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.
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30. Soul Position – 8 Million Stories (2003)
Blueprint’s sharp, personal rhymes married with RJD2’s lush sampled soul was a winning combination when it debuted on the latter’s Deadringer LP (“Final Frontier”) and when it produced the solid Unlimited EP. On 8 Million Stories, however, the duo’s vision coalesced into a sprawling, ecstatic musical statement, expanding on the ideas and sounds of their debut and highlighting each artist at his best: Blueprint weaving clever everyman rhymes and RJD2 focusing his dusty funk formula to make perfect soundscapes for rapping.
29. Brother Ali – Champion EP (2004)
Following his breakout LP Shadows on the Sun, Brother Ali used the 8 songs of the Champion EP to release a focused blast of style and viewpoint, weaving battle rhymes, introspection, and clever songwriting over a set of deeply soulful cuts from steady collaborator Ant. Though light on length, Champion never skimps on content, displaying Ali at his fiery, insightful peak, delivering observations about his surroundings and his past with equal urgency.
28. Non-Prophets – Hope (2003)
Combining one of Sage Francis’ most controlled, straight forward performances and a collection of eclectic soundscapes from producer Joe Beats, Non Prophets’ 2003 Hope paid respect to the duo’s influences while still exhibiting their idiosyncrasies. Some of the sentiments may seem a bit dated, but the energy and dedication to craft elevate Hope over similar albums from the era.
27. J-Live – All of the Above (2002)
On his second full length LP, teacher by day and rapper by night J-Live put together a set of clever tracks, well-produced tracks that set off a flare for all would be conscious emcees: this is how you talk about grown up issues. Live touched on love, loss, the unpredictability of life, politics, and, of course, being a dope emcee, without dipping into cliche or ever seeming to step out of place–the intricate storytelling of “One for the Griot,” the rappity-rapping of “The Lyricist,” the activism of “Satisfied?” and the nostalgia of “Nights Like This” all feel like interconnected pieces showing what an emcee unconcerned with mainstream conceits could be at the highest level.
26. Leak Bros. – Waterworld (2004)
“Agent Orange,” right, right? RIGHT, RIGHT? Thanks to a few key songs, Movies For The Blind may forever go down as Cage’s magnum opus, but even the Necro-fueled “Agent Orange” couldn’t hold up what was ultimately a hit-and-miss album. Leak Bros’ Water World has Cage at his drug-riddled, dark, demented best alongside Tame One, and without any of the obvious choices that plague Moves For The Blind.
25. Viktor Vaughn – Vaudeville Villain (2003)
In the midst of a creative flood that ultimately comprised 6 albums in three years, MF Doom released Viktor Vaughn, a sci-fi tinged take on his already loopy saturday morning cartoon style. Rocking over a set of space age beats from a variety of producers (including RJD2 on one of the album’s most enduring tracks, “Saliva”), Doom continued to build the super villain character he’d laid the blueprint for 4 years prior on Operation Doomsday. Relieved of production duties, Doom was free to give one of his finest rap performances, a collection of some of his most off kilter rhymes and concepts.
24. Blackalicious – Blazing Arrow (2002)
By the release of Blazing Arrow, Sacramento’s Blackalicious–consisting of tongue twisting rhymer Gift of Gab and production mastermind Chief XCel–had already put out a series of celebrated EPs and a gargantuan debut LP, Nia. On Arrow, the duo kept their ambition intact and added polish to spare, upgrading to a densely funky sound that perfectly accompanied the bouncy ever-impressive rhymes of Gift of Gab and an eclectic coterie of guests including Saul Williams, Zach De La Rocha, Chali 2Na, Lateef, Rakaa, Questlove, Ben Harper, Lyrics Born, and the late Gil Scott Heron.
No matter who stops by to drop off their two cents, the show remains squarely focused on the dynamic talents of Gab and XCel, who prove on cuts like the gorgeous “Make You Feel That Way” that they didn’t need guests to create evocative, memorable Hip-Hop.
23. Cunninlynguists – A Piece Of Strange (2006)
Though the Cunninlynguists won fans over with tracks like “Linguistics” and “Mic Like a Memory,” their sound and creative vision stepped into full formation on their third studio album, A Piece of Strange. Sorely underrated (and underutilized by artists not named “Cunninlynguists”) producer Kno crafted beats that bore the deep influence of the Dungeon Family while including enough flourishes and idiosyncrasies (check out the end of “Since When”) to create a unique sonic palette. Though Deacon the Villain was still developing as an emcee, his rhymes on APOS drew from a deep emotional and topical range, making for a consistently engaging and varied listen.
22. Edan – Beauty and the Beat (2005)
Mixing psychedelic backdrops with densely layered rhymes and an offbeat sense of humor, Edan created a rare musical treasure in 2005’s Beauty and the Beat: an ambitious album that didn’t take itself too seriously. Compact in length, but sprawling in sonic scope, Beauty achieved the clever trick of simultaneously recalling two genres (psychedelic rock and old school Hip-Hop) without feeling derivative of either, creating a wholly organic, idiosyncratic hybrid heavy on invention and surprises.
21. Atmosphere – Overcast (1997)
Just as Overcast was being released, rapper Spawn (now known as Rek The Heavyweight) left the group because he didn’t see is going anywhere. Ironically, this was the album that got Atmosphere heard outside of Minneapolis-St. Paul. The album was raw, but songs like “Scapegoat,” “Ode To The Modern Man,” and “Sound Is Vibration” showed the early signs of what made Atmosphere have such a long stay in the independent music scene, and why their fans are so loyal. Atmosphere brought an energy unlike any other. Some called it “emo,” but what it really was was honest, and the rest of hip-hop is still playing catch up.
20. People Under The Stairs – OST (2002)
Creating a feel good atmosphere without getting corny is a tall task, but People Under the Stairs achieved it in spades on OST, the appropriately titled third LP from the Los Angeles duo that could very easily be the the only soundtrack to a summer day a Hip-Hop fan could need. With funky laid back beats that never bore and party-rockin (whether that party is a BBQ, block party, or dance party is up to you) rhymes to match, OST evokes a classically “old school” atmosphere that never feels forced or fake, a testament Thes One and Double K’s organic sound and chemistry.
19. Souls Of Mischief – 93 ‘Til Infinity (1993)
Iconic songs have a way of minimizing remembrances of the albums from which they came. Though 93 ‘Til Infinity stands the test of time as an introduction to four unique voices in emcees Opio, A Plus, Phesto, and Tajai and for its production style (that would influence the West Coast underground for years after its release), its title track towers above all else. “93 ‘Til Infinity” achieves a rare feat: it is a beautiful song that doesn’t sound like what we think of when we typically discuss “beautiful music.” Come for the legendary single, stay for one of the most consistently inventive, entertaining albums the Hieroglyphics crew ever produced.
18. Blu and Exile – Below The Heavens (2007)
Few albums inspire the sort of fervor that Blu and Exile’s collaborative LP Below the Heavens drums up when discussed by fans. The excitement comes with good reason: Exile’s neck-snapping post-Dilla production is the perfectly focused backdrop for the notoriously flighty Blu, who earned his stripes and dedicated fan base with a set of intricate, deeply personal rhymes from a 22 year-old mind grappling with the problems of a struggling artist and ambitious young man. Though he would scarcely be able to make anything as concentrated in the wake of Below, Blu provided a strikingly developed sensibility that bred a slew of followers and continues to drive intense adoration.
17. MF DOOM – Operation Doomsday (1999)
After years brewing in anonymity after the death of his brother Sub Roc, MF DOOM emerged with a collection of quirky cartoon sampling, ’80s jazz-funk bangers that laid the foundation for his wholly unique brand of mush mouthed philosophizing. Operation Doomsday isn’t as cohesive as some of DOOM’s later releases (due in no small part to the fact that it collected a number of songs that had previously existed), it marked the birth of a character and a style that has served its creator in good stead all the way through his most recent solo endeavor, 2009’s Born Like This.
16. Hieroglyphics – 3rd Eye Vision (1998)
The formation of Voltron. Albums like 3rd Eye Vision—the first full length to assemble all the members of the expansive Hieroglyphics crew: Del tha Funkee Homosapien, Souls of Mischief, Casual, Pep Love, and Domino—usually crumble under the weight of egos, disparate styles, and unfettered ambition. Though clocking in at a heft 70 minutes, 3rd Eye never outstays its welcome, doing its work to provide both stunning posse cuts and economical introductions to each of the crew’s emcees.
15. Dr. Octagon – Dr. Octagonecologyst (1996)
Someone must have been asleep at the wheel or experiencing a serious peyote bender at Dreamworks in 1996–those are the only two explanations for how Kool Keith, Dan the Automator, and DJ Q-bert’s stunningly strange Dr. Octagonecologyst. Kool Keith, donning the alias of the titular Dr. Octagon, played the role of interstellar gynecologist, rhyming about lazer pistols, the year 3000, being born on Jupiter, and, most famously, blue flowers. Automator served up a series of ceaselessly inventive productions, fusing Hip-Hop, house, classical, jazz, and any sample not tied down into cohesively dark stew to complement the buffet of unconventional rhymes.
Though countless bizarre visions have populated iTunes playlists since Dr. Octagonecologyst hit shelves over 15 years ago, few artists have ever done weird with as much gusto and dedication as Keith and Automator. We probably have them to thank for Lil B.
14. Dilated Peoples – Expansion Team (2001)
Production from DJ Premier, Alchemist, Da Beatminerz, Questlove, and Juju. Features from Guru, Black Thought, Tha Alkaholiks, and Beat Junkies. Dilated Peoples are devestatingly consistent, but Expansion Team didn’t take one misstep, and it remains the underground staples’ best album. There’s nothing flashy about it, nothing particularly innovative, but that’s part of it’s appeal: it’s firmly rooted in the elemental basics of hip-hop, and it nails them effortlessly. With so many rap crews trying so hard to be something, sound a certain way, or jump on some new wave, Dilated Peoples always just made hip-hop.
13. Jaylib – Champion Sound (2003)
With two legendary underground producers splitting duties on both the boards and the mic, it would be easy to expect a product that fails to live up to lofty expectations. In Champion Sound, maestros Dilla and Madlib stuck to their strengths and crafted 19 tracks of dusty, dirty headbangers that strove for nothing higher than sheer bump. Of course, tracks like “The Red” and “Survival Test” reach this goal at the highest level, slamming and swinging rudely through whatever the system, from high end speakers to the most busted of tape decks.
12. Typical Cats – Typical Cats (2001)
This slept-on Chicago trio had something special with their debut. Denizen Kane and Qwazaar both held their own and stole the show at points, but it was Qwel who really provided the spark that made this album next level. The album is laced with jazzy production from DJ Natural and an always sharp and poetic take on the backpacks, graf, train rides, cyphers, and everything that this underground crew lived and loved. Unlike some group albums that sound like three separate artists pasting verses together, these guys seemed to all be on the same exact page.
11. Jedi Mind Tricks – Violent By Design (2000)
On their second album, Jedi Mind Tricks laid out the blueprint that would (for better or for worse) define the rest of their career to date and carve out a path for a coterie of likeminded emcees to follow. Melding the conspiratorial, the metaphysical, and the outwardly violent on each song, emcees Vinnie Paz and Jus Allah kept it rugged for 25 tracks over producer Stoupe’s eclectic mix of eerily beautiful samples and pounding drums. Though they would achieve greater levels of polish on later albums, JMT never again reached the rush of blood to the head exhilaration that Violent By Design provided on each listen.
10. Atmosphere – God Loves Ugly (2002)
God Loves Ugly is a clear turning point for Atmosphere. Instead of the raw, unrefined sound of their earlier work, the duo started to sound like professionals. In a lot of cases, this is the falling off point—the point when old fans get bitter and that magic touch of your favorite independent artist gets lost. That didn’t happen with Atmosphere. Instead, they kept all the things fans loved about their first two albums and shined them up. From this point on, Atmosphere never sounded like they did on Overcast or Lucy Ford again, but that wasn’t a bad thing.
09. Binary Star – Masters Of The Universe (2000)
The sound of the bitter, intelligent underground. On Masters of the Universe, Michigan emcees One Be Lo and Senim Silla embodied the name of their record label, Subterraneous, crafting a record that fully captured what it meant to be an “underground” rapper in 2000, in the best senses. Sharply written, expertly delivered rhymes, and dizzying multisyllabic displays were spread across 24 tracks that of no-frills, jazz inflected beats. The album’s topical scope and depth set high standards for future emcees looking to craft “smart” Hip-Hop.
08. El-P – Fantastic Damage (2002)
Five years after the release of Company Flow’s seminal Funcrusher Plus, former member El-P assaulted the underground with his introductory solo album, an apocalyptic hell ride through post-9/11 New York. Featuring dense, caustic rhymes and bristling, cacophonous production to match, Fantastic Damage articulated a vision of NY old and new, bemoaning the lost morals of a bygone era while succumbing to the paranoia of the new age. It is an album both intensely political and deeply personal, revealing further layers on each listen—reasons it endures 10 years on.
07. Little Brother – The Listening (2003)
Perhaps one of the most celebrated indie albums of the early 2000s, The Listening netted North Carolinian trio Little Brother comparisons to A Tribe Called Quest and a major label deal with Atlantic. An accessible mix of 9th Wonder’s soulful production (now considered de rigueur for many listeners) and everyman concerns slickly outlined by emcees Phonte and Big Pooh, The Listening delivered conscious hip-hop without pretension, a feat that struck a chord with listeners across the country.
06. Black Star – Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star (1998)
As Rawkus rode a series of singles (and the aforementioned full length debut of Company Flow) to indie prominence, an intrepid duo of young Brooklynite emcees united to record an album that set the table for conscious rap that followed years later. With jazzy production reminiscent of their progenitors the Native Tongues and rhymes fully grounded in the present, Mos Def and Talib Kweli crafted an album that is often as beautiful and poignant as it is head nod inducing.
Mos and Talib at their earliest were also at their most focused, brutally lucid and focused in ways that would escape the former as time passed and would box the latter into an image that he has alternated between embracing and rejecting. Black Star never preaches, never overstays its welcome, and delivers a concentrated mission statement for two developing artists and an entire segment of Hip-Hop.
05. Deltron3030 – Deltron3030 (2000)
As a solo artist and as a part of the storied Hieroglyphics crew, Del the Funky Homosapien had developed a name and a strong following for himself throughout the first decade of his career. As the ’90s drew to a close, however, he reached his creative peak by teaming with perennially underrated producer Dan the Automator to create Deltron 3030, a concept album about a rogue mech soldier battling evil intergalactic forces. And that’s just the beginning.
Through this central conceit and an occasionally less than slavish devotion to being a mech soldier, Del paints a picture of a dystopian future that’s more impactful than anything he’d written previously, made all the more powerful by Automator’s epic soundscapes, combining his penchant for booming drums and orchestral samples.
04. Company Flow – Funcrusher Plus (1997)
Before El-P took the reins of Def Jux and assaulted listeners as a solo artist, he and cohorts Bigg Jus and Mr. Len crafted one of independent Hip-Hop’s most aggressive and indelible statements, an anti-mainstream screed that expressed its dissatisfaction in every ounce of its being. From cacophonous, lo-fi beats, to its dense, heavily codified rhymes, to its packaging (a Sci-Fi image of humanoid ants on the front and a picture of the trio in the inner insert with El-P extended a middle finger to viewers and the words “independent as fuck”), FP represented a complete and utter rejection of contemporary rap, a call back to a bygone era that still manages to feel ahead of its time some sixteen years later. Its seldom a fun listen, but it is crucial to contributing any sense of history to the majority of the selections on this list.
03. Aesop Rock – Labor Days (2001)
Shouldering high expectations after his touted signing to Def Jux, Long Island wordsmith Aesop Rock delivered a career defining statement in Labor Days, an album that expanded on his trademark abstraction while dipping further into his favorite themes (modern labor, the effects of city living on the psyche, artistic creation) and a kind of lucidity nonexistent on previous releases.
Along with favored partner in crime Blockhead, Aesop crafted a set of haunting, full beats that often achieve the gargantuan task of matching the rapper’s lyrics in depth and density. Anchored by the shimmering “Daylight” and the insightful narrative of “No Regrets,” Labor Days drew a daunting line in the sand for aspiring indie emcees wishing to push the boundaries of the English language on record.
02. Cannibal Ox – The Cold Vein (2001)
Though released in months prior to 9/11, Cannibal Ox’s seminal Cold Vein may as well have sonically predicted the disastrous days ahead. Sporting an inventive, cinematic palette of sounds from Def Jux label head El-P, Vein featured the poignant, witty, and often startlingly bleak observations of Harlemite rappers Vordul Mega and Vast Aire. An idiosyncratic blend of abstraction and street wisdom, science fiction and harsh reality, Vein is as unrelenting as it is dense, surprising, and weighty (nearly a full cd’s worth of weight to be precise…if that means anything to anyone). Ox became quick critical darlings while showing that traditional concerns of Hip-Hop could be filtered through previously unused lenses (and likely were so highly regarded precisely because they pulled off this difficult trick).
01. Madvillain – Madvillainy (2004)
Sprawling, ambitious, dense, funny, and consistently refreshing, MF Doom and Madlib’s 2004 collaboration Madvillainy represented the crescendo of an amorphous movement, capturing the inventive spirit of the American underground through a set of uncompromisingly weird and adventurous sounds. Doom’s impenetrable thickets of rhyme whirled over Madlib’s deepest of deep crate funk to create a vision that—even without some grand overarching narrative—had the movement and progression of an endlessly enjoyable cult film, introducing characters, sounds, and setpieces with unmatched flare. And somehow, when the dust settles, it’s only 46 minutes long.