Hip-hop is having a “lil” renaissance of late. The new generation of rap stars have embraced the prefix, with the likes of Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Baby, Lil Pump and their “lil” contemporaries arguably becoming the face of modern hip-hop culture, for better or worse. So how did three simple letters become one of the most popular and long lasting trends in hip-hop?
It’s been well documented that "lil" has been used as a nickname in a variety of cultures, particularly with American street gangs. In an interview with the ABC, host of triple j’s Hip-Hop Show Hau Latukefu explained, “Back in the day it was used by people that were coming up under someone. If they were your OG (original gangster), if they brought you up on the streets, you were like the second version of them.”
But it wasn’t until the late '70s when "lil" crossed over from the streets into hip-hop with the arrival of New York spitter Lil Rodney Cee. A member of rap group Funky 4 + 1, Cee featured on Funky 4 + 1’s minor hit, 1979's Rappin & Rocking The House.
It would be eight years before another "lil" made an impact, with drug dealer turned rapper Lil Troy landing on the scene in 1987. A mainstay of the Houston hip-hop community, Troy featured on multiple projects throughout the early '90s and had a minor hit with banger Wanna Be A Baller.
It was around this time the first signs of "lil" becoming a trend occurred. Lil Bruce emerged form the Bay Area, Lil Mac came out of New Orleans, Lil Jon got his start in Atlanta and Lil Fame of M.O.P. first got noticed in New York
The arrival of hip-hop’s queen Lil Kim in 1994 kick-started the wider use of the prefix and made it uniquely New York. Not only did the potty-mouthed rapper lay the blueprint for female rappers with her fiery lyrics and unapologetic take on sex, but labels and rappers quickly realised the commercial potential of adding "lil" to their name. Soon we had Lil Cease of Junior M.A.F.I.A., Lil Ric of No Limit and Houston local Lil Flip all making the moniker famous.
As Lil Kim ruled the "lil" roost in New York, a young lyricist known as Lil Wayne began to make waves in New Orleans, first as a member of Hot Boys and then as a solo artist. A string of acclaimed mixtapes led to the release of his career apex, Tha Carter III, with Wayne dominating the culture from 2007 – 2009. While Lil Wayne put New Orleans on the map, Atlanta based Lil Jon was doing the same for his city by popularising crunk during the mid-'00s. A strain of hip-hop originating in the south that combines hip-hop with club orientated beats, Lil Jon took the sub-genre to the top of the charts and became a star in his own right after more than a decade of grinding.
Wayne and Jon weren’t the only "lil" rappers making bank in the early '00s, with kiddie stars Lil Bow Wow (now just Bow Wow) and Lil Romeo (now just Romeo) continuing the legacy of "lil" while battling it out for chart supremacy. Neither are great rappers, but they did provide us with hits Bow Wow (That’s My Name) and My Baby. Indie rapper Lil B also made an impact during this time, gaining a cult following with his unique delivery and merging of styles. From 2010 to 2012 he released a whopping 38 mixtapes, with the controversial I’m Gay (I’m Happy) his crowning achievement.
For the past decade the prefix "lil" has entrenched itself in the culture and become one of hip-hop’s longest lasting movements. A 2018 article by VladTV explained how there are over 8,000 artists with "lil" in their name on Spotify, illustrating just how popular it is. In the past five years we’ve seen Lil Reese, Lil Durk and Lil Bibby hail from the Chicago drill scene, Lil Yachty and Lil Baby making their name in Atlanta, Miami gifting us Lil Pump and Pennsylvania giving birth to Lil Skies, Lil Dicky, Lil Uzi Vert and the late Lil Peep. Then there’s the most recent addition to the "lil" club, Lil Nas X, whose 2019 monster hit Old Town Road was another win for rappers sporting the prefix "lil".
It’s not just America where "lil" has become a big thing, with a number of Australian artists flying the flag too. The likes of Melbourne’s Lil Jaye and Lil Sknow, Gippsland’s Lil Meso and Sydney’s Lil Spacely are quickly making a name for themselves in the local hip-hop community. While they may have adopted the use of "lil" from their American cousins, these artists are uniquely Australian, showcasing the originality and growth of our local scene.
While victory is never guaranteed, young rappers seem to think "lil" is a key to chart success. Just like the rappers who came before them whose names featured numbers (2 Chainz, 6LACK, 50 Cent) and the prefix young (Young Thug, Young M.A., Yung Lean), today’s brigade of "lil" rappers are the current hot thing. With the continuing success these artists are having, it looks like the phenomenon of "lil" is set to be a major hip-hop trend for the foreseeable future.