I've been into hip hop music and culture since my teens back in the early 1980s. I've seen it go through many changes, bumps, and curves.
It seems in every genre of music, there is a type that is not mainstream and yet isn't underground; maybe fringe, but, at any rate, defies most categories. In rock, it seems, grunge fits into this class: Not exactly hardcore metal and definitely not commercialized pop; it covers subject matter untouched by both the hardcore and radio-marketed tunes. The sound is different and innovative, not run-of-the-mill.
There is a class of music in hip hop that is not hardcore gangsta rap with its obsession with violence and crime, nor is it poppy dance jams; rather, it covers a spectrum of subjects, from the deep emotional to the relevant political and is infused with jazz and funk, even punk and hard rock, in addition to some very street hip hop sounds. This music is outside the mainstream and outside the average underground production of gangster beats and obscene lyrics. Truly unique and culturally relevant, offering something for those who've never been inside the box, let alone outside the box. It is what we might call "alternative hip hop."
The beginnings of it were found in the late '80s and early '90s groups like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, groups seemingly hippy influenced, but mainly they had the aura of mellow kids that might be experimenting with alternatives to the doldrums and ho-hum. Although, if we go back far enough, to the old old school, we see artists like Rammellzee breaking through boundaries, venturing into unique hip hop art, and defying categories and assumptions.
So, here I provide a list of some of the most prominent alternative hip hop artists to grace the scene. But, first, let me explain why a number of artists, who could have been included in the list, were not included.
20. Lyrics Born
Straight from California's Bay Area, Berkeley, to be exact, home of the '60s Free Speech Movement, anti-war protest, the Black Panthers, and Haight-Ashbury hippies; Lyrics Born's music is a reflection of this sophisticated and diverse home of his as well he himself is a reflection of sophistication and diversity, being of Jewish-Italian and Japanese descent. He is a very unique artist; his music sounds like a funk band gone hip hop, with his smooth and deep-voiced delivery and politically and emotionally laced material. Definitely way far outside the box.
From Seattle, birthplace of much alternative music, and home to a flourishing hip hop alternative community, he's the Irish Jackie Chan of the mic. He has no standard meter, doesn't rhyme every bar, but his delivery is fine-tuned and relaxed, effortless. The range of his subject matter runs the gamut, from pure party to charged political. He covers a subject not so much ideologically but the way a political protester might expose corruption and social fallacy. Unique, to say the least.
18. Mac Dre
Obscene and unmatched, Mac Dre could have gone anywhere and stuck out like a sore thumb or blended and flowed with anyone from the countryside to the city. His execution sounds like someone kicking back at the party jabbering stuff off the top of his head, and he did it well.
His subject matter covered everything from the pressures of extreme poverty and crime to heavy drug use and spontaneous fun in the street or underground club. Fun and frenetic, Mac Dre is in a class of his own and is everything all at once.
17. Das Racist
This crew of Latino and East Indian hip hop jokers took their name from a phrase which they use in a humorous fashion to lighten the load of seeking racial issues under rocks and behind curtains; the point is to lessen the sting all around. With unique and strangely catchy samples, ranging from soap opera theme songs to Billy Joel classics, and with a lackadaisical tone and execution, these guys make head bobbing hits across the Internet. Out of this world and entertaining, definitely outside of the normal parameters of hip hop.
16. Blue Scholars
Geologic (AKA Prometheus Brown) and Sabzi make up the Blue Scholars, whose name is a play on words referencing the term "blue collar." Geologic is the MC (Rapper), and Sabzi brings DJ and production skills to the group. Geologic is the son of immigrants from the Philippines and spends decent time addressing issues of colonialism and labor exploitation relevant to his heritage.
Sabzi is a trained musician and creates mellow, smooth, groovy sounds that compliment Geo's smooth and charged lyrical delivery. Definitely pioneers, covering material never covered before in a way never done before. It's good to see them on the scene. What they reveal with social commentary shows a depth of understanding of humanity's condition, lambasting the overarching influence of corporate America on the psyche.
15. Common Market
Common Market is Sabzi as producer and DJ and Ra Scion, who is Everyman, thrashing desperately, whole-heartedly at a social system that degrades mind and body; and he encourages you to do so too.
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14. Busta Rhymes
Originally from the old school crew, Leaders of the New School, Busta has an air of the perpetual fistfight. Or the potential for one. Wild and out of control, he seems like he's always going to tear something apart. And he is able to come up with unique and inspiring lyrical rhythms. He might have broken into the mainstream, but his spirit is pure innovative underground.
13. Beastie Boys
Ad Rock is the comical Jerry Lewis of hip hop, with nasal screams and absurd metaphors; MCA was rough and rugged, always looked like he just got out of a bar fight; Mike D is the smooth player, slinking up to you with that Hollywood voice and B-boy body language. The music is funk and punk and rock; the show is original and entertaining and intentionally cheesy good.
The Beasties are also known for their political activism and association with Tibetan Buddhism. Truly, they have always been unique artists of hip hop, both musically and in their activities outside of musical production.
12. Arrested Development
One of the first Hip Hop acts to hail from the countryside, Arrested Development is naturalistic and socially and politically conscious; they delve into spiritual matters, cultural matters, issues of poverty and social class, and even explore relationships and family issues. Diverse in subject matter and unique in appearance, approach, and presentation, this group definitely belongs on this list of Top Alternative Hip Hop Artists.
11. Nappy Roots
Another group straight from the country, but grittier, rougher around the edges, covering the subject of extreme poverty and the degradation and desperation of it, with a depth of feeling that is unusual and alluring; Nappy Roots gets to the heart of the matter and draws you into a world of debilitating deprivation. This unique crew delivers the goods, and the goods are reality.
10. Dilated Peoples
Outside the norm, Evidence (Rapper) comes up with smooth, exquisite rhymes with surprises and innuendo; Rakaa is political, a warrior, dropping science smoothly in a deep tone, with precision and grace; Dj Babu provides turntable skills and finesse, part of the league of world-famous Filipino DJs that have made their mark on the hip hop scene, with galactic cuts and scratches on the ones and twos (turntables), producing funky, hardcore hip hop beats to boot: This is the expansion team known as Dilated Peoples.
9. Gnarls Barkley
Unusual and unique, Gnarls Barkley is a Zen meditation of hip hop, taking the witness on a trip through traps and escapes of the mind and on to release from bondage to the point you might think you're crazy.
8. Black Sheep
As the name implies, this outcast crew is outside social and musical confines. Aggressive lyrical punches to the sternum from that misfit corner; that would be Black Sheep.
7. Das EFX
Frantic, aggressive, cool jibber-jabber style is what we call Das EFX.
6. Digable Planets
Jazzy horns, jazz drums, jazzy baseline: Did I say jazz? That's Digable Planets. Speaking their own language, like natives sitting around the campfire, relaxed and unfettered, they are definitely cool Hip Hop.
Pharcyde are kids, guys, dudes, nerds and what they go through; easy to relate to, sometimes crazy, always not normal type of misfits: They are extraordinarily ordinary and uncommonly skilled at the expression of what's common.
Another group from California's Bay Area, another reflection of the consciousness of their geography. Laid back, smooth, versatile, and diverse, Hieroglyphics lyrics, style, and sound are culturally relevant with a depth of meaning and lay a heavy message on their audience.
3. De La Soul
Pioneers of alternative hip hop, back in the day they were called hippies, though they defied the label. They were also called different, and there's no doubt they are; with unusual metaphors and an unusual look, they seem to express what is the psychological battle and responsibility of being unique.
2. A Tribe Called Quest
Always on a journey to find smooth beats and rhymes, the Tribe finds what we are looking for. Also pioneers of alternative hip hop, they were there at the beginnings of it in the late 1980s. Whether pining for a girl or getting lost on a joy ride, these were carefree characters on a perpetual quest.
Probably an incredibly controversial selection for this list, a man who cannot escape controversy anyhow, Eminem is maniacal, troubled, and seems to be perpetually speaking to the psychiatrist through the microphone; he addresses debilitating poverty and abuse, family chaos, and social illness.
His delivery is more than clever; it is a combination of words that rhyme but shouldn't rhyme with vocal manipulations of rhythm unheard of before his time. He is not a gangster, not purely political, but he might be seen as psychotic. He is definitely way far outside the norm, outside of any parameters set by society or music, executing a style never done before and addressing mostly untouched issues buried deep down in America's denial vaults. Eminem is a mirror to America's face.
Who Was Not Included But Could Have Been on the List and Why
First, if we were to simplify, hip hop music can be classified into three categories: (1) That which focuses on politics relevant to the Black community, (2) gangster rap, and (3) party and dance music. The artists that were not included in this list are definitely unique and outside the hip hop norm but still lean heavily toward one of those three categories mentioned. These artists are KRS ONE, Rakim, Poor Righteous Teachers, Brand Nubian, Mos Def, Common, The Fugees, Wu-Tang Clan, Digital Underground, and Immortal Technique.
KRS ONE, hip hop philosopher whose name is an acronym standing for Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone, is unique with his succinct and clear delivery, coverage of unique subject matter, and mature style; he leans towards the Black political, which is relevant but, nonetheless, made it so that he didn't make this particular list.
Rakim, known as a master wordsmith, with his smooth delivery and very independent approach and style, leans heavily towards the political with a particular emphasis also on Islam. An incredible hip hop craftsman he, nonetheless, also did not make this list due to his subject matter leaning towards the Black politics category. Poor Righteous Teachers, with their aggressive, sincere, and intelligent approach, again, would be better categorized as political.
Brand Nubian, with their smooth and fun vocal and musical style, and intricate and clever lyrical material, also lean towards the political. Mos Def, with his unique delivery and great lyrical skill, also belongs to the category of Black politics.
Common, with his Afro-centric perspective, his uncommon style, his intellectual lyrics, and smooth approach, nonetheless was left off the list because his act more appropriately fits into the class of political hip hop. The Fugees, culturally relevant, socially and politically conscious, with their unique look and approach, come close to making this list but are oriented more towards the political, so were not included.
The Wu-Tang Clan, with Kung Fu movie references, stripped-down beats, rough lyrics, raw style, and a huge gang of characters that seemed to have come from another dimension, have not been put on this list; they are unique, borderline in terms of being included in this list, but they tend towards the gangster, so I did not include them; though, I should say they are one of the most unique acts to ever come out of hip hop.
Digital Underground, with infamous rapper Humpty Hump known for the big nose and glasses and nasal nerd sound of his voice, and that Bay funk sound, were incomparable and distinctive; they made the good party songs, and so I've excluded them from the list. Finally, Immortal Technique, with his aggressive and highly charged, and angry political hip hop, is greatly relevant but also does not fall into the category I am covering here.
This list is subjective and comes from my over thirty years of exposure to hip hop music.
AEKR on February 21, 2017:
1) There is no "alternative hip hop". There's hip hop, and then there's the pop/mainstream offshoots of hip hop like "gangsta" or pop-rap.
2) Because of 1), this list should be "The Best True Hip Hop" or simply "The Best Hip Hop".
3) There are some great artists on this list, but only a few of them belong. Tribe, De La Soul, and maybe Bustah, Black Sheep, and Digable Planets belong on the top 20. Pharcyde, Das, Hiero, Lyrics Born (you should switch that one for Latyrx), Blue Scholars, Beasties, and Arrested Dev might be top 50 or 100 but certainly not top 20.
4) Gnarls Barkley is a funk/rock/soul group. Not hip hop.
5) Nappy Roots, Eminem, Macklemore are all obviously pop rap. I do like Nappy Roots though.
6) You missed some of the obvious top 20 choices like MF Doom/Madvillain, Mos Def, The Roots, Ghostface, Nas, John Sci Robinson, Common, Freestyle Fellowship, maybe Joey B4da$$ and many more.
7) You'd do well to explore more hip hop, and maybe more music in general or learn to play to develop your ear and knowledge
Nathan Bernardo (author) from California, United States of America on April 20, 2014:
Haha! Lame. This is the best Hip Hop heads can do to criticize. Makes me worry about the state of the genre. Funny stuff. Yah: Cool name. Truly a thoughtful response you had to my list. Just to school you; that was sarcasm I was using.
yah on April 20, 2014:
nice generic list. before you publish things everyone has listened to before just stop.
Nathan Bernardo (author) from California, United States of America on March 09, 2014:
Panduh, you're a poser trying to sound tough, with a silly name, communicating using the mentality of a junior high school kid posturing trying to prove how hip he is by being competitive and elite. I've been listening to Hip Hop since the early 1980s and I know what the music is about and who is outside of the normal parameters of the genre, those parameters that you obviously are still stuck in. Your comment made me laugh hard. You offer nothing but trash and bravado; so very much not alternative. You seriously need to just get off the pipe.
Panduh on March 09, 2014:
Macklemore, Kendrick Lamar, Busta Rhymes & Eminem are NOT alternative hip-hop... Plus this list is bullsh*t. This seems like a kid's list to his first time listening to AHH. Busta Rhymes "is" gangsta rap, along with Kendrick (supposedly). Macklemore is pop rap and Eminem is now pop as well but used to be horrorcore...
Out of all the sickest AHH artists out there, you put the most played out stuff...
Nathan Bernardo (author) from California, United States of America on May 27, 2013:
Thank you, Lydia, I very much appreciate that. Yes, those are some of the best, that's why I put them at the top. It's good to know people are reaching back in crate to find the classics. Thanks for reading and commenting.
Lydia Sweatt from Dallas, TX on May 27, 2013:
I agree Kendrick Lamar and TDE are emerging into mainstream and it's good that some artists can. Drake was once underground and I LOVED his music back then, but I listen to him now and can't get that same feeling lol - all artists can't keep your attention from the mainstream side of things. But to NateB11, great article, your top 5 are some of my favorite artists, and I'm only 21, so I had to reach back at a young age for these faves! lol
Nathan Bernardo (author) from California, United States of America on November 21, 2012:
You just hipped me to somebody I didn't know about. But this is the Internet, so I found out about him quick. Definitely, Kendrick Lamar has that unique style and subject matter that would propel alternative Hip Hop. Here's a few more I'd add to my list, the list I guess could go on and on: Kwame, Murs, and Lupe Fiasco. Thanks for stopping by and sharing!
Gstamp on November 20, 2012:
Do you think artist like Kendrick Lamar and his camp are going to finally lead this brand of hip-hop all the way into the mainstream?