BEST OF UNDERGROUND HIP HOP
We’re not historians, but when we’re stuck indoors, we are.
This is my attempt at a convoluted rhyme scheme relevant to our current moment in time. Sure, I failed, but that’s only because I’m trying to mimic some of the greats of Alternative Hip Hop. Then again I’m not a rapper, I’m just a blogger, don’t listen to me.
Figure while we all have this bit of extra time on our hands, why not start sharing tunes from our favorite genres (that we don’t usually cover on We Are: The Guard). Underground Hip Hop artists have always been a bit unquantifiable, what separates out the underground from the mass populous isn’t a flow style or a rhyme scheme or even a type of beat. Sometimes the underground can become the massive, turning nobodies into superstars on the turn of the dime. Those of us who knew EL-P before Run the Jewels know what I mean...
But the ethos, the why, the start-- comes from a place of not fitting into a particular mold in the scene. Indie rap just can’t be marketed the same way whether it be record labels like Def Jam or classic viral marketing schemes like East Coast/West Coast beef. Each of these hip hop heroes has a sound of their own and sometimes that shakes the scene for all its worth, and other times stays relegated to the headphones of the true heads.
Let’s dive into our little corner of the underground.
A TRIBE CALLED QUEST
I guess the question is-- would indie hip-hop even exist without the tribal funk inspired sounds of this early 90s Brooklyn quartet? The same could be said about their Native Tongues collective mates De La Soul, Jungle Brothers or Queen Latifiah, but we’ve been steeping ourselves in the sounds of Tribe for decades, and figure this is as good a place as any to start. The one-two punch of “Can I Kick it?” and “Bonita Applebaum” turned these cats nto legends (if not in their own time, ours). Check the groups first single, “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo,” which features Q-Tip on more of that narrative tip.
Dilla’s Donuts is likely as quintessential to hip-hop as The Chronic. I compare the two, mostly because James Dewitt Yancey might just have ended up as the Dr. Dre of the underground if he only could have made it that far. He died of cardiac arrest three days after Donuts was released, a mixtape of beats where he was the star-- the first of its kind. Jay Dee and his Akai MPC seemed to be able to create the kind of beat that everybody and their little brother wanted to imitate. Dilla’s beats were lo-fi, and in a way felt like anybody could make them if they just had the same raw talent.
Kool Keith or Dr. Octagon or Black Elvis or whatever pseudonym works best for you for discussing the breakout abstractionist of the Ultramagnetic MCs. Kool Keith is strange, especially considering he doesn’t seem to care about what his name is--a complete disregard for whether or not you know who he actually is. His lyrics don’t always make sense, leaping between the surreal, the postmodern and the profane. His internal rhyme style was left unparalleled until Eminimem came on the scene. We’re partial to the space hip hop that is Dr. Octagon’s debut, Dr. Octagonecologyist, but it’s all rad as hell.
MADVILLAIN (MADLIB x MF DOOM)
We could have easily covered Madlib and MF Doom on their own, so we figured why not better together? MF Doom is a supervillain MC from the UK whose unique line breaks and rhyming style separated him out from the pack in the 2000s underground hip hop boom. Madlib, producer and DJ first, MC second, influenced by trip-hop, dropped bars as an animated cartoon character named Lord Quas aka Quasimoto. So when these two pop culture-influenced rappers came together it was a match made in strange. Their songs are short, sparse and distinctly uncommercial-- which makes them kings of the underground.
Charli 2na was a soothsayer. A nostradamus of things to come. The deep voiced boom unlike anyone who’s ever stepped to the mic, 2na chose to surround himself from the get go with DJs who knew how to spin a tune. My favorite of all these underground hip hop groups, Jurassic 5 and their dueling DJs (Cut Chemist and DJ Nu-Mark) fit right in as part of the alternative movement boom, with four MCs trading verses and a hella laid back attitude. Now, 2na has pivoted himself over to an electronic music MC, spitting bars over tracks from the Funk Hunters and Krafty Kuts. See, DJ friendly since day one. Almost 20 years later, and “What’s Golden” stands up as one of the funkiest jams of all time.
Who knew that when we’d be talking about the underground, it would include two introspective white boys from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Something just doesn’t seem right about that. Except THAT is the charm of the underground. It’s open for anyone who can spit bars and bang out beats. Slug and Ant of Atmosphere have been consistently doing this for well over twenty years, definitely long enough for them to be esteemed by just about everyone from critics to other rappers to those who wanna get down with another man's feelings. They have a huge catalogue of music to listen to, but let’s start with “GodLovesUgly.”
So who’s picked up the legacy of Dilla in the electronic age? Joe Kay and Andre Power’s Soulection crew, that’s who. What started as an independent radio show, morphed into a collective of chill as all hell beats-inspired djs and artists. A release on Soulection is a major benchmark (almost right of passage) for a modern beats producer, with mixes and releases from the likes of beats superstars Ta-ku, Sango and Esta. Their old school LA parties used to have open AUX sessions for anyone to come up and drop a beat. Drop in a track and get signed on the spot. Soulection and Chill is as good a place as any to start
ODD FUTURE WOLF GANG KILL THEM ALL
With three seasons of a tv show, Tyler the Creator winning big at the Grammys and Frank Ocean headlining music festivals, it’s almost hard to remember a time when Odd Future’s Wolf Gang were part of the underground. But that’s how this ragtag group of rappers first began, swearing and skating their way up and down Fairfax Avenue, causing a ruckus on the entirety of the early 2010’s scene. Radio hip hop didn’t know what hit it, and soon the whole culture pivoted to try and catch up with this group of kids who brought some much-needed madness (+ brilliance) to the beat. Here is Mellowhype on “Rok Rok.”
Aesop Rock has been known for the poetic nature of his lyrical content since he first dropped on the scene in the late 90s/early 2000s. To some, he is the definition of underground hip-hop, with production by him and Blockhead on his first couple of records and rhymes about things that seemed to universally matter. It’s always astonishing to see an artist continue to innovate for twenty years and we’ve been amped on Aesop Rock’s collaboration with weirdo electronic act, Tobacco. Malibu Ken sees Aesop Rock bringing the lyrical heat (as he seems unable not to do) with some freaky beats.
So what’s next? It’s hard to know when you’re in the midst of the moment. While we’re definitely fans of backpack rap, it just doesn’t feel right to cover with Peep and Juice and XXX all gone. Instead, we went with the sometimes harsh pop-rap of Kevin Abstract’s self-described boy band, Brockhampton. May they be the future. Sure, this is another case of a group skyrocketing to success despite strange sounds and oblique decisions. It just goes to show that popular hip hop always cannibalizes from the underground. There aren’t too many acts co-opting the Brockhampton sound...yet, but we’re ready for it when they do.
[Image labelled for reuse from Wikimedia]
From deep within the murky depths of the Los Angeles River emerged a creature: 50% raver, 50% comedian, 10% Robotcop. Kurt Kroeber doesn’t own a dog, operates Soundbleed (the world’s only dance party comedy talk show rave), and is down to party with you. Come up some time and say “Hey dude!” But definitely make sure to casually drop the secret Illuminati password.