Alternative Hip Hop Artists & History

What is Alternative Hip Hop?

What is Alternative Hip Hop?
The term alternative hip hop can also be termed alternative rap. But it must be noted that alternative Hip Hop is a culture and alternative rap is a subtype of hip hop culture.

So hip hip, much like its predecessor and great grandfather Jazz, broke rules. And alternative hip hop broke more rules than its big brother, hip hop music.

Hip Hop Legend and historian KRS one explains,

"Hip hop is great at this present moment! We are still learning about ourselves, but we have also learned much about ourselves over the last few years. There are still too many people however, claiming to be ‘hip hop’ but have no real loyalty to the culture or to the culture’s founders. Too many people today still regard hip hop as simply a music genre, and not the global urban culture that it is. And this is because most people are only out to use hip hop for all that they can get from it."

So again the question is asked, "What is Alternative Hip Hop?" More formal music experts and resources define it as groups, artists and hip hop musicians that deviated from the party style rap hip hop, and gangster and hardcore acts like NWA and others that grew mainstream in the 90's. Alternative hip hop or alternative rappers embraced smoother styles and experimented with music, combining jazz, soul, acoustic bands and funk.

It's tough as a musician to label and attempt to classify artists. It is always better to just enjoy their work, but for conversation and history's sake these types of discussions are necessary.

In reality, some argue that alternative hip hop was the original hip hop and that the gangster, hardcore, and pop-rap that followed was the alternative hip hop. Groups like A Tribe Called Quest, Digable Planets, Gang Star, KRS One, and Jungle Brothers had a huge underground and mainstream following in the east and west coast. Acts like NWA and other hardcore acts popped on the scene a little later and obviously made a cultural impact, both good and bad. When you really get people to talking, groups like Souls of Mischief, the Coup, and Abstract Rude produced incredible music, but were unable to pierce the masses due to the fascination with gangsterism.

This is not a dig nor negative against hardcore groups, but just an honest assessment that the talented folk (who were arguably more talented) labeled as alternative rappers or original OG's were not able to gain as much exposure as their gangster counterparts.

Quite frankly, this is a tiring historical undercurrent as positive black role models have always had to be classified as an alternative, while those that align with a negative message go mainstream. So the question is not, "What is alternative Hip Hop?" But rather, why one has to be classified this way at all.


Alternative Rap Artists & History

How and why has alternative hip hop done so well as a genre across racial and economic lines?

With artists like Kanye, Kid Cudi, and Chance the Rapper among others bringing a unique sound to mainstream modern rap, what is the “it factor” that draws listeners in?

Social reliability - 2Pac and Eminem both channeled a lot of displeasure with their current times, and used this to paint a picture. Social songs focused on issues that people could relate to. Kendrick Lamar, Donald Glover, myself and others provide our own unique musicianship while also talking about issues relevant to not only our communities but the world at large.

Musical Diversity - Alternative, I believe, is the opposite of pop, which usually gives the listener a glossy and hard to critique sound and lyrical composition. Let me be clear, this is not a criticism but rather an assessment.

But pop music, as the name implies, is popular and non-threatening. Kanye again changed the game by giving us something palatable while throwing in nuggets of social activism and diverse musical brilliance that included many different genres.

Origins of some of my favorites start with the golden age of hip hop. Alternative hip hop was headed by East Coast rappers such as A Tribe Called Quest, Digable Planets, De La Soul, C.L. Smooth & Pete Rock, Jungle Brothers, and Brand Nubian.

West Coast genius came from groups like The Pharcyde, Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, Digital Underground, Souls of Mischief, The Coup, Freestyle Fellowship and Abstract Rude. 

And there were cultural leaders such as Arrested Development, Goodie Mob, and OutKast. This hip hop movement made to the mainstream because they were new and in front of hip hop. 

Arrested Development along with The Fugees were among the first few alternative rap groups to be recognized by the mainstream. Sometimes you cannot deny talent no matter what you do.

1994 - This is when Lauryn Hill and The Fugees jumped on the scene and completely turned the music industry on its head. The Fugees second album sold about six million copies in the United States and more than 17 million copies worldwide.

This genre was on the map, inspiring the Lamars, Kanyes and more. Giving thanks to those out of New York that paved the way in the 70's, they essentially created a new brand of Jazz! Jazz is the great-grandfather of original hip hop. I leave room for debate!

The alternative hip hop movement is not limited solely to the United States, but other countries like the UK continue to put out musically gifted and brilliant artists. This is a worldwide movement of musical diversity that is hard to categorize, which is a good thing... why live in a box?

Artist of Note, but certainly limited to:

The Roots, Guru, Beastie Boys, poet K'naan, Dilated Peoples, Japanese rapper Shing02, MIA, Japanese jazz rap DJ Nujabes, Lupe Fiasco, J Dilla, Mos Def, Kid Cudi, Wale, Chance the Rapper, Childish Gambino, Yelawolf, Micheal Franti, Little Brother, J. Cole, Ladybug Mecca, Goodie Mob, Wu-Tang, Frank Ocean, Blu and Exile, Tyler The Creator, Wale, ASAP Rocky, Shoolboy Q, Ultramagnetic MC, Rapsody

Best Alternative Rap Albums ( no particular order )

  • Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly
  • The Pharcyde - Bizarre Ride II
  • Fugees/Ms. Lauryn Hill - The Score
  • A Tribe Called Quest - Low-End Theory
  • OutKast - Aquemini
  • The Roots - Things Fall Apart
  • Kanye West - The College Dropout

For More Information about Alternative Hip Hop

Watch videos and interviews by KRS-one, one of the foremost historians on this subject -

Additionally, check out Sway Universe. Sway has a true love for hip hop and facilitating black excellence to the masses -

Magazine - The Source -



Alternative Hip Hop Playlist

Alternative Hip Hop & Social Issues

 Alternative Hip Hop FAQ

What is alternative hip hop?

Alternative hip hop is also known as alternative rap. It is a sub genre of hip hop music that includes different styles that are not part of mainstream music. Alternative hip hop artists and groups do not conform to normal hip hop/rap standards such as gangsta, hardcore, pop, and party rap. Alternative hip hop uses differing sounds used in funk, pop, rock, jazz soul and even folk but not limited to these genres.

Who are the top alternative hip hop artists?

Some of the top hip hop artists that use alternative sounds include; Big Boi, Digital Underground, De La Soul, Arrested Development, Dilated Peoples, Disable Planets, Fugues, CeeLo green, Kid Cudi, Talib Kweli, Kendrick Lamar, Mos Def, Macklemore, Outkast, Questlove, The Roots, A Tribe Called Quest, Kanye West, Saul Williams, Rafa Selase, Spearhead "name":

"Where can I find Alternative Hip Hop music?

All major streaming service such as Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube Music, Deezer, and Tidal will have an Alternative Hip Hop Playlist and Channel“


Who listens to Alternative Hip Hop?

While some groups and artist reach commercial success most alternative hip hop acts tent to be embraced by hop hop connoisseurs, alternative rock listens and indie music listeners

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published