Kool Keith has been twice a crucial character, in hip-hop's history. In the 80's, he was the main rapper of the influential Ultramagnetic MC's. And later on, in the mid-90's, he was Dr. Octagon. As such, he reinvented rap once again. Playing the role of an extraterrestrial killer gynecologist, he pushed it out of its comfort zone, with the help of a new generation of talents from both New York and the Bay Area: the beatmakers The Automator and Kut Masta Kurt; the DJ Q-Bert; Sir Menelik, a rhyme partner; and even DJ Shadow, who contributed to the project with a remix.
A few years after we published it, and to celebrate the release in 2014 of our new book dedicated to the history of indie hip-hop, it was time to deliver an updated version of the selection we published first in 2009, listing 100 key albums related to this movement. Here starts our new countdown, extended now to 150 records.
The Juggaknots are hip-hop's best kept secret. Some discovered them by 1999, thanks to their proximity with the Weathermen, or to Breezly Brewin's contribution to A Prince Amongst Thieves, a concept album from Prince Paul. Some others, through the incandescent "The Fire in Which you Burn", learned that the band was part of the Indelible Emcees collective, along with Company Flow and J-Treds. And some others knew that the producer Buddy Slim (a.k.a. Fever the Kid, or BMS), the rapper Breezly Brewin (a.k.a. The Brewin) – and the femcee Heroine (a.k.a. Queen Herawin), not a permanent member – had released a fantastic record in 1996, the second album on Fondle'em after the Cenobites full-length, soon to become one of the most expensive vinyl records on the underground market.
We are close to the end. The last albums Fake For Real considers as the best from the independent hip-hop movement, will be revealed soon on our dedicated article, and we will publish soon, in May 2014, a full book dedicated to this matter (in French only, unfortunately). In the meanwhile, we are offering to YOU, our readers, the possibility to nominate your 10 indie rap favorite albums, as part of a poll whose results will be published in a few weeks or months.
The reason why Beneath the Surface is so crucial a record is, primarily, historical. Discovered by many on illegal download websites, where albums from the likes of MF Doom and Non-Phixion were also available (along with Anticon's very first releases), it had just predated the heyday of indie hip-hop, by 1999 or 2000. It was also an important glance on the late 90's West Coast Underground scene.
We already said it here, with full of conviction: all the albums Radioinactive ever released, absolutely all, are indispensable. Yes, all of them, including Fo' Tractor, the rerelease of an old cassette full of lo-fi tracks recorded by the mid-1990's, just after the rapper's adventures with Log Cabin and West Coast Workforce, two crucial bands from California's incredibly fertile underground hip-hop scene.
The previous album of Sage Francis, Personal Journals, had won over an audience external to hip-hop. And this was not surprising, considering that the rapper's label was Anticon, and that he was leaning toward rock music. Prior to this, however, his Sick Off… mixtape series, and his victory at the 2000 edition of the Scribble Jam battles, had proved that he was a true rapper. And in 2005, his new album would demonstrate the same. A denser and more intense record, A Healthy Distrust would remind to all that Sage was, first and foremost, a redoubtable MC.
Among the great records released by Peanuts & Corn between Mcenroe's Ethics EP and his definitive Disenfranchised, the first album from Gruf deserves special praises. After he collaborated with Twisted Spirits, its successor Frek Sho, and Fermented Reptile, the bald rapper with native people origins delivered one of P&C's most solid and constant projects. Though Druidry was not overly original, it was deeply personal, and once again produced by Mcenroe at his very best.
One of the original members of Global Phlowtations – a Californian collective from the Project Blowed family, with legendary people like Orko Eloheim and Sach, also from The Nonce – Thavius Beck is mostly known for his solo albums on the Mush and Big Dada labels. They helped him becoming a bit visible outside of the West Coast underground. His best album, though, is not necessarily one of these. It could also be one of those he released, more confidentially, with Inoe Oner.
JEDI MIND TRICKS - The Psycho-Social, Chemical, Biological, and Electro-Magnetic Manipulation of Human Consciousness
Though 1996 is generally considered as the start of the indie rap era, 1997 is the year of its classics. The first Jedi Mind Tricks album, The Psycho-Social, Chemical, Biological, and Electro-Magnetic Manipulation of Human Consciousness – yes indeed, its title was that long – is undoubtedly one of them. It is, actually, not too far from Funcrusher Plus, with its dark mood, unsettling sounds and obtuse lyrics.
Though he was more visible than others, DJ Shadow has never been a lone wolf. Even before his fame and the monumental Endtroducing… album, he was a part of Solesides, a label from the Bay Area, the very place which, after pioneers like Del or Digital Underground - and in parallel to the more scandalous rap of Too $hort or E-40 - had birthed one of the most creative hip-hop scenes from California.
The Cold Vein was the first important album released by Def Jux, and the first El-P, the label's founder, had entirely produced since Company Flow broke up. In addition, it had been heralded by two striking singles, "Iron Galaxy" and "Straight off the D.I.C.". Due to this, it had been expected with lots of hope and anxiety by the underground sphere. And it would not disappoint it. Actually, this record would be the very climax of the indie rap movement. By 2001, after lots of stirring in the shadows, this kind of hip-hop had finally reached a certain amount of visibility and interest, in the media. And music critics would love the first album of Cannibal Ox.
This is a recurring debate, though a rather quiet one, and it exists since the very day Entroducing… was released: is this crucial album of the 1990's decade as great as its reputation says? In other words, is it really a classic? To some, asking this may sound like a lost battle, this record being regularly listed as one of the best pop music albums ever. Questioning this is a provocation. But still, it is legitimate.
By 2002, Peanuts & Corn had produced a large collection of impeccable rap albums. Its founder, however, hadn't released anything since his Ethics EP, apart from the side-project Billy's Vision. The main guy behind the label had stayed in the shadow, producing the work of others, or contributing to bands, instead of investing into his own solo career. His first real album indeed, Disenfranchised, wouldn't be released before 2003. A few months before, though, Mcenroe had released another EP, which proved to be a little bit more than just an appetizer.
No Doubt: for most underground rap fans, the Wu Tang Clan of the Pacific Northwest is Oldominion. The region, however, has another talented collective. It is based in Portland and called Sandpeople, and it is every bit as creative and good as Onry Ozzborn's own crew - with whom they are sometimes collaborating. Of course, as for their colleagues, their discography is a bit complex and confusing. Honest Racket, though, is certainly the best and easiest entry point to their world.
Slug, Sole, Alias, Sage Francis, Yoni Wolf... By focusing their raps on intimate and confessional lyrics, all these artsy and hypersensitive White men, plus a few others, have been pioneers in a new kind of hip-hop. The one, however, who pushed this trend to its most extreme, was a certain Brad Hamers, from Phlegm.
By the end of the 90's, Buck 65 was a central radio DJ, rapper and producer in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He was also a White man, a Canadian, and he had grown by the countryside. As a result, he was everything but your typical MC. No big surprise, then, if Vertex proved to be quite unusual as well. Previously available on a cassette, and later on as a CD, this album was atypical. Actually, it fulfilled the promise to revolutionize hip-hop, made around the same time by Anticon - a label Buck 65 would become affiliated with. This rapper, though, would achieve this goal while using the genre's usual ingredients: raps, scratches, samples and loops.
Rard and Moon, a.k.a. SunnMoonSekt, had previously been part of an East Coast band called Devious Dysfonctional. Later on, they would join another, Young & Restless. And ultimately, they would become part of a collective, the Slumplordz, founded by 1997 in Oakland, in the Bay Area. It is under their brand, that they would record in a rough way their first album, and release it in 1999, as a cassette only. Due to a certain success in the underground, though, Stray Records would rerelease it in a different package, two years later, making it more easily available.
With their fourth album, Dälek still complied with their formula. Once again, this record from the Newark band was made of walls of sound, tenebrous ambiances, giant bass sounds, virulent lyrics, rapped admonitions, and long instrumental passages. As usual, also, there were a few scratches, here and there. DJ Still had departed, but another turntablist replaced him : Rob Swift, from the X-ecutioners.
You know what to expect, considering whom Swamp Thing is made of. Those familiar with underrated rappers Timbuktu and Chokeules from Toolshed, and Savilion, shouldn't be overly surprised by the content of Creature Feature. This is one of their cheerful albums, full of old-school era playfulness and frantic tempos, with lots of samples, scratches and dexterous rimes, like in the heyday of East Coast rap, in the 90's. This is just Backburner at its purest, especially since other members of the Canadian collective, Jesse Dangerously, Wordburglar, More Or Les, Ghettosocks, and a few others, are supporting their comrades here and there.
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