Underground hip-hop
Stylistic origins Hip-Hop
Cultural origins
Typical instruments
Mainstream popularity
Derivative forms
Fusion genres
Regional scenes

Underground hip hop is an umbrella term for hip hop music outside the general commercial canon. It is typically associated with independent artists, signed to independent labels or no label at all. Underground hip hop is often characterized by socially conscious, positive, or anti-commercial lyrics. However, there is no unifying or universal theme – Allmusic suggests that it "has no sonic signifiers". "The Underground" also refers to the community of musicians, fans and others that support non-commercial, or independent music. Music scenes with strong ties to underground hip hop include alternative hip hop and horrorcore. Many artists who are considered "underground" today, were not always so, and may have previously broken the Billboard charts.


Underground hip-hop encompasses several different styles of music, though it is often politically themed and socially conscious. Numerous acts in the book How to Rap are described as being both underground and politically or socially aware, these include – Little Brother, Brother Ali, Mr. Lif, Murs, Immortal Technique, Binary Star, People Under the Stairs, Lifesavas, Zion I.

Underground artists often have high levels of critical acclaim – acts who have been specifically noted as being both underground and having numerous critically acclaimed albums include Jurassic 5, Aesop Rock, Ugly Duckling, Little Brother, Brother Ali, El Da Sensei, Dilated Peoples, Non Phixion, Freestyle Fellowship, Binary Star, Planet Asia, People Under the Stairs, Cannibal Ox and Zion I.

Additionally, many underground artists are said to have "intelligent", "intricate", or "complex" lyrics, these include Akir, Ugly Duckling, Brother Ali, E-Dubyah!, Aaron Gonzalez, Cage, Immortal Technique, El Da Sensei, Blackalicious, NCKF99, Mr. Lif, Andre Nickatina, Murs, Binary Star, Planet Asia, Lifesavas, Sage Francis, Zion I, The Even Keel, Skidzz, Omega Jackson, Yasiin Bey, MF Doom, Talib Kweli, Yak Ballz and Tajai Massey.

Some underground artists produce music that celebrates the fundamental elements or pillars of hip hop culture, such as People Under the Stairs, Apathy, and Blacastan whose music "recalls hip-hop's golden age".


Mixtapes are the medium of the underground artist. They are often composed of original material, and are distributed via the internet or in person at one of any number of regional distribution services. Mixtapes depend on word of mouth and hand to hand exchanges for promotion.



In hip hop's formative years, the vast majority of the genre was underground music, by definition. Although the Sugarhill Gang gained commercial success in 1979, most artists did not share such prominence until the mid 1980s. Ultramagnetic MCs debut album Critical Beatdown is seen as one of the earliest examples of "underground hip hop". It was described that the album was characteristic of what would later be known as "underground hip hop". New York underground rapper Kool Keith received notable success with his album Dr. Octagonecologyst, gaining more attention than any contemporary independent hip hop album "in quite a while".


Detroit underground hip hop label Reel Life Productions had its highest charting success with the Dayton Family member Bootleg's solo release Hated By Many Loved By Few, which peaked at #174 on the Billboard 200, #6 on Independent Albums, and #38 on Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums and Esham's Tongues, which peaked at #195 on the Billboard 200, #7 on Independent Albums, #46 on Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums and #14 on Top Heatseekers. Another Detroit underground label, Psychopathic Records, had its highest success with Insane Clown Posse's albums The Amazing Jeckel Brothers and later Bang! Pow! Boom!, as well as The Mighty Death Pop! Binary Star's Masters of the Universe was described as a "refreshing alternative from the mainstream of rap". Tech N9ne (rapper) and Strange Music achieved their biggest success with the album All 6's and 7's.

Indie hip hopEdit

Indie hip hop (also known as indie rap) is hip hop music that primarily exists in the independent music scene.

The term "underground hip hop" has been used to describe both indie hip hop (which is defined by its artists being unsigned or signed to independent record labels, rather than major record labels) as well as alternative hip hop (which is defined by music that diverges from mainstream hip hop music such as gangsta rap). As the term "indie hip hop" is indicative of the artists making the music rather than the music itself, it is not strictly a genre, but rather covers a range of styles with clearly discernable hip hop characteristics.

Like indie rock artists, many indie hip hop artists place a premium on maintaining complete control of their music and careers, releasing albums on independent record labels (sometimes their own) and relying on touring, word-of-mouth and air play on independent or college radio stations for promotion. Some of its more popular artists, however, may end up moving to major labels, though often on favorable terms won by their prior independent success.

Independent hip hop labels include Strange Famous Records, Alpha Pup Records, Fake Four Inc, Anticon, Rhymesayers Entertainment, Definitive Jux, Rawkus Records, Nature Sounds, Quannum Projects, Babygrande Records, 301Studios, Strange Music, Duck Down Records, Psychopathic Records, Reel Life Productions, Funk Volume and Stones Throw. Notable indie hip hop artists include Hopsin, 7L & Esoteric, Blackalicious, The Visionaries, Madlib, Cage, Mr. Lif, Shabazz Palaces, The Perceptionists, Atmosphere, Aesop Rock, Sole, Sage Francis, B. Dolan, Busdriver, Lord Jamar, Jedi Mind Tricks, Immortal Technique, Tech N9ne, Krizz Kaliko, Kutt Calhoun, Insane Clown Posse, Bronze Nazareth, The Weeknd, Outerspace, the artists of Boot Camp Clik, Termanology, Macklemore and Esham. Danger Mouse, although now signed with Parlophone, built his career as an indie hip hop artist.


See AlsoEdit

The Four Core Elements Breaking | DJing | Graffiti | MCing
Hip-Hop culture Dance | Fashion | Music | Production | Theater | Beatboxing
History History | Golden age | Old school | New school
Subgenres Acid rap – Alternative hip-hop – Bit-HopBounce musicChicano rapChopped and screwedChristian hip-hopConscious hip-hopEast Coast hip-hopFreestyle rapGangsta rapHardcore hip-hopHorrorcoreIndie hip-hopInstrumental hip-hopMafioso rapMidwest hip-hopNative American hip-hopNerdcore hip-hopUnderground hip-hopPolitical hip-hopPop rapSnap musicTurntablismWest Coast hip-hop - Trap (music genre)
Fusion genres Abstract hip-hop - Baltimore clubCountry rapCrunkCrunkcoreCumbia rapElectro hopG-funkGhetto houseGhettotechGlitch hopHip-Hop soulHip houseHiplifeHyphyIndustrial hip-hopJazz rapMerenrapNeo soul - Rap metalRap operaRap rockRapcoreDigital Hardcore - Wonky (music)
By continent African | Asian | European | Latin American | Middle Eastern
By country
Other Turntablism | 1520 Sedgwick Avenue | Master of Ceremonies | Hip-Hop music | Hip-Hop culture | Hip-Hop Timeline: 1925 - Present | Scratching | Hook (music) | Break (music) | Sampling (music) | Synthesizer | Hip-Hop rivalry | Misogyny in hip hop culture | Rap Genius
Lists & Categories Genres | Models

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