Alternative hip hop

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Alternative hip hop (also known as alternative rap) is a subgenre of hip hop music that encompasses the wide range of styles that are not typically identified as mainstream. AllMusic defines it as comprising "hip hop groups that refuse to conform to any of the traditional stereotypes of rap, such as gangsta, bass, hardcore, and party rap. Instead, they blur genres drawing equally from funk and pop/rock, as well as jazz, soul, reggae, and even folk."[2]

Alternative hip hop developed in the late 1980s and experienced a degree of mainstream recognition during the early-to-mid 1990s. While some groups such as Arrested Development and The Fugees managed to achieve commercial success before breaking up, many alternative rap acts tended to be embraced by alternative rock listeners rather than hip-hop or pop audiences.[2] The commercial and cultural momentum was impeded by the then also emerging, significantly harder-edged West Coast gangsta rap. A resurgence came about in the late 1990s and early 2000s at the dawn of the digital era with a rejuvenated interest in independent music by the general public.

During the 2000s, alternative hip hop reattained its place within the mainstream, due to the declining commercial viability of gangsta rap as well as the crossover success of artists such as Outkast and Kanye West. The alternative hip hop movement has expanded beyond the United States to include the Somali-Canadian poet K'naan, and English artist M.I.A. Alternative hip hop acts have attained much critical acclaim, but receive relatively little exposure through radio and other media outlets. An all-time best alternative hip hop music artist is Eminem, followed by Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Hieroglyphics, Pharcyde, Digable Planets, Das EFX, and Black Sheep. Eminem is also the best selling artist of 21st century having sold over 72 million units in the past two decades.[3]



Originating in the late 1980s, in midst of the golden age of hip hop, alternative hip hop was headed primarily by East Coast groups such as De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Brand Nubian, and Digable Planets in subsidiary conjunction by West Coast acts such as The Pharcyde, Digital Underground, Souls of Mischief, Del the Funky Homosapien, and Freestyle Fellowship as well as certain Southern acts such as Arrested Development, Goodie Mob, and Outkast.[4] Similar to the alternative rock movement, alternative hip hop segued into the mainstream at the dawn of the 1990s. Arrested Development, along with The Fugees, stand as some of the first few alternative rap to be recognized by mainstream audiences.[2] The classic debut albums 3 Feet High and Rising, People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, and Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde achieved minor commercial success as they garnered immense acclaim from music critics, who described the records as managing to be both ambitiously innovative but playful masterpieces, hailing the artists as the future of hip hop music as a whole.[5] Christened as "The Sgt. Pepper of hip hop", De La Soul's debut album 3 Feet High and Rising was considered the forefront of the subgenre. As music critic Jon Bush wrote in retrospect:

The most inventive, assured, and playful debut in hip-hop history, 3 Feet High and Rising not only proved that rappers didn't have to talk about the streets to succeed, but also expanded the palette of sampling material with a kaleidoscope of sounds and references culled from pop, soul, disco, and even country music. Weaving clever wordplay and deft rhymes across two dozen tracks loosely organized around a game-show theme, De La Soul broke down boundaries all over the LP, moving easily from the groovy my-philosophy intro "The Magic Number" to an intelligent, caring inner-city vignette named "Ghetto Thang" to the freewheeling end-of-innocence tale "Jenifa Taught Me (Derwin's Revenge)." Rappers Posdnuos and Trugoy the Dove talked about anything they wanted (up to and including body odor), playing fast and loose on the mic like Biz Markie. Thinly disguised under a layer of humor, their lyrical themes ranged from true love ("Eye Know") to the destructive power of drugs ("Say No Go") to Daisy Age philosophy ("Tread Water") to sex ("Buddy"). Prince Paul (from Stetsasonic) and DJ Pasemaster Mase led the way on the production end, with dozens of samples from all sorts of left-field artists—including Johnny Cash, The Mad Lads, Steely Dan, Public Enemy, Hall & Oates, and the Turtles. The pair didn't just use those samples as hooks or drum breaks—like most hip-hop producers had in the past—but as split-second fills and in-jokes that made some tracks sound more like DJ records. Even "Potholes on My Lawn," which samples a mouth harp and yodeling (for the chorus, no less), became a big R&B hit. If it was easy to believe the revolution was here from listening to the rapping and production on Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, with De La Soul the Daisy Age seemed to promise a new era of positivity in hip-hop.

— Jon Bush

Mid–late 1990s: Mainstream decline[edit]

Contrary to alternative rock, which went on to become a mainstay in mainstream music and replaced the glam metal of the previous generation as the most popular form of rock music, alternative hip hop's commercial momentum was impeded by the then also newly emerging, significantly harder-edged West Coast gangsta rap.[5] With its aggressive tone, nihilistic tendencies, and violent imagery, gangsta rap was considered to be the more entertaining, more lucrative subgenre as signified by the high chart placings, radio success and multiplatinum-selling records of gangsta rappers such as Snoop Dogg, Warren G and N.W.A, who were widely embraced by major record labels and produced a legion of imitators.[5] Albums such as Straight Outta Compton, The Chronic and Doggystyle redefined the direction of hip hop, which resulted in lyricism concerning the gangsta lifestyle becoming the driving force of sales figures.[6] The situation broke way around the mid-90s with the emergence and mainstream popularity of East Coast hardcore rap artists such as Wu-Tang Clan, Nas, The Notorious B.I.G., and Mobb Deep. Both West Coast gangsta rap and East Coast hardcore and their many derivatives subsequently became more prominent in popular music, whereas alternative rap became largely relegated to the underground scene.[citation needed] Following this development, many alternative rap acts eventually either disbanded or faded into obscurity. However, artists the likes of The Roots, Common, Mos Def & Black Star, Fugees, Del the Funky Homosapien, A Tribe Called Quest, Outkast, Hieroglyphics, Camp Lo, and De La Soul continued to release albums during that time.[citation needed]

In his 1995 book on the current state of hip hop culture, music critic Stephen Rodrick wrote that, at that time, alternative hip-hop had "drawn little more than barely concealed yawns from other rappers and urban audiences" and came to the conclusion that the subgenre was a complete failure.[7]

Late 90s–2010s: Revival[edit]

However, a resurgence came about in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the rejuvenated interest in indie music by the general public due to The Fugees's and Outkast critical acclaimed sophomore album releases, such as Atliens and The Score in 1996. The same year with album releases from A Tribe called Quest, De La Soul with albums releases Beats, Rhymes and Life and Stakes Is High. Since the mid-1990s, independent record labels such as Rawkus Records, Rhymesayers, Anticon, Stones Throw and Definitive Jux have experienced lesser mainstream success with alternative rap acts such as Jurassic 5, Little Brother, Talib Kweli, MF DOOM, Atmosphere, Antipop Consortium, Mos Def, Doomtree, Pharoahe Monch, El-P, Quasimoto, Living Legends, CYNE, Blue Scholars, and Aesop Rock. It was in the 2000s that alternative hip hop reattained its place within the mainstream, due in part to the declining commercial viability of gangsta rap as well as the crossover success of artists such as Outkast, Kanye West, and Gnarls Barkley.[8]

Not only did Outkast's fifth studio album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below receive universal acclaim from music critics and manage to appeal to listeners of all ages spanning numerous musical genres but also spawned two number-one hit singles. The album eventually went on to win a Grammy Award for Album of the Year—making it only the second hip hop album to win the award—and has been certified diamond by selling 11 times platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) for shipping more than 11 million units, becoming one of the best selling albums of all time.[9]

MF DOOM had also been on the come up in the alternative/underground scene after releasing his debut studio album Operation: Doomsday. He would come back to the hip-hop scene after the dissolving of hip-hop group KMD. Later, he and Madlib's 2004 project Madvillainy would be released in this time period under the illustrious hip-hop duo Madvillain. This album was praised by underground and alternative hip-hop lovers for being both unique and experimental. DOOM's lyricism and Madlib's production would leave an oddly well-working sound on the albums 22 songs. Madvillainy would forever inspire many upcoming artists such as Joey Badass, but also be in their legacy as one of their greatest works.

Gnarls Barkley experienced a surprise hit with their debut single "Crazy". Due to high download sales, it reached number-one of the single charts in several countries, including the United Kingdom, where it became the best selling single of 2006.[10] The song was named the best song of 2006 by both Rolling Stone and the Village Voice's annual Pazz & Jop critics poll.[11][12] Rolling Stone later ranked "Crazy" as the number-one song of the entire decade. The song has since sold over two million copies in the United States alone and has been certified double platinum by RIAA.[13] The duo were the recipient of multiple accolades, winning at the 49th Grammy Awards a Grammy Award for Best Urban/Alternative Performance and Best Alternative Music Album.[14]

Industry observers view the 2007 sales competition between Kanye West's Graduation and 50 Cent's Curtis as a turning point for hip hop. West emerged the victor, selling nearly a million copies in the first week alone. Ben Detrick of XXL cited the outcome of the sales competition as being responsible for altering the direction of hip hop and paving the way for new rappers who didn't follow the hardcore-gangster mold, writing, "If there was ever a watershed moment to indicate hip hop's changing direction, it may have come when 50 Cent competed with Kanye in 2007 to see whose album would claim superior sales. 50 lost handily, and it was made clear that excellent song crafting trumped a street-life experience. Kanye led a wave of new artists—Kid Cudi, Wale, Lupe Fiasco, Kidz in the Hall, Drake—who lacked the interest or ability to create narratives about any past gunplay or drug-dealing."[15] Similarly, in a retrospective article, Rosie Swash of The Guardian viewed the album's sales competition with 50 Cent's Curtis as a historical moment in hip hop, writing that it "highlighted the diverging facets of hip-hop in the last decade; the former was gangsta rap for the noughties, while West was the thinking man's alternative."[16]

Several burgeoning artists and groups acknowledge being directly influenced by their 1990s predecessors in addition to alternative rock groups while their music has been noted by critics as expressing eclectic sounds, life experiences and emotions rarely seen in mainstream hip hop.[17] As traditional rock music continually becomes less synonymous with pop music, more left-of-center artists who are not fully embraced by hip-hop radio have increasingly found inclusion on alternative radio.[18] According to Nielsen SoundScan, contemporary hip-hop acts who increasingly receive domestic airplay on alt-radio include Run the Jewels, Childish Gambino, Logic, Brockhampton, L.I.F.T. and nothing, nowhere.[18] Regarding audiences, according to Jeff Regan, senior director of music programming for the Alt Nation channel on Sirius XM Radio, "This generation has maybe never even gone to a record store or CD store where there was a hip-hop section and a rock section — it has all been in front of them on a screen."[18] It's for this reason that recording artists and groups traditionally perceived as rappers are included on his predominately rock-oriented playlists, saying, "Whether it’s Lil Peep or Brockhampton or Post Malone, we have tried records from all those artists. ... We need some depth perception in the music we're presenting. Whether it’s done on a laptop or on an amp and a guitar, I just want to find something new — that’s what alternative is supposed to be."[18]

Critical and cultural reactions[edit]

While some groups managed to achieve commercial success, most alternative rap acts tended to be embraced largely by alternative rock listeners and indie music fans rather than hip-hop or pop audiences.[2] Artists receive limited exposure through commercial radio and other media outlets and primarily rely on campus radio and various independent media channels.[2] Alternative hip hop is the recipient of consistent critical acclaim but is generally shunned by American mainstream media and widely regarded as commercially unappealing.[5] New York radio personality and spoken word artist Imhotep Gary Byrd's single "The Crown" was rejected by American radio stations for being "too Black and too positive."[19] However, the song was very well received and become a hit in Europe.[19] It reached number 6 on the UK Singles Chart, becoming the longest record ever to reach the top 10 in the history of the British Charts.[20] Over the years, multiple organizations representing African-Americans such as the National Black Leadership Alliance and the National Congress of Black Women have released statements criticizing how urban radio stations refuse to play rap music that does not demean and degrade black women, censoring out alternative hip-hop artists such as Arrested Development and Dead Prez.[21] Q-Tip, frontman of the highly influential alternative rap group A Tribe Called Quest, had his sophomore solo effort Kamaal the Abstract shelved for nearly a decade after his record label deemed the genre-bending album as sounding uncommercial.[22] Q-Tip was quoted as saying:

I am really disappointed that Kamaal wasn't released. LA Reid didn't know what to do with it; then, three years later, they release Outkast. What Outkast is doing now, those are the kinds of sounds that are on Kamaal the Abstract. Maybe even a little more out. Kamaal was just me, guerrilla.[23]

Similarly, BET infamously refused to play "Lovin' It", the lead single of North Carolina-based alt-rap duo Little Brother's socio-politically charged concept album The Minstrel Show, which provided a tongue-in-cheek critique of African-American pop culture, on the grounds that the group's music was "too intelligent" for their target audience.[24][25] The network was subsequently satirized by the animated series The Boondocks – which regularly features underground/alternative rap as background music – in the banned episode The Hunger Strike. The episode, which portrayed BET as an evil organization dedicated to the self-genocidal mission of eradicating black people through violent, overtly sexual programming, was banned by Cartoon Network and has yet to be aired in the United States.[26]

The alternative hip hop movement is not limited solely to the United States, as genre-defying rappers such as Somali-Canadian poet K'naan, and especially British artist M.I.A. have achieved considerable worldwide recognition. K'naan's 2009 single Wavin' Flag reached number two on the Canadian Hot 100 while its various remixes topped the charts in several countries. Shing02 was chosen for rapping "Battlecry", the theme song of the hit hip-hop-influenced chanbara anime Samurai Champloo, which was produced by Japanese jazz rap DJ Nujabes.[27] Time magazine placed M.I.A in the Time 100 list of "World's Most Influential people" for having "global influence across many genres."[28][29] Groups like the British virtual band Gorillaz also experienced mainstream popularization during this period of time, selling over 20 million albums total between the albums Gorillaz and Demon Days.[30] Today, due in part to the increasing usage of social networking as well as online distribution, many alternative rap artists are able to find acceptance by far-reaching audiences.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Jazz-Rap Music Genre Overview". AllMusic. Archived from the original on November 9, 2019. Retrieved June 4, 2018.
  2. ^ a b c d e "Alternative Rap Music Genre Overview". AllMusic. All Media Guide. Archived from the original on March 13, 2020. Retrieved May 20, 2017. Alternative Rap refers to hip-hop groups that refuse to conform to any of the traditional stereotypes of rap, such as gangsta, funk, bass, hardcore, and party rap. Instead, they blur genres, drawing equally from funk and pop/rock, as well as jazz, soul, reggae, and even folk. Though Arrested Development and the Fugees managed to cross over into the mainstream, most alternative rap groups are embraced primarily by alternative rock fans, not hip-hop or pop audiences.
  3. ^ "Eminem is Named The Best-Selling US Artist of 21st Century". HipHop24x7 | Hip Hop News & Music (in American English). January 11, 2021. Retrieved October 6, 2021.
  4. ^ Outkast's Impact Archived October 30, 2020, at the Wayback Machine Retrieved 22 April 2021
  5. ^ a b c d Erlewine, Stephen. "De La Soul". AllMusic. Retrieved March 25, 2007.
  6. ^ Caramanica, Jon. Review: Straight Outta Compton Archived November 6, 2007, at the Wayback Machine. Rolling Stone. Retrieved July 22, 2009.
  7. ^ Rodrick; pp. 115–116
  8. ^ Michel, Sia (September 18, 2006). "Critics' Choice: New CD's". The New York Times. Archived from the original on July 1, 2018. Retrieved May 10, 2008.
  9. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on August 18, 2006. Retrieved November 4, 2009.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  10. ^ Top 40 Singles of 2006 Archived January 16, 2007, at the Wayback Machine, from BBC Radio 1 website
  11. ^ "Rolling Stone : The 100 Best Songs of 2006". Rolling Stone. December 8, 2006. Archived from the original on July 24, 2008.
  12. ^ "Pazz & Jop 2006: Singles Winners". The Village Voice. Archived from the original on February 19, 2007. Retrieved November 29, 2008.
  13. ^ "500 Greatest Songs of All Time". Rolling Stone. April 7, 2011. Archived from the original on July 28, 2018. Retrieved October 10, 2018.
  14. ^ "49th Annual Grammy Awards Winners List". Grammy Awards. Archived from the original on May 12, 2013. Retrieved April 29, 2010.
  15. ^ Detrick, Ben (December 2010). "Reality Check". XXL: 114.
  16. ^ Swash, Rosie (June 13, 2011). Kanye v 50 Cent Archived August 26, 2016, at the Wayback Machine. The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited. Retrieved August 9, 2011.
  17. ^ a b Hoard, Christian (September 17, 2009). "Kid Cudi: Hip-Hop's Sensitive Soul". Rolling Stone (1087): 40. Archived from the original on April 23, 2012.
  18. ^ a b c d Unterberger, Andrew (January 10, 2019). "Why Alt-Radio Is Suddenly Embracing Hip-Hop". Billboard. Nielsen Business Media, Inc. Archived from the original on February 3, 2019. Retrieved November 24, 2019.
  19. ^ a b NNPA Newswire Correspondent (December 5, 2018). "Coalition Wants End to Broadcasting Music That Encourages Violence Against Blacks". Archived from the original on December 6, 2018. Retrieved December 29, 2018.
  20. ^ "Emmis Cancels Gary Byrds GBE On WLIB-AM". Black Star News. April 16, 2015. Archived from the original on September 22, 2018. Retrieved January 21, 2019.
  21. ^ "National Black Leadership Alliance & National Congress of Black Women Joint Statement" (PDF). October 15, 2018. Archived (PDF) from the original on January 21, 2019. Retrieved December 29, 2018.
  22. ^ "Inventory: 11 Intriguing Lost Albums article on The A.V. Club". Archived from the original on December 28, 2008. Retrieved September 18, 2009.
  23. ^ "OPEN Abstractions". Archived from the original on September 27, 2007. Retrieved June 24, 2007.
  24. ^ Walker, Verbal (September 7, 2005). "Little Brother's "Too Intelligent" for BET". Archived from the original on November 27, 2005. Retrieved July 14, 2005.
  25. ^ Chery, Carl (September 8, 2005). "Little Brother's "Too Intelligent" Says BET, Network Responds To Allegation". Archived from the original on September 9, 2006. Retrieved July 14, 2006.
  26. ^ Braxton, Greg (June 4, 2008). "'Boondocks' creator Aaron McGruder to BET: %@*$% ^&!". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on July 4, 2008. Retrieved June 4, 2008.
  27. ^ Watanabe, Shinichiro (2007). ROMAN ALBUM: Samurai Champloo. Mangaglobe/Shimoigusa Champloos, Dark Horse Comics Inc. p. 104. ISBN 978-1-59307-642-9.
  28. ^ "The 2009 – Time 100". Time. Archived from the original on March 5, 2010. Retrieved September 19, 2009.
  29. ^ "The 2009 Time 100". Time. Archived from the original on May 8, 2009. Retrieved September 19, 2009.
  30. ^ "Blur Album Sales". Archived from the original on September 15, 2019. Retrieved February 8, 2020.

Further reading[edit]