They say Hip Hop is dead; a mere shell of the influential industry it once was following the unexpected deaths of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G.; going out in a sensational blaze faster than they came in. Their voices, along with the roots that cultivated them, spoke directly into the soul of a begotten community of “have not’s,” oozing the kind of authenticity that made the disenfranchised feel empowered. While it spoke loudly to an ignored minority community, true hip-hop transcends any race or religion and some even transcends time.
Although it is uniquely versatile, hip hop has always represented the masculine energy of love; as in the soldier who stands directly up to forces of tyranny for the sake of righteousness. Which is conversely compared to the feminine energy of love which embodies nurturing and compassion for all life. It is the tough love idea of “fuck the system because its corrupt and I’m going to rebel” which hip hop gets to the core of. Hip hop gives a voice to this rebel in a raw uncensored feel, which is why it should come as no surprise that those listening to a beat bob their head back and forth like soldier getting ready for battle.
Unfortunately like many other industries out there, mainstream hip hop has fallen victim to the elite and the influence of the dollar. Radio is awash with artists manufactured for mass appeal, drowning out real lyricists and uncensored voices that threaten the current social system. It’s simply a corrupt business at this point. Names like the Rockefellers or groups like the Illuminati have their tentacles all throughout the industry. It is as if hip hop has gone against the foundation it was built upon by selling out to the same corrupt system that originally birthed the angry population of people who spoke out against it; spawning the urban genre we call hip hop.
It is important to highlight those artists who truly embody independent hip hop in an honorable way. Those unwilling to sell their souls to the major labels for wealth and notoriety. While music is ultimately what you make it, the artists presented here seem to be in the game for something bigger than music or money. They represent an idea; a revolution. At the end of the day, they represent a truly authentic form of consciousness which aims to infect and expand the minds of those who listen.
Like symbols of the ancient pyramids, their lyrics can be understood like poems far deeper than what simply appears on the surface. There is a myriad of ways to interpret lyrical meanings, many of which change over time. This list in particular focuses on some of the biggest names driving the underground hip hop scene; giving a pulse to the term “conscious hip hop.” Not only do these artists stimulate the minds of those awakened, but many of them live hip hop by embodying social activism in their work. In many ways, hip hop is an allegory that takes the urban battle in the streets of the minority community and metaphorically relates it to the deeper eternal battle of the people versus the elite global tyranny. It’s bigger than hip hop, and the roots should never be forgotten…
Maybe one the rawest, most intense and genuine rappers in the game today, Immortal Technique’s songs reflect the hard reality of living in a corrupt social system. His music touches on even the darkest of emotions like in the song “Dance with the Devil,” pinching a nerve for those wanting to live in a false matrix of only positivity. He also remains one the most intense social activists in hip hop; talking out against class warfare, imperialism, and government corruption. He even took the profits from his album 3rd world and built an Orphanage in Afghanistan; truly living what he speaks about in his music.
“The only way a Guerilla War can be over
Is when the occupation, can’t afford more soldiers
Until they have to draft that of you into service
And refuse cause you don’t see the purpose”
Hailing from hip hop mecca Brooklyn, New York, Talib Kweli has earned his credibility as one of the strongest activists in the hip hop community, strongly speaking out against the systemic violence that preys on the inner cities in both his music and daily life. The child of two educators, he is also a strong advocate of free thought, even starting Javotti media; self-defined as “a platform for independent thinkers and doers.” He refuses to vote and calls politics an illusion, holding the claim that activism cannot be done by simply sitting on a computer, but requires action.
“The startin’ salary, it’s hard reality
We got our leaders too but do they leave us?
Or they lead us and they see it through?”
Building a following to his music at just twelve years old, the heavy accented rapper R.A. the Rugged Man remains a strong presence in the rap game, having worked with the likes of Wu-Tang Clan, Mobb Deep, and Notorious B.I.G, while largely remaining independent from the corruption of major labels. His no-nonsense presence on the mic is coupled with the intelligent stroke of the pen, exposing the horror of Agent Orange in the song “Uncommon Valor,” as well as exposing the power behind the corporate media pulling the strings, as exemplified in the song “Media Midgets.”
“Fuck the media posing as experts
Fuck the radio, fuck the television networks
You can murder me before I let you take control
My mind is my own and I’m trusting my soul”
The east duo, consisting of the diseased MC Guru and DJ/producer DJ Premier, has embodied the true spirit of hip hop since coming on the scenes in the late 1980’s. Lyrically they are on another level, as exemplified on their famous album “Moment of Truth;” an album that generations to come can vibe with. Their music often reflects how people sell out for fame/notoriety such as in the song “Mass Appeal” as well as the importance of seeking knowledge and living righteous, like in the song “Above the Clouds.”
“Cannot afford to be confined to a cell
Brainwaves swell, turning a desert to a well
Thoughts will spray like street sweepers,
little Daddy street preacher”
A young rapper hailing from Pittsburg, PA, Mac Miller hit the scene at just 15, dropping free mixtapes that spread out to hip hop heads quickly. Over time he has matured into someone known for his raw, unfiltered raps; showing unique creativity and a willingness to mix it up and even get weird on the mic. His music often documents the inner struggles of staying real, sober, and fighting against the dark inner demons which can haunt any of us on the path towards self-evolution. His deep influence from drugs is heavily relayed through his music, both of the positive and negative variety.
“Fuck a recession, my brother
My mind is my weapon, I’m letting it go
Loading and pointing at negative energy
Telling me stop, they’re telling me no (Don’t)”
One of the grittiest MC’s in hip hop today, Freddie Gibbs represents the rawness of the streets like few rappers today can. He is not for the faint of heart, but neither are the streets or the battle against global tyranny we find ourselves in today. Freddie Gibbs’ music would get any soldier ready for battle, while at the same time giving any free-thinker something to spark up a blunt to. His realness to the game is hard to question.
“I built my name with no features
Or some expensive budget
Go for mine cause a co-sign can’t coincide with the shit im bustin
You see more clear when your pocket start to see the reduction”
Maybe one the most complex lyricists in the game, Portland, OR native, Aesop Rock, remains the go to guy for tongue twisting rhymes, abstract metaphors, and a vocabulary that would rival most great writers. In many ways, Aesop Rock’s songs are more poems then raps, even garnering the attention of academic institutions like Harvard. He states that “over interpretation happens a lot (in his lyrics)” and that they are “not always linear.” Whatever the case, Aesop Rock challenges the minds of us all with the unique stroke of his pen.
“Fine sign of the swine in the swarm
When a king is a whore who comply and conform
Miles outside of the eye of the storm
With a siphon to lure out a prize and award”
The highly political east coast duo, comprised of stic.man and M-1, Dead Prez, are known for their social militant lyrics as well as their ethical stance against corporate control over hip hop, as referenced to in their famous song “Hip Hop.” Dead Prez has garnered mad respect within any true hip hop lovers circle for representing something bigger then hip hop; regularly lighting money on fire or throwing health food into the crowd during shows.
“You would rather have a Lexus or justice, a dream or some substance
A beamer, a necklace or freedom
Still a nigga like me don’t playa-hate, I just stay awake, this is real hip hop>
And it don’t stop ‘till we got the po-po off the block”
A west coast rapper from south central LA, Murs (expressed as Making Underground Raw Shit or Making the Universe Recognize and Submit) has a unique way of using hip hop to characterize the deep complexities that go into relationships and their toil on the human mind. A member of many musical group such as the famous collective Living Legends, Murs has equally thrived as an independent voice of hip hop. When asked what he would do if president, Murs said he would “ban banning things” as well as “making it mandatory to learn another language fluently in order to graduate high school.”
“And lastly I pray for lives that you didn’t choose to keep
We all ain’t perfect but we trying at the very least
Every saint got a past and every sinner got a future
And I can’t judge nobody Im just passing thoughts to you”
Born with a rare form of albinism and legally blind, Brother Ali hasn’t let that slow him down, but instead uses it as fire to fuel his raps. His raps are some of the most politically charged in the game, speaking out strongly against islamophobia, U.S. corruption, and social justice for the disenfranchised. In an interview with Yes! Magazine, he stated that “I feel like that’s my job (to be political), and I feel like within the last few years I fully woke up to that, found the courage to understand that, and stepped out like that”
“What’s left? get a big ass plasma
To see where they made Dan Rather point the damn camera
Only approved questions get answered
Now stand your ass up for the national anthem”
Coming out of Oakland, CA, the hip hop duo of MC Baba Zumbi and Producer/DJ Amp Live have a style that is hard to pinpoint, with a wide range of music beats mixed with heartfelt lyrics. Their diversity has led to collaborations with a wide range of musical artists like Bassnectar, Rebelution, and Collie Buddz. They have described their music as “for seekers of something deeper” rather than “simply getting lost in the drank and weed.” They consider themselves “world citizens” and thank hip hop for getting them out of the bubble which they, like many of us, get stuck in.
“Dear Lord you show me the best of times, You show me the worst of times
Confusion all over my mind but still I be bustin’ rhymes
And I fight for what I want, but I die for what I need
And I watch my people bleed while vultures steady feed”
Coming straight of Brooklyn, NY, Mos Def is a jack of all trades; being an actor, comedian, activist, and lyrical beast in hip hop music. He regularly speaks out against the social injustice that plagues the minority community, simulating dialogue about the mishandling of Hurricane Katrina as well as police brutality. In July 2013, he appeared in a short film, which depicted the force-feeding methods used on the inmates at Guantanamo Bay.
“Like the nationwide project-prison-industry complex
Working-class poor; better keep your alarm set
Streets too loud to ever hear freedom ring
Say evacuate your sleep, it’s dangerous to dream”
An American duo from Minneapolis, MN, consisting of rapper Slug and DJ/producer Ant, Atmosphere is known for their introspective style of battling allegorically through their relationships with women and hip hop in general. Atmosphere also largely reflects on the battles one has with themselves over living life the right way. Atmosphere is definitely an artist that challenges one to look deeply within him or herself in order to come back out and find themselves.
“All of a sudden, I realize something
The weather is amazing, even the birds are bumpin
Stood up and took a look and a breath
And there’s that bike that I forgot that I possessed”
With their name meaning “from the soul,” De La Soul is an American hip hop trio from Long Island, NY known for their jazz sampling mixed with lyrics that touch the soul of audiences. They have stated that “signing with a major label is slavery” and that “the Internet is for voicing your opinions, freedom of your feelings, and expressing yourself. Their newest album was funded by Kickstarter, with loyal fans generating their goal of 110k in under ten hours.
“Throughout my change to grow, Some of my people got left behind
They didn’t listen for the gun, as I leaped from off the line
Thirteen years deep in this marathon I’m runnin
Paid dues and I still got bills to pay, When I come back around the way”
I know that 2pac is far from underground, but in my own humble opinion, he was one the few big artists to stay true to the game till the end, using his pen to help bring empowerment to a community that needed to know the power they already had. His lyrics are essentially timeless, being equally just as relatable today then when they were first released. He might have been a wildcard at the time, but staying true in a land of fakery and deception is not easy. In the end, I put him on the list last in the hope that the younger generation will take the time to dive deeply into his music and learn something that can affect their own personal journey through life.
“Even though it wasn’t me, I could feel the grief
Thinkin’ with your brains blown that would make the pain go
No! You got to find a way to survive
Cause they win when your soul dies”
One article cannot possible cover all the artists out there, so apologies go out to many of the artists that were omitted. Hip hop is a collective movement and lifestyle so you all are not forgotten. Stay tuned for Vol. 2 to drop next, where we go even deeper into the underground and pay Homage to those just coming up and still largely unknown. We all have to start somewhere, right?
For a playlist of all the songs featured in this article, click here.