folks sort of point to Grandmaster Flash, but I know that that’s pretty limited. What do you consider to be the sort of the moment at which during this arc of 50 years, hip-hop becomes mainstream? 

Yeah, I would say that a very big moment that you just mentioned was Grandmaster Flash and Furious Five – “The Message.” I think that’s when hip-hop started to transform from this party-oriented kind of genre into something much more serious that deals with societal issues.

Goodness, there are so many examples, but I think it really depends on what angle you’re coming from. So I would say Run-D.M.C., anything from their debut album is very representative of a breakthrough moment for hip-hop.

Well, when you think about where it dominated – New York, California, mostly L.A. … Why in those two locations? Of course, that wasn’t exclusive, obviously.

Yeah. So, as we know, hip-hop was born in the South Bronx, and that was kind of where it started to trickle outward. You know, the whole East Coast area of Philadelphia, New Jersey, I think those were some big playmaking areas in the very beginning.

And then as hip-hop started to grow and transform and evolve, that’s when West Coasters were like, “wait a minute, we have things to say, too,” from a Too Short to Ice-T to any of those folks on that side of the country who really were just ready to get their feet wet and start making some noise.

But of course, Texas is very proud of being a center of a lot of hip-hop music and hip-hop culture as well. Do you have a sense of when the Lone Star State began to make its mark on hip-hop in your mind? 

Yes. I would say Texas hip-hop really began to break through in the early nineties with the release of “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” by the Geto Boys. That song really kind of showed the world that not only did Texans have something to say, they had something that was so significant that it would have reverberations for decades to come.

When you say “Texas would have something to say” – specifically, like what?

So “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” is about struggles of mental health, human fragility, grappling with existence. Those kinds of things had been toyed with by East Coasters and West Coasters, but I think there was something so, so raw and so fresh about the way that Texas hip-hoppers like the Geto Boys were rapping and, you know, spinning in their rhymes.

It wasn’t just about, “hey, I like to rap and I’m here to have a good time.” It was like, “I’m going through something very, very serious and I’m going to tell you about it on this record.” So I think it was that element of just digging a bit deeper into the roots of, you know, the human experience and relaying that through rhymes and sixteens.

Now, when I say “Texas hip-hop,” who are the artists and the songs that come to mind?

There are two that immediately came to mind.

UGK – The Underground Kings – who are based, or were based, in Houston. Pimp C, one half of the duo, passed away a while ago. They’re from Port Arthur, but they’re based in Houston.

And then also DJ Screw, who’s from Smithville.

» RELATED: Almost 22 years after his death, DJ Screw’s contribution to Texas music stands the test of time

You know this must have been a really fun book to put together. But at the same time, so much has been said and written about hip-hop, I can imagine it would be pretty overwhelming to try to draw together 50 years of history.

How do you figure out whose stories you’re going to tell and how to do that narrative throughline? Surely there are going to be people who are going to be, “you know, my artist didn’t make it” or “she missed this.” You know what I’m talking about?

Yes. Ever since this book was presented to me as a potential opportunity, I was immediately thinking about, “okay, what are folks going to say about my choices?” Because, of course, this is subjective.

You know, it’s not I’m not the end-all be-all of hip-hop’s canon or what have you. But as I have been telling my close friends who have qualms with my choices, I’m like, “go ahead, bring it on. Let’s talk about it.” So I welcome it.

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I’m sure you’ve seen online the many threads, sort of challenging artists to put together a “Mount Rushmore of Hip-Hop.” So I’m going to put you on the spot here.  I know these are all subjective, but who would be there? 

Oh, right. So who? I should have been prepared for this, but I think I can do it.

I would say one of them absolutely has to be Missy Elliott, the Virginia MC/producer/singer. She’s just a force.

I would also say, you know, you have to have Jay-Z. Jay-Z is someone who has done a lot for the genre and is still very active and has, you know, really showed the world what hip-hop is capable of.

I know it’s a duo, but I’m going to throw UGK in there as one act just to kind of represent for Texas, of course. And last but not least, I would say I’ll go with the Notorious B.I.G.

B.I.G. Wow. So there’s going to be some Tupac fans that are going to be awfully tweaked right now.

There’s so many options. So many options. And that’s the beautiful part about it. That’s what I love the most about it.

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Leah Scarpelli joined Texas Standard in September 2015 from NPR’s Morning Edition, where she spent seven years as a producer, director and occasional reporter of music and arts pieces. As Texas Standard director, Leah is responsible for the overall practical and creative interpretation of each day’s program: choosing segue music, managing the prep of show content, and providing explicit directions for the host and technical director during the live broadcast. She graduated from Ithaca College in New York with a Bachelor of Science degree in Television and Radio. She enjoys riding her Triumph motorcycle and getting out for hikes in the Texas countryside. Her late grandfather was from Yoakum.