I’ve never seen lyrics as intricate as the verses in underground hip hop. It’s what first drew me into the music, and I was absolutely blown away by the intelligence of what I was hearing.  The vocabulary, double meanings, and depth of the songs I was listening to was a whole new world. I sat in my car listening to the college radio station that was playing the music until their hour-long show ended.

“My capacity to spit caliber shit into a rhythmic lesson
And entertainment’s a legitimate weapon
Igniting the cipher sessions I’m deciphering life
And blended both theory into practice I write
Vernacular and actual fact”
-Blue Scholars, NO REST FOR THE WEARY

“This is rap?” I thought in amazement.

All the hip hop I’d heard before was stupid-simple, 3rd-grade-reading-level rhymes about booty, hoes, and blowing money. As comedian Bo Burnham so expertly put it:

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“I feel like hip-hop used to be a voice for the voiceless, you know.
And now it’s become, at least in the mainstream, a symbol of…
Misogyny. Gay panic. Fiscal irresponsibility!”

-Bo Burnham, Oh Bo

That’s exactly what I used to think hip-hop was all about. I used to hate the genre. My high school bus driver would blast the local hip hop station on the hour-long bus ride to and from school. It was vile. So when I discovered underground hip hop, I was blown away.

Underground hip hop is poetry. You can read the lyrics of these artists’ songs straight off a page and still be amazed at them. Hell, I recommend doing just that. Dig up the lyrics of any songs you can listen to, and read along as you listen. It’s better than reading a poetry book. And just about as popular as poetry too.

Why You’ve Never Heard of Underground Hip Hop

What is it? Underground hip hop is an umbrella term for independently produced music within the genre. It is typically characterized by socially-conscious messages and political statements. The lyrics are known for their intricacy and complex rhyming schemes, and the music tracks that the artists rap to are often produced by the artist themselves.

underground artists: Blue Scholars
Blue Scholars, signing and selling their own apparel.

Funky Fresh Beats

When you’re making your own music, you make it the way you like it. The result often ends up being some pretty wild-sounding beats. They’re a ton of fun to listen to, especially for anyone who’s gotten bored of plain every song sounding the same on the radio. Those funky beats become an absolute delight when a good rapper strings together complicated rhymes to a complicated beat.

On the flip side, underground hip hop takes some effort to listen to. Unique, difficult rythms aren’t always easy listening, and they can be hit-or-miss. Music labels are really hesitant to sign an artist who works exclusively with crazy sounding beats that don’t fit within the standard of 4/4 time signature. Intricate rhythms just don’t interest producers when 4/4 rhythm dominates the airwaves as the golden standard of the music industry.

Turn on the radio. Go to any station, listen to any song. Whatever you end up listening to is probably written and played in a 4/4 time signature. Why? Because everybody likes it! 4/4 is easy to dance to and fun to sing to. It’s the bread and butter of the music industry, and most popular music is written in 4/4.

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Lyrics

“Right or wrong, tie it tighter, I’m tired of buying into
Guidance gone awry, my father fought it with firearms and
Died in the trauma the violence spawned a child of drama
No wonder he’s prone to wander, knowing his home is haunted”

-Common Market, TOBACCO ROAD

Underground hip hop has intense lyrics. The vocabulary of some of these artists is downright astonishing. The lyrics of underground hip-hop require active listening. They require repeated active listening. I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to my Bayani CD by the Blue Scholars. I’m still noticing new layers to the music every time I hear it. I’d expect to hear this from an english major, not a rapper. And maybe that’s part of the problem. Rappers aren’t expected to be intelligent.

Which really isn’t surprising, all things considered.

When they do produce intelligent music, it’s a jarring shock to the audience. It’s not what the audience went in expecting, and it may not be what they want to listen to. If the audience doesn’t want to hear it, the record labels don’t want to sell it. Labels know their audience and trying to give them new music is a risky move for their finances and their reputations.

The Message

“You say I’m cool, huh, I’m no fool
But then you wind up droppin’ outta high school
Now you’re unemployed, all non-void
Walkin’ round like you’re Pretty Boy Floyd
Turned stick-up kid, but look what you done did
Got sent up for a eight-year bid”

-Grandmaster Flash, THE MESSAGE

Underground  hip hop has a story to tell. The artists write their music with a purpose in mind. They discuss social issues, politics, the fate of the world, and the future of our children. Underground hip hop is a forum for divisive opinions. And it is a huge pile of potentially dangerous material to put a company name on.

Record labels are large entities. Associating themselves with politically charged music can have serious consequences. Most labels don’t want to touch music with a message, because that message might piss off somebody important. More than that, hip-hop is a genre that was created to challenge the status quo. At its roots, hip hop defies authority. And record labels embody authority when they force music to fit into a predefined mold. Put yourself in their shoes, and try listening to this:

Record labels are terrified of signing music like that, and radio stations are terrified of playing it. Everyone listens to the radio, and putting out music that takes sides risks alienating a huge chunk of the station’s audience. Radio stations are already walking on eggshells, and underground hip hop is a pair of lead shoes.

Culture

Finally, there’s a distinct dislike for music labels within the underground community. Artists absolutely abhor being told what to write, or how to write it. Most artists who choose to self-produce have had bad experiences with a record label, like being told that their music isn’t suitable for a large audience, or that it just isn’t fun to listen to. Honestly, that says a lot about the music industry that they shut down anyone who tries to speak up and promote social activism through the art of music.

Luckily, underground artists are not dettered. If anything, their rejection has only served to solidify their beliefs, and encourage them to shout out at the injustices of the world through their raps. Underground hip hop artists have developed a community culture where intellectualism and social justice encouraged and respected! That only goes to show that the greatest of movements are born in the most unforgiving circumstances.

Beyond the values of social activism, underground artists have a steadfast belief in the value of hard work. These men and woman do their own work every step of the way from production to sales. Furthermore, most of them work part or full time jobs to support themselves when their music isn’t selling well enough to do so. And they still find time to speak out for their overworked and underpaid friends, family, and comrades.

Some of them have made a big enough name for themselves to be heard:

Where big corporations have failed to take on the responsibility of social justice, hard working independent artists have taken up the slack. It’s created a lot of friction between the two. Underground artists don’t like labels, and labels don’t like underground artists. They may never get along. And maybe they shouldn’t.

The History of Hip Hop

Hip hop has an absolutely fascinating history. The music finds its origins in the Jamaican tradition of toasting. Toasting is the practice of talking over a beat(Sound familiar), usually in rhythm. Sometimes pre-written, and sometimes spontaneous, the tradition of toasting found a home in the poor areas of the Bronx, where it evolved into rapping.

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Rap originally began as a social movement, where the poverty-stricken teens of the ghetto found an outlet for their frustration with their situation. Hip-Hop brought kids out of gangs and crime, and gave them a place to gather, and a place to vent.

In its early days, hip hop was a voice for the voiceless. Latinos and blacks were able to speak out through the music and be heard by a much larger audience. Nobody had ever listened to hoodrats from the slums until now.

Gangsta Rap

In the 1990s, the message of hip-hop music changed forever. Gangsta rap began to rise, glorifying violence and money. Gangsta rap dehumanized women and proclaimed that status and wealth were the greatest pursuits in life.

Gangsta rap became wildly popular on a global scale. The commercial success of this new breed of hip-hop put an end to the politically conscious music of the genre’s birth. To this day, popular hip hop has retained the core values of gangsta rap. Socially conscious rap was pushed underground, where it has stayed ever since.

Should it stay there?

Maybe socially conscious hip hop is underground for a reason. Popular artists usually aren’t allowed to be socially conscious in their music. Independent artists can freely express themselves and their opinions when they don’t answer to an authority with an agenda. It’s easier for an independent artist to openly argue their stance when millions of listeners aren’t chiming in to listen.

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When big name executives get involved, they have a very specific formula for producing music. If their every song is a YouTube video, they want to maximize likes and minimize dislikes. If an artist pitches that music doesn’t fit that mold, it doesn’t see the light of day.

Controversial opinions most definitely do not fit into that profit plan. Underground hip-hop is a far cry from appealing to a wide audience. It actively calls out the listeners and challenges the status quo. The big names who create that status quo in the first place do not appreciate being called out.

We have seen a few rare instances of underground rappers seeing mainstream success. Immortal Technique, Macklemore, Aesop Rock, and Chance the Rapper are all famous, independent hip hop artists who managed to do well on their own. In the future, hopefully we will see more artists gain success on the premise of their message and their music.

And if you’ve never heard of Immortal Technique, you’re missing out:

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