Alternative Hip-Hop Acts to Familiarize Yourself With
Hip-hop is this generation’s lingua franca. Since it’s underground conception amongst the kids of Brooklyn, hip-hop has seen a meteoric rise in popularity. Over time, hip-hop has sprouted numerous scenes, movements, and subgenres. Its importance as an art form, originally and still most prominently as a mode of black expression, is continually awarded more and more deserved recognition. Recently, Kendrick Lamar was awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for his standout album Damn. It was the first time this award was given to a work other than a jazz or classical recording.
Sadly, when any genre becomes saturated in the mainstream market, over time much of the music being given to the masses begins to become stale, derivative, and trite. This is not to say there isn’t good modern hip-hop that is popular and of great quality. Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” may have been the anthem of 2017, the aforementioned Kendrick Lamar continues to put out the most highly conceptualized and evocative albums in rap, and Childish Gambino added fuel to the conversation on race with his track and viral video “This is America.” But while there are exceptions, an alternative hip-hop pushes against the clichés and tired tropes of mainstream rap’s majority. These alternative rappers tend to explore darker or more socially conscious ideas and themes. Not being under the constant burden of major record labels, these alternative hip-hop acts are capable and more willing to take risks with their instrumentals and beat selections, going for weirder sounds than what the radio will play around with.
This is in no way an exhaustive list, but instead this a handful of some of the top alt-rappers in the game.
Long Beach, California rapper Vince Staples is no frills. Washed in nihilism, Vince makes blunt and direct observations about his community. He talks about his community’s observable “death and destruction” in a dark and objective way, not asking for empathy, not casting judgment. Vince is fiercely smart, constructing razor sharp narratives and inserting his own personal anxieties and struggles within his gritty realism. Instrumentally, Staples is always pushing boundaries, whether it the cinematically dark production on Summertime ’06, the brash house and electro influences on Big Fish Theory, or most recently a nostalgic ride into G-funk on FM!.
Danny Brown is a music aficionado, citing influences from Radiohead to This Heat to Sufjan Stevens. He has mentioned in interviews the desire to create albums as well received as Kid A. Brown, with his bizarre nasally delivery, just might be the most charismatic and eccentric personality in rap today. But underneath the animated party vibe one might gather on a surface listen, there is something much darker going on. Danny Brown speaks to the excesses of alcohol and drugs, but highlights the depression and addiction that comes with it in a harrowing manner. Danny Browns music is energetic enough to work in a club if one tunes out the paranoia found in each one of his bars. His daring selection of beats makes Brown’s music some of the most forward thinking in hip-hop.
Open Mike Eagle
Open Mike Eagle, born in Chicago and now performing out of L.A., is equally funny as he is endearing and cerebral. He understands the power of humor and comedy to punch up at cultural ills. Mike’s flow is easy going and mellow. He’s not trying to impress you with technical ability, but instead builds his credibility with his deep introspection, his calculated wordplay, and his astute cultural and social observations. Open Mike Eagle favors his production to be understated and abstract, never attempting to over stimulate the listener.
Run the Jewels
The duo of Brooklynite El-P and Atlanta MC Killer Mike seems unlikely. But heard together, the chemistry is undeniable. El-P’s production is gritty, layered, and brash. The two MCs’ rhymes are intertwined with a griminess and an aggression that is fully their own. The two tackle topics of social injustice and political corruption with a “take no prisoners” intensity. While funneling their anger on these painfully relevant discussion points, El-P and Killer Mike are gut bustlingly funny, punching up with memorable one-liners and wicked smart wordplay. Starting deep in the underground, RTJ has catapulted in popularity, cementing their legacy as one of the most important hip-hop groups of the 2010s.
Shabazz Palaces may be the most overtly artsy on this list. Ishmael Butler, a hip-hop veteran originally known for his work in the jazz rap trio Digable Planets, is one half of Shabazz Palaces. He is joined by instrumentalist Tendai "Baba" Maraire. The duo is signed to Sub Pop, an alternative rock label that is not commonly associated with rap music. The sound of Shabazz Palaces is dark, abstract, and fragmented. They eschew traditional song formats while embracing left field, minimalist productions while the lyrics are intricate, cryptic, and oblique. While challenging and inaccessible on a cursory listen, Shabazz Palaces are crafting some of the most alluring and innovative music in rap.
Hailing from Scotland, Young Fathers have an original sound that honestly might be unfair to pigeonhole as just hip-hop. They’ve gone through a rapid evolution, blending hip-hop with elements of art pop, soul, and even lo-fi indie rock. Young Fathers approach personal topics, but also tackle harsh subjects involving politics and race in a nuanced but pointed delivery. Their sonic diversity and genrelessness is enticing in a time when listeners are have more and more access to different types of music and sounds. Their 2014 album Dead was deemed worthy enough to be given the UK’s Mercury Prize.
New on the scene, Barrington Hendricks, is a hip-hop oddball. Geographically he stakes his claim out of Baltimore, but in reality Peggy is born out of the Internet. A favorite off of music boards and blogs like this one, Hendricks matches his aggressive flow with strange left-field instrumentals. His 2018 debut album Veteran blew up off the strength of his off-the-wall beat selection, his ironic humor, and his reckless pop culture critiques.