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…

Related: The Best Songs of 2014 (So Far)
Related: The Best Albums of 2014 (So Far)

  • BlankShire

    these albums are all amazing… but no shadowrunners click? or Himself the majestic? maybe it’s a so cal thing.

  • SavIIem

    good list but not that broad. There’s many missing albums and many artists have multiple entries which some don’t deserve to be. Immortal Tech is not on the list too. Extended Famm deserves a spot, the timing their album came out and the style was important.

  • Nathan Yell

    When I think back to growing up as a teen hip-hopper/punk rocker, “underground” during the 90’s/early 2000’s was more of how we experienced the music. It was more of a special group of music lovers that had to physically travel to the mixtape spots, small venues and record release events with word of mouth rather than lonesome websites (no computers, shit no cellphones even) that made the underground scene. Looking back on being one of the first kids in school to cop DJ Doo Wop’s Live 95 tape, discovering Company Flow through an DJ Evil-Dee performance and getting a dubbed copy of The Juggaknots “Clear Blue Skies” in the mail via NYC fam was truly underground in that tangible, D.I.Y. punk rock sense. Lines and scene genre(fication) were not in this pretentious predicament as they now are, with the net, the gazillion rappers that came with it and the new generations that have no concept of “getting out there”. When the 22 year old kid I’m giving a lift to asks what’s playing on my stereo, I am awe struck..”You’ve never heard of a tribe called quest?” He replies no, but all I listen to is rap. *sigh* “De la Soul”? No, but I like this old shit, he says. I push eject and hand him the cd.
    The glory days are gone…

  • Clyde

    You don’t have any Natural Elements on here (THAT’S A FATAL FLAW), EL-P is over-represented, there is too much sh*t from ’97-’05 and not enough from ’88-’96, no one but Americans, and no instrumental albums are included. Not enough love for NYC underground in the ninties. Other than those issues, it’s a good list.

  • @Gene_us

    Haha! Yet anoter list that, though excellently compiled, proves one will NEVER satisfy everyone. What we as the readers need to realise is (to some extent) that lists are OPINION pieces. Our opinions generally vary especially the more obscure the topic at hand, that being underground hip hop so we were all bound to be conflicted by the choices they posted. I can’t be mad at his/their choices though.

    Definitely was expecting to see J5, Immortal Technique & Aesop Rock up there & as great as Atmosphere is/are, having 2 of their projects up there is surprising when there’s only 30 spots to be filled. All in all, great job guys. I dig it.

  • @Gene_us

    My bad. Meant to say Dead Prez, NOT Aesop as he made the list. :)

  • CowardlyMe

    Where the fuck is Death Grips – The Money Store ? oO

  • Confusion

    Not sure I’d call Death Grips underground. They came up under a different set of circumstances, got signed to a major not long after they started really buzzing.”Underground” is a hard thing to define.

  • Dylan

    If you think underground hip hop doesn’t exist any more
    then you don’t know much about hip hop.

  • Bakk

    Souls Of Mischief underground?

    Yeahhh…Not many people of the hip-hop heads and the people that were bumping it at that time know it…But I still wouldn’t call it underground.

    After all, they were on Jive at the time…can you be on a Major and be underground? Can you be on MTV and radion and be underground? Even if there was only one song that was popular, I’m not sure you can call it underground.

  • youknowmySteez

    Great list but why are all the albums bar Blu & Exile around 10 years old, missing Diamond District maybe???

  • illexpreshun

    Juggaknots – Clear Blue Skies Re:Release

    Benefit – B.E.N.E.F.I.T

    The Last Emperor – Legend of Bigfoot

    Masta Killa – No Said Date

    Diggin’ in the Crates – D.I.T.C

  • JustSwell

    no Sage Francis – Personal Journals??

  • frizurd

    mf doom
    fuck yes

  • tris76

    Latyrx, O.D.-Beneath The Surface, Aceyalone-All Balls Don’t Bounce/Book of Human Language, DJ Shadow-Endtroducing, Lyricist Lounge vol.1., Saafir-Boxcar Sessions, Freestyle Fellowship-Innercity Griots, Abstract Tribe Unique-Mood Pieces, Project Blowed Compilation, The Grouch-Success Is Destiny, Slum Village-Fantastic vol.1, S.A. Smash-Smashy Trashy, J-Zone-A Job Ain’t Nuttin But Work, Yaggfu Front-Action Packed Adventure, Mr.NoNo-Trigonometry, Rumpltilskinz-What Is A Rumpltilskin?, The Coup-Steal This Album.

    just to name a few;)

  • tris76

    oh yeah, and…..Siah and Yeshua Da Poed-The Visualz Anthology, Boogiemonsters-Riders Of The Storm, Rawkus Soundbombing vol.1&2, Saukrates-The Underground Tapes, Jay Dee-Ruff Draft.

  • mw

    I would agree with about 5-10 of those albums. but the order is wrong. seems like a random trolling exercise than a list people should use for any reason.

  • Confusion

    Nah, we love these albums. Not trolling. What would you pick for the top 5?

  • tris76

    The hard part of making a list like this is also recognizing that the entire culture of hip hop could have been considered “underground” from 1988-1994. It was around this time where rap songs (excluding M.C. Hammer and Vanilla Ice) were starting to chart (on radio and videos), and the whole sub culture of “backpacker” hip hop began from 95-2000. Which in turn phrased the whole “underground” label of certain rap songs. Technically Nas-iLLmatic could be considered that greatest “underground” album…

  • Greg

    Great selection Champion Sound is the S.H.I.T.

    Also like

    El-p – I’ll sleep when your dead

  • martin balm

    wow, thats a BIG underground….

  • E.J.

    I agree with what you said about the Black Star members. They did both sound their freshest back then. Kweli can still bring that heat but Mos (or Yasiin Bey now) seems to have lost his way. But that Black Star album was hot.

  • Nathan Yell

    Yoo..No one has given Mr. Crustified Dibbs
    b.k.a. RA the Rugged Man..He’s paid his dues, been repin the under for yeeears and in my humble, is in the “Top 5 Dead or Alive” illest emcee list (c/o J 2-the-muah..haha). The man slays on everything, including tracks with Bigge, Mobb Deep and Akinyele..Respect Due!
    Also, I agree with aforementioned statements of this list’s lack of globalism (strictly US). England is popping with sick DIY, independent labels and emcees (No..Im not gonna big up JJ fucking Doom..pfffha). London Posse been flipping their british/jamaican (patua?) rhyme flow since the late 80s, long before..umm i dunno Mad Lion..hahaha…The beats that been coming out the UK are very reminiscent of the NY 90s BackPack sampling and drum techniques. Check out Leaf Dog of The 4 Owls…his production plus unique and heavily accented flow are 2nd to None on album “From a Scarecrows Perspective”. Also Jam Baxter and UK vet Jehst bring that unsaturated, intelligence without that rushed*spaceman random word rhyme bullshit ( digital, criminal syllable imperical..) that US rappers love to kick..
    To the Originator of this post: Seeing such intense, passionate opinions makes me feel like this could become something more than a list with list’s responses…Hmmmm??

  • Dre Day

    No Eligh & The Grouch (part of Living Legends who also got no mention), Murs (also part of Living Legends), Immortal Technique, Mr. Lif, Zion I?! Obviously some good choices and I understand we all have different tastes… but No Immortal Technique?!

  • Kent C. Aka Burnout

    I love these artists but for trolling purposes, Im going in like im constantly on leave…

    What the F!? No MF’n….Qn5!!! F!!!!!!!!!

    I mean…you guys didn’t even mention technically who is more now… Jin the MC… I didn’t see Vinnie Paz mentioned by HIMSELF!!!!!!!!!

    YOU ALL SHOULD DIE!!! No Apathy either?? Dude, you didn’t mention Illmaculate?! I didn’t see Demigodz mentioned..
    Dude I didn’t even see Peanut Butter Wolf mentioned!!!!

    You f’n sleep!! get you a cot… He’s the genius behind the first ever metal mixtape on 06/06/06!

    I mean… I am really in disgust here… how NOBODY MENTIONED SADAT X or Brand Nubian at least!?

    Nah…f u….I hope you all rot…

  • Kent C. Aka Burnout

    Jadakiss. Top 5 Dead or Alive. Don’t debate me. He is underground as it gets and deserved his own even though Vinnie Paz is the hardest white rapper alive!

  • Leyendaz

    No Living Legends… :-/ Good list. But #Fail for not having one of their albums. They are FUCKING LEGENDS.

  • Wade

    I have several of these albums. I think this writer loves his MF Doom though. But yea I agree this should have included something from Living Legends (or specifically Murs Grouch or Eligh), early Swollen Members, CYNE (evolution fight), The Pharcyde. But as I mentioned I do have several of these albums and its hard to really nit pick.

  • Salvadorian

    uhhh helloo… ALL NATURAL – SECOND NATURE

  • syabnga

    The roots illadelph halflife

  • trugod

    This is a bullshit list written obviously by someone (I’m guessing a white guy)who is a hipster or has a preference for “intelligent” hip hop. Obvious signs are putting Aesop Rock at #3. Any list of this sort that doesn’t have Sean Price anywhere in it is bullshit. Albums I would like to replace some spots with are: Polyrhythm Addicts “Break Glass,” Jean Grae “Jeanius,” Quasimoto “The Unseen” to name a few.

  • yessir

    Wiki / Ratking 1993 . it’ll be rereleased . check that kid out. Wiki Seaks , pretty picture

  • EyeH8Nuns

    This is laughable, but I guess that does keep the hipsters away from the underground for now. Still,I really dont see how Swollen Members “Balance” did not make this list.

  • David Celaya

    Check out underground rap artist David Celaya out of L.A. here is the music:

  • oldhead

    Interesting list. Rap is so vast and tastes are so varied that I was left wondering who it was that compiled this list. Underground really is a relative term because in the 90’s you could have been signed to a major and still make an underground record. I could tell that the the person who put this list together was white and probably not from the New York. With that being said I can’t fault a person for liking what moves them and there can never be a universally accepted list because we all have different tastes. The school I’m coming from would have had..organized konfusion, black moon, smiff & wessun, masta ace (disposable arts), sean price, rass kass, etc.

  • J Garcia

    My attempt at a Spotify playlist for this list .

  • paulina

    no eyedea and abilities?

  • paulina

    the pharcyde?living legends?murs?grouch and eligh?mos def?

  • Alex

    Clearly he has a thing for white lyricists.

  • Working Class

    Come on? No Big L?

  • horst

    can anybody reup typical cats – typical cats to download for free?

  • burgoo

    i agree with oldhead,my undergroud is Showbiz & A.G,Wu-Tang,All D.I.T.C.,all Boot Camp Clik,Ras Kass,GZA,Pharcyd,Krs-One,Cella Dwellas,New York 90’s Boom Bap is where its at,Qwel & Maker,but most of my list are signed,and never went commerical,not aboud being signed,its a way of life,sticking to the elements of hip hop,and being original

  • edyfire

    Mountain Brothers – Self Vol. 1… Babbletron – Mechanical Royalty…. Illogic – Unforseen Shadows….. Nine – Cloud Nine

  • ehow

    No Watch The Duck??

    These guys are definitely top 5 material..

    “Reactivated” –

  • ROC

    3 albums for DOOM long live the supervillian

  • Mucuna

    one of the best GZA BENEATH THE SURFACE

  • Jared

    I think this guy has shit taste in rap music. He must be white. White people are stupid and they just don’t get rap culture.

  • Jared

    That said, I would’ve expected to see Danny Brown, Jak Progresso, and Das Racist on that list.

  • lindatripp

    “White people are stupid and they just don’t get rap culture”, and then “I would’ve expected to see Das Racist”. Jared, very funny, you have a great sense of humour.
    El-P’s the best, even if he’s stupid and just don’t get rap culture.

  • White Kanye

    Danny Brown?? He just came out and he can’t even be classified as underground hip hop… gtfo lol