Smile Politely

The Beginner’s Guide to Indie Hip-Hop

Most underground hip-hop heads have been asked the question: “What I should listen to?” Even on a steady path of slinging burned CDs, hours spent on Wikipedia, and a slew of names you might not remember, you still may not be able to grasp the “classics” of indie hip-hop. Leading you back to the start — dejected in your Nike Dunks — unable to lay claim to your bragging rights.

So what becomes of the budding backpacker? Somewhat knowledgeable, but unable to find some of the records his or her friends talk so much about. Any indie music scene can prove to be hard to get into, namely because of the constant come-and-go passing of styles, names, and movements within it.

After sitting down to a round table discussion amongst cousins who first introduced me to decent hip-hop, we managed to hewn an agreeable list of tasty sounds that will get you started.

Crate diggers in training, grab your headphones, and away we go.

1. A Tribe Called Quest, Midnight Marauders – Not necessarily an indie release, but indeed a worthy impact. Phife Dawg, Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad paved the way for nearly every laid-back cadence you’ll hear in hip-hop today. The Linden Boulevard representatives lay out their interpretations of a life with drum loops and dusty soul samples in a 14-track offering that changed how an album was supposed to be done…complete with a tour guide.

2. Company Flow, Funcrusher Plus – Long before Krukid rocked Rawkus, three Bronx natives rocked indie hip-hop’s world on the premier indie hip-hop label of the time. El-P and Bigg Jus’ rapid-fire, science fiction-laden delivery over Mr. Len’s speaker crushing beats made Funcrusher Plus the anthem of graffiti writers everywhere. Staggeringly, this 20-track beatdown was the first and last major release by this group. B-side releases were sparse, and the group disbanded in 2001.

3. Aesop Rock, Labor Days – What El-P hath wrought, let Aesop begin anew. From the ashes of Co-Flow came Brooklyn native Aesop Rock’s first release on El-P’s new label Def Jux. Aesop paints a rainbow of colors within gray tenement surroundings, bursting at the seams with science fiction references, the importance of cigarettes as part of a daily diet, and both sides of a coin.

4. Atmosphere, Lucy Ford – Slug and Ant are Atmosphere; the rapper-producer team hail from the wilds of Minnesota. Lucy Ford is an emotional thrill ride for Slug, who navigates Ant’s mellow, drum machine crooning with a flair that is self-deprecating, but self-saving as well. Lucy Ford — alongside Slug’s on-again-off-again MC battles with Saul Williams — catapulted him into a long stack of favorites among indie hip-hop fans.

5. Murs, F’Real – This may be the hardest album to find on this list, but once you find it, cherish it. This album introduces Murs and his crew Living Legends to the world. F’Real jumps over Nirvana samples turned into battle-tuned hip-hop. Murs fires out of the cannon with a non-typical, gatling-gun delivery (not typical of West Coast MCs), and doesn’t disappoint for 16 tracks.

6. Crown City Rockers, Mission: One – This five-piece, live hip-hop band works all lines of the cultural blur, moving between drum machine anthems, to cooled Rhodes organs and bass lines beneath MC Rashaan Ahmad’s “everyman MC” delivery. Mission: One is a jazzy throwback, smashing together the worlds of Max Sedgley and Q-Tip nicely.

7. J Dilla, Donuts – All hail the father of the modern beats movement. Dilla passed away, leaving us entirely too soon, but he left his requiem as a 31-track beat tape, chiefly designed to make MCs drool, a la Pavlov. Ring bell and salivate for tracks that each barely scrape two minutes, but make you wear out the track-changing buttons on your stereo. Rest in peace, Dilla.

8. Count Bass D, Dwight Spitz – One of the most disjointed hip-hop albums you’ll ever hear, but also one of the most infectious. The Count fried up a host of guest features, made every beat himself and gave truth to the fact that some producers can rap.

9. MF Doom, Operation Doomsday – Hip-hop’s one and only super-villian’s 1999 release laid foundation for what you see of MF Doom now: his presence, everywhere. His strange personality and unique flow made Operation Doomsday a certifiable stockpile of ill tracks, complete with old Marvel cartoon samples.

10. Black Star, Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star – Rawkus really knew what they were doing in the mid-90s, it seems. Brooklyn griots Mos Def and Talib Kweli came together hot-off-the-heels of their Rawkus mixtape debut, Soundbombing, and created a jazzy classic that made rappers get to practicing. This album broke tape decks, and blurred the line between battle-ready and knowledge-dropping, all while making sure that their crew, The Native Tongues Posse, stayed cemented in hip-hop.

11. Wale Oyejide is Science Fiction, Walls Don’t Exist – The hardest to find, and yet the most rewarding. Wale Oyejide, a Nigerian immigrant, created one of the illest new-school instrumental hip-hop albums that never broke ground beyond the independent buzz. Oyejide makes down tempo instrumental hip-hop seem as easy as placing hands on keys, and cuing the drummer to let loose.

12. Hieroglyphics, Third Eye Vision – This West coast Wu-Tang-style release features some of the most notable cadences and flow styles in hip-hop history. If you’ve ever listened to Gorillaz, then you will know the voice of Hiero’s fearless leader, Del the Funky Homosapien. Those of us who knew hip-hop in its second golden age, will find Souls of Mischief crooning alongside Del, and the premiere of MCs such as Pep Love and Casual. Third Eye Vision glides over the ears comfortably.

This is a starter kit created in the dusty brains of eight indie hip-hop heads, and their relative experiences taking baby steps in a subsection of a genre, that sees too many releases to mention. This is by no means a list not open to addition, opinion, or subtraction. You might find something here that you didn’t know about before, and that’s what it’s all about.

Keep digging. Or, if you haven’t started yet, this might be a good time to sift some soil around. Who knows what you might come across.

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