What exactly is alternative hip hop? There seems to be varying opinions on what defines a hip hop song or artist as “alternative”. Some even argue that hip hop is such a diverse genre itself, that to label any type of hip hop “alternative” is inaccurate. With that said, there seems to be some level of consensus on the definition, history, and top artists in the alternative hip hop genre, which we present below.
To help shed some light on the definition of “alternative hip hop”, we can first look at the Dictionary.com definition of the word “alternative’, which is: “employing or following nontraditional or unconventional ideas, methods, etc.; existing outside the establishment.” AllMusic.com refers to alternative hip hop as a genre that “refuses to conform to any of the traditional stereotypes of rap, such as gangsta, funk, bass, hardcore, and party rap” and that, instead, it “blurs genres, drawing equally from funk and pop/rock, as well as jazz, soul, reggae, and even folk.” Last.Fm states that that alternative hip hop “refers to all hip-hop groups, past and present, that refused to conform to the demands of the international record companies and consumers of commercial, disposable music in all of its forms.” While these definitions seems to help clarify our understanding of alternative hip hop, Pigeons and Planes states that it may not be that simple, elaborating, “alternative sounds in hip-hop are becoming the norm, and outliers in modern rap are branching out further and further from the traditional boom-bap of the ’80s and the gritty styles of the ’90s.”
According to Wikipedia, alternative hip hop emerged during the late 1980’s, during the “golden age of hip hop,” with artists from the East Coast, West Coast, and South all contributing to it’s growth and evolution. In the beginning of the 1990s, alternative hip hop began to enter into the mainstream, however, with the emergence of the more popular gangsta rap in the mid 1990’s, alternative hip hop saw a decline back to the underground. In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, as the public’s interest in indie music saw a rise, alternative hip hop once again had a revival. Since then, alternative hip hop has spread across the globe, becoming more diverse, reaching larger audiences, and becoming more and more popular.
Some of the first alternative hip hop artists included: De La Soul, Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest, Brand Nubian, Digable Planets, The Pharcyde, Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, Digital Underground, Freestyle Fellowship, Jurassic 5, Arrested Development, Goodie Mob, and OutKast. Since then, there are many more prominent artists that have emerged that have been described as having an alternative sound, such as Common, Beastie Boys, The Roots, Gnarls Barkley, Lupe Fiasco, Kid Cudi, B.o.B, and many, many more.
10 Example Alternative Hip Hop Songs:
1) De La Soul – Me, Myself, and I (1989)
“De La Soul made rap history as one of the first groups to go against the hip-hop grain of macho braggadocio, hectoring social comment and mammoth beats, all while winning respect and acclaim from inside and outside of the hip-hop community. With its middle-class suburban Long Island roots, light rhythms, laid-back raps, thoughtfully irreverent lyrics, esoteric sampling, and quasi-hippie attitude, De La Soul paved the way for a steady stream of adventurous “alternative” rap groups.”
2) A Tribe Called Quest – Can I Kick It (1991)
“A Tribe Called Quest blazed alternative rap trails with a laid-back, witty, progressive style as well as innovative beats and enlightened lyrics that paved the way for the “jazz rap” of Digable Planets, Jungle Brothers, Us3 and other outside-the-box hip-hop artists.”
3) Arrested Development – Tennessee (1992)
“Arrested Development took the light, funky sound of the Native Tongues school of hip-hop, blended in the folk-blues instrumentation of their native South (harmonica, acoustic guitars), added uplifting, gospel-tinged lyrics, and became one of the most successful crossover acts in rap.”
4) Queen Latifah – U.N.I.T.Y. (1993)
“Her music, according to Interview, borrowed freely “from hip-hop, house, jazz, and reggae,” all saturated by Latifah’s sense of self and a pride seemingly untouched by vanity… Applauded for her social politics as well as her gift for rhyme, Latifah presented a well-rounded image, with social commentary in its place, but entertainment firmly in the foreground.”
5) The Pharcyde – Passin’ Me By (1993)
“In the early 90’s, when gangsta’ rap consumed the airwaves, and the majority of West Coast rappers strapped on their Locs, Chuck Taylor’s & Ben Davis’, The Pharcyde decidedly maintained a willfully weird vision. Opting to stay true to themselves with their left field but still South-Central sensibility, rap had seen few groups so self-deprecating and so smart, four visionary rappers adroitly able to split the difference between helium-voiced and hard-core.”
6) Beastie Boys – Intergalactic (1998)
“Beastie Boys were the first big white rap group, and they have stayed popular — at times hugely popular — for nearly a quarter century. After emerging from New York’s hardcore punk underground in the early Eighties, the trio crossed over into the mainstream in 1986… In the late Eighties, Beastie Boys’ take on hip-hop began maturing, and throughout the Nineties the group ventured into spaced-out funk, psychedelia and lounge music, yet retaining its adolescent charm and hit-making sensibility.”
7) Lauryn Hill – Doo-Wop (That Thing) (1998)
“Initially establishing her reputation as the most visible and vocal member of the Fugees, [Hill] continued on to a solo career releasing The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Hill’s works primarily in the neo-soul and alternative rap styles, among other influences from reggae and folk.”
8) Outkast – B.O.B. (2000)
“Inspired by the Afrocentric psychedelics of George Clinton and Sly Stone, OutKast created an idiosyncratic sound blending funk and Southern bump.” Of Outkast’s B.O.B., Rolling Stones states, “The furious “B.O.B.” is a blast of up-tempo, turn-of-the-century dislocation with electro breaks and a gospel choir. ‘Power music, electric revival,’ chants the choir at the end, sounding like some funkified Southern congregation where Chuck D is the preacher and Afrika Bambaataa is the musical director.”
9) Talib Kweli – Get By (2002)
“The Brooklyn-based rapper earned his stripes as one of the most lyrically-gifted, socially aware and politically insightful rappers to emerge in the last 20 years… Of his music, Kweli states, “My music has been associated with those types of causes, with positivity, spirituality, intelligence and being thought-provoking and such.”
10) Lupe Fiasco – Kick Push (2006)
“Critics hailed the rapper as the savior of the genre on the strength of tracks like the skateboard anthem “Kick, Push.” Lupe Fiasco is known for his “strong storytelling, mature subject matter grounded in his Muslim faith, and inventive mixes…”
We hope this post helps you answer the question “What is Alternative Hip Hop?” Have any thoughts to share? What’s your definition of alternative hip hop? Any other artists/songs that you think define the genre of alternative hip hop? Let us know by leaving a comment below!
Also, if you like listening to alternative hip hop, you should enjoy this song list of Hopeful Music: 10 Songs to Cheer You Up in Tough Times. Go check it out!