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Alternative hip hop

Alternative hip hop (Bohemian hip hop) is a style of hip hop distinguished by socio-political lyrics, sparse beats that sample few and/or unusual sources (see jazz rap) and uniquely positive rhymes. Alternative hip hop artists generally have not achieved much or any mainstream success, although they are often critically acclaimed.

Interestingly, alternative hip hop has developed differently from virtually every other musical genre, with its originators (De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest) being more popular than later innovators (Guru, Mos Def).

Table of contents

The late 1980s

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Alternative hip hop is usually said to have begun with De La Soul's landmark 3 Feet High and Rising (1989, 1989 in music). The trio's distinctive style, mixing unique sampling sources (such as The Turtles and Johnny Cash) with spacey, hippie-ish lyrics and a sense of humor, made the album a commercial and critical success. With its inclusion of pre-recorded bits from outlandish sources, such as a French language instruction tape, the release was the more popular of the two albums that foreshadowed the self-referential sampling kaleidoscope that would soon envelope hip hop (and pop music in general).

The other, released the same year, was the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique. Considered a flop at the time, the Beastie Boys' unorthodox topics such as eggings ("Egg Man"), Karma ("What Comes Around") and their Jewish heritage ("Shadrach") combined with their unique flow and biting wit made a perfect subject for the Dust Brothers' masterful sample-laded production (highlighted 7 years later in Beck's Odelay), comprising what is known as the genre's lost classic.

In addition to 3 Feet High and Rising and Paul's Boutique, influential singles were released one year previously, in 1988 (see 1988 in music), by Gang Starr ("Words I Manifest") and Stetsasonic ("Talkin' All That Jazz"); these two singles fused hip hop with jazz in a way never done before, and helped lead to the development of jazz rap.

1989 also saw the release of:

All four of these albums helped establish the Native Tongues Posse, a group of Afrocentric hip hop artists ideologically inspired by Afrika Bambaataa's Universal Zulu Nation.

Early 1990s

During the early 1990s, mainstream hip hop was dominated by the West Coast sound (like Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg). Other artists found success difficult to achieve, though some East Coast acts, such as Puff Daddy's empire of East Coast hip hop artists (Bad Boy Records) gained chart success (Mary J. Blige' 1992 What's the 411?) as well as critical success (Nas' 1994 Illmatic), though rarely both at the same time.

Diversification and controversy

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While gangsta rap dominated the charts, alternative hip hop developed underground in the early 90s. West Coast artists like The Pharcyde (Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde, 1992) and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy (Hypocrisy Is the Greatest Luxury, 1992) rose to prominence in the field. Alongside these West Coast groups were generally more popular East Coast groups like A Tribe Called Quest (People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, 1990) and Gang Starr (Step in the Arena, 1991). International groups, like Britain's The Brand New Heavies (Heavy Rhyme Experience, Vol. 1, 1992) and Massive Attack (Blue Lines, 1991) helped combine hip hop with R&B and electronica, respectively.

Alternative hip hop's incendiary and confrontational politics began causing occasional controversy, with Brand Nubian's One for All even being accused of anti-white racism. X-Clan's To the East, Blackwards was similarly criticized. Paris's "Bush Killa" (from Sleeping With the Enemy, 1993), which denounced the Gulf War and then-President Bush, brought the genre some publicity, both positive and negative.

A Tribe Called Quest's 1991 album The Low-End Theory is regarded as one of the most influential recordings in alternative hip hop, especially with its timely indictment of the perceived commercializing and demoralizing effects of the music industry, then tearing hip hop apart into multiple competing genres, all rushing to sell out for mainstream success; the album also tackles subjects like date rape and rap feuds. The Low End Theory includes the legendary upright bassist Ron Carter and the Leaders of the New School (which included future superstar Busta Rhymes).

While A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul are considered jazz-rappers, the pioneer of an actual fusion between the two genres is usually said to be Guru, whose 1993 Jazzmatazz, Vol. 1 was a critically acclaimed solo debut with live jazz backing. A jazz band including Lonnie Liston Smith, Roy Ayers, Branford Marsalis and Donald Byrd solos in the background while Guru (and guests like the Senegalese-French MC Solaar) raps.

Stubbornly insisting on sticking to their themes and ideas, alternative hip hop artists were able to incorporate elements of virtually every form of music around at the time.

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Meanwhile, Christian hip hop group and pioneering Southern rap crew Arrested Development scored big with 1992's 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of... (which put Southern hip hop on the map). The album was particularly successful with non-hip hop fans, listeners who were turned off by the macho posturing of many other groups, and who wanted a safer alternative. Arrested Development's focus on peace and love and groovy beats made them relatively accessible, though their devout Christianity (reflected in the lyrics) also made them unattractive to some audiences.

Hardcore artists like Basehead (Play With Toys, 1992) and jazzy Afrocentrists like Poor Righteous Teachers (Pure Poverty, 1991) continued innovating an alternative to pop hip hop in the early part of the decade, mixing in rapcore and heavy metal influences alongside bebop, doo wop and the blues.

Canadian duo the Dream Warriors (And Now, the Legacy Begins, 1991) and West Coast group Digital Underground (Sex Packets, 1990) helped bring De La Soul's humor to the emerging genre.

Other genres sometimes labelled alternative hip hop

Alternative hip hop generally refers to a specific style of hip hop that is opposed to the mainstream sounds of gangsta rap. However, certain other hip hop genres are also alternative and are sometimes referred to with the same term, including a mixture of heavy metal, hard rock and hip hop that would eventually come to be known as rapcore, and a mixture of 1970s-style soul music and hip hop called nu soul.

Rapcore

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Rapcore and Nu metal were popularized by groups like Limp Bizkit (Significant Other, 1999), Kid Rock (Devil Without a Cause, 1998) and Linkin Park (Hybrid Theory, 2000) though the style had, in the opinion of many, lost most of its critical viability by the end of the 90s. This fusion was invented in the early part of the decade, drawing on influences like thrash metal groups like Anthrax (Persistence of Time), Ice-T (Body Count) and Rage Against the Machine (Rage Against the Machine). Perhaps the earliest artists to mix rock and hip hop and to achieve wide success were Run-D.M.C. (King of Rock, 1985) and the Beastie Boys (Licensed to Ill, 1986).

Nu soul

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Hip hop also influenced soul music in the 1990s. By the time hip hop began to enter the mainstream, soul music was rapidly losing its most legendary artists. While Michael Jackson, Prince, Tina Turner and Whitney Houston remained popular, the genre was seen as stunted and atrophied. Soon after, hip hop began to dominate what mainstream audiences thought of as African-American music with the release of Dr. Dre's blockbuster The Chronic. Soul music became drastically unpopular, with the few groups achieving commercial success mostly failing to find critical acclaim. The groups that did succeed incorporated hip hop beats and doo wop influences; these include Blackstreet Another Level, 1996) and Boyz II Men (Cooleyhighharmony, 1991). Mary J. Blige's What's the 411? from 1992 was especially innovative. During the mid- to late 90s, the hip hop beats became more pronounced and resulted in nu soul. Widely regarded as a pioneer of the genre, D'Angelo's 1995 Brown Sugar is profoundly influential in its development, while a group of female artists like Erykah Badu (Baduizm, 1997), Lauryn Hill (The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, 1998) and Macy Gray (On How Life Is, 1999) began its popularization soon after. Around and immediately after the turn of the decade, a second wave of female artists moved nu soul into the mainstream, especially Alicia Keys' Songs in A Minor (2001), as well as india.arie's Acoustic Soul (2001) and Jill Scott's Who Is Jill Scott?: Words and Sounds, Vol. 1 (2000). Critical reviews were mixed, with many listeners feeling that nu soul had lost its pioneering edge for middle-class shallow idealism.

The end of the 1990s

In spite of nu soul and rapcore gaining mainstream acceptance, gangsta hip hop artists like Jay-Z (Reasonable Doubt, 1999) and DMX (...And Then There Was X, 1999) still dominated the charts as the end of the millennium neared. Critics and listeners regarded alternative hip hop as going through a lull, as even mainstays like A Tribe Called Quest (Beats, Rhymes and Life, 1996) released lackluster albums.

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Many observers feel that Dr. Octagon's seminal 1996 album Dr. Octagonecologyst revitalized hip hop's underground; Company Flow's Funcrusher Plus is another album cited as redefining the genre. Alternative hip hop soon began to lose its recent stylings for a return to Native Tongues-style old school with hardcore and jazz elements mixed in. Mos Def and Talib Kweli's 1998 Black Star did much to contribute to this evolution, with its return to Native Tongues-style old school hip hop. Mos Def's solo debut, Black on Both Sides (1999), quickly established him as a darling of alternative media for its incendiary politics, while Kweli's solo career took some time to get off the ground; as he didn't appear until 2000's Reflection Eternal, with partner Hi-Tek. Pharaoh Monch's Internal Affairs, his 1999 solo debut after leaving Organized Konfusion, also added more gangsta and hardcore hip hop elements to the mix, while Jurassic 5 (Jurassic 5 EP), Blackalicious (NIA) and Dilated Peoples (The Platform) continued mixing hippie-ish psychedelia, funk and hip hop to critical acclaim and popular rejection.

Post-2000 alternative hip hop

After the turn of the millennium, as the United States (still by far the world capital of hip hop) found itself confronted by the War on Terror, lyrics grew increasingly anti-mainstream, with some advocating radical actions on the behalf of various anarchist and socialist ideas. The Coup's album cover for Party Music (2001) proved controversial after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks due to its depiction of the duo holding a stick of dynamite and a detonator, ready to blow up the World Trade Center; other groups like Dead Prez (Let's Get Free, 2000) similarly raised controversy for militant and confrontational lyrics.

In 2001 and 2002, several surprisingly popular albums were released. These included:

Though most of these bands could be considered "political hip hop" for their lyrical focus, the early 2000s also saw futuristic or apocalyptic rappers like Cannibal Ox, El-P and Aesop Rock, as well as horrorcore rappers like Cage, Ill Bill and Necro.

In the new millennium a new "sub-genre" arose around the Anticon and Warp labels, with artists like Cannibal Ox, Caveman Speak, cLOUDDEAD, Boom Bip, Prefuse 73 and Themselves, known as avant-hop, prog-hop or indie-hop. These MCs and DJs blend their rhymes and beats with a electronica, post-rock or indie crossover.

See also

Sound samples

  • from 1991's De La Soul Is Dead – note: the legendary trio are one of the early legends of alternative hip hop, here demonstrating their bizarre, almost stream-of-consciousness humor
  • from 1991's The Low End Theory – note: humor and obscure cultural references are characteristic of this crew; this song features off-kilter references to Alex Haley’s Roots, Duke Ellington, Superman, Ed Norton, Doug E. Fresh and Ralph Kramden, as well as calls for black unity
  • from 1993's Jazzmatazz, Vol. 1 – note: begins with French language rapping from MC Solaar, probably the first non-American rapper to gain any fame in the US here combined with Guru's trademark, light jazzy accompaniment
  • from 1999's Black on Both Sides – note: known for his righteous lyrics and scathing commentary, this song (with a lyrical theme focusing on mathematical operations and figures) comments on mandatory minimum sentencing, poverty, unemployment and the minimum wage, privacy, violence, jail and the police
  • from 1999's A2G EP – note: this crew has gained underground fame for their unique brand of quirky rapping, here demonstrated by a song which alliterates through the alphabet
  • from 1999's Soundbombing, Vol. 2 – note: collaboration between some of the most influential performers of alternative hip hop
  • from 2000's Let's Get Free – note: beginning with a sampled speech before moving on to Dead Prez’s militant socio-political lyrics, also characteristically criticizing pop hip hop (specifically Master P)
  • from 2000's Quality Control – note: lyrical inventiveness is the hallmark of Jurassic Five, shown in this song by the frequent use of alliteration, rhyme, word-plays and assonance; these literary techniques are so widespread that the song is difficult to decipher in spite of relatively clear diction and medium tempo
  • from 2001's Expansion Team – note: humor and social criticism are paired in this duo, here focusing on the latter with a commentary on materialism
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