East Coast hip hop is a regional subgenre of hip hop music that originated in New York City during the 1970s. Hip hop is recognized to have originated and evolved first in The Bronx, New York; East Coast hip hop only became a distinct subgenre after artists from other regions of the United States emerged with different styles. In contrast to other styles, East Coast hip hop music has prioritized complex lyrics for attentive listening rather than beats for dancing. The main components of hip hop culture from that time and still today are MC'ing, DJ'ing, break dancing, and graffiti.
In contrast to the simplistic rhyme pattern and scheme utilized in old school hip hop, East Coast hip hop has been noted for its emphasis on lyrical dexterity. It has also been characterized by multi-syllabic rhymes, complex wordplay, a continuous free-flowing delivery and intricate metaphors. Although East Coast hip hop can vary in sound and style, "aggressive" beats and the combining of samples were common to the subgenre in the mid- to late 1980s. The aggressive and hard-hitting beats of the form were emphasized by such acts as EPMD, Beastie Boys and Public Enemy, while artists such as Eric B. & Rakim, Boogie Down Productions, Big Daddy Kane, Nas, Notorious B.I.G and Slick Rick were noted for their lyrical skill. Lyrical themes throughout the history of East Coast hip hop have ranged from lyrical consciousness by such artists as Public Enemy and A Tribe Called Quest to mafioso rap themes by rappers such as Raekwon, MF Grimm and Kool G Rap.
East coast hip hop is occasionally referred to as New York rap due to its origins and development at block parties thrown in New York City during the 1970s. According to AllMusic, "At the dawn of the hip-hop era, all rap was East Coast rap." Early artists of the form, including DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, the Sugarhill Gang, Kurtis Blow, Jam Master Jay, and Run-D.M.C., pioneered East Coast hip hop during hip hop's development. As the genre developed, lyrical themes evolved through the work of East Coast artists such as the Native Tongues, a collective of hip hop artists associated with generally positive, Afrocentric themes, and assembled by Afrika Bambaataa. New York-based groups such as De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and the Jungle Brothers also earned recognition for their musical eclecticism.
This was called "The Golden Age" of hip hop. Although East Coast hip hop was more popular throughout the late 1980s, N.W.A's Straight Outta Compton presented the toughened sound of West Coast hip hop, which was accompanied by gritty, street-level subject matter. Later in 1992, Dr. Dre's G-Funk record The Chronic would introduce West Coast hip hop to the mainstream. Along with a combined ability to keep its primary function as party music, the West Coast form of hip hop became a dominant force during the early 1990s. Although G-Funk was the most popular variety of hip hop during the early 1990s, the East Coast hip hop scene remained an integral part of the music industry. During this period, several New York City rappers rising from the local underground scene, began releasing noteworthy albums in the early and mid nineties such as Nas, The Notorious B.I.G. and others.
Nas's 1994 debut album Illmatic has also been noted as one of the creative high point of the East Coast hip hop scene, and featured production from such renowned New York-based producers as Large Professor, Pete Rock and DJ Premier. Meanwhile, The Wu-Tang Clan, Lost Boyz and Mobb Deep became pillars in New York's hardcore hip hop scene, achieving widespread critical acclaim for their landmark albums, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993), Legal Drug Money (1996) and The Infamous (1995) and spawning legions of imitators. Adam Hemleich comments on the collective impact of these emerging artists: "Along with Wu-Tang Clan, Nas and Mobb Deep all but invented 90s New York rap [...] Those three...designed the manner and style in which New York artists would address...rap's hottest topics: drugs and violence."
The Notorious B.I.G. became the central figure in East Coast hip hop during most of the 1990s. Bad Boy Records comprised a team of producers known as the Hitmen Stevie J, Derrick "D Dot" Angelletie and Amen Ra directed by Sean Combs to move the focus on hip hop to New York with the Notorious B.I.G.'s Billboard topping hits. His success on the music charts and rise to the mainstream drew more attention to New York at the time of West Coast hip hop's dominance. According to AllMusic editor Steve Huey, the success of his 1994 debut album Ready to Die "reinvented East Coast rap for the gangsta age" and "turned the Notorious B.I.G. into a hip-hop sensation -- the first major star the East Coast had produced since the rise of Dr. Dre's West Coast G-funk". Many saw his dominating presence as a catalyzing factor in the East Coast/ West Coast hip hop rivalry that polarized much of the hip hop community, stirring the issue enough to result in the Brooklyn rapper's 1997 death, as well as his West Coast counterpart, Tupac Shakur, months prior. His commercial success helped pave the way for the success of other East Coast rappers such as Jay-Z, Nas, DMX, Busta Rhymes and many upcoming rappers.
Many knowledgeable hip hop fans look favorably upon this period as a time of creative growth and influential recordings, describing it as "The East Coast Renaissance." Music writer May Blaize of MVRemix Urban comments on the nostalgia felt among hip hop fans for records released during this time:
It was claimed as the East Coast Renaissance. Wu-Tang brought the ruckus with 36 Chambers. The world was ours when Nas released Illmatic. Big L, (The MVP) came out with Lifestylez ov da Poor and Dangerous. Temperatures rose in clubs when Mobb Deep came out with The Infamous and Brooklyn's finest Jay-Z released Reasonable Doubt. . . And who can forget the powerful uplifting anthem that would brand New York's concrete "Bucktown" (Smif-n-Wessun's hit single)? . . .Ahh, it was a beautiful time in hip-hop history that many of us wish we could return to.
David Drake of Stylus Magazine writes of hip hop during 1994 and its contributions, stating: "The beats were hot, the rhymes were hot - it really was an amazing time for hip-hop and music in general. This was the critical point for the East Coast, a time when rappers from the New York area were releasing bucketloads of thrilling work - Digable Planets, Gang Starr, Pete Rock, Jeru, O.C., Organized Konfusion - I mean, this was a year of serious music."