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Alternative hip hop

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Alternative hip hop

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Alternative hip hop or Underground rap is a style of hip hop music distinguished by artists who are not recognized by major record labels, or who choose to express their talent in an "underground" atmosphere. Often, positive lyrics are a hallmark of alternative hip hop, which detract from the materialistic and sexually fueled lyrics of mainstream hip hop. Although some listeners may associate live instrumentation with alternative hip hop, this distinction is invalid because popular rap acts such as J-Kwon use live instruments as well. Alternative hip hop artists generally have not achieved the same level of mainstream success that commercial rap and other forms of the genre have seen, although they are often critically acclaimed. Interestingly, alternative hip hop has developed differently from virtually every other musical genre, with its originators (De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest) being more popular than later innovators (Guru, Mos Def, Common). This is why some consider alternative hip hop more a trend than a rigid genre within hip hop.

The term "alternative hip hop", coined by music scholars, can be considered something of a misnomer: artists labeled as "alternative hip hop" musicians usually record and perform in styles that are more closely related to the original concepts and styles of hip hop music and hip hop culture, as opposed to their more popular commercial counterparts. DJ Kool Herc, the inventor of hip hop music, once said in an essay about hip hop, that "it's not about keeping it real. It's about keeping it right." In this sense, many would argue that alternative hip hop might not be so much an alternative as much as it is a continuation of the original concepts and ideals of hip hop.


The late 1980s


Alternative hip hop is usually said to have begun with De La Soul's landmark 3 Feet High and Rising (1989, 1989 in music). The trio's distinctive style, mixing unique sampling sources (such as The Turtles and Johnny Cash) with spacey, hippie-ish lyrics and a sense of humor, made the album a commercial and critical success. With its inclusion of pre-recorded bits from outlandish sources, such as a French language instruction tape, the release foreshadowed the self-referential sampling kaleidoscope that would soon envelop hip hop (and pop music in general).

In addition to 3 Feet High and Rising, influential singles were released one year previously, in 1988 (see 1988 in music), by Gang Starr ("Words I Manifest") and Stetsasonic ("Talkin' All That Jazz"); these two singles fused hip hop with jazz in a way never done before, and helped lead to the development of jazz rap.

1989 also saw the release of:

Def Jef's landmark Just a Poet With a Soul, which included Etta James, an influential 1960s soul singer on one track
Gang Starr's debut, No More Mr. Nice Guy, which is often considered the first LP to mix hip hop and jazz
Jungle Brothers' critically acclaimed second album Done By the Forces of Nature, which included dance beats and achieved some mainstream success
Queen Latifah's feminist tract All Hail the Queen.

Early 1990s

During the early 1990s, mainstream hip hop was dominated by the West Coast G-Funk (like Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg). Other artists found success difficult to achieve, though some East Coast acts, such as Puff Daddy's empire of East Coast hip hop artists (Bad Boy Records) gained chart success (Mary J. Blige's 1992 What's the 411?) as well as critical success (Nas's 1994 Illmatic), though rarely both at the same time.

The Underground Emerges


While gangsta rap dominated the charts, the East Coast alternative sound began to lose its luster. Strangely enough, underground hip hop, as we know it today, was born on the streets of South Central Los Angeles, best represented by the seminal Freestyle Fellowship. Consisting of members Aceyalone, Mikah 9, P.E.A.C.E., and Self Jupiter, the Freestyle Fellowship married conscious lyrics with spectacular, jazz-like rhyme cadences. Their "To Whom It May Concern" and "Innercity Griots" albums remain as the most influential albums in the history of underground hip hop. Furthermore, the DIY ethic of selling tapes and CDs "out of the trunk" to record stores and directly to fans would soon be adopted by the underground rappers around the world.

Spurred by the Freestyle Fellowship, other West Coast artists like The Pharcyde (Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde, 1992) and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy (Hypocrisy Is the Greatest Luxury, 1992) also rose to prominence in the field. Despite the popularity of Bay Area Booty Rapper Too Short, Oakland gave birth to underground artists Del tha Funkee Homosapien (cousin to Gangsta Rapper Ice Cube) and Souls of Mischief with their seminal album ("93 'til Infinity"). Alongside these West Coast groups were generally more popular East Coast groups like A Tribe Called Quest (People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, 1990) and Gang Starr (Step in the Arena, 1991). International groups, like Britain's The Brand New Heavies (Heavy Rhyme Experience, Vol. 1, 1992) and Massive Attack (Blue Lines, 1991) helped combine hip hop with R&B and electronica, respectively.

A Tribe Called Quest's 1991 album The Low-End Theory is regarded as one of the most influential recordings in alternative hip hop, especially with its timely indictment of the perceived commercializing and demoralizing effects of the music industry, then tearing hip hop apart into multiple competing genres, all rushing to sell out for mainstream success; the album also tackles subjects like date rape and rap feuds. The Low End Theory includes the legendary upright bassist Ron Carter and the Leaders of the New School (which included future superstar Busta Rhymes).

While A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul are considered jazz-rappers, the pioneer of an actual fusion between the two genres is unquestionably the Freestyle Fellowship. Their collaborations with live jazz bands, including the likes of Horace Tapscott, date back to 1990. This inspired other artist s like Guru, whose 1993 Jazzmatazz, Vol. 1 was a critically acclaimed solo debut with live jazz backing. A jazz band including Lonnie Liston Smith, Roy Ayers, Branford Marsalis and Donald Byrd solos in the background while Guru (and guests like the Senegalese-French MC Solaar) raps.

Stubbornly insisting on sticking to their themes and ideas, alternative hip hop artists were able to incorporate elements of virtually every form of music around at the time.


Meanwhile, Christian hip hop group and pioneering Southern rap crew Arrested Development scored big with 1992's 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of..., which put Southern hip hop on the map. The album was particularly successful with non-hip hop fans, listeners who were turned off by the macho posturing of many other groups, and who wanted a safer alternative. Arrested Development's focus on peace and love and groovy beats made them relatively accessible, though their devout Christianity (reflected in the lyrics) also made them unattractive to some audiences.

Genres related to alternative hip hop

Alternative hip hop generally refers to a specific style of hip hop that is opposed to the mainstream sounds of gangsta rap. However, certain other hip hop fusion genres are closely related to this genre, including a mixture of 1970s-style soul music and hip hop called neo soul.

Neo soul

Hip hop also influenced R&B music in the 1990s. By the time hip hop began to enter the mainstream, R&B was rapidly losing its most legendary artists. While Michael Jackson, Prince, Tina Turner and Whitney Houston remained popular, the genre was seen as stunted and atrophied. Soon after, hip hop began to dominate what mainstream audiences thought of as African-American music with the release of Dr. Dre's blockbuster The Chronic. R&B became less popular among mainstream audiences, and several of the groups achieving commercial success mostly failing to find critical acclaim. The groups that did succeed incorporated hip hop beats and doo wop influences; these include Guy (The Future, 1990) and Boyz II Men (Cooleyhighharmony, 1991). Mary J. Blige's What's the 411? from 1992 was especially innovative, and lead to a style of R&B called hip hop soul that was popular during the early to mid 1990s.

During the mid- to late 90s, the hip hop soul sound was blended with a retro 1970s soul music feel, resulting in a new genre called neo soul. Widely regarded as a pioneer of the genre, D'Angelo's 1995 Brown Sugar was profoundly influential in its development, while a group of female artists like Erykah Badu (Baduizm, 1997), Lauryn Hill (The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, 1998) and Macy Gray (On How Life Is, 1999) began its popularization soon after. Around and immediately after the turn of the decade, a second wave of female artists moved neo soul into the mainstream, especially Alicia Keys' Songs in A Minor (2001), as well as india.arie's Acoustic Soul (2001) and Jill Scott's Who Is Jill Scott?: Words and Sounds, Vol. 1 (2000). Critical reviews were mixed, with many listeners feeling that neo soul had lost its pioneering edge for middle-class shallow idealism.

The end of the 1990s

In spite of neo soul gaining mainstream acceptance, gangsta hip hop artists like Jay-Z (Reasonable Doubt, 1996) and DMX (...And Then There Was X, 1999) still dominated the charts as the end of the millennium neared. Critics and listeners regarded alternative hip hop as going through a lull, as even mainstays like A Tribe Called Quest (Beats, Rhymes and Life, 1996) released lackluster albums.

Many observers feel that Dr. Octagon's seminal 1996 album Dr. Octagonecologyst revitalized hip hop's underground; Company Flow's Funcrusher Plus is another album cited as redefining the genre. Del tha Funkee Homosapien paired with Kool Keith's (aka Dr. Octagon) producer Dan the Automator to make Deltron 3030, who pushed the boundaries of hip hop to other universes and times. Alternative hip hop soon began to lose its recent stylings for a return to Native Tongues-style old school with hardcore and jazz elements mixed in. The hip hop band, The Roots were among the leaders of the second alternative hip hop wave, dropping several critically acclaimed albums in the mid to late 90s, including Do You Want More?!!!??! (1995), Illadelph Halflife (1996), and the breakthrough, Things Fall Apart in 1999. On the West Coast, Ozomatli's self titled 1998 release fused latin and funky beats with hip hop in a groundbreaking way.

Mos Def and Talib Kweli's 1998 Black Star also contributed greatly to this evolution, with its return to Native Tongues-style old school hip hop. Mos Def's solo debut, Black on Both Sides (1999), quickly established him as a darling of alternative media for its incendiary politics, while Kweli's solo career took some time to get off the ground; as he didn't appear until 2000's Reflection Eternal, with partner Hi-Tek. Pharaoh Monch's Internal Affairs, his 1999 solo debut after leaving Organized Konfusion, also added more gangsta and hardcore hip hop elements to the mix.

Following in the footsteps of the Freestyle Fellowship were Jurassic 5 (Jurassic 5 EP) and Dilated Peoples (The Platform), who continued mixing funk and hip hop music to critical acclaim and popular rejection. The Bay area gave birth to highly experimental artists like Blackalicious with Nia, as well as Lyrics Born, Lateef the Truth Speaker, and the Hieroglyphics Crew.

This period was also the high point for Hip Hop's DJ scene. The Invisibl Skratch Piklz and artists such as Cut Chemist, Dan the Automator, DJ Shadow, Mix Master Mike, DJ Qbert, and many others put a lasting stamp on turntablism and its emerging genre.

Post-2000 alternative hip hop

After the turn of the millennium, as the United States (still by far the world capital of hip hop) found itself confronted by the War on Terror, lyrics grew increasingly anti-mainstream, with some advocating radical actions on the behalf of various anarchist and socialist ideas. The cover for the album Party Music (2001) by the openly marxist band, The Coup, proved controversial after the September 11, 2001 attacks due to its depiction of the duo holding a stick of dynamite and a detonator, ready to blow up the World Trade Center (though the band itself had been well known in alternative hip hop circles since the early 1990s); other groups like Dead Prez (Let's Get Free, 2000), Mr. Lif with his EP, Emergency Rations, and Emcee Lynx (The Black Dog EP, 2003, and The UnAmerican LP, 2004) similarly raised controversy with militant and confrontational lyrics.

Though most of these bands could be considered "political hip hop" for their lyrical focus, the early 2000s also saw futuristic or apocalyptic rappers like Cannibal Ox, El-P, Del Tha Funkee Homosapien and Aesop Rock.

In the new millennium a new "sub-genre" arose from the West Coast, spearheaded by underground rap producer Daddy Kev (famed for his work with the Freestyle Fellowship). With artists like Busdriver, AWOL One, The Shape Shifters, cLOUDDEAD, and Themselves, the music became known as avant-hop, prog-hop or indie-hop. These MCs and DJs blend their rhymes and beats with an electronica, post-rock or indie crossover. Additionally, artists such as the Bay Area's Zion I have incorporated Trip Hop sounds while continuing to identify their music as underground hip hop, and Oregon band PO2 define their music as "synth-hop".

Sound samples

  • Image:OodlesofOs.ogg from 1991's De La Soul Is Dead - note: the legendary trio are one of the early legends of alternative hip hop, here demonstrating their bizarre, almost stream-of-consciousness humor
  • Image:What?.ogg from 1991's The Low End Theory - note: humor and obscure cultural references are characteristic of this crew; this song features off-kilter references to Alex Haley’s Roots, Duke Ellington, Superman, Ed Norton, Doug E. Fresh and Ralph Kramden, as well as calls for black unity
  • Image:LeBien,LeMal.ogg from 1993's Jazzmatazz, Vol. 1 - note: begins with French language rapping from MC Solaar, probably the first non-American rapper to gain any fame in the US here combined with Guru's trademark, light jazzy accompaniment
  • Image:Mathematics.ogg from 1999's Black on Both Sides - note: known for his righteous lyrics and scathing commentary, this song (with a lyrical theme focusing on mathematical operations and figures) comments on mandatory minimum sentencing, poverty, unemployment and the minimum wage, privacy, violence, jail and the police
  • Image:AlphabetAerobics.ogg from 1999's A2G EP - note: this crew has gained underground fame for their unique brand of quirky rapping, here demonstrated by a song which alliterates through the alphabet
  • Image:Still.ogg from 1999's Soundbombing, Vol. 2 - note: collaboration between some of the most influential performers of alternative hip hop
  • Image:PoliceState.ogg from 2000's Let's Get Free - note: beginning with a sampled speech before moving on to Dead Prez’s militant socio-political lyrics, also characteristically criticizing pop hip hop (specifically Master P)
  • Image:JurassFinishFirst.ogg from 2000's Quality Control - note: lyrical inventiveness is the hallmark of Jurassic 5, shown in this song by the frequent use of alliteration, rhyme, word-plays and assonance; these literary techniques are so widespread that the song is difficult to decipher in spite of relatively clear diction and medium tempo
  • Image:TradeMoney.ogg from 2001's Expansion Team - note: humor and social criticism are paired in this duo, here focusing on the latter with a commentary on materialism
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Music Sound, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.

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