20 Underground Hip-Hop Artists You Should Listen To
Under the surface of mainstream hip-hop lies the underground hip-hop scene with many amazing artists with independent labels or no labels at all.
If you want to get deeper into the genre and expand your knowledge of underground hip-hop, here are some of the best underground hip-hop artists you should take a look at.
1. MF Doom
MF Doom, or Daniel Dumile, was one of the major names of underground hip-hop music from the 2000s until his death in 2020. He was famous for his brilliant wordplays and his “supervillain” stage character built with his signature metal mask, offensive attitude, and lyrics.
One of his most celebrated albums, ”Madvillainy” from 2004, is considered one of his masterpieces and one of the milestones in hip-hop history. A sort of stream of consciousness can be heard on the album as he creates amazing freestyle lyrics with his brilliant wordplay.
2. Mos Def
Known for his great releases such as “Oh No,” “Ms. Fat Booty,” and “Mathematics,” Yasiin Bey or commonly known as Mos Def, is considered one of the best lyricists and MCs of hip-hop history. He has been a part of the conscious rap movement as he often talked about social and political causes like police brutality and the struggles of African-Americans.
Mos Def inspired many famous musicians on the mainstream scene with his impressive lyrics, attitude, and stand on political issues. Some of them are Kendrick Lamar, Lupe Fiasco, Jay Electronica, and Amy Winehouse.
3. Talib Kweli
Talib Kweli Greene is an American indie rapper mainly known for his collaborations with famous artists such as Mos Def, Kanye West, and Pharell Williams. His first steps onto the underground hip-hop scene were with his fellow Brooklyn rapper Mos Def, as they formed the Black Star hip-hop duo.
Talib Kweli is a highly political artist and activist, often rapping against racial stereotypes and police brutality. As a conscious rapper, he has a record label called Javotti Media. Some of his greatest releases are “The Beautiful Struggle” and “Quality.”
4. J Dilla
James Dewitt Yancey, commonly known as J Dilla, is one of the most influential producers and rappers of the 90s underground hip-hop scene. He was most appreciated for his way of creating melodic and long loops with great breakbeats and vocal samples. His approach helped hip-hop to reach a more musically complex level.
The most important innovation he brought was the use of loose, or “drunk” style, drum programming without quantization. Although he did not receive much commercial success, he was a highly important figure in the underground hip-hop scene until his death in 2006. His style can be heard in releases such as “Last Donut of the Night” and “Workinonit”.
5. Immortal Technique
Felipe Andres Coronel, better known by his stage name Immortal Technique, has been one of the strongest defenders of indie hip-hop music and the underground rap scene since the 2000s. He is against record labels, who profit more than artists, and has been releasing his music without labels.
He has been a famous name in the rap battles scene, which he used to afford his album releases such as “Revolutionary 1” and “Revolutionary 2”. He often talks about global politics with a controversial perspective with a radical left-wing stand.
One of the most famous names in the underground hip-hop scene is Madlib, who later created a side project with his alter ego Lord Quas and called it Quasimoto. Lord Quas uses a high-pitched voice, instead of the deeper vocals of Madlib and often talks about violence and drug use with a sarcastic stand.
Madlib records his songs with a slow beat before speeding up the recording to reach the high-pitched voice of Lord Quas. The debut album of Quasimoto, “The Unseen,” was released in 2000 and received great feedback from the underground audience. Later in 2005, he released “The Further Adventures of Lord Quas” to positive feedback from underground fans as well.
7. Gang Starr
The American hip-hop duo Gang Starr was a collaboration between the record producer DJ Premier and the rapper Guru, which was quite famous among underground hip-hop fans and was considered one of the best hip-hop duos in history. The duo rocked the audience with their jazz-rap style, which they pioneered.
Their recordings, such as “Mass Appeal,” “Full Clip,” “Take It Personal,” and “Above The Clouds,” are some of the milestones of underground hip-hop history.
Lawrence “Kris” Parker, or KRS-One, is a highly influential hip-hop artist who stepped onto the underground hip-hop scene during the mid-80s with the hip-hop band Boogie Down Productions. The band released some of the most iconic underground hip-hop songs, such as “Love’s Gonna Get’cha (Material Love)” and “Sound of da Police.”
Later, KRS-One started releasing his songs in the mid-90s, in which he often rapped about violence and police brutality. He also started the “Stop the Violence Movement”, in which he collaborated with many famous names, creating hip-hop songs against violence.
9. Denzel Curry
One of the newer names in the underground hip-hop scene is Denzel Curry, who started rapping when he was only in the 6th grade and released his first mixtape in 2011. Since then, he released many albums like “Nostalgic 64”, “Ta13oo,” and “Zuu,” which all had quite commercial successes.
Curry is famous for his aggressive style and lyrics, which have many dynamics. He is also famous for his experimental style, creating hybrid genres such as punk-trap. He likes to use different musical elements, mixing styles like soul, R&B, and synth-funk. Although he started as an underground rapper, he gained quite commercial success, and today he is more apparent in the mainstream scene.
10. Joey Bada$$
Jo-Vaughn Virginie Scott, or Joey Bada$$, is another relatively new underground hip-hop artist who is the founder of the hip-hop project Pro Era. Influenced by names like Nas, 2Pac, Black Thought, and MF DOOM, he uses sugar-sweet beats and lyrical flow that takes the audience back to the swagtastic golden age of hip-hop.
Joey Bada$$ released three mixtapes in 2012/13, including “1999,” “Rejex,” and “Summer Knights” which were followed by his studio albums “B4.Da.$$”, “All-Amerikkkan Badass,” and “2000”. He grew his underground fan base with each mixtape and album, making quite an important name for himself.
11. Aesop Rock
As one of the pioneers of new wave and alternative hip-hop, Ian Matthias Bavitz, better known as Aesop Rock, is a prolific rapper who stepped into the music world in 1997 with his debut album “ Music for Earthworms.” He is known for both his complex and abstract lyrics, as well as the frequent use of verbosity and cryptic themes.
Aesop Rock is a member of many hip-hop bands, such as The Weathermen, Hail Mary Mallon, and The Uncluded. His most successful album was “None Shall Pass,” released in 2007. He is still active and considered one of the greatest lyricists with his impressive vocabulary.
12. Vinnie Paz
Vinnie Paz (Vincenzo Luvineri), or Ikon the Verbal Hologram, his former stage name, is a part of the Philadelphia underground hip-hop scene who started rapping with the hip-hop group Jedi Mind Tricks in 1993. The Sicilian-American rapper later formed the Philadelphia underground hip-hop group before moving on with his solo career.
Paz is famous for his raw and gritty lyrics about many topics, including politics, religion, mythology, and conspiracy theories. His gritty style and wide range of topics can be heard in his solo albums “Season of the Assassin” and “God of the Serengeti.”
13. Del Tha Funkee Homosapien
Sir DZL (Teren Delvon Jones) or Del Tha Funkee Homosapien has been a famous rapper in the underground hip-hop scene since the early 90s. As the cousin of famous rapper Ice Cube, he started writing lyrics for him before releasing his first album at the age of 18. His debut album, “I Wish My Brother George Was Here,” was a big success thanks to the song “Mistadobalina.”
Sir DZL uses freestyle-based rapping, and his songs were often used in different media such as video games, film soundtracks as well as compilation videos. He has his own record label, Hieroglyphics Imperium Recordings, and has been releasing his songs since 1995. He is also known for his collaborations with many famous artists, such as Gorillaz, Dinosaur Jr., Sleep, and many more.
14. Killer Mike
The American rapper, actor, and activist Killer Mike has been another significant name in underground hip-hop music since the early 2000s. He earned commercial success with the hip-hop duo Outkast before creating his own record label Grind Time Official Records.
Killer Mike is a famous and strong activist against racism and police brutality. He also gave lectures at universities and colleges on these topics. He also released some solo albums, including “Monster,” “I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind I and II,” “PL3DGE”, and “R.A.P. Music”.
15. R.A. The Rugged Man
R.A. The Rugged Man was one of the hip-hop prodigies as he started building his reputation with his amazing lyrical skills when he was just 12. He released his first album, “Legends Never Die,” in 2013 with the independent label Natural Sounds.
The reasons behind R.A. The Rugged Man’s independent success story is his great battle rhymes, heartfelt songs fans can relate to as well as offensive lyrics that stand against corrupt politicians along with impressive flows.
16. Inspectah Deck
The member of the groups Wu-Tang Clan and Czarface, Inspectah Deck, is a great rapper and songwriter who uses intricate lyricism and impressive verses. He also is a producer who owns his own rights as an underground hip-hop artist. He also had success with his solo albums such as “Uncontrolled Substance,” “The Movement,” and “The Resident Patient.”
Inspectah Deck is mainly appreciated as he tried to create a blend of East and West Coast raps, fusing the East’s beats and the West’s rhymes.
17. Black Thought
The lead MC and co-founder of the hip-hop group the Roots, Black Thought, is a highly famous rapper. By many authorities, he is seen as one of the smartest, most prolific, and most talented rappers in history. He is most appreciated for his complex political lyrics and multisyllabic rhyme schemes. He created some of the greatest albums of hip-hop history with The Roots, including “Illadelph Halflife” in 1996, “Things Fall Apart” in 1999, and “How I Got Over” in 2010.
Today, Black Thought can be seen in The Tonight Show, Starring Jimmy Fallon, as he is a frequent singer and rapper on the show.
18. Earl Sweatshirt
As a member of the alternative hip-hop collective Odd Future, Earl Sweatshirt gained his reputation with his debut mixtape “Earl” in 2010 when he was only 16. He increased his popularity with his debut album “Doris” in 2013. Currently, he works with the independent label Tan Cressida and continues to produce great hip-hop albums that receive widespread critical acclaim.
Earl Sweatshirt was considered a hip-hop prodigy since he was a kid, thanks to his amazing flow and unique deep baritone voice. He was inspired by artists such as MF DOOM, Jay Z, and Madlib and is still following in their footsteps.
19. Pharoahe Monch
Known for his use of greatly complex lyricism and delivery as well as multisyllabic rhymes, Pharoahe Monch is a great underground hip-hop artist with a complex rapping technique. He is considered one of the best MCs of all time and released some of the greatest albums of hip-hop history, such as “Internal Affairs”, “Desire,” and “W.A.R. (We Are Renegades).”
He works with his independent label W.A.R. Media and is also a member of the hip-hop group “th1rt3en”.
The rapper and producer Apathy got famous with his collaborations with famous MCs and hip-hop groups like Demigodz, Jedi Mind Tricks, Styles Of Beyond, and Army Of The Pharaohs. His debut album, “Eastern Philosophy,” in 2006, and his second album, “Wanna Snuggle?” in 2009, were released by independent record labels Babygrande Records and Demigodz Records, respectively.
His later albums were also released by independent labels. He is known for his versatile lyric-writing and great delivery with his use of different elements from world music, especially eastern music.
There are so many hip-hop artists to explore in the underground hip-hop scene as independent labels are free from the limits of mainstream media and music. This freedom allows artists to express themselves as they desire, making their art more authentic. So, if you want to get deeper into the underground hip-hop scene, you should check these artists out.
MF Doom Featured Image (Top-Left) by: Possan, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Mos Def Featured Image (Top-Right) by: Tuomas Vitikainen, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Talib Kweli Featured Image (Bottom-Left) by: Tuomas Vitikainen, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
KRS-One Featured Image (Bottom-Right) by: Saquan Stimpson from Newark, DE, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons