Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Top 10 Underground Hip-Hop Albums

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction...

In the late 90’s, Hip-Hop’s popularity soared and the music infiltrated nearly every aspect of American pop culture. From the non-stop media coverage of the “East vs. West Feud” to the ubiquity of Puff Daddy and his danceable remakes to multi-national corporations realizing the buying power of the “Hip-Hop Generation”and marketing directly to them, Hip-Hop had outlasted nearly every other subculture and established itself as the predominant youth culture by the end of the century.

This explosion can be attributed to many factors: the “old school” fans of the 80’s growing up and asserting their sensibilities on the world around them, record labels and other companies seeing the potential in marketing to this previously ignored demographic, a crop of “Rap Stars” that were not as dangerous and NWA or as corny as MC Hammer, but struck the perfect balance between the streets and the pop charts (the continued success of acts from this era like Puffy, Jay-Z, Missy Elliot, Busta Rhymes and members of The Fugees speaks volumes about how right they got it), and a shift in production from songs that were made by and for a very specific segment of the population (think anything by Wu-Tang Clan or Boot Camp Clik) to songs that were so accessible and fun that everyone from small children to soccer moms could appreciate them if they were played at a cookout (think Bad Boy or Missy/Timbaland).

However, in the midst of this widespread acclaim and recognition, a group of artists from across the United States took it upon themselves to search for “that next Sh*t.” This new breed of “Underground,” “Independent” or “Backpack” MC was more interested in impressing like-minded fans/peers with slick wordplay or telling a compelling story than getting people on the dance floor and their albums on Billboard’s Hot 100.

While this movement can be traced to NYU’s WKCR and the “White Label” (the practice of producing vinyl singles independently to be played predominately by DJ’s, most of which did not include cover art, hence “White Label”) era in NYC, artist from locations as diverse as Minneapolis (Atmosphere), Los Angeles (Living Legends, Peanut Butter Wolf), North Carolina (Little Brother), Rhode Island (Sage Francis) and Detroit (Madlib) quickly rose to prominence and many operate independent record labels that serve as a distribution channel for “Left-Of-Center” Hip-Hop today.

The following list contains the ten best underground/independent Hip-Hop albums released between 1995 and 2010. And while the scene continues to flourish and produce talented MC’s and producers that will no doubt be aided by the low cost of recording now afforded by personal computers and the shift to digital distribution, this list documents the first 15 years of Indy Hip-Hop.

...These albums are that reaction.

La Coka Nostra
A Brand You Can Trust (2009)

Nearly two decades after House of Pain released one of the most universally loved songs in Hip-Hop (1992’s “Jump Around”), Everlast, Danny Boy and DJ Lethal partnered with underground vets Ill Bill and Slaine to release one of the rawest, rowdiest and most diverse albums of all time. Like most rappers/groups that have an enormous crossover hit, House of Pain’s talents were criminally slept on by the industry and fans (Naughty by Nature, LL Cool J and Busta Rhymes also fall into this category), but by partnering with two of independent Hip-Hop’s finest representatives, La Coka Nostra rose like a five headed monster to get the respect all members deserved.

The songs are aggressive (“Bloody Sunday,” “Gun In Your Mouth”) and thoughtful (“Get You By,” “The Stain”), personal (“Cousin Of Death”) and political (“I’m An American”) and the guest list is diverse (Snoop Dogg, Bun B, Immortal Technique, Sick Jacken, Cypress Hill, to name a few) but the cameos all mesh so well with the song concepts that it sounds like one big group pushing a unified agenda throughout the course of the album. “A Brand You Can Trust” represents the rare occasion when a collaboration is truly bigger than the sum of it’s parts.

For more La Coka Nostra check out the “House of Pain Show NYC” movie in the OTHER MOVIES section.

Company Flow
Funcrusher Plus (1997)

Considering that the Hip-Hop landscape of 1997 was dominated by the glossy hip-pop of Puff Daddy, the danceable eccentricities of Missy Elliot and “Nice Guy” rappers like Will Smith, it is hard to imagine an album this at odds with popular sentiment could not only gain a following but have an impact so profound that it had to be re-released in 2009 because new fans could not find copies of the original pressing.

Originally released by Rawkus records in the heyday of the “Shiny Suit Era,” Funcrusher Plus was like a sobering punch in the face that reminded you how groundbreaking and revolutionary Hip-Hop could sound when the samples weren’t obvious, the lyrics weren’t dumbed down and the marketing didn’t overshadow the music. If the album had to be described in one word it would be: “DENSE.” The beats are multi-layered to the point of sounding claustrophobic, the rhymes are full of double entendres and social commentary disguised as inside jokes and the album continues to command fans to reach for the “Rewind Button” a full 13 years after it’s release because Mr. Len, Big Jus and El-P were so far ahead of their time.

Madvillian (MF Doom & Madlib)
Madvilliany (2004)

Originally debuting as Zev Love X (of KMD fame) in the early 90’s, Daniel Dumile took almost a decade off and resurfaced in the early 2000’s as the mask-wearing, villianous, oddball, MF Doom. Doom’s creative output in the early 2000’s was mind boggling, every few months he seemed to release another opus (either solo or collaboratively) that was so different from anything else that fans and critics were forced to take notice. While his solo work is obviously noteworthy, it is his collaborations with a wide array of underground producers that allowed MF Doom to truly explore his warped creativity, and this 2004 LP with Madlib is the best Doom/Producer callabo to be released.

While not as accessible as his later collaboration with Danger Mouse (2005’s “Danger Doom”) or bizarre as his solo efforts (any volume of “Metal Fingers...”) Madvilliany represents MF Doom at his off-the-wall finest, with incredible sonic backdrops provided by underground favorite Madlib and lyrics reminiscent of free verse poetry. The subject matter and beats are exceptionally varied but somehow held together by Doom’s over-the-top persona.

While MF Doom has released an astonishing amount of innovative material, Madvilliany stands as the crowning achievement of one of Hip-Hop’s true originals.

Mos Def & Talib Kweli
Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Blackstar (1998)

“Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Blackstar” would introduce the world at large to two future superstar MC’s, one of Hip-Hop’s most respected producers and the label that would make NYC’s indie culture explode beyond the confines of the five boroughs. Prior to the release of this album Underground Hip-Hop was predominantly confined to New York City and college campuses scattered throughout the US, after this release it became apparent that there was a sizable market of Hip-Hop heads unconcerned with how many times a song was played on the radio or what kind of car their favorite MC drove.

The “Blackstar” album served as the formal introduction of Mos Def and Talib Kweli, two MC’s that continue to be relevant well after a decade into careers that span hit singles, top selling albums, movie roles and various business ventures. The album also introduced the masses to the hypnotic production style of DJ Hi-Tek, who would go on to have success with a diverse list of MC’s and singers. Finally, the album served as the first major crossover success for Rawkus records, and while the eventual fate of the label is lamentable, it is inarguable that it helped catapult independently released Hip-Hop further into the public consciousness than any label before it.

The album itself is challenging, but accessible, due in large part to the personalities of the two MC’s and Hi-Tek’s warm production, and stands in sharp contrast to the danceable, cookie cutter hip-pop dominating radio at the time. Standouts like “Respiration” with Common, “Hater Players” and the classic single “Re-Definition” separated this release from the pack of indie releases at the time and elevated all involved parties: MC’s, Producer and upstart Record Label, to new levels of success.

Aesop Rock
Labor Days (2001)
While Aesop Rock had previously released “Float” on Mush Records, “Labor Days” was his debut on the Definitive Jux imprint he would be associated with for the next decade. The combination of Aes’ serpentine lyrics with previous collaborator Blockhead and the production efforts of Def Jux honcho El-P produced an album that is nothing short of amazing.

“Labor Days” is a concept album that masterfully weaves tales of “wage slaves” and examines the soul crushing nature of the 9-5 grind that could only be executed by a true poet that attempted corporate life before coming to his senses and pursuing a career as an MC (as Aes did). Songs like “Daylight,” “No Regrets” and “9-5’ers Anthem” are abstract but convey a clear message, the beats are innovative and completely different from the typical commercial Hip-Hip production and the wordplay is a dizzying concoction of metaphors, allegory and alliteration that sounds cutting-edge nearly a decade after its’ release.

Little Brother
The Minstrel Show (2005)

Released in the fall of 2005, while “Crunk” was hitting it’s commercial apex and a crop of Texas rappers was exposing the world at large to their “Chopped & Screwed” style, Little Brother rose from the underground scene of Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina with their own brand of intelligent, soulful, thinking-man’s southern Hip-Hop.

“The Minstrel Show” held a mirror to Little Brother’s commercially-minded peers and showed them with astonishing clarity how buffoonish they really looked. There are standout tracks like the optimistic “Beautiful Morning,” the comical “Cheatin’” and the lead single “Lovin’ It,” but the album is best digested whole as a cohesive piece of work where the songs and interludes fit together like pieces of a puzzle and the finished picture is a vivid depiction of just how great Southern Hip-Hop could be.

The lyrics are straightforward and range from dead serious to sarcastically comical and the blue collar delivery of MC’s Phonte and Rapper Big Pooh combined with the soulful, beats of 9th wonder make “The Minstrel Show” an easy pill to swallow.

Movies For The Blind (2002)

When “Movies For The Blind” was released in mid-2002 it felt more like a greatest hits compilation than an actual album because many of the songs had been circulating around the underground for several years (the outstanding “Agent Orange” in particular had first surfaced in 1997), however Cage’s visceral, punishing flow combined with production from a who’s who of indie Hip-Hop (Necro, El-P, DJ Mighty Mi, RJD2) made “Movies” an incredible experience for fans not intimidated by the brutal subject matter (mental illness, drug use, violence, explicit sex, etc.).

“Movies For The Blind” is often categorized as “Horrorcore,” but it is a far cry from name dropping Freddy Krueger and listing despicable acts for shock value, rather it is the journey inside the psyche of a man that has been exposed to some of the worst aspects of American society (a childhood filled with domestic violence, adolescent years spent in a mental institution and an adulthood plagued by drug use, relationship issues and a somewhat stagnant career) only to rise and tell his story in a manner so visual and immersive that the album truly lives up to it’s title.

Murs & 9th Wonder
Murs 3:16 The 9th Edition (2004)

“Murs 3:16 The 9th Edition” truly represents how nationwide Independent Hip-Hop had become by 2004. The album combines one of the most slept-on California MC’s (Murs) with a rising producer from the south (9th Wonder) and was released on New York indie heavyweight Definitive Jux Records. “3:16” is short and sweet, only 9 songs and one bangin’ intro was all it took for backpackers from Harlem to Compton to know they were witnessing something special.

9th wonder and Murs both bring their respective “A-Game” to the project as the beats are soulful, but not soft and the lyrics and song concepts are so airtight that if you were not a Murs fan when the CD started, you were by the end of track #3. Mur’s self-effacing humor, everyman persona and ability to tell incredibly intricate stories make the songs instantly relatable and memorable.

This album represents what happens when seemingly disparate styles come together and make something truly unique and interesting, the fact that the duo just released their fourth full-length collaboration (sans Def Jux) and Murs continues to successfully tour the world while 9th produces for some of the biggest names in entertainment is a testament to just how much “3:16” changed the game.

I’ll Sleep When Your Dead (2007)

El-P’s “I’ll Sleep When Your Dead” fully delivers on the promise of his early work with Company Flow (See #9) , is first solo album (2002’s solid “Fantastic Damage”) and his various production credits on his Def Jux imprint. ISWYD presents Hip-Hop in a dystopian future where Big Brother has won and El-P is taking it upon himself to start a revolution.

While the lyrics and song concepts are mindblowing and El-P is able to deliver incredibly varied production that contributes to the overall “sound of what you don’t know killing you” vibe of the project, the album is truly remarkable because it fully realizes the Def Jux aesthetic with all guns not only blazing, but hitting their targets.

There are appearances from other Def Jux MC’s that mesh seemlessly into the overall narrative (Aesop Rock,Cage, Tame One), collaborations with rockers that work amazingly well (Trent Reznor, The Mars Volta), and musical arrangements that sound like symphonies of chaos. ISWYD is the best representation of one of Hip-Hop’s most commercially and critically successful independent labels and truly sounds like Hip-Hop made for the year 3000.

Dr. Octagon (aka Kool Keith)
Dr. Octagon (1996)

Aliases, bizarre lyrics, concept albums, full length MC/Producer collaborations, interesting artwork, being released on an indie label, being hard to find in chain stores...this album started so many trends that are still prominent in underground Hip-Hop that it’s hard to quantify the impact of “Dr. Octagon.”

About a decade after Kool Keith introduced his off-kilter flow and “different” way of thinking with the Ultramagnetic MC’s he linked up with Dan The Automator and combined electronica-influenced beats with a crazy character (Dr. Octagon is a perverted, sexually deviant doctor) and explicit rhymes to make one of the most innovative and unique Hip-Hop albums ever released. Dan The Automator provides soundscapes that are so futuristic they sound as if they were recorded in outer space and Kool Keith/Dr. Octagon’s rhymes are about as “out there” as anything ever recorded.

“Dr. Octagon” is as “different” as anything ever released in any genre of music, but the impact it had on underground Hip-Hop and an entire generation of independent-minded MC’s in undeniable.

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