The Power and Business of Hip-Hop: A Reading List on an American Art Form

Stories of hip-hop’s genius, influence, struggle, and endurance.

Ever since Black and Latino Americans created hip-hop at south Bronx block parties during the 1970s, this highly original, uniquely American music has continued to evolve, while simultaneously taking root in countless countries throughout the world.

As cultural critic Harry Allen once said: “hip hop is the new jazz.” But like jazz, hip-hop is more than music. It’s a culture. “’Hip-hop,’ once a noun,“ Kelefa Sanneh wrote in The New Yorker, “has become an adjective, constantly invoked, if rarely defined; people talk about hip-hop fashion and hip-hop novels, hip-hop movies and hip-hop basketball. Like rock and roll in the nineteen-sixties, hip-hop is both a movement and a marketing ploy, and the word is used to describe almost anything that’s supposed to appeal to young people.“ Beyond marketing and corporatization, hip-hop culture has always included dance, rap, fashion, design, stretching language, reclaiming public spaces, and its creative, genre-spanning approach has allowed artists to represent their lives in a world that often ignores or misrepresents them. In the San Francisco Gate in 2003, Adam Mansbach, author of Go the F**k To Sleep described hip-hop culture as “assembled from spare parts, ingeniously and in public. Paint cans refitted with oven-cleaner nozzles transformed subway trains into mobile art galleries. Playgrounds and parks became nightclubs; turntables and records became instruments. Scraps of linoleum and cardboard became dance floors. Verbal and manual dexterity turned kids into stars, and today’s artists grew up listening to the first strains of the musical form.” As Jeff Chang, author of Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, put it, hip-hop culture is “naturally interdisciplinary” and composed of “mix signifiers, we break everything down to bits and bytes and rebuild something new.” I love the description.

Since its early days, hip-hop has generated a huge body of literature around it, from histories to profiles to incisive cultural criticism. Its stories include big personalities, triumphs, tragedies, feuds, scandals, inventions, reinvention, and surprises. Its stories are about Black genius, white appropriation, and interracial collaboration, and about people taking their chance to get what they deserve, in a capitalist nation racked by violent race and class tensions. America has never loved Black people as much as it loves Black culture, as the proliferation of hip-hop and systemic racism attests. No amount of examination or scholarship has institutionalized the culture enough to kill or signify its decline. Hip-hop remains alive and well. Here is a sample of stories from the past two decades. It’s incomplete. There are no stories about Foxy Brown, Gang Starr, Pete Rock, Rakim, Queen Latifah, Fugees, Puffy, Biggie, Tupac, MC Lyte, Lil’ Kim, Ludacris, Public Enemy, The Pharcyde, Da Brat, or Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, Mobb Deep, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Jurassic 5, or Biz Markie, but this short list covers a wide range of voices and styles. (Lauryn Hill will get her own list.)

Hip-hop thrived during the late 80s and 90s, which is the same time print music magazines were thriving and they covered it. Many of that era’s stories remain locked away in print or books, yet to appear online. Some that come to mind are Kris Ex’s 2006 XXL story “The History of Cocaine Rap” and Arye Dworken’s 2006 Flaunt Magazine story “Straight Out of Israel” Flaunt Magazine. You can read them in Da Capo’s Best Music Writing anthologies. URB magazine is working to digitize its archive. I hope XXL and The Source will, too. For further reading, you should buy Raquel Cepeda’s And It Don’t Stop: The Best American Hip-Hop Journalism of the Last 25 Years.

Cash still rules everything around us, as it did when Wu-Tang Clan rapped that in 1993. What The Sugarhill Gang sang in their huge 1979 single “Rapper’s Delight” is also true of the music and its literature today: “Hip hop you don’t stop.” The Sugarhill Gang’s line has been sampled and rephrased in so many different ways. It’s a good place to start any hip-hop reading list.

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Hip-Hop Happens” (Steven Daly, Vanity Fair, November 1, 2005)

Recorded in a single take and released in 1979, The Sugarhill Gang’s 15-minute song “Rapper’s Delight” was hip-hop’s first commercially popular single, and it helped bring this largely regional music to the wider world. Part of hip-hop’s secret history is the role R&B singer and producer Sylvia Robinson played in making that happen. Robinson was half of the duo you hear singing “Oh lover boy“ in Dirty Dancing. “It could be said that ‘Rapper’s Delight’ owed its success to all the wrong people,“ Daly writes, “using all the wrong methods.”

As befits any history-making pop breakthrough, from Elvis Presley’s inaugural sessions at Sun Records to the Ramones’ first LP, the recording of “Rapper’s Delight” was over in an evanescent blur. Better yet, there was a moment of panic in the control room as it all went down. “While Hank is rapping and I’m at the board, the phone rings,” says Sylvia Robinson. “It’s his boss from the pizza parlor, and he says, ‘If he isn’t here in 15 minutes he’s fired.’ You think I was gonna stop?” (Joe Robinson’s subsequent intercession helped Hank retain his dough-boy gig.)

Producing the session, Sylvia didn’t miss a beat as she pointed in turn to each of her three rappers, spontaneously cuing their verbal trade-offs. Somehow the three strangers, who hadn’t rehearsed together, jelled. According to Joey Robinson Jr., there was magic in the air. “When Wonder Mike said the line ‘America, we love you,’ we knew then and there that it was a special record—a miracle record.”

Gettin’ Paid” (Kelefa Sanneh, The New Yorker, August 20, 2001)

The term ”selling idea” used to refer to a lack of artistic ability and integrity — trading creativity for wealth. In hip-hop, not everyone fears corporatization. Many embrace it. The relationship between success and wealth is intimately linked. Style is everything, from musical style to lifestyle. Jay-Z epitomized hip-hop’s merger of corporate CEO with lyrical artist.

Hippies and punk rockers used to talk about artists ”selling out,” chasing money at the expense of art. As the years passed, rockers got not only older but richer, and their newfound wealth was, inevitably, a bit of an embarrassment, or, at any rate, an absurdity: a rich society guy in late middle age singing about a ”Street Fighting Man.” Rappers, on the other hand, don’t sell out; they ”fall off”—that is, they lose their arstistic credibility and their financial viability at the same time. Punks (and their descendents in the world of underground rock) were afraid that big audiences and big money would ruin their subculture of authenticity, but in hip-hop success is a form of validation–a rapper’s riches are proof that he’s good at what he does. Platinum jewelry and platinum plaques are metaphors for artistic achievement, not just commercial success. It’s hard to imagine a major rapper refusing to make a video at the height of his career, the way Pearl Jam did. In hip-hop, stories are either convincing or they’re not; when a rapper loses his power to convince, it’s usually a failure not of authenticity but of rhetoric. Jay-Z will be a great rapper until people stop believing him.

Missy Elliott. Scott Gries/Getty Images

Missy Elliott’s ‘Supa Dupa Fly’ Came From the Future” (Doreen St. Félix, The New Yorker, November 20, 2018)

Elliott’s 1997 hit album reimagined hip-hop, videos, fashion, and black female identity, and its futuristic vision continues to influence listeners.

The feminist sexual positivity of the nineties varied wildly. Some artists decided to get as explicit as possible, as a way of preëmpting the male gaze. Growing up, I had some elementary notion that the hypersexual fantasy of an artist like Foxy Brown was radical, but I was also hugely intimidated by it. It was Elliott’s theatrical approach that appealed to me. As a girl, cycling through her archive, I became obsessed with her obliqueness.

Elliott fashioned a vision of black female sexuality that decentered the body. She was often cloaked in costumes, in slabs of makeup, frolicking in fantasy worlds. She embodied the “ghetto fabulous,” the impossible reconciliation of opposed fashions. Sometimes she wasn’t even human. Elliott seemed plugged into the cyberfeminist premonition that the Internet would usher in a post-gender age. On “Supa Dupa Fly,” Crisco oil is erotic, and unrequited love can be the sound of rain against the window. Elliott’s approach to sex and female pleasure was empowering because of its thickness—because it was coded, available only to those willing to do the work of unscrambling.

Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version” (Sheldon Pearce, Pitchfork, March 29, 2020)

Hip-hop is populated by big personalities and original stylists, but hip-hop has never seen an artist like Ol’ Dirty Bastard. He had no precendent. His originality was also linked to his unpredictability, and that meant people had to help him focus enough to record the debut that became his masterpiece. He also paid a price for it. “Don’t go against the grain,” said his cousin, the rapper RZA, “if you can’t handle it.”

(Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Years before linking with Pras and Mya, Dirty became the ghetto superstar. On The Dirty Version, he subscribed to the age-old Rakim proverb that MC meant “move the crowd”; star-power meant garnering fans, and garnering fans meant rallying people. He wanted to luxuriate in the rap-star lifestyle, to conjure the euphoria of karaoke. His verses were as irresistible as they were startling. It isn’t a coincidence “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” has been sampled and interpolated 92 times, and as recently as this year. It is fun to mimic. Method Man joked that the album’s repeated verses were the result of ODB’s absentmindedness during a long recording process, but, intentionally or not, that repetition turned his verses into hooks. “Brooklyn Zoo II (Tiger Crane)” has verse fragments from three other songs on the album, like a reprise in a musical. His raps wormed their way into the brain in unusual ways, the product of his unusual methods.

Those methods required several measures to wring an entire album out of Dirty. RZA was the hands-off architect. Buddha Monk was the handler, body man, and engineer, tasked with getting ODB prepped and into the studio, and making sure his vocals sounded right. Mastering engineer Tom Coyne was dubbed “the referee” in the liner notes for breaking up fights. Elektra A&R Dante Ross had the demanding task of shepherding the album to completion amid chaos. “I knew I had to get it to the finish line because there are times in life when you know you only have that moment in time, and you gotta get there,” Ross said of the Dirty Version sessions. “I had to get there, ’cause I strongly suspected that would not happen again.”

The Curious Case of Nicki Minaj” (Caryn Ganz, Out, September 12, 2010)

The only way to introduce Ganz’s piece is to get out of Ganz’s way:

Nicki Minaj is a 25-year-old rapper from Queens, New York, with a wickedly clever flow and never-ending supply of pop culture punch lines. Except when she’s Roman Zolanski, her gay male alter ego, who spits saucy verses at warp speed. Or the character Nicki Lewinsky, who cozies up to President Carter – better known as superstar rapper Lil Wayne – on a handful of salacious mix tape tracks. She raps about signing her fans’ boobs in a bugged-out Valley girl accent. She’s the first female hip-hop artist to hit number 1 on Billboard’s top rap singles chart since 2003. She’s stolen the spotlight on songs with pop heavyweights Mariah Carey and Usher. And she’s done it all while playing hip-hop’s most dangerous game: sexuality roulette.

Minaj may or may not be attracted to women (more on that later), but she draws a fierce gay following with her brazen lyrics and outsize persona. Beneath her blunt-cut bangs lies a cunning mind capable of weaving sports metaphors and references to ’80s sitcoms into complex rhymes about scoring with girls and blowing guys’ minds. Lady Gaga’s audience was primed to accept her as a sexually adventurous nonconformist by artists like Madonna and David Bowie, but in hip-hop, Nicki Minaj is a real space oddity. Rap has never seen a mainstream rising star this eccentric and brave, yet for all Minaj’s curious artistic choices (two-tone wigs, spontaneous British dialects, shout-outs to Harry Potter) she’s also incredibly popular. She has nearly 1.1 million Twitter followers and a cadre of famous fans like Kanye West, who recently proclaimed she could be the second-biggest rapper of all time, behind Eminem. When her first official album, Pink Friday, arrives in November, Minaj won’t just be the ‘baddest bitch,’ as she calls herself – she’ll be a bona fide phenomenon.

Not Bad for a White Girl” (G. Beato, Spin, February 2002)

After Eminem’s success, the record industry searched for a female version of this lucrative white rapper who had pop crossover power, like Britney Spears. Beato shadowed white female rappers to chronicle the industry’s search and examine the racial dynamics at the intersection of Black art and pop culture.

“It’s inherently cheesy to be a female rapper, says Princess Superstar, a.k.a. Concetta Kirschner, the only major-label artist who fits that description to release multiple full-length albums in her career. “You hear that label, and you’re like, ‘Oh, no….’”

“On, no” because hip-hop has never even had time for black female rappers. Salt-N-Pepa were the first women rappers to earn a platinum album, in 1988, but it wasn’t until 1995 that a solo female rapper went platinum (Da Brat for Funkdafied). For rappers like Lauryn Hill and Eve to gain artistic and commercial respect took a few years more. Now white girls, who symbolically represent malls and suburbia (at least in pop culture) are bum-rushing the stage.

In Princess Superstar’s case, she’s released four albums and never once mentioned Pottery Barn. And her skills have shown marked improvement. “When I first started out, I couldn’t rhyme at all. It was 1995, but you’d think my CD came out in ’83,” she says, laughing. “It was like ‘Bah-bah-bappa-bah / Bah-bah-bah-bah.’ That’s a problem a lot of white people have.”

My Fathers and Hip-Hop Taught Me About Self-Care as A Black Man” (Jesse Bernard, Catapult, October 9, 2018)

Music writing is not just about the musicians or the music. Some of the best music writing explores the relationship between the listener and the music — what draws us to the music, our response, and how it changes us. For Catapult, listener Jesse Bernard writes about how hip-hop shapes his life. “Embracing mortality,” he writes, “in this sense, is to prepare a way for my future children. If this cancer is hereditary, is it not also my responsibility to do everything within my humanly power to ensure, my children nor I, have to suffer?”

City Girls Are More Like You Than You Think” (Naomi Zeichner, The Cut, September 26, 2018)

“How does a female rap duo unlock success in 2018? By any means necessary.“

Together with Jatavia Johnson, 25, who goes by JT, Miami is one half of City Girls, a Florida-based rap duo. This year they’ve experienced a remarkable, Cinderella-type come up, and have faced considerable difficulty. Since June, JT has been in federal prison, locked up on credit-card-fraud charges, which is why Miami has been performing solo on the group’s first tour. In New York, she’s the imperturbable center of the short, energetic set, passively nailing the simple choreography and barely moving her face, which makes her appear unbothered — but not unhappy. “We do what the fuck we want to do,” she declares, after emerging victorious in the dispute with security. “Period.”

The debut City Girls mixtape, named Period, was released in May, and Miami and JT have made it their signature to say “Period” at the end of their statements, to emphasize that they mean what they’ve said, and also as a way to show wisdom. Saying “Period” communicates that they expect to have to painstakingly punctuate their points in order to be heard. A lot of women can relate. Period.

Queen Latifah, 1980. David Corio/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Hip Hop Intellectuals” (Adam Mansbach, San Francisco Gate, June 25, 2003)

In the flashy, materialistic world of mainstream America in 2003, when 50 Cent’s “Get Rich or Die Tryin’” ruled the world, Mansbach wondered if hip-hop had lost sight of its origins in resistance. Artists like KRS-One, Queen Latifah, Public Enemy, and Brand Nubian rapped about racial profiling, police violence, and remembering history. He found hip-hop’s innovative, activist heart alive and well in writers, educators, poets, and performers. What he called hip-hop intellectuals lived the multicultural, interdisciplinary approach of hip-hop culture, which was shaping the world to represent their reality, rather than writing them out of mainstream representations. “Just as the jazz aesthetic birthed nonmusicians such as novelist Ralph Ellison, poet Amiri Baraka, photographer Roy Decarava and painter Romare Bearden, hip-hop has produced its own school of thinkers and artists.”

Using collage, mixing genres, remixing and mashing things up to create new forms, these artists were obliterating what Mansbach called “high-culture/low-culture distinctions” and representing underrepresented voices. These artists worked with “innovation, humor, dexterity, confrontation, and fearlessness.” Because  hip-hop encourages practitioners to be smart, curious, creative, driven, including the journalists who cover hip-hop. “In fact,” he writes, “the current class of hip-hop intellectuals is largely fed up with what hip-hop has become — sick of rap’s minute attention span, disorganization, violence, misogyny, cynicism, self-obsession, arrogance, machismo, homophobia and materialism.”

Because hip-hop is a culture that is constantly synthesizing, evolving and testing out new notions, it can survive higher education, wider experience, even the process of growing up. A hip-hopper can be bored to death with every rapper in the world and still consider herself hip-hop.

Confessions of a DJ” (Jace Clayton, n+1, Fall 2008)

An international DJ shares the details of life working the turntables for a living — the traveling, receptions, his process, private versus public gigs, the challenges of aging. “As a process, DJing is inevitable and necessary for our times, an elegant way to deal with data overload. As a performance, it’s what the kids are grooving to the world over. As a product, it’s largely illegal.”

Bands perform songs, DJs perform records. With the old techniques, scratching, cutting, beat-matching, and blending, DJs synchronize two records around a common tempo, using a mixer to blend the songs together. The how-to developed in the hip-hop scene of the South Bronx in the 1970s and has changed little since. The workhorse turntable, standard in clubs the world over, is still the Technics 1200. The design of this twenty-six-pound behemoth hasn’t changed since its 1978 debut. I purchased my 1200s, secondhand, over ten years ago. They work as good as they did the day I bought ’em.

I use three turntables, which makes things more delicate. One slip will send the pattern from harmony into “trainwreck,” so called because the arrhythmic clatter of beats will derail the dance floor. But if you mix right, you can get a single “new” totality, whose individual elements can still be heard clearly if you know what you’re listening for. A fan who’s been watching comes over and says, “I really like that song. What is it?” I can only ask, “Which one?” The DJ’s job is to make disparate records sound like a whole, and the more successful you are at it, the less likely the novice onlooker is to know it. DJs have to work to avoid silence and make things appear seamless. You build things up. One of the paradoxes central to the DJ’s art is that some of the most demanding, virtuoso work is the hardest to recognize.

It’s Like That: The Makings of a Hip-Hop Writer” (Michael A. Gonzales, Longreads, June 10, 2019)

The people writing about hip-hop are as much a part of the culture as the DJs and producers making it. Hip-hop was a different kind of music that needed a different kind of writer to cover it. This is how Michael A. Gonzales came of age in a time when Black writers began breaking the white ceiling.

In 1988, which would become known as rap music’s first golden year thanks to virtuoso albums from Public Enemy (It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back) and Eric B. & Rakim (Follow the Leader), I gave my shelter coworker Mitch Smith a copy of Cover that contained my new column Da Cyberfunk Generation. “I didn’t know you wrote about hip-hop,” he said. “You should meet my friend Havelock.” I knew the name from The City Sun and Word Up, and had always dug his work. Havelock and I became fast friends, and he introduced me to various editors and publicists.

Two years later, he asked if I wanted to cowrite a hip-hop book with him. We named it Bring the Noise, a title we’d swiped from Public Enemy. The idea came from Random House editor Michael Pietsch, who a few years later put David Foster Wallace on the literary map with Infinite Jest. In Pietsch’s Midtown office, he explained that he wanted to publish a rap record guide comparable to the notable Rolling Stone guides. “Oh, one thing,” Pietsch said. “We’re going to need the book in seven months if we’re going to come out in November 1991.” Havelock and I looked at each other and laughed. “Yeah, OK,” I said. “I’m sure we can do it.”

XXL Magazine cover, 1998. Photo by Gordon Parks, courtesy of Bill Davis’s website

Heard but Not Seen” (Tre Johnson, Slate, January 27, 2020)

The subhead to Tre Johnson‘s piece is “Black music in white spaces.” While visiting New Orleans, Johnson is disturbed by how the music that captures the Black American experience now plays in white restaurants, coffee shops, and spaces where people of color are few, and where it embodies displacement. “Now that hip-hop is no longer seen as a threat,” he writes, “the way it was when I was growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, it’s become the default ambiance in the kinds of high-end spaces that include few Black people.”

A white friend said that Black culture is American culture, and that the two are, as a result, linked. True. And yet that’s what makes it all the more painful to find myself in mostly white spaces with their Black soundtracks, doing something intimate like eating with a friend, doing something public like shopping or working out—always in a place that’s using that music not only to create a vibe but a communal experience for their customers. The music’s been recycled for consumption, with little care for the context of this consumption. Embracing Black music is not the same as embracing Black people, after all, no matter how often our music is created with a specific gaze toward our experience. How many times, while our music plays, have one of us been dismissed, followed, or harassed in these spaces? What was playing when those two brothers were being kicked out of a Philadelphia Starbucks? On the loudspeakers and PA systems in stadiums, as hip-hop music blasts to keep the crowd hyped, and celebrate big plays, Black men and women tie on aprons and stand behind concession stands, walk the rows and aisles, sweep the floors—even as a nation denounces players’ rights to kneel in protest. It’s as if the music gets to stand in for us. Increasingly we’re in the background as our music is pushed to the fore.

Invisible Man: Eminem” (Eric Boehlert, Salon, June 7, 2000)

“Eminem may be the most violent, woman-hating, homophobic rapper ever. Why are critics giving him a pass?”

Time Out New York thought this incestuous, quasi-rape fantasy about Jennifer Lopez was “sidesplitting.” The Times of London agreed it was “extremely funny.” CDNow insisted, “The man is fearless.” Why? Because he has the courage to insult, among others, pop stars Puff Daddy, Will Smith, Britney Spears and ’N Sync. Eminem also has things to say about quadriplegic Christopher Reeve. Talk about picking fights you can’t possibly lose.

In a recent cover profile of Eminem for the Los Angeles Times Sunday Calendar magazine, the paper’s longtime music critic, Robert Hilburn, came this close to comparing Eminem with Elvis Presley, a tenuous stretch that won the writer an insightful reply from a reader in Studio City, Calif.: “Let’s see … self-described white trash who raps about mindless violence, misogyny, murder, child abuse – one who proclaims ‘anything is possible as long as you don’t back down’ and then makes whatever lyrical changes are required to conform to retailers’ guidelines of acceptability. Gentlemen, please.”

Kendrick Lamar: Not Your Average, Everyday Rap Savior” (Jessica Hopper, Spin, October 9, 2012)

“Like his hero Tupac Shakur, Kendrick Lamar grew up heavy in the game. Living in the midst of, but apart from, Compton’s roiling gang life, Lamar is now facing down hip-hop’s brightest spotlight as the next protégé of Dr. Dre. But unlike most new rap stars, he is humble, composed, mature, and palpably aware of what he’s already lost.”

Lamar may be from Compton, but his roots are here [in Chicago]. Tonight’s entire 200-person guest list is made up of family, including Lamar’s grandpa, one of many relatives he helps support. “I ain’t even made my first big purchase yet,” he says. “I live in Los Angeles and I don’t even have a car. My ends go to take care of my family.” He used his Aftermath signing bonus to move his parents out of the Compton neighborhood where they raised him.

Bass is Loaded” (Jesse Serwer, Wax Poetics, 2008)

Hip-hop has a global, multicultural, mashup, sampling culture at its core, and the sources from which artists draw their sounds are as diverse as they are surprising.

“The Mexican” might be the unlikeliest of all b-boy anthems. Recorded in 1972 by Babe Ruth, a British progressive rock band whose second-greatest claim to fame may have been opening the West Coast leg of the Frampton Comes Alive tour, it certainly doesn’t seem to have the same inherent connection to New York Afro-Latin culture as, say, Jimmy Castor Bunch’s “It’s Just Begun.” But after speaking with Babe Ruth founder and “The Mexican” songwriter Alan Shacklock, I learn his inadvertent role in the early development of hip-hop culture seems oddly fitting.

Here’s What’s Missing from ‘Straight Outta Compton’” (Dee Barnes, Gawker, August 18, 2015)

In the early 1990s, journalist Dee Barnes hostead a hip-hop show called Pump It Up! Dr. Dre didn’t like how one of the segments depicted his group N.W.A., so he slammed Barnes’ head into a wall, pinned and kicked her on the floor of a women’s restroom, and tried to throw her down a flight of stairs. “It ain’t no big thing,“ Dre told Rolling Stone, “I just threw her through a door.” Barnes and Dre settled out of court. For Gawker, Barnes watched the N.W.A. documentary Straight Outta Compton and discussed her experience with the trail-blazing group, the movie’s unwillingness to address the group’s toxic attitude and physical violence against women, and why the documentary intentionally left out the stories of female artists like J.J. Fad and Tairrie B, who were N.W.A.’s protégés. Barnes was, in her words, “a casualty of Straight Outta Compton’s revisionist history,” which allows Dre to make “hyperbolic claims about all these heinous things he did to women. But then he went out and actually violated women. Straight Outta Compton would have you believe that he didn’t really do that. …You can’t have it both ways. That’s what they’re trying to do with Straight Outta Compton: They’re trying to stay hard, and look like good guys.”

…My life changed that night. I suffer from horrific migraines that started only after the attack. I love Dre’s song “Keep Their Heads Ringin”—it has a particularly deep meaning to me. When I get migraines, my head does ring and it hurts, exactly in the same spot every time where he smashed my head against the wall. People have accused me of holding onto the past; I’m not holding onto the past. I have a souvenir that I never wanted. The past holds onto me.

People ask me, “How come you’re not on TV anymore?” and “How come you’re not back on television?” It’s not like I haven’t tried. I was blacklisted. Nobody wants to work with me. They don’t want to affect their relationship with Dre. I’ve been told directly and indirectly, “I can’t work with you.” I auditioned for the part that eventually went to Kimberly Elise in Set It Off. Gary was the director. This was long after Pump it Up!, and I nailed the audition. Gary came out and said, “I can’t give you the part.” I asked him why, and he said, “‘Cause I’m casting Dre as Black Sam.” My heart didn’t sink, I didn’t get emotional; I was just numb.

Most recently, I tried to get a job at Revolt. I’ve known Sean (Combs) for years and have the utmost respect for him. Still nothing. Instead of doing journalism, I’ve had a series of 9-5 jobs over the years to make ends meet.

Cardi B, 2016. Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Regular, Degular, Shmegular Girl From the Bronx” (Allison P. Davis, New York Magazine, November 13, 2017)

“Only in 2017 could this particular strip-club, reality-television, rap-fame fairy tale have come true. And maybe only for Cardi B.”

Cardi B is, considered one way, only the latest bombastic, came-up-on-a–New York–block female rapper to fascinate the world with her sharp lyrics, sharp six-inch acrylics, and grab-you-by-the-balls sexuality. Before her were Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, Remy Ma, Nicki Minaj, forgotten groups like HWA (Hoez With Attitude). All share an insistence on demanding, over hard-rap tracks, what their male counterparts demand — money, power, respect, quality oral sex — from the female point of view, in the face of criticisms of everything from their overt sexuality and their weaves to their perceived lack of talent.

But if you think of Lil’ Kim and Minaj as the queens of New York rap (or the king, as Minaj often prefers to call herself), each can be understood as representing the rap Zeitgeist of a decade: Lil’ Kim brought a gangster-rap authenticity in the ’90s; Minaj’s savvy image-making, entrepreneurial ownership over herself as a brand, and impenetrable air of control were indicative of the genre’s maturity ten years on from that. And now, one decade later, we have reached, for the first time in history, hip-hop–R&B beating out rock and pop as the dominant music genre in the U.S., according to the 2017 Nielsen midyear music report, and so Cardi has a certain competitive advantage over her predecessors. She can seem almost like a caricature of a female rapper who has remixed the vibes of those women who came before her. (Cardi wouldn’t be pleased to hear this — the only conversation she dislikes more than “which female rapper she’s beefing with” is “which female rapper she’s most like.”) She’s taken the concept of “ratchet” — a southern rap term, first used as an insult akin to “ghetto,” that evolved over the years to mean “raw” — and played with it to her advantage. She’s an adroit creature of the media she’s been saturated by growing up; like all of her age mates, she is highly self-aware, referential. She understands on a cellular level what might go viral, how to craft something for social media, how to speak in sound bites, and how to reveal enough of herself, seemingly unfiltered, to be interesting. But that’s not the real charm or genius of Cardi, which is her ability to not let all of that get in the way of what and who she actually is: funny, a little neurotic, unabashed in her ambition and desire for money, and yet sincere in her attachment to how and where she grew up.

Scott Storch Raked in Hip-Hop Millions and Then Snorted His Way to Ruin” (Gus Garcia-Roberts, Miami New Times, April 22, 2010)

Like Biggie said, more money, more problems.

A few of Storch’s most popular productions: Beyoncé’s “Naughty Girl” in 2002, Terror

Squad’s “Lean Back” in 2003, 50 Cent’s “Candy Shop” in 2004, and Chris Brown’s “Run It” in 2005. All were top five hits on Billboard‘s Hot 100 chart. Three of them occupied the number one spot for months at a time. “It was like everything we touched was gold,” boasts manager Jackson. “It was like… a fever.”

By 2006, the producer commanded $100,000 per beat plus co-writer royalties and pumped out 80 commercial tracks a year. Rolling Stone estimated his net worth, including the value of his music catalogue, to be $70 million.

But Storch’s spending habits could make Robin Leach hyperventilate.

Wu-Tang, 1997. Niels van Iperen/Getty Images