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.
As a rising producer from North Carolina, L’Orange has built a sound signature rooted in the past yet wholly his own. You can trace a line between his MPC rips of black-and-white TV shows back to Madlib’s zonked-out tapestries on Madvillainy, and Daedelus’ surrealist lounge music for The Weather. But over the past few years, and especially in 2015 through projects like After the Flowers and The Night Took Us In Like Family (the latter made with L.A. rapper Jeremiah Jae), the man who bears the same name as Gilbert Bécaud’s 1964 French chanson has cobbled something wholly unique. On his best work, he stacks his vocal snatches into something approaching a narrative, and adds bebop and exotica tones, while creating enough rhythmic thrust to avoid slumping into a downtempo-like torpor.
With Kenny Dennis III, David “Serengeti” Cohn continues to develop one of the quirkiest fictions in hip-hop. The storyline emerged on 2006’s Dennehy as a weird Chicago in-joke, just a few songs like “[Brian] Dennehy” and “Ozzie Guillen” speckled amidst an array of sketches — check the creepy drug dealer on “Meth” — and navel-gazing backpacker rhymes like “Critters.” It is now a lyrical meta-verse, with each installment adding details to this 70s pornstache-wearing sports fanatic, O’Douls guzzler, washed up early 90s rapper who once battled Shaquille O’Neal as a member of Tha Grimm Teachaz, and current occupant of a garage.
El-P occupies a singular perch. The Brooklyn rapper-producer has never sounded quite like anyone else, not even in the late 1990s, when the Sasquatch thumps and xylophone flows of his Company Flow crew birthed a generation of similar-minded travelers, spawned the hugely successful independent label Definitive Jux, and briefly transformed the hip-hop underground into a land of no-wave art-jazz and super-scientifical theorizing.
Now, ten years after Def Jukies last ruled the indie circuit (and two years after the label went dormant), the new generation whines about living in the suburbs, doing prescription drugs, and drinking sizzurp while molesting white girls, all while begging Jay-Z to cosign them. Meanwhile, the man who declared himself “independent as fuck” swims against the tide. I mean, what can you even compare Cancer for Cure to… Nine Inch Nails? Over three solo albums, El’s turned into a kind of prog-hop composer, an evolution made clear on opening track “Request Denied,” a three-minute instrumental jam full of analog synths, a drum volley worthy of DJ Shadow’s Entroducing….., heavy guitar riffs, and a Rhodes organ flurry, all before he introduces himself as “a pale kid calamity artist.” (He employs a crew of backing musicians that includes keyboardist Wilder Zoby.) While other rappers design songs that grab you in a 30-second playable stream, El-P’s third solo album demands repeat listens, and even then it can seem murky, like an abstract image that refuses to congeal.