If you spent any time here at P&P recently, you may have noticed our little “30 Best Underground Hip-Hop albums” list. In choosing our top 30, we caught our share of flak. As commenter +00+ astutely put it, “making this list is like drawing a hop-scotch board in a mine field.” In particular, we drew criticism for the exclusion of certain West Coast luminaries. A few thoughts, before we get to a new list.
While our list was an attempt to create a broad overview of a certain period in a specific stratum of the Hip-Hop universe (however loosely or ill-defined you may have found it), it was impossible to divorce our choices from the coloration of taste. A lot of albums made the list because they were personally relevant, but in our many back and forth e-mails and conversations, Confusion and I often found ourselves asking, “but was this album important.”
This question of importance—of weight—is a difficult one to measure, particularly when you limit yourself to the unit of the album (for example, the influence of artists like DJ Screw or Three 6 Mafia gets muddled by this metric). For many of the artists on this new list, one album would provide an inadequate stylistic overview. On our 30 Best list, we considered each work to be representative or, otherwise, notable. The difficulty of assembling this second list arises largely, as you’ll see, in the stylistic variety of the parties involved. Some of these selections may seem like head scratchers juxtaposed next to one another, but they were chosen for quality and contributions under the banner of an “independent” mindset.
For the purposes of critiques volleyed at P&P and this particular addendum, West Coast seems to have been taken to mean “California.” Of course, Cali looms large over both the the underground and the mainstream in Hip-Hop. To any Northwesterners out there, apologies in advance. While the Northwest can’t be ignored (it has been and continues to be a hotbed of indie Hip-Hop creation, birthing a diverse array of artists like Common Market, Blue Scholars, Grayskul, Nasty Nes and partner in crime Sir Mix-A-Lot), California has one of the nation’s richest histories of independent artists that were stylistically influential, commercially successful, and critically lauded (not always in equal measure)–more so than any of its neighboring states.
A lot of questions arose—in the comments and on forums—about the exclusion of certain West Coast artists, particularly considering which ones were included. Make no mistake: we fully recognize the importance of artists outside of the Def Jux-Rhymesayers-MF Doom axis that dominated the list. During our discussions, a lot of the names you’re about to see came up, but were, for one reason or another, left off. So, Con and I agreed it would be a good idea to shine light on some of the important artists, groups, and labels we didn’t include. This list is an addendum and an acknowledgment that the business of making lists is a science both imprecise and incomplete.
Additional input provided by scholar, author, and DJ Oliver Wang.
Hit next or click the picture to read on…
With respect to Raekwon’s slang rap democracy, E-40 is surely the monarch of slanguage, a monolithic inventor of words, phrases, and extended metaphors that makes every album an event in the re-invention of the English language. Over the course of more than twenty years, 40 Water has remained relevant through a combination of scarcely paralleled business savvy and a ceaseless desire to make spectacular rap music. Though his subject matter rarely strays far from the climes of mobbin’, pimpin’, getting faded (wasted, keyed, on one, zooted or, you know, fucked up), and general boss-hood, few emcees can make a song about robbery or loud bass sound as invigoratingly alien and cinematic as 40, whose recent Revenue Retrievin’ and Block Brochure ultra-releases (including two double albums and a triple album) stand as testaments to longevity, clinics on how to age in rap without that supposedly inevitable calcification that accompanies the growth into an “elder-statesman.” Youngsters could do well to start at Mr. Flamboyant and march their way through Block Brochure.
It is important to note in the case of E-40 that, while his music and history of major label deals might not necessarily conjure images of the “underground,” he has (with a few notable exceptions) long maintained a fiercely independent mindset in regards to his music and business endeavors that sets him apart from his peers.
E-40 – “Fed”
E-40 – “My Lil Grimey Nigga”
Many artists who sampled Ahmad Jamal and Ornette Coleman have been labeled jazz rappers, but few have ever embodied the improvisational edict and virtuosity of Los Angeles’ Freestyle Fellowship, the union of Aceyalone, Mikah 9, P.E.A.C.E., and Self Jupiter. Over the course of their first two groundbreaking LPs, To Whom it May Concern and Innercity Griots, the Fellowship engaged in vocal invention previously unmatched and revisited rarely with similar sharpness and imagination. Songs like “Bullies of the Block” and “Six Tray” displayed stunning rap, while looser cuts like “Seventh Seal,” “Mary,” “Tolerate,” and “Inner City Boundaries” blurred easy classification, showcasing singing, scatting, sing-song rapping, and exciting vocal runs that pushed against expectations, predating similar stylistic excursions by groups as diverse as Bone Thugs N Harmony, Hieroglyphics, and Jurassic 5 (early contemporaries of FF).
Freestyle Fellowship – “Bullies of the Block”
Freestyle Fellowship – “7th Seal”
Out of the teeming Hip-Hop cauldron of LA’s legendary Good Life Cafe (whose unique culture provided the subject of this documentary) and Leimert Park arose Project Blowed, the freestyle-centric agglomeration of fiercely experimental emcees. With the landmark Project Blowed compilation in 1994, emcees Aceyalone and Abstract Rude assembled an energetic coterie of Angelino artists, including Acey’s Freestyle Fellowship brethren, CVE, Rifleman Ellay Khule, Riddlore, and producer Fat Jack. The end result was a cult favorite that featured songs like the stunning “Maskaraid pt 1 & 2,” a nine minute tour de force back and forth between Acey and Ab Rude, as exciting for its journey into surrealist narrative as for its sharp, unorthodox rapping. Throughout the 90s and 2000s, Project Blowed would spawn a seemingly ceaseless stream of creative releases, notably Aceyalone’s A Book of Human Language, an album whose cohesion and conceptual ambition are matched only by the precision of its rapping (indeed, for listeners looking to dive into the world of Freestyle Fellowship and Project Blowed, Aceyalone provides a strong point of entry, long the most “straightforward” rapper of the group without sacrificing any of the collective’s vision and willingness to explore the outer reaches of Hip-Hop). Later, the Blowedians would come to include LA indie staples such as vocal gymnast Busdriver, current battle rap staple Nocando, and rapping troubadour Pigeon John.
Aceyalone & Abstract Rude – “Maskaraid (Pts 1 & 2)”
Busdriver – “Imaginary Places”
Though in recent years his calling card may be a fizzling beef with fellow LA native Game, Ras Kass was once known for Soul on Ice, a cult favorite forged by unique book smart, tomb-dense rhyming that sprawled across from violent realities of LA to world history and beyond to whatever gods may exist in the skies above it all. No stone was left unturned or unscathed. On album opener “On Earth As It Is,” Ras Kass skewers Christianity with the ire of an atheist and the knowledge of a cleric; on “The Evil That Men Do,” Kass recalls the work of authors like James Baldwin, discuss the burden of legacy in perpetuating violence within the Black community. Soul‘s most notorious moment, “Nature of the Threat,” presented Kass at his sharpest and most paranoid, eviscerating common conceptions of history through a viewpoint seldom articulated with such Howard Zinn-like clarity and anger (in spite of unfortunately vitriolic homophobia).
Ras Kass – “The Evil That Men Do”
Ras Kass – “Nature of the Threat”
With his booming destroyer-of-worlds voice, intricate metaphors, and idiosyncratic on-beat/off-beat flow, Oakland native Saafir staked out territory as one of the West’s most distinctive emcees. After strong showings alongside Casual and Digital Underground, Saafir’s debut LP Boxcar Sessions and a legendary battle between his Hobo Junction crew and Hieroglyphics on Sway and King Tech’s storied Wake Up Show all but solidified his place in West Coast lore, even if the latter is perhaps a point of controversy (the victor of the battle and whether or not Saafir pre-wrote his rhymes have been in dispute since the broadcast aired in 1994). Some emcees are defined by what they say, others how they say it. Saafir represents a happy marriage of both, a uniquely gifted voice wrapping itself around references often askew and obscure. While his career is marked by mismanagement and unmet expectations, Saafir has remained active and interesting, at very least leaving behind a fascinating, highlight-filled wake for fans to Google and parse through.
Saafir – “Light Sleeper”
Hobo Junction vs. Hieroglyphics on The Wake Up Show
To discuss the genesis of trunk-to-listener brand building in Hip-Hop without touching on LA’s Living Legends is to paint an incomplete portrait of the 90s underground hustle. Sprouting out of the alignment of the Mystik Journeymen (Sunspot Jonz and Luckyiam, then PSC), 3 Melancholy Gypsies (Murs, Scarub, and Eligh), and the Grouch, the LL crew (which would grow to include emcees Aesop, Arata, and Bicasso) quickly blazed an exemplary path for aspiring indie rappers, pressing their own CD’s, handling distribution (hawking albums outside of San Francisco’s famed Amoeba Records), and booking tours, often far beyond the reaches of their California home. To speak of LL is to speak of paid dues and true grass roots grinding, not to mention truly eclectic Hip-Hop. Though their sound is often identifiable with the breezy west coast aesthetic that defined much of the Hieroglyphics’ crew’s mid 90s output (see The Grouch’s Fuck the Dumb, Scarub’s Heavenbound, and Eligh’s Gas Dream for strong primers to this particular end), each member of the group has a penchant for constant invention and re-invention, as evidenced by the post-2000 output of the group’s most visible and commercially successful emcee, Murs.
Murs – “God’s Work”
Eligh – “Chronic”
It’s not often in music that artists as philosophically articulate as they are musically gifted, but fans of Oakland’s the Coup have long been blessed by just such a rare combination. Coup frontman Boots Riley one of Hip-Hop’s prime rabble rousers and political thinkers since the group’s debut in 1991, using his measured, smooth flow to expound on a variety of topics alien even to the most strident political rap. Pointed critiques of capitalism, the American political system, police practices, and an outspoken communist bent meet often with street savvy and smooth rhyming, resulting in overtly “political” tracks like “Dig It” and nuanced social commentaries like epic signature song “Me and Jesus the Pimp in the ’79 Grenada Last Night.” “Me and Jesus” puts all of the Coup’s best qualities on display, Boots Riley’s cutting combination of humor and observation building a detailed world that the listener can get lost in and learn from in equal measure. Unlike some political artists consumed completely by didacticism, Riley has always known when to let his foot off the gas, with songs like the sultry “Ijustwannalayaroundalldayinbedwithyou” providing occasional respite from the insightful assault.
The Coup – “Me And Jesus the Pimp In the ’79 Grenada Last Night”
The Coup – “5 Million Ways to Kill A CEO”
Though most beyond the Bay Area might consider Hyphy a flash in the Hip-Hop pan, its roots run far deeper than “Tell Me When To Go” and a few Drake shout outs on “The Motto.” For Mac Dre, the culture that became crystallized in the Hyphy movement–thizzin, beats that slapped, and a goofy sensibility that pervaded even thugged-out threats–represented a way of life both on and off record. The Oakland native released his first spate of albums in the early 90s, but his career began to take off at the end of the decade after a stint in prison. In the early 2000s, Dre’s output was prolific, a slew of albums and mixtapes that contained the inventive party jams and mob music that would influence Bay Area rappers for years to come. Dre’s sense of humor and wild inventiveness seeped into every angle of his music, whether naming albums (such as the fantastically punny Thizzelle Washington and Ronald Dregan: Dreganomics) or instructing listeners how to do the pigeon. In 2004, with Hyphy still two years away from national exposure, Dre was tragically gunned down. Though he didn’t live to enjoy the spoils of Hyphy’s moment in the sun, his legacy looms over artists on both locally and across the US.
Mac Dre – “Giggin'”
Mac Dre – “Feelin Myself”
Birthed out of a University of California Davis radio station in the early 1990s, the SoleSides collective initially comprised a group of Hip-Hop loving college DJs: Xavier Mosely, Tim Shimura, Jeff Chang, and Josh Davis. Mosely joined forces with Timothy Parker to form Blackalicious, as the funk-freaking Chief Xcel and tongue-twisting emcee Gift of Gab, respectively. Shimura, originally known as Asia Born, would adopt the moniker Lyrics Born, combine forces with fellow Cali maverick Lateef, and step to the forefront of avant-hop as the group, Latyrx. Chang stuck with his given name and became one of Hip-Hop’s first public academics, a position both lauded and accompanied by occasional vilification. Perhaps paramount among the group, Davis would go by the name DJ Shadow and alter the course of instrumental Hip-Hop with his often imitated debut masterpiece Endtroducing…. After a string of groundbreaking singles (DJ Shadow’s “Entropy” 12”), EPs (Blackalicious’ Melodica) and albums (Latyrx’s The Album), SoleSides closed its doors and reformed in 1997 as Quannum Projects. Quannum would carry over its roster of budding stars (with Blackalicious and DJ Shadow releasing their next projects jointly with MCA records) and go on to add indie talents Tommy Guerrero and the Lifesavas, among others. Quannum continues to operate wholly independently.
Blackalicious – “Alphabet Aerobics”
DJ Shadow – “Entropy”
Ok, Stones Throw did have pretty prime placement on our Top 30 Album list, but to reduce the label to Jaylib and Madvillainy is to ignore the breadth of a vibrant independent ecosystem. One of indie Hip-Hop’s most fervently followed indies, Stones Throw saw humble beginnings in 1996 as LA-based DJ Peanut Butter Wolf established a home to release his work with young emcee Charizma, who was tragically gunned down three years prior at the age of 20. After releasing a series of compilations through other labels, Peanut Butter Wolf’s love of both recording and promotion inspired the founding of Stones Throw. Over the next half decade, Stones Throw would solidify itself as a home for eccentric left coast Hip-Hop, featuring releases from Encore, Rasco, Lootpack, A-Trak, and one of the label’s pillar personalities, Madlib. Under an assortment of aliases (most famously Quasimoto and Yesterday’s New Quintet), Madlib would release a whirlwind of inventive beat tapes, seemingly eclipsing the output of the rest of the rap’s producers combined as the 2000s progressed. In 2003, Stones Throw took full flight as an independent powerhouse with the release of two Madlib aided collaborative albums: Jaylib with producer/rapper J Dilla, and Madvillainy with rapper MF Doom (both of which faired quite well on our Top 30 list). In the years since, Stones Throw has been a breeding ground for diverse talents (Oh No, MED, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Dam Funk, Aloe Blacc, Mayer Hawthorne, James Pants, Koushik, Guilty Simpson, Mars Volta’s Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, Homeboy Sandman, and Madlib’s seemingly endless array of alter egos) as well as innovative practices in fan relations, routinely releasing extravagant box sets, special editions, and all manner of thoughtfully designed collectibles.
Lootpack – “Whenimondamic”
Madlib – “Slim’s Return”