For a few hours every autumn, 150,000 square feet of emerald grass on the Howard University quad becomes the center of the hip-hop universe.

This year, it arrived Friday a little before 1 p.m., with the kickoff of Yardfest, a free concert on Howard’s Upper Quadrangle that featured more than two dozen performances by an array of singers, rappers and singing rappers, including 2 Chainz, Pusha T and Beenie Man.

Since the early ’90s, Yardfest has remained one of the most hotly anticipated gatherings of Howard’s annual homecoming festivities, showcasing rap stars on their way to becoming rap superstars — Cee Lo Green before “The Voice,” Kanye West before he spoke out against President Bush on live TV, Jay-Z before he was hanging out with President Obama at the White House.

The concert’s mythic reputation was cemented Oct. 27, 1995. Amid the swirl of sorority jackets and Coogi sweaters, alumni remember spotting a brick of a man clad in a lemon-yellow leather trench and Versace shades. “Biggie! Biggie!” they shouted, trying to get the attention of rap legend Notorious B.I.G., hoping he might smile for a snapshot before taking the stage.

Seventeen years later, fans are a lot pushier. When Drake — the most acclaimed artist to appear at Yardfest in nearly a decade — showed up unannounced Friday, thousands of bodies crunched toward the stage. But when sheets of rain appeared an hour later during a closing set by Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill, those bodies dispersed just as quickly.

Timelines of 2012 Howard University Yardfest performers by the hour and performers from previous years.