The wait was long, before Fatimah Warner's first project, Telefone, was disclosed. Released in 2016 only, it had been heralded three years earlier, when Noname Gypsy – now just Noname – made a name for herself with her contribution to Chance the Rapper's Acid Rap mixtape. Quicker to feature on others' projects than to record her own, she also participated to Mick Jenkins's conceptual – and very strong – The Water(s), and more recently, to Late Knight Special, an album from New-York's rapper and producer Kirk Knight, and to Saba's Bucket List Project.
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.
By 1997, just when some feared that hip-hop was getting corrupted by its own success, "independent" and "alternative" had become buzz words. And no other claimed them louder than Company Flow. A product of New-York's underground, these self-produced and self-promoted rappers had created their own label, Official Recordings, and they targeted the music industry as the main enemy. And their slogan, a very definitive "independent as fuck", was everything but ambiguous.
Prior to this album, Qwel was mostly known as one of the Typical Cats, a rap trio who had helped making Galapagos4 a central label, in Chicago's indie world. His two albums, If It Ain't Been In a Pawn Shop... and The Rubber Duckie Experiment, had also collected praises in the underground. As for Maker, he had authored Honestly, a semi-instrumental record, and produced Seconds Away, another great album recorded jointly with DJ DQ and the rapper Adeem, under the name of Glue.
Antipop Consortium's very name, as well as its first album's cover art, hinted clearly about the trio's purposes: they were all about arts. Originally identified through the Nuyorican Café and the Rap Meets Poetry movement, High Priest, Beans and M. Sayyid – and E. Blaize, the DJ – belonged indeed to N.Y.'s spoken word scene. Their influences were jazzmen such as Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman, their collaborators alt-rap figureheads like Company Flow and Mike Ladd, and they would also work with luminaries like Arto Lindsay, Alec Empire and Vernon Reid.
Being open to feminine talents was one of the Good Life Café many peculiarities. This scene's best testimony, the Project Blowed compilation, shows this clearly. One of its central tracks, the "Heavyweights Round 2" freestyle, had as many femcees as males. There, Medusa and her cousin Koko – a.k.a. S.I.N. - Nefertiti and T-Love were measuring themselves against Freestyle Fellowship's Mikah 9 and Self Jupiter, Volume 10 and a few others. The record's best song from women, though, was "Don't Get It Twisted". Recorded by Jyant (Ronda Ross) and Eve (Ava DuVernay), a.k.a. the Figures of Speech, it was a perfect sample of the Good Life style, with its erratic and unpredictable music, full of rhythm and flow changes.
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.
By 1999, the excellence of the newly released Operation Doomsday album was not a surprise, to those already familiar with New-York's underground rap scene. By then, MF Doom had already released several great singles on Fondle'em, Bobbito's iconic indie rap label. And all of them were compiled on this opus, recorded by a man who was not exactly a newcomer. The guy, indeed, was Daniel Dumile, a.k.a. Zev Love X, an ex-rapper from the band K.M.D., who had reoriented his career after the death of his colleague and brother Subroc. Moving forward, he would start hiding his face behind a mask, and become rap's underground super-hero.
By the early 2000's, the Living Legends were the archetypical indie hip-hop band. They were highly revered in the backpackers international underground, where they fully deserved their name. In the Wu-Tang Clan way, this collective was made of various subgroups and solo artists, and people from countries as far as Japan and the Netherlands were affiliated to them. Thanks to such a network, their aura was global; and they reached a high standing without any help from major labels.
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.
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.
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.
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