Hip Hop’s rise from street corners to corner offices is well chronicled. Each year, Hip Hop’s more popular heroes are recited by rote: Afrika Bambaataa, Kool Herc, Russell Simmons, Dr. Dre, Tupac Shakur, The Notorious B.I.G., JAY-Z, Sean Combs, Outkast, Ice Cube and the like.
However, the genre’s primary players are more diverse and expansive than at first blush. What exists is a slew of underappreciated MCs, pioneering executives and visionary producers who built formidable legacies on-stage and off. In honor of Black History Month, here are 15 of the most overshadowed pioneers in Hip Hop history.
MC Sha Rock
One of the earliest female MCs on wax was a member of one of the influential Funky 4 + 1. That Bronx outfit was also the first Hip Hop group to receive a recording deal in 1979. Sha Rock is an early forebear to MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, Nicki Minaj, Lil Kim, Lauryn Hill and others.
Embed from Getty ImagesIn 1984 Lolita Gooden would make a pitch that would change her life and Hip Hop. She convinced DJ Mister Magic, producer Marley Marl and one other man to record a response to U.T.F.O.’s hit single “Roxanne, Roxanne.” U.T.F.O.’s song about a woman rejecting their advances, got turned on its head when Gooden, who adopted the moniker Roxanne Shanté, recorded “Roxanne’s Revenge.” That song, too, became a hit and the diss record revolutionized. Gooden also a key member of the influential Juice Crew.
Embed from Getty ImagesTo the kids, she’s known for her voiceover work. To old heads, she was the “it” female emcee from the late 80s to the mid-90s. She could spit venom with the best of the “hard legs” and bequeath socially conscious jewels like Joy Reid. That one constant was that signature voice and crystal delivery. When the genre of Hip Hop came into adolescence, she was a verifiable, standalone star.
Photo: Bill Adler Archive, Cornell University Hip Hop Collection Hip Hop’s first super producer created the sounds that fueled two of Hip Hop’s most influential groups. From the fuzzy, rock-leaning grooves of Run-DMC to the synth-heavy, pop R&B for Whodini, Smith concocted the kind of tantalizing goodness that helped the genre achieve pop ubiquity. He was responsible for Run-DMC’s self-titled 1984 debut and 1985 follow-up King of Rock. Yet, he existed in a time when MCs and DJ’s were the stars and producers were just sidemen.
Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell
Embed from Getty ImagesHis murder which is still unsolved tragically circumscribes his remarkable legacy. In Hip Hop, JMJ is nonpareil as a turntablist, so much so that Spin placed him at #10 on its “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” for his knack at reworking riffs. But he was quite the accomplished musician in his own right, having played the drums, bass and keyboards on the group’s biggest record, 1986’s Raising Hell.
Embed from Getty ImagesThe N.W.A biopic, Straight Outta Compton, shed light on the breadth and depth of Eric Wright’s legacy. As the founder of Ruthless Records, he launched N.W.A, the most influential Hip Hop group of all-time. In the final act of his life, he also helped propel Bone Thugs-N-Harmony to superstardom. Sure, Eazy-E’s career was marred by controversy, but, as one of the primary architects behind West Coast Hip Hop, his name endures. The “Godfather of Gangsta rap” indeed.
Embed from Getty ImagesPardon the clunky phraseology, but the current president of Epic Records is a record label and artist-whisperer. The first African-American woman to head a major is an industry force – still. In the late 1980s she managed Yo-Yo, The D.O.C. and MC Lyte for Atlantic Records. As chairman and CEO of the Elektra Entertainment Group in the mid-1990s, she guided the careers of Missy Elliott, Busta Rhymes, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Fabolous. As if that wasn’t enough, as executive vice president of Universal Records, Rhone signed Lil Wayne. She’s had “nine lives” in an industry where most people are gifted with just one.
Embed from Getty ImagesThis music mogul, performer, promoter and Miami ambassador to the world forged a career about three decades strong. Best known for his role with 2 Live Crew, Campbell helped to perfect the “raunch-rap” formula that made his group the darlings of horny, teenage boys and loose girls everywhere. These days he’s fixated on Miami Hurricanes football, but here’s all the proof you need of his enduring influence: Play Campbell’s I Wanna Rock (Doo Doo Brown) and watch your aunties have flashbacks, dropping their booties to the floor like it was 1991.
Embed from Getty ImagesIf there is one rapper who has a legitimate, unarguable claim to the moniker, “King of the South,” it’s this Houston OG, one of the most admired Hip Hop artists of all time. His solo discography is top-shelf. As the core member of the Geto Boys, he helped make them one of the most successful groups of all time. Aside from perhaps Tupac, no other lyricist, before or after, has been able to make music as poignant, honest and potent. See 1991’s “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” with the Geto Boys, 1992’s “A Minute to Pray and a Second to Die,” 1997’s “Smile” with 2Pac, 2002’s “My Block” or 2015’s “Hot Seat” for further proof. Brad “Scarface” Jordan is a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Embed from Getty ImagesHis passing in 2012 was a tragic end to a stellar career. This executive once guided the careers of Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, 50 Cent, Nas, Mobb Deep, Missy Elliott and LL Cool J, among others as the co-founder of the management company Violator. He is credited with brokering the largest deal ever for a Hip Hop artist: Coca-Cola’s $4.1 billion deal for Glaceau, the company behind Vitamin Water, of which 50 Cent reportedly received $100 million.
Embed from Getty ImagesThese days, she’s known as the creator of the groundbreaking Love & Hip Hop reality franchise. Yet, for over 20 years, she guided the careers of Missy Elliott, 50 Cent, Busta Rhymes, LL Cool J, Q-Tip and Mobb Deep as the co-founder of Violator with Chris Lighty. As hyphenate as they come, Scott-Young has also helped Hip Hop become global entity, from second wave to its fourth and current one. Scott-Young remains a power broker.
Hurby “Luv Bug” Azor
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vCadcBR95oU Without this man, there may never have been a lane for female Hip Hop groups and alternative, regular guy rappers. The man helped Salt-N-Pepa and Kid ‘N Play become pop stars. Azor co-wrote “Push It” and wrote and produced “Let’s Talk About Sex” – two of the group’s biggest songs and two of Hip Hop’s very best.
Embed from Getty ImagesOver the course of her career she has displayed the natural charisma, vocal inflection and lyricism that only the most gifted MCs possess. Her raunchy, hardcore raps were just window dressing, the total package was much more substantive. Since she burst onto the scene in the mid-1990s, she evolved into a show stealer, the emcee that would murder you on your own “ish.” See Mobb Deep’s propulsive “Quiet Storm (Remix)” for proof. See also Junior M.A.F.I.A.’s “Get Money” and “Player’s Anthem.” The numbers don’t lie: Three platinum-certified studio albums, 15 million albums and 30 million singles sold worldwide.
Embed from Getty ImagesFor over 20 years, Dwight Errington Myers proved that Hip Hop could be about partying, positivity and social consciousness as much as it can be about the street corner and arrogant boasting. This fluent lyricist, performer, dancer, actor and singer became an icon in the late 1980s as the frontman for Heavy D & the Boyz and proved that big guys can also get the girls. The self-proclaimed “Overweight Lover” passed away in 2011, but his legacy is every bit as important as Will Smith, LL Cool J and Queen Latifah’s – artists who successfully transitioned from rapping to acting.
Bryan Williams is one of the most successful label owners and rappers in the business – point blank. While his reputation has taken a hit for shady business practices, he was able to parlay a small New Orleans record label into a global entity. His Cash Money imprint is worth an estimated $300 million and features three of Hip Hop’s biggest stars, a pop triumvirate if you will: Drake, Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj. You can’t relegate this sort of greatness into some goofy meme. He is a king.