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.
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.
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 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.
Joe Compayre, a.k.a. John Smith, is coming from an improbable location for a rapper: Churchill, on the Hudson Bay, a city renowned for being... the "Polar Bear Capital of the World". He settled in Winnipeg in 1993, starting to make a name for himself as a battle MC. It is later on, though, by 2000, in the heydays of Peanuts & Corn, that his – quite relative – fame crossed the border of the Manitoba province, first as a full member of the Park-Like Setting band and the Break Bread collective, and then with Blunderbus, his first album, and one of his label's finest.
By the early 2010's, Nocando was the last heir of the Project Blowed – and beyond it, of a large part of the West Coast indie rap scene. He had been the penultimate winner of the Scribble Jam, and a founding member of the Low End Theory parties. He was also at the very core of the Fresh Coast Movement, a fellowship of virtuoso rappers from the Pacific Coast. And he had created the Hellfyre Club, the last refuge for L.A.'s underground hip-hop scene. Last but not least, his own releases were far from negligible, especially Jimmy the Lock, his first official album.
Justify the Mean$, is not only a record from Luckiyam. It also belongs to the man to be called Gandalf, when talking about the beatmaking side of his artistry. In addition to rapping on it, Eligh, indeed, produced the integrality of the album, and this contribution was decisive. It transfigured the ingenuous but rather expected raps of Luckyiam. It saved his commonplace themes, by offering something more than the usual repetitive loops. Actually, rarely have Eligh's typical beats - a mix of cool jazz and synthetic sounds - fit so well with the lyrics of one of his companions.
The CunninLynguists have been, in many ways, an exception. The duo – later on, a trio - had represented more or less the backpack rap tradition in a place, the Dirty South, where it scarcely existed. Also, in an anachronistic way, they have been loyal to some 90's and Dungeon Family inspired kind of hip-hop, at a time when Atlanta had moved to other subgenres, like crunk, or trap music. And curiously, by the mid-00's, with their third album, A Piece of Strange, they started meeting some success, at least on the critics side, exactly when their kind of rap had seemed rejected to the dustbin of history. As a matter of fact, by the end of the decade, the group was fully part of the hip-hop landscape; it could mix with people coming from other worlds than indie rap, and be a full part of the game by 2009, when mixtapes reached an unequaled status, when they were all the rage.
So many years later, we still wonder where mcenroe found the time. Since his first recordings by 1994, the rapper and beatmaker had never been out of work. In addition to his own releases, or those of his group Park-Like Setting, or the many albums entirely produced by him, or his many featuring as an MC, the Canadian was managing one of the best and most regular indie rap labels ever, Peanuts & Corn. And that was not all: he also took care of the mastering and distribution of many other records, and he was working as both a publicist and a graphic artist.
So, they hadn't said it all. Responsible for some of the best indie rap releases in the mid 2000's - especially the brilliant The Harvest - the duo had made it again, ten years after. In 2013, Qwel, a member of the Typical Cats, who had originally perfected his rapping skills in Chicago's MC battles, and Maker, the finest producer in the Galapagos4 family, would add another great piece to their discography.
Originally a gang of Puerto Rican hustlers, the Lo-Life Founders never tried to record any masterpiece. Despite their excellence on the mic, rap has always been some hobby to them, more than something they really invested in. Though Thirstin Howl III, their figurehead, did feature on Soundbombing II, and collaborated with the likes of Eminem and Mos Def, he never delivered anything more than messy and practically unsalable records, available on obscure labels.
Unapologetic Art Rap; such is the name of Open Mike Eagle's 2010 album. In a year marked by the triumph of Waka Flocka's brutal and visceral rap, he released something opposite: a manifesto for the most sophisticated and intellectual kind of rap. The 30 year old rapper, actually, was the best person for this: close to Nocando and his Hellfyre Club, Michael Eagle is, like him, a Project Blowed heir; he released albums on some major indie labels - Mush, Fake Four, and more recently Mello Music; and before relocating to California, he was a key player on Chicago's underground scene, along with people like the Nacrobats and Pugslee Atomz.
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