With all these lists going around, I feel there’s another list deep within my soul. I will go for an area very close to my Hip Hop heart: the underground. I’ve been anti-radio for the most part since I was thirteen years of age, and since then I’ve only gotten worse, or better depending on how one looks at it. Looking back on it, 90s radio wasn’t terrible, at least compared to today’s garbage (please don’t dispute me on this). I can stomach blatant radio accessibility like Diddy (when he was Puff Daddy) and Mase, and even some bits of No Limit, but overall I was so much into mixtapes and what the streets were into on a non-mainstream level. Call me biased, but I still think the best Hip Hop is the stuff not heard and blared all over your radio stations, some aren’t even played on your XM radio stations like Shade 45.
With all this being said, let’s go into the 25 best underground albums ever heard. These albums changed the underground and became staples in the genre. Don’t expect major label releases here (Loud, Def Jam, Interscope, etc.). This is for the subterranean labels and projects that need to get brought up as seminal albums all across the board in Hip Hop period. Let’s begin!
25. INI "Center Of Attention"
This Pete Rock produced banger should’ve been a monster for his crew from Mount Vernon. Unfortunately, the project was shelved for years and never saw the light of day unless you came across good music sharing sites at that time like Napster or Bearshare.
If you did access it, you knew this was a special album. We all knew “Fakin’ Jax”, but what else was there? I’ll tell you what, a whole album filled with some of the juiciest PR tracks ever heard consistently to this day.
24. Jean Grae "This Week" (2004)
Heroine of the underground, the emcee formerly known as Whut? Whut? of Natural Resource was consistently putting out hit after hit after hit.
This one still stands as perhaps her most complete album to date. Little to no guests accompany her on this album, and it allows us to fully digest all of her incredible talents. While we still wait on Cake Or Death, let’s still keep bumping all of her excellent material, and there’s plenty to go around.
23. The U.N. "U.N. Or U Out" (2004)
If there was one word to describe this album, it would be BRUTAL. The crew of Laku, Dino Brave, Mike Raw, and Roc Marciano delivered a sincere tour de force with their debut album. If this album had come out in the mid-90s, this would’ve been an undisputed champ of that time period.
With today’s standards, it almost sounds dated but at the same time, refreshingly good as it has that Black Moon / early Mobb Deep/ Onyx feel to it. While Pete Rock and Large Professor handle a few of the tracks, it’s Marciano that compels this album with some of the most knocking NY beats you’ll hear and honestly it’s rare to find an album this hard in today’s standards.
22. Apollo Brown & O.C. "Trophies" (2012)
One of Hip Hop’s most impressive production newcomers over the past decade has been Detroit’s Apollo Brown. In 2013, he got up with veteran Brooklynite, and D.I.T.C. member, O.C. to create a profound release in Trophies.
It had been many a year since we’ve heard Omar Credle sound this focused and this polished, and with the overtly soulful sounds of Brown, this album was a complete winner.
21. Fashawn "Boy Meets World" (2009)
What an impressive full-length debut by Fresno’s Fashawn. This album was filled with very relatable topics that had the innocence of a young man trying to make it out of his troubled surroundings to achieve prosperity and it 1000% worked.
Fellow west coast producer Exile provided some of the most beautiful soundscapes heard since Below The Heavens, and was capped off with the chilling, yet touching, ode to depression and suicide “When She Calls”. This put the kid known as Fash right on the map and continued to show just how amazingly talented of a producer Exile was, and still is.
20. Aesop Rock "Labor Days" (2001)
This Oregon, by way of New York, act burst on the scene with his albums of Music For Earthworms and Appleseed, but it was his Definitive Jux debut, Labor Days, that officially put Aesop Rock in higher regards.
With ethereal production from Blockhead, Rock had a familiar concept album of the everyday 9-5 working class with, at times, indecipherable lyrics, as he was a tremendous wordsmith with an extensive vocabulary. Nevertheless, this was the beginning of great albums from him, but none reached the level of acclaim this one did.
19. Illogic "Unforeseen Shadows" (2000)
This Ohio native delivered a very decent debut that was filled with very impressive rhymes and relatable content, but it was the production from Blueprint that was as much of the story to this album, if not more. If you can’t feel something from the self-devaluing “Hate In A Puddle”, I don’t know what to tell you. Also, the production on “Favorite Things” is just immaculate!
18. Mr. Lif "I-Phantom" (2002)
I mentioned earlier how Aesop Rock’s Labor Days album was the album dedicated to the workaholic and the 9-5er. If that’s the album for the 9-5er, than Mr. Lif’s debut is the album for the ultimate pessimist. The person that works to achieve their dreams only for it to crumble all at the end of existence. Although he keeps getting up and getting up, it ultimately ends in disaster. This was a creative and highly acclaimed work that was thoroughly enjoyable and is among Definitive Jux’s most prized possessions.
17. Atmosphere "You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having" (2005)
Yeah, you can call Slug an Emo rapper if you want to, but you can’t deny Ant and Slug‘s impact to underground Hip Hop as a whole. They have put out some of the most intriguing Hip Hop one can remember. Definitely a staple of the Rhymesayers collective, along with Brother Ali, this album was at their creative and focused best. Not long after the powerful God Loves Ugly, Atmosphere was starting to go through the roof, and this album took them there.
16. Cannibal Ox "The Cold Vein" (2001)
This album has been called one of the pinnacle underground albums of the entire 90s, and perhaps even ever. That’s a bold statement, and then some, but I won’t lie and say I can’t see where these critics were coming from. This is a vicious punch to the abdomen as Vast Aire and Vordul Mega gave us a no holds barred look into the dark, cold streets of Harlem, USA. With impeccable production by El-P (you’re going to see more of him on this list), this was and is an album to be fucked with, on any level.
15. Elzhi "The Preface" (2008)
Detroit’s own Elzhi has been a lyrical jackhammer since we were all introduced to him when he teamed up with Baatin (R.I.P.) and T3 to form the new Slum Village.
His confident swag and his superb gift of gab and wordplay made him a standout. While a few knew him from Prequal To A Classic and Witness My Growth (both quality mixtapes to begin with), it was his Black Milk-produced gem, The Preface, that got him officially open. Different and unique concepts per song, the lyrical swordsmanship of this cat was matched only by the seemingly flawless production of Black Milk. The term ‘instant classic’ comes to mind when peeping this.
14. Murs & 9th Wonder "Murs 3:16... The 9th Edition"
Let’s face it folks. Anything 9th Wonder touches turns to guaranteed white gold. We were really just starting to see the greatness of him as he teamed up with Cali-bred emcee Murs for a sonically enriching, yet intrinsically soulful, album full of jewels, for only 10 tracks that is. With tracks like the Phonte-assisted “Animal” and the epic 3-part cut “Walk Like A Man”, this was one of those rare albums that didn’t miss a single beat, not one!
13. Brother Ali "Shadows On The Sun" (2003)
There’s a chance I should’ve put this one higher because this album is nothing short of immaculate. While his debut, Rites Of Passage, introduced us, it was this follow-up that catapulted Ali into one of the game’s most impactful emcees. This was an album that achieved immediate classic status within most circles of Hip Hop and it became clear, we had a new star.
Produced by Atmosphere’s Ant, this was one of the most breathtaking albums in many years. Tackling everything from social commentary to battle rapping to the emotional with “Forest Whitaker”, this album covers it all and is one of Hip Hop’s most defining moments, under or above ground.
12. Blu & Exile "Below The Heavens" (2007)
A star was born with this incredible debut of ’07. This PK from LA presented all his faults, vulnerabilities, and deep thoughts into a very soulful masterwork that could easily be considered among the best debuts of the millennium. With Exile behind the boards, this became a sonic breath of fresh air. No gangsterisms, no cliches, no gimmicks, just Blu, and we were more than fine with that.
11. Little Brother "The Listening" (2003)
We got our first taste of 9th Wonder, Phonte Coleman, and Rapper Big Pooh in the early 00s with this wonderful and enchanting debut. An instant throwback to the days of Tribe and De La, They were NC’s version of the beginnings of a new Native Tongues collective, or at least it seemed at the time.
This trio had all it took to be the next big thing for soulful, down-home Hip Hop. Although they disbanded after their next big release, the almost equally potent The Minstrel Show, it was this album that was as close to perfect as you would get for a debut in these times.
10. Deltron 3030 "Deltron 3030" (2000)
One of the most creative and prodigious albums of modern times was created when producer Dan The Automater (Gorillaz, Rage Against The Machine, etc.) linked up with west coast underground hero Del The Funkee Homosapien to become Deltron 3030.
This link-up formed an album that could only be classified as “2001 Space Oddyssey in Hip Hop form”. The concept has us all living in a world where technology and robots take over mankind and Hip Hop, which made for simply mesmerizing results. How often do you hear sci-fi mixed with Hip Hop?? Ingenious.
9. Immortal Technique "Revolutionary Vol. 2" (2003)
It was very hard to separate both Revolutionary albums, but there were slight distinctions between the two. This one was slightly more personal, more introspective, but also more conceptual. Of course, one could say “Why would you put this down the list if it’s this good?” Well, truthfully it’s only because the production isn’t as consistent as Vol.1, but by no means is this a slight to the album as a whole, in fact tracks like “The Cause Of Death” and “Internally Bleeding” will pierce you with stinging lines about the state of the nation as a whole, while “Peruvian Cocaine” is a brilliantly woven-together track about the transportation of cocaine in much the same fashion as Nas’ “I Gave You Power”. Insane release!
8. J-Live "The Best Part" (2001)
Pure Hip Hop. No gimmicks, no filters, just fun, ol’ school spirited Hip Hop. That’s what we have here with J-Live‘s heralded debut. This was another shelved album that didn’t see the light of day until many moons later, but we’re glad it surfaced. With production from Premo to 88-Keys to the legendary Prince Paul, this was a Hip Hop purist’s delight in all facets. Don’t believe me, just peep “Braggin’ Writes”
7. El-P "Fantastic Damage" (2002)
One of the most landmark albums in underground Hip Hop, El-Producto constructed an explosive release that was filled with angst, conspiracy theories, and paranoia in such a beautifully riotous way. There’s no denying the force Definitive Jux had the mid-late 90s with releases from Company Flow (see later), Aesop Rock, Murs & 9th Wonder, and Cannibal Ox, but this album went into another stratosphere with electro-fused, thumping production the likes of which mutilated your ears.
Although we know him now with his success with Killer Mike as Run The Jewels, El-P’s breakout performance was this sonic beatdown. Rarely in this day and age do you hear an album this raw!
6. Immortal Technique "Revolutionary Vol. 1" (2001)
The first installment of the series bangs out with harder subjects and an angst that’s more pronounced than his second volume. Compared to PE classics like Fear Of A Black Planet and It Takes A Nation Of Millions…, Immortal Technique spares no expense sounding off on political ratfaces and Black jiggaboos in this magnificent release.
Viewed as the angriest release heard in Hip Hop in the past couple of decades, he’s walking, talking rage while discussing the disenfranchised of various parts of the globe. For only pressing just over 20,000 units, this album made tons of noise in its rhetoric. This is an album that’s among the most important of our time and era.
5. Masta Ace "Disposable Arts" (2001)
We all pull for the underdog. It’s something we love to do. Within his tenure in the Juice Crew, Masta Ace was considered as an underdog of sorts due to how prolific his counterparts were in the group. He broke free and came out with decent releases like Slaughterhouse and Sittin’ On Chrome, but it was when he decided to return to the game after a six-year hiatus that saw him win his elusive championship, at least within the underground.
This is an inviting conceptual album that has him being released from prison and enrolling in “The School of Disposable Arts”, while trying to adjust to life as a free man. Production was top notched from top to bottom with guests such as Jean Grae, Rah Digga, Greg Nice, and the astute MC Paul Barman assisting him on his journey. This is without question his crowning achievement and he followed up with a formidable sequel in A Long Hot Summer. However, as is most cases in music and movies, the sequel may be good, but can’t outdo the original masterpiece, and trust me folks, this is one of the best concept albums you’ll ever hear.
4. Company Flow "Funcrusher Plus" (1997)
Man oh man!! Talk about a breakthrough release. This landmark release shattered everything in its path in ’97, and was hardly ever mentioned among the year’s best. However, if you look at it on a bigger scale, this arguably had most albums beat that year, and that’s saying a mouthful.
This album goes at you like a razor the face or someone pounding your head against the pavement just for your satisfaction. Don’t expect anything big budget or over dramatic. This is a minimalistic and stripped down work of art in its most brutal form. This is not a conventional Hip Hop album. This is a challenge to absorb, but once you do, you’ll realize it’s nothing you’ve ever heard, and will likely never hear again in quite this aesthetic, yet dark and murky, masterwork.
3. MF Doom "Operation Doomsday" (1999)
Welcome to the unorthodox world of MF DOOM. The emcee formerly known as Zev Love X from KMD re-emerged as a metal faced villain with penchant for quirky, yet strangely dope, lyrics. Almost like a Ghostface for the underground if you will. This official debut had him rhyming some other-worldly Hip Hop vernacular, yet totally engulfing you with his rhyme style and voice to match.
The aura of Doom began with this release, and much like albums such as Return To The 36 Chambers and Critical Beatdown, it’s the more you listen to it, where you’ll either be more confused or more in tuned with how much talent this emcee has. Don’t expect off-the-chain hooks or radio banging production. This is for the ones who want something different and clever, something slightly bizarre and brilliant. You have all those elements with this one, and then we later knew just how much of giant this man would become. Please don’t forget, this man has been rhyming for twenty plus years.
2. Leak Bros. "Waterworld" (2004)
Almost unanimously captured was a look of awe and glee when it was announced that Cage and Tame One of Artifacts were coming together as the Leak Brothers.
This drug-tinged duo presented one of the most acclaimed albums in recent memory over some of the most hypnotic, yet occasionally jarring, production ever brought forth under the Eastern Conference banner. The concept of a drug-infested waterpark seems demented enough, but when the “water” in this case is the slang term for PCP, it makes for even more of a disturbing image. The results, however, were fascinating and instantly made for an experience that makes you feel you’re as drugged up as them. Don’t be too jaded, however. These cats BROUGHT lyrics. This album makes you almost want to get on the same ride with them…almost!
1. Madvillain “Madvillainy” (2004)
WOW!!!!! This was the first word that went through my head by the end of the album. This immediately put you back into the mindstate after you finished with De La Soul Is Dead or Aquemini, which was there’s something immensely special about this album… but what exactly is it?
The answer: EVERYTHING. This album resulted in DOOM‘s status as an underground legend and also solidified Madlib‘s title as Hip Hop production’s version of Albert Einstein: bizarre yet brilliant. This became a match like we never thought before, and this completely caught us off guard. We knew this would be quite the anticipated project, but when we pushed play, we had zero idea the magic that would ensue.
This album redefined the underground and became the underground treasure that we know and love today. While we wait with Detox-like anticipation for the sequel, we can rest assured that music like this can be defined by one word: ART.
- Jedi Mind Tricks- Violent By Design
- Binary Star – Masters Of The Universe
- One Be Lo – S.O.N.O.G.R.A.M.
- One Be Lo – R.E.B.I.R.T.H.
- Various Artists- Lyricist’s Lounge Vol. 1
- Large Professor- The LP
- Cage- Movies For The Blind
- Ab-Soul- Control System
- The High & Mighty- Home Field Advantage
- Last Emperor- Legend Of Bigfoot
- J-Live- All Of The Above
- Juggaknots- Clear Blue Skies
- Kool Keith as Dr. Octagon- Dr. Octagonacologist
- El-P- I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead
- Cunninlynguists- A Piece Of Strange
- Oddisee- The Good Fight
- Diamond District- In The Ruff
- Homeboy Sandman- The Good Son
- Quasimoto- The Unseen
- Dilla- Welcome To Detroit
- Brother Ali- Champion EP
- Blackalicious- Nia
- MF Doom as Viktor Vaughn- Vaudeville Villain
- Swollen Members- Bad Dreams
- Living Legends – Creative Differences
- Aceyalone – A Book Of Human Language
- Jurassic 5 – Jurassic 5
- Hieroglyphics – 3rd Eye Vision
- Atmosphere- God Loves Ugly
There are many albums that easily could’ve made this comprehensive list, or even the Honorable Mentions list for that matter. In short folks, Hip Hop ain’t dead, it just lives underground.