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 conscious hip hop. 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. Numerous acts in the book How to Rap are described as being both underground and politically or socially aware, these include - B. DolanBrother Ali,Diabolic,Immortal Technique,Jedi Mind Tricks,Micranots,Mr. Lif,Murs,Little Brother,P.O.S and Zion I, among others.
Underground artists with critically acclaimed albums include Atmosphere,Binary Star,Blu, Cannibal Ox,Company Flow,Del the Funky Homosapien,Freestyle Fellowship,Hieroglyphics,Juggaknots, Jurassic 5,Kool Keith,Little Brother,MF DOOM,Non Phixion,Planet Asia,RJD2, MC TP, and Ammar Kazi among many others.
Additionally, many underground hip hop artists have been applauded for the artistic and poetic use of their lyrics, such as Aesop Rock, Lil 808, Aceyalone,Busdriver, Cage,CunninLynguists,Dessa, Doomtree, El-P,Eyedea & Abilities, Itslordjoshua, Illogic,Onry Ozzborn, MF DOOM, Rob Sonic,Sage Francis,Shad and Sleep, among others.
Some underground artists produce music that celebrates the fundamental elements or pillars of hip hop culture, such as Classified, Dilated Peoples, People Under The Stairs, and Fashawn whose music "recalls hip-hop's golden age".
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 (1988) 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".The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show was a notable underground hip hop radio show that was broadcast on WKCR, and later WQHT, in New York City from 1990 until 1999. It featured rappers such as The Notorious B.I.G., Big L, Jay-Z, and Eminem, as well as groups like Wu-Tang Clan, Mobb Deep, and Fugees, all before they gained any popularity. In 1999, Prince Paul and Breeze Brewin created one of the first rap opera albums, named A Prince Among Thieves. Rolling Stone gave the album a 4.5/5.
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