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50 Greatest Alternative Hip Hop Tracks

In the late 1980s a division began to develop in rap music. Alternative hip hop defines itself as an alternative to the culture and values that came to dominate commercial hip hop, as typified by gangsta rap. It rejects the glorification of money, bling and violence, and much of the misogyny, bragging and obscene language associated with it. It often claims to be ‘keeping it real’ – more in tune with the stylistic techniques, thoughtfulness and adventurous spirit of early hip hop.

It’s sometimes hard to define what qualifies as alternative hip hop, as it’s not a musical genre as such. It’s a culture which encompasses many subcultures. Alternative hip hop artists are often noted for exploring musical boundaries, experimenting with new production techniques, and bringing into their music elements of other genres such as jazz, funk, techno and punk. Major sub-genres include underground rap (charactised as artists belonging to independent record labels, with the greater musical freedom which this supposedly entails) and political or conscious rap (artists using hip hop to successfully communicate issues of social justice, global and political change, and collective consciousness).

The tracks I’ve selected here are ones which seem to me genuinely to represent an alternative to mainstream hip hop. They are selected for their musical diversity and innovation, for their interesting / intelligent lyrical content, for the skill of the djs and the mcs – and because they offer something different to the violent negativity of gangsta rap. As you’ll see, I’ve also gone out of my way to make sure that non-American artists are represented. One of the strengths of alternative hip hop is the connections that it makes with other cultures and other struggles, so it only seems fitting that some of the most exciting hip hop artists today grew up outside the USA with diverse musical influences and backgrounds.

Please let me have your feedback by leaving a comment at the bottom of the page.

50 Goodie MobSoul Food
From their 1995 debut album, regarded as a landmark in the growth of southern American hip hop

49 AkrobatikRemind my soul
Comment on the state of black America. Akrobatik has recently got together with Mr Lif to form the Perceptionists

48 Digable PlanetsCool Like Dat
Light jazzy sound, with a humorous touch to the lyrics

47 Ankh Amen RaDarfur
“My inspiration to write “Darfur” is the fact that over 200,000 innocent people have been murdered in Darfur. Over a million people have been displaced and are now living on refugee camps in eastern Chad. It’s a struggle we all should be concerned about. If you’re a human being, you need to be able to feel compassion about the death of your fellow man. I don’t care what your racial background is. That’s one reason. Another reason is the fact that the hip-hop community and the world as a whole should to be sensitive to the issue of Darfur. I wrote the song because I want to make sure that people within the hip-hop community are aware of what’s going on. I also wrote the song because I want people to understand the power of hip-hop music. Hip-hop music is currently under a great deal of fire, but when you write a song about “Darfur” and the critics of hip-hop hear that, they see that hip-hop music has immense power. What other genre of music has the capacity to put all of that information into three minutes and be that powerful? That’s why hip-hop music influences youth all over the globe. And I wanted to use that power. ”

46 X PlastazNini dhambi
Tanzanian hip hop group, singing here in Swahili about poverty in Tanzania, whose embrace of both traditional Maasai culture and American hip hop is now attracting an international audience

45 DJ IQBrain food all stars
Representing what UK hip hop does best : stretching back the boundaries between hip hop and dance music

44 Foreign HeightsGet Yours
Collaboration between three hip hop artists from Sydney. The collective’s name Foreign Heights reflects the multiculturalism of Australian hip hop, since Trey’s heritage is Fijian, Maya is half Mexican and half Turkish, and Toth hails from Austria. “As much as I’m a huge advocator of supporting the local music scene,” says Maya, “I also believe we should focus on what role our home is playing in the politics of the planet.” Trey believes that, in Australia, hip hop is conducive to multicultural harmony. “It’s a space where multicultural MCs can share their thoughts and educate others about different cultures and musical styles. Hip hop also encourages multiculturalism – come to a jam, listen to the tunes. Hip hop culture creates multicultural families.”

43 Sweatshop UnionDon’t Be Afraid
Intelligent hip hop from this Canadian hip hop collective

42 FabeCa fait partie de mon passé
Great autobiographical lyrics in a laid back style reminiscent of De La Soul.

41 The PharcydeDrop
Spike Jonze directed the video for Drop using footage of the group performing the song backwards, replayed backwards, giving it a surreal quality. The beats sampled in the song further emphasize the video’s backwards theme.

40 Mr LifPull out your cut
In this simple low key video, the music feels organically connected to the urban landscape

39 Disposable Heroes of HiphoprisyTelevision the drug of the nation
This from 1992 is still my favourite Michael Franti track – I have just learned that it was originally recorded by Franti’s earlier band the Beatnigs in 1988

38 The Return of Dr OctagonAliens
Dr Octagon is an extraterrestrial, time-traveling surgeon / obstetric gynecologist who has sex with his patients and nurses. His creator Kool Keith was formerly a member of the Ultramagnetic MCs.

37 Clotaire K Lubnan
French rapper who found inspiration from a trip to his mother’s native land – the Lebanon

36 Hieroglyphics You Never Knew
The Hieroglyphics are an underground hip hop collective based in Oakland California : “From ’93 til infinity we’ve been inventive / Creating the bump is our only incentive”

35 Organized KonfusionStress
An underground rap duo from Queens NYC consisting of Pharoahe Monch and Prince Poetry. This is from their acclaimed second album, on which different tracks represent different emotions.

34 Aesop Rock Basic Cable
Hard to imagine this song without the video – the rapidly moving images coordinate perfectly with the beat and the lyrics

33 Kinto SolHecho En Mexico
Hip hop group operating from Milwaukee but here extolling the virtues of their native Mexico

32 Gabriel TeodrosNo Label
Ethiopian American whose subject matter ranges from the struggles of immigrants to political repression and resistance in East Africa

31 BlackaliciousDeception
About how money corrupts hip hop : “This is a story of a kid his name is Cisko / Who made more money than the Count of Monte Crisco … Don’t let money change ya”

30 Buckshot LefonqueMusic Evolution
Song about the influence of jazz on hip hop

29 Freestyle Fellowship ft. Daddy-O – Innercity Boundaries
Hip hop / jazz fusion from the 1993 album Innercity Griots

28 Blue ScholarsJoe Metro
Slice of life video to fit this observational track about one man’s journey through the day – and through life

27 MC 900 foot JesusKiller inside me
Uses first person narration to build up a disturbing picture of the mind of the speaker

26 Saul WilliamsList of Demands
A published poet, his lyrics are deftly constructed, but just as important to him is the use of beats and production techniques to bring out the power of the words

25 Jean GraeLive For You
Great monologue with a delightful backing track. Why can’t all hip hop be like this ?

24 De La Soul A roller skating jam named saturday
Their 1989 debut album 3 feet high and rising is generally recognised as being one of the biggest influences on the evolution of alternative hip hop – but I don’t feel that its quirkiness stands the test of time so well, so I’ve chosen instead this feelgood single from 1991.

23 Company FlowLegends
This track has a rough, experimental underground feel fitting to the street culture subject matter

22 Daara-JAllah
From ‘Boomerang’, the acclaimed third album by Senegalese crew Daara J who sing mainly in French and Wolof, with occasional English too

21 Black Eyed PeasFallin’ Up
Early release from the multi grammy award winning LA rap group whose arrival on the scene is described like this by Rolling Stone : “Former break dancers garbed in boho gear, comprised of various races and stressing positivity, the trio was a pointed antidote to the gangsta and ghetto fabulousness of the day”

20 Blitz the AmbassadorBlack market
Ghanaian hip hop artist now resident in Brooklyn NYC. This is his most memorable song – good video too.

19 TourettesHappy place
White NZ rapper and poet from a crew called Breakin wreckwordz. This track has echoes of Eminem, but his versatility can be seen in his spoken word poetry.

18 Black StarAstronomy
I’d been hoping to include a solo offering from Talib Kweli, but I’ve found his solo output disappointing, and the language on it is often not pretty, so here instead is a track from the classic 1998 Black Star album, Talib Kweli’s collaboration with Mos Def.

17 Emmanuel JalBaakiwara
Sudanese hip hop artist who at the age of 7 was recruited as a child soldier, and in his adult life has been a spokesman for the Make Poverty History campaign, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers and the Control Arms campaign.

16 Bahamadia feat. Dwele – Beautiful Things
An attack on the values of the news media, in a beautiful soft spoken delivery

15 Sage FrancisInherited Scars
From the master wordsmith’s 2002 album Personal Journals

14 Living LegendsRemember Who You Are
The simple piano backing track helps make this song memorable. They have a new album The Gathering due to be released on 8th April 2008.

13 Common feat. Lauryn Hill – Retrospect for Life
Common dedicated this song from his 1997 album One Day It’ll All Make Sense to his first child Omoye Assata Lynn, who was born shortly after the album’s release

12 Dead PrezBe healthy
This song from their 2000 debut album Let’s Get Free extols the virtues of a healthy vegetarian diet !

11 The RootsSilent Treatment
From their 1995 album Do You Want More?!!!??! , this complex study of a personal relationship is interesting for the vulnerability it reveals in the mind of the narrator

10 Arrested developmentMr Wendal
A massive hit from 1992, perhaps the most accessible song in this list. You decide whether or not that’s a good thing !

9 Diamant NoirNotre Monde
Diamant Noir are two rappers from Benin who according to their myspace biog think of themselves as more than just music makers : “A travers leur musique, Amir ALLI et Anouar DAMALA espèrent créer un mouvement permettant à la fois de revaloriser le regard occidental sur l’Afrique, mais aussi de leaguer toute la jeunesse à la reconstruction d’une Afrique moderne, se déchargeant du poids des maux du passés… Diamant Noir, c’est plus qu’un groupe de Hip Hop, c’est un mouvement en marche… DIAMANT NOIR MEC !!!!!! ”

8 Immortal TechniqueLeaving the Past
Rapper noted for his defiantly political lyrics. According to his Wikipedia entry, “Although he has been offered a deal with at least one major record label, he has never signed to any. Immortal Technique has voiced a desire to keep control over his production, and has made statements in his music that he is very aware that it is record companies, not the artists themselves, who profit the most from mass production and marketing of music and has said “He would rather make a lot of a little, than a little of a lot.” He releases his music through, and is also the president of, Viper Records.”

7 Mos Def and Massive Attack – I Against I
Beautifully realised triphop collaboration from 2002. Mos Def is of course one of the leading socially aware rappers.

6 Mr J MedeirosConstance
Recently launched a solo career having been a member of the Procussions. This song tells the story of a girl trapped in the taboo world of child pornography and human trafficking. J comments that “A large part of hip-hop’s identity has been formed through a consistent disregard to a women’s civil rights.”

5 Guru‘s Jazzmatazz feat. Common and Bob James – State of Clarity
Pioneering solo offering from Guru, who is one half of the group Gang Starr, creating a hip hop / jazz fusion

4 Gang StarrDiscipline
Intelligent rebuttal of gangsta and bad boy values by one of the leading exponents of alternative hip hop

3 Lauryn Hill Lost Ones
From The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which by the way is one of the greatest albums of all time, this track shows her songwriting genius and shows that she can rap with the best of them

2 Antipop ConsortiumWhat am I?
A relatively obscure NYC group, but their inventiveness and dizzying lyrical skill justifies the high placing in this list

1 A Tribe Called QuestCan I Kick It?
This track from their groundbreaking debut album People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm , now recognised as a classic, showcases their playful inventiveness

31 comments

  1. What about Gorillaz?


  2. Artofficial, Globetoddras, Cyne, Specifics and Himuki. Check out this guys.


  3. I love this website, the information is great and I have bookmarked it in my favorites. This is a well organized and informative website. Great Job!


  4. I usually don’t comment on websites but this one is so relevant and well put together that I just had to stop and say,GREAT WEBSITE.


  5. Good post.
    Thanks for pointing me to a few new tracks.
    Completely blown away by Mr. J. Medeiros “Constance”.

    Have you given Macklemore a listen? He’s definitely got a few tracks worth checking out.


  6. No Aussie Hip Hop?
    No Horrorshow, Hilltop Hoods, Drapht, Bliss n Eso or Earthboy?


  7. There is some Aussie hip hop at #44. I like the recs though.


  8. Thanks, I hadn’t heard of them. Try addicted by Bliss n Eso, The hard road (re strung) by Hill Top Hoods, Rupunzel by Drapht, We Get Around by Urthboy and Uplift by Horrorshow.


  9. I used to have a cassette tape end of the 90’s that was a remix of Burn Baby Burn Disco Inferno by I think a group from Oakland but can’t remember their name.
    Help! Great version as if the Coup did the tape.


  10. so many great undergorund hip hop tunes

    i’d never hear aesops basic cable … thats a really great tune

    one of my fav tunes of this kind is sage francis ‘the narcissist’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Y6I-vMwUHc

    or on a uk tip

    roots manuva’s ‘brand new second hand’ album


  11. I nearly choked when I saw goodie mob at #50…so glad you have great taste Im from the south and I am not used to them getting the props they deserve #salute, Insightful article


  12. What about shwayze?? Is he not alternative hip-hop??


  13. thanks for the ideas. I teach 1st-8th grade movement class and am ALWAYS on the look out for fun and thoughtful tunes to use in class.


  14. You can make hip hop beats and much more with dubturbo i hope you like it. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LnD-LeW0guI


  15. wow. some good stuff tho.


  16. Lucid Optics totally belongs on here….

    hmmmm…


  17. Thanks for the heads up : you Lucid Optics guys have got some nice tunes – http://soundcloud.com/lucid-optics . Though I don’t think you were around when this list was made.


  18. no kid cudi he has the most unique beats and instrumentals out of anyone. good list tho


    • Thank you


  19. Jay Eletronica!!


  20. Desinformación
    Erangel Rivas Parra
    Bellezas ocultan monstruos… Podría ser cualquiera,.. El de la camisa de guayabera, recuerdo aquella vez que le tiraba piedras al sujeto de lentes oscuros, las piedras lanzadas se debían a que se le veían rojos… Los lentes… Como los de Terminator. En aquella escena obscena tomaba la escopeta y salvó a Clearize de las maquinas que amenazaban con inyectarse heroína en los senos… ¡Lo hacían frente a las cámaras! exigían a las reporteras que se despojasen de sus ropas de oficio para modelar en el programa de noticias.



  21. How about you add Shahin Najafi (Alternative Hip Hop from Iran; political as well as socially critical) And TNMK ‘Tanok na Maidani Kongo’ (Alterantive Hip hop from Ukraine; also socially critical with influences of Funk, Jazz and Rock) to your fantastic list?!


  22. Awesome list, thanks for sharing!! I actually just wrote a blog post on “alternative hip hop” and used your post as a reference. Here’s my post if you want to give it a read! http://mrhiphophead.wordpress.com/2014/08/26/what-is-alternative-hip-hop/


  23. No Busdriver??? He’s got more skills than most of these listed. http://youtu.be/-LwoiJJG484


  24. Old school 4eva, everythings looks all right to me


  25. I know I come off as a flamer, but this list is horrible…sounds like a compilation of ideas by somebody who dipped the big toe in the great pool of Hip-Hop and tried to give a temperature reading.
    Just like other genres, it’s the periphery of fans (as opposed to a core of devotees) who remain the gift and curse. More interest=more munney & spreading culture vs. diluted culture & casual observers.
    Remember always that some of us live and die by this music, and forgive us if we struggle with our feelings about outsiders.


  26. Please make sure Twenty One Pilots is added to this list!!


  27. This list has to be updated to include BOOTS! He’s worked with Run The Jewels, FKA Twigs, and even Beyoncé- the man is going to change the alternative hip hop game; Check him out: http://bit.ly/Boots-CureVideo



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