If you already own these or have heard them, then screw you, I’m trying to be elitist and this is all I have. Keep in mind these are underground in so far as most people I’ve met don’t know about them. Also, they are from an era where some HMJ readers hadn’t even gone through puberty. This is because I only really followed and listened to underground hip hop in college, and a lot of the albums were released at the beginning of the aughts. Check out my choices after the jump. If you have problems with them, then feel free to eat a douche bomb.
Aside from Wu-Tang, Biggie, Nas, and Eminem from the mid to late nineties, I didn’t really follow hip hop at all. When I got to college, I started blazing with DJ Creepstar, who started turning me on to some underground acts. I was blown away. We don’t talk anymore, but for the first two years of college, these albums defined good music for me, so I thought I would share them.
Aside from HMJ’s writers, there are some other spots to check out the best amateur hip hop talent out there. For all five aspects of hip hop (emceeing, b-boying, beatboxing, DJ’s, and Graffiti) check out the excellent Scribble Jam Magazine. Every year in Cincinnati, four components were judged by Scribble Jam pundits and every segment was awarded a champion (Graffiti litters the venue, but there was no competition). Unfortunately, the self-proclaimed world’s largest hip hop festival was canceled in 2009, but rumors persist it might return in 2010.
In terms of freestyle battling, I have a couple old VHS tapes that were/are incredible to watch (although I can no longer do so, as my VCR has since crapped out). In one such battle, from I believe ’98 or ’97, an anonymous upstart took on world renowned battle rapper J.U.I.C.E–narrowly losing to him. I looked closer when I watched. It was a young Marshall Mathers.
Some artists that didn’t make it on this list, but probably should have, in no particular order: everyone from the anticon collective, including Alias, Doesone, Sole, BOAC and many others. Anticon basically IS experimental hip hop; although, the lyrics are a little too textured and obfuscated for my taste. The Typical Cats from Chicago are a group of three emcees that are just incredible, and they really should have made this list. Living Legends from the hip hop saturated Northern Cali region, I have seen a few times when I lived in DC. They’re like a west coast Wu Tang with a veritable army of performers including The Grouch, Murs, Sunspot Jonz, Eligh, Bicasso, Scarub, and Luckyiam. Then we have Brother Ali. Jesus, what to say about a HUGE albino man that literally destroys the mic on record AND in person, something I can’t say about a lot of the rappers on my top five albums below. I was at a show at the Black Cat, where Ali was opening for one of guys in the top five, and my buddy Creepstar was REALLY drunk. He started yelling profanity at Ali while he was performing. It’s a relatively small club, and my friend was near the stage. Well, Ali stopped his DJ, and made them shine the spotlight on my buddy. Brother Ali asked him if he wanted to get up and battle him. My friend turned as white as Ali and stammered out a “no.” He then fled to the bathroom while me and the rest of my group died laughing. Needless to say, this man is great and very talented.
If I keep going at this rate, I’ll never finish this post and I need money, so here are some others in list form: Pip Skid, Ayentee, The Dorian Three (featuring Adeem–great freestyler), Deepspace 5, Sonic Sum, Moka Only, OffWhyte, Five Deez, The Living Soul, Vast Aire, Necro, Chino XL (another great freestyler), Illogic, Greenhouse Effect (with Blueprint), Buck 65 (just listen to The Centaur–you’ll never laugh so hard), and Deep Puddle Dynamics-which is sort of a Rhymesayers and Anticon all star group. There are many many others, but those are the one’s I can remember off the top of my head. Whoops. I forgot one more that I thought long and hard about putting in my top five.
Eyedea and Abilities. Eyedea literally BURST onto the scene at the ’99 Scribble Jam battle (which he won), and even more impressively, the 2000 HBO Blaze Battle. Supposedly, he hadn’t been invited to the Blaze Battle, as it was more mainstream. KRS-ONE was judging and a visibly inebriated Eyedea freestyled for KRS and got let into the competition late. He then eviscerated every challenger. Pretty auspices for the beginning of a rap career. Anyway, I have seen him a couple of times, most notably at DC’s 9:30 Club. He hasn’t really honed his live skills when he’s not battling, but he is probably my all time favorite freestyler and a joy no matter what. Now, finally the top five albums from this strange section of my life.
Josh Martinez hails from our fun neighbors up North, and you can imagine what a truly fun dude he is. For the HMJ fans out there, he might be the one artist you can all REALLY love (the rest on this list are IMHO). I mean, track 6 is called “Weed Weed,” so I can safely say he will be fun to check out. That being said, he might be a pothead of utmost respect, but he also delves into some rather philosophical musings. Check out tracks 11 and 12 “I’ve Got Devils” and “Letter to July.” The first track on the album might be his best “La Ramba” as his staccato rhyme style cohabits the track with a guitar sample from some tripped out vagabond in Mexico.
All Natural hail from Chicago. They barely made it on this list over The Typical Cats, but this threesome comprised of DJ Tone B, Nimble, and Capital D released such a dope album, they had to be on here. I probably listened to this album close to a hundred times, and their ability to string together such an intricate body of lyrics is astounding. It’s like a lot of underground hip hop records of the early aughts, as their overall theme was denigrating wack rappers. But, they did this in such a smart way though, you couldn’t help but be astounded by their talent. I still find couplets and puns in their work almost eight years later that I missed the first 100 listens. The song “Thinkin’ Cap” (track 13) is so good lyrically and so chill that it would have gotten them on this list if they didn’t have another good song on the album. But they do. OK, I’m gonna get off their jock now.
Aesop Rock is part of the extremely influential and acclaimed collective known as Definitive Jux. Now, Aesop Rock’s second album Labor Days had to do with slave wages (he was still working a day job in New York at the time). The second track on this album “Daylight” is probably my favorite song in the history of hip hop. It’s almost a stream of conscious homage to, well, I am not even sure. Just listen to it. The beats are so dope, and his God Like voice seems to be booming down from the heavens. Simply put, it’s perfect as far as hip hop singles go. Some of the references and arcane diction are hard for people to handle, so this might not be everyone’s fare. But if you’re looking for poetics, and dope beats, you can’t go wrong. Also check out “9-5ers Anthem” and “Flashflood.”
Aside from the personal anecdote about Brother Ali, Sage Francis is easily the most interesting rapper on this list. Part poet, part rocker, part rhyme slinger, this guy can literally do it all. He went to Scribble Jam for a couple of years and even finished second sporting a crazy ass looking beard. Then, the next year, he shaved a mustache for his countenance, never paid the entry fee, and pretended to be a roadie. He called himself Strange Famous. He sneaked onstage to compete and actually won looking like some crazy metal head. Simply put, he is the most eccentric rapper on this list, and might also be the most talented as he has multiple slam poetry titles under his belt as well. Best tracks on this album, his first studio release, are “Black Sweatshirt,” “Inherited Scars,” and “Broken Wings.” He’s a latter day Ginsburg sans homosexuality, and has a myth that surrounds everything he touches.
Well, for anybody listening to hip hop between the years mentioned in the title, if you didn’t know about this album, then you probably weren’t gonna get props from any other backpackers going to shows and lighting L’s. Simply put, it’s the magnum opus of underground rap for this era. Under their very own Rhymesayers label, DJ Ant, emcee Slug, and Spawn dropped arguably the most important underground hip hop album EVER. That might strike some as hyperbole, but it rings true with people from that era more than you would think. Spawn later left the group, but Slug and Ant have gone on to be extremely successful with a multitude of other albums.
Hailing from Minneapolis, Minnesota, no one really knew about these guys. I mean, the freaking St. Paul Minneapolis area wasn’t exactly KRS-One’s South Bronx, but the Rhymesayers label, with Eyedea, Brother Ali, and a multitude of others has proven that underground hip hop acts can become successful without selling out. This album’s ubiquitous presence on the hip hop landscape in the early aughts is the main reason why. Although it came out in ’97, it didn’t reach prominence until a couple of years later (I mean who listens to hip hop from Minnesota anyway?). Combining a sick sense of humor, dope lyrics, incredible delivery and a wide range of beats, it’s a classic, and for me THE CLASSIC. Best tracks include “Clay,” “4:30 A.M,” “Scapegoat,” and “Ode to the Modern Man (Lightening Blend).” But really, every track is incredible.
Aight that’s it. And this is the last time I write over 1500 words for this site, so props to anyone that made it all the way through.
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