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Yesterday—August 11, 2013—marked the 40th anniversary of DJ Kool Herc's very first block party in the Bronx, where the then-sixteen-year-old kid started a revolution that wound up turning popular music completely on its head. Herc, who went by Clive Campbell back then, didn't know it at the time, of course, but over the following 40 years, his early form of hip-hop birthed that day would eventually pump out legends by the names of Kane and Rakim, Premier and Red Alert, Biggie and 'Pac, and Jay Z and Lil Wayne.

The genre that started out chopping up break beats and soul and disco samples into a new form of proto-dance music has shifted mightily every five years or so since, turning from community event dance music to battlegrounds for aspiring rhymers, from politically-conscious calls to arms to coke-dealing, crack-slinging portraits of the inner city, from telling stories about girls to—well, okay, some things never change. But one thing that is undeniable is that the movement that began 40 years and a day ago is markedly different in 2013 in almost every way. XXL spoke to some of the most important rappers and producers throughout the years—including some that performed at Herc's celebration last Saturday (August 10) at SummerStage in New York City's Central Park, which marked the event—about the changes the genre has gone through in the past four decades, and what that might mean for the future. —Dan Rys (@danrys)

Rakim
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Rakim

"I was always into music coming up; I played in school bands and my whole family was musically oriented. When hip-hop came out, it sounded like it was for the young and the hip music listeners, man. It sounded like it fit for me. I grasped on to it and never let go.

"Being young, it grew on me. The first rap record I heard was King Tim III. Luckily, my older brother he was into it. [I was] hearing King Tim III records, and shortly after that I think it was 'Rapper's Delight' and it started growing from there. Before that was the movement that Kool Herc and Bambaataa and them had started and a lot of tapes were flowing through the city. So we would rush out and try to find the tape that was Kool Herc and the Herculoids and a lot of them was playing breakbeats. Rapping wasn’t heavy then—it was just talking over the music with an echo on the microphone. Then it started becoming music and expressing ourselves and the DJ expressing himself. You know—picking two records and keeping that beat going. It kind of had a snowball effect and it grew into what it is today. I appreciate all the things it’s been gathering but at the end of the day, we still have to remember what the snowball looked like when it was at the top of the hill. Keep that element into it and that will keep us true to the genre which is hip-hop.

"The business of it changed a great deal. More business savvy than ever. When hip-hop first came out it was an underground thing where we were somewhat expressing ourselves...I guess for the craft. Nowadays, it's more business with it where the business side affects how you create. It's a lot more commercial now. You gotta keep in mind that if you want your record on the radio you have to sell units, so it changes your perspective of what kind of music that you have to make. Without the record sales and without the radio-friendly music, hip-hop wouldn’t be as lucrative as it is. So I think now that we have that ground where we can pull back a little bit and make the music that hip-hop was intended for.

"It’s going to keep going by us keeping our identity. It's that identity that grabbed the world and let us know that what we were going to listen to for the rest of our life. I think that we have to keep that element and stay true to that because that’s what got us here. I think we will be doing hip-hop a big favor. Pop is going to be there. R&B is going to be there. Jazz is going to be there. But we have to make sure hip-hop [has] that element, because 10-15 years from now, pop could wipe out hip-hop. It could be hip-pop instead of hip-hop. We gotta be real careful of what we’re doing and how we are presenting it.

"We still have artists that have pride in what they doing. There are young artists out there and they having fun with what they want to do with it right now and that’s okay. There’s a choice. You can listen to what you want to listen to.

"[The 40th anniversary is] like telling you, 'I told you so.' It is huge. Just look at how lucrative hip-hop is. Cut the TV on, you might be looking at a commercial and then, boom. Hip-hop is so involved in everything now. We’re here to stay. They didn’t think it would get this far; forty years later, it’s beautiful thing." —As Told To B.J. Steiner (@doczeus)

DJ-Premier
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DJ Premier

"The era of how black people were living back then, the conscious soul brother, 'right on'—even though we had the Black Panthers—that whole movement with the platform shoes and the afros and the dashikis, the dances like Rerun from What's Happening!!, those dances were poppin.' When I was a kid we was doing those moves, throwing the hand, turning the head like a robotic style, even before break dancing even took place. It was the early stages of the b-boy movement, poppin' and lockin.' My seventies era, even though I was only like, six years old in 1971, I still grew up with two older sisters and my mom—who was an art teacher—all that type of music that turned into hip-hop. The breaks like 'Take Me To The Mardi Gras' and 'Dancing to The Drummer's Beat,' all that Al Green, 'Let's Stay Together,' Barry White, Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin—all that stuff was just regular household records in my home. Most black families had those records automatically.

"I remember Alchemist one day told me he was making the 'We Gon' Make It' beat for Jadakiss and Styles P, and he was like, 'Yo man, did you grow up on Barry White and all these other artists?' And I was like Yeah man! He was talking about all this great stuff they did, and I was like well, in a black household, most families had all those same albums. So it's not like I was digging for all these records to sample, we were already born into the Commodores, Jacksons, Prince came in the 70s, 80s, and he brought the same great music style, even the rock stuff, the Beatles. We already knew the words to it, to James Brown and Parliament. There's no way hip-hop could have sounded the way it did in the early '80s and '90s the way we were sampling without those sounds, because those artists gave us those sounds.

"The difference now is the younger generation don't really do the research or keep up with how it sounded prior to how it sounds now. The soul of it is only present in the '70s, '80s, '90s era. The 2000s era, the soul isn't really in it the way it used to be, which is why we still do it in the traditional way, with the really really dope original beats, with the raw, original sample, the construction of the rhyme style, all that. That's why we always tell the older MCs not to try to rhyme like the younger kids, 'cause you don't have that lane. Keep your original styles that we like and we know and we understand from being around in that era.

"[The biggest difference between then and now is] originality. If you did a style that was already out, you could get beat up, and I witnessed it many times—step to an artist, like, 'Yo, you bit our style,' and start throwing punches—that was soo so important, to not bite somebody else's style back then. It was like, when you remember the groups from the '80s, Eric B and Rakim, LL Cool J, Run DMC, they might've all been wearing shell toe Adidas, but they still were all rocking in a way that everybody still had their own look, that different image within that style of dress and uniform. That's why when I see the younger kids rockin' shells, or shell toes, I'm always like, I wonder if they know the dangers of rocking those back then, of getting robbed or killed. It was raw back then in the city. You just could not turn your back on it.

"It's very mainstream now. SportsCenter all the way to sitcoms, they're saying 'My bad,' stuff like that, that's all hip-hop language, our language is being used. Anything with hip-hop sets trends now, and by the time they catch on we're already using new words—nobody says swag anymore, that was a real quick in-and-out word. It's a generation gap, which I never thought would happen in hip-hop. We'll still keep holding the fort down like we've been doing." —As Told To Dan Rys (@danrys)

7. Big Daddy Kane
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Big Daddy Kane

"Back in the '70s—I was a shorty then, 8 or 9—it was really a block party thing for me, going to the block parties, seeing the DJs come out and set up and rock in the streets. You know, they got the fire hydrants on, the little chicks running through the fire hydrants, just havin' fun listening to DJs play. 'Cause you know Brooklyn, it wasn't like Harlem or the Bronx, with all the break beats. In Brooklyn they were more about the disco beats, like Good Times, Got To Be Real, those were the breaks they were throwing. Cats would form the mic line. Back then—I came a little after the Grandmaster Flowers time—in my time it was Master D and Mike Music, those were the main dudes, and Vandy C. You'd see cats coming out, forming a mic line, the DJ start scratching up on the break.

"By the [mid-'80s], there were guidelines. In the late '70s it was the type of thing where you see guys rhyming at block parties, and basically you'd hear the same rhymes. People would switch it around saying stuff, but everybody had that, 'At the age of one / my life begun'—it was basically the same rhyme. By the '80s, after 'Rapper's Delight' and all that, there was guidelines. Basically, after Melle Mel, people could rhyme in their own voice, and there was subject matters—you could talk about the streets as Mel did, or 'The Message,' or talk about girls. There was a blueprint then. When I started rapping I was writing little cheesy stuff—I remember one of my first lines when I started was, 'I'm the T-O-N-Y, The T-E-E / Ya hands can't hit what ya eyes can't see.' So I heard Grandmaster Caz—'The six-one and a half, no good at math / Say rhymes to myself when I'm takin' a bath'—I was like, 'Oh yeah, I'm really doing something wrong.' I started patterning my rapping around Caz.

"From the beginning, everybody brought the park jam onto the record, with 'Rapper's Delight' and 'Freedom,' even when Run-DMC came out with 'Sucka MC's,' that was really a park jam feel. And then with Melle Mel the conscious thing came in, 'The Message,' a lot of people made songs with positive messages like that. But then by the time the '90s came, you had Kool G Rap, Ice-T, N.W.A, they were doing gangsta rap, and that started coming more in, where cats weren't just talking about how rough in the streets and you gotta get out, it became more of, it's rough in the streets, and fuck that son, do what you gotta do.

"Let me put it to you like this—I watched music like R&B go from gospel chords and gospel notes turn into deep heavy funk and dance songs into New Jack Swing and finally when it became commercialized, something with basically 808s and auto-tune. I watched rock music go from four-minute guitar solos with rock and roll singers belting out blues over rock chords into heavy metal into basically screaming a bunch of nonsense, super commercialized. And with hip-hop, I watched it come from being a ghetto expression of the streets for the youth to really get their voice out and be heard, what's on their mind, what they're going through, I watched it transform into a way that youth from the ghetto could give hope to other youth in the ghetto to get out and do something good with their lives, and then I watched how it commercialized into something where cats ain't really talking about nothing, or making any music with any staying power that really sticks with anyone for a long period of time. I've watched hip-hop go from its beginning stage, hit its glory days, reach a mountain-top, and then become commercialized and become just music.

"The one thing that I like about hip-hop that reminds me of rock so much is that it's so rebellious and it always keeps such an underground following. I think that's one of the beautiful things about hip-hop—it has such a strong underground following that it can keep hip-hop alive, because I believe at some point in time there's gonna be an underground artist that gets the picture. There's always been those underground artists that got the big picture." —As Told To Dan Rys (@danrys)

DJ_RED_ALERT
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DJ Red Alert

"Hip-hop was a diamond in the rough [at the beginning]. It was very edgy—it was people finding their way how to present themselves. Because you know, I always make my quote this: 'The stage of hip-hop is you learn to make something out of nothing when you did not have much.' Hip-hop culture comes from the inner city where we learn to recreate and reform something that you can control and can enjoy. [It's] grown into a lot of different stages, different journeys, negative and positive, but it still holds its own, as far as the culture—if people truly understand the culture itself, it holds its own. The culture has not lost its substance—outside of the culture they took bits and pieces and watered it down and repackaged it for the audience to believe it is. But the culture itself never watered down.

"During our time coming up, our parents were so much into what their music was and what their vibe was, at a young stage we always wanted to call ourselves 'being hip.' So we stripped what they did and what they listened to and reformed it into our own. Instead of listening to a certain song, we stripped down the drum pattern within the style or how they presented themselves. We stripped it down to how we wanted it to be presented, 'cause your elders will always look at you like, 'What is this nonsense you doing? Why you doing that?' But to us it feels like, it's hip to us.

"In order for you to become a good DJ, you learn the fundamentals. After you lay down the fundamentals then you start taking things to the next level—you want to build your style. But if you just go past the fundamentals and go straight to what’s going on today, you miss the important information. They have some great production [today]. and there's some that needs to be much better than what I hear; it’s a balance of both. [The future is all about] the presenters and the reporters; presenters that know how to present it the right way, and the supporters that embrace it to know what it is." —As Told To Emmanuel C. M. (@ECM_LP)

Hi-Tek - Featured
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Hi-Tek

"I think along the way from when I even got a chance to show my expression in hip-hop, it has grown tremendously—musically and culturally, but I also think it’s grown into a funnel as far as the business. Back in the day it was almost a privilege to have a West Coast artist hook up with an East Coast artist, or southern artist. But now you have everything in one, which shows a lot of growth, but I feel like it’s kind of funneled in a sense. Hip-hop as a whole has held together the industry from all different genres of music. Hip-hop has revived R&B in a sense—even though we were sampling a lot of R&B, we kind of rebirthed it—and gave new life to older artists who may have given up.

"I truly feel that the business has taken control. They finally figured out how to not let an artist stand on his own in a major way. The business was able to control what people hear. So basically what we’re hearing, a lot of the artists, I mean a lot of the fans think that’s the only thing that’s available. If it continues like that I feel like—I mean, I always think things come in circles. It’s a 360 thing. But if it continues with the way things are going I think hip-hop could be extinct, [or] what we considered to be hip-hop. I think people will always do it, but to me I always felt the soul that black music brought to hip-hop is not really embraced as it used to be. The feeling of the music is not really embraced as what it used to be. A lot of the producers are not even picking up instruments anymore. They write on the laptop, they’re not in the studio having a jam session. Nobody’s picking up a guitar or bongo or even digging in the crates no more.

"At this present time I don’t feel like it’s a producer-driven game no more. We were able to do that because hip-hop needed it and a lot of rappers were kind of falling off as far as being more artistic and creative. And we were able to take what the rappers inspired and rhythmically got in the game. But now I don’t feel like it’s a producer-driven game. I don’t feel like people look at how dope my kick is right now or how hot my snare is and how I put together the kick with the snare. I think it’s a rapper’s game again.

"I haven’t really been inspired in a long time, truthfully. I kind of feel like now that I’m at the age that I am, I’ve got to realize that no matter what, hip-hop is always going to be a youth game. So while I can have all my criticism about where hip-hop is going and the state that it’s in, I feel like the youth are always going to determine what’s hot, whether I understand it or not. I’m trying to figure out how I can still be dope within the realm of hip-hop at this point. A lot of guys that have hit records on the radio right now, they’ll be like, 'Man Hi-Tek, you’re a legend. You inspired me.' It’s hard to really accept because I feel like I’m still the man.

"It’s all about evolving. You know, hip-hop—even though I said that I feel like it will be extinct—at the same time it’s an expansion, and maybe they need to come up with a new term. Maybe hip-hop is the core, [but] you can’t really call this shit hip-hop no more. And it’s not to say that what people are doing right now ain’t hip-hop. I’m not saying that. I’m saying it’s a branch of hip-hop. We have rock, soul, country—you’ve got all these names for music. What’s the next name? That’s what we need to be asking each other." —As Told To Emmanuel C. M. (@ECM_LP)

Statik Selektah
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Statik Selektah

"In the days I started, there was no cheating. You had to have vinyl, you had to have the right equipment. Back then it was all about being nice, not about being popular. Whoever was the nicest...it was the DJ battle era. Now it's more like a gimmick. But yeah definitely everything that Kool Herc did—all those dudes—those dudes were like myths. Urban legends.

"Hip-hop keeps growing, and when something grows the way that it has it definitely lets in outside forces. To me, it really lost its soul a lot, and there's some that still got it but this started off [with] James Brown and break beats. It started off so soulful, and now if you listen to hip-hop radio [and] it's all so stiff and robotic. Everything that's helped hip-hop has hurt it, but as much as it hurts that it's all over the radio and sounding like that, it still spread the genre to places around the globe that Kool Herc wouldn't have believed back then. So everything is a double-edged sword with hip-hop.

"I think things could definitely be better. But man, it's so touchy, because hip-hop is bigger than what the originators started it as. They started it because they were doing it for the love, then when something becomes a business, it changes the whole game. But I think the gatekeepers can be a lot more risk-taking and represent the culture more. There's a lot of DJs who just play what their program directors tell them to because they're scared to lose their job. Places like MTV and Hot97 have a lot of power when it comes to breaking music, but just because someone says something's hot, doesn't mean it is. So if all the sudden they started co-signing Action Bronson, they could make him just as big as Lil Wayne if they wanted to. But it's easier to sell drugs and sex than it is to sell lyrics." —As told to Dan Buyanovsky