Alternative hip-hop has always challenged the status quo, and oftentimes, influenced the next generation of artists who came after them. Still, the artistic risks proved fruitful for many who found commercial success without compromising their sound. However, many alternative hip-hop artists are placed in the “underground” category, even in 2023. But, with the power of the internet, they are successful in their own right and have a different connection with their listeners than the chart-topping artists. Alternative hip-hop is a genre that continues to expand as the years go on because there will always be artists who do things their own way. We’ve compiled a list of artists from years past that laid the groundwork for the alternative hip-hop artists of today.
A Tribe Called Quest
A Tribe Called Quest was one of the pioneer groups in the alternative hip-hop space. With smooth jazzy samples from producer and rapper Q-Tip, they contrasted the prominent sounds of hardcore hip-hop. Their delivery style was smooth and lined up with their jazz-based production well. However, that’s not to say they didn’t have energy-filled tracks in their repertoire too. “Scenario” comes to mind when fans recall some of their biggest high-energy tracks which boasts a standout verse from Busta Rhymes. Meanwhile, records like “Electric Relaxation” stand as a quintessential Tribe track that pulls its smooth bass line from a sample from “Mystic Brew” by Ronnie Foster. The group transcended generations gaining listeners throughout the 90s all the way to the release of their final album in 2016.
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Digable Planets was an alternative hip-hop group that remains criminally underrated. Sure, they are not a household name like some other groups on this list but their impact is undeniable. Their contributions shaped jazz rap and opened the doors for alternative acts that continue to push boundaries. Their lyrical content always had a political edge to it but they doubled down on their second album Blowout Comb.
Although they only released two studio albums, they achieved some commercial success in their time. Their debut project, Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) was certified gold. Meanwhile, their Grammy-winning single “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” has withstood the test of time and remains a definitive anthem in hip-hop.
De La Soul
De La Soul is a trio that burst onto the alternative hip-hop scene with unique sample choices. They had this impeccable ability to use recognizable samples that you wouldn’t expected. One of the biggest examples of this was “The Magic Number” which samples “Three Is A Magic Number” from the series Schoolhouse Rock. The group used the song to comment on the rap game with playful bars. Another standout was “Eye Know” which sampled “Peg” by Steely Dan and “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding. Audiences labeled them as a “hippie” group due to their lighthearted tones and flower-based imagery – a classification they quickly distanced themselves from as their discography grew.
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The Fugees are a unique group in the alternative hip-hop lane who introduced the world to an artist who would continue to be a legend in that lane — Lauryn Hill. The trio only released to albums before disbanding. Their sophomore album, The Score, stands among the greatest bodies of work in hip-hop history.
In comparison to some of the other entries on this list, their sound was mature. They combined melodies with their bars, providing complex layers to their song structures. Moreover, their production combined live instrumentation and samples. There was a certain emotional weight to many songs in their discography especially the hit single “Ready or Not” which member Pras recalled seeing Hill crying while recording her vocals for. One of their more rap-focused singles was “Fu-Gee-La” whose unique production provides the perfect soundscape for their verses.
Gnarls Barkley was an alternative hip-hop duo that gained critical success despite their alternative status. Some listeners may classify them as more of a pop act but our inclusion of them in our list still stands. Member Cee Lo Green was once a part of Goodie Mob, a hip-hop group from Atlanta. The other half of the duo, Danger Mouse, is a reputable producer who first gained fame with the release of The Grey Album, a mash-up project that combined Jay-Z’s The Black Album and The Beatles’ The White Album. As Gnarls Barkley, their single “Crazy” went Diamond and was Grammy nominated. Their music combined multiple elements of pop, soul, hip-hop, and more which was capitalized on by Cee Lo’s unique vocal style. Their unique approach made them stand out easily from their contemporaries.
Arrested Development is an alternative hip-hop group that emerged in the 90s. Their lyrics focused on pushing positivity and uplifting their listeners with production that reflected their lyrical tone. In their early years, the group accumulated a few chart-topping singles and albums that performed well commercially too. This led to them winning the Grammy for Best New Artist in 1993. Another one of their big moments in music was creating a song for Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X. Titled “Revolution,” the song has layered lyrics built around the imagery of rain and the unification of Black people.
MF DOOM might be the most popular alternative hip-hop artist for listeners of this generation. Known as “your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper,” he created an eccentric yet reclusive personality that drew listeners in. Anytime he appeared on camera he would wear a mask heavily inspired by the comic book character Dr. Doom. Sometimes, “clones” of him would perform at live shows, much to fans’ disappointment. MF DOOM also had multiple eccentric qualities in his music, whether it was his unique rhymes and references or sample choices. He released music such as MF DOOM, Viktor Vaughn, and King Geedorah. His collaborative project with Madlib, Madvillainy has been immensely praised. DOOM never attempted to climb in popularity with his career and was content at the level he was at. Even though he passed in 2022, listeners will never forget it’s “all caps when you spell the man’s name.”
Who are some of your favorite alternative hip hop artists? Let us know in the comments section.
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