i intend to keep adding artists to this guide. Please let me know if you have someone you'd like me to hear.
4.10.04 creators: underground hip hop and politics
part of my 1998 book "act like you know," on: rap music and the uses of stereotype
Okay, first some general ways of characterizing underground as opposed to pop hip hop, though
obviously the distinction is slippery:
(1) There is much more emphasis on the words, and though there are often nifty little melodic
sampled bits, there is rarely an r&b chorus sung by Ashanti or whatever.
(2) The samples themselves are often interesting; the stuff often comes from jazz and classical
music, though at other times it's more conventional hookery.
(3) The actual rapping has to be much, much better. These folks definitely come from the world
of competitive freestyling. The average emcee in underground hip hop ridicules "p diddy" and
raps literally infinitely better than that. The best are unbefuckinglievable; it's like watching
Houdini or whomever is the world's greatest juggler. 50 Cent is a badass drugdealer, his bitches wear thongs, whatever,
but he's also a clown.
(4) The subjects include the gangster themes of guns, drugs, and braggadocio. But also there are
(a) positive political and spiritual statements including advocacy of sobriety.
(b) anti- and at any rate non-sexist lyrics, including lessons on how to talk to a woman. The worst
underground emcee is not nearly as much of a pig as the average pop rapper.
(c) cosmic claptrap including some good stuff and some strange stuff from the nation of islam and
its many spawn, numerology, conspiracy theories etc.
(d) tremendously creative personal essays and poetry, including expressions of vulnerability etc.
(e) cultural satire of black folks and white folks.
(f) anti-authoritarianism expressed in attitudes toward the police and the president, among others.
(g) elucidations of American racism and racial politics.
(h) ghetto ballads
(5) For the most part, the artists are not on major labels.
aceyalone/freestyle fellowship (la)
ff was perhaps the seminal west coast underground thing, topping out in the early nineties. the style of mikah nine, mtulazaji (peace), self jupiter, aceyalone and dj kiilu, which
has continued in acey's excellent solo work and elsewhere, mixed hip hop fundamentalism with jazz tracks, and fun with
profundity. great verbal gymanstics that doesn't take itself too seriously and great music makes this some of the most important and
listenable uhh ever made.
aesop rock (NYC)
Brilliant, extremely eccentric poetry with brilliant, extremely eccentric tracks drawn from such sources as
old blues, eastern european folk music, reggae. Unique and a little difficult, but very worth the effort. one block
anti-pop consortium (anticon) (NYC)
The most abstract act in hip hop: crazy, spooky surrealist poetry. Daring, innovative, and strange,
but more spoken art than beat, from Ball Beans, High Priest and M. Sayyid. it's them
the arsonists (NYC)
Very hard-edged for the most part, with largely though not exclusively gangster themes. Similar
to Jedi Mind Tricks. The flows, by Jise, Freestyle, Swel, Q-Unique, and D-Stroy, are great to
Slug is the best of the poets. He's not some killer verbal athlete, but it's always clever and it's
usually just slightly askew and intensely profound. It's also pleasant listening: the vibe is laid-back, a bit of the old-time hipster groove of digable planets. One of the preeminent artists
of this era.scapegoat, god loves ugly
a couple of essays:
3.7.03 creators: hip hop instead of cnn
underground hip hop might be even more male dominated than the pop variety. but bahamadia is
both amazing by any standards and deeply innovative. she reminds me of an updated billie holiday
or something: the quality of the voice is unique: simple, deep, but such a groove. the timbre is
beautiful. the flow is extremely good and politically interesting. the cuts are mostly very mellow
and jazz-oriented. though she has been featured on many records, there are only import singles
and one ep available on amazon (i've been downloading). how can this be? with talib kweli chaos
binary star (pontiac michigan)
emcee duo of onemanarmy and senim silla make remarkable music: accessible, with a light touch to the tracks that makes it very listebnable,
but great verse and an underlying seriousness. very creative use of sampling from all sorts of bizarre sources. certainly one of the best gangs out there.
black star (NYC)
The emcees for Black Star were Talib Kweli and Mos Def, who now record solo (though they show up on each other's
records). Probably people who are casually acquainted with hip hop, if they've heard of anything that could be called
alternative, have heard of Black Star and the Roots. Mos, who's an actor now among other things, has a really varied,
amusing flow. Talib Kweli, though maybe more uneven, is also the better pure athlete. Really you can't go wrong
with any of their records: very high literary and production standards throughout.
this is a duo consisting of gift of gab and chief xcel. i didn't love their album "nia," possibly because
someone kept screeching "nia" between each pair of cuts, for reasons i didn't quite grasp. but they're
getting better and better, and the voices are distinctive. relentlessly positive.
brother ali (minneapolis)
now this is interesting. he's the palest back muslim in the world, cause he's albino. we might say his race cannot be
determined: he's transcended the whole category. he's truly a fascinating artist: brilliant. the closest parallels might be
chuck d or krs-one or khalid muhammed: leaders, preachers, artists. also of course he bears some relation to his compatriot slug etc. whatever
brotha lynch hung
oen thing you have to say about hip hop: it's as aware of its own history as, maybe, country music. you can hear people turning
back explicitly to afrika bambataa or de la soul. brotha lynch hung's name is intensely odd, but the music is familiar: classic
la gangsta rap of the early nineties; snoop, dre, warren, domino, etc. there's a whole lot
of snoop in the rap, a whole lot of dre in the prod. if you like that, you'll like this, though i got to say it sounds almost like a
sheer imitation. the lyrics qualify this as "horror core."
He claims Eminem swiped his style, and they are similar in the rhythms of their rhymes, and in the
exploration of mental illness and all-around crazy shit. Certainly, both Cage and Eminem are
perfectly capable of standing on their own. in stoney lodge
i feel a lot about this group the way i feel about company flow, with which they are associated (or at least they've recorded together and they're
both on def jux). pretty amazing flow. but i just don't listen to it. it's grating.
company flow (brooklyn)
i have a lot of respect for this trio of emcees who performed together from 1993 to 2000. but i don't love listening to them.
the tracks seem a little mechanical and lack some sort of lilt or melodic interest. the raps too are kind of straighton hard though
at times as clever as anyone's. you might dig this, though.
de la soul (nyc)
the first two de la soul albums, "3 feet high and rising" (1989) and "de la soul is dead" seemed incredibly radical at the time,
all scumbled up and weird, with much more interesting words than anything going at that time. if they haven't aged that impressively, it's because they
were so influential: a lot of other people tried to do the same thing. everything that is called underground hip hop owes a lot to these folks,
and they still record. at this point, the tracks are a blast: funky, festive, but with underlying complexities. the raps are still good,
but maybe not as good in relation to the hip hop world as a whole as they were in 1990.
del the funky homo sapien (Oakland)
A pioneer of underground hip hop. Mostly what I've heard is "Deltron 3030" a concept album based on the very stupid movie "The Matrix."
Rather an unfortunate idea, though it has good moments. I've got to go back and listen to some of the other stuff. He's Ice Cube's
Somewhat comparable to Jedi Mind Tricks, but with a straightup gangster flavor. Excellent
production that borders on pop, but furious raps from Apathy and co. Truly, amazing verbal
gymnastics on every cut. we get down
I think these folks started out in the late eighties and faded after one album, though I know
there's more material. But "Reachin: A New Refutation of Space and Time" was certainly a key moment: jazz tracks,
hipster cool, and its severe nongangsterism signaled by the fact that the title was a quote from
Borges. Plus one of the rappers was a woman named Ladybug.
dilated peoples (la)
definitely. these folks are veterans, having been around for a decade. the tracks set them apart: some of the best in
hip hop. poppier than some of these acts, with a major-label contract, but so listenable and sensible and fun.
as my 13-year-old said, "this is overwhelming." a cataract of words that, decoded, turn out to be a series
of profound slogans, quotations, appropriations from everywhere. highly eccentric delivery; fundamentally abstract tracks underneath.
political, or just bizarre. not exactly dance music, but you got to say that it's deep. i wish more of it were more comprehensible, though. eating homework
eyedea and abilities (minneapolis)
eyedea is the mc, abilities the dj. eyedea can be amazingly brilliant, and talks fast as hell and makes sense. i could wish, though that overall it was a little more *musical*: i find both the tracks and eyedeas's flow a bit incessant after awhile. still...if i could turn back time
he uses many producers and consistently gets great work: some of the most listeable hip hop you'll find. emp is neither a sick athlete nor a great poet, but gives very cool, rhythmic self-praise. my copy of "music, magic, myth" came with a bonus disc on which there's a like 15-min song about a battle between comic book characters and famous mc's. in the course of it, emp does passable (sometimes just) imitations of like 20 different rappers.
illogic (Columbus, Ohio)
two women, one of whom is a soul singer and the other a poet/emcee/lyricist. they've written music for
jill scott and michael jackson ("butterflies"). i'm not sure if this is officially "underground." probably not,
but it sounds damn good. she comes off sounding somewhere between bohamadia and mc lyte.
True, you got to admit it. Still, this is awfully incessant. Ill seems to have one speed, though
immortal technique (harlem usa)
as incendiary a political rapper as could be imagined, tech is also a fiercely articulate and
original preacher. the arguments are serious, and the flow is amazingly intense. he somehow combines the
bragging threats of the average rapper with the sensibility and intelligence of malcolm x. this makes you think that the
new generation of radical black leaders might be hip hop artists. and also, he can actually produce something emotional or personal in a pinch, and the
tracks are excellent. harlem streets
outstanding "positive" flows over quietly exquisite jazz-based tracks. actually, the music is eclectic, featuring some soul and jazz
vocals and even a sample from augustus pablo (!). this guy used to be a high school english teacher, but don't let that deter you. all of the above (augustus pablo sample)
jedi mind tricks (Philadelphia)
These people are fucking amazing. Brutal and incredibly articulate raps about everything on
God's green earth. Hard edge but with good and sometimes sneaky-mellow hooks. If Slug is the
best of the pure poets, then JMT are the best of the underground badasses. Stoupe is a great
producer. kublai khan
The group is aptly named because they're trying to bring back the festive atmosphere that
originally animated hip hop. The beats are fun, but ultimately not all that great, in my view. And
the emceeing, while more than adequate to the style they're pursuing, is mediocre by
kool keith/dr. octagon etc.
this guy has been around under a wide variety of personae for some time. he's an idiosycratic genius who does
not really sound like anyone or anything else. challenging sci-fi lyrics with a touch of poetry and a sly political agenda
underly beats that seem good-time one minute, bizarre or avant-garde the next. maybe it's good there's only one, but thank god there's one. dr. octogon: i'm seeing robots
Last Emperor (Philadelphia)
He uses a lot of different producers, but gets great work out of them all: really great tracks make his stuff mad listenable. emp is a very good mc in a trad way: not some killer technician, but good, rhythmic self-praise. my copy of "music, magic, myth" came with a bonus disc featuring alike 15-minute song that's a battle of comic book characters against mc's. the mc's win, as emp does passable (but sometimes just) imitations of twenty or thirty different rappers.
living legends (LA and Oakland)
Already seminal (starting in 1996); an important moment in the absolute confluence of poetry and
music into one big beautiful thing. It seems to be a rotating crew, all of whom are involved with a
variety of outside projects, including the Grouch, Murs, and Eligh. Essential.
mountain brothers (Philly)
Well, as I started listening to these guys, it never occured to me that they weren't black. but
they're asian-american kids from philly, world center of underground hip hop. they are, in all
areas, above average. good trip-hoppy beats. good line of talk, though maybe not great poetry.
one problem with listening to underground hip hop is that the point is so concentrated on the
words that you can't just put it on and read the paper. but this thing can be listened to casually,
because it is melodic and pleasant, or you can notice that every line makes sense.
mr. lif (Boston)
Good, solid uhh from Boston. The lyrics are smart, though Lif is not the verbal killer that some of these guys are. Tracks
are solid, though maybe unremarkable. In fact, I'd say the stuff that's better than this is very good and the stuff that's
worse than this is not very good. Revision: I listened again (and again) more closely: smart and absorbing poetry.
A poet a la Slug (with whom he collaborates), and often a very good one, with a somewhat harder-assed persona and rhyming
style and less abstract beats. Former (?) member of Living Legends. risky business, murs rules the world
White boys from Brooklyn. Influenced pretty obviously by Wu-Tang, which is not a bad idea. Great patinated
r&b tracks and very excellent words.
paris (bay area)
Famous for refusing to pull a cover featuring a burning skyscraper after 9.11, and probably more
directly and continually political than anyone out there, including long samples of Georgie boy
("We have declared war on . . . the American people"). Reasonable beats too, but maybe a little
too hectoring after awhile. But also he's been at it as long as anyone: early nineties i think.
they've definitely got de la soul and tribe called quest on board: very shambolic, very funny, non-threatening, if you get me.
good stuff, though joey tells me that they've lost a couple of their original members and are just playing out the string of late.
pharoahe monch (queens)
thugged out, no doubt, but some of the hardest, most badass flows ever put down. reminds me of demigodz in that there's not a whole
lot of pc here, but there is an encyclopedic understanding of what makes hip hop hip hop.
Obviously seminal "organic" hip hop and jazz: a live band with no dj (unless you count Rahzel, the insanely amazing human
beat box, dealing with a tradition that goes back at least to the Fat Boysm circa 1981). Gentle, sweet, though not perhaps
on the same level as pure rap as some of these artists. Also in my view they have lost a little momentum and moved in a pop/funk/r&b
direction; there's less urgency and innovation. Nevertheless, it's all just very good listening.
sage francis (providence, ri)
An absolute master of the mic. Great, interesting poetry, political, prophetic, confessional. Half or
so of Non-Prophets. Seems liable to blow up as the next Eminem, which would be good because the politics
is intelligent, for one thing. andy kaufman
Brilliant raps rhymed with brilliant tracks. Very political in a black powery kind of way while
infecting your mind seriously. Chace Infinite is the emcee, and Khalil makes the music, which is as
good as it gets in underground hip hop, I think. three kings
7l and esoteric (Boston)
these boys are white, though they're wiggers to the max and they prove that white men
can sing the blues. A slightly mellower groove than, say, Jedi Mind Tricks, but similarly stunning
vocals and tracks.
styles of beyond (LA)
This group is influenced by the "mysterious figure" known as the "Divine Styler" who is described as
"The Ayatollah of west coast hip hop. Um, yeah. And despite the fact that "Divine Styler" is comical
in its evocation of a unisex hair salon with God doing the cuts, DS has made some pretty interesting music
for like 15 years. "Styles of Beyond" as the name for an act is just flat and obscure. But the music is
damn god: more listenable and less didactic than DS, but still with a spiritual component. Trad hip hop
tracks rather than jazz, but a bit gentler than some.
tribe called quest (NYC)
One way to tell the history of today's uhh scene would be to start with De La Soul and Tribe Called Quest.
They started in the late eighties or early nineties, with kind of scumbled-up and non-aggressive instrumental tracks
(actually a lot of keyboard effects in TCQ), and creative, jazzy words that weren't the trite bullshit or moronic
posturing then common. Tribe Called Quest was radically uneven, even at their best moments (such as the "Midnight Marauders"
disk), but they deflected the whole form in an important way.
at their best, they remind you of de la soul, but in all honesty, this stuff seems *too* sweet, if you get me: nice but almost
totally unchallenging, melodically and lyrically, though a nice sort of party soundtrack.
zion i (bay area)
really excellent trio; furious flow over goood tracks: brain and brawn both.
hiphopmusic.com (underground oriented)
part of my 1998 book "act like you know," on: rap music and the uses of stereotype
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