The 30 Best Underground Hip-Hop Albums

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underground hip hop The 30 Best Underground Hip Hop Albums

By Confusion & Jon Tanners

Underground hip-hop doesn’t exist anymore, at least not like it used to. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what happened, but some time right around when indie rock became a genre instead of an indication of label affiliation, underground hip-hop ceased to exist in the way that we had always known it. Maybe it was when Def Jux died. Maybe it was when “underground” was replaced with internet buzz acts on the fast track to major label deals.

There are still some scenes, still independent hip-hop labels doing their thing, and still plenty of innovative unsigned artists keeping that tradition alive, but “underground” doesn’t mean much anymore. Seven or eight years ago, if you said you were into underground hip-hop, people knew exactly what you meant. It was no better or worse, but for many fans who craved more than what the radio had to offer, underground hip-hop was an extremely important scene.

Here are the 30 best underground hip-hop albums.

Hit next or click the picture to read on…

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  • D

    Great list! I love this era. Now I want to dig up all of these that I haven’t listened to in a while (or at all).

  • Wookie_Mike

    Did I miss something or did Jack the Ripper not make the list?!

  • D

    This list is obviously about a certain era of “underground” rap; some albums people are complaining about, like Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde and especially Critical Beatdown are too early for this particular era. This is what the writer meant by:

    “Seven or eight years ago, if you said you were into underground hip-hop, people knew exactly what you meant.”

    Also, the long list posted just above me reads like someone trying to find 30 albums that others won’t know, and ending up with a list of the 30 Most Middling Underground Hip-Hop Albums.

  • admunstone

    non phixion definately needs to be on this list!

  • http://yours boi

    Dopest album is Lonely City by Specifics. Track “Under the Hood” is too good for words.. i guarantee anyone who listens will like it immensely and put a number of tracks on their ipod.

  • And 1

    The lines are just blurred, what we called underground back then maybe we just call hip-hop now.

    You shoulda had Blu and CL much earlier and you have way too many Def Jux albums.

    They just forced it too hard and tried to make underground and being a backpacker into some gimmicky thing. Underground artists cannot sustain without total honestly and earnest intention.

    But at the same time that era of underground has definitely influenced hip-hop on the whole to this day.

  • Mysterio

    CL is CunninLynguists and if you liked A Piece of Strange then you should also definitely check out Dirty Acres or their new album.

  • Keith Irwin

    All of the albums you list are terrific albums, and I can see why you selected them, but I can’t believe that you would include nothing from Buck 65, The Coup, or any blowdian. Honestly, I would’ve made space by removing 93 Til Infinity and Black Star (as good as those albums are, something which was all over Rap City and Yo! MTV Raps doesn’t really qualify as underground).

    I also disagree with the idea that the underground doesn’t exist any more. It’s not that it’s gone away, it’s that it’s gotten so large that when you say you listen to underground, it’s too big a category for people to know which artists you mean. Me, I listen to Open Mike Eagle, Blu, MegaRan, Milo, Serengeti, Kooley High, Doomtree, El Guante, Mad Rad, Homeboy Sandman, Count Bass D and DJ Pocket, Dillon, Paten Locke, Ceschi, Junk Science, Mac Lethal, MC Paul Barman, D-Sissive, Heidi Baron Stink, Safari Al, PrettyBoy Breeze, Wiki Morales, Greg Enemy, Da Blue Herb, ActiveMember, Aleon Craft, Astronautilus and a whole ton of others (including everyone on your list). If you recognize all of those names, color me impressed. But yeah, we’re at the point now where I can’t just say “I listen to underground” and have you know what artists that means. “Underground” doesn’t just mean people signed to Quannum, Def Jux, Rhymesayers, or Anticon, like it pretty much used to. It hasn’t gone away. It’s gotten bigger. And that makes it harder to have conversations about because people have a harder time keeping up with everything. But that’s not the death of a scene, it’s the birth of a movement.

  • Porsborg

    Should have won..

  • Chris

    well said Keith Irwin

  • Chris

    There are a few albums I would have included, especially since some of these listed are major label releases…
    • Yall So Stupid (classic!)
    • Yaggfu Front
    • Ugly Duckling
    • The Nonce

    Of course there are others, but off the top these should be included in the conversion. But there is a lot of DefJux on this list, lets diversify this list.

  • Mitch

    LOL @ people complaining because there’s “Too Much Def Jux” on the list, let me clarify thigs for those of you who are either confused or werent there: Those Def Jux albums, all 4 listed. were huge albums in the underground. Def Jux was more or less the most influential underground label, complainging about them having the most representation is like reading an 80’s hip hop list and going “Meh, too much Def Jam!!!”

    In other words, GTFOH

    List was pretty good tho, a few I’d have included would have been Non Phixions “The Future Is Now” & Immortal Techniques “Revolutionary Vol. 2″ and I’d have placed “A Piece of Strange” higher, but I cant really find any fault with this list

  • TokedUp

    We’re all entitled to our opinions, here’s mine:
    I would have liked to see Hiero “3rd Eye” a little higher. What about some Twin Perils or Ab Rude? Also there should have been a compilation album or two such as the Urban Renewal Program or Wu Tang meets Indie Culture. Really this “best of the underground” discussion could go on for ever because there are and have been many facits to this subject. The fact that there are good alternatives to radio rap out there is great and it is all easier to find, listen to, and share on the internet. We can all agree on that.

  • Casey

    This slideshow interface is so irksome. And Def Jux isn’t nearly as important as you think it is, Mitch. Pretty much any crew from Solesides/Quannum to Stones Throw wipes the floor with the backpack rappers over at the Jux. Great list of albums here, but that slideshow’s gotta GO!

  • Confusion

    We’re working on the slideshow technology now. Will be improved soon.

  • imhh1

    el-p is great but not the best… so many album are missing here … QWEL AND MAKER THE HARVEST is a f***ing classic masterpiece

  • Blackalicious33

    How can you leave off Jurassic 5? I was expecting that to be #1. That’s the saddest part.

    Otherwise I would have limited to one artist each. No need for 2 Atmosphere albums, just keep godlovesugly. Same with Doom.

    As for other additions, Diverse, Supastition, Akrobatik/Mr. Lif, Time Machine & Zion I.

  • overthehilldude

    I’ve never heard any of this stuff except Doom and Black Star. I love it all. I need the starter pack mix tape.

  • C-Real

    This is a pretty good list, no doubt. I can live with most of the ratings, though I would have also leave off Blackstar as it’s no unterground per se to me. Secondly, I would have set EL-P back in the 20ths places. He has truly some innovations, but I really don’t like how he raps. Same goes for Del imho.

    Another contribution for this list could be Los Nativos EP or Fashawn “Boy meets world”. And of course Jurassic 5!

  • Joe

    Is there a way to see the whole list on one page?

  • zmatt33

    No Eyedea??? ‘E and A Day’ should be on here no doubt. People’s heads were spinning after that one. While I think El-P’s Fan Dam is dope…he doesn’t compare to these other folks lyrically. The instrumentals are killing though. And Company Flow is already on the list. Love CL, Blackstar, Doom and Atmosphere.
    Also, where’s ‘Revolutionary Vol. 1 or 2′ by Immortal Technique?? No ‘Look Ma No Hands’ by Vast Aire??? Where’s J5 at?? No Hiero??? Man…

    This list is great except he left all of these off…

    And yeah what Blackalicious33 said.

  • Nathan Yell

    ummm..Clear Blue Skies ring any bells? Juggaknots were waaay ahead of their time with that flow..and Id throw a bone to my man Yak Ballz for Sciefentology ii album..

  • yourdaddy

    Wtf? No Eyedea and Abilities? This is not a legit list

  • mary rose

    ATMOSPHEREEEEEEE over alllllll

  • yourfriendthepopmaster

    obviously this list is left up to one individuals personal tastes and i agree with much of his choices. however, not including Freestyle Fellowship is a crime and shame here. Fellowship’s technical and stylistic rapping abilities influenced EVERYBODY. i might not be so harsh if you hadn’t included 93 til infinity on this list, because most of your choices are post-2000. but damn….to have 93 til and NOT innercity griots? c’mon dude….half the people on your list give it up to fellowship as one of their primary influences. i could make similar arguments for both organized konfusion and main source not being on here. step it up, man.

  • http://www.pigeonsandplanes.com Jon Tanners

    @yourfriendthepopmaster — stay tuned, Freestyle Fellowship has not been forgotten.

  • Erick

    Keith Irwin knows what’s up. Mega Ran(Random) Open Mike Eagle, Freestyle Fellowship (Or literally ANYONE from Project Blowed), Homeboy Sandman, Wiley, Rhyme Asylum, Aesop Rock, Cannibal Ox, Dynospectrum, damn the list just goes on!!!

    Listen to Keith, that guy is a true Hip Hop head. Like me. Cheers!

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  • this is the worst

    This is the worst list ever. Lots of these albums are amazing, but the fact that there is no Fellowship or Ab on this list should show everyone reading it that who ever made it spent too much time jerking off to MF Doom and not enough time actually thinking about the albums that changed the underground.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dacrJD_LDnA

  • Mike

    Where’s the E&A?

  • KG

    Having already praised the list earlier in the comments but mentioning i was surprised not to see Revolutionary Vol 2 or Sin-o-matic, i’ll nitpick a bit more since that’s what these lists are all about…

    The Platform > Expansion Team
    DangerDoom & MM Food > Vik Vaughn
    J-Live – The Best Part should have also been on here and pretty high up…its better than All of The Above
    Does Elzhi – The Preface count? Deadringer?
    Celestial Clockwork should’ve been on here too

  • Tim lybarger

    I would have to agree on most of them . I own every one on the list also but come on . There is not one sole bottle of humans or deep puddle dynamics paved the way for a lot of hip hop . Not even one buck 65 !? Top thirty would be hard but there are so many mf doom’s just under different names . I really think this list is lacking so many of the most important albums of the underground hip hop movement . Was this list created in under an hour because it seems that way to me . With so many years and 100 hundreds of albums there are some very surprising chooses on the list and so many legends not known about or forgotten its a shame that people think underground hip hop is dead . Your not searching hard enough or just don’t know all that is out there. Collecting rare and underground music is not a hobbie or scene it’s a life style.

  • GREASY G

    NOBODY BUT YOU thinks that MM Food and Danger Doom are better than Vik Vaughn. Danger Doom isn’t even top 100.

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  • http://www.soundcloud.com/thegimp brandon standal

    eyedea (RIP) & abilities

    grouch & eligh

  • http://www.thenewbeatmaker.com Lee TNBM

    A cool post overall, I like a lot of what’s been posted, however, in the name of debate, I would argue that the following albums should have been featured, instead of some of the albums on the list.

    Pete Rock and CL Smooth: ‘Mecca and the Soul Brother’,
    ‘The Main Ingredient’

    Mr Lif: ‘I, Phantom’

    The Roots: Albums including ‘Illadelph Halflife’ and ‘Things fall Apart’

    Nas:’Illmatic’

    Gza: ‘Liquid Swords’ or a handful of other Wu releases.

    Any of Gangstarr’s finest albums. I thought it was universally agreed that the words ‘underground hip hop’ and ‘Gangstarr’ were synonymous.

    I may be second guessing here, but when I read my list I note that all but ‘I, Phantom’ were released on major labels. Does the major label release automatically stop the albums I mention being ‘underground’, or were the records themselves deemed not as good as the thirty chosen?

    I don’t think ‘underground’ and ‘independent’ should be viewed as always being one and the same. For instance, the late Big L’s debut was released on the same record label as Mariah Carey’s catalogue (Columbia, if I’m not mistaken). Was Big L no longer underground once his debut dropped?

    No shots regardless, and props on the J Live, ‘Black Star’ and El – P picks, amongst others.

    Lee TNBM

  • Dr. Banner

    Nothing from Legendary Music? No Living Legends albums or any of the colabs or solo efforts?

    No Grouch and Eligh? No Zion I and the Grouch? No Murs albums? No 3MG or Mystik Journeymen? What about CMA?

    Damn they my favorites and totally introduced me to the underground scene. Stones Throw and Rhymesayers are my new favorites and I like Gangrene over on Decon.

    That being said all these albums are awesome and its great to see what everyone else likes too. Quit hatin on people for having different opinions!

  • http://www.eatyobeats.com Malfius

    Great post. However, Keith and Lee TNBM make some strong points too, in my opinion.

  • grouch

    i thought the list was good, but maybe putting all of the Mf doom albums on one slide, or any artist that has multiple albums on this list put them all together so you can add more artists. i am also wondering why the grouch doesnt have a spot on here.

  • HDO

    Nice list, but the rules of the internet force me to question it: no Dead Prez?

  • Meh

    Agreed with so many of these posts…

    I would’ve liked to have not known some of the albums on the list, and with grievances in check, looked up those unknown albums and been like, “Wow, ok. This actually DOES deserve to be on this list.” Because underground DOES still exist and to me, that is what it’s like when you talk to serious underground hip hop fans. But instead, uh….

    Just a bit frustrating to see a few artists doubled and so many over-looked (not to discredit those artists, though). Perhaps, should there be another list, the parameters should be stated and/or a list of honourable mentions so the final list seems fully-realised. Or make a timeframe? I personally want to know how Innercity Griots didn’t make one of those 30 spots (confused about it being said on the first screen that underground hip hop was an important scene and then missing this). And again, no Living Legends, J5? And Pharcyde…?
    But who knows, definitely a tough job to narrow ‘er down to thirty!

  • Mars-Hi

    Not a bad list, but not love to E&A (Eyedea & Abilities)?

  • http://4hoopsheads.com Andrew

    I say theres too much atmosphere on the list. Def Jux for instance actually had a diverse set of rappers on their label I understand why they have multiple albums on the list. I think some of Murs’ shit with them could have been on the list also. Aceyalone would have been cool on the list too. Also, do Xzibits first two albums count as underground?

  • osearth

    Governor Bolts – A Crooked Mile

  • Gern Blanston

    No Dead Prez? Wow.

  • Confusion

    There are a lot of on-the-fence acts. We didn’t really consider Dead Prez underground. That could definitely be argued.

  • Fausta

    Access Immortal – Birth of a Dream
    Co$$ – Revelations
    Grand Puba – Reel to Reel

  • http://www.facebook.com/#!/pia.popilin Pia Popilin

    Word on “But that’s not the death of a scene, it’s the birth of a movement”

  • myjah

    Happy to see Typical Cats and Binary Star on the list, they don’t get enough attention.

    I personally think Lucy Ford is atmosphere’s best, and far better than God Loves Ugly. God Loves Ugly is probably my least favorite atmosphere album, so obviously I don’t think it should be on the list…

    Would have liked to see The Micranots “Obelisk Movements”, Eyedea and Abilities, and Organized Konfusion…

  • Hurricane Ken

    I myself would have included some Alchemist releases, and off the top of my head Dialated Peoples 20/20, or Evidence “Weatherman”.