A fan of the best American hip-hop artists should know of popular artists that have paved the way for their genre, but you can’t possibly be a true fan of rap and hip-hop without having some knowledge of the underground rap world. Luckily for you, I’ve put together a trustworthy list of the greatest underground rappers of all time, beginning with the one and only...
Known for his super villain image and creative lyrics, MF Doom entered the underground rap game in 1988 with his brother who went by the stage name, “DJ Subroc.” After struggling to find a large following for his music in his early years, MF Doom eventually took underground rap by storm in 1999 with the drop of his album titled, “Operation Doomsday.” If you’re a fan of underground rap, this album is a must-listen to. But even if you don’t think you appreciate underground rap or underground music in general, you will appreciate the wit and unique musical identity of MF Doom.
This duo, consisting of Vast Aire and Vordul Mega, has without a doubt earned itself a top spot on my list of the best underground hip-hop artists ever. This iconic duo burst onto the underground scene with the release of their first album, The Cold Vein, which has since been considered a turning point in the evolution of underground rap. Although Cannibal Ox is at number two on my list, you can very possibly find the duo sitting at number one on other rankings. The mark that Cannibal Ox left on underground rap will never fade.
The music of Aesop Rock and its impact on the public helped him lead the transition of underground hip-hop from more of an old school underground rap to the new wave of rap of the late 90s and early 2000s. Aesop Rock is unmatched when it comes to the sophistication of his lyrics and vocabulary. His brilliance is most easily recognizable in his album titled Labor Days, which discusses popular cultural topics including labor laws and cheap wages. Aesop is a master with the English language and is undoubtedly top three underground rappers of all time.
Jaime Meline, a.k.a. El-P, is the owner of the lucrative Definitive Jux record label, which met so much success because of El-P’s innate talent as an artist. El-P’s aggressive yet clever and masterful music style earned him high praise from Critic Steve Huey, describing him as "one of the most technically gifted MCs of his time, spitting out near-impossible phrases and rhythmic variations that simply leave the listener's head spinning."
Landing the fifth spot on my list of all time greatest underground rappers is rapper and actor, Christian Palko. Palko performed under the stage name Cage and helped form and lead one of the greatest supergroups of the last thirty years, The Weathermen. Cage later collaborated with fellow artist, Tame One, forming the infamous Leak Bros. duo. Although much of Cage’s music may be found as vulgar and insulting to many, his talent outshines all else.
The first trio to find its way onto my list is Deltron 3030, which consists of rapper, Del the Funky Homosapien, producer, Dan the Automator, and Dj, Kid Koala. The music of Deltron 3030 includes many futuristic ideas and references. What makes this trio so special is the prowess and expertise of each of its members in their respective disciplines. There may be no better exhibition of chemistry and group success than those of Deltron 3030.
At number seven is our second trio, Company Flow. This enigmatic trio is made up of previously mentioned, El-P, Bigg Jus, and Dj Mr. Len. The music of Company Flow can be largely described as dystopic with the use of descriptive imagery and metaphors inspired by the group’s favorite works of anime and science-fiction. This trio created brilliant music based on their feelings and opinions, but not good enough to place before Deltron 3030 on my list.
Supreme duo, consisting of rapper, Slug, and Dj and producer, Ant, Atmosphere has achieved much success and fame in its timely career. Similar to the music of Company Flow, Slug is known to incorporate many allegories, metaphors and other literary devices into his music, mostly about women. The musical style of Atmosphere is best represented in their track, titled “The River,” which is jam packed with metaphors and references to relationships and nature. There is no doubt in my mind that Atmosphere deserves a spot in anyone’s list of the greatest underground rappers of all time.
This underground hip-hop group was born in Durham, North Carolina, but its fame extended throughout the United States in a hurry. Little Brother consists of rappers, Phonte and Big Pooh, and DJ, 9th Wonder. Little Brother dropped its first album, The Listening, in 2003, which was greeted with much adoration by the masses, including Jay-Z, who used one of their beats for his song, “Threat.” The group’s success continued for a few more years until the commercial failure of the group’s second album, The Minstrel Show, in 2005, which was soon followed by the departure of 9th Wonder from the group. Although the success of Little Brother was short-lived, it did earn tremendous fame and renown during its heyday.
Stealing the final spot on my list of all-time greatest underground rappers is rapper, DJ, and producer, Jean-Jacques Cadet, a.k.a. J-Live. J-Live is another practicer of social satire and additionally took as many shots at authority as possible. J-Live began to build his expert reputation with his first album, The Best Part, which he released in 2001. J-Live continued to release records that showcased his skills as a rapper but also exposed his mastery as a DJ and producer. In his latest release (2015), J-Live once again exhibits his ageless musical talent revolving around social issues. If you appreciate a renaissance man, you’ll fall in love with J-Live and his music.
It’s never easy to put together a list of the all-time best in any category, but this is my attempt to do so for underground rappers. Although these artists are ranked from one to ten, they’re all master musicians and can each individually convert you into an underground rap fanatic for life. This list happens to consist of all male artists, but I feel the need to mention that there are also plenty of talented, female underground rappers you should listen to as well, so check them out too.