The hip hop world is a wacky place, with rappers using the most bizarre names for themselves and their music. But out of all the strange monikers that have graced the genre over 30 years, one has stood the test of time: Lil. Despite what some current bearers of the name might suggest, the prefix has nothing to do with age or talent. It’s just a trend that seems to be here to stay.
In fact, according to the lyric annotation website Genius, there are over 8,000 artists on their system with “Lil” in their name. But how did these three little letters become one of the most pervasive trends in hip hop? The answer lies in the culture and history of minorities, and the way that they’re embraced — or rejected — by the rest of society.
The first rapper to use the lil moniker was Brooklyn spitter Lil Rodney Cee, who first took to the scene in 1979 with Funky 4 + 1’s minor hit Rappin’ and Rocking the House. His use of the name was an early indication that rap would become as much of a cultural expression as a musical one.
From there, the lil trend only became more popular. A lot of this had to do with the fact that the word was already part of African American culture, where it’s common for friends and family members to have descriptive nicknames based on their physical appearance or other defining factors. As hip hop evolved, the term lent itself perfectly to the genre’s new sound and style that were inspired by minority groups and geared toward urban areas.
It wasn’t long before the lil phenomenon was being used by white rappers, too. In this era of Soundcloud and meme culture, the lil prefix has seen a resurgence among a new generation of up-and-coming rappers who are finding their niche on social media. One of the most notable examples is Lil Pump, whose name has helped him gain a massive following on YouTube and other social platforms.
Regardless of whether the lil trend continues into the future, it’s clear that there is no shortage of inspiration for rappers to create new sounds and styles. And with the right mix of creativity and marketability, even the most bizarre rap names can turn into gold for some of the industry’s brightest talents.
But while the lil renaissance has been great for the careers of many, not everyone has been able to capitalize on this newfound success. Some, like Tekashi 6ix9ine, have even gotten into trouble for their controversial lil names and image. Hopefully, this is just a blip in what will be a long and fruitful career for the newest crop of rap superstars.