12 ESSENTIAL ALTERNATIVE HIP HOP SONGS
By now you’ve probably heard that William Shakespeare wrote King Lear while he was quarantined during the bubonic plague.
But you are no Billy Shakespeare.
Plus, if that dude had Animal Crossing, Netflix, Tik Tok, etc., at his disposal he would have never been as productive while sheltering in place.
Don’t worry about creating your magnum opus. Just relax and expand your musical horizons with this highly incomplete list of the essential alternative hip hop that you NEED to know about.
1. “EYE KNOW” - DE LA SOUL
To claim that alternative rap would not exist without De La Soul’s flawless debut record 3 Feet High and Rising might be a bit of an overstatement. But not by much.
Everything about it was revolutionary. De La created a whole new template for hip hop by utilizing samples from pop, soul, disco, psychedelia, and even country music. They also used these samples in innovative ways, for sparse fills or inside jokes, as opposed to just for hooks or drum breaks. Likewise, the lyrical content did not conform to what had come before, namely cause these dudes are a bunch of hippies.
This shit was radical, in the truest sense of the word, when it first came out. It may not sound like it anymore, but that doesn’t make it any less great.
2. “CAN I KICK IT?” - A TRIBE CALLED QUEST
A Tribe Called Quest had a symbiotic relationship with De La Soul, beyond their collaborations in the Native Tongues collective.
If De La is The Beatles of indie hip hop, then Tribe is The Rolling Stones, and also maybe Led Zepplin in this half-assed analogy.
Anyways, while no of us can kick it right now, this sample of “Walk on the Wild Side” is still one of the most inspired in music history.
3. “TENNESSEE” - ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT
The CDC has yet to weigh in on the matter, but a game of horseshoes (a game of horseshoes!) seems like an activity you can still participate in while practicing social distancing. So long as you’re like, sanitizing the shoes after each round.
Anyways, “Mr. Wendel” has the more memorable beat, but few sketches or interludes will get stuck in your brain quite like the one in “Tennessee”.
Biggest of ups to Eshe, Headliner, and of course, Rasadon and Baba.
4. “DROP” - THE PHARCYDE
The Pharcyde’s other hit single is probably a little too real right now. So instead let’s all enjoy the Spike Jonze-directed video for “Drop”.
Spoiler alert: The entire video is in reverse! Pharcyde worked with linguistic experts in order to recite the entire song backward. Beastie Boys Ad Rock and Mike D make a brief cameo, fittingly since the "mmm..... Drop" on the hook of this song is sampled from their “The New Style”.
5. “MS. FAT BOOTY” - MOS DEF
Yasiin Bey, aka Mos Def, is generally known for conscious rap. Yet he can succumb to carnal desires like the rest of us.
And when it comes to loving fat booties there are two kinds of people in the world: 1) Those Who Enjoy Them, and 2) Liars
“Ms. Fat Booty” is a tale as old as time. A man falls in love with an alluring backside and slowly loses his mind because of it.
6. “GODLOVESUGLY” - ATMOSPHERE
Slug, and his label Rhymesayers, have been mainstays in alternative hip hop for over two decades. And if the title track of Atmosphere (Slug and DJ ANT) second studio album doesn’t tip you off, please know that this is Emo Rap.
Long before Kanye and Drake were topping charts by being all up in their feelings, Atmosphere and Co. were excavating the depth of angst, insecurities, and loneliness in their music.
7. “RAID” - MADVILLIAN
MF Doom and Madlib are better known for their production work than their solo or collaborative careers, but Madvillainy is one of the most important hip hop records to come out this century, alternative or otherwise.
This album almost didn’t happen, because Madlib’s label Stones Throw Records couldn't meet Doom’s asking price. Luckily, the artists were able to come to an agreement and we’ve all been reaping the benefits ever since.
8. “DAYLIGHT” - AESOP ROCK
Aesop Rock is one of the elder statesmen of indie/underground rap. In spite of this, the similarly named A$AP Rocky claimed he had never heard of him.
The loss here is clearly A$AP’s, who, with all due respect, has never written bars this good:
“Life's not a bitch, life is a beautiful woman. You only call her a bitch 'cause she won't let you get that pussy. Maybe she didn't feel y'all shared any similar interests. Or maybe you're just an asshole who couldn't sweet talk the princess”
9. “GET BY (REMIX)” - TALIB KWELI
Looking at the roster alone on this track could be enough of an argument that it’s the greatest hip hop song of all time. Actually listening to it confirms this fact.
Everyone is on their ‘A Game’ here, holding back nothing. Given all the hip hop royalty involved, the question of who ‘won’ the track is a source of much debate. Even though he’s probably the worst rapper present, it might be Kanye.
That doesn’t matter though. What matters is that this song exists and we get to listen to it, again and again and again.
10. “YONKERS” - TYLER, THE CREATOR
Few alternative hip hop groups in recent history have left a bigger imprint than Oddfuture. Frank might have been the first to receive critical acclaim with his Grammy, but Tyler has always been the figurehead.
“Yonkers” is a moon landing type of song for many. You remember exactly where you were the first time you heard it, along with the immediate recognition that this was a paradigm-shifting event.
11. “OH MY DARLING DON’T CRY” - RUN THE JEWELS
As far as indie rappers can be ‘stars’, Killer Mike and El-P are as close to alternative hip hop royalty as there is. RTJ’s entire output is a couple of luminaries’ coming together to create a series of masterclasses.
“Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” is the best synthesis of the full-on assault of your senses that is RTJ. Now that one half of the group is done being a surrogate for a Presidential candidate, hopefully they can get to work on their next record.
12. “SWERVE… THE REAPING OF ALL THAT IS WORTHWHILE” - SHABAZZ PALACES
This song should close out everything. It’s amazing these dudes continued making music after crafting such a perfect song. They even have a new record coming out later this year! “Swerve…” is not meant to be for everyone, but it’s the sort of track that anyone can appreciate.
And there you have it. Hope you found something new or were reminded of something you love. This list is not meant to be definitive or anything of the sort. Think of it more as a primer or cheatsheet.
Calvin Paradise is not any one thing. The half-hearted vagabond and forgetful luddite currently resides in Los Angeles and how he spends his time is none of your damned business.