Underground hip hop

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Aesop Rock performing at Irving Plaza NYC in fall 2007

Underground hip hop is an umbrella term for hip hop music outside the general commercial canon.[1][2] It is typically associated with independent artists, signed to independent labels or no label at all. Underground hip hop is often characterized by socially conscious, positive, or anti-commercial lyrics.[3] However, there is no unifying or universal theme – Allmusic suggests that it "has no sonic signifiers".[2] "The Underground" also refers to the community of musicians, fans and others that support non-commercial, or independent music. Music scenes with strong ties to underground hip hop include alternative hip hop and horrorcore. Many artists who are considered "underground" today, were not always so, and may have previously broken the Billboard charts.[4]


Underground hip-hop encompasses several different styles of music,[2] though it is often politically themed and socially conscious. Numerous acts in the book How to Rap are described as being both underground and politically or socially aware, these include – [5] Little Brother, Lowkey,[6] Brother Ali,[6] Mr. Lif,[7] Murs,[7] Immortal Technique, Diabolic (rapper),[7] Binary Star,[8] People Under The Stairs,[9] Lifesavas,[4][10] Zion I.[11]

Underground artists often have high levels of critical acclaim – acts who have been specifically noted as being both underground and having numerous critically acclaimed albums include Jurassic 5,[12] Aesop Rock,[12] Ugly Duckling,[13] Little Brother,[6] Brother Ali,[6] El Da Sensei,[14] Dilated Peoples,[15] Non Phixion,[16] Freestyle Fellowship,[8] Binary Star,[8] Planet Asia,[17] People Under The Stairs,[9] Cannibal Ox[4][9] and Zion I.[11]

Additionally, many underground artists are said to have "intelligent", "intricate", or "complex" lyrics, these include Astronautalis, Akir,[13] Ugly Duckling,[13] Brother Ali,[6] Cage,[18] Immortal Technique, El Da Sensei,[14] R.A. The Rugged Man, Lowkey,[14][15] Mr. Lif,[7] Murs,[7] Binary Star,[8] Planet Asia,[17] Lifesavas,[10] Sage Francis,[4] Zion I,[11] Yasiin Bey, Thomas J, MF Doom, Yak Ballz, Eyedea & Abilities, Aesop Rock, and Tajai Massey.

Some underground artists produce music that celebrates the fundamental elements or pillars of hip hop culture, such as People Under The Stairs, Apathy, and Blacastan whose music "recalls hip-hop's golden age".[9]



In hip hop's formative years, the vast majority of the genre was underground music, by definition. Although the Sugarhill Gang gained commercial success in 1979, most artists did not share such prominence until the mid-1980s. Ultramagnetic MCs debut album Critical Beatdown is seen as one of the earliest examples of "underground hip hop".[19] It was described that the album was characteristic of what would later be known as "underground hip hop". New York underground rapper Kool Keith received notable success with his album Dr. Octagonecologyst, gaining more attention than any contemporary independent hip hop album "in quite a while".[20]


Binary Star's Masters of the Universe was described as a "refreshing alternative from the mainstream of rap".[21] Tech N9ne and Strange Music achieved their biggest success with the album All 6's and 7's.[22]

Indie hip hop[edit]

Indie hip hop (also known as indie rap) is hip hop music that primarily exists in the independent music scene.

The term "underground hip hop" has been used to describe both indie hip hop (which is defined by its artists being unsigned or signed to independent record labels, rather than major record labels) as well as alternative hip hop (which is defined by music that diverges from mainstream hip hop music such as gangsta rap). As the term "indie hip hop" is indicative of the artists making the music rather than the music itself, it is not strictly a genre, but rather covers a range of styles with clearly discernible hip hop characteristics.

Like indie rock artists, many indie hip hop artists place a premium on maintaining complete control of their music and careers, releasing albums on independent record labels (sometimes their own) and relying on touring, word-of-mouth and air play on independent or college radio stations for promotion. Some of its more popular artists, however, may end up moving to major labels, though often on favorable terms won by their prior independent success.

Independent hip hop labels include Rhymesayers Entertainment, Doomtree Records, Strange Famous Records, Decon, Alpha Pup Records, Fake Four Inc, Anticon, Definitive Jux, Rawkus Records, 75 Ark Records, Nature Sounds, Quannum Projects, Babygrande Records, 301Studios, QN5 Music, Delicious Vinyl, Strange Music, Duck Down Records, It's A Wonderful World Music Group, Psychopathic Records, Funk Volume and Stones Throw. Notable indie hip hop artists include Hunter Bentley, Eyedea, 7L & Esoteric, Blackalicious, The Visionaries, Madlib, Hoodie Allen, Tonedeff, Cage, Mr. Lif, Shabazz Palaces, The Perceptionists, Atmosphere, Aesop Rock, Fashawn, Rittz, Sole, Dizzy Wright, Sage Francis, B. Dolan, Busdriver, Milo, DeStorm Power, Lord Jamar, Jedi Mind Tricks, Immortal Technique, Insane Clown Posse, Livewire, Tech N9ne, Mac Miller, Joey Badass, Childish Gambino, Shad, Chance The Rapper, Jay Rock, Bronze Nazareth, The Weeknd, Prodigy, Twiztid, Outerspace, the artists of Boot Camp Clik, Termanology and Evidence. Danger Mouse, although now signed with Parlophone, built his career as an indie hip hop artist.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ http://www.stinkzone.com/cgi-bin/archives/000017.html
  2. ^ a b c http://www.allmusic.com/explore/style/d4426
  3. ^ Cheryl L. Keyes (March 2004). Rap Music and Street Consciousness. University of Illinois Press. p. 336. ISBN 0-252-07201-4. 
  4. ^ a b c d How to Rap, p. 342.
  5. ^ Edwards, Paul, 2009, How to Rap: The Art & Science of the Hip-Hop MC, Chicago Review Press, p. 316.
  6. ^ a b c d e How to Rap, p. 317.
  7. ^ a b c d e How to Rap, p. 325.
  8. ^ a b c d How to Rap, p. 326.
  9. ^ a b c d How to Rap, p. 332.
  10. ^ a b How to Rap, p. 333.
  11. ^ a b c How to Rap, p. 334.
  12. ^ a b How to Rap, p. 315.
  13. ^ a b c How to Rap, p. 316.
  14. ^ a b c How to Rap, p. 321.
  15. ^ a b How to Rap, p. 322.
  16. ^ How to Rap, p. 323.
  17. ^ a b How to Rap, p. 327.
  18. ^ How to Rap, p. 318.
  19. ^ Price, E “Hip hop culture”, ABC-CLIO, 2006. p.295
  20. ^ Huey, Steve. "Review of Dr. Octagonecologyst". Allmusic. Retrieved 2009-01-27. 
  21. ^ http://www.allmusic.com/album/r505801
  22. ^ "Tech N9ne's 'All 6's and 7's' debuts No. 4 on Billboard 200". The Boombox. June 15, 2011. Retrieved 24 June 2011. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Sartwell, C rispin (1998). "Rap Music and the Uses Of Stereotype". Act Like You Know: African-American Autobiography and White Identity. University of Chicago: University Of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-73527-6. 

External links[edit]