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.
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47 Ankh Amen Ra – Darfur
“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 Plastaz – Nini 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
44 Foreign Heights – Get 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.”
41 The Pharcyde – Drop
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.
39 Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy – Television 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 Octagon – Aliens
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.
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 Konfusion – Stress
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.
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.
21 Black Eyed Peas – Fallin’ 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”
18 Black Star – Astronomy
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 Jal – Baakiwara
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.
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
11 The Roots – Silent 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
9 Diamant Noir – Notre 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 Technique – Leaving 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.”
6 Mr J Medeiros – Constance
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.”
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
1 A Tribe Called Quest – Can 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