It’s impossible to quantify what the best underground hip-hop record of all time is. It can’t be done. It’s like trying to decipher what body of water makes your skin feel the wettest. But, if you take a more macro approach, things begin to simplify – thus allowing a bevy of monumental projects to serve as a yearly body of work rather than just pointing to a lone representative. In a period between 2001 and 2002, arguably some of the best underground hip-hop records came out from both the United States and the UK. Released at a time when file sharing and MP3s were making CDs obsolete just like the circular discs made cassettes garage sale chatter, the new ease at which we could share music – along with cable internet being offered in college dormitories – it truly was the Wild West…except both the robbers and cobblers were making out like bandits.
The Class of 2001
Situated in a pocket of time between Napster’s rise and fall and Kazaa’s resumption of the fight, 2001 was truly a historic year for hip-hop artists looking to askew from center. While equally mind-bending acts like Eminem and OutKast would go back and forth winning the Grammy for “Best Rap Album” between 2001 – 2004, perhaps their mainstream success along with the ease music could be shared was the perfect recipe for the independent movement.
All Natural – Second Nature
As Pitchfork put it, “All Natural can’t hide how smart they are.” Featuring emcee Cap D and producer/DJ Tone B Nimble, the duo’s vibe recalls the effortless cool created by the likes of Eric B and Rakim.
Cannibal Ox – The Cold Vein
Holding the distinction of being the first full-length to drop on El-P‘s Definitive Jux label, Vast Aire and Vordul created a body of work that had many critics looking toward Wu-Tang‘s 36 Chambers as a fair comparison. As Stylus Magazine noted, “It’s easy to see why. Both groups hail from New York. Both blend revolutionary (the word ‘innovative’ doesn’t go far enough) lo-fi production with dark, pessimistic rhymes. Both bring their own lexicon to dense flows. And Cannibal Ox’s stunning debut must remind many of Wu-Tang’s similar strike from nowhere. But the most important similarity is each group’s uncompromising originality, a quality that ranges from refreshing to downright stunning.”
Dilated Peoples – Expansion Team
While William Bell’s “I Forgot to Be Your Lover” sample that was used on Dilated Peoples‘ first single “Worst Comes to Worst” could hold the title as most overused in hip-hop history, there’s no denying that Expansion Team features some of the best producers ever assembled. Boasting DJ Premier, The Alchemist, Da Beatminerz, Questlove of The Roots and Juju of The Beatnuts, Dilated perfectly bridged the gap between groups of yesteryear like A Tribe Called Quest with contemporaries like Pro Era.
Typical Cats – Typical Cats
While the Windy City trio of Qwel, Denizen Kane and Qwazaar may not have ever found national acclaim, they were at the forefront of a Chicago hip-hop scene making waves regionally along with the Molemen camp. One part traditional boom-bap and equal parts spoken word, their self-titled record is a dusty gem.
Aesop Rock – Labor Days
As part of a project by Matt Daniels to find out who had the largest vocabulary in hip hop, the interactive chart put Aesop Rock at the head of the class. While he may be dubbed an “intellectual rapper,” his style is admittedly jarring – but when paired with moody production from Blockhead, they seemed to find a sonic pocket that was music therapy for them as well as the listener.
Hi-Tek – Hi-Teknology
While he will perhaps always be best known for his work with Talib Kweli under the Reflection Eternal banner, as a standalone producer Hi-Tek had an impressive debut.
Atmosphere – Lucy Ford
Hip hop has always relied on a certain narrative quality. For most of the ’80s and ’90s we were treated to firsthand accounts of street-level enterprises mixed with aspirational attitudes in an attempt to better one’s situation. Slug of Atmosphere certainly didn’t reinvent the rap song, he merely made it more personal.
Chino XL – I Told You So
While many of the releases of the early 2000s were applauded for their conceptual execution and abandonment of certain genre testaments that irked the casual listeners, Chino XL’s sophomore effort was a release that catered to the enthusiasts who couldn’t get enough of his battle-centric metaphors.
The Beatnuts – Take It or Squeeze It
As The A.V. Club reasoned, “The Beatnuts occupies an unusual position in hip hop, having established itself as one of the genre’s most distinct and sought-after production teams without ever attaining the producer-of-the-moment status currently held by the ubiquitous likes of Rockwilder and The Neptunes.” While Psycho Les and Ju-Ju won’t ever be considered master lyricists, there’s a certain Cypress Hill appeal to Take It or Squeeze It.
J.U.I.C.E. & DJ Risky Bizness – 100% Juice
Perhaps best known for defeating an unknown Eminem in a battle at Scribble Jam way back in 1997, the mixtape release of 100% Juice proved that the Windy City emcee was just as lethal with his pen as he was with his freestyles. It’s very rare for a mixtape to earn “classic” status but it would be an absolute travesty to consider this to be anything but album-quality material.
J-Live – The Best Part
When you manage to secure production from the likes of Prince Paul, DJ Premier and Pete Rock on your debut album, you know the hype is real. J-Live was an emcee who managed to combine old-school patterns with updated packaging, resulting in a certifiable classic.
J Dilla – Welcome to Detroit
Another debut of sorts – despite his work with Slum Village – J Dilla/Jay Dee cooked up a soulful, individual freshman release in the form of Welcome to Detroit. A simmering concoction of Brazilian rhythms, esoteric jazz and synths, the album serves as a masterclass in what it means to produce music as opposed to pigeonholing oneself as only a hip-hop beatsmith.
J-Zone – Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes
Containing a certain sense of self-awareness and embodying the spirit of earlier genre pioneers who realized that hip-hop music could be fun, the dual threat producer/emcee that is J-Zone definitely harnessed the independent spirit. As The A.V. Club put it, “it offers countless inventive variations on the time-tested theme of being horny, broke, in love with hip hop, and mad at the world.”
Masta Ace – Disposable Arts
While many point to Masta Ace and his cadence as an early influence on Eminem, he has forged an impressive discography himself – with the conceptual Disposable Arts as one of his most prominent releases. Weaving an intricate narrative that is equal parts social commentary about the prison system as well as the world of hip hop, Ace proves that “skill” is the real recipe for longevity in the genre.
Roots Manuva – Run Come Save Me
Stockwell-born-and-bred producer/rapper Roots Manuva stuck another feather in the cap of British hip hop with his contribution to the 2001 music landscape. A mashup of dub reggae meets funk, many will remember the astounding “Witness” which struck with an infectious social consciousness that hid gems like “I sit here contented with this cheese on toast, I feel the pain of a third world famine” amongst a bouncy production.
Immortal Technique – Revolutionary Vol. 1
There’s nothing gentle or even pleasant about Technique’s music, but that’s the whole point. Listening to Revolutionary Vol. 1 was like listening to a manifesto of a man who had been pushed to the brink and used his music as therapy and a delivery system for revenge.
Braintax – Biro Funk
While it may sound like a stretch, Low Life Records is the British equivalent of Def Jam. Responsible for releasing material from the likes of Jehst, Task Force, Mystro and countless label compilations, label head Braintax really hit it out of the park with his own 2001 release.
Ugly Duckling – Journey to Anywhere
Where as most hip-hop groups feel like individual cogs that make up a larger machine, Long Beach, California’s Ugly Duckling seemed to flourish as a single entity much like LA’s Jurassic 5. Bouncing comical and witty punchlines off each other with production that matched its “feel good” attitude, Journey to Anywhere is a dance record in an old-school hip-hop packaging.
The Class of 2002
While it seemed unlikely that the following year could produce even a few releases that would be on par with 2001, there was something about the new millennium that continued to pump out unbelievable material. Cut from a similar cloth – but definitely not a rehash or gimmicky – 2002 proved to be up to the challenge.
People Under the Stairs – OST
In the liner notes for OST, producer/rapper Thes One wrote that it’s “just good old hip hop.” Noting further that progressive and more experimental rap was what was being appreciated by critics, the album is a testament to he and Double K’s commitment to making music of substance that didn’t necessarily overwhelm listeners with dense rhyme patterns or intricate beats. Rather, it was two guys waxing poetic about life’s minutia with perfectly sampled soundscapes.
Blackalicious – Blazing Arrow
It’s a real shame that Gift of Gab doesn’t get the proper recognition as one of the foremost lyricists in the genre. Featuring an abundance of guest stars like Lateef the Truth Speaker, Chali 2NA, Lyrics Born, Rage Against the Machine’s Zack de la Rocha and Gil Scott-Heron – all over Chief Xcel production – the followup to Nia is 74 minutes of enthusiastic execution.
Atmosphere – God Loves Ugly
There’s no denying that Minneapolis’ Slug and Ant have done more for the underground movement than they’d like to take credit for – yet it’s their “two-man” approach to making pensive and personal music that combined storytelling elements from songs of yesteryear with a certain sense of voyeurism that really moved the proverbial needle for listeners.
El-P – Fantastic Damage
Lauded by Pitchfork for being the 11th best release for all of 2002, El-P proved that shedding Company Flow for a stab at a solo effort wasn’t a wasted effort. Described as a “freestyle battle between a Marxist pamphlet and a technical manual,” the dense rhymes were matched with equally challenging production that sidestepped traditional sample in favor for ambient “clangs” and meaty guitar riffs.
Devin the Dude – Just Tryin’ to Live
A storyteller very much cut from the same cloth as Slick Rick, Devin the Dude’s Just Tryin’ to Live is a Southern classic that fuses other regional heroes like Nas, Dr. Dre and DJ Premier into a singular listening session.
Mr. Lif – Emergency Rations
Mr. Lif’s Def Jux release really stood out for its conceptual execution in a newly shaped American system still reeling from the attacks of September 11. Toeing the line between conspiracy theorist and champion of free speech, the politically charged Emergency Rations left listeners to ponder, “They killed us because we’ve been killing them for years.”
Jurassic 5 – Power in Numbers
Jurassic 5 narrowly missed out on having back-to-back years with supremely crafted albums (as Quality Control was released in 2000). In today’s musical landscape, it’s hard to imagine that a group like J5 could carry much weight on the Billboard chart, but Power in Numbers peaked at #15 – surely signaling that tangible retail was finally catching up to file sharing in terms of success for a critically underrated hip-hop collective.
RJD2 – Deadringer
While RJD2 may end up being remembered as the guy who created the Mad Men theme music 20 years from now, 2002’s Deadringer certainly tops the list of instrumental-laden projects from the last 20 years. Part of the fun of listening to this album was marveling at the infectious samples he unearthed, only to be shocked when he layered different loop after loop on top of it until you were left with what sounded like a jam session executed by a single guy and an MPC.
Non Phixion – The Future is Now
The New York-based quartet of Ill Bill, DJ Eclipse, Sabac Red and Goretex – collectively Non Phixion – delivered a release very much cut from a similar, politically charged cloth as Immortal Technique and Mr. Lif, as evidenced by songs like “The C.I.A. Is Trying To Kill Me” and “Black Helicopters.” Executed over production from the likes of DJ Premier, Pete Rock and Large Professor, Necro, and JuJu of The Beatnuts, it’s Premier’s “Rock Stars” that recalls feelings of legendary posse cuts like Gang Starr’s “The Militia.”
Talib Kweli – Quality
At the time, Talib Kweli’s Quality was a risky endeavor that threatened to alienate his core fan base after he made the decision to forgo production from longtime collaborator Hi-Tek in favor of a roster of producers like Ayatollah, Megahertz, J Dilla and a recently-buzzing Kanye West. Despite feeling and sounding different than his work with Reflection Eternal, Talib still managed to remain in a pocket of sound that could both give you a radio-friendly effort like “Get By” as well as the more introspective “The Proud.”
The Roots – Phrenology
Phrenology was a release for The Roots that further solidified their unique vision on what does and doesn’t constitute hip-hop music. Simply put, they continued to find a happy medium between traditional boom bap and the full-band execution that many major label acts were turning to in order to give their live show a more energetic feeling.