All of the artists below have made or are making insightful social commentaries, very creative lyrics, unique hybrids of hip-hop with other genres (like spoken word, rock, reggae, jazz, funk) or just fun contributions to a genre of music and culture (that includes breakdancing, graffiti art, and turntablism) that continues to grow and expand across the globe.
Sadly, most people only experience the tip of the iceberg when it comes to rap. Indeed, commercial radio these days is dominated by bling-bling, gangsta, R&B, and dance manifestations of the genre that are often catchy and fun, but monotonous in delivering an unsubstantive message. But dare to explore the lower end of the FM dial and with a little patience and luck you will find independent and college radio stations playing amazingly creative and fresh music (in the near future I will publish a list of some of these stations, most of which can be listened to online). Here, you will have discovered a golden key to sanctuaries where music is deeply appreciated and diversity and innovation across all genres is celebrated.
When it comes to hip-hop culture and rap, most Americans think it is dominated by African-Americans. However, while most of the popularly acclaimed and successful rappers are black, the fact is that hip-hop is a mode of expression authentically being used by people of all backgrounds in the United States and around the world. As Adisa Banjoko, host of One Mic, a political hip-hop show, explains, “Hip-hop is totally multicultural. It has an African root with multicultural fruit.”
Among the songs of the artists listed below you will find an unending diversity of themes and topics such as abortion, the Patriot Act, painful breakups, poverty, depression, regret, religion, the Holocaust, 9/11, walks through nature, vegetarianism, technology, aliens, video games, war, peace, individualism, or the Bush Administration. Of course, not all great hip-hop artists are listed here. This is a good starter list if you are just beginning to explore the genre in all its colors. My ultimate goal is to share some new names with you and hopefully learn some from you!
The links I have for each artist will take you to their own site, an album review, biography, or lyrics to one of their songs. Many of the artists have mp3's for download on their own sites. Please email me if you would like me to recommend some songs or albums to sample or purchase for any of these artists.
Here we go:
SOME OF MY FAVORITES WHO ARE CURRENTLY PRODUCING
A unique vocabulary and masterful use of literary devices makes this Rhode Island native one of the most engaging rappers I know. “Makeshift Patriot”, a song he wrote two months after 9/11, is a powerful masterpiece that has brought me to tears. His album Personal Journals, lyrics on Hope the first release of the Non-Prophets (Sage Francis and Joe Beats), his lyrics on DJ Signify’s Sleep No More and his spoken word (if you can find it) show you just how wise and deep and socially conscious this sage is.
Sage Francis and Joe Beat’s album Hope is mostly fun on the surface (“Fresh”), but listen closely for the cutting social commentary (“Mainstream 307” or “That Ain’t Right”).
Michael Franti & Spearhead
The most charismatic performer I have ever seen live. Michael Franti’s songs are sometimes fun, sometimes gravely serious; but always sure to make you feel alive as he plays with many genres. Check the classic, “Hole in the Bucket”. Also “Never Too Late” and “Bomb the World” will give you a good taste, but just the tip of the iceberg of this deep character who just returned to the Bay Area from the Middle East on his Peace Delegation tour.
This L.A. group has members with roots on almost every continent. Their new album Pangaea is a metaphor for their cause: the coming together of people from different parts of the world by embracing the power of Love. Check “If You Can’t Say Love”, “Domakesaythink”, “Self-sufficient”, or “Audible Angels” to get a vision.
Born in Peru. Transplanted to Harlem. Immortal Technique is one the most intelligent and overtly political rappers out there and the only one advocating a socialist revolution in Latin America ala Che Guevara. A sampling of his work will reveal his many dimensions from inspiring revolutionary to heartbroken young man to a soul struggling with the sins of his past to top-notch battle rapper. Sample “Point of No Return”, “The 4th Branch”, “Homeland and Hip-Hop”, "You Never Know", "Poverty of Philosophy", "The Prophecy, "Harlem Streets" and "Dance with the Devil" and you will become smarter, upset, sick, amazed, and inspired.
Paris first upset the censors with anti-Bush Senior and anti-police raps in the early 90’s. In 2003 he released Sonic Jihad on his own label, which holds nothing back. “Sheep to the Slaughter” and “Evil” are just two songs with which the Bay Area native sends an angry yet persuasive message in his commanding, deep voice: check what your government is up to – it isn’t all good things.
Did you know there are rappers from St. Paul-Minneapolis? Atmosphere (Slug, Ant, and Mr. Dibbs) is just becoming widely known after the release of their album “Sevens Travels” and some mainstream exposure. Their older stuff, which is still just as fresh, is what really got me into Slug’s emo-rap genre defining lyrics. Check “Shhh” if you want to feel proud to be from the Midwest. Check “Scapegoat”, “Lovelife”, “Body Pillow”, “Sound is Vibration” or “Lifter Puller” for other emotions. Slug also owns and runs the Rhymesayers Entertainment label out of the twin cities.
With Charlie Tuna’s unbeatable rapping style and voice and Cut Chemist mixing potions on the turntables, Jurassic 5 is a very entertaining, unified force of positivity in hip-hop. Quality Control is a classic album that mixes a lot of fun, great rhymes, and the message that staying true is better than selling out. “Freedom” on Power in Numbers is a simple song that shares in kinder words what African-Americans are asking for in this country.
Aesop Rock’s Labor Days is a masterful album that carries a somber yet hopeful mood all the way through as he details the thoughts and feelings of a 9 to 5er. Check “9-5ers Anthem” or “No Regrets” to get a taste, then just buy the whole album.
An extremely unique sound, Ozomatli brings rich Latin influences and instruments together with rap in Spanish and English. Don’t expect just a rap concert with Ozomatli, expect to enjoy the music and dance like you were at a rock or Latin jazz show.
An amazing lyricist and role model from Davis, CA. His messages are motivating, positive, profound, and sometimes political if not just blow-you-away creative. Check any of his albums for a good song. Some highlights I am familiar with are “Make You Feel That Way”, “Paragraph President”, and “Making Progress.”
Speaking up loudly about prison abuse and other injustices of what they see as still a very racist American society, Dead Prez is a volatile force to be reckoned with in the legacy of Malcolm X.
Positive attitudes, light hearts, and a great sense of humor. Ugly Duckling brings original sounds (often with some Brazilian influence) and themes as demonstrated in songs like “Pick Up Lines”, “Just a Little Samba”, “Tough Guy” and “Drive-Thru”.
MC Lars Horris
One-of-a-kind lyrics and fun from this Monterey product and Stanford student who describes his work as “alien hip-hop” though it is much more than that (whatever alien hip-hop is).
Perhaps the most amazing feat of hip-hop I know courtesy of my friend Rodney’s recommendation. Barsky plays the flute and beatboxes at the same time. You must hear it to believe it. He lives in Berkeley.
Very politically vocal is this Oakland, CA group. “Big Cats, Bigga Fish” is a classic story song that demonstrates the creativity and poignancy that goes into many of their raps.
Great beats and a great voice slinging great rhymes. Check the classic “Full Clip” or “Code of the Streets” for a taste of this group that has been producing excellent rap since their work with some of the genres founders in the 1980’s.
OTHER VERY,VERY TALENTED ACTS (*=Highly recommended because I have heard a number of the artist’s songs and I like what I hear for the most part)
*Mr. Lif – Boston, MA
Great beats and original themes to most of the Mr. Lif songs I have heard.
Akrobatik – Boston, MA
MC Paul Barman – Ridgewood, NJ
Fun, silly, gross, and extremely creative.
*Common – Chicago, IL
Try to listen to "The Light", one of the better love songs in rap I have heard. He also recently did a song with Mos Def and others called "Hurricane" that I like very much.
Talib Kweli – Brooklyn, NY
His rap and spoken word are almost always infused with passion.
Mos Def – Brooklyn, NY
Has done a lot with Talib Kweli.
Juggaknots – The Bronx, NY
*J-Live – Brooklyn, NY
"Walkman Music" and "Epilogue" are just two songs of many that I like from this group.
*Lifesavas – Portland, OR
"Hellohihey" is a creative masterpiece about the dangers of egotism.
*Sole – Portland, ME
An unassuming guy with a lot of depth to share.
Eyedea & Abilities – St. Paul, MN
Very young and talented. Their next album should be really good. Often too abstract and lacking in beats, but they have made some gems and will continue to put out good stuff.
*Brother Ali - Minneapolis, MN
"Forest Whitaker" is a great track that will introduce you to the endearing, appreciative, and witty albino MC, Brother Ali.
Micranots – Atlanta, GA
"Exodus" is so far the only rap song I have heard that has a cowbell in it.
Hieroglyphics – Oakland, CA
Del (the Funky Homosapien)
Souls of Mischief
Tons of talent. Del seems to have worked with hundreds of others and Souls of Mischief remain a unique voice in hip hop since "'93 'Til Infinity".
Deltron 3030 (Del, Dan the Automator, Kid Koala) – Oakland, CA
Take a ride into the future with their creative work.
The Dorian Three – Keene, NH and Salt Lake City, UT
Adeem - Two-time Scribble Jam champion.
Illogic – Columbus, OH
Thoughtful rap and spoken word.
Soul Position – Columbus, OH
I've heard good rap and instrumental hip-hop from RJD2 and Blueprint.
Jedi Mind Tricks – Philadelphia, PA
Great beats often with a Latin tinge. Creative, often battle-oriented raps as well.
Alkoholiks – Los Angeles, CA
Don't let the name fool you into thinking they're a bunch of jokers. Their hope is you'll get drunk off and addicted to their music.
Pigeon John – Los Angeles, CA
*Aceyalone – Los Angeles, CA
Few others are as intelligent and cover as many themes as Aceyalone.
*Abstract Rude – Los Angeles, CA
"Musically Inclined" and "She's Always Right" are songs he did with Tribe Unique that I know and like, but there is much more that is rich and creamy from this artist.
*People Under the Stairs – Los Angeles/San Francisco, CA
Always remembering to have humor, PUTS are a fun group that mix good beats with original lyrics. "Take the Fruit" is a song that exemplifies their easily enjoyed sound and talent.
Beat Junkies – Los Angeles, CA
Pharcyde – Los Angeles, CA
Living Legends - Oakland/San Francisco, Los Angeles, Japan, and Europe
Grouch - On his own and with Eligh, he has made a lot of great music.
Murs - “Aneurysm” with Slug from Atmosphere is a song I really like.
Josh Martinez – Vancouver, BC
"Deny" is a sad epic about the Holocaust. "Big Mouths" is all fun and games. "BC Trees" is endearing. Josh Martinez may not have the best voice, but his heart is in the right place.
Buck 65 – Halifax, NS (Nova Scotia)
A very ecclectic character. I don't like all his stuff, but I do really like the songs he did on DJ Signify's album Sleep No More.
A note: I wish I could offer you more female rappers. Ladybug of Digable Planets, listed below, is perhaps one of the best around (who now has her own group called Ladybug Mecca), and there are others out there that I've heard but was unsuccessful in finding a name to put to the voice. I'll update with more female artists when I find them!
FROM THE OLDER SCHOOLS BUT STILL VERY COOL (Many are of the Jazz-Rap tradition)
I think Reachin': A New Refutation of Time and Space is one of the best hip hop albums ever.
One of the original groups that gained critical and popular acclaim in the infancy of the genre.
De La Soul
Still going strong. De La Soul can be counted on for good beats and creatively fun lyrics. 3 Feet and Rising is considered by many critics to be a genre-defining album and still one of the best ever.
Catch them in concert if you can. They have one of the best beat boxers around. They have many great albums too from Things Fall Apart to Phrenology.
Tribe Called Quest
One of the original jazzy rap groups that have released some great albums like Low End Theory that are well constructed and carry a mood all the way through.
Speech (formerly of Arrested Development)
Speech made one solo album after he left Arrested Development called Hoopla. It stayed under the radar despite a few gems including "Clocks Set in Sync with Mine", "Life is a River" and one of the best covers of Marley's "Redemption Song".
Prophets of da City
One of the original South African groups that started rapping against apartheid and now represents new social causes without forgetting what happened in places like Soweto and Sharpeville.
Positive Black Soul
This group was formed in the 80’s in Senegal. They have gained international recognition as they have endorsed Pan-Africanism, social conscience, and self-worth of black Africans ala Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement.
Bringing youth, heartfulness, smoothness, and a social conscious to their mostly French raps, this trio of middle-class Dakar residents who met in high school released Boomerang in 2003 that won a BBC World Music Award and has gained them acclaim across Africa and Europe. Their raps are artful and their musical offerings and beats are rich in most songs I've heard from them.
This site is in French, but it allows you to sample some of his songs and read any lyrics from his new album. Great beats and smooth rhyming. I don’t know what Solaar is saying, but I could listen to him all day. “Hasta la Vista” (in French and Spanish) is probably his most popular song ever.
Rodney Smith, aka Roots Manuva, is one of the UK's most popular rappers who represents proudly the unique British rap style that hits on different cadences and uses loops and samples you won't hear in American hip-hop. Listen closely for very personal and social commentaries.
A note: I wish I had more foreign groups to offer you, but I’m just learning of good groups making rhymes on other continents in other languages. I will say though, that I have heard great rapping in Spanish, Greek, Czech, Dutch, German, French, British English, Korean, Zulu, and Italian among other languages. Hip-hop is everywhere.