When the indie-rap movement swept through hip-hop culture in the mid-to-late 90s, it seemed to completely skip over the South. Sure, there were subterranean groups in Atlanta like Mass Influence (formerly known as Y’all So Stupid) and Binkis Recs; Nashville’s Count Bass D; Houston’s K-Otix; and others. But they were like footnotes to the thriving scenes in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and New York. It wasn’t until North Carolina’s Little Brother released its 2003 classic The Listening that the majority of rap fans realized that there were indie groups in the South similar to the ones they heard elsewhere.
In recent years, critics have argued that street rap artists that release their music independently deserve the “underground” label as much as artists whom fans perceive as more traditionally hip-hop or “conscious.” There is some truth to this, particularly in the South. Here, there is less separation between the “backpack” and “street” scenes. Artists like Big K.R.I.T. and Curren$y (the latter who was briefly signed to Lil Wayne’s Young Money label) clearly value the South’s rich tradition of rap gangsters and funky bluesmen. The history of Southern hip-hop is very different from the two coasts, and its underground is a reflection of that legacy. You can trace a line from OutKast to G-Side, and from Three 6 Mafia to SpaceGhostPurpp.
Today, the Southern underground is more vibrant, and that’s entirely due to the fragmented nature of hip-hop in the aughts. Influences, and the music on your hard drive that inspires you, may be more important than your physical location. As a result, the artists on this cheat sheet can only be pigeonholed by the cities where they’re from, not their sounds. As Rakim once said, it ain’t where you from, it’s where you’re at.
Big K.R.I.T., Live from the Underground
Big K.R.I.T. faces high expectations with his retail debut, which follows stellar mixtapes like 2011’s Return of 4eva. Challenged with bringing his Dirty South classicism to the pop market, he tries mightily to knock out club jams like “Yeah Dats Me,” shares lessons from his working-class family on “Rich Dad, Poor Dad,” and gets high while “Hydroplaning.” Thoughtful to a fault, he struggles to fit his ideas, from social insights to pimping hoes, into an album that justifies the hype. But the infectious joy of his music proves that the effort was worth it.
Curren$y, Pilot Talk
On Curren$y’s Pilot Talk, you’ll find Mos Def, Jay Electronica and … Snoop Dogg? The New Orleans rapper’s eclectic guest list makes sense, though. Much like big Snoop, Curren$y has a pronounced appetite for smoke, and sounds best when riding producer Ski Beats’ languid beats with cool, detached rhymes. He’s a deft lyricist, and though he tends to talk about his success more than anything else, it doesn’t seem to matter. With tracks like “Skybourne,” “Address” and “Roasted” exuding a smooth, bluesy vibe, Pilot Talk is one of 2010’s most surprising pleasures.
Yelawolf, Trunk Muzik 0-60
Yelawolf’s Trunk Muzik 0-60 may only be an expanded version of his popular Internet mixtape Trunk Muzik, but it’s a vastly improved one. The Alabama rapper has added a handful of new tracks — including “That’s What We On Now” and “Billy Crystal” — that sharpen the album’s themes of gritty street tales and sexcapades. He’s an incredible bounce rapper, one who can not only flip drug metaphors in a matter of milliseconds, but also communicate real heartbreak on “Love Is Not Enough.” As Yelawolf says on “Pop the Trunk”: “This isn’t a figment of my imagination, it’s where I live.”
Killer Mike, R.A.P. Music
Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music is a curveball even by the standards of a career marked by numerous twists. But it’s deeper than a blog-rap gimmick. El-P curbs his skronk/noise tendencies and adds bass bottom to his tracks, while Killer Mike spits rhymes with clarity and mostly without the dumb thug fantasies that sometimes cloud his vision. (The clever drug-dealer story “JoJo’s Chillin'” is an exception.) The result is a satisfying blend of unique styles, Mike’s drawling aggression to El’s industrial funk, and songs like “Willie Burke Sherwood” and “Big Beast.”
Phonte, Charity Starts At Home
Phonte Coleman may have raised expectations for a transcendent solo debut after his acclaimed work singing with neo-soul group the Foreign Exchange. But on Charity Starts at Home, which marks his return to rap, he brings back the Little Brother formula, using the same producers as that defunct group (including a reunion with estranged collaborator 9th Wonder) for soulful yet well-worn hip-hop. A recurring theme about his women issues holds promise and leads to some of the album’s best songs, including “Sendin’ My Love” and “Who Loves You More.”
Despite one of the worst rap names ever, Kentucky trio Cunninlynguists is lauded for concepts exploring good and evil and their representation in modern society. Oneirology posits these themes as an hour-long dream. Amid guest verses from Freddie Gibbs (who embodies the crack scourge on “Hard as They Come”) and others, Deacon the Villain and Natti wonder whether the rap life is a fantasy or a nightmare. The Christian symbols of past albums are toned down but not forgotten, so it’s no surprise when Deacon concludes on “Star Shines Brightest,” “Aim high/ Poppin’ bottles will get boring.”
G-Side, The One…Cohesive
“We knew that the blogs would be the modern-day tastemakers,” raps St. Lettaz on “Shots Fired,” thanking the online fans that supported their 2008 breakthrough Starshipz & Rocketz. But The One…Cohesive is even better, as the duo and producers the Block Beattaz create an ambient sound akin to “cloud rap.” Amid the hood psychedelia of “I’m Sorry” and “Inner Circle,” they remember when label execs compared them to OutKast, and celebrate their redemption as Internet stars. “The revolution won’t be televised,” says St. Lettaz on “How Far.” “It’ll be on YouTube, keyword G-Side.”
SpaceGhostPurpp, Mysterious Phonk: The Chronicles of SpaceGhostPurpp
Miami rapper SpaceGhostPurpp revives the low-fi horrorcore of Brotha Lynch Hung and Esham. Their music felt like a haven from the tumult of street life, and Mysterious Phonk feels similarly hermetic. SpaceGhostPurpp inserts girl squeals like he’s watching a porno flick, and he raps in a whisper as if not to wake the neighbors. He’s a better producer than rapper, with superficial lyrics like “Been Fweago’s” claim that “I worship money/ Money is my God.” Yet it’s easy to get lost in the hypnotic keyboard arrangements as he “brings the phonk” on “Raider Prayer” and “Mystikal Maze.”
Dee-1, David & Goliath
Dee-1 isn’t shy about his Christian faith, but he’s not a marginal “Christian rapper.” His self-released album David & Goliath feels relevant, from its heartfelt tribute to imprisoned No Limit rapper Mac on “Living Legend” to a duet with Rebirth Brass Band on “Rebirth (Remix).” “Even though I don’t curse, I spit dangerous amounts of realness,” he says on “One Man Army (Remix).” Towards that end, the New Orleans rapper imagines a conversation with “Jay, 50 and Weezy,” and manages to compliment them while offering a devastating and memorable critique of modern rap culture.
Fat Tony, Rabdargab
Fat Tony is an outlier in Houston’s car-obsessed rap scene, and his 2010 collaboration with Atlanta producer Tom Cruz proves just as unpredictable as its cryptic title. The first half finds him both playing with rap clichés on the snarky “Rap Babies,” and indulging them on the smokers’ track “Put It in the Air,” while asserting his place with the ferocious “Lotus.” Near the end, Rabdargab takes a surprising twist as he turns goofy and unpretentious for “Home,” a funny story about getting drunk, and “My Babe,” a sweet dedication to his boo.
Danny!, Danny! is Dead
South Carolina rapper/producer Danny Swain is an Internet star with loads of blog coverage and major fans such as the Roots’ Questlove. Despite a brief stint on El-P’s Definitive Jux imprint that yielded little, he’s never had proper distribution for his music. But he’s clearly talented. On this 2007 30-minute EP, he samples both UK downtempo curios King Kooba on “Now You’re Back (Stephen’s Reprise)” and A Tribe Called Quest on “Fly, Pt. 2.” Casual allusions to Salvador Dali’s melting clocks and De La Soul is Dead abound in this indie-rap sleeper.
Cyne, Pretty Dark Things
North Florida quartet Cyne (Cultivating Your New Experience) has built a small but fervent cult audience despite scant media exposure. Their fourth album, Pretty Dark Things updates the pro-black, anti-corporate philosophy of mid-90s hip-hop, as producers Speck and Enoch’s tweak that era’s jazz sensibility with futurist-minded electronics. Rappers Akin and Cise Star offer no compromise – they trash Vice-styled scenesters on “Radiant Cool Boy,” and call themselves African “Prototypes.” But the lusciously smooth beats help their tonic go down easily.
Big Pooh, Dirty Pretty Things
Black Spade, The Sweetest Revenge
Hawthorne Headhunters, Myriad of Now
Marq Spekt, Machetevision
Mayday!, Take Me To Your Leader
Median, The Sender
9th Wonder, The Wonder Years
Strange Fruit Project, A Dreamer’s Journey
(Rhapsody – June 19, 2012)