To be a white rapper is a tough row to hoe in an industry with a complex overlay of cultural, social, and capitalist demands. Questions get raised: Are you real enough? Does your background matter? Is it harder or easier for you to succeed in the industry because you’re white? Did you just get signed because the record company knows that concerned white parents are way more likely to buy your stuff for their kids than the music made by some dark-skinned dude with diamond grills? Can you say the n-word? Should you? As hip-hop wrestles with its own rapidly altering identity — the kind of world where a street-verified Meek Mill can come for ex-urban Drake and see his own career nearly cave in as a result — it becomes more and more difficult to tell who has what right to be involved in what music.
Rakim, widely considered one of the greatest rappers of all time, once uttered the line, "It ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at." This is the keystone bar of a song, "I Know You Got Soul," that has become something of a manifesto for hip-hop culture. It’s about skills, not your background, Rakim seems to tell us. You spit your rhymes, and that's all that matters. If they're wack, go back and practice until they aren't. Where you come from, what you look like, is beside the point. (Which is precisely how it came to pass that Meek got eaten by Drake.)
That some people interpreted Rakim's words as a call to color blindness reflects the kind of idealism that characterized hip-hop in its nascent stages. Even in 1987, when Rakim uttered that line, people were beginning to enshrine the idea of an earlier golden age when the genre — still bereft of big money deals and corporate intervention, and prior to the crack epidemic and its ensuing nihilistic carnage — was nothing more than a beautiful solution to poverty’s most pressing complications. It was an urgent artistic expression magically created from the simplest of ingredients: turntables, microphones, spray cans, walls, cardboard. Crews were just as likely to battle one another with dance and rhyme skills as with gunplay and violence. The art form was driven by a high-integrity devotion to quality and discipline, or so the story goes.
Who knows how accurate this idea of early hip-hop ever was? The fact remains that it's still clung to today by academics and historians who have cemented a narrative of a music that does not see color. The irony for hip-hop is that its universal relatability is the very thing people use in order to deny what some others see as its spiritual center: self-determination for black and brown youth who are on the losing end of multiple oppressions. As the genre grew from art to hustle to full-fledged industry, multinational corporations began to exert increased control over its products and direction. Protecting its cultural roots against the ensuing opportunistic influx became a martyr's errand; so much so that Rakim himself felt it necessary to reframe his famous line, placing it in entirely different context on his 1990 single “In the Ghetto”: "So I collect my cash, then slide / I've got my back, my gun's on my side / It shouldn't have to be like that / I guess it ain't where you're from, it's where you're at." Rather than an open invitation for all into rap, the line is flipped into a necessary reminder of the genre’s dour beginnings. And possibly a subtle dis at what it was already becoming.
One wonders what Rakim thinks of hip-hop today. Jazz, blues, and rock were once genres invented by the black underclass that became white music over time. With the manifest popularity of contemporary rappers like G-Eazy, Macklemore, and Riff Raff, it’s not hard to imagine rap ultimately going the same route. With that in mind, here is a condensed timeline of white rappers and their slow but steady movement into prominent positions of rap.
1981: The first-ever rap verse on MTV comes from a 36-year-old white woman who broke into the industry singing backup for a '60s folk group called The Wind in the Willows. The song, “Rapture,” by new-wave outfit Blondie, also becomes the first Billboard No. 1 hit to prominently feature rap. New York in the 1980s was home to a heady club scene in which downtown artists like Blondie earned stripes by “discovering” uptown trends like rap, break dance, and graffiti with origins in the South Bronx. So common is this narrative that it's the plot of hip-hop’s first movie, the 1983 indie classic Wild Style, which tells the class-anxious story of a Bronx graffiti writer whose work is made into downtown gallery art by an intrepid white journalist.
1983: Rodney Dangerfield scores MTV’s second rap video with the novelty track "Rappin Rodney." The old man’s got hella bars and wordplay, but the main MC he murders on the mic is himself. Highlights include “I was an ugly kid, I never had fun / They took me to a dog show and I won!” The song peaks at No. 83. No one black has yet rapped on the music channel.
1984: Enter Shawn Brown, who scores a minor hit with “Rappin’ Duke,” another novelty tune based on the timeless question, “What if John Wayne were an MC?” Brown is black, but the comedic premise centers on the idea of a white man on the mic. Years later, Biggie Smalls would shout the song out as a seminal rap moment in his own autobiographical debut single, "Juicy." "Rappin' Duke" reaches No. 73 on the Billboardcharts, and black people gather around boomboxes, shaking their Jheri curls in laughter. That’d be funny, we think, if white people actually rhymed.
1986: White people actually rhyme. Fledgling label Def Jam signs The Beastie Boys, three refugees from a dying New York City hardcore scene. They get placed in front of a booming 808 and some sparse beats, and drop the classic Licensed to Ill, which breaks records, selling over 100,000 copies in the first week (with help from a distribution deal with Columbia) and reaching platinum status less than three months after its release. The breakout hit is the straightforward rap-rock frat anthem “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party),” but “Paul Revere” and “Hold It Now, Hit It” are accepted as bangers by New York’s black DJs. They open for Madonna, and, alongside Run-D.M.C. on the Raising Hell tour, they elevate hip-hop’s numbers from niche to mainstream levels, conscripting entire swaths of suburban consumers into the genre’s legions of fans.
1989: Queens duo MC Serch and Pete Nice debut as 3rd Bass, the first white rap act for whom whiteness is not at least in part an uproarious crossover gimmick. Their opening studio effort, The Cactus Album, features legitimate golden-era rhyme skills and the same chunky James Brown cutups as their black contemporaries. Producers like Prince Paul (De La Soul) and The Bomb Squad (Public Enemy) sign on, lending them further bona fides. They later beef with the Beastie Boys on some “there can only be one” shit, and, in 2007, a post-retirement Serch hosts VH1’sThe (White) Rapper Show, wherein he elevates the task of making sure white rappers proceed with proper respect into a spiritual pursuit.
1990: Vanilla Ice, a.k.a. Robert Van Winkle, sets white people back 1,000 years by engaging in the most egregious act of perpetration since The Donation of Constantine. The Miami “rapper” scores a huge hit with his very cool song “Ice Ice Baby,” which he bases on an uncredited Queen–David Bowie sample mixed with a chant from Black fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha. (He would eventually pay Bowie and Queen, but not the frat.) He then takes his talents from To the Extreme to the screen, probably only narrowly missing an Oscar. After rumors circulate that Mr. Van Winkle has liberally exaggerated his hood upbringing, he is toppled from the throne only to periodically reemerge, Lestat-like, throughout history as a better-than-decent nü-metal act, a reality-show heel, a real-estate guru, and an actual alleged burglar. (Ice reached a plea deal with Florida prosecutors, citing "a misunderstanding.") White people look deep into their souls and question their purpose, including Eminem, who famously stated that "Ice Ice Baby" made him want to quit rapping. It is the first hip-hop single to reach No. 1 on the Billboard charts.
1991: The effervescently named Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch come through with just the kind of "Good Vibrations" white rappers need in their dark post-Vanilla hour. Mark Wahlberg, a.k.a. The Shirtless Southie, steps out of his brother Donnie’s tepid New Kids On the Block shadow and invites “Black White Red and Brown” to feel the Vibration, forgetting perhaps that at least a few of those people had already felt his vibrationlong before he became famous. Nevertheless, the future actor and professional Face of Confusion strikes RIAA gold with this Eurodance/jock jam classic. The song also finds its way to a BillboardNo. 1 spot.
1992: House of Pain’s party hit "Jump Around" finally carves out a safe space for drunk racists to freely enjoy hip-hop. Black people use the song as an inverted North Star to determine precisely which clubs to travel in the opposite direction of. Professional sporting events are forever transformed. Later, Donald Trump plays the song at his rally and House of Pain front man Everlast jumps around in The Donald’s mentions.
1993: MC Snow confuses everyone at once by being a White Jamaican Canadian rapper and dropping the wildly catchy “Informer,” which presages both the Stop Snitching Movement and the Glasses on the End of the Nose Movement. People laugh, but unlike a lot of MCs, Snow is about that life, serving time on an attempted murder charge while his breakout single is in postproduction. The song reaches No. 1 on theBillboard charts and sells almost 2.3 million copies worldwide.
1997: Limp Bizkit and Insane Clown Posse both make their major label debuts, ensuring that white kids have a form of rap that no one will try to horn in on. Goatees gain spiritual significance. Millions of boys refuse to wash their flat-brimmed baseball caps for an entire year. Skechers and calf tattoo stocks go through the roof.
1999: Marshall “Eminem” Mathers drops his first major-label single, “My Name Is,” produced by N.W.A.’s Dr. Dre. Spitting under the alter ego of the drug-dealing, murderous, sexually violent, and downright sick Slim Shady, Eminem captures the imagination of a bunch of white boys and terrifies everyone else. But his skills are very hard to deny. The song reaches No. 36 on Billboard, and the Detroit MC would go on to record 13 top ten hits, and five No. 1s (two of them with Rihanna), while also becoming the lone white representative in the greatest-rapper-of-all-time discussion.
Early 2000s: “White Dude” supplants “Mentally Unstable Dude” as clique-based hip-hop’s hottest must-have accessory. The Wu-Tang Clan expands its ranks to include fellow Staten Islander Remedy, whose somber track "Never Again" marks both the beginning and the end of the short-lived Holocaust Memorial Rap subgenre. Meanwhile, Three 6 Mafia lightens things up with the inclusion of the underrated Lil Wyte, who drops "Phinally Phamous," an impossibly dirty Dirty South anthem that would be used to test the bass on car stereo systems throughout Memphis and the surrounding areas. A few states over, Timbaland joins forces with future founder of country rap Bubba Sparxxx to gleefully embrace the uglier side of white rap.
2004: Houston’s Paul Wall ice-grills the whole notion of a white rapper by simply being a white guy who raps. His debut, "Sittin' Sidewayz," stalls at No. 93 on the official charts but goes genuinely hard as a street classic. He proceeds to drop a workmanlike eight studio albums, cementing himself as a mainstay of Houston rap. He also manages to avoid nearly all race-based controversy by simply being trill AF and ridin’ dirty alongside fellow Houstonites Slim Thug and Chamillionaire, nabbing three Ozone awards and a Grammy nomination in the process.
2009: Asher Roth reclaims rap for people who aren’t actually part of hip-hop culture with the anodyne frat track "I Love College." Minivans everywhere bump this while the world struggles to solve the Inception-esque brain teaser: If you make a serious version of a Lonely Island parody, is that, too, a parody?
2011: Seattle comes hard, as Seattle is wont to do, when Macklemore & Ryan Lewis drop The Heist, a self-released album that goes on to dominate the charts on the strength of “Thrift Shop” and “Same Love.” My then 8-year-old son declares Macklemore the greatest rapper to ever live. I am disappointed to learn that an 8-year-old child is too old to abandon at the fire station. The Grammys, however, side with my kid, leading to the surreal 2014 moment when Seattle’s Illest sweeps the awards' rap category and is thusly declared a better rap artist than everyone alive, including Kendrick Lamar. Macklemore would privately text Lamar to say how bad he felt about robbing him, and then publicly post that private text to Instagram.
2014: The Bay Area throws its five-panel hat into the white rapper ring in the form of G-Eazy, thus placating everyone who ever wondered what it would look like if an EDM DJ had bars. Gerald Gillum’s tech-bro appearance and features on pop tracks like Aussie singer Grace’s cover of "You Don’t Own Me" garner him some side-eye from Guardians of the Culture, but the East Bay hustler scores a rare nod of approval from inappropriate grandpa Too Short, earning him a highly provisional hood pass.
Somewhere in Time: Riff Raff happens. No one knows what it is. No one feels OK about it. Everyone who makes eye contact with him develops a mysterious underarm itch within 24 hours. Ebro on Hot 97famously goes for his jugular, but is widely declaimed as a hater and reverse racist for his efforts. It’s Meek vs. Drake all over again for the first time. The only voice of reason is, ironically, Paul Wall, who a little while later goes on the show to kindly and respectfully back Ebro up, without actually dissing Riff Raff, proving once again that Paul Wall is the scientifically engineered perfect iteration of a white rapper.