As you may have seen, I’m embarking on another journey of musical self –improvement. You see, I’m terrible at gardening, can’t fix a shelf, and self-help books make me consider self-immolation too regularly to be workable. So, in order to feed the need for improvement in the temple of me, I’ve decided to expand my musical experience beyond that which is sane. The first part of this was to listen to every album on the Rolling Stone Top 500 albums of all-time list, an exercise in frustration and bewilderment which you can purchase in book form, fact fans.
That challenge completed, I decided I was somehow not yet sated, and started a new challenge. This time I’m expanding my knowledge of the area of music I’m ostensibly the most familiar with: alternative music. The reason? Well, it’s a bloody huge tent, filled with genres as disparate as electronica, emo and prog rock. So I’m taking ten different alternative genres and listening to 50 albums on each, in an attempt to boil down its essence, tick it off and move on. That’s how art works, right? I’m getting these lists from a range of sources, and in some cases calling on people who know a bloody great deal more about a subject than I do.
So it is with this next section – alternative hip-hop. I’ve had a mixed relationship with rap over the years. Like most middle class white teenagers in the 90’s, I dallied with the scene, drawn in by the aggression, the sense of injustice (who knows injustice more than an entitled white teenage boy, after all?) and the fact that it sounded nothing like anything our parents listened to. Well, unless you have my parents, who were there at the launch party of Kiss.FM. Anyway, I did my stint through a Wu Tang obsession, got into Jurassic 5, lost my shit at a Beastie Boys concert and then moaned about the creeping commercialisation of the Jay-Z/Kanye era, before finally getting bored and drifting away to listen to alt-metal bands who sound like the end of the world fighting a thousand drum-kits.
Then, while writing for Demon Pigeon (RIP) I encountered two of our writers who had actually bothered to be more engaged with the hip-hop scene than all that. They turned me on to the likes of Doomtree, P.O.S., Open Mike Eagle and Run the Jewels and many more.
Turns out hip-hop wasn’t dead. Who knew?
So, since I’m on a journey of self-exploration, I decided to tap up one of those excellent writers, Demon Pigeon’s Rap Bus driver Mr Geoff Owen of the ridiculously excellent Tha Knows website, to create a list of the 50 alternative hip-hop albums I need to listen to. I did this primarily because he knows, tha knows, and because I knew it would drive him insane for a good month or so, and I’m a bit of a shit like that. My only stipulation was that he could only pick one album per artist. Anyway, over to Geoff:
Independent Hip-Hop, Alternative Hip-Hop, Underground Hip-Hop. What do you call it? How do you define it? There was a time in the 2000s during the heydays of DefJux and Anticon etc. when it was easier to pin down and define as a genre or sub-genre. Hip-Hop had been hugely successful both culturally and commercially in the latter part of the 90s and into the 2000’s. If you were to encapsulate that era in a single image it would be a diamond arse-shaped helicopter farting 100 dollar bills into an ocean of shiny boobs.
Around this time certain rappers, producers and labels were releasing music which seemed like a direct reaction to the perceived superficiality of Commercial Hip-Hop. There was a definite Us vs Them feel and a certain sense of animosity towards the likes of P. Diddy and Jay-Z from those who were often labelled Backpackers.
Anticon in particular were releasing hip-hop which was so far removed from what we'd heard before that it was leading people to ask if it really was hip-hop at all. Of course it was, but these questions needed to be asked, perceptions needed to be challenged; this turned out to be one of the most important eras for the development of the genre.
Hip-hop was like a stroppy teenager at this point. It had to hate its parents for a few years before it realised that they were actually pretty cool and that it could learn a lot of stuff from them. It was necessary for cLOUDEAD and Themselves to make the music they did so that we could have albums like milo's So The Flies Don't Come and Armand Hammer's Race Music. It's okay now for Indie rappers to listen to A$AP Rocky. If you'd have told people in 2010 that El-P would achieve world domination as part of a duo with Killer Mike you'd have been laughed out of town. Yet there they both are together, doing adverts for Gears of War.
The divide between mainstream and underground has blurred so much that commercial artists are copying the underground approach by releasing music independently. Whether this is genuine or not is the subject of much debate, *waves at Chance the Rapper and his debut "mixtape" with its 100% original production, big name guest spots and immediate "buzz."*
So what is Alternative Hip-Hop, or Independent Hip-Hop, and how do you make a list of 50 albums? Despite all my flannel about stroppy teenagers, there was still a huge amount of hip-hop being made independently during the period described that didn't include samples of food blenders. I decided to only include albums that were released on independent labels. That means that a few biggies will be missing but I had to define it somehow as it can't realistically be defined by style or content anymore.
The list spans 1997 to 2016 and contains a mixture of no-brainer classics, some albums I don't necessarily like that much but are important in the development and story of the genre and some that are just personal choices that I love. I'm not happy with the final list, how can you be? I don't envy Paul having to try and digest over 50 hours’ worth of lyrics but he loves to do this to himself so I am happy to act as enabler. Good luck Paul, you'll need it :)
1. Aesop Rock - Labor Days
2. Armand Hammer - Race Music
3. Astronautalis - Pomegranate
4. Atmosphere - God Loves Ugly
5. Billy Woods - History will absolve me
6. Binary Star - Masters of the Universe
7. Blackalicious - Nia
8. Blu & Exile - Below the Heavens
9. Blueprint - 1998
10. Brother Ali - Shadows on the Sun
11. Buck 65 - Vertex
12. Busdriver - RoadKillOvercoat
13. Cage - Movies For The Blind
14. Cannibal Ox - The Cold Vein
15. Cecil Otter - rebel yellow
16. Chance the Rapper - Acid Tape
17. cLOUDDEAD - Ten
18. Company Flow - Funcrusher Plus
19. Danny Brown - XXX
20. Deltron - 3030
21. Dessa - A Badly Broken Code
22. Edan - Beauty and the Beat
23. El-P - Fantastic Damage
24. Eyedea & Abilities - E&A
25. Hieroglyphics - 3rd Eye Vision
26. Homeboy Sandman - The Good Sun
27. Illogic – Write To Death 2
28. J Dilla - Donuts
29. J Live - The Best Part
30. Jean Grae – This Week
31. Jedi Mind Tricks - Violent by Design
32. Kemba - Negus
33. Kmd - Black Bastards
34. Latryx - The Album
35. Lootpack - Soundpieces: Da Antidote
36. Madvillain - Madvillainy
37. MF Doom - operation doomsday
38. milo - so the flies don't come
39. Mos Def - Black on both sides
40. Mr Lif - I Phantom
41. Open Mike Eagle - Dark Comedy
42. POS - never better
43. Quasimoto - The unseen
44. Sage Francis - personal journals
45. Signor Benedick the Moor - El Negro
46. Soul Position – 8 Million Stories
47. The Coup - Steal this Album
48. The Infesticons - Gun Hill Road
49. Themselves - The No Music
50. Viktor Vaughan -Vaudeville Villain
So, that’s next. While you’re waiting for that, however, how about you go check out thaknows.net, singularly my favourite music website on the whole wide internet, where you can read a lot more about some of the artists on this list, sexy animals invading Sheffield and Corporatism in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And thanks very much to Geoff for the effort that went into this leg of the challenge.
Welcome to Discovery Park – the chronicle of my increasingly frustrated attempt to listen to every album on Rolling Stone's Top 500 Albums of all-time list, is available now on Amazon Uk, Amazon.com, iBooks, Kobo, and many more.