DJ Kool Herc
- Born: April 16, 1955
- Esential listening: “Better Future” (with Mr. Green, 2019)
- Who he inspired: Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, Chuck D.
DJ Kool Herc was hosting a party in 1973 in the Bronx when he did something that had never been done before: a technique he called the “Merry-Go-Round.” To pull it off, he used two turntables to switch between breakbeats of James Brown’s “Give It Up Or Turn It Loose,” Michael Viner’s “Bongo Rock,” and Babe Ruth’s “The Mexican.” The result was modern-day hip-hop as we know it.
Earth, Wind & Fire
- Original members: Maurice White (vocals, kalimba, drums, percussion), Verdine White (bass, percussion, vocals), Philip Bailey (vocals, conga, percussion, kalimba), Ralph Johnson (drums, percussion, vocals), B. David Whitworth (percussion, vocals), Myron McKinley (keyboards, musical director), John Paris (drums, vocals), Philip Bailey Jr. (vocals)
- Essential listening: “Sing a Song” (1975)
- Who they inspired: Beyoncé, Daft Punk, Rick James, Rihanna, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Outkast, Prince, Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield
Earth, Wind & Fire (EWF) stands alone as the biggest funk band ever, with tracks that shot to the top of the charts throughout the ‘70s. The group was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, earned six Grammys, and sold more than 90 million albums just in the United States. EWF stayed ahead of the times, incorporating disco, funk, jazz, doo-wop, soul, Latin, and pop into their tracks over the years. Additional evidence of the band’s lasting legacy is apparent in how many artists borrow EWF tracks: Everyone from Public Enemy to LL Cool J have sampled tunes from the band’s staggering catalog.
- Born: July 15, 1944
- Essential listening: “If You’re Not Back in Love by Monday” (1977)
- Who she inspired: Lil’ Kim, Macy Gray
Millie Jackson pushed the envelope for powerful women songwriters with her for her unapologetic sexuality, occasional raunchiness, and penchant for being provocative. She wasn’t afraid of racy album titles (see 1977’s “Feelin’ Bitchy”), is known as “the queen of raunchy soul,” and was described by the Washington Post in 1986 as “a veteran virtuoso of vulgarity.” Jackson initially drew inspiration from singers like Gladys Knight but soon went her own way, defining herself by coloring outside the lines of what was deemed acceptable out of women artists at the time. She was also among the first woman R&B artist to write songs about cheating from the cheater’s perspective—unheard of at the time.
- Born: Aug. 29, 1958
- Died: June 25, 2009
- Essential listening: “Thriller” (1982)
- Who he inspired: Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, Bruno Mars
Michael Jackson’s conflicted history can make it difficult or unseemly to appreciate the irreversible impact he had on today’s music. In his musical career, Jackson broke the color barrier by being the first Black artist on MTV with his “Billie Jean” video; he determined a new method of production and promotion with “Thriller;” and he took home hundreds of awards. He also followed in the footsteps of greats like Nat King Cole, pushing the boundaries of what roles Black men could acceptably occupy in American society, whether adored, wanted, or rebellious.
- Born: June 7, 1958
- Died: April 21, 2016
- Essential listening: “Purple Rain” (1984)
- Who he inspired: D’Angelo, Beyoncé, Frank Ocean, Sinead O’Connor, Justin Timberlake, Beck, Rihanna, Janelle Monáe
Prince’s musical experimentation transformed rock, funk, pop, and new wave music. He was 7 when he wrote his first song, “Funk Machine,” and used not just his solo career to impact how music was packaged and received, but his work as a collaborator and producer. Early in his career, some of his most ambitious works like “777-9311” were used in other groups like The Time, in which Prince sang backing vocals and played all the instruments. No one had heard anything like Prince before he came along—but forever after, you could hear his legacy in tunes from acts as wide-ranging as Beck and Justin Timberlake.
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Chuck D. // Public Enemy
- Born: Aug. 1, 1960
- Essential listening: “ Fight the Power” (1987)
- Who he inspired: Mos Def, Tribe Called Quest
Chuck D.—prolific producer, activist, and rapper—once famously called Public Enemy, the rap group he formed, the “CNN for Black people.” That’s because in the late ‘80s, the masses had to look to hip-hop to cover racial disparities in American culture, the prison-industrial complex, poverty, profiling, and police brutality. Chuck D. helped to strengthen a culture of hip-hop that worked for social change and inspired a generation of artists.
- Born: May 16, 1966
- Essential listening: “ Rhythm Nation” (1989)
- Who she inspired: Brandy, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Mariah Carey, Spice Girls, John Legend, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, Black Keys
Janet Jackson hit her peak alongside fellow heavyweights Whitney Houston, Madonna, and Tina Turner, but managed nevertheless to carve out her own highly specific role in American music that would be forever imitated yet never duplicated. She was able to reach listeners of all races and backgrounds and every age group, has sold more than 100 million records, and won dozens of accolades from Grammys to American Music awards.
Her 1989 album “Rhythm Nation” stands as one of the most significant of its era, with its title track described by Jackson herself as “the national anthem for the ‘90s.” From political messaging and stunning dance routines to her ability to transcend genres (techno-soul-rock-pop and back again), Jackson set new standards for music videos, dance choreography, and breaking sexual taboos. Her legacy continues to reverberate throughout musical genres as far-flung as indie rock and R&B.
- Born: June 16, 1971
- Died: Sept. 13, 1996
- Essential listening: “Dear Mama” (1995)
- Who he inspired: Kendrick Lamar, Janet Jackson, Eminem, Justin Bieber, Drake
Tupac Shakur was the first hip-hop artist to record a double album and, in 2017, he posthumously became the first solo rapper to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He is revered as one of the most influential rappers in American history and left his indelible mark on American culture not just as a rapper with 11 platinum-selling albums and worldwide notoriety, but also as a poet.
- Born: Dec. 4, 1969
- Essential listening: “Public Service Announcement” (2003)
- Who he inspired: Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West
The stunning, award-speckled rise of Jay-Z (Shawn Carter) over his 30-year career began with his independently released “Reasonable Doubt” in 1996 on his newly created label, Roc-A-Fella and continues to this day with that label making him the richest man in hip-hop. His net worth stands at around $1 billion, according to Forbes, which makes him the first hip-hop billionaire in history. He demonstrates the vast reaches of today’s music industry, with his hands over the years in a streaming service, alcohol company, clothing line, sports club, and various entertainment labels. His secret? Relying on himself to build his brands and rapping about that which he knows most about: himself. It’s not a stretch to say he’s believed to be among the best (if not the best) rappers in history, who can have fun while delivering poignant observations and difficult truths.
- Born: Sept. 4, 1981
- Essential listening: “ Formation” (2016)
- Who she inspired: Ariana Grande, Sam Smith, Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga
Beyoncé got her start as a teenager in Destiny’s Child, which in its own right was one of the best-selling girl groups in American history. She forged out on her own with “Dangerously in Love” in 2003. As her success grew so too did her messaging, which culminated in 2016 with the epic “Lemonade,” her sixth studio album. That record, which explores themes of family history, politics, relationships, and infidelity, came alongside an hour-long art film.