Emerging in the early to mid-‘90s in response to an increasingly materialistic and dumbed down rap mainstream, underground hip-hop is a vibrant and defiant musical subgenre, albeit a vaguely defined one. Nearly any fault you can find with commercial hip-hop is absent in the best underground rap; simplistic lyrics and expensive clothes got you nowhere in the grimy cyphers of turn-of-the-millennium New York. Here are some of the form’s finest arbiters:
Arguably the epitome of late-‘90s underground hip-hop purism, this Brooklyn three-piece wore their hearts on their sleeves, with “Independent as fuck” their official motto. Funcrusher Plus is their magnum opus, one of the most experimental, challenging and brutal hip-hop albums ever made.
A short-lived duo comprising enigmatic mask-wearing underground legend MF DOOM and producer Madlib, Madvillain emerged from nowhere in 2004 to drop Madvillainy before disappearing in a plume of smoke, and the world of Rap-For-Nerds-Who-Don’t-Like-Rap was never the same again.
This 1999 compilation album from now-defunct Rawkus Records (the closest underground rap ever got to a commercially viable indie label giant) is perhaps the defining document of the late-‘90s underground golden age. Everyone’s involved, from New York oddities Thirstin Howl III and R.A. the Rugged Man to rappers who, thanks to Rawkus, would soon become household names: Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and a then little-known white dude called Eminem.
The man born William Shields is a rare example of a UK rapper whose artistry and aesthetic parallels those of the best American underground artists. His 2002 album Return of the Drifter is an often beautiful slice of 21st century alienation, crafted with imagery-rich lyrics and articulated in a caustic, confident British accent. Wiley this ain’t.
Run The Jewels
Who said the underground was dead? Kanye West and Drake may have been the rappers whose names have dominated rap in 2013, but dig a little deeper on blogs and music websites and you’ll find that it’s this duo who have really been running things. The brainchild of Company Flow producer-turned-underground-godfather El-P and larger than life southern stalwart Killer Mike, RTJ’s self-titled debut is without a doubt a contender for album of the year.