The Evolution of Hip-Hop in Philadelphia


When it comes to East Coast Hip-Hop, the conversation is often focused on New York City. As such, Philadelphia, with its rich, lengthy Hip-Hop heritage, often gets a little bit overlooked.  Through the likes of Schoolly D, Cool C and Steady B, DJ Cash Money, Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, Philadelphia has a significant place in the evolution of the genre. Among those pioneering greats is MC-turned-radio-host Wendy “Lady B” Clark, one of the first female MCs to release a record.


Lady B was 18 years old and spinning records on WHAT in Philly when she dropped “To the Beat Y’all” in 1979. Lady B felt that hip hop was exclusive to a specific type of people she stated, “Hip-Hop was a transition out of disco, and some would say — and I might tend to agree — that certain folks weren’t welcome in discos. So Hip-Hop kinda created its own thing in the streets and in the courtyards of the projects. However, Philly had to do things its own way.” Lady B’s single was the first shot that would open up the door for a wave of Philly acts to emerge in the 1980s. Her 1979 single, “To The Beat Y’all,” made her one of the first female MCs to release a vinyl single.



The classic 1985 single “P.S.K. (What Does It Mean?)” put Schoolly D to the forefront of what would later become known as “gangsta rap.” Schoolly D was featured rapping about the notorious Park Side Killers. Schoolly D became the first Philly rapper to gain notoriety outside the city, and he remains the most recognizable figure from the city’s early Hip-Hop days. But West Philadelphian MC Breeze was a contemporary of Schoolly D’s who built his important legacy in the City of Brotherly Love.


Jazzy Jeff and the teenage Will Smith would immediately hit it off, and within months, DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince had their first single out. The duo became one of the biggest rap acts of the late 1980s on the strength of commercial-friendly story songs that set Will’s undeniable charm against Jeff’s infectious production. The formula led to chart-topping hits like “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and “Brand New Funk”; a Grammy win for their second album, He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper; and, of course, a hit TV show in 1990.


Robert Rihmeek Williams, also known as Meek Mill, is a rapper, songwriter, and activist. Growing up, Williams got into Hip Hop, being influenced by fellow Philadelphia rappers Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff. He started participating in rap battles where he took the rap name, Meek Mill. Williams would release a series of mixtapes until he was discovered by rapper Clifford “T.I.” Harris signed him in 2008 to his record label, Grand Hustle Records. However, before signing, Williams was arrested for gun and drug possession and served time in prison for several months before being released in February 2009. Despite signing with Grand Hustle Records, Williams could never cast a rap album due to his legal troubles, and he and he left the label in 2010. In 2011, Williams was signed by William “Rick Ross” Roberts’ record label, Maybach Music Group. One year later, he released his debut album, Dream and Nightmares, with hit singles “Amen,” “Burn,” “Young and Getting It,” and “Believe It.” The album would be certified gold, selling more than 500,000 units.


Battle rap is often performed or free styled spontaneously in live battles, “where MCs will perform on the same stage to see who has the better verses,” although it can also appear on studio albums. Battle Rap is generally believed to have started in the East Coast hip hop scene in the late 1980s. Many of the artists mentioned rose out of Philadelphia. The Fresh Prince battled the Philly underground legend Steady B. Which led to the release of his hit sing He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper with DJ Jazzy Jeff. Meek Mill embarked on his music career as a battle rapper and later formed a short-lived rap group, The Bloodhounds.


 In terms of East Coast Hip-Hop, it’s long past to recognize that Philadelphia has been keeping the flame burning for the Tri-State area of the rap game. As for Philly’s musical present and future, The Roots, Eve, Meek Mill, and others have ensured Philly remains a crucial part of the hip-hop marketplace. Philly has always been there, and it’s more than just a secondary region to NYC. The proof is in the heritage, and the music speaks for itself.

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