Experimental hip hop

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An experimental hip hop track example. Note the breakbeat beat at 0:42.

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Experimental hip hop or abstract hip hop is a genre of hip-hop[1] that refers to the use of structural elements outside of hip-hop considered unconventional within the larger hip hop music genre. Experimental Hip Hop is an umbrella term for Hip Hop music that embodies elements of the genre that fall outside the constraints of convention.[2] Definitive Jux, Anticon, Big Dada and Ninja Tune are notable experimental hip hop and acid jazz labels. Experimental hip hop is usually electronically produced and incorporates turntablism.[3] There are many artists that introduce acoustic elements to the genre to enhance the ability of being played live.

Experimental hip hop is thought to have first originated during hip hop's "golden age",[4] which is usually cited as between the mid 1980s and the mid 1990s and said to be characterized by its diversity, quality, innovation and influence.[5] This was a time during which everything was experimental and new. Strong themes of Afrocentricity and political militancy coupled with experimental music and sampling led to a huge of number of stylistic innovations.[6]


Experimental hip-hop production is highly eclectic. Influence is drawn from almost every genre of music. There are elements of Electronic Music and Dub, as well as the use of rock, soul, reggae, classical, and jazz samples, among many others. Experimental hip-hop production expands on the sounds of early 1990s hip hop such as Wu-Tang Clan, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and The Pharcyde to name a few.

J Dilla's Donuts Album Cover

One of the most influential pioneers of experimental hip-hop production is James Dewitt Yancey, better known as J Dilla or Jay Dee. The two main elements of J Dilla's style included sampling and non-quantized drum rhythms. Sampling, or the use of phrases or stabs from other music, is the basis of Hip-Hop production and is a traditional technique. However, J Dilla's way of chopping samples was unique and highly innovative, mostly finding insignificant elements and small phrases in the music to turn into the main melody. Non-quantized drums are another trademark of J Dilla's style. Quantization refers to the editing technique used in programming drums, wherein each drum hit in the pattern is locked to a rhythmic value on a perfect grid. While some experimental hip-hop does use quantized rhythms, the vast majority of it does not. Dilla was a pioneer of this technique and is notorious for not using quantization.[7] He played out his drum rhythms by hand on the pads of his Akai Music Production Center (MPC). This gives his music the effect of having a natural groove or swing, as if a real drummer had played on it. Some more recent producers who are noticeably influenced by this sound, and use similar drum programming techniques include Madlib, Flying Lotus, Karriem Riggins, and Hudson Mohawke. Other legendary producers who are often cited as influences for experimental hip hop include DJ Premier, 9th Wonder, Hi-Tek, Pete Rock, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest.

Effects of the Information Age[8][edit]

In the past decade the accessibility of music, produced by both professionals and amateurs, has increased exponentially with the advent of widespread social media. This shift has created a highly controversial[9][10] internet rap celebrity known as Lil B. He has no record deal, but he has nine hundred thousand Twitter followers, and over sixty million YouTube views. In 2012 Lil B released a mixtape which contained only freestyle raps. This mixtape alone consisted of eight hundred and forty eight songs.[11] He is twenty-two years old and claims to have released “over two thousand songs”.[12]

He has named some of his songs after celebrities including a track called "I"m Miley Cyrus", “Justin Bieber”, and "Paris Hilton". In a 2011 video interview, Vice reporter Ryan Duffy asked, with regard to this class of Lil B’s music, “What the fuck is that about?” “It’s some celebrities that I just think are just funny,[13]” Lil B responded. Lil B states that pop culture is obviously superficial and rather than telling us so, he performs superficiality. Lil B has released music in many subgenres of experimental rap, most notably he is known as a major contributor to cloud rap.

With the ability to independently produce and release rap both experimental and mainstream amateur rappers have the ability to change the face of rap, and like Lil B, bring attention to the perceived hypocrisy of the industry.



Avanthop is a style of hip hop with roots in genres such as hip hop, rock, jazz, folk and electronic music. Avanthop is also known as avant-garde hip hop. This subgenre of hip hop emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and is mostly seen as a reaction to mainstream hip hop. De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising could very well be seen as hip hop's first experimental album for its innovative use of different samples and sounds. Today backpackers view the Anticon collective's Music for the Advancement of Hip Hop album as the first true avant-garde or experimental hip hop LP.

Kid Cudi performing at The Kaul Haus in Toronto Canada

Left-Field Hip Hop[edit]

Left-field hip hop is a union of rap and electronica in which the emphasis is placed more on the producer's style rather than the rapper's.[14] Though vocals are often included in left-field albums they act more as rhythmic elements than the deft rhymes of other popular hip-hop subgenres. Left-field rap often uses a variety of complex computerized equipment, and commonly incorporates other more experimental elements such as live vocals and samples.[15] Notable left-field albums include Kid Cudi's Man on the Moon, Flying Lotus's 1983, and The Alchemists's Prodigy.[16]

Cloud Rap[edit]

Cloud rap is a genre of rap whose distinguishing features include ethereal, dreamlike beats and abstracted, sometimes deliberately absurd lyrics.[17] Cloud rap producers often use unconventional samples that incorporate parts ambient, indie, and experimental songs in the beats. Most cloud rap is independently produced and distributed via the internet. Rapper ASAP Rocky's music is often described as cloud rap as he uses a small handful of like-minded producers - Clams Casino, DJ Burn One, Beautiful Lou and crew member A$AP Ty Beats among them - to craft the celestial, stoned-out instrumentals.[18]

Psychedelic Hip Hop[edit]

Rap duo, The Underachievers, performing

Psychedelic hip hop is a style of hip hop music characterized by complex sample-based beats, often obscure material, and witty, abstract lyrics filled with far-out references. The first examples of this style are some of the more obscure sample-heavy hip hop experiments of the late 1980s. De la Soul's 3 Feet High And Rising (1989) and Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique (1989) are all examples of such. Another key figure in the development of this genre [19] is Kool Keith of The Ultramagnetic MC's. and his many releases under various alter egos, which include "Black Elvis", "Dr. Octagon", and "Dr. Dooom", all employing a very cartoonish and bugged out lyrical style resembling that of MF Doom.[citation needed] Fel!X is also a strong pioneer of psychedelic hip hop, specialising in translucent beats and released an album known as "oxford commas". Madlib is perhaps the most important contributor to this genre, with his releases as Quasimoto (also known as Lord Quas), releasing works such as The Unseen (2000) and The Further Adventures of Lord Quas (2005), and his collaborative work with MF Doom under the Madvillain moniker, in which they released the collaboration called Madvillainy in 2004. Kid Cudi's third solo album Indicud released in mid 2013 was self produced featuring psychedelic work, even its main genre is psychedelic and alternative music, including many rock elements. Mac Miller's second studio album Watching Movies with the Sound Off contained elements of psychedelic hip hop.[20]

Notable performers[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Ishkur (2005). "Ishkur's guide to Electronic Music". Retrieved November 10, 2014. 
  2. ^ "Experimental Hip Hop". 
  3. ^ Ishkur (2005). "Ishkur's guide to Electronic Music". Retrieved November 10, 2014. 
  4. ^ The Story Of The Beginning and End Of The First Hip Hop Female MC...Luminary Icon Sha-Rockn [1]
  5. ^ Campbell, K.E. (2005). Gettin' our groove on: rhetoric, language, and literacy for the hip hop generation, Wayne State University Press
  6. ^ "Rap & Hiphop Music". 
  7. ^ "The Evolution of J Dilla". 
  8. ^ "Lil B Age of Information Lyrics". 
  9. ^ Lauren, Nostro (January 30, 2013). "A History of Rappers Picking Fights With Lil B". Complex. 
  10. ^ "Lil B's I'm Gay Album Title Results In Death Threats". Huffington Post. 2011-06-24. 
  11. ^ Cooper, Duncan (July 2, 2012). "Download Lil B's 848 Song Based Freestyle Mixtape". Fader. 
  12. ^ Marantz, Andrew (April 13, 2012). "The Dumb Brilliance of Lil B". The New Yorker. 
  13. ^ MARANTZ, ANDREW (April 13, 2012). "The Dumb Brilliance of Lil B". newyorker.com. 
  14. ^ "Rap » Alternative Rap » Left-Field Hip-Hop". Retrieved November 10, 2014. Straddling that line between rap and electronica, left-field hip-hop is a producer's style rather than an MC's, the emphasis placed more on the perfect beat than the perfect rhyme. 
  15. ^ Staff (December 16, 2009). "Albums of the Year: Honorable Mention". Pitchfork. 
  16. ^ "Left-field hip hop albums". 
  17. ^ "Cloud Rap". 
  18. ^ Caballero, Martin (January 28, 2012). "A$AP Rocky leads the ‘cloud rap’ storm". Boston Globe. 
  19. ^ Bogdanov, Vladimir. All Music Guide to Hip-hop: The Definitive Guide to Rap & Hip-hop. 
  20. ^ Ankeny, Jason. "Biography for Kottonmouth Kings". Allmusic. Retrieved 2008-08-04. 

See also[edit]