Influential Underground Rappers Who Haven’t Made It Mainstream
A lot of hip hop heads will bemoan how the mainstream is too commercial or current rappers are trash. It’s all bullshit. Long as we have guys like Kendrick, Run The Jewels, and Lil Wayne (still looking to the end of the Birdman era) around, hip hop is fine. That said, not everyone who should kick off, kicks off. There are acts long out of the game who influenced the sound of every artist without audiences seeing it. There are people shaping hip hop now who even big fans will have missed. Here are some of the most influential underground rappers who haven’t made it mainstream.
Doom is probably the most mainstream of all underground rappers. As famous for his music as he is for being underground, he’d almost be less famous if he was more famous. His whole career has consisted of one of the most honest voices in hip hop. Back in an era where hip hop was filled with comic and kung fu references, MF Doom was in his element but using it to talk about dark shit. When hip hop switched and gangster rap took over, Doom didn’t change to that. He’s updated his sound over the years but its always been his sound. He won’t flex or threaten to body someone on a track unless he’s talking about doing it with his superpowers.
Proving you didn’t need to change to trends to avoid becoming stale has made him an influence on the game.
Jammer’s influence goes far beyond his music. He was part of the UK Garage scene from early and when Grime first started gathering steam, Jammer was the one who put it on the tracks. Nearly every early Grime release came from a limited group of guys, all of whom wanted to produce their music and kind of leave it at that. Jammer saw the opportunity to do more. His Lord of The Mics contests made Grime into something people could participate in. Before that, he was the one pushing radio sets that got some of Grime’s best early work out their. If not for Jammer it’s easy to see Grime being something only seen in the ends and everyone else sticking to US hip hop.
It’s almost an insult to call Jammer underground because he’s known. He still earns the title because the level of his contribution to the scene are much bigger than the credit he’s got.
J Dilla’s been gone for over a decade now but we’re still feeling the percussive force of his work ringing out over the entirety of hip hop. From an early age he proved he could stand with the best rappers and producers. His instrumentals were the basis for so many hip hop careers it’s not even funny. Almost everyone’s mixtapes at the time had Dilla instrumentals. There’s a million artists who died young and left people to speculate about where they’d have ended up. J Dilla is probably the only one where there’s no confusion. Working with A Tribe Called Quest, Pharcyde, Busta, The Roots and many more. The only reason he can even be named with underground rappers is because it felt like he had much more left.
Death Grips fans will tell you that Kanye West aped their style and while that’s not really true, their sound definitely did influence artists like Ye. The ‘experimental hip hop’ label is dropped on underground rappers a lot. Usually it refers to an artist who can’t admit they’re trash. Death Grips are the exception to that. When we say experimental, the experiments are almost scientific. They fuck with tempo, structure, consistency of parts, the limits of what can even be considered music. They are pioneers of what you can get away with. Even artists like Ye who push boundaries look at them to find paths into the outer reaches. With XXXTentacion kicking off lately and his fans (rightfully) dragging Drake for ripping off his track, it’s important to note how much he, and other artists who get hype for experimenting, owe to Death Grips.
A lot of underground rappers came up through battle rap. Sage is the pinnacle of that. His mixtapes and battle raps started him off. His perspective and lyricism simultaneously got him attention and limited him to a particular audience of people looking for thoughtful hip hop. You have rappers propped up by great beats or someone who can make a flow but they’re actually saying nothing. Sage is the opposite; intricate and varied lyrics that don’t need to be held up. His biggest influence has been proving what could be done as if to tell rappers they had no excuse.
Straight up, Keke wouldn’t make this list on his own but his work with DJ Screw means he’s earned a place. Screw’s pioneering Chopped n Screwed sound found its feet with artists like Lil Keke rapping over the tracks. Their Screwed Up Click was never anything more than a loose collection of talents but the link between DJ Screw and Lil Keke was formed through it. Keke was the best tool that Screw could have asked for to show that his style would stand as more than niche beat production. It’s hard to imagine where the Dirty South sound would be without Screw and where Screw would be without Keke.
Nobody out there has Aesop Rock’s lyricism. It’s not even a debate. Dude has the biggest vocabulary in hip hop and it’s not empty words. His lyrics are some of the most dense in hip hop, underground of otherwise. Give a few of Aesop’s bars to any big rapper and everyone would lose their minds over how good they are. Hip hop fans are bad parents. We’re supposed to love our kids equally but when one of our kids is better than the other we come to expect it and hype up the bad one when they do something good every now and then but ignore the constant good work from the good one.